When A Book Comes Along for the Field Trip
January 20, 2022 § 2 Comments
There was no shortage of grumbling when, one morning over winter break, I announced we were going to Arlington National Cemetery, a ten minute drive from our house.
“But we’ve been there a million times,” my son complained.
“You’ve been there exactly once,” I responded. “Plus, my great-grandfather was a Colonel in World War One, and he’s buried there.”
“We know, because you tell us all the time,” my daughter interjected, not to be outdone by her brother.
“Well, we’ve had a Covid Christmas and we need somewhere to go that’s outside, so that’s that,” I issued, like the authoritarian parent I am.
In my 14-year parenting tenure, there has never been an outing I haven’t been able to improve with a children’s book. In this case, I’d had one tucked away for almost a year. I knew the kids would come around. They always come around.
Jeff Gottesfeld’s Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, majestically illustrated by Matt Tavares (don’t count him out for a Caldecott), takes us behind the scenes of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—indisputably the most fascinating part of Arlington Cemetery. No one can help but be awestruck upon beholding the discipline, concentration, and precision of the sentinel guards who keep vigil there, every moment of every day, 365 days a year, in every type of weather.
Especially if you’ve had the chance to read Twenty-One Steps immediately before.
Which our family had, while seated in front of my great-grandparents’ gravestone, under a brilliantly blue December sky, surrounded by thousands of wreaths placed there for the holidays. We read while we waited for the top of the hour, when we headed over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard.« Read the rest of this entry »
My Caldecott Front Runner
January 12, 2022 Comments Off on My Caldecott Front Runner
Awards season is upon us! On Monday, January 24, the American Library Association will award the prestigious Caldecott and Newbery Medals, as well as a host of other coveted honors and awards. It’s like the Oscars for kid lit! I’ll be tuning in with bated breath, ready to celebrate many of the winners and, if history is any indication, scratch my head at a few others. There will probably be some books I haven’t read yet, perhaps even one I haven’t heard of, but I’m hoping many of my favorites will make the list. In any event, I promise to share a recap on Instagram after the announcements!
Let’s talk about the picture book I’d love to see sport a shiny gold Caldecott sticker. (I’m also pulling for Watercress, which I gushed about in April. Born on the Water, of course. Time is a Flower. Probably Unspeakable, if my library hold would ever come in.) Today, though, I’m talking about Wishes (Ages 4-8), written by Múón Thi Vãn and illustrated by Victo Ngai, based on the former’s refugee journey out of Vietnam as a young child in the 1980s. This book sends my jaw to the floor. Every. single. time. (Back in May, my daughter discovered it on our dining table, sat down and read it, and called out, “WHOA, Mommy, I think I just found your favorite book of the year.”)
And yet, I’ve been putting off sharing my thoughts about Wishes. It’s a daunting book to review, because its power lies largely in what is left unsaid. How do I write about a book that manages to tell a sweeping, suspenseful, emotionally pulsating narrative in just twelve short sentences, without my own clunky words compromising the grace of such economical text? (Heck, I’ve greatly exceeded that sentence count already!)
But that’s precisely why Wishes is deserving of a Caldecott, which I’ll remind you is awarded for pictorial interpretation. To be sure, Múón’s sparse text is immensely effective: loaded with lyricism and vital in relaying the story’s central theme of desire—the wishes that frame our periods of loss and uncertainty. But the reason Múón is able to communicate such depth and breadth with her text is owing to Ngai’s luminous illustrations, which carry a great deal of the storytelling weight. (Ngai herself is a migrant, moving from Hong Kong to the United States when she was eighteen.) Wishes is that rare example of a perfect marriage between words and pictures, each working to interpret and augment the other.
Wishes is about more than one journey. Taken literally, it’s the story of a girl who leaves behind her home—including her grandfather, her dog, and nearly all her worldly possessions—to journey by boat to a foreign city of safety and promise. But it’s also an emotional journey: a sequence of wishes that speak to the turbulence within. Ngai underscores this journey with her color palette, beginning the story in dark, somber tones, moving towards super-saturated reds and oranges as the oppressive sun beats down upon the tiny boat, and concluding with a soft palette of greens and pinks for an ending tinged in the hope of fresh starts.« Read the rest of this entry »
The Real Science of Snow
December 30, 2021 Comments Off on The Real Science of Snow
We had a Covid Christmas, and nothing more needs to be said about that. Except it does. Because my daughter spent most of winter break isolated in her room, showing her face only at meals over Facetime, and again at read-aloud time, but otherwise building LEGO creations and making origami and decorating her room with paper snowflakes that her brother made for her. All behind the closed door of her bedroom.
It was awful for us. Except, strangely, it did not seem that awful for her. Her symptoms were fairly mild, thankfully. She smiled the widest smiles at us through the computer screen. “My graphic novels are keeping me company,” she reassured us. One day, she was heard giggling for hours on end. “What’s so funny?” we called through the door. “I’m putting my Babas through the circus.” (That’s what she calls her stuffed sheep.) She missed cuddling with us terribly—she said so multiple times—and she was a bit nervous about how she would open her stocking on Christmas morning (we let her out and all donned masks). But she had the very fine company of her imagination, and that turned out to be a gift better than anything Santa could ever bring.
We can’t know the depth of our children’s resilience until that resilience has been tested. And without question, the past two years have put resilience on display for our children. Somehow, these children have only become more loving, more courageous, more introspective, more imaginative.
Childhood can be a solitary time. We all have memories of feeling awkward or excluded or misunderstood. We have endless memories of waiting—the minutes ticking by in excruciating slowness—for a parent to play a game with us, to do that thing with us, to stop talking on the phone already. We have memories of being sick in bed, of staring endlessly at the ceiling until shadows and cracks turned into scenes of animals to entertain us.
I think children are drawn to stories that speak to solitariness. Stories that don’t diminish the emptiness of that solitariness, or the fear or sadness that can reside inside it, but intentionally dwell on the possibilities embedded there. The wonder. Even, perhaps, the magic. Stories that demonstrate how solitariness can be a beautiful thing, a fortifying thing, so long as we are secure in the knowledge that we are still held in the strong, secure embrace of those who love us.
The Irish writer Maggie O’Frarrell, who has penned some of my favorite reads for adults (Hamnet, This Must be the Place), makes a spectacular children’s debut with Where Snow Angels Go (Ages 6-10), a longform picture book, with gorgeous illustrations by Daniela Jaglemka Terrazzini on each of its 67 pages. It’s not, at first glance, a story of solitariness; rather, it hails the companionship of a “snow angel,” born of past snowfalls, who watches quietly and mostly invisibly over a young girl through the seasons. And yet, this girl, our protagonist, is often alone. She’s sick in bed, or staring up at the night sky, or tearing down a hill on her bike. She’s marveling at the universe, she’s working out its questions in her own solitariness. Her parents are close by but rarely pictured; the snow angel maybe a figment of her imagination, maybe not.« Read the rest of this entry »
2021 Gift Guide: Young Adult Fiction for Ages 13+
December 9, 2021 Comments Off on 2021 Gift Guide: Young Adult Fiction for Ages 13+
All good things must come to an end, so here we are at my final Gift Guide post of the year. I didn’t want to send you into the holidays without some fun, gripping, eye-opening, occasionally heart-wrenching new reads for your teens!
The titles below are truly stand-out works of fiction. But it doesn’t have to stop here! If you’re looking for graphic novels, remember that there are three not-to-be-missed titles for teens at the end of my Graphic Novels Gift Guide post. (And for mercy’s sake, if your teen hasn’t discovered the Heartstopper graphic novel series by now, with the fourth out in a few weeks, please remedy that now.) And, if non-fiction is your teen’s jam, check out Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Shutdown, included in my Middle-Grade Gift Guide post.
Finally, a gentle reminder that with YA increasingly finding readership among adults in addition to teens, it skews older than it used to. The subject matter is getting more mature and, oftentimes, downright heavy. If you have young teens, encourage them not to graduate from middle-grade literature too quickly; there are a rising number of gems being expressly written for the 10-14 crowd, with elevated prose and complex characters (there are at least four favorites in this earlier post, for example). That said, pay close attention to the age ranges listed below for each title, and I’ll be sure to follow each review with any trigger warnings.« Read the rest of this entry »
2021 Gift Guide: The Board Books
December 7, 2021 § 1 Comment
I’m a huge fan of board books that are better than they need to be. Books that not only respect the attention and intelligence of our littlest minds, but appeal just as strongly to the parent or caregiver looking to break up those long, long days with a little joy and a little connection. This year, lots of authors and illustrators have indulged my very high standards, and the result is a rich assortment of board books that sing of science and shapes, sweetness and silliness. Some are cleverly interactive; some are downright revolutionary; and some are just storytelling at its finest.
One more thing: board books aren’t just for babies! Some of my selections below even extend past the toddler years to preschoolers, imparting concepts and subjects in novel, thought-provoking ways. (Amazon affiliate links while we restock at Old Town Books!)« Read the rest of this entry »
Gift Guide 2021: Middle-Grade Picks for Ages 7-14
November 30, 2021 § 2 Comments
(A reminder that all the books in my Gift Guide are available for purchase at Old Town Books here in Alexandria, VA, or on their website. Put KIDS21 in the Notes to get free gift wrapping and $5 shipping on orders over $25; one order per address, please. Thank you for supporting this wonderful indie bookstore where I assist with the buying!)
Last week, I recapped my favorite graphic novels of the year. This week, I’m talking about middle-grade reads that are so good, your reader won’t even notice they’re not graphic novels. (Wink wink.)
It has been another incredible year for middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, and while I’ve likely missed a few gems, I am thrilled with the ones I’ve discovered. Of the slew I read, these rose to the top and have great gift appeal. The stories have tremendous heart, raise thoughtful questions, and immerse readers in compelling worlds and rich settings. If you’ve been hanging around here, you’ll recognize a few titles from earlier in the year, but a number of these were just published.
I’m not including sequels here—like the newest title in our beloved Vanderbeekers series, or the third in the wonderful Front Desk series—in case the recipient has not read the earlier titles. And, though it’s increasingly difficult given the direction middle-grade stories are trending, I have stayed away from some of the heaviest reads of the year, including the brilliant The Shape of Thunder.
The list runs from younger to older, so please note the age range for each. My age ranges reflect both the sophistication of the writing and the maturity of the subject matter.« Read the rest of this entry »
2021 Gift Guide: The Show Stoppers
November 18, 2021 § 6 Comments
Those of us raising bibliophiles—or, should I say, those of us prone to over-indulging on books all year long—are sometimes stumped about what to wrap up for the holidays. What books differentiate themselves as holiday-worthy? Of course, I personally think a great book is as much at home under a Christmas tree as packed in with the groceries on a random Thursday…but I do appreciate that some books have show-stopping power.
And so, I give you these selections for kids and tweens. With a promise that parents will enjoy them almost as much.« Read the rest of this entry »
Deepening Our Definition of American
November 16, 2021 § 5 Comments
We’ll be back with more installments of my Gift Guide later this week, but I’m hitting pause to talk about a book that released today, one that could be the most important book we share with our kids this month. It also happens to be one of the most gorgeously composed and illustrated long-form picture books I have ever seen. Come for the anti-racist education; stay for the exceptional execution.
A picture book stirringly penned in verse for older children, The 1619 Project: Born on the Water (Ages 7-12) chronicles the consequences of American slavery and the history of Black resistance. Co-written by the Pulitzer-Prize winning creator of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and bestselling children’s author, Renée Watson, and exquisitely illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, it’s a book for every kind of American reader. Make no mistake: it’s a book that speaks to the atrocities of our past, but it is not a book that leaves readers in despair. This is a book that educates, inspires, and emboldens.
The social justice protests that swept our country last year quickly gave way to cries for books by Black and other marginalized creators to assume a more prominent place in our homes, libraries, and schools. Parents were DMing me daily, asking for books to introduce conversations about race and racism, even and especially among young children. Seemingly overnight, anti-racist education was valued, if long-overdue.
Now, one year later, conservative backlash has thrown us into a culture war that threatens to undermine anti-racist learning by removing books touching on racial history and discrimination from classrooms, with the alleged accusation that they are “indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.”
Have the folks who seemingly fear the power of these stories actually read them? One of the books on the receiving end of this vitriol is Kelly Yang’s Front Desk series, semi-autobiographical stories about a Chinese immigrant girl who helps her parents manage a motel and, as Yang said Sunday in a social media post about this backlash, is just “trying to get through school without someone making fun of her for her floral pants!” My daughter was recently asked to list her favorite books, and she ranked this series #2 after Harry Potter. Some might say there is no higher praise.
For my daughter, these and other books starring Brown and Black protagonists are “window” stories; what about children for whom they are “mirrors?” Should only some Americans see themselves reflected in literature? America is an indisputably diverse country with an indisputably complicated history. When we gloss over the experience of marginalized people, we are not giving our children—the hope for the future—access to the diversity that underscores our democratic promise.
Books like Front Desk, which reflect individual immigrant experiences, as well as books like Born on the Water, which address the resilience of a people born out of the forced passage from one country to another, do not illicit shame in the white children lucky enough to read them. These are stories of “determination, imagination, faith,” a refrain repeated in the latter book. They are stories about the will to survive and the power of the human spirit, not at the expense of others, but alongside them. They are books that make me proud to be an American, not for the wrongs of the past, but for the opportunities to right those wrongs, to build a nation that strives for justice and equality for all its people. A place where compassion is valued as much as health and prosperity.
If our children do not have the opportunity to engage in nuanced conversations about oppression, when we gloss over key issues in our history that are deeply intertwined with race and racism, then we fail them as parents and educators. When we take away stories with the capacity to ignite their imaginations, we deny them a chance to know their own minds. When we take away stories that give them language to talk about difficult issues, we silence them. When we take away stories rich in truth, beauty, and hope, we make it less likely that they will be emboldened enough to share their own.
With that in mind, I invite you to take a look at the triumphant Born on the Water. As we head into Thanksgiving, did you know that 400 years ago, a whole year before the Mayflower arrived, there was a ship called the White Lion that brought slaves to our shores? This ship isn’t studied in most schools; and yet, it’s as integral to the history of this country as the Europeans who settled here, not to mention the Native peoples who were here before them. I am grateful to have the opportunity to correct this wrong with my own children.« Read the rest of this entry »
2021 Gift Guide Kicks Off: Favorite Picture Book of the Year
October 28, 2021 § 2 Comments
It’s getting to be the most wonderful time of year: Gift Guide season! Over the next few weeks, you’ll be treated to round ups of picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade books, young adult books, and specialty books with a gifty flair. This year, I’m especially excited to be partnering with Old Town Books, a fantastic indie here in Alexandria, VA, where I’ll be presenting my full Gift Guide LIVE and IN PERSON at 7pm on November 12 and 13, with a chance to shop with me afterwards (get your tickets here!).
Traditionally, I kick off every Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year. (Some past picks are here, here, here, and here.) I recognize that choosing books for loved ones is immensely personal, but sometimes a book comes along that checks all the boxes. It’s beautiful. It’s original. It’s hefty, packed with details that demand repeat readings. It’s got a nostalgic charm that appeals to us oldies doing the gifting. To hold it feels inherently special.
Towering toadstools! All I’m saying is that there aren’t many books you want to clutch to your chest and carry around with you, so when you find one, you just want everyone to have it, OK?
Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest (Ages 4-8), by the extraordinary Phoebe Wahl—I blinked and missed her 2020 picture book for last year’s Gift Guide, and I’ll not make that mistake again—is an anthology of four stories, one for each season. It stars a cheery, capable, caring little witch with a pointed red cap and a fondness for messy braids and fair isle sweaters. Little Witch Hazel lives alone at the base of a tree in the enchanting Mosswood forest, surrounded by trees and waterfalls and a community of gnomes, elves, goblins, trolls, dryads, anthropomorphic amphibians, and tiny talking mammals. He days are spent divided between work and play, between helping others and tending to herself.
It has been a long two years, and I feel like we all deserve to spend some time in a place where tea cakes and twinkling lights are always in fashion, where coziness and cocoa reign supreme, and where the wonders of the wilderness are just an acorn’s throw away. A place where we can dip our tired toes in crystal clear water one minute and ride on an owl’s back the next. A place where creatures watch out for one another, repay favors, and are always happy for an impromptu dance party.« Read the rest of this entry »
Graphic Novel Round Up: Witches and Ghosts and Vampires (Oh My!)
October 14, 2021 § 4 Comments
2021 has seen many trends in children’s literature (body positivity and consent will make an appearance in next week’s blog post), but most fun is the onslaught of witches, ghosts and vampires, particularly in graphic novels. I’m not sure how to account for this uptake in supernatural activity on the page, except that maybe the last two years already have us feeling like we’re suspended between real life and an alternate universe. Magic has always been irresistible to kids—long before Harry Potter arrived on the scene, I can recall my own childhood obsession with The Blue-Nosed Witch—but perhaps at no time more than now do we share a collective desire to wield spells that could change the course of things. Of course, as the stories below caution us, magic is infinitely more messy than it seems.
All the graphic novels I recommend here—age ranges are provided in the headers—have come out in the past few months, just ahead of Spooky Season. That said, not a single one of these has anything to do with Halloween itself, so I have no doubt they will be read again and again, regardless of the season. But, with fire pit weather upon us and talk of spooky costumes in the air, I can’t think of a better time to drop a few new witchy reads into your child’s lap. (Amazon affiliate links below, though all of these titles are currently in stock at Old Town Books!)« Read the rest of this entry »
Hiding in Plain Sight: A Halloween Post
October 7, 2021 § 1 Comment
After hitting the snooze button on Halloween last year while in temporary housing, we were extra-enthused to unbox our spooky decorations last weekend—especially our Halloween books! (Do you pack up your Halloween books with the decorations so you can re-discover them every year? Trust me on this.) As my kids have gotten older, we’ve offloaded many seasonal picture books, and those left are the ones we can’t bear to give up. This includes old favorites like Creepy Carrots, Old Black Witch, The Monsters’ Monster, I am a Witch’s Cat, In a Dark, Dark Room…along with more recent favorites, like The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt and Gustavo the Shy Ghost (for the love of all cuteness, please add this book to your collection…I recently Instagrammed about it here).
Then there are the spooky chapter books we’ve loved reading aloud in past Octobers—by candlelight, of course—like James and Deborah Howe’s classic, Bunnicula, and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. (I recently did an Instagram video with these and many more, including the books my kids claim are too scary for me to attempt, but darned if we will get to them someday. Also, let’s compare witchy cackles, shall we?)
Which brings us to 2021, where I’ve combed through dozens of Halloween-ish new releases to tell you my favorite. The story I’ve chosen is about vampires—of the modern, hip, urban variety—though it has nothing to do with the actual holiday of Halloween. Which means you get to decide whether you pack it up on November 1st or let it stay out all year round. Who am I kidding? There’s not a chance your kiddos are going to let you pack up this one. In Vampenguin (Ages 3-6), Lucy Ruth Cummins—no stranger to the Halloween market ever since she wrote the darling Stumpkin—has created a story that abounds with visual gags and makes perfect use of that irresistible trope of storytelling, where the reader is in on the joke long before the characters themselves are.
Have you ever considered how a baby vampire and a baby penguin could be mistaken for one another? Nope, me neither. That’s where the fun (and the funny) begins. And, lest you think Vampenguin sounds big on antics and short on artistry, I assure you that Cummins’ expressive line work and limited color palette, awash in turquoise, orange, and pink, elevate the story in both whimsy and wonder.« Read the rest of this entry »
Best. Birthday. Book.
September 30, 2021 § 2 Comments
September is many things—the return to school, the start of fall, the gearing up for holidays and sweaters and all things pumpkin—but in our house, it’s also Birthday Month. Both my kids share September birthdays, just two weeks apart. If September didn’t already feel like a sharp re-entry to scheduled life after the dog days of summer, adding in two back-to-back birthday celebrations has always felt like being launched into a marathon we forgot to train for.
Every year, the bleary-eyed exhaustion takes me by surprise. Shouldn’t it be easier now? My kids no longer desire the big backyard birthday parties we threw in the past (remember this post?), with magicians and bouncy houses and mad scientists who blew up stuff and left it all behind. By all accounts, the celebrations my kids want as tweens and teens require little prep on my part and are right up my alley. Ear piercing followed by lunch out with a few fabulous young ladies? Yes, please!
Still, no matter the celebration, there is an emotional charge to the day that radiates throughout the entire month. And, if I’m being honest, it sucks up a good bit of the oxygen in our house. Our children prize their birthdays above all other days of the year. And they aren’t alone. As Mary Lyn Ray puts it in the poetic picture book I’m about to share with you, “Almost anything could happen./ But what’s for sure is that/ your birthday is all yours to unwrap.”
There’s the delicious anticipation that builds over weeks, by some accounts as sweet as the day itself. There are wish lists, made and revised and revised again. There are discussions of favorite breakfasts and requested desserts and memories of things that happened in birthdays past that you wonder if you can re-create. Somewhere along the way, traditions are born.
Every year, my husband breaks out the colored pencils and renders homemade birthday cards, their fronts depicting the birthday kid engaged in a new venture or activity from the previous year (most recently, shooting a bow and arrow and rowing crew). It’s not uncommon for these cards to be drawn close to midnight the evening before, with me furiously wrapping packages beside him. Still, the delight on our kids’ faces when they see everything set out at breakfast the next morning always makes the effort worth it. (But seriously, when did I become the gift wrapper for all the out-of-towners?)
I have never encountered a picture book that more perfectly captures the essence of a child’s birthday than How to Have a Birthday (Ages 3-8), lyrically penned by Mary Lyn Ray and sumptuously illustrated by Cindy Derby. Mary Lyn Ray is a spellbinder with words, conjuring up phrases both playful and poignant; and Cindy Derby’s rich, dreamy art, infused with a touch of sparkle, feels at once intimate and open-ended. The text is delivered in the second person, inviting all readers to consider their own birthday experiences, while the pictures bring to life three specific birthday kids, with different skin tones and different celebration styles.« Read the rest of this entry »
A Road Trip Read Aloud
September 23, 2021 § 1 Comment
“It’d been a long time since I’d seen [Dad] like this. I wish it hadn’t required an eight-hour road trip, a bird watcher and his dumb son, a bear attack, a nudist French couple, and his now somewhat-but-not-really ex-girlfriend to make him act more like his old self.”
This passage occurs towards the end of Cliff Burke’s An Occasionally Happy Family (Ages 9-13), and I suppose you could fault me for spoiling some plot twists, but doesn’t it also make you want to read it?
My husband and I took turns reading aloud this debut novel last weekend, as we road tripped from Washington DC to Buffalo, NY for my grandmother’s rescheduled memorial service. I had heard it was incredibly funny—indeed, it had all of us in stitches multiple times—and I couldn’t resist the idea of syncing our road trip with a literary one (you know I love a themed reading experience). I figured, if we were going to immerse ourselves in hardcore family togetherness for 72 hours, we might as well learn to laugh at ourselves by watching another family make a total mess of it.
There’s nothing like a vacation gone wrong to make for great storytelling.
What I didn’t expect was to find such tenderness behind the humor. Such authenticity in the narrative voice, such punch in the dialogue, such depth in the relationships. An Occasionally Happy Family may be about camping in 101 degrees, it may be about dorky dads and teenage eye rolls, but it’s also about a family who finds their way back to each other after grief drove them apart.« Read the rest of this entry »