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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A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

April 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

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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Early Reading Round Up: Graphic Novels

March 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

A year has passed since my last Early Reading Round Up, where I shared recommendations for kicking off the daunting process of learning to read, as well as some early chapter books for those graduating into independent reading. (I also talked about my own parenting epiphany, learned the hard way, about how we can best support our budding readers.) Today, I thought I’d specifically highlight some new(ish) graphic novels targeted at beginning and newly independent readers.

With compelling visuals and an ability to tackle a wide range of genres and subject matter, graphic novels have become wildly popular in recent years, not just for that so-called “reluctant reader” but for nearly every kind of elementary and tween reader. So, it comes as no surprise that they’re also getting dedicated attention from publishers when it comes to younger kids, including those new to reading. THIS IS A GREAT THING.

If you’re new to the idea that “graphic novels count as real reading,” you can reference an older post with my Top Ten Reasons why encouraging your kids to read graphic novels (including comics) translates into literacy skills and a love of reading. And why, given a culture big on visual stimulation and light on free time, our kids are so enticed by this format. All of these things hold true for early readers, too. In fact, Mo Willems’ hugely popular “Elephant and Piggie” books—a big driver for both my kids when they were learning to read—are, in fact, graphic novels. They tell their stories through sequential art and speech bubbles, albeit in a highly simplified way.

The books below are presented in ascending order of reading level. All of them are a step up from “Elephant and Piggie,” and some are divided into chapters, ideal for the newly independent reader who is looking for momentum to solidify literacy skills and equate reading with pleasure. Plus, all of them are short enough to prompt repeat readings, a reason to feel extra good about investing in these books.

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Welcoming Absurdity

February 24, 2022 § Leave a comment

Last week, on an episode of the podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things” (fess up, I know you listen, too), Glennon Doyle pronounced that the 2022 vibe most worthy of embracing is “absurdity.” We’re “fresh out of giddy-up,” she says. The last two years have depleted every ounce of resiliency we had, leaving us largely “dead inside.” In her line of reasoning, it follows that the only antidote to this zombie-like state is the Theater of the Absurd.

I immediately thought of Alice B. McGinty’s absurd—and absurdly funny—new picture book, Bathe the Cat (Ages 3-6), brilliantly illustrated as per usual by David Roberts (you know him from the beloved “Questioneers” series—most recently, Aaron Slater, Illustrator). While a family scrambles to ready their house for Grandma’s visit, their pet cat repeatedly and mischievously scrambles the chore list—spelled out in magnetic letters on the fridge—resulting in a mayhem of misunderstandings. Sweep the dishes? Scrub the fishes? Mop the baby? Bathe the mat? Just you wait.

Bathe the Cat is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The rhyming text relishes being read aloud, and the giggles will only increase with repeat readings. We’re well outside the age range over here, and my kids were still delighted by it. Much the way the four of us have been delighting in our new doodle puppy, who can’t manage to chase a ball across the wood floor without at least three of his legs splaying in different directions. Whose muppet face breaks out into the silliest lopsided grin when you scratch his neck, and whose paws move to their own mysterious beat when he’s sleeping.

Yes, our home has welcomed its own brand of absurdity in the past six weeks, and it does feel a bit like shaking off the grogginess from a nap that’s gone on too long. Who knew watching a dog run after a ball and come back with a stick could be so entertaining? “He’s proud as a pumpkin!” my son recently said, as the dog paraded around the living room with a piece of bubble wrap in his mouth. Rather than correcting the metaphor, we merely adopted it as our new Fozzie-speak.

But back to today’s book. Because there’s something else you need to know, beyond the entertaining premise, high-energy illustrations, and purr-fect ending (trust me on that last one). The story centers a biracial family of five, headed up by two dads. In the publishing industry, the is called “incidental” representation, and it’s something to celebrate. We are finally beginning to see racial and LGBTQ+ diversity in stories that are not about that diversity. The two dads here are simply doing what families with babies and toddlers do best: rolling up their sleeves, keeping a sense of humor, and trying to survive Grandma’s visit.

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Party Time! (Or Not)

January 27, 2022 § 3 Comments

With so many posts devoted to serious books lately (not to mention all the awards excitement), I decided we were overdue for a recommendation high on the fun(ny) meter. As it turns out, 2022 has given us a delightful one right out of the gate, as perceptive as it is entertaining. (Plus, if you order from Old Town Books, you’ll get a copy that’s signed by the author-illustrator in the most fitting way. Just wait until you see it!)

Apart from being a total hoot, this story is going to resonate deeply with anyone out of practice at social gatherings. That would be all of us, in case your math skills have also gotten fuzzy.

Our family will attend a dear friend’s bar mitzvah in a few weeks, and as much fun as I know I’ll have, I’m already fretting about how I’m going to wedge my feet into heels, my out-of-shape body into an old cocktail dress, and do I even have lipstick anymore? And then I wonder, how am I going to be vertical at 8pm? What are we going to talk about? Are we going to discuss the pandemic, or will we remember other topics of conversation? And if I’ve got all these worries, what about my kids?

Those of us who were a tiny bit reserved two years ago are now completely overwhelmed by the prospect of hanging out with more than one or two friends at the same time. We’ve lost ground, our social muscles have atrophied. And yet, society’s expectations haven’t adjusted. We’re supposed to want to go back to attending birthday parties and backyard parties and weddings and fundraisers. And we do…but maybe only sort of?

I remember when my dad threw a surprise party for my mom’s 40th birthday. She had an inkling moments before she opened the door that our apartment was full of people, and she shot my dad a look. There was actual menace in that look, and while I don’t remember her exact words, they were something along the lines of, “You’re a dead man.” As soon as she opened the door, she was all smiles and laughter and grace—the hostess with the mostest, as she says—but I’d had a peek into something else. She wasn’t entirely comfortable surrounded by all these people, despite her obvious affection for them. Parties can be a complicated thing, is what I’m saying.

Enter Bina Bear, the large, purple, slightly stiff, certainly awkward protagonist of Mike Curato’s new picture book, Where is Bina Bear? (Ages 3-8, though my 11 year old is obsessed with it). Bina is attending a party thrown by her best bunny friend, Tiny. There are balloons! Cake! Punch! Lots of friendly faces! Bina Bear loves Tiny, so she has come to the party. But Bina Bear doesn’t like parties. She doesn’t do crowds.

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2021 Gift Guide: The Board Books

December 7, 2021 § 1 Comment

I’m a huge fan of board books that are better than they need to be. Books that not only respect the attention and intelligence of our littlest minds, but appeal just as strongly to the parent or caregiver looking to break up those long, long days with a little joy and a little connection. This year, lots of authors and illustrators have indulged my very high standards, and the result is a rich assortment of board books that sing of science and shapes, sweetness and silliness. Some are cleverly interactive; some are downright revolutionary; and some are just storytelling at its finest.

One more thing: board books aren’t just for babies! Some of my selections below even extend past the toddler years to preschoolers, imparting concepts and subjects in novel, thought-provoking ways. (Amazon affiliate links while we restock at Old Town Books!)

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2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

November 11, 2021 Comments Off on 2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

It was another stellar year for picture books! Given the size of the list below (sorry not sorry), you’re going to roll your eyes when I tell you I had a very difficult time narrowing it down. But it’s true, and I already regret leaving some out. (Thankfully, there’s always Instagram.) What I’m focusing on today are those with the giftiest potential. Whether you’re looking for surprise twists, laugh-out-loud humor, exquisite beauty, moving true stories, affirmations of self-love and acceptance, or ridiculously cute animals, you’ll find something novel and memorable here. Most importantly, you’ll gift a book to be relished and revisited for years. Still, I don’t envy you making these decisions, because these books are all so, so good.

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2021 Gift Guide: A Seek-and-Find Trifecta

November 4, 2021 § 1 Comment

Last week, I launched the Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. Next week, before moving onto other ages, I’ll do a round-up of a dozen more picture books perfect for gifting. But today, I want to call attention to three 2021 picture books that would make terrific gifts on their own or together. You know I can’t resist a bundling, and each of these treasure troves gives new meaning to the seek-and-find trope, a genre in need of updating before this year came along.

Every parent knows kids love nothing more than treasure hunts. But raise your hand if you’ve ever hidden a Where’s Waldo? book. Or a Richard Scarry book. Or any of those with dizzying pictures that have your child hunched over the page in your lap, scrunching up their eyes to look for a red-striped shirt or a tiny gold bug or any number of things, until it seems possible you’ve missed bedtime all together and it’s now morning again.

What if a child could get their seek-and-find fix in books that were cleverly crafted and delightfully fun to read aloud? What if these books featured art that was easy on our (tired) eyes? Wouldn’t that alone be worth welcoming the Holiday Season with open arms?

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2021 Gift Guide Kicks Off: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

October 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

It’s getting to be the most wonderful time of year: Gift Guide season! Over the next few weeks, you’ll be treated to round ups of picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade books, young adult books, and specialty books with a gifty flair. This year, I’m especially excited to be partnering with Old Town Books, a fantastic indie here in Alexandria, VA, where I’ll be presenting my full Gift Guide LIVE and IN PERSON at 7pm on November 12 and 13, with a chance to shop with me afterwards (get your tickets here!).

Traditionally, I kick off every Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year. (Some past picks are here, here, here, and here.) I recognize that choosing books for loved ones is immensely personal, but sometimes a book comes along that checks all the boxes. It’s beautiful. It’s original. It’s hefty, packed with details that demand repeat readings. It’s got a nostalgic charm that appeals to us oldies doing the gifting. To hold it feels inherently special.

Towering toadstools! All I’m saying is that there aren’t many books you want to clutch to your chest and carry around with you, so when you find one, you just want everyone to have it, OK?

Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest (Ages 4-8), by the extraordinary Phoebe Wahl—I blinked and missed her 2020 picture book for last year’s Gift Guide, and I’ll not make that mistake again—is an anthology of four stories, one for each season. It stars a cheery, capable, caring little witch with a pointed red cap and a fondness for messy braids and fair isle sweaters. Little Witch Hazel lives alone at the base of a tree in the enchanting Mosswood forest, surrounded by trees and waterfalls and a community of gnomes, elves, goblins, trolls, dryads, anthropomorphic amphibians, and tiny talking mammals. He days are spent divided between work and play, between helping others and tending to herself.

It has been a long two years, and I feel like we all deserve to spend some time in a place where tea cakes and twinkling lights are always in fashion, where coziness and cocoa reign supreme, and where the wonders of the wilderness are just an acorn’s throw away. A place where we can dip our tired toes in crystal clear water one minute and ride on an owl’s back the next. A place where creatures watch out for one another, repay favors, and are always happy for an impromptu dance party.

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A Life Skills Round Up

October 21, 2021 Comments Off on A Life Skills Round Up

On this blog, I have often stressed the importance of intentionality when it comes to sharing books with children. I’ve talked about the value of stocking our bookshelves with stories whose characters and settings and challenges reflect the greater world, not just the tiny slice taking place under our own roof. I’ve discussed the importance of reading stories that push against gender, racial, or religious stereotypes. I’ve hailed the way reading aloud can showcase the richness of language and the nuance of character, encouraging children to see the value of storytelling and expand their own reading choices. I’ve talked about how choosing a book we’ll enjoy reading goes a long way towards making read-aloud time special for our children and sustainable for us.

Children’s books can also be invaluable tools for imparting life skills to our children. The best of these do so by providing us with language for initiating important conversations. How often do we avoid talking to our children about uncomfortable topics because we’re afraid we’ll mess them up? Maybe we don’t realize we should be having these conversations in the first place. I continue to be grateful for the books that are by my side when parenting gets hard and messy.

Today, I discuss three fantastic new picture books that each tackle a different life skill, from taking accountability when we hurt someone, to setting boundaries around our bodies, to recognizing and calling out racism. There was a time when topics like these were relegated to the fringe of the publishing world, so it’s refreshing to see them taken up by innovative, even award-winning creators and supported by mainstream publishers. The result is books that are a joy to read: warm, cheerful, fun, and funny. They aren’t shaming or preachy or even a little bit boring.

I promise you: sharing books like these with our children makes our job as parents a little bit easier.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: A Halloween Post

October 7, 2021 § 1 Comment

After hitting the snooze button on Halloween last year while in temporary housing, we were extra-enthused to unbox our spooky decorations last weekend—especially our Halloween books! (Do you pack up your Halloween books with the decorations so you can re-discover them every year? Trust me on this.) As my kids have gotten older, we’ve offloaded many seasonal picture books, and those left are the ones we can’t bear to give up. This includes old favorites like Creepy Carrots, Old Black Witch, The Monsters’ Monster, I am a Witch’s Cat, In a Dark, Dark Room…along with more recent favorites, like The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt and Gustavo the Shy Ghost (for the love of all cuteness, please add this book to your collection…I recently Instagrammed about it here).

Then there are the spooky chapter books we’ve loved reading aloud in past Octobers—by candlelight, of course—like James and Deborah Howe’s classic, Bunnicula, and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. (I recently did an Instagram video with these and many more, including the books my kids claim are too scary for me to attempt, but darned if we will get to them someday. Also, let’s compare witchy cackles, shall we?)

Which brings us to 2021, where I’ve combed through dozens of Halloween-ish new releases to tell you my favorite. The story I’ve chosen is about vampires—of the modern, hip, urban variety—though it has nothing to do with the actual holiday of Halloween. Which means you get to decide whether you pack it up on November 1st or let it stay out all year round. Who am I kidding? There’s not a chance your kiddos are going to let you pack up this one. In Vampenguin (Ages 3-6), Lucy Ruth Cummins—no stranger to the Halloween market ever since she wrote the darling Stumpkin—has created a story that abounds with visual gags and makes perfect use of that irresistible trope of storytelling, where the reader is in on the joke long before the characters themselves are.

Have you ever considered how a baby vampire and a baby penguin could be mistaken for one another? Nope, me neither. That’s where the fun (and the funny) begins. And, lest you think Vampenguin sounds big on antics and short on artistry, I assure you that Cummins’ expressive line work and limited color palette, awash in turquoise, orange, and pink, elevate the story in both whimsy and wonder.

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Reading Aloud with a View

August 12, 2021 Comments Off on Reading Aloud with a View

My kids will tell you that leading up to every vacation, I obsess over what book we’re going to bring with us as a read aloud. Well, they aren’t wrong. But neither am I, because matching our reading material to the view outside has always created a kind of magic for all of us.

We definitely got it right earlier this summer when we were in Montana visiting my sister, who lives with her family on a sprawling ranch outside of Bozeman. A Wolf Called Wander (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud, though there is some violence), by Rosanne Parry, dropped us into the psyche of a single male wolf, inspired by an actual wolf known to trackers as OR-7. Still alive today, OR-7 made a dangerous and highly unusual lone voyage across Oregon and California after losing his pack, traveling over a thousand miles before ultimately finding a mate and settling down to form his own pack.

In fast-moving, first-person prose, Parry imagines what it might have been like to be OR-7, whom she gives the fictional name Swift. One minute, the young wolf is safe and content with his pack in the mountains; the next minute, a rival pack attacks and sets his life on an extraordinary new course.

We may have been a few states away from Swift’s story, but we knew there were wolves in the mountains around us. We knew they were probably closer than we realized, hiding from view, as we explored Yellowstone National Park. Reading this book together—including marveling over the plentiful grey-and-white illustrations by Mónica Armiño—allowed us to appreciate the biodiversity around us. The unseen lives. The brutal, beautiful struggle for survival. The way our protagonist would strike down an elk without mercy, but stand back in awe as a string of wild horses stood before him. The way he forged partnerships with scavengers, like a black raven, who saved his life numerous times by guiding him to water. They way he hungered for food, thought of it constantly—but was nearly consumed by an even deeper hunger for companionship.

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Reality Trumps Fiction (Take Two)

August 5, 2021 § 1 Comment

Way back in 2013, when my kids thought all the best stories had to be “made-up,” I wrote a blog post about how, occasionally, reality trumps fiction. That is to say, sometimes a story blows our mind, not only because it’s beautiful and moving and awe-inspiring and original, but also because it happens to be true. Kids today have no shortage of options for picture book biographies, true stories about incredible individuals told with spellbinding art and captivating narratives, but when it comes to the animal world, the emphasis has historically been on information versus story.

Maybe that’s why The Elephants Come Home: A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship (Ages 6-9), written by Kim Tomsic and illustrated by Hadley Hooper, feels so special. It tells an amazing story—a story we’d warm to even if it was entirely made-up—but it gives us an added case of the goosies because we know from the start that it really happened. Or maybe it’s because the book straddles the animal and human world, allowing for some of the same storytelling prowess that has made picture book biographies soar in popularity. Or maybe it’s because it is stunningly executed (that paper! those colors! that art! those page turns!). Whatever the case, it’s hands down one of the best examples of narrative non-fiction I’ve ever come across. Even my daughter, age ten, has inhaled its 58 pages again and again. (If you trust me, stop reading to avoid the spoilers below and go get the book!)

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New Summery Graphic Novels for Ages 7-15

July 29, 2021 § 1 Comment

I can hardly keep up with all the graphic novels hitting bookshelves these days, but I’m not complaining, since they continue to make readers out of my kids. (Not convinced they count as real reading? Read what I said here.)

I had initially intended this to be a round-up of new favorites, only I found too many to fit in a single post. So, I’m limiting today’s post to favorite new graphic novels with summer themes. I realize back-to-school season is right around the corner (for some, it’s already here), but in our house, we are in blissful denial. We’ve just wrapped up summer swim team, and my kids are packing their bags for sleepaway camp. We’ve still got time with friends in Maine, time with cousins in Boston, and a family reunion in Rhode Island—fingers and toes and more fingers crossed for good health—and we’re determined to savor these precious days. It seems only right that our reading material should match the view outside. I hope you agree.

(Sadly, this means my Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year so far won’t make the cut, since it’s not set in summer. Those of you on Instagram know what I’m talking about. But the rest of you will have to wait for the ring of the school bell.)

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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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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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For the Youngest Polar Bear Lovers

January 14, 2021 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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2020 Gift Guide: Favorite Graphic Novels for Ages 6-15

November 5, 2020 § 7 Comments

Back by popular demand: an installment of my Gift Guide devoted entirely to my favorite graphic novels of the year! Graphic novels make some of the best gifts. Not only are they coveted among emerging readers, tween readers, and teen readers alike, but they invite repeat readings. I’ve watched my kids race through a new graphic novel as soon as they get it, then a few days later start it over again, spending more time on each page. After that, they might set it down for a few weeks or months or years, only to pick it up again with fresh eyes. It’s no wonder many of the graphic novels below took over a year to create; they are packed with visual nuance, literary allusions, and layered meanings. Like treasured friends, graphic novels grow with their readers.

I read dozens and dozens of graphic novels in preparation for this post. Below are the ones that rose to the top in originality, beauty, fun, diversity, or impact. A few of these you’ll remember from a blog post I did earlier this year, but they bear repeating because they’re that good. There are others, like the new graphic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which my daughter was horrified wasn’t included here. I simply had to draw the line somewhere.

The list begins with selections for younger kids and concludes with teens. Enjoy and happy gifting!

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