2022 Gift Guide: The Middle-Grade Books (Ages 7-14)

November 22, 2022 § Leave a comment

Ask me what installment of the Gift Guide is my favorite to write, and the answer will always be the middle-grade one. These are the stories that have my heart, the same types of books that once made a reader out of me. As an adult, even if it wasn’t my job to do so, I’d still read them, because they’re that good. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to try some of the titles below as family read alouds, or simply read them before or after your children finish them (which, by the way, your kids will love you for).

Whereas “middle-grade books” used to mean stories exclusively targeted at ages 8-12, today’s category is increasingly broadening to encompass young teens as well. The result is a kind of Venn diagram of stories. There are stories intended for kids in the middle years of elementary school, which tend to be lighter and faster paced. And then there are heavier, more nuanced stories written for readers who are entering or already tackling the middle-school years. In today’s post, you’ll find plentiful recommendations in both these younger and older middle-grade categories, and they’re presented here in ascending order.

Regardless of where on the spectrum these stories fall, they are exceptional examples of storytelling, with rich language, complex characters, and original twists and turns. For as much as they entertain us, they also make us think about the world around us in new and interesting ways.

2022 has been another banner year for middle-grade books—so much so that the titles below were all published in the second half of the year, many in just the last few weeks. In other words, this is not a “best of 2022” list, because if it was, it would include A Duet for Home, The Last Mapmaker, The Marvellers, Those Kids From Fawn Creek, Zachary Ying and the Last Emperor, Cress Watercress, and Jennifer Chan is Not Alone—all of which were featured in my Summer Reading Guide earlier this year.

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2022 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels for Kids & Teens

November 17, 2022 § Leave a comment

This is always the most requested installment of my Gift Guide, and for good reason! Designed to be read again and again, graphic novels are some of the best books to invest in. Their popularity continues to skyrocket, and with original, thought-provoking stories like the ones below (OK, one is just plain silly and that has value, too!), coupled with beautiful, arresting artwork, we can feel great about our kids losing entire afternoons to them.

We’ve never done the Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition known as Jolabokaflod in our family (though please invite me to be part of your family if you do), but we do place a wrapped book at the foot of each kid’s bed for them to open as soon as they awake on Christmas morning. The idea is to buy us, as parents, a few extra minutes of sleep before the mania begins. And let me tell you: the only books that are going to keep my kids in bed, knowing that their stockings are full to bursting just one floor down, are graphic novels.  

Whether you’re using them as bribery or for their indisputable literary merit, below are my favorite graphic novels of 2022 for gifting. I’ve omitted those I already included in the Summer Reading Guide, though it should be noted that The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza and Swim Team deserve to be in the present company.

Arranged from youngest to oldest, with selections for teens at the end. (As always, links support my work at Old Town Books, where I’m the kids’ buyer. Thank you kindly!)

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2022 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

November 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

With so many spectacular stories, every year it gets harder to narrow down a list of picture books for my Gift Guide. I’ve weighted this year’s list towards fall releases, hoping to ensure that the titles will be new to you or your gift recipient. But I also made exceptions. There were a few books published in the first half of the year that stand the test of time, and I couldn’t imagine a 2022 favorites list without them (Bathe the Cat, Knight Owl, and Endlessly Ever After).

I’ve also concentrated on books that feel inherently gifty. These are books you could gift to almost any child, regardless of how well you know them, and be confident that they’d be charmed and you’d be heroic. If I was strictly making a “best of” list, I would have added titles like Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky.

If space and time permitted, I’d remind you of all the books I’ve already blogged about this year (because I only blog about books I love). As well as others I’ve highlighted on Instagram, like Mina, Does a Bulldozer Have a Butt?, Izzy and the Cloud, and Poopsie Gets Lost.

Finally, before we get started, I’ll remind you that I kicked off the Gift Guide a few weeks ago with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year: Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s fresh telling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. I won’t repeat myself here, but don’t forget that if you really want to wow your audience, that’s the ticket.

But, of course, these others are incredibly special, too. Presented here from youngest to oldest. (As always, links support the lovely indie where I work as the kids’ buyer. We ship!)

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2022 Gift Guide: The Novelty Books

November 3, 2022 § Leave a comment

And we’re off and running! Today is the first of my Gift Guide round-ups, and I always like to begin with the Show Stoppers. These are the ultra gifty books of 2022 (past years have seen these and these), and I couldn’t be more excited to share them with you.

After today, we’ll move onto picture books, then graphic novels, middle-grade books, and young adult. Almost 60 titles will comprise this year’s guide in all, a mere fraction of the hundreds I read in order to cull my favorites. I like to think there’s something for everyone here (more than one, if I’m doing my job well!).

(Also PSST, it’s not too late to snag a ticket to one of my live Gift Guide events at Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA. Details here!)

One last thing before we get started: all titles are linked to Old Town Books, the wonderful indie where I work as the children’s buyer. We ship every day (locals can mark books for in-store pick up), so please consider supporting us if you don’t have an indie near you. Independent bookstores strengthen communities!

The books below are presented from youngest to oldest, kids to teens.

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2022 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Picture Book of the Year

October 18, 2022 § Leave a comment

It’s that time of year again! For months, I have been working behind the scenes, reading hundreds of picture books, middle-grade books, young adult, and non-fiction in order to bring you this fall’s top picks for kids, tweens, & teens (nearly 60 titles in all!). I’ll be rolling out the Gift Guide in a series of blog posts between now and Thanksgiving, but if you live in the Northern Virginia area, I’d LOVE to see you at one of two In-Person Events I’ll be doing on the first two Friday evenings in November at Old Town Books, the beautiful indie where I’m the kids’ buyer. You’ll get a chance to hear me present the entire guide in person, followed by personal shopping and gift wrapping. Knock out all your holiday shopping and stockpile fabulous books for the year to come! (Just hurry, because tickets are going fast.)

It has become traditional for me to kick off each year’s Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. (Last year, it was Little Witch Hazel (swoon!) and before that we had memorable titles like this, this, this, and this, which actually bears some fun similarities to today’s book.) This year’s pick officially hits shelves today, but it was actually the very first book I picked for this year’s guide, after reading a digital copy six months ago, so it has taken every ounce of restraint I have not to tell you about it until now.

I knew a fairy tale remixed by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen—the launch of a new picture book trilogy, no less!—was bound to be brilliant, but I also knew it would need no help from me to find its audience. Between the two of them, these kid lit superstars have garnered numerous Caldecott Honors, not to mention countless other accolades, so there was no way this book was falling off anyone’s radar. Normally, for “My Favorite Book of the Year” posts, I tend towards the hidden gems.

But while this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest books of the year, I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon, because The Three Billy Goats Gruff (ages 4-8) is the bomb. This story is READ-ALOUD PERFECTION. The humor! The pacing! The rhyme! The bonus endings! The ode to gourmands! The chin hair! The VOICES! I can’t think of a single child who won’t hang on every word of this book, alternately holding their breath and howling with laughter. Or a single adult who won’t be game to read it again and again.

Are you ready to step onto the bridge with me?

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More Tricks Than Treats: New Spooky Chapter Books & Graphic Novels

October 7, 2022 § Leave a comment

Earlier this week, I told you about my favorite new picture books for spooky season. Today’s post highlights some terrific new additions to middle-grade horror for ages 8-14, a genre as thriving today as it was when we were kids (anyone else remember losing entire weekends to John Bellairs?). Scary stories are a hit with all kinds of readers, but they can be especially effective for a kid who doesn’t think they like reading. Not only are they action packed, but they feel a teensy bit illicit. Like the reader is getting away with something. Like, would my parents really be OK with my reading this if they knew what it was about? (Don’t worry, there is nothing inappropriate in the books I’m discussing today.)

Whether children are aware of it or not, the appeal of horror extends beyond the shock factor of the gruesome. Years ago, I wrote a post about my own children’s attraction to the macabre, from lawns at Halloween to stories with decapitated heads (come on, you know the one). Especially when it’s presented with humor, macabre imagery can be a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them. I offer proof of this with favorites like Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy, which we read aloud by candlelight across three Octobers, and my kids are still holding out for a read aloud that satisfies in quite the same way. (Thank goodness there’s an ongoing podcast.)

Gidwitz himself is a passionate endorser of the catharsis of reading horror—he has to be, since his books occasionally find themselves on banned lists—and my favorite of his speeches is “In Defense of Fairytales.” Want to really scare kids? Show them the news. Want to pique their imagination and spur the important work of the subconscious? Let them read the original Grimm tales.

The land of the fairy tale is not the external world. It is, rather, the internal one. The real Grimm fairy tale takes a child’s deepest desires and most complex fears, and it reifies them, physicalizes them, turns them into a narrative. The narrative does not belittle those fears, nor does it simplify them. But it does represent those complex fears and deep desires in a form that is digestible by the child’s mind. Sometimes I refer to this as turning tears into blood.

(It’s a fascinating piece. I highly recommend the entire thing.)

Are scary stories for every child? Of course not. Nothing ever is. (I’m still trying to convince my now fifteen year old to let me read him Jonathan Auxier’s incomparable The Night Gardener, but every time he reads the back cover he’s like, I definitely can’t handle that. And I’ll admit: I had to sleep with the lights on for two days after I finished it. (BUT THAT’S THE FUN!)

Still, don’t be afraid to introduce at least a touch of horror into your young reader’s life. The stories below run a full spectrum from fun to freaky, so depending on which direction your child leans, I bet you can find something to keep them reading, lights optional. (And if you need more, check out last year’s post with more spooky graphic novels!)

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More Treats Than Tricks: New Halloween Picture Books

October 5, 2022 § Leave a comment

“H—A—double L—O—W—double E—N spells Halloween!” Anyone else remember learning that song in Kindergarten? Anyone else still need to sing it to remember how to spell the holiday? Just me?

Most years, I do you a solid and highlight just one stellar new Halloween picture book. This year, I couldn’t choose so you’re getting seven (sorry, not sorry). Actually, one of them—Oliver Jeffers’ There’s a Ghost in This House—you’ve seen before. It came out last year but, due to supply chain issues, juuuussst missed a Halloween release. That meant it made my Gift Guide instead—I mean, a haunted house is a haunted house any time of year—and lots of you have told me how beloved it has become in your house. But if you were NOT one of those folks, you get a do-over this year. Phew.

So, yes, Halloween picture books are especially strong this year! But before we get started, I always like to use these posts as an excuse to dip back into the archives. Last year, there was our dear Vampenguin. Who remembers The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt the year before that? Gah, I love that one! There was also I am a Witch’s Cat, Vampirina Ballerina, The Monsters’ Monster, and that doesn’t include a few other favorites I’ve highlighted on Instagram over the years.

Now let’s see what this year has brought us.

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The Year of the Dog (Books)

September 22, 2022 § Leave a comment

Are there more timely topics right now than puppies? For sure. (If you hit up Instagram, you can read my recent posts on Banned Books Week and Latinx Heritage Month. If it ever dips below 80 degrees, I promise to start talking about fall books. I won’t leave you hanging on Halloween releases, either, and then before you know it we’ll be onto the annual Gift Guide!)

But while today’s subject isn’t making headlines, it has been very topical in our own home for the last nine months. And judging by the record number of doggie-themed picture books published this year, maybe we’re not alone? (Or maybe I’m just finally paying attention.)

I’ve previously shared the story of how we got our newest pup—and the train wreck that was our early days together. And yet, the dog we have today is almost unrecognizable from the one who wouldn’t let us come near him. Watching our pup transform from terrified and traumatized to affectionate and assured has felt nothing short of miraculous. (Now, if he would just stop peeing on himself when he potties, we’d really be in business.)

But Fozzie hasn’t been the only one who has changed over the past year. Did you know dogs can draw teenagers out of their bedrooms? Did you know that watching a dog tackle a stuffed trout can unleash a belly laugh you’ve been holding onto for years? My husband and I used to argue about who had to take the pup on his final walk of the night. These days, we go together, finding excuses to do longer loops because it gives us a chance to connect—away from phones, laptops, and TV. As it turned out, we needed Foz just as much as he needed us.

Whether you have a dog, are planning to get a dog, or are looking to placate your dog-obsessed kiddo, I hope you’ll check out these adorable 2022 picture books. From heartwarming to hilarious, they represent a wide spectrum of reasons why dogs are, quite simply, the best. (Sorry, cat people. You got your shout out earlier this year.)

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Welcoming Surprise

September 15, 2022 § 3 Comments

As a parent, one of the things I continue to wrestle against is the temptation to label my children, to fit them inside tidy little boxes for the sake of proving (to the world? to myself?) that I’ve got everything figured out. On the one hand, of course I know my kids aren’t some puzzle begging to be solved; on the other hand, everywhere we turn as parents, we’re being asked to declare our children’s interests, to commit to one sport at the exclusion of others, to sum up their personalities for new teachers or turn them into soundbites for small talk with other parents.

If we’re talking labels, then my son is a math and science kid. Has been for a long time. He will tell you his plan is to be a rocket scientist for NASA, and he will steer almost every conversation at the dinner table back to whatever launch attempt has been in the news that day. As parents, all we want is for our kids to find something they love, so phew, let’s check that box and call it a day.

But wait. What about his eye for color and design? His love of drawing photo-realistic animals on birthday cards? What about the fact that he was the first one in our family who could handle our traumatized puppy, the first one to leash him and teach him tricks? What about his love for Anne of Green Gables that (almost) rivals mine?

What else might I miss by boxing him in?

Though he has an indisputable aptitude and passion for math and science, his favorite class last year was actually history, a class comprised of reading, writing, and public speaking. He has an obsession with current events that grew out of stress-induced vigilance but has morphed into a fascination with politics and economics. He has loved swimming, then hated it, loved running, now finds his interest depends on the day. He used to wince when a soccer ball flew at him, but last year I watched as he ran straight into the action on the basketball court, so maybe my telling people for years that, “yeah, he doesn’t like contact sports,” wasn’t actually true.

Will he grow up to become a rocket scientist? Quite possibly. Might he grow up to do any number of things seemingly incongruous with that goal? Quite possibly. All I know is that the more I can get out of the way, the freer he is to be open to possibility. And to surprise those of us along for the ride.

Easier said than done. That’s why we need frequent, insightful reminders.

You are more than a single note—

played again and again.

You are a symphony.

You are sounds plucked from all the places you’ve been

and all the people you’ve met

and all the feelings you’ve felt.

You are blues and pinks and loneliness and laughter,

mismatched scraps accumulated over time

and stitched together

into a kind of patchwork.

These resounding words come near the end of Patchwork (Ages 5-10), a stunning collaboration between two of our family’s favorites: Matt de la Peña (of Last Stop on Market Street) and Corinna Luyken (remember when I interviewed her here?). A paean to self-discovery, the book speaks to the capacity of children to change. Even as it highlights six specific children’s experiences, the second-person narration feels universal: the “you” is at once the child pictured in a pink tutu and the young reader studying her on the page.

Earlier this month, I read the book to my own children, despite them being well outside the target age, and I watched as a kind of peace settled around them. “What did you like about the book?” I asked. My daughter was quick to say she liked Corinna’s choice of a different color for each of the children’s stories (something I’ll talk more about in a bit).

My son took longer to think. Finally, he spoke: “I liked the way the children were always surprising the adults.”

In its invitation to witness and celebrate the surprises of self-discovery, Patchwork succeeds in both affirming the curiosity our children already know to be inside them and reminding those who love them to make room for that curiosity.

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Beach Combing

July 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

We recently returned from a glorious beach week, so it seemed only fitting that I should tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture book of the year. (Psst: don’t forget this fave from 2020.) But first, allow me a minute to wax nostalgic about the art of beach combing. This particular trip was to the ocean—just outside Duck in North Carolina—so there were ample shells to source, especially in the early morning if you beat the crowds. But judging by the quality control practiced by my daughter—or, shall we say, complete lack thereof—it would appear I have failed to impart this skill. “Please save these for me,” I heard over and over, followed by a dumping of shell shards and nondescript pebbles into my hand.

Flash back to my own summers, spent on the shores of Lake Erie at my grandparents’ summer home. There were no shells to be found. Not much in the way of interesting rocks, either. What we did have was seaglass, and my cousins and I fancied ourselves connoisseurs when it came to these specimen of the sea. Any eye could spot a colorful piece of glass among the gray pebbles, but only the most discerning would ensure it was perfectly opaque, its edges worn smooth from years in the water. Anyone could fill their pails with brown glass, even white glass that had once been clear, but a good piece of green was gold, and a piece of blue, especially one bigger than a pencil eraser, was cause for calling out for all to come and see. Each night, we’d comb through our treasure, keeping only the best of the best.

(It’s very important, when beach combing, to examine your treasures once they are dry. The water tends to give even the plainest of finds a gleaning, shimmery mystique. The best treasures are those that sustain their shine all the way to your bedroom shelf, where they can be reborn as art.)

That something as careless as beer bottles thrown over the deck of a ship can transform into jewels that can turn a walk on the beach into something magical never ceases to amaze me. The seaglass of my youth spoke to a mystery I couldn’t see, one I’d never entirely understand. I wondered about the journey of that glass, perhaps as my own children wondered about the bits of shells they recently picked up, certainly as the young protagonist of today’s book tells us she wonders about the creatures who once lived in the shells now washing up on the shore of her grandparents’ house.

Author Kevin Henkes and illustrator Laura Dronzek are no strangers to collaborations when it comes to picture books about the natural world, but Little Houses (Ages 3-6) might be their finest yet, deftly balancing information with poetry, truth with imagination. We follow as a girl examines her beach finds and wonders about the things she doesn’t know. That she has these experiences during a summer spent with grandparents only sweetens the package, recalling the way my own grandmother would swoop in and out of our beach walks, sometimes pausing to procure her own treasure, often marveling at ours, always happy for the chance to muse about the mysteries of the sea.

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Summer Reading Guide: For the New Readers

June 23, 2022 § Leave a comment

Whooooboy. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: today’s early readers have it GOOD! The wealth of talent being channeled into creating early graphic novels and early chapter books has never been greater than it is right now, and our lucky kiddos get to reap the benefits. Learning to read is all about generating momentum—from there, confidence swells—so it’s vital to have a bottomless array of choices.

Today, I’ve got a comprehensive round up of 2022 releases for newly independent readers at a variety of reading levels. Some of the storylines are sweet, others funny. Some are educational, all are entertaining, and every one is part of a series, which means more to come! (If you need more while you’re waiting, check out previous round ups here and here, many of which have sequels out.)

Of course, many of these make engaging read alouds as well. Just remember at these ages to keep reading those picture books too, for their rich vocabulary, nuanced storytelling, and gorgeous art. It shouldn’t be one or the other. Elementary kids need both to thrive in developing literacy skills and a lifetime love of reading!

The books in this post are arranged according to length and number of words per page. I’ve indicated whether each title is a graphic novel or a traditional chapter book, and I’ve included one interior shot per book to give you an idea of what the layout looks like. (And because they’re so dang cute!)

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Summer Reading Guide: The Graphic Novels

June 16, 2022 § 1 Comment

My Summer Reading Guide continues with a round up of favorite new graphic novels. Think of these as your secret weapons this summer. Got bored kiddos? Leave these lying around the house for wandering eyes to page through. Need one kid to sit through another one’s swim meet? Stick two of these in your bag. Packing up for a beach vacation with cousins? Throw a bunch of new-to-everyone graphic novels in your suitcase and then watch the kids pass them around like coveted candy. (We actually do this every year when we visit our cousins in Boston, and it is a favorite tradition!)

If you worry about investing in books your child will fly through at breakneck speed, consider this: graphic novels are designed to be read multiple times. The first time a child reads a graphic novel, they’re reading for plot and plot alone; the visuals propel them forward. The second, third, and fifteenth times: that’s when appreciation for character development, visual details, and tricky vocab develops. A good graphic novel is a richly layered piece of literature, and each reading takes you deeper into the story. This is true as kids age, too. Those Raina Telgemeier graphic novels they first read when they were seven? They resonate on an entirely different level years later, when the reader catches up in age to the protagonists.

Of course, sometimes kids re-read a title, not because they have anything left to learn, but because it’s fantastically entertaining. Or comforting. Or restorative.

I’ll be honest. There was a period, earlier this year, when I looked around the bookshop and thought, Ummm, where are all the new graphic novels? Thankfully, my panic didn’t last long, because come they did, many in just the last few weeks.

That said, I’m remiss in not including the sequel to Katie the Catsitter, the latter of which my daughter hails as her favorite graphic novel of all time (well, tied with Witches of Brooklyn). She loved the sequel—we all did—but as it came out all the way back in January, it escaped my mind as I was putting this post together. It’s nearing midnight, I’ve already taken my pictures, so just trust me on this one.

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2022 Summer Reading Guide: The Middle-Grade Novels

June 9, 2022 § Leave a comment

My Summer Reading Guide kicks off with a whopping seventeen fantastic middle-grade novels—my favorites of 2022 thus far. I had to break out graphic novels into another post, so hold tight and you’ll have those soon. After that, I’ll conclude with books for developing readers. So, keep your eyes right here in the coming weeks! (I regret that I haven’t kept up with older teen reading as much as I’d like, but that will change soon. Stay posted to Instagram where I’ll share reviews for those I read and love.)

I also recently did a guest post for Old Town Books, where I’m the kids’ buyer, with tips for keeping your kids reading all summer long. Many of us credit our own childhood summers with igniting a love of reading. Throw in some Sun-In and a rainbow push pop, and spending time in the company of Ramona Quimby or Prince Caspian was a pretty fabulous way to pass hot, lazy afternoons. But how do we convince our kids to follow suit, given today’s busy camp schedules and the lurking enticement of screens? How do we make sure our kids don’t lose the reading skills they’ve been working hard to master during the school year? Even better, how do we translate those skills into a genuine love for reading where our kids will turn to books for entertainment without nudging from us? Check out my tips here.

The below recommendations are arranged from youngest to oldest. For a fun twist, I’ve organized the list into sections by comparative titles. I hope this is helpful!

Finally, if you don’t have an indie bookstore near you, please consider supporting my work by using the links to order through the Old Town Books website. We ship every day!

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In Defense of Sad Books

May 26, 2022 § 6 Comments

(PSST…before we begin, summer reading is coming! If you’re in the Alexandria area, I’d love to see you at Old Town Books on Thursday, June 2, at 7:00pm, where I’ll be presenting my Summer Reading Guide for ages 6-16, with lots of personal shopping to follow! Tickets can be purchased here.)

It has been six years since Lauren Wolk penned her Newbery Honor-winning novel, Wolf Hollow (Ages 10-14), one of the single greatest works of literature I have ever read. (Yes, I’m counting adult books.) It’s a book whose comparisons to other great American novels, most commonly To Kill a Mockingbird, are entirely warranted.

Still, over those six years, I’ve grown weary of recommending the book. When I’ve tried to bring it into schools for book clubs, I’ve been told, “It’s a magnificent book, but I’m worried it will upset kids.” When parents ask me to describe the plot, their skepticism radiates off them: Why would I share a story like that with my child? Do they really need to experience such sadness? Won’t it frighten them? Erode their innocence?

Neither of my kids was old enough for the book when it came out, so when the sequel released earlier this spring, My Own Lightning, I decided to revisit the original, this time aloud with my eleven year old. And I’ll admit: I had not remembered how sad it is. Reading it the second time around, this time through the lens of a parent with a child the same age as the protagonist, I did periodically wonder, Is this too much? When our kids have the rest of their lives to discover pain, should storytime be exclusively reserved for funny, fantastical, feel-good themes?

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the writing is. How Lauren Wolk is that rare writer as well versed at writing gorgeous stand-alone sentences as casting these sentences into a tight arc that moves breathlessly towards its conclusion. Not one word is wasted in this novel—not one word—which is a rare, rare gift for a parent reading aloud.

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the protagonist is. How even in the midst of terrible cruelty, terrible sadness, terrible truth telling, Annabelle finds within herself strength, resilience, and unwavering hope. Through the goodness of Annabelle’s actions and the support of her parents, brothers, and teacher, the reader is never without light. That light might be subtle, but it’s undeniably present.

I had also not remembered what an historical novel set between two world wars can reveal about our country, about the men who left for war and came back changed in ways that sometimes bred more misunderstanding and judgment from others than compassion. About the way neighbors of German descent were suddenly regarded with suspicion—or worse. About the way generations of families tightened belts, hunkered under one roof, ate off their own garden plots, and held their breath in a climate of intense uncertainty.

Wolf Hollow is about all of this without really being about any of it. Strictly speaking, it’s about one girl in a tiny Pennsylvania town who is on the receiving end of physical threats and violence from a new classmate—and chooses to stay silent about it for one beat too long. This silence inadvertently casts suspicion on a veteran named Toby, a mysterious outlier in the community, whom many regard as dangerous but whom Annabelle has always seen as gentle and kind. Against mounting odds, Annabelle tries to save Toby and clear his name.

And yet. While the tears streamed from my own eyes in the final chapters, my daughter’s eyes remained dry. To say she loved the book is an understatement: we have rarely moved so quickly though a read aloud and onto its sequel, because she could not get enough. (We’re halfway through the sequel, so keep your eyes on Instagram for that update.) She was captivated, riveted, couldn’t look away. But she was not gutted in the way that I was reading it. Neither was she horrified or haunted. “I like books that tell what life is really like,” she told me. “Not enough books tell the truth.”

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Picture Books as Performance

May 19, 2022 Comments Off on Picture Books as Performance

I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.

Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.

That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.

When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.

Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.

But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

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For the Sensitive Souls (A Post for Mental Health Awareness Month)

May 12, 2022 § 4 Comments

All the time I get asked, What’s a good book for my [insert: nervous, fearful, shy, super sensitive] kid? With everything this crazy world has been dishing out, even kids who aren’t naturally wired towards sensitivity are struggling under the weight of big, heavy, messy emotions. And, as parents, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make the discomfort go away.

My firstborn is an immensely sensitive child. My husband and I joke that he’s a raw nerve walking around on two legs, and the whiplash from highs to lows and back again is not always easy to witness.

Five years ago—I would remember it like it was yesterday, even if I hadn’t journaled about it at the time—my son looked on as garbage workers hauled away our twenty-year-old sofa. We had spent a few weeks trying to donate the sofa, but with a frayed slipcover and sunken cushions, no one seemed to want it.

The hysteria peaked as the garbage truck drove away. The garbage men didn’t treat it well! he wailed. They broke it apart! They tore off the slipcover! It went into the truck in PIECES! They treated it no differently than a container of moldy food! I know it was ripped and didn’t look very good, but it was so comfortable. It made us happy for so long. It should have gone to a good home! It still had life left to give! It could have made people happy! Now, IT’S RUINED!

For a long time, my maternal response to such spectacles was, MAKE. IT. STOP. You’re fine. Here are all the ways that what you’re losing your mind over isn’t actually that bad. Just please stop suffering because my heart cannot take it and also I feel very out of control right now.

But if my son’s extreme responses to everyday life were hard on me, they were a million times harder on him—and often brought with them feelings of shame and loneliness.

I’d like to tell you there was a single turning point for me, but I think it was probably lots of little signs along the way that pointed towards re-framing this sensitivity for both him and me. We began to regard it, not as a condition to overcome, but as a superpower of sorts. You won’t find a more empathetic kid than my son. A more grateful one, too. I could never add up the number of times he has hugged us before bed and said, “Today was the best day of my life.” (Lots more have been the “worst,” of course.)

If, in these turbulent moments, I don’t let his emotions hijack mine—easier said than done, of course—there is usually a nugget of truth telling that can inform my life, our life, for the better. “We did try and donate the sofa,” I reminded him. “Well, maybe someone was afraid to come forward, afraid for us to see their poverty,” he said. “We could have done more, Mommy.” I haven’t forgotten this exchange. Because he’s not wrong. He keeps me honest to the plight of others. He keeps me honest to the plight of himself.

Today, I’m sharing two important new picture books that I wish I’d had when my son was younger. That I wish I’d had for my daughter, too, who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from her brother, keeping her feelings close to the breast, wary of betraying vulnerability, wary of losing control (can’t imagine who she gets that from). Embedded in their charming, gorgeously illustrated stories, Deborah Marcero’s Out of a Jar (Ages 4-8) and Colter Jackson’s The Rhino Suit (Ages 4-8) employ creative, effective metaphors to explore the temptation to bottle up big, messy emotions and shelve them out of sight. To trap them on the other side of a coat of armor. Both stories ask their young readers to consider the good that might come from leaning into, not away from, uncomfortable emotions. Leaning into sensitivity, rather than fearing or disguising it.

There’s plenty of truth telling in these books for the parents and caregivers of sensitive kids, too.

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Four New Faves Celebrating Mamas and Grandmas

May 5, 2022 § 6 Comments

(Warning: I put on my most matronly dress to rage at the patriarchy.) Ouch, it’s a tough week to be a woman in this country. A tough week to contemplate the future for our daughters—and, let’s be honest, our sons, since a woman’s right to exercise autonomy over her body has always been inherently linked to the opposite sex. To say nothing of the repercussions SCOTUS’ decision will have for Black or Indigenous populations, or those living below the poverty line, or the precedent this could set for overturning protections for the LGBTQ+ community. We have only to dig into history to see that progress is never a straight line, but it’s one thing to recognize this and another to live it, to watch the work of generations collapse in a single moment. The list is growing long for horrifying things I never expected to witness in my lifetime.

Now, here we are, staring down Mother’s Day, an already complicated holiday for those mourning mothers, mourning children, mourning dreams of having children—and a day that now feels even more loaded, weighed down with the understanding that a woman’s body can be at once celebrated for its childbearing and stripped of its rights.

This is a cheery post, eh? Don’t worry, I promise we’re going to talk about some beautiful, uplifting, joyful books in just a second.

Yes, it’s a tough moment in history to be a woman. But, let’s not kid ourselves: it has always been a tough time to be a woman. Voting rights, equal pay, maternity leave, working outside the home, the right to wear pants, for crying out loud: the list for what women have been made to suffer is endless.

And still, I love being a woman. I love being a mom. I love following in the legacy of the curious, courageous, complicated women who raised me. When the fear of raising a daughter creeps in during times like this, I remember the strength of my own mother and grandmothers. My mom, who suffered the greatest heartbreak imaginable in the sudden death of my father at 51 and rallied to step into roles and master tasks she’d never imagined for herself, for the sake of her teenage daughters. My one grandmother, who for years endured physical pain without a word of complaint, because she didn’t want to miss out on a single family activity. My other grandmother, who attended science lectures in her 90s where she was the only woman, not because she knew anything about the topic, but because her own children and grandchildren’s involvement in the world had inspired her to expand her mind.

Today, I’m highlighting four new picture books that star formidable mothers and grandmothers—the kind I aspire to be, the kind who remind me that we will not go quietly into the night. Not when we know better, not when we’ve learned from the best. (You can also refer back to some older posts for favorites, like this, this, this, and this.)

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Poetry to Re-Frame Our World

April 28, 2022 § 2 Comments

You didn’t actually think I’d let National Poetry Month go without loving on a few new poetry books, did you? Now wait. I know poetry scares some of us—or scares our kids—but, like with everything from green vegetables to voting, early and often are the keys to success. National Poetry Month will always be a great excuse to infuse our shelves with a new title or three—and maybe re-visit a few that have been languishing. Getting kids comfortable around poetry means deepening their relationship with language, especially figurative language, which will carry them far in any creative pursuit, not to mention the non-linear thinking increasingly rewarded in business.

My greatest parenting win around the subject of poetry remains the year we read a poem from this gorgeous anthology every morning over breakfast. I heartily recommend forgoing conversation for poetry in the mornings! (I hear caffeine’s good, too.) When a new title came out in this same series last fall, I had high hopes we’d rekindle this ritual, but with my teen out the door so much earlier than his sister, this hasn’t happened.

So, consider today’s post as much about my own need to recommit to poetry—something my kids rarely gravitate towards without a nudge—as about inspiring you to do the same. In that vein, I’ve got two vastly different new poetry picture books: one for the preschool crowd and the other for elementary kids. The first is an absolute delight to read aloud, while the second is perhaps better left for independent readers to contemplate privately.

Take Off Your Brave: The World Through the Eyes of a Preschool Poet (Ages 3-6) is a collection of poems written by an actual four-year-old boy named Nadim, using his Mom as a “dictaphone.” Talk about making poetry feel accessible to kids! Here, Nadim gives us a window into the way he sees the world: his dream school, his best things, his “scared-sugar” feelings. Each poem is playfully brought to life by award-winning illustrator, Yasmeen Ismail.

Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek’s Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech (Ages 8-12, though adults will love this, too) is one of the most simultaneously quirky and powerful poetry collections I’ve encountered, a look at what happens when we unleash our imaginations on the natural elements around us. And it’s as much an art book as a poetry book! Artist Richard Jones is already getting Caldecott buzz for his gorgeous, full-bleed illustrations that accompany each of the 28 poems.

Both of these special books speak to the magic of poetry: the way it enables us to process the creative, off-kilter, silly, sometimes contradictory ways we see or experience the world. For as many hang-ups as we have around poetry—its perceived obtuseness, its relegation to the realm of intellectuals—these books remind us that poetry is as simple as conjuring a moment and penning it in a non-traditional way. These poems celebrate the poets in all of us.

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A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

April 14, 2022 Comments Off on A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

Last week, after a two-year interruption, my daughter and I returned to one of our favorite annual traditions: we took the train up to New York City to stay with my mom and explore the magical city where I grew up. Among the many adventures we had waited too long for, I took my daughter to Broadway for the first time, where we sat spellbound before the green lights and belting voices of Wicked. (I had actually seen the show as a Christmas present in 2003 with the original cast, including Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, and I was worried no subsequent production could live up. As it turns out, it was every bit as incredible.)

Each time I take one of my kids to New York, I try and pick a special chapter book to read to them—bonus if it’s NYC-themed. (Past trips have featured this and this.) This year, I had my eye on the lavishly illustrated new chapter book, Cress Watercress (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which has absolutely nothing to do with New York City, but does happen to be written by Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel behind the Broadway show on our itinerary.  How’s that for sneaky?

Y’all. I know I get excited about a lot of books here. But this one is really, really special. A more widely appealing family read aloud you won’t find. A more fitting read for springtime you won’t find. A wittier, more darling, more deeply felt story you won’t find. This tale about a bunny named Cress, forced to relocate with her mother and baby brother in the forest after the devastating loss of her father, is about the highs and lows of starting over: of making a home, finding your people, and learning that it’s possible to make do with “good enough” when “good” is out of reach. It’s a story about love, sorrow, creativity, and renewal—and it’s penned with a depth that elevates it above your typical middle-grade animal story.

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Healing in Color

March 31, 2022 § 4 Comments

Two days before we were scheduled to move across the country, when my oldest was just shy of three years old, he broke his leg. My husband and I had left him with my in-laws outside Chicago, while we dashed back into the city to close on our house and run a few final errands. As I sat in the chair at the hairdresser, where my biggest concern was whether I’d ever find someone to cut my hair again, my phone rang. My mother in law wanted me to know that while my son and our dog had been playing, the dog had stepped on his leg. Now he couldn’t walk. They were on their way to the ER.

Did I mention I was pregnant with our second and, owing to a recurrence of pelvic joint disorder, could barely walk myself? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a not-quite three year old with a full leg cast can’t exactly use crutches.

Fast forward 48 hours, when my husband moved to Washington, D.C. without us, and I spent the next month bunking in with my in-laws, while they took turns carrying my son and I hobbled along behind them. In the meantime, my husband toured possible places for us to live and sent us blurry pictures. My son demanded to read his Curious George books so many times that my mother-in-law and I nearly came to blows over whether a poorly behaved monkey was the best role model for a human boy. I ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection. It was…an interesting time.

And yet, when I think about my boy through all of this, my recollection is that he was often ridiculously happy. Happy to spend the first few days on the couch, as friends sent care packages and he got to watch more shows than he’d dreamed possible. Happy to spend the next few weeks swinging on porch swings, blowing bubbles, and doing loops on a local antique train. Happy his cast was the brightest shade of green, his favorite color since he was old enough to talk. Happy for bonus time with his biggest fans.

I’ll always remember him holding court on the patio, where we ate every meal that month. (Just like I’ll always remember how grateful I was for my mother-in-law’s cooking.)

But I also remember that, even as he seemed unstoppable when the cast became a walking boot, and when we left my in-laws to visit my own grandmother and tear up and down the beach along Lake Erie, he was surprisingly hesitant when he finally got his boot off. The heavy, itchy accoutrements may have been gone, but they’d left him a stranger in his body. I remember saying, “It’s OK! Come on! Your leg is as good as new!” And he would look down and continue to walk a little funny.

How tempting it is—especially for us parents—to gloss over our children’s trauma. As if, by focusing on the shiny, perfect future, we can pretend the suffering never happened.

In her gentle, insightful new picture book, Out on a Limb (Ages 4-8), author Jordan Morris speaks to the role of courage and patience in the healing process, as a girl recovers from a broken leg, moving from the novelty of sporting a cast to the awkwardness of being without it. Substitute a green cast for a yellow one, and the similarities between this girl’s story and my son’s are plentiful, including an inter-generational component. But you don’t need experience in the broken bones department to enjoy this book, especially when you factor in Charlie Mylie’s gorgeous graphite art, rendered in a largely black-and-white palette with intentional splashes of color. Many children will spark to this story of reclaiming childhood joy in the aftermath of interruption.  

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