A (Literal) Train of Thought
May 11, 2023 § 2 Comments
When I was almost ten, our family moved from a large, ramshackle house in the lush green suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the fifteenth floor of an apartment building in Manhattan, and I did not handle it well. My parents adored New York City—they had lived there before having kids and couldn’t wait to return—but all I saw was no backyard, a shared bedroom with my younger sister, and more people and noise in a single day than I’d known in the decade I’d been alive. In a memory that still makes me cringe—though I was a deeply feeling child I prided myself on my poise—I pitched a fit in front of our realtor, yelling to my parents about how dirty and smelly and noisy the city’s streets were, while we rode an elevator to another prospective apartment, from which the sounds of car horns and ambulance sirens and buses pulling away from the curb would only be slightly dampened.
Kids generally underestimate their ability to adapt, and I quickly grew to love the city. But I never entirely shed the feeling that I was an outdoor kid living in an indoor city, and I sought out changes of scenery whenever I could. Sometimes, the escape was literal, like the summers I spent at sleepaway camp in Vermont. Mostly, I escaped through books—or through my imagination, spurred on by the stories I read. A handful of tap water before bed was the icy, life-saving stream water from My Side of the Mountain. The six-block concrete walk to school was an enchanted yellow-brick road, visible only when I looked down at my quickly advancing feet. I was a dreamy child, something I’ve never been sorry about passing along to my daughter, even when her liberal interpretations of reality have been known to try my patience.
With it being Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the timing seems perfect to share one of the most beautiful picture books of the year, as it is both written and illustrated by Dan-ah Kim, born in Seoul, South Korea and now living in Brooklyn, New York. I dare you not to gasp aloud as you page through these glorious spreads. But I don’t only adore the book for its artwork. Its story speaks directly to that child I once was, the one who never kicked and screamed in an elevator again but definitely felt like it, even as she found love and belonging and wonder in city life. That the book is inspired by real subway stops in New York City doesn’t hurt, either, though its message of creativity and imagination is undoubtedly universal.
The Train Home (ages 4-8) is an inventive story about a girl who conjures up a train for a magical journey away from the noisy reality of her city apartment. Along the way, amidst the alluring, refreshing, fantastical scenery of her imagination, she surprises herself by yearning for the home she has left behind. Ultimately, like the dichotomy that exists in the art—some spreads fancifully populated, others pared way back—the story is a reassuring validation that the desire to escape and the desire to return home are never mutually exclusive. Rather, they exist in a tug-of-war dance alongside our own journeys of growing up.« Read the rest of this entry »
The Seed That Keeps On Giving
February 23, 2023 § Leave a comment
We may have just wrapped up Awards season (if you need a recap on the 2023 Caldecott & Newbery winners, check out my Instagram reel), but it’s never too early to speculate on next year’s winners. If we’re placing bets, my money is on one new picture book in particular, a story so lyrically crafted and gorgeously illustrated that I think it could be a contender for both a Newbery (words) and a Caldecott (illustration). Only time will tell, but the good news is you don’t have to wait until next January’s announcements to begin reaping the rewards of this one. Its depiction of Black Joy makes it perfect for Black History Month. Its emphasis on planting makes it perfect for spring. Its poetic text would be a terrific asset to National Poetry Month. But its child-centric joy will ensure little ones request it all year long—is there a child who hasn’t heeded the call to climb a tree?—and it’s one you’ll never tire of reading for its simple but profound beauty.
If we’re talking awards, it’s also a perfect book. Nary a superfluous word. Nary a picture that doesn’t expand on those words.
And, yes, if you’ve been hanging around for some time, you know I CANNOT RESIST A TREE STORY. (Past examples here, here, here…) My children might disagree, but I don’t think it’s solely a symptom of middle age that I notice trees (and birds, flowers, and strange beetles) more than ever. I think it’s also owing to the wealth of contemporary picture books on the subject! I’m quite certain we didn’t have the literature about the natural world that kids do today. And while we were content with Frog and Toad and magical wardrobes, I can’t help but think we were missing out on stories intended to invite reflection about the very life outside our window. Maybe that’s why, as a parent, I’m especially attracted to sharing these stories with my kids. I have as much to gain as they do.
Nell Plants a Tree (ages 4-8), written by Anne Wynter and illustrated by Daniel Miyares, is a fresh twist on the trees-are-great trope. Inspired by Wynter’s Texas childhood and Miyares’ weekly visits to his grandmother in rural South Carolina, the book explores the plentiful gifts a tree bestows on the generations lucky enough to grow up in its shade—particularly the children, who climb it, read beneath it, and play games around it. It’s a look at how the simple, child-friendly act of planting a tree can impact the world for years to come. It’s a book that invites marveling at the trees in our own backyards and parks, as much as it reminds us that the natural world is ever-changing, that the marks we leave on it today can shape our loved ones tomorrow.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
Advocating for the Under-Fish
January 12, 2023 § 1 Comment
Today, I’m highlighting another 2022 picture book that, had it released earlier, would have made my Gift Guide, because it’s that good. It also boasts one of the most genuine classroom settings I’ve seen in awhile, a story that not only speaks to a love of learning and the benefits of independent research projects, but honors the creative minds that go against the grain, that don’t conform to the traditional norms that the school day demands.
In other words, if you love Andrea Beaty’s “Questioneers” series—and who doesn’t, with favorites like Iggy Peck Architect and Aaron Slater Illustrator—then Agatha May and the Anglerfish (ages 4-8), co-written by Jessie Ann Foley and Nora Morrison, and illustrated by Mika Song, will be a sure-fire hit. Did I mention the story rhymes, too? And that it’s packed with fascinating factoids woven seamlessly into said rhyme?
If you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for books with neurodiverse characters. There was a time when I sent a child off to school and steeled myself for the emails to follow: He had a hard day. He wouldn’t participate. He threw his paper across the room. He threw his paper at a classmate. He refused to help during cleanup. My child wasn’t exactly like Agatha May, whose cubby is a mess and whose hands are perennially stained with charcoal, who chews gum when she’s not supposed to and delights in her smelly lunches. But he was judged the same way Agatha May is, with eye rolls from kids and frustrated tones from teachers. Agatha May isn’t given any labels in the book, but it’s fair to say that her brain works a little differently than those of her classmates.
But what an amazing brain it is! Agatha May is a dreamer, yes, but she’s also passionate about her interests—especially those that, like her, aren’t conventional. She’s focused and attentive when allowed to pursue these interests, leaving no stone unturned. Her vocabulary is astounding. She might seem like a loner, but she yearns for connection and lights up when praised.
Curious. Determined. Hardworking. Resourceful. Proud. What we discover over the course of this story is that Agatha May, the girl without any of the “merit points” distributed by her teacher and coveted by her classmates, actually embodies everything we want our children to be. She just doesn’t look the part.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
‘Tis the Season for New Christmas Books
December 8, 2022 § Leave a comment
I’m usually happy to find one new stand-out Christmas title each year. (Last year, it was this outstanding Hanukkah-Christmas-combo.) But 2022 has exceeded expectations, and today I’ve got a whopping nine books to rave about. Of course, nothing will ever quite rival Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree for Best Christmas Read Aloud, but the books below still hold plenty of kid appeal. Plus, we all know that when it comes to Christmas books, the more the merrier. Unpacking our Christmas books alongside ornaments and wreath hangers has always been one of our family’s favorite nights of the year—rescheduled for this weekend, thanks to a nasty bout of the flu—because the anticipation of Santa’s arrival is almost as sweet as Christmas morning itself.
So, get that hot cocoa brewing, curl up by the tree, and enjoy these festive stories. (Links go to Old Town Books, and hurry because they are going FAST!)
And, if you’re looking for a new board book to add to your collection, look no further than Santa Jaws. (I’m only sorry I didn’t have a copy handy to photograph.)« Read the rest of this entry »
2022 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Picture Book of the Year
October 18, 2022 Comments Off on 2022 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Picture Book of the Year
It’s that time of year again! For months, I have been working behind the scenes, reading hundreds of picture books, middle-grade books, young adult, and non-fiction in order to bring you this fall’s top picks for kids, tweens, & teens (nearly 60 titles in all!). I’ll be rolling out the Gift Guide in a series of blog posts between now and Thanksgiving, but if you live in the Northern Virginia area, I’d LOVE to see you at one of two In-Person Events I’ll be doing on the first two Friday evenings in November at Old Town Books, the beautiful indie where I’m the kids’ buyer. You’ll get a chance to hear me present the entire guide in person, followed by personal shopping and gift wrapping. Knock out all your holiday shopping and stockpile fabulous books for the year to come! (Just hurry, because tickets are going fast.)
It has become traditional for me to kick off each year’s Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. (Last year, it was Little Witch Hazel (swoon!) and before that we had memorable titles like this, this, this, and this, which actually bears some fun similarities to today’s book.) This year’s pick officially hits shelves today, but it was actually the very first book I picked for this year’s guide, after reading a digital copy six months ago, so it has taken every ounce of restraint I have not to tell you about it until now.
I knew a fairy tale remixed by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen—the launch of a new picture book trilogy, no less!—was bound to be brilliant, but I also knew it would need no help from me to find its audience. Between the two of them, these kid lit superstars have garnered numerous Caldecott Honors, not to mention countless other accolades, so there was no way this book was falling off anyone’s radar. Normally, for “My Favorite Book of the Year” posts, I tend towards the hidden gems.
But while this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest books of the year, I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon, because The Three Billy Goats Gruff (ages 4-8) is the bomb. This story is READ-ALOUD PERFECTION. The humor! The pacing! The rhyme! The bonus endings! The ode to gourmands! The chin hair! The VOICES! I can’t think of a single child who won’t hang on every word of this book, alternately holding their breath and howling with laughter. Or a single adult who won’t be game to read it again and again.
Are you ready to step onto the bridge with me?« Read the rest of this entry »
More Treats Than Tricks: New Halloween Picture Books
October 5, 2022 Comments Off on More Treats Than Tricks: New Halloween Picture Books
“H—A—double L—O—W—double E—N spells Halloween!” Anyone else remember learning that song in Kindergarten? Anyone else still need to sing it to remember how to spell the holiday? Just me?
Most years, I do you a solid and highlight just one stellar new Halloween picture book. This year, I couldn’t choose so you’re getting seven (sorry, not sorry). Actually, one of them—Oliver Jeffers’ There’s a Ghost in This House—you’ve seen before. It came out last year but, due to supply chain issues, juuuussst missed a Halloween release. That meant it made my Gift Guide instead—I mean, a haunted house is a haunted house any time of year—and lots of you have told me how beloved it has become in your house. But if you were NOT one of those folks, you get a do-over this year. Phew.
So, yes, Halloween picture books are especially strong this year! But before we get started, I always like to use these posts as an excuse to dip back into the archives. Last year, there was our dear Vampenguin. Who remembers The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt the year before that? Gah, I love that one! There was also I am a Witch’s Cat, Vampirina Ballerina, The Monsters’ Monster, and that doesn’t include a few other favorites I’ve highlighted on Instagram over the years.
Now let’s see what this year has brought us.« Read the rest of this entry »
July 14, 2022 Comments Off on Beach Combing
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 »
Picture Books as Performance
May 19, 2022 Comments Off on Picture Books as Performance
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 »
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.)« Read the rest of this entry »
Our Words Matter
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 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.« Read the rest of this entry »