October 18, 2022 § Leave a comment
It’s that time of year again! For months, I have been working behind the scenes, reading hundreds of picture books, middle-grade books, young adult, and non-fiction in order to bring you this fall’s top picks for kids, tweens, & teens (nearly 60 titles in all!). I’ll be rolling out the Gift Guide in a series of blog posts between now and Thanksgiving, but if you live in the Northern Virginia area, I’d LOVE to see you at one of two In-Person Events I’ll be doing on the first two Friday evenings in November at Old Town Books, the beautiful indie where I’m the kids’ buyer. You’ll get a chance to hear me present the entire guide in person, followed by personal shopping and gift wrapping. Knock out all your holiday shopping and stockpile fabulous books for the year to come! (Just hurry, because tickets are going fast.)
It has become traditional for me to kick off each year’s Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. (Last year, it was Little Witch Hazel (swoon!) and before that we had memorable titles like this, this, this, and this, which actually bears some fun similarities to today’s book.) This year’s pick officially hits shelves today, but it was actually the very first book I picked for this year’s guide, after reading a digital copy six months ago, so it has taken every ounce of restraint I have not to tell you about it until now.
I knew a fairy tale remixed by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen—the launch of a new picture book trilogy, no less!—was bound to be brilliant, but I also knew it would need no help from me to find its audience. Between the two of them, these kid lit superstars have garnered numerous Caldecott Honors, not to mention countless other accolades, so there was no way this book was falling off anyone’s radar. Normally, for “My Favorite Book of the Year” posts, I tend towards the hidden gems.
But while this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest books of the year, I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon, because The Three Billy Goats Gruff (ages 4-8) is the bomb. This story is READ-ALOUD PERFECTION. The humor! The pacing! The rhyme! The bonus endings! The ode to gourmands! The chin hair! The VOICES! I can’t think of a single child who won’t hang on every word of this book, alternately holding their breath and howling with laughter. Or a single adult who won’t be game to read it again and again.
Are you ready to step onto the bridge with me?« Read the rest of this entry »
June 16, 2022 § 1 Comment
My Summer Reading Guide continues with a round up of favorite new graphic novels. Think of these as your secret weapons this summer. Got bored kiddos? Leave these lying around the house for wandering eyes to page through. Need one kid to sit through another one’s swim meet? Stick two of these in your bag. Packing up for a beach vacation with cousins? Throw a bunch of new-to-everyone graphic novels in your suitcase and then watch the kids pass them around like coveted candy. (We actually do this every year when we visit our cousins in Boston, and it is a favorite tradition!)
If you worry about investing in books your child will fly through at breakneck speed, consider this: graphic novels are designed to be read multiple times. The first time a child reads a graphic novel, they’re reading for plot and plot alone; the visuals propel them forward. The second, third, and fifteenth times: that’s when appreciation for character development, visual details, and tricky vocab develops. A good graphic novel is a richly layered piece of literature, and each reading takes you deeper into the story. This is true as kids age, too. Those Raina Telgemeier graphic novels they first read when they were seven? They resonate on an entirely different level years later, when the reader catches up in age to the protagonists.
Of course, sometimes kids re-read a title, not because they have anything left to learn, but because it’s fantastically entertaining. Or comforting. Or restorative.
I’ll be honest. There was a period, earlier this year, when I looked around the bookshop and thought, Ummm, where are all the new graphic novels? Thankfully, my panic didn’t last long, because come they did, many in just the last few weeks.
That said, I’m remiss in not including the sequel to Katie the Catsitter, the latter of which my daughter hails as her favorite graphic novel of all time (well, tied with Witches of Brooklyn). She loved the sequel—we all did—but as it came out all the way back in January, it escaped my mind as I was putting this post together. It’s nearing midnight, I’ve already taken my pictures, so just trust me on this one.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 19, 2022 Comments Off on Picture Books as Performance
I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.
Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.
That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.
When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.
Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.
But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.« Read the rest of this entry »
January 14, 2021 § 4 Comments
My children are as different as siblings can be, but one thing they have always shared is a love of polar bears. In his first grade Montessori classroom, my son spent months researching polar bears for a year-end presentation with a classmate, an endeavor that had us adding numerous non-fiction picture books (gorgeous ones, like this, this, and this) to our permanent collection. Years later, my daughter would do the same. In fact, her adoration of polar bears is now so legendary that on her last birthday, nearly every email, card, or voicemail mentioned polar bears. She even has a polar bear jacket. Two, actually.
I think we can assume, if for no other reason than their prevalence in kid lit, that polar bears have a special residence in the hearts of many children. Who can blame them? Polar bears are undeniably adorable (that black nose! those big paws!). They inhabit an Arctic wonderland that rivals any snow day. And their endangerment has only lent them more mystique.
There’s also something in the polar bear’s personality that invites a certain kinship with the young. Despite being some of the animal kingdom’s most ferocious predators, despite facing down harsh temperatures and bleak landscapes, polar bears are surprisingly playful. They tumble in the snow, they somersault in the water, and they fall asleep right where they are when they can’t keep their eyes open. They are kindred spirits.
It might seem rather mean of me to wait until after the holidays to tell you about one of my favorite picture books of 2020, but if there is a month to talk polar bears, it’s January (even if, here in Virginia, the weather forecast is disappointingly lacking in white stuff). In A Polar Bear in the Snow (Ages 2-6), beloved picture book creator Mac Barnett teams up with paper artist Shawn Harris to spark the imagination of the youngest polar bear lovers. The language is clever, wry, repetitive, and—as Barnett is fond of doing—asks direct questions of its reader. But it’s Harris’ stunning cut-paper collages, invoking countless shades of white alongside a piercing, crystalline blue, that make this a stand-out title, lending its subject matter the very awe it deserves.« Read the rest of this entry »
November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
Six year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:
Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”
JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”
Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”
JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”
Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”
JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”
We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 8, 2013 Comments Off on August’s Birthday Pick
Sometimes we need a Crowd Pleaser. How many times have we rushed to the store (on the morning of the birthday party, no less) and stared at the shelves, thinking “What do I even know about this child, this person in my daughter’s class whose name I’d never heard until last week?” Our children are often no help: “Ummm, I don’t know, he likes Star Wars, I think…” And then there’s the latest trend in birthday parties—the book exchange—which, naturally, I find charming and all, except that now we have the additional challenge of finding a book that will appeal to any one of the number of children at the party. Enter the Crowd Pleaser: a book that’s guaranteed to make boy, girl, preschooler, first grader laugh; a book they can listen to or read themselves or read to their siblings; and, of course, a book that’s Brand New and Off the Beaten Path and all that good stuff.
Now enter Monkeys. Because if there’s any animal that’s universally loved by children (and their parents) it’s the monkey. We all call our children monkeys; we all think of them as little monkeys (incidentally, we also think that this comparison is an entirely novel notion). Anyway, monkeys are good. Monkeys are safe.
Now enter Mac Barnett, one of the most original and—conveniently, in our quest for a Crowd Pleaser—one of the funniest picture book creators around. Last year, along with the talented Adam Rex, he wrote Chloe and the Lion (Ages 4-8), a hilarious (and surprisingly educational) look at the process of writing and illustrating a picture book, whereby Barnett and Rex essentially “argue” the book into creation. This year, he teams up with Kevin Cornell to lend his deconstructionist approach to Count the Monkeys (Ages 3-7), another book that appears to take form right before our eyes. The book begins with a simple premise: “Hey, kids! Time to count the monkeys! It’s fun. It’s easy. All you have to do is turn the page…” Except that the monkeys are nowhere to be found, scared away by a king cobra, who in turn is scared away by two mongooses (“or is that 2 mongeese?”), who in turn are scared away by three crocodiles…and you get the picture.
The genius of Count the Monkeys, apart from Cornell’s irresistibly mischievous drawings of gluttonous grizzly bears and “polka-dotted rhinoceroses with bagpipes and bad breath,” is the invitation for children to interact with every page. If you’ve ever read Herve Tullet’s groundbreaking Press Here to your children (and if you haven’t, please proceed immediately to your nearest independent bookstore), you are already familiar with this now trendy trick of modern picture book artists. These are books that invite children, not only into the reading process, but into the creation process as well. They make children feel like they themselves are driving the direction of the story. On every page in Count the Monkeys, the narrator (still obsessed with getting back those elusive monkeys) asks us to perform various tasks to get rid of the imposter: tell the lumberjacks to “scram” (“Say it even louder!”); don’t look the wolves in the eyes (“In fact, cover your eyes while you turn the page”); move your hand in a zigzag to “confuse” the crocodiles; etc. I triple dare any child (heck, I dare any parent) to refrain from doing any of the things Barnett demands; it’s simply too much fun to take a backseat on this one. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a Crowd Pleaser.