Never Too Old to Learn

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.

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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 »

Putting One Book in Front of the Other

October 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

My children have heard a lot about the Supreme Court in recent weeks—mostly delivered via their parents and mostly accompanied by outcries of frustration and despair. Still, as much as I want them to understand my concerns with what today’s political actions reveal about the values of our leadership, I also don’t want my discourse to taint (at least, not permanently) the way they view our government’s enduring institutions.

In short, our family needed a pick-me-up. I needed both to remind myself and to teach my children about the Supreme Court Justices who, right now, are fighting for fairness under the law—and who arrived there with poise, valor, humanity, and moral clarity. « 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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Morality, Martyrdom, & Murderous Marauders (Yup, for Kids)

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam GidwitzIf the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.

Let me back up.

Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.

Until now. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 3): For the Aspiring Writer

December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa SweetI am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”

So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters. « Read the rest of this entry »

2016 Gift Guide (No. 1): My Favorite Book of the Year

December 1, 2016 § 10 Comments

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia KuoOn the day before Thanksgiving, in the late afternoon, my daughter and I took a walk to a small nature reserve near our house. In anticipation of our extended family’s impending arrival and the holiday weekend before us, our hearts were full. We held hands, belted out “This Land is Your Land,” and skipped our feet. I tried to push aside the inevitable pangs of nostalgia, since it is never lost on me that it won’t be long until my little girl grows past the age of holding hands and singing in public with her mother.

There we were, making a racket and coming upon the entrance to the park, when Emily suddenly stopped and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Shhhh, Mommy, listen.” She paused. “It’s completely still.” I stopped mid-verse and joined her in listening to what indeed seemed like a total absence of sound. For a moment, it felt like we were the only living things in the world. Under a colorless sky, the light was dim, the fallen leaves had lost their luster, and the landscape around us seemed to be holding its breath. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Villain We Love to Hate

January 14, 2016 § 4 Comments

"Matilda" by Roald DahlIn preparation for taking my kids to the Kennedy Center last week to see the national tour of Matilda the Musical, I spent the final day of winter break reading Roald Dahl’s beloved novel to them. That’s right. Seven and a half hours of reading out loud (with a break to bike to lunch and back). It was my maternal Swan Song, a last hurrah before depositing my kids at the front door of their school the next morning and returning home to a (blissfully) quiet house.

It was actually their second time listening to Matilda—the first time was during a car trip last summer—and I almost didn’t opt for a second round. But, in the end, I wanted it to be fresh in all of our minds before we took our seats in the theater (plus, it made for one of the best family dinners later that night, picking apart the differences between the book and the play). But, really, who would pass up a chance to re-read one of the greatest children’s books ever written? « Read the rest of this entry »

For the Child Who Will Re-Write the Rules (2015 Holiday Gift Guide Kicks Off!)

December 6, 2015 § 3 Comments

"The Whisper" by Pamela ZagarenskiI realize I’m late to the game with my Holiday Gift Guide, and I apologize. Lest you think I was taking a few weeks off from children’s books, I assure you that is rarely the case. Rather, I was drafting book lists for many of the parents in my children’s school, in preparation for our annual Book Fair (my favorite fundraising event of the year!). In other words, I’ve been reading even MORE than usual. And now, all of you will benefit! Over the next ten days, I will be posting several installments of my annual Gift Guide, with recommendations of picture books, chapter books, and non-fiction for all the young book lovers in your life. I’ve saved singing the praises of many of my 2015 favorites until now, because they have undeniable Gift Power. It has been hard to stay quiet all these weeks and months, when I’ve wanted to scream, GET YOUR CHILDREN’S HANDS ON THESE BOOKS RIGHT NOW!

I’m going to begin today by telling you about two of the most gorgeous picture books published this year. And I mean, Holy-Moley-Mind-Blowing Material. These are books whose pages invite endless study; books whose paintings draw us in so completely that we forget everything that’s happening around us. They are books that challenge the traditional relationship between author and reader, between artist and spectator. They invite us to participate fully in what we are seeing and to make our own meaning out of what we find.

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Roald Dahl’s Antidote to Screen Time

February 5, 2015 § 10 Comments

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald DahlLast month, we had six mornings where school was delayed because of weather (in Virginia, this translates as a dusting of snow, a threat of snow, or some ice spotted on a road). It will come as no surprise that I spent all six of these mornings reading to my kids. This is equal parts good parenting and pure laziness. When my kids storm my bedroom at 7am and learn that school is delayed by two hours (AGAIN), I want nothing less than to climb out of bed and make them breakfast. Truth be told, I don’t want to do much of anything; but I will happily settle for two soft bodies nestling into either side of me. And, building on our December success, it seems I am on a winning streak of choosing chapter books that appeal to both my four and seven year old.

I decided to begin the year with a Roald Dahl marathon, and we’ve kicked off with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I ask you this: is there a more entertaining read-aloud chapter book?

I mean, it’s quite possibly THE MOST FUN BOOK EVER. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 2): Three Books for the Linguist (Ages 6-12)

November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.

Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.

"The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus" by Jen Bryant & Melissa SweetJen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page. « Read the rest of this entry »

Thank Goodness for Book Pushers

October 9, 2014 § 3 Comments

"A Library Book for Bear" by Bonny BeckerMy husband thought he was very clever when he surreptitiously posted to his Facebook page that The Book Mommy (a.k.a. me) had been overheard muttering to herself, “If I have to pick up another book off the floor, I swear I am getting rid of all of them!” Sigh. We all have our moments. Even the most book-obsessed among us.

Most of the time, I am exceedingly grateful for the sea of books that overtakes our house every day: when books from our overflowing shelves mix with stacks of incoming library books and set my children’s imaginations afloat.

Sea of Books

Case in point.

Yes, I’m firmly in the camp that it is impossible to have too many books (really good books, that is). You might say I’m a lot like the book-pushing Mouse in Bonny Becker’s A Library Book for Bear (Ages 3-6), the latest installment in her beloved Bear and Mouse series, which never fails to have my children roaring with laughter (and which allows me to don a British accent, as that’s how I’ve always imagined Mouse). On the off chance that you’ve been missing out on these delightful stories, you can catch up on past titles here. « Read the rest of this entry »

Taking Cues from Mother Nature

June 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

"The Dandelion's Tale" by Kevin Sheehan & Rob DunlaveyJP has decorated his summer journal and is ready to record our adventures (here’s hoping his motivation extends past the first week). Many of these adventures will take us into nature, where there are always metaphors to be discovered about life. Take, for example, our vegetable garden: each morning we wake to budding strawberries, and each evening we return to discover that they have been devoured by the squirrels and cardinals (how dare the latter betray me after I sung their praises right here?!). There’s a lesson somewhere in there about patience and not expecting to get things right the first time. And so we return to bed with renewed hope.

The Dandelion’s Tale (Ages 4-8), a new picture book by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey, offers us another metaphor, this one about the fleeting, cyclical nature of life. This gem of a book takes what can be a heavy subject and delivers it in such a subtle, eloquent, kind, and accessible way, that children won’t realize they’re being taught a Great Lesson. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it stars a dandelion. You’d be hard pressed to find a child that isn’t obsessed with dandelions. A yellow flower that I can pick with no adult getting mad (not to mention wind into chains, tuck behind my ear, or proudly proffer to whatever grown-up happens to be standing near)? A billowy white flower with such delicate seeds that the tiniest puff of breath sends them sailing across the grass? Yes, a child’s love for dandelions runs deep. « Read the rest of this entry »

Fueling Up With Poetry

April 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Poem-Mobiles by J. Patrick Lewis & Douglas FlorianOn the Monday morning following Easter, JP crawled into my bed with a new book and proudly announced, “Mommy, I am going to read you some poems. I have lots of favorites. Some of them are very funny. Also some of them are very weird. A few of them I don’t even understand!” And hence followed one of the most enjoyable 45 minutes that I’ve had in awhile. All thanks to J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian’s new Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (Ages 5-10).

“Children dive into poetry with the same natural ease as swimmers into water, climbers into trees, and sleepers into dreams…Poetry’s narrative, rhythm and vibrant imagery is the real language of childhood.” So begins a recent online article in The Guardian about a movement among educators and publishers to bring back children’s poetry from “near extinction.” Why, if poetry is so intuitive, so enticing, for children, is it in danger of dying out? The article points a finger at booksellers, many of whom (and I admit to being guilty of this at one time) struggle with how to display and shelve a hard-to-pin-down category. Not considered picture books, not considered chapter books, they end up in their own “poetry” section way off in No Man’s Land. When was the last time you sought out the poetry shelves at your bookstore? « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Illustrated Chapter Books for the Adventure Seeker

December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments

Neil Gaiman's "Fortunately, the Milk"Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Bedtime Stories for the “Goodnight Gorilla”-Obsessed

December 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

Mem Fox's Good Night Sleep Tight“How do I break the addiction to Goodnight Gorilla?!” a friend texted me the other day. Whether it’s Goodnight Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, or (my preference) Time for Bed, the lulling, reassuring refrains in these books become quick obsessions with little ones getting ready to tuck in for the night. And, let’s be honest, it can grow a wee bit tedious for the one doing the actual reading.

The good news is that, as your child’s attention span develops, you can start incorporating more involved bedtime stories into the mix. I’m not promising it will be love at first sight, and you may have to be a little sneaky (I’ve had great success with the “you pick one and I’ll pick one” approach as a way to introduce new titles). But help is on the way. 2013 has been a rich year for bedtime stories, beginning with Mem Fox’s Good Night, Sleep Tight (Ages 1-4), a small square hardcover illustrated by Judy Horacek—and an instant, no-tricks-necessary favorite with my Emily (the same team created the equally fabulous Where is the Green Sheep?). « Read the rest of this entry »

November’s Birthday Pick Battle

November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

Battle BunnySix year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:

Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”

JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”

Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”

JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”

Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”

JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”

Friend: “Cool!”

We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. « Read the rest of this entry »

Would Your Life Story Fit In a Box? What We Learn From Our Ancestors

October 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Matchbox DiaryOur month of Birthday Mania was bound to have some fall out. Last night, after a particularly exhausting day for my kids (school followed by swim lessons followed by dinner out with friends), I finished putting Emily down and walked into JP’s room to begin his story time. I found my newly-turned six year old curled up in a ball on his bed, sobbing into the deflated husk of his bright green birthday balloon, a remnant from last weekend’s party. “My buh-buh-buh-buh-llllooooon!” he convulsed. “It’s all I have left from my bestest day evvvvvvv-errrrrrrr!” And then he looked at me with lion eyes: “I want a new balloon RIGHT NOW!”

As parents, we’ve all been here. Missed that window to leave the park, to leave the restaurant, to get into bed. So. Far. Gone. I tried the parenting-with-empathy approach: “It’s hard when something so fun comes to an end, huh?” But the wailing continued, accompanied now by a strange rocking of the shriveled green mass. I need to get this poor kid in bed. “Wait! I know!” I offered. “We can save it and put it in your memory box!” JP eyed me suspiciously. “Not that box that you keep, Mommy. I’m going to start my own memory box and make a special pillow in it for my balloon stub.”

Just a few weeks earlier, JP and I had been discussing the concept of “memory boxes,” after reading Paul Fleischman’s extraordinary and deeply moving new picture book, The Matchbox Diary (Ages 6-10). The book chronicles the life story of an Italian-American boy, who sailed with his family to Ellis Island in search of a better life. « Read the rest of this entry »

Rethinking Mother Goose

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Mother GooseA customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise).

But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose).

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Making A Mess of the Alphabet

March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

Z is for MooseI was wrong. Occasionally, this happens. (My husband would probably debate the word “occasionally,” but this isn’t his blog and, besides, I am usually right when it comes to books.) Shortly after Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose (Ages 4-8) was published last year, I hastily thumbed through it at a bookstore and thought, “Another alphabet book…rudimentary drawings…simplistic-seeming text…a Bullwinkle-style moose…I’ll pass.”

Then, in January, right after the Caldecott winners were announced, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about this book: top children’s book critics were outraged that Zelinsky’s book got passed up for an award, and some went so far as to argue that it was the most revolutionary book published in 2012. “Huh?” I thought.

So ,when I happened to come across the book a second time (this time at our local library), I picked it up, brought it home, and read it to my kids. I’ll say it again: I was wrong. In my haste to judge a book by its cover, I completely blew past its cleverness, its hilarity, and its brilliant way of turning conventional alphabet books on their head.

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