2022 Gift Guide: The Middle-Grade Books (Ages 7-14)

November 22, 2022 § Leave a comment

Ask me what installment of the Gift Guide is my favorite to write, and the answer will always be the middle-grade one. These are the stories that have my heart, the same types of books that once made a reader out of me. As an adult, even if it wasn’t my job to do so, I’d still read them, because they’re that good. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to try some of the titles below as family read alouds, or simply read them before or after your children finish them (which, by the way, your kids will love you for).

Whereas “middle-grade books” used to mean stories exclusively targeted at ages 8-12, today’s category is increasingly broadening to encompass young teens as well. The result is a kind of Venn diagram of stories. There are stories intended for kids in the middle years of elementary school, which tend to be lighter and faster paced. And then there are heavier, more nuanced stories written for readers who are entering or already tackling the middle-school years. In today’s post, you’ll find plentiful recommendations in both these younger and older middle-grade categories, and they’re presented here in ascending order.

Regardless of where on the spectrum these stories fall, they are exceptional examples of storytelling, with rich language, complex characters, and original twists and turns. For as much as they entertain us, they also make us think about the world around us in new and interesting ways.

2022 has been another banner year for middle-grade books—so much so that the titles below were all published in the second half of the year, many in just the last few weeks. In other words, this is not a “best of 2022” list, because if it was, it would include A Duet for Home, The Last Mapmaker, The Marvellers, Those Kids From Fawn Creek, Zachary Ying and the Last Emperor, Cress Watercress, and Jennifer Chan is Not Alone—all of which were featured in my Summer Reading Guide earlier this year.

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2022 Summer Reading Guide: The Middle-Grade Novels

June 9, 2022 § Leave a comment

My Summer Reading Guide kicks off with a whopping seventeen fantastic middle-grade novels—my favorites of 2022 thus far. I had to break out graphic novels into another post, so hold tight and you’ll have those soon. After that, I’ll conclude with books for developing readers. So, keep your eyes right here in the coming weeks! (I regret that I haven’t kept up with older teen reading as much as I’d like, but that will change soon. Stay posted to Instagram where I’ll share reviews for those I read and love.)

I also recently did a guest post for Old Town Books, where I’m the kids’ buyer, with tips for keeping your kids reading all summer long. Many of us credit our own childhood summers with igniting a love of reading. Throw in some Sun-In and a rainbow push pop, and spending time in the company of Ramona Quimby or Prince Caspian was a pretty fabulous way to pass hot, lazy afternoons. But how do we convince our kids to follow suit, given today’s busy camp schedules and the lurking enticement of screens? How do we make sure our kids don’t lose the reading skills they’ve been working hard to master during the school year? Even better, how do we translate those skills into a genuine love for reading where our kids will turn to books for entertainment without nudging from us? Check out my tips here.

The below recommendations are arranged from youngest to oldest. For a fun twist, I’ve organized the list into sections by comparative titles. I hope this is helpful!

Finally, if you don’t have an indie bookstore near you, please consider supporting my work by using the links to order through the Old Town Books website. We ship every day!

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In Defense of Sad Books

May 26, 2022 § 6 Comments

(PSST…before we begin, summer reading is coming! If you’re in the Alexandria area, I’d love to see you at Old Town Books on Thursday, June 2, at 7:00pm, where I’ll be presenting my Summer Reading Guide for ages 6-16, with lots of personal shopping to follow! Tickets can be purchased here.)

It has been six years since Lauren Wolk penned her Newbery Honor-winning novel, Wolf Hollow (Ages 10-14), one of the single greatest works of literature I have ever read. (Yes, I’m counting adult books.) It’s a book whose comparisons to other great American novels, most commonly To Kill a Mockingbird, are entirely warranted.

Still, over those six years, I’ve grown weary of recommending the book. When I’ve tried to bring it into schools for book clubs, I’ve been told, “It’s a magnificent book, but I’m worried it will upset kids.” When parents ask me to describe the plot, their skepticism radiates off them: Why would I share a story like that with my child? Do they really need to experience such sadness? Won’t it frighten them? Erode their innocence?

Neither of my kids was old enough for the book when it came out, so when the sequel released earlier this spring, My Own Lightning, I decided to revisit the original, this time aloud with my eleven year old. And I’ll admit: I had not remembered how sad it is. Reading it the second time around, this time through the lens of a parent with a child the same age as the protagonist, I did periodically wonder, Is this too much? When our kids have the rest of their lives to discover pain, should storytime be exclusively reserved for funny, fantastical, feel-good themes?

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the writing is. How Lauren Wolk is that rare writer as well versed at writing gorgeous stand-alone sentences as casting these sentences into a tight arc that moves breathlessly towards its conclusion. Not one word is wasted in this novel—not one word—which is a rare, rare gift for a parent reading aloud.

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the protagonist is. How even in the midst of terrible cruelty, terrible sadness, terrible truth telling, Annabelle finds within herself strength, resilience, and unwavering hope. Through the goodness of Annabelle’s actions and the support of her parents, brothers, and teacher, the reader is never without light. That light might be subtle, but it’s undeniably present.

I had also not remembered what an historical novel set between two world wars can reveal about our country, about the men who left for war and came back changed in ways that sometimes bred more misunderstanding and judgment from others than compassion. About the way neighbors of German descent were suddenly regarded with suspicion—or worse. About the way generations of families tightened belts, hunkered under one roof, ate off their own garden plots, and held their breath in a climate of intense uncertainty.

Wolf Hollow is about all of this without really being about any of it. Strictly speaking, it’s about one girl in a tiny Pennsylvania town who is on the receiving end of physical threats and violence from a new classmate—and chooses to stay silent about it for one beat too long. This silence inadvertently casts suspicion on a veteran named Toby, a mysterious outlier in the community, whom many regard as dangerous but whom Annabelle has always seen as gentle and kind. Against mounting odds, Annabelle tries to save Toby and clear his name.

And yet. While the tears streamed from my own eyes in the final chapters, my daughter’s eyes remained dry. To say she loved the book is an understatement: we have rarely moved so quickly though a read aloud and onto its sequel, because she could not get enough. (We’re halfway through the sequel, so keep your eyes on Instagram for that update.) She was captivated, riveted, couldn’t look away. But she was not gutted in the way that I was reading it. Neither was she horrified or haunted. “I like books that tell what life is really like,” she told me. “Not enough books tell the truth.”

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A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

April 14, 2022 Comments Off on A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

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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When A Book Comes Along for the Field Trip

January 20, 2022 § 2 Comments

There was no shortage of grumbling when, one morning over winter break, I announced we were going to Arlington National Cemetery, a ten minute drive from our house.

“But we’ve been there a million times,” my son complained.

“You’ve been there exactly once,” I responded. “Plus, my great-grandfather was a Colonel in World War One, and he’s buried there.”

“We know, because you tell us all the time,” my daughter interjected, not to be outdone by her brother.

“Well, we’ve had a Covid Christmas and we need somewhere to go that’s outside, so that’s that,” I issued, like the authoritarian parent I am.

In my 14-year parenting tenure, there has never been an outing I haven’t been able to improve with a children’s book. In this case, I’d had one tucked away for almost a year. I knew the kids would come around. They always come around.

Jeff Gottesfeld’s Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, majestically illustrated by Matt Tavares (don’t count him out for a Caldecott), takes us behind the scenes of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—indisputably the most fascinating part of Arlington Cemetery. No one can help but be awestruck upon beholding the discipline, concentration, and precision of the sentinel guards who keep vigil there, every moment of every day, 365 days a year, in every type of weather.

Especially if you’ve had the chance to read Twenty-One Steps immediately before.

Which our family had, while seated in front of my great-grandparents’ gravestone, under a brilliantly blue December sky, surrounded by thousands of wreaths placed there for the holidays. We read while we waited for the top of the hour, when we headed over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard.

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A Road Trip Read Aloud

September 23, 2021 § 1 Comment

“It’d been a long time since I’d seen [Dad] like this. I wish it hadn’t required an eight-hour road trip, a bird watcher and his dumb son, a bear attack, a nudist French couple, and his now somewhat-but-not-really ex-girlfriend to make him act more like his old self.”

This passage occurs towards the end of Cliff Burke’s An Occasionally Happy Family (Ages 9-13), and I suppose you could fault me for spoiling some plot twists, but doesn’t it also make you want to read it?

My husband and I took turns reading aloud this debut novel last weekend, as we road tripped from Washington DC to Buffalo, NY for my grandmother’s rescheduled memorial service. I had heard it was incredibly funny—indeed, it had all of us in stitches multiple times—and I couldn’t resist the idea of syncing our road trip with a literary one (you know I love a themed reading experience). I figured, if we were going to immerse ourselves in hardcore family togetherness for 72 hours, we might as well learn to laugh at ourselves by watching another family make a total mess of it.

There’s nothing like a vacation gone wrong to make for great storytelling.

What I didn’t expect was to find such tenderness behind the humor. Such authenticity in the narrative voice, such punch in the dialogue, such depth in the relationships. An Occasionally Happy Family may be about camping in 101 degrees, it may be about dorky dads and teenage eye rolls, but it’s also about a family who finds their way back to each other after grief drove them apart.

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Remembering 9/11 with Five Books for Different Ages

September 2, 2021 § 4 Comments

Everyone has a story about where they were on 9/11, and if you tell yours, you’ll almost certainly be interrupted by someone eager to share theirs. And yet, for stories so easily accessed—seemingly lying in wait on the tip of our tongue—we go to great lengths to keep them from leaking out into mainstream conversation, or even into the privacy of our own homes, without explicit invitation. This is especially true with our children.

Twenty years have passed, but talking about 9/11 with children—especially young children—continues to makes many parents and teachers uncomfortable. I cannot begin to appreciate the trauma of those directly impacted by the horrific events of that day, but even those of us physically distanced from the attacks felt a profound terror course through our veins as we attempted to make sense of what we were seeing on our television screens, as we scrambled to contact loved ones in New York or Washington DC, as we passed subsequent days under eerily silent skies. It was a fear unprecedented for many of us, and it represented a before-and-after moment we can never un-see. Many of us would rather avoid the topic altogether, or gloss over the horrifying details, than pass along that fear to our children.

And yet, our children have spent their entire lives in a post-9/11 world—in the “after,” so to speak. The safety precautions that started in its wake are the only ones our kids have ever known. I let my ten-year-old daughter read Alan Gratz’s Ground Zero (discussed below) earlier this year after she begged, and I waited for her to set it down, to tell me it was too scary, that she never wanted to take an elevator or get on a plane again. But that didn’t happen. She absorbed the horrors in those pages as she had those in The War That Saved My Life, a gorgeous but also heavy novel about World War Two. I might say she hungered for it.

I’ve come to see that my children want us to talk about that day. They want to understand what led to our longest war in history, the tragic aftermath of which is playing out right now. They want to understand the terror we felt. They want, as I do each time I visit my mom in Manhattan, to stand in front of the reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial and marvel at the names, to contemplate the absence that the rushing water dies into.

I’ve come to see the value in unburdening this history—both for them and for us. We don’t know exactly where 9/11 will land in history, but we do know that our democracy was attacked that day, that our power structures were undermined, and that we were forced to take stock of the values we hold most dear. The events of that day are not only part of our cultural consciousness, they’re a reminder that we must work every day to uphold the freedom that paves the way for a more just and equitable world. (I had my own 9/11 reckoning earlier this year, when I listened to the astounding audio production of Garrett M. Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky.)

I’ve come to see the value that good, careful literature offers in imparting this history—and in pointing us towards hope. In the face of egregious violence and horror and loss on 9/11, there were countless narratives of resilience. Of coming together. Of helping and sacrificing and supporting. Of courage in the most unlikely places. As author Jewell Parker Rhodes recently said on a Little Brown panel, “Narrative takes pain and chaos and helps us make sense of it in a way that allows us to move toward healing.”

Children’s books have a universally honored obligation to end with hope, no matter the subject. It’s what makes them so sacred. The books I discuss below—some a few years old and some published to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11—take the trauma of that day and transform it into history with grace and beauty. There’s an immensely moving and uplifting picture book that allows the smallest child to connect with the absence and loss surrounding 9/11—I would not hesitate to read it to a four year old, nor to any age for that matter—and there are chapter books that approach the subject from various angles (and with various levels of violence). There’s an outstanding graphic novel that manages a comprehensive study of the subject in just over 100 pages. As always, I provide age ranges below each title.

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Reality Trumps Fiction (Take Two)

August 5, 2021 § 1 Comment

Way back in 2013, when my kids thought all the best stories had to be “made-up,” I wrote a blog post about how, occasionally, reality trumps fiction. That is to say, sometimes a story blows our mind, not only because it’s beautiful and moving and awe-inspiring and original, but also because it happens to be true. Kids today have no shortage of options for picture book biographies, true stories about incredible individuals told with spellbinding art and captivating narratives, but when it comes to the animal world, the emphasis has historically been on information versus story.

Maybe that’s why The Elephants Come Home: A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship (Ages 6-9), written by Kim Tomsic and illustrated by Hadley Hooper, feels so special. It tells an amazing story—a story we’d warm to even if it was entirely made-up—but it gives us an added case of the goosies because we know from the start that it really happened. Or maybe it’s because the book straddles the animal and human world, allowing for some of the same storytelling prowess that has made picture book biographies soar in popularity. Or maybe it’s because it is stunningly executed (that paper! those colors! that art! those page turns!). Whatever the case, it’s hands down one of the best examples of narrative non-fiction I’ve ever come across. Even my daughter, age ten, has inhaled its 58 pages again and again. (If you trust me, stop reading to avoid the spoilers below and go get the book!)

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The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

May 13, 2021 Comments Off on The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

How do you choose the chapter books you read to your kids? Maybe you consider whether the subject matter will appeal to them. Maybe you focus on what kind of characters they’ll identify with. Maybe you know they’ll be more likely to sit still for a funny story than one with long descriptive passages. Maybe you reach for a book because it’s one your child has asked you to read, or one you think you should read, or one by an author your child loves.

Whatever your criteria, it’s likely you’re thinking more about the audience than about yourself.

What if I told you your audience doesn’t matter?

OK, that’s not entirely true. Of course, your audience matters. Especially with younger children, there will always be ages and maturity levels to consider. But do you know what matters more than all the things I listed above? What matters the most?

The secret to picking a chapter book your kids will want to hear night after night is to pick one you will enjoy reading.

Your enthusiasm for what you’re reading influences your children’s enjoyment more than anything else. When you’re into a story, your eyes light up. Your voice is more dynamic. You are infinitely more likely to make that story enticing. Suddenly, the dishes in the sink or your buzzing phone fade into the background. Suddenly, there is nothing more important, nothing more exciting, than the mutual experience of immersing yourselves in a fictional world.

It’s tremendously liberating. Don’t enjoy fantasy? Don’t read it. Bored to tears by the likes of Magic Tree House? Save ‘em for your kids to read on their own. By reading aloud to your children, especially after they are reading on their own, you are giving them a precious gift. You’re choosing to prioritize reading in the home. I’m giving you permission to enjoy it as much as your kids do. Heck, I’m telling you your enjoyment will nearly guarantee their enjoyment—and, consequently, all the benefits that come with it.

For me, it always, always comes back to the writing. I’m a sucker for good writing. I love the way beautiful language rolls off the tongue. I love the drama of a perfectly placed sentence. I love smart, funny dialogue. Most of all, I love writing that’s tight. (Ironic, I know, since succinctness is clearly not my own specialty.) If a paragraph starts to drift or ramble, if the pacing of a story wanes, then my attention breaks. I’m no longer present. My heart’s not in it. The magic is broken…for a spell.

In that vein, I enjoyed every moment of Elana K. Arnold’s The House That Wasn’t There (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which I just finished reading to my ten-year-old daughter. Yes, the story itself has plenty to recommend it—who wouldn’t love middle-school realism with a few teleporting cats thrown in for good measure? But what struck me the entire time I was reading it was how good the writing is. Every sentence is an absolute pleasure to read out loud. It’s tight. It flows beautifully. It filled us with that same warm fuzzies as previous favorites like this, this, and this.

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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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Spring Break Beckons: Middle-Grade Round Up for Ages 7-14

March 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

I spent the winter reading. A lot. And that’s good news for your readers, especially those eager to squirrel away with a new story (or three) over Spring Break. All of the recommendations below are books published this year (with the exception of a late 2020 release). Some of them I’ve already talked about on Instagram, but there are surprises, too. Some skew younger and some older, so be sure to consult the age ranges for each. There are graphic novels, novels in verse, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, memoirs, and realistic fiction.

As always, report back and tell me what your kids thought!

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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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Creating Community with the Vanderbeekers

December 10, 2020 § 1 Comment

Last Saturday, we got a Christmas tree. By all accounts it looked like a ho hum ordeal, much like the rest of 2020. For the first time since having kids, we didn’t drive to a bucolic farm to cut down our own tree and enjoy celebratory hot cider overlooking evergreen-studded hills. Instead, we walked the five blocks to a local nursery and paid twice as much for a tree half as big. It took us so long to get out of the house that by the time we got there, it was dark. We hoisted the tree on our shoulders and walked it back to the temporary digs we’re calling home these days, with the children trailing behind us like shivering ducklings. When we arrived at our front door, we realized the clippers were in storage; we had no way to trim the lower branches to fit the tree in the stand. Also, we had forgotten about dinner.

And yet, when I collapsed into bed several hour later, I could not stop smiling. I turned to my husband. “Why was that so fun?” I mused. Sure, it was an outing, at a time when we have fewer occasions than usual to leave our house. Yes, it was festive (who doesn’t catch the holiday spirit from the scent of evergreen?). But I suspected there was something larger at work. And then it hit me.

Standing among the outdoor crowd in that nursery—waving at neighbors we recognized over their masks, listening to the music piped through crackly speakers, heeding the frenzied calls of workers bundling trees for transport—I felt connected to something larger than myself. For the first time in a long while, I was caught up in community. We have had such few occasions to gather this year; most of the time, seeing people means turning or running the other way. But for one night, I was reminded that rituals and traditions are more meaningful when they’re shared with others. Even strangers. None of us were there for long before we retreated back inside our homes, but for a moment, we remembered what it was like to join together in celebration. (Like the Whos down in Whoville.)

This theme of community features prominently in each of the four titles (and counting!) in Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeekers series, though perhaps none so strongly as in her newest, The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud). If my son’s once-upon-a-time enthusiasm for The Penderwicks and my daughter’s continued enthusiasm for The Problim Children has been any indication, my kids are partial to read alouds with large families. But no literary family has quite united my kids’ affection like the Vanderbeekers, a contemporary, biracial family of five children and two parents living on 141st street in New York City. And no other book has elicited as many tears and cheers as the fourth. Glaser’s writing has not only strengthened with each title, she’s now dipping her toe into meatier plots and more complex emotions.

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When a House Becomes a Home

December 3, 2020 § 6 Comments

It has only been a week since I finished my 2020 Gift Guide and already I need a do over! I started this year’s guide earlier than usual, which meant I was still digging myself out of a hefty “to read” pile, and I’ve since discovered a few gems that positively beg to be included. Like Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House (Ages 3-8). Honestly, this book is so good I might have chosen it as My Favorite Picture Book of the Year (although no disrespect to the two I did choose, because they’re perfection). For sure, it feels like nothing I’ve read this year. It’s raw and tender and gorgeous and loud. It features a single father who reads aloud during bath time, shreds on the electric guitar, and holds space for his son’s feelings, the bad along with the good. And while the story is centered around a modest little old house, it reinforces what it really means for a house to be a home.

My mom has an expression she employs each time I’m preparing to moving into a new space, from dorm rooms, to my first apartment, to the temporary digs we moved into at the start of this pandemic, after breaking ground on renovating what I hope will be our forever home. Whenever I start to worry—That dorm is a 1960s disaster! This apartment hardly has any windows!—she always says with confidence, “You have to make it cute.” Those seven words have become a kind of mantra for me, because there’s inherent optimism in them. It’s the idea that hanging a few pictures, puffing up a few pillows, and putting down a plush rug can transform the spirit of any place. It’s working with what you have. It’s simple. It’s doable.

And it’s true: when we put effort into brightening up our house, we can relax into it. When we make our four walls a tiny extension of ourselves, we can live a little freer, a little louder, a little more boldly. And then there’s the emotional decorating. Because making a house “cute” comes as much from the life we lead inside it: the love we foster, the heartbreak we overcome, the laughs that surprise us, the memories we make. What we give to a house comes back to us as a home.

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2020 Gift Guide: Books for Teens (Ages 13-18)

November 25, 2020 Comments Off on 2020 Gift Guide: Books for Teens (Ages 13-18)

Today marks the end of this year’s Gift Guide, with a slew of fantastic, thought-provoking reads for teens. I’ve taken particular care while indicating age ranges for each book, mindful that some of these contain subject matter appropriate for older teens. (If you missed the previous weeks, there are some great younger teen choices here and here as well. You can also find last year’s list for teens here.)

I would also like to welcome my hubby to these pages for the first time! He wrote the review for True and False, a book I purchased for my son after he asked me, “How can our family be sure the news we’re reading isn’t fake?” but which my husband snagged for himself before it was halfway out of the bag.

You’ll hear a bit more from me before 2020 quits us (or we quit it), because in the seven weeks since I began this Gift Guide, I have stumbled upon books I wish had included. Suffice it to say that my Instagram feed won’t be slowing down anytime soon, either. But I do hope this year’s Gift Guide has proven a worthwhile endeavor for you and your loved ones. Books really do make the best gifts (especially if you support your neighborhood bookstore in the process).

Happy Thanksgiving!

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2020 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14, Part Two

November 13, 2020 § 2 Comments

Today, I’m back with my other ten 2020 favorites for the middle-grade audience. As with part one, I’ve taken care to hit a range of interests, styles, and reading levels, while never sacrificing beautiful writing or complex character development (my motto remains: childhood’s too short for mediocre books).

This year’s middle-grade list was compiled with the intimate involvement of my daughter (10) and son (13). While you can always count on my having read any book I review on this blog, nearly every one of the books in today’s and yesterday’s post was also read and loved by one or both my kids. While we’re in that glorious window of sharing books, I’m milking it.

Another friendly reminder that you won’t find graphic novels here, because they got their own post earlier. And if the twenty titles between today and yesterday aren’t enough, check out 2019’s Middle-Grade Gift Guide post, filled with other treasures (many of which are now out in paperback), or my Summer Reading Round Up from earlier this year. And, of course, as soon as I publish this, the fates guarantee I’ll read something I wish I’d included here, so keep your eyes peeled on Instagram, where I’m regularly posting middle-grade updates.

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2020 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14, Part One

November 12, 2020 § 1 Comment

As evidenced by the massive stack I’m bringing to you today and tomorrow, 2020 delivered some fantastic middle-grade fiction, including a number of novels by debut authors your kids won’t forget anytime soon. (It delivered non-fiction as well, as evidenced by my earlier endorsement of the astounding All Thirteen.)

One could make a case that storytelling has never been more essential. The stories below will take children far beyond the four walls of their home. They will entertain and inspire, while also eliciting empathy for those with different lived experiences. They will comfort, nurture, even heal. They’re the hope our children need to go forth into a brighter 2021.

A few of the novels I blogged about earlier in the year but mention again because I live in fear that you might miss them. The rest are new to these pages. (Remember, you won’t find any 2020 graphic novels here, because they got their own post.)

Below are the first ten. The second ten will follow tomorrow. I’ve taken particular care in noting the suggested age range below each title. Some of these skew younger, others older. I hope I’ve found something for every tween and young teen in your life.

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2020 Gift Guide: Favorite Graphic Novels for Ages 6-15

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!

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2020 Gift Guide: My Favorite Picture Book for Preschoolers

October 20, 2020 § 5 Comments

Similar to last year (when I picked this and this), I find myself unable to choose between two picture books for my very favorite of 2020. Still, the two I’ve chosen play to slightly different audiences, so I’m using that as an excuse to bring you two picture book posts this week. I’ll begin with my favorite for the littles.

It seems to me that what we should really gift our youngest children this year is what we wish for ourselves: the literary equivalent of a giant bear hug. In a year dominated by disconnection and uncertainty, we have had to work harder to love both one another and ourselves. If we are to fill the void that 2020 has left on our hearts, it will be through care and compassion, including and especially self-compassion. And that’s where The Bear and the Moon delivers beautifully.

Written by Matthew Burgess and illustrated by Cátia Chien, The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) is a playful, poetic story about a bear and a balloon. But it’s also a visceral meditation on life’s impermanence—and on the forgiveness and self-love required to weather these moments of loneliness and sorrow. I’ve always believed that the best picture books should offer a little something to the adults called upon to read them again and again, and The Bear and the Moon provides comfort and reassurance to both reader and listener alike.

And then, of course, there are the mixed-media illustrations, which are in a class by themselves. Smudgy and sublime, they wash over us with a gorgeous palette of purples and blues, accented by the velvety black of the bear and the clean paper cut-out of the red balloon. And that expressive bear face? A thousand times yes.

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