Moving Through Uncertainty (A Book Club Post)

March 20, 2020 Comments Off on Moving Through Uncertainty (A Book Club Post)

It feels unfathomable that only a single week has passed since I was in my daughter’s Montessori classroom for book club with the third graders. It feels more like a lifetime, so frequently and relentlessly has the rug been pulled out from beneath our Normalcy since then. With schools shuttered and social distancing mandated, we’re all scrambling to find some semblance of routine, to cling to optimism about our loved ones and our community, to keep from sinking into the couch and staying there for good.

Last Thursday concluded seven weeks of discussing Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw (Ages 9-12), our second pick of the year (click here for my Instagram post on our first book), and we celebrated the way we do: with a party. Only this time the popcorn was complemented with purple jelly beans: a favorite of the oversized, outspoken, outlandish cat named Crenshaw, once Jackson’s imaginary friend, who unexpectedly (and awkwardly) reappears during his fifth-grade year.

When I chose the book, I could not have known how apt it would turn out to be for the ordeal we’re now living through. I had chosen it for three reasons. Firstly, Applegate’s short chapters and direct sentences are accessible to a variety of readers, while the nuance, maturity, and visual acuity she packs into her words create rich fodder for discussion. Secondly, if reading fiction is linked to building empathy, Crenshaw represents a rare opportunity in middle-grade fiction to step into the shoes of someone living in poverty—and to discover he isn’t that different from us. Thirdly, the humor in this story, employed to balance out the sadness, is infectious: it’s unexpected; it’s absurd; it’s cinematic. (A giant cat who enjoys making bubble beards in the bath? Yes, please.) The light in the kids’ eyes as they begged to read aloud favorite passages each week only confirmed this.

But it turns out the most powerful reason to read Crenshaw—and why you may want to read it at home right now—may be its theme of uncertainty. How do we keep going when the world stops making sense?

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2019 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14

December 15, 2019 § 2 Comments

The category of middle-grade fiction is rapidly broadening. On the one side are novels accessible to 8-12 year olds, while on the other are heavier, more mature stories aimed at the 10-14 crowd. As always, I’ve indicated age ranges after each title. Those with kids on the older end: don’t be in a hurry to move your kids to young-adult fiction. There’s still plenty of richness for the taking here.

The first five novels are new to this bog; the others are ones I’ve reviewed earlier in the year but couldn’t resist repeating, because they have mad gift potential. Or maybe it’s just that I’m madly in love with all of them. 2019: what a year. (And I can’t wait to see you in 2020. This wraps my Gift Guide, and I wish all of you a very Happy Holidays.)

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2019 Gift Guide: Favorite Picture Book of the Year (and How Family Should Be)

November 21, 2019 § 6 Comments

How it’s almost Thanksgiving I’ll never know, but the season of giving will soon be upon us. Seeing as I’ve read more this year than any other, I think it’s fair to say my 2019 Gift Guide won’t disappoint. I’m aiming to include something for every child and teen on your list. As has become tradition on this blog, I begin with my favorite picture book of the year (although spoiler: this year I have TWO, so stay tuned). Past years have seen this, this, and this. It has been hard keeping this one a secret…although timing for today’s reveal feels especially fitting.

Growing up, I always preferred Thanksgiving to Christmas. I would never have admitted this; it seemed odd as a child to prefer a holiday of sitting around, eating off formal china, and making conversation with grown-upsover one with presents and candy and caroling. But there was something about the warmth and coziness of Thanksgiving which seduced me: returning home frozen after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to an apartment abounding with hissing radiators and the smell of roasting turkey. There was the comfort of looking around the room and seeing the people I loved and not having the distraction of which gifts might be under the tree and which, disappointingly, might not.

It’s not lost on me that the timing of Thanksgiving plays a role in its appeal. After all, Thanksgiving kicks off the Holiday Season. It’s a time of anticipation, and there’s nothing more alluring to a young child than possibility. It may not be the holiday of presents, but it’s a road sign pointing towards the presents. Pointing towards the twinkling lights and crackling fires and colorful wrappings.

Still, there can be a kind of magic in and of itself created by family—and, if we’re lucky, it becomes almost tangible on Thanksgiving Day. For a few short hours, the world outside falls away, and the inside jokes and knowing glances and lingering hugs take center stage. Dishes are prepared with love and displayed in beautiful ways, and we relish the bounty of this precious togetherness.

In her exquisite new picture book, Home in the Woods (Ages 4-8)one of the finest examples of bookmaking I’ve ever encountered—Eliza Wheeler invokes her grandmother’s childhood to tell the story of a family who manages to make magic for themselves, even in the toughest of times. (You might remember Wheeler from this long ago favorite. Since then, she has mostly illustrated others’ texts. So happy to see her back in the seat of author and illustrator, because her writing is every bit as evocative as her art.)

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Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

My daughter fibs. I realize that sounds harsh, like what kind of parent says that about her child? Shouldn’t I soften my words and say that she only pretends or exaggerates or bends the truth, because even though she’s only eight, she’s old enough to realize that sometimes the world looks better in our minds than it does in reality? Indeed, this is true. Still, she fibs. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Surprising Backstory Behind The Monopoly (Wo)man

September 27, 2018 Comments Off on The Surprising Backstory Behind The Monopoly (Wo)man

Children are never fools when it comes to laying claim to our attention. They know exactly what they’re doing when they pull out a wordless book for us to “read,” quickly sabotaging our hope of a quick bedtime. Similarly, when our children walk into the room with Monopoly under their arms, they know they’ve turned our innocent consent to a family game into a lost Sunday afternoon. Show me a child who loves Monopoly, and I’ll argue that the appeal is more than the sum of dealing money, lining up those little green houses, and the rush of saying to one’s parents, “You owe me $2000!” (that’s Boardwalk, with a hotel). Because I was once a child, who enjoyed nothing more than racing my dad to see who could lay claim to Boardwalk and Park Place, I know that the Very Best Part of Playing Monopoly is that it takes for-freakin’-ever.

The story of how Monopoly came to be may not be as long-winded as the game itself, but it did span decades. « Read the rest of this entry »

Familial Strife: Summer Reading Recs for Tweens

June 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

While I mostly discuss books that lend themselves to sharing aloud with children, I make exceptions around holidays and summer break to offer shorter write ups of middle-grade chapter books—ones you’ll want to put into the hands of your older readers and then get out of the way. (You’ll find past favorites here, here, and here.)  Sitting on the Capitol Choices reviewing committee affords me ample opportunities to keep up with what’s current. Fortunately, for all of us with tweens, the well is especially deep right now.

Some (ahem, grown-ups) believe summer reading should be exclusively light and fluffy. I beg to disagree. Away from academic pressures and structured sports can be the perfect time for our children to embark on uncharted territory: to push outside their comfort zones; to dabble in different writing styles; to experience characters who look and sound nothing like them; and to contemplate—from the security of the page—some of the heavier lifting they might someday be called upon to do. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Book I Haven’t Told You About

April 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

It’s true. I’ve waited four months into 2018 to tell you about my favorite book from 2017. Why didn’t I include this title in last year’s Holiday Gift Guide? Well, two reasons. First, Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Ages 5-9) is not really a “gift-y” book: its subdued cover doesn’t exactly scream READ ME, and its content is not high on the list of what kids think they want to read about. This is a quiet book. A gentle book. A tiny window into one immigrant family’s experience, and the kind of story where what’s not said is equally as important as what is. But oh…this book. « Read the rest of this entry »

Going Forth with Love

January 25, 2018 § 1 Comment

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

2017 Gift Guide (No. 4): Middle-Grade Magnificence

December 7, 2017 § 3 Comments

As promised, here is a roundup of my favorite middle-grade fiction of 2017, a mix of graphic and traditional novels,  targeted at tweens or older. Not included are titles I blogged about earlier in the year—gems like The Inquisitor’s Tale, The Wild Robot, and See You in the Cosmos, which would make excellent additions to this list. Also not included are books I haven’t read yet—particularly Amina’s Voice, Nevermoor, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and Scar Island (by the same author as the riveting Some Kind of Courage)—which would likely be on this list if I had. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I adore, has a sequel out this year which I’m dying to read. And I should also mention that if my son were making this list, he would undoubtedly note that it has been a stand-out year for new installments in his favorite series, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Now, without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into these richly textured and meaty stories, filled with angst and adventure, secrets and self-discovery. « Read the rest of this entry »

Winning Against All Odds

September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James BrownWe are still feeling the effects of Olympics Fever in our house. Before his weekly swim lesson, JP flaps his arms back and forth across his chest, a.k.a. Michael Phelps. Emily vaults off the arm of our leather chair and lands with her hands above her head, chest lifted. I’m still smiling at the charisma of Usain Bolt, who runs so fast it’s scarcely comprehensible. While we were watching the Olympics one Saturday afternoon, with footage of fencing and archery and discus throwing, JP exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were this many sports!” (We aren’t typically a sports-watching family, as I’ve mentioned before.)

For all the glory that my children witnessed unfolding on the television screen this past summer, I don’t think they really grasped the guts that were involved. The sacrifices made. The arduous, sometimes circuitous journeys of these athletes to Rio. What actually went on behind the scenes.

I started to feel like I was doing these athletes a disservice by not talking to my kids about how painfully difficult—how physically and mentally trying—these journeys to victory often are. « Read the rest of this entry »

2015 Gift Guide (No. 3): Chapter Books for the Courage Seeker

December 10, 2015 § 2 Comments

Best Middle-Grade Chapter Books of 2015As a child who loved reading all sorts of books, the characters that stayed with me long after I finished the final page were not the knights in shining armor or the warrior princesses. They were everyday children—characters who looked or felt or went to school like me—whose strength and courage were greatly tested by circumstances beyond their control. These children got dealt a bad hand; and yet, they managed to come through with grace and humor, with an increased sensitivity to others, and with a wealth of self-knowledge. Perhaps it is through reading stories about loss, disability, bullying, or poverty that we can create our own personal roadmap to peace, compassion, and joy.

Without further ado, I present my three favorite middle-grade chapter books of the year for the 9-14 year-old set. (Mind you, these are in addition to Echo and Circus Mirandus, which I wrote about over the summer here and which are every bit as awesome as the ones below). These three novels are vastly different from one another, both in subject and in narrative voice—and yet all of them sing with the beauty of the human spirit. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Bravest Kind of Kindness

June 11, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel“Kindness” has become a buzz word across parenting literature of late. Are we teaching our children to be kind? How do we go about raising kind children? How can we prevent “bullying” on the playground or “mean girls” at play dates?

And yet, for all the lip service we keep giving to the importance of kindness, a recent study found that as many as 80% of youth reported that their parents seemed “more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others.”

I find reports like this deeply unsettling, although they’re not entirely unsurprising. After all, kindness can be really hard stuff. It’s one thing to remember a relative’s birthday; to hold the door open for a stranger; to put an arm around a friend who is crying. Undeniably, these are all kind gestures. But it is quite a different thing to put someone’s deepest needs before our own; to step outside our comfort zone; to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes and, in the process, open up our hearts to the potential for understanding, connection, and forgiveness. Stretching the limits of kindness—this is when the real magic happens.

In his gorgeously illustrated and deeply feeling new picture book, The Song of Delphine (Ages 4-8), Kenneth Kraegel tells an unforgettable story of a child’s courageous act of kindness in the face of adversity. It’s an act that not only dramatically changes the course of the two lives in the book, but has the power to transform the reader as well.

You might remember author-illustrator Kenneth Kraegel from his riotous read-aloud romp alongside Arthurian knights and dragons. Here, in The Song of Delphine, Kraegel’s signature watercolor and ink paintings, with their evocative lines and folkloristic feel, are paired with a more sensitive and sophisticated subject. It’s a Cinderella story of sorts, a story of servitude and poverty set against royalty and luxury. Only there’s no fairy godmother to be found, no prince to impress. Our heroine must make her destiny out of her very own humanity. (Oh, and did I mention the story is set in Africa?)

In “the far reaches of the wild savannah,” in the palace of the great Queen Theodora, lives a motherless, fatherless, friendless servant girl named Delphine. Delphine is tasked with keeping the palace clean from morning until night—in short, doing “whatever she was told to do.”

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

One day, a princess arrives to live at the castle. It’s the queen’s niece, a young girl who has allegedly lost her own mother and been rejected by her stepmother. Despite Delphine’s hopes that the two will become friends, it is quickly obvious that the princess intends only to “bully” the other, accusing Delphine of things she did not do, insulting her, and adding to her already endless workload.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

If you haven’t experienced the strong sense of black-and-white justice that runs through a young child, you need only to share this story with him or her. What is omitted in the text is revealed in the pictures, and my children were lightning fast to pick up on it. “But the princess is the one who knocked over the bucket, Mommy!” “The princess is the one tracking dirt across the floor! Delphine isn’t doing any of these things!”

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

Indeed, it is not easy to watch or listen to the abuse Delphine receives. It makes us as uneasy as it does our children. And Kraegel does not sentimentalize it. He paints it clearly and starkly.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

But Delphine has a unique coping gift. She has a beautiful singing voice, which she uses to transcend the everyday toils of sweeping, mopping, and fetching water. It’s a simple act, it’s simply drawn, and yet, let’s admire for a moment the passion and grit in our young heroine.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

As the story develops and Delphine’s suffering increases, her evening singing attracts the attention of the savannah’s wild giraffes, who carry her out the bedroom window, across the tree-dotted plains, and reward her with nuzzles, smiles, and desperately needed companionship. These giraffes, with their regally lifted necks, soft mouths, and beautiful brown spotting, are the heart of this story for my daughter. She simply cannot get enough of them. Frankly, neither can I.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

But here’s where things get really interesting. One night, the giraffes mistakenly return Delphine, not to her own bedroom, but to that of the haughty princess. The latter, assuming Delphine has come to rob or attack her, yells loudly for help, attracting the attention of the queen’s guards, who capture Delphine and lock her in the dungeon. And yet, before she is carried off, something magical happens. Delphine catches sight of a framed portrait in the princess’ room, which she correctly guesses to be that of the princess’ mother.

‘“I never knew my mother,’” Delphine said softly. “You must miss yours terribly.”
The princess stared hard at Delphine.
“When I am feeling lonesome, there is a song that I like to sing,” said Delphine.
“It goes like this…” And, almost whispering at first, Delphine sang. Steadily, her voice grew stronger and stronger, filling the room with sound and feeling.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

Imagine this: a young girl is able to put herself in her tormentor’s shoes and imagine the sadness and pain that must lie beneath the cruel actions. Delphine doesn’t shout, “Stop it, you mean Bully!” or “You’re going to be sorry when I grow up and get out of here!” Instead, she says, I’m sorry for what you are going through, and I want to help. She says, I’m going to make this moment about you, not me. She asks for nothing in return.

This is, after all, a fairy tale of sorts, so we aren’t surprised when Delphine gets her happy ending. Princess Beatrice (named only now that she has become worthy of a name) realizes her mistake, releases Delphine from prison, and brings her before the queen to showcase her beautiful singing voice. Delphine is promoted to the palace’s singer; and—most significantly—she and Beatrice begin a lifelong friendship, beginning with the princess’ sincere apology, “Thank you for being so kind, even when I have been so cruel.” Together, the two enjoy nightly escapades atop giraffes.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

I like to think that Delphine’s happy ending of forgiveness and friendship would come to pass in real life, too. My children’s Montessori school recently held a Parent’s Night, where they challenged us to avoid labels like “bullies” and “mean girls.” “Words like these are a dead-end street,” one teacher said, “and they do nothing to acknowledge or address the motive behind the action.” If we are going to raise kind children, we must teach them to look beyond labels, to not label in the first place. We must teach them empathy.

The message embedded in The Song of Delphine is not an easy one to internalize. Who knows how many readings or reminders or years or examples before my children truly understand what it means to be kind in the face of cruelty.

But perhaps it starts with story time.

Here’s another study (this one cited in a fascinating recent article in The New Yorker about the power of reading fiction both to heal oneself and to develop empathy towards others).

This 2011 study, published in the Annual Review of Psychology and based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

In other words, our children’s reading material has the power to become the moral compass by which they approach their lives.

After the third time I read The Song of Delphine to my almost five year old, she had this to say: “Mommy, sometimes I get a little water in my eye when I listen to this story. It goes away really fast, but it feels kind of funny for a few minutes.”

Perhaps empathy starts here.

Other Favorites With Inspirational Examples of Empathy & Kindness:

The Sandwich Swap, by Queen Rania of Jordan, Kelly DiPucchio & Tricia Tusa (Ages 5-10)
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson & E.B. Lewis (Ages 5-10)
Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson & Tara Calahan King (Ages 5-10)
Desmond and the Very Mean Word, by Desmond Tutu & A.G. Ford (Ages 5-10)
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena & Christian Robinson (Ages 4-10; reviewed here)
Those Shoes, by Maribeth Boelts & Noah Z. Jones (Ages 6-12)
The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi (Ages 6-12)
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes & Louis Slobodkin (chapter book, Ages 7-14)
The Family Under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carlson (chapter book, Ages 7-14)

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

Best Kind of People Watching

March 26, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Last Stop on Market Street" by Matt de la PenaGrowing 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 »

GOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!

July 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

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

The World Cup will end, but I hope our family’s new love of soccer will not. Both kids are more excited than ever for their own soccer season this fall (although JP reports that he does not think he would like to be as good as the World Cup players, because “it looks very dangerous out there”). In the meantime, we will be reading some of the fantastic soccer-themed books that have popped up this year. Our favorite of these is Soccer Star (Ages 4-8), by Mina Javaherbin (illustrations by Renalto Alarcao), a picture book which not only exudes the excitement of soccer, but places it in a valuable cultural context. « Read the rest of this entry »

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