A Life Skills Round Up

October 21, 2021 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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An Anthem to the “And”

September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Losing a Dog

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

When my son was four and our dog died, I checked out a pile of themed picture books from the library and we read them over and over for two weeks. Every time I asked my son how he was feeling, or whether he wanted to talk about what had happened, he walked over to the pile, grabbed a book off the top, and climbed into my lap. It shouldn’t have surprised me—after all, I have always turned to books to process life experiences—but it did. Before my eyes, I watched this small boy silently work out stuff right there on the page.

One of the most common requests I get from parents is for books about losing a dog or cat. There is no lack of picture books on the subject, but most of them are only OK. Some are beautiful, even profound, acknowledgments of loss—like this and this—and even though I love them, they tend towards the abstract. Others fall into the same trap that we parents do when our children are in pain: they are quick to reassure, to provide distraction, to provide replacement (The dog is happy in heaven! Let’s go pick out a new puppy!). Many pay lip service to the emotional upheaval that is grief, but few model what it means to make space for it.

In my personal experience, grief does not abate without time. Time can’t work alone, it won’t solve all things, but it creates distance, and with distance comes perspective and growth and opportunity. But in the wake of pain, time is at best uncomfortable; at worst it is infuriating, terrifying, and unfathomable. It’s no wonder we don’t like to acknowledge it, much less encourage our children to sit in it.

And yet, here’s a new picture book that does just that—and does it brilliantly. In Matthew Cordell’s Bear Island (Ages 4-8), a full year passes from the moment a girl loses her dog to the time her family welcomes a new one. In Cordell’s expert hands, this year unfolds slowly across every page turn. It unfolds while a girl spends her days on an island with a stick and a bear for company. It unfolds in the physical and mental space of the girl’s anger, sadness, boredom, regret, and fear.

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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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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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Pointing the Finger (Who Me? Not Me.)

November 14, 2019 § 3 Comments

“You are a thief AND a liar!” Stomping. Bedroom door slamming. Welcome to life in our happy little home.

My son is convinced that he cannot find his tin of Hypercolor Twilight Thinking Putty because his sister snatched it for herself. As it turns out, this same flavor of putty is in a drawer in her room. And yet, she claims she bought this putty with her own money at a gift shop over a year ago. He says she bought a different flavor. Neither can understand why I don’t reserve a part of my brain for keeping track of their fidget purchases. (Never mind that they both have numerous tins in numerous flavors, and is Hypercolor Twilight really that much more satisfying than Emerald Sky?!)

It has been weeks—weeks!—and still the accusations fly from the mouth of my eldest. The interrogations. The investigations (which aren’t really investigations so much as relentless demanding that we agree with him). Here’s the thing: from where I’m standing (hands over my ears), it is entirely probable that this tiny tin of putty was left lying around the house (GASP!) and some adult picked it up and put it in my daughter’s room and no one was the wiser for months. You know what Mr. Finger Pointer doesn’t want to acknowledge in all this? The possibility that if he had taken better care of his putty, it would still be in his room.

Assuming personal responsibility—be it for our carelessness or mistakes or misunderstandings—is one of the toughest things our kids have to learn. Heck, many of us adults still struggle with this. (My hand’s certainly in the air.) Why turn towards our own regret, remorse, embarrassment, or shame when we can don the more tantalizing cloak of anger and go all Grizzly on someone else? Fortunately, in their new picture book, Who Wet My Pants? (Ages 4-8), Bob Shea and Zachariah Ohoro have given us a clever, quirky, and hysterically funny way to broach the subject of personal accountability with our kids. (This is not a potty book.)

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What’s Left When Summer Ends

August 29, 2019 § 9 Comments

At no time more than summer do our children grow up. Camps, camping, gloriously long stretches of daylight, ample opportunities at exploration and courage and boredom…all of this combines to ensure that the children we send back to school in the fall are not quite the ones we ushered in summer with.

I was ill prepared for the onslaught of emotions I would feel upon picking up my oldest from his first sleepaway camp experience in Maine. As we slowed along the gravel road though the camp entrance, my excitement of the past 24 hours turned to butterflies. How would he seem? Would he look different? Would he have made friends? Would he burst into angry tears and declare he was never coming back?

We didn’t have to wait long: he was standing alone not far from the entrance. I waved frantically, shouting at my husband to stop the car so I could jump out. JP smiled broadly as I threw my arms around him, but something was immediately apparent. He was quiet. More upright than I’d remembered. More reserved than I’d expected. « Read the rest of this entry »

Toys as Neurotic as Us

January 20, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Toys Go Out" Series by Emily JenkinsIf my children are playing nicely together (sound the trumpets!), chances are high that they’re in the company of stuffed animals. Once a stuffed animal enters our house and is given a name, it assumes an infallible place in JP and Emily’s communal imagination, albeit in an ever-changing litany of roles, from pet to circus performer. My kids crochet leashes for their animals; they bury them in boxes of peanuts and push them around the house; they string them from ceiling fans. They emerge from their respective bedrooms on weekend mornings, eyes partly open, with half a dozen animals tucked under their arms, ready for action.

Two tigers (Hobbies and Hobbies Jr.), a giant panda in a bellman uniform (Cookie), two doughnuts (Sprinkles and Sprinkles 2), and a monogrammed pillow (named, for whatever nonsensical reason when JP was two, Bag of Worms) are just a few of the soft friends that make frequent appearances in my children’s play. Still, as JP and Emily are quick to remind me, the life of a stuffed animal doesn’t begin and end at the hands of a child. The more exciting question is: what shenanigans do these toys get up to when their children are asleep or away? « Read the rest of this entry »

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