All in a Good Day’s Bicycling

March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments

adventuresofagirlcalledbicycle-e1552680598146.jpgMy 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 »

Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did. « Read the rest of this entry »

Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise BroachWherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.

This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.

Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.

As far as I know, he  never had any nightmares.

And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.

And yet, still no nightmares.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).

The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.

Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).

Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top.  Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Weird and Wonderful Hospitality (Courtesy of Ben Hatke)

May 21, 2015 § 8 Comments

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben HatkeI’d like to be the kind of mom who has the house where all the kids want to hang out. I’d like to be the kind of mom who throws back her head and exclaims breezily, “The more the merrier!” Who pulls out a sheet of warm chocolate chip cookies from the oven and, after grubby little fists have snatched them up, goes on to say, “You know, why don’t you all stay for dinner? I have something delicious bubbling away in the crock pot!”  I’d like to be the kind of mom who turns the other cheek at dirty footprints, blots of ink, trails of sand, and piles of crumbs; who sighs and thinks, “All that matters is that they are here and they are happy.”

I am not that kind of mom. Two years ago, I participated in a Spring Break Swap with a group of close friends, where we each took turns at our respective houses watching nine kids for a day. My kids have lovely friends. Kind, intelligent, creative friends. But that did little to quell the feeling that I was UNDER SIEGE. So many little mouths telling me they were hungry! So many eager eyes imploring me to admire their drawings! So many children running up and down stairs, squealing and shouting and scrabbling!

Nope, I am not that kind of mom. It turns out that becoming a parent didn’t transform my Type A personality. I’m often still as inflexible as my daughter is when she’s presiding over her tea parties. Still, the idea of having an open-door policy, of creating a space where everyone feels welcomed and accepted, holds great romantic appeal. On paper.

This promise of hospitality is just one of the many reasons that I continue to be taken with Ben Hatke’s 2014 picture book, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (Ages 3-6). The only reason I didn’t write sooner about one of my favorite books of last year is that it was initially such a runaway hit, the Indie publisher couldn’t print them fast enough!

Allow me to touch on some of the gems in this story. To begin with, there’s Julia, our young Type A heroine with a handkerchief in her hair and gold in her heart; who dreams of making her large, rambling Victorian house a refuge for “Lost Creatures.” (Incidentally, Julia’s compassion towards “misfits” reminds me of the equally enchanting Miss Maple’s Seeds.)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

But WAIT. My children would go absolutely bananas if I wrote another word without mentioning their favorite detail: that the book opens with Julia’s life-sized house arriving at the seaside on the back of a turtle. That’s right, some people go where the wind blows them; others follow the whim of a giant, purposeful turtle.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

Then there are the Lost Creatures themselves: an energetic hodgepodge of trolls, mermaids, ghosts, dragons, fairies, folletti, and other unidentifiable but irresistibly appealing creatures—some sad, some hungry, some lonely, and some just plain curious. (Here, we get reminders of another favorite, The Monster’s Monster.)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

There is the predictably unpredictable chaos that ensues when all the creatures suddenly find themselves under one roof—and the effect that this has on poor Julia, who would really like to be a lot breezier than she is. Even if she can get past the mountain of dirty dishes, the footprints on the walls, and the loud music, a folletti toasting a marshmellow over a small bonfire on her roof is just one step too far.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Bob Hatke

There’s Julia’s stroke of genius—a chore chart!—which ultimately allows everyone to co-habitate in peace and harmony. (Of course! Give everyone jobs! Why didn’t I think of that?)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

Finally, there is author-illustrator Ben Hatke’s unique treatment of the subject matter. Those with kids who have been bitten by the Graphic Novel Bug (which may not be a new phenomenon, but which is gaining momentum like never before) may already know Hatke from his acclaimed Sci-Fi series, Zita the Spacegirl (Ages 8-14). Even I—not by nature a comics lover—have fallen in love with this sophisticated graphic novel trilogy for its spunky heroine, other-worldly setting, deeply cadenced narrative, and all-around cool factor.

With Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, Hatke’s first foray into the picture book world (and the beginning of more to come!), he blends both traditional picture book elements with comic-strip attributes. Playing to his strengths as a graphic artist, Hatke is able to advance Julia’s story as much through the visual spreads and frames as he does through the carefully-chosen sentences. The resulting hybrid feels almost like a new literary category, and both of my children Can’t. Get. Enough.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

When I learned that Ben Hatke would be leaving his rural Virginia home (nestled in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife, four young daughters, and an eccentric cast of cats and chickens) to visit Hooray for Books here in Alexandria, you can bet we were going to be there. Hatke is exactly the kind of literary artist that I would like my children to know: approachable, vastly talented, and bursting with pleasure to be doing exactly what he is doing. His enthusiasm for book making—specifically for experimenting with the comic format—is positively contagious.

Ben Hatke at Hooray for Books

My seven year old, fueled by what I am not sure is a healthy obsession with Calvin and Hobbes (if you hear the rustling of pages in his room at 6am, you can bet that he’s reading one of the ten Calvin books stacked next to his bed like a second nightstand), has spent much of this last year attempting to write and illustrate comic stories of his own. When Hatke told JP that each of his book projects originates in a designated notebook, and that most of his ideas arise from free-form sketching in said notebook, I saw JP’s eyes light up. I was not surprised when, the next day, he brought his wallet to the grocery store to purchase a notebook for his “next project.”

Ben Hatke Event

Speaking of projects, here is a glimpse of Hatke’s next picture book, starring a misunderstood goblin and his skeleton friend, destined to live in that same compelling cross-section of fantasy and realism that is very quickly becoming Hatke’s claim to fame.

Ben Hatke

And even before the goblin book comes out, as early as this September, we’re going to get an early-reader graphic novel, somewhere between the levels of Julia and Zita, titled Little Robot. That’s right, people, this guy is on a roll.

"Little Robot" by Ben Hatke

Perhaps someday I’ll get up the courage to invite Hatke and his family and his four-legged and feathered pets to my house for a play date. Heck, maybe I’ll invite all of you to bring your kids, too. I’ll sit back, watch the kids overturn paint cups and spray each other with our garden hose, and I’ll smile and think, “The more the merrier.”

Or perhaps I’ll leave the hosting to local bookstores.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

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!

Things That Go Bump in the Night

September 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

There’s no better time than the fall for reading spooky stories! Now, before you start worrying, let me preface by saying that my almost five year old is the ultimate Nervous Nelly; so, if he’s not scared by these stories (and actually demands to read them again and again), rest assured that your kids won’t be either. In fact, if you have a child that’s scared of the dark, even better: books like these can be an invaluable tool for empathizing with kids about their own nervousness (and helping them understand the role their imagination plays).

Without further ado, I give you my favorite new spooky story of the fall: Creepy Carrots! (Ages 4-7), by Aaron Reynolds, with illustrations by Peter Brown. I have loved everything Peter Brown has ever done, beginning with his first book, Flight of the Dodo, which is a quirky story about bird poop (remember: my son has a thing for poop books). What impresses me most about Brown is that none of his books feel derivative: for each story, he perfectly tailors his illustrative style to the topic at hand. In Creepy Carrots!, he sets his witty, cartoon-like drawings against a backdrop reminiscent of film noir, invoking a Hitchcockian play of black and white frames accented by splashes of orange.

The splashes of orange are, of course, carrots—namely, the carrots that a paranoid Jasper Rabbit believes are following him. Jasper has a “passion for carrots,” especially the fat, crispy carrots he pulls out of Crackenhopper Field; unfortunately, his also thinks he hears the “tunktunktunk” of them creeping up on him at all hours of the day and night.

What follows is a hilarious tale of Mistaken Identities. There are few things kids find funnier than a character misinterpreting something that they themselves can easily identify. “‘Mom! Mom!’ Jasper screamed. ‘Creepy carrots! In the shed!’ He opened the door slowly. There weren’t any carrots. Not even the regular kind.” (Instead, there are three orange-handled tools.) The Mistaken Identities snowball as the story progresses (orange flowers, orange soda cans, even orange curtains all look like creepy carrots to Jasper), until at last Jasper decides to stop the madness: he will construct the largest fence around Crackenhopper Field (complete with an alligator-filled moat) to ensure no carrot will ever stalk him again.

The mark of a superbly crafted spooky story is when the main character possesses the scrappy-ness to face his fear head on. Jasper empowers our little ones to call bluff on their own overactive imaginations, reassuring them that there’s no such thing as creepy carrots (oh, and if there were, there’s an easy solution for getting rid of them!). So, dim the lights, grab the flashlight, ready your deepest “tunktunktunk” voice, and give your kids some spookiness of the silliest sort.

“Jasper was about to help himself to a victory snack…when he heard it. The soft…sinister…tunktunktunk of carrots creeping.”

 

Other Favorite Spooky Read Alouds (great for reading around Halloween but not ONLY around Halloween!):
Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara (Ages 2-5)
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, by Linda Williams & Megan Llyod (Ages 3-6)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)

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