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

November 13, 2020 § 1 Comment

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 Kicks Off: My Favorite Chapter Book

October 15, 2020 § Leave a comment

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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Attention Deficit Corona: Graphic Novels for Tweens and Teens

April 30, 2020 § 1 Comment

Of all the complaints I’ve heard during Quarantine, one of the most common is an inability to focus. If your former bookworms are having trouble losing themselves in literature (hey, Zoom zombification is real), look no further than these new graphic novels. Take it from me.

We moved last week. Moving is challenging in the best of times much less during a pandemic. So, you can bet I threw a bunch of graphic novels at my kids, and you can bet they were more than happy to stay out of everyone’s way. And the best news? You already know that graphic novels are the type of books your kids like to read again and again, so you can feel good about investing in them and supporting your local Indie bookstore at the same time.

Truly, 2020 is shaping up to be a STELLAR year for graphic novels. This list builds from young to older, with selections all the way up to high schoolers. (If you’re new to my site, you might check out my last graphic novel round-up here.)

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2019 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels to Rock Their World (Ages 8-16)

December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

It’s what I hear most often from parents: “I can’t get my kid to read anything but graphic novels.” The assumption is one of concern: perhaps said kiddo is dabbling in literature less worthy than the meaty prose novels many of us devoured in our own childhoods. The question of whether to purchase graphic novels also stumps parents: is it worth buying books our kids will tear through so quickly? After all, a graphic novel that takes an entire year to create can often be finished by an avid young reader in a single sitting.

AND YET. I would argue that graphic novels are some of the greatest (material) gifts we can bestow on our children. Today’s kids are growing up in a more visual culture than we ever did. Couple that with the exploding innovation coming out of the comics market right now, and is it any wonder these books are so alluring to young readers? I’ve watched my own children fall in love with reading through these books. I’ve watched them return to favorite comics in times of stress or change. I’ve watched them bend over graphic novels in the backseat during carpool, with friends on either side leaning in.

Good graphic novels are clever and layered and poignant and often shockingly beautiful. Their vocabulary is rich. To read them is never a passive experience; rather, kids need to work to extract the complete narrative, to find the innuendos and deeper meanings hidden in the cross-section between picture and text. Herein lies the best case for owning graphic novels: the reason your kids return to them again and again isn’t just because they enjoy them; it’s because they get more out of every reading.

Best of all, today’s graphic novels are tackling a range of subjects and genres, including science, history, biography, and immensely valuable socio-emotional learning. 2019 was a banner year for graphic novels. Below are some of the stand-outs (including what my own kids are getting for the holidays!).

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Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: Getting Something Out of Nothing

December 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

I wasn’t initially going to include Alyssa Hollingsworth’s immensely moving debut novel, The Eleventh Trade (Ages 11-14), in my Gift Guide, because it has some preeeeettttyyyy heavy flashback scenes. In other words, it’s not all Ho Ho Ho. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop recommending it to my son and to some of his friends during carpool (a few who have just devoured Nowhere Boy, which tackles a similar subject). And then it hit me: this story is actually very much in the spirit of the holidays. It is about giving. It is about going to great lengths, making great sacrifices, in order to give someone you love something he desperately misses. And it is about what happens when you pour yourself into the act of giving. How the act itself becomes a gift—for both of you. « Read the rest of this entry »

If You Like Wonder, You’ll Love This

February 8, 2018 § 4 Comments

On our way to see the movie adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy with a congenital facial abnormality beginning middle school, my son said aloud what we were all thinking: “I wonder what Auggie is going to look like.” Because, of course, there are no pictures in the novel. Even Auggie himself warns us in the first few pages, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Most of what we gather about Auggie’s face comes from what the people around him tell us, when it’s their turn to speak. « Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding Bravery

November 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

I heard the sobs before I saw him. It was a Monday evening, two weeks ago. My daughter and I were sitting in the living room, reading the fifth book in the Clementine series (more on that another time, because OBSESSED) and waiting for my son to ride his bike home from soccer practice. In between paragraphs, I kept sneaking glances at the open front door. I had expected JP at seven, and it was now twenty minutes past. Darkness had fallen. He has his bike light, I kept telling myself. He’ll be fine.

And then, from outside, I heard heaving gasps of air. I flew through the door, just in time to witness my ten year old throw himself off his bike and collapse onto the pavement in a fit of tears. “What on earth has happened?” I cried, all manner of horrors racing through my mind. « Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Without Walls (Summer Reading Challenge)

June 29, 2017 Comments Off on Reading Without Walls (Summer Reading Challenge)

You never know what’s going to get through to a child.

Earlier this year, when I was leading a book club with my son’s class on Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, the subject of refugee camps came up. Salva, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and the main character in the book, flees from South Sudan during the war and spends several years in refugee camps across Ethiopia and Kenya. Because his perilous journey on foot through violence and wild animals before reaching the camps is so graphic, the camps at first seem like a welcome respite—at least they did to my readers—despite the narrator’s insistence on their overcrowding and the loneliness Salva felt as an orphan there.

“I mean, at least they were safe there,” one of my students remarked. “Plus, a lot of them are wearing clothes without holes, so that’s good,” said another, when I brought in photos of refugee camps to help them visualize what they were reading. “Yeah, and they teach the kids stuff and let them play sports,” said another. They looked at me and shrugged. As if to say, This doesn’t seem too bad.

I was taken aback by their cavalier attitudes. Have even our youngest become desensitized to the horrors of this world? « Read the rest of this entry »

Introducing Activism to Children

November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments

Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer & Christopher EliopoulosIn light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.

What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened? « Read the rest of this entry »

Winning Against All Odds

September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James BrownWe are still feeling the effects of Olympics Fever in our house. Before his weekly swim lesson, JP flaps his arms back and forth across his chest, a.k.a. Michael Phelps. Emily vaults off the arm of our leather chair and lands with her hands above her head, chest lifted. I’m still smiling at the charisma of Usain Bolt, who runs so fast it’s scarcely comprehensible. While we were watching the Olympics one Saturday afternoon, with footage of fencing and archery and discus throwing, JP exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were this many sports!” (We aren’t typically a sports-watching family, as I’ve mentioned before.)

For all the glory that my children witnessed unfolding on the television screen this past summer, I don’t think they really grasped the guts that were involved. The sacrifices made. The arduous, sometimes circuitous journeys of these athletes to Rio. What actually went on behind the scenes.

I started to feel like I was doing these athletes a disservice by not talking to my kids about how painfully difficult—how physically and mentally trying—these journeys to victory often are. « Read the rest of this entry »

Dancing Outside the Comfort Zone

July 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra BoigerSomewhere along the way, in our frenzy to make sure our children are anything but ordinary, we’ve stopped letting them be bad at things. So fervently do we want them to feel the taste of success from an early age (as if this guarantees them achievement later in life), that we steer them almost immediately in the direction of things at which we believe they’ll excel.

With so many of today’s children starting instructive activities at younger and younger ages, joining in a few years down the road can feel to a child like everyone else is light years ahead of him or her—a daunting prospect at best. And we parents get squirmy around daunting. We fear the fallout of failure, despite contemporary psychologists berating us, Failure is good! Failure is critical! It’s through failure that children learn how to stand firmer on their own two feet!

What’s stopping us from all holding hands and letting our children outside their comfort zone?

Cue the power of summer camp. For ten summers, I attended the same sleep-away camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The camp was the opposite of fancy (“It’s homey,” my New York City mother announced dubiously the first time we pulled in.). But I adored how laid back and accepting it was. As a camper, you could wander into any activity. As a counselor, you could teach virtually any activity (skill secondary to enthusiasm). Fortunately, my parents weren’t sending me there to master tennis or horseback riding or to emerge at the end of the summer with perfectly glazed pots that might justify the hundreds of dollars they were spending.

That camp became a haven for me. A place to experiment. To discover and be embraced for who I was. And I failed constantly. I failed to advance to the next swimming level. I failed at fighting off homesickness. I failed at having the right frayed jean shorts. I failed at friendships. There were no parents around to lecture or moralize or pick me back up or interfere on my behalf. And, boy, did I love it.

There are still moments in my life where I would give anything to run out my problems in bare feet across that giant archery field, flanked by the beauty of the mountains.

In addition to its nostalgic camp setting, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, the newest in the charming picture book series by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger—and my personal favorite to date—does a magnificent job of exploring a girl’s growing pains at starting (and not necessarily succeeding at) something new.

Last summer, I sung the praises of Deer Dancer, Mary Lyn Ray’s picture book aimed at creative, free-form movement, the kind of dance that my then three year old was loving in her weekly class. At almost five now, my Emily can no longer resist the tutu, and she is begging for me to enroll her in “real” ballet classes this fall. Which puts her in deep infatuation with the Tallulah books (not to mention their glittery book covers).

Don’t let the shimmer fool you: these stories are rich with substance. If Deer Dancer was about exploration, the Tallulah books (Ages 5-9) are about the discipline of dance. They follow young Tallulah from her days in a beginning ballet class (Tallulah’s Tutu); to her ambition to perform (Tallulah’s Solo and Tallulah’s Nutcracker); to her struggle on pointe (Tallulah’s Toe Shoes); to, finally, her broadening her repertoire at dance camp (Tallulah’s Tap Shoes).

The best thing about these five books is that they NEVER SHY AWAY FROM RAW, HUMAN EMOTION. On view is the full spectrum: the lovely and the not-so-lovely sides of Tallulah’s personality, which grows more complex with each year. We get her determination, her passion, her focus, and her compassion. As well as her jealousy, her disappointment, her impatience, and her haughtiness.

She is a perfectly imperfect role model for our children.

By the time Tallulah’s Tap Shoes comes in the sequence, Tallulah is sitting confidently in the saddle. That is, she has established herself as a skilled and accomplished ballerina. She can’t wait to board the yellow school bus to dance camp, where, between swimming in the lake and making friendship bracelets, she can excel in ballet lessons to her heart’s content.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

But there’s a catch. She also has to take tap lessons. And she knows nothing about tap.

Tallulah runs the predictable gamut of reactions. She begins by dismissing tap as “baby stuff” that will be easy to pick up. But then she watches green-eyed with jealousy as a girl with “shiny black hair,” who has been taking tap for as long as Tallulah has been taking ballet, can make seemingly effortless music with her feet.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Feeling like she alone is constantly on the receiving end of the teacher’s criticism, Tallulah becomes convinced that she has turned from being the “best student” in ballet to the “worst student” in tap (the dramatic flair is strong in this one). In one final defense mechanism, she decides tap is not worth doing if she can’t do it well, and she begins to skip her lessons, hiding out in the Arts and Crafts cabin and pretending that she doesn’t care a smidgen about any of it.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

All the while, there is a parallel dynamic at work. The black-haired girl is having the exact same reaction to her struggles with ballet, similarly convincing herself that it’s not worth her time, while secretly feeling disheartened and embarrassed. The two girls strike up a competitive but ultimately redemptive friendship, as both begin to see themselves reflected in the other. “You’re not the worst,” Tallulah assures Kacie. “Not at all…Teachers always correct everybody.”

“Well, you aren’t the worst in tap,” Kacie told her. “If you keep practicing, you’ll get better. Then you might love it. And we could even take lessons together.”

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Tallulah returns to tap, practicing her flap steps (which, like the ballet steps in Singer’s other books, are detailed on the endpapers of the book to the absolute fascination of my daughter) until they begin to sound louder and clearer. And Kacie gives ballet another shot, demonstrating more control over her glissades. Neither girl is the best at her new sport, but neither is the worst. In fact, what they discover is a broad and beautiful middle ground, previously invisible to both of them.

Maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be, Tallulah thought. For now.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

What if we free our children to explore, even embrace, this middle ground? Will they try more things? Will they learn more about themselves? Will they enjoy life more?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that there is little to no parental presence in Tallulah’s Tap Shoes. The girls work things out on their own and with one another. Together, they create an existence acceptable to both of them. A place where they can excel, fail, hang out in the middle, or—even better—do all of the above.

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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

For the Dancers

July 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

"Deer Dancer" by Mary Lyn Ray & Lauren StringerOne of our greatest rewards as parents is watching our children experience joy. For me, I get to see that look of joy upon my daughter’s face each time I peek through the fogged glass into the studio where she takes her weekly dance class. It’s a look that’s markedly different from the furrowed brow of concentration she often wears when observing something new; or the aghast expression of betrayal when her brother knocks over her tower of blocks; or her silly mischievous grin while tearing across the park with friends. When she dances, she is lost in the moment; she is happy; she is free. It’s no wonder that she asks me almost every single day, “When’s my next dance class?”

In a world in which our girls are dying to get their hands on pink tutus, ballet slippers, and all the glitter that seems to equate ballerinas with princesses, I love that Emily’s class is very deliberately titled Creative Movement. True ballet, with its discipline and choreography, doesn’t start until age five at this studio. In the meantime, the emphasis is on movement, on body awareness, on feeling the music. The girls and boys imitate animals, hop through hula-hoops, and roll across the big open floor.

Where children’s books are concerned, there are many charming, full-of-heart stories featuring the indoor world of ballet (my favorites are mentioned in the lengthy list at the end of this post). Still, I find it especially refreshing that, in their new picture book, Deer Dancer (Ages 3-6), author Mary Lyn Ray and illustrator Lauren Stringer have taken dance out of the mirrored studio and into nature, where the trees make their own music, and where movement is at its freest and purest form. To put it another way, Deer Dancer is as green as it is pink. « Read the rest of this entry »

GOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!

July 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

Soccer Star by Mina JavaherbinWe are not a sports-watching family (my husband jokes that he lost TV sports in marriage). But then came the World Cup. All four of us are possessed over the World Cup, and I can’t entirely explain it. I mean, it can’t just be the hotness of the players, the incredible headers that out of nowhere tip a speeding ball into the net; the non-stop, pinball-like passing. We scream at the TV (“Mommy, you are using your outside voice!” I’ve been reprimanded more than once); we jump up and down and hug each other over goals; we run into the backyard and kick the ball at halftime; and we despair when the US team fights the fight of its life and comes up short.

The World Cup will end, but I hope our family’s new love of soccer will not. Both kids are more excited than ever for their own soccer season this fall (although JP reports that he does not think he would like to be as good as the World Cup players, because “it looks very dangerous out there”). In the meantime, we will be reading some of the fantastic soccer-themed books that have popped up this year. Our favorite of these is Soccer Star (Ages 4-8), by Mina Javaherbin (illustrations by Renalto Alarcao), a picture book which not only exudes the excitement of soccer, but places it in a valuable cultural context. « Read the rest of this entry »

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