Picture Books as Performance

May 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.

Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.

That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.

When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.

Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.

But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

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For the Sensitive Souls (A Post for Mental Health Awareness Month)

May 12, 2022 § 4 Comments

All the time I get asked, What’s a good book for my [insert: nervous, fearful, shy, super sensitive] kid? With everything this crazy world has been dishing out, even kids who aren’t naturally wired towards sensitivity are struggling under the weight of big, heavy, messy emotions. And, as parents, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make the discomfort go away.

My firstborn is an immensely sensitive child. My husband and I joke that he’s a raw nerve walking around on two legs, and the whiplash from highs to lows and back again is not always easy to witness.

Five years ago—I would remember it like it was yesterday, even if I hadn’t journaled about it at the time—my son looked on as garbage workers hauled away our twenty-year-old sofa. We had spent a few weeks trying to donate the sofa, but with a frayed slipcover and sunken cushions, no one seemed to want it.

The hysteria peaked as the garbage truck drove away. The garbage men didn’t treat it well! he wailed. They broke it apart! They tore off the slipcover! It went into the truck in PIECES! They treated it no differently than a container of moldy food! I know it was ripped and didn’t look very good, but it was so comfortable. It made us happy for so long. It should have gone to a good home! It still had life left to give! It could have made people happy! Now, IT’S RUINED!

For a long time, my maternal response to such spectacles was, MAKE. IT. STOP. You’re fine. Here are all the ways that what you’re losing your mind over isn’t actually that bad. Just please stop suffering because my heart cannot take it and also I feel very out of control right now.

But if my son’s extreme responses to everyday life were hard on me, they were a million times harder on him—and often brought with them feelings of shame and loneliness.

I’d like to tell you there was a single turning point for me, but I think it was probably lots of little signs along the way that pointed towards re-framing this sensitivity for both him and me. We began to regard it, not as a condition to overcome, but as a superpower of sorts. You won’t find a more empathetic kid than my son. A more grateful one, too. I could never add up the number of times he has hugged us before bed and said, “Today was the best day of my life.” (Lots more have been the “worst,” of course.)

If, in these turbulent moments, I don’t let his emotions hijack mine—easier said than done, of course—there is usually a nugget of truth telling that can inform my life, our life, for the better. “We did try and donate the sofa,” I reminded him. “Well, maybe someone was afraid to come forward, afraid for us to see their poverty,” he said. “We could have done more, Mommy.” I haven’t forgotten this exchange. Because he’s not wrong. He keeps me honest to the plight of others. He keeps me honest to the plight of himself.

Today, I’m sharing two important new picture books that I wish I’d had when my son was younger. That I wish I’d had for my daughter, too, who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from her brother, keeping her feelings close to the breast, wary of betraying vulnerability, wary of losing control (can’t imagine who she gets that from). Embedded in their charming, gorgeously illustrated stories, Deborah Marcero’s Out of a Jar (Ages 4-8) and Colter Jackson’s The Rhino Suit (Ages 4-8) employ creative, effective metaphors to explore the temptation to bottle up big, messy emotions and shelve them out of sight. To trap them on the other side of a coat of armor. Both stories ask their young readers to consider the good that might come from leaning into, not away from, uncomfortable emotions. Leaning into sensitivity, rather than fearing or disguising it.

There’s plenty of truth telling in these books for the parents and caregivers of sensitive kids, too.

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A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

April 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

Last week, after a two-year interruption, my daughter and I returned to one of our favorite annual traditions: we took the train up to New York City to stay with my mom and explore the magical city where I grew up. Among the many adventures we had waited too long for, I took my daughter to Broadway for the first time, where we sat spellbound before the green lights and belting voices of Wicked. (I had actually seen the show as a Christmas present in 2003 with the original cast, including Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, and I was worried no subsequent production could live up. As it turns out, it was every bit as incredible.)

Each time I take one of my kids to New York, I try and pick a special chapter book to read to them—bonus if it’s NYC-themed. (Past trips have featured this and this.) This year, I had my eye on the lavishly illustrated new chapter book, Cress Watercress (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which has absolutely nothing to do with New York City, but does happen to be written by Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel behind the Broadway show on our itinerary.  How’s that for sneaky?

Y’all. I know I get excited about a lot of books here. But this one is really, really special. A more widely appealing family read aloud you won’t find. A more fitting read for springtime you won’t find. A wittier, more darling, more deeply felt story you won’t find. This tale about a bunny named Cress, forced to relocate with her mother and baby brother in the forest after the devastating loss of her father, is about the highs and lows of starting over: of making a home, finding your people, and learning that it’s possible to make do with “good enough” when “good” is out of reach. It’s a story about love, sorrow, creativity, and renewal—and it’s penned with a depth that elevates it above your typical middle-grade animal story.

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Healing in Color

March 31, 2022 § 4 Comments

Two days before we were scheduled to move across the country, when my oldest was just shy of three years old, he broke his leg. My husband and I had left him with my in-laws outside Chicago, while we dashed back into the city to close on our house and run a few final errands. As I sat in the chair at the hairdresser, where my biggest concern was whether I’d ever find someone to cut my hair again, my phone rang. My mother in law wanted me to know that while my son and our dog had been playing, the dog had stepped on his leg. Now he couldn’t walk. They were on their way to the ER.

Did I mention I was pregnant with our second and, owing to a recurrence of pelvic joint disorder, could barely walk myself? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a not-quite three year old with a full leg cast can’t exactly use crutches.

Fast forward 48 hours, when my husband moved to Washington, D.C. without us, and I spent the next month bunking in with my in-laws, while they took turns carrying my son and I hobbled along behind them. In the meantime, my husband toured possible places for us to live and sent us blurry pictures. My son demanded to read his Curious George books so many times that my mother-in-law and I nearly came to blows over whether a poorly behaved monkey was the best role model for a human boy. I ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection. It was…an interesting time.

And yet, when I think about my boy through all of this, my recollection is that he was often ridiculously happy. Happy to spend the first few days on the couch, as friends sent care packages and he got to watch more shows than he’d dreamed possible. Happy to spend the next few weeks swinging on porch swings, blowing bubbles, and doing loops on a local antique train. Happy his cast was the brightest shade of green, his favorite color since he was old enough to talk. Happy for bonus time with his biggest fans.

I’ll always remember him holding court on the patio, where we ate every meal that month. (Just like I’ll always remember how grateful I was for my mother-in-law’s cooking.)

But I also remember that, even as he seemed unstoppable when the cast became a walking boot, and when we left my in-laws to visit my own grandmother and tear up and down the beach along Lake Erie, he was surprisingly hesitant when he finally got his boot off. The heavy, itchy accoutrements may have been gone, but they’d left him a stranger in his body. I remember saying, “It’s OK! Come on! Your leg is as good as new!” And he would look down and continue to walk a little funny.

How tempting it is—especially for us parents—to gloss over our children’s trauma. As if, by focusing on the shiny, perfect future, we can pretend the suffering never happened.

In her gentle, insightful new picture book, Out on a Limb (Ages 4-8), author Jordan Morris speaks to the role of courage and patience in the healing process, as a girl recovers from a broken leg, moving from the novelty of sporting a cast to the awkwardness of being without it. Substitute a green cast for a yellow one, and the similarities between this girl’s story and my son’s are plentiful, including an inter-generational component. But you don’t need experience in the broken bones department to enjoy this book, especially when you factor in Charlie Mylie’s gorgeous graphite art, rendered in a largely black-and-white palette with intentional splashes of color. Many children will spark to this story of reclaiming childhood joy in the aftermath of interruption.  

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Our Words Matter

March 17, 2022 § 1 Comment

Surprising as this may sound, my son will tell you that one of his happiest memories is the day we told him he had ADHD. (He has given me his blessing to share this story here.) After years of angry outbursts, struggles to complete assignments, feeling like he didn’t fit in, and an approach to writing defined largely by paralysis, suddenly he had answers. He had clarity. He had a path before him that was not without more struggle but was also well-trodden, ripe with options, ready with support. Plus, he had a community—the Percy Jacksons of the world—who had this in common with him, many of them with inspiring stories of success to share.

All of this relieved a burden he had carried around, often without realizing it, for years. Overnight, he had been given a missing piece to the puzzle of himself.

But when I consider that this moment held so much joy for him, when it just as easily could have spurred fear, shame, or intimidation, I also credit the way we presented the diagnosis. After years of meeting his behavior with exasperation, concern, and (gulp) disappointment, this time we got it right.

On the heels of a neuro-psychological evaluation, my husband and I sat on my son’s bed, on a Saturday morning, and shared a colorful diagram I’d penned the night before. This single piece of paper attempted to capture my son’s learning profile: what his ADHD makes difficult, alongside the litany of strengths his unique wiring offers, like creativity, empathy, an insatiable quest for knowledge, and the superpower of hyper-focus when it comes to things he loves. His neurodiverse brain was all there, in its colorful, complex magnificence.

Bless second chances in parenting, because it was the magnificence piece that came through loud and clear that morning. In many ways, the process of having our son tested was as re-framing for us as it was for him. It helped us to see all of him, instead of just the parts that had monopolized the emotional space in our house in recent years. Somewhere along the way, in our obsession with trying to puzzle him out, we’d lost sight of reminding him, with our words and our actions, how deeply loved he is. How special he is. How miraculous he is.

Progress is rarely a straight line, and I won’t pretend my words don’t sometimes still veer too far in the direction of annoyance over acceptance. But I have become more cognizant of the power my words wield over the way my children see themselves. And that sometimes I need to check my own expectations at the door—my own ideas of what success or bravery or “normal” looks like—to land on the words my kids most need to hear.

Lala’s Words (Ages 4-8) isn’t about a child with any particular diagnosis. In fact, author-illustrator Gracey Zhang, a rising star just awarded the 2022 Ezra Jack Keats Medal for this brilliant and perceptive debut picture book, dedicates her book to “The Lala in All of Us,” a tribute to the universal desire to be seen, loved, and believed in for who we are. At the same time, it’s a story about a girl who doesn’t fit the model of success that her mother sets out for her. A girl who meets with more exasperation than encouragement. It’s a story that resonates deeply with me, a parent who once nearly lost sight of the magic in her own child.

And it’s a reminder that, if we look closely enough, our children will tell us exactly what they need to hear to blossom and thrive.

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Welcoming Absurdity

February 24, 2022 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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Choosing Love: Four Favs for Valentine’s Day

February 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

I sat sleep-deprived in the dim winter light of early morning, stealing myself to break it to my children that their dad and I had decided we should return the puppy we’d picked up less than 24 hours earlier.

The previous day, we had driven three hours to pick up an almost five-month-old Goldendoodle. Upon entering the breeder’s house, it became apparent that the dog was nothing like what we’d been promised. Was nothing like our last puppy, either. We had expected a rambunctious, mouthy, high-energy, playful puppy.

What we left with was a dog that had never been socialized. Never seen a man or a child, not to mention a car, leash, crate, or bath. The dog was terrified of us. Of everything. After the car ride home, where we held his trembling body on our laps, he wouldn’t let us near him. We couldn’t pet him. We couldn’t handle him. When my husband tried to pick him up to bring him inside, he got his hand bitten.

The dog wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t drink. We couldn’t get him outside to use the potty and, if we did, we couldn’t get him back inside. He was terrified of our stairs, so my husband slept next to him on the living room sofa, while I stayed up all night reading everything on the Internet about fearful, traumatized dogs.

What I determined over the course of that long night wasn’t just that this was not the puppy we had envisioned for our family, but that we were in over our heads. A dog who passed the four month mark without being socialized was, the Internet assured me, beyond hope of a normal life, even with professional training.

Earlier that morning, I told my husband that I thought we needed to take him back to the breeder. He reluctantly agreed. So there I sat, waiting for my kids to wake up so we could get it over with.

My son was the first to come down the stairs. His eyes immediately scanned the room, finding the dog—we hadn’t agreed on a name—cowering in the corner. My son stood for a few moments, looking at this terrified ball of fluff, and then he curled up next to me. I braced myself to say the words, but he spoke first, with no suspicion that there was anything amiss.

“Oh, Mommy,” he sighed, his eyes twinkling, a smile breaking across his face like it was Christmas morning. “I’m so happy. I just love him so much.”

This dog, who was nothing like the dog he had wanted, who wouldn’t even let him come near him…he loved him?

I began to speak about what I’d read, about the long road ahead of us. Yes, he said, he had thought as much. He’d start reading things, too. He was excited to help. “I know what it’s like to have anxiety, so I can do this. He’s going to be so happy here. I know it.”

And though part of me wanted to cry, to scream, to run from the loss of control I felt over the entirety of this situation, I thought, What if I chose love? What if we all chose love?

What if we didn’t get the puppy we wanted, but we got the one we needed? Or maybe the one who needed us.

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My Caldecott Front Runner

January 12, 2022 § Leave a comment

Awards season is upon us! On Monday, January 24, the American Library Association will award the prestigious Caldecott and Newbery Medals, as well as a host of other coveted honors and awards. It’s like the Oscars for kid lit! I’ll be tuning in with bated breath, ready to celebrate many of the winners and, if history is any indication, scratch my head at a few others. There will probably be some books I haven’t read yet, perhaps even one I haven’t heard of, but I’m hoping many of my favorites will make the list. In any event, I promise to share a recap on Instagram after the announcements!

Let’s talk about the picture book I’d love to see sport a shiny gold Caldecott sticker. (I’m also pulling for Watercress, which I gushed about in April. Born on the Water, of course. Time is a Flower. Probably Unspeakable, if my library hold would ever come in.) Today, though, I’m talking about Wishes (Ages 4-8), written by Múón Thi Vãn and illustrated by Victo Ngai, based on the former’s refugee journey out of Vietnam as a young child in the 1980s. This book sends my jaw to the floor. Every. single. time. (Back in May, my daughter discovered it on our dining table, sat down and read it, and called out, “WHOA, Mommy, I think I just found your favorite book of the year.”)

And yet, I’ve been putting off sharing my thoughts about Wishes. It’s a daunting book to review, because its power lies largely in what is left unsaid. How do I write about a book that manages to tell a sweeping, suspenseful, emotionally pulsating narrative in just twelve short sentences, without my own clunky words compromising the grace of such economical text? (Heck, I’ve greatly exceeded that sentence count already!)

But that’s precisely why Wishes is deserving of a Caldecott, which I’ll remind you is awarded for pictorial interpretation. To be sure, Múón’s sparse text is immensely effective: loaded with lyricism and vital in relaying the story’s central theme of desire—the wishes that frame our periods of loss and uncertainty. But the reason Múón is able to communicate such depth and breadth with her text is owing to Ngai’s luminous illustrations, which carry a great deal of the storytelling weight. (Ngai herself is a migrant, moving from Hong Kong to the United States when she was eighteen.) Wishes is that rare example of a perfect marriage between words and pictures, each working to interpret and augment the other.

Wishes is about more than one journey. Taken literally, it’s the story of a girl who leaves behind her home—including her grandfather, her dog, and nearly all her worldly possessions—to journey by boat to a foreign city of safety and promise. But it’s also an emotional journey: a sequence of wishes that speak to the turbulence within. Ngai underscores this journey with her color palette, beginning the story in dark, somber tones, moving towards super-saturated reds and oranges as the oppressive sun beats down upon the tiny boat, and concluding with a soft palette of greens and pinks for an ending tinged in the hope of fresh starts.

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2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

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

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

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2021 Gift Guide: A Seek-and-Find Trifecta

November 4, 2021 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

October 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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Best. Birthday. Book.

September 30, 2021 § 2 Comments

September is many things—the return to school, the start of fall, the gearing up for holidays and sweaters and all things pumpkin—but in our house, it’s also Birthday Month. Both my kids share September birthdays, just two weeks apart. If September didn’t already feel like a sharp re-entry to scheduled life after the dog days of summer, adding in two back-to-back birthday celebrations has always felt like being launched into a marathon we forgot to train for.

Every year, the bleary-eyed exhaustion takes me by surprise. Shouldn’t it be easier now? My kids no longer desire the big backyard birthday parties we threw in the past (remember this post?), with magicians and bouncy houses and mad scientists who blew up stuff and left it all behind. By all accounts, the celebrations my kids want as tweens and teens require little prep on my part and are right up my alley. Ear piercing followed by lunch out with a few fabulous young ladies? Yes, please!

Still, no matter the celebration, there is an emotional charge to the day that radiates throughout the entire month. And, if I’m being honest, it sucks up a good bit of the oxygen in our house. Our children prize their birthdays above all other days of the year. And they aren’t alone. As Mary Lyn Ray puts it in the poetic picture book I’m about to share with you, “Almost anything could happen./ But what’s for sure is that/ your birthday is all yours to unwrap.”

There’s the delicious anticipation that builds over weeks, by some accounts as sweet as the day itself. There are wish lists, made and revised and revised again. There are discussions of favorite breakfasts and requested desserts and memories of things that happened in birthdays past that you wonder if you can re-create. Somewhere along the way, traditions are born.

Every year, my husband breaks out the colored pencils and renders homemade birthday cards, their fronts depicting the birthday kid engaged in a new venture or activity from the previous year (most recently, shooting a bow and arrow and rowing crew). It’s not uncommon for these cards to be drawn close to midnight the evening before, with me furiously wrapping packages beside him. Still, the delight on our kids’ faces when they see everything set out at breakfast the next morning always makes the effort worth it. (But seriously, when did I become the gift wrapper for all the out-of-towners?)

I have never encountered a picture book that more perfectly captures the essence of a child’s birthday than How to Have a Birthday (Ages 3-8), lyrically penned by Mary Lyn Ray and sumptuously illustrated by Cindy Derby. Mary Lyn Ray is a spellbinder with words, conjuring up phrases both playful and poignant; and Cindy Derby’s rich, dreamy art, infused with a touch of sparkle, feels at once intimate and open-ended. The text is delivered in the second person, inviting all readers to consider their own birthday experiences, while the pictures bring to life three specific birthday kids, with different skin tones and different celebration styles.

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An Interview with Shawn Harris

May 6, 2021 Comments Off on An Interview with Shawn Harris

Earlier this week, I talked about how much I adore the new picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower? Today, I’m back with an interview I did with its creator, Shawn Harris, in which we talk about his inspiration for the book, his musical past, what neon pink says to him, why he loves school visits, and the super exciting new projects he’s working on. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Me: Welcome, Shawn! Thank you so much for dropping in today. I am delighted to have the chance to chat with you about your authorial debut picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, one of my very favorites of the year. I’ve been a fan of your art for years—both Her Right Foot (written by Dave Eggers) and A Polar Bear in the Snow (written by your good pal, Mac Barnett) have been the subject of previous blog posts—so I was excited to see you trying your hand at writing, too. What made you decide to take the plunge? And where did the idea for this special picture book come from?

Shawn: In my former life, I was a touring songwriter, so I’ve been writing since I was a kid penning lyrics. This was the first time my authorial tone conjured images since I’ve been working in the picture book world, so I set out to illustrate the words. It’s almost a song in book form, really. There’s a theme and an arc to the narration, but I hop around my subject really loosely, and dip in and out of different meters, which is the way I like to approach writing music.

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Have You Ever Seen a Flower? (Part One)

May 4, 2021 Comments Off on Have You Ever Seen a Flower? (Part One)

It’s another special week here on the blog, with a two-part post featuring one of my favorite picture books of the year, destined to become a read-aloud favorite. Award-winning illustrator, Shawn Harris, is making his authorial debut with Have You Ever Seen a Flower? (Ages 3-6), an imaginative, sensory-filled, hue-tastic journey inside flowers, starring an ebullient, neon-haired child. Today, I’m sharing why I love this energetic romp, which celebrates the connection between childhood and nature. Then, on Thursday, I’ll be back with my interview with the mastermind behind it, mister Shawn Harris himself. (I’ll also be running a giveaway on Instagram, so make sure you’re following me!)

As you may remember from previous posts, we are big fans of Shawn Harris, who created the delightfully unique cut-paper illustrations for Mac Barnett’s A Polar Bear in the Snow and, before that, Dave Eggers’ Her Right Foot, a speculative non-fiction picture book about the Statue of Liberty that’s still a favorite of my son. With Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, Shawn not only tries his hand at writing, but he trades cut-paper collage for stencils and colored pencils (seven-in-one colored pencils, to be precise). He’ll talk more about his inspiration and process in our interview, but suffice it to say that this departure makes him quite the creative chameleon, a true force to be reckoned with in picture book creation.

Have You Ever Seen a Flower? also proves that the best picture books are often a little trippy. (Think about greats like Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and James Marshall.) With a psychedelic intensity, Shawn plays with perspective, color, and language to blur the line between reality and fantasy, fusing his character with the vibrant nature around her and reminding us how much fun it is to see the world through the eyes of a child brimming with wonder and possibility.

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Seasonal Poems with a Twist (National Poetry Month)

April 15, 2021 Comments Off on Seasonal Poems with a Twist (National Poetry Month)

I have a soft spot for picture books with poetry organized by season. I’m not sure whether I’m particularly drawn to nature poetry, or whether these types of poems just tend to dominate picture book publishing. All I know is that back when my children were smaller, when there were at least twelve extra hours in every day, it made me happy to track the changing world outside our window with delightful little nuggets of word play.

Consequently, no shortage of wonderful poetry picture books has appeared in these pages. I’ve sung the praises of When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, A Child’s Calendar, and Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold. And, of course, we can’t forget the meaty anthology, Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year, which, given how many of you have reached out to me, remains one of the most popular books I’ve recommended (just wait until you see its follow-up, coming next fall).

With so many good titles, you might think there would be little need for more. But you haven’t seen the treasure 2021 has dropped in our laps. Beautiful Day! Petite Poems for All Seasons (Ages 4-8) features Haiku-inspired poems by Rodoula Pappa, alongside art by favorite French illustrator, Seng Soun Ratanavanh. It turns out we were missing something. In those earlier anthologies, the visuals accompanying the poems are largely literal. By contrast, Beautiful Day! infuses seasonal poems, still lovely and lyrical, with a touch of the fantastical. The abstract. The fanciful. There’s a playfulness in these pages, where a child paints rainbows in the sky, butterflies become lanterns, and origami birds take flight. The line between reality and imagination becomes deliciously blurred, as we see the natural world through a child’s eyes, up close and personal.

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The Stories We Need to Ask For

April 8, 2021 § 1 Comment

Occasionally, a book comes along that is so extraordinary, I’m daunted at the prospect of reviewing it. I worry I could never do it justice. I wish I could just say, This is hands down the most moving picture book I’ve read so far this year, and I want you to get it without knowing anything about it. Maybe, if you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll do just that. But I will try and find something eloquent to say for the rest of you.

Years ago, my husband helped his grandparents—first generation Italian-Americans—pack up their house to move into a retirement community. In the crawlspace, he uncovered boxes of mementos, all of which his grandmother had at one point tied up using the elastics from her husband’s old underwear. This discovery became one the family would chuckle about for years (Who salvages underwear elastic?!). But it was also a window into the past, a resourcefulness triggered by the Great Depression sixty years earlier, a self-reliance that perhaps belied pain, worry, wanting, loss. Only now does my husband express regret at not probing for the stories underscoring something he accepted as mere frugality.

All of us grow up surrounded by family history, including the cultural heritage this history often represents. Yet, as children, we often take this history for granted. At best, we’re blinded by our own fixation on the present; at worst, we’re embarrassed by the quirks of our elders, by their old-fashioned ways, by their insistence in holding fast to ideas or customs from their past.

Especially where immigrants are concerned, this silencing is further accentuated by the systemic racism underlying American society. Asian Americans, for example, are expected to fulfill the Model Minority Myth, to work hard towards prosperity, while keeping quiet about their struggles, past or present. The recent media attention on the massive spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans—up 1,900% since the start of the pandemic—has begun to open our eyes to an experience far from new, one we should have been talking about ages ago.

In the spirit of lifting up voices of Asian descent—and because this poignant story is at its heart about the value of listening to stories of the past—I urge you to purchase Watercress (Ages 5-9), Andrea Wang’s powerful autobiographical picture book, evocatively illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Jason Chin, who studied traditional Chinese landscape painting to infuse the story with added authenticity. (If Jason Chin doesn’t get his long-overdue Caldecott Medal for this, you will hear me screaming.) Against a backdrop of 1970s rural Ohio, a girl and her brother help their parents, immigrants from China, pick watercress on the side of a ditch to be served that evening. The immediate humiliation of the act later transforms into an opportunity for the girl to connect with her mother’s past life in China—and the grief she still carries in her heart.

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The Tree in Me: An Interview with Corinna Luyken

March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments

I am thrilled to welcome picture book creator, Corinna Luyken, to the blog today! I have long dreamed of hosting authors and illustrators in these pages, but I want to do it in a way that ties into my mission of creating lifelong readers by nurturing a culture of reading aloud in the home—even after kids are reading by themselves. Corinna isn’t just one of our family’s favorite author-illustrators; as a mother, she’s also deeply invested in reading to her tween daughter. What I hope will feel different and inspiring about this interview is that, in addition to talking about her creative process and her newest book, I ask about the ways in which she has nurtured her own daughter’s reading journey—and even what some of their favorite read alouds have been. (As a result, I now have an even bigger #tbr pile.)

Earlier this week, I did a deep dive into Corinna’s exquisite new picture book, The Tree in Me (you can find my post here), and that’s what we’ll predominantly be talking about today. But I wanted to mention some of our previous favorites as well. I believe Corinna has the distinct honor of appearing on this blog more than any other creator! Her debut picture book, The Book of Mistakes, is still one of my children’s all-time favorites. It gave us language for framing our mistakes as beginnings, not endings. She followed that up by illustrating Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, written by Marcy Campbell, which I chose for my Favorite Picture Book of the Year post in 2018, and I still tear up every time I read it. My Heart was the next book she both wrote and illustrated, and for its metaphorical musing on empathy and connection, it is a kind of companion book to The Tree in Me.

My children have always been drawn to Corinna’s art—in particular, her bold, expressive use of color. (I especially love what she says about color in our interview—specifically, her answer to a question my daughter wanted me to ask: “What is your favorite color?”) But, increasingly, I also find myself appreciating her touch with the written word. She doesn’t simply choose her words carefully, she gives them a rhythm that translates beautifully into reading aloud. In sum, she does what many strive to do and few succeed: she invites reflection. In a fresh, unexpected, and pared-back way, her books speak to something essential about the human experience; we can’t help but be a tiny little bit changed when we come to the last page.

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The Tree in Me: Part One

March 16, 2021 § 3 Comments

(This is an extra-special week on the blog, so you’re getting not one but TWO posts! First, on the day it officially releases, I’m talking about Corinna Luyken’s exquisite new picture book, The Tree in Me. Then, on Thursday, I’ll be featuring an interview I did with Corinna herself, in which we talk about her inspiration for the book, her writing process, and her favorite books to read aloud with her tween daughter. It’s the first interview I’ve done for the blog, and I’m hoping you’ll let me know if you’re excited for me to do more!)

We have been sleeping with the windows open of late. Here in Virginia, as winter takes its exit, it’s only the briefest of spells before the pollen seeps through the screens, followed by the aggressive rise in humidity, and we must shutter the windows and crank up the central air. But, right now, it’s perfection. Cocooned in blankets, with breezes dancing around my head, I embrace the fluidity between inside and outside. It awakens something within me—not unlike standing on a mountain top or in a grove of wildflowers—and puts me in mind of being a child again.

At no time more than childhood do we exhibit such a primal connection to the natural world. When I think of my own children in their early years, I think of them running barefoot in summer and catching snowflakes on their tongues in winter. I think of the sticks that never left their hands, the fairy houses they constructed from moss, the leaf piles they jumped in. I think about how picking apples off branches felt magical to them, biting into them moments later even more so. I think about how my daughter used to climb trees without reservation, even while we looked on with our hearts in our throats.

In her newest picture book, The Tree in Me (Ages 3-8), Corinna Luyken captures this childlike exuberance for the natural world with the careful intent, originality, and dazzling use of color we’ve come to adore from her. [More on previous favorites in Thursday’s interview with Corinna.] Through sparse, poetic text—each word carefully chosen and perfectly placed—and dynamic, gorgeously-saturated gouache illustrations—helllloooo, neon pink—The Tree in Me invokes the metaphor of a tree to celebrate the strength, resilience, and bounty inside all of us. It reminds us that, as part of the living world, we move and breathe and give and take in a way that binds us together. We can shutter our windows, but the natural world lives on inside us.

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How Will We Remember This L(o)st Year?

March 11, 2021 § 2 Comments

I’ve been accused of using these pages as a kind of glorified baby book, and if that’s true, I appreciate you indulging me. In the trappings of our busy-ness, we don’t take enough opportunities to pause and process our life experiences—the good and the bad, the big and the small—and I have found blogging to be (almost) as therapeutic as a conversation with a good girlfriend over a glass of wine.

But I would argue that children’s books themselves can be gateways to reflection—as much for us as for our kids. Sharing them offers a respite, a chance to connect with our little ones, while their content strips back unnecessary clutter, revealing something of life’s essentiality, its basic truths, through economies of words and pictures. Even when they’re not expressly representing our own experiences, children’s books reflect back the life taking place in and around us.

It has been exactly one year since I sat around a table with my daughter and her classmates to lead what would be our last in-person book club. Several of the children knew almost nothing about the coronavirus that would shut down their school—and life as they knew it—just twenty-four hours later. When I arrived to pick up my daughter the next day, teachers threw hastily gathered notebooks and supplies into the back of our car, and my daughter and her carpool group climbed into their seats looking shell-shocked. Some giggled nervously. One started crying.

How do we want to remember this last year—a year that took so much, that has produced a kind of cumulative weariness we’d like nothing more than to shed, but was also not without moments of profound beauty and growth?

As it turns out, I have the perfect book for memorializing this time, for helping children of all ages process what they’ve seen and felt, done and not done. LeUyen Pham’s astute and gracefully executed Outside, Inside (Ages 3-103) is one that might find its forever home on a shelf beside baby books and photo albums. A book our children might someday take down and share with their own kids—let me show you what it was like when “everybody who was outside…went inside.” Amidst the many new children’s books tackling the subject of lockdown, this one rises to the top. Many would have us believe it was all rainbows, but this one holds the sadness alongside the wonder, the uncertainty alongside the hope. Outside, Inside reminds us that a new day is dawning, but we will never forget how we got here.

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Losing a Dog

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

When my son was four and our dog died, I checked out a pile of themed picture books from the library and we read them over and over for two weeks. Every time I asked my son how he was feeling, or whether he wanted to talk about what had happened, he walked over to the pile, grabbed a book off the top, and climbed into my lap. It shouldn’t have surprised me—after all, I have always turned to books to process life experiences—but it did. Before my eyes, I watched this small boy silently work out stuff right there on the page.

One of the most common requests I get from parents is for books about losing a dog or cat. There is no lack of picture books on the subject, but most of them are only OK. Some are beautiful, even profound, acknowledgments of loss—like this and this—and even though I love them, they tend towards the abstract. Others fall into the same trap that we parents do when our children are in pain: they are quick to reassure, to provide distraction, to provide replacement (The dog is happy in heaven! Let’s go pick out a new puppy!). Many pay lip service to the emotional upheaval that is grief, but few model what it means to make space for it.

In my personal experience, grief does not abate without time. Time can’t work alone, it won’t solve all things, but it creates distance, and with distance comes perspective and growth and opportunity. But in the wake of pain, time is at best uncomfortable; at worst it is infuriating, terrifying, and unfathomable. It’s no wonder we don’t like to acknowledge it, much less encourage our children to sit in it.

And yet, here’s a new picture book that does just that—and does it brilliantly. In Matthew Cordell’s Bear Island (Ages 4-8), a full year passes from the moment a girl loses her dog to the time her family welcomes a new one. In Cordell’s expert hands, this year unfolds slowly across every page turn. It unfolds while a girl spends her days on an island with a stick and a bear for company. It unfolds in the physical and mental space of the girl’s anger, sadness, boredom, regret, and fear.

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