September 24, 2020 § 1 Comment
Not many people know this, but my daughter is named after Emily Dickinson. (Well, and the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon.) I didn’t fall for Emily Dickinson’s poetry until I got to college, when I fell hard and fast and ended up featuring her poems in no fewer than seven essays, including my Senior Thesis. I had never been a big poetry lover, but there was something about the compactness of her poems which fascinated me. So much meaning was packed into such few words. And even then, the meaning was like an ever-shifting target, evolving with every reading.
To read Emily Dickinson is to contemplate universal truths.
Apart from reading Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s 1992 picture book, Emily, I hadn’t had much occasion talk to my own Emily about her namesake. But that changed last spring, when my Emily started writing poetry of her own. Nothing about virtual learning was working for her, until her teachers started leading her and her classmates in poetry writing. Suddenly, my daughter couldn’t jot down poems fast enough, filling loose sheets of paper before designating an orange journal for the occasion. She wrote poems for school, for fun, and for birthday cards. It didn’t matter that they weren’t going to win awards for originality; what mattered was that she had found a means of self-expression during a stressful, beguiling time.
Jennifer Berne’s On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson (Ages 7-10), stunningly illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, could not have entered the world at a more perfect time. It opens a dialogue, not only about Dickinson’s unconventional life, but about her poems themselves. At a time when a pandemic has prompted many of us and our children to turn inward, this picture book is less a traditional biography than an homage to the rich interior life developed by this extraordinary poet and showcased in her poetry.
September 17, 2020 § 1 Comment
As my kids have gotten older, reading aloud to both of them together (at the dinner table, because sanity) has largely replaced reading to each one individually. Still, sometimes a book comes along that begs to be read to one and not the other. Natalie Llyod’s The Problim Children series, which recently concluded with Island in the Stars (Ages 8-12), feels as if it were written for my daughter, ever watchful for signs of magic in her own life and fascinated by the dynamics of large families. Lloyd’s plot lines, with their plucky heroines and sinister villains, are evocative of Roald Dahl, another read-aloud favorite, though her writing has a dreamy quality all her own—a perfect match for my daughter’s non-linear brain.
Over the past eighteen months, Emily and I have drawn out reading these books together, savoring them on weekend mornings when her brother wakes up full steam ahead but she’s still content to climb into my bed with her arms full of stuffed sheep, burrowing her sleepy body into mine. When we got to the end of the third and final book, I didn’t tear up just because of the story’s beautiful ending; I know these years of reading together are fleeting.
The fleetingness of childhood is a theme which runs through The Problim Children series, named for the seven siblings at the center of this most memorable family. On the one hand, a series of precipitous events pushes these siblings to grow up in a hurry: in just a few weeks, they must unravel a series of riddles left to them by their late grandfather, rescue their parents from the evil Augustus Snide (nicknamed Cheese Breath), and destroy a fountain of youth without being tempted to drink from it. And yet, even as they tackle these adult problems, the Problim siblings exist in that enticing storybook place outside the realm of the adult world. They march to the beat of their own drum, operating under their own set of rules and decorum. No matter what life deals them, they hold fast to their childlike sense of wonder, their belief in the impossible, and their fierce love for one another.
June 30, 2020 § 1 Comment
With Pride parades canceled because of the pandemic, we have to work a little harder to see the rainbows. I didn’t want June to end before I had a chance to raise up one of my favorite recent discoveries (although it came out last year), a book so full of love that when I first got it, I couldn’t stop hugging it to my chest. It’s impossible to read this book without the biggest smile. Not just because the main character is a radiant beam of sunshine in and of himself. Not just because it has some of the most beautiful illustrations I have ever seen (Kaylani Juanita, where have you been all my life?). But because the love these parents shine down on their son is the very best—albeit most difficult—kind of love. It’s a love which sees him, not for who they expect or want him to be, but for who he actually is. It’s a love taught to them by this son—and one echoed in the way he prepares to welcome his new sibling.
It’s a tall order, but the world would be a vastly improved place if we all rose to follow the example of love in this book.
When Aidan Became a Brother (Ages 3-8), written by Kyle Lukoff and illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, is not just another book about welcoming a new sibling. True, in many ways, it’s the “new sibling” book we didn’t realize we were missing. But the book is equally pertinent whether you’re expecting a new family member or not. Aidan doesn’t simply tail his pregnant mom, fantasizing about a new playmate or worrying he’ll suddenly fall to second place. Nope, Aidan’s sets his sights on a larger question: what can he do to ensure his younger sibling feels understood and accepted right out of the gate?
Aidan’s fervent and sometimes nervous desire to become a caring big brother is intimately informed by the struggle he faced in his own first years. “When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl.” The story’s opening spread—a look back into Aidan’s recent past—reveals a pink-decorated room with traditional girl fare: a canopy bed, a dollhouse, and an array of flowery dresses held up by Aidan’s doting mother. Aidan sits before a pink tea set in a pink dress, wearing a look of misery.
June 11, 2020 § 1 Comment
This Father’s Day, my own father will have been gone for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years. One of the most devastating things about losing a parent when you’re eighteen is that you never get to know that parent through an adult lens. I knew my father intimately, from his scratchy mustache to his eye-rolling wisecracks to his endless patience as I described every painstaking detail of my day. But I knew him as a child knows a parent. How I wish I could have known him as an adult.
In times of great upheaval and unrest, I feel my father’s absence most keenly. Every seismic shift in our world puts that much more space between him and me. How would he be participating in this national conversation about race? Would he be marching with a Black Lives Matter sign? What candidate would he have supported in the last Democratic primary? How would social distancing have impacted his life in retirement—or would he still be practicing law? What kinds of things would he enjoy doing with his grandchildren?
I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, though I ask them quietly to myself all the time.
What I do know is that there are certain things which always bring him back to me. And one of them is travel. My father’s love of travel was legendary. When I was very young and he would travel internationally for work, he’d always bring me souvenirs—usually dolls—from places like Brazil, Mexico, and Germany. I loved gazing at the tiny porcelain faces or printed fabric clothes and imagining where they had been. Our house was full of black-and-white photographs from before my time: my father on a camel in the Sahara, my father on a motorcycle in Greece. When I decided to spend a gap year in Vietnam after high school, he jumped at the chance to accompany me across the ocean. When, weeks later, it came time for him to return to the States, his parting words were, “It looks like you’ve got the travel bug now, too.” I beamed with pride.
It seems fated that I would fall deeply in love with Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s new picture book, Papa Brings Me the World (Ages 3-7), in which a young girl describes her affection for a father who travels the world and brings pieces of it back to her. I’ve long been a fan of Kostecki-Shaw’s (my daughter still pulls out Luna & Me), but this book positively transported me. Maybe because it’s inspired by the author-illustrator’s own father; maybe it’s because the theme of found objects lends itself beautifully to mixed-media collage; or maybe it’s because the voice of the little girl reminds me of my young self, brimming with tenderness and curiosity and admiration and longing for my father’s stories of adventure.
March 20, 2020 Comments Off on Moving Through Uncertainty (A Book Club Post)
It feels unfathomable that only a single week has passed since I was in my daughter’s Montessori classroom for book club with the third graders. It feels more like a lifetime, so frequently and relentlessly has the rug been pulled out from beneath our Normalcy since then. With schools shuttered and social distancing mandated, we’re all scrambling to find some semblance of routine, to cling to optimism about our loved ones and our community, to keep from sinking into the couch and staying there for good.
Last Thursday concluded seven weeks of discussing Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw (Ages 9-12), our second pick of the year (click here for my Instagram post on our first book), and we celebrated the way we do: with a party. Only this time the popcorn was complemented with purple jelly beans: a favorite of the oversized, outspoken, outlandish cat named Crenshaw, once Jackson’s imaginary friend, who unexpectedly (and awkwardly) reappears during his fifth-grade year.
When I chose the book, I could not have known how apt it would turn out to be for the ordeal we’re now living through. I had chosen it for three reasons. Firstly, Applegate’s short chapters and direct sentences are accessible to a variety of readers, while the nuance, maturity, and visual acuity she packs into her words create rich fodder for discussion. Secondly, if reading fiction is linked to building empathy, Crenshaw represents a rare opportunity in middle-grade fiction to step into the shoes of someone living in poverty—and to discover he isn’t that different from us. Thirdly, the humor in this story, employed to balance out the sadness, is infectious: it’s unexpected; it’s absurd; it’s cinematic. (A giant cat who enjoys making bubble beards in the bath? Yes, please.) The light in the kids’ eyes as they begged to read aloud favorite passages each week only confirmed this.
But it turns out the most powerful reason to read Crenshaw—and why you may want to read it at home right now—may be its theme of uncertainty. How do we keep going when the world stops making sense?
January 30, 2020 § 6 Comments
Last week, I flew to Boston to see my 101-year-old grandmother for what will likely be the last time. Her lucidity came and went throughout our few hours together, and at times she seemed to look at me and see a much younger version of her granddaughter. “What are your studying in school?” she asked.
“I’m not in school anymore,” I answered. “I’m all grown up! I have kids in school now.”
“That’s no excuse!” she exclaimed, in a playful but insistent tone I recognized all too well.
Perhaps she was simply covering up her mistake. But perhaps not. My paternal grandmother may have attended college for only two years, but she spent much of her adult and geriatric life chasing down knowledge wherever she could. She read biographies voraciously. She traveled the world. She referred to herself as a “news junkie” when you came upon her studying a newspaper. When she moved into her retirement home at 88, she signed up for every class they offered, from Buddhism to World War Two. “I’m taking a fascinating class about the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” she reported on the phone one day. “It has me quite disturbed, actually.”
On another call: “I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s new book. He’s an absolutely brilliant biologist. I’m not sure I’m understanding a word of it, but I suppose some of it might be sneaking in!”
Learning as something to be seized and cherished is a value I will always credit to my grandmother. Still, learning is a luxury not afforded to all, and nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the stories of American slaves. Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s new picture book biography, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Ages 6-10), movingly illustrated by collage artist Oge Mora, tells the incredible true story of a former slave who achieved her lifelong dream of learning to read at the astounding age of 116.
December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment
It’s what I hear most often from parents: “I can’t get my kid to read anything but graphic novels.” The assumption is one of concern: perhaps said kiddo is dabbling in literature less worthy than the meaty prose novels many of us devoured in our own childhoods. The question of whether to purchase graphic novels also stumps parents: is it worth buying books our kids will tear through so quickly? After all, a graphic novel that takes an entire year to create can often be finished by an avid young reader in a single sitting.
AND YET. I would argue that graphic novels are some of the greatest (material) gifts we can bestow on our children. Today’s kids are growing up in a more visual culture than we ever did. Couple that with the exploding innovation coming out of the comics market right now, and is it any wonder these books are so alluring to young readers? I’ve watched my own children fall in love with reading through these books. I’ve watched them return to favorite comics in times of stress or change. I’ve watched them bend over graphic novels in the backseat during carpool, with friends on either side leaning in.
Good graphic novels are clever and layered and poignant and often shockingly beautiful. Their vocabulary is rich. To read them is never a passive experience; rather, kids need to work to extract the complete narrative, to find the innuendos and deeper meanings hidden in the cross-section between picture and text. Herein lies the best case for owning graphic novels: the reason your kids return to them again and again isn’t just because they enjoy them; it’s because they get more out of every reading.
Best of all, today’s graphic novels are tackling a range of subjects and genres, including science, history, biography, and immensely valuable socio-emotional learning. 2019 was a banner year for graphic novels. Below are some of the stand-outs (including what my own kids are getting for the holidays!).
November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments
Last week, I told you about My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. I also told that you that, this year, I had two favorites. In fact, this second may be one of my favorite read-alouds ever. Seriously. Want me to swing by right now and read this to your kids? I’m in. Though I think they’d probably have more fun if you did it.
On the surface, Matthew Forsythe’s Pokko and the Drum (Ages 3-7) has a straightforward premise: girl gets drum; girl finds a way of expressing herself; girl wins over her skeptical parents. The originality lies entirely in Forsythe’s execution: a color palette at once earthy and whimsical; strategic use of white space to control pacing; expressive animal figures; subversive humor; and page turns perfectly timed for dramatic impact.
Forsythe’s dry humor kicks off in the story’s opening sentence: “The biggest mistake Pokko’s parents ever made was giving her a drum.” Proving that her parents know a thing or two about mistakes, we get a quick visual look at some of their previous ill-conceived gifts: “the slingshot” (launches Pokko), “the balloon” (up, up, and away), and—my personal favorite—“the llama” (destroys the house). « Read the rest of this entry »
November 14, 2019 § 3 Comments
My son is convinced that he cannot find his tin of Hypercolor Twilight Thinking Putty because his sister snatched it for herself. As it turns out, this same flavor of putty is in a drawer in her room. And yet, she claims she bought this putty with her own money at a gift shop over a year ago. He says she bought a different flavor. Neither can understand why I don’t reserve a part of my brain for keeping track of their fidget purchases. (Never mind that they both have numerous tins in numerous flavors, and is Hypercolor Twilight really that much more satisfying than Emerald Sky?!)
It has been weeks—weeks!—and still the accusations fly from the mouth of my eldest. The interrogations. The investigations (which aren’t really investigations so much as relentless demanding that we agree with him). Here’s the thing: from where I’m standing (hands over my ears), it is entirely probable that this tiny tin of putty was left lying around the house (GASP!) and some adult picked it up and put it in my daughter’s room and no one was the wiser for months. You know what Mr. Finger Pointer doesn’t want to acknowledge in all this? The possibility that if he had taken better care of his putty, it would still be in his room.
Assuming personal responsibility—be it for our carelessness or mistakes or misunderstandings—is one of the toughest things our kids have to learn. Heck, many of us adults still struggle with this. (My hand’s certainly in the air.) Why turn towards our own regret, remorse, embarrassment, or shame when we can don the more tantalizing cloak of anger and go all Grizzly on someone else? Fortunately, in their new picture book, Who Wet My Pants? (Ages 4-8), Bob Shea and Zachariah Ohoro have given us a clever, quirky, and hysterically funny way to broach the subject of personal accountability with our kids. (This is not a potty book.)
November 7, 2019 Comments Off on Fall is Looking Good: Middle-Grade Round Up
Of the dozens of middle-grade books I’ve read so far this fall (and I see no reason to stop anytime soon), here are the ones that have risen to the top. All except one I’ve featured on Instagram in recent weeks, but it seemed like a good time to round them up here. Publishers often save their best titles for fall, and this fall is proving pretty spectacular. May your children take advantage of the dwindling daylight to curl up with one of these gems. Perhaps they’ll find their people. Perhaps they’ll re-frame what it means to be an American. Perhaps they’ll even get closer to answering the question on the back of Jason Reynolds’ newest contribution to the tween psyche: How you gon’ change the world?
(Oh, and should you need something for yourself or your older teen, you’ll just have to get on the ‘gram to see this review. It’s only my favorite read of the fall.)
September 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
When I was eight, I led my father into our coat closet, pushed aside the coats to make a small opening, closed the door, and sat him opposite me on the floor. As we both hunched uncomfortably, I handed him a piece of torn notebook paper and a pencil. On the paper was a list of every swear word I had ever heard. “I want you to write down what each of these words mean,” I said. “Please,” I added, so as not to sound bossy.
I’ll never forget the way my dad didn’t miss a beat. As if this was a natural ask from a firstborn. He didn’t speak, just wrote down a word or two beside each of mine. When he was finished, he handed me the list, and that was that. We stood up, opened the door, and went our separate ways.
In the safety of my bedroom, I got up the nerve to look at what my father had written. It may have been the most anticlimactic moment of my life to date. Female dog. Human feces. I’m sure there were others, but I can’t remember the complete list. I stared in disbelief. I wasn’t entirely sure what all of them meant (what the heck was feces?), but I did know they didn’t sound particularly harmful, certainly not worth the drama which ensued each time someone used one of them at school.
In that moment, I also knew I wasn’t getting the whole truth. I thought the answer was in my father’s pencil strokes, but what I failed to realize was that I actually craved a conversation with him. I wanted to understand what was so terrible about these words. I wanted to understand why they were used the way they were. Looking back, I even wish he had explained some of the gender politics behind them. But I didn’t know how to make any of that happen.
In an effort to demystify these words for me, my father stood in the way of my more fully understanding the world I was sharing with him. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 29, 2019 § 9 Comments
At no time more than summer do our children grow up. Camps, camping, gloriously long stretches of daylight, ample opportunities at exploration and courage and boredom…all of this combines to ensure that the children we send back to school in the fall are not quite the ones we ushered in summer with.
I was ill prepared for the onslaught of emotions I would feel upon picking up my oldest from his first sleepaway camp experience in Maine. As we slowed along the gravel road though the camp entrance, my excitement of the past 24 hours turned to butterflies. How would he seem? Would he look different? Would he have made friends? Would he burst into angry tears and declare he was never coming back?
We didn’t have to wait long: he was standing alone not far from the entrance. I waved frantically, shouting at my husband to stop the car so I could jump out. JP smiled broadly as I threw my arms around him, but something was immediately apparent. He was quiet. More upright than I’d remembered. More reserved than I’d expected. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 12, 2019 Comments Off on “The Bravest Thing a Person Can Do”: Three Immigrant Stories
These provocative words hail from Jasmine Warga’s Other Words from Home, one of three new books with a unique, powerful presentation of the immigrant experience for a different age group. Whether set in the past or present, these stories have never been more relevant to share with our children. If our kids are someday to have a hand in the creation of fair, just, compassionate policy, they should spend some time in the shoes of the very people whose lives these policies aim to impact.
What does it mean to arrive in this country with hope in your heart? What does it mean to walk away from family, from the familiar, from foods you’ve eaten all your life, and step into the Unknown? Each of the below books explores these questions, while posing another of its own.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 2, 2019 § 9 Comments
Grief can be the loneliest feeling in the world. In the immediate aftermath of a great loss, we are often surrounded by an outpouring of love and affection. We receive letters, phone calls, dishes of food, offers of help. But, in the weeks and months ahead, most around us will eventually resume their own lives, leaving us to sit quietly, restlessly, fearfully with our grief. Some will stop mentioning it at all, perhaps worried that talk of it will bring up fresh sadness. Some prefer to stop thinking about it all together, lest the tragedy of what happened to us be contagious. None of this is ill-intentioned. It stems from our basic human instinct to protect and survive.
It may also stem from inexperience.
The new picture book, Maybe Tomorrow? (Ages 4-8), by Charlotte Agell, with illustrations by Ana Ramírez González, is a whimsical, hopeful, deeply touching story about a new friendship forged in the aftermath of grief. It is one of the most delicate and perfect manifestations of grief I’ve ever encountered in a children’s book—but it also does something else. It presents a window into what it’s like to be on the outside of grief. It invites us to empathize with those who are mourning, then gives us some ideas for how to help another shoulder the burden of grief.
When I started college, in the fall of 1994, I had lost my father three months earlier. I had had an entire summer to mourn. To cry, to rage, to field calls from concerned relatives and friends, to fight and make up with my mother and sister more times than I could count. When I walked onto campus that September and neatly unpacked my things into my single room, I felt pressure to put my grief behind me. To fit in. To throw myself into making friends and studying hard and not be known as “the girl who just lost her father.”
And then, suddenly, I couldn’t see.« Read the rest of this entry »
April 25, 2019 § 2 Comments
My daughter delights in mischief. The mischief of others, that is. She, herself, may be intent to uphold a “good as gold” persona, but she wastes no time in reporting on the transgressions of others—classmates, the new puppy across the street, her big brother—with a certain giddy fascination. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Emily devotes large stretches of her imaginary life to contemplating the mischief made by her stuffed sheep and my stuffed bear when we’re not looking. Together, these two plush characters could be Emily’s alter ego. They subsist on a diet of gummy worms and chocolate cake. They jump out of the window in skydiving suits when they’re supposed to be sleeping. While Emily and I were in New York City last week, she claimed to spot them high tailing it down the block with a bunch of stolen balloons, on their way to throw themselves a party for their “fake birthday.”
After beating me to Mordicai Gerstein’s latest graphic novel-picture book hybrid, I am Hermes! (Ages 7-10), Emily was delighted to inform me that there exists no greater Mischief Maker in the History of the World than Hermes, Messenger of the Gods. Judging by the profusion of energy and humor in his 67 pages of comic panels, Gerstein is every bit as entranced with Hermes’ master class in mischief making as is my Emily.« Read the rest of this entry »
April 4, 2019 § 3 Comments
I’ve been feeling a teensy bit guilty that those of you not on Instagram are missing out on all the mini reviews I’ve been doing over there, particularly of middle-grade books. These books are too good to miss! So, I’ve decided to do occasional “round-up” posts to catch you up. Several of these titles are brand-spanking new; the rest are new within the past year.« Read the rest of this entry »
March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments
My daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments
We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 7, 2019 Comments Off on There’s A New Pippi in Town
Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 24, 2019 § 4 Comments
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I drove down to the river to watch the sun rise. I hadn’t been able to sleep, my heart bruised from the words of a loved one the night before. As an adult, I have found the holidays to be such an intermingling of joy and sadness: a time of excitement and celebration, but also a time when the losses in my life assert themselves and leave me vulnerable.
I stood alone in the brisk-but-not-intolerable air, at the same spot along the Potomac where my son had taken me this past summer. A place he had picnicked with his sailing camp. A place he told me, while we were walking there, had “a bench perfect for you to sit on.” I wanted a place where I would feel love. « Read the rest of this entry »