Sweeter Together

January 21, 2021 § 6 Comments

Yesterday, at the 59th Presidential Inauguration, as my children and your children and the world looked on, President Biden called us to the work of unity, to “uniting to fight the foes we face. Anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs.” He was referring to Americans coming together, though he also spoke of healing alliances around the world.

Then, the 22-year-old inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, took the stage—who, incredibly, before the age of twenty could not pronounce the letter “R” due to a severe speech impediment—and elevated that message of unity even further. She called us to hope and light and agency. “There’s always light if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

(Side note: moments after the inauguration, it was announced that Amanda Gorman has a children’s picture book coming out in September, illustrated by fan-favorite Loren Long. This girl is here to stay, and I am here for it!)

I haven’t yet told you about one of the most exquisite picture books published last fall—actually, if I’m being honest, one of the finest examples of bookmaking I’ve ever seen. (It would have unquestionably made my 2020 Gift Guide had I discovered it in time.) On the surface, Sugar in Milk (Ages 5-10), written by Thrity Umrigar and lushly illustrated by Khoa Le, is a story about a modern girl’s immigration and assimilation; and yet, as it recalls an ancient Persian folktale, it reads as an allegory of unity and light. It’s a story honoring individual courage alongside diversity, acceptance, and inclusion—hallmarks of the American promise. It’s a story reminding us that we are sweeter together.

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For the Youngest Polar Bear Lovers

January 14, 2021 § 3 Comments

My children are as different as siblings can be, but one thing they have always shared is a love of polar bears. In his first grade Montessori classroom, my son spent months researching polar bears for a year-end presentation with a classmate, an endeavor that had us adding numerous non-fiction picture books (gorgeous ones, like this, this, and this) to our permanent collection. Years later, my daughter would do the same. In fact, her adoration of polar bears is now so legendary that on her last birthday, nearly every email, card, or voicemail mentioned polar bears. She even has a polar bear jacket. Two, actually.

I think we can assume, if for no other reason than their prevalence in kid lit, that polar bears have a special residence in the hearts of many children. Who can blame them? Polar bears are undeniably adorable (that black nose! those big paws!). They inhabit an Arctic wonderland that rivals any snow day. And their endangerment has only lent them more mystique.

There’s also something in the polar bear’s personality that invites a certain kinship with the young. Despite being some of the animal kingdom’s most ferocious predators, despite facing down harsh temperatures and bleak landscapes, polar bears are surprisingly playful. They tumble in the snow, they somersault in the water, and they fall asleep right where they are when they can’t keep their eyes open. In many ways, they are our children’s spirit animals.

It might seem rather mean of me to wait until after the holidays to tell you about one of my favorite picture books of 2020, but if there is a month to talk polar bears, it’s January (even if, here in Virginia, the weather forecast is disappointingly lacking in white stuff). In A Polar Bear in the Snow (Ages 2-6), beloved picture book creator Mac Barnett teams up with paper artist Shawn Harris to spark the imagination of the youngest polar bear lovers. The language is clever, wry, repetitive, and—as Barnett is fond of doing—asks direct questions of its reader. But it’s Harris’ stunning cut-paper collages, invoking countless shades of white alongside a piercing, crystalline blue, that make this a stand-out title, lending its subject matter the very awe it deserves.

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The Promise of Calm After the Storm

January 8, 2021 § 2 Comments

In the wake of Wednesday’s egregious attack on the US Capitol, I decided to postpone the post I’d initially planned for this week (cute polar bears can wait) and talk instead about a new picture book brimming with reassurance. Technically, it’s about weathering a literal storm—a tornado, a blizzard, a hurricane, and a wildfire—but its message feels deeply relevant to the place of uncertainty and fear in which we increasingly find ourselves: that in times of crises, we pull through with the help of family and community, with hope and heart and hard work. That Nature is powerful, but so are we. That, following every storm, there is always a return to calm.

Compared to most families, we spend a disproportionate amount of time obsessing about discussing the weather, owing to a fear of storms my eldest has had since he was two and a half and watched a microburst uproot a tree and send it spiraling down onto a power line, where it ignited. Previously, I’ve blogged about You’re Safe With Me, an animal-themed, folktale-like story offering a mother’s embrace as a panacea for stormy winds. Today’s book is more literal and larger in scope, showcasing scenarios that will feel familiar to children growing up at a time when weather events are larger, louder, and more frequent. It is about fear, but it’s also about a myriad of possibilities—some of them surprisingly wonderful—that can accompany that fear and pave the way for resilience.

Co-authored by mother-daughter team, Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, with glorious spreads by husband-and-wife team, Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell, I am the Storm (Ages 3-7) is about the moments when Nature rears its ugly head and threatens to overpower us—and what happens next. With equal parts candor and lyricism, four different children describe their family’s response to an incidence of extreme weather and the unexpected ways they find empowerment.

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An Inclusive Take on a Christmas Classic

December 17, 2020 § 1 Comment

Traditionally on Christmas Eve, I channel my father and do a stirring rendition of Clement C. Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas,” before the kids head up to bed and pretend to sleep. First published in 1823, Moore’s description of St. Nicholas and his eight flying reindeer, landing on rooftops and sliding down chimneys, has shaped our Western portrait of Santa Claus for the past 200 years. And yet, in almost every case, Moore’s words have been illustrated to center a white, upper middle-class family in a small New England town.

When we first moved to Virginia, we didn’t have a fireplace. A preschool classmate asked my son how Santa would get into our home to deliver presents. My son was dumbstruck; nothing I said assuaged his anxiety. When, a few weeks later, I took my kids on our local “Santa Train” (thank you, Virginia Railway Express) to spend an afternoon with the Big Man, my son queued up to ask that most important question: “What if someone doesn’t have a chimney?” To which the white-bearded man pointed to an oversized silver key hanging from his belt. “This magical key opens every door in the world, so if I can’t enter by chimney, I simply go through the front door.” And that was that.

There is a myriad of ways that adults have revised (or eschewed completely) the Santa myth to suit diverse living situations. Addressing economic disparity is tougher. There were years when my son would ask, as we shopped for our local toy drive, “But won’t Santa bring toys to these children?” Those of us who talk to our children of Santa Claus find ourselves perpetuating a myth as privileged and problematic as it is enticing.

Children’s illustrator Loren Long—already beloved in our house for his picture books starring Otis the tractor—has breathed new life into Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas (Ages 3-10), setting the original poem to illustrations featuring four diverse families. As we page through the book, the warm, atmospheric, cleverly detailed paintings tell their own stories about what Santa’s arrival looks like for a family on a rural farm, in a mobile home, a city apartment, and an island bungalow. (Even before the poem starts, the endpapers show the different children engaged in Christmassy pursuits, like cookie making and letter writing.) The result is a fresh, if idealized, take on a Christmas classic—which, even as it doesn’t address all the paradoxes of the Santa myth, suggests that the magic of the holiday touches everyone who believes.

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Creating Community with the Vanderbeekers

December 10, 2020 § 1 Comment

Last Saturday, we got a Christmas tree. By all accounts it looked like a ho hum ordeal, much like the rest of 2020. For the first time since having kids, we didn’t drive to a bucolic farm to cut down our own tree and enjoy celebratory hot cider overlooking evergreen-studded hills. Instead, we walked the five blocks to a local nursery and paid twice as much for a tree half as big. It took us so long to get out of the house that by the time we got there, it was dark. We hoisted the tree on our shoulders and walked it back to the temporary digs we’re calling home these days, with the children trailing behind us like shivering ducklings. When we arrived at our front door, we realized the clippers were in storage; we had no way to trim the lower branches to fit the tree in the stand. Also, we had forgotten about dinner.

And yet, when I collapsed into bed several hour later, I could not stop smiling. I turned to my husband. “Why was that so fun?” I mused. Sure, it was an outing, at a time when we have fewer occasions than usual to leave our house. Yes, it was festive (who doesn’t catch the holiday spirit from the scent of evergreen?). But I suspected there was something larger at work. And then it hit me.

Standing among the outdoor crowd in that nursery—waving at neighbors we recognized over their masks, listening to the music piped through crackly speakers, heeding the frenzied calls of workers bundling trees for transport—I felt connected to something larger than myself. For the first time in a long while, I was caught up in community. We have had such few occasions to gather this year; most of the time, seeing people means turning or running the other way. But for one night, I was reminded that rituals and traditions are more meaningful when they’re shared with others. Even strangers. None of us were there for long before we retreated back inside our homes, but for a moment, we remembered what it was like to join together in celebration. (Like the Whos down in Whoville.)

This theme of community features prominently in each of the four titles (and counting!) in Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeekers series, though perhaps none so strongly as in her newest, The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud). If my son’s once-upon-a-time enthusiasm for The Penderwicks and my daughter’s continued enthusiasm for The Problim Children has been any indication, my kids are partial to read alouds with large families. But no literary family has quite united my kids’ affection like the Vanderbeekers, a contemporary, biracial family of five children and two parents living on 141st street in New York City. And no other book has elicited as many tears and cheers as the fourth. Glaser’s writing has not only strengthened with each title, she’s now dipping her toe into meatier plots and more complex emotions.

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When a House Becomes a Home

December 3, 2020 § 6 Comments

It has only been a week since I finished my 2020 Gift Guide and already I need a do over! I started this year’s guide earlier than usual, which meant I was still digging myself out of a hefty “to read” pile, and I’ve since discovered a few gems that positively beg to be included. Like Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House (Ages 3-8). Honestly, this book is so good I might have chosen it as My Favorite Picture Book of the Year (although no disrespect to the two I did choose, because they’re perfection). For sure, it feels like nothing I’ve read this year. It’s raw and tender and gorgeous and loud. It features a single father who reads aloud during bath time, shreds on the electric guitar, and holds space for his son’s feelings, the bad along with the good. And while the story is centered around a modest little old house, it reinforces what it really means for a house to be a home.

My mom has an expression she employs each time I’m preparing to moving into a new space, from dorm rooms, to my first apartment, to the temporary digs we moved into at the start of this pandemic, after breaking ground on renovating what I hope will be our forever home. Whenever I start to worry—That dorm is a 1960s disaster! This apartment hardly has any windows!—she always says with confidence, “You have to make it cute.” Those seven words have become a kind of mantra for me, because there’s inherent optimism in them. It’s the idea that hanging a few pictures, puffing up a few pillows, and putting down a plush rug can transform the spirit of any place. It’s working with what you have. It’s simple. It’s doable.

And it’s true: when we put effort into brightening up our house, we can relax into it. When we make our four walls a tiny extension of ourselves, we can live a little freer, a little louder, a little more boldly. And then there’s the emotional decorating. Because making a house “cute” comes as much from the life we lead inside it: the love we foster, the heartbreak we overcome, the laughs that surprise us, the memories we make. What we give to a house comes back to us as a home.

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2020 Gift Guide: Books for Teens (Ages 13-18)

November 25, 2020 § Leave a comment

Today marks the end of this year’s Gift Guide, with a slew of fantastic, thought-provoking reads for teens. I’ve taken particular care while indicating age ranges for each book, mindful that some of these contain subject matter appropriate for older teens. (If you missed the previous weeks, there are some great younger teen choices here and here as well. You can also find last year’s list for teens here.)

I would also like to welcome my hubby to these pages for the first time! He wrote the review for True and False, a book I purchased for my son after he asked me, “How can our family be sure the news we’re reading isn’t fake?” but which my husband snagged for himself before it was halfway out of the bag.

You’ll hear a bit more from me before 2020 quits us (or we quit it), because in the seven weeks since I began this Gift Guide, I have stumbled upon books I wish had included. Suffice it to say that my Instagram feed won’t be slowing down anytime soon, either. But I do hope this year’s Gift Guide has proven a worthwhile endeavor for you and your loved ones. Books really do make the best gifts (especially if you support your neighborhood bookstore in the process).

Happy Thanksgiving!

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2020 Gift Guide: The “Giftiest” Books for Ages 1-16

November 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

With just two Gift Guide installments remaining, today’s feels extra special. These are the super duper gifty books. The showstoppers. The stunners. Books packaged with metallic accents or satin bookmarks or wow graphics. Books worth their weight, if you will. All of them are non-fiction, and many capitalize on newfound or revitalized interests and hobbies inspired by the curve ball that was 2020 (gardening! outerspace! the great outdoors! apologies, but I’ve got nothing for the sourdough crowd). Lest I start sounding like a broken record, All Thirteen: The Incredible True Story of the Thai Cave Soccer Team would surely be included here as well.

And here’s the grooviest thing. If you only have time to shop one list this holiday season, shop this one: I’ve got picks for as young as one and as old as sixteen!

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2020 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14, Part Two

November 13, 2020 § 2 Comments

Today, I’m back with my other ten 2020 favorites for the middle-grade audience. As with part one, I’ve taken care to hit a range of interests, styles, and reading levels, while never sacrificing beautiful writing or complex character development (my motto remains: childhood’s too short for mediocre books).

This year’s middle-grade list was compiled with the intimate involvement of my daughter (10) and son (13). While you can always count on my having read any book I review on this blog, nearly every one of the books in today’s and yesterday’s post was also read and loved by one or both my kids. While we’re in that glorious window of sharing books, I’m milking it.

Another friendly reminder that you won’t find graphic novels here, because they got their own post earlier. And if the twenty titles between today and yesterday aren’t enough, check out 2019’s Middle-Grade Gift Guide post, filled with other treasures (many of which are now out in paperback), or my Summer Reading Round Up from earlier this year. And, of course, as soon as I publish this, the fates guarantee I’ll read something I wish I’d included here, so keep your eyes peeled on Instagram, where I’m regularly posting middle-grade updates.

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2020 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14, Part One

November 12, 2020 § 1 Comment

As evidenced by the massive stack I’m bringing to you today and tomorrow, 2020 delivered some fantastic middle-grade fiction, including a number of novels by debut authors your kids won’t forget anytime soon. (It delivered non-fiction as well, as evidenced by my earlier endorsement of the astounding All Thirteen.)

One could make a case that storytelling has never been more essential. The stories below will take children far beyond the four walls of their home. They will entertain and inspire, while also eliciting empathy for those with different lived experiences. They will comfort, nurture, even heal. They’re the hope our children need to go forth into a brighter 2021.

A few of the novels I blogged about earlier in the year but mention again because I live in fear that you might miss them. The rest are new to these pages. (Remember, you won’t find any 2020 graphic novels here, because they got their own post.)

Below are the first ten. The second ten will follow tomorrow. I’ve taken particular care in noting the suggested age range below each title. Some of these skew younger, others older. I hope I’ve found something for every tween and young teen in your life.

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2020 Gift Guide: Favorite Graphic Novels for Ages 6-15

November 5, 2020 § 5 Comments

Back by popular demand: an installment of my Gift Guide devoted entirely to my favorite graphic novels of the year! Graphic novels make some of the best gifts. Not only are they coveted among emerging readers, tween readers, and teen readers alike, but they invite repeat readings. I’ve watched my kids race through a new graphic novel as soon as they get it, then a few days later start it over again, spending more time on each page. After that, they might set it down for a few weeks or months or years, only to pick it up again with fresh eyes. It’s no wonder many of the graphic novels below took over a year to create; they are packed with visual nuance, literary allusions, and layered meanings. Like treasured friends, graphic novels grow with their readers.

I read dozens and dozens of graphic novels in preparation for this post. Below are the ones that rose to the top in originality, beauty, fun, diversity, or impact. A few of these you’ll remember from a blog post I did earlier this year, but they bear repeating because they’re that good. There are others, like the new graphic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which my daughter was horrified wasn’t included here. I simply had to draw the line somewhere.

The list begins with selections for younger kids and concludes with teens. Enjoy and happy gifting!

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2020 Gift Guide: Picture Book Round-Up

October 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

Last week, I told you about my two verrrrry favorite picture books of the year: The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) and Girl on a Motorcycle (Ages 5-9). Today, I’m telling you about others I like a whole heck of a lot. I’ve selected titles, both fiction and non-fiction, for a range of ages, from two to ten years old. Some of them are jaw-droppingly beautiful; others elicit laughter; many invite wonder and compassion. All of them are deserving of a permanent home, where they can be enjoyed again and again and again.

Before we start, there are several I’ve already blogged about this year. Rather than repeating myself, I’m going to link to my original posts. The ones with mega gift potential from earlier in the year are Me and Mama (Ages 2-6), The Ocean Calls (Ages 4-8), Madame Bedobedah (Ages 5-9), Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), In a Jar (Ages 4-8), and The Oldest Student (Ages 6-10).

And now, here are ones new to these pages:

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2020 Gift Guide: My Favorite Picture Book for the Elementary Crowd

October 22, 2020 § 3 Comments

As a nervous flyer, I never thought I’d write this, but I really miss getting on airplanes. Traveling is something I’ve never taken for granted, but I’m not sure I realized just how much I crave it until it wasn’t an option. I miss stepping off a plane, filled with the adrenaline of adventures ahead. I miss unfamiliar restaurants and museums. I miss natural wonders so far from my everyday environs it’s hard to believe they’re on the same planet. I miss squishing into a single hotel room, each of us climbing into shared beds after a day of sensory overload and, one by one, closing our eyes. I can’t wait until we can travel again.

In the meantime, we look to books to fuel our longing to see the world, to keep alive this thirst for the unfamiliar and the undiscovered. No picture book this year delivers on this promise quite like Girl on a Motorcycle (Ages 5-9), by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Julie Morstad, based on the actual adventures of Anne-France Dautheville, the first woman to ride a motorcycle around the world alone. From her hometown of Paris to Canada, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, and other exotic destinations, we travel alongside this inquisitive, fiercely independent girl as she heeds the call of the open road.

Morstad is no stranger to illustrating picture book biographies—It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way made last year’s Gift Guide—and part of her remarkable talent stems from adapting her illustrative style to the subject at hand, while still creating a look and feel entirely her own. In Girl on a Motorcycle, Morstad infuses a ’70s palette of glowy browns and moody mauves onto the dusty backdrops of the Middle East, the dense evergreens of the Canadian countryside, and the ethereal sunrises. Additionally, Morstad gives the protagonist herself a kind of badass glamour every bit as alluring as the scenery itself. How can we not fall for someone who packs lipstick next to a “sharp knife”? It’s as if Vogue jumped on the back of a motorcycle, slept in a tent at night, and made friends with locals along the way.

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2020 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Chapter Book

October 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

Yes, it’s time! With supply chain challenges predicted towards the end of the year, and reading one of the few escapes we’re allowed these days, I’m kicking off this year’s Gift Guide a few weeks early, and you can expect weekly posts through Thanksgiving. There will be lots of round-ups with lists for all ages, littles through teens. (And yes, there will be one exclusively on graphic novels.) But I’m beginning today by highlighting one verrrrrry special book that came out this week. Usually, I kick off my Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year (and we’ll get to that, I promise), but I’m turning tradition on its head (it’s 2020, after all) and we’re going to start with a book for older readers and listeners. If you keep your eyes on my Instagram this week, you could even win a copy!

Let me start by saying that I am not, by nature, a nonfiction fan. Let me add that I don’t think my ten-year-old daughter has ever picked up a nonfiction book of her own volition. (She rarely lets me read the Author’s Note in a picture book!) Then there’s the fact that this book chronicles a story whose ending most of us already know. In fact, it’s one our family has already encountered in two previous kids’ books. So, how on earth did this nonfiction book—229 pages before the additional 40 pages of footnotes—end up a favorite 2020 read of our entire family?

I remember like it’s yesterday: picking up my son at camp the first week of July, 2018, and having him greet me every afternoon with, “Are they out yet?” Since June 23, our family—like millions around the world—had been glued to the news coverage of the twelve young soccer players and their coach, trapped inside a rapidly flooding cave in Northern Thailand after a field trip went wrong. The successful seventeen-day rescue mission that followed, where thousands of rescuers from around the world tackled one seemingly impossible obstacle after another, captivated people not only because of its tremendous scope and scale, but because at the center was a group of sweet, soccer-loving kids.

As it turns out, Thai-American children’s author Christina Soontornvat was visiting family in Thailand at the time, her plane touching down the same day the children went missing. We may have been riveted by the story on our other side of the globe, but the Thai people were consumed by it. Life as they knew it was temporarily suspended. Schools were closed; vigils were held. Farmers voluntarily sacrificed their land to the drainage operation, while others led drillers through the wild jungles surrounding the cave, and still others cooked food for volunteers. The experience for Soontornvat was such that, a few months later, she returned to Northern Thailand to spend time with the rescued boys and their coach, paving the way for an exhaustive undertaking of interviews with nearly all the key figures in the rescue.

In All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team (Ages 10-16), Soontornvat has written a chapter book that reads like fiction while telling the most textured, suspenseful, holistic version of this incredible true story to date. If there was ever a year when we needed a story that showcases the very best of humanity—the strength, ingenuity, and kindness exhibited when we come together as helpers—it is 2020.

Give this book to the tweens and teens in your life. If they won’t pick it up, read it to them, because there’s a particular power in hearing Soontornvat’s words spoken aloud. My teenage son inhaled this book on his own, but I read it aloud to my daughter, and it was she who kept exclaiming, “I know what’s going to happen, and I’m still on the edge of my seat!” I’ve often heralded how fun it is to learn alongside our children, and All Thirteen is a brilliant example of a book that has something to teach us—about Thai culture, about science and engineering, about the nail-biting niche of cave diving, and about the nature of teamwork and the human capacity for survival—on every single page.

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Channeling Our Inner Ghost

October 8, 2020 § Leave a comment

In the past seven months, many of us have learned to move with a new heaviness in our body. It’s the extra weight of uncertainty and anxiety, of mask wearing and hyper-vigilance. We may not be able to see it, but it’s there. We find evidence of it in the new depression in our sofa cushions. We find evidence of it in our interrupted sleep patterns, our bizarre dreams, or the way we take an extra day or ten to return emails.

Our kids feel it, too, even when they’re not slogging through school on screens. How many of us have struggled to push our kids out the door—Go ride your bike!—only to be met with resistance: I’m too tired! These babes of yore, previously so quick to bound out the door, to reach for their friends’ hands, to tear down a soccer field, are grappling with their own heaviness from a life disrupted.

Perhaps this is why it’s easy to feel a kinship with the star of the new picture book, The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt, by Canadian team Riel Nason and Byron Eggenschwiler, about a young ghost who envies the weightlessness of ghosts who float easily through the world like the sheets they are. Our ghost is a quilt, and quilts are infinitely heavier than sheets. And when you’re supposed to do ghost-like things but you’re born a quilt—well, it’s easy to feel a little down and out.

It has been a long time since I’ve been excited about a new Halloween book. Let’s be honest: it’s hard to compete with the likes of Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, or Ten Orange Pumpkins—and don’t even get me started on my love for the early reader, In a Dark, Dark Room, or my dog-eared, cherished-above-all copy of The Blue-Nosed Witch. But from the moment I opened The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt, with its moody pencil illustrations rendered in a limited palette, I had another favorite. That it feels more than perfect for this particular Halloween is just a bonus.

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When You Don’t Have a Mute Button

October 1, 2020 § 2 Comments

If Tuesday’s presidential debate has taught us anything, it’s that 2020 should have come with a mute button. Because meditation alone isn’t going to cut it. Ditto to stocking our freezers with double-chocolate brownie ice cream. Adulting is hard enough right now without adding parenting (and schooling) to the mix. And yet, our children are bystanders to this hot mess unfolding around them. With our own blood pressure camped out at dangerously high levels, how do we offer some semblance of sanity for our precious little ones?

Back in July, I came across a blog post written by a practicing psychotherapist out of Colorado named Sara Waters. She was addressing the stress parents were feeling while waiting for schools to announce their reopening plans (HA, remember when we thought that was worth losing sleep over?). Like many parents at the time, I was spending way too much time crawling along the bottom of the Internet, desperate for someone to reassure me that my children would be safe this fall. Waters surfaced with the reassuring reminder that, while we might not be in control of what happens outside our front door, we can control what happens inside:

The number one most determining factor of your child’s 2020 experience is YOUR ability to manage your OWN discomfort.  Mirror neurons are real and even children who haven’t yet learned to understand or speak language will pick up on the quantum vibrational frequencies of distress that you emit.  Your children hear you talk, even when you aren’t talking to them.  They hear you complain.  They hear you vent.  They watch your facial expressions when you are on a phone call or responding to an email or social media post on your computer.  They can feel whether you are relaxed or whether you are in a state of stress when you wake them up in the morning, sit down for a family meal, or tuck them into bed at night. […] Whether you like it or are aware of it or not, they will feel what you feel.

I’ve thought about this reminder many times since that last week in July, including and especially when I picked up Cozbi A. Cabrera’s joyous new picture book, Me & Mama (Ages 2-6), a lyrical celebration of the bond between one daughter and her mother. Reading this story is like wrapping yourself in a cocoon of domestic love. Reminiscent of one of last year’s favorites—Oga More’s Saturday—this book speaks directly to the power we hold as parents to set tone, to cue young children’s feelings about the world and their place in it.

We sometimes forget that motherhood comes with its own special set of superpowers. We can smile at our children; we can dance in their presence; we can light up when they walk in the room. None of the stressors in the world can compete with that.

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Emily Dickinson: Perfect Reading for a Pandemic?

September 24, 2020 § 2 Comments

Not many people know this, but my daughter is named after Emily Dickinson. (Well, and the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon.) I didn’t fall for Emily Dickinson’s poetry until I got to college, when I fell hard and fast and ended up featuring her poems in no fewer than seven essays, including my Senior Thesis. I had never been a big poetry lover, but there was something about the compactness of her poems which fascinated me. So much meaning was packed into such few words. And even then, the meaning was like an ever-shifting target, evolving with every reading.

To read Emily Dickinson is to contemplate universal truths.

Apart from reading Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s 1992 picture book, Emily, I hadn’t had much occasion talk to my own Emily about her namesake. But that changed last spring, when my Emily started writing poetry of her own. Nothing about virtual learning was working for her, until her teachers started leading her and her classmates in poetry writing. Suddenly, my daughter couldn’t jot down poems fast enough, filling loose sheets of paper before designating an orange journal for the occasion. She wrote poems for school, for fun, and for birthday cards. It didn’t matter that they weren’t going to win awards for originality; what mattered was that she had found a means of self-expression during a stressful, beguiling time.

Jennifer Berne’s On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson (Ages 7-10), stunningly illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, could not have entered the world at a more perfect time. It opens a dialogue, not only about Dickinson’s unconventional life, but about her poems themselves. At a time when a pandemic has prompted many of us and our children to turn inward, this picture book is less a traditional biography than an homage to the rich interior life developed by this extraordinary poet and showcased in her poetry.

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Family, Foes, and Frida the Fox

September 17, 2020 § 3 Comments

As my kids have gotten older, reading aloud to both of them together (at the dinner table, because sanity) has largely replaced reading to each one individually. Still, sometimes a book comes along that begs to be read to one and not the other. Natalie Llyod’s The Problim Children series, which recently concluded with Island in the Stars (Ages 8-12), feels as if it were written for my daughter, ever watchful for signs of magic in her own life and fascinated by the dynamics of large families. Lloyd’s plot lines, with their plucky heroines and sinister villains, are evocative of Roald Dahl, another read-aloud favorite, though her writing has a dreamy quality all her own—a perfect match for my daughter’s non-linear brain.

Over the past eighteen months, Emily and I have drawn out reading these books together, savoring them on weekend mornings when her brother wakes up full steam ahead but she’s still content to climb into my bed with her arms full of stuffed sheep, burrowing her sleepy body into mine. When we got to the end of the third and final book, I didn’t tear up just because of the story’s beautiful ending; I know these years of reading together are fleeting.

The fleetingness of childhood is a theme which runs through The Problim Children series, named for the seven siblings at the center of this most memorable family. On the one hand, a series of precipitous events pushes these siblings to grow up in a hurry: in just a few weeks, they must unravel a series of riddles left to them by their late grandfather, rescue their parents from the evil Augustus Snide (nicknamed Cheese Breath), and destroy a fountain of youth without being tempted to drink from it. And yet, even as they tackle these adult problems, the Problim siblings exist in that enticing storybook place outside the realm of the adult world. They march to the beat of their own drum, operating under their own set of rules and decorum. No matter what life deals them, they hold fast to their childlike sense of wonder, their belief in the impossible, and their fierce love for one another.

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Overnights with Grandma

September 10, 2020 § 9 Comments

This Sunday is Grandparents’ Day, a holiday I’ve never given much thought to until this year, when I am without any living grandparents. Losing both my grandmothers in the past year hasn’t just been about mourning these loving, larger-than-life figures. With their passing, I have lost physical places as well.

My mother’s mother died in her Buffalo home, where she lived for over forty years, and where I traveled every summer from the time I was eight and my parents put me on an airplane by myself. Gockamama, as I called her, lived on the top floor of an historic building, with a grand lobby, an old-fashioned elevator, and its own name to boot. Walking into that apartment was like walking into a musty, magical era, from the antique grandfather clock which tolled every thirty minutes, to the oil painting of Napoleon which hung in the dining room. With no other buildings between her and Lake Erie, you could stand at the window, curling your toes into the plush carpet, and see all the way to Canada. It was like being wrapped in a cozy cocoon, suspended above the world.

We’d spend mornings watering her dozens of plants lining every window, then evenings watching Murder, She Wrote (I pretended to watch, while sneaking peeks at my book). I’d take bubble baths in her bathroom, with its avocado-green tile and pink fluffy towels. At breakfast, she’d sprinkle sugar on my grapefruit; for dinner, I’d request her Spaghetti Bolognese. She kept a closet shelf stocked with old toys and a cookie tin filled with my favorites: misshapen wonders made with chocolate, peanut butter, and Rice Crispies. Photos in frames covered every horizontal surface, and as I became more interested in travel myself, she would pull down photo albums and show me pictures of the Great Wall of China or Ephesus in Turkey, places I immediately longed to visit.

Walking out of that apartment for the last time, on the heels of my grandmother’s funeral, felt like leaving behind a part of me. Inside those walls, during our cherished visits, I had been my grandmother’s entire world. I had taken up space in the way only a grandchild can, each treasure of that apartment intermingled with the love she felt for me. My mother couldn’t believe the sofa cushions had become so threadbare, but when I sank into them, it felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Sara O’Leary’s endearing new picture book, Maud and Grand-Maud (Ages 3-7), about the overnight visits a young girl has with her namesake grandmother, perfectly captures, not just the singular intimacy of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, but the special rituals and strong sense of place often intertwined with it. This feat is in large part owing to Kenard Pak’s delicate illustrations, whose muted tones conjure a hint of mustiness and whose washes of color exude wistfulness. It’s the kind of book you want to hold to your heart. It’s no wonder I spilled tears onto its pages the first time I shared it with my daughter.

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At Home in the Ocean

September 3, 2020 § 3 Comments

My son’s favorite sport is swimming, but it wasn’t always this way. For five years after he was born, he refused to put his head under water. He was delighted to be held in water, or to float with a floatie, but none of us—not me, not his dad, not his grandfather, not his aunt—could convince him to submerge his face.

Eventually, I got the name of a private swim instructor who was supposed to have a magic touch. I phoned her but she was fully booked. A few weeks later, she phoned back. She had a cancellation on an upcoming Thursday at 7pm. JP’s bedtime was 7pm, so this seemed like poor parenting at best, but I was a mother on a mission, with a zeal often reserved for firstborns. I told her we’d see her Thursday.

What happened next is a story our family loves to tell. While I watched from deck, the instructor, clad in a black wet suit, took JP’s hand and led him down the ramp of the zero-entry pool. When the water hit JP’s waist, she stopped. “So, JP,” she said, “do you go under water?”

“No,” my son replied.

“Would you like to try?” she asked.

Barely a pause. “OK,” he said. And then, right before my eyes, this child with a stubbornness to match mine, threw himself face down into the water.

He threw himself face down into the water. Part of me was overjoyed. And part of me had to keep from screaming, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

My husbands like to joke that this was when we realized that our son has no interest in learning from his family. Our teaching is inherently suspect, probably flawed, because what do we know? This instructor—who went on to teach him very fine strokes for the next five years—was an expert in his eyes, and so he instantly trusted her. (We consider it a major triumph that we did not have to hire a professional to teach him to ride a bicycle.)

Still, I don’t think the swim teacher’s trust was won just because JP regarded her as an expert (whereas we were just flailing novices). Truth be told, she exuded calm. You had only to spend ten seconds with her to understand that she was more at home in the water than out of it. She loved the water, she trusted herself in the water, and when she directed her full attention onto my son, he felt like he’d come home, too.

“The ocean is calling me today,” says the grandmother at the beginning of Tina Cho’s new picture book, The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Ages 4-8), one of the most fascinating and exquisite examples of a symbiotic relationship with water that I have ever seen. Set on the shores of Jeju Island in South Korea and luminously illustrated in jewel tones by Jess X. Snow, the story is about the relationship between a girl, struggling with her fear of the ocean, and her grandmother, a haenyeo mermaid, who holds her breath for two minutes at a time and dives up to thirty meters to bring back armfuls of shellfish for eating and selling. Here’s the coolest thing: the haenyeo tradition is real! It goes back centuries among indigenous Pacific islanders, remains alive today, and plays a vital role in ocean ecology.

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