The Story I Didn’t See Coming

January 19, 2023 § Leave a comment

A large part of my job as a bookstore buyer is perusing online catalogs. These days, most publishers include full interior PDFs of their picture book titles, so rather than taking a stab in the dark, I can read a book in full before deciding whether and how many to order. And with each catalog, especially the big ones, there’s a predictable flow. I begin with the excitement of Christmas morning—what treasures are waiting beneath this tree?—until my old lady eyes begin glazing over. I should take a break, I think. No, I should just push on! Only five more pages. Only a few dozen more titles. Where I began by carefully reading through each book, now I’m skimming. Then skipping. Now I’m bored. So bored. I’m bemoaning the fact that nothing feels exciting, nothing feels fresh. I should really take a break, because now I’m ready to give up my career because no one publishes anything good anymore. (All gross exaggerations, of course, but this is what computer fatigue will do to you.)

So there I was, back in October, perusing Penguin Random House, the monster of all catalogs, which also distributes titles published by the small press, Charlesbridge, when I came across the latter’s thumbnail for The Penguin of Ilha Grande, with a release date of January 17. No one buys a penguin book in January, I thought (as odd as it sounds, I generally can’t sell a book with snow once the New Year hits, because people are already thinking about spring). I was prepared to fly right on past, without clicking the link to open the book, only a tiny voice berated me: Don’t be lazy. You don’t want to miss something that could be great.

A few minutes later, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I was shouting into the void of my living room, THIS STORY! Oh, my heart, THIS STORY! It turns out there wasn’t any snow or ice; this is the story of a Magellanic penguin, and Magellanic penguins migrate to feed in warm water. But to be clear: had it been covered in snow, I’d still have ordered it. Could I sell it as a non-traditional Valentine’s Day pick, seeing as it’s about an enduring friendship between a young penguin and an old man? Why not! Could I parade it out a few months later for our Earth Day displays, since it also carries a message about conservation? You betcha! Am I going to try and convince the author to come to our store? Yes indeedy.

Give me all the animal rescue stories! Especially if they’re based on true events; especially if they expose young readers to new corners of the world; especially if they teach the importance of science and conservation; and especially if they celebrate the amazing bond between humans and animals. Past favorites have included The Elephants Come Home, which landed on my 2021 Gift Guide, and Feathers Together, which was on last year’s guide. Is it my age that makes me a sentimental puddle? Quite possibly. But I’ve also seen firsthand how much children love these stories. They invite wonder about the world around them. They’re living proof that small hands can make a big impact.

Today, I can’t wait to introduce you and your children to The Penguin of Ilha Grande (ages 4-8), written by debut author, Shannon Earle, and illustrated by Brazilian artist, Renato Alarcão (the latter also illustrated this picture book from wayyyy back in the archives). The true story stars a penguin named Dindim, who was rescued off the coast of Brazil by an elderly man named Seu João—and the surprising and extraordinary friendship that followed.

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New Year, Not-so-New Resolution

January 5, 2023 § Leave a comment

Happy New Year! I hope your winter break brought you ample time for family and friends, long walks and good food, and quiet moments to read. If you gifted any of my recommendations, I’d love to hear how they went over!

I’m not always one for New Year’s resolutions, but I did something at the beginning of last year, and I liked it so much that I’ve decided to do it again. The idea came out of Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days, which I devoured a few days before 2022 kicked off. These personal essays not only filled up every ounce of my being, but they once again affirmed Patchett as my favorite living writer (and the platonic soulmate who doesn’t know I exist, though that’s a topic for another time). In one of these essays, “My Year of No Shopping,” she talks about how she gave up shopping for the entirety of 2017. Tired of buying things she didn’t really need for a quick endorphin fix, only to begrudge them when they piled up by the door and demanded unpacking, she decided to go cold turkey for an entire year. “The trick of no-shopping wasn’t just to stop buying things. The trick was to stop shopping.” The idea was to free herself, not only of the mental space that shopping, or contemplating acquisitions, took up, but of the way shopping obscured the simple truth that “what I needed was less than what I had.”

The things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: we can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss too many of life’s details.

I figured if I already looked to Ann Patchett to tell me what I should be reading, it couldn’t hurt to let her run the other parts of my life, too. She made not shopping sound so nice that I decided to try it. For nearly five months into 2022—OK, I did not last the full year, but five months still felt terribly impressive—I followed her same rules. She could buy food and flowers; she could buy toiletries, but only when she’d used up every bottle or tube she’d tucked away; and she could buy books. (That last one was critical: I wanted to spend less money, I didn’t want to go INSANE.) But no clothes or shoes. No home goods. No gadgets. No trinkets. No stuff.

I have never been a huge shopper, but I do have a tendency to linger on the J.Crew website long after I should be in bed with my book. I’ve been known to click through links on social media, only to end up with stuff that doesn’t look half as good in real life as it did on an influencer’s feed. How many times have I fantasized about how much prettier/organized/productive I’d be with [fill in the blank]? May I plead the fifth on that?

Everything Ann promised came true. I started paying closer attention to what I already had. I stopped getting distracted by promotional emails (actually, I unsubscribed to them). I stopped craving the rush that comes from newness, from the promise of re-invention. I didn’t have to worry about buyer’s remorse creeping in to taint my enjoyment. I felt more in control, more at peace. I felt happier.

I almost caved when I had to attend a bar mitzvah. It was my first time seriously dressing up since the pandemic, and my clothes, shoes, and make-up all seemed wanting. I was seconds away from clicking the checkout button on a gorgeous dress I was sure would make my re-entry into society easier, when I walked back into my closet, took a deep breath, and thought, I can do this. I can wear something old, something that doesn’t fit quite how it used to, and it will be OK. I did, and it was better than OK.

I started to fill the holes in my life with less want and more gratitude. It’s an immense privilege to be in a place to contemplate a reduction in shopping as an experiment of self-care, as opposed to an urgent financial necessity. That only underscored the importance of more actively considering my blessings, what really brings me joy, what I actually need to live fully.

The benefits carried over even when I started shopping again. If I thought about buying something, I sat with the decision for a bit. How would I feel when that thing showed up on my doorstep? Would I begrudge all the packing material, the fuel it consumed to get to me, the hit to my wallet? Or would it feel like something to be cherished, something of lasting impact?

And then fall arrived. There’s nothing like the holiday season to convince you that opening your wallet will guarantee merriment. I found myself heeding the call of sales (those pesky emails found their way back in), and every time I set out to buy something for someone, I somehow came home with something for myself as well.

So, when the dust settled on this year’s Christmas wrappings, I thought about the peace I’d felt in the early part of 2022 and decided to try for that again. No shopping (except books!) for at least the first part of the year.

I also thought about Howard Schwartz’s 2022 picture book, All You Need (ages 4-8), a poetic tribute to life’s essentials—and a gorgeous one at that. Illustrated in watercolor by Jasu Hu, who drew inspiration from the countryside of Hunan, China, where she spent her childhood, the artwork is as light and ethereal as the subtle anti-consumerism message of the text. What do we really need for a rich, fulfilling life? It’s an answer that might be as important for us to hear as it is for our kids.

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2022 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels for Kids & Teens

November 17, 2022 § Leave a comment

This is always the most requested installment of my Gift Guide, and for good reason! Designed to be read again and again, graphic novels are some of the best books to invest in. Their popularity continues to skyrocket, and with original, thought-provoking stories like the ones below (OK, one is just plain silly and that has value, too!), coupled with beautiful, arresting artwork, we can feel great about our kids losing entire afternoons to them.

We’ve never done the Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition known as Jolabokaflod in our family (though please invite me to be part of your family if you do), but we do place a wrapped book at the foot of each kid’s bed for them to open as soon as they awake on Christmas morning. The idea is to buy us, as parents, a few extra minutes of sleep before the mania begins. And let me tell you: the only books that are going to keep my kids in bed, knowing that their stockings are full to bursting just one floor down, are graphic novels.  

Whether you’re using them as bribery or for their indisputable literary merit, below are my favorite graphic novels of 2022 for gifting. I’ve omitted those I already included in the Summer Reading Guide, though it should be noted that The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza and Swim Team deserve to be in the present company.

Arranged from youngest to oldest, with selections for teens at the end. (As always, links support my work at Old Town Books, where I’m the kids’ buyer. Thank you kindly!)

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2022 Gift Guide: The Novelty Books

November 3, 2022 § Leave a comment

And we’re off and running! Today is the first of my Gift Guide round-ups, and I always like to begin with the Show Stoppers. These are the ultra gifty books of 2022 (past years have seen these and these), and I couldn’t be more excited to share them with you.

After today, we’ll move onto picture books, then graphic novels, middle-grade books, and young adult. Almost 60 titles will comprise this year’s guide in all, a mere fraction of the hundreds I read in order to cull my favorites. I like to think there’s something for everyone here (more than one, if I’m doing my job well!).

(Also PSST, it’s not too late to snag a ticket to one of my live Gift Guide events at Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA. Details here!)

One last thing before we get started: all titles are linked to Old Town Books, the wonderful indie where I work as the children’s buyer. We ship every day (locals can mark books for in-store pick up), so please consider supporting us if you don’t have an indie near you. Independent bookstores strengthen communities!

The books below are presented from youngest to oldest, kids to teens.

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Welcoming Surprise

September 15, 2022 § 3 Comments

As a parent, one of the things I continue to wrestle against is the temptation to label my children, to fit them inside tidy little boxes for the sake of proving (to the world? to myself?) that I’ve got everything figured out. On the one hand, of course I know my kids aren’t some puzzle begging to be solved; on the other hand, everywhere we turn as parents, we’re being asked to declare our children’s interests, to commit to one sport at the exclusion of others, to sum up their personalities for new teachers or turn them into soundbites for small talk with other parents.

If we’re talking labels, then my son is a math and science kid. Has been for a long time. He will tell you his plan is to be a rocket scientist for NASA, and he will steer almost every conversation at the dinner table back to whatever launch attempt has been in the news that day. As parents, all we want is for our kids to find something they love, so phew, let’s check that box and call it a day.

But wait. What about his eye for color and design? His love of drawing photo-realistic animals on birthday cards? What about the fact that he was the first one in our family who could handle our traumatized puppy, the first one to leash him and teach him tricks? What about his love for Anne of Green Gables that (almost) rivals mine?

What else might I miss by boxing him in?

Though he has an indisputable aptitude and passion for math and science, his favorite class last year was actually history, a class comprised of reading, writing, and public speaking. He has an obsession with current events that grew out of stress-induced vigilance but has morphed into a fascination with politics and economics. He has loved swimming, then hated it, loved running, now finds his interest depends on the day. He used to wince when a soccer ball flew at him, but last year I watched as he ran straight into the action on the basketball court, so maybe my telling people for years that, “yeah, he doesn’t like contact sports,” wasn’t actually true.

Will he grow up to become a rocket scientist? Quite possibly. Might he grow up to do any number of things seemingly incongruous with that goal? Quite possibly. All I know is that the more I can get out of the way, the freer he is to be open to possibility. And to surprise those of us along for the ride.

Easier said than done. That’s why we need frequent, insightful reminders.

You are more than a single note—

played again and again.

You are a symphony.

You are sounds plucked from all the places you’ve been

and all the people you’ve met

and all the feelings you’ve felt.

You are blues and pinks and loneliness and laughter,

mismatched scraps accumulated over time

and stitched together

into a kind of patchwork.

These resounding words come near the end of Patchwork (Ages 5-10), a stunning collaboration between two of our family’s favorites: Matt de la Peña (of Last Stop on Market Street) and Corinna Luyken (remember when I interviewed her here?). A paean to self-discovery, the book speaks to the capacity of children to change. Even as it highlights six specific children’s experiences, the second-person narration feels universal: the “you” is at once the child pictured in a pink tutu and the young reader studying her on the page.

Earlier this month, I read the book to my own children, despite them being well outside the target age, and I watched as a kind of peace settled around them. “What did you like about the book?” I asked. My daughter was quick to say she liked Corinna’s choice of a different color for each of the children’s stories (something I’ll talk more about in a bit).

My son took longer to think. Finally, he spoke: “I liked the way the children were always surprising the adults.”

In its invitation to witness and celebrate the surprises of self-discovery, Patchwork succeeds in both affirming the curiosity our children already know to be inside them and reminding those who love them to make room for that curiosity.

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Summer Reading Guide: The Graphic Novels

June 16, 2022 § 1 Comment

My Summer Reading Guide continues with a round up of favorite new graphic novels. Think of these as your secret weapons this summer. Got bored kiddos? Leave these lying around the house for wandering eyes to page through. Need one kid to sit through another one’s swim meet? Stick two of these in your bag. Packing up for a beach vacation with cousins? Throw a bunch of new-to-everyone graphic novels in your suitcase and then watch the kids pass them around like coveted candy. (We actually do this every year when we visit our cousins in Boston, and it is a favorite tradition!)

If you worry about investing in books your child will fly through at breakneck speed, consider this: graphic novels are designed to be read multiple times. The first time a child reads a graphic novel, they’re reading for plot and plot alone; the visuals propel them forward. The second, third, and fifteenth times: that’s when appreciation for character development, visual details, and tricky vocab develops. A good graphic novel is a richly layered piece of literature, and each reading takes you deeper into the story. This is true as kids age, too. Those Raina Telgemeier graphic novels they first read when they were seven? They resonate on an entirely different level years later, when the reader catches up in age to the protagonists.

Of course, sometimes kids re-read a title, not because they have anything left to learn, but because it’s fantastically entertaining. Or comforting. Or restorative.

I’ll be honest. There was a period, earlier this year, when I looked around the bookshop and thought, Ummm, where are all the new graphic novels? Thankfully, my panic didn’t last long, because come they did, many in just the last few weeks.

That said, I’m remiss in not including the sequel to Katie the Catsitter, the latter of which my daughter hails as her favorite graphic novel of all time (well, tied with Witches of Brooklyn). She loved the sequel—we all did—but as it came out all the way back in January, it escaped my mind as I was putting this post together. It’s nearing midnight, I’ve already taken my pictures, so just trust me on this one.

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2022 Summer Reading Guide: The Middle-Grade Novels

June 9, 2022 Comments Off on 2022 Summer Reading Guide: The Middle-Grade Novels

My Summer Reading Guide kicks off with a whopping seventeen fantastic middle-grade novels—my favorites of 2022 thus far. I had to break out graphic novels into another post, so hold tight and you’ll have those soon. After that, I’ll conclude with books for developing readers. So, keep your eyes right here in the coming weeks! (I regret that I haven’t kept up with older teen reading as much as I’d like, but that will change soon. Stay posted to Instagram where I’ll share reviews for those I read and love.)

I also recently did a guest post for Old Town Books, where I’m the kids’ buyer, with tips for keeping your kids reading all summer long. Many of us credit our own childhood summers with igniting a love of reading. Throw in some Sun-In and a rainbow push pop, and spending time in the company of Ramona Quimby or Prince Caspian was a pretty fabulous way to pass hot, lazy afternoons. But how do we convince our kids to follow suit, given today’s busy camp schedules and the lurking enticement of screens? How do we make sure our kids don’t lose the reading skills they’ve been working hard to master during the school year? Even better, how do we translate those skills into a genuine love for reading where our kids will turn to books for entertainment without nudging from us? Check out my tips here.

The below recommendations are arranged from youngest to oldest. For a fun twist, I’ve organized the list into sections by comparative titles. I hope this is helpful!

Finally, if you don’t have an indie bookstore near you, please consider supporting my work by using the links to order through the Old Town Books website. We ship every day!

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Four New Faves Celebrating Mamas and Grandmas

May 5, 2022 § 6 Comments

(Warning: I put on my most matronly dress to rage at the patriarchy.) Ouch, it’s a tough week to be a woman in this country. A tough week to contemplate the future for our daughters—and, let’s be honest, our sons, since a woman’s right to exercise autonomy over her body has always been inherently linked to the opposite sex. To say nothing of the repercussions SCOTUS’ decision will have for Black or Indigenous populations, or those living below the poverty line, or the precedent this could set for overturning protections for the LGBTQ+ community. We have only to dig into history to see that progress is never a straight line, but it’s one thing to recognize this and another to live it, to watch the work of generations collapse in a single moment. The list is growing long for horrifying things I never expected to witness in my lifetime.

Now, here we are, staring down Mother’s Day, an already complicated holiday for those mourning mothers, mourning children, mourning dreams of having children—and a day that now feels even more loaded, weighed down with the understanding that a woman’s body can be at once celebrated for its childbearing and stripped of its rights.

This is a cheery post, eh? Don’t worry, I promise we’re going to talk about some beautiful, uplifting, joyful books in just a second.

Yes, it’s a tough moment in history to be a woman. But, let’s not kid ourselves: it has always been a tough time to be a woman. Voting rights, equal pay, maternity leave, working outside the home, the right to wear pants, for crying out loud: the list for what women have been made to suffer is endless.

And still, I love being a woman. I love being a mom. I love following in the legacy of the curious, courageous, complicated women who raised me. When the fear of raising a daughter creeps in during times like this, I remember the strength of my own mother and grandmothers. My mom, who suffered the greatest heartbreak imaginable in the sudden death of my father at 51 and rallied to step into roles and master tasks she’d never imagined for herself, for the sake of her teenage daughters. My one grandmother, who for years endured physical pain without a word of complaint, because she didn’t want to miss out on a single family activity. My other grandmother, who attended science lectures in her 90s where she was the only woman, not because she knew anything about the topic, but because her own children and grandchildren’s involvement in the world had inspired her to expand her mind.

Today, I’m highlighting four new picture books that star formidable mothers and grandmothers—the kind I aspire to be, the kind who remind me that we will not go quietly into the night. Not when we know better, not when we’ve learned from the best. (You can also refer back to some older posts for favorites, like this, this, this, and this.)

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Welcoming Absurdity

February 24, 2022 Comments Off on Welcoming Absurdity

Last week, on an episode of the podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things” (fess up, I know you listen, too), Glennon Doyle pronounced that the 2022 vibe most worthy of embracing is “absurdity.” We’re “fresh out of giddy-up,” she says. The last two years have depleted every ounce of resiliency we had, leaving us largely “dead inside.” In her line of reasoning, it follows that the only antidote to this zombie-like state is the Theater of the Absurd.

I immediately thought of Alice B. McGinty’s absurd—and absurdly funny—new picture book, Bathe the Cat (Ages 4-8), brilliantly illustrated as per usual by David Roberts (you know him from the beloved “Questioneers” series—most recently, Aaron Slater, Illustrator). While a family scrambles to ready their house for Grandma’s visit, their pet cat repeatedly and mischievously scrambles the chore list—spelled out in magnetic letters on the fridge—resulting in a mayhem of misunderstandings. Sweep the dishes? Scrub the fishes? Mop the baby? Bathe the mat? Just you wait.

Bathe the Cat is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The rhyming text relishes being read aloud, and the giggles will only increase with repeat readings. We’re well outside the age range over here, and my kids were still delighted by it. Much the way the four of us have been delighting in our new doodle puppy, who can’t manage to chase a ball across the wood floor without at least three of his legs splaying in different directions. Whose muppet face breaks out into the silliest lopsided grin when you scratch his neck, and whose paws move to their own mysterious beat when he’s sleeping.

Yes, our home has welcomed its own brand of absurdity in the past six weeks, and it does feel a bit like shaking off the grogginess from a nap that’s gone on too long. Who knew watching a dog run after a ball and come back with a stick could be so entertaining? “He’s proud as a pumpkin!” my son recently said, as the dog paraded around the living room with a piece of bubble wrap in his mouth. Rather than correcting the metaphor, we merely adopted it as our new Fozzie-speak.

But back to today’s book. Because there’s something else you need to know, beyond the entertaining premise, high-energy illustrations, and purr-fect ending (trust me on that last one). The story centers a biracial family of five, headed up by two dads. In the publishing industry, the is called “incidental” representation, and it’s something to celebrate. We are finally beginning to see racial and LGBTQ+ diversity in stories that are not about that diversity. The two dads here are simply doing what families with babies and toddlers do best: rolling up their sleeves, keeping a sense of humor, and trying to survive Grandma’s visit.

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Expressing Love in Extraordinary Times

February 18, 2022 § 2 Comments

This past Monday was Valentine’s Day, and when my daughter got home from school, I read a picture book to her while she had her snack, as we do most afternoons. (One more time for the back row: older kids continue to enjoy a litany of benefits from picture books!) For the simple reason that “love” was in the title, I grabbed Love in the Library (Ages 6-10) off a pile of book mail I’d just received. I had done such a cursory scan of the cover that I assumed it would be a sweet story about two people falling in love in a library. Or falling in love with books. In any case, a story that had been told before, in one way or another.

Had I looked more closely at the cover, I would have noticed that the view through the window behind the central figures—an armed guard in a tower above a barbed wire fence—starkly juxtaposes the smiles, expressive body language, and colorful book covers of the interior setting.

By the time I finished reading the book, I had tears in my eyes. By the time I finished the Author’s Note, I had chills across my entire body. My daughter echoed aloud what I was feeling: “WOW.” This may be a story of love in a library, but it is not one that has been told before. This is an incredible, largely true story of how the author’s maternal grandparents fell in love, against all odds, during their time at the Minidoka incarceration camp, where they were unjustly imprisoned during World War Two for being Japanese American. It’s a story told with tremendous power and tenderness, both in Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s words and in Yas Imamura’s gouache and watercolor art. And it’s a story that underscores the humanity we all share.

As I was getting ready for bed Monday night, I reflected on the casual Valentine’s celebration we’d had over dinner. I thought about how each of us has our own love language. For my son, it was the ginger cookies he’d baked. For my husband, it was the heart-shaped pizzas he hurried home from the dentist to make. For my daughter, it was craft-paper hearts, decorated with personal messages of love and gratitude for each of us. For me, it was the books I wrapped and placed at my kids’ spots on the dinner table, new titles in beloved graphic novel series that I knew they weren’t expecting. (The second book in the Katie the Catsitter series for my daughter; the fourth book in the Heartstopper series for my son.) Baking. Cooking. Crafting. Reading. Each of us expressing love in our own way.

In as much as the language of love is influenced by our own personalities, it’s also influenced by our surroundings. In Love in the Library, the protagonists’ love language is actually crafted in defiance of those surroundings. Loving each other becomes a way of setting their hearts free, of holding onto hope amidst the literal imprisonment of the camp and the figurative imprisonment of injustice.

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Making Room for Joy in Black History Month

February 10, 2022 § 4 Comments

During Black History Month, I typically highlight a recent picture book that introduces young readers to an essential part of African American history in a particularly compelling and inventive way. (Last year’s post was on the picture book biography of basketball legend, Elgin Baylor, which apart from being a fascinating story about one Black man also doubles as a mini primer on the Civil Rights Movement.) But since I so recently sung the praises of Born on the Water, one of the most comprehensive and gorgeous picture books to take on the subject of Black history, I thought I’d use today’s post to remind us that, as parents and educators, we must see to it that our children are reading just as many—if not more—stories about Black joy and achievement, as they are about Black pain and oppression.

This means reading When Langston Dances, a joyous new celebration of dance, starring a Black boy who aspires to take ballet. It means reading The Old Truck, a deceptively simple multi-generational story about a family of Black farmers. Or Milo Imagines the World, where a Black boy makes sense of the world in a sketchbook. Or the ebullient picture book biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, titled Jump at the Sun. Are these books on our shelves alongside those about slavery and segregation? Have we deemed them important in our children’s eyes by giving them a seat at our (literary) table?

It also means reading about the people making Black history as I’m writing this post. The superstars of today. The people pointing us forward.

You’ll rarely see a book by a politician or celebrity plugged here. For one, these books come by publicity naturally; two, they’re usually mediocre at best. They can be dry or heavy-handed, come off like they’re trying too hard, or feel self-aggrandizing. So, while I find Stacey Abrams all kinds of dynamic and inspirational and vital in real life—and though our signed copies at the bookshop have been flying off the shelves—I put off reading her debut picture book. I figured it would be “meh.”

I stand corrected. I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Stacey’s Extraordinary Words (Ages 4-8), written by Abrams and illustrated by Kitt Thomas, is wonderful. In this story drawn from a childhood memory about a spelling bee competition, young Stacey emerges as inquisitive, bright, determined, and sensitive; and the effusively colored illustrations will endear young readers to her. But what would have appealed to me most as a young bookworm is that this is a story about a girl falling in love with the richness of language. A girl learning to wield the power of language to give voice to herself, to secure her seat at the table.

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Choosing Love: Four Favs for Valentine’s Day

February 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

I sat sleep-deprived in the dim winter light of early morning, stealing myself to break it to my children that their dad and I had decided we should return the puppy we’d picked up less than 24 hours earlier.

The previous day, we had driven three hours to pick up an almost five-month-old Goldendoodle. Upon entering the breeder’s house, it became apparent that the dog was nothing like what we’d been promised. Was nothing like our last puppy, either. We had expected a rambunctious, mouthy, high-energy, playful puppy.

What we left with was a dog that had never been socialized. Never seen a man or a child, not to mention a car, leash, crate, or bath. The dog was terrified of us. Of everything. After the car ride home, where we held his trembling body on our laps, he wouldn’t let us near him. We couldn’t pet him. We couldn’t handle him. When my husband tried to pick him up to bring him inside, he got his hand bitten.

The dog wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t drink. We couldn’t get him outside to use the potty and, if we did, we couldn’t get him back inside. He was terrified of our stairs, so my husband slept next to him on the living room sofa, while I stayed up all night reading everything on the Internet about fearful, traumatized dogs.

What I determined over the course of that long night wasn’t just that this was not the puppy we had envisioned for our family, but that we were in over our heads. A dog who passed the four month mark without being socialized was, the Internet assured me, beyond hope of a normal life, even with professional training.

Earlier that morning, I told my husband that I thought we needed to take him back to the breeder. He reluctantly agreed. So there I sat, waiting for my kids to wake up so we could get it over with.

My son was the first to come down the stairs. His eyes immediately scanned the room, finding the dog—we hadn’t agreed on a name—cowering in the corner. My son stood for a few moments, looking at this terrified ball of fluff, and then he curled up next to me. I braced myself to say the words, but he spoke first, with no suspicion that there was anything amiss.

“Oh, Mommy,” he sighed, his eyes twinkling, a smile breaking across his face like it was Christmas morning. “I’m so happy. I just love him so much.”

This dog, who was nothing like the dog he had wanted, who wouldn’t even let him come near him…he loved him?

I began to speak about what I’d read, about the long road ahead of us. Yes, he said, he had thought as much. He’d start reading things, too. He was excited to help. “I know what it’s like to have anxiety, so I can do this. He’s going to be so happy here. I know it.”

And though part of me wanted to cry, to scream, to run from the loss of control I felt over the entirety of this situation, I thought, What if I chose love? What if we all chose love?

What if we didn’t get the puppy we wanted, but we got the one we needed? Or maybe the one who needed us.

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My Caldecott Front Runner

January 12, 2022 Comments Off on My Caldecott Front Runner

Awards season is upon us! On Monday, January 24, the American Library Association will award the prestigious Caldecott and Newbery Medals, as well as a host of other coveted honors and awards. It’s like the Oscars for kid lit! I’ll be tuning in with bated breath, ready to celebrate many of the winners and, if history is any indication, scratch my head at a few others. There will probably be some books I haven’t read yet, perhaps even one I haven’t heard of, but I’m hoping many of my favorites will make the list. In any event, I promise to share a recap on Instagram after the announcements!

Let’s talk about the picture book I’d love to see sport a shiny gold Caldecott sticker. (I’m also pulling for Watercress, which I gushed about in April. Born on the Water, of course. Time is a Flower. Probably Unspeakable, if my library hold would ever come in.) Today, though, I’m talking about Wishes (Ages 4-8), written by Múón Thi Vãn and illustrated by Victo Ngai, based on the former’s refugee journey out of Vietnam as a young child in the 1980s. This book sends my jaw to the floor. Every. single. time. (Back in May, my daughter discovered it on our dining table, sat down and read it, and called out, “WHOA, Mommy, I think I just found your favorite book of the year.”)

And yet, I’ve been putting off sharing my thoughts about Wishes. It’s a daunting book to review, because its power lies largely in what is left unsaid. How do I write about a book that manages to tell a sweeping, suspenseful, emotionally pulsating narrative in just twelve short sentences, without my own clunky words compromising the grace of such economical text? (Heck, I’ve greatly exceeded that sentence count already!)

But that’s precisely why Wishes is deserving of a Caldecott, which I’ll remind you is awarded for pictorial interpretation. To be sure, Múón’s sparse text is immensely effective: loaded with lyricism and vital in relaying the story’s central theme of desire—the wishes that frame our periods of loss and uncertainty. But the reason Múón is able to communicate such depth and breadth with her text is owing to Ngai’s luminous illustrations, which carry a great deal of the storytelling weight. (Ngai herself is a migrant, moving from Hong Kong to the United States when she was eighteen.) Wishes is that rare example of a perfect marriage between words and pictures, each working to interpret and augment the other.

Wishes is about more than one journey. Taken literally, it’s the story of a girl who leaves behind her home—including her grandfather, her dog, and nearly all her worldly possessions—to journey by boat to a foreign city of safety and promise. But it’s also an emotional journey: a sequence of wishes that speak to the turbulence within. Ngai underscores this journey with her color palette, beginning the story in dark, somber tones, moving towards super-saturated reds and oranges as the oppressive sun beats down upon the tiny boat, and concluding with a soft palette of greens and pinks for an ending tinged in the hope of fresh starts.

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2021 Gift Guide: Young Adult Fiction for Ages 13+

December 9, 2021 Comments Off on 2021 Gift Guide: Young Adult Fiction for Ages 13+

All good things must come to an end, so here we are at my final Gift Guide post of the year. I didn’t want to send you into the holidays without some fun, gripping, eye-opening, occasionally heart-wrenching new reads for your teens!

The titles below are truly stand-out works of fiction. But it doesn’t have to stop here! If you’re looking for graphic novels, remember that there are three not-to-be-missed titles for teens at the end of my Graphic Novels Gift Guide post. (And for mercy’s sake, if your teen hasn’t discovered the Heartstopper graphic novel series by now, with the fourth out in a few weeks, please remedy that now.) And, if non-fiction is your teen’s jam, check out Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Shutdown, included in my Middle-Grade Gift Guide post.

Finally, a gentle reminder that with YA increasingly finding readership among adults in addition to teens, it skews older than it used to. The subject matter is getting more mature and, oftentimes, downright heavy. If you have young teens, encourage them not to graduate from middle-grade literature too quickly; there are a rising number of gems being expressly written for the 10-14 crowd, with elevated prose and complex characters (there are at least four favorites in this earlier post, for example). That said, pay close attention to the age ranges listed below for each title, and I’ll be sure to follow each review with any trigger warnings.

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2021 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels for Ages 7-16

November 23, 2021 § 3 Comments

Give the kids, tweens, and teens what they want! It’s the post many of you have been eagerly awaiting: the 2021 graphic novels that will make your gift-giving prowess shine. As today’s readers continue to inhale the graphic format, more and more gems are being published every week. The competition is getting stiff, my eyes are getting tired, and kids are losing their minds with excitement.

If you’re not sold on your kids reading graphic novels, you can find my top ten list of why this obsession is better than OK here. If you’ve seen firsthand the joy it brings to said children, then you’ve come to the right place. Because the graphic novels below are fan-freaking-tastic. And more than deserving of a bow.   

Please note the age ranges beneath each title, which reflect the maturity of the subject matter. There are selections for kids, tweens, and teens, in that order. And if you need more, no reason any of these or these shouldn’t be added to this list.

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2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

November 11, 2021 Comments Off on 2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

It was another stellar year for picture books! Given the size of the list below (sorry not sorry), you’re going to roll your eyes when I tell you I had a very difficult time narrowing it down. But it’s true, and I already regret leaving some out. (Thankfully, there’s always Instagram.) What I’m focusing on today are those with the giftiest potential. Whether you’re looking for surprise twists, laugh-out-loud humor, exquisite beauty, moving true stories, affirmations of self-love and acceptance, or ridiculously cute animals, you’ll find something novel and memorable here. Most importantly, you’ll gift a book to be relished and revisited for years. Still, I don’t envy you making these decisions, because these books are all so, so good.

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A Life Skills Round Up

October 21, 2021 Comments Off on A Life Skills Round Up

On this blog, I have often stressed the importance of intentionality when it comes to sharing books with children. I’ve talked about the value of stocking our bookshelves with stories whose characters and settings and challenges reflect the greater world, not just the tiny slice taking place under our own roof. I’ve discussed the importance of reading stories that push against gender, racial, or religious stereotypes. I’ve hailed the way reading aloud can showcase the richness of language and the nuance of character, encouraging children to see the value of storytelling and expand their own reading choices. I’ve talked about how choosing a book we’ll enjoy reading goes a long way towards making read-aloud time special for our children and sustainable for us.

Children’s books can also be invaluable tools for imparting life skills to our children. The best of these do so by providing us with language for initiating important conversations. How often do we avoid talking to our children about uncomfortable topics because we’re afraid we’ll mess them up? Maybe we don’t realize we should be having these conversations in the first place. I continue to be grateful for the books that are by my side when parenting gets hard and messy.

Today, I discuss three fantastic new picture books that each tackle a different life skill, from taking accountability when we hurt someone, to setting boundaries around our bodies, to recognizing and calling out racism. There was a time when topics like these were relegated to the fringe of the publishing world, so it’s refreshing to see them taken up by innovative, even award-winning creators and supported by mainstream publishers. The result is books that are a joy to read: warm, cheerful, fun, and funny. They aren’t shaming or preachy or even a little bit boring.

I promise you: sharing books like these with our children makes our job as parents a little bit easier.

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An Anthem to the “And”

September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments

It has taken me a lot of growing up to realize how quickly the world demands that we put labels on ourselves, and how tempting it then becomes as parents to fit our own children into the same tidy little boxes. Even the questions we routinely ask of our children and their peers—Is she shy? Is he artistic? Is she kind?—assume two fixed outcomes: yes or no. Sides are chosen, identities are constructed; and then, inevitably, confusion sets in when the data points don’t consistently match up.

A few years out of college, when I was working in advertising, I attended a retreat designed around improving problem-solving skills. As part of it, we had to take the Myers-Brigg personality test. What was revolutionary to me wasn’t that I received at the end a set of letters to represent my dominant personality traits, but that each of those letters was plotted on a spectrum. I expected, for example, that I would score as extroverted (E)—I’ve always been social, albeit preferring intimate groups—but what surprised me was that I was quite close to the midway mark between extroverted (E) and introverted (I). This seems incredibly obvious to me now, but I had never previously considered that someone could be both things at the same time. That I could derive equal energy from social interactions and from being by myself. That I didn’t have to choose. That my identity might run on a spectrum, rather than conforming to a binary system.

When we fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as one way or another, it’s not only limiting, it’s fundamentally inaccurate. We, all of us, are walking contradictions. It’s what makes us interesting. It’s what makes us human. Maybe we get nervous walking into a new classroom, but we can belt out a solo on stage. Maybe we can’t draw the likeness of anything, but we love moving paint around on canvas. Maybe we have a hard time sharing crayons at school, but we’ll sit and read to our baby sister at home when she’s sad. What if there was a way to encourage our children to take these “but”s and turn them into an “and”s? What if instead of contradicting one another, they are just two true things?

When I first opened Divya Srinivasan’s triumphant new picture book, What I Am (Ages 3-7), I thought it was going to be a book about a Brown girl responding to a microaggression that’s all too familiar to those whose non-whiteness doesn’t fit the idea of American that some people insist on holding onto, even though all evidence points to the contrary. It’s the “What are you?” question.

And it is a book about that. A beautiful, validating mirror for an Indian American reader.

AND it’s something more. Because, as our young narrator reflects on this question, she realizes that she is a whole lot more than her race or her ethnic heritage. And that many of these things might seem like contradictions—only they aren’t. They’re just her.

What this book is—and why I hope every child gets a chance to read it—is a testament to the complexities, to the nuance, within each and every one of us. It’s a kind of roadmap to how we might think about our own identities—and how we might express them to a world bent on incessantly inquiring.

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Summer’s Sweetness

July 22, 2021 Comments Off on Summer’s Sweetness

I’ve been caught in the hot, sticky, delicious embrace of summer (OK, but a little less heat, please), and it has kept me from showing up here as much as I would like. When I’m silent here, I’m usually still active on Instagram, so you can get lots of book recommendations there, but I do hope to get a few blog posts penned in the next few weeks (I’ve got a big graphic novel round-up planned, so stay tuned!).

But today, let’s talk about one of my favorite picture books of the year, an especially fitting one for this mid-summer sweet spot we find ourselves in. We’re perfectly poised to reflect on summer’s arc, having traded the tentative newness of June for the wild abandon of July, with a creeping awareness that the final days of August will bring it all to a bittersweet end. When Lola Visits (Ages 4-8), lyrically penned by Michelle Sterling (fellow kid lit reviewer) and evocatively illustrated by Aaron Asis, perfectly expresses this arc by capturing the smells, tastes, and sensations of summer, as experienced by a young girl alongside her visiting Filipino grandmother.

When Lola Visits does something that isn’t easy to do in a picture book. It imparts a culturally specific experience while simultaneously invoking the universal wonder of this special season. It’s a book that asks us to reflect on the way we experience summer, to give language to our own observations, and to honor the richness of our memories from one year to the next.

For my children, at least right now, summer is the smell of chlorine, the tight hug of a swim cap, and the taste of glazed doughnuts, cherry popsicles, and concessions burgers with American cheese. In a few weeks, that will shift to the squish of pine needles beneath flip-flopped feet, the sharp bang of a cabin door, and a Styrofoam cup of steaming hot chocolate on a cool Maine morning where fog sits heavy on the lake.

For me, much like the young protagonist in When Lola Visits, summer will always conjure memories of my grandmothers, both of whom I would visit every year. Summer was the taste of warm popovers with melting pads of butter, enjoyed under an umbrella with my one grandmother, after a morning spent pouring over sawdusty cases of pinned bugs at the science museum, where she volunteered in the entomology department. Summer was make-your-own sundaes before Bingo night with my other grandmother, the excitement of watching the pot of money overflow with American and Canadian dollars outdone only by the anticipation of going to the water slide park the following day. Summer was a sticky tin straight from the fridge with chocolate-peanut-butter-Rice-Krispies cookies. The smoky smoothness of blue beach glass. The experience of hugging an older body, with its faint smell of talcum powder, soft, spidery-veined skin, and the security of a love that knows no bounds.

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A Tribute to Those Behind the Scenes

May 20, 2021 § 1 Comment

After thirteen months, tomorrow we will begin the process of moving back into our renovated house. It’s not completely finished—the punch list is long—but we are more than ready to bid goodbye to our temporary digs and move more easily around one another in fresh, open spaces. It feels like we are reuniting with a dear old friend, while at the same time embarking on a new chapter.

Nearly every expectation we had going into the renovation process—the good and the bad—was exceeded. It was more expensive. It was more stressful. It was infinitely more fun.

What we vastly underestimated was how many hands would go into creating our dream home. Our core team of superstars—two architects, two carpenters, a project manager, and an interior designer—will draw most of the well-deserved recognition from our community. But their vision would never have been possible without the hard work of many, many others—some of whom I know by name and many of whom I never will.

We had a crew who showed up the first week for demolition—and returned months later to frame out the addition. We had arborists who took down trees and fought to save others. We had electricians, plumbers, house painters, and heating and cooling teams. A mason and his son poured the foundation, then came back to do the stone work for our patio. We had glass specialists and specialty painters, a shop of carpenters who built our kitchen cabinetry, and another who built bookcases and window seats. We had wizards who carved intricate backsplashes out of marble and others who created a beautiful bar top from a single tree in Maryland. We had a magician of a wallpaper installer and another who installed handmade, irregular tile so seamlessly around a new fireplace that you’d think it had been there all along.

We had graders and drainage trench diggers and even a guy who, according to our contractor, is the most adept person at installing front door hardware that he has ever seen.

And then there were folks we never saw. The ones who went into dilapidated barns and pulled down the hundred-year-old hemlock beams that now grace the ceiling of our family room. The ones who made our gorgeous windows and doors, or worked in the factories that made our appliances, our faucets, our decorative lights. The ones who packed boxes, loaded them onto trucks, and loaded them off.

There was no shortage of things that went wrong. But there were many, many more that went right, including all the creativity channeled into course correction. When new built-in bookcases in the old part of the house didn’t sit flush with the plaster wall, our contractor brought in a plaster expert, who feathered the wall to close the gap seamlessly. When the kitchen cabinets were delivered wrong…and then wrong again…our contractor stopped waiting for a new batch and reconfigured them himself, even though everyone said it couldn’t be done.

As the house nears completion, people stop by to congratulate my husband and me. It feels strange, honestly, and not a little bit disingenuous, to accept praise for something we largely didn’t do. We wrote checks. We worried over people. We made lists and sent emails like it was going to alter the fate of the universe when, in actuality, things would have probably gone along just fine without them. At the end of the day, we are indescribably grateful for the end product. But while we had the initial vision, it wasn’t our sweat equity that built it. The real credit goes to all the folks behind the scenes.

In their new picture book collaboration, Someone Builds the Dream (Ages 3-8), Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long have created an ode to the teams of people who toil behind the scenes to bring about the buildings, bridges, and books that enrich our lives—including and especially folks who are often invisible in the final product. It’s a book that showcases sweat equity. That celebrates trades and crafts. That values hard work and collaboration. It’s a book with perfect read-aloud rhyme, sweeping acrylic paintings, and a whole lotta tools and trucks.

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