November 22, 2022 § Leave a comment
Ask me what installment of the Gift Guide is my favorite to write, and the answer will always be the middle-grade one. These are the stories that have my heart, the same types of books that once made a reader out of me. As an adult, even if it wasn’t my job to do so, I’d still read them, because they’re that good. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to try some of the titles below as family read alouds, or simply read them before or after your children finish them (which, by the way, your kids will love you for).
Whereas “middle-grade books” used to mean stories exclusively targeted at ages 8-12, today’s category is increasingly broadening to encompass young teens as well. The result is a kind of Venn diagram of stories. There are stories intended for kids in the middle years of elementary school, which tend to be lighter and faster paced. And then there are heavier, more nuanced stories written for readers who are entering or already tackling the middle-school years. In today’s post, you’ll find plentiful recommendations in both these younger and older middle-grade categories, and they’re presented here in ascending order.
Regardless of where on the spectrum these stories fall, they are exceptional examples of storytelling, with rich language, complex characters, and original twists and turns. For as much as they entertain us, they also make us think about the world around us in new and interesting ways.
2022 has been another banner year for middle-grade books—so much so that the titles below were all published in the second half of the year, many in just the last few weeks. In other words, this is not a “best of 2022” list, because if it was, it would include A Duet for Home, The Last Mapmaker, The Marvellers, Those Kids From Fawn Creek, Zachary Ying and the Last Emperor, Cress Watercress, and Jennifer Chan is Not Alone—all of which were featured in my Summer Reading Guide earlier this year.« Read the rest of this entry »
November 17, 2022 § Leave a comment
This is always the most requested installment of my Gift Guide, and for good reason! Designed to be read again and again, graphic novels are some of the best books to invest in. Their popularity continues to skyrocket, and with original, thought-provoking stories like the ones below (OK, one is just plain silly and that has value, too!), coupled with beautiful, arresting artwork, we can feel great about our kids losing entire afternoons to them.
We’ve never done the Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition known as Jolabokaflod in our family (though please invite me to be part of your family if you do), but we do place a wrapped book at the foot of each kid’s bed for them to open as soon as they awake on Christmas morning. The idea is to buy us, as parents, a few extra minutes of sleep before the mania begins. And let me tell you: the only books that are going to keep my kids in bed, knowing that their stockings are full to bursting just one floor down, are graphic novels.
Whether you’re using them as bribery or for their indisputable literary merit, below are my favorite graphic novels of 2022 for gifting. I’ve omitted those I already included in the Summer Reading Guide, though it should be noted that The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza and Swim Team deserve to be in the present company.
Arranged from youngest to oldest, with selections for teens at the end. (As always, links support my work at Old Town Books, where I’m the kids’ buyer. Thank you kindly!)« Read the rest of this entry »
November 3, 2022 § Leave a comment
And we’re off and running! Today is the first of my Gift Guide round-ups, and I always like to begin with the Show Stoppers. These are the ultra gifty books of 2022 (past years have seen these and these), and I couldn’t be more excited to share them with you.
After today, we’ll move onto picture books, then graphic novels, middle-grade books, and young adult. Almost 60 titles will comprise this year’s guide in all, a mere fraction of the hundreds I read in order to cull my favorites. I like to think there’s something for everyone here (more than one, if I’m doing my job well!).
(Also PSST, it’s not too late to snag a ticket to one of my live Gift Guide events at Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA. Details here!)
One last thing before we get started: all titles are linked to Old Town Books, the wonderful indie where I work as the children’s buyer. We ship every day (locals can mark books for in-store pick up), so please consider supporting us if you don’t have an indie near you. Independent bookstores strengthen communities!
The books below are presented from youngest to oldest, kids to teens.« Read the rest of this entry »
October 18, 2022 § Leave a comment
It’s that time of year again! For months, I have been working behind the scenes, reading hundreds of picture books, middle-grade books, young adult, and non-fiction in order to bring you this fall’s top picks for kids, tweens, & teens (nearly 60 titles in all!). I’ll be rolling out the Gift Guide in a series of blog posts between now and Thanksgiving, but if you live in the Northern Virginia area, I’d LOVE to see you at one of two In-Person Events I’ll be doing on the first two Friday evenings in November at Old Town Books, the beautiful indie where I’m the kids’ buyer. You’ll get a chance to hear me present the entire guide in person, followed by personal shopping and gift wrapping. Knock out all your holiday shopping and stockpile fabulous books for the year to come! (Just hurry, because tickets are going fast.)
It has become traditional for me to kick off each year’s Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. (Last year, it was Little Witch Hazel (swoon!) and before that we had memorable titles like this, this, this, and this, which actually bears some fun similarities to today’s book.) This year’s pick officially hits shelves today, but it was actually the very first book I picked for this year’s guide, after reading a digital copy six months ago, so it has taken every ounce of restraint I have not to tell you about it until now.
I knew a fairy tale remixed by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen—the launch of a new picture book trilogy, no less!—was bound to be brilliant, but I also knew it would need no help from me to find its audience. Between the two of them, these kid lit superstars have garnered numerous Caldecott Honors, not to mention countless other accolades, so there was no way this book was falling off anyone’s radar. Normally, for “My Favorite Book of the Year” posts, I tend towards the hidden gems.
But while this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest books of the year, I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon, because The Three Billy Goats Gruff (ages 4-8) is the bomb. This story is READ-ALOUD PERFECTION. The humor! The pacing! The rhyme! The bonus endings! The ode to gourmands! The chin hair! The VOICES! I can’t think of a single child who won’t hang on every word of this book, alternately holding their breath and howling with laughter. Or a single adult who won’t be game to read it again and again.
Are you ready to step onto the bridge with me?« Read the rest of this entry »
October 7, 2022 § Leave a comment
Earlier this week, I told you about my favorite new picture books for spooky season. Today’s post highlights some terrific new additions to middle-grade horror for ages 8-14, a genre as thriving today as it was when we were kids (anyone else remember losing entire weekends to John Bellairs?). Scary stories are a hit with all kinds of readers, but they can be especially effective for a kid who doesn’t think they like reading. Not only are they action packed, but they feel a teensy bit illicit. Like the reader is getting away with something. Like, would my parents really be OK with my reading this if they knew what it was about? (Don’t worry, there is nothing inappropriate in the books I’m discussing today.)
Whether children are aware of it or not, the appeal of horror extends beyond the shock factor of the gruesome. Years ago, I wrote a post about my own children’s attraction to the macabre, from lawns at Halloween to stories with decapitated heads (come on, you know the one). Especially when it’s presented with humor, macabre imagery can be a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them. I offer proof of this with favorites like Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy, which we read aloud by candlelight across three Octobers, and my kids are still holding out for a read aloud that satisfies in quite the same way. (Thank goodness there’s an ongoing podcast.)
Gidwitz himself is a passionate endorser of the catharsis of reading horror—he has to be, since his books occasionally find themselves on banned lists—and my favorite of his speeches is “In Defense of Fairytales.” Want to really scare kids? Show them the news. Want to pique their imagination and spur the important work of the subconscious? Let them read the original Grimm tales.
The land of the fairy tale is not the external world. It is, rather, the internal one. The real Grimm fairy tale takes a child’s deepest desires and most complex fears, and it reifies them, physicalizes them, turns them into a narrative. The narrative does not belittle those fears, nor does it simplify them. But it does represent those complex fears and deep desires in a form that is digestible by the child’s mind. Sometimes I refer to this as turning tears into blood.
(It’s a fascinating piece. I highly recommend the entire thing.)
Are scary stories for every child? Of course not. Nothing ever is. (I’m still trying to convince my now fifteen year old to let me read him Jonathan Auxier’s incomparable The Night Gardener, but every time he reads the back cover he’s like, I definitely can’t handle that. And I’ll admit: I had to sleep with the lights on for two days after I finished it. (BUT THAT’S THE FUN!)
Still, don’t be afraid to introduce at least a touch of horror into your young reader’s life. The stories below run a full spectrum from fun to freaky, so depending on which direction your child leans, I bet you can find something to keep them reading, lights optional. (And if you need more, check out last year’s post with more spooky graphic novels!)« Read the rest of this entry »
October 5, 2022 § Leave a comment
“H—A—double L—O—W—double E—N spells Halloween!” Anyone else remember learning that song in Kindergarten? Anyone else still need to sing it to remember how to spell the holiday? Just me?
Most years, I do you a solid and highlight just one stellar new Halloween picture book. This year, I couldn’t choose so you’re getting seven (sorry, not sorry). Actually, one of them—Oliver Jeffers’ There’s a Ghost in This House—you’ve seen before. It came out last year but, due to supply chain issues, juuuussst missed a Halloween release. That meant it made my Gift Guide instead—I mean, a haunted house is a haunted house any time of year—and lots of you have told me how beloved it has become in your house. But if you were NOT one of those folks, you get a do-over this year. Phew.
So, yes, Halloween picture books are especially strong this year! But before we get started, I always like to use these posts as an excuse to dip back into the archives. Last year, there was our dear Vampenguin. Who remembers The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt the year before that? Gah, I love that one! There was also I am a Witch’s Cat, Vampirina Ballerina, The Monsters’ Monster, and that doesn’t include a few other favorites I’ve highlighted on Instagram over the years.
Now let’s see what this year has brought us.« Read the rest of this entry »
July 14, 2022 § Leave a comment
We recently returned from a glorious beach week, so it seemed only fitting that I should tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture book of the year. (Psst: don’t forget this fave from 2020.) But first, allow me a minute to wax nostalgic about the art of beach combing. This particular trip was to the ocean—just outside Duck in North Carolina—so there were ample shells to source, especially in the early morning if you beat the crowds. But judging by the quality control practiced by my daughter—or, shall we say, complete lack thereof—it would appear I have failed to impart this skill. “Please save these for me,” I heard over and over, followed by a dumping of shell shards and nondescript pebbles into my hand.
Flash back to my own summers, spent on the shores of Lake Erie at my grandparents’ summer home. There were no shells to be found. Not much in the way of interesting rocks, either. What we did have was seaglass, and my cousins and I fancied ourselves connoisseurs when it came to these specimen of the sea. Any eye could spot a colorful piece of glass among the gray pebbles, but only the most discerning would ensure it was perfectly opaque, its edges worn smooth from years in the water. Anyone could fill their pails with brown glass, even white glass that had once been clear, but a good piece of green was gold, and a piece of blue, especially one bigger than a pencil eraser, was cause for calling out for all to come and see. Each night, we’d comb through our treasure, keeping only the best of the best.
(It’s very important, when beach combing, to examine your treasures once they are dry. The water tends to give even the plainest of finds a gleaning, shimmery mystique. The best treasures are those that sustain their shine all the way to your bedroom shelf, where they can be reborn as art.)
That something as careless as beer bottles thrown over the deck of a ship can transform into jewels that can turn a walk on the beach into something magical never ceases to amaze me. The seaglass of my youth spoke to a mystery I couldn’t see, one I’d never entirely understand. I wondered about the journey of that glass, perhaps as my own children wondered about the bits of shells they recently picked up, certainly as the young protagonist of today’s book tells us she wonders about the creatures who once lived in the shells now washing up on the shore of her grandparents’ house.
Author Kevin Henkes and illustrator Laura Dronzek are no strangers to collaborations when it comes to picture books about the natural world, but Little Houses (Ages 3-6) might be their finest yet, deftly balancing information with poetry, truth with imagination. We follow as a girl examines her beach finds and wonders about the things she doesn’t know. That she has these experiences during a summer spent with grandparents only sweetens the package, recalling the way my own grandmother would swoop in and out of our beach walks, sometimes pausing to procure her own treasure, often marveling at ours, always happy for the chance to muse about the mysteries of the sea.« Read the rest of this entry »
June 23, 2022 § Leave a comment
Whooooboy. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: today’s early readers have it GOOD! The wealth of talent being channeled into creating early graphic novels and early chapter books has never been greater than it is right now, and our lucky kiddos get to reap the benefits. Learning to read is all about generating momentum—from there, confidence swells—so it’s vital to have a bottomless array of choices.
Today, I’ve got a comprehensive round up of 2022 releases for newly independent readers at a variety of reading levels. Some of the storylines are sweet, others funny. Some are educational, all are entertaining, and every one is part of a series, which means more to come! (If you need more while you’re waiting, check out previous round ups here and here, many of which have sequels out.)
Of course, many of these make engaging read alouds as well. Just remember at these ages to keep reading those picture books too, for their rich vocabulary, nuanced storytelling, and gorgeous art. It shouldn’t be one or the other. Elementary kids need both to thrive in developing literacy skills and a lifetime love of reading!
The books in this post are arranged according to length and number of words per page. I’ve indicated whether each title is a graphic novel or a traditional chapter book, and I’ve included one interior shot per book to give you an idea of what the layout looks like. (And because they’re so dang cute!)« Read the rest of this entry »
June 16, 2022 § 1 Comment
My Summer Reading Guide continues with a round up of favorite new graphic novels. Think of these as your secret weapons this summer. Got bored kiddos? Leave these lying around the house for wandering eyes to page through. Need one kid to sit through another one’s swim meet? Stick two of these in your bag. Packing up for a beach vacation with cousins? Throw a bunch of new-to-everyone graphic novels in your suitcase and then watch the kids pass them around like coveted candy. (We actually do this every year when we visit our cousins in Boston, and it is a favorite tradition!)
If you worry about investing in books your child will fly through at breakneck speed, consider this: graphic novels are designed to be read multiple times. The first time a child reads a graphic novel, they’re reading for plot and plot alone; the visuals propel them forward. The second, third, and fifteenth times: that’s when appreciation for character development, visual details, and tricky vocab develops. A good graphic novel is a richly layered piece of literature, and each reading takes you deeper into the story. This is true as kids age, too. Those Raina Telgemeier graphic novels they first read when they were seven? They resonate on an entirely different level years later, when the reader catches up in age to the protagonists.
Of course, sometimes kids re-read a title, not because they have anything left to learn, but because it’s fantastically entertaining. Or comforting. Or restorative.
I’ll be honest. There was a period, earlier this year, when I looked around the bookshop and thought, Ummm, where are all the new graphic novels? Thankfully, my panic didn’t last long, because come they did, many in just the last few weeks.
That said, I’m remiss in not including the sequel to Katie the Catsitter, the latter of which my daughter hails as her favorite graphic novel of all time (well, tied with Witches of Brooklyn). She loved the sequel—we all did—but as it came out all the way back in January, it escaped my mind as I was putting this post together. It’s nearing midnight, I’ve already taken my pictures, so just trust me on this one.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 19, 2022 Comments Off on Picture Books as Performance
I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.
Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.
That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.
When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.
Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.
But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 5, 2022 § 6 Comments
(Warning: I put on my most matronly dress to rage at the patriarchy.) Ouch, it’s a tough week to be a woman in this country. A tough week to contemplate the future for our daughters—and, let’s be honest, our sons, since a woman’s right to exercise autonomy over her body has always been inherently linked to the opposite sex. To say nothing of the repercussions SCOTUS’ decision will have for Black or Indigenous populations, or those living below the poverty line, or the precedent this could set for overturning protections for the LGBTQ+ community. We have only to dig into history to see that progress is never a straight line, but it’s one thing to recognize this and another to live it, to watch the work of generations collapse in a single moment. The list is growing long for horrifying things I never expected to witness in my lifetime.
Now, here we are, staring down Mother’s Day, an already complicated holiday for those mourning mothers, mourning children, mourning dreams of having children—and a day that now feels even more loaded, weighed down with the understanding that a woman’s body can be at once celebrated for its childbearing and stripped of its rights.
This is a cheery post, eh? Don’t worry, I promise we’re going to talk about some beautiful, uplifting, joyful books in just a second.
Yes, it’s a tough moment in history to be a woman. But, let’s not kid ourselves: it has always been a tough time to be a woman. Voting rights, equal pay, maternity leave, working outside the home, the right to wear pants, for crying out loud: the list for what women have been made to suffer is endless.
And still, I love being a woman. I love being a mom. I love following in the legacy of the curious, courageous, complicated women who raised me. When the fear of raising a daughter creeps in during times like this, I remember the strength of my own mother and grandmothers. My mom, who suffered the greatest heartbreak imaginable in the sudden death of my father at 51 and rallied to step into roles and master tasks she’d never imagined for herself, for the sake of her teenage daughters. My one grandmother, who for years endured physical pain without a word of complaint, because she didn’t want to miss out on a single family activity. My other grandmother, who attended science lectures in her 90s where she was the only woman, not because she knew anything about the topic, but because her own children and grandchildren’s involvement in the world had inspired her to expand her mind.
Today, I’m highlighting four new picture books that star formidable mothers and grandmothers—the kind I aspire to be, the kind who remind me that we will not go quietly into the night. Not when we know better, not when we’ve learned from the best. (You can also refer back to some older posts for favorites, like this, this, this, and this.)« Read the rest of this entry »
April 28, 2022 § 2 Comments
You didn’t actually think I’d let National Poetry Month go without loving on a few new poetry books, did you? Now wait. I know poetry scares some of us—or scares our kids—but, like with everything from green vegetables to voting, early and often are the keys to success. National Poetry Month will always be a great excuse to infuse our shelves with a new title or three—and maybe re-visit a few that have been languishing. Getting kids comfortable around poetry means deepening their relationship with language, especially figurative language, which will carry them far in any creative pursuit, not to mention the non-linear thinking increasingly rewarded in business.
My greatest parenting win around the subject of poetry remains the year we read a poem from this gorgeous anthology every morning over breakfast. I heartily recommend forgoing conversation for poetry in the mornings! (I hear caffeine’s good, too.) When a new title came out in this same series last fall, I had high hopes we’d rekindle this ritual, but with my teen out the door so much earlier than his sister, this hasn’t happened.
So, consider today’s post as much about my own need to recommit to poetry—something my kids rarely gravitate towards without a nudge—as about inspiring you to do the same. In that vein, I’ve got two vastly different new poetry picture books: one for the preschool crowd and the other for elementary kids. The first is an absolute delight to read aloud, while the second is perhaps better left for independent readers to contemplate privately.
Take Off Your Brave: The World Through the Eyes of a Preschool Poet (Ages 3-6) is a collection of poems written by an actual four-year-old boy named Nadim, using his Mom as a “dictaphone.” Talk about making poetry feel accessible to kids! Here, Nadim gives us a window into the way he sees the world: his dream school, his best things, his “scared-sugar” feelings. Each poem is playfully brought to life by award-winning illustrator, Yasmeen Ismail.
Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek’s Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech (Ages 8-12, though adults will love this, too) is one of the most simultaneously quirky and powerful poetry collections I’ve encountered, a look at what happens when we unleash our imaginations on the natural elements around us. And it’s as much an art book as a poetry book! Artist Richard Jones is already getting Caldecott buzz for his gorgeous, full-bleed illustrations that accompany each of the 28 poems.
Both of these special books speak to the magic of poetry: the way it enables us to process the creative, off-kilter, silly, sometimes contradictory ways we see or experience the world. For as many hang-ups as we have around poetry—its perceived obtuseness, its relegation to the realm of intellectuals—these books remind us that poetry is as simple as conjuring a moment and penning it in a non-traditional way. These poems celebrate the poets in all of us.« Read the rest of this entry »