Concluding Black History Month on the Train

February 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

Every year, once in the fall and once in the spring, I take each of my children on a mommy-and-me trip to New York City for a long weekend in the city where I grew up. We board the train in Alexandria, Virginia and make stops in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; Newark, Delaware; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and, finally, New York City, Penn Station. My kids have come to enjoy the train ride almost as much as the destination itself, glancing up from their books to watch the changing scenery speeding by—there is something innately lolling and contemplative about train travel—and anticipating the stops to come.

These same train stops come to life against an important and fascinating historical backdrop in Overground Railroad (Ages 4-9), a new picture book by superstar husband-and-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome, whose Before She Was Harriet I praised around this same time last year. “Isn’t it supposed to be “Underground Railroad?” my daughter asked, when I picked up the book to read it to her. Admittedly, I was equally stumped. As the Author’s Note explains, most people are familiar with the covert network known as the Underground Railroad, which assisted runaway slaves on their journey to the North, usually on foot. Lesser known but often equally secretive, the Overground Railroad refers to the train and bus routes traveled by millions of black Americans during the Great Migration, a time when former slaves opted to free themselves from the limitations and injustices of sharecropping to seek out better employment and educational opportunities in the North. Faced with the threat of violence from the owners of these tenant farms, who relied on the exploitation of sharecroppers for their livelihood, those who escaped often had to do so under cover of night.

« Read the rest of this entry »

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

April 4, 2019 § 3 Comments

I’ve been feeling a teensy bit guilty that those of you not on Instagram are missing out on all the mini reviews I’ve been doing over there, particularly of middle-grade books. These books are too good to miss! So, I’ve decided to do occasional “round-up” posts to catch you up. Several of these titles are brand-spanking new; the rest are new within the past year.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: Hanukkah in Good Company

December 1, 2018 § 6 Comments

Our family doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, and I’m by no means an authority on Jewish children’s literature (I recommend this excellent source). That said, I could be considered something of an authority on Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, published in the 1950s and featuring a Jewish immigrant family with five daughters living in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. As a child, I could not get enough of these books. As a parent, I listened to all of them in the car with my kids and…yup, just as wonderful.

If you heard a squeal echoing across the universe over Thanksgiving break, it was because I wandered into Books of Wonder in New York and discovered there is a now a picture book based on Taylor’s classic chapter books. « 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 »

Celebrating Our Inner Mermaid

June 21, 2018 § 4 Comments

Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.

In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Places We Carry With Us

May 17, 2018 § 9 Comments

 Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.

The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.

“I was homesick!” « Read the rest of this entry »

Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

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 »

A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime? « Read the rest of this entry »

A Statue on the Move

November 9, 2017 § 3 Comments

“Did you know the Statue of Liberty is moving?”

My son and my mother were leaning out over the Hudson River, craning to see the iconic green statue, on our recent trip to New York City to visit Grandma.

My mom looked up, confused. “They’re relocating the Statue of Liberty?”

“No,” JP said. “The statue is supposed to look like it’s moving. Her right foot is lifted like she’s taking a step. Most people don’t know that.” « Read the rest of this entry »

A Love Letter to Florence

July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.

I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged. « Read the rest of this entry »

History Come to Life

October 27, 2016 § 2 Comments

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy JakobsenHands down, my favorite day last summer was spent with my then eight year old at Ford’s Theatre, otherwise known as The Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. If there’s anything more fun than watching our children learn, it’s learning alongside our children—and that is precisely what happened as JP and I made our way through the narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the hours preceding and immediately following his assassination, and his legacy as it lives on today.

Plugged into our audio tour—the “kid version,” where two middle-school students conversed into our ears about the different exhibits—JP and I were totally riveted: making wide eyes at one another over something that was said, or taking off our headphones for a moment to discuss something further. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, like it was the first day of a new literature elective in college and I was scanning the syllabus for all the new books I would have an excuse to buy. « Read the rest of this entry »

Subterranean Thrills

May 19, 2016 Comments Off on Subterranean Thrills

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose StudioThere was a moment on the subway, during our recent trip to New York City, when my five-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Wait. Mommy. Are we actually underneath buildings and streets?” At first, I was a bit taken aback. Since birth, she has ridden on the subway, both in New York and at home in Washington DC. Why is she just grasping this now? And yet, the more I watched her absorb my affirmative answer, then spend the next several days kneeling on her seat, staring out the window into the blackness of the roaring tunnel, the more I realized that the whole concept of the subway is in itself quite astonishing.

Astonishment is exactly what the “distinguished citizens, reporters, and government officials” of New York City felt on February 26, 1870, when an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach led them into a 294-foot-long tunnel that he had helped build underneath the streets of New York, in order to showcase his fan-powered train that he believed would solve the city’s transportation problem. How this came about and what happened next—the largely forgotten story of New York’s unofficial first subway, which predated by 42 years the city’s plans to build an official subway system—is detailed in the fascinating new picture book, The Secret Subway (Ages 6-12), by Shana Corey and illustrated by Red Nose Studio. « Read the rest of this entry »

Arthropods and Art Heists

October 29, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Masterpiece" by Elise BroachIn preparation for our recent trip to New York City, I wanted to select a chapter book to read to my eight year old that would inspire our itinerary. Last year, you might remember that we read two fantastic books which took us straight to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was amazing to watch JP anticipate what he would find in the museum, based on what he had read—and then to leave a few hours later with a skip in his step and an entirely different experience from what he had expected. This is the power of art: to transform, to surprise, to delight.

I was secretly hoping I could convince JP to go back to The Met this fall, so I scrounged up another novel set in and around the museum. Beginning a few days before we left and concluding on the train ride home (where the woman sitting behind us remarked, as we were getting off, “Thank you for that delightful story!”), I read aloud Elise Broach’s moving and riveting Masterpiece (Ages 9-12), which features a boy, a beetle, and an art heist staged around a masterpiece on loan to The Met.

« Read the rest of this entry »

New York City From Above & Below

October 15, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja SpiegelmanMy son and I just returned from one of our beloved fall traditions: a long weekend in New York City. I take sublime pleasure in watching JP fall deeper in love with the city of my childhood at every visit: soaking up the street sounds (“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep without the horns and sirens,” he told me in all seriousness on the night we got home); quickening his walking pace to keep up with the most seasoned striders; and taking an active roll in navigating us through the city streets, both above and below ground.

This last point is in large part owing to two things: first, JP’s recent discovery of the NYC subway map; and secondly, his fondness for the Empire State Building, which we summitted on our previous trip to the city. When he is not rattling off the list of upcoming stops on an uptown train ride, he is looking around him on the street for the landmark against which to measure all landmarks.

We discovered this past weekend (thank you, Books of Wonder) that there is a new children’s book that marries JP’s love of the subway with the Empire State Building. I’m declaring it required reading for natives and tourists alike. Because get this: it is now MY FAVORITE NEW YORK BOOK OF ALL TIME.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Dancing Outside the Comfort Zone

July 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra BoigerSomewhere along the way, in our frenzy to make sure our children are anything but ordinary, we’ve stopped letting them be bad at things. So fervently do we want them to feel the taste of success from an early age (as if this guarantees them achievement later in life), that we steer them almost immediately in the direction of things at which we believe they’ll excel.

With so many of today’s children starting instructive activities at younger and younger ages, joining in a few years down the road can feel to a child like everyone else is light years ahead of him or her—a daunting prospect at best. And we parents get squirmy around daunting. We fear the fallout of failure, despite contemporary psychologists berating us, Failure is good! Failure is critical! It’s through failure that children learn how to stand firmer on their own two feet!

What’s stopping us from all holding hands and letting our children outside their comfort zone?

Cue the power of summer camp. For ten summers, I attended the same sleep-away camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The camp was the opposite of fancy (“It’s homey,” my New York City mother announced dubiously the first time we pulled in.). But I adored how laid back and accepting it was. As a camper, you could wander into any activity. As a counselor, you could teach virtually any activity (skill secondary to enthusiasm). Fortunately, my parents weren’t sending me there to master tennis or horseback riding or to emerge at the end of the summer with perfectly glazed pots that might justify the hundreds of dollars they were spending.

That camp became a haven for me. A place to experiment. To discover and be embraced for who I was. And I failed constantly. I failed to advance to the next swimming level. I failed at fighting off homesickness. I failed at having the right frayed jean shorts. I failed at friendships. There were no parents around to lecture or moralize or pick me back up or interfere on my behalf. And, boy, did I love it.

There are still moments in my life where I would give anything to run out my problems in bare feet across that giant archery field, flanked by the beauty of the mountains.

In addition to its nostalgic camp setting, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, the newest in the charming picture book series by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger—and my personal favorite to date—does a magnificent job of exploring a girl’s growing pains at starting (and not necessarily succeeding at) something new.

Last summer, I sung the praises of Deer Dancer, Mary Lyn Ray’s picture book aimed at creative, free-form movement, the kind of dance that my then three year old was loving in her weekly class. At almost five now, my Emily can no longer resist the tutu, and she is begging for me to enroll her in “real” ballet classes this fall. Which puts her in deep infatuation with the Tallulah books (not to mention their glittery book covers).

Don’t let the shimmer fool you: these stories are rich with substance. If Deer Dancer was about exploration, the Tallulah books (Ages 5-9) are about the discipline of dance. They follow young Tallulah from her days in a beginning ballet class (Tallulah’s Tutu); to her ambition to perform (Tallulah’s Solo and Tallulah’s Nutcracker); to her struggle on pointe (Tallulah’s Toe Shoes); to, finally, her broadening her repertoire at dance camp (Tallulah’s Tap Shoes).

The best thing about these five books is that they NEVER SHY AWAY FROM RAW, HUMAN EMOTION. On view is the full spectrum: the lovely and the not-so-lovely sides of Tallulah’s personality, which grows more complex with each year. We get her determination, her passion, her focus, and her compassion. As well as her jealousy, her disappointment, her impatience, and her haughtiness.

She is a perfectly imperfect role model for our children.

By the time Tallulah’s Tap Shoes comes in the sequence, Tallulah is sitting confidently in the saddle. That is, she has established herself as a skilled and accomplished ballerina. She can’t wait to board the yellow school bus to dance camp, where, between swimming in the lake and making friendship bracelets, she can excel in ballet lessons to her heart’s content.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

But there’s a catch. She also has to take tap lessons. And she knows nothing about tap.

Tallulah runs the predictable gamut of reactions. She begins by dismissing tap as “baby stuff” that will be easy to pick up. But then she watches green-eyed with jealousy as a girl with “shiny black hair,” who has been taking tap for as long as Tallulah has been taking ballet, can make seemingly effortless music with her feet.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Feeling like she alone is constantly on the receiving end of the teacher’s criticism, Tallulah becomes convinced that she has turned from being the “best student” in ballet to the “worst student” in tap (the dramatic flair is strong in this one). In one final defense mechanism, she decides tap is not worth doing if she can’t do it well, and she begins to skip her lessons, hiding out in the Arts and Crafts cabin and pretending that she doesn’t care a smidgen about any of it.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

All the while, there is a parallel dynamic at work. The black-haired girl is having the exact same reaction to her struggles with ballet, similarly convincing herself that it’s not worth her time, while secretly feeling disheartened and embarrassed. The two girls strike up a competitive but ultimately redemptive friendship, as both begin to see themselves reflected in the other. “You’re not the worst,” Tallulah assures Kacie. “Not at all…Teachers always correct everybody.”

“Well, you aren’t the worst in tap,” Kacie told her. “If you keep practicing, you’ll get better. Then you might love it. And we could even take lessons together.”

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Tallulah returns to tap, practicing her flap steps (which, like the ballet steps in Singer’s other books, are detailed on the endpapers of the book to the absolute fascination of my daughter) until they begin to sound louder and clearer. And Kacie gives ballet another shot, demonstrating more control over her glissades. Neither girl is the best at her new sport, but neither is the worst. In fact, what they discover is a broad and beautiful middle ground, previously invisible to both of them.

Maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be, Tallulah thought. For now.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

What if we free our children to explore, even embrace, this middle ground? Will they try more things? Will they learn more about themselves? Will they enjoy life more?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that there is little to no parental presence in Tallulah’s Tap Shoes. The girls work things out on their own and with one another. Together, they create an existence acceptable to both of them. A place where they can excel, fail, hang out in the middle, or—even better—do all of the above.

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

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

Best Kind of People Watching

March 26, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Last Stop on Market Street" by Matt de la PenaGrowing up in New York City, my preferred mode of transportation was always the bus. It didn’t matter whether I was going twenty blocks or a hundred blocks. I loved the noises: the lurch as we pulled over every two blocks to stop; the hiss as the bus lowered down to let people off. I loved the creeping pace, which allowed me to stare up at the buildings towering above, or down at the crowds of shoppers swarming the sidewalks. Most of all, I was transfixed by the cross-section of people squeezed in around me, some conversing with their neighbors, others plugged into headphones. Each person had a story that I could only guess at. And each bus displayed an unpredictable amalgamation of skin colors, clothing, smells, sizes, and languages.

Ride a New York City bus for long enough, and there’s nothing you don’t see. It’s like having your finger on the pulse of life. I would feel at once safely nestled into my community and distinctly vulnerable to the uncertainty of what might happen next.

You can imagine my dismay when I discovered, on a weekend trip to NYC with my son, that he does not innately share my enthusiasm for bus travel. En route from 96th to 12th street, it didn’t take long (in his defense, our bus did seem to be stalling more than moving) before JP looked at me with exasperation—and, frankly, puzzlement.

“This is taking forever! Why aren’t we taking the subway?” « Read the rest of this entry »

A Chapter Series Which Calls Us Home

March 12, 2015 § 6 Comments

"The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden“Mommy, I like you during the day. But I really love you at night when you read to me.” My son, six years old at the time and still feeling the high of the previous evening’s story time, uttered these words last summer at breakfast. (Yes, it was the Best Breakfast Ever; and no, our mealtimes are not normally this sweet).

JP’s comment came at a time when we were halfway through devouring George Selden’s seven chapter books about a cricket named Chester and his friends, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. For years, I had been singing the praises to parents of the 1960 novel, The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud), as a perfect read-aloud chapter book for those eager to follow longer, more complex stories—but not yet in possession of the reading ability to get there themselves. It can be tricky among contemporary literature to find poignant, beautifully written stories that don’t come at the expense of innocent, age-appropriate content. For this age group, The Cricket in Time’s Square stands alongside other wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web (let’s face it: Charlotte’s death—that of a spider at the end of her life—is about as heavy as many people want when reading to their six or seven year old.). « Read the rest of this entry »

Morning at The Met (Courtesy of E.L. Konigsburg)

October 30, 2014 § 5 Comments

"From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. KonigsburgEarlier this fall, JP and I embarked on our annual trip to New York City, where I grew up and where my Mom still lives. Normally on these visits, we are content to plot and rehash the day’s adventures by pouring over the vibrant illustrations in Kathy Jakobsen’s My New York, which my Mom brings down from a closet upon our arrival.

This time, I decided that some advance reading was in order. So, in the weeks leading up to our departure, I read to JP one of the novels I most remember from my childhood: E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud), which won the Newberry Medal in 1968. Through the eyes of two runaway siblings from Greenwich, Connecticut, who secretly live (and sleep) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art for an entire week, we are introduced to this incredible museum with drama and intrigue. The last time I took JP to the Met—albeit he was only five—was a disheartening disaster; he was bored within minutes of my ramblings about Impressionist painters. This time was different. This time, we had purpose: we were following in the steps of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. « Read the rest of this entry »

Counting Mania

June 14, 2014 Comments Off on Counting Mania

Have You Seen My Dragon?My three year old is a counting fool. She counts the little green squares on her napkins (thank you, Target); she counts the steps up to her room; she counts everyone’s matches in our endless rounds of Go Fish. “I’m out of breath of counting!” she exclaimed the other day, after numerous laps around the house counting from 1 to 50. So, it only stands to follow that she would also want to read counting books, an especially robust subject matter in the world of children’s picture books (see my complete list of favorites at the end).

Emily’s current obsession is Steve Light’s new Have You Seen My Dragon? (Ages 2-5), which I knew would be a hit the instant I felt the green metallic foil dragon on the front (ooooooh, ahhhhhh). While most counting books can’t pretend to “teach” counting (with the exception of Anno’s Counting Book, the single best presentation of counting for children that I’ve ever seen), the good ones present clever ways to practice counting and to develop the finger control that goes along with it. « Read the rest of this entry »

Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them. « Read the rest of this entry »

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the New York City Setting category at What to Read to Your Kids.