July 14, 2022 § Leave a comment
We recently returned from a glorious beach week, so it seemed only fitting that I should tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture book of the year. (Psst: don’t forget this fave from 2020.) But first, allow me a minute to wax nostalgic about the art of beach combing. This particular trip was to the ocean—just outside Duck in North Carolina—so there were ample shells to source, especially in the early morning if you beat the crowds. But judging by the quality control practiced by my daughter—or, shall we say, complete lack thereof—it would appear I have failed to impart this skill. “Please save these for me,” I heard over and over, followed by a dumping of shell shards and nondescript pebbles into my hand.
Flash back to my own summers, spent on the shores of Lake Erie at my grandparents’ summer home. There were no shells to be found. Not much in the way of interesting rocks, either. What we did have was seaglass, and my cousins and I fancied ourselves connoisseurs when it came to these specimen of the sea. Any eye could spot a colorful piece of glass among the gray pebbles, but only the most discerning would ensure it was perfectly opaque, its edges worn smooth from years in the water. Anyone could fill their pails with brown glass, even white glass that had once been clear, but a good piece of green was gold, and a piece of blue, especially one bigger than a pencil eraser, was cause for calling out for all to come and see. Each night, we’d comb through our treasure, keeping only the best of the best.
(It’s very important, when beach combing, to examine your treasures once they are dry. The water tends to give even the plainest of finds a gleaning, shimmery mystique. The best treasures are those that sustain their shine all the way to your bedroom shelf, where they can be reborn as art.)
That something as careless as beer bottles thrown over the deck of a ship can transform into jewels that can turn a walk on the beach into something magical never ceases to amaze me. The seaglass of my youth spoke to a mystery I couldn’t see, one I’d never entirely understand. I wondered about the journey of that glass, perhaps as my own children wondered about the bits of shells they recently picked up, certainly as the young protagonist of today’s book tells us she wonders about the creatures who once lived in the shells now washing up on the shore of her grandparents’ house.
Author Kevin Henkes and illustrator Laura Dronzek are no strangers to collaborations when it comes to picture books about the natural world, but Little Houses (Ages 3-6) might be their finest yet, deftly balancing information with poetry, truth with imagination. We follow as a girl examines her beach finds and wonders about the things she doesn’t know. That she has these experiences during a summer spent with grandparents only sweetens the package, recalling the way my own grandmother would swoop in and out of our beach walks, sometimes pausing to procure her own treasure, often marveling at ours, always happy for the chance to muse about the mysteries of the sea.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 19, 2022 § Leave a comment
I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.
Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.
That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.
When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.
Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.
But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.)« Read the rest of this entry »
March 17, 2022 § 1 Comment
Surprising as this may sound, my son will tell you that one of his happiest memories is the day we told him he had ADHD. (He has given me his blessing to share this story here.) After years of angry outbursts, struggles to complete assignments, feeling like he didn’t fit in, and an approach to writing defined largely by paralysis, suddenly he had answers. He had clarity. He had a path before him that was not without more struggle but was also well-trodden, ripe with options, ready with support. Plus, he had a community—the Percy Jacksons of the world—who had this in common with him, many of them with inspiring stories of success to share.
All of this relieved a burden he had carried around, often without realizing it, for years. Overnight, he had been given a missing piece to the puzzle of himself.
But when I consider that this moment held so much joy for him, when it just as easily could have spurred fear, shame, or intimidation, I also credit the way we presented the diagnosis. After years of meeting his behavior with exasperation, concern, and (gulp) disappointment, this time we got it right.
On the heels of a neuro-psychological evaluation, my husband and I sat on my son’s bed, on a Saturday morning, and shared a colorful diagram I’d penned the night before. This single piece of paper attempted to capture my son’s learning profile: what his ADHD makes difficult, alongside the litany of strengths his unique wiring offers, like creativity, empathy, an insatiable quest for knowledge, and the superpower of hyper-focus when it comes to things he loves. His neurodiverse brain was all there, in its colorful, complex magnificence.
Bless second chances in parenting, because it was the magnificence piece that came through loud and clear that morning. In many ways, the process of having our son tested was as re-framing for us as it was for him. It helped us to see all of him, instead of just the parts that had monopolized the emotional space in our house in recent years. Somewhere along the way, in our obsession with trying to puzzle him out, we’d lost sight of reminding him, with our words and our actions, how deeply loved he is. How special he is. How miraculous he is.
Progress is rarely a straight line, and I won’t pretend my words don’t sometimes still veer too far in the direction of annoyance over acceptance. But I have become more cognizant of the power my words wield over the way my children see themselves. And that sometimes I need to check my own expectations at the door—my own ideas of what success or bravery or “normal” looks like—to land on the words my kids most need to hear.
Lala’s Words (Ages 4-8) isn’t about a child with any particular diagnosis. In fact, author-illustrator Gracey Zhang, a rising star just awarded the 2022 Ezra Jack Keats Medal for this brilliant and perceptive debut picture book, dedicates her book to “The Lala in All of Us,” a tribute to the universal desire to be seen, loved, and believed in for who we are. At the same time, it’s a story about a girl who doesn’t fit the model of success that her mother sets out for her. A girl who meets with more exasperation than encouragement. It’s a story that resonates deeply with me, a parent who once nearly lost sight of the magic in her own child.
And it’s a reminder that, if we look closely enough, our children will tell us exactly what they need to hear to blossom and thrive.« Read the rest of this entry »
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 3-6), 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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
October 28, 2021 § 2 Comments
It’s getting to be the most wonderful time of year: Gift Guide season! Over the next few weeks, you’ll be treated to round ups of picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade books, young adult books, and specialty books with a gifty flair. This year, I’m especially excited to be partnering with Old Town Books, a fantastic indie here in Alexandria, VA, where I’ll be presenting my full Gift Guide LIVE and IN PERSON at 7pm on November 12 and 13, with a chance to shop with me afterwards (get your tickets here!).
Traditionally, I kick off every Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year. (Some past picks are here, here, here, and here.) I recognize that choosing books for loved ones is immensely personal, but sometimes a book comes along that checks all the boxes. It’s beautiful. It’s original. It’s hefty, packed with details that demand repeat readings. It’s got a nostalgic charm that appeals to us oldies doing the gifting. To hold it feels inherently special.
Towering toadstools! All I’m saying is that there aren’t many books you want to clutch to your chest and carry around with you, so when you find one, you just want everyone to have it, OK?
Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest (Ages 4-8), by the extraordinary Phoebe Wahl—I blinked and missed her 2020 picture book for last year’s Gift Guide, and I’ll not make that mistake again—is an anthology of four stories, one for each season. It stars a cheery, capable, caring little witch with a pointed red cap and a fondness for messy braids and fair isle sweaters. Little Witch Hazel lives alone at the base of a tree in the enchanting Mosswood forest, surrounded by trees and waterfalls and a community of gnomes, elves, goblins, trolls, dryads, anthropomorphic amphibians, and tiny talking mammals. He days are spent divided between work and play, between helping others and tending to herself.
It has been a long two years, and I feel like we all deserve to spend some time in a place where tea cakes and twinkling lights are always in fashion, where coziness and cocoa reign supreme, and where the wonders of the wilderness are just an acorn’s throw away. A place where we can dip our tired toes in crystal clear water one minute and ride on an owl’s back the next. A place where creatures watch out for one another, repay favors, and are always happy for an impromptu dance party.« Read the rest of this entry »
October 7, 2021 § 1 Comment
After hitting the snooze button on Halloween last year while in temporary housing, we were extra-enthused to unbox our spooky decorations last weekend—especially our Halloween books! (Do you pack up your Halloween books with the decorations so you can re-discover them every year? Trust me on this.) As my kids have gotten older, we’ve offloaded many seasonal picture books, and those left are the ones we can’t bear to give up. This includes old favorites like Creepy Carrots, Old Black Witch, The Monsters’ Monster, I am a Witch’s Cat, In a Dark, Dark Room…along with more recent favorites, like The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt and Gustavo the Shy Ghost (for the love of all cuteness, please add this book to your collection…I recently Instagrammed about it here).
Then there are the spooky chapter books we’ve loved reading aloud in past Octobers—by candlelight, of course—like James and Deborah Howe’s classic, Bunnicula, and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. (I recently did an Instagram video with these and many more, including the books my kids claim are too scary for me to attempt, but darned if we will get to them someday. Also, let’s compare witchy cackles, shall we?)
Which brings us to 2021, where I’ve combed through dozens of Halloween-ish new releases to tell you my favorite. The story I’ve chosen is about vampires—of the modern, hip, urban variety—though it has nothing to do with the actual holiday of Halloween. Which means you get to decide whether you pack it up on November 1st or let it stay out all year round. Who am I kidding? There’s not a chance your kiddos are going to let you pack up this one. In Vampenguin (Ages 3-6), Lucy Ruth Cummins—no stranger to the Halloween market ever since she wrote the darling Stumpkin—has created a story that abounds with visual gags and makes perfect use of that irresistible trope of storytelling, where the reader is in on the joke long before the characters themselves are.
Have you ever considered how a baby vampire and a baby penguin could be mistaken for one another? Nope, me neither. That’s where the fun (and the funny) begins. And, lest you think Vampenguin sounds big on antics and short on artistry, I assure you that Cummins’ expressive line work and limited color palette, awash in turquoise, orange, and pink, elevate the story in both whimsy and wonder.« Read the rest of this entry »
September 30, 2021 § 2 Comments
September is many things—the return to school, the start of fall, the gearing up for holidays and sweaters and all things pumpkin—but in our house, it’s also Birthday Month. Both my kids share September birthdays, just two weeks apart. If September didn’t already feel like a sharp re-entry to scheduled life after the dog days of summer, adding in two back-to-back birthday celebrations has always felt like being launched into a marathon we forgot to train for.
Every year, the bleary-eyed exhaustion takes me by surprise. Shouldn’t it be easier now? My kids no longer desire the big backyard birthday parties we threw in the past (remember this post?), with magicians and bouncy houses and mad scientists who blew up stuff and left it all behind. By all accounts, the celebrations my kids want as tweens and teens require little prep on my part and are right up my alley. Ear piercing followed by lunch out with a few fabulous young ladies? Yes, please!
Still, no matter the celebration, there is an emotional charge to the day that radiates throughout the entire month. And, if I’m being honest, it sucks up a good bit of the oxygen in our house. Our children prize their birthdays above all other days of the year. And they aren’t alone. As Mary Lyn Ray puts it in the poetic picture book I’m about to share with you, “Almost anything could happen./ But what’s for sure is that/ your birthday is all yours to unwrap.”
There’s the delicious anticipation that builds over weeks, by some accounts as sweet as the day itself. There are wish lists, made and revised and revised again. There are discussions of favorite breakfasts and requested desserts and memories of things that happened in birthdays past that you wonder if you can re-create. Somewhere along the way, traditions are born.
Every year, my husband breaks out the colored pencils and renders homemade birthday cards, their fronts depicting the birthday kid engaged in a new venture or activity from the previous year (most recently, shooting a bow and arrow and rowing crew). It’s not uncommon for these cards to be drawn close to midnight the evening before, with me furiously wrapping packages beside him. Still, the delight on our kids’ faces when they see everything set out at breakfast the next morning always makes the effort worth it. (But seriously, when did I become the gift wrapper for all the out-of-towners?)
I have never encountered a picture book that more perfectly captures the essence of a child’s birthday than How to Have a Birthday (Ages 3-8), lyrically penned by Mary Lyn Ray and sumptuously illustrated by Cindy Derby. Mary Lyn Ray is a spellbinder with words, conjuring up phrases both playful and poignant; and Cindy Derby’s rich, dreamy art, infused with a touch of sparkle, feels at once intimate and open-ended. The text is delivered in the second person, inviting all readers to consider their own birthday experiences, while the pictures bring to life three specific birthday kids, with different skin tones and different celebration styles.« Read the rest of this entry »