Summer Reading to Save Us: Massive Middle-Grade Round Up

May 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

I have a confession. As our summer plans are being ripped away from us—slowly, painfully, like the stickiest of band-aids—I am secretly stockpiling books and puzzles. It’s compulsive. Possibly certifiable. But I can’t help it. In some tiny, naively optimistic part of my brain, I believe if we have stockpiles of books and puzzles, we won’t wake every morning and cry over missed swim meets and sleepaway camps and beach vacations. Even if it’s sweltering. Even if we can’t leave the house. Oh, who am I kidding? We’ll still cry. But at least we’ll have books and puzzles.

It seems I might not be alone. I ran a survey yesterday on Instagram and 85% of you voted for my gargantuan list of favorite new middle-grade books to come out now, as opposed to after Memorial Day. So maybe you’re getting ready, too. And it is a gargantuan list. (A reminder that I recently covered new graphic novels here, as well as three chapter books which we read aloud but could easily be read independently.) Some skew younger and some much older, so I’ve listed age ranges below each title. Here’s the thing: I read a ton over the past six months, and these are what made the cut. There were others I expected to like or wanted to like, but they just didn’t feel like anything I could give a kid and say, with confidence, You’re going to love this. You’re going to forget, for a few minutes, that the world is all kinds of suckiness right now.

But here’s the other thing. I’m not going anywhere, and I’m still reading. Like crazy. So keep tuning in. (You can always track what the kids and I are reading in real time on Instagram.) Summer is coming, and we’ll get through it together. With a little help from the books (and puzzles).

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Bees: To Fear or Not to Fear

April 2, 2020 § 2 Comments

Remember last week when I talked about returning our children to nature during this pandemic vis-á-vis secret gardens and long hikes in the woods? Well, there’s just one teeny tiny problem. While we were hiking a few days ago, my son spotted a bee.

Let me back up.

When JP was almost three, during a family reunion in rural Rhode Island, he climbed a ladder to reach an aged treehouse and stood up into a nest of wasps. He was stung twenty-seven times. I know this because the pediatrician, whom I panic dialed, asked me to count the stings. JP was just shy of the number where the poison level would have necessitated getting into the car and trying to find a hospital. Instead, we sat him on the second step of my uncle’s swimming pool, where, immersed in cold water, the screams and swelling eventually subsided.

Perhaps owing to this traumatic event or perhaps just because of the way he’s wired, JP has moved through the past nine years immensely fearful of stinging insects. His fear doesn’t differentiate between wasps and bees. He has read countless books on the subject; he has taken field trips to bee farms; he can rattle off the statistical improbabilities of being stung. No matter. If he hears buzzing, his body goes rigid; if he spots a bee, he flails and shrieks and spends the rest of his outdoor time willing it to be over. He is a hostage to this fear. While I know that with enough exposure and time, he will someday share the outdoors more easily with these creatures, I also know that right now, even more than being afraid of them, he is afraid he will never stop being afraid.

If I could go back in time, short of stopping JP from climbing that ladder, I would take this 2019 picture book with me. It’s what I wish I had read to him in the wake of the wasp event. It’s what I wish I had read to him a hundred times since. In The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter (Ages 3-7), author-illustrator Shabazz Larkin shares his steadfast love for his two young sons alongside an evolving love for bees (not to be confused with wasps), the great pollinators of everyone’s favorite fruits and vegetables. It’s a refreshingly original treatment of a popular subject—why bees matter—because it acknowledges front and center that bees are not easy to love. Indeed, this deeply personal book grew out of the author’s desire not to pass on his own fear of bees to his children. (Quick shout out to Capitol Choices, the children’s literary group of which I’m a part and where I learned of this book last year. Find other treasures on our 2020 list, published here.)

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Moving the Classroom to the Woods

March 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

(Friends, these are rough times. I feel you all. And I promise to keep showing up for you with book ideas for all ages. In addition to these weekly posts, I have (almost) daily recommendations on Instagram, so follow me there. We’ll get through this pandemic with the help of fictional worlds and gripping history and funny comics. Worst comes to worst, we can always use the pages to wipe our bottoms.)

It was only the second morning of #pandemicparenting, and the kids and I were already on the verge of strangling one another. My husband needed a quiet house for conference calls, so I threw out our daily schedule (just one day old) and drove the kids to the woods…where we stayed for four hours. It was cold and drizzly when we arrived, and I found myself willing it to be over. We walked and walked, saw no one, walked some more, and eventually settled into our own rhythms. My daughter ran off trail to climb on logs and rocks. My son stopped talking about his stress level and moved through the world quietly. We got lost, had to scramble up rocky ledges to find the trail again, discovered deserted outcroppings of beaches. The sun came out. I sat and listened to the water, while the kids skipped stones. Later, my son threw his arms around a tree, and I laughed out loud.

We’ve had our fair share of highs and lows these first two weeks of social distancing, but I am endlessly grateful that the trees still welcome our closeness. If there are silver linings amidst this collective heartbreak, one is an opportunity to return our children to nature. I never wanted to homeschool my kids; I knew I’d be rubbish at it. (I knew my kids would be equally rubbish at it.) Thankfully, they still have their wonderful teachers, even if they can only see them on a screen right now. I figure, for as long as we’re packed in together like sardines, I can give my kids two blessings: I can read them books; and I can gently push them towards the trees.

You know what social distancing is good for? Secret gardens. If your children need convincing to let nature step in as teacher, read them the extraordinary new picture book biography, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver (Ages 7-10). My kids were riveted. Evocatively written by Gene Barretta and accented with richly expressive oil paintings by Frank Morrison, the story demonstrates how young George Washington Carver’s intimate relationship with nature as a child grew into a passionate career as a botanist, inventor, and activist.

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Curating Memories

February 20, 2020 § 4 Comments

Since losing my grandmother two weeks ago, I haven’t been able to shake my sadness at the realization that my memories with her are now finite. For nearly 45 years, I have been collecting memories with her, savoring them on shelves in my heart. Memories of orange-red sunsets on the beach; of her impossibly large hibiscus plant; of earth-shattering thunder claps which sent me flying out of bed, always to find her calmly watching the electrical show from the screened porch (“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful, Meliss?”). There were jigsaw puzzles which kept us up late into the night, always after vowing she wouldn’t “get involved”; prank calls she encouraged me to make to her friends; Thursday night Bingo games at her golf club, where to be seated next to her felt like basking in the presence of a celebrity. I can still hear her voice like it was yesterday, those giddy eruptions of “Goody goody goody!”

If the right book, read at the right time, can cradle you in its embrace, then Deborah Marcero’s new picture book, In a Jar (Ages 4-8), is doing that for me. (My kids are pretty smitten, too.) It is the most exquisite, childlike, visual depiction of memory-making I’ve encountered, as well as a reminder that the process of collecting memories can be as beautiful as the memories themselves. While it’s not about death, it is a story of loss—the loss of a friend who moves away—and how we re-frame the world in light of departure. It’s affirming and hopeful and the kind of lovely that surrenders you to its pages.

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Better Together (Maybe for the Apocalypse, Too?)

February 6, 2020 § 1 Comment

A year or so ago, I was at a summer garden party, all twinkling lights and umbrella drinks, when the conversation took a dark turn. Several folks, none of whom I knew terribly well, began to discuss and debate the provisions they had stored away in the event of an apocalypse. I sat quietly, picturing my own basement with its boxed wedding dress, foosball table, and toys I’d stashed hoping my kids wouldn’t notice so I could gradually move them to the donation bin, and realized how far a cry this was from the scene being described. No crates of non-perishable food, no industrial sized jugs of water, no iodine pills in the event of a nuclear attack, no walkie talkies, no axes, definitely no guns to take down squirrels that could comprise my protein quota.

“Don’t you worry about how you’re going to protect your family?” someone said to me, after I tried to make a joke about my foosball table. I conjured up an image of myself, defending my children against other crazed survivors—all of us presumably reduced to looters or murderers—and I said, only half joking, “In the case of an apocalyptic event, I think it would be best for the future of humanity if my family made a quick exit.” To put it mildly, living off the land in the dark and cold for an extended period of time isn’t really in our wheelhouse.

Last month brought a fresh wave of worry for those of us working hard not to picture End of the World scenarios. We were on the brink of a war with the Middle East. The continent of Australia was burning. A mysterious and deadly virus was (is) rapidly spreading out of China. If we believe apocalyptic-themed fiction, it’s not long until we will be wandering alone in the dark and cold, assuming we are unlucky enough to survive.

And yet, at a time when the news threatens to send us into an ethos of fear and anxiety—to fathom ways of constructing safe houses around our loved ones—children’s literature is there, reliably, with a hefty dose of optimism, a welcome respite from the dark and cold. Especially where gems like Hannah Salyer’s debut picture book, Packs: Strength in Numbers (Ages 5-9), are concerned, we would do well to remember that the animal kingdom has always survived when it turns towards, not away, from one another.

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And Now, We Wait

January 16, 2020 § 4 Comments

Happy New Year! Has anyone else noticed that the New Year always brings a mounting, restless anticipation about things to come? Maybe it’s because January is so much slower-paced than December (thank goodness); our minds naturally begin to leap ahead, craving that next fun event, that next milestone, even when we know we’d do better to slow down and allow ourselves to sink into the calm (dark mornings and grey afternoons included).

In any case, we’ve been doing our fair share of waiting lately. Waiting for snow days. Waiting to get braces off. Waiting for renovations to begin on our house. Waiting for our trip to Disney. Waiting for long summer days. And I’m feeling it as much as my kids. Waiting is hard.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait any longer for Almost Time (Ages 4-7), a new picture book by Gary D. Schmidt and his late wife, Elizabeth Stickney (pseudonym), with art by G. Brian Karas. I don’t think the sensation of waiting has ever been so astutely served up for young children as in this sweet winter story about a boy eagerly anticipating, not one, but two exciting events.

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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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