Gift Guide 2018: The Best for Last?

December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

Shhhhh. The final post for my 2018 Gift Guide is here, but I don’t want my husband to know. (And not just because he would like me to start doing things around the house again—sheesh.) You see, I’ve written to Santa and asked him to put this book into my husband’s stocking. (And not just because the kids would fight over it.) If there was ever a guaranteed Christmas Morning Crowd Pleaser, this book is it. I simply cannot wait to read this (oh right, let my husband read this) to our group as the tissue paper flies. Mwahahaha! « Read the rest of this entry »

Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did. « Read the rest of this entry »

What to Listen to With Your Kids (Audio Book Roundup)

September 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.

So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.

Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes. « Read the rest of this entry »

Talking Out the Scary

October 22, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily JenkinsMy daughter loves to tell us that she isn’t afraid of anything (Me thinks thou doth protest too much!). While JP is cowering under a pile of stuffed animals during a thunderstorm, Emily will announce, “I’m not a bit scared of thunder.” Last Halloween, when JP screamed bloody murder as a suspended bloody hand lunged towards him in a haunted house, Emily was quick to point out, “That’s not even real.”

But ask her to go upstairs to get something in the evening, when the lights haven’t been turned on yet, and she will rattle off every excuse in the book as to why she can’t. “I’m super busy helping my baby use the potty right now.” Not surprisingly, JP can’t resist taunting her: “Are you scared of the dark, Emily?” “I’m not scared, JP. I just don’t like it. Also, sometimes you jump out at me.”

In case you missed my list of favorite Halloweeny-but-not-Halloween-specific books, which was featured last week on local blog DIY Del Ray, you can find it here. But before we wrap up one of the best holidays for reading aloud, I want to tell you about one other new picture book. It features ghosts and witches, but it also introduces a broader conversation about what children find scary—and how talking can sometimes be the best cure for what lurks in the dark.

Written by Emily Jenkins (who has yet to write a book I haven’t loved) and charmingly illustrated by Hyewon Yum, The Fun Book of Scary Stuff (Ages 5-8) is told almost entirely through dialogue, via speech bubbles (this is becoming quite the theme lately) between a little boy and his two (talking) dogs. Our protagonist has made a list of “everything that frightens” him, and as he runs down the list in front of his pets, the dogs expose different flaws in his logic. Witches might “put spells on you,” the larger of the two dogs concedes, but “what are they cooking in that cauldron?” (Food trumps fear if you’re a bull terrier.)

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Trolls are on the list, because, according to the boy, “they’re just gross. All bubbly and warty.”

When did you see trolls? [asks the dog.]

What?

When did you see trolls?

Um. Never.

You keep being scared of stuff that probably doesn’t exist.

So?

I’m just saying.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

The banter between child and canines is equal parts hilarious and endearing. Because it turns out that even macho dogs have their limits. Halfway through, the story moves from monsters and trolls to real-life occurrences, like sharks, or the cousin who once put ice cubes down the boy’s pants (“two times!”). Or the “bossy” crossing guard by the school. “I’m scared of her, too,” confesses the pug, “She smalls like gasoline.”

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Bit by bit, the dogs begin to betray some of their own vulnerability, culminating in the book’s highly entertaining conclusion, where the boy drags the dogs into a closet with him and closes the door, attempting to illustrate his greatest fear: the dark (“Nameless Evil could be lurking!”). The dogs start freaking out and howling and freaking out about who is howling and the whole thing is downright hysterical to my children who, of course, are listening to the story in a brightly lit room tucked around me on our comfy sofa.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

And yet, who saves the day by calmly reminding everyone that you can turn on the light? That’s right: it’s our young human hero who answers the distress calls of his four-legged friends. In the process, he realizes that he might be braver than he thinks. Sometimes.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Somewhere between humor and heart, the book subtly delivers an empowering message to its reader: It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to be afraid of things both imagined and real. It’s OK for us to poke fun at our neuroses, and it’s equally OK to curl up in a ball and howl.

But when the lights go out, before we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the worst, we might try to look deep within us to see if we can remember how to turn on the light.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, but don’t give up reading spooky-themed stories when November 1 arrives. Reading and talking about the dark throughout the year makes it a little sillier, a little more transparent, and a little easier to navigate.

Other Favorite Picture Books About the Dark:
Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night, by Jon Davis (Ages 4-8)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)
The Dark, by Lemony Snicker and Jon Klassen (Ages 5-10)

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Less Creepy, More Crawly

October 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

"I Don't Like Snakes" by Nicola DaviesAt a time of year when people (ahem, my husband) seem to think it’s funny to leave plastic rats lying casually around the house, I thought there might be some value in remembering that even the creepiest and crawliest of creatures have some pretty awe-inspiring merits. Or, at least, maybe we don’t need to run screaming all the time.

Recently, I’ve been noticing that there seems to be a new kind of science picture book afoot—a refreshing companion to the National Geographic-types, which pair a myriad of facts with in-your-face photography. Don’t get me wrong: my son loves himself a fat, meaty information-packed book. My daughter, on the other hand, won’t touch one with a ten foot pole. Maybe it’s that she’s only five; maybe it’s a gender thing; or maybe it’s just that she’s wired differently. But I tend to think she craves the same kind of information—just in a different format.

Allow me to introduce two books in this new genre, which for lack of a more official term I am calling Conversational Non-Fiction. These are picture books with disarming first-person narrators, whimsical illustrations, a hefty dose of humor, and loads of true and fascinating facts slipped casually between the pages. These books—at least the two I’m about to discuss—are also the first informational picture books that my daughter has ever requested to hear again and again.

It’s no surprise that the first of these new books, I Don’t Like Snakes (Ages 5-10), is written by Nicola Davies, who has always had a gentle, narrative touch when it comes to non-fiction. (Heck, she made MICROBES both interesting and comprehensible to me (I mean, my children) with last year’s exceptional Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes.)

I Don’t Like Snakes stars a hair-bow-toting, fashionably-dressed little girl, whose Nightmare Come True is that she lives with a family that has snakes—lots of snakes—as  pets. (I, for one, totally feel her horror: I’m still recovering from the time I was nine and slept over at my friend Joanna’s house, and she had a boa constrictor that slithered right up to MY SLEEPING BAG. Nope. No thank you. No can do snakes as pets.)

As our heroine stares disbelieving at her family, casually adorned with snakes curled around their neck, she informs them for the 100th time, “I really, really, REALLY don’t like snakes.” Her father, mother, and brother ask her the only possible question: WHY?

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

For every one of the girl’s responses (They slither! They’re slimy! They have flicky tongues and creepy eyes!), her family offers a simple but intriguing explanation. “Snakes HAVE to slither,” said my mom. “They don’t have legs, so they bend like an S and use their ribs and scales to grip. It’s the only way they can move.” Illustrator Luciano Lozano then gives us the first of many full-page factual asides, this one about the three different types of slithering.

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

A snake’s skin is surprisingly dry; it only looks slimy because of its “shiny, see-through outer skin,” which it sheds, “like your old clothes that get too scruffy or too small.” It turns out this is exactly the kind of language that connects with both my daughter and the girl in the book. Her dad even sits down and draws mosaics with her, to illustrate the different warning and camouflage patterns of a snake’s scales.

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

“OK,” I said. “Maybe now that I know something about them, I do like snakes—just a little bit.” And that’s when Brother sees his opening. “Well, in that case, I’ll tell you something that’ll really scare you—how they kill things.” And here ensues an appropriately gruesome exposition on poison and strangulation.

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

In the book’s final pages, our heroine reveals a surprise of her own for her family. She shares her research on a subject of personal interest: the different ways that snakes have babies. It turns out that everyone brings something to the table in the name of science, and through understanding comes greater appreciation all around.

"I Don't Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany BartonThe (unseen) narrator of Bethany Barton’s equally charming—albeit more boisterous—I’m Trying to Love Spiders (Ages 4-8), doesn’t prove quite as easy to convince as our snake girl, but she (or he) does make many valiant attempts. In this case, the narrator already knows quite a bit about arachnids—for instance, they’ve been around for millions of years, and their web-swinging skills make them “like bug ninjas.” She reminds herself of these and many other talents, as she stares down each one that scurries across the page.

Before inadvertently squishing it to death.

Not surprisingly, the most fun for the reader comes from helping the narrator smoosh these eight-legged, eight-eyed monstrosities; there’s even the outline of a human hand to show where the reader is intended to put hers. (I can’t help but have flashbacks to my children’s shrieks of laughter each time I read them Ethan Long’s inane Tickle the Duck when they were toddlers—blessedly out of print now—where the narrator keeps taunting the reader, whatever you do, don’t tickle the duck…).

Still, our narrator is determined to suppress her squashing instinct, at least occasionally. After each unsuccessful attempt, we are treated to more surprisingly interesting facts about spiders, like their different web construction techniques, or their absence of teeth (“spiders rely on their venom to dissolve their dinners, making bugs soft and slurpable!”).

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton

The most amount of time is spent on the question of just how poisonous spiders really are to humans, and this got the attention of my kids BIG TIME. As it turns out, only a few spiders—the female black widow and the brown recluse—“are poisonous enough to ruin your day.” My weather-obsessed son’s favorite takeaway from the book: “fatal spider bites are so rare, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning!”

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton

Come on, now, let’s try to pet the spider.

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton

Oops.

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton

As luck would have it, just when the narrator finally comes around on the topic of spiders—after watching one make quick work of the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats buzzing in circles around the page—she is confronted by a new “frenemy” in town: the American cockroach. Whether there are any redeeming characteristics of the cockroach, though, is left for another day (in the meantime, get your shoe ready).

So, this Halloween, when you’re out trick or treating with your kids and some hairy animatronic spider jumps out at you, or you hear a rattling sound from behind a bush, or those freakin’ plastic rats keep showing up under your pillow, do your kids a favor and try not to scream. Too loud.

Because there’s a new PSA in town. I’m calling it Conversational Non-Fiction. And it just might get your kids to give ophiology or entomology or arachnology or creepology a chance.

Other Favorites About Taking the Creepy Out of the Crawly:
Disgusting Critters Early-Reader Series: The Spider, The Worm, The Slug, The Fly, Head Lice & The Rat, by Elise Gravel (super fantastic, and you’ll notice there isn’t one about the roach)

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Review copy provided by Candlewick and Penguin, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Yes, I am Recommending a Book About Zombie Tag

October 1, 2015 § 5 Comments

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormickYou know when you read something and you realize, WAIT, you mean other people’s children do that, too? You mean other mothers feel that way, too? You mean I’m not spinning alone in some upside-down bubble in this roller coaster we call parenting?

And then you think, I need to read this more often (much cheaper than therapy).

That’s the central driving force behind my willingness to oblige my children and read to them Scott McCormick and R.H. Lazzell’s graphic chapter series about the illustrious troublemaker, Mr. Pants, over and over again. As a general rule, I’ll usually do whatever it takes to avoid reading graphic novels aloud (yes, I know they can be amazing, but I find them incredibly awkward to read aloud; plus, my eight year old is so obsessed with all things comics that he’s perfectly happy to read them quietly to himself).

Don’t get me wrong: the Mr. Pants books (Ages 6-10) are fan-freaking-tastic for developing or reluctant readers to read themselves. I’m just saying that I will gladly pounce on the chance to read them aloud. Because, well, it’s like reading about our life. ONLY FUNNIER. Much, much funnier. As in, tears running down my face as my kids roll around on the floor clutching their sides. It’s possible that I’m just really, really good at this…although I have faith that you’ll rise to the challenge, too.

"Mr. Pants" series by Scott McCormick

Mr. Pants (nickname: Slacks) is a young, orange, anthropomorphic cat, who lives in a modern apartment with twin feline sister Foot Foot (nickname: Feet) and baby feline sister Grommy (no nickname)—as well as their distinctly nondescript human mother. (In the boy to girl ratio, Mr. Pants is severely outnumbered.)

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

The fact that Mr. Pants is a cat is irrelevant. What you need to know is that this amped-up, prank-loving, sister-teasing, physically-comedic, competition-obsessed, explosion-sound-making character is none other than your son (oops, did I say your son? I meant my son).

Only—and here’s the icing on the cake—as much as Mr. Pants may be a Whole Lotta Trouble, he’s equal parts Big ‘ol Softie. Think Calvin and Hobbes if Calvin used more innocent language and had a baby sister he couldn’t resist. You getting this?

In the first installment, Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time!, we learn about Mr. Pants’ propensity for bribery: his disdain for back-to-school shopping (especially when he gets conned into a princess unicorn backpack) is placated only by the promise of a family game of laser tag.

"Mr. Pants: It's Go Time" by Scott McCormick

The second book, Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action!, dives deeper into the laugh-out-loud sibling dynamics at hand (Mr. Pants must help host his sister’s Fancy Hat Tea Party), while also revealing Pants’ budding success (or not) as a documentary film maker.

"Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action" by Scott McCormick

And, now—just in time for Halloween—I’m positively giddy to introduce you to Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet!, where Mr. Pants’ dream of winning a ten-pound bag of candy in Zombie Tag in his grandparents’ town is shattered by a blizzard that strands his family overnight in an airport on Halloween. So much for Mom’s best-laid plans.

Can we talk for a moment about Mr. Pants’ mom? She ROCKS. She is my literary parenting idol. Sure, she occasionally falls asleep reading to her kids. Sure, she has been known to raise her voice at the dinner table (haven’t we all?). And, sure, she once made Halloween costumes for her children that were so embarrassing, they refused to leave the house to trick or treat (hey, crafting isn’t my thing either).

"Mr Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

But she never fails to see the humor in a situation. And she isn’t afraid to partake in her kids’ shenanigans, especially if it means beating them at their own contests and bets. (Did I mention she also kicks butt at laser tag?)

"Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action" by Scott McCormick

But I digress. Because we’re supposed to be talking about Halloween—and how to save it when you’re stranded in an airport. As Mr. Pants quickly discovers, games of tag on the People Movers and races in wheelchairs only work until Airport Security catches you.

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

It doesn’t take long before Mr. Pants and his sisters are bemoaning (you can hear the take-no-prisoners whining, can’t you?) the fact that nothing around them looks or feels like their favorite holiday.

Never underestimate maternal resourcefulness. With a little make-up from her purse, Mom transforms her brood into something kinda sorta resembling zombies. Halloween Airport Style commences with a widespread game of Zombie Tag, joined by the other stranded passengers and airport personnel, big and small. Even the disgruntled Security Guard can’t resist.

The only catch? Mom thinks that all this talk of eating brains is a little archaic. The sisters are quick on the uptake: how about VEGAN zombies who only eat GRAINS? As in quinoa and oats and barley and amaranth (say what?).

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

That’s right.

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

No, you aren’t misunderstanding me.

These books are just that good. They’re just that entertaining. They’re just, well, one more day in the life of modern parenting.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise BroachWherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.

This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.

Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.

As far as I know, he  never had any nightmares.

And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.

And yet, still no nightmares.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).

The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.

Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).

Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top.  Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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