Reality Trumps Fiction (Take Two)

August 5, 2021 § Leave a comment

Way back in 2013, when my kids thought all the best stories had to be “made-up,” I wrote a blog post about how, occasionally, reality trumps fiction. That is to say, sometimes a story blows our mind, not only because it’s beautiful and moving and awe-inspiring and original, but also because it happens to be true. Kids today have no shortage of options for picture book biographies, true stories about incredible individuals told with spellbinding art and captivating narratives, but when it comes to the animal world, the emphasis has historically been on information versus story.

Maybe that’s why The Elephants Come Home: A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship (Ages 6-9), written by Kim Tomsic and illustrated by Hadley Hooper, feels so special. It tells an amazing story—a story we’d warm to even if it was entirely made-up—but it gives us an added case of the goosies because we know from the start that it really happened. Or maybe it’s because the book straddles the animal and human world, allowing for some of the same storytelling prowess that has made picture book biographies soar in popularity. Or maybe it’s because it is stunningly executed (that paper! those colors! that art! those page turns!). Whatever the case, it’s hands down one of the best examples of narrative non-fiction I’ve ever come across. Even my daughter, age ten, has inhaled its 58 pages again and again. (If you trust me, stop reading to avoid the spoilers below and go get the book!)

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A Baby Unicorn for Valentine’s Day

February 11, 2021 § 4 Comments

Valentine’s Day approaches, so consider this your annual reminder that the only acceptable Valentine is a new book. You may recall I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to recommending books for Valentine’s Day. If a heart on a cover is what you’re after, you won’t do better than this. But I like a timeless story about friendship that can be read any time of year, which is why in past Valentine’s posts I’ve been about this, this, this, and this. This year, you’re in for an added treat if you head over to Instagram, where I’ve been running a mini gift guide all week, with selects from babies to teens.

Sometimes a book comes along, and even though it’s not breaking any ground, even though it won’t win any awards, it’s so insanely adorable you want to give it to everyone you know.

Let’s be clear. My daughter cannot abide the unicorn craze. She has never tolerated it for one minute. What did unicorns ever do to her? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this: one year for her birthday, I bought her a pair of horse pajamas, only when she opened them, her eyes immediately locked onto a detail I had failed to notice; each of the horses had, in fact, teeny tiny silvery horns on their forehead. I watched her attempt to disguise her horror and choke out a thank you, but she never wears those PJs.

Now imagine that this same daughter should fall in love with Briony May Smith’s Margaret’s Unicorn (Ages 3-7), about a girl, recently relocated to the wild English countryside, who keeps watch over the CUTEST baby unicorn for two seasons until his mother returns for him. Imagine that this daughter was so taken by the book that she begged me to purchase our own copy, despite being well outside the target age. And then you’ll understand why it would be impossible for a book to receive a higher endorsement.

There is so much joy, so much heart, so much good will in this story that it’s destined to put the biggest smile on children’s faces. If that doesn’t make it perfect for Valentine’s Day, perhaps you ought to collect some moonlit water for your baby unicorn and then come back and we’ll talk.

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2020 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14, Part One

November 12, 2020 § 1 Comment

As evidenced by the massive stack I’m bringing to you today and tomorrow, 2020 delivered some fantastic middle-grade fiction, including a number of novels by debut authors your kids won’t forget anytime soon. (It delivered non-fiction as well, as evidenced by my earlier endorsement of the astounding All Thirteen.)

One could make a case that storytelling has never been more essential. The stories below will take children far beyond the four walls of their home. They will entertain and inspire, while also eliciting empathy for those with different lived experiences. They will comfort, nurture, even heal. They’re the hope our children need to go forth into a brighter 2021.

A few of the novels I blogged about earlier in the year but mention again because I live in fear that you might miss them. The rest are new to these pages. (Remember, you won’t find any 2020 graphic novels here, because they got their own post.)

Below are the first ten. The second ten will follow tomorrow. I’ve taken particular care in noting the suggested age range below each title. Some of these skew younger, others older. I hope I’ve found something for every tween and young teen in your life.

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2020 Gift Guide: Picture Book Round-Up

October 29, 2020 Comments Off on 2020 Gift Guide: Picture Book Round-Up

Last week, I told you about my two verrrrry favorite picture books of the year: The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) and Girl on a Motorcycle (Ages 5-9). Today, I’m telling you about others I like a whole heck of a lot. I’ve selected titles, both fiction and non-fiction, for a range of ages, from two to ten years old. Some of them are jaw-droppingly beautiful; others elicit laughter; many invite wonder and compassion. All of them are deserving of a permanent home, where they can be enjoyed again and again and again.

Before we start, there are several I’ve already blogged about this year. Rather than repeating myself, I’m going to link to my original posts. The ones with mega gift potential from earlier in the year are Me and Mama (Ages 2-6), The Ocean Calls (Ages 4-8), Madame Bedobedah (Ages 5-9), Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), In a Jar (Ages 4-8), and The Oldest Student (Ages 6-10).

And now, here are ones new to these pages:

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2020 Gift Guide: My Favorite Picture Book for Preschoolers

October 20, 2020 § 5 Comments

Similar to last year (when I picked this and this), I find myself unable to choose between two picture books for my very favorite of 2020. Still, the two I’ve chosen play to slightly different audiences, so I’m using that as an excuse to bring you two picture book posts this week. I’ll begin with my favorite for the littles.

It seems to me that what we should really gift our youngest children this year is what we wish for ourselves: the literary equivalent of a giant bear hug. In a year dominated by disconnection and uncertainty, we have had to work harder to love both one another and ourselves. If we are to fill the void that 2020 has left on our hearts, it will be through care and compassion, including and especially self-compassion. And that’s where The Bear and the Moon delivers beautifully.

Written by Matthew Burgess and illustrated by Cátia Chien, The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) is a playful, poetic story about a bear and a balloon. But it’s also a visceral meditation on life’s impermanence—and on the forgiveness and self-love required to weather these moments of loneliness and sorrow. I’ve always believed that the best picture books should offer a little something to the adults called upon to read them again and again, and The Bear and the Moon provides comfort and reassurance to both reader and listener alike.

And then, of course, there are the mixed-media illustrations, which are in a class by themselves. Smudgy and sublime, they wash over us with a gorgeous palette of purples and blues, accented by the velvety black of the bear and the clean paper cut-out of the red balloon. And that expressive bear face? A thousand times yes.

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

August 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

My aunt used to hold an annual Christmas Eve party at her apartment on the eighth floor of a building just two blocks from ours in New York City. It was a small group, rarely more than twelve, and we were the only relatives ever invited. We only saw these friends of my aunt once a year, but before the elevator reached the bottom floor at the end of the evening, I was already looking forward to next year’s gathering. My aunt had been the editor in chief of a major magazine, and her friends were artistic, eccentric, and alluringly mysterious.

There was one woman in particular whom I adored. Always the last to arrive, she would come through the door shrouded in a floor-length black fur coat. Her perfect coif of white hair was sharply angled at her chin, and she moved in a cloud of exotic perfume. Her raspy smokers’ voice was fond of the word “darling,” and she always addressed me as if I was an adult. Perched on the sofa sipping my ginger ale, I inched as close to her as I could, throwing back my head with laughter as she did.

She lived downtown where the artists were, and I knew little about how she spent her days, other than that she and her husband had never had children. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and ask her any number of questions! As children, we’re content with the stories we tell ourselves, the ones we make up in her head, and I fashioned endless stories for this larger-than-life woman in black, who seemed to float effortlessly around my aunt’s apartment, captivated by everything and nothing at the same time.

Sophie Dahl’s marvelous picture book, Madame Badobedah (Ages 5-9), told in three chapters over 53 pages and amply accentuated with retro illustrations by Lauren O’Hara, stars a young protagonist spellbound by an eccentric stranger who shows up for an unlimited stay at her parents’ hotel by the sea. This stranger barely opens her mouth before Mabel has developed theories about the feathers draped around her neck, her stacks of weathered trunks, and her prized pet tortoise. But warm to her from the start Mabel does not. Resentful of the woman’s haughty demeanor, Mabel quickly convinces herself that, rather than a solitary woman healing from heartbreak, she’s a jewel thief on the run. What follows is a riotous narrative, ultimately giving way to a warm intergenerational friendship perched somewhere in the middle of fiction and reality.

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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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Zoe Washington’s “Good Trouble”

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.)

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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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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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2019 Gift Guide: Picture Books for Ages 3-7

December 1, 2019 Comments Off on 2019 Gift Guide: Picture Books for Ages 3-7

Today is part recap, part intro. To kick off the picture book portion of my Gift Guide, I’ve already told you about my mad love for Home in the Woods and Pokko and the Drum. Earlier in the year in these pages, I sang the praises of Crab Cake, Lubna and Pebble, I am Hermes!, Camp Tiger, A Stone Sat Still, The Scarecrow, and Who Wet My Pants?—all of which would also make fantastic holiday gifts. But if you haven’t kept up with my reviews on Instagram all year long, I thought it was high time I shared some of them here. Because one or two (or all) of these might be perfect for someone on your list.

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Fall is Looking Good: Middle-Grade Round Up

November 7, 2019 Comments Off on Fall is Looking Good: Middle-Grade Round Up

Of the dozens of middle-grade books I’ve read so far this fall (and I see no reason to stop anytime soon), here are the ones that have risen to the top. All except one I’ve featured on Instagram in recent weeks, but it seemed like a good time to round them up here. Publishers often save their best titles for fall, and this fall is proving pretty spectacular. May your children take advantage of the dwindling daylight to curl up with one of these gems. Perhaps they’ll find their people. Perhaps they’ll re-frame what it means to be an American. Perhaps they’ll even get closer to answering the question on the back of Jason Reynolds’ newest contribution to the tween psyche: How you gon’ change the world?

(Oh, and should you need something for yourself or your older teen, you’ll just have to get on the ‘gram to see this review. It’s only my favorite read of the fall.)

 

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The Push-Pull of October

October 3, 2019 § 1 Comment

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” said Anne of Green Gables. And so am I. No month is more bountiful. It smells fresh. It crunches beneath your feet. It’s resplendent with a beauty so striking it almost hurts.

But, even with all its treasures, October is a time of loss. Loss of light. Loss of color. Loss of those long, lazy days of summer which (thank you, September) suddenly seem like a lifetime ago. Right now in our family, this October feels riper than usual with loss, as I prepare to say goodbye to my grandmother, a woman I have loved since she first touched her nose to mine.

So, while I love books whose pages celebrate fall’s wonders (like this, this, this, and this), I also have a soft spot for books that speak to the shadows cast by fall. Beth Ferry’s quiet new picture book, The Scarecrow, gorgeously illustrated by The Fan Brothers (we would expect nothing less after this), plants the reader squarely in the push-pull of fall. Although, in fact, fall plays only a small role in the story.

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What’s Left When Summer Ends

August 29, 2019 § 9 Comments

At no time more than summer do our children grow up. Camps, camping, gloriously long stretches of daylight, ample opportunities at exploration and courage and boredom…all of this combines to ensure that the children we send back to school in the fall are not quite the ones we ushered in summer with.

I was ill prepared for the onslaught of emotions I would feel upon picking up my oldest from his first sleepaway camp experience in Maine. As we slowed along the gravel road though the camp entrance, my excitement of the past 24 hours turned to butterflies. How would he seem? Would he look different? Would he have made friends? Would he burst into angry tears and declare he was never coming back?

We didn’t have to wait long: he was standing alone not far from the entrance. I waved frantically, shouting at my husband to stop the car so I could jump out. JP smiled broadly as I threw my arms around him, but something was immediately apparent. He was quiet. More upright than I’d remembered. More reserved than I’d expected. « Read the rest of this entry »

In the Eye of the Beholder

April 11, 2019 Comments Off on In the Eye of the Beholder

One of the superpowers young children possess is the ability to transfer human qualities onto inanimate objects. My Emily might be eight years old—well versed in the impossibility of stuffed animals coming to life—but she still likes to tell me about the skydiving adventures her plush lamb has at home while she’s off at school (apparently in cohorts with my stuffed bear). When I tuck her in at night, it’s not uncommon for Emily to inform me that Baba will be keeping watch for bad dreams. Whenever her pride is bruised or her tears are flowing, Emily predictably runs to her room, snatches up Baba, and presses the soft frayed body to her cheek. (Baba has also been known to “peck at” prime offenders, otherwise known as Older Brothers.)

It’s remarkable, this ability of children to draw entertainment, companionship, and comfort from non-living things. It certainly plays a part in why children are naturally resilient, even or especially when the humans around them fall short. After all, an object can be whatever a child wants or needs it to be. It can be a kind of “stand in,” or a bridge to a time when that child might reliably find that entertainment, companionship, or comfort in another living being.

Lubna and Pebble (Ages 4-8), an impossibly gorgeous and profoundly moving new picture book about the refugee experience, takes at its center the conceit of a young girl’s redemptive friendship with a pebble, which she finds on the momentous night she arrives with her father at the “World of Tents.”

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All in a Good Day’s Bicycling

March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments

adventuresofagirlcalledbicycle-e1552680598146.jpgMy 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 »

There’s A New Pippi in Town

February 7, 2019 Comments Off on There’s A New Pippi in Town

Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one. « Read the rest of this entry »

My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

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

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

Gift Guide 2018: The Elephant in the Room

December 12, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: The Elephant in the Room

This is mixed-media artist Pamela Zagarenski’s third year appearing on my Gift Guide (previously for this and this) and for good reason: there is a jewel-box quality to her picture books, their pages adorned with surreal and scintillating spreads destined for endless discovery. Her newest, Zola’s Elephant (Ages 4-7), written by Randall de Seve (whom I fell for long ago, when I used to sell The Duchess of Whimsy at my store), is every bit the treasure we’ve come to expect: a story of two girls, their pathway to friendship, and the phantom elephant which bonds them. « Read the rest of this entry »

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