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 § 2 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 § 3 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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An Inclusive Take on a Christmas Classic

December 17, 2020 § 1 Comment

Traditionally on Christmas Eve, I channel my father and do a stirring rendition of Clement C. Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas,” before the kids head up to bed and pretend to sleep. First published in 1823, Moore’s description of St. Nicholas and his eight flying reindeer, landing on rooftops and sliding down chimneys, has shaped our Western portrait of Santa Claus for the past 200 years. And yet, in almost every case, Moore’s words have been illustrated to center a white, upper middle-class family in a small New England town.

When we first moved to Virginia, we didn’t have a fireplace. A preschool classmate asked my son how Santa would get into our home to deliver presents. My son was dumbstruck; nothing I said assuaged his anxiety. When, a few weeks later, I took my kids on our local “Santa Train” (thank you, Virginia Railway Express) to spend an afternoon with the Big Man, my son queued up to ask that most important question: “What if someone doesn’t have a chimney?” To which the white-bearded man pointed to an oversized silver key hanging from his belt. “This magical key opens every door in the world, so if I can’t enter by chimney, I simply go through the front door.” And that was that.

There is a myriad of ways that adults have revised (or eschewed completely) the Santa myth to suit diverse living situations. Addressing economic disparity is tougher. There were years when my son would ask, as we shopped for our local toy drive, “But won’t Santa bring toys to these children?” Those of us who talk to our children of Santa Claus find ourselves perpetuating a myth as privileged and problematic as it is enticing.

Children’s illustrator Loren Long—already beloved in our house for his picture books starring Otis the tractor—has breathed new life into Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas (Ages 3-10), setting the original poem to illustrations featuring four diverse families. As we page through the book, the warm, atmospheric, cleverly detailed paintings tell their own stories about what Santa’s arrival looks like for a family on a rural farm, in a mobile home, a city apartment, and an island bungalow. (Even before the poem starts, the endpapers show the different children engaged in Christmassy pursuits, like cookie making and letter writing.) The result is a fresh, if idealized, take on a Christmas classic—which, even as it doesn’t address all the paradoxes of the Santa myth, suggests that the magic of the holiday touches everyone who believes.

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Creating Community with the Vanderbeekers

December 10, 2020 § 1 Comment

Last Saturday, we got a Christmas tree. By all accounts it looked like a ho hum ordeal, much like the rest of 2020. For the first time since having kids, we didn’t drive to a bucolic farm to cut down our own tree and enjoy celebratory hot cider overlooking evergreen-studded hills. Instead, we walked the five blocks to a local nursery and paid twice as much for a tree half as big. It took us so long to get out of the house that by the time we got there, it was dark. We hoisted the tree on our shoulders and walked it back to the temporary digs we’re calling home these days, with the children trailing behind us like shivering ducklings. When we arrived at our front door, we realized the clippers were in storage; we had no way to trim the lower branches to fit the tree in the stand. Also, we had forgotten about dinner.

And yet, when I collapsed into bed several hour later, I could not stop smiling. I turned to my husband. “Why was that so fun?” I mused. Sure, it was an outing, at a time when we have fewer occasions than usual to leave our house. Yes, it was festive (who doesn’t catch the holiday spirit from the scent of evergreen?). But I suspected there was something larger at work. And then it hit me.

Standing among the outdoor crowd in that nursery—waving at neighbors we recognized over their masks, listening to the music piped through crackly speakers, heeding the frenzied calls of workers bundling trees for transport—I felt connected to something larger than myself. For the first time in a long while, I was caught up in community. We have had such few occasions to gather this year; most of the time, seeing people means turning or running the other way. But for one night, I was reminded that rituals and traditions are more meaningful when they’re shared with others. Even strangers. None of us were there for long before we retreated back inside our homes, but for a moment, we remembered what it was like to join together in celebration. (Like the Whos down in Whoville.)

This theme of community features prominently in each of the four titles (and counting!) in Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeekers series, though perhaps none so strongly as in her newest, The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud). If my son’s once-upon-a-time enthusiasm for The Penderwicks and my daughter’s continued enthusiasm for The Problim Children has been any indication, my kids are partial to read alouds with large families. But no literary family has quite united my kids’ affection like the Vanderbeekers, a contemporary, biracial family of five children and two parents living on 141st street in New York City. And no other book has elicited as many tears and cheers as the fourth. Glaser’s writing has not only strengthened with each title, she’s now dipping her toe into meatier plots and more complex emotions.

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When a House Becomes a Home

December 3, 2020 § 6 Comments

It has only been a week since I finished my 2020 Gift Guide and already I need a do over! I started this year’s guide earlier than usual, which meant I was still digging myself out of a hefty “to read” pile, and I’ve since discovered a few gems that positively beg to be included. Like Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House (Ages 3-8). Honestly, this book is so good I might have chosen it as My Favorite Picture Book of the Year (although no disrespect to the two I did choose, because they’re perfection). For sure, it feels like nothing I’ve read this year. It’s raw and tender and gorgeous and loud. It features a single father who reads aloud during bath time, shreds on the electric guitar, and holds space for his son’s feelings, the bad along with the good. And while the story is centered around a modest little old house, it reinforces what it really means for a house to be a home.

My mom has an expression she employs each time I’m preparing to moving into a new space, from dorm rooms, to my first apartment, to the temporary digs we moved into at the start of this pandemic, after breaking ground on renovating what I hope will be our forever home. Whenever I start to worry—That dorm is a 1960s disaster! This apartment hardly has any windows!—she always says with confidence, “You have to make it cute.” Those seven words have become a kind of mantra for me, because there’s inherent optimism in them. It’s the idea that hanging a few pictures, puffing up a few pillows, and putting down a plush rug can transform the spirit of any place. It’s working with what you have. It’s simple. It’s doable.

And it’s true: when we put effort into brightening up our house, we can relax into it. When we make our four walls a tiny extension of ourselves, we can live a little freer, a little louder, a little more boldly. And then there’s the emotional decorating. Because making a house “cute” comes as much from the life we lead inside it: the love we foster, the heartbreak we overcome, the laughs that surprise us, the memories we make. What we give to a house comes back to us as a home.

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2020 Gift Guide: Books for Teens (Ages 13-18)

November 25, 2020 § Leave a comment

Today marks the end of this year’s Gift Guide, with a slew of fantastic, thought-provoking reads for teens. I’ve taken particular care while indicating age ranges for each book, mindful that some of these contain subject matter appropriate for older teens. (If you missed the previous weeks, there are some great younger teen choices here and here as well. You can also find last year’s list for teens here.)

I would also like to welcome my hubby to these pages for the first time! He wrote the review for True and False, a book I purchased for my son after he asked me, “How can our family be sure the news we’re reading isn’t fake?” but which my husband snagged for himself before it was halfway out of the bag.

You’ll hear a bit more from me before 2020 quits us (or we quit it), because in the seven weeks since I began this Gift Guide, I have stumbled upon books I wish had included. Suffice it to say that my Instagram feed won’t be slowing down anytime soon, either. But I do hope this year’s Gift Guide has proven a worthwhile endeavor for you and your loved ones. Books really do make the best gifts (especially if you support your neighborhood bookstore in the process).

Happy Thanksgiving!

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2020 Gift Guide: The “Giftiest” Books for Ages 1-16

November 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

With just two Gift Guide installments remaining, today’s feels extra special. These are the super duper gifty books. The showstoppers. The stunners. Books packaged with metallic accents or satin bookmarks or wow graphics. Books worth their weight, if you will. All of them are non-fiction, and many capitalize on newfound or revitalized interests and hobbies inspired by the curve ball that was 2020 (gardening! outerspace! the great outdoors! apologies, but I’ve got nothing for the sourdough crowd). Lest I start sounding like a broken record, All Thirteen: The Incredible True Story of the Thai Cave Soccer Team would surely be included here as well.

And here’s the grooviest thing. If you only have time to shop one list this holiday season, shop this one: I’ve got picks for as young as one and as old as sixteen!

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