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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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!« Read the rest of this entry »
September 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
When I was eight, I led my father into our coat closet, pushed aside the coats to make a small opening, closed the door, and sat him opposite me on the floor. As we both hunched uncomfortably, I handed him a piece of torn notebook paper and a pencil. On the paper was a list of every swear word I had ever heard. “I want you to write down what each of these words mean,” I said. “Please,” I added, so as not to sound bossy.
I’ll never forget the way my dad didn’t miss a beat. As if this was a natural ask from a firstborn. He didn’t speak, just wrote down a word or two beside each of mine. When he was finished, he handed me the list, and that was that. We stood up, opened the door, and went our separate ways.
In the safety of my bedroom, I got up the nerve to look at what my father had written. It may have been the most anticlimactic moment of my life to date. Female dog. Human feces. I’m sure there were others, but I can’t remember the complete list. I stared in disbelief. I wasn’t entirely sure what all of them meant (what the heck was feces?), but I did know they didn’t sound particularly harmful, certainly not worth the drama which ensued each time someone used one of them at school.
In that moment, I also knew I wasn’t getting the whole truth. I thought the answer was in my father’s pencil strokes, but what I failed to realize was that I actually craved a conversation with him. I wanted to understand what was so terrible about these words. I wanted to understand why they were used the way they were. Looking back, I even wish he had explained some of the gender politics behind them. But I didn’t know how to make any of that happen.
In an effort to demystify these words for me, my father stood in the way of my more fully understanding the world I was sharing with him. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.
Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 8, 2018 Comments Off on Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)
When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?
When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp? « Read the rest of this entry »
November 16, 2017 Comments Off on In Praise of One Exasperating Girl
Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 9, 2016 Comments Off on Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)
Last 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 »
March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment
Earlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).
What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 25, 2016 § 2 Comments
As much as I try not to influence my children with my own prejudices (yes, my angel, what a beautiful spider you have crawling on your arm), I have always drawn the line at vermin. Especially possums. (I realize that possums are technically marsupials, but can we agree that in urban settings they are non-technically classified as vermin?) My exuberance one spring, upon trapping the possum that insisted on carrying her babies up and down the side of our house every night, could have been heard five blocks away. Ditto to the blood-curdling scream that erupted out of my mouth one evening, when one of those naked-looking creatures with the pink hairless tails scurried in front of my car.
Now, author Holly Goldberg Sloan has come along, and—with the help of Gary A. Rosen’s surprisingly adorable pencil sketches—given the world Appleblossom the Possum, a fictional chapter book (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud) that might forever change the way my kids and I view this nocturnal species. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 20, 2016 § 3 Comments
If my children are playing nicely together (sound the trumpets!), chances are high that they’re in the company of stuffed animals. Once a stuffed animal enters our house and is given a name, it assumes an infallible place in JP and Emily’s communal imagination, albeit in an ever-changing litany of roles, from pet to circus performer. My kids crochet leashes for their animals; they bury them in boxes of peanuts and push them around the house; they string them from ceiling fans. They emerge from their respective bedrooms on weekend mornings, eyes partly open, with half a dozen animals tucked under their arms, ready for action.
Two tigers (Hobbies and Hobbies Jr.), a giant panda in a bellman uniform (Cookie), two doughnuts (Sprinkles and Sprinkles 2), and a monogrammed pillow (named, for whatever nonsensical reason when JP was two, Bag of Worms) are just a few of the soft friends that make frequent appearances in my children’s play. Still, as JP and Emily are quick to remind me, the life of a stuffed animal doesn’t begin and end at the hands of a child. The more exciting question is: what shenanigans do these toys get up to when their children are asleep or away? « Read the rest of this entry »
November 12, 2015 Comments Off on Sequel Roundup: From Rebels to Robots
Is there anything sweeter than watching your child’s face light up like the Fourth of July when he or she discovers a sequel to a beloved book? I don’t typically devote much space on this blog to reviewing sequels, but the past weeks have delivered so many much-anticipated sequels (that is, much-anticipated in our house!), that I found myself lying awake the other night, worrying that perhaps you didn’t know about them. We need to change that.
Last month—cue high-pitched hysteria—saw the release of the sequel to Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and LeUyen Pham’s wildly popular The Princess in Black. If I had a penny for every message I’ve received asking me to recommend an early chapter book as captivating as The Princess in Black, I would be a rich Book Mommy. Sadly, little comes close. PIB seems to have revolutionized the early chapter book market overnight (wait, an early reader can be this engrossing, this humorous, and this exquisitely illustrated?). I’m not ashamed to admit that I waited in line for hours to get an advance copy of the sequel last May.
October 1, 2015 § 5 Comments
You know when you read something and you realize, WAIT, you mean other people’s children do that, too? You mean other mothers feel that way, too? You mean I’m not spinning alone in some upside-down bubble in this roller coaster we call parenting?
And then you think, I need to read this more often (much cheaper than therapy).
That’s the central driving force behind my willingness to oblige my children and read to them Scott McCormick and R.H. Lazzell’s graphic chapter series about the illustrious troublemaker, Mr. Pants, over and over again. As a general rule, I’ll usually do whatever it takes to avoid reading graphic novels aloud (yes, I know they can be amazing, but I find them incredibly awkward to read aloud; plus, my eight year old is so obsessed with all things comics that he’s perfectly happy to read them quietly to himself).
Don’t get me wrong: the Mr. Pants books (Ages 6-10) are fan-freaking-tastic for developing or reluctant readers to read themselves. I’m just saying that I will gladly pounce on the chance to read them aloud. Because, well, it’s like reading about our life. ONLY FUNNIER. Much, much funnier. As in, tears running down my face as my kids roll around on the floor clutching their sides. It’s possible that I’m just really, really good at this…although I have faith that you’ll rise to the challenge, too.
June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments
This was how I discovered that my seven year old had been spending his recess time, alongside several of his classmates, building fairy houses out of twigs, stones, moss, leaves, and mud; filling them with wild onion stems; and then returning the next day to discover with delight that things were not exactly as they’d left them. This obsession with fairy houses would later move into our own backyard (with the addition of miniature serving plates fashioned from the caps of milk bottles), and the momentum seems only to be building.
I don’t live under a rock, so I’m aware that fairies are EXTREMELY POPULAR. I was just a bit surprised that my skeptical and scientifically-minded son, the same being who reminds me that there is no such thing as witches, wizards, monsters, and dragons; who loves to do a magic trick and then immediately reveal the technique behind it; who appears (with the exception of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) to have his two feet squarely rooted in reality—that this person would suddenly talk about fairies as if they were as ordinary an occurrence as the postal workers walking through our neighborhood. “I don’t have to see a fairy to know they’re real,” he told me. “Just look outside—there are signs everywhere.”
Don’t get me wrong. JP’s belief in fairy magic, in the idea of miniature people living miniature lives amidst the trees and leaves and grass, makes me bubble over with happiness. (Yes! Let’s believe in what we cannot see! Yes! Let’s find more reasons to play in the dirt!). But the best part? My son’s new-found interest presented the perfect excuse to purchase a book that I (shame on me) had been saving for when my daughter got a little bit older.
I’m frequently asked by parents for recommendations of fairy-themed chapter books. This isn’t just because fairy lore is undergoing a kind of comeback (or maybe it never left?). It’s also because, despite the high demand, there is a surprising dearth of quality literary offerings. Yes, I know your daughter is obsessed with the Rainbow Fairies series, for its colorful covers and overtly girly content, but have you tried reading one of those awkwardly-constructed, downright-insipid books aloud? Bleh. Let her read those on her own if she must. In the meantime, do both of you a favor and get your hands on Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy, which is EVERYTHING A FAIRY BOOK SHOULD BE. This is reading aloud at its best.
Since it came out in 2010, The Night Fairy (Ages 5-10, if reading aloud) has become one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Hold the 117-page hardcover in your hands, and you know you are dealing with something special. It’s petite (as a book about a fairy should be); its pages are thick and glossy; and it features exquisite watercolor plates by British illustrator Angela Barrett. But here’s the clincher: the writing is absolutely exquisite. The descriptive passages soar. The action is tight. The multidimensional characters tug at our heartstrings. And—drum roll please—the story is steeped in the natural world, in the world right outside our front door. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from binge reading a series that has already been published in its entirety. But it can be equally exciting to read through a series in real time, anticipating the next installment for months, then rediscovering characters like old friends. One of our family’s greatest literary pleasures over the past 18 months has been the Three-Ring Rascals series (Ages 7-11, younger if reading aloud), by sister duo Kate Klise (author) and M. Sarah Klise (illustrator). Perhaps you heard our squeals a few weeks ago, when my kids and I walked into our local bookstore and discovered that the fourth installment, Pop Goes the Circus!, was out (with still more on the way!).
What has made this early-chapter book series such a joy in our house is that it has been enjoyed equally and together by my four and seven year old. In fact, it hits every criteria on my Must-Find-Chapter-Book-That-Appeals-to-Both-Hooligans agenda. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 4, 2014 § 1 Comment
Five years ago, when I learned I was having a girl, I self-righteously vowed that I would bar the door from tiaras and princess costumes and those scary high-heeled plastic dress-up shoes with the sequins on the toes. My daughter won’t equate beauty with Disney-fied princesses! My daughter will read books about trains and science and daring adventures! My daughter won’t be held back by stereotypes of femininity!
Of course, ultimatums rarely work out in parenting—nor are they usually for the best. Those of you with girls already know that The Princess Obsession eventually finds its way into the house—slipping through the gap beneath the front door, if need be. Before my kids watched Frozen, my daughter already knew the words to every song, just from listening to her classmates. Before my son pointed to a hot pink skirt with 20 layers of tulle at Target and said (in the sweetest voice, so how could I resist?), “Oh, Mommy, Emily would just love something like that”—before that, Emily was already coming home from play dates in borrowed glitter-encrusted frocks.
What I failed to anticipate as a new parent, is that there are complex dichotomies at work in the princess fantasies of my daughter and her friends. When playing, Emily is just as likely to wear her tulle skirt on her head than around her waist. She likes to pair her purple metallic slippers with a red superhero cape and an astronaut helmet. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
One book that all the Book People will be talking about this holiday season is Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory (Ages 5-9), an illustrated early-chapter book featuring one of the spunkiest, most imaginative, most genuinely real six-year-old girls to grace the pages of children’s literature. (After all, it was written by a former first-grade teacher.) If you really want to impress people with how in the know you are, you should buy the book this month, instead of waiting until next month, and then you should give it to everyone you know—regardless of whether it’s their birthday or not. Just a thought.
It’s possible that I’ve lost perspective on this 153-page gem, because I have, by request, read it upwards of ten times to my four year old in the past month (and don’t think that her seven-year-old brother doesn’t listen in at every chance he gets). I’m beginning to feel like Dory (nicknamed Rascal) and Emily are actually the same person (wait, are they?). Both talk to themselves incessantly, invent wild fantasies in their play, wear strange things around the house, and will stop at nothing to get the attention of their older siblings. I don’t think that Emily has a bearded fairy godmother named Mr. Nugget, or that she believes there are at least seven (mostly) hospitable monsters living in our house…but then again, I can’t be sure. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
Raise the roof! My favorite fast-talking pastry is back in the house! Now, before you look at me like I have three heads (or 135 sprinkles), I’m referring to Laurie Keller’s new early chapter book series, based on the naive, loquacious, loves-the-limelight chocolate doughnut from her 2003 picture book, Arnie the Doughnut (Ages 4-8). I still remember the hysterics that my staff and I fell into every time we flipped through that first book 11 years ago, about a doughnut who narrowly avoids the fate of being eaten and winds up an unlikely pet (a “doughnut-dog!”) to the lonely but kindly Mr. Bing.
I’ve often wondered why author-illustrator Keller doesn’t get more props from the media and, as a result, remains relatively unknown by parents. Her kooky story lines are peppered with chuckle-inducing sidebars and animated through energetic, googly-eyed sketches. But I have a particular fondness for her ability to keep us parents just as entertained as our children (think puns, references to pop culture, etc.). If you’re not reading Laurie Keller, the world is less fun. It’s as simple as that. (Other non-doughnut-related favorites by Keller are listed at the end of this post.) « Read the rest of this entry »
May 8, 2012 Comments Off on Send-Off for Sendak
Today we remember Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), arguably the most game-changing children’s author and illustrator of the 20th century; he took age-old storytelling conventions and turned them on their head (or, rather, sent them on a wild rumpus through the forest). His beloved Where the Wild Things Are has topped more recommended book lists than any other children’s book in history—as much for its glorious depiction of a boy’s uninhibited reign over his imagination as for its foray into previously shushed subjects like parental abandonment and night terrors. Sendak’s later books took even more risks, got simultaneously darker and more brilliant (and not without their fair share of controversy).
But for me and my family, Sendak’s “sweet spot” lies in his earliest works–no less memorable, even if they didn’t upset the status quo at the time. Before his characters were banished to their rooms without supper or left to wander the streets of New York without clothes, there were the deliciously sweet, make-me-want-to-read-to-my-children-all-day-long moments between a little bear, his parents, and a quirky ensemble of friends. I’m referring, of course, to the Little Bear books (Ages 3-7) by Else Holmelund Minarik, which Sendak illustrated in his 30s.
May 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
How do chewing gum, hair ribbons, and six magnifying glasses help a little boy rescue an enslaved baby dragon on a wild island of ferocious talking animals? There are few early chapter books written with as much wit, cleverness, and heart as Ruth Stiles Gannett’s beloved trilogy, first published over 60 years ago: My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, & The Dragons of Blueland (Ages 4-9). With short digestible chapters, about 200 words per page, and enchanting black-and-white sketches peppered throughout, they are perfect for reading aloud.
JP and I started these books on a recent train ride to New York and finished them a few days later, only to start them over again. At the heart of the stories is the relationship between Elmer and his dragon, an evolving friendship that brings out the best in both parties. But the real draw for kids is the adventure (no shortage of “close-calls”) and the magic (who doesn’t love thinking about riding on the back of a flying dragon?).