May 14, 2020 § 3 Comments
It has been said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, but—at least, while quarantined—I can now add a third. Every morning for the past two months, the same conversation has transpired as soon as the breakfast dishes are cleared, around 8:15am.
Me: “OK, kids, head to the couch for read-aloud time.”
My son: “What? No! I need to get upstairs to get ready for school!” (“Getting ready for school” means opening up his Chromebook, clicking on a Zoom link, and waiting for the administrator to let him into the meeting…45 minutes before said meeting actually starts.)
Me: “Your class doesn’t start until 9am.”
Him: “But sometimes they come on early!”
Me: “You don’t need to stare at a screen any more than is necessary. Park your tush next to your sister.”
Every morning, we have this same exchange. Every single morning. For the record, I always win. I only insist on one tiny little fragment of consistency during corna-time and it’s that the kids and I spend forty minutes every morning reading aloud. It’s how we connect before dispersing into our own “virtual” agendas. It’s how we remind ourselves that the world still exists outside our doors, that it waits patiently for us to return, that it invites us to visit in our imaginations until we can come in person. It’s how we remind ourselves that we don’t have to leave the house to get our minds blown.
Quite simply, reading aloud is the one light in these dark days that we can always count on.
As soon as my fidgety, eager-for-that-screen-fix tween sits down on that couch and tunes into my voice, he doesn’t want to be anywhere else. I know this because he gasps the loudest, laughs the hardest, leans in the closest. Reading aloud to tweens and teens can initially seem like an uphill battle, but it’s almost always worth the struggle. In our family, it’s non-negotiable. And it always, always leaves them begging for more…even if just a few minutes earlier they were all too happy to skip it.
In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be doing a gargantuan middle-grade round up with favorite new books to put in front of your kiddos for independent reading. Today, though, I want to share three new middle-grade novels which lend themselves especially well to reading aloud, as evidenced by our own experience. Their genres—fantasy, comedy, and historical fiction—couldn’t be more different, but their characters, prose, and stories are similarly unforgettable.
March 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
It feels unfathomable that only a single week has passed since I was in my daughter’s Montessori classroom for book club with the third graders. It feels more like a lifetime, so frequently and relentlessly has the rug been pulled out from beneath our Normalcy since then. With schools shuttered and social distancing mandated, we’re all scrambling to find some semblance of routine, to cling to optimism about our loved ones and our community, to keep from sinking into the couch and staying there for good.
Last Thursday concluded seven weeks of discussing Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw (Ages 9-12), our second pick of the year (click here for my Instagram post on our first book), and we celebrated the way we do: with a party. Only this time the popcorn was complemented with purple jelly beans: a favorite of the oversized, outspoken, outlandish cat named Crenshaw, once Jackson’s imaginary friend, who unexpectedly (and awkwardly) reappears during his fifth-grade year.
When I chose the book, I could not have known how apt it would turn out to be for the ordeal we’re now living through. I had chosen it for three reasons. Firstly, Applegate’s short chapters and direct sentences are accessible to a variety of readers, while the nuance, maturity, and visual acuity she packs into her words create rich fodder for discussion. Secondly, if reading fiction is linked to building empathy, Crenshaw represents a rare opportunity in middle-grade fiction to step into the shoes of someone living in poverty—and to discover he isn’t that different from us. Thirdly, the humor in this story, employed to balance out the sadness, is infectious: it’s unexpected; it’s absurd; it’s cinematic. (A giant cat who enjoys making bubble beards in the bath? Yes, please.) The light in the kids’ eyes as they begged to read aloud favorite passages each week only confirmed this.
But it turns out the most powerful reason to read Crenshaw—and why you may want to read it at home right now—may be its theme of uncertainty. How do we keep going when the world stops making sense?
February 20, 2020 § 4 Comments
Since losing my grandmother two weeks ago, I haven’t been able to shake my sadness at the realization that my memories with her are now finite. For nearly 45 years, I have been collecting memories with her, savoring them on shelves in my heart. Memories of orange-red sunsets on the beach; of her impossibly large hibiscus plant; of earth-shattering thunder claps which sent me flying out of bed, always to find her calmly watching the electrical show from the screened porch (“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful, Meliss?”). There were jigsaw puzzles which kept us up late into the night, always after vowing she wouldn’t “get involved”; prank calls she encouraged me to make to her friends; Thursday night Bingo games at her golf club, where to be seated next to her felt like basking in the presence of a celebrity. I can still hear her voice like it was yesterday, those giddy eruptions of “Goody goody goody!”
If the right book, read at the right time, can cradle you in its embrace, then Deborah Marcero’s new picture book, In a Jar (Ages 4-8), is doing that for me. (My kids are pretty smitten, too.) It is the most exquisite, childlike, visual depiction of memory-making I’ve encountered, as well as a reminder that the process of collecting memories can be as beautiful as the memories themselves. While it’s not about death, it is a story of loss—the loss of a friend who moves away—and how we re-frame the world in light of departure. It’s affirming and hopeful and the kind of lovely that surrenders you to its pages.
December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment
It’s what I hear most often from parents: “I can’t get my kid to read anything but graphic novels.” The assumption is one of concern: perhaps said kiddo is dabbling in literature less worthy than the meaty prose novels many of us devoured in our own childhoods. The question of whether to purchase graphic novels also stumps parents: is it worth buying books our kids will tear through so quickly? After all, a graphic novel that takes an entire year to create can often be finished by an avid young reader in a single sitting.
AND YET. I would argue that graphic novels are some of the greatest (material) gifts we can bestow on our children. Today’s kids are growing up in a more visual culture than we ever did. Couple that with the exploding innovation coming out of the comics market right now, and is it any wonder these books are so alluring to young readers? I’ve watched my own children fall in love with reading through these books. I’ve watched them return to favorite comics in times of stress or change. I’ve watched them bend over graphic novels in the backseat during carpool, with friends on either side leaning in.
Good graphic novels are clever and layered and poignant and often shockingly beautiful. Their vocabulary is rich. To read them is never a passive experience; rather, kids need to work to extract the complete narrative, to find the innuendos and deeper meanings hidden in the cross-section between picture and text. Herein lies the best case for owning graphic novels: the reason your kids return to them again and again isn’t just because they enjoy them; it’s because they get more out of every reading.
Best of all, today’s graphic novels are tackling a range of subjects and genres, including science, history, biography, and immensely valuable socio-emotional learning. 2019 was a banner year for graphic novels. Below are some of the stand-outs (including what my own kids are getting for the holidays!).
December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 8, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: To Believe…or Not
To believe or not to believe. That’s a question many elementary children struggle with—at least, if mine are any indication—especially around this time of year. Which is why Marc Tyler Nobleman’s Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real (Ages 7-10), charmingly illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, is astutely targeted toward these ages. My eight year old, having mostly outgrown her belief in, if not her affection for, fairies, hung on every word of this book the first time we read it together. She has since gone back and re-read it on her own and even asked that I purchase a copy for her classroom. It’s a book which tests your belief in magic on nearly every page. Just when you decide nope, I know this can’t be true, it introduces doubt all over again. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 28, 2018 § 1 Comment
On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.
The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 28, 2018 Comments Off on Summertime Magic
On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”
“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”
Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”
There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.
“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.” « Read the rest of this entry »
December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)
Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation. « Read the rest of this entry »
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.
« Read the rest of this entry »
January 12, 2017 § 4 Comments
Back when my children were nearing three and six years old, I started a family tradition which might be considered creatively brilliant or utterly insane. You can be the judge. This was during a time when my daughter liked to pretend she was a dog during mealtimes, bowing her chin to her food and licking her plate. I can’t remember what my son was doing across the table, because I’ve evidently blocked it out. What I do know is that no pontification on the importance of table manners seemed to make a speck of difference.
And so, one evening, I announced to my children (and my skeptical husband) that, once per season, we were going to have Bad Manners Dinner, whereupon everyone at the table could eat with wild abandon.
The only catch was that, during all the other days of the year, they had to show appropriate table manners. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment
I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).
Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 9, 2016 Comments Off on Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)
Last year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.
But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.” « Read the rest of this entry »
March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment
Earlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).
What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments
This was how I discovered that my seven year old had been spending his recess time, alongside several of his classmates, building fairy houses out of twigs, stones, moss, leaves, and mud; filling them with wild onion stems; and then returning the next day to discover with delight that things were not exactly as they’d left them. This obsession with fairy houses would later move into our own backyard (with the addition of miniature serving plates fashioned from the caps of milk bottles), and the momentum seems only to be building.
I don’t live under a rock, so I’m aware that fairies are EXTREMELY POPULAR. I was just a bit surprised that my skeptical and scientifically-minded son, the same being who reminds me that there is no such thing as witches, wizards, monsters, and dragons; who loves to do a magic trick and then immediately reveal the technique behind it; who appears (with the exception of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) to have his two feet squarely rooted in reality—that this person would suddenly talk about fairies as if they were as ordinary an occurrence as the postal workers walking through our neighborhood. “I don’t have to see a fairy to know they’re real,” he told me. “Just look outside—there are signs everywhere.”
Don’t get me wrong. JP’s belief in fairy magic, in the idea of miniature people living miniature lives amidst the trees and leaves and grass, makes me bubble over with happiness. (Yes! Let’s believe in what we cannot see! Yes! Let’s find more reasons to play in the dirt!). But the best part? My son’s new-found interest presented the perfect excuse to purchase a book that I (shame on me) had been saving for when my daughter got a little bit older.
I’m frequently asked by parents for recommendations of fairy-themed chapter books. This isn’t just because fairy lore is undergoing a kind of comeback (or maybe it never left?). It’s also because, despite the high demand, there is a surprising dearth of quality literary offerings. Yes, I know your daughter is obsessed with the Rainbow Fairies series, for its colorful covers and overtly girly content, but have you tried reading one of those awkwardly-constructed, downright-insipid books aloud? Bleh. Let her read those on her own if she must. In the meantime, do both of you a favor and get your hands on Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy, which is EVERYTHING A FAIRY BOOK SHOULD BE. This is reading aloud at its best.
Since it came out in 2010, The Night Fairy (Ages 5-10, if reading aloud) has become one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Hold the 117-page hardcover in your hands, and you know you are dealing with something special. It’s petite (as a book about a fairy should be); its pages are thick and glossy; and it features exquisite watercolor plates by British illustrator Angela Barrett. But here’s the clincher: the writing is absolutely exquisite. The descriptive passages soar. The action is tight. The multidimensional characters tug at our heartstrings. And—drum roll please—the story is steeped in the natural world, in the world right outside our front door.
What The Night Fairy does so refreshingly is to yank the subject of fairies out of the realm of fantastical kingdoms and magic wands and froofy dresses—and return it to its humble, delicate origins. When you strip the glitter off the fairies, you end up with a hint of darkness, a touch of danger and mystery and intrigue. Fairies, we learn, might be magical, but—like all living creatures—they are not invulnerable to the threats around them.
There are those who say that fairies have no troubles, but this is not true. Fairies are magical creatures, but they can be hurt—even killed—when they are young and their magic is not strong. Young fairies have no one to take care of them, because fairies make bad parents. Babies bore them. A fairy godmother is an excellent thing, but a fairy mother is a disaster.
Tell me you are not hooked! Alright, you need more? The book’s central character, Flory, is a so-called “night fairy,” meaning that she was born “a little before midnight when the moon was full.” Night fairies, we learn, perform their strongest magic at night, and Flory is further assisted by a pair of sheer, green wings with feathers on the end—“sensing feathers,” which are intended to alert her to approaching danger.
That’s all well and good, but Flory’s story begins with tragedy. When she is but three months old and smaller than an acorn, a bat mistakes Flory for a luna moth and crunches down on her wings. Flory’s instinct for survival is strong—she may be small, but she has the fight of a lion—and she decides to try life as a daytime creature, seeking solace in the sunshine, as she waits for her wings to grow back.
The story is packed with Flory’s subsequent adventures, each one born out of the necessity for shelter, food, and protection, and all set in the garden of a bird-loving human (or “giantess,” as the animals call her). Flory weaves rope bridges out of discarded spider webs, wields a thorn as a dagger in the face of an attacking preying mantis, and over time perfects a “stinging spell” to ward off pesky predators.
On every page, we are treated to the interconnectedness of the natural world: the harmony that comes from each creature playing its part. Flory’s greatest stride in self-preservation comes from a partnership she forges with a hungry squirrel named Skuggle, who agrees to let Flory ride on his back in exchange for her cleverness at releasing seeds from the garden’s many bird feeders.
Exciting adventures aside, what made the biggest impression on both of my children (hooray, another book that my children enjoyed together!) was Flory’s emotional development across the book. During the first half, Flory is brusque, rude, and bossy in her dealings with others (the narrator gently reminds us that she has no parent to guide her). Her actions are entirely self-serving. And yet, as she begins to appreciate the diversity of her surroundings, her heart begins to soften in empathy for the other creatures in the garden. She learns to forgive. She learns to listen. She even learns to apologize—and to mean it (“She shut her eyes and tried to imagine being sorry. It was hard work, almost like casting a spell.”)
When Flory puts the needs of others before her own, she opens herself up to the possibility of becoming a hero. And, in the book’s nail-biting climax, Flory becomes just that, successfully rescuing a mommy-to-be hummingbird from the entrapment of a spider’s web and keeping the hummingbird’s eggs warm until the return of their mother. Without even realizing it, Flory simultaneously finds her way back to the rightful realm of a night fairy, to the unique beauty of a moonlit night at the stroke of midnight. She can go back to sleeping during the day.
When we were about halfway through The Night Fairy, I came across JP slipping the book into his backpack one morning. He had mentioned the previous night that he wanted to “read ahead” at school, but that he would bring back the book at the end of the day. So, I wasn’t surprised when I saw him. I was, however, surprised by the exchange that followed:
“I know that I am going to get a lot of comments when I take this book out at school,” he said.
“What do you mean? What kind of comments?” (Admittedly, I was feigning some ignorance.)
“You know, from kids who think fairies are only for girls.”
“Oh yeah? And what do you think” I asked him.
“I think that there is no such thing as girl stuff and boy stuff. Just lots of really fun stuff.”
“Me too,” I responded, smiling and walking away in my best impersonation of parental breeziness. Only on the inside, I was leaping with joy. Please, oh please, let him always feel this way!
Other Favorite Chapter Books About Fairies:
No Flying in the House, by Betty Brock & Wallace Tripp (Ages 6-12)
Twig, by Elizabeth Orton Jones (Ages 6-12)
Not specifically about fairies, but if you have a Lover of Little Things, I highly recommend the series, The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin. I cannot WAIT to do these with my kids!
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December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments
Reading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.
What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.
I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out. « Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Jen 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 »