For the Sensitive Souls (A Post for Mental Health Awareness Month)

May 12, 2022 § 4 Comments

All the time I get asked, What’s a good book for my [insert: nervous, fearful, shy, super sensitive] kid? With everything this crazy world has been dishing out, even kids who aren’t naturally wired towards sensitivity are struggling under the weight of big, heavy, messy emotions. And, as parents, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make the discomfort go away.

My firstborn is an immensely sensitive child. My husband and I joke that he’s a raw nerve walking around on two legs, and the whiplash from highs to lows and back again is not always easy to witness.

Five years ago—I would remember it like it was yesterday, even if I hadn’t journaled about it at the time—my son looked on as garbage workers hauled away our twenty-year-old sofa. We had spent a few weeks trying to donate the sofa, but with a frayed slipcover and sunken cushions, no one seemed to want it.

The hysteria peaked as the garbage truck drove away. The garbage men didn’t treat it well! he wailed. They broke it apart! They tore off the slipcover! It went into the truck in PIECES! They treated it no differently than a container of moldy food! I know it was ripped and didn’t look very good, but it was so comfortable. It made us happy for so long. It should have gone to a good home! It still had life left to give! It could have made people happy! Now, IT’S RUINED!

For a long time, my maternal response to such spectacles was, MAKE. IT. STOP. You’re fine. Here are all the ways that what you’re losing your mind over isn’t actually that bad. Just please stop suffering because my heart cannot take it and also I feel very out of control right now.

But if my son’s extreme responses to everyday life were hard on me, they were a million times harder on him—and often brought with them feelings of shame and loneliness.

I’d like to tell you there was a single turning point for me, but I think it was probably lots of little signs along the way that pointed towards re-framing this sensitivity for both him and me. We began to regard it, not as a condition to overcome, but as a superpower of sorts. You won’t find a more empathetic kid than my son. A more grateful one, too. I could never add up the number of times he has hugged us before bed and said, “Today was the best day of my life.” (Lots more have been the “worst,” of course.)

If, in these turbulent moments, I don’t let his emotions hijack mine—easier said than done, of course—there is usually a nugget of truth telling that can inform my life, our life, for the better. “We did try and donate the sofa,” I reminded him. “Well, maybe someone was afraid to come forward, afraid for us to see their poverty,” he said. “We could have done more, Mommy.” I haven’t forgotten this exchange. Because he’s not wrong. He keeps me honest to the plight of others. He keeps me honest to the plight of himself.

Today, I’m sharing two important new picture books that I wish I’d had when my son was younger. That I wish I’d had for my daughter, too, who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from her brother, keeping her feelings close to the breast, wary of betraying vulnerability, wary of losing control (can’t imagine who she gets that from). Embedded in their charming, gorgeously illustrated stories, Deborah Marcero’s Out of a Jar (Ages 4-8) and Colter Jackson’s The Rhino Suit (Ages 4-8) employ creative, effective metaphors to explore the temptation to bottle up big, messy emotions and shelve them out of sight. To trap them on the other side of a coat of armor. Both stories ask their young readers to consider the good that might come from leaning into, not away from, uncomfortable emotions. Leaning into sensitivity, rather than fearing or disguising it.

There’s plenty of truth telling in these books for the parents and caregivers of sensitive kids, too.

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A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

April 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

Last week, after a two-year interruption, my daughter and I returned to one of our favorite annual traditions: we took the train up to New York City to stay with my mom and explore the magical city where I grew up. Among the many adventures we had waited too long for, I took my daughter to Broadway for the first time, where we sat spellbound before the green lights and belting voices of Wicked. (I had actually seen the show as a Christmas present in 2003 with the original cast, including Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, and I was worried no subsequent production could live up. As it turns out, it was every bit as incredible.)

Each time I take one of my kids to New York, I try and pick a special chapter book to read to them—bonus if it’s NYC-themed. (Past trips have featured this and this.) This year, I had my eye on the lavishly illustrated new chapter book, Cress Watercress (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which has absolutely nothing to do with New York City, but does happen to be written by Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel behind the Broadway show on our itinerary.  How’s that for sneaky?

Y’all. I know I get excited about a lot of books here. But this one is really, really special. A more widely appealing family read aloud you won’t find. A more fitting read for springtime you won’t find. A wittier, more darling, more deeply felt story you won’t find. This tale about a bunny named Cress, forced to relocate with her mother and baby brother in the forest after the devastating loss of her father, is about the highs and lows of starting over: of making a home, finding your people, and learning that it’s possible to make do with “good enough” when “good” is out of reach. It’s a story about love, sorrow, creativity, and renewal—and it’s penned with a depth that elevates it above your typical middle-grade animal story.

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Party Time! (Or Not)

January 27, 2022 § 3 Comments

With so many posts devoted to serious books lately (not to mention all the awards excitement), I decided we were overdue for a recommendation high on the fun(ny) meter. As it turns out, 2022 has given us a delightful one right out of the gate, as perceptive as it is entertaining. (Plus, if you order from Old Town Books, you’ll get a copy that’s signed by the author-illustrator in the most fitting way. Just wait until you see it!)

Apart from being a total hoot, this story is going to resonate deeply with anyone out of practice at social gatherings. That would be all of us, in case your math skills have also gotten fuzzy.

Our family will attend a dear friend’s bar mitzvah in a few weeks, and as much fun as I know I’ll have, I’m already fretting about how I’m going to wedge my feet into heels, my out-of-shape body into an old cocktail dress, and do I even have lipstick anymore? And then I wonder, how am I going to be vertical at 8pm? What are we going to talk about? Are we going to discuss the pandemic, or will we remember other topics of conversation? And if I’ve got all these worries, what about my kids?

Those of us who were a tiny bit reserved two years ago are now completely overwhelmed by the prospect of hanging out with more than one or two friends at the same time. We’ve lost ground, our social muscles have atrophied. And yet, society’s expectations haven’t adjusted. We’re supposed to want to go back to attending birthday parties and backyard parties and weddings and fundraisers. And we do…but maybe only sort of?

I remember when my dad threw a surprise party for my mom’s 40th birthday. She had an inkling moments before she opened the door that our apartment was full of people, and she shot my dad a look. There was actual menace in that look, and while I don’t remember her exact words, they were something along the lines of, “You’re a dead man.” As soon as she opened the door, she was all smiles and laughter and grace—the hostess with the mostest, as she says—but I’d had a peek into something else. She wasn’t entirely comfortable surrounded by all these people, despite her obvious affection for them. Parties can be a complicated thing, is what I’m saying.

Enter Bina Bear, the large, purple, slightly stiff, certainly awkward protagonist of Mike Curato’s new picture book, Where is Bina Bear? (Ages 3-8, though my 11 year old is obsessed with it). Bina is attending a party thrown by her best bunny friend, Tiny. There are balloons! Cake! Punch! Lots of friendly faces! Bina Bear loves Tiny, so she has come to the party. But Bina Bear doesn’t like parties. She doesn’t do crowds.

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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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My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).

When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener. « Read the rest of this entry »

Princesses Kicking Butt

March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment

"The Princess in Black" and "Hamster Princess" SeriesEarlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).

What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt. « Read the rest of this entry »

Here Comes Spring (Ready or Not!)

March 19, 2015 § 5 Comments

"The Thing About Spring" by Daniel KirkWe’ve gotten our first tastes of spring: warm breezes, lighter evenings, and the sightings of crocuses poking up through the melting snow. My children could not be more different in their reactions to this seasonal transition. My eldest, never one to charge ahead into change—preferring the deep emotional connections he has worked so hard to foster in the here and now—wants to hold on tight to winter with both fists. “But I’m not ready to say goodbye to snow days,” JP bemoans each morning on his way out the door.

My four-year-old Emily, on the other hand, has never been one to look back, content to reside in a perpetual state of forward motion (ideally, one involving skipping and singing). The promise of spring is, to her, one of being unencumbered (“Mommy, WHEN can I stop wearing these heavy things?” she began saying back in November).

This push-and-pull dance between two different souls perched on the cusp of spring is so perfectly captured in Daniel Kirk’s newest picture book, The Thing About Spring (Ages 3-6), that it’s as if the book was written for our family. The coincidence would feel positively uncanny, if I hadn’t brought up our family’s scenario to a group of moms outside the kids’ school the other day and been told, that’s what it’s like in our house, too! It would seem that we are not alone; and Kirk has jumped squarely on this insight. « Read the rest of this entry »

In Honor of the Dads

June 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

Following Papa's Song by Gianna MarinoThis month marks 20 years since I lost my father: my hero, my biggest supporter, the first Big Love of my life. I find that, as my own children get older, and I get to share in their many milestones (just this spring, JP learned to ride a two wheeler, scored his first soccer goal, and passed his deep water test), I am filled with a new kind of sadness over how much my Dad has missed out on as a parent himself.

As graduations wrap up around the country, I think about how my Dad never got to watch me go off to his own beloved Alma Mater. I think about how he never got to hear me rant and rave about my first job at an advertising firm. He never got to step foot into my first apartment, the first space I ever decorated completely on my own. He never got to walk me down the aisle, or get to know the man with whom I would choose to spend my adult life. He never got to parade around photos of his grandkids at work, or show off Manhattan to my daughter, as my Mom did just this past weekend. He never got to read these blog posts, which I know he would have done, because he always, always, made time for my writing.

Following Papa’s Song (Ages 3-6), a new picture book by Gianna Marino, is a stunning and poetic tribute to the father-child relationship. « Read the rest of this entry »

An Easter Bunny All Moms Can Get Behind

April 15, 2014 Comments Off on An Easter Bunny All Moms Can Get Behind

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold ShoesWhen JP was three years old, and I went from working full time to staying home full time, these were the thoughts that kept me up at night: What will happen when my children see me as “just a mom” instead of as a mom and a professional? Will they respect the work I do? Will they think of it with the same importance that they bestow upon their father, when he leaves for the office every morning? Will they grow up believing that women aren’t capable of the same career success as men—or entitled to make the same sacrifices, reap the same compensation for comparable work? Will I be a role model for them or merely someone whom they take for granted?

In the past four years, I have largely reconciled my angst around these questions. I’m keenly aware that even to have the choice to stay home is a luxury not afforded to all—and one that could abruptly end for me someday. The work that I do every day on behalf of my kids, my husband, and our house makes all of us happy. But I’m also aware that when I did work 9-5, the time that I made for my (at the time only) child was quality, focused time. I got down on the floor and played with my son more than I probably do today, when too often I’m in the kitchen or chatting to other moms on the sidelines of playdates. I think about my own mom, who was around every single day, and how out-of-this-world excited I got when my dad’s car pulled into the driveway at night. There is perhaps some inevitability in taking for granted quantity and romanticizing quality.

But perhaps at no time do I feel greater validation as a mother—stay-at-home or not—than when I take out The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (Ages 4-10) and read Du Bose Heyward’s 1939 classic to my kids each Easter season. As much as the story is a celebration of traditional motherhood, it is also one of the earliest feminist tales—for a simple mother bunny outwits her bigger, stronger, prouder, and more handsome male competitors to earn the coveted position of fifth Easter Bunny. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Bedtime Stories for the “Goodnight Gorilla”-Obsessed

December 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

Mem Fox's Good Night Sleep Tight“How do I break the addiction to Goodnight Gorilla?!” a friend texted me the other day. Whether it’s Goodnight Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, or (my preference) Time for Bed, the lulling, reassuring refrains in these books become quick obsessions with little ones getting ready to tuck in for the night. And, let’s be honest, it can grow a wee bit tedious for the one doing the actual reading.

The good news is that, as your child’s attention span develops, you can start incorporating more involved bedtime stories into the mix. I’m not promising it will be love at first sight, and you may have to be a little sneaky (I’ve had great success with the “you pick one and I’ll pick one” approach as a way to introduce new titles). But help is on the way. 2013 has been a rich year for bedtime stories, beginning with Mem Fox’s Good Night, Sleep Tight (Ages 1-4), a small square hardcover illustrated by Judy Horacek—and an instant, no-tricks-necessary favorite with my Emily (the same team created the equally fabulous Where is the Green Sheep?). « Read the rest of this entry »

November’s Birthday Pick Battle

November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

Battle BunnySix year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:

Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”

JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”

Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”

JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”

Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”

JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”

Friend: “Cool!”

We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. « Read the rest of this entry »

The “Perfect” Christmas Tree

December 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Mr. Willowby's Christmas TreeThis past weekend, we partook in one of our favorite family traditions: chopping down our Christmas tree and driving it home to trim. We started this tradition five years ago, when JP was one year old. I like the idea of my children understanding where their Christmas tree comes from; plus I enjoy supporting the family-owned tree farms in our area; plus, well, we all know that I love any excuse to unleash my urban children on a farm.

By now, the excursion has become fairy predictable. JP (eager to get his hands on a saw) begins by pointing to the first tree he sees and announcing, “This is the perfect one!” I meander deep into the fields, weaving in and out of the rows, sizing up each possibility and muttering oohs and ahhs. And my husband (who has carefully measured our nook at home and tried to set appropriate expectations before we left the house) rushes after me, chastising, “That one is too big! It won’t fit! You promised this year you’d be reasonable!” He has a point, my husband, but I can’t help myself. Something overcomes me out there in the crisp open air, beautifully manicured trees stretching out on all sides of me, and I WANT BIG.

I guess in this way I’m a lot like Mr. Willowby, the mustached tycoon in one of my favorite Christmas stories to read aloud to my kids (or, in the case of last week, to my son’s preschool class). Originally published in 1963, Robert Barry’s Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (Ages 3-8) was reissued last year with newly colorized pen-and-ink sketches that brim with delight. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree comes straight off the hills—“full and fresh and glistening green—/The biggest tree he had ever seen.”

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Things That Go Bump in the Night

September 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

There’s no better time than the fall for reading spooky stories! Now, before you start worrying, let me preface by saying that my almost five year old is the ultimate Nervous Nelly; so, if he’s not scared by these stories (and actually demands to read them again and again), rest assured that your kids won’t be either. In fact, if you have a child that’s scared of the dark, even better: books like these can be an invaluable tool for empathizing with kids about their own nervousness (and helping them understand the role their imagination plays).

Without further ado, I give you my favorite new spooky story of the fall: Creepy Carrots! (Ages 4-7), by Aaron Reynolds, with illustrations by Peter Brown. I have loved everything Peter Brown has ever done, beginning with his first book, Flight of the Dodo, which is a quirky story about bird poop (remember: my son has a thing for poop books). What impresses me most about Brown is that none of his books feel derivative: for each story, he perfectly tailors his illustrative style to the topic at hand. In Creepy Carrots!, he sets his witty, cartoon-like drawings against a backdrop reminiscent of film noir, invoking a Hitchcockian play of black and white frames accented by splashes of orange.

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Show Me the Moon

June 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Moon” was one of the very first words uttered by both of my children. When they’re playing outside at dusk, they will shriek at the top of their lungs—“MOOOOOOON!”—upon catching sight of it emerging in the still-blue sky.

If the sheer volume of children’s storybooks dedicated to this subject is any indication, my children are not alone in their enthrallment with the moon. It’s nearly impossible for me to choose one favorite story to profile here (see my lengthy list below), so I will simply go with the newest addition to this already impressive repertoire: Red Knit Cap Girl (Ages 2-5), written by first-time author Naoko Stoop. I’ve mentioned before my weakness for Japanese-influenced picture books; and, like so many of her predecessors, Stoop (who grew up in Japan and now lives in Brooklyn) has created a work that holds together like a perfectly wrapped present: each word is chosen with the utmost care, each picture serves a clear purpose. In a wholly original move, Stoop’s expressive, whimsical watercolors of a little girl and her woodland friends, on a quest to speak to the moon, are painted on pieces of plywood; children can actually see the grain of the wood shining through the paintings, an effect which is especially fitting for a story set in the forest.

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