2020 Gift Guide: Books for Teens (Ages 13-18)

November 25, 2020 § Leave a comment

Today marks the end of this year’s Gift Guide, with a slew of fantastic, thought-provoking reads for teens. I’ve taken particular care while indicating age ranges for each book, mindful that some of these contain subject matter appropriate for older teens. (If you missed the previous weeks, there are some great younger teen choices here and here as well. You can also find last year’s list for teens here.)

I would also like to welcome my hubby to these pages for the first time! He wrote the review for True and False, a book I purchased for my son after he asked me, “How can our family be sure the news we’re reading isn’t fake?” but which my husband snagged for himself before it was halfway out of the bag.

You’ll hear a bit more from me before 2020 quits us (or we quit it), because in the seven weeks since I began this Gift Guide, I have stumbled upon books I wish had included. Suffice it to say that my Instagram feed won’t be slowing down anytime soon, either. But I do hope this year’s Gift Guide has proven a worthwhile endeavor for you and your loved ones. Books really do make the best gifts (especially if you support your neighborhood bookstore in the process).

Happy Thanksgiving!

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A Light in the Dark: Three New Read-Aloud Chapter Books

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.

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2019 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14

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.)

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Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)

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.

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Middle-Grade Round Up (Or What I’ve Been Doing on Instagram)

April 4, 2019 § 3 Comments

I’ve been feeling a teensy bit guilty that those of you not on Instagram are missing out on all the mini reviews I’ve been doing over there, particularly of middle-grade books. These books are too good to miss! So, I’ve decided to do occasional “round-up” posts to catch you up. Several of these titles are brand-spanking new; the rest are new within the past year.

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Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Chapter Book of the Year

November 28, 2018 § 1 Comment

On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.

The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered. « Read the rest of this entry »

10 Reasons to Keep Reading to Children Long After They’re Reading Themselves

October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
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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 »

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 »

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 »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 3): For the Rebel Princess (Ages 5-8)

December 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen PhamFive years ago, when I learned I was having a girl, I self-righteously vowed that I would bar the door from tiaras and princess costumes and those scary high-heeled plastic dress-up shoes with the sequins on the toes. My daughter won’t equate beauty with Disney-fied princesses! My daughter will read books about trains and science and daring adventures! My daughter won’t be held back by stereotypes of femininity!

Of course, ultimatums rarely work out in parenting—nor are they usually for the best. Those of you with girls already know that The Princess Obsession eventually finds its way into the house—slipping through the gap beneath the front door, if need be. Before my kids watched Frozen, my daughter already knew the words to every song, just from listening to her classmates. Before my son pointed to a hot pink skirt with 20 layers of tulle at Target and said (in the sweetest voice, so how could I resist?), “Oh, Mommy, Emily would just love something like that”—before that, Emily was already coming home from play dates in borrowed glitter-encrusted frocks.

What I failed to anticipate as a new parent, is that there are complex dichotomies at work in the princess fantasies of my daughter and her friends. When playing, Emily is just as likely to wear her tulle skirt on her head than around her waist. She likes to pair her purple metallic slippers with a red superhero cape and an astronaut helmet. « Read the rest of this entry »

Sibling Play

April 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

One Busy Day by Lola M. Schaefer & Jessica MeserveI’ll never forget the first time it happened. JP was four, Emily was a little over one, and I realized that 45 minutes had passed and there were still only happy voices in the other room. I called a friend: “The kids are playing together! ON THEIR OWN! For like a really long time! I’m just sitting here reading a book!” (Well, technically I was talking on the phone, but the point is that I could have been reading a book.) And that’s when it hit me: this is why some people have more than one kid (or more than one dog, cat, or fish).

Watching siblings play together is one of the most endearing and gratifying experiences for a parent. (Well, until it all goes south—which it inevitably does—usually right at the moment when you have finished the dishes, wiped down the lunch table, dust-bustered the floor, and finally sat down on the sofa to page through a magazine.) But when the stars do align, as they increasingly do with age, it is in these moments that I get the clearest glimpses of my children’s budding personalities, of the people they will someday become. I see tenderness and compromise in my now six and a half year old boy, amidst the bossiness and tendency to escalate play into some form of physical combat. And in my now three and a half year old daughter, I feel her excitement, her sheer pride, in the way she confidently prattles on after her brother agrees, “OK, you can be the mommy bird, and I’ll be the baby bird.” Because, really, is it not the best feeling in the world when that older brother whom you revere in every way decides to drop everything for you?

Imagination is the great equalizer in sibling play. In the world of pretend play, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Enter Lola M. Schaefer and Jessica Meserve’s latest picture book, One Busy Day: A Story for Big Brothers and Sisters (Ages 2-6), in some ways a sequel to their first book, One Special Day, about the moment in which a little boy becomes a big brother. « Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Candy in the Polar Vortex

January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Please Bring Balloons by Lindsay WardI’m a romantic when it comes to snow. Meaning that the idea of snow (fat, juicy snowflakes blanketing the world in white) is more appealing to me than the reality (school is closed AGAIN?!). The notion of snow days (flying down hills on sleds and decorating snowmen with friends) is always a bit different than the actuality (wait, it’s freezing out, and wait, did my daughter just pee through four layers of clothing and need to be changed on the side of this hill?). Don’t get me wrong: I love snow. It’s the very anticipation of snow that makes the dawning of winter bearable; that breaks up the monotony of short-lived, bare-branched days; that puts a glimmer of excitement in our children’s eyes when they think of what’s to come. But that’s why—more than anything—I love reading about snow. Because the snow in books is always billowy, soft, and pristine white. The snow in books is always perfect.

Last January, I wrote about my favorite snow books, each one conjuring up a romantic notion of snow. But this winter, in addition to having more snow on the ground, we’re living in a so-called Polar Vortex, a little thing that’s threatening the very core of our “we can handle winter” attitude (suddenly, our lives seem right out of the pages of Eileen Spinelli’s Cold Snap). Let’s say we could all use a dose of Eye Candy right now. I’m referring to Lindsay Ward’s Please Bring Balloons (Ages 2-5), which came out at the end of last year, and which I pulled out of my Secret Stash earlier this week (a secret stash which is rapidly dwindling in light of these snow days). Three of my daughter’s Favorite Things make an appearance in this book: carousels, balloons, and furry animals. Reminiscent of another 2013 favorite, Dream Friends, both books are about a make-believe adventure starring a girl and her four-legged friend. In Please Bring Balloons, this adventure is polar-bound. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Illustrated Chapter Books for the Adventure Seeker

December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments

Neil Gaiman's "Fortunately, the Milk"Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Other-Worldly Encounters For the Young Artist

December 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

JourneyWhen I was young, one of my favorite picture books was Harold and the Purple Crayon, where a little boy makes his own adventures with the help of a single purple crayon. As a child, I loved to draw, but I think the greater appeal for me lay in Harold’s vivid imagination—an imagination that empowers him with an inner resourcefulness, that entertains him when he can’t fall asleep, that gets him out of any sticky situation (drowning? simply draw a boat).

This same spirit echoes across Aaron Becker’s Journey (Ages 4-8), easily the most stunning picture book of 2013 and an inspiration for young artists and adventure-seekers alike. Unlike Harold, a simple visual presentation of purple and white, Journey makes use of a broad palette, although weighted emphasis is given to red, the color of the crayon with which a girl begins her escape by drawing a door (after all, what else can you do when your mom is cooking, your dad is working, and your big sister is too busy?). « 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 »

March’s Hot-Off-the-Press Birthday Pick

March 6, 2013 Comments Off on March’s Hot-Off-the-Press Birthday Pick

Dream FriendsThis one goes out to all the little girls out there—or rather, to their little friends who have spring birthdays. Debut author-illustrator You Byun’s brand new Dream Friends (Ages 2.5-6) is full of the stuff of little girls’ dreams. I’m talking about sugar and spice and everything nice—or, more specifically, bunny rabbits and tea parties and baby chicks and Santa Claus and cupcakes and flowers and, of course, friendship.

Melody has a friend, a best friend, only he’s not your typical friend: for starters, he’s big and white and furry (an ambiguous but lovable dog-cat-raccoon looking thing that my daughter has taken to kissing on the nose each time he makes an appearance). The bigger problem is that this magical friend only visits the little girl in her dreams (although these dreams are filled with such delights as dancing on flower-shaped clouds or watching fireworks explode in the shape of ice cream cones and lollipops).

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Food: Not Just for Eating

June 1, 2012 Comments Off on Food: Not Just for Eating

What do you get the kid who has everything (including an extensive library filled with storybooks)? How about a brand new book that’s unlike any other, a rhyme-filled romp through magical lands made entirely out of—wait for it—FOOD! Carol Warner, a London-based still-life photographer, has created a clever and engaging picture book, titled A World of Food (Ages 2.5-8).

I like food. My kids like food. Really now, who doesn’t like looking at gorgeous photographs of food? Organized by color, each double-page spread reveals a fantastical scene where watermelons become boats (with asparagus as masts), dried cornflakes resemble falling foliage, chocolate KitKat bars stand in for train tracks, and pork ribs morph into jagged mountains (OK, you might want to pass this up for your vegetarian friends).

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A Chomp Through Berryland

May 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

Today’s excursion to pick strawberries at Shlagel Farm in Maryland was the perfect excuse to break out an old favorite: Jamberry (Ages 1-3), by Bruce Degen. Not that we need an excuse to read this rollicking rhyme of a boy and a bear romping through fields and down streams on a quest for every kind of berry. But as the kids and I were filling our buckets with the plumpest, juiciest strawberries I’ve ever tasted, our fingers and shirts and mouths stained red, I couldn’t help but hear in my head: “Three berry/ Four berry/ Hayberry/ Strawberry/ Finger and pawberry/ My berry, your berry/ Strawberry ponies/ Strawberry lambs/ Dancing in meadows/ Of strawberry jam.”

We didn’t encounter any strawberry lambs (although there were goats and some very vocal chickens), and my children are likely to eat all the strawberries before I get a chance to make them into jam, but the spirit of the book was very much alive as we chomped our way through the farm. Our excitement continued to build, as we got deeper into the patch, launching ourselves into uncharted territory wherein (as we imagined it) lay the biggest berries.

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Chapter-a-Night Adventure

May 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

How do chewing gum, hair ribbons, and six magnifying glasses help a little boy rescue an enslaved baby dragon on a wild island of ferocious talking animals? There are few early chapter books written with as much wit, cleverness, and heart as Ruth Stiles Gannett’s beloved trilogy, first published over 60 years ago: My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, & The Dragons of Blueland (Ages 4-9). With short digestible chapters, about 200 words per page, and enchanting black-and-white sketches peppered throughout, they are perfect for reading aloud.

JP and I started these books on a recent train ride to New York and finished them a few days later, only to start them over again. At the heart of the stories is the relationship between Elmer and his dragon, an evolving friendship that brings out the best in both parties. But the real draw for kids is the adventure (no shortage of “close-calls”) and the magic (who doesn’t love thinking about riding on the back of a flying dragon?).

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