Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

November 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

A brief note before we get started. This post will be followed by My Favorite Chapter Book of the Year. Then, I’m going to do something a little different for this Holiday Gift Guide: a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had the occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, feel free to take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly ask that you “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them. And now, without further ado…

My daughter fibs. I realize that sounds harsh, like what kind of parent says that about her child? Shouldn’t I soften my words and say that she only pretends or exaggerates or bends the truth, because even though she’s only eight, she’s old enough to realize that sometimes the world looks better in our minds than it does in reality? Indeed, this is true. Still, she fibs.

“I give my allowance away to the poor every month,” Emily announced to a car full of older children on our way home from school. (Ummm, you’ve never done that.) Two years ago, when she was in Kindergarten, she started reporting nightly that her teachers were taking away recess time if even one child misbehaved; that she had not had a proper recess in weeks. Alarmed, I scheduled a meeting with her teachers, who looked at me oddly and said, no, they had never shortened or taken away anyone’s recess. (For the rest of that year, whenever Emily would report on “transgressions” done to her or others at school, she would preface them by saying, “Now don’t tell my teachers I told you this, but….”)

I can think of several reasons for Emily’s fibbing—attention, saving face, and my own proclivity for exaggeration jump to mind—but it’s entirely possible that there’s a less overt motivator at play, one which has everything to do with her older brother’s reaction. Because fibs like these drive him absolutely, positively insane. My son regards and remarks on the world with mathematical precision. He sees any casual statement by another as an opportunity for cross-examination.

“There is no way you swam a 400 butterfly in practice, Emily. It was a 200 tops, and even that is unlikely for a group of eight year olds.”

“No, JP, it was a 400.”

“OK, so how many laps is that then?”

“I know how many laps it is, but I don’t feel like saying it right now.”

Author Marcy Campbell and illustrator Corinna Luyken have brilliantly captured the intersection of one child’s penchant for imagination with another’s rigid black-and-white thinking in my favorite picture book of 2018, Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse (Ages 6-9). A quiet but powerful story of developing empathy for those who experience the world differently than us, it is narrated in the stubborn, righteous voice of Chloe, who finds herself increasingly annoyed by one of her classmates, a red-haired loner of a boy named Adrian, who “tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.”

Chloe tells anyone who will listen—her friends, her father, her mother—why Adrian is absolutely, positively fibbing. For one, she and Adrian live in a town (“and I know you have a can’t have a horse in a town”). For two, Chloe has on good authority from her friend Kelsey that horses are super expensive, and Adrian’s family is clearly poor (he gets free lunch at school and “his shoes have holes”). For three, horses require a lot of work, and Adrian can’t even keep his desk neat.

So why does Adrian spin tales of a “beautiful horse with its white coat and golden mane,” a horse with “the biggest, brownest eyes of any horse, anywhere?” And why does everyone but Chloe seem enchanted, even bewitched by this fiction; why do they refuse to see the cold, hard facts? The entire ordeal rattles Chloe to the core. It insults her mile-wide streak of justice. I know this, not only by the way she talks with her hands on her hips and her nose in the air, but because this is precisely how my son would regard such proclamations. He, too, might even stoop to what Chloe does next, vindictively exploding on the playground, “He’s lying! Adrian Simcox does NOT have a horse!” My son would think he was helping his victim, defending the Truth above all else, but he would also hopefully recognize the effect of his words.

Even though I was upside down,
I could see that made Adrian Simcox really sad.

Still, Chloe is unmoved in her righteousness. When she returns home that evening, telling her mom “how Adrian was lying about his horse again,” her mom takes a page out of the show-not-tell-book of parenting. “Chloe, it’s time to take Chompers for a walk,” she says. (Chompers being their dog. Chompers being “a perfectly normal pet to have in town.”) With Chloe and the dog following, her mom marches down the street to a part of town clearly not frequented by Chloe. “All the houses looked like they might fall down, and even though it wasn’t trash day, it looked like it was.”

The mom, of course, is taking Chloe to where Adrian Simcox lives. With his grandfather. “I could see the backyard. It was no place for a horse, of course.” And yet, the careful reader will begin to see (and will enjoy flipping back pages to confirm) what it takes Chloe a few more pages to understand. That for everyone in the book who believes in Adrian’s horse—and, especially, for Adrian himself—there is the hint of a horse if we focus our eyes just right. Call it a ghost, a mirage, a trick of the eye. It is Adrian’s horse, and it is as much a part of the landscape as it is in his mind’s eye.

Corinna Luyken’s illustrations (we first fell in love with A Book of Mistakes) are nothing short of extraordinary, as much for the way she organically weaves the horse’s silhouette into her landscapes, as for the way she uses the horse as a kind of window into Adrian’s soul: the seeking curve of the horse’s neck, the gentle sweep of its mane, the kindness in its eye. Adrian doesn’t just want people to see his horse; he wants people to see him. To see past the rotten hand he has been dealt in the house and clothes and food and school supplies department.

When the two children face off in Adrian’s yard, Chloe is ready to deliver an accusation similar to the one she yelled on the playground. But then she sees the same look on Adrian’s face, and her words catch in her throat. Adrian breaks the silence by tossing her a ball. For the first time, she notices his smile. For the first time, she asks him about his horse. For the first time, she understands: “Adrian Simcox had just about the best imagination of any kid in our whole school.”

Throughout the story, Luyken imbues each child with a specific color palette. Chloe is typically shown wearing or surrounded by rosy pinks and mauve, while Adrian is defined by his fiery orange hair, set off by deep golds. In the final page—when we at last can make out most of the horse’s body—the two palettes come together: blending, complementing, and producing something much more magnificent than the sum of its parts.

This is what connection looks like. This is what empathy looks like. My favorite picture book of the year.

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Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

2017 Gift Guide (No. 5): For the Global Citizen

December 14, 2017 § 5 Comments

What if there was a children’s book which came with a budding world view? What if, in giving a book this holiday season, you helped a child feel a little more connected to the planet she or he calls home?

Last spring, we took a family trip to Italy, our first time overseas with our children. Some (ahem, elder) relatives of mine were not shy about questioning the wisdom of taking our six and nine year old on such a trip. More than once, I was asked, rhetorically: “Don’t you think you should hold off on spending all that money until your children are older and will actually remember the things they see?” (Occasionally, this was prefaced by, “I know I should hold my tongue, but…”)

I can’t pretend to believe my kids will retain the specifics of their two weeks spent in the small hill towns and big cities of Italy. But I like to think they will remember their unfettered enthusiasm, their adventurous spirit, and—best of all—their curiosity about the things that matched or didn’t match their ideas of life outside America’s borders. One afternoon, as we were walking through the medieval streets of Orvieto, my son locked eyes on a trio of elementary-aged boys, sporting backpacks and engaged in animated conversation. As they half-walked, half-jogged down the sidewalk, the boys passed a soccer ball back and forth. “Mommy, I think those kids just got out of school,” my son said to me. “They look like they are having fun.” He didn’t say anything more, but as he watched them until they were out of sight, I could see the wheels turning in his head: I wonder what their school is like. I like soccer, too. I wonder whether they’ll go straight home or stop somewhere to play. I wish I could understand them.

In his enticing new picture book, This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids From Around the World (Ages 5-10), Matt Lamothe speaks directly to children’s curiosity about other children, about what life is like in other corners of the world. The book reminds me of the popular DK title, Children Just Like Me: A New Celebration of Children Around the World, which received a lovely makeover last year. And yet, I think I like This Is How We Do It even more. In it, Lamothe approaches the same subject with a child-centric directness and a clean, contemporary design. (We would expect nothing less from Chronicle Books.) My kids absolutely adore it, especially my daughter, who frequently picks it up on her own.

This Is How We Do It follows seven real kids from around the world—Russia, Peru, Japan, India, Uganda, Italy, and Iran (note the United States is not one of them!)—as they tell us about their daily lives, both at home and in school. (Though the illustrations are digitally rendered in a soft, cohesive palette, Lamothe offers proof of the characters’ realness by presenting photographs of them with their families at the book’s end.)

As the children describe the different components of their lives, the layouts invite the reader to make cultural comparisons. In fact, therein lies the fun! Each spread presents the children’s responses on one of thirteen different topics, beginning with “This is where I live.” Side by side, we glimpse a “wood and mud” hut in a Ugandan village; a bright orange stucco-ed residence in an Italian vineyard; and a skinny brick house in the busy Tokyo metropolis.

Some of the most eye-catching differences occur across “This is how I go to school”—an immediate favorite with my clan. In India, Anu’s mother drives her and her friends through packed streets, where cows roam freely. Now, contrast that with Abwooli, the Ugandan girl, who walks to school for thirty minutes across dirt paths bordered by eucalyptus and banana trees.

When we read this book as a family, my kids will avidly debate which country seems like the most fun. Like the fickle spirits they are, their favorites vary from page to page. With all three meals of the day covered, there are many opportunities to discuss whether we’re glad we eat oatmeal each morning, or whether we’d prefer a Japanese breakfast of “rice with furikake, miso soup, grilled cod, and an orange wedge.” “Kids drink coffee in Peru?!” my son exclaims. Unfamiliar words like matoke (Ugandan banana) and kasha (Russian porridge) are explained in the book’s Glossary.

Personally, I love the spreads showcasing the different classrooms, as well as the subjects studied. In Iran, Kian wears a bright green uniform to an all-boys’ school to study the Quran, in addition to writing and math, whereas Meo’s Italian school promotes regular cultural and green-space field trips, and the kids get to wear whatever they want.

“This is how I spell my name” is perhaps the most strikingly, beautifully diverse spread.

More often than not—and this feels like Lamothe’s central message—we identify more similarities than differences, both when comparing our own American lives to the ones on the pages, as well as when contrasting the different countries. Readers will easily observe how all children have the same fundamental needs, not only for food, shelter, and education, but for familial love and peer companionship. The pages on playtime feel especially universal, with games like soccer, skipping rope, and freeze tag. And though the tools and settings might look different, the household chores depicted resemble what many American children do to help out their families, including hanging laundry or caring for a sibling.

The onus is on us parents to point out the impossibility that one child’s experience can encapsulate an entire culture. A child’s daily life in Tokyo would look quite different than one in rural Japan, say nothing of social or economic differences within a community. Still, This is How We Do It provides a lovely beginning to a conversation about broadening our children’s perspectives, about helping them see themselves against the larger, richer, more diverse tapestry which is their world.

Lamothe closes with a single picture of a night sky and the caption, “This is my night sky,” as if to remind our children that, at the end of the day, we all fall asleep under the same stars. In a world where technology, trade, and travel are collapsing more borders than ever before, education along these lines becomes the first step towards compassion, collaboration, and concord.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (more during the holidays).

Published by Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

 

2017 Gift Guide (No. 4): Middle-Grade Magnificence

December 7, 2017 § 3 Comments

As promised, here is a roundup of my favorite middle-grade fiction of 2017, a mix of graphic and traditional novels,  targeted at tweens or older. Not included are titles I blogged about earlier in the year—gems like The Inquisitor’s Tale, The Wild Robot, and See You in the Cosmos, which would make excellent additions to this list. Also not included are books I haven’t read yet—particularly Amina’s Voice, Nevermoor, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and Scar Island (by the same author as the riveting Some Kind of Courage)—which would likely be on this list if I had. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I adore, has a sequel out this year which I’m dying to read. And I should also mention that if my son were making this list, he would undoubtedly note that it has been a stand-out year for new installments in his favorite series, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Now, without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into these richly textured and meaty stories, filled with angst and adventure, secrets and self-discovery.

 

For the Girl Trying to Make Sense of Middle School

If Victoria Jamieson’s new graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School (Ages 10-13), and Shannon Hale’s equally fabulous, Real Friends (Ages 10-13), don’t take you straight back to your own days in middle school, then your middle school experience must have looked a lot different than mine (I think I experienced PTSD reading these books). And yet, perhaps things would have been different if I had gotten my hands on stories like these, if I had been introduced to female protagonists who had shown me I was not alone. Jamieson and Hale navigate the awkwardness, pettiness, and—yes—cruelty of middle school girls, at the same time delving into what it means to be on the outside looking in, craving acceptance, even at great expense.

Real Friends, which is actually Hale’s memoir of her own middle school years, addresses the mean-girls culture head on; the questions which arise, about why girls treat one another the way they do, continue through the story’s powerful Afterward. All’s Faire in Middle School (Jamieson’s previous was the Newberry Honor Book, Roller Girl) puts forth an especially clever construct to explore similar themes. Formerly home schooled, eleven-year-old Imogene is fumbling to gain acceptance into the social scene of her new public middle school, while at the same time balancing a close-knit family life revolving around her parents’ unconventional work at the local Renaissance Faire. Trying to be cool, while simultaneously “coming out” as a kid who dresses up in period costumes and holds Knight-in-Training classes on the weekends, comes with monumental challenges. Imogene makes realistic, even devastating, mistakes on the path to ultimately finding a way to stay true to herself. She also reminds us that if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll never survive middle school.

 

For the Geocacher

In The Exact Location of Home (Ages 9-12), Kate Messner does something sneaky. She has readers think they’re merely reading about a boy’s adventures with geocaching, while at the same time gently lifting the stigma of child homelessness. Messner tells us in the book’s front matter that more than two million children in America each year are homeless for a period of time. Most of these kids have to keep on with their life: doing homework, making friends, eating and sleeping in communal shelters, and—oftentimes—going to great lengths to keep their situation secreted.

Twelve-year-old Zig becomes, overnight, one of these kids. His parents are divorced; his dad has gone MIA and stopped paying child support (Zig is convinced he can use geocaching to find him); and his mother’s job waiting tables to support nursing school can’t cover the rent. After exhausting their options, Zig and his mother move into a shelter and share living space with the very likes of people Zig has always looked down upon. Zig is a whip-smart, incredibly earnest boy, whose complicated reactions to his predicament—spanning rage, resentment, and reconciliation—make us feel for him at every turn. His two best friends, both girls, are excellent additions to the story (there’s even a spot of romance), making this an engaging choice for boys and girls alike.

 

For the Chocolate Enthusiast

When it feels like middle-grade literature is increasingly pulling subject matter from the young-adult world, it’s refreshing to recommend a read that is light, fun, and promises pure escapism. Even better when that story conjures up mouth-watering descriptions of chocolate. I just finished reading Stephanie Burgis’ The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Ages 8-12) to my daughter, and we both agreed that an ornery, impatient, fire-breathing dragon trapped inside a human’s body is an apt metaphor for what it sometimes feels like to be female.

When the story begins, a young dragon named Aventurine runs away from her family’s cave, not content to bide her time indoors for thirty-plus more years until she reaches maturity. Almost immediately, she is lured by the smell of hot, bubbling chocolate, and a mischievous mage magicks her into a human. Without wings, claws, or fire—and unable to convince her family who she is—Aventurine must adapt to civilized life in the nearby town, including landing a job as an apprentice to one of the most talented, if hot-headed, chocolatiers in the area. Proving that feel-good stories need not be (marshmellowy) fluff, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart beautifully illustrates what it means to follow your passion. It also reassures us that, even in our budding independence, we never completely leave our family behind.

 

For Anyone Who Has Ever Wanted a Fresh Start

If the dazzling cover doesn’t immediately entice readers, or the fact that Tumble and Blue (Ages 10-14) is by the same author as the esteemed Circus Mirandus, consider this: a deep-South story stoked in legends, curses, and a vengeful alligator. There’s no shortage of bizarre happenings and delicious humor in Cassie Beasley’s coming-of-age story, starring both a boy and girl protagonist; but what may resonate above all with readers is the theme of what it means to live under the weight of a label—and the lengths we’ll go to get out from underneath the weight of how others perceive us.

Soon after Blue Montgomery gets dropped on his grandmother’s doorstop in the aptly-named town of Murky Branch, Georgia (population 339) by his neglectful father, he sets out to challenge what he has always been told: that he is incapable of winning at anything, be it sports or school. His encouragement comes in the unlikely form of Tumble Wilson, a meddlesome girl his same age, who moves in next door. That Tumble suffers from a hero complex—an indefatigable belief that she can save people—is over time revealed as an attempt to over-correct for a painful secret in her past. The spit-fire dialogue between Tumble and Blue is as fun as it is dear; and whether or not we buy into the swamp’s ancient legend, we’re as taken by surprise as our hero and heroine are when they confront their destinies head on.

 

For the Thespian

In Holly Goldberg Sloan’s delightful Short (Ages 9-12), middle-schooler Julia’s witty, astute, and occasionally self-deprecating stream-of-consciousness narration grabs us right out of the gate; we couldn’t find a better companion with whom to spend the next 296 pages. Julia has long been conflicted about her size, which borders on dwarfism. But it also means she is a natural choice for munchkin and flying monkey parts in her community’s summer theater production of The Wizard of Oz, for which her mother signs her up before she can protest.

What begins as a giant exercise in mortification transforms into something else, as Julia is indoctrinated into the self-expressive world of theater, where life is more nuanced than appearances suggest. An especially rich cast of supportive characters—including a charming, if arrogant, director; three professional adult actors, who are themselves dwarfs and fiercely protective of Julia; and an eccentric elderly woman who lives next door to Julia and becomes the unlikeliest of costume designers—makes this a robust read, whose pages remind children that we all deserve to be seen for who we are on the inside.

 

For the Reflective Reader

Thinking back to when I loved nothing more than losing my tween self in a book, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea (Ages 10-14) would have had me swooning: an orphaned girl named Crow, a remote New England island, and dark intrigue surrounding the girl’s unknown origins. Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was my favorite middle-grade novel of 2016, though admittedly a difficult story to stomach (with the cruelest of bullies). Beyond the Bright Sea is softer and quieter, but no less powerful—and wow, does Wolk know her way around a sentence.

Twelve-year-old Crow was once discovered abandoned on a floating skiff, just hours after her birth. While she adores the reclusive painter who took her in and raised her like his own—and while she appreciates her island life of fresh air, fishing, and combing through wreckage from washed-up ships—she longs to understand the story of her birth. What begin as nagging questions in the back of her mind transform into a burning desire—much like the mysterious fire she spies on “the [nearby] island where no one ever went”—to risk everything she knows, everything safe, for the chance to fit the pieces of herself together. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, Wolk’s writing reveals and strips away, leaving us as breathlessly wanting answers as Crow herself.

 

For the Courage Seeker

Hands down, the best thing I did last month was to read The War That Saved My Life to my ten year old. (I grew impatient waiting for him to pick it up on his own—it has been laying around since I tagged it for my 2015 Gift Guide—so I decided to take matters into my own hands. Lo and behold: the skeptic loved every minute of it—and not just the air raids and rescue missions.) Now, we are halfway through Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s just-published sequel, The War I Finally Won (Ages 10-14), which opens just days after the previous book ends—and is so far every bit as magnificent.

Eleven-year-old Ada has long allowed her deformed foot and her abusive mother to inform the way she sees herself. Now that she has undergone corrective surgery and been officially adopted by the nurturing, if nontraditional, Susan, Ada dares to begin asking what she might want from and do for the world. Of course, life in England is exceedingly fraught, as Hitler’s army presses closer, as air raids become more devastating, and as the list of dead whom Ada knows grows longer. That Ada learns, not just to survive, but to thrive under such stress and sorrow is an inspiring message for our own children, who crave assurance that even in the most trying to times, there is always hope and kindness and community to be found.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

Review copies provided by Dial (All is Faire in Middle School, Tumble and Blue, Short, and The War I Finally Won) and Dutton (Beyond the Bright Sea). Other books published by First Second (Real Friends) and Bloomsbury (The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart). All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

2017 Gift Guide (No. 3): For the Underdog…well, Horse

December 5, 2017 § 2 Comments

These days, it’s rare that my son and daughter will gravitate towards the same picture book. Not because they don’t still enjoy picture books. Even though they read chapter books on their own—even though we’re always reading a chapter book (or two or three) together—both of my kids still adore picture books. I hope to nurture this love by leaving ever-changing baskets of picture books around the house. Long after children are reading chapter books, there is still so much to be gained from picture books, not the least of which is an introduction to a range of subjects alongside gorgeously vibrant, innovative art.

But as much as they love a good picture book, my kids are not often enamored with the same book. Which might be why the exceptions especially thrill me. This is partly why I’ve saved Patrick McCormick and Iacopo Bruno’s Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero (Ages 6-12) for my Gift Guide. If you’re looking for a book that hits both ends of the spectrum, this is it. Might you know a girl, like mine, with a budding but fervent interest in horses? (“Remember, Mommy, you promised I would be old enough for horseback riding camp when I was seven,” says my seven-year-old Emily every day.) Might you know a boy, like mine, with a slightly unsettling, hopefully-age-appropriate obsession with war? (Overheard just yesterday, as JP was playing with his army figures: “Let’s stage the bloodiest battle in history!”) Got a kid who loves history? Loves an unlikely hero? You see where I’m going here.

Sergeant Reckless introduces us to the only animal to officially hold military rank in the United States: a lanky, reddish-brown, always-ravenous mare, who defied all odds to serve with the Fifth Marine Regiment Anti-Tank Company, heroically changing the course of the Korean War in its final months.

The story begins when Lt. Eric Pedersen sets eyes on the horse near an abandoned racetrack. Tasked with motivating men long exhausted from “hauling heavy ammunition uphill to a powerful new canon nicknamed the ‘reckless rifle,’ the lieutenant has long speculated on the value of a mule. The “scrawny sorrel mare” is no mule, “but she reminded him of a horse he’d had as a boy, so he took a chance on her.”

Pedersen’s fellow Marines aren’t sure what to make of the horse—referred to as Pvt. Reckless—who immediately begins sleeping, eating, and training in the tented base alongside the men. For starters, the horse has an unending appetite, one that quickly, without supervision, extends into non-edibles, including helmet liners and poker chips. But her love of the same things the Marines eat—oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate, scrambled eggs, and even “ice-cold Coca-Cola”—means she is surprisingly fast to train. She quickly learns to kneel, retreat, follow, and, finally, to carry the bulky, loaded “packsaddle” which is instrumental to the Marines’ mission. Still, the men continue to question whether a skittish ex-racehorse is up to the task of working amidst unpredictable explosions, “white-hot flares,” and the chaos of battle.

What becomes increasingly evident, both to the Marines and to us readers, is that Reckless’ larger-than-life appetite is matched by a playful humor and an unfaltering earnestness. We learn in the (excellent) Author’s Note that former journalist Patricia McCormick first learned about the equine hero from the cook of the Fifth Marine Regiment Anti-Tank Company, who told her stories about how the always-hungry Reckless would sneak into the cook’s tent in the early morning and lick him until he agreed to follow her to the mess hall. She was also a frequenter at the poker table.

The horse’s obvious affection, not only for food but for her fellow soldiers, extends onto the battle field. The first time Reckless witnesses the powerful cannon’s blast, she jumps straight into the air (“even with six shells on her back”); and yet, she quickly yields to calming strokes from the Marine’s hand. It isn’t long until she seems almost unfazed by the noise. Skirmish after skirmish, steadily and without fail, Reckless does her job, albeit with the help of chocolate bars tossed affectionately her way.

Reckless’ story culminates in the Battle of Outpost Vegas, an event spanning ten dramatic pages in the book and earning the mare two Purple Hearts. In a single day, over the course of fifty-one trips, the horse carries a total of nine thousand pounds of ammunition across thirty-five miles of steep terrain. When the cease fire comes at last, Reckless is promoted to sergeant and retired with full military honors.

Italian illustrator Iacopo Bruno, whose art makes this already-fascinating story positively irresistibly, has long been attracted to unusual, less-known slices of history, often where an “underdog” surprises and surpasses. (His previous books have been hits in our house: my son was fascinated by Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France; and my daughter adores Anything But Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic.) Bruno’s extraordinarily detailed illustrations—rendered in pencil and digitally colored—have a realistic, hand-chiseled look, which seems perfectly suited to historical narratives. What’s perhaps most remarkable here is that in a war story for young children (something we don’t often see in picture books), he doesn’t shy away from some of the harsh realities of violence—and yet, he counters it with the warmth of camaraderie, with the sweet, unwavering, two-way devotion of one animal to her Unit.

It’s this perfect union of drama and devotion which gives Sergeant Reckless its broad appeal. But it’s the story’s presentation of heroism, found in the most unlikely of subjects, which will endure long after the reader, boy or girl, closes the book.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

Review copy provided by HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

2017 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Change Agent

December 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

How do we right a wrong? When do we speak out? At what cost to us?

These are some of the questions posed quietly but provocatively in Wishtree (Ages 7-12), the latest chapter book by Katherine Applegate, award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw (yes, you will cry in this new one, too). In today’s installment of my Gift Guide, I’m giving Wishtree its own due—deliberately not bundling it in my forthcoming post on middle-grade reads—because it lends itself so beautifully, so ardently, to sharing aloud. (Said differently: it’s not action-packed, so if your children are like mine, they may not pick it up on their own.) At just over 200 pages, with 51 short chapters, it’s not a long or difficult read. But its smaller-than-usual trim size gives it immediate intimacy, and the discussions it encourages—about what we want our community to look like and what we’re prepared to do about it—may just make change agents of us all.

Unconventionally, Wishtree is narrated by a tree. An enormous 216-year old red oak tree, who goes by the name Red. If you thought trees couldn’t talk, that’s because you haven’t been listening. (Trees have a rather complicated relationship with people, after all. One minute you’re hugging us. The next minute you’re turning us into tables and tongue depressors.) But it’s also because trees, like animals, abide by a central governing rule to talk out of human earshot (a frog once broke this rule and talked to a mail carrier, and it did not go well).

But don’t be fooled: trees see everything.

With age and size on her side, Red is perfectly situated to reflect on the changing community around her, not only the litany of animals that reside in her branches and hollows, but also the row of (human dwelling) townhouses she shelters. She is a self-proclaimed busy body (a “buttinski,” as her best friend, the mischievous crow Bongo, teases her); a lover of terrible puns; and, above all, an optimist. She is also a wishtree, which means that once a year, on May Day, people of all ages come from near and far to affix to her branches pieces of paper and scraps of fabric bearing single wishes (everything from “flying skateboards” to “I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes”). Wishtrees, incidentally, are not fictional: a dear friend has one on her vineyard in Sonoma, and my children long to visit and tie on their wishes.

Red presides over a community long populated with immigrant American families. Francesca, the owner of the plot on which Red herself sits, is the great-great-granddaughter of an Irish immigrant, whose cures for the sick meant people would leave small thank-you gifts for her in the oak’s hollows. Francesca has since rented out her townhouse—most recently, to a Muslim-American family with a school-aged daughter named Samar. It is presumably to this family that the anonymous, chilling, hand-carved message, which appears one morning on Red’s trunk, is directed: LEAVE.

People are under the impression that trees don’t mind being carved into, especially if hearts are involved.
For the record, we mind.
I’d never seen the boy before. He was big, maybe a high schooler. It’s hard to know with people. With a tree, I can sense to the month, sometimes to the day, its age.
I couldn’t tell what he was carving, of course. But I could tell from the determined way he moved that it was meant to hurt.

As is often the case, this single purposeful deed sets into motion a chain of events much wider than its intended recipient. For starters, Francesca, the property owner, who admits to “lack[ing] a sentimental bone in my body,” decides time is long overdue to take down Red. The oak’s roots are destroying the walkways, the clean-up every year following Wishing Day is immense, and now the tree appears to be Ground Zero for xenophobia. But would chain sawing Red to the ground erase the intention behind that single loaded word? Certainly, it would destroy one of the most beautiful slices of nature for miles. It would obliterate a centuries-old tradition designed to nurture hope among neighbors. Say nothing of the skunk, opossum, and raccoon families who have long managed—against all odds—to co-exist peacefully under Red’s matronly protection.

In light of her pending execution (via Timber Terminators corporation), Red decides to overstep her place in the natural order of things and try herself to grant one of the wishes on her tree. She wants to meddle, but only “to make a difference, just a little difference, before I left this lovely world.”

In the short time they have known one another, Red has taken a special interest in the quiet new resident Samar, whose own wish hanging on the tree reads “I wish for a friend.” The family living next door to Samar has a boy in Samar’s class, and Red has often caught him sneaking shy glances at his new neighbor, despite his parents making it clear that the two families will never fraternize. With the help of her animal friends, Red stages a plan—comically misguided at times, but admittedly well-intentioned—to kindle a friendship between Samar and Stephen. Along the way, new questions arise: what is friendship? How does it begin? How much power can one friendship have?

And then, as her plan threatens to fail, Red steps up her game. She speaks up. She SPEAKS.

Let me say it like this. Before I even got my hands on this book, my daughter was listening to it read aloud by her teachers, a few chapters every day. I was enjoying hearing her updates at dinner (always the sign of a winning book when she can’t stop talking about it). At pick-up one day, she jumped into the car with dramatic flourish; apparently, she wasn’t going to wait until dinner. “Mom, the tree TALKED. She BROKE THE RULE. The Don’t Talk to People RULE!” Her response was part horror, part fascination.

(Up to this point, my daughter’s favorite part of the story had been Applegate’s delightfully imagined rules governing the Natural World. There’s the trees-don’t-talk-to-humans rule. But there are plentiful others, including how trees and animals name themselves. All opossums, for example, adopt the names of things that frighten them, like Hairy Spiders and Flashlight.  Skunks are named after pleasant smells (“I am not sure if this is because they’re a bit defensive about their reputation, or if they just have a sly sense of humor,” says Red); while raccoons—my son found this especially funny—are all named You, because it’s easier for their mothers to remember.)

So, yes, Red breaks what she calls, “the biggie.” She comes right out and addresses (a very shocked) Stephen and Samar, as they sit beneath her one night, and she tells them the story of the very first wish tied onto her branches. It’s a wish that came true, that set into motion a diverse, loving community, now threatened by closed doors, narrow mindedness, and even hate.

Red immediately regrets her transgression and chides herself for overstepping. But, like the hateful deed that started it all, this one too has repercussions which stretch far beyond. Only this time, to drastically different ends.

You thought I was going to tell you what happens? Bah. In the words of one wise tree:

After two hundred and sixteen rings, I thought I’d seen it all.
Turns out you’re never too old to be surprised.

Reading this story, your children might chuckle their way through the various animals’ names. They might wonder at the banter between a tree and a crow. They might relate to Samar and Stephen and take another look at a new student or neighbor in their own neck of the woods. They might think up wishes of their own. But, with any luck, they’ll also be internalizing what happens when someone isn’t afraid to speak up—and when their voice inspires a whole lot of other people to do the same.

This is how we wish the communities of our dreams into reality.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

Book published by Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2017 (No.1): For the Skeptic

November 30, 2017 § 2 Comments

The holidays are rapidly approaching (how? why? help!), so it’s time for me to deliver a series of posts with my favorite books of 2017, none of which I’ve mentioned previously. That’s right, I’ve saved the best for last. Posts will come out every few days and will target a range of ages (including a meaty list of new middle-grade reads for your tweens).

We are going to start with Italian-born Beatrice Alemagna’s just-released picture book, On a Magical Do-Nothing Day (Ages 5-9), which might have the dual benefit of captivating your child and getting him or her out of the house. Every time I pick up this book, I want to shout, YES! Yes, yes, yes! In part, because it features some of the most gorgeous, evocative, and visually compelling art to grace children’s books this year. But also, because it gently nudges our children to put down the electronics and reawaken their senses in the wildness of the outdoors.

Thinking about my own children, now seven and ten, there was a time when the lure of the outdoors always beat out the distractions of indoor life. I remember when my (toddler) son would pound on the front door and chant, OUT! OUT! OUT! I remember when my daughter donned her rain boots every single day, on the chance there might be a puddle to jump in.

Get them out in the woods, out to the park, even out in the backyard, and my children are still happy as clams; the problem has become getting them to leave the house. “We’re going hiking today,” I announced at breakfast last Saturday, after a week of travel and eating had left me yearning to recharge. I read my kids the online description for my proposed state park, including bluffs and rocks and winding trails.

“That sound dangerous. That sounds way too hard.”

“I want to stay inside today! I want to read more Harry Potter and work on Christmas presents and lie around in my pajamas! Plus, I’m tired. I’m sooooo tired. Wait, I know, we could watch a movie!”

After much back and forth, resignation finally ensued, albeit through gritted teeth: “FINE. We can go. But let’s make it fast so we can come back home. Also, I’m not scaling any bluffs.” (This from the boy.)

We hadn’t been in the park ten minutes, when my son saw another family traversing an outcropping of rocks across the river and took off on his own down an incredibly steep descent to join them, pausing only to pick up interesting rocks and sticks and call back to us that we could follow “if we wanted.” His sister didn’t have to be asked twice.

We were there for the entire day, and it was pure magic.

In his insightful book for parents and teachers, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv makes a compelling case that what our kids need today, above all, is a giant kick out the door. “For [this] new generation,” he writes, “nature is more abstraction than reality…IT TAKES TIME—loose, unstructured dream time—to experience nature in a meaningful way.”

The hero or heroine of On a Magical Do-Nothing Day—one can make a case for either gender, such is the delightful ambiguity of Alemagna’s drawings—begins the story in the zombified clutches of an electronic gaming device. Bored by the relentlessness of the rain pelting against the window, and resentful that her mother has dragged her to a getaway cabin in the woods so she can write without interruption, our heroine (my daughter insists heroine) lies on the couch, “destroying Martians.” “Actually, I was just pressing the same button over and over.”

Sound familiar? If that doesn’t, then the mother’s response will.

“What about a break from your game?” Mom growled.

“Is this going to be another day of doing nothing?”

The illustrations mirror the way our heroine sees her circumstances: the mom looks disapprovingly over the neck of her fuzzy sweater, her nose a pointed pink line, ready to spring on her prey. Sure enough, she takes the device from the child and hides it. Sure enough, the child finds it and takes it with her outside, where “I held my game tightly. Maybe it would protect me from this boring, wet place.”

From the moment the child dons her neon orange coat (seriously, have you ever seen such enticing use of color?) and heads outside into the dark, drenched world, the Unexpected begins. For starters, the round rocks in the pond look remarkably like Martian heads, perfect for springing on and “crushing.”

The Unexpected also rears its big ugly head, when the girl accidentally drops her device into the icy pond (“This COULD NOT be happening to me!”)—an event which produced an audible gasp from the children in my daughter’s class, with whom I shared the story during a recent “Book in the Woods” block. Losing access to video games may be a first-world problem, but a tragedy for many a modern-day child nonetheless.

Of course, the adult reader knows exactly where this is all headed—and yet, watching our heroine give herself over completely to her surroundings, witnessing her root her mind in the present moment, is even more gratifying than we expect. In the art, the shift is as much literal as it is figurative. Note the way the child’s body begins to take on the lines of the bark as she sits against a tree, mourning the loss of her game.

Like a beacon of light, a parade of snails cross our heroine’s path, their antennae “as soft as Jell-O.” For the first time, she smiles. She parades around dozens of otherworldly mushrooms, red dotted with white. The school children were especially quick to point out that the girl’s orange coat takes on the bell-like shape of the mushrooms beneath it.

Our heroine isn’t just walking with purpose now: she’s also digging, plunging her fingers into the mud, where an “underground world” full of “seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, and berries” brush her fingers. (Can you spot the sinking Martians?)

Running leads to tripping leads to falling leads to lying spent beneath the clearing skies, looking up at the trees in a sort of upside-down world. “The whole world seemed brand-new, as if it had been created right in front of me.”

The skeptic has been won over.

When, at last, the girl returns home, “soaked to my bones,” she not only sees the outside world with new eyes, but she sees herself and her mother differently. Her mother’s face is now drawn with softness, including a more delicate, contoured nose. “I felt like giving her a big hug. I wanted to tell her what I had seen, felt, and tasted outside in the world.”

Instead—and perhaps rightly so, for a child should be able to safeguard her imaginative world—she just sits quietly with her mom in the kitchen, taking in one another across two steaming mugs of hot chocolate.

Someday soon, I hope my children will recommence seeking out adventures in nature without prodding, will hone their own intimate, magical relationship with the earth. The conservationist Rachel Caron once said, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Let’s keep kicking our kids out of the house, and let’s enjoy a cup of coca together when they return home once more.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

Review copy provided by Harper Collins Children’s Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 5): For the Girl with Gumption

December 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

"Gertie's Leap to Greatness" by Kate BeasleyPerhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve read on the Internet lately is BookRiot’s series of interviews with middle-grade authors regarding a renewed commitment—in response to the misogynistic rhetoric that seemed to win out in this past election—to writing strong female protagonists, of giving our daughters literary role models of persistence, resilience, compassion, and action. The future can only be bright if our girls see themselves as integral to every part of it. Or, in the more poetic words of Lindsay Egan, author of Hour of Bees (on my list to read):

“We writers are implored to write characters with goals, characters who want things, characters who act to move forward. But in light of the current political climate, I feel it’s a real imperative now for me to write female characters who do things. Girls who speak up, girls who defend others, girls who make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, girls who dream and think and work for the world they wish they had. Girls who don’t accept hate or unfairness and fight to make things better. Girls who sacrifice their own comforts for the safety of others. Girls who know that showing kindness is never weakness. Girls who DO things. The future is coming, and I want the girls of the future to remember that change is in their hands.”

Fortunately, this trend is already underway in middle-grade literature, as evidenced by the fantastic female-dominated novels that came out earlier this year. I cannot rave enough about the titles I promoted over the summer in this guest post, of which Natalie Llyod’s The Key to Extraordinary, Ally Condie’s Summerlost, and Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow feature heroines that live up in every way to Egan’s directive (Ages 10-15 for all).

But today I want to focus on Gertie’s Leap to Greatness (Ages 8-12), a debut novel by Southern writer Kate Beasley (sister to Cassie Beasley of Circus Mirandus, see my post here), which I just finished and whose female star has left me positively giddy. While squarely a middle-grade chapter book, it is also, arguably, more accessible to a slightly younger audience than the books I mentioned above (in this, it reminds me of another favorite, A Tangle of Knots).

Just read the zinger of the book’s opener and tell me you aren’t hooked: The bullfrog was only half dead, which was perfect.

Gertie, our fifth-grade protagonist, is a girl of action in every sense of the word. (And, yes, she resuscitates a bullfrog with a turkey baster.) Each morning, when Gertie runs out of her Alabama house to board the school bus, two Twinkies in hand, her aunt calls after her, “Give ‘em hell, baby!” And indeed, Gertie continually refuses to accept the hand she is dealt: not the pretentious Hollywood newcomer, who steals Gertie’s seat at the front of the class and makes it her point to outdo Gertie whenever she can; not the school’s Clean Earth Club, which feels to Gertie like an attack on her father who works on an oil rig; and not her mother, who abandoned Gertie as an infant and whom Gertie is convinced she can win back. The force of righteousness is strong in this one.

"Gertie's Leap to Greatness" by Kate Beasley

Gertie’s running internal dialogue—fresh, indignant, and outrageously funny—organizes itself along the lines of “missions” and “phases,” which are passionately hyperbolic, often misguided, and always genuine. She, Gertie Reece Foy, was going to be the greatest fifth grader in the whole school, world, and universe! And that was just Phase One.

"Gertie's Leap to Greatness" by Kate Beasley

Some critics and readers have criticized Beasley’s novel for a lack of originality, calling Gertie a modern Ramona Quimby, or an older, Southern version of Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine. In response to that—and to quote Gertie’s aunt—I say, What in the Sam Hill is the matter with that?! Don’t we want more of those characters? Ramona and Clementine endure, not just because they are girls of action, but because they, like Gertie, create the kinds of big, beautiful messes from which they grow.

Gertie fails constantly in this book. As in, ear-splitting train wrecks. She fails at being the smartest, despite staying up all night studying. She fails at landing the leading role in the play, despite channeling Evangelina Who Would Not Eat Her Vegetables all day long.

"Gertie's Leap to Greatness" by Kate Beasley

She fails at being a best friend, when she bulldozes her way through a mission with no regard for others’ feelings. She fails to listen, when her father explains his own conflicted feelings surrounding his work on the oil rig. She fails to see what’s right in front of her nose: that her aunt is a better mother to her than her biological mother would ever be.

But, for every failure, Gertie picks herself up and tries again. She works until she gets it right, or until she—sometimes the truer sign of growing up—adjusts the questions she’s asking. Her gumption is as beautiful as it is raw. If there was ever a character you wanted to strangle one minute and wrap your arms around the next (assuming she’d hold still long enough), this is her. And that’s exactly as it should be. (Props to Jillian Tamaki’s occasional pencil sketches, which further endear us to Gertie, with her bulldog expression and messy ponytail.)

"Gertie's Leap to Greatness" by Kate Beasley

When I read books like Gertie’s Leap to Greatness and the others mentioned above; when I imagine my daughter and her friends reading them in a few years; when I consider reading them aloud to my son if he won’t pick them up himself, I feel momentarily reassured: the present may be a hot mess, but the future is bright.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Farrar Straus Giroux. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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