The Story I Didn’t See Coming
January 19, 2023 § Leave a comment
A large part of my job as a bookstore buyer is perusing online catalogs. These days, most publishers include full interior PDFs of their picture book titles, so rather than taking a stab in the dark, I can read a book in full before deciding whether and how many to order. And with each catalog, especially the big ones, there’s a predictable flow. I begin with the excitement of Christmas morning—what treasures are waiting beneath this tree?—until my old lady eyes begin glazing over. I should take a break, I think. No, I should just push on! Only five more pages. Only a few dozen more titles. Where I began by carefully reading through each book, now I’m skimming. Then skipping. Now I’m bored. So bored. I’m bemoaning the fact that nothing feels exciting, nothing feels fresh. I should really take a break, because now I’m ready to give up my career because no one publishes anything good anymore. (All gross exaggerations, of course, but this is what computer fatigue will do to you.)
So there I was, back in October, perusing Penguin Random House, the monster of all catalogs, which also distributes titles published by the small press, Charlesbridge, when I came across the latter’s thumbnail for The Penguin of Ilha Grande, with a release date of January 17. No one buys a penguin book in January, I thought (as odd as it sounds, I generally can’t sell a book with snow once the New Year hits, because people are already thinking about spring). I was prepared to fly right on past, without clicking the link to open the book, only a tiny voice berated me: Don’t be lazy. You don’t want to miss something that could be great.
A few minutes later, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I was shouting into the void of my living room, THIS STORY! Oh, my heart, THIS STORY! It turns out there wasn’t any snow or ice; this is the story of a Magellanic penguin, and Magellanic penguins migrate to feed in warm water. But to be clear: had it been covered in snow, I’d still have ordered it. Could I sell it as a non-traditional Valentine’s Day pick, seeing as it’s about an enduring friendship between a young penguin and an old man? Why not! Could I parade it out a few months later for our Earth Day displays, since it also carries a message about conservation? You betcha! Am I going to try and convince the author to come to our store? Yes indeedy.
Give me all the animal rescue stories! Especially if they’re based on true events; especially if they expose young readers to new corners of the world; especially if they teach the importance of science and conservation; and especially if they celebrate the amazing bond between humans and animals. Past favorites have included The Elephants Come Home, which landed on my 2021 Gift Guide, and Feathers Together, which was on last year’s guide. Is it my age that makes me a sentimental puddle? Quite possibly. But I’ve also seen firsthand how much children love these stories. They invite wonder about the world around them. They’re living proof that small hands can make a big impact.
Today, I can’t wait to introduce you and your children to The Penguin of Ilha Grande (ages 4-8), written by debut author, Shannon Earle, and illustrated by Brazilian artist, Renato Alarcão (the latter also illustrated this picture book from wayyyy back in the archives). The true story stars a penguin named Dindim, who was rescued off the coast of Brazil by an elderly man named Seu João—and the surprising and extraordinary friendship that followed.« Read the rest of this entry »
2022 Gift Guide: The Middle-Grade Books (Ages 7-14)
November 22, 2022 § Leave a comment
Ask me what installment of the Gift Guide is my favorite to write, and the answer will always be the middle-grade one. These are the stories that have my heart, the same types of books that once made a reader out of me. As an adult, even if it wasn’t my job to do so, I’d still read them, because they’re that good. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to try some of the titles below as family read alouds, or simply read them before or after your children finish them (which, by the way, your kids will love you for).
Whereas “middle-grade books” used to mean stories exclusively targeted at ages 8-12, today’s category is increasingly broadening to encompass young teens as well. The result is a kind of Venn diagram of stories. There are stories intended for kids in the middle years of elementary school, which tend to be lighter and faster paced. And then there are heavier, more nuanced stories written for readers who are entering or already tackling the middle-school years. In today’s post, you’ll find plentiful recommendations in both these younger and older middle-grade categories, and they’re presented here in ascending order.
Regardless of where on the spectrum these stories fall, they are exceptional examples of storytelling, with rich language, complex characters, and original twists and turns. For as much as they entertain us, they also make us think about the world around us in new and interesting ways.
2022 has been another banner year for middle-grade books—so much so that the titles below were all published in the second half of the year, many in just the last few weeks. In other words, this is not a “best of 2022” list, because if it was, it would include A Duet for Home, The Last Mapmaker, The Marvellers, Those Kids From Fawn Creek, Zachary Ying and the Last Emperor, Cress Watercress, and Jennifer Chan is Not Alone—all of which were featured in my Summer Reading Guide earlier this year.« Read the rest of this entry »
More Treats Than Tricks: New Halloween Picture Books
October 5, 2022 § Leave a comment
“H—A—double L—O—W—double E—N spells Halloween!” Anyone else remember learning that song in Kindergarten? Anyone else still need to sing it to remember how to spell the holiday? Just me?
Most years, I do you a solid and highlight just one stellar new Halloween picture book. This year, I couldn’t choose so you’re getting seven (sorry, not sorry). Actually, one of them—Oliver Jeffers’ There’s a Ghost in This House—you’ve seen before. It came out last year but, due to supply chain issues, juuuussst missed a Halloween release. That meant it made my Gift Guide instead—I mean, a haunted house is a haunted house any time of year—and lots of you have told me how beloved it has become in your house. But if you were NOT one of those folks, you get a do-over this year. Phew.
So, yes, Halloween picture books are especially strong this year! But before we get started, I always like to use these posts as an excuse to dip back into the archives. Last year, there was our dear Vampenguin. Who remembers The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt the year before that? Gah, I love that one! There was also I am a Witch’s Cat, Vampirina Ballerina, The Monsters’ Monster, and that doesn’t include a few other favorites I’ve highlighted on Instagram over the years.
Now let’s see what this year has brought us.« Read the rest of this entry »
Summer Reading Guide: For the New Readers
June 23, 2022 Comments Off on Summer Reading Guide: For the New Readers
Whooooboy. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: today’s early readers have it GOOD! The wealth of talent being channeled into creating early graphic novels and early chapter books has never been greater than it is right now, and our lucky kiddos get to reap the benefits. Learning to read is all about generating momentum—from there, confidence swells—so it’s vital to have a bottomless array of choices.
Today, I’ve got a comprehensive round up of 2022 releases for newly independent readers at a variety of reading levels. Some of the storylines are sweet, others funny. Some are educational, all are entertaining, and every one is part of a series, which means more to come! (If you need more while you’re waiting, check out previous round ups here and here, many of which have sequels out.)
Of course, many of these make engaging read alouds as well. Just remember at these ages to keep reading those picture books too, for their rich vocabulary, nuanced storytelling, and gorgeous art. It shouldn’t be one or the other. Elementary kids need both to thrive in developing literacy skills and a lifetime love of reading!
The books in this post are arranged according to length and number of words per page. I’ve indicated whether each title is a graphic novel or a traditional chapter book, and I’ve included one interior shot per book to give you an idea of what the layout looks like. (And because they’re so dang cute!)« Read the rest of this entry »
Graphic Novel Round Up: Witches and Ghosts and Vampires (Oh My!)
October 14, 2021 § 4 Comments
2021 has seen many trends in children’s literature (body positivity and consent will make an appearance in next week’s blog post), but most fun is the onslaught of witches, ghosts and vampires, particularly in graphic novels. I’m not sure how to account for this uptake in supernatural activity on the page, except that maybe the last two years already have us feeling like we’re suspended between real life and an alternate universe. Magic has always been irresistible to kids—long before Harry Potter arrived on the scene, I can recall my own childhood obsession with The Blue-Nosed Witch—but perhaps at no time more than now do we share a collective desire to wield spells that could change the course of things. Of course, as the stories below caution us, magic is infinitely more messy than it seems.
All the graphic novels I recommend here—age ranges are provided in the headers—have come out in the past few months, just ahead of Spooky Season. That said, not a single one of these has anything to do with Halloween itself, so I have no doubt they will be read again and again, regardless of the season. But, with fire pit weather upon us and talk of spooky costumes in the air, I can’t think of a better time to drop a few new witchy reads into your child’s lap. (Amazon affiliate links below, though all of these titles are currently in stock at Old Town Books!)« Read the rest of this entry »
Reality Trumps Fiction (Take Two)
August 5, 2021 § 1 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!)« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
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:« Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.