Bees: To Fear or Not to Fear

April 2, 2020 § 2 Comments

Remember last week when I talked about returning our children to nature during this pandemic vis-á-vis secret gardens and long hikes in the woods? Well, there’s just one teeny tiny problem. While we were hiking a few days ago, my son spotted a bee.

Let me back up.

When JP was almost three, during a family reunion in rural Rhode Island, he climbed a ladder to reach an aged treehouse and stood up into a nest of wasps. He was stung twenty-seven times. I know this because the pediatrician, whom I panic dialed, asked me to count the stings. JP was just shy of the number where the poison level would have necessitated getting into the car and trying to find a hospital. Instead, we sat him on the second step of my uncle’s swimming pool, where, immersed in cold water, the screams and swelling eventually subsided.

Perhaps owing to this traumatic event or perhaps just because of the way he’s wired, JP has moved through the past nine years immensely fearful of stinging insects. His fear doesn’t differentiate between wasps and bees. He has read countless books on the subject; he has taken field trips to bee farms; he can rattle off the statistical improbabilities of being stung. No matter. If he hears buzzing, his body goes rigid; if he spots a bee, he flails and shrieks and spends the rest of his outdoor time willing it to be over. He is a hostage to this fear. While I know that with enough exposure and time, he will someday share the outdoors more easily with these creatures, I also know that right now, even more than being afraid of them, he is afraid he will never stop being afraid.

If I could go back in time, short of stopping JP from climbing that ladder, I would take this 2019 picture book with me. It’s what I wish I had read to him in the wake of the wasp event. It’s what I wish I had read to him a hundred times since. In The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter (Ages 3-7), author-illustrator Shabazz Larkin shares his steadfast love for his two young sons alongside an evolving love for bees (not to be confused with wasps), the great pollinators of everyone’s favorite fruits and vegetables. It’s a refreshingly original treatment of a popular subject—why bees matter—because it acknowledges front and center that bees are not easy to love. Indeed, this deeply personal book grew out of the author’s desire not to pass on his own fear of bees to his children. (Quick shout out to Capitol Choices, the children’s literary group of which I’m a part and where I learned of this book last year. Find other treasures on our 2020 list, published here.)

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Moving the Classroom to the Woods

March 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

(Friends, these are rough times. I feel you all. And I promise to keep showing up for you with book ideas for all ages. In addition to these weekly posts, I have (almost) daily recommendations on Instagram, so follow me there. We’ll get through this pandemic with the help of fictional worlds and gripping history and funny comics. Worst comes to worst, we can always use the pages to wipe our bottoms.)

It was only the second morning of #pandemicparenting, and the kids and I were already on the verge of strangling one another. My husband needed a quiet house for conference calls, so I threw out our daily schedule (just one day old) and drove the kids to the woods…where we stayed for four hours. It was cold and drizzly when we arrived, and I found myself willing it to be over. We walked and walked, saw no one, walked some more, and eventually settled into our own rhythms. My daughter ran off trail to climb on logs and rocks. My son stopped talking about his stress level and moved through the world quietly. We got lost, had to scramble up rocky ledges to find the trail again, discovered deserted outcroppings of beaches. The sun came out. I sat and listened to the water, while the kids skipped stones. Later, my son threw his arms around a tree, and I laughed out loud.

We’ve had our fair share of highs and lows these first two weeks of social distancing, but I am endlessly grateful that the trees still welcome our closeness. If there are silver linings amidst this collective heartbreak, one is an opportunity to return our children to nature. I never wanted to homeschool my kids; I knew I’d be rubbish at it. (I knew my kids would be equally rubbish at it.) Thankfully, they still have their wonderful teachers, even if they can only see them on a screen right now. I figure, for as long as we’re packed in together like sardines, I can give my kids two blessings: I can read them books; and I can gently push them towards the trees.

You know what social distancing is good for? Secret gardens. If your children need convincing to let nature step in as teacher, read them the extraordinary new picture book biography, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver (Ages 7-10). My kids were riveted. Evocatively written by Gene Barretta and accented with richly expressive oil paintings by Frank Morrison, the story demonstrates how young George Washington Carver’s intimate relationship with nature as a child grew into a passionate career as a botanist, inventor, and activist.

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Moving Through Uncertainty (A Book Club Post)

March 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

It feels unfathomable that only a single week has passed since I was in my daughter’s Montessori classroom for book club with the third graders. It feels more like a lifetime, so frequently and relentlessly has the rug been pulled out from beneath our Normalcy since then. With schools shuttered and social distancing mandated, we’re all scrambling to find some semblance of routine, to cling to optimism about our loved ones and our community, to keep from sinking into the couch and staying there for good.

Last Thursday concluded seven weeks of discussing Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw (Ages 9-12), our second pick of the year (click here for my Instagram post on our first book), and we celebrated the way we do: with a party. Only this time the popcorn was complemented with purple jelly beans: a favorite of the oversized, outspoken, outlandish cat named Crenshaw, once Jackson’s imaginary friend, who unexpectedly (and awkwardly) reappears during his fifth-grade year.

When I chose the book, I could not have known how apt it would turn out to be for the ordeal we’re now living through. I had chosen it for three reasons. Firstly, Applegate’s short chapters and direct sentences are accessible to a variety of readers, while the nuance, maturity, and visual acuity she packs into her words create rich fodder for discussion. Secondly, if reading fiction is linked to building empathy, Crenshaw represents a rare opportunity in middle-grade fiction to step into the shoes of someone living in poverty—and to discover he isn’t that different from us. Thirdly, the humor in this story, employed to balance out the sadness, is infectious: it’s unexpected; it’s absurd; it’s cinematic. (A giant cat who enjoys making bubble beards in the bath? Yes, please.) The light in the kids’ eyes as they begged to read aloud favorite passages each week only confirmed this.

But it turns out the most powerful reason to read Crenshaw—and why you may want to read it at home right now—may be its theme of uncertainty. How do we keep going when the world stops making sense?

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Friendship is Not Wasted on the Young

March 12, 2020 § 1 Comment

My daughter has had the same best friend for nine years. She met her when she was just beginning to run and climb, when I used to swing by our local playground—what we called the “Tot Lot”—after dropping her brother off at preschool. It was an instant connection, the likes of which I had never experienced with my son, and it stopped me in my tracks. Child development literature would have placed my daughter squarely in the realm of “parallel play.” So how to explain that she never let fall the hand of this other little girl, that they climbed and descended the small slide, crawled through plastic boulders, and scampered up and down artificial hills as one?

After spending nearly every day together for years, the girls don’t see each other as often now; they live about an hour apart. Still, when they get together, they pick up like no time has passed. They disappear into their own world: talking in whispers, inventing elaborate games, often so wrapped in each other’s arms that it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. To witness their togetherness feels like being in the presence of something magical, something almost miraculous.

Julie Fogliano and Jillian Tamaki’s my best friend (Ages 3-7) came out only a week ago, but so enthusiastic has the response been from the kid lit world, I feel like the last person to sing its praises. (Still, wild horses couldn’t keep me from joining in the fun.) An homage to the giddy abandon exhibited in early childhood friendships—particularly those born on the playground—the book has all the makings of a classic. Fogliano’s free verse sings and soars with the stream of consciousness of a child tasting the deliciousness of friendship for the first time. (i have a new friend/ and her hair is black/ and it shines/ and it shines/ and she always laughs at everything) Tamaki’s muted palette of rusty pink and olive green lends the book a timeless, vintage feel, while the figures themselves spill and explode off the page, their excitement literally uncontainable.

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A Farewell Ode to Board Books

March 5, 2020 § 5 Comments

We are packing up our house to move out for a renovation project. Which means I can no longer ignore the board books still on our shelves, even though my kids, at nine and twelve, are long past paging through them. Only the most beloved of our stash are left, with their faded covers and frayed edges (wait, are those bite marks?). I suppose it is finally time to retire them to a box in the attic, where they’ll sit optimistically until a time when little ones might once again grace our home.

And still. Picking up these books takes me right back to the days of spit up and babble and hair pulling and cuddles so delicious I wondered how I’d ever been happy before. To days when I was so exhausted, I feared I wouldn’t rise to get my screaming infant from her crib. Reading these books to my children sometimes felt like my only lifeline to sanity. A time when a squirming child would succumb to my lap; when the call of laundry and dishes would fade; when alongside my child, I could ride on the back of a rhyme or escape into a picturesque barnyard where everything seemed ordered and wonderful.

There were also those times when one child would be playing in the next room, and the sounds of wooden drums and plastic trucks would suddenly stop; and I’d peek in to see a mess of books, with little hands turning pages and the sweetest voice singing out remembered phrases. Like watching my heart beat outside my body.

So, before I pack up these treasures, stamped indelibly on my heart, I thought I’d bid farewell to a few specific titles, in case you haven’t happened upon them in your own quest for sanity.

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Concluding Black History Month on the Train

February 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

Every year, once in the fall and once in the spring, I take each of my children on a mommy-and-me trip to New York City for a long weekend in the city where I grew up. We board the train in Alexandria, Virginia and make stops in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; Newark, Delaware; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and, finally, New York City, Penn Station. My kids have come to enjoy the train ride almost as much as the destination itself, glancing up from their books to watch the changing scenery speeding by—there is something innately lolling and contemplative about train travel—and anticipating the stops to come.

These same train stops come to life against an important and fascinating historical backdrop in Overground Railroad (Ages 4-9), a new picture book by superstar husband-and-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome, whose Before She Was Harriet I praised around this same time last year. “Isn’t it supposed to be “Underground Railroad?” my daughter asked, when I picked up the book to read it to her. Admittedly, I was equally stumped. As the Author’s Note explains, most people are familiar with the covert network known as the Underground Railroad, which assisted runaway slaves on their journey to the North, usually on foot. Lesser known but often equally secretive, the Overground Railroad refers to the train and bus routes traveled by millions of black Americans during the Great Migration, a time when former slaves opted to free themselves from the limitations and injustices of sharecropping to seek out better employment and educational opportunities in the North. Faced with the threat of violence from the owners of these tenant farms, who relied on the exploitation of sharecroppers for their livelihood, those who escaped often had to do so under cover of night.

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Curating Memories

February 20, 2020 § 4 Comments

Since losing my grandmother two weeks ago, I haven’t been able to shake my sadness at the realization that my memories with her are now finite. For nearly 45 years, I have been collecting memories with her, savoring them on shelves in my heart. Memories of orange-red sunsets on the beach; of her impossibly large hibiscus plant; of earth-shattering thunder claps which sent me flying out of bed, always to find her calmly watching the electrical show from the screened porch (“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful, Meliss?”). There were jigsaw puzzles which kept us up late into the night, always after vowing she wouldn’t “get involved”; prank calls she encouraged me to make to her friends; Thursday night Bingo games at her golf club, where to be seated next to her felt like basking in the presence of a celebrity. I can still hear her voice like it was yesterday, those giddy eruptions of “Goody goody goody!”

If the right book, read at the right time, can cradle you in its embrace, then Deborah Marcero’s new picture book, In a Jar (Ages 4-8), is doing that for me. (My kids are pretty smitten, too.) It is the most exquisite, childlike, visual depiction of memory-making I’ve encountered, as well as a reminder that the process of collecting memories can be as beautiful as the memories themselves. While it’s not about death, it is a story of loss—the loss of a friend who moves away—and how we re-frame the world in light of departure. It’s affirming and hopeful and the kind of lovely that surrenders you to its pages.

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