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 »
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 »
August 12, 2021 Comments Off on Reading Aloud with a View
My kids will tell you that leading up to every vacation, I obsess over what book we’re going to bring with us as a read aloud. Well, they aren’t wrong. But neither am I, because matching our reading material to the view outside has always created a kind of magic for all of us.
We definitely got it right earlier this summer when we were in Montana visiting my sister, who lives with her family on a sprawling ranch outside of Bozeman. A Wolf Called Wander (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud, though there is some violence), by Rosanne Parry, dropped us into the psyche of a single male wolf, inspired by an actual wolf known to trackers as OR-7. Still alive today, OR-7 made a dangerous and highly unusual lone voyage across Oregon and California after losing his pack, traveling over a thousand miles before ultimately finding a mate and settling down to form his own pack.
In fast-moving, first-person prose, Parry imagines what it might have been like to be OR-7, whom she gives the fictional name Swift. One minute, the young wolf is safe and content with his pack in the mountains; the next minute, a rival pack attacks and sets his life on an extraordinary new course.
We may have been a few states away from Swift’s story, but we knew there were wolves in the mountains around us. We knew they were probably closer than we realized, hiding from view, as we explored Yellowstone National Park. Reading this book together—including marveling over the plentiful grey-and-white illustrations by Mónica Armiño—allowed us to appreciate the biodiversity around us. The unseen lives. The brutal, beautiful struggle for survival. The way our protagonist would strike down an elk without mercy, but stand back in awe as a string of wild horses stood before him. The way he forged partnerships with scavengers, like a black raven, who saved his life numerous times by guiding him to water. They way he hungered for food, thought of it constantly—but was nearly consumed by an even deeper hunger for companionship.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 13, 2021 Comments Off on The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books
How do you choose the chapter books you read to your kids? Maybe you consider whether the subject matter will appeal to them. Maybe you focus on what kind of characters they’ll identify with. Maybe you know they’ll be more likely to sit still for a funny story than one with long descriptive passages. Maybe you reach for a book because it’s one your child has asked you to read, or one you think you should read, or one by an author your child loves.
Whatever your criteria, it’s likely you’re thinking more about the audience than about yourself.
What if I told you your audience doesn’t matter?
OK, that’s not entirely true. Of course, your audience matters. Especially with younger children, there will always be ages and maturity levels to consider. But do you know what matters more than all the things I listed above? What matters the most?
The secret to picking a chapter book your kids will want to hear night after night is to pick one you will enjoy reading.
Your enthusiasm for what you’re reading influences your children’s enjoyment more than anything else. When you’re into a story, your eyes light up. Your voice is more dynamic. You are infinitely more likely to make that story enticing. Suddenly, the dishes in the sink or your buzzing phone fade into the background. Suddenly, there is nothing more important, nothing more exciting, than the mutual experience of immersing yourselves in a fictional world.
It’s tremendously liberating. Don’t enjoy fantasy? Don’t read it. Bored to tears by the likes of Magic Tree House? Save ‘em for your kids to read on their own. By reading aloud to your children, especially after they are reading on their own, you are giving them a precious gift. You’re choosing to prioritize reading in the home. I’m giving you permission to enjoy it as much as your kids do. Heck, I’m telling you your enjoyment will nearly guarantee their enjoyment—and, consequently, all the benefits that come with it.
For me, it always, always comes back to the writing. I’m a sucker for good writing. I love the way beautiful language rolls off the tongue. I love the drama of a perfectly placed sentence. I love smart, funny dialogue. Most of all, I love writing that’s tight. (Ironic, I know, since succinctness is clearly not my own specialty.) If a paragraph starts to drift or ramble, if the pacing of a story wanes, then my attention breaks. I’m no longer present. My heart’s not in it. The magic is broken…for a spell.
In that vein, I enjoyed every moment of Elana K. Arnold’s The House That Wasn’t There (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which I just finished reading to my ten-year-old daughter. Yes, the story itself has plenty to recommend it—who wouldn’t love middle-school realism with a few teleporting cats thrown in for good measure? But what struck me the entire time I was reading it was how good the writing is. Every sentence is an absolute pleasure to read out loud. It’s tight. It flows beautifully. It filled us with that same warm fuzzies as previous favorites like this, this, and this.« Read the rest of this entry »
March 25, 2021 § 3 Comments
I spent the winter reading. A lot. And that’s good news for your readers, especially those eager to squirrel away with a new story (or three) over Spring Break. All of the recommendations below are books published this year (with the exception of a late 2020 release). Some of them I’ve already talked about on Instagram, but there are surprises, too. Some skew younger and some older, so be sure to consult the age ranges for each. There are graphic novels, novels in verse, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, memoirs, and realistic fiction.
As always, report back and tell me what your kids thought!« Read the rest of this entry »
March 4, 2021 § 1 Comment
It isn’t the first time a book has dropped into our lap at precisely the right moment. It isn’t the first time reading aloud has wrapped our family in a cozy cocoon against freezing rain and sibling bickering and the maddening sameness of pandemic life. But last month, when the walls were closing in—as I’m sure they would have been even if we weren’t still in temporary housing awaiting the end to our renovation—I felt blessed beyond measure to have stumbled upon Kate Albus’ debut novel, A Place to Hang the Moon (Ages 8-12), with its atmospheric writing, squeezable characters, and old-fashioned charm. It was every bit the salve we needed—and reminiscent of past favorites, like this, this and this.
A Place to Hang the Moon checked every box. We needed escape, and the book is historical fiction, set in England during World War II. Misery loves company, but we needed characters with problems different from our own (and worse, if I’m being honest), and the timeworn plot of down-on-their-luck orphans searching for someone to love them never disappoints. But we also needed comfort. We needed lifting up. We needed the kind of story that makes you believe a steaming mug of hot cocoa and a gentle hand on the shoulder is all one needs to carry on.
That A Place to Hang the Moon is also a kind of fairy tale about the power of stories, with a librarian standing in for the knight in shining armor, was icing on the cake.« Read the rest of this entry »
December 10, 2020 § 1 Comment
Last Saturday, we got a Christmas tree. By all accounts it looked like a ho hum ordeal, much like the rest of 2020. For the first time since having kids, we didn’t drive to a bucolic farm to cut down our own tree and enjoy celebratory hot cider overlooking evergreen-studded hills. Instead, we walked the five blocks to a local nursery and paid twice as much for a tree half as big. It took us so long to get out of the house that by the time we got there, it was dark. We hoisted the tree on our shoulders and walked it back to the temporary digs we’re calling home these days, with the children trailing behind us like shivering ducklings. When we arrived at our front door, we realized the clippers were in storage; we had no way to trim the lower branches to fit the tree in the stand. Also, we had forgotten about dinner.
And yet, when I collapsed into bed several hour later, I could not stop smiling. I turned to my husband. “Why was that so fun?” I mused. Sure, it was an outing, at a time when we have fewer occasions than usual to leave our house. Yes, it was festive (who doesn’t catch the holiday spirit from the scent of evergreen?). But I suspected there was something larger at work. And then it hit me.
Standing among the outdoor crowd in that nursery—waving at neighbors we recognized over their masks, listening to the music piped through crackly speakers, heeding the frenzied calls of workers bundling trees for transport—I felt connected to something larger than myself. For the first time in a long while, I was caught up in community. We have had such few occasions to gather this year; most of the time, seeing people means turning or running the other way. But for one night, I was reminded that rituals and traditions are more meaningful when they’re shared with others. Even strangers. None of us were there for long before we retreated back inside our homes, but for a moment, we remembered what it was like to join together in celebration. (Like the Whos down in Whoville.)
This theme of community features prominently in each of the four titles (and counting!) in Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeekers series, though perhaps none so strongly as in her newest, The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud). If my son’s once-upon-a-time enthusiasm for The Penderwicks and my daughter’s continued enthusiasm for The Problim Children has been any indication, my kids are partial to read alouds with large families. But no literary family has quite united my kids’ affection like the Vanderbeekers, a contemporary, biracial family of five children and two parents living on 141st street in New York City. And no other book has elicited as many tears and cheers as the fourth. Glaser’s writing has not only strengthened with each title, she’s now dipping her toe into meatier plots and more complex emotions.« Read the rest of this entry »
September 17, 2020 § 3 Comments
As my kids have gotten older, reading aloud to both of them together (at the dinner table, because sanity) has largely replaced reading to each one individually. Still, sometimes a book comes along that begs to be read to one and not the other. Natalie Llyod’s The Problim Children series, which recently concluded with Island in the Stars (Ages 8-12), feels as if it were written for my daughter, ever watchful for signs of magic in her own life and fascinated by the dynamics of large families. Lloyd’s plot lines, with their plucky heroines and sinister villains, are evocative of Roald Dahl, another read-aloud favorite, though her writing has a dreamy quality all her own—a perfect match for my daughter’s non-linear brain.
Over the past eighteen months, Emily and I have drawn out reading these books together, savoring them on weekend mornings when her brother wakes up full steam ahead but she’s still content to climb into my bed with her arms full of stuffed sheep, burrowing her sleepy body into mine. When we got to the end of the third and final book, I didn’t tear up just because of the story’s beautiful ending; I know these years of reading together are fleeting.
The fleetingness of childhood is a theme which runs through The Problim Children series, named for the seven siblings at the center of this most memorable family. On the one hand, a series of precipitous events pushes these siblings to grow up in a hurry: in just a few weeks, they must unravel a series of riddles left to them by their late grandfather, rescue their parents from the evil Augustus Snide (nicknamed Cheese Breath), and destroy a fountain of youth without being tempted to drink from it. And yet, even as they tackle these adult problems, the Problim siblings exist in that enticing storybook place outside the realm of the adult world. They march to the beat of their own drum, operating under their own set of rules and decorum. No matter what life deals them, they hold fast to their childlike sense of wonder, their belief in the impossible, and their fierce love for one another.
July 23, 2020 § 1 Comment
When John Lewis passed away last weekend—ending a 60-plus-year career of social activism and civil rights legislation—I was struck by how many tributes invoked the Congressman’s tweet from 2015, in which he shared a mugshot from his time in prison 54 years earlier, arrested for using a “white” bathroom in Jackson, Mississippi. The photo was captioned: Even though I was arrested, I smiled bc I was on the right side of history. Find a way to get in the way #goodtrouble
Another of his tweets in 2018 further underscores this notion of “good trouble”—a phrase Lewis became known for:
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
If you’ve asked me for a middle-grade book recommendation in the past two months, you’ve probably heard me go on and on and on about Janae Marks’ debut novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Ages 9-13). If you follow me on Instagram, you may know I chose this title for a summer book club, after my third graders (bless them) begged me to continue hosting Zoom meetings. The book was not only a favorite of the year for most of the kids, nearly every parent emailed me to report that the story was yielding rich, important, anti-racist conversations around the dinner table.
If you are looking for a book to start a conversation about systemic racism, this one’s a gem. It’s not just that it offers awareness about the bias in our criminal justice system—the story features a Black character (Zoe’s father) serving time for a crime he may not have committed—it’s that it offers hope for a more just world. It’s a story about a girl who asks hard questions, who isn’t content to accept things as they are, and who makes some “good trouble” of her own when the adults in her life fail to step up.
Of course, none of these messages would be nearly as effective if the story itself wasn’t fan-freakin-tastic. This is not a heavy-handed “issues” book. It checks every box of a perfect tween story: it’s well-paced; the protagonist is immensely likable; there’s mystery, intrigue, and no shortage of fun and relatable sub-plots (baking! music! friendship drama!). It’s a book nearly impossible to put down, but it’s also a story packed with nuggets ripe for pulling apart and discussing. Read this book to or alongside your tween; you’ll both be better for it. (And may I recommend you encourage your child to make a playlist of the songs Zoe discovers from her father, because isn’t it high time our kids started listening to Stevie Wonder? Also: Fruit Loops cupcakes. Yup, it’s a thing.)
May 14, 2020 § 3 Comments
It has been said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, but—at least, while quarantined—I can now add a third. Every morning for the past two months, the same conversation has transpired as soon as the breakfast dishes are cleared, around 8:15am.
Me: “OK, kids, head to the couch for read-aloud time.”
My son: “What? No! I need to get upstairs to get ready for school!” (“Getting ready for school” means opening up his Chromebook, clicking on a Zoom link, and waiting for the administrator to let him into the meeting…45 minutes before said meeting actually starts.)
Me: “Your class doesn’t start until 9am.”
Him: “But sometimes they come on early!”
Me: “You don’t need to stare at a screen any more than is necessary. Park your tush next to your sister.”
Every morning, we have this same exchange. Every single morning. For the record, I always win. I only insist on one tiny little fragment of consistency during corna-time and it’s that the kids and I spend forty minutes every morning reading aloud. It’s how we connect before dispersing into our own “virtual” agendas. It’s how we remind ourselves that the world still exists outside our doors, that it waits patiently for us to return, that it invites us to visit in our imaginations until we can come in person. It’s how we remind ourselves that we don’t have to leave the house to get our minds blown.
Quite simply, reading aloud is the one light in these dark days that we can always count on.
As soon as my fidgety, eager-for-that-screen-fix tween sits down on that couch and tunes into my voice, he doesn’t want to be anywhere else. I know this because he gasps the loudest, laughs the hardest, leans in the closest. Reading aloud to tweens and teens can initially seem like an uphill battle, but it’s almost always worth the struggle. In our family, it’s non-negotiable. And it always, always leaves them begging for more…even if just a few minutes earlier they were all too happy to skip it.
In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be doing a gargantuan middle-grade round up with favorite new books to put in front of your kiddos for independent reading. Today, though, I want to share three new middle-grade novels which lend themselves especially well to reading aloud, as evidenced by our own experience. Their genres—fantasy, comedy, and historical fiction—couldn’t be more different, but their characters, prose, and stories are similarly unforgettable.
March 20, 2020 Comments Off on Moving Through Uncertainty (A Book Club Post)
It feels unfathomable that only a single week has passed since I was in my daughter’s Montessori classroom for book club with the third graders. It feels more like a lifetime, so frequently and relentlessly has the rug been pulled out from beneath our Normalcy since then. With schools shuttered and social distancing mandated, we’re all scrambling to find some semblance of routine, to cling to optimism about our loved ones and our community, to keep from sinking into the couch and staying there for good.
Last Thursday concluded seven weeks of discussing Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw (Ages 9-12), our second pick of the year (click here for my Instagram post on our first book), and we celebrated the way we do: with a party. Only this time the popcorn was complemented with purple jelly beans: a favorite of the oversized, outspoken, outlandish cat named Crenshaw, once Jackson’s imaginary friend, who unexpectedly (and awkwardly) reappears during his fifth-grade year.
When I chose the book, I could not have known how apt it would turn out to be for the ordeal we’re now living through. I had chosen it for three reasons. Firstly, Applegate’s short chapters and direct sentences are accessible to a variety of readers, while the nuance, maturity, and visual acuity she packs into her words create rich fodder for discussion. Secondly, if reading fiction is linked to building empathy, Crenshaw represents a rare opportunity in middle-grade fiction to step into the shoes of someone living in poverty—and to discover he isn’t that different from us. Thirdly, the humor in this story, employed to balance out the sadness, is infectious: it’s unexpected; it’s absurd; it’s cinematic. (A giant cat who enjoys making bubble beards in the bath? Yes, please.) The light in the kids’ eyes as they begged to read aloud favorite passages each week only confirmed this.
But it turns out the most powerful reason to read Crenshaw—and why you may want to read it at home right now—may be its theme of uncertainty. How do we keep going when the world stops making sense?
December 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
The category of middle-grade fiction is rapidly broadening. On the one side are novels accessible to 8-12 year olds, while on the other are heavier, more mature stories aimed at the 10-14 crowd. As always, I’ve indicated age ranges after each title. Those with kids on the older end: don’t be in a hurry to move your kids to young-adult fiction. There’s still plenty of richness for the taking here.
The first five novels are new to this bog; the others are ones I’ve reviewed earlier in the year but couldn’t resist repeating, because they have mad gift potential. Or maybe it’s just that I’m madly in love with all of them. 2019: what a year. (And I can’t wait to see you in 2020. This wraps my Gift Guide, and I wish all of you a very Happy Holidays.)
August 2, 2019 Comments Off on Summer Road Tripping (Audio Book Round Up)
Over the past two years, owing to revolving carpools and the best kids’ podcast ever, we have listened to significantly fewer audio books. (My last round up is here). And yet, where quantity was lacking, quality was not. Is it just me, or has the audio industry really upped its game? If you’ve got a road trip planned this August, here’s hoping you find some inspiration below. Even if you’re just driving to and from the pool every day, or taking refuge at home in the AC, these performances are guaranteed to thrill and excite everyone in the family. (Parents included.)
July 12, 2019 Comments Off on “The Bravest Thing a Person Can Do”: Three Immigrant Stories
These provocative words hail from Jasmine Warga’s Other Words from Home, one of three new books with a unique, powerful presentation of the immigrant experience for a different age group. Whether set in the past or present, these stories have never been more relevant to share with our children. If our kids are someday to have a hand in the creation of fair, just, compassionate policy, they should spend some time in the shoes of the very people whose lives these policies aim to impact.
What does it mean to arrive in this country with hope in your heart? What does it mean to walk away from family, from the familiar, from foods you’ve eaten all your life, and step into the Unknown? Each of the below books explores these questions, while posing another of its own.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 24, 2019 Comments Off on Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)
As I’m limping over the finish line that is May, I’m dreaming of summer. Of days at the pool, nights in the backyard, and lots of opportunities for lazing around with our noses in a book. Should you (or your children) be itching for a distraction from making lunches or dressing for another concert, let me help you plot a summer reading list, beginning with my favorite middle-grade reads of late. (Link to my last round up is here; or go back and check out this and this.) First up is a book which should go straight to the top of your list: it’s fresh, funny, and eerily timely.« Read the rest of this entry »
March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments
My daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments
We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic. « Read the rest of this entry »