The Stories We Need to Ask For

April 8, 2021 § 1 Comment

Occasionally, a book comes along that is so extraordinary, I’m daunted at the prospect of reviewing it. I worry I could never do it justice. I wish I could just say, This is hands down the most moving picture book I’ve read so far this year, and I want you to get it without knowing anything about it. Maybe, if you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll do just that. But I will try and find something eloquent to say for the rest of you.

Years ago, my husband helped his grandparents—first generation Italian-Americans—pack up their house to move into a retirement community. In the crawlspace, he uncovered boxes of mementos, all of which his grandmother had at one point tied up using the elastics from her husband’s old underwear. This discovery became one the family would chuckle about for years (Who salvages underwear elastic?!). But it was also a window into the past, a resourcefulness triggered by the Great Depression sixty years earlier, a self-reliance that perhaps belied pain, worry, wanting, loss. Only now does my husband express regret at not probing for the stories underscoring something he accepted as mere frugality.

All of us grow up surrounded by family history, including the cultural heritage this history often represents. Yet, as children, we often take this history for granted. At best, we’re blinded by our own fixation on the present; at worst, we’re embarrassed by the quirks of our elders, by their old-fashioned ways, by their insistence in holding fast to ideas or customs from their past.

Especially where immigrants are concerned, this silencing is further accentuated by the systemic racism underlying American society. Asian Americans, for example, are expected to fulfill the Model Minority Myth, to work hard towards prosperity, while keeping quiet about their struggles, past or present. The recent media attention on the massive spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans—up 1,900% since the start of the pandemic—has begun to open our eyes to an experience far from new, one we should have been talking about ages ago.

In the spirit of lifting up voices of Asian descent—and because this poignant story is at its heart about the value of listening to stories of the past—I urge you to purchase Watercress (Ages 5-9), Andrea Wang’s powerful autobiographical picture book, evocatively illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Jason Chin, who studied traditional Chinese landscape painting to infuse the story with added authenticity. (If Jason Chin doesn’t get his long-overdue Caldecott Medal for this, you will hear me screaming.) Against a backdrop of 1970s rural Ohio, a girl and her brother help their parents, immigrants from China, pick watercress on the side of a ditch to be served that evening. The immediate humiliation of the act later transforms into an opportunity for the girl to connect with her mother’s past life in China—and the grief she still carries in her heart.

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Spring Break Beckons: Middle-Grade Round Up for Ages 7-14

March 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

I spent the winter reading. A lot. And that’s good news for your readers, especially those eager to squirrel away with a new story (or three) over Spring Break. All of the recommendations below are books published this year (with the exception of a late 2020 release). Some of them I’ve already talked about on Instagram, but there are surprises, too. Some skew younger and some older, so be sure to consult the age ranges for each. There are graphic novels, novels in verse, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, memoirs, and realistic fiction.

As always, report back and tell me what your kids thought!

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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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A Baby Unicorn for Valentine’s Day

February 11, 2021 § 4 Comments

Valentine’s Day approaches, so consider this your annual reminder that the only acceptable Valentine is a new book. You may recall I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to recommending books for Valentine’s Day. If a heart on a cover is what you’re after, you won’t do better than this. But I like a timeless story about friendship that can be read any time of year, which is why in past Valentine’s posts I’ve been about this, this, this, and this. This year, you’re in for an added treat if you head over to Instagram, where I’ve been running a mini gift guide all week, with selects from babies to teens.

Sometimes a book comes along, and even though it’s not breaking any ground, even though it won’t win any awards, it’s so insanely adorable you want to give it to everyone you know.

Let’s be clear. My daughter cannot abide the unicorn craze. She has never tolerated it for one minute. What did unicorns ever do to her? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this: one year for her birthday, I bought her a pair of horse pajamas, only when she opened them, her eyes immediately locked onto a detail I had failed to notice; each of the horses had, in fact, teeny tiny silvery horns on their forehead. I watched her attempt to disguise her horror and choke out a thank you, but she never wears those PJs.

Now imagine that this same daughter should fall in love with Briony May Smith’s Margaret’s Unicorn (Ages 3-7), about a girl, recently relocated to the wild English countryside, who keeps watch over the CUTEST baby unicorn for two seasons until his mother returns for him. Imagine that this daughter was so taken by the book that she begged me to purchase our own copy, despite being well outside the target age. And then you’ll understand why it would be impossible for a book to receive a higher endorsement.

There is so much joy, so much heart, so much good will in this story that it’s destined to put the biggest smile on children’s faces. If that doesn’t make it perfect for Valentine’s Day, perhaps you ought to collect some moonlit water for your baby unicorn and then come back and we’ll talk.

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“Having Arms is Totally Overrated”

January 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

A friend once confided in me that she hated reading aloud to her kids; even more, she hated how bad she felt about hating it. Her kids were now reading independently, so she had hoped she’d be off the hook; and yet, they didn’t love reading. She worried she was failing them by not investing in time to read aloud. (Is anyone harder on herself than a mother?)

It’s true that I’m a passionate advocate for reading aloud to kids long after they are reading on their own. The benefits are vast (I’ve listed ten here), with the greatest being that our voice brings literature alive in a way that entices children to continue putting in the work on their own. But I’ve also always pressed parents to choose books they will enjoy as much as their kids, because our enjoyment should be genuine. No one can sniff out a half-hearted effort like a kid, and the last thing we want to convey to our kids is that reading is a chore.

Here’s what I told my friend: park your guilt at the door and do you. You love to read, so read alongside your children. When they’re ready for bed, or whenever you think you should be reading to them, get your own book, have them get their books, and snuggle together while reading quietly. We call these “reading parties” in our house—a term my son coined years ago. I have another friend who calls them “stop, drop, and read” moments, where everyone drops what they are doing, grabs a book, and reads together for at least fifteen minutes. Simply by enjoying your own book, you are modeling for your children the value your family places on reading.

There’s something else I recommend, if you’re looking for ways to connect with your kids around reading but aren’t keen to read to them—or, as happens to the best of us, are having trouble finding the time. Consider reading to yourself a book they’ve recently read and loved. Maybe even something they’re reading right now (my daughter and I are currently doing this with the crazy fun new supernatural thriller Amari and the Night Brothers; she leaves it outside her bedroom door each night and I grab it before I get into bed). What better message can we send than, I value your reading so much that I’m choosing to pick up one of your recommendations?

Before I fell down the rabbit hole of 2021 reading, my daughter convinced me to read two Dusti Bowling novels she inhaled in December: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 9-13) and its sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 10-14). I’m not sure why these evaded me when they first came out a few years ago, because the characters—every single one—are absolutely delightful. (I’ll add that the first book would make a terrific read aloud, too.)

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Sweeter Together

January 21, 2021 § 8 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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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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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: 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 § 7 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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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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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

August 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

My aunt used to hold an annual Christmas Eve party at her apartment on the eighth floor of a building just two blocks from ours in New York City. It was a small group, rarely more than twelve, and we were the only relatives ever invited. We only saw these friends of my aunt once a year, but before the elevator reached the bottom floor at the end of the evening, I was already looking forward to next year’s gathering. My aunt had been the editor in chief of a major magazine, and her friends were artistic, eccentric, and alluringly mysterious.

There was one woman in particular whom I adored. Always the last to arrive, she would come through the door shrouded in a floor-length black fur coat. Her perfect coif of white hair was sharply angled at her chin, and she moved in a cloud of exotic perfume. Her raspy smokers’ voice was fond of the word “darling,” and she always addressed me as if I was an adult. Perched on the sofa sipping my ginger ale, I inched as close to her as I could, throwing back my head with laughter as she did.

She lived downtown where the artists were, and I knew little about how she spent her days, other than that she and her husband had never had children. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and ask her any number of questions! As children, we’re content with the stories we tell ourselves, the ones we make up in her head, and I fashioned endless stories for this larger-than-life woman in black, who seemed to float effortlessly around my aunt’s apartment, captivated by everything and nothing at the same time.

Sophie Dahl’s marvelous picture book, Madame Badobedah (Ages 5-9), told in three chapters over 53 pages and amply accentuated with retro illustrations by Lauren O’Hara, stars a young protagonist spellbound by an eccentric stranger who shows up for an unlimited stay at her parents’ hotel by the sea. This stranger barely opens her mouth before Mabel has developed theories about the feathers draped around her neck, her stacks of weathered trunks, and her prized pet tortoise. But warm to her from the start Mabel does not. Resentful of the woman’s haughty demeanor, Mabel quickly convinces herself that, rather than a solitary woman healing from heartbreak, she’s a jewel thief on the run. What follows is a riotous narrative, ultimately giving way to a warm intergenerational friendship perched somewhere in the middle of fiction and reality.

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All in a Name: A Back-to-School Post

August 20, 2020 Comments Off on All in a Name: A Back-to-School Post

When our kids return to school this fall, whether in person with a mask or at home over a computer, there will be unusual circumstances to navigate. But for many children, pandemic or not, the start of school is already fraught with potential landmines. Will I make a friend? Will I like my teacher? Will I understand the rules?

Will my name be mispronounced?

Those of us with Anglo-Saxon names may have never considered this last question, but those with African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names know how commonly, if unintentionally, their names are mispronounced. What does it feel like to be on the receiving end of a teacher or classmate stumbling through your name? What does it feel like to be expressly teased for your name? What does it feel like to be asked to shorten or alter your name to make it easier for classmates to say?

For many, personal names play a central role in cultural identity and identification. If we don’t put in the work to pronounce a name correctly, we’re not allowing that person—in this case, that young child—to be seen. At best, we are belittling them; at worst, we are erasing them.

One of my daughter’s dearest school friends has a name whose South Asian pronunciation is different than English phonetics would suggest. The difference is subtle, but my daughter will correct anyone—especially me—who doesn’t say it with the right cadence. I’ve been touched by this gesture of loyalty over the years, and I know it’s owing to the care the girls’ teachers have taken to create a space where students are actively working to understand and appreciate one another.

What I’ve also frequently noted is how musical my daughter’s voice sounds when she speaks her friend’s name. The idea that all names can be celebrated for their musicality is the inspiration behind Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s new picture book, Your Name is a Song (Ages 4-8), a fast favorite with my daughter. Tenderly illustrated by Luisa Uribe, the story centers a Black American Muslim girl, who leaves her first day of school dejected and angry because “No one could say my name.” As her mother works to rebuild the girl’s confidence, she creatively and thoughtfully debunks many of the negative stereotypes associated with non-Anglo names, especially those with African or Middle Eastern origins: they’re hard to pronounce; they’re cacophonous; they signal danger; they’re made-up nonsense.

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