2022 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

November 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

With so many spectacular stories, every year it gets harder to narrow down a list of picture books for my Gift Guide. I’ve weighted this year’s list towards fall releases, hoping to ensure that the titles will be new to you or your gift recipient. But I also made exceptions. There were a few books published in the first half of the year that stand the test of time, and I couldn’t imagine a 2022 favorites list without them (Bathe the Cat, Knight Owl, and Endlessly Ever After).

I’ve also concentrated on books that feel inherently gifty. These are books you could gift to almost any child, regardless of how well you know them, and be confident that they’d be charmed and you’d be heroic. If I was strictly making a “best of” list, I would have added titles like Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky.

If space and time permitted, I’d remind you of all the books I’ve already blogged about this year (because I only blog about books I love). As well as others I’ve highlighted on Instagram, like Mina, Does a Bulldozer Have a Butt?, Izzy and the Cloud, and Poopsie Gets Lost.

Finally, before we get started, I’ll remind you that I kicked off the Gift Guide a few weeks ago with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year: Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s fresh telling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. I won’t repeat myself here, but don’t forget that if you really want to wow your audience, that’s the ticket.

But, of course, these others are incredibly special, too. Presented here from youngest to oldest. (As always, links support the lovely indie where I work as the kids’ buyer. We ship!)

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2022 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Picture Book of the Year

October 18, 2022 § Leave a comment

It’s that time of year again! For months, I have been working behind the scenes, reading hundreds of picture books, middle-grade books, young adult, and non-fiction in order to bring you this fall’s top picks for kids, tweens, & teens (nearly 60 titles in all!). I’ll be rolling out the Gift Guide in a series of blog posts between now and Thanksgiving, but if you live in the Northern Virginia area, I’d LOVE to see you at one of two In-Person Events I’ll be doing on the first two Friday evenings in November at Old Town Books, the beautiful indie where I’m the kids’ buyer. You’ll get a chance to hear me present the entire guide in person, followed by personal shopping and gift wrapping. Knock out all your holiday shopping and stockpile fabulous books for the year to come! (Just hurry, because tickets are going fast.)

It has become traditional for me to kick off each year’s Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. (Last year, it was Little Witch Hazel (swoon!) and before that we had memorable titles like this, this, this, and this, which actually bears some fun similarities to today’s book.) This year’s pick officially hits shelves today, but it was actually the very first book I picked for this year’s guide, after reading a digital copy six months ago, so it has taken every ounce of restraint I have not to tell you about it until now.

I knew a fairy tale remixed by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen—the launch of a new picture book trilogy, no less!—was bound to be brilliant, but I also knew it would need no help from me to find its audience. Between the two of them, these kid lit superstars have garnered numerous Caldecott Honors, not to mention countless other accolades, so there was no way this book was falling off anyone’s radar. Normally, for “My Favorite Book of the Year” posts, I tend towards the hidden gems.

But while this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest books of the year, I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon, because The Three Billy Goats Gruff (ages 4-8) is the bomb. This story is READ-ALOUD PERFECTION. The humor! The pacing! The rhyme! The bonus endings! The ode to gourmands! The chin hair! The VOICES! I can’t think of a single child who won’t hang on every word of this book, alternately holding their breath and howling with laughter. Or a single adult who won’t be game to read it again and again.

Are you ready to step onto the bridge with me?

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Welcoming Surprise

September 15, 2022 § 3 Comments

As a parent, one of the things I continue to wrestle against is the temptation to label my children, to fit them inside tidy little boxes for the sake of proving (to the world? to myself?) that I’ve got everything figured out. On the one hand, of course I know my kids aren’t some puzzle begging to be solved; on the other hand, everywhere we turn as parents, we’re being asked to declare our children’s interests, to commit to one sport at the exclusion of others, to sum up their personalities for new teachers or turn them into soundbites for small talk with other parents.

If we’re talking labels, then my son is a math and science kid. Has been for a long time. He will tell you his plan is to be a rocket scientist for NASA, and he will steer almost every conversation at the dinner table back to whatever launch attempt has been in the news that day. As parents, all we want is for our kids to find something they love, so phew, let’s check that box and call it a day.

But wait. What about his eye for color and design? His love of drawing photo-realistic animals on birthday cards? What about the fact that he was the first one in our family who could handle our traumatized puppy, the first one to leash him and teach him tricks? What about his love for Anne of Green Gables that (almost) rivals mine?

What else might I miss by boxing him in?

Though he has an indisputable aptitude and passion for math and science, his favorite class last year was actually history, a class comprised of reading, writing, and public speaking. He has an obsession with current events that grew out of stress-induced vigilance but has morphed into a fascination with politics and economics. He has loved swimming, then hated it, loved running, now finds his interest depends on the day. He used to wince when a soccer ball flew at him, but last year I watched as he ran straight into the action on the basketball court, so maybe my telling people for years that, “yeah, he doesn’t like contact sports,” wasn’t actually true.

Will he grow up to become a rocket scientist? Quite possibly. Might he grow up to do any number of things seemingly incongruous with that goal? Quite possibly. All I know is that the more I can get out of the way, the freer he is to be open to possibility. And to surprise those of us along for the ride.

Easier said than done. That’s why we need frequent, insightful reminders.

You are more than a single note—

played again and again.

You are a symphony.

You are sounds plucked from all the places you’ve been

and all the people you’ve met

and all the feelings you’ve felt.

You are blues and pinks and loneliness and laughter,

mismatched scraps accumulated over time

and stitched together

into a kind of patchwork.

These resounding words come near the end of Patchwork (Ages 5-10), a stunning collaboration between two of our family’s favorites: Matt de la Peña (of Last Stop on Market Street) and Corinna Luyken (remember when I interviewed her here?). A paean to self-discovery, the book speaks to the capacity of children to change. Even as it highlights six specific children’s experiences, the second-person narration feels universal: the “you” is at once the child pictured in a pink tutu and the young reader studying her on the page.

Earlier this month, I read the book to my own children, despite them being well outside the target age, and I watched as a kind of peace settled around them. “What did you like about the book?” I asked. My daughter was quick to say she liked Corinna’s choice of a different color for each of the children’s stories (something I’ll talk more about in a bit).

My son took longer to think. Finally, he spoke: “I liked the way the children were always surprising the adults.”

In its invitation to witness and celebrate the surprises of self-discovery, Patchwork succeeds in both affirming the curiosity our children already know to be inside them and reminding those who love them to make room for that curiosity.

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Picture Books as Performance

May 19, 2022 Comments Off on Picture Books as Performance

I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.

Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.

That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.

When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.

Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.

But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

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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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Our Words Matter

March 17, 2022 § 1 Comment

Surprising as this may sound, my son will tell you that one of his happiest memories is the day we told him he had ADHD. (He has given me his blessing to share this story here.) After years of angry outbursts, struggles to complete assignments, feeling like he didn’t fit in, and an approach to writing defined largely by paralysis, suddenly he had answers. He had clarity. He had a path before him that was not without more struggle but was also well-trodden, ripe with options, ready with support. Plus, he had a community—the Percy Jacksons of the world—who had this in common with him, many of them with inspiring stories of success to share.

All of this relieved a burden he had carried around, often without realizing it, for years. Overnight, he had been given a missing piece to the puzzle of himself.

But when I consider that this moment held so much joy for him, when it just as easily could have spurred fear, shame, or intimidation, I also credit the way we presented the diagnosis. After years of meeting his behavior with exasperation, concern, and (gulp) disappointment, this time we got it right.

On the heels of a neuro-psychological evaluation, my husband and I sat on my son’s bed, on a Saturday morning, and shared a colorful diagram I’d penned the night before. This single piece of paper attempted to capture my son’s learning profile: what his ADHD makes difficult, alongside the litany of strengths his unique wiring offers, like creativity, empathy, an insatiable quest for knowledge, and the superpower of hyper-focus when it comes to things he loves. His neurodiverse brain was all there, in its colorful, complex magnificence.

Bless second chances in parenting, because it was the magnificence piece that came through loud and clear that morning. In many ways, the process of having our son tested was as re-framing for us as it was for him. It helped us to see all of him, instead of just the parts that had monopolized the emotional space in our house in recent years. Somewhere along the way, in our obsession with trying to puzzle him out, we’d lost sight of reminding him, with our words and our actions, how deeply loved he is. How special he is. How miraculous he is.

Progress is rarely a straight line, and I won’t pretend my words don’t sometimes still veer too far in the direction of annoyance over acceptance. But I have become more cognizant of the power my words wield over the way my children see themselves. And that sometimes I need to check my own expectations at the door—my own ideas of what success or bravery or “normal” looks like—to land on the words my kids most need to hear.

Lala’s Words (Ages 4-8) isn’t about a child with any particular diagnosis. In fact, author-illustrator Gracey Zhang, a rising star just awarded the 2022 Ezra Jack Keats Medal for this brilliant and perceptive debut picture book, dedicates her book to “The Lala in All of Us,” a tribute to the universal desire to be seen, loved, and believed in for who we are. At the same time, it’s a story about a girl who doesn’t fit the model of success that her mother sets out for her. A girl who meets with more exasperation than encouragement. It’s a story that resonates deeply with me, a parent who once nearly lost sight of the magic in her own child.

And it’s a reminder that, if we look closely enough, our children will tell us exactly what they need to hear to blossom and thrive.

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Welcoming Absurdity

February 24, 2022 Comments Off on Welcoming Absurdity

Last week, on an episode of the podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things” (fess up, I know you listen, too), Glennon Doyle pronounced that the 2022 vibe most worthy of embracing is “absurdity.” We’re “fresh out of giddy-up,” she says. The last two years have depleted every ounce of resiliency we had, leaving us largely “dead inside.” In her line of reasoning, it follows that the only antidote to this zombie-like state is the Theater of the Absurd.

I immediately thought of Alice B. McGinty’s absurd—and absurdly funny—new picture book, Bathe the Cat (Ages 4-8), brilliantly illustrated as per usual by David Roberts (you know him from the beloved “Questioneers” series—most recently, Aaron Slater, Illustrator). While a family scrambles to ready their house for Grandma’s visit, their pet cat repeatedly and mischievously scrambles the chore list—spelled out in magnetic letters on the fridge—resulting in a mayhem of misunderstandings. Sweep the dishes? Scrub the fishes? Mop the baby? Bathe the mat? Just you wait.

Bathe the Cat is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The rhyming text relishes being read aloud, and the giggles will only increase with repeat readings. We’re well outside the age range over here, and my kids were still delighted by it. Much the way the four of us have been delighting in our new doodle puppy, who can’t manage to chase a ball across the wood floor without at least three of his legs splaying in different directions. Whose muppet face breaks out into the silliest lopsided grin when you scratch his neck, and whose paws move to their own mysterious beat when he’s sleeping.

Yes, our home has welcomed its own brand of absurdity in the past six weeks, and it does feel a bit like shaking off the grogginess from a nap that’s gone on too long. Who knew watching a dog run after a ball and come back with a stick could be so entertaining? “He’s proud as a pumpkin!” my son recently said, as the dog paraded around the living room with a piece of bubble wrap in his mouth. Rather than correcting the metaphor, we merely adopted it as our new Fozzie-speak.

But back to today’s book. Because there’s something else you need to know, beyond the entertaining premise, high-energy illustrations, and purr-fect ending (trust me on that last one). The story centers a biracial family of five, headed up by two dads. In the publishing industry, the is called “incidental” representation, and it’s something to celebrate. We are finally beginning to see racial and LGBTQ+ diversity in stories that are not about that diversity. The two dads here are simply doing what families with babies and toddlers do best: rolling up their sleeves, keeping a sense of humor, and trying to survive Grandma’s visit.

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My Caldecott Front Runner

January 12, 2022 Comments Off on My Caldecott Front Runner

Awards season is upon us! On Monday, January 24, the American Library Association will award the prestigious Caldecott and Newbery Medals, as well as a host of other coveted honors and awards. It’s like the Oscars for kid lit! I’ll be tuning in with bated breath, ready to celebrate many of the winners and, if history is any indication, scratch my head at a few others. There will probably be some books I haven’t read yet, perhaps even one I haven’t heard of, but I’m hoping many of my favorites will make the list. In any event, I promise to share a recap on Instagram after the announcements!

Let’s talk about the picture book I’d love to see sport a shiny gold Caldecott sticker. (I’m also pulling for Watercress, which I gushed about in April. Born on the Water, of course. Time is a Flower. Probably Unspeakable, if my library hold would ever come in.) Today, though, I’m talking about Wishes (Ages 4-8), written by Múón Thi Vãn and illustrated by Victo Ngai, based on the former’s refugee journey out of Vietnam as a young child in the 1980s. This book sends my jaw to the floor. Every. single. time. (Back in May, my daughter discovered it on our dining table, sat down and read it, and called out, “WHOA, Mommy, I think I just found your favorite book of the year.”)

And yet, I’ve been putting off sharing my thoughts about Wishes. It’s a daunting book to review, because its power lies largely in what is left unsaid. How do I write about a book that manages to tell a sweeping, suspenseful, emotionally pulsating narrative in just twelve short sentences, without my own clunky words compromising the grace of such economical text? (Heck, I’ve greatly exceeded that sentence count already!)

But that’s precisely why Wishes is deserving of a Caldecott, which I’ll remind you is awarded for pictorial interpretation. To be sure, Múón’s sparse text is immensely effective: loaded with lyricism and vital in relaying the story’s central theme of desire—the wishes that frame our periods of loss and uncertainty. But the reason Múón is able to communicate such depth and breadth with her text is owing to Ngai’s luminous illustrations, which carry a great deal of the storytelling weight. (Ngai herself is a migrant, moving from Hong Kong to the United States when she was eighteen.) Wishes is that rare example of a perfect marriage between words and pictures, each working to interpret and augment the other.

Wishes is about more than one journey. Taken literally, it’s the story of a girl who leaves behind her home—including her grandfather, her dog, and nearly all her worldly possessions—to journey by boat to a foreign city of safety and promise. But it’s also an emotional journey: a sequence of wishes that speak to the turbulence within. Ngai underscores this journey with her color palette, beginning the story in dark, somber tones, moving towards super-saturated reds and oranges as the oppressive sun beats down upon the tiny boat, and concluding with a soft palette of greens and pinks for an ending tinged in the hope of fresh starts.

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2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

November 11, 2021 Comments Off on 2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

It was another stellar year for picture books! Given the size of the list below (sorry not sorry), you’re going to roll your eyes when I tell you I had a very difficult time narrowing it down. But it’s true, and I already regret leaving some out. (Thankfully, there’s always Instagram.) What I’m focusing on today are those with the giftiest potential. Whether you’re looking for surprise twists, laugh-out-loud humor, exquisite beauty, moving true stories, affirmations of self-love and acceptance, or ridiculously cute animals, you’ll find something novel and memorable here. Most importantly, you’ll gift a book to be relished and revisited for years. Still, I don’t envy you making these decisions, because these books are all so, so good.

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2021 Gift Guide: A Seek-and-Find Trifecta

November 4, 2021 § 1 Comment

Last week, I launched the Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. Next week, before moving onto other ages, I’ll do a round-up of a dozen more picture books perfect for gifting. But today, I want to call attention to three 2021 picture books that would make terrific gifts on their own or together. You know I can’t resist a bundling, and each of these treasure troves gives new meaning to the seek-and-find trope, a genre in need of updating before this year came along.

Every parent knows kids love nothing more than treasure hunts. But raise your hand if you’ve ever hidden a Where’s Waldo? book. Or a Richard Scarry book. Or any of those with dizzying pictures that have your child hunched over the page in your lap, scrunching up their eyes to look for a red-striped shirt or a tiny gold bug or any number of things, until it seems possible you’ve missed bedtime all together and it’s now morning again.

What if a child could get their seek-and-find fix in books that were cleverly crafted and delightfully fun to read aloud? What if these books featured art that was easy on our (tired) eyes? Wouldn’t that alone be worth welcoming the Holiday Season with open arms?

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Taking Our Cue from Them

June 17, 2021 Comments Off on Taking Our Cue from Them

Is that a naked boy on the cover? Why, yes. Are you mostly just posting about books with neon pink themes this year? Um, maybe.

For me, the biggest challenge of parenting continues to be taking the lead from my kids—and not the other way around. It’s seems simple enough—to guide, not instruct; to support, not push; to listen more and talk less—but it becomes intensely complicated when my own biases, fears, and failures get in the way of seeing my kids for who they are in the moment. Labels are comforting; they help us feel like we’re making sense of the chaos and uncertainty that is our children’s becoming. Look, he’s good at swimming—yes, swimming is his sport! He’s got brains, but she’s got compassion. He’ll never agree to that—he hated it last year. Wait, you want to wear a dress? I thought you hated dresses!  

Being a parent can feel a lot like being tied to the end of a yo-yo that someone else is operating, and the whiplash isn’t always pleasant. But when we manage to extricate ourselves from that emotional tether, when we take a step back and observe the messy evolution unfold, we make space for wonder, joy, and acceptance—on both sides.

Upholding traditional gender roles is a trap most of us parents fall into at one time or another (regardless of how many feminist classes we took in college). It starts when our babes are in utero, as we fantasize about the mother-daughter shopping trips or decorate the nursery in a baseball theme, and it continues each time we measure our child against others of the same gender. Shyness in girls is sweet, but shyness in boys might be a sign of weakness. A boy who shows an interest in math confirms what everyone expected, but a girl who shows an interest in math is intriguingas long as she’s not a dork, because then she’ll struggle socially. It’s OK for her to pick dance as a sport, but he needs a “real” workout. And so the dialogue goes, even if we never utter the words aloud.

And a boy who likes pink? Who wears make-up? What does that imply? What does that signal about the future?

Must it mean anything?

I’m thirteen years into this parenting gig, and the only thing I know for certain is that kids change. They change their minds, their habits, their styles. Sometimes it’s awesome, and sometimes it’s nerve-wracking. Sometimes, it’s along traditional gender lines, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a signal of what’s to come, but just as often, it’s not. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with us, though how we react can be everything.

The supremely talented Peter Brown—creator of picture book favorites like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, My Teacher is a Monster (No, I Am Not), and Creepy Carrots, and author of the equally brilliant chapter series The Wild Robot —has a new picture book out, and it brings the biggest smile to my face every time I read it. It’s also his most personal book to date, based on an incident when Brown was five years old and got into his mother’s make-up drawer. In many ways, it’s a tribute to his mother, whom he credits as being ahead of her time in her ability to validate who he was at every changing moment.

Fred Gets Dressed (Ages 2-6) may be a simple story about self-expression, but its execution is anything but ordinary. Design reigns, characters glow, and nakedness abounds. There’s the supportive mother, joined by a father who plays a small but mighty role. There’s a warm, inviting home, with books, dog, plants, and oversized throw pillows. But at the center of the story, stealing the show, is Fred. Fred is pure exuberance. Fred is that kid whose unbridled enthusiasm you want to bottle. Fred is that kid who prefers to air-dry au naturel (and who doesn’t, really?).

Fred is a boy who, on a whim, dresses up in his mom’s clothes and make-up. And because of his parents’ reaction, there’s no labeling, there’s no foreshadowing, there’s no shame. He’s simply allowed the freedom that comes with non-traditional gender roles. And his beaming smile says it all.

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An Interview with Shawn Harris

May 6, 2021 Comments Off on An Interview with Shawn Harris

Earlier this week, I talked about how much I adore the new picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower? Today, I’m back with an interview I did with its creator, Shawn Harris, in which we talk about his inspiration for the book, his musical past, what neon pink says to him, why he loves school visits, and the super exciting new projects he’s working on. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Me: Welcome, Shawn! Thank you so much for dropping in today. I am delighted to have the chance to chat with you about your authorial debut picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, one of my very favorites of the year. I’ve been a fan of your art for years—both Her Right Foot (written by Dave Eggers) and A Polar Bear in the Snow (written by your good pal, Mac Barnett) have been the subject of previous blog posts—so I was excited to see you trying your hand at writing, too. What made you decide to take the plunge? And where did the idea for this special picture book come from?

Shawn: In my former life, I was a touring songwriter, so I’ve been writing since I was a kid penning lyrics. This was the first time my authorial tone conjured images since I’ve been working in the picture book world, so I set out to illustrate the words. It’s almost a song in book form, really. There’s a theme and an arc to the narration, but I hop around my subject really loosely, and dip in and out of different meters, which is the way I like to approach writing music.

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When You Don’t Have a Mute Button

October 1, 2020 § 2 Comments

If Tuesday’s presidential debate has taught us anything, it’s that 2020 should have come with a mute button. Because meditation alone isn’t going to cut it. Ditto to stocking our freezers with double-chocolate brownie ice cream. Adulting is hard enough right now without adding parenting (and schooling) to the mix. And yet, our children are bystanders to this hot mess unfolding around them. With our own blood pressure camped out at dangerously high levels, how do we offer some semblance of sanity for our precious little ones?

Back in July, I came across a blog post written by a practicing psychotherapist out of Colorado named Sara Waters. She was addressing the stress parents were feeling while waiting for schools to announce their reopening plans (HA, remember when we thought that was worth losing sleep over?). Like many parents at the time, I was spending way too much time crawling along the bottom of the Internet, desperate for someone to reassure me that my children would be safe this fall. Waters surfaced with the reassuring reminder that, while we might not be in control of what happens outside our front door, we can control what happens inside:

The number one most determining factor of your child’s 2020 experience is YOUR ability to manage your OWN discomfort.  Mirror neurons are real and even children who haven’t yet learned to understand or speak language will pick up on the quantum vibrational frequencies of distress that you emit.  Your children hear you talk, even when you aren’t talking to them.  They hear you complain.  They hear you vent.  They watch your facial expressions when you are on a phone call or responding to an email or social media post on your computer.  They can feel whether you are relaxed or whether you are in a state of stress when you wake them up in the morning, sit down for a family meal, or tuck them into bed at night. […] Whether you like it or are aware of it or not, they will feel what you feel.

I’ve thought about this reminder many times since that last week in July, including and especially when I picked up Cozbi A. Cabrera’s joyous new picture book, Me & Mama (Ages 2-6), a lyrical celebration of the bond between one daughter and her mother. Reading this story is like wrapping yourself in a cocoon of domestic love. Reminiscent of one of last year’s favorites—Oga More’s Saturday—this book speaks directly to the power we hold as parents to set tone, to cue young children’s feelings about the world and their place in it.

We sometimes forget that motherhood comes with its own special set of superpowers. We can smile at our children; we can dance in their presence; we can light up when they walk in the room. None of the stressors in the world can compete with that.

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Emily Dickinson: Perfect Reading for a Pandemic?

September 24, 2020 § 2 Comments

Not many people know this, but my daughter is named after Emily Dickinson. (Well, and the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon.) I didn’t fall for Emily Dickinson’s poetry until I got to college, when I fell hard and fast and ended up featuring her poems in no fewer than seven essays, including my Senior Thesis. I had never been a big poetry lover, but there was something about the compactness of her poems which fascinated me. So much meaning was packed into such few words. And even then, the meaning was like an ever-shifting target, evolving with every reading.

To read Emily Dickinson is to contemplate universal truths.

Apart from reading Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s 1992 picture book, Emily, I hadn’t had much occasion talk to my own Emily about her namesake. But that changed last spring, when my Emily started writing poetry of her own. Nothing about virtual learning was working for her, until her teachers started leading her and her classmates in poetry writing. Suddenly, my daughter couldn’t jot down poems fast enough, filling loose sheets of paper before designating an orange journal for the occasion. She wrote poems for school, for fun, and for birthday cards. It didn’t matter that they weren’t going to win awards for originality; what mattered was that she had found a means of self-expression during a stressful, beguiling time.

Jennifer Berne’s On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson (Ages 7-10), stunningly illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, could not have entered the world at a more perfect time. It opens a dialogue, not only about Dickinson’s unconventional life, but about her poems themselves. At a time when a pandemic has prompted many of us and our children to turn inward, this picture book is less a traditional biography than an homage to the rich interior life developed by this extraordinary poet and showcased in her poetry.

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At Home in the Ocean

September 3, 2020 § 3 Comments

My son’s favorite sport is swimming, but it wasn’t always this way. For five years after he was born, he refused to put his head under water. He was delighted to be held in water, or to float with a floatie, but none of us—not me, not his dad, not his grandfather, not his aunt—could convince him to submerge his face.

Eventually, I got the name of a private swim instructor who was supposed to have a magic touch. I phoned her but she was fully booked. A few weeks later, she phoned back. She had a cancellation on an upcoming Thursday at 7pm. JP’s bedtime was 7pm, so this seemed like poor parenting at best, but I was a mother on a mission, with a zeal often reserved for firstborns. I told her we’d see her Thursday.

What happened next is a story our family loves to tell. While I watched from deck, the instructor, clad in a black wet suit, took JP’s hand and led him down the ramp of the zero-entry pool. When the water hit JP’s waist, she stopped. “So, JP,” she said, “do you go under water?”

“No,” my son replied.

“Would you like to try?” she asked.

Barely a pause. “OK,” he said. And then, right before my eyes, this child with a stubbornness to match mine, threw himself face down into the water.

He threw himself face down into the water. Part of me was overjoyed. And part of me had to keep from screaming, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

My husbands like to joke that this was when we realized that our son has no interest in learning from his family. Our teaching is inherently suspect, probably flawed, because what do we know? This instructor—who went on to teach him very fine strokes for the next five years—was an expert in his eyes, and so he instantly trusted her. (We consider it a major triumph that we did not have to hire a professional to teach him to ride a bicycle.)

Still, I don’t think the swim teacher’s trust was won just because JP regarded her as an expert (whereas we were just flailing novices). Truth be told, she exuded calm. You had only to spend ten seconds with her to understand that she was more at home in the water than out of it. She loved the water, she trusted herself in the water, and when she directed her full attention onto my son, he felt like he’d come home, too.

“The ocean is calling me today,” says the grandmother at the beginning of Tina Cho’s new picture book, The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Ages 4-8), one of the most fascinating and exquisite examples of a symbiotic relationship with water that I have ever seen. Set on the shores of Jeju Island in South Korea and luminously illustrated in jewel tones by Jess X. Snow, the story is about the relationship between a girl, struggling with her fear of the ocean, and her grandmother, a haenyeo mermaid, who holds her breath for two minutes at a time and dives up to thirty meters to bring back armfuls of shellfish for eating and selling. Here’s the coolest thing: the haenyeo tradition is real! It goes back centuries among indigenous Pacific islanders, remains alive today, and plays a vital role in ocean ecology.

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When the Sea Works its Magic

August 6, 2020 § 3 Comments

The value of a change of scenery during this pandemic cannot be overstated. Last week, we spent five nights in a rental on the Chesapeake Bay, our front door just steps to a tiny slice of sand, a bank of beautiful rocks, two kayaks, and a half mile of clear shallow water for wading, before dropping off to deeper water and stunning sunrises beyond.

The entire trip felt like a brief return to normalcy (look, we’re a family who vacations!). It was also a gift which arrived at precisely the right time. In the weeks leading up to our departure, I felt a heaviness descend on our family, the sum total of weariness from the past five months and the grinding uncertainty of the new school year.

The sea knew what we needed. For a few magical days, it drew us out of our heads and into our bodies, then engulfed us in a delicious weightlessness. It gave us expanses of space—so much space—at which to marvel, after staring at the inside of four walls for too long.

The sea didn’t get everything right (we didn’t need the jellyfish), but it reminded us that there is beauty in the world, that it hasn’t gone anywhere, and that in connecting to this beauty we can connect to the best in ourselves. We can be a little looser. A little messier. Smile a little more.

As it turns out, one of my favorite picture books of the year also features some welcome meddling by the sea. It has been awhile since I hailed a beachy picture book (last were here and here), and this one proves well worth the wait. Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary illustrators), reminds us that sometimes the sea knows what we need even before we do.

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Love, Pride, and Acceptance

June 30, 2020 § 1 Comment

With Pride parades canceled because of the pandemic, we have to work a little harder to see the rainbows. I didn’t want June to end before I had a chance to raise up one of my favorite recent discoveries (although it came out last year), a book so full of love that when I first got it, I couldn’t stop hugging it to my chest. It’s impossible to read this book without the biggest smile. Not just because the main character is a radiant beam of sunshine in and of himself. Not just because it has some of the most beautiful illustrations I have ever seen (Kaylani Juanita, where have you been all my life?). But because the love these parents shine down on their son is the very best—albeit most difficult—kind of love. It’s a love which sees him, not for who they expect or want him to be, but for who he actually is. It’s a love taught to them by this son—and one echoed in the way he prepares to welcome his new sibling.

It’s a tall order, but the world would be a vastly improved place if we all rose to follow the example of love in this book.

When Aidan Became a Brother (Ages 3-8), written by Kyle Lukoff and illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, is not just another book about welcoming a new sibling. True, in many ways, it’s the “new sibling” book we didn’t realize we were missing. But the book is equally pertinent whether you’re expecting a new family member or not. Aidan doesn’t simply tail his pregnant mom, fantasizing about a new playmate or worrying he’ll suddenly fall to second place. Nope, Aidan’s sets his sights on a larger question: what can he do to ensure his younger sibling feels understood and accepted right out of the gate?

Aidan’s fervent and sometimes nervous desire to become a caring big brother is intimately informed by the struggle he faced in his own first years. “When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl.” The story’s opening spread—a look back into Aidan’s recent past—reveals a pink-decorated room with traditional girl fare: a canopy bed, a dollhouse, and an array of flowery dresses held up by Aidan’s doting mother. Aidan sits before a pink tea set in a pink dress, wearing a look of misery.

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Sharing a Love of Travel (A Father’s Day Post)

June 11, 2020 § 1 Comment

This Father’s Day, my own father will have been gone for twenty-six years.  Twenty-six years. One of the most devastating things about losing a parent when you’re eighteen is that you never get to know that parent through an adult lens. I knew my father intimately, from his scratchy mustache to his eye-rolling wisecracks to his endless patience as I described every painstaking detail of my day. But I knew him as a child knows a parent. How I wish I could have known him as an adult.

In times of great upheaval and unrest, I feel my father’s absence most keenly. Every seismic shift in our world puts that much more space between him and me. How would he be participating in this national conversation about race? Would he be marching with a Black Lives Matter sign? What candidate would he have supported in the last Democratic primary? How would social distancing have impacted his life in retirement—or would he still be practicing law? What kinds of things would he enjoy doing with his grandchildren?

I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, though I ask them quietly to myself all the time.

What I do know is that there are certain things which always bring him back to me. And one of them is travel. My father’s love of travel was legendary. When I was very young and he would travel internationally for work, he’d always bring me souvenirs—usually dolls—from places like Brazil, Mexico, and Germany. I loved gazing at the tiny porcelain faces or printed fabric clothes and imagining where they had been. Our house was full of black-and-white photographs from before my time: my father on a camel in the Sahara, my father on a motorcycle in Greece. When I decided to spend a gap year in Vietnam after high school, he jumped at the chance to accompany me across the ocean. When, weeks later, it came time for him to return to the States, his parting words were, “It looks like you’ve got the travel bug now, too.” I beamed with pride.

It seems fated that I would fall deeply in love with Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s new picture book, Papa Brings Me the World (Ages 3-7), in which a young girl describes her affection for a father who travels the world and brings pieces of it back to her. I’ve long been a fan of Kostecki-Shaw’s (my daughter still pulls out Luna & Me), but this book positively transported me. Maybe because it’s inspired by the author-illustrator’s own father; maybe it’s because the theme of found objects lends itself beautifully to mixed-media collage; or maybe it’s because the voice of the little girl reminds me of my young self, brimming with tenderness and curiosity and admiration and longing for my father’s stories of adventure.

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Friendship is Not Wasted on the Young

March 12, 2020 § 1 Comment

My daughter has had the same best friend for nine years. She met her when she was just beginning to run and climb, when I used to swing by our local playground—what we called the “Tot Lot”—after dropping her brother off at preschool. It was an instant connection, the likes of which I had never experienced with my son, and it stopped me in my tracks. Child development literature would have placed my daughter squarely in the realm of “parallel play.” So how to explain that she never let fall the hand of this other little girl, that they climbed and descended the small slide, crawled through plastic boulders, and scampered up and down artificial hills as one?

After spending nearly every day together for years, the girls don’t see each other as often now; they live about an hour apart. Still, when they get together, they pick up like no time has passed. They disappear into their own world: talking in whispers, inventing elaborate games, often so wrapped in each other’s arms that it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. To witness their togetherness feels like being in the presence of something magical, something almost miraculous.

Julie Fogliano and Jillian Tamaki’s my best friend (Ages 3-7) came out only a week ago, but so enthusiastic has the response been from the kid lit world, I feel like the last person to sing its praises. (Still, wild horses couldn’t keep me from joining in the fun.) An homage to the giddy abandon exhibited in early childhood friendships—particularly those born on the playground—the book has all the makings of a classic. Fogliano’s free verse sings and soars with the stream of consciousness of a child tasting the deliciousness of friendship for the first time. (i have a new friend/ and her hair is black/ and it shines/ and it shines/ and she always laughs at everything) Tamaki’s muted palette of rusty pink and olive green lends the book a timeless, vintage feel, while the figures themselves spill and explode off the page, their excitement literally uncontainable.

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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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