Picture Books as Performance

May 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

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.

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For the Sensitive Souls (A Post for Mental Health Awareness Month)

May 12, 2022 § 4 Comments

All the time I get asked, What’s a good book for my [insert: nervous, fearful, shy, super sensitive] kid? With everything this crazy world has been dishing out, even kids who aren’t naturally wired towards sensitivity are struggling under the weight of big, heavy, messy emotions. And, as parents, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make the discomfort go away.

My firstborn is an immensely sensitive child. My husband and I joke that he’s a raw nerve walking around on two legs, and the whiplash from highs to lows and back again is not always easy to witness.

Five years ago—I would remember it like it was yesterday, even if I hadn’t journaled about it at the time—my son looked on as garbage workers hauled away our twenty-year-old sofa. We had spent a few weeks trying to donate the sofa, but with a frayed slipcover and sunken cushions, no one seemed to want it.

The hysteria peaked as the garbage truck drove away. The garbage men didn’t treat it well! he wailed. They broke it apart! They tore off the slipcover! It went into the truck in PIECES! They treated it no differently than a container of moldy food! I know it was ripped and didn’t look very good, but it was so comfortable. It made us happy for so long. It should have gone to a good home! It still had life left to give! It could have made people happy! Now, IT’S RUINED!

For a long time, my maternal response to such spectacles was, MAKE. IT. STOP. You’re fine. Here are all the ways that what you’re losing your mind over isn’t actually that bad. Just please stop suffering because my heart cannot take it and also I feel very out of control right now.

But if my son’s extreme responses to everyday life were hard on me, they were a million times harder on him—and often brought with them feelings of shame and loneliness.

I’d like to tell you there was a single turning point for me, but I think it was probably lots of little signs along the way that pointed towards re-framing this sensitivity for both him and me. We began to regard it, not as a condition to overcome, but as a superpower of sorts. You won’t find a more empathetic kid than my son. A more grateful one, too. I could never add up the number of times he has hugged us before bed and said, “Today was the best day of my life.” (Lots more have been the “worst,” of course.)

If, in these turbulent moments, I don’t let his emotions hijack mine—easier said than done, of course—there is usually a nugget of truth telling that can inform my life, our life, for the better. “We did try and donate the sofa,” I reminded him. “Well, maybe someone was afraid to come forward, afraid for us to see their poverty,” he said. “We could have done more, Mommy.” I haven’t forgotten this exchange. Because he’s not wrong. He keeps me honest to the plight of others. He keeps me honest to the plight of himself.

Today, I’m sharing two important new picture books that I wish I’d had when my son was younger. That I wish I’d had for my daughter, too, who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from her brother, keeping her feelings close to the breast, wary of betraying vulnerability, wary of losing control (can’t imagine who she gets that from). Embedded in their charming, gorgeously illustrated stories, Deborah Marcero’s Out of a Jar (Ages 4-8) and Colter Jackson’s The Rhino Suit (Ages 4-8) employ creative, effective metaphors to explore the temptation to bottle up big, messy emotions and shelve them out of sight. To trap them on the other side of a coat of armor. Both stories ask their young readers to consider the good that might come from leaning into, not away from, uncomfortable emotions. Leaning into sensitivity, rather than fearing or disguising it.

There’s plenty of truth telling in these books for the parents and caregivers of sensitive kids, too.

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Four New Faves Celebrating Mamas and Grandmas

May 5, 2022 § 6 Comments

(Warning: I put on my most matronly dress to rage at the patriarchy.) Ouch, it’s a tough week to be a woman in this country. A tough week to contemplate the future for our daughters—and, let’s be honest, our sons, since a woman’s right to exercise autonomy over her body has always been inherently linked to the opposite sex. To say nothing of the repercussions SCOTUS’ decision will have for Black or Indigenous populations, or those living below the poverty line, or the precedent this could set for overturning protections for the LGBTQ+ community. We have only to dig into history to see that progress is never a straight line, but it’s one thing to recognize this and another to live it, to watch the work of generations collapse in a single moment. The list is growing long for horrifying things I never expected to witness in my lifetime.

Now, here we are, staring down Mother’s Day, an already complicated holiday for those mourning mothers, mourning children, mourning dreams of having children—and a day that now feels even more loaded, weighed down with the understanding that a woman’s body can be at once celebrated for its childbearing and stripped of its rights.

This is a cheery post, eh? Don’t worry, I promise we’re going to talk about some beautiful, uplifting, joyful books in just a second.

Yes, it’s a tough moment in history to be a woman. But, let’s not kid ourselves: it has always been a tough time to be a woman. Voting rights, equal pay, maternity leave, working outside the home, the right to wear pants, for crying out loud: the list for what women have been made to suffer is endless.

And still, I love being a woman. I love being a mom. I love following in the legacy of the curious, courageous, complicated women who raised me. When the fear of raising a daughter creeps in during times like this, I remember the strength of my own mother and grandmothers. My mom, who suffered the greatest heartbreak imaginable in the sudden death of my father at 51 and rallied to step into roles and master tasks she’d never imagined for herself, for the sake of her teenage daughters. My one grandmother, who for years endured physical pain without a word of complaint, because she didn’t want to miss out on a single family activity. My other grandmother, who attended science lectures in her 90s where she was the only woman, not because she knew anything about the topic, but because her own children and grandchildren’s involvement in the world had inspired her to expand her mind.

Today, I’m highlighting four new picture books that star formidable mothers and grandmothers—the kind I aspire to be, the kind who remind me that we will not go quietly into the night. Not when we know better, not when we’ve learned from the best. (You can also refer back to some older posts for favorites, like this, this, this, and this.)

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Our Words Matter

March 17, 2022 § 1 Comment

Surprising as this may sound, my son will tell you that one of his happiest memories is the day we told him he had ADHD. (He has given me his blessing to share this story here.) After years of angry outbursts, struggles to complete assignments, feeling like he didn’t fit in, and an approach to writing defined largely by paralysis, suddenly he had answers. He had clarity. He had a path before him that was not without more struggle but was also well-trodden, ripe with options, ready with support. Plus, he had a community—the Percy Jacksons of the world—who had this in common with him, many of them with inspiring stories of success to share.

All of this relieved a burden he had carried around, often without realizing it, for years. Overnight, he had been given a missing piece to the puzzle of himself.

But when I consider that this moment held so much joy for him, when it just as easily could have spurred fear, shame, or intimidation, I also credit the way we presented the diagnosis. After years of meeting his behavior with exasperation, concern, and (gulp) disappointment, this time we got it right.

On the heels of a neuro-psychological evaluation, my husband and I sat on my son’s bed, on a Saturday morning, and shared a colorful diagram I’d penned the night before. This single piece of paper attempted to capture my son’s learning profile: what his ADHD makes difficult, alongside the litany of strengths his unique wiring offers, like creativity, empathy, an insatiable quest for knowledge, and the superpower of hyper-focus when it comes to things he loves. His neurodiverse brain was all there, in its colorful, complex magnificence.

Bless second chances in parenting, because it was the magnificence piece that came through loud and clear that morning. In many ways, the process of having our son tested was as re-framing for us as it was for him. It helped us to see all of him, instead of just the parts that had monopolized the emotional space in our house in recent years. Somewhere along the way, in our obsession with trying to puzzle him out, we’d lost sight of reminding him, with our words and our actions, how deeply loved he is. How special he is. How miraculous he is.

Progress is rarely a straight line, and I won’t pretend my words don’t sometimes still veer too far in the direction of annoyance over acceptance. But I have become more cognizant of the power my words wield over the way my children see themselves. And that sometimes I need to check my own expectations at the door—my own ideas of what success or bravery or “normal” looks like—to land on the words my kids most need to hear.

Lala’s Words (Ages 4-8) isn’t about a child with any particular diagnosis. In fact, author-illustrator Gracey Zhang, a rising star just awarded the 2022 Ezra Jack Keats Medal for this brilliant and perceptive debut picture book, dedicates her book to “The Lala in All of Us,” a tribute to the universal desire to be seen, loved, and believed in for who we are. At the same time, it’s a story about a girl who doesn’t fit the model of success that her mother sets out for her. A girl who meets with more exasperation than encouragement. It’s a story that resonates deeply with me, a parent who once nearly lost sight of the magic in her own child.

And it’s a reminder that, if we look closely enough, our children will tell us exactly what they need to hear to blossom and thrive.

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Welcoming Absurdity

February 24, 2022 § Leave a comment

Last week, on an episode of the podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things” (fess up, I know you listen, too), Glennon Doyle pronounced that the 2022 vibe most worthy of embracing is “absurdity.” We’re “fresh out of giddy-up,” she says. The last two years have depleted every ounce of resiliency we had, leaving us largely “dead inside.” In her line of reasoning, it follows that the only antidote to this zombie-like state is the Theater of the Absurd.

I immediately thought of Alice B. McGinty’s absurd—and absurdly funny—new picture book, Bathe the Cat (Ages 3-6), brilliantly illustrated as per usual by David Roberts (you know him from the beloved “Questioneers” series—most recently, Aaron Slater, Illustrator). While a family scrambles to ready their house for Grandma’s visit, their pet cat repeatedly and mischievously scrambles the chore list—spelled out in magnetic letters on the fridge—resulting in a mayhem of misunderstandings. Sweep the dishes? Scrub the fishes? Mop the baby? Bathe the mat? Just you wait.

Bathe the Cat is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The rhyming text relishes being read aloud, and the giggles will only increase with repeat readings. We’re well outside the age range over here, and my kids were still delighted by it. Much the way the four of us have been delighting in our new doodle puppy, who can’t manage to chase a ball across the wood floor without at least three of his legs splaying in different directions. Whose muppet face breaks out into the silliest lopsided grin when you scratch his neck, and whose paws move to their own mysterious beat when he’s sleeping.

Yes, our home has welcomed its own brand of absurdity in the past six weeks, and it does feel a bit like shaking off the grogginess from a nap that’s gone on too long. Who knew watching a dog run after a ball and come back with a stick could be so entertaining? “He’s proud as a pumpkin!” my son recently said, as the dog paraded around the living room with a piece of bubble wrap in his mouth. Rather than correcting the metaphor, we merely adopted it as our new Fozzie-speak.

But back to today’s book. Because there’s something else you need to know, beyond the entertaining premise, high-energy illustrations, and purr-fect ending (trust me on that last one). The story centers a biracial family of five, headed up by two dads. In the publishing industry, the is called “incidental” representation, and it’s something to celebrate. We are finally beginning to see racial and LGBTQ+ diversity in stories that are not about that diversity. The two dads here are simply doing what families with babies and toddlers do best: rolling up their sleeves, keeping a sense of humor, and trying to survive Grandma’s visit.

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Expressing Love in Extraordinary Times

February 18, 2022 § 2 Comments

This past Monday was Valentine’s Day, and when my daughter got home from school, I read a picture book to her while she had her snack, as we do most afternoons. (One more time for the back row: older kids continue to enjoy a litany of benefits from picture books!) For the simple reason that “love” was in the title, I grabbed Love in the Library (Ages 6-10) off a pile of book mail I’d just received. I had done such a cursory scan of the cover that I assumed it would be a sweet story about two people falling in love in a library. Or falling in love with books. In any case, a story that had been told before, in one way or another.

Had I looked more closely at the cover, I would have noticed that the view through the window behind the central figures—an armed guard in a tower above a barbed wire fence—starkly juxtaposes the smiles, expressive body language, and colorful book covers of the interior setting.

By the time I finished reading the book, I had tears in my eyes. By the time I finished the Author’s Note, I had chills across my entire body. My daughter echoed aloud what I was feeling: “WOW.” This may be a story of love in a library, but it is not one that has been told before. This is an incredible, largely true story of how the author’s maternal grandparents fell in love, against all odds, during their time at the Minidoka incarceration camp, where they were unjustly imprisoned during World War Two for being Japanese American. It’s a story told with tremendous power and tenderness, both in Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s words and in Yas Imamura’s gouache and watercolor art. And it’s a story that underscores the humanity we all share.

As I was getting ready for bed Monday night, I reflected on the casual Valentine’s celebration we’d had over dinner. I thought about how each of us has our own love language. For my son, it was the ginger cookies he’d baked. For my husband, it was the heart-shaped pizzas he hurried home from the dentist to make. For my daughter, it was craft-paper hearts, decorated with personal messages of love and gratitude for each of us. For me, it was the books I wrapped and placed at my kids’ spots on the dinner table, new titles in beloved graphic novel series that I knew they weren’t expecting. (The second book in the Katie the Catsitter series for my daughter; the fourth book in the Heartstopper series for my son.) Baking. Cooking. Crafting. Reading. Each of us expressing love in our own way.

In as much as the language of love is influenced by our own personalities, it’s also influenced by our surroundings. In Love in the Library, the protagonists’ love language is actually crafted in defiance of those surroundings. Loving each other becomes a way of setting their hearts free, of holding onto hope amidst the literal imprisonment of the camp and the figurative imprisonment of injustice.

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Making Room for Joy in Black History Month

February 10, 2022 § 4 Comments

During Black History Month, I typically highlight a recent picture book that introduces young readers to an essential part of African American history in a particularly compelling and inventive way. (Last year’s post was on the picture book biography of basketball legend, Elgin Baylor, which apart from being a fascinating story about one Black man also doubles as a mini primer on the Civil Rights Movement.) But since I so recently sung the praises of Born on the Water, one of the most comprehensive and gorgeous picture books to take on the subject of Black history, I thought I’d use today’s post to remind us that, as parents and educators, we must see to it that our children are reading just as many—if not more—stories about Black joy and achievement, as they are about Black pain and oppression.

This means reading When Langston Dances, a joyous new celebration of dance, starring a Black boy who aspires to take ballet. It means reading The Old Truck, a deceptively simple multi-generational story about a family of Black farmers. Or Milo Imagines the World, where a Black boy makes sense of the world in a sketchbook. Or the ebullient picture book biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, titled Jump at the Sun. Are these books on our shelves alongside those about slavery and segregation? Have we deemed them important in our children’s eyes by giving them a seat at our (literary) table?

It also means reading about the people making Black history as I’m writing this post. The superstars of today. The people pointing us forward.

You’ll rarely see a book by a politician or celebrity plugged here. For one, these books come by publicity naturally; two, they’re usually mediocre at best. They can be dry or heavy-handed, come off like they’re trying too hard, or feel self-aggrandizing. So, while I find Stacey Abrams all kinds of dynamic and inspirational and vital in real life—and though our signed copies at the bookshop have been flying off the shelves—I put off reading her debut picture book. I figured it would be “meh.”

I stand corrected. I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Stacey’s Extraordinary Words (Ages 4-8), written by Abrams and illustrated by Kitt Thomas, is wonderful. In this story drawn from a childhood memory about a spelling bee competition, young Stacey emerges as inquisitive, bright, determined, and sensitive; and the effusively colored illustrations will endear young readers to her. But what would have appealed to me most as a young bookworm is that this is a story about a girl falling in love with the richness of language. A girl learning to wield the power of language to give voice to herself, to secure her seat at the table.

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Choosing Love: Four Favs for Valentine’s Day

February 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

I sat sleep-deprived in the dim winter light of early morning, stealing myself to break it to my children that their dad and I had decided we should return the puppy we’d picked up less than 24 hours earlier.

The previous day, we had driven three hours to pick up an almost five-month-old Goldendoodle. Upon entering the breeder’s house, it became apparent that the dog was nothing like what we’d been promised. Was nothing like our last puppy, either. We had expected a rambunctious, mouthy, high-energy, playful puppy.

What we left with was a dog that had never been socialized. Never seen a man or a child, not to mention a car, leash, crate, or bath. The dog was terrified of us. Of everything. After the car ride home, where we held his trembling body on our laps, he wouldn’t let us near him. We couldn’t pet him. We couldn’t handle him. When my husband tried to pick him up to bring him inside, he got his hand bitten.

The dog wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t drink. We couldn’t get him outside to use the potty and, if we did, we couldn’t get him back inside. He was terrified of our stairs, so my husband slept next to him on the living room sofa, while I stayed up all night reading everything on the Internet about fearful, traumatized dogs.

What I determined over the course of that long night wasn’t just that this was not the puppy we had envisioned for our family, but that we were in over our heads. A dog who passed the four month mark without being socialized was, the Internet assured me, beyond hope of a normal life, even with professional training.

Earlier that morning, I told my husband that I thought we needed to take him back to the breeder. He reluctantly agreed. So there I sat, waiting for my kids to wake up so we could get it over with.

My son was the first to come down the stairs. His eyes immediately scanned the room, finding the dog—we hadn’t agreed on a name—cowering in the corner. My son stood for a few moments, looking at this terrified ball of fluff, and then he curled up next to me. I braced myself to say the words, but he spoke first, with no suspicion that there was anything amiss.

“Oh, Mommy,” he sighed, his eyes twinkling, a smile breaking across his face like it was Christmas morning. “I’m so happy. I just love him so much.”

This dog, who was nothing like the dog he had wanted, who wouldn’t even let him come near him…he loved him?

I began to speak about what I’d read, about the long road ahead of us. Yes, he said, he had thought as much. He’d start reading things, too. He was excited to help. “I know what it’s like to have anxiety, so I can do this. He’s going to be so happy here. I know it.”

And though part of me wanted to cry, to scream, to run from the loss of control I felt over the entirety of this situation, I thought, What if I chose love? What if we all chose love?

What if we didn’t get the puppy we wanted, but we got the one we needed? Or maybe the one who needed us.

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Party Time! (Or Not)

January 27, 2022 § 3 Comments

With so many posts devoted to serious books lately (not to mention all the awards excitement), I decided we were overdue for a recommendation high on the fun(ny) meter. As it turns out, 2022 has given us a delightful one right out of the gate, as perceptive as it is entertaining. (Plus, if you order from Old Town Books, you’ll get a copy that’s signed by the author-illustrator in the most fitting way. Just wait until you see it!)

Apart from being a total hoot, this story is going to resonate deeply with anyone out of practice at social gatherings. That would be all of us, in case your math skills have also gotten fuzzy.

Our family will attend a dear friend’s bar mitzvah in a few weeks, and as much fun as I know I’ll have, I’m already fretting about how I’m going to wedge my feet into heels, my out-of-shape body into an old cocktail dress, and do I even have lipstick anymore? And then I wonder, how am I going to be vertical at 8pm? What are we going to talk about? Are we going to discuss the pandemic, or will we remember other topics of conversation? And if I’ve got all these worries, what about my kids?

Those of us who were a tiny bit reserved two years ago are now completely overwhelmed by the prospect of hanging out with more than one or two friends at the same time. We’ve lost ground, our social muscles have atrophied. And yet, society’s expectations haven’t adjusted. We’re supposed to want to go back to attending birthday parties and backyard parties and weddings and fundraisers. And we do…but maybe only sort of?

I remember when my dad threw a surprise party for my mom’s 40th birthday. She had an inkling moments before she opened the door that our apartment was full of people, and she shot my dad a look. There was actual menace in that look, and while I don’t remember her exact words, they were something along the lines of, “You’re a dead man.” As soon as she opened the door, she was all smiles and laughter and grace—the hostess with the mostest, as she says—but I’d had a peek into something else. She wasn’t entirely comfortable surrounded by all these people, despite her obvious affection for them. Parties can be a complicated thing, is what I’m saying.

Enter Bina Bear, the large, purple, slightly stiff, certainly awkward protagonist of Mike Curato’s new picture book, Where is Bina Bear? (Ages 3-8, though my 11 year old is obsessed with it). Bina is attending a party thrown by her best bunny friend, Tiny. There are balloons! Cake! Punch! Lots of friendly faces! Bina Bear loves Tiny, so she has come to the party. But Bina Bear doesn’t like parties. She doesn’t do crowds.

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My Favorite Holiday Book of the Year

December 2, 2021 Comments Off on My Favorite Holiday Book of the Year

With two posts remaining, I’m once again hitting pause on my Gift Guide, this time to tell you about my favorite holiday book of the year. It’s rare to find a December holiday-themed book that speaks to Christians and Jews, much less one inspired by true events. Trust me: you do not want to miss this. You might not get through it without shedding a tear. You definitely won’t get through it without getting chills. If there was ever a story to conjure up the true spirit of the holiday season—while also reminding us of the meaning of community—this is it.

With words by Lee Wind and art by the esteemed Paul O. Zelinsky (don’t forget this holiday gem), Red and Green and Blue and White (Ages 5-10; affiliate link) is a nod to the real events of December 1993 in Billings, Montana. It’s the story of two best friends, who live across the street from one another—one in a house decked out in red and green, the other in a house lit up in blue and white—and an anti-Semitic act that threatens to diminish the latter. It’s as much about what happens when we won’t be silenced, as what happens when we stand beside our friends and rally support from an entire community.

It’s about what it looks like when love wins.

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2021 Gift Guide Kicks Off: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

October 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

It’s getting to be the most wonderful time of year: Gift Guide season! Over the next few weeks, you’ll be treated to round ups of picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade books, young adult books, and specialty books with a gifty flair. This year, I’m especially excited to be partnering with Old Town Books, a fantastic indie here in Alexandria, VA, where I’ll be presenting my full Gift Guide LIVE and IN PERSON at 7pm on November 12 and 13, with a chance to shop with me afterwards (get your tickets here!).

Traditionally, I kick off every Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year. (Some past picks are here, here, here, and here.) I recognize that choosing books for loved ones is immensely personal, but sometimes a book comes along that checks all the boxes. It’s beautiful. It’s original. It’s hefty, packed with details that demand repeat readings. It’s got a nostalgic charm that appeals to us oldies doing the gifting. To hold it feels inherently special.

Towering toadstools! All I’m saying is that there aren’t many books you want to clutch to your chest and carry around with you, so when you find one, you just want everyone to have it, OK?

Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest (Ages 4-8), by the extraordinary Phoebe Wahl—I blinked and missed her 2020 picture book for last year’s Gift Guide, and I’ll not make that mistake again—is an anthology of four stories, one for each season. It stars a cheery, capable, caring little witch with a pointed red cap and a fondness for messy braids and fair isle sweaters. Little Witch Hazel lives alone at the base of a tree in the enchanting Mosswood forest, surrounded by trees and waterfalls and a community of gnomes, elves, goblins, trolls, dryads, anthropomorphic amphibians, and tiny talking mammals. He days are spent divided between work and play, between helping others and tending to herself.

It has been a long two years, and I feel like we all deserve to spend some time in a place where tea cakes and twinkling lights are always in fashion, where coziness and cocoa reign supreme, and where the wonders of the wilderness are just an acorn’s throw away. A place where we can dip our tired toes in crystal clear water one minute and ride on an owl’s back the next. A place where creatures watch out for one another, repay favors, and are always happy for an impromptu dance party.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: A Halloween Post

October 7, 2021 § 1 Comment

After hitting the snooze button on Halloween last year while in temporary housing, we were extra-enthused to unbox our spooky decorations last weekend—especially our Halloween books! (Do you pack up your Halloween books with the decorations so you can re-discover them every year? Trust me on this.) As my kids have gotten older, we’ve offloaded many seasonal picture books, and those left are the ones we can’t bear to give up. This includes old favorites like Creepy Carrots, Old Black Witch, The Monsters’ Monster, I am a Witch’s Cat, In a Dark, Dark Room…along with more recent favorites, like The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt and Gustavo the Shy Ghost (for the love of all cuteness, please add this book to your collection…I recently Instagrammed about it here).

Then there are the spooky chapter books we’ve loved reading aloud in past Octobers—by candlelight, of course—like James and Deborah Howe’s classic, Bunnicula, and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. (I recently did an Instagram video with these and many more, including the books my kids claim are too scary for me to attempt, but darned if we will get to them someday. Also, let’s compare witchy cackles, shall we?)

Which brings us to 2021, where I’ve combed through dozens of Halloween-ish new releases to tell you my favorite. The story I’ve chosen is about vampires—of the modern, hip, urban variety—though it has nothing to do with the actual holiday of Halloween. Which means you get to decide whether you pack it up on November 1st or let it stay out all year round. Who am I kidding? There’s not a chance your kiddos are going to let you pack up this one. In Vampenguin (Ages 3-6), Lucy Ruth Cummins—no stranger to the Halloween market ever since she wrote the darling Stumpkin—has created a story that abounds with visual gags and makes perfect use of that irresistible trope of storytelling, where the reader is in on the joke long before the characters themselves are.

Have you ever considered how a baby vampire and a baby penguin could be mistaken for one another? Nope, me neither. That’s where the fun (and the funny) begins. And, lest you think Vampenguin sounds big on antics and short on artistry, I assure you that Cummins’ expressive line work and limited color palette, awash in turquoise, orange, and pink, elevate the story in both whimsy and wonder.

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An Anthem to the “And”

September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments

It has taken me a lot of growing up to realize how quickly the world demands that we put labels on ourselves, and how tempting it then becomes as parents to fit our own children into the same tidy little boxes. Even the questions we routinely ask of our children and their peers—Is she shy? Is he artistic? Is she kind?—assume two fixed outcomes: yes or no. Sides are chosen, identities are constructed; and then, inevitably, confusion sets in when the data points don’t consistently match up.

A few years out of college, when I was working in advertising, I attended a retreat designed around improving problem-solving skills. As part of it, we had to take the Myers-Brigg personality test. What was revolutionary to me wasn’t that I received at the end a set of letters to represent my dominant personality traits, but that each of those letters was plotted on a spectrum. I expected, for example, that I would score as extroverted (E)—I’ve always been social, albeit preferring intimate groups—but what surprised me was that I was quite close to the midway mark between extroverted (E) and introverted (I). This seems incredibly obvious to me now, but I had never previously considered that someone could be both things at the same time. That I could derive equal energy from social interactions and from being by myself. That I didn’t have to choose. That my identity might run on a spectrum, rather than conforming to a binary system.

When we fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as one way or another, it’s not only limiting, it’s fundamentally inaccurate. We, all of us, are walking contradictions. It’s what makes us interesting. It’s what makes us human. Maybe we get nervous walking into a new classroom, but we can belt out a solo on stage. Maybe we can’t draw the likeness of anything, but we love moving paint around on canvas. Maybe we have a hard time sharing crayons at school, but we’ll sit and read to our baby sister at home when she’s sad. What if there was a way to encourage our children to take these “but”s and turn them into an “and”s? What if instead of contradicting one another, they are just two true things?

When I first opened Divya Srinivasan’s triumphant new picture book, What I Am (Ages 3-7), I thought it was going to be a book about a Brown girl responding to a microaggression that’s all too familiar to those whose non-whiteness doesn’t fit the idea of American that some people insist on holding onto, even though all evidence points to the contrary. It’s the “What are you?” question.

And it is a book about that. A beautiful, validating mirror for an Indian American reader.

AND it’s something more. Because, as our young narrator reflects on this question, she realizes that she is a whole lot more than her race or her ethnic heritage. And that many of these things might seem like contradictions—only they aren’t. They’re just her.

What this book is—and why I hope every child gets a chance to read it—is a testament to the complexities, to the nuance, within each and every one of us. It’s a kind of roadmap to how we might think about our own identities—and how we might express them to a world bent on incessantly inquiring.

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Summer’s Sweetness

July 22, 2021 Comments Off on Summer’s Sweetness

I’ve been caught in the hot, sticky, delicious embrace of summer (OK, but a little less heat, please), and it has kept me from showing up here as much as I would like. When I’m silent here, I’m usually still active on Instagram, so you can get lots of book recommendations there, but I do hope to get a few blog posts penned in the next few weeks (I’ve got a big graphic novel round-up planned, so stay tuned!).

But today, let’s talk about one of my favorite picture books of the year, an especially fitting one for this mid-summer sweet spot we find ourselves in. We’re perfectly poised to reflect on summer’s arc, having traded the tentative newness of June for the wild abandon of July, with a creeping awareness that the final days of August will bring it all to a bittersweet end. When Lola Visits (Ages 4-8), lyrically penned by Michelle Sterling (fellow kid lit reviewer) and evocatively illustrated by Aaron Asis, perfectly expresses this arc by capturing the smells, tastes, and sensations of summer, as experienced by a young girl alongside her visiting Filipino grandmother.

When Lola Visits does something that isn’t easy to do in a picture book. It imparts a culturally specific experience while simultaneously invoking the universal wonder of this special season. It’s a book that asks us to reflect on the way we experience summer, to give language to our own observations, and to honor the richness of our memories from one year to the next.

For my children, at least right now, summer is the smell of chlorine, the tight hug of a swim cap, and the taste of glazed doughnuts, cherry popsicles, and concessions burgers with American cheese. In a few weeks, that will shift to the squish of pine needles beneath flip-flopped feet, the sharp bang of a cabin door, and a Styrofoam cup of steaming hot chocolate on a cool Maine morning where fog sits heavy on the lake.

For me, much like the young protagonist in When Lola Visits, summer will always conjure memories of my grandmothers, both of whom I would visit every year. Summer was the taste of warm popovers with melting pads of butter, enjoyed under an umbrella with my one grandmother, after a morning spent pouring over sawdusty cases of pinned bugs at the science museum, where she volunteered in the entomology department. Summer was make-your-own sundaes before Bingo night with my other grandmother, the excitement of watching the pot of money overflow with American and Canadian dollars outdone only by the anticipation of going to the water slide park the following day. Summer was a sticky tin straight from the fridge with chocolate-peanut-butter-Rice-Krispies cookies. The smoky smoothness of blue beach glass. The experience of hugging an older body, with its faint smell of talcum powder, soft, spidery-veined skin, and the security of a love that knows no bounds.

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Taking Our Cue from Them

June 17, 2021 Comments Off on Taking Our Cue from Them

Is that a naked boy on the cover? Why, yes. Are you mostly just posting about books with neon pink themes this year? Um, maybe.

For me, the biggest challenge of parenting continues to be taking the lead from my kids—and not the other way around. It’s seems simple enough—to guide, not instruct; to support, not push; to listen more and talk less—but it becomes intensely complicated when my own biases, fears, and failures get in the way of seeing my kids for who they are in the moment. Labels are comforting; they help us feel like we’re making sense of the chaos and uncertainty that is our children’s becoming. Look, he’s good at swimming—yes, swimming is his sport! He’s got brains, but she’s got compassion. He’ll never agree to that—he hated it last year. Wait, you want to wear a dress? I thought you hated dresses!  

Being a parent can feel a lot like being tied to the end of a yo-yo that someone else is operating, and the whiplash isn’t always pleasant. But when we manage to extricate ourselves from that emotional tether, when we take a step back and observe the messy evolution unfold, we make space for wonder, joy, and acceptance—on both sides.

Upholding traditional gender roles is a trap most of us parents fall into at one time or another (regardless of how many feminist classes we took in college). It starts when our babes are in utero, as we fantasize about the mother-daughter shopping trips or decorate the nursery in a baseball theme, and it continues each time we measure our child against others of the same gender. Shyness in girls is sweet, but shyness in boys might be a sign of weakness. A boy who shows an interest in math confirms what everyone expected, but a girl who shows an interest in math is intriguingas long as she’s not a dork, because then she’ll struggle socially. It’s OK for her to pick dance as a sport, but he needs a “real” workout. And so the dialogue goes, even if we never utter the words aloud.

And a boy who likes pink? Who wears make-up? What does that imply? What does that signal about the future?

Must it mean anything?

I’m thirteen years into this parenting gig, and the only thing I know for certain is that kids change. They change their minds, their habits, their styles. Sometimes it’s awesome, and sometimes it’s nerve-wracking. Sometimes, it’s along traditional gender lines, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a signal of what’s to come, but just as often, it’s not. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with us, though how we react can be everything.

The supremely talented Peter Brown—creator of picture book favorites like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, My Teacher is a Monster (No, I Am Not), and Creepy Carrots, and author of the equally brilliant chapter series The Wild Robot —has a new picture book out, and it brings the biggest smile to my face every time I read it. It’s also his most personal book to date, based on an incident when Brown was five years old and got into his mother’s make-up drawer. In many ways, it’s a tribute to his mother, whom he credits as being ahead of her time in her ability to validate who he was at every changing moment.

Fred Gets Dressed (Ages 2-6) may be a simple story about self-expression, but its execution is anything but ordinary. Design reigns, characters glow, and nakedness abounds. There’s the supportive mother, joined by a father who plays a small but mighty role. There’s a warm, inviting home, with books, dog, plants, and oversized throw pillows. But at the center of the story, stealing the show, is Fred. Fred is pure exuberance. Fred is that kid whose unbridled enthusiasm you want to bottle. Fred is that kid who prefers to air-dry au naturel (and who doesn’t, really?).

Fred is a boy who, on a whim, dresses up in his mom’s clothes and make-up. And because of his parents’ reaction, there’s no labeling, there’s no foreshadowing, there’s no shame. He’s simply allowed the freedom that comes with non-traditional gender roles. And his beaming smile says it all.

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Cicada Frenzy (A Father’s Day Post)

June 10, 2021 § 1 Comment

(Past years’ Father’s Day ideas can be found here, here, here, and here.)

The list of things my kids will someday recount to their wide-eyed grandchildren has gotten a lot longer in the past year. First, there was the pandemic. Then, the election (including an insurrection). And now, here in Virginia, we can add the seventeen-year cicada, a rare breed of cicada that hibernates deep underground for seventeen years and then emerges by the billions, filling the air with an incessant, high-pitched siren that could be (if you’re me) initially mistaken for an air raid. These cicadas, living and dead, now line our front steps and cover our shrubs and trees. When they’re not pelting our car windshields or dive-bombing into our hair, their orange-veined wings, protruding red eyes, and undeniable resiliency do inspire something resembling awe.

At least, if you’re my daughter. My teenage son isn’t having any of it. I still shriek every time one lands on me. But my ten-year-old daughter fancies herself something of a Cicada Whisperer. She rescues them from puddles (and my hair). She invites them to crawl on her finger, holds up their two-inch body to her eyes, and examines them closely, reassuring them that she won’t do them harm. As far as I can tell, she spent the last two weeks of the school year setting up hospital wings for cicadas on school grounds and presiding over funerals for the unfortunate ones who didn’t make it.

Not only do I have the perfect new picture book for the budding entomologist in your life, but with Father’s Day around the corner, Ben Brashares and Elizabeth Bergeland’s The Great Whipplethorp Bug Collection (Ages 5-9) does double duty, celebrating a boy, his stay-at-home father, and the globe-trotting grandfathers who came before. It’s a story about summer boredom, the transports of imagination, and the inspiration of backyard bugs. But it’s also a story about a boy questioning his place in a long line of achievers, a boy weighing his own idea of masculinity against that set by traditional gender roles. The writing is pitch perfect, and the art is awesome: quirky and unexpected, a visually enticing combination of tiny pen lines and washes of color that sits somewhere between real life and imagination. Children will love pouring over these pages, and they’ll grow in their understanding of the story’s broader messages with every reading.

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A Tribute to Those Behind the Scenes

May 20, 2021 § 1 Comment

After thirteen months, tomorrow we will begin the process of moving back into our renovated house. It’s not completely finished—the punch list is long—but we are more than ready to bid goodbye to our temporary digs and move more easily around one another in fresh, open spaces. It feels like we are reuniting with a dear old friend, while at the same time embarking on a new chapter.

Nearly every expectation we had going into the renovation process—the good and the bad—was exceeded. It was more expensive. It was more stressful. It was infinitely more fun.

What we vastly underestimated was how many hands would go into creating our dream home. Our core team of superstars—two architects, two carpenters, a project manager, and an interior designer—will draw most of the well-deserved recognition from our community. But their vision would never have been possible without the hard work of many, many others—some of whom I know by name and many of whom I never will.

We had a crew who showed up the first week for demolition—and returned months later to frame out the addition. We had arborists who took down trees and fought to save others. We had electricians, plumbers, house painters, and heating and cooling teams. A mason and his son poured the foundation, then came back to do the stone work for our patio. We had glass specialists and specialty painters, a shop of carpenters who built our kitchen cabinetry, and another who built bookcases and window seats. We had wizards who carved intricate backsplashes out of marble and others who created a beautiful bar top from a single tree in Maryland. We had a magician of a wallpaper installer and another who installed handmade, irregular tile so seamlessly around a new fireplace that you’d think it had been there all along.

We had graders and drainage trench diggers and even a guy who, according to our contractor, is the most adept person at installing front door hardware that he has ever seen.

And then there were folks we never saw. The ones who went into dilapidated barns and pulled down the hundred-year-old hemlock beams that now grace the ceiling of our family room. The ones who made our gorgeous windows and doors, or worked in the factories that made our appliances, our faucets, our decorative lights. The ones who packed boxes, loaded them onto trucks, and loaded them off.

There was no shortage of things that went wrong. But there were many, many more that went right, including all the creativity channeled into course correction. When new built-in bookcases in the old part of the house didn’t sit flush with the plaster wall, our contractor brought in a plaster expert, who feathered the wall to close the gap seamlessly. When the kitchen cabinets were delivered wrong…and then wrong again…our contractor stopped waiting for a new batch and reconfigured them himself, even though everyone said it couldn’t be done.

As the house nears completion, people stop by to congratulate my husband and me. It feels strange, honestly, and not a little bit disingenuous, to accept praise for something we largely didn’t do. We wrote checks. We worried over people. We made lists and sent emails like it was going to alter the fate of the universe when, in actuality, things would have probably gone along just fine without them. At the end of the day, we are indescribably grateful for the end product. But while we had the initial vision, it wasn’t our sweat equity that built it. The real credit goes to all the folks behind the scenes.

In their new picture book collaboration, Someone Builds the Dream (Ages 3-8), Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long have created an ode to the teams of people who toil behind the scenes to bring about the buildings, bridges, and books that enrich our lives—including and especially folks who are often invisible in the final product. It’s a book that showcases sweat equity. That celebrates trades and crafts. That values hard work and collaboration. It’s a book with perfect read-aloud rhyme, sweeping acrylic paintings, and a whole lotta tools and trucks.

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An Interview with Shawn Harris

May 6, 2021 Comments Off on An Interview with Shawn Harris

Earlier this week, I talked about how much I adore the new picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower? Today, I’m back with an interview I did with its creator, Shawn Harris, in which we talk about his inspiration for the book, his musical past, what neon pink says to him, why he loves school visits, and the super exciting new projects he’s working on. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Me: Welcome, Shawn! Thank you so much for dropping in today. I am delighted to have the chance to chat with you about your authorial debut picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, one of my very favorites of the year. I’ve been a fan of your art for years—both Her Right Foot (written by Dave Eggers) and A Polar Bear in the Snow (written by your good pal, Mac Barnett) have been the subject of previous blog posts—so I was excited to see you trying your hand at writing, too. What made you decide to take the plunge? And where did the idea for this special picture book come from?

Shawn: In my former life, I was a touring songwriter, so I’ve been writing since I was a kid penning lyrics. This was the first time my authorial tone conjured images since I’ve been working in the picture book world, so I set out to illustrate the words. It’s almost a song in book form, really. There’s a theme and an arc to the narration, but I hop around my subject really loosely, and dip in and out of different meters, which is the way I like to approach writing music.

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The Tree in Me: An Interview with Corinna Luyken

March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments

I am thrilled to welcome picture book creator, Corinna Luyken, to the blog today! I have long dreamed of hosting authors and illustrators in these pages, but I want to do it in a way that ties into my mission of creating lifelong readers by nurturing a culture of reading aloud in the home—even after kids are reading by themselves. Corinna isn’t just one of our family’s favorite author-illustrators; as a mother, she’s also deeply invested in reading to her tween daughter. What I hope will feel different and inspiring about this interview is that, in addition to talking about her creative process and her newest book, I ask about the ways in which she has nurtured her own daughter’s reading journey—and even what some of their favorite read alouds have been. (As a result, I now have an even bigger #tbr pile.)

Earlier this week, I did a deep dive into Corinna’s exquisite new picture book, The Tree in Me (you can find my post here), and that’s what we’ll predominantly be talking about today. But I wanted to mention some of our previous favorites as well. I believe Corinna has the distinct honor of appearing on this blog more than any other creator! Her debut picture book, The Book of Mistakes, is still one of my children’s all-time favorites. It gave us language for framing our mistakes as beginnings, not endings. She followed that up by illustrating Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, written by Marcy Campbell, which I chose for my Favorite Picture Book of the Year post in 2018, and I still tear up every time I read it. My Heart was the next book she both wrote and illustrated, and for its metaphorical musing on empathy and connection, it is a kind of companion book to The Tree in Me.

My children have always been drawn to Corinna’s art—in particular, her bold, expressive use of color. (I especially love what she says about color in our interview—specifically, her answer to a question my daughter wanted me to ask: “What is your favorite color?”) But, increasingly, I also find myself appreciating her touch with the written word. She doesn’t simply choose her words carefully, she gives them a rhythm that translates beautifully into reading aloud. In sum, she does what many strive to do and few succeed: she invites reflection. In a fresh, unexpected, and pared-back way, her books speak to something essential about the human experience; we can’t help but be a tiny little bit changed when we come to the last page.

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For the Youngest Polar Bear Lovers

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.

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