2022 Gift Guide: The Middle-Grade Books (Ages 7-14)
November 22, 2022 § Leave a comment
Ask me what installment of the Gift Guide is my favorite to write, and the answer will always be the middle-grade one. These are the stories that have my heart, the same types of books that once made a reader out of me. As an adult, even if it wasn’t my job to do so, I’d still read them, because they’re that good. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to try some of the titles below as family read alouds, or simply read them before or after your children finish them (which, by the way, your kids will love you for).
Whereas “middle-grade books” used to mean stories exclusively targeted at ages 8-12, today’s category is increasingly broadening to encompass young teens as well. The result is a kind of Venn diagram of stories. There are stories intended for kids in the middle years of elementary school, which tend to be lighter and faster paced. And then there are heavier, more nuanced stories written for readers who are entering or already tackling the middle-school years. In today’s post, you’ll find plentiful recommendations in both these younger and older middle-grade categories, and they’re presented here in ascending order.
Regardless of where on the spectrum these stories fall, they are exceptional examples of storytelling, with rich language, complex characters, and original twists and turns. For as much as they entertain us, they also make us think about the world around us in new and interesting ways.
2022 has been another banner year for middle-grade books—so much so that the titles below were all published in the second half of the year, many in just the last few weeks. In other words, this is not a “best of 2022” list, because if it was, it would include A Duet for Home, The Last Mapmaker, The Marvellers, Those Kids From Fawn Creek, Zachary Ying and the Last Emperor, Cress Watercress, and Jennifer Chan is Not Alone—all of which were featured in my Summer Reading Guide earlier this year.« Read the rest of this entry »
Princesses Kicking Butt
March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment
Earlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).
What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt. « Read the rest of this entry »
2015 Gift Guide (No. 4): For the Mechanically Inclined
December 12, 2015 Comments Off on 2015 Gift Guide (No. 4): For the Mechanically Inclined
Today, I want to tell you about a super-duper-awesome new non-fiction book. David Macaulay, who launched the Beast of Gifts in 1988 with The Way Things Work (Ages 10-16), a massive hardcover volume dedicated to demystifying science and technology for children with clear language and beautifully rendered line drawings, has this year created a fully interactive and substantive spin-off. How Machines Work: Zoo Break (Ages 6-9) is targeted at a slightly younger audience and is aimed at exposing specific scientific principles. Here, through a combination of flaps, pop-ups, and inset booklets—as well as a silly story line about a sloth and mouse determined to break free of their zoo enclosure—children are introduced to simple machines. « Read the rest of this entry »
Over the (Big) Top
May 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from binge reading a series that has already been published in its entirety. But it can be equally exciting to read through a series in real time, anticipating the next installment for months, then rediscovering characters like old friends. One of our family’s greatest literary pleasures over the past 18 months has been the Three-Ring Rascals series (Ages 7-11, younger if reading aloud), by sister duo Kate Klise (author) and M. Sarah Klise (illustrator). Perhaps you heard our squeals a few weeks ago, when my kids and I walked into our local bookstore and discovered that the fourth installment, Pop Goes the Circus!, was out (with still more on the way!).
What has made this early-chapter book series such a joy in our house is that it has been enjoyed equally and together by my four and seven year old. In fact, it hits every criteria on my Must-Find-Chapter-Book-That-Appeals-to-Both-Hooligans agenda. « Read the rest of this entry »
Here Comes Spring (Ready or Not!)
March 19, 2015 § 5 Comments
We’ve gotten our first tastes of spring: warm breezes, lighter evenings, and the sightings of crocuses poking up through the melting snow. My children could not be more different in their reactions to this seasonal transition. My eldest, never one to charge ahead into change—preferring the deep emotional connections he has worked so hard to foster in the here and now—wants to hold on tight to winter with both fists. “But I’m not ready to say goodbye to snow days,” JP bemoans each morning on his way out the door.
My four-year-old Emily, on the other hand, has never been one to look back, content to reside in a perpetual state of forward motion (ideally, one involving skipping and singing). The promise of spring is, to her, one of being unencumbered (“Mommy, WHEN can I stop wearing these heavy things?” she began saying back in November).
This push-and-pull dance between two different souls perched on the cusp of spring is so perfectly captured in Daniel Kirk’s newest picture book, The Thing About Spring (Ages 3-6), that it’s as if the book was written for our family. The coincidence would feel positively uncanny, if I hadn’t brought up our family’s scenario to a group of moms outside the kids’ school the other day and been told, that’s what it’s like in our house, too! It would seem that we are not alone; and Kirk has jumped squarely on this insight. « Read the rest of this entry »
A Chapter Series Which Calls Us Home
March 12, 2015 § 6 Comments
“Mommy, I like you during the day. But I really love you at night when you read to me.” My son, six years old at the time and still feeling the high of the previous evening’s story time, uttered these words last summer at breakfast. (Yes, it was the Best Breakfast Ever; and no, our mealtimes are not normally this sweet).
JP’s comment came at a time when we were halfway through devouring George Selden’s seven chapter books about a cricket named Chester and his friends, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. For years, I had been singing the praises to parents of the 1960 novel, The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud), as a perfect read-aloud chapter book for those eager to follow longer, more complex stories—but not yet in possession of the reading ability to get there themselves. It can be tricky among contemporary literature to find poignant, beautifully written stories that don’t come at the expense of innocent, age-appropriate content. For this age group, The Cricket in Time’s Square stands alongside other wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web (let’s face it: Charlotte’s death—that of a spider at the end of her life—is about as heavy as many people want when reading to their six or seven year old.). « Read the rest of this entry »
Thank Goodness for Book Pushers
October 9, 2014 § 3 Comments
My husband thought he was very clever when he surreptitiously posted to his Facebook page that The Book Mommy (a.k.a. me) had been overheard muttering to herself, “If I have to pick up another book off the floor, I swear I am getting rid of all of them!” Sigh. We all have our moments. Even the most book-obsessed among us.
Most of the time, I am exceedingly grateful for the sea of books that overtakes our house every day: when books from our overflowing shelves mix with stacks of incoming library books and set my children’s imaginations afloat.
Yes, I’m firmly in the camp that it is impossible to have too many books (really good books, that is). You might say I’m a lot like the book-pushing Mouse in Bonny Becker’s A Library Book for Bear (Ages 3-6), the latest installment in her beloved Bear and Mouse series, which never fails to have my children roaring with laughter (and which allows me to don a British accent, as that’s how I’ve always imagined Mouse). On the off chance that you’ve been missing out on these delightful stories, you can catch up on past titles here. « Read the rest of this entry »
Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Illustrated Chapter Books for the Adventure Seeker
December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:
“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
Once again, I find myself singing the praises of Mo Willems, whose Time to Pee! (Ages 1-4) proved just what my daughter needed to get her potty training on. For those of you who have navigated these murky waters before, you will agree that there are VERY FEW decent potty-related books for kids. There are useless books about princesses sitting on potties. There are patronizing books that suggest you’re only a big kid if you use the potty. But there are far too few that are clever and helpful, fun and functional. But that’s OK. Because all you really need is one great book—and, lucky for us, there’s Time to Pee!
Truth be told, I had been dreading potty training my youngest. I had it too easy with my firstborn. If I told you about how he emphatically decided upon turning two that he wanted to poop on the potty and never looked back, you would hate me. Except that you can’t hate me, because I literally had nothing to do with it (JP has always been a child to take matters into his own hands, skeptical that his parents don’t really know what they are doing and not entirely incorrect much of the time). So when my daughter turned two and showed ZERO interest in anything having to do with the potty, I simply told myself that she wasn’t ready. But then, yikes, almost an entire year passed, and here we are just a few short weeks from her joining her brother in Montessori, where she’ll be expected to do things like wear underwear and wipe her own butt; suddenly, “I no interested in the potty!” seemed like a recipe for disaster. So we took the plunge, gave away all remaining diapers (this tip from the parenting book, Diaper-Free Before 3, a fantastic recommendation from our Montessori director), and casually placed Time to Pee! on the top of a reading pile in the bathroom.
Now, I’m obviously not going to tell you that a children’s book (even one by the brilliant Mo Willems) was the single factor in Emily’s fairly quick and painless transition to the potty (much of the heavy lifting was in fact done by Big Brother). But what I can tell you is that the language in Time to Pee! repeatedly crops up when Em is talking about using the potty. At face value, the book reads like a straightforward (never patronizing) instruction manual, illustrated with Mo’s signature black-outlined doodles: you get “that funny feeling” while playing; you tell a grown-up that you have to go; you march yourself down the hall and into the bathroom, where you pull down your undies, do the deed, and get back to playing. Done. No problem. All the important logistics are covered, like waiting until you are done before grabbing for toilet paper (thank you, Mo) and washing hands afterwards. But then, because it’s Mo Willems, and because he is so darn perceptive about how kids’ minds work and what they are thinking (and obsessing and worrying) about, the book is loaded with humorous touches. “Please don’t ignore it!” (next to a boy with crossed eyes and legs). “Now is your chance to show how BIG you are!” And my favorite: “Everything will still be right where it was” (as the child returns to her tea party).
But the real unsung heroes here are the mice. Yes, that’s right, the hundreds of enthusiastic mice delivering each message, rolling out the red carpet and hoisting up the flags, serenading the potty goer and giving the thumbs up with a coy, “Go for it dude.” Three days into potty training, I tried to follow Emily into the bathroom after she announced that she had to pee. “No, Mommy! You don’t come in! I’m having a party with the mice.” And just like that, I found myself once again singing the praises of Mo Willems.
Other Favorite Potty Stories for Kids:
Even Firefighters Go to the Potty: A Potty Training Lift-the-Flap Story, by Wendy A. Wax, Naomi Wax, & Stephen Gilpin (long after JP was potty trained he still requested this book 10 times a day for two years)
Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi (yes it’s weird, yes it’s kinda gross, but it’s actually quite effective (and my kids love the camel’s “two hump poop”))
A Potty for Me, by Karen Katz
Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle, by Axel Scheffler (my daughter loves this sweet, simple series about two friends—and, lo and behold, they have a potty story about an accident during a playdate)
The “Perfect” Christmas Tree
December 3, 2012 § 4 Comments
This past weekend, we partook in one of our favorite family traditions: chopping down our Christmas tree and driving it home to trim. We started this tradition five years ago, when JP was one year old. I like the idea of my children understanding where their Christmas tree comes from; plus I enjoy supporting the family-owned tree farms in our area; plus, well, we all know that I love any excuse to unleash my urban children on a farm.
By now, the excursion has become fairy predictable. JP (eager to get his hands on a saw) begins by pointing to the first tree he sees and announcing, “This is the perfect one!” I meander deep into the fields, weaving in and out of the rows, sizing up each possibility and muttering oohs and ahhs. And my husband (who has carefully measured our nook at home and tried to set appropriate expectations before we left the house) rushes after me, chastising, “That one is too big! It won’t fit! You promised this year you’d be reasonable!” He has a point, my husband, but I can’t help myself. Something overcomes me out there in the crisp open air, beautifully manicured trees stretching out on all sides of me, and I WANT BIG.
I guess in this way I’m a lot like Mr. Willowby, the mustached tycoon in one of my favorite Christmas stories to read aloud to my kids (or, in the case of last week, to my son’s preschool class). Originally published in 1963, Robert Barry’s Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (Ages 3-8) was reissued last year with newly colorized pen-and-ink sketches that brim with delight. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree comes straight off the hills—“full and fresh and glistening green—/The biggest tree he had ever seen.”
Getting Up the Giggles
May 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
Let’s face it: being a parent can sometimes feel like a thankless job (does he realize I’m missing precious minutes of “American Idol” while I’m washing his uniform for tomorrow, composing a creative note for his lunchbox, and picking crumbs off the floor so it will stop looking like the inside of a barn—all while he is hollering from upstairs about “one last drink of water”?).
Suffice it to say that we parents will take an Ego Boost where we can get one. And that’s why I love reading books like A Visitor for Bear (Ages 3-6), the first of the delightful Bear and Mouse books by Bonny Becker, with illustrations by Kady MacDonald Denton. Now, I could love this book because of the witty banter between the two strangers-turned-friends, or because Mouse speaks in a decidedly British accent, or because a bear dressed in an apron is just so darn cute. But, on those rare occasions when JP allows me to choose his bedtime book, the reason I run to grab this gem off the shelf, is because it makes him LAUGH OUT LOUD.