A Road Trip Read Aloud

September 23, 2021 § Leave a 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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Early Reader and Early Chapter Book Round Up

February 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

As you, my dear readers, have rightfully pointed out, it has been far too long since I addressed the herculean endeavor of learning to read. And it’s true: while I’ve been busy telling you about picture books and middle-grade books, the number of fabulous early reading titles has been mounting. So, we’re going to get to those today in my largest round up ever. But first, a story.

When my eldest was learning to read, we rode the Amtrak on our yearly mother-son pilgrimage to New York City to visit family. I normally spent those three-plus hours reading aloud a NYC-themed chapter book I’d chosen for the occasion (like this). But this trip, I was desperate to push my kid along the continuum of independent reading that his peers seemed further along, so I packed a stack of early readers instead. He stumbled through reading them to me, while I made flashcards of the phonics that tripped him up. When the train pulled into Penn Station, as I stood to remove our suitcase from the overhead rack, the gentleman in the seat behind us said, “Wow, I never appreciated how crazy difficult the English language is to read.”

It was a wake-up call. I had been stubbornly operating under the assumption that my little guy could and should be advancing faster. When, if we’re being honest, English breaks about as many rules as it follows. It’s inconsistent, it’s weird, and, for most kids—even those without brain-based learning challenges—it’s really, really hard. I feel like this doesn’t get stated enough. Certainly, we parents forget it in our revisionist history of how we took to the pastime so naturally.

Add to that the reality that kids today have a whole host of distractions competing for their time, from screens to high-tech toys to extra-curricular offerings on any sport or hobby they can dream up. Let’s just say most children aren’t as motivated to master reading as we were, when the alternative was a long, boring afternoon.

By the time my second began to learn to read, I had worked out a different approach. I followed her lead, having her read to me only when she wanted to, and never, never in lieu of the precious time in which I read to her. My principal role remained what it had been when she was younger: to model the fruits of reading, introducing her to the rich language and spellbinding storytelling she would someday sample by herself. As parents, reading aloud is how we dangle the carrot.

Once I was back in my lane of parent not teacher, I also spent time seeking out early reading material that would inspire my early reader. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there is a lot of blah out there. I once heard Mo Willems hail P.D. Eastman’s Go Dog Go as his favorite early reader as a kid—and my childhood would agree—but anyone who tries handing that to a kid today will realize that its length has little place in these attention-deficient times. When we are meant to be building our kids’ momentum, a 72-page book is just too long. But Mo Willems also recognized that Go Dog Go was onto something with its playful silliness; and out of this he created the Elephant & Piggie series, which were some of the first books my son picked up to read aloud of his own volition.

Never underestimate the motivation of humor. For years, the Elephant & Piggie books (and the spin-off titles penned by different author-illustrators under Mo’s imprint) were the gold standard, with their emphasis on hilarious banter across speech balloons. Today, the market is rapidly broadening, and while humor is still alive and well, early reader titles are taking all sorts of forms.

Today’s post lauds fourteen (!) books or series published in the past two years. I’ve presented them in ascending reading level, beginning with early-reading primers and concluding with early chapter books. What sets these books apart is that children will delight in reading them multiple times. Most early readers offer the satisfaction of completion with the assurance that the story is too boring to bother with again. Not the case here. These stories do their educational part brilliantly, but they also offer ingenuity, visual enticement, and lots and lots of chuckles. They’re a key ingredient in learning to love reading.

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“Having Arms is Totally Overrated”

January 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

A friend once confided in me that she hated reading aloud to her kids; even more, she hated how bad she felt about hating it. Her kids were now reading independently, so she had hoped she’d be off the hook; and yet, they didn’t love reading. She worried she was failing them by not investing in time to read aloud. (Is anyone harder on herself than a mother?)

It’s true that I’m a passionate advocate for reading aloud to kids long after they are reading on their own. The benefits are vast (I’ve listed ten here), with the greatest being that our voice brings literature alive in a way that entices children to continue putting in the work on their own. But I’ve also always pressed parents to choose books they will enjoy as much as their kids, because our enjoyment should be genuine. No one can sniff out a half-hearted effort like a kid, and the last thing we want to convey to our kids is that reading is a chore.

Here’s what I told my friend: park your guilt at the door and do you. You love to read, so read alongside your children. When they’re ready for bed, or whenever you think you should be reading to them, get your own book, have them get their books, and snuggle together while reading quietly. We call these “reading parties” in our house—a term my son coined years ago. I have another friend who calls them “stop, drop, and read” moments, where everyone drops what they are doing, grabs a book, and reads together for at least fifteen minutes. Simply by enjoying your own book, you are modeling for your children the value your family places on reading.

There’s something else I recommend, if you’re looking for ways to connect with your kids around reading but aren’t keen to read to them—or, as happens to the best of us, are having trouble finding the time. Consider reading to yourself a book they’ve recently read and loved. Maybe even something they’re reading right now (my daughter and I are currently doing this with the crazy fun new supernatural thriller Amari and the Night Brothers; she leaves it outside her bedroom door each night and I grab it before I get into bed). What better message can we send than, I value your reading so much that I’m choosing to pick up one of your recommendations?

Before I fell down the rabbit hole of 2021 reading, my daughter convinced me to read two Dusti Bowling novels she inhaled in December: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 9-13) and its sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 10-14). I’m not sure why these evaded me when they first came out a few years ago, because the characters—every single one—are absolutely delightful. (I’ll add that the first book would make a terrific read aloud, too.)

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2020 Gift Guide: Picture Book Round-Up

October 29, 2020 Comments Off on 2020 Gift Guide: Picture Book Round-Up

Last week, I told you about my two verrrrry favorite picture books of the year: The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) and Girl on a Motorcycle (Ages 5-9). Today, I’m telling you about others I like a whole heck of a lot. I’ve selected titles, both fiction and non-fiction, for a range of ages, from two to ten years old. Some of them are jaw-droppingly beautiful; others elicit laughter; many invite wonder and compassion. All of them are deserving of a permanent home, where they can be enjoyed again and again and again.

Before we start, there are several I’ve already blogged about this year. Rather than repeating myself, I’m going to link to my original posts. The ones with mega gift potential from earlier in the year are Me and Mama (Ages 2-6), The Ocean Calls (Ages 4-8), Madame Bedobedah (Ages 5-9), Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), In a Jar (Ages 4-8), and The Oldest Student (Ages 6-10).

And now, here are ones new to these pages:

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

August 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

My aunt used to hold an annual Christmas Eve party at her apartment on the eighth floor of a building just two blocks from ours in New York City. It was a small group, rarely more than twelve, and we were the only relatives ever invited. We only saw these friends of my aunt once a year, but before the elevator reached the bottom floor at the end of the evening, I was already looking forward to next year’s gathering. My aunt had been the editor in chief of a major magazine, and her friends were artistic, eccentric, and alluringly mysterious.

There was one woman in particular whom I adored. Always the last to arrive, she would come through the door shrouded in a floor-length black fur coat. Her perfect coif of white hair was sharply angled at her chin, and she moved in a cloud of exotic perfume. Her raspy smokers’ voice was fond of the word “darling,” and she always addressed me as if I was an adult. Perched on the sofa sipping my ginger ale, I inched as close to her as I could, throwing back my head with laughter as she did.

She lived downtown where the artists were, and I knew little about how she spent her days, other than that she and her husband had never had children. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and ask her any number of questions! As children, we’re content with the stories we tell ourselves, the ones we make up in her head, and I fashioned endless stories for this larger-than-life woman in black, who seemed to float effortlessly around my aunt’s apartment, captivated by everything and nothing at the same time.

Sophie Dahl’s marvelous picture book, Madame Badobedah (Ages 5-9), told in three chapters over 53 pages and amply accentuated with retro illustrations by Lauren O’Hara, stars a young protagonist spellbound by an eccentric stranger who shows up for an unlimited stay at her parents’ hotel by the sea. This stranger barely opens her mouth before Mabel has developed theories about the feathers draped around her neck, her stacks of weathered trunks, and her prized pet tortoise. But warm to her from the start Mabel does not. Resentful of the woman’s haughty demeanor, Mabel quickly convinces herself that, rather than a solitary woman healing from heartbreak, she’s a jewel thief on the run. What follows is a riotous narrative, ultimately giving way to a warm intergenerational friendship perched somewhere in the middle of fiction and reality.

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Bringing Down the House

April 16, 2020 § 2 Comments

My kids love hearing stories about when they were babies. They especially love stories that involve crying. Inexplicable crying. Endless crying. Crying that brought down the house.

When our eldest was a newborn, he screamed bloody murder whenever we bathed him. It didn’t matter what we tried. We sang to him. We playfully splashed him. We made funny faces at him. Aren’t babies supposed to love bath time? we asked ourselves. Does he hate water? Does he hate us? Night after night, he’d scream, his face turning purple, his fists tightly clenched, his tiny legs kicking furiously.

A few weeks later, a friend gave us a baby gift. Tied to the top was a yellow rubber ducky. A duck, a duck! Surely a toy would be the golden ticket. That night, after we’d filled the oblong plastic tub from the kitchen tap, we tossed in the duck—and watched with horror as it turned from yellow to fire-engine red. Apparently, the duck had a sensor designed to gauge the proper temperature for itty bitty newborns unaccustomed to bathing outside utero. We thought we were running a nice, soothing, warm bath for our baby boy every night. Instead, we were scalding him. We turned on the cold for a few minutes, slowly lowered JP into the tub, and he smiled like he had never smiled before.

Well, dang.

Earlier this week, a delightful picture book was birthed into the world by Kara LaReau and Matthew Cordell. Baby Clown (Ages 3-6) is about a newborn circus clown who wails and wails and wails, despite the attempts of his adults to hush, soothe, distract, or entertain him. It got me thinking: maybe the reason children relish hearing stories about babies crying is because they seem to defy the natural order of things. How is it possible that these tiny, helpless, innocent beings can wield so much power over their wise, capable, fully-grown adults?

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2019 Gift Guide: Picture Books for Ages 3-7

December 1, 2019 Comments Off on 2019 Gift Guide: Picture Books for Ages 3-7

Today is part recap, part intro. To kick off the picture book portion of my Gift Guide, I’ve already told you about my mad love for Home in the Woods and Pokko and the Drum. Earlier in the year in these pages, I sang the praises of Crab Cake, Lubna and Pebble, I am Hermes!, Camp Tiger, A Stone Sat Still, The Scarecrow, and Who Wet My Pants?—all of which would also make fantastic holiday gifts. But if you haven’t kept up with my reviews on Instagram all year long, I thought it was high time I shared some of them here. Because one or two (or all) of these might be perfect for someone on your list.

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Pointing the Finger (Who Me? Not Me.)

November 14, 2019 § 3 Comments

“You are a thief AND a liar!” Stomping. Bedroom door slamming. Welcome to life in our happy little home.

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.)

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A Master Class in Mischief Making

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.

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Middle-Grade Round Up (Or What I’ve Been Doing on Instagram)

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.

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Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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 »

There’s A New Pippi in Town

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 »

Gift Guide 2018: The Best for Last?

December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

Shhhhh. The final post for my 2018 Gift Guide is here, but I don’t want my husband to know. (And not just because he would like me to start doing things around the house again—sheesh.) You see, I’ve written to Santa and asked him to put this book into my husband’s stocking. (And not just because the kids would fight over it.) If there was ever a guaranteed Christmas Morning Crowd Pleaser, this book is it. I simply cannot wait to read this (oh right, let my husband read this) to our group as the tissue paper flies. Mwahahaha! « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: An Early Reader to Celebrate

December 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.) « Read the rest of this entry »

Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did. « Read the rest of this entry »

Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

March 8, 2018 Comments Off on Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?

When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp? « Read the rest of this entry »

Weathering the Oopses

February 1, 2018 § 9 Comments

Compared to last week, this week’s book may a lighter pick, but it will do no less to make better parents out of us. In fact, it’s possible I needed this reality check more than my kids.

There are days when it feels like my children leave a trail of oopses in their wake. Days when my daughter—at seven, I tell you!—can’t seem to get a single forkful to her mouth without losing some of it down her shirt and onto the floor. When my son leaves his aircraft carrier outside his sister’s door and she steps on it with bare, now-bloodied feet. When just-poured glasses are knocked over by careless elbows; when Christmas ornaments become dislodged and shatter to pieces on the floor as running feet whiz by; when HOW ABOUT NO ONE MOVE BECAUSE THE HOUSE WAS JUST CLEANED AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! « Read the rest of this entry »

In Praise of One Exasperating Girl

November 16, 2017 Comments Off on In Praise of One Exasperating Girl

How often do we climb inside our children’s heads and look around? How often do we push past the in-our-face behaviors to understand the nuances of feelings behind them?

Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it. « Read the rest of this entry »

10 Reasons to Keep Reading to Children Long After They’re Reading Themselves

October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
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A Father Worth His Weight (in Pheasants)

June 18, 2017 § 2 Comments

When I was around the same age my children are now, my father used to play Kick the Can with my sister and me in the backyard after dinner on summer nights. Sweaty and exhausted—and probably owing to the giant glass of milk my mother insisted we drink with dinner—the time would predictably come when I would have to go to the bathroom. I would be crouched in my hiding position behind a bush, trying to keep quiet, but mostly trying not to pee. I could easily have run inside, used the bathroom, and come out again. But I didn’t dare. I would rather have hopped about, wincing with every step, risking an accident (and there were some)—all because I never wanted these moments to end. I never wanted to break the spell. The only thing better than the anticipation of my father coming home was the joy of being with him.

I lost my father when I was eighteen—much too young, by all accounts. And yet, the experience of being with my dad still feels as tangible to me as if it took place yesterday. As a parent now myself—one more tired and distracted and grumpy than I sometimes care to admit—what impresses most upon me is how my father seemed when he was with us. He was not merely present when we were together. He delighted in our presence. « Read the rest of this entry »

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