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: 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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Moving Past Color-Blindness

June 25, 2020 § 2 Comments

I have been drafting this post in my head for two weeks, terrified to put pen to paper for the dozens of ways I will certainly mis-step. Raising children dedicated to equity and justice has always been important to me—if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll recognize it as a frequent theme here—but only lately have I pushed myself to consider the ways my own privilege, upbringing, and anxiety have stood in the way of that. It is clear that I cannot raise my children to be antiracist if I am not prepared to do the work myself.

When my daughter was three, I brought her to the pediatrician’s office for a rash. As we sat in the waiting room, watching and remarking on the colorful fish swimming in the aquarium, my daughter suddenly turned to me. “Mommy, is the nurse going to be black-skinned?”

Embarrassment rose in my cheeks. “Oh honey, I’m sure any nurse here is a good nurse. Let’s not—”

Her interrupting voice rose about ten decimals. “Because I am not taking off my clothes for anyone with black skin!”

Just typing this, my hands are shaking. I am back, seven years ago, in that waiting room, aware of all eyes upon us. Aware of the brown-skinned couple with their newborn baby sitting directly across from us. This can’t be happening, I thought. This can’t be my child. She goes to a preschool with a multicultural curriculum. We read books with racially diverse characters. She plays with children who look different than her. Shock, outrage, and humiliation flooded every inch of my being.

Caught off guard and determined to rid myself of my own shame, I fell into a trap familiar to many white parents. For starters, I came down hard on her. I took my shame and put it squarely onto her. I was going to stop this talk immediately. I was going to prove to everyone listening that this was unacceptable behavior in our family. I was going to make it…all about me.

“Stop it!” I said firmly. “We do not say things like that.” Then, I started rambling about how we shouldn’t judge people by how they look, how underneath skin color we’re all the same, how we’re all one big human family, and so on. You know: the speech. The color-blind speech. The one where white parents tell their children to look past skin tone to the person underneath. The one where we imply that because skin color is something we’re born with, something “accidental,” we shouldn’t draw attention to it. The one where we try and push on our children a version of the world we’d like to inhabit, as opposed to the one we actually do.

My three year old was observing—albeit not kindly or subtly—that not everyone looked the way she did. And she wasn’t sure if that was OK. She was scared. She was uncomfortable. Because we weren’t talking about skin tone or race with her at home, because our conversations (however well-intentioned) steered mainly towards platitudes of kindness and acceptance, she had begun to internalize the racial assumptions around her. She had used the descriptor “black-skinned,” I later realized, whereas if she had simply been observing skin tone, she would have said brown skin or dark skin. The word she chose was a reference to race. A loaded word. Something she had heard. Something she didn’t understand. Something she was beginning to associate with something less than.

We don’t want our children to use race to make judgments about people, so we’d rather them dismiss race completely. Except, in a society where race is embedded into nearly every policy and practice, it is impossible not to see race. So instead, what we are really communicating to our young children is, I know you notice these differences, but I don’t want you to admit it. (Including to yourself). Good white liberal children don’t talk about their black and brown friends as being different from them. Even more problematic, good white liberal children love their black and brown friends in spite of these differences.

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What Does It Mean to Be Woke?

June 4, 2020 Comments Off on What Does It Mean to Be Woke?

In the preface to her scintillating picture book of poems for young readers, Mahogany L. Browne provides this definition of “woke”:

It means to be aware. It means to see your surroundings and challenge how we strengthen our relationship with the government, the community, and nature. To be WOKE is to fight for your civil rights and to fight for the rights of your neighbors…The idea of being aware of your surroundings, especially in a time when we are taught to be quiet and not rock the boat, can be difficult to embrace, but this is where our freedom begins.

The events of the last week are calling us to become woke. They are calling us to listen, especially to Black voices unleashing decades of pain and injustice. They are calling us to expand our bookshelves and our social media feeds to include more voices of color (@hereweeread and @theconsciouskid are a great place to start for parents). They are calling us to talk to our children about difficult topics like race, privilege, and racism and help them revise their summer reading lists to include stories by people of color. They are calling us to begin the uncomfortable and long-overdue work of examining the way our own whiteness makes us complicit in the sickness of systemic racism, because until we change what’s in our hearts, we can’t lead our children to do the same.

Topics like police brutality and racial profiling can be overwhelming and frightening to children of all races, but we can also use these conversations to empower them. “Rocking the boat” starts with finding the words to describe what’s happening and how it makes us feel—and then turning these words into beacons of inspiration, hope, and change.

We are being called to help our children find their voice, and I can think of no better vehicle than Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Ages 8-12). Historically, poets have been on the forefront of social movements. Here, Mahogany L. Browne’s poems sit alongside those from Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood, serving as “instruction manuals and anthems,” as “literary heartbeats and blueprints of survival,” for our children to sift through cruelty and injustice and find the words and courage to speak out about them. Several of the poems address racial history and discrimination. Others speak to gender bias, immigration, activism, body image, physical disability, intersectionality, and our relationship with nature. Taken as a whole, the poems celebrate a definition of community that’s richer for its diversity of voices, skin colors, and genders. Double-page illustrations by Theodore Taylor III enhance the vibrancy of the poems. As “Instructions on Listening to the Trees” concludes, “We are all part of someone else’s journey/ That’s the way communities are built/ Each root sprawling toward the edge of an infinite smile.”

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Read Alouds Inspired by the Pandemic

April 9, 2020 Comments Off on Read Alouds Inspired by the Pandemic

You need only consider the two chapter books I’ve just finished reading to my children to glean the wild fluctuations in mood characteristic of Home Life During the Pandemic. The first, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793—a historical novel set during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia—is dark, gripping, macabre, and mind-blowing. The second, Louis Sachar’s Wayside School: Beneath the Cloud of Doom—thirty interconnected stories about the students at the quirkiest school in literary history—is silly, preposterous, dry-witted, and a rip-roaring good time…while still being a tad apocalyptic, because I can’t resist a theme. If we’re doomed to spend all day, every day, in each other’s presence, while the pendulum of the wider world swings dramatically between fear and hope, heartbreak and grace, serious headlines and funny memes, it seems only appropriate that our read alouds should follow suit.

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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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Fall is Looking Good: Middle-Grade Round Up

November 7, 2019 Comments Off on Fall is Looking Good: Middle-Grade Round Up

Of the dozens of middle-grade books I’ve read so far this fall (and I see no reason to stop anytime soon), here are the ones that have risen to the top. All except one I’ve featured on Instagram in recent weeks, but it seemed like a good time to round them up here. Publishers often save their best titles for fall, and this fall is proving pretty spectacular. May your children take advantage of the dwindling daylight to curl up with one of these gems. Perhaps they’ll find their people. Perhaps they’ll re-frame what it means to be an American. Perhaps they’ll even get closer to answering the question on the back of Jason Reynolds’ newest contribution to the tween psyche: How you gon’ change the world?

(Oh, and should you need something for yourself or your older teen, you’ll just have to get on the ‘gram to see this review. It’s only my favorite read of the fall.)

 

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When They Want the Truth

September 5, 2019 § 2 Comments

When I was eight, I led my father into our coat closet, pushed aside the coats to make a small opening, closed the door, and sat him opposite me on the floor. As we both hunched uncomfortably, I handed him a piece of torn notebook paper and a pencil. On the paper was a list of every swear word I had ever heard. “I want you to write down what each of these words mean,” I said. “Please,” I added, so as not to sound bossy.

I’ll never forget the way my dad didn’t miss a beat. As if this was a natural ask from a firstborn. He didn’t speak, just wrote down a word or two beside each of mine. When he was finished, he handed me the list, and that was that. We stood up, opened the door, and went our separate ways.

In the safety of my bedroom, I got up the nerve to look at what my father had written. It may have been the most anticlimactic moment of my life to date. Female dog. Human feces. I’m sure there were others, but I can’t remember the complete list. I stared in disbelief. I wasn’t entirely sure what all of them meant (what the heck was feces?), but I did know they didn’t sound particularly harmful, certainly not worth the drama which ensued each time someone used one of them at school.

In that moment, I also knew I wasn’t getting the whole truth. I thought the answer was in my father’s pencil strokes, but what I failed to realize was that I actually craved a conversation with him. I wanted to understand what was so terrible about these words. I wanted to understand why they were used the way they were. Looking back, I even wish he had explained some of the gender politics behind them. But I didn’t know how to make any of that happen.

In an effort to demystify these words for me, my father stood in the way of my more fully understanding the world I was sharing with him. « Read the rest of this entry »

Butterflies and Black Boxes: Helping Shoulder the Burden of Grief

May 2, 2019 § 9 Comments

Grief can be the loneliest feeling in the world. In the immediate aftermath of a great loss, we are often surrounded by an outpouring of love and affection. We receive letters, phone calls, dishes of food, offers of help. But, in the weeks and months ahead, most around us will eventually resume their own lives, leaving us to sit quietly, restlessly, fearfully with our grief. Some will stop mentioning it at all, perhaps worried that talk of it will bring up fresh sadness. Some prefer to stop thinking about it all together, lest the tragedy of what happened to us be contagious. None of this is ill-intentioned. It stems from our basic human instinct to protect and survive.

It may also stem from inexperience.

The new picture book, Maybe Tomorrow? (Ages 4-8), by Charlotte Agell, with illustrations by Ana Ramírez González, is a whimsical, hopeful, deeply touching story about a new friendship forged in the aftermath of grief. It is one of the most delicate and perfect manifestations of grief I’ve ever encountered in a children’s book—but it also does something else. It presents a window into what it’s like to be on the outside of grief. It invites us to empathize with those who are mourning, then gives us some ideas for how to help another shoulder the burden of grief.

When I started college, in the fall of 1994, I had lost my father three months earlier. I had had an entire summer to mourn. To cry, to rage, to field calls from concerned relatives and friends, to fight and make up with my mother and sister more times than I could count. When I walked onto campus that September and neatly unpacked my things into my single room, I felt pressure to put my grief behind me. To fit in. To throw myself into making friends and studying hard and not be known as “the girl who just lost her father.”

And then, suddenly, I couldn’t see.

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Middle-Grade Round Up (Or What I’ve Been Doing on Instagram)

April 4, 2019 § 3 Comments

I’ve been feeling a teensy bit guilty that those of you not on Instagram are missing out on all the mini reviews I’ve been doing over there, particularly of middle-grade books. These books are too good to miss! So, I’ve decided to do occasional “round-up” posts to catch you up. Several of these titles are brand-spanking new; the rest are new within the past year.

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Gift Guide 2018: My Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year

December 15, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: My Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year

Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age. « Read the rest of this entry »

How The Penderwicks Saw Us Through 24 Days of Rain

October 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

Last month, Northern Virginia saw twenty-four days of rain. Adding insult to injury, this deluge of wet, gloomy weather happened during the one month each year when our family barely holds it together in the first place. Where the ensuing chaos of back-to-school transitions is trumped only by the fact that both my children once upon a time insisted on entering the world within two weeks of one another (and have since insisted that their celebrations never overlap).

Fortunately, we are not strangers to the salvation of the right chapter book series for back-to-school season (see here). Still, I have never been as thankful for one particular set of literary characters as I was last month. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

September 6, 2018 Comments Off on The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

In our house, there is nothing like the last week of summer break to convince me that it’s time for my kids to go back to school. I enter into that final vacation week with a heavy heart, prematurely mourning our weeks of togetherness (my kids finally being at the ages where the balance is tipped more towards fun than exhausting).

And then—perhaps because we know our break-up is inevitable and we’re trying to make the case to ourselves—we turn on one another. We bark, we snap, we storm out of rooms. Neither child agrees to any game the other proposes (well, except Rat-a-Tat-Cat; thank goodness for Rat-a-Tat-Cat). Particularly telling: no one seems capable of losing themselves in a book anymore—chapters are abandoned before they are even a quarter completed. Suddenly, the lack of structure we previously relished seems precarious, foolhardy, even downright dangerous.

They need to go back. « Read the rest of this entry »

2017 Gift Guide (No. 4): Middle-Grade Magnificence

December 7, 2017 § 3 Comments

As promised, here is a roundup of my favorite middle-grade fiction of 2017, a mix of graphic and traditional novels,  targeted at tweens or older. Not included are titles I blogged about earlier in the year—gems like The Inquisitor’s Tale, The Wild Robot, and See You in the Cosmos, which would make excellent additions to this list. Also not included are books I haven’t read yet—particularly Amina’s Voice, Nevermoor, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and Scar Island (by the same author as the riveting Some Kind of Courage)—which would likely be on this list if I had. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I adore, has a sequel out this year which I’m dying to read. And I should also mention that if my son were making this list, he would undoubtedly note that it has been a stand-out year for new installments in his favorite series, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Now, without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into these richly textured and meaty stories, filled with angst and adventure, secrets and self-discovery. « Read the rest of this entry »

In Praise of One Exasperating Girl

November 16, 2017 Comments Off on In Praise of One Exasperating Girl

How often do we climb inside our children’s heads and look around? How often do we push past the in-our-face behaviors to understand the nuances of feelings behind them?

Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it. « Read the rest of this entry »

10 Reasons to Keep Reading to Children Long After They’re Reading Themselves

October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
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When the Question Becomes the Answer

September 21, 2017 Comments Off on When the Question Becomes the Answer

In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet which have spent the last three months in and around a swimming pool, it occurs to me that my children are shedding their summer skin in more ways than one. (And not all of them are gross.) They are preparing for the great mental and emotional journey that a new school year demands. They’re working to put aside the comfortable, unhurried, joyful freedom of summer for stricter routines, increased expectations, and long days of scrutiny. As first and fourth graders, they know they will be doing real work, work that others will oversee and critique, work that might one moment feel exciting and the next feel tedious or overwhelming or downright scary. They know they will be navigating new social terrain, new faces among peers and teachers, perhaps even new behaviors from old friends.

They know, but they don’t know. They know that they don’t know. « Read the rest of this entry »

Morality, Martyrdom, & Murderous Marauders (Yup, for Kids)

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam GidwitzIf the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.

Let me back up.

Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.

Until now. « Read the rest of this entry »

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