Read Alouds Inspired by the Pandemic

April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

You need only consider the two chapter books I’ve just finished reading to my children to glean the wild fluctuations in mood characteristic of Home Life During the Pandemic. The first, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793—a historical novel set during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia—is dark, gripping, macabre, and mind-blowing. The second, Louis Sachar’s Wayside School: Beneath the Cloud of Doom—thirty interconnected stories about the students at the quirkiest school in literary history—is silly, preposterous, dry-witted, and a rip-roaring good time…while still being a tad apocalyptic, because I can’t resist a theme. If we’re doomed to spend all day, every day, in each other’s presence, while the pendulum of the wider world swings dramatically between fear and hope, heartbreak and grace, serious headlines and funny memes, it seems only appropriate that our read alouds should follow suit.

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Never Too Old to Learn

January 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Last week, I flew to Boston to see my 101-year-old grandmother for what will likely be the last time. Her lucidity came and went throughout our few hours together, and at times she seemed to look at me and see a much younger version of her granddaughter. “What are your studying in school?” she asked.

“I’m not in school anymore,” I answered. “I’m all grown up! I have kids in school now.”

“That’s no excuse!” she exclaimed, in a playful but insistent tone I recognized all too well.

Perhaps she was simply covering up her mistake. But perhaps not. My paternal grandmother may have attended college for only two years, but she spent much of her adult and geriatric life chasing down knowledge wherever she could. She read biographies voraciously. She traveled the world. She referred to herself as a “news junkie” when you came upon her studying a newspaper. When she moved into her retirement home at 88, she signed up for every class they offered, from Buddhism to World War Two. “I’m taking a fascinating class about the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” she reported on the phone one day. “It has me quite disturbed, actually.”

On another call: “I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s new book. He’s an absolutely brilliant biologist. I’m not sure I’m understanding a word of it, but I suppose some of it might be sneaking in!”

Learning as something to be seized and cherished is a value I will always credit to my grandmother. Still, learning is a luxury not afforded to all, and nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the stories of American slaves. Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s new picture book biography, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Ages 6-10), movingly illustrated by collage artist Oge Mora, tells the incredible true story of a former slave who achieved her lifelong dream of learning to read at the astounding age of 116.

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What’s Left When Summer Ends

August 29, 2019 § 9 Comments

At no time more than summer do our children grow up. Camps, camping, gloriously long stretches of daylight, ample opportunities at exploration and courage and boredom…all of this combines to ensure that the children we send back to school in the fall are not quite the ones we ushered in summer with.

I was ill prepared for the onslaught of emotions I would feel upon picking up my oldest from his first sleepaway camp experience in Maine. As we slowed along the gravel road though the camp entrance, my excitement of the past 24 hours turned to butterflies. How would he seem? Would he look different? Would he have made friends? Would he burst into angry tears and declare he was never coming back?

We didn’t have to wait long: he was standing alone not far from the entrance. I waved frantically, shouting at my husband to stop the car so I could jump out. JP smiled broadly as I threw my arms around him, but something was immediately apparent. He was quiet. More upright than I’d remembered. More reserved than I’d expected. « Read the rest of this entry »

Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

My daughter fibs. I realize that sounds harsh, like what kind of parent says that about her child? Shouldn’t I soften my words and say that she only pretends or exaggerates or bends the truth, because even though she’s only eight, she’s old enough to realize that sometimes the world looks better in our minds than it does in reality? Indeed, this is true. Still, she fibs. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

September 6, 2018 Comments Off on The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

In our house, there is nothing like the last week of summer break to convince me that it’s time for my kids to go back to school. I enter into that final vacation week with a heavy heart, prematurely mourning our weeks of togetherness (my kids finally being at the ages where the balance is tipped more towards fun than exhausting).

And then—perhaps because we know our break-up is inevitable and we’re trying to make the case to ourselves—we turn on one another. We bark, we snap, we storm out of rooms. Neither child agrees to any game the other proposes (well, except Rat-a-Tat-Cat; thank goodness for Rat-a-Tat-Cat). Particularly telling: no one seems capable of losing themselves in a book anymore—chapters are abandoned before they are even a quarter completed. Suddenly, the lack of structure we previously relished seems precarious, foolhardy, even downright dangerous.

They need to go back. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Problem Solving of Our Summer

August 2, 2018 § 2 Comments

In my ongoing challenge to tempt my ten year old into inserting more literature into his self-chosen deluge of graphic novels, comics, and (understandably addictive) action-packed series by the likes of Dan Gutman, Stuart Gibbs, and Rick Riordan, I announced at the beginning of the summer that I would read Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, aloud to him. He seemed generally unenthused with this proclamation (“Is this going to be a slow book?” he asked over furrowed brows, after he gleaned from the inside flap that there would be no spies, time travel, or epic battle scenes); but I was undeterred. You see, I’m not just used to this reaction. I’m also used to how well my plan works. « Read the rest of this entry »

When the Question Becomes the Answer

September 21, 2017 Comments Off on When the Question Becomes the Answer

In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet which have spent the last three months in and around a swimming pool, it occurs to me that my children are shedding their summer skin in more ways than one. (And not all of them are gross.) They are preparing for the great mental and emotional journey that a new school year demands. They’re working to put aside the comfortable, unhurried, joyful freedom of summer for stricter routines, increased expectations, and long days of scrutiny. As first and fourth graders, they know they will be doing real work, work that others will oversee and critique, work that might one moment feel exciting and the next feel tedious or overwhelming or downright scary. They know they will be navigating new social terrain, new faces among peers and teachers, perhaps even new behaviors from old friends.

They know, but they don’t know. They know that they don’t know. « Read the rest of this entry »

What to Listen to With Your Kids (Audio Book Roundup)

September 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.

So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.

Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes. « Read the rest of this entry »

How I Read My Kids the Riot Act

October 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane SmithI’m not going to sugar coat it. The transition back to school has been rough for our family. I have never been so happy to see a month wrap up as I was when October dawned—and even then the grumpiness of September continued to encroach on us. Maybe it’s the sheer exhaustion of starting at a new school, of having to make new friends and navigate new expectations. Maybe it’s because we had a particularly lovely summer of togetherness. Maybe it’s because my kids are lazy little lie-abouts who, if left to their own devices, would probably never leave the house.

I’m not debating the legitimacy of their grumpiness.

All I know is that, for five weeks, my kids got into the car at 3:30pm, answered “Good!” when I asked them how their day was, and then proceeded to complain about absolutely everything. “The grapes in my lunch were mushy!” “The sleeves of this shirt are too long!” “My bug bites are killing me!” “It’s too hot in this car!” “It’s freezing in this car!” “You can’t make me go to the park. I hate the park!” And then they’d turn on each other, shoving and bickering and yelling until I started to wonder if the only way out of this nightmare was to drive off the road. « Read the rest of this entry »

Laughing Our Way Back to School

September 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt(Before we get started—HELLLLOOOOO AGAIN!—I thought I’d link to three guest posts that I wrote as part of a Summer Reading Series for the local blog, DIY Del Ray. There’s one on picture books about the garden; one on recent new installments in our favorite early-chapter series; and one on my favorite middle-grade chapter books so far this year.)

And now, let’s get down to today’s business.

As I write this, my kids have been back in school for a few short hours. The house is blissfully, rapturously, guiltily quiet. The good news is that I can finally do laundry in the basement without my children scootering—and I mean, quite literally scootering—around me. The bad news is that I can’t get cuddles or kisses or giggles whenever I want.

As my kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to see summer end. I will miss my buddies. I will miss our lazy mornings (only the mail carrier knows how long we stayed in our pajamas). Most of all, I will miss our adventures—the way every new shade of green, every sun-kissed rock, every goldfinch and swallowtail and cicada becomes something to marvel at and remark on.

And I will, of course, miss the many hours we curled up to read together (as well as the times when we were too busy catching a ferry or celebrating a swim meet or chasing fireflies to read at all). Lest you think my silence this summer meant that we didn’t discover piles of new books, I can promise you redemption this fall. We have a lot to catch up on.

Beginning with what we read at the very end of our summer break. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Villain We Love to Hate

January 14, 2016 § 4 Comments

"Matilda" by Roald DahlIn preparation for taking my kids to the Kennedy Center last week to see the national tour of Matilda the Musical, I spent the final day of winter break reading Roald Dahl’s beloved novel to them. That’s right. Seven and a half hours of reading out loud (with a break to bike to lunch and back). It was my maternal Swan Song, a last hurrah before depositing my kids at the front door of their school the next morning and returning home to a (blissfully) quiet house.

It was actually their second time listening to Matilda—the first time was during a car trip last summer—and I almost didn’t opt for a second round. But, in the end, I wanted it to be fresh in all of our minds before we took our seats in the theater (plus, it made for one of the best family dinners later that night, picking apart the differences between the book and the play). But, really, who would pass up a chance to re-read one of the greatest children’s books ever written? « Read the rest of this entry »

New York City From Above & Below

October 15, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja SpiegelmanMy son and I just returned from one of our beloved fall traditions: a long weekend in New York City. I take sublime pleasure in watching JP fall deeper in love with the city of my childhood at every visit: soaking up the street sounds (“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep without the horns and sirens,” he told me in all seriousness on the night we got home); quickening his walking pace to keep up with the most seasoned striders; and taking an active roll in navigating us through the city streets, both above and below ground.

This last point is in large part owing to two things: first, JP’s recent discovery of the NYC subway map; and secondly, his fondness for the Empire State Building, which we summitted on our previous trip to the city. When he is not rattling off the list of upcoming stops on an uptown train ride, he is looking around him on the street for the landmark against which to measure all landmarks.

We discovered this past weekend (thank you, Books of Wonder) that there is a new children’s book that marries JP’s love of the subway with the Empire State Building. I’m declaring it required reading for natives and tourists alike. Because get this: it is now MY FAVORITE NEW YORK BOOK OF ALL TIME.

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When Big Sis Starts School

September 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori NicholsSeconds before I heard the door to his room slam shut, I heard my son bellowing these words to his little sister: “Emily, sometimes you are the best of all people, and sometimes you are THE WORST!”

Have truer words ever been uttered about one’s sibling?

Perhaps at no other time than summer is the sibling relationship so poked, prodded, and pushed. There have been long stretches this summer when the only kids at my children’s disposal have been each other. Having so much unstructured time together requires more than a little adjustment. As a parent, witnessing my children re-connect, re-establish boundaries, and re-attune their imaginations with one another, is equal parts mesmerizing and maddening.

Still, take away the bossing and the tattling and the unprovoked hitting (WHY DO THEY DO THIS?), and I am still smiling about the dinosaur dance party I walked in on…or the day my daughter appeared for lunch dragging her big brother on all fours by a dog collar…or the time I eavesdropped on them whispering conspiratorially under the bed. Nor will I forget the tears that welled up in my eyes when, after what seemed like hours of yelling and bickering, I came down from a shower to find the two of them sprawled on the living room floor, telling made-up stories to each another.

I would argue that, in recent years, no picture book artist has captured the young sibling relationship more astutely and adorably than Lori Nichols. Tracking the relationship between two sisters, Nichols first gave us Maple, where Maple (named for the tree her parents planted when pregnant) learns that her parents are expecting a second child. Then came Maple and Willow Together, where the storming and norming of sibling play reaches full fantastic force. Now, in this fall’s latest installment, Maple and Willow Apart (Ages 2-6), Maple’s departure for kindergarten throws both girls for a loop. This new angst is hardly surprising, given that the two sibs have just spent the entire summer playing together (in and around trees and while speaking in their secret nonsensical language—two favorite themes that run through all the books).

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Ah, but which is the greater plight for a sibling: the one doing the leaving, or the one getting left behind?

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
While it has been two years since Emily watched her brother walk up the steps into school without her, this is the first fall that Emily will stay for a full day like JP. Boy oh boy, has she longed for this day. The question of what the school children do between the hours of 1pm and 3pm has been nothing short of an obsession for her these past two years. “I think they get to play special games!” “I think the teacher sneaks them special snacks!” One night, as I tucked her into bed, she whispered in my ear, “Mommy, I think in the afternoon is when the kids learn to read.”

Like Emily, Willow discovers that she, too, can fall back on her imagination during the quiet hours at home while Maple is at school. When Maple comes home—chatting incessantly (and not a little bossily) about everything she has learned, everything she did on the playground, everything her teacher said—Willow lets her big sister in on a little secret of her own.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
“I had fun, too,” said Willow. “I played with Pip.”

“Pip?” Maple asks. “Who’s Pip?”

“Pip is my new friend,” said Willow. “He has a bumpy head and he is afraid of squirrels.”

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols IMG_2831
Pip is, of course, an acorn. But he is not just an acorn. Through the vivid escapades that Willow paints for her sister—they ride snails! they nap in bird nests!—Pip becomes elevated to something greater than simply Willow’s imaginary friend; he becomes a signifier for both girls of the Change that’s taking place in front of their eyes. Suddenly, Maple isn’t so sure that she wants to go to school and miss out on the adventures to be had in her own backyard. For a brief second, she isn’t sure she wants to grow up.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

The solution that’s offered up (and I won’t ruin the surprise) is nothing short of delightful. It’s also realistic—as are all three of Nichols’ books. But the best and most unexpected part is that this solution comes from Willow, the younger sibling. It turns out that big sisters still need their little sisters. It turns out that little sisters know just how to make their big sisters feel better.

Beginning next week, even though my children will enter and exit school together, they will likely ignore each other for most of the day, perhaps granting a brief wave or smile as they pass in the hall. They’ll still have evenings and weekends together. But it’s not the same. They’ll grow and stretch and circle back and grow some more…and then, with luck, next summer will come and they’ll find their way back to each other again. There will most definitely be squabbling. But I like to think that I’ll choose instead to notice the other stuff. The laughter. The whispering. The heads pressed together. The scampering in unison. The casual, unforced gestures of affection.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

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No More Sitting Pretty

April 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt PhelanAfter spring break ate up my last two weeks, I’ve found my way back to writing, and I’m especially glad to be back, because I have a very special new book to tell you about. It’s a book that can be enjoyed simply for the fun, quirky, heartwarming story that it is. Or, it’s a book that can be read as a metaphor for one of the most important examples we can provide our children: that when life doesn’t give us what we want, we possess the power to stand up and change it.

It’s a book that boys and girls will enjoy equally, as my two already do. But, it’s also a book that must be shared with our girls. In fact, Marilyn has quickly become one of my favorite picture book heroines OF ALL TIME.

If that hasn’t piqued your interest, consider this: Marilyn’s Monster (Ages 4-8) is written by Michelle Knudsen, the same author who gave us Library Lion (need I say more?!). Marilyn’s Monster showcases the same beautiful fluidity of narration, the same perfectly orchestrated dramatic arc, and engenders the same depth of empathy for its central character. « Read the rest of this entry »

Back to School With Monsters (of the Misunderstood Variety)

September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

"My Teacher is a Monster" by Peter BrownOne of my favorite books as a kid was James Marhsall’s Miss Nelson is Missing, a picture book about a smiley, mild-tempered teacher, who, fed up with the rude and rambunctious behavior of her students, dons a pointy nose, a wig, and a black dress to become the witchy, ultra-strict substitute named Viola Swamp; within a few weeks, the children have reformed their ways and are begging for Miss Nelson’s return. The story is a playful reminder that we’re not always grateful for what we have until it’s gone.

As a kid, though, my obsession with the book stemmed from the fact that Viola Swamp’s true identity eludes, not only her students, but us readers as well—that is, until the final page, when we get a glimpse of the familiar black dress hanging in Miss Nelson’s bedroom closet. Once we’re in on the secret, we can’t help but want to read the book again and again, picking up on clues that we missed the first time around, stunned that the truth was right in front of our eyes the whole time. If only we (alongside Miss Nelson’s students) hadn’t been so quick to settle for first impressions, we would have seen that Miss Nelson wasn’t just a sweet face, oblivious to the spitballs flying at her. Nor was Viola Swamp the monstrous outsider we assumed her to be.

Now, forty years after James Marshall published his book, Peter Brown again turns the conventional teacher-student relationship on its head in his infectiously-titled new picture book, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.) (Ages 5-9). “Bobby had a big problem at school. Her name was Ms. Kirby.” « Read the rest of this entry »

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