Middle-Grade Round Up (Or What I’ve Been Doing on Instagram)

April 4, 2019 § 2 Comments

I’ve been feeling a teensy bit guilty that those of you not on Instagram are missing out on all the mini reviews I’ve been doing over there, particularly of middle-grade books. These books are too good to miss! So, I’ve decided to do occasional “round-up” posts to catch you up. Several of these titles are brand-spanking new; the rest are new within the past year.

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Putting One Book in Front of the Other

October 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

My children have heard a lot about the Supreme Court in recent weeks—mostly delivered via their parents and mostly accompanied by outcries of frustration and despair. Still, as much as I want them to understand my concerns with what today’s political actions reveal about the values of our leadership, I also don’t want my discourse to taint (at least, not permanently) the way they view our government’s enduring institutions.

In short, our family needed a pick-me-up. I needed both to remind myself and to teach my children about the Supreme Court Justices who, right now, are fighting for fairness under the law—and who arrived there with poise, valor, humanity, and moral clarity. « Read the rest of this entry »

Celebrating Our Inner Mermaid

June 21, 2018 § 4 Comments

Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.

In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Places We Carry With Us

May 17, 2018 § 9 Comments

 Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.

The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.

“I was homesick!” « Read the rest of this entry »

Going Forth with Love

January 25, 2018 § 1 Comment

I heard a story shortly before the holidays which I haven’t been able to get out of my head. It was from an associate who serves with me on the Capitol Choices Committee. Normally, in our monthly meetings, we are all business: we get in, we debate that month’s new titles, and we get out. But, at the end of our December meeting, this librarian asked to deliver a few personal remarks. She told us how she had been in New York City the weekend prior (funny enough, so had I) and had been walking on Sunday evening to Penn Station for her train home. It was blustery, growing colder by the minute, and the streets were still dusted with the previous day’s snow. About half a block ahead of her was a man. She described him as middle-aged, well-dressed in a dark wool overcoat, and carrying a briefcase. Keeping pace behind him, she watched as the man suddenly took off his coat, draped it over a homeless man sitting in a doorway, and kept walking. All without missing a beat. « Read the rest of this entry »

Introduction to Snow (Peter McCarty Style)

January 22, 2015 § 6 Comments

"First Snow" by Peter McCartyOn our first snowfall of the year, my seven year old was out the door after taking his last bite of oatmeal. My four year old, never wanting to be but a second behind her brother, yelled at the slamming door, “I’m coming, too!” Then, she took careful inventory of the pile of last year’s snow pants and snow boots and waterproof mittens, which I had tossed down from the top of the closet.

“Mommy, I don’t know if I remember.”

“Here, I’ll help you,” I offered, and I showed her which way to zip up the snow pant overalls and how to wedge her little feet down into the bulky snow boots.

“My feet feel funny. They feel like they’re standing on air,” she said.

I opened the door, felt the snowy wet wind barrel down the front of my pajamas and did a quick parental, “Off you go,” my hand nudging her back.

“Mommy, I don’t know if I remember,” she said again, staring at the two inches of powder on the ground.

“I need to close the door, honey, but you’ll be OK. I think JP has gone around to the back, so you’ll find him there. Have fun!” (Gosh, we sound so annoying sometimes, don’t we?)

The door closed behind her, and I watched from the window as she stood, frozen in place, for several moments on the porch, my little girl somewhere inside the puffy layers of down and nylon. At last, she stepped off the landing and began to take tentative, stiff-legged steps into the cold, white-covered world, slowly making her way around the front of the house in search of her brother.

And it hit me. At four, there are times when my Emily seems so grown up, prattling on about what she did at school, using words like “actually” and “unfortunately,” or walking into a restaurant and reminding me where we sat a year ago when we were last there. Last winter, for the first time since moving to Virginia, we had several legitimate (!) snow days. We went skiing. We went sledding. We built snowmen. And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Emily remembers doing those things. But does she really remember what it felt like? Can I, for just one second, put myself inside her heavy pink boots, lose my hands inside her pillowy mittens, and imagine how alien the snow must seem? How abrasive the cold and wet feels on her nose, on her little cheeks? How unsure she must be, setting up to take those first steps, wondering if she’ll sink into the snow and just keep going down?

A few days later, I purchased First Snow, the newest picture book by one of my favorite author-illustrators: the evocative, the subtle, the genius ink-wielding Peter McCarty. McCarty won the 2007 Caldecott for Hondo and Fabian, although he won my heart a year earlier with his stirring, perfectly composed Moon Plane, about a little boy gazing up at an airplane and imagining what it would feel like to be up in the sky (still one of my favorite picture books EVER). But McCarty may perhaps best be known these days for his anthropomorphic animal stories, starring a cat named Henry and a bunny named Chloe, who first appear in Henry in Love (perfect for approaching Valentine’s Day).

Henry and Chloe make cameo appearances in McCarty’s newest book. Only now, with his signature shaded ink sketches atop rich creamy paper, and his talent for choosing only the bare minimum of words to express human emotion, McCarty takes on the subject of snow—specifically, an anthropomorphic dog named Pedro’s first encounter with the white stuff. Pedro, presumably raised in a tropical climate, comes to visit his cousins Sancho, Bella, Lola, Ava, and Maria in their wintery home (I love the purposeful inclusion of a Hispanic family here).

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

On Pedro’s first morning in his new environment, the cousins storm into his room to announce that it has snowed all night. “‘Put on your boots! Put on your coats! Put on your hat and mittens! We are going outside!’”

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

“I have never seen snow. I don’t think I will like it,” said Pedro.
“Why not?”
“Because it is cold. And I don’t like cold.”

The skeptical Pedro is dragged outside by his enthusiastic, bundled-up cousins, who advise him to move around to stay warm, and then show him how to make snow angels and catch snowflakes on his tongue. Reluctant Pedro is having nothing of it. “It tastes cold,” he says. In typical McCarty style, most of the book’s narrative is told through these short, conversational exchanges. The child reader is left, in the pauses that follow and the details of the illustrations, to draw his own conclusions about the characters’ motives and feelings.

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

When the cousins meet up with the other neighborhood kids (enter Henry and Chloe and their siblings), the group escorts Pedro to the top of the hill for some sledding.

“Why do you go up?” asked Pedro.
“To go back down,” said Henry.

(Can you think of a simpler exchange between two children that more perfectly captures the innocence, the bafflement, the wonder of beholding snow play for the first time?)

The first time I shared this story with my daughter, as we watched Pedro fly down the sledding hill, Emily literally grabbed my arm. Outwardly, she was squealing with laughter, but her firm grip suggested that she was also feeling some of Pedro’s fear. After all, as evidenced the other day, she knows firsthand the uncertainly of venturing into snow-covered territory.

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

As Pedro hits a bump and flies off his saucer, we as readers brace ourselves for the worst. Then, we catch the smile on his face, a smile that widens when—finally surrendering to the wet and the cold—he rolls around where he has landed and begins throwing snowballs at the others. Some invisible line has been crossed. We can all breathe more easily now.

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

Pedro reminds us that firsts are never easy. As we parents sometimes forget, seconds and thirds can be pretty scary, too. The world outside our front doors is vast and changing. It’s going to be a great ride, but sometimes we need to take our time getting there.

Other Favorite Picture Books Written & Illustrated by Peter McCarty:
Moon Plane (Ages 1-4)
Hondo and Fabian (Ages 2-5)
Fabian Escapes (Ages 2-5)
T is for Terrible (Ages 3-6)
Jeremy Draws a Monster (Ages 3-6)
The Monster Returns (Ages 3-6)
Henry in Love (Ages 4-8)
Chloe (Ages 4-8)

For a list of other fantastic stories about snow, check out this post with its long list at the end!

All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!


July 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

Soccer Star by Mina JavaherbinWe are not a sports-watching family (my husband jokes that he lost TV sports in marriage). But then came the World Cup. All four of us are possessed over the World Cup, and I can’t entirely explain it. I mean, it can’t just be the hotness of the players, the incredible headers that out of nowhere tip a speeding ball into the net; the non-stop, pinball-like passing. We scream at the TV (“Mommy, you are using your outside voice!” I’ve been reprimanded more than once); we jump up and down and hug each other over goals; we run into the backyard and kick the ball at halftime; and we despair when the US team fights the fight of its life and comes up short.

The World Cup will end, but I hope our family’s new love of soccer will not. Both kids are more excited than ever for their own soccer season this fall (although JP reports that he does not think he would like to be as good as the World Cup players, because “it looks very dangerous out there”). In the meantime, we will be reading some of the fantastic soccer-themed books that have popped up this year. Our favorite of these is Soccer Star (Ages 4-8), by Mina Javaherbin (illustrations by Renalto Alarcao), a picture book which not only exudes the excitement of soccer, but places it in a valuable cultural context. As excited as we Americans get about soccer, we are far from the devotees that span the globe. Perhaps nowhere is soccer more beloved than in Brazil, home to this year’s World Cup: a place where soccer is, not simply a sporting event, but a fighting chance for its youth to rise above the poverty of their country. As Soccer Star gently reminds us, the dream of being a soccer star in Brazil is a dream where much is at stake.

Amid poetic descriptions of the sport, Soccer Star is at heart a story of two siblings with grit, passion, and the open-mindedness to challenge convention. Our narrator, the older brother, Paulo, must forgo school to work in a local fishing business, supporting his single mother who is already working long hours. Paulo learns math from his school-going younger sister, Maria—and, in turn, he teaches her the soccer skills he perfects each evening, when his pals come together from their respective jobs to play soccer by the sea. As Paulo and Maria make their way through the neighborhood to start their respective mornings—dribbling a soccer ball down steps and around bends—Paulo introduces us to his talented teammates, who will transform their practical skills by day (shoe polishing, set painting) to glory on the field (“fancy footwork,” “dancing with the ball”).

Soccer Star by Mina Javaherbin

In a twist at the story’s end, it is little sister Maria who shines through as the next generation of soccer players. When a boy on the team gets injured, Maria asks (not for the first time) if she can replace him, anticipating the usual answer: the team is just for boys; “not this time.” But big bro Paulo (LOVE this kid) makes an impassioned case on his sister’s behalf, and, when it comes to a vote, the team “votes for change.” Not only does Maria play, but she scores the winning goal. Those of us glued to the TV recently will attest to the power of a rookie sub, sweeping onto the field at the last minute to nail a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the team to victory. You know what? I may have just figured out why I love this sport so much.

I’ll share Paulo’s closing words, set against a darkening sky over tiny one-story huts crowded together on a hill beside the sea. You can feel for yourself the hope, the pride, the dream.

I am Paulo Marcelo Felliciano,
the captain of this team.
No storm, fall, or useless old rule
can keep us from a win.

Our fans will one day call us the stars.
We will light every home in Brazil.

Other Favorite Picture and Chapter Books About Soccer:
Goal! by Mina Javaherbin & A.J. Ford (Ages 3-6)
Young Pele: Soccer’s First Star, by Lesa Cline-Ransome & James Ransome (Ages 4-8)
The Soccer Fence: A Story of Friendship, Hope & Apartheid in South Africa, by Phil Bildner & Jesse Joshua Watson (Ages 6-10)
National Geographic Kids: Everything Soccer (Ages 6-10)
Magic Tree House #52: Soccer on Sunday, by Mary Pope Osborne (Ages 6-9)

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