The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

May 13, 2021 § Leave a comment

How do you choose the chapter books you read to your kids? Maybe you consider whether the subject matter will appeal to them. Maybe you focus on what kind of characters they’ll identify with. Maybe you know they’ll be more likely to sit still for a funny story than one with long descriptive passages. Maybe you reach for a book because it’s one your child has asked you to read, or one you think you should read, or one by an author your child loves.

Whatever your criteria, it’s likely you’re thinking more about the audience than about yourself.

What if I told you your audience doesn’t matter?

OK, that’s not entirely true. Of course, your audience matters. Especially with younger children, there will always be ages and maturity levels to consider. But do you know what matters more than all the things I listed above? What matters the most?

The secret to picking a chapter book your kids will want to hear night after night is to pick one you will enjoy reading.

Your enthusiasm for what you’re reading influences your children’s enjoyment more than anything else. When you’re into a story, your eyes light up. Your voice is more dynamic. You are infinitely more likely to make that story enticing. Suddenly, the dishes in the sink or your buzzing phone fade into the background. Suddenly, there is nothing more important, nothing more exciting, than the mutual experience of immersing yourselves in a fictional world.

It’s tremendously liberating. Don’t enjoy fantasy? Don’t read it. Bored to tears by the likes of Magic Tree House? Save ‘em for your kids to read on their own. By reading aloud to your children, especially after they are reading on their own, you are giving them a precious gift. You’re choosing to prioritize reading in the home. I’m giving you permission to enjoy it as much as your kids do. Heck, I’m telling you your enjoyment will nearly guarantee their enjoyment—and, consequently, all the benefits that come with it.

For me, it always, always comes back to the writing. I’m a sucker for good writing. I love the way beautiful language rolls off the tongue. I love the drama of a perfectly placed sentence. I love smart, funny dialogue. Most of all, I love writing that’s tight. (Ironic, I know, since succinctness is clearly not my own specialty.) If a paragraph starts to drift or ramble, if the pacing of a story wanes, then my attention breaks. I’m no longer present. My heart’s not in it. The magic is broken…for a spell.

In that vein, I enjoyed every moment of Elana K. Arnold’s The House That Wasn’t There (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which I just finished reading to my ten-year-old daughter. Yes, the story itself has plenty to recommend it—who wouldn’t love middle-school realism with a few teleporting cats thrown in for good measure? But what struck me the entire time I was reading it was how good the writing is. Every sentence is an absolute pleasure to read out loud. It’s tight. It flows beautifully. It filled us with that same warm fuzzies as previous favorites like this, this, and this.

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An Interview with Shawn Harris

May 6, 2021 § Leave a comment

Earlier this week, I talked about how much I adore the new picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower? Today, I’m back with an interview I did with its creator, Shawn Harris, in which we talk about his inspiration for the book, his musical past, what neon pink says to him, why he loves school visits, and the super exciting new projects he’s working on. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Me: Welcome, Shawn! Thank you so much for dropping in today. I am delighted to have the chance to chat with you about your authorial debut picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, one of my very favorites of the year. I’ve been a fan of your art for years—both Her Right Foot (written by Dave Eggers) and A Polar Bear in the Snow (written by your good pal, Mac Barnett) have been the subject of previous blog posts—so I was excited to see you trying your hand at writing, too. What made you decide to take the plunge? And where did the idea for this special picture book come from?

Shawn: In my former life, I was a touring songwriter, so I’ve been writing since I was a kid penning lyrics. This was the first time my authorial tone conjured images since I’ve been working in the picture book world, so I set out to illustrate the words. It’s almost a song in book form, really. There’s a theme and an arc to the narration, but I hop around my subject really loosely, and dip in and out of different meters, which is the way I like to approach writing music.

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Have You Ever Seen a Flower? (Part One)

May 4, 2021 § Leave a comment

It’s another special week here on the blog, with a two-part post featuring one of my favorite picture books of the year, destined to become a read-aloud favorite. Award-winning illustrator, Shawn Harris, is making his authorial debut with Have You Ever Seen a Flower? (Ages 3-6), an imaginative, sensory-filled, hue-tastic journey inside flowers, starring an ebullient, neon-haired child. Today, I’m sharing why I love this energetic romp, which celebrates the connection between childhood and nature. Then, on Thursday, I’ll be back with my interview with the mastermind behind it, mister Shawn Harris himself. (I’ll also be running a giveaway on Instagram, so make sure you’re following me!)

As you may remember from previous posts, we are big fans of Shawn Harris, who created the delightfully unique cut-paper illustrations for Mac Barnett’s A Polar Bear in the Snow and, before that, Dave Eggers’ Her Right Foot, a speculative non-fiction picture book about the Statue of Liberty that’s still a favorite of my son. With Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, Shawn not only tries his hand at writing, but he trades cut-paper collage for stencils and colored pencils (seven-in-one colored pencils, to be precise). He’ll talk more about his inspiration and process in our interview, but suffice it to say that this departure makes him quite the creative chameleon, a true force to be reckoned with in picture book creation.

Have You Ever Seen a Flower? also proves that the best picture books are often a little trippy. (Think about greats like Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and James Marshall.) With a psychedelic intensity, Shawn plays with perspective, color, and language to blur the line between reality and fantasy, fusing his character with the vibrant nature around her and reminding us how much fun it is to see the world through the eyes of a child brimming with wonder and possibility.

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In Defense of Graphic Novels: A Top Ten List

April 29, 2021 § Leave a comment

Does your child adore graphic novels? You’re not alone. Does it feel like they only read graphic novels? You’re not alone. Do you worry about that? You’re not alone.

Hands down, the most common questions and concerns I hear from parents center around graphic novels. Do graphic novels count as reading? Are graphic novels too easy for my child? Why should I invest in books that my child ends up finishing in one sitting? I wish my child would read “real books” like I did when I was their age. How can I get them to broaden their reading?

Today, I’m going to assuage all these fears by giving you TEN reasons why encouraging reading graphic novels (and comics) translates into literacy skills and a love of reading for pleasure, both of which will serve your children for the rest of their lives. You should not only stop worrying about your kids’ obsession with graphic novels, you should actively encourage it! If you find yourself walking into a bookstore about to tell your child, I’ll buy you anything so long as it’s not a graphic novel, check that ‘tude at the door. (No shame. We’ve all been there.) Your child is taking an active interest in a literary format that is endlessly creative, artistic, entertaining, thought provoking, and aligns with the uniquely visual culture in which they are growing up. This is a good thing, and we’re going to talk about why.

Then, in a few weeks, I’ll be back with a follow-up post on tips to gently nudge your child to expand his reading interests beyond—but never in place of!—graphic novels, including stories with more traditional prose.

But today, without further ado, here are Ten Reasons Why You Should Feel Totally Great About Your Kids Reading Graphic Novels. Oh, and did I mention I’m going to give you dozens of graphic novel recommendations along the way?

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Earth Day! New Non-Fiction Celebrating Our Planet

April 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

Every year on Earth Day, I smile thinking about my son at age four, who looked up at me with his big brown eyes and asked, “Mommy, aren’t we supposed to care about the Earth every day?” Yes, my boy. Same with Black history and women’s history and all the rest of these annual celebrations. But it sure is nice, now and then, to be nudged to think about our home libraries, about how we might freshen them up in a way that leads to better, richer dialogues with our children. After all, books bring with them such marvelous reminders of what a special, precious gift this planet is.

Today, I’m sharing three new non-fiction titles, targeting a range of ages. Each delivers a wealth of information—be it flowers, trees, or climate change—in clever, arresting, beautiful presentations. These aren’t the non-fiction books of our childhood, with tiny type and dizzying details. They’re a testament to a new way of presenting scientific content to kids, one which doesn’t sacrifice visual ingenuity or narrative appeal. They’re books we parents won’t get tired reading. In fact, we’re likely to learn things alongside our children. What better way to model caring for our planet than showcasing our own curiosity and discovery?

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Seasonal Poems with a Twist (National Poetry Month)

April 15, 2021 § Leave a comment

I have a soft spot for picture books with poetry organized by season. I’m not sure whether I’m particularly drawn to nature poetry, or whether these types of poems just tend to dominate picture book publishing. All I know is that back when my children were smaller, when there were at least twelve extra hours in every day, it made me happy to track the changing world outside our window with delightful little nuggets of word play.

Consequently, no shortage of wonderful poetry picture books has appeared in these pages. I’ve sung the praises of When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, A Child’s Calendar, and Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold. And, of course, we can’t forget the meaty anthology, Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year, which, given how many of you have reached out to me, remains one of the most popular books I’ve recommended (just wait until you see its follow-up, coming next fall).

With so many good titles, you might think there would be little need for more. But you haven’t seen the treasure 2021 has dropped in our laps. Beautiful Day! Petite Poems for All Seasons (Ages 4-8) features Haiku-inspired poems by Rodoula Pappa, alongside art by favorite French illustrator, Seng Soun Ratanavanh. It turns out we were missing something. In those earlier anthologies, the visuals accompanying the poems are largely literal. By contrast, Beautiful Day! infuses seasonal poems, still lovely and lyrical, with a touch of the fantastical. The abstract. The fanciful. There’s a playfulness in these pages, where a child paints rainbows in the sky, butterflies become lanterns, and origami birds take flight. The line between reality and imagination becomes deliciously blurred, as we see the natural world through a child’s eyes, up close and personal.

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The Stories We Need to Ask For

April 8, 2021 § 1 Comment

Occasionally, a book comes along that is so extraordinary, I’m daunted at the prospect of reviewing it. I worry I could never do it justice. I wish I could just say, This is hands down the most moving picture book I’ve read so far this year, and I want you to get it without knowing anything about it. Maybe, if you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll do just that. But I will try and find something eloquent to say for the rest of you.

Years ago, my husband helped his grandparents—first generation Italian-Americans—pack up their house to move into a retirement community. In the crawlspace, he uncovered boxes of mementos, all of which his grandmother had at one point tied up using the elastics from her husband’s old underwear. This discovery became one the family would chuckle about for years (Who salvages underwear elastic?!). But it was also a window into the past, a resourcefulness triggered by the Great Depression sixty years earlier, a self-reliance that perhaps belied pain, worry, wanting, loss. Only now does my husband express regret at not probing for the stories underscoring something he accepted as mere frugality.

All of us grow up surrounded by family history, including the cultural heritage this history often represents. Yet, as children, we often take this history for granted. At best, we’re blinded by our own fixation on the present; at worst, we’re embarrassed by the quirks of our elders, by their old-fashioned ways, by their insistence in holding fast to ideas or customs from their past.

Especially where immigrants are concerned, this silencing is further accentuated by the systemic racism underlying American society. Asian Americans, for example, are expected to fulfill the Model Minority Myth, to work hard towards prosperity, while keeping quiet about their struggles, past or present. The recent media attention on the massive spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans—up 1,900% since the start of the pandemic—has begun to open our eyes to an experience far from new, one we should have been talking about ages ago.

In the spirit of lifting up voices of Asian descent—and because this poignant story is at its heart about the value of listening to stories of the past—I urge you to purchase Watercress (Ages 5-9), Andrea Wang’s powerful autobiographical picture book, evocatively illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Jason Chin, who studied traditional Chinese landscape painting to infuse the story with added authenticity. (If Jason Chin doesn’t get his long-overdue Caldecott Medal for this, you will hear me screaming.) Against a backdrop of 1970s rural Ohio, a girl and her brother help their parents, immigrants from China, pick watercress on the side of a ditch to be served that evening. The immediate humiliation of the act later transforms into an opportunity for the girl to connect with her mother’s past life in China—and the grief she still carries in her heart.

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Spring Break Beckons: Middle-Grade Round Up for Ages 7-14

March 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

I spent the winter reading. A lot. And that’s good news for your readers, especially those eager to squirrel away with a new story (or three) over Spring Break. All of the recommendations below are books published this year (with the exception of a late 2020 release). Some of them I’ve already talked about on Instagram, but there are surprises, too. Some skew younger and some older, so be sure to consult the age ranges for each. There are graphic novels, novels in verse, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, memoirs, and realistic fiction.

As always, report back and tell me what your kids thought!

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The Tree in Me: An Interview with Corinna Luyken

March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments

I am thrilled to welcome picture book creator, Corinna Luyken, to the blog today! I have long dreamed of hosting authors and illustrators in these pages, but I want to do it in a way that ties into my mission of creating lifelong readers by nurturing a culture of reading aloud in the home—even after kids are reading by themselves. Corinna isn’t just one of our family’s favorite author-illustrators; as a mother, she’s also deeply invested in reading to her tween daughter. What I hope will feel different and inspiring about this interview is that, in addition to talking about her creative process and her newest book, I ask about the ways in which she has nurtured her own daughter’s reading journey—and even what some of their favorite read alouds have been. (As a result, I now have an even bigger #tbr pile.)

Earlier this week, I did a deep dive into Corinna’s exquisite new picture book, The Tree in Me (you can find my post here), and that’s what we’ll predominantly be talking about today. But I wanted to mention some of our previous favorites as well. I believe Corinna has the distinct honor of appearing on this blog more than any other creator! Her debut picture book, The Book of Mistakes, is still one of my children’s all-time favorites. It gave us language for framing our mistakes as beginnings, not endings. She followed that up by illustrating Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, written by Marcy Campbell, which I chose for my Favorite Picture Book of the Year post in 2018, and I still tear up every time I read it. My Heart was the next book she both wrote and illustrated, and for its metaphorical musing on empathy and connection, it is a kind of companion book to The Tree in Me.

My children have always been drawn to Corinna’s art—in particular, her bold, expressive use of color. (I especially love what she says about color in our interview—specifically, her answer to a question my daughter wanted me to ask: “What is your favorite color?”) But, increasingly, I also find myself appreciating her touch with the written word. She doesn’t simply choose her words carefully, she gives them a rhythm that translates beautifully into reading aloud. In sum, she does what many strive to do and few succeed: she invites reflection. In a fresh, unexpected, and pared-back way, her books speak to something essential about the human experience; we can’t help but be a tiny little bit changed when we come to the last page.

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The Tree in Me: Part One

March 16, 2021 § 3 Comments

(This is an extra-special week on the blog, so you’re getting not one but TWO posts! First, on the day it officially releases, I’m talking about Corinna Luyken’s exquisite new picture book, The Tree in Me. Then, on Thursday, I’ll be featuring an interview I did with Corinna herself, in which we talk about her inspiration for the book, her writing process, and her favorite books to read aloud with her tween daughter. It’s the first interview I’ve done for the blog, and I’m hoping you’ll let me know if you’re excited for me to do more!)

We have been sleeping with the windows open of late. Here in Virginia, as winter takes its exit, it’s only the briefest of spells before the pollen seeps through the screens, followed by the aggressive rise in humidity, and we must shutter the windows and crank up the central air. But, right now, it’s perfection. Cocooned in blankets, with breezes dancing around my head, I embrace the fluidity between inside and outside. It awakens something within me—not unlike standing on a mountain top or in a grove of wildflowers—and puts me in mind of being a child again.

At no time more than childhood do we exhibit such a primal connection to the natural world. When I think of my own children in their early years, I think of them running barefoot in summer and catching snowflakes on their tongues in winter. I think of the sticks that never left their hands, the fairy houses they constructed from moss, the leaf piles they jumped in. I think about how picking apples off branches felt magical to them, biting into them moments later even more so. I think about how my daughter used to climb trees without reservation, even while we looked on with our hearts in our throats.

In her newest picture book, The Tree in Me (Ages 3-8), Corinna Luyken captures this childlike exuberance for the natural world with the careful intent, originality, and dazzling use of color we’ve come to adore from her. [More on previous favorites in Thursday’s interview with Corinna.] Through sparse, poetic text—each word carefully chosen and perfectly placed—and dynamic, gorgeously-saturated gouache illustrations—helllloooo, neon pink—The Tree in Me invokes the metaphor of a tree to celebrate the strength, resilience, and bounty inside all of us. It reminds us that, as part of the living world, we move and breathe and give and take in a way that binds us together. We can shutter our windows, but the natural world lives on inside us.

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How Will We Remember This L(o)st Year?

March 11, 2021 § 2 Comments

I’ve been accused of using these pages as a kind of glorified baby book, and if that’s true, I appreciate you indulging me. In the trappings of our busy-ness, we don’t take enough opportunities to pause and process our life experiences—the good and the bad, the big and the small—and I have found blogging to be (almost) as therapeutic as a conversation with a good girlfriend over a glass of wine.

But I would argue that children’s books themselves can be gateways to reflection—as much for us as for our kids. Sharing them offers a respite, a chance to connect with our little ones, while their content strips back unnecessary clutter, revealing something of life’s essentiality, its basic truths, through economies of words and pictures. Even when they’re not expressly representing our own experiences, children’s books reflect back the life taking place in and around us.

It has been exactly one year since I sat around a table with my daughter and her classmates to lead what would be our last in-person book club. Several of the children knew almost nothing about the coronavirus that would shut down their school—and life as they knew it—just twenty-four hours later. When I arrived to pick up my daughter the next day, teachers threw hastily gathered notebooks and supplies into the back of our car, and my daughter and her carpool group climbed into their seats looking shell-shocked. Some giggled nervously. One started crying.

How do we want to remember this last year—a year that took so much, that has produced a kind of cumulative weariness we’d like nothing more than to shed, but was also not without moments of profound beauty and growth?

As it turns out, I have the perfect book for memorializing this time, for helping children of all ages process what they’ve seen and felt, done and not done. LeUyen Pham’s astute and gracefully executed Outside, Inside (Ages 3-103) is one that might find its forever home on a shelf beside baby books and photo albums. A book our children might someday take down and share with their own kids—let me show you what it was like when “everybody who was outside…went inside.” Amidst the many new children’s books tackling the subject of lockdown, this one rises to the top. Many would have us believe it was all rainbows, but this one holds the sadness alongside the wonder, the uncertainty alongside the hope. Outside, Inside reminds us that a new day is dawning, but we will never forget how we got here.

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The Book That Saved February

March 4, 2021 § 1 Comment

It isn’t the first time a book has dropped into our lap at precisely the right moment. It isn’t the first time reading aloud has wrapped our family in a cozy cocoon against freezing rain and sibling bickering and the maddening sameness of pandemic life. But last month, when the walls were closing in—as I’m sure they would have been even if we weren’t still in temporary housing awaiting the end to our renovation—I felt blessed beyond measure to have stumbled upon Kate Albus’ debut novel, A Place to Hang the Moon (Ages 8-12), with its atmospheric writing, squeezable characters, and old-fashioned charm. It was every bit the salve we needed—and reminiscent of past favorites, like this, this and this.

A Place to Hang the Moon checked every box. We needed escape, and the book is historical fiction, set in England during World War II. Misery loves company, but we needed characters with problems different from our own (and worse, if I’m being honest), and the timeworn plot of down-on-their-luck orphans searching for someone to love them never disappoints. But we also needed comfort. We needed lifting up. We needed the kind of story that makes you believe a steaming mug of hot cocoa and a gentle hand on the shoulder is all one needs to carry on.

That A Place to Hang the Moon is also a kind of fairy tale about the power of stories, with a librarian standing in for the knight in shining armor, was icing on the cake.

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Early Reader and Early Chapter Book Round Up

February 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

As you, my dear readers, have rightfully pointed out, it has been far too long since I addressed the herculean endeavor of learning to read. And it’s true: while I’ve been busy telling you about picture books and middle-grade books, the number of fabulous early reading titles has been mounting. So, we’re going to get to those today in my largest round up ever. But first, a story.

When my eldest was learning to read, we rode the Amtrak on our yearly mother-son pilgrimage to New York City to visit family. I normally spent those three-plus hours reading aloud a NYC-themed chapter book I’d chosen for the occasion (like this). But this trip, I was desperate to push my kid along the continuum of independent reading that his peers seemed further along, so I packed a stack of early readers instead. He stumbled through reading them to me, while I made flashcards of the phonics that tripped him up. When the train pulled into Penn Station, as I stood to remove our suitcase from the overhead rack, the gentleman in the seat behind us said, “Wow, I never appreciated how crazy difficult the English language is to read.”

It was a wake-up call. I had been stubbornly operating under the assumption that my little guy could and should be advancing faster. When, if we’re being honest, English breaks about as many rules as it follows. It’s inconsistent, it’s weird, and, for most kids—even those without brain-based learning challenges—it’s really, really hard. I feel like this doesn’t get stated enough. Certainly, we parents forget it in our revisionist history of how we took to the pastime so naturally.

Add to that the reality that kids today have a whole host of distractions competing for their time, from screens to high-tech toys to extra-curricular offerings on any sport or hobby they can dream up. Let’s just say most children aren’t as motivated to master reading as we were, when the alternative was a long, boring afternoon.

By the time my second began to learn to read, I had worked out a different approach. I followed her lead, having her read to me only when she wanted to, and never, never in lieu of the precious time in which I read to her. My principal role remained what it had been when she was younger: to model the fruits of reading, introducing her to the rich language and spellbinding storytelling she would someday sample by herself. As parents, reading aloud is how we dangle the carrot.

Once I was back in my lane of parent not teacher, I also spent time seeking out early reading material that would inspire my early reader. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there is a lot of blah out there. I once heard Mo Willems hail P.D. Eastman’s Go Dog Go as his favorite early reader as a kid—and my childhood would agree—but anyone who tries handing that to a kid today will realize that its length has little place in these attention-deficient times. When we are meant to be building our kids’ momentum, a 72-page book is just too long. But Mo Willems also recognized that Go Dog Go was onto something with its playful silliness; and out of this he created the Elephant & Piggie series, which were some of the first books my son picked up to read aloud of his own volition.

Never underestimate the motivation of humor. For years, the Elephant & Piggie books (and the spin-off titles penned by different author-illustrators under Mo’s imprint) were the gold standard, with their emphasis on hilarious banter across speech balloons. Today, the market is rapidly broadening, and while humor is still alive and well, early reader titles are taking all sorts of forms.

Today’s post lauds fourteen (!) books or series published in the past two years. I’ve presented them in ascending reading level, beginning with early-reading primers and concluding with early chapter books. What sets these books apart is that children will delight in reading them multiple times. Most early readers offer the satisfaction of completion with the assurance that the story is too boring to bother with again. Not the case here. These stories do their educational part brilliantly, but they also offer ingenuity, visual enticement, and lots and lots of chuckles. They’re a key ingredient in learning to love reading.

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Losing a Dog

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

When my son was four and our dog died, I checked out a pile of themed picture books from the library and we read them over and over for two weeks. Every time I asked my son how he was feeling, or whether he wanted to talk about what had happened, he walked over to the pile, grabbed a book off the top, and climbed into my lap. It shouldn’t have surprised me—after all, I have always turned to books to process life experiences—but it did. Before my eyes, I watched this small boy silently work out stuff right there on the page.

One of the most common requests I get from parents is for books about losing a dog or cat. There is no lack of picture books on the subject, but most of them are only OK. Some are beautiful, even profound, acknowledgments of loss—like this and this—and even though I love them, they tend towards the abstract. Others fall into the same trap that we parents do when our children are in pain: they are quick to reassure, to provide distraction, to provide replacement (The dog is happy in heaven! Let’s go pick out a new puppy!). Many pay lip service to the emotional upheaval that is grief, but few model what it means to make space for it.

In my personal experience, grief does not abate without time. Time can’t work alone, it won’t solve all things, but it creates distance, and with distance comes perspective and growth and opportunity. But in the wake of pain, time is at best uncomfortable; at worst it is infuriating, terrifying, and unfathomable. It’s no wonder we don’t like to acknowledge it, much less encourage our children to sit in it.

And yet, here’s a new picture book that does just that—and does it brilliantly. In Matthew Cordell’s Bear Island (Ages 4-8), a full year passes from the moment a girl loses her dog to the time her family welcomes a new one. In Cordell’s expert hands, this year unfolds slowly across every page turn. It unfolds while a girl spends her days on an island with a stick and a bear for company. It unfolds in the physical and mental space of the girl’s anger, sadness, boredom, regret, and fear.

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A Baby Unicorn for Valentine’s Day

February 11, 2021 § 4 Comments

Valentine’s Day approaches, so consider this your annual reminder that the only acceptable Valentine is a new book. You may recall I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to recommending books for Valentine’s Day. If a heart on a cover is what you’re after, you won’t do better than this. But I like a timeless story about friendship that can be read any time of year, which is why in past Valentine’s posts I’ve been about this, this, this, and this. This year, you’re in for an added treat if you head over to Instagram, where I’ve been running a mini gift guide all week, with selects from babies to teens.

Sometimes a book comes along, and even though it’s not breaking any ground, even though it won’t win any awards, it’s so insanely adorable you want to give it to everyone you know.

Let’s be clear. My daughter cannot abide the unicorn craze. She has never tolerated it for one minute. What did unicorns ever do to her? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this: one year for her birthday, I bought her a pair of horse pajamas, only when she opened them, her eyes immediately locked onto a detail I had failed to notice; each of the horses had, in fact, teeny tiny silvery horns on their forehead. I watched her attempt to disguise her horror and choke out a thank you, but she never wears those PJs.

Now imagine that this same daughter should fall in love with Briony May Smith’s Margaret’s Unicorn (Ages 3-7), about a girl, recently relocated to the wild English countryside, who keeps watch over the CUTEST baby unicorn for two seasons until his mother returns for him. Imagine that this daughter was so taken by the book that she begged me to purchase our own copy, despite being well outside the target age. And then you’ll understand why it would be impossible for a book to receive a higher endorsement.

There is so much joy, so much heart, so much good will in this story that it’s destined to put the biggest smile on children’s faces. If that doesn’t make it perfect for Valentine’s Day, perhaps you ought to collect some moonlit water for your baby unicorn and then come back and we’ll talk.

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Seizing His Shot: A Black History Month Post

February 4, 2021 § 1 Comment

(Check out previous years’ picks for Black History Month here, here, and here. I’ll also be sharing other new titles celebrating Black history all month long over on Instagram.)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it ‘till the cows come home: picture books aren’t just for little kids! Keeping picture books alive and well at home, even after our kids are reading independently, means not only continuing to expose them to arresting art and sensational storytelling, it means piquing their interest about a range of subjects they might not seek out on their own. After all, it can be much less intimidating to pick up a picture book than a chapter book, especially on a subject you don’t know much about.

I love a picture book that sneaks in a history lesson without ever feeling instructional. One of my favorite picture book biographies published last year, Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball (Ages 6-10), also happens to be an excellent primer on the Civil Rights Movement. But you’d expect nothing left from the all-star team of Sibert Medalist, Jen Bryant, and two-time Coretta Scott King Medalist, Frank Morrison.

Jen Bryant is best known for her picture book biographies of artists and writers (A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams is a favorite), but she was drawn to NBA Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor, because in addition to his undeniable talent on the court, he also fundamentally changed the game itself. “Artists change how we see things, how we perceive human limits, and how we define ourselves and our culture,” Bryant writes in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. By this definition, Elgin Baylor—who as one of the first professional African-American players broke nearly every tradition in the sport—was every bit the artist. And Bryant uses her love of language to make his story leap off the page.

In that vein, too, it seems fitting that Frank Morrison should illustrate the basketball icon, using his signature unconventional style of oil painting that distorts and elongates the human figure, giving it both elasticity and a larger-than-life aura. (Morrison illustrates one of my other favorite 2020 picture book biographies, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.) Morrison’s art in Above the Rim is kinetic; it buzzes like the energy on a court. But it’s also dramatic, moving from shadow into light, much like the broader social movement in which Elgin Baylor found himself a quiet but powerful participant.

Should I mention my ten-year-old daughter (mourning the loss of basketball in this pandemic) adores this book and reaches for it often?

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“Having Arms is Totally Overrated”

January 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

A friend once confided in me that she hated reading aloud to her kids; even more, she hated how bad she felt about hating it. Her kids were now reading independently, so she had hoped she’d be off the hook; and yet, they didn’t love reading. She worried she was failing them by not investing in time to read aloud. (Is anyone harder on herself than a mother?)

It’s true that I’m a passionate advocate for reading aloud to kids long after they are reading on their own. The benefits are vast (I’ve listed ten here), with the greatest being that our voice brings literature alive in a way that entices children to continue putting in the work on their own. But I’ve also always pressed parents to choose books they will enjoy as much as their kids, because our enjoyment should be genuine. No one can sniff out a half-hearted effort like a kid, and the last thing we want to convey to our kids is that reading is a chore.

Here’s what I told my friend: park your guilt at the door and do you. You love to read, so read alongside your children. When they’re ready for bed, or whenever you think you should be reading to them, get your own book, have them get their books, and snuggle together while reading quietly. We call these “reading parties” in our house—a term my son coined years ago. I have another friend who calls them “stop, drop, and read” moments, where everyone drops what they are doing, grabs a book, and reads together for at least fifteen minutes. Simply by enjoying your own book, you are modeling for your children the value your family places on reading.

There’s something else I recommend, if you’re looking for ways to connect with your kids around reading but aren’t keen to read to them—or, as happens to the best of us, are having trouble finding the time. Consider reading to yourself a book they’ve recently read and loved. Maybe even something they’re reading right now (my daughter and I are currently doing this with the crazy fun new supernatural thriller Amari and the Night Brothers; she leaves it outside her bedroom door each night and I grab it before I get into bed). What better message can we send than, I value your reading so much that I’m choosing to pick up one of your recommendations?

Before I fell down the rabbit hole of 2021 reading, my daughter convinced me to read two Dusti Bowling novels she inhaled in December: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 9-13) and its sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 10-14). I’m not sure why these evaded me when they first came out a few years ago, because the characters—every single one—are absolutely delightful. (I’ll add that the first book would make a terrific read aloud, too.)

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Sweeter Together

January 21, 2021 § 8 Comments

Yesterday, at the 59th Presidential Inauguration, as my children and your children and the world looked on, President Biden called us to the work of unity, to “uniting to fight the foes we face. Anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs.” He was referring to Americans coming together, though he also spoke of healing alliances around the world.

Then, the 22-year-old inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, took the stage—who, incredibly, before the age of twenty could not pronounce the letter “R” due to a severe speech impediment—and elevated that message of unity even further. She called us to hope and light and agency. “There’s always light if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

(Side note: moments after the inauguration, it was announced that Amanda Gorman has a children’s picture book coming out in September, illustrated by fan-favorite Loren Long. This girl is here to stay, and I am here for it!)

I haven’t yet told you about one of the most exquisite picture books published last fall—actually, if I’m being honest, one of the finest examples of bookmaking I’ve ever seen. (It would have unquestionably made my 2020 Gift Guide had I discovered it in time.) On the surface, Sugar in Milk (Ages 5-10), written by Thrity Umrigar and lushly illustrated by Khoa Le, is a story about a modern girl’s immigration and assimilation; and yet, as it recalls an ancient Persian folktale, it reads as an allegory of unity and light. It’s a story honoring individual courage alongside diversity, acceptance, and inclusion—hallmarks of the American promise. It’s a story reminding us that we are sweeter together.

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For the Youngest Polar Bear Lovers

January 14, 2021 § 4 Comments

My children are as different as siblings can be, but one thing they have always shared is a love of polar bears. In his first grade Montessori classroom, my son spent months researching polar bears for a year-end presentation with a classmate, an endeavor that had us adding numerous non-fiction picture books (gorgeous ones, like this, this, and this) to our permanent collection. Years later, my daughter would do the same. In fact, her adoration of polar bears is now so legendary that on her last birthday, nearly every email, card, or voicemail mentioned polar bears. She even has a polar bear jacket. Two, actually.

I think we can assume, if for no other reason than their prevalence in kid lit, that polar bears have a special residence in the hearts of many children. Who can blame them? Polar bears are undeniably adorable (that black nose! those big paws!). They inhabit an Arctic wonderland that rivals any snow day. And their endangerment has only lent them more mystique.

There’s also something in the polar bear’s personality that invites a certain kinship with the young. Despite being some of the animal kingdom’s most ferocious predators, despite facing down harsh temperatures and bleak landscapes, polar bears are surprisingly playful. They tumble in the snow, they somersault in the water, and they fall asleep right where they are when they can’t keep their eyes open. They are kindred spirits.

It might seem rather mean of me to wait until after the holidays to tell you about one of my favorite picture books of 2020, but if there is a month to talk polar bears, it’s January (even if, here in Virginia, the weather forecast is disappointingly lacking in white stuff). In A Polar Bear in the Snow (Ages 2-6), beloved picture book creator Mac Barnett teams up with paper artist Shawn Harris to spark the imagination of the youngest polar bear lovers. The language is clever, wry, repetitive, and—as Barnett is fond of doing—asks direct questions of its reader. But it’s Harris’ stunning cut-paper collages, invoking countless shades of white alongside a piercing, crystalline blue, that make this a stand-out title, lending its subject matter the very awe it deserves.

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The Promise of Calm After the Storm

January 8, 2021 § 2 Comments

In the wake of Wednesday’s egregious attack on the US Capitol, I decided to postpone the post I’d initially planned for this week (cute polar bears can wait) and talk instead about a new picture book brimming with reassurance. Technically, it’s about weathering a literal storm—a tornado, a blizzard, a hurricane, and a wildfire—but its message feels deeply relevant to the place of uncertainty and fear in which we increasingly find ourselves: that in times of crises, we pull through with the help of family and community, with hope and heart and hard work. That Nature is powerful, but so are we. That, following every storm, there is always a return to calm.

Compared to most families, we spend a disproportionate amount of time obsessing about discussing the weather, owing to a fear of storms my eldest has had since he was two and a half and watched a microburst uproot a tree and send it spiraling down onto a power line, where it ignited. Previously, I’ve blogged about You’re Safe With Me, an animal-themed, folktale-like story offering a mother’s embrace as a panacea for stormy winds. Today’s book is more literal and larger in scope, showcasing scenarios that will feel familiar to children growing up at a time when weather events are larger, louder, and more frequent. It is about fear, but it’s also about a myriad of possibilities—some of them surprisingly wonderful—that can accompany that fear and pave the way for resilience.

Co-authored by mother-daughter team, Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, with glorious spreads by husband-and-wife team, Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell, I am the Storm (Ages 3-7) is about the moments when Nature rears its ugly head and threatens to overpower us—and what happens next. With equal parts candor and lyricism, four different children describe their family’s response to an incidence of extreme weather and the unexpected ways they find empowerment.

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