March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments
My daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age. « 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 »
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 »
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 that 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.
The art heist is fictional—as is the stolen drawing—but the artist at hand, German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer, is well represented in The Met’s permanent collection (to JP’s delight). Additionally, the novel is geeked out for art history lovers, packed with information about the most notorious art heists in history, as well as rich in discussion of what makes art worthy of our attention.
Does your child have to be interested in art to enjoy this novel? HECK, NO! Not only is the story about much more than art (mystery! adventure! defiance of authority!), it stars an eleven-year-old boy whose only experience with art is that his father is an artist—and who initially feels only disappointment when his father gifts him a pen-and-ink set for his birthday.
What our protagonist James does care about—what he yearns for—is connection. Connection to his divorced parents, who don’t see him for who he is, and connection to a true friend, whom he has never had. Elise Broach (who also authored the Superstition Mountain series, which I read to JP earlier this year) has a wonderful ability to showcase the inner emotional life of her young characters, by revealing how they interact with their surroundings. In this case, what we learn about this gentle, watchful, sensitive soul named James derives largely from his unexpected friendship with a cockroach.
A COCKROACH?! Well, OK, Marvin is technically a ground beetle, who lives with his family in a damp corner of the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink of James’ Manhattan apartment. But anyone who has ever lived in New York City can vouch that he might as well be a cockroach. No doubt Broach is anticipating our reaction and using this to underline how remarkable this friendship is between boy and bug.
Masterpiece deserves to be on a shelf with the best of them. Think Charlotte’s Web, or The Cricket in Times Square, but for a slightly older audience. Broach writes the relationship between child and animal with the same tenderness that E.B. White and George Selden brought to their respective classics. She envisions a “miniature” world (a world where beetles bum rides off their human’s vacuum cleaner) with much the same detail and fascination as fellow contemporary Richard Peck did in The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail.
Only Broach offers up more at stake. In Masterpiece, James’ chance for happiness, or at least self-acceptance, hinges on what happens as a result of his relationship with the animal world.
Early on in the story, Marvin (the beetle) stumbles upon the pen-and-ink set, lying abandoned on James’ desk. By dragging two feet through the little bit of ink left in the unscrewed top, he discovers that he can create a realistic rendition of the nighttime view outside James’ window. A drawing, as it turns out, with an uncanny likeness to the renowned sketches by Albrecht Durer.
When James awakens, he spots the beetle hiding beside the not-yet-dry picture. A friendship—“like a great work of art”—is quickly born, and James is determined to learn more about Marvin’s world.
But James is equally determined that no one should know Marvin’s secret but him. Herein lies the haunting ethical question posed subtly but frequently by the novel (and a big reason why this story lends itself to sharing aloud): Is James right to take credit for Marvin’s drawing, which creates an impressive stir as soon as it is discovered the next day by the adults? While James genuinely wishes to protect Marvin from his fellow humans (because he’s a cockroach)—and he knows no one would believe the truth—there’s no doubt that he benefits from the spotlight suddenly afforded to him by his father, who whisks him off to the The Met to show the drawing to his colleagues, thereby unwittingly casting both James and Marvin in a page-turning plot of art forgery, fueled by the FBI’s desire to catch a famous art thief.
At first, James’ inadvertent “lie”—that he is capable of such art—seems innocent enough; but as the story goes on, we begin to observe the devastating effect that it has, not only on James’ moral compass, but on his relationships with the adults in his life. Our heart breaks for him time and time again. “But he has no choice!” my JP kept lamenting, equally torn. Or does he? It takes the duration of the book for James to figure out how to free himself from this suffocating secret, while still remaining loyal to his six-legged friend.
Marvin may be the overt artistic hero of the book, but James is the one who inspires us to broaden our definition of heroism. Through his friendship with Marvin, James begins to discover and embrace his own, less visible gifts. He notices Marvin when no one else does—and this same power of observation also leads James to track down the art thief and rescue the stolen art. Most importantly, James’ watchful eye sees past the fronts, whether beautiful or ugly, that people and animals present to the world, the defenses we construct around us.
Marvin looked up at James, filled with a warm tide of something he’d never felt before. More than affection or gratitude. It was something deeper. It was the sense of being seen and loved exactly for who he was.
We weren’t halfway through the book when JP requested that we once again visit The Met on our weekend in New York (success!). We went straight to the Durer paintings, although JP felt that they paled in comparison with the sketches described in the book. We moved on to the twentieth century wing where, after looking around for awhile, JP asked if he could sit and sketch. “But I don’t want to draw any of these paintings. I want to do my own.”
As I watched my son change out color after color to form a bizarre geometric maze with his pencils, I started thinking about James, whose drawings would never measure up to Marvin’s. And yet, success is not always about making masterpieces, the book seems to reassure us in the end. It’s about the way that art brings people together—and the way that it inspires us to learn things about ourselves. When we liberate ourselves from the pressure to be something we aren’t, life gets a whole lot more enjoyable.
Other Favorite Chapter Books About Art Heists:
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (Ages 9-12)
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett (Ages 9-12)
Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (Ages 10-14)
AND, if you child isn’t ready for the complexity of Masterpiece—or has listened to Masterpiece but wants something easier to read on his own—Elise Broach has recently launched a spinoff early-chapter book series, targeted at emerging readers and inspired by the everyday adventures of James and Marvin. The Miniature World of Marvin and James and James to the Rescue are charming quick reads.
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June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments
This was how I discovered that my seven year old had been spending his recess time, alongside several of his classmates, building fairy houses out of twigs, stones, moss, leaves, and mud; filling them with wild onion stems; and then returning the next day to discover with delight that things were not exactly as they’d left them. This obsession with fairy houses would later move into our own backyard (with the addition of miniature serving plates fashioned from the caps of milk bottles), and the momentum seems only to be building.
I don’t live under a rock, so I’m aware that fairies are EXTREMELY POPULAR. I was just a bit surprised that my skeptical and scientifically-minded son, the same being who reminds me that there is no such thing as witches, wizards, monsters, and dragons; who loves to do a magic trick and then immediately reveal the technique behind it; who appears (with the exception of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) to have his two feet squarely rooted in reality—that this person would suddenly talk about fairies as if they were as ordinary an occurrence as the postal workers walking through our neighborhood. “I don’t have to see a fairy to know they’re real,” he told me. “Just look outside—there are signs everywhere.”
Don’t get me wrong. JP’s belief in fairy magic, in the idea of miniature people living miniature lives amidst the trees and leaves and grass, makes me bubble over with happiness. (Yes! Let’s believe in what we cannot see! Yes! Let’s find more reasons to play in the dirt!). But the best part? My son’s new-found interest presented the perfect excuse to purchase a book that I (shame on me) had been saving for when my daughter got a little bit older.
I’m frequently asked by parents for recommendations of fairy-themed chapter books. This isn’t just because fairy lore is undergoing a kind of comeback (or maybe it never left?). It’s also because, despite the high demand, there is a surprising dearth of quality literary offerings. Yes, I know your daughter is obsessed with the Rainbow Fairies series, for its colorful covers and overtly girly content, but have you tried reading one of those awkwardly-constructed, downright-insipid books aloud? Bleh. Let her read those on her own if she must. In the meantime, do both of you a favor and get your hands on Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy, which is EVERYTHING A FAIRY BOOK SHOULD BE. This is reading aloud at its best.
Since it came out in 2010, The Night Fairy (Ages 5-10, if reading aloud) has become one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Hold the 117-page hardcover in your hands, and you know you are dealing with something special. It’s petite (as a book about a fairy should be); its pages are thick and glossy; and it features exquisite watercolor plates by British illustrator Angela Barrett. But here’s the clincher: the writing is absolutely exquisite. The descriptive passages soar. The action is tight. The multidimensional characters tug at our heartstrings. And—drum roll please—the story is steeped in the natural world, in the world right outside our front door.
What The Night Fairy does so refreshingly is to yank the subject of fairies out of the realm of fantastical kingdoms and magic wands and froofy dresses—and return it to its humble, delicate origins. When you strip the glitter off the fairies, you end up with a hint of darkness, a touch of danger and mystery and intrigue. Fairies, we learn, might be magical, but—like all living creatures—they are not invulnerable to the threats around them.
There are those who say that fairies have no troubles, but this is not true. Fairies are magical creatures, but they can be hurt—even killed—when they are young and their magic is not strong. Young fairies have no one to take care of them, because fairies make bad parents. Babies bore them. A fairy godmother is an excellent thing, but a fairy mother is a disaster.
Tell me you are not hooked! Alright, you need more? The book’s central character, Flory, is a so-called “night fairy,” meaning that she was born “a little before midnight when the moon was full.” Night fairies, we learn, perform their strongest magic at night, and Flory is further assisted by a pair of sheer, green wings with feathers on the end—“sensing feathers,” which are intended to alert her to approaching danger.
That’s all well and good, but Flory’s story begins with tragedy. When she is but three months old and smaller than an acorn, a bat mistakes Flory for a luna moth and crunches down on her wings. Flory’s instinct for survival is strong—she may be small, but she has the fight of a lion—and she decides to try life as a daytime creature, seeking solace in the sunshine, as she waits for her wings to grow back.
The story is packed with Flory’s subsequent adventures, each one born out of the necessity for shelter, food, and protection, and all set in the garden of a bird-loving human (or “giantess,” as the animals call her). Flory weaves rope bridges out of discarded spider webs, wields a thorn as a dagger in the face of an attacking preying mantis, and over time perfects a “stinging spell” to ward off pesky predators.
On every page, we are treated to the interconnectedness of the natural world: the harmony that comes from each creature playing its part. Flory’s greatest stride in self-preservation comes from a partnership she forges with a hungry squirrel named Skuggle, who agrees to let Flory ride on his back in exchange for her cleverness at releasing seeds from the garden’s many bird feeders.
Exciting adventures aside, what made the biggest impression on both of my children (hooray, another book that my children enjoyed together!) was Flory’s emotional development across the book. During the first half, Flory is brusque, rude, and bossy in her dealings with others (the narrator gently reminds us that she has no parent to guide her). Her actions are entirely self-serving. And yet, as she begins to appreciate the diversity of her surroundings, her heart begins to soften in empathy for the other creatures in the garden. She learns to forgive. She learns to listen. She even learns to apologize—and to mean it (“She shut her eyes and tried to imagine being sorry. It was hard work, almost like casting a spell.”)
When Flory puts the needs of others before her own, she opens herself up to the possibility of becoming a hero. And, in the book’s nail-biting climax, Flory becomes just that, successfully rescuing a mommy-to-be hummingbird from the entrapment of a spider’s web and keeping the hummingbird’s eggs warm until the return of their mother. Without even realizing it, Flory simultaneously finds her way back to the rightful realm of a night fairy, to the unique beauty of a moonlit night at the stroke of midnight. She can go back to sleeping during the day.
When we were about halfway through The Night Fairy, I came across JP slipping the book into his backpack one morning. He had mentioned the previous night that he wanted to “read ahead” at school, but that he would bring back the book at the end of the day. So, I wasn’t surprised when I saw him. I was, however, surprised by the exchange that followed:
“I know that I am going to get a lot of comments when I take this book out at school,” he said.
“What do you mean? What kind of comments?” (Admittedly, I was feigning some ignorance.)
“You know, from kids who think fairies are only for girls.”
“Oh yeah? And what do you think” I asked him.
“I think that there is no such thing as girl stuff and boy stuff. Just lots of really fun stuff.”
“Me too,” I responded, smiling and walking away in my best impersonation of parental breeziness. Only on the inside, I was leaping with joy. Please, oh please, let him always feel this way!
Other Favorite Chapter Books About Fairies:
No Flying in the House, by Betty Brock & Wallace Tripp (Ages 6-12)
Twig, by Elizabeth Orton Jones (Ages 6-12)
Not specifically about fairies, but if you have a Lover of Little Things, I highly recommend the series, The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin. I cannot WAIT to do these with my kids!
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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!