Emily Dickinson: Perfect Reading for a Pandemic?

September 24, 2020 § 1 Comment

Not many people know this, but my daughter is named after Emily Dickinson. (Well, and the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon.) I didn’t fall for Emily Dickinson’s poetry until I got to college, when I fell hard and fast and ended up featuring her poems in no fewer than seven essays, including my Senior Thesis. I had never been a big poetry lover, but there was something about the compactness of her poems which fascinated me. So much meaning was packed into such few words. And even then, the meaning was like an ever-shifting target, evolving with every reading.

To read Emily Dickinson is to contemplate universal truths.

Apart from reading Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s 1992 picture book, Emily, I hadn’t had much occasion talk to my own Emily about her namesake. But that changed last spring, when my Emily started writing poetry of her own. Nothing about virtual learning was working for her, until her teachers started leading her and her classmates in poetry writing. Suddenly, my daughter couldn’t jot down poems fast enough, filling loose sheets of paper before designating an orange journal for the occasion. She wrote poems for school, for fun, and for birthday cards. It didn’t matter that they weren’t going to win awards for originality; what mattered was that she had found a means of self-expression during a stressful, beguiling time.

Jennifer Berne’s On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson (Ages 7-10), stunningly illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, could not have entered the world at a more perfect time. It opens a dialogue, not only about Dickinson’s unconventional life, but about her poems themselves. At a time when a pandemic has prompted many of us and our children to turn inward, this picture book is less a traditional biography than an homage to the rich interior life developed by this extraordinary poet and showcased in her poetry.

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Bees: To Fear or Not to Fear

April 2, 2020 § 2 Comments

Remember last week when I talked about returning our children to nature during this pandemic vis-á-vis secret gardens and long hikes in the woods? Well, there’s just one teeny tiny problem. While we were hiking a few days ago, my son spotted a bee.

Let me back up.

When JP was almost three, during a family reunion in rural Rhode Island, he climbed a ladder to reach an aged treehouse and stood up into a nest of wasps. He was stung twenty-seven times. I know this because the pediatrician, whom I panic dialed, asked me to count the stings. JP was just shy of the number where the poison level would have necessitated getting into the car and trying to find a hospital. Instead, we sat him on the second step of my uncle’s swimming pool, where, immersed in cold water, the screams and swelling eventually subsided.

Perhaps owing to this traumatic event or perhaps just because of the way he’s wired, JP has moved through the past nine years immensely fearful of stinging insects. His fear doesn’t differentiate between wasps and bees. He has read countless books on the subject; he has taken field trips to bee farms; he can rattle off the statistical improbabilities of being stung. No matter. If he hears buzzing, his body goes rigid; if he spots a bee, he flails and shrieks and spends the rest of his outdoor time willing it to be over. He is a hostage to this fear. While I know that with enough exposure and time, he will someday share the outdoors more easily with these creatures, I also know that right now, even more than being afraid of them, he is afraid he will never stop being afraid.

If I could go back in time, short of stopping JP from climbing that ladder, I would take this 2019 picture book with me. It’s what I wish I had read to him in the wake of the wasp event. It’s what I wish I had read to him a hundred times since. In The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter (Ages 3-7), author-illustrator Shabazz Larkin shares his steadfast love for his two young sons alongside an evolving love for bees (not to be confused with wasps), the great pollinators of everyone’s favorite fruits and vegetables. It’s a refreshingly original treatment of a popular subject—why bees matter—because it acknowledges front and center that bees are not easy to love. Indeed, this deeply personal book grew out of the author’s desire not to pass on his own fear of bees to his children. (Quick shout out to Capitol Choices, the children’s literary group of which I’m a part and where I learned of this book last year. Find other treasures on our 2020 list, published here.)

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Better Together (Maybe for the Apocalypse, Too?)

February 6, 2020 § 1 Comment

A year or so ago, I was at a summer garden party, all twinkling lights and umbrella drinks, when the conversation took a dark turn. Several folks, none of whom I knew terribly well, began to discuss and debate the provisions they had stored away in the event of an apocalypse. I sat quietly, picturing my own basement with its boxed wedding dress, foosball table, and toys I’d stashed hoping my kids wouldn’t notice so I could gradually move them to the donation bin, and realized how far a cry this was from the scene being described. No crates of non-perishable food, no industrial sized jugs of water, no iodine pills in the event of a nuclear attack, no walkie talkies, no axes, definitely no guns to take down squirrels that could comprise my protein quota.

“Don’t you worry about how you’re going to protect your family?” someone said to me, after I tried to make a joke about my foosball table. I conjured up an image of myself, defending my children against other crazed survivors—all of us presumably reduced to looters or murderers—and I said, only half joking, “In the case of an apocalyptic event, I think it would be best for the future of humanity if my family made a quick exit.” To put it mildly, living off the land in the dark and cold for an extended period of time isn’t really in our wheelhouse.

Last month brought a fresh wave of worry for those of us working hard not to picture End of the World scenarios. We were on the brink of a war with the Middle East. The continent of Australia was burning. A mysterious and deadly virus was (is) rapidly spreading out of China. If we believe apocalyptic-themed fiction, it’s not long until we will be wandering alone in the dark and cold, assuming we are unlucky enough to survive.

And yet, at a time when the news threatens to send us into an ethos of fear and anxiety—to fathom ways of constructing safe houses around our loved ones—children’s literature is there, reliably, with a hefty dose of optimism, a welcome respite from the dark and cold. Especially where gems like Hannah Salyer’s debut picture book, Packs: Strength in Numbers (Ages 5-9), are concerned, we would do well to remember that the animal kingdom has always survived when it turns towards, not away, from one another.

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2019 Gift Guide: Picture Books for Ages 3-7

December 1, 2019 Comments Off on 2019 Gift Guide: Picture Books for Ages 3-7

Today is part recap, part intro. To kick off the picture book portion of my Gift Guide, I’ve already told you about my mad love for Home in the Woods and Pokko and the Drum. Earlier in the year in these pages, I sang the praises of Crab Cake, Lubna and Pebble, I am Hermes!, Camp Tiger, A Stone Sat Still, The Scarecrow, and Who Wet My Pants?—all of which would also make fantastic holiday gifts. But if you haven’t kept up with my reviews on Instagram all year long, I thought it was high time I shared some of them here. Because one or two (or all) of these might be perfect for someone on your list.

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The Push-Pull of October

October 3, 2019 § 1 Comment

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” said Anne of Green Gables. And so am I. No month is more bountiful. It smells fresh. It crunches beneath your feet. It’s resplendent with a beauty so striking it almost hurts.

But, even with all its treasures, October is a time of loss. Loss of light. Loss of color. Loss of those long, lazy days of summer which (thank you, September) suddenly seem like a lifetime ago. Right now in our family, this October feels riper than usual with loss, as I prepare to say goodbye to my grandmother, a woman I have loved since she first touched her nose to mine.

So, while I love books whose pages celebrate fall’s wonders (like this, this, this, and this), I also have a soft spot for books that speak to the shadows cast by fall. Beth Ferry’s quiet new picture book, The Scarecrow, gorgeously illustrated by The Fan Brothers (we would expect nothing less after this), plants the reader squarely in the push-pull of fall. Although, in fact, fall plays only a small role in the story.

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When is a Stone a Story?

September 12, 2019 § 5 Comments

If we want our children to entertain different perspectives when they get to middle or high school—to become critical thinkers and contributors—then they should have opportunities from an early age to consider that there is more than one way to see the world.

Picture book author-illustrator Brendan Wenzel is making something of a name for himself when it comes to creating books for young children about perspective and perception (his groundbreaking debut, They All Saw a Cat, received a Caldecott honor). His newest, A Stone Sat Still (Ages 4-7), similarly rendered with richly textured, mixed-media art and spare, poetic language, stole my heart from the moment I opened it (do yourself a favor and remove the jacket cover, because WOW). Even my children, well outside the target age, were captivated. This is visual storytelling at its best, where every page asks the reader to engage: to wonder, question, and understand. « Read the rest of this entry »

Butterflies and Black Boxes: Helping Shoulder the Burden of Grief

May 2, 2019 § 9 Comments

Grief can be the loneliest feeling in the world. In the immediate aftermath of a great loss, we are often surrounded by an outpouring of love and affection. We receive letters, phone calls, dishes of food, offers of help. But, in the weeks and months ahead, most around us will eventually resume their own lives, leaving us to sit quietly, restlessly, fearfully with our grief. Some will stop mentioning it at all, perhaps worried that talk of it will bring up fresh sadness. Some prefer to stop thinking about it all together, lest the tragedy of what happened to us be contagious. None of this is ill-intentioned. It stems from our basic human instinct to protect and survive.

It may also stem from inexperience.

The new picture book, Maybe Tomorrow? (Ages 4-8), by Charlotte Agell, with illustrations by Ana Ramírez González, is a whimsical, hopeful, deeply touching story about a new friendship forged in the aftermath of grief. It is one of the most delicate and perfect manifestations of grief I’ve ever encountered in a children’s book—but it also does something else. It presents a window into what it’s like to be on the outside of grief. It invites us to empathize with those who are mourning, then gives us some ideas for how to help another shoulder the burden of grief.

When I started college, in the fall of 1994, I had lost my father three months earlier. I had had an entire summer to mourn. To cry, to rage, to field calls from concerned relatives and friends, to fight and make up with my mother and sister more times than I could count. When I walked onto campus that September and neatly unpacked my things into my single room, I felt pressure to put my grief behind me. To fit in. To throw myself into making friends and studying hard and not be known as “the girl who just lost her father.”

And then, suddenly, I couldn’t see.

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Gift Guide 2018: Wondering What Was

December 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

And the award for the 2018 picture book that I will never tire of reading aloud goes to “A House That Once Was” (Ages 4-7), written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Lane Smith. This book is pure loveliness. As always, Fogliano’s contemplative, free-verse lyricism makes us feel at one with our subject—in this case, the mysteries of an abandoned house. As always, Smith’s inventive, breathtaking art transforms the everyday into the extraordinary. (These two brilliant creators have a special claim-to-fame in my blog, as this gem by Fogliano and this one by Smith were the very first books I ever wrote about.) « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: Give a Year of Poetry

November 29, 2018 § 2 Comments

Raise your hand if you’re still reading poetry to your kids over breakfast. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read this.) We had a good run of it, but like most of my inspired parenting ideas, I eventually forgot about it. Turns out, I have just the book to resurrect this ritual. (Goodness knows we could use a return to Zen in our mornings.)

Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year (Ages 6-12) is a gorgeous and hefty anthology, perfectly designed for Poetry Breakfasts (or the daily mindfulness of your choice). Each of the 365 poems has been astutely selected by Fiona Waters for a different day of the year, then evocatively illustrated in watery brush strokes and mixed media by Frann Preston-Gannon. « Read the rest of this entry »

What STEM Looked Like 100 Years Ago

April 12, 2018 Comments Off on What STEM Looked Like 100 Years Ago

While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color. « Read the rest of this entry »

A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime? « Read the rest of this entry »

Long Live the National Parks

April 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

Last summer, we vacationed in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our family’s first foray into one of the major National Parks, and we had gotten the idea six months earlier while watching National Parks Adventure, the astoundingly beautiful and nail-biting IMAX movie (can we talk about those mountain bikers?!), directed by Greg MacGillivray and narrated by Robert Redford. All four of us left the Smithsonian theater feeling like we were missing out. Our regular hikes around our local wetlands preserve—beloved as they are—suddenly didn’t feel like…enough. Turns out we were right. In Acadia, after days of hiking around sparkling lakes and in and out of deliciously fragrant pine forests, of scrambling over vast expanses of rocks flanked by crashing waves, my son exclaimed, “This is what we should do on every vacation! Which National Park should we visit next?”

Next week is our spring break, and we’ll be stay-cationing. But, while our feet will be traversing our neighborhood parks, our imaginations will be taking flight on the adventures in the mountain of spring releases that have recently landed on our doorstep. Of all the new spring titles, probably the one I’ve most anticipated is Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon (Ages 9-13), a staggering and richly informative window into the ecology, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon. « Read the rest of this entry »

Rescue and Renewal

March 23, 2017 § 2 Comments

The car was loaded, the final bags stuffed into any available hole. The children were corralled, buckled into their car seats with containers of cold pancakes on their lap. The timers on the hallway lights were set, the locks on the doors checked one last time. My husband and I climbed into the car, and—35 minutes behind schedule (always 35 minutes behind schedule)—we backed out of the driveway to embark on ten hours of driving en route to Cape Cod.

And then JP shouted, “Wait! My harlequin beetles! I forgot them!” (On the list of things you never predicted your six year old would say.) « Read the rest of this entry »

Survival Skills

February 16, 2017 § 6 Comments

"The Wild Robot" by Peter BrownWhen my daughter was five, we were sitting at the dinner table discussing our days. “I almost forgot,” Emily said. “The craziest thing happened to me today!”

“Oh yeah? What was that?” we all asked.

Emily leaned in conspiratorially, as if getting ready to impart significant information. “I didn’t have a single sip of water all day. BUT I STILL SURVIVED! Can you believe it?”

It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing, not wanting to diminish her stone-sober revelation. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about her words since. Clearly, whether at school or from a book or in conversation, Emily had absorbed something about “what every living creature needs to survive.” But she had only internalized half the story. What must it be like to make sense of the world through bits and pieces, to rarely grasp the full picture, to live your life in a perpetual loop of uncertainty and astonishment (as if you could accidentally “off” yourself at any moment)? « Read the rest of this entry »

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 Comments Off on Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton JonesLast year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.

But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.” « Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time… « Read the rest of this entry »

The Easter Chick Has Nothing On These Goslings

March 17, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. HigginsEaster quickly approaches, and the race to fill Easter baskets is on. Chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs line the grocery checkout aisles. Toy stores have Easter displays with irresistibly soft plush chicks, some of which even peep when you drop them. Bunnies and chicks, chicks and bunnies: this is what the commercial side of Easter preaches.

If we are talking books—which every Easter basket needs—the perfect bunny-themed choice is, without question, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, which I wrote about here (and which—sound the trumpets—happens to be available in a petite basket-fitting edition that comes with its own golden CHARM).

As for covering the chick quota—well, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you to scrap the chicks this year in favor of the gosling. Specifically, the incredibly cute and insufferably stubborn goslings of Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce (Ages 3-8), a modern-day spoof on the age-old nursery rhyme. « Read the rest of this entry »

Waking Up the Garden (Ushering in Spring with a Classic)

March 10, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett & Inga MooreThe setting in which a book is read can create magic beyond the words on the page. I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, to my children on a long weekend last month. We were nestled beside a roaring fire in the lobby of a grand, historic inn in the mountains, while the snow that would strand us for an extra day of vacation came down in big, soft flakes outside the tall arched windows. With my children pressed against me in rapt attention, it didn’t seem like life could get much better.

Little did I know that even more magic would come in the weeks ahead, when we brought the book back home and continued reading it while the first hints of spring began to transform the earth outside our front door. And that’s when it hit me: The Secret Garden (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)—and, in particular, artist Inga Moore’s enchantingly illustrated unabridged gift edition—may be the BEST WAY EVER to usher in spring. « Read the rest of this entry »

Connecting Across Cultural Divides

March 3, 2016 § 4 Comments

"Mango, Abuela, and Me" by Meg Medina & Angela DominguezWhen I was eighteen, I spent a few months abroad, living with a Vietnamese family in the beautiful coastal city of Nha Trang. I hadn’t known the family before arriving at their front door, and I knew exactly two words of Vietnamese. The father spoke a bit of English; the other members of the family spoke none. In my first moments in the house, nothing prepared me for the blow that I felt: the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins in the weeks leading up to my trip suddenly emptied, pooling beneath my feet, as I took my first inhalation of the unabated loneliness that would become a frequent companion in the days ahead. « Read the rest of this entry »

Arthropods and Art Heists

October 29, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Masterpiece" by Elise BroachIn preparation for our recent trip to New York City, I wanted to select a chapter book to read to my eight year old that would inspire our itinerary. Last year, you might remember that we read two fantastic books which took us straight to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was amazing to watch JP anticipate what he would find in the museum, based on what he had read—and then to leave a few hours later with a skip in his step and an entirely different experience from what he had expected. This is the power of art: to transform, to surprise, to delight.

I was secretly hoping I could convince JP to go back to The Met this fall, so I scrounged up another novel set in and around the museum. Beginning a few days before we left and concluding on the train ride home (where the woman sitting behind us remarked, as we were getting off, “Thank you for that delightful story!”), I read aloud Elise Broach’s moving and riveting Masterpiece (Ages 9-12), which features a boy, a beetle, and an art heist staged around a masterpiece on loan to The Met.

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