Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise BroachWherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.

This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.

Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.

As far as I know, he  never had any nightmares.

And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.

And yet, still no nightmares.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).

The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.

Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).

Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top.  Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.

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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 »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.

That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.

The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.

They are both a little bit Magic.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny BroomFor starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « Read the rest of this entry »

Feeling Witchy

October 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

"I Am A Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster“Mommy, you know how those witch hats got there?” my four year old casually ventured, as we walked through the Halloween section of our local variety store. Then, before I could answer, she stopped and turned towards me, her expression suddenly serious. “The witches dropped them,” she whispered.

I love October. Not for the costumes, or the weeks of planning that go into them (read: daily changing of minds). Not for the candy, which I can never get out of the house fast enough. I love it for its air of anticipation. That mysterious, slightly uneasy, could-it-might-it-be-real feeling that pokes at the back of our minds. As the evenings darken, the wind picks up, and the creaks on the roof grow louder, the lines between real and imaginary begin to get a little messy. You might say that for these few weeks, we get a taste of the way our kids feel all year long.

Indeed, many of my favorite “Halloween” stories to share with my kids are, in fact, not about Halloween at all—which means (hooray) that they can be enjoyed all 365 days. I’m referring to gems like Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina. This year’s newcomer is  I Am a Witch’s Cat (Ages 2-6), by Harriet Muncaster: a simple picture book narrated in the voice of a little girl, who loves to dress up like a little black cat, because she believes her mother to be a witch (“but I don’t mind, because she is a good witch”). « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Compelling Non-Fiction For the Animal Lover

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Steve Jenkins' The Animal BookLast year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12).

Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). « 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 »

Counting Down to Halloween

October 12, 2013 Comments Off on Counting Down to Halloween

Ten Orange PumpkinsOur decorations are up, the kids’ costumes are ordered, and earlier this week, right on cue, a streak of stormy weather moved in. All in all, the perfect time for getting out our Halloween-themed books and sharing tales of ghosts and goblins with my revved up trick-or-treaters (it’s not just about the sugar, my sugars). Honestly, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this year’s Halloween offerings. Of course, last year was particularly exceptional: we were treated to Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina—all three brilliant and all three enjoyed (since none actually mention Halloween) long past pumpkin-carving season. But speaking of pumpkins, it has been a long time since a great pumpkin book has entered the scene, and this year of slim pickings has at least given us that.

Stephen Savage’s Ten Orange Pumpkins (Ages 2-6) is billed as a counting book—and it’s true that there are opportunities to count on every page, as ten pumpkins become nine, become eight, and so on. But the “trick” of the book lies in how each pumpkin disappears, and the answers are (often quite subtly) revealed in the striking illustrations. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Chapter Books Talk to the Heart

May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little Dog, LostI’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.

But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.

Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.

Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)

*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.

Every Day is Pizza Day

August 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

My having eaten a slice of pizza every day for lunch while I was pregnant may have something to do with the fact that my nearly two-year-old daughter is very, very obsessed with Pizza at Sally’s (Ages 2-4), by Monica Wellington. But given that my son was equally obsessed at age two with Truck Driver Tom, by the same author, it’s perhaps more probable that Wellington knows a thing or two about how to talk to kids.

At first glance, Wellington’s books might be quickly dismissed: the gouache, brightly-colored, and largely two-dimensional paintings could come off as a bit juvenile, perhaps not of the same artistic caliber as what I normally review here. But it would be a mistake to pass up these books. At closer inspection, the illustrations are packed with visual gems, including (in the case of Pizza at Sally’s) tiny photographs pasted in for fresh ingredients and even for the finished slices of pizza themselves.

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Quiet Time Was Never So Quiet

June 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

Let’s face it: there are times when you can’t submit to the chants of “Read to me! Read to me!” Perhaps you’ve just had a second baby and you’re looking for something to occupy the first. Maybe you’ve got a preschooler who is starting to give up her nap, but you’re still (desperately) hoping to institute Quiet Time. Or maybe your child is not quite reading but wants to feel like he is.

Whatever your motive, there is hope: it is possible to get your non-reader to engage in quiet, independent time with books. Of course, there are some books that are more likely to succeed than others. And, as a bonus, these also tend to be the books that bore you to tears if you do have to read them aloud. You know the type: books whose illustrations are jam-packed with detail; books whose pages your child wants to pour over at such length that it seems like you’ll be stuck in his room reading to him forever. Take yourself out of the equation, and these books become—not your worst enemy—but your greatest asset.

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