December 1, 2018 § 6 Comments
Our family doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, and I’m by no means an authority on Jewish children’s literature (I recommend this excellent source). That said, I could be considered something of an authority on Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, published in the 1950s and featuring a Jewish immigrant family with five daughters living in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. As a child, I could not get enough of these books. As a parent, I listened to all of them in the car with my kids and…yup, just as wonderful.
If you heard a squeal echoing across the universe over Thanksgiving break, it was because I wandered into Books of Wonder in New York and discovered there is a now a picture book based on Taylor’s classic chapter books. « Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
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 »
December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments
I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.
I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime? « Read the rest of this entry »
November 9, 2017 § 3 Comments
My son and my mother were leaning out over the Hudson River, craning to see the iconic green statue, on our recent trip to New York City to visit Grandma.
My mom looked up, confused. “They’re relocating the Statue of Liberty?”
“No,” JP said. “The statue is supposed to look like it’s moving. Her right foot is lifted like she’s taking a step. Most people don’t know that.” « Read the rest of this entry »
October 27, 2016 § 2 Comments
Hands down, my favorite day last summer was spent with my then eight year old at Ford’s Theatre, otherwise known as The Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. If there’s anything more fun than watching our children learn, it’s learning alongside our children—and that is precisely what happened as JP and I made our way through the narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the hours preceding and immediately following his assassination, and his legacy as it lives on today.
Plugged into our audio tour—the “kid version,” where two middle-school students conversed into our ears about the different exhibits—JP and I were totally riveted: making wide eyes at one another over something that was said, or taking off our headphones for a moment to discuss something further. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, like it was the first day of a new literature elective in college and I was scanning the syllabus for all the new books I would have an excuse to buy. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 19, 2016 Comments Off on Subterranean Thrills
There was a moment on the subway, during our recent trip to New York City, when my five-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Wait. Mommy. Are we actually underneath buildings and streets?” At first, I was a bit taken aback. Since birth, she has ridden on the subway, both in New York and at home in Washington DC. Why is she just grasping this now? And yet, the more I watched her absorb my affirmative answer, then spend the next several days kneeling on her seat, staring out the window into the blackness of the roaring tunnel, the more I realized that the whole concept of the subway is in itself quite astonishing.
Astonishment is exactly what the “distinguished citizens, reporters, and government officials” of New York City felt on February 26, 1870, when an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach led them into a 294-foot-long tunnel that he had helped build underneath the streets of New York, in order to showcase his fan-powered train that he believed would solve the city’s transportation problem. How this came about and what happened next—the largely forgotten story of New York’s unofficial first subway, which predated by 42 years the city’s plans to build an official subway system—is detailed in the fascinating new picture book, The Secret Subway (Ages 6-12), by Shana Corey and illustrated by Red Nose Studio. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 29, 2015 § 2 Comments
In preparation for our recent trip to New York City, I wanted to select a chapter book to read to my eight year old that would inspire our itinerary. Last year, you might remember that we read two fantastic books which took us straight to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was amazing to watch JP anticipate what he would find in the museum, based on what he had read—and then to leave a few hours later with a skip in his step and an entirely different experience from what he had expected. This is the power of art: to transform, to surprise, to delight.
I was secretly hoping I could convince JP to go back to The Met this fall, so I scrounged up another novel set in and around the museum. Beginning a few days before we left and concluding on the train ride home (where the woman sitting behind us remarked, as we were getting off, “Thank you for that delightful story!”), I read aloud Elise Broach’s moving and riveting Masterpiece (Ages 9-12), which features a boy, a beetle, and an art heist staged around a masterpiece on loan to The Met.
October 15, 2015 § 3 Comments
My son and I just returned from one of our beloved fall traditions: a long weekend in New York City. I take sublime pleasure in watching JP fall deeper in love with the city of my childhood at every visit: soaking up the street sounds (“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep without the horns and sirens,” he told me in all seriousness on the night we got home); quickening his walking pace to keep up with the most seasoned striders; and taking an active roll in navigating us through the city streets, both above and below ground.
This last point is in large part owing to two things: first, JP’s recent discovery of the NYC subway map; and secondly, his fondness for the Empire State Building, which we summitted on our previous trip to the city. When he is not rattling off the list of upcoming stops on an uptown train ride, he is looking around him on the street for the landmark against which to measure all landmarks.
We discovered this past weekend (thank you, Books of Wonder) that there is a new children’s book that marries JP’s love of the subway with the Empire State Building. I’m declaring it required reading for natives and tourists alike. Because get this: it is now MY FAVORITE NEW YORK BOOK OF ALL TIME.
March 26, 2015 § 3 Comments
Growing up in New York City, my preferred mode of transportation was always the bus. It didn’t matter whether I was going twenty blocks or a hundred blocks. I loved the noises: the lurch as we pulled over every two blocks to stop; the hiss as the bus lowered down to let people off. I loved the creeping pace, which allowed me to stare up at the buildings towering above, or down at the crowds of shoppers swarming the sidewalks. Most of all, I was transfixed by the cross-section of people squeezed in around me, some conversing with their neighbors, others plugged into headphones. Each person had a story that I could only guess at. And each bus displayed an unpredictable amalgamation of skin colors, clothing, smells, sizes, and languages.
Ride a New York City bus for long enough, and there’s nothing you don’t see. It’s like having your finger on the pulse of life. I would feel at once safely nestled into my community and distinctly vulnerable to the uncertainty of what might happen next.
You can imagine my dismay when I discovered, on a weekend trip to NYC with my son, that he does not innately share my enthusiasm for bus travel. En route from 96th to 12th street, it didn’t take long (in his defense, our bus did seem to be stalling more than moving) before JP looked at me with exasperation—and, frankly, puzzlement.
“This is taking forever! Why aren’t we taking the subway?” « Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
October 30, 2014 § 5 Comments
Earlier this fall, JP and I embarked on our annual trip to New York City, where I grew up and where my Mom still lives. Normally on these visits, we are content to plot and rehash the day’s adventures by pouring over the vibrant illustrations in Kathy Jakobsen’s My New York, which my Mom brings down from a closet upon our arrival.
This time, I decided that some advance reading was in order. So, in the weeks leading up to our departure, I read to JP one of the novels I most remember from my childhood: E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud), which won the Newberry Medal in 1968. Through the eyes of two runaway siblings from Greenwich, Connecticut, who secretly live (and sleep) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art for an entire week, we are introduced to this incredible museum with drama and intrigue. The last time I took JP to the Met—albeit he was only five—was a disheartening disaster; he was bored within minutes of my ramblings about Impressionist painters. This time was different. This time, we had purpose: we were following in the steps of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 14, 2014 Comments Off on Counting Mania
My three year old is a counting fool. She counts the little green squares on her napkins (thank you, Target); she counts the steps up to her room; she counts everyone’s matches in our endless rounds of Go Fish. “I’m out of breath of counting!” she exclaimed the other day, after numerous laps around the house counting from 1 to 50. So, it only stands to follow that she would also want to read counting books, an especially robust subject matter in the world of children’s picture books (see my complete list of favorites at the end).
Emily’s current obsession is Steve Light’s new Have You Seen My Dragon? (Ages 2-5), which I knew would be a hit the instant I felt the green metallic foil dragon on the front (ooooooh, ahhhhhh). While most counting books can’t pretend to “teach” counting (with the exception of Anno’s Counting Book, the single best presentation of counting for children that I’ve ever seen), the good ones present clever ways to practice counting and to develop the finger control that goes along with it. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
A rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?
As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 5, 2013 Comments Off on Biking for Beginners and Pros
We interrupt our Summer School Series for some good ‘ol fashioned outdoor play—and because there happens to be two seriously awesome new picture books about riding a two wheeler (the Ultimate Summer Challenge, really). The first book is for the I-Think-I-Can-Beginners; the second is for the experienced, daring, and creative bikers (especially those with a love for all things Space).
Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle (Ages 3-6) is a simple but poignant “how to” look at mastering a two wheeler, first with training wheels and then without. Now, if I were going to write a step-by-step guide to teaching a five year old to ride a bike, it might go something like this:
Lug ten tons of second-hand steel to park, at the request of eager child.
Help eager child up into bike seat.
Become temporarily deaf by imminent screaming of “NOOOOOOO get me off get me off get me off!”
After much cajoling and pleading and promising for the 45th time that you are going to hold on the whole time, convince child to remount bike and begin pedaling forward.
After 10 minutes, whereby you are still holding fast to the training-wheeled bike and said bike has moved exactly 10 feet, suggest that he try turning.
Feel an abrupt jerk as child slams on the breaks (this, oddly, comes very naturally), jumps off bike, and announces that he is Most Definitely Not Doing This Right Now.
Lug ten tons of steel back home.
Fortunately, Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle paints a much rosier picture of a child learning to ride a bike, along with the help of her patient and gently encouraging father.
But, actually, what I love about this book is that things are not always smooth sailing: the little girl has lots of false starts, falls down again and again, and needs both hugs and Band-Aids. “Oops! You nearly had it,” the book coaches. “Don’t give up. You’ll get it. Find the courage to try it again, and again, again, and again, again, and again, and again, until by luck, grace, and determination, you are riding a bicycle!”
Rashchka’s signature watercolors, seemingly effortlessly executed with thick, breezy, rough strokes of paint, are perfectly suited to the subject at hand. Every single painting exudes movement—whether it’s the little girl pulling her father’s hand toward the bike shop, her sideways and backwards tumbles off the bike, the neighborhood kids zooming past her on their colorful two wheelers, or her triumphant forward-leaning fast-pedaling stance at the end.
Rashchka’s greatest gift has always been his ability to capture emotional expression with just a few brushstrokes; and it’s the determination, bewilderment, frustration, joy, and pride on the little girl’s face that will make this gem relatable for children—those struggling to ride and those who’ve newly mastered the skill. I’m not promising this book will work miracles, assuming there might be other parents out there who are having similar bicycling battles on the playground (please tell me I am not alone); but I can promise that your child will identify a kindred spirit on the page.
Moving on to more advanced bicycling (and a longer, more sophisticated story), I fervently recommend How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers: A Simple but Brilliant Plan in 24 Easy Steps, by Mordicai Gerstein (Ages 5-10). If the irreverent title alone hasn’t sold you, let me sing the praises of this most entertaining book, particularly for the kid who loves science, invention, numbers, the Moon, and bossing people around (that would be my son to a T, minus the bicycling).
First, when was the last time your child read a work of fiction that was laid out in steps? Each of this book’s 39 pages outlines a different step, numbered 1 through 24, many of them sub-categorized with letters (12a, 12b, 12c, 12d, etc.). Kids love this stuff; it’s exactly the way their mind works when they are bossing us around.
Secondly, there’s the very idea of bicycling into outer space, not to mention for the purpose of planting sunflowers to cheer up the Moon’s “big, sad clown face.” Thirdly, there’s the intricately involved and scientifically supported plan that the boy conjures up—a plan involving 2,000 used truck inner tubes, a 25-foot flagpole, a ship’s anchor, 238,900 miles of garden hoses wound tightly around a giant spool, a rented XS space suit from NASA, and various provisions, including “nourishing, flavored Glop, squirted through a straw in your space-helmet.”
Finally, there’s the climactic adventure itself, Boy On Bike, pedaling up miles of garden hoses that have been anchored into the Moon’s surface, stopping to wonder at “the trillions of stars.” Within the largely comic narrative, written in the boy’s instructive voice, there are also many clever descriptions, my favorite being the notion that the Moon looks “like a coloring book that hasn’t been colored yet.”
Gerstein’s pen and ink drawings have a comic-book feel, but the crudely colored line art is mixed with grace and subtlety (the Moon’s changing expressions are a particular delight). This is the same Gerstein who wrote and illustrated one of my (and my son’s) favorite books: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Ages 4-8), the true and serious story of Phillipe Petit’s dramatic tightrope walk between the World Trade Towers in 1974. The two books could not look or feel more different (a rare feat for a picture book artist); yet, oddly, they both involve moving atop a skinny, rope-like material suspended over great heights.
Gerstein writes books about dreams—about the mystery, wonder, and excitement in planning for and achieving those dreams. I have a dream that my children will both ride two wheelers some day, that they will taste the victory that comes from balancing up high on their own, and (as I vividly remember doing as a young girl) that they’ll speed around the block, dreaming and scheming and making their own Big Plans.
May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
Just because the school year ends shortly doesn’t mean that our children’s minds have to shrivel up like apples left out too long in the sun. Last week, I gave some ideas for great read-aloud novels to share with your kids. Now, I’m going to encourage you to add some non-fiction into the mix—specifically, historical biographies posing as picture books. In previous posts about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve hailed the rise of today’s picture book biographies, which (unlike the static, black-and-white books of our school days) read like interesting, action-packed stories accompanied by vibrant paintings and intriguing designs. But I’m not merely talking about the Most Obvious Historical Figures; there are lesser known but equally captivating true stories of ordinary boys and girls, men and women, who shaped the world with extraordinary acts of courage, defiance, or creativity.
Where picture book biographies are concerned, contemporary illustrator Melissa Sweet has been on a roll, creating the art for several of my favorite non-fiction books in recent years. Although these biographies are written by different authors, they are unified by Sweet’s signature style—at once instantly recognizable but also entirely unexpected for the historical genre. In place of photographic-like paintings in somber tones, Sweet uses fun colors, whimsical patterns, and collage elements specific to the person whose story she is bringing to life. In Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Ages 7-12), Sweet peppers her background collages with excerpts from Williams’ poems, opening up kids’ eyes to these words and thoughts as an art form unto itself. In Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Ages 5-8), an account of the first person to capture a wild panda in China and bring it to an American zoo for study, Sweet creates frames for her watercolors out of authentic Chinese decorative papers, lending an other-wordly, almost mystical charm to this already fascinating story.
One of Sweet’s most recent triumphs is even more captivating for its portrayal not of an adult but of a young girl. Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Ages 6-10) tells the mind-boggling story of a Jewish immigrant girl, forced to endure long hours, harsh treatment, and poor pay, while sewing alongside hundreds of other girls in factories (her family’s only hope of putting food on the table.) Clara Lemlich’s “got grit,” and she “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong”; ultimately, she leads the largest walkout of women workers in American history, inspiring thousands of male and female workers across the country to strike for better working conditions and the right to organize unions.
Brave Girl, like most picture book biographies, demands to be discussed with your child—and it’s in these memorable discussions that the real learning begins. For starters, there are words that need to be defined, words like “walkout,” “union,” “garment,” and “shatterproof” (referring to Clara’s spirit). Then there’s Clara’s day-to-day life, which sent my almost six year old into a complete tailspin. “Wait, are you sure this is a real story?” he kept repeating, as I showed him the bird’s eye illustration of row-upon-row of hundreds of ant-sized heads bent over sewing machines; or read to him about the “two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share”; or got to the part about how an exhausted Clara would spend her nights in the library instead of sleeping because “she wants to read, she wants to learn!” (I don’t think JP had ever considered a scenario where a child would not be allowed to go to school.)
JP and his Montessori classmates are big into sewing right now, so he was especially intrigued once I pointed out that the bright paintings are often set against bolts of solid fabrics, frayed pieces of cloth, and decorative ribbons—some sewn with tight perfect stitches and others with uneven zig-zagging lines. In fact, after we finished the story, JP proceeded to go back through the entire book, running his finger along every line of stitches (“And is that REAL BLOOD?” he exclaimed, where two dots of red light up a piece of blue cloth next to some text that explains the repercussions for sewers who accidentally pricked their fingers).
But the best part of discussing picture book biographies with your kids (apart from feeling like you are pretty much the most inspiring parent ever) is getting at the emotional undercurrents of the story—in the case of Brave Girl, themes of justice, leadership, sacrifice, and bravery. As JP gets older, he and I will have more evolved conversations about these first three things; at the present, he was mainly fixated on the concept of bravery. Children tend to associate bravery with physical risks and triumphs, like learning to swim or taking off training wheels; and by this definition, JP knows he is a pretty tentative kid (totally unaffected by the four year olds riding their two-wheelers in circles around him). So, I welcome the opportunity to talk about courage in a different light. The book ends: “…warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.” When I finished reading, JP asked me, “How do you think Clara got so brave?”
“I think everyone has bravery inside of them and it’s just a question of letting it out,” I ventured.
“I guess I’m saving it up,” he replied.
“Actually,” I told him, “I watch you do brave things every day, like how you walked up to those older kids today and started talking to them. And you know what else? I think that every time someone uses up some of their bravery, some new bravery immediately comes in to fill that space—so you never run out.”
There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, “I’d like to look at those stitches again.”
Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies Illustrated by Melissa Sweet:
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written & illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, by Alicia Potter, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jen Bryant (Ages 7-12)
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 8-14)—OK, not really a biography but a great work of non-fiction nonetheless!