The Story I Didn’t See Coming
January 19, 2023 § Leave a comment
A large part of my job as a bookstore buyer is perusing online catalogs. These days, most publishers include full interior PDFs of their picture book titles, so rather than taking a stab in the dark, I can read a book in full before deciding whether and how many to order. And with each catalog, especially the big ones, there’s a predictable flow. I begin with the excitement of Christmas morning—what treasures are waiting beneath this tree?—until my old lady eyes begin glazing over. I should take a break, I think. No, I should just push on! Only five more pages. Only a few dozen more titles. Where I began by carefully reading through each book, now I’m skimming. Then skipping. Now I’m bored. So bored. I’m bemoaning the fact that nothing feels exciting, nothing feels fresh. I should really take a break, because now I’m ready to give up my career because no one publishes anything good anymore. (All gross exaggerations, of course, but this is what computer fatigue will do to you.)
So there I was, back in October, perusing Penguin Random House, the monster of all catalogs, which also distributes titles published by the small press, Charlesbridge, when I came across the latter’s thumbnail for The Penguin of Ilha Grande, with a release date of January 17. No one buys a penguin book in January, I thought (as odd as it sounds, I generally can’t sell a book with snow once the New Year hits, because people are already thinking about spring). I was prepared to fly right on past, without clicking the link to open the book, only a tiny voice berated me: Don’t be lazy. You don’t want to miss something that could be great.
A few minutes later, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I was shouting into the void of my living room, THIS STORY! Oh, my heart, THIS STORY! It turns out there wasn’t any snow or ice; this is the story of a Magellanic penguin, and Magellanic penguins migrate to feed in warm water. But to be clear: had it been covered in snow, I’d still have ordered it. Could I sell it as a non-traditional Valentine’s Day pick, seeing as it’s about an enduring friendship between a young penguin and an old man? Why not! Could I parade it out a few months later for our Earth Day displays, since it also carries a message about conservation? You betcha! Am I going to try and convince the author to come to our store? Yes indeedy.
Give me all the animal rescue stories! Especially if they’re based on true events; especially if they expose young readers to new corners of the world; especially if they teach the importance of science and conservation; and especially if they celebrate the amazing bond between humans and animals. Past favorites have included The Elephants Come Home, which landed on my 2021 Gift Guide, and Feathers Together, which was on last year’s guide. Is it my age that makes me a sentimental puddle? Quite possibly. But I’ve also seen firsthand how much children love these stories. They invite wonder about the world around them. They’re living proof that small hands can make a big impact.
Today, I can’t wait to introduce you and your children to The Penguin of Ilha Grande (ages 4-8), written by debut author, Shannon Earle, and illustrated by Brazilian artist, Renato Alarcão (the latter also illustrated this picture book from wayyyy back in the archives). The true story stars a penguin named Dindim, who was rescued off the coast of Brazil by an elderly man named Seu João—and the surprising and extraordinary friendship that followed.« Read the rest of this entry »
2022 Gift Guide: The Middle-Grade Books (Ages 7-14)
November 22, 2022 Comments Off on 2022 Gift Guide: The Middle-Grade Books (Ages 7-14)
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
2022 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Picture Book of the Year
October 18, 2022 Comments Off on 2022 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Picture Book of the Year
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?« Read the rest of this entry »
Early Reading Round Up: Graphic Novels
March 10, 2022 Comments Off on Early Reading Round Up: Graphic Novels
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
February 24, 2022 Comments Off on Welcoming Absurdity
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 4-8), 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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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!)« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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!)« Read the rest of this entry »
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.)« Read the rest of this entry »
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!« Read the rest of this entry »