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 »

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 6): For the Non-Fiction Lover

December 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni DesmondCall it Seasonal Affective Disorder; call it the anticipation of school closures (let’s just give up now); call it the fact that it now takes us seven times longer to get out of the house: whatever the reason, as soon as a cold snap hits every year, I want to hibernate. And yet, consider this, my fair-weathered friends: the polar bear—a creature who lives in the coldest corners of the Earth; who eats, walks and sleeps on ice; and who is surrounded by nothing but white and blue all day, every day—does not hibernate.

That someone can love the cold this much—and, in fact, depend on it for its very survival—is just one of the many things that endear us to the polar bear, as evidenced in Jenni Desmond’s extraordinary tribute, The Polar Bear (Ages 6-10), a factually accurate yet poetic picture book with some of the most stunning illustrations I have ever seen (seriously, I’m not sure I can bring myself to shelve this book, its cover is so gorgeous). « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 5): For the Girl with Gumption

December 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

"Gertie's Leap to Greatness" by Kate BeasleyPerhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve read on the Internet lately is BookRiot’s series of interviews with middle-grade authors regarding a renewed commitment—in response to the misogynistic rhetoric that seemed to win out in this past election—to writing strong female protagonists, of giving our daughters literary role models of persistence, resilience, compassion, and action. The future can only be bright if our girls see themselves as integral to every part of it. Or, in the more poetic words of Lindsay Egan, author of Hour of Bees (on my list to read):

“We writers are implored to write characters with goals, characters who want things, characters who act to move forward. But in light of the current political climate, I feel it’s a real imperative now for me to write female characters who do things. Girls who speak up, girls who defend others, girls who make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, girls who dream and think and work for the world they wish they had. Girls who don’t accept hate or unfairness and fight to make things better. Girls who sacrifice their own comforts for the safety of others. Girls who know that showing kindness is never weakness. Girls who DO things. The future is coming, and I want the girls of the future to remember that change is in their hands.”

« Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 3): For the Aspiring Writer

December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa SweetI am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”

So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 2): For the Doll Lover

December 6, 2016 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2016 (No. 2): For the Doll Lover

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura GodwinOne of the joys that comes from sharing a special series with your child is that, over the months that it takes you to finish, you come to feel like these beloved fictional characters have in some meaningful way become your friends, are part of your collective consciousness. Not only that, but you start noticing ways in which these stories have altered the way you—or your child—sees the world.

Since this summer, Emily and I have been making our way through all four books of “The Doll People” chapter series (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud), by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin. Now that the fourth book is finally available in paperback (plus a new Christmas picture book to boot), I can’t think of a better bundle of books to gift the doll lover in your life. It’s that rare combination of old-fashioned charm and contemporary relevance. Furthermore, the books are so intricately and delightfully illustrated—the first three by Brian Selznick and the fourth (plus the Christmas special) by Brett Helquist—that they are almost too special not to own. « Read the rest of this entry »

History Come to Life

October 27, 2016 § 2 Comments

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy JakobsenHands down, my favorite day last summer was spent with my then eight year old at Ford’s Theatre, otherwise known as The Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. If there’s anything more fun than watching our children learn, it’s learning alongside our children—and that is precisely what happened as JP and I made our way through the narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the hours preceding and immediately following his assassination, and his legacy as it lives on today.

Plugged into our audio tour—the “kid version,” where two middle-school students conversed into our ears about the different exhibits—JP and I were totally riveted: making wide eyes at one another over something that was said, or taking off our headphones for a moment to discuss something further. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, like it was the first day of a new literature elective in college and I was scanning the syllabus for all the new books I would have an excuse to buy. « Read the rest of this entry »

How I Read My Kids the Riot Act

October 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane SmithI’m not going to sugar coat it. The transition back to school has been rough for our family. I have never been so happy to see a month wrap up as I was when October dawned—and even then the grumpiness of September continued to encroach on us. Maybe it’s the sheer exhaustion of starting at a new school, of having to make new friends and navigate new expectations. Maybe it’s because we had a particularly lovely summer of togetherness. Maybe it’s because my kids are lazy little lie-abouts who, if left to their own devices, would probably never leave the house.

I’m not debating the legitimacy of their grumpiness.

All I know is that, for five weeks, my kids got into the car at 3:30pm, answered “Good!” when I asked them how their day was, and then proceeded to complain about absolutely everything. “The grapes in my lunch were mushy!” “The sleeves of this shirt are too long!” “My bug bites are killing me!” “It’s too hot in this car!” “It’s freezing in this car!” “You can’t make me go to the park. I hate the park!” And then they’d turn on each other, shoving and bickering and yelling until I started to wonder if the only way out of this nightmare was to drive off the road. « 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 »

In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Journey Trilogy by Aaron BeckerA few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).

But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor). « Read the rest of this entry »

Severe Weather Alert

September 15, 2016 Comments Off on Severe Weather Alert

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligottWe interrupt this program for a Special Weather Statement.

Tonight’s forecast includes freakishly strong winds, wild fluctuations in temperature, and all forms of precipitation. Power outages possible. Lightning probable. Children begging to hear one more bedtime story guaranteed.

What do you get when you cross real science with monsters?

Easily the most fun educational book about the weather. « Read the rest of this entry »

Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

April 21, 2016 Comments Off on Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee MasseMy eight year old has been on a Greek mythology craze for the past six months. For years, he has been hearing references to mythology made in his mixed-ages classroom, has been seeing classmates walk in and out of school with related books tucked under their arms, has even been listening to one classmate proclaim the pomegranate seeds in her lunch to be the “fruit of the gods”—but he has never showed any genuine interest himself.

Until now. « Read the rest of this entry »

Waking Up the Garden (Ushering in Spring with a Classic)

March 10, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett & Inga MooreThe setting in which a book is read can create magic beyond the words on the page. I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, to my children on a long weekend last month. We were nestled beside a roaring fire in the lobby of a grand, historic inn in the mountains, while the snow that would strand us for an extra day of vacation came down in big, soft flakes outside the tall arched windows. With my children pressed against me in rapt attention, it didn’t seem like life could get much better.

Little did I know that even more magic would come in the weeks ahead, when we brought the book back home and continued reading it while the first hints of spring began to transform the earth outside our front door. And that’s when it hit me: The Secret Garden (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)—and, in particular, artist Inga Moore’s enchantingly illustrated unabridged gift edition—may be the BEST WAY EVER to usher in spring. « Read the rest of this entry »

Long Live the Polar Bear

January 30, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette WinterIf there was ever a time to turn our children sympathetic to the plight of the endangered polar bear, it is on the heels of this recent Snowpocalypse, which dumped more than two feet of the white stuff on us (snow novices) here in Northern Virginia. As my kids and I gazed wide-eyed out our window, the snow fell for two days, swirling and collecting and mounting into perfect waves of whiteness, occasionally drifting into piles almost as high as the stop sign at the end of our block (the stop sign being my son’s unofficial measuring tool of a blizzard, ever since we read John Rocco’s Blizzard last winter). Long before the sun came out and the wind died down, my children were out shoveling trenches down the middle of the street and crawling into hand-dug snow tunnels.

But after just a few days, the sledding hills became slushy. The snow banks started to recede from the edges of our sidewalks, betraying the brownish-green grass beneath. Our once crisp white snow in the backyard has overnight become freckled with twigs and dirt and those (abhorrent) spiky balls from our sweet gum trees. The other morning at breakfast, JP buried his head in his hands and pronounced, “I can’t look. I just wanted it to stay the way it was.” « Read the rest of this entry »

The Villain We Love to Hate

January 14, 2016 § 4 Comments

"Matilda" by Roald DahlIn preparation for taking my kids to the Kennedy Center last week to see the national tour of Matilda the Musical, I spent the final day of winter break reading Roald Dahl’s beloved novel to them. That’s right. Seven and a half hours of reading out loud (with a break to bike to lunch and back). It was my maternal Swan Song, a last hurrah before depositing my kids at the front door of their school the next morning and returning home to a (blissfully) quiet house.

It was actually their second time listening to Matilda—the first time was during a car trip last summer—and I almost didn’t opt for a second round. But, in the end, I wanted it to be fresh in all of our minds before we took our seats in the theater (plus, it made for one of the best family dinners later that night, picking apart the differences between the book and the play). But, really, who would pass up a chance to re-read one of the greatest children’s books ever written? « Read the rest of this entry »

Finding the Christmas Spirit (in a 1952 Classic)

December 17, 2015 § 4 Comments

"Nancy and Plum," by Betty MacDonaldOne of my favorite memories of last December (read my post here) was reading Winterfrost to my children. Amidst the hustle and bustle and never-ending to-dos of the holiday season, the three of us set aside time each night to savor the enchanting story of a child kidnapped by a nisse (Danish “house gnome”) on Christmas night and the sister who goes off to rescue her.

This December, I wanted to re-create that holiday magic with my children. I wanted something that called us away from the overt materialism of the holiday season, that tapped into feelings of love and togetherness, of gratitude for what we have and generosity of spirit.

I took a stab in the dark and grabbed Betty MacDonald’s 1952 novel, Nancy and Plum (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), off the shelf at the library.

Holy holiday wonderfulness. A BETTER BOOK I COULD NOT HAVE CHOSEN. « Read the rest of this entry »

2015 Gift Guide (No. 3): Chapter Books for the Courage Seeker

December 10, 2015 § 2 Comments

Best Middle-Grade Chapter Books of 2015As a child who loved reading all sorts of books, the characters that stayed with me long after I finished the final page were not the knights in shining armor or the warrior princesses. They were everyday children—characters who looked or felt or went to school like me—whose strength and courage were greatly tested by circumstances beyond their control. These children got dealt a bad hand; and yet, they managed to come through with grace and humor, with an increased sensitivity to others, and with a wealth of self-knowledge. Perhaps it is through reading stories about loss, disability, bullying, or poverty that we can create our own personal roadmap to peace, compassion, and joy.

Without further ado, I present my three favorite middle-grade chapter books of the year for the 9-14 year-old set. (Mind you, these are in addition to Echo and Circus Mirandus, which I wrote about over the summer here and which are every bit as awesome as the ones below). These three novels are vastly different from one another, both in subject and in narrative voice—and yet all of them sing with the beauty of the human spirit. « 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. « Read the rest of this entry »

Fairies (Not Just for Girls)

June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments

"The Night Fairy," by Laura Amy Schlitz“Mommy, can we plant some chives in our garden this summer?” my son asked me earlier this spring. “You know, for the fairies. It turns out they really, really like them.”

This was how I discovered that my seven year old had been spending his recess time, alongside several of his classmates, building fairy houses out of twigs, stones, moss, leaves, and mud; filling them with wild onion stems; and then returning the next day to discover with delight that things were not exactly as they’d left them. This obsession with fairy houses would later move into our own backyard (with the addition of miniature serving plates fashioned from the caps of milk bottles), and the momentum seems only to be building.

I don’t live under a rock, so I’m aware that fairies are EXTREMELY POPULAR. I was just a bit surprised that my skeptical and scientifically-minded son, the same being who reminds me that there is no such thing as witches, wizards, monsters, and dragons; who loves to do a magic trick and then immediately reveal the technique behind it; who appears (with the exception of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) to have his two feet squarely rooted in reality—that this person would suddenly talk about fairies as if they were as ordinary an occurrence as the postal workers walking through our neighborhood. “I don’t have to see a fairy to know they’re real,” he told me. “Just look outside—there are signs everywhere.”

Don’t get me wrong. JP’s belief in fairy magic, in the idea of miniature people living miniature lives amidst the trees and leaves and grass, makes me bubble over with happiness. (Yes! Let’s believe in what we cannot see! Yes! Let’s find more reasons to play in the dirt!). But the best part? My son’s new-found interest presented the perfect excuse to purchase a book that I (shame on me) had been saving for when my daughter got a little bit older.

I’m frequently asked by parents for recommendations of fairy-themed chapter books. This isn’t just because fairy lore is undergoing a kind of comeback (or maybe it never left?). It’s also because, despite the high demand, there is a surprising dearth of quality literary offerings. Yes, I know your daughter is obsessed with the Rainbow Fairies series, for its colorful covers and overtly girly content, but have you tried reading one of those awkwardly-constructed, downright-insipid books aloud? Bleh. Let her read those on her own if she must. In the meantime, do both of you a favor and get your hands on Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy, which is EVERYTHING A FAIRY BOOK SHOULD BE. This is reading aloud at its best.

Since it came out in 2010, The Night Fairy (Ages 5-10, if reading aloud) has become one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Hold the 117-page hardcover in your hands, and you know you are dealing with something special. It’s petite (as a book about a fairy should be); its pages are thick and glossy; and it features exquisite watercolor plates by British illustrator Angela Barrett. But here’s the clincher: the writing is absolutely exquisite. The descriptive passages soar. The action is tight. The multidimensional characters tug at our heartstrings. And—drum roll please—the story is steeped in the natural world, in the world right outside our front door. « Read the rest of this entry »

A Chapter Series Which Calls Us Home

March 12, 2015 § 6 Comments

"The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden“Mommy, I like you during the day. But I really love you at night when you read to me.” My son, six years old at the time and still feeling the high of the previous evening’s story time, uttered these words last summer at breakfast. (Yes, it was the Best Breakfast Ever; and no, our mealtimes are not normally this sweet).

JP’s comment came at a time when we were halfway through devouring George Selden’s seven chapter books about a cricket named Chester and his friends, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. For years, I had been singing the praises to parents of the 1960 novel, The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud), as a perfect read-aloud chapter book for those eager to follow longer, more complex stories—but not yet in possession of the reading ability to get there themselves. It can be tricky among contemporary literature to find poignant, beautifully written stories that don’t come at the expense of innocent, age-appropriate content. For this age group, The Cricket in Time’s Square stands alongside other wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web (let’s face it: Charlotte’s death—that of a spider at the end of her life—is about as heavy as many people want when reading to their six or seven year old.). « Read the rest of this entry »

Welcoming Fall with Some Peace and Quiet

September 13, 2014 § 6 Comments

"Otis and the Scarecrow" by Loren LongI may be only seven years into this parenting gig, but one thing about which I’m certain is that I will never adjust to the noise. I’m talking about the incessant chatter; the shrieks of siblings chasing each other around the house; the whining about being hungry 15 minutes after a meal. At no time was this more evident than this past summer, when I was around my kids nearly every waking hour. Don’t get me wrong: I loved our lazy mornings, reading books in our PJs until 11am; I loved feeling a little hand in each of mine as the three of us rounded dirt paths; I loved huddling tight against my son in the last car of a roller coaster whipping around curves. Yes, we had wonderful hours together—hours when the questions and the observations and even the screaming seemed perfectly lovely. But, at some point, there would be this:

Me in the car, driving us home from a packed morning of puppet show, playground, and picnic. The kids are rosy-cheeked, ice-cream-stained, and happy. It’s one of those moments where you think, yup, I’m totally rocking this summer thing. Best. Mom. Ever. And you’re looking forward to a nice relaxing drive, listening to the radio and watching the trees fly by.

JP (from the backseat, as we merge onto the highway): “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (flushed with pride at my sweet, smart son): “That’s right, honey!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Yes, I heard you. And you are absolutely right!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Mmmmmhmmmmm.”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (suddenly seized by the notion that I am trapped in a moving metal box that is simultaneously pressing against the sides of my skull and sucking the oxygen out of my lungs): “What do you want from me? Why on God’s green earth are you saying the same thing over and over? What can I say to make you STOP TALKING FOR JUST ONE SINGLE SECOND OF THIS CAR RIDE SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF THINK??!!” « Read the rest of this entry »

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