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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Beach Combing

July 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

We recently returned from a glorious beach week, so it seemed only fitting that I should tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture book of the year. (Psst: don’t forget this fave from 2020.) But first, allow me a minute to wax nostalgic about the art of beach combing. This particular trip was to the ocean—just outside Duck in North Carolina—so there were ample shells to source, especially in the early morning if you beat the crowds. But judging by the quality control practiced by my daughter—or, shall we say, complete lack thereof—it would appear I have failed to impart this skill. “Please save these for me,” I heard over and over, followed by a dumping of shell shards and nondescript pebbles into my hand.

Flash back to my own summers, spent on the shores of Lake Erie at my grandparents’ summer home. There were no shells to be found. Not much in the way of interesting rocks, either. What we did have was seaglass, and my cousins and I fancied ourselves connoisseurs when it came to these specimen of the sea. Any eye could spot a colorful piece of glass among the gray pebbles, but only the most discerning would ensure it was perfectly opaque, its edges worn smooth from years in the water. Anyone could fill their pails with brown glass, even white glass that had once been clear, but a good piece of green was gold, and a piece of blue, especially one bigger than a pencil eraser, was cause for calling out for all to come and see. Each night, we’d comb through our treasure, keeping only the best of the best.

(It’s very important, when beach combing, to examine your treasures once they are dry. The water tends to give even the plainest of finds a gleaning, shimmery mystique. The best treasures are those that sustain their shine all the way to your bedroom shelf, where they can be reborn as art.)

That something as careless as beer bottles thrown over the deck of a ship can transform into jewels that can turn a walk on the beach into something magical never ceases to amaze me. The seaglass of my youth spoke to a mystery I couldn’t see, one I’d never entirely understand. I wondered about the journey of that glass, perhaps as my own children wondered about the bits of shells they recently picked up, certainly as the young protagonist of today’s book tells us she wonders about the creatures who once lived in the shells now washing up on the shore of her grandparents’ house.

Author Kevin Henkes and illustrator Laura Dronzek are no strangers to collaborations when it comes to picture books about the natural world, but Little Houses (Ages 3-6) might be their finest yet, deftly balancing information with poetry, truth with imagination. We follow as a girl examines her beach finds and wonders about the things she doesn’t know. That she has these experiences during a summer spent with grandparents only sweetens the package, recalling the way my own grandmother would swoop in and out of our beach walks, sometimes pausing to procure her own treasure, often marveling at ours, always happy for the chance to muse about the mysteries of the sea.

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Summer Reading Guide: For the New Readers

June 23, 2022 § Leave a comment

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!)

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In Defense of Sad Books

May 26, 2022 § 6 Comments

(PSST…before we begin, summer reading is coming! If you’re in the Alexandria area, I’d love to see you at Old Town Books on Thursday, June 2, at 7:00pm, where I’ll be presenting my Summer Reading Guide for ages 6-16, with lots of personal shopping to follow! Tickets can be purchased here.)

It has been six years since Lauren Wolk penned her Newbery Honor-winning novel, Wolf Hollow (Ages 10-14), one of the single greatest works of literature I have ever read. (Yes, I’m counting adult books.) It’s a book whose comparisons to other great American novels, most commonly To Kill a Mockingbird, are entirely warranted.

Still, over those six years, I’ve grown weary of recommending the book. When I’ve tried to bring it into schools for book clubs, I’ve been told, “It’s a magnificent book, but I’m worried it will upset kids.” When parents ask me to describe the plot, their skepticism radiates off them: Why would I share a story like that with my child? Do they really need to experience such sadness? Won’t it frighten them? Erode their innocence?

Neither of my kids was old enough for the book when it came out, so when the sequel released earlier this spring, My Own Lightning, I decided to revisit the original, this time aloud with my eleven year old. And I’ll admit: I had not remembered how sad it is. Reading it the second time around, this time through the lens of a parent with a child the same age as the protagonist, I did periodically wonder, Is this too much? When our kids have the rest of their lives to discover pain, should storytime be exclusively reserved for funny, fantastical, feel-good themes?

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the writing is. How Lauren Wolk is that rare writer as well versed at writing gorgeous stand-alone sentences as casting these sentences into a tight arc that moves breathlessly towards its conclusion. Not one word is wasted in this novel—not one word—which is a rare, rare gift for a parent reading aloud.

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the protagonist is. How even in the midst of terrible cruelty, terrible sadness, terrible truth telling, Annabelle finds within herself strength, resilience, and unwavering hope. Through the goodness of Annabelle’s actions and the support of her parents, brothers, and teacher, the reader is never without light. That light might be subtle, but it’s undeniably present.

I had also not remembered what an historical novel set between two world wars can reveal about our country, about the men who left for war and came back changed in ways that sometimes bred more misunderstanding and judgment from others than compassion. About the way neighbors of German descent were suddenly regarded with suspicion—or worse. About the way generations of families tightened belts, hunkered under one roof, ate off their own garden plots, and held their breath in a climate of intense uncertainty.

Wolf Hollow is about all of this without really being about any of it. Strictly speaking, it’s about one girl in a tiny Pennsylvania town who is on the receiving end of physical threats and violence from a new classmate—and chooses to stay silent about it for one beat too long. This silence inadvertently casts suspicion on a veteran named Toby, a mysterious outlier in the community, whom many regard as dangerous but whom Annabelle has always seen as gentle and kind. Against mounting odds, Annabelle tries to save Toby and clear his name.

And yet. While the tears streamed from my own eyes in the final chapters, my daughter’s eyes remained dry. To say she loved the book is an understatement: we have rarely moved so quickly though a read aloud and onto its sequel, because she could not get enough. (We’re halfway through the sequel, so keep your eyes on Instagram for that update.) She was captivated, riveted, couldn’t look away. But she was not gutted in the way that I was reading it. Neither was she horrified or haunted. “I like books that tell what life is really like,” she told me. “Not enough books tell the truth.”

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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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Four New Faves Celebrating Mamas and Grandmas

May 5, 2022 § 6 Comments

(Warning: I put on my most matronly dress to rage at the patriarchy.) Ouch, it’s a tough week to be a woman in this country. A tough week to contemplate the future for our daughters—and, let’s be honest, our sons, since a woman’s right to exercise autonomy over her body has always been inherently linked to the opposite sex. To say nothing of the repercussions SCOTUS’ decision will have for Black or Indigenous populations, or those living below the poverty line, or the precedent this could set for overturning protections for the LGBTQ+ community. We have only to dig into history to see that progress is never a straight line, but it’s one thing to recognize this and another to live it, to watch the work of generations collapse in a single moment. The list is growing long for horrifying things I never expected to witness in my lifetime.

Now, here we are, staring down Mother’s Day, an already complicated holiday for those mourning mothers, mourning children, mourning dreams of having children—and a day that now feels even more loaded, weighed down with the understanding that a woman’s body can be at once celebrated for its childbearing and stripped of its rights.

This is a cheery post, eh? Don’t worry, I promise we’re going to talk about some beautiful, uplifting, joyful books in just a second.

Yes, it’s a tough moment in history to be a woman. But, let’s not kid ourselves: it has always been a tough time to be a woman. Voting rights, equal pay, maternity leave, working outside the home, the right to wear pants, for crying out loud: the list for what women have been made to suffer is endless.

And still, I love being a woman. I love being a mom. I love following in the legacy of the curious, courageous, complicated women who raised me. When the fear of raising a daughter creeps in during times like this, I remember the strength of my own mother and grandmothers. My mom, who suffered the greatest heartbreak imaginable in the sudden death of my father at 51 and rallied to step into roles and master tasks she’d never imagined for herself, for the sake of her teenage daughters. My one grandmother, who for years endured physical pain without a word of complaint, because she didn’t want to miss out on a single family activity. My other grandmother, who attended science lectures in her 90s where she was the only woman, not because she knew anything about the topic, but because her own children and grandchildren’s involvement in the world had inspired her to expand her mind.

Today, I’m highlighting four new picture books that star formidable mothers and grandmothers—the kind I aspire to be, the kind who remind me that we will not go quietly into the night. Not when we know better, not when we’ve learned from the best. (You can also refer back to some older posts for favorites, like this, this, this, and this.)

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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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Making Room for Joy in Black History Month

February 10, 2022 § 4 Comments

During Black History Month, I typically highlight a recent picture book that introduces young readers to an essential part of African American history in a particularly compelling and inventive way. (Last year’s post was on the picture book biography of basketball legend, Elgin Baylor, which apart from being a fascinating story about one Black man also doubles as a mini primer on the Civil Rights Movement.) But since I so recently sung the praises of Born on the Water, one of the most comprehensive and gorgeous picture books to take on the subject of Black history, I thought I’d use today’s post to remind us that, as parents and educators, we must see to it that our children are reading just as many—if not more—stories about Black joy and achievement, as they are about Black pain and oppression.

This means reading When Langston Dances, a joyous new celebration of dance, starring a Black boy who aspires to take ballet. It means reading The Old Truck, a deceptively simple multi-generational story about a family of Black farmers. Or Milo Imagines the World, where a Black boy makes sense of the world in a sketchbook. Or the ebullient picture book biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, titled Jump at the Sun. Are these books on our shelves alongside those about slavery and segregation? Have we deemed them important in our children’s eyes by giving them a seat at our (literary) table?

It also means reading about the people making Black history as I’m writing this post. The superstars of today. The people pointing us forward.

You’ll rarely see a book by a politician or celebrity plugged here. For one, these books come by publicity naturally; two, they’re usually mediocre at best. They can be dry or heavy-handed, come off like they’re trying too hard, or feel self-aggrandizing. So, while I find Stacey Abrams all kinds of dynamic and inspirational and vital in real life—and though our signed copies at the bookshop have been flying off the shelves—I put off reading her debut picture book. I figured it would be “meh.”

I stand corrected. I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Stacey’s Extraordinary Words (Ages 4-8), written by Abrams and illustrated by Kitt Thomas, is wonderful. In this story drawn from a childhood memory about a spelling bee competition, young Stacey emerges as inquisitive, bright, determined, and sensitive; and the effusively colored illustrations will endear young readers to her. But what would have appealed to me most as a young bookworm is that this is a story about a girl falling in love with the richness of language. A girl learning to wield the power of language to give voice to herself, to secure her seat at the table.

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Choosing Love: Four Favs for Valentine’s Day

February 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

I sat sleep-deprived in the dim winter light of early morning, stealing myself to break it to my children that their dad and I had decided we should return the puppy we’d picked up less than 24 hours earlier.

The previous day, we had driven three hours to pick up an almost five-month-old Goldendoodle. Upon entering the breeder’s house, it became apparent that the dog was nothing like what we’d been promised. Was nothing like our last puppy, either. We had expected a rambunctious, mouthy, high-energy, playful puppy.

What we left with was a dog that had never been socialized. Never seen a man or a child, not to mention a car, leash, crate, or bath. The dog was terrified of us. Of everything. After the car ride home, where we held his trembling body on our laps, he wouldn’t let us near him. We couldn’t pet him. We couldn’t handle him. When my husband tried to pick him up to bring him inside, he got his hand bitten.

The dog wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t drink. We couldn’t get him outside to use the potty and, if we did, we couldn’t get him back inside. He was terrified of our stairs, so my husband slept next to him on the living room sofa, while I stayed up all night reading everything on the Internet about fearful, traumatized dogs.

What I determined over the course of that long night wasn’t just that this was not the puppy we had envisioned for our family, but that we were in over our heads. A dog who passed the four month mark without being socialized was, the Internet assured me, beyond hope of a normal life, even with professional training.

Earlier that morning, I told my husband that I thought we needed to take him back to the breeder. He reluctantly agreed. So there I sat, waiting for my kids to wake up so we could get it over with.

My son was the first to come down the stairs. His eyes immediately scanned the room, finding the dog—we hadn’t agreed on a name—cowering in the corner. My son stood for a few moments, looking at this terrified ball of fluff, and then he curled up next to me. I braced myself to say the words, but he spoke first, with no suspicion that there was anything amiss.

“Oh, Mommy,” he sighed, his eyes twinkling, a smile breaking across his face like it was Christmas morning. “I’m so happy. I just love him so much.”

This dog, who was nothing like the dog he had wanted, who wouldn’t even let him come near him…he loved him?

I began to speak about what I’d read, about the long road ahead of us. Yes, he said, he had thought as much. He’d start reading things, too. He was excited to help. “I know what it’s like to have anxiety, so I can do this. He’s going to be so happy here. I know it.”

And though part of me wanted to cry, to scream, to run from the loss of control I felt over the entirety of this situation, I thought, What if I chose love? What if we all chose love?

What if we didn’t get the puppy we wanted, but we got the one we needed? Or maybe the one who needed us.

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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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The Real Science of Snow

December 30, 2021 Comments Off on The Real Science of Snow

We had a Covid Christmas, and nothing more needs to be said about that. Except it does. Because my daughter spent most of winter break isolated in her room, showing her face only at meals over Facetime, and again at read-aloud time, but otherwise building LEGO creations and making origami and decorating her room with paper snowflakes that her brother made for her. All behind the closed door of her bedroom.

It was awful for us. Except, strangely, it did not seem that awful for her. Her symptoms were fairly mild, thankfully. She smiled the widest smiles at us through the computer screen. “My graphic novels are keeping me company,” she reassured us. One day, she was heard giggling for hours on end. “What’s so funny?” we called through the door. “I’m putting my Babas through the circus.” (That’s what she calls her stuffed sheep.) She missed cuddling with us terribly—she said so multiple times—and she was a bit nervous about how she would open her stocking on Christmas morning (we let her out and all donned masks). But she had the very fine company of her imagination, and that turned out to be a gift better than anything Santa could ever bring.

We can’t know the depth of our children’s resilience until that resilience has been tested. And without question, the past two years have put resilience on display for our children. Somehow, these children have only become more loving, more courageous, more introspective, more imaginative.

Childhood can be a solitary time. We all have memories of feeling awkward or excluded or misunderstood. We have endless memories of waiting—the minutes ticking by in excruciating slowness—for a parent to play a game with us, to do that thing with us, to stop talking on the phone already. We have memories of being sick in bed, of staring endlessly at the ceiling until shadows and cracks turned into scenes of animals to entertain us.

I think children are drawn to stories that speak to solitariness. Stories that don’t diminish the emptiness of that solitariness, or the fear or sadness that can reside inside it, but intentionally dwell on the possibilities embedded there. The wonder. Even, perhaps, the magic. Stories that demonstrate how solitariness can be a beautiful thing, a fortifying thing, so long as we are secure in the knowledge that we are still held in the strong, secure embrace of those who love us.

The Irish writer Maggie O’Frarrell, who has penned some of my favorite reads for adults (Hamnet, This Must be the Place), makes a spectacular children’s debut with Where Snow Angels Go (Ages 6-10), a longform picture book, with gorgeous illustrations by Daniela Jaglemka Terrazzini on each of its 67 pages. It’s not, at first glance, a story of solitariness; rather, it hails the companionship of a “snow angel,” born of past snowfalls, who watches quietly and mostly invisibly over a young girl through the seasons. And yet, this girl, our protagonist, is often alone. She’s sick in bed, or staring up at the night sky, or tearing down a hill on her bike. She’s marveling at the universe, she’s working out its questions in her own solitariness. Her parents are close by but rarely pictured; the snow angel maybe a figment of her imagination, maybe not.

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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 Kicks Off: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

October 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

It’s getting to be the most wonderful time of year: Gift Guide season! Over the next few weeks, you’ll be treated to round ups of picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade books, young adult books, and specialty books with a gifty flair. This year, I’m especially excited to be partnering with Old Town Books, a fantastic indie here in Alexandria, VA, where I’ll be presenting my full Gift Guide LIVE and IN PERSON at 7pm on November 12 and 13, with a chance to shop with me afterwards (get your tickets here!).

Traditionally, I kick off every Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year. (Some past picks are here, here, here, and here.) I recognize that choosing books for loved ones is immensely personal, but sometimes a book comes along that checks all the boxes. It’s beautiful. It’s original. It’s hefty, packed with details that demand repeat readings. It’s got a nostalgic charm that appeals to us oldies doing the gifting. To hold it feels inherently special.

Towering toadstools! All I’m saying is that there aren’t many books you want to clutch to your chest and carry around with you, so when you find one, you just want everyone to have it, OK?

Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest (Ages 4-8), by the extraordinary Phoebe Wahl—I blinked and missed her 2020 picture book for last year’s Gift Guide, and I’ll not make that mistake again—is an anthology of four stories, one for each season. It stars a cheery, capable, caring little witch with a pointed red cap and a fondness for messy braids and fair isle sweaters. Little Witch Hazel lives alone at the base of a tree in the enchanting Mosswood forest, surrounded by trees and waterfalls and a community of gnomes, elves, goblins, trolls, dryads, anthropomorphic amphibians, and tiny talking mammals. He days are spent divided between work and play, between helping others and tending to herself.

It has been a long two years, and I feel like we all deserve to spend some time in a place where tea cakes and twinkling lights are always in fashion, where coziness and cocoa reign supreme, and where the wonders of the wilderness are just an acorn’s throw away. A place where we can dip our tired toes in crystal clear water one minute and ride on an owl’s back the next. A place where creatures watch out for one another, repay favors, and are always happy for an impromptu dance party.

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An Anthem to the “And”

September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments

It has taken me a lot of growing up to realize how quickly the world demands that we put labels on ourselves, and how tempting it then becomes as parents to fit our own children into the same tidy little boxes. Even the questions we routinely ask of our children and their peers—Is she shy? Is he artistic? Is she kind?—assume two fixed outcomes: yes or no. Sides are chosen, identities are constructed; and then, inevitably, confusion sets in when the data points don’t consistently match up.

A few years out of college, when I was working in advertising, I attended a retreat designed around improving problem-solving skills. As part of it, we had to take the Myers-Brigg personality test. What was revolutionary to me wasn’t that I received at the end a set of letters to represent my dominant personality traits, but that each of those letters was plotted on a spectrum. I expected, for example, that I would score as extroverted (E)—I’ve always been social, albeit preferring intimate groups—but what surprised me was that I was quite close to the midway mark between extroverted (E) and introverted (I). This seems incredibly obvious to me now, but I had never previously considered that someone could be both things at the same time. That I could derive equal energy from social interactions and from being by myself. That I didn’t have to choose. That my identity might run on a spectrum, rather than conforming to a binary system.

When we fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as one way or another, it’s not only limiting, it’s fundamentally inaccurate. We, all of us, are walking contradictions. It’s what makes us interesting. It’s what makes us human. Maybe we get nervous walking into a new classroom, but we can belt out a solo on stage. Maybe we can’t draw the likeness of anything, but we love moving paint around on canvas. Maybe we have a hard time sharing crayons at school, but we’ll sit and read to our baby sister at home when she’s sad. What if there was a way to encourage our children to take these “but”s and turn them into an “and”s? What if instead of contradicting one another, they are just two true things?

When I first opened Divya Srinivasan’s triumphant new picture book, What I Am (Ages 3-7), I thought it was going to be a book about a Brown girl responding to a microaggression that’s all too familiar to those whose non-whiteness doesn’t fit the idea of American that some people insist on holding onto, even though all evidence points to the contrary. It’s the “What are you?” question.

And it is a book about that. A beautiful, validating mirror for an Indian American reader.

AND it’s something more. Because, as our young narrator reflects on this question, she realizes that she is a whole lot more than her race or her ethnic heritage. And that many of these things might seem like contradictions—only they aren’t. They’re just her.

What this book is—and why I hope every child gets a chance to read it—is a testament to the complexities, to the nuance, within each and every one of us. It’s a kind of roadmap to how we might think about our own identities—and how we might express them to a world bent on incessantly inquiring.

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New Summery Graphic Novels for Ages 7-15

July 29, 2021 § 1 Comment

I can hardly keep up with all the graphic novels hitting bookshelves these days, but I’m not complaining, since they continue to make readers out of my kids. (Not convinced they count as real reading? Read what I said here.)

I had initially intended this to be a round-up of new favorites, only I found too many to fit in a single post. So, I’m limiting today’s post to favorite new graphic novels with summer themes. I realize back-to-school season is right around the corner (for some, it’s already here), but in our house, we are in blissful denial. We’ve just wrapped up summer swim team, and my kids are packing their bags for sleepaway camp. We’ve still got time with friends in Maine, time with cousins in Boston, and a family reunion in Rhode Island—fingers and toes and more fingers crossed for good health—and we’re determined to savor these precious days. It seems only right that our reading material should match the view outside. I hope you agree.

(Sadly, this means my Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year so far won’t make the cut, since it’s not set in summer. Those of you on Instagram know what I’m talking about. But the rest of you will have to wait for the ring of the school bell.)

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Summer’s Sweetness

July 22, 2021 Comments Off on Summer’s Sweetness

I’ve been caught in the hot, sticky, delicious embrace of summer (OK, but a little less heat, please), and it has kept me from showing up here as much as I would like. When I’m silent here, I’m usually still active on Instagram, so you can get lots of book recommendations there, but I do hope to get a few blog posts penned in the next few weeks (I’ve got a big graphic novel round-up planned, so stay tuned!).

But today, let’s talk about one of my favorite picture books of the year, an especially fitting one for this mid-summer sweet spot we find ourselves in. We’re perfectly poised to reflect on summer’s arc, having traded the tentative newness of June for the wild abandon of July, with a creeping awareness that the final days of August will bring it all to a bittersweet end. When Lola Visits (Ages 4-8), lyrically penned by Michelle Sterling (fellow kid lit reviewer) and evocatively illustrated by Aaron Asis, perfectly expresses this arc by capturing the smells, tastes, and sensations of summer, as experienced by a young girl alongside her visiting Filipino grandmother.

When Lola Visits does something that isn’t easy to do in a picture book. It imparts a culturally specific experience while simultaneously invoking the universal wonder of this special season. It’s a book that asks us to reflect on the way we experience summer, to give language to our own observations, and to honor the richness of our memories from one year to the next.

For my children, at least right now, summer is the smell of chlorine, the tight hug of a swim cap, and the taste of glazed doughnuts, cherry popsicles, and concessions burgers with American cheese. In a few weeks, that will shift to the squish of pine needles beneath flip-flopped feet, the sharp bang of a cabin door, and a Styrofoam cup of steaming hot chocolate on a cool Maine morning where fog sits heavy on the lake.

For me, much like the young protagonist in When Lola Visits, summer will always conjure memories of my grandmothers, both of whom I would visit every year. Summer was the taste of warm popovers with melting pads of butter, enjoyed under an umbrella with my one grandmother, after a morning spent pouring over sawdusty cases of pinned bugs at the science museum, where she volunteered in the entomology department. Summer was make-your-own sundaes before Bingo night with my other grandmother, the excitement of watching the pot of money overflow with American and Canadian dollars outdone only by the anticipation of going to the water slide park the following day. Summer was a sticky tin straight from the fridge with chocolate-peanut-butter-Rice-Krispies cookies. The smoky smoothness of blue beach glass. The experience of hugging an older body, with its faint smell of talcum powder, soft, spidery-veined skin, and the security of a love that knows no bounds.

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The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

May 13, 2021 Comments Off on The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

How do you choose the chapter books you read to your kids? Maybe you consider whether the subject matter will appeal to them. Maybe you focus on what kind of characters they’ll identify with. Maybe you know they’ll be more likely to sit still for a funny story than one with long descriptive passages. Maybe you reach for a book because it’s one your child has asked you to read, or one you think you should read, or one by an author your child loves.

Whatever your criteria, it’s likely you’re thinking more about the audience than about yourself.

What if I told you your audience doesn’t matter?

OK, that’s not entirely true. Of course, your audience matters. Especially with younger children, there will always be ages and maturity levels to consider. But do you know what matters more than all the things I listed above? What matters the most?

The secret to picking a chapter book your kids will want to hear night after night is to pick one you will enjoy reading.

Your enthusiasm for what you’re reading influences your children’s enjoyment more than anything else. When you’re into a story, your eyes light up. Your voice is more dynamic. You are infinitely more likely to make that story enticing. Suddenly, the dishes in the sink or your buzzing phone fade into the background. Suddenly, there is nothing more important, nothing more exciting, than the mutual experience of immersing yourselves in a fictional world.

It’s tremendously liberating. Don’t enjoy fantasy? Don’t read it. Bored to tears by the likes of Magic Tree House? Save ‘em for your kids to read on their own. By reading aloud to your children, especially after they are reading on their own, you are giving them a precious gift. You’re choosing to prioritize reading in the home. I’m giving you permission to enjoy it as much as your kids do. Heck, I’m telling you your enjoyment will nearly guarantee their enjoyment—and, consequently, all the benefits that come with it.

For me, it always, always comes back to the writing. I’m a sucker for good writing. I love the way beautiful language rolls off the tongue. I love the drama of a perfectly placed sentence. I love smart, funny dialogue. Most of all, I love writing that’s tight. (Ironic, I know, since succinctness is clearly not my own specialty.) If a paragraph starts to drift or ramble, if the pacing of a story wanes, then my attention breaks. I’m no longer present. My heart’s not in it. The magic is broken…for a spell.

In that vein, I enjoyed every moment of Elana K. Arnold’s The House That Wasn’t There (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which I just finished reading to my ten-year-old daughter. Yes, the story itself has plenty to recommend it—who wouldn’t love middle-school realism with a few teleporting cats thrown in for good measure? But what struck me the entire time I was reading it was how good the writing is. Every sentence is an absolute pleasure to read out loud. It’s tight. It flows beautifully. It filled us with that same warm fuzzies as previous favorites like this, this, and this.

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The Stories We Need to Ask For

April 8, 2021 § 1 Comment

Occasionally, a book comes along that is so extraordinary, I’m daunted at the prospect of reviewing it. I worry I could never do it justice. I wish I could just say, This is hands down the most moving picture book I’ve read so far this year, and I want you to get it without knowing anything about it. Maybe, if you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll do just that. But I will try and find something eloquent to say for the rest of you.

Years ago, my husband helped his grandparents—first generation Italian-Americans—pack up their house to move into a retirement community. In the crawlspace, he uncovered boxes of mementos, all of which his grandmother had at one point tied up using the elastics from her husband’s old underwear. This discovery became one the family would chuckle about for years (Who salvages underwear elastic?!). But it was also a window into the past, a resourcefulness triggered by the Great Depression sixty years earlier, a self-reliance that perhaps belied pain, worry, wanting, loss. Only now does my husband express regret at not probing for the stories underscoring something he accepted as mere frugality.

All of us grow up surrounded by family history, including the cultural heritage this history often represents. Yet, as children, we often take this history for granted. At best, we’re blinded by our own fixation on the present; at worst, we’re embarrassed by the quirks of our elders, by their old-fashioned ways, by their insistence in holding fast to ideas or customs from their past.

Especially where immigrants are concerned, this silencing is further accentuated by the systemic racism underlying American society. Asian Americans, for example, are expected to fulfill the Model Minority Myth, to work hard towards prosperity, while keeping quiet about their struggles, past or present. The recent media attention on the massive spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans—up 1,900% since the start of the pandemic—has begun to open our eyes to an experience far from new, one we should have been talking about ages ago.

In the spirit of lifting up voices of Asian descent—and because this poignant story is at its heart about the value of listening to stories of the past—I urge you to purchase Watercress (Ages 5-9), Andrea Wang’s powerful autobiographical picture book, evocatively illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Jason Chin, who studied traditional Chinese landscape painting to infuse the story with added authenticity. (If Jason Chin doesn’t get his long-overdue Caldecott Medal for this, you will hear me screaming.) Against a backdrop of 1970s rural Ohio, a girl and her brother help their parents, immigrants from China, pick watercress on the side of a ditch to be served that evening. The immediate humiliation of the act later transforms into an opportunity for the girl to connect with her mother’s past life in China—and the grief she still carries in her heart.

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Losing a Dog

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

When my son was four and our dog died, I checked out a pile of themed picture books from the library and we read them over and over for two weeks. Every time I asked my son how he was feeling, or whether he wanted to talk about what had happened, he walked over to the pile, grabbed a book off the top, and climbed into my lap. It shouldn’t have surprised me—after all, I have always turned to books to process life experiences—but it did. Before my eyes, I watched this small boy silently work out stuff right there on the page.

One of the most common requests I get from parents is for books about losing a dog or cat. There is no lack of picture books on the subject, but most of them are only OK. Some are beautiful, even profound, acknowledgments of loss—like this and this—and even though I love them, they tend towards the abstract. Others fall into the same trap that we parents do when our children are in pain: they are quick to reassure, to provide distraction, to provide replacement (The dog is happy in heaven! Let’s go pick out a new puppy!). Many pay lip service to the emotional upheaval that is grief, but few model what it means to make space for it.

In my personal experience, grief does not abate without time. Time can’t work alone, it won’t solve all things, but it creates distance, and with distance comes perspective and growth and opportunity. But in the wake of pain, time is at best uncomfortable; at worst it is infuriating, terrifying, and unfathomable. It’s no wonder we don’t like to acknowledge it, much less encourage our children to sit in it.

And yet, here’s a new picture book that does just that—and does it brilliantly. In Matthew Cordell’s Bear Island (Ages 4-8), a full year passes from the moment a girl loses her dog to the time her family welcomes a new one. In Cordell’s expert hands, this year unfolds slowly across every page turn. It unfolds while a girl spends her days on an island with a stick and a bear for company. It unfolds in the physical and mental space of the girl’s anger, sadness, boredom, regret, and fear.

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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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