A Balm for the Soul (& a Perfect Valentine)
February 9, 2023 § 2 Comments
At a time when we’re normally asked to assume New Resolutions in the name of Self-Improvement, I actually began 2023 by stumbling onto some news that took the pressure off. Want to join me in shedding unnecessary guilt? Read on, good book people!
In January, The Today Show ran a news piece on their website, authored by Sarah Lemire, with “10 Surprising Psychological and Physical Perks Associated with Reading.” Most of them weren’t news to me—I’d previously read, for example, the 2016 study about recreational reading lowering mortality rates by as much as 20% (heck, yeah!)—but one of the perks had me doing a double take. According to a 2009 study, 30 minutes of reading has the same ability to decrease stress as 30 minutes of yoga. The article discusses the link between reading and wellness by quoting from a licensed psychotherapist:
“Reading has been connected to meditation in terms of the way our brain processes our environment and our physiological state,” Zoe Shaw, Psy.D., licensed psychotherapist and author of “A Year of Self-Care: Daily Practices and Inspiration for Caring for Yourself,” tells TODAY.com.
“If you’re sitting in a chair or laying in your bed and you’re focusing on reading, your body can actually go into a type of meditative state,” Shaw says. “So, you can get some of the benefits of meditating by reading.”
DO YOU REALIZE WHAT THIS MEANS? I can let go the burden of traditional meditation! Yes, I know meditation offers a myriad of benefits guaranteed to alleviate stress, but I really, really don’t like it. I hate it! (There, I said it.) Time and again, I’ve proven to be terrible at it, and my failure only creates more of the thing I’m supposed to be driving away! (I chronicled some of this here, because occasionally I get inspired to try again. At least, with the help of kids’ books.) While I have successfully adopted some mindfulness strategies—a few times a day I bring my attention to my breath—I cannot embrace the discipline that comes from true, sit-in-a-chair meditation.
Praise the literary gods, because it turns out that if I adopt the discipline of reading for at least thirty minutes a day—which I already do!—then it’s akin(ish) to meditation. It turns out I’ve been practicing meditation all along! I finished that article and I felt like throwing myself a party.
We all need the gratification that comes from being told, early and often, that we are already enough.
Enter Julie Fogliano’s thoughtful new picture book, all the beating hearts (ages 4-8), sublimely illustrated by Cátia Chien. It’s a book that echoes the message that we’re enough just as we are. It’s a poem that reads like a balm for our soul. It has nothing in common with Valentine’s Day other than a beating hearts message, but I’m all for using Valentine’s Day as an excuse to collect books that remind us of our connection to one another.
With her lyrical poetry at once grounded in detail and abstract in ideas, Julie Fogliano excels at authoring books that are about everything and nothing at the same time—my favorite kind of books, if I’m being honest. (I guess it’s no surprise that these are favorites, because Julie Fogliano’s work has made frequent appearances on this blog, including here, here, here, and here, that last being the second post I ever wrote! If you follow me on Instagram, you might have caught yesterday’s post about another new Fogliano title that would also be perfect for Valentine’s Day. So, yes, Team Fogliano.)
I’m also a card-carrying fan of Cátia Chien, originally from Brazil, whose art made Matthew Burgess’ picture book, The Bear and the Moon, my 2020 pick for Favorite Picture Book of the Year. In the case of all the beating hearts, her impressionistic pastel and colored pencil artwork, which often distorts form in ways that tug at our imagination, feels like a perfect fit for Julia Fogliano’s open-ended text.
One of the reasons I’ve always tried to uphold the daily practice of reading aloud to my kids is because it’s one of the few moments across the course of the day where I’m completely immersed in what I’m doing. The chatter in my brain quiets, and I can direct my attention to the task at hand—not just the words or pictures on the page, but the experience of sharing them with my children. I feel their energy alongside mine. It’s a moment of grounding. A moment of inspiration, joy, levity, or contemplation, depending on what I need it to be. Now, I can add meditation to the list.
In all the beating hearts, Fogliano and Chien invite us to reflect on our collective presence, the way we’re co-existing with every rotation of our planet in a way that’s “together but apart/ the same but exactly different.” It’s not a new concept for a picture book, the idea of drawing comfort from the reminder that we are not alone. That there’s wonder to be found in the predictability of our everyday lives. That, as Anne of Green Gables reminds us, “Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.” But it’s done here with the full package, from the poignant lyricism to the jewel-toned illustrations to the extra-large trim size. And it’s one parents will relish reading, because its message feels equally good to us.
Let’s take a look inside.« Read the rest of this entry »
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.« Read the rest of this entry »
2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books
November 11, 2021 Comments Off on 2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books
It was another stellar year for picture books! Given the size of the list below (sorry not sorry), you’re going to roll your eyes when I tell you I had a very difficult time narrowing it down. But it’s true, and I already regret leaving some out. (Thankfully, there’s always Instagram.) What I’m focusing on today are those with the giftiest potential. Whether you’re looking for surprise twists, laugh-out-loud humor, exquisite beauty, moving true stories, affirmations of self-love and acceptance, or ridiculously cute animals, you’ll find something novel and memorable here. Most importantly, you’ll gift a book to be relished and revisited for years. Still, I don’t envy you making these decisions, because these books are all so, so good.« Read the rest of this entry »
A Life Skills Round Up
October 21, 2021 Comments Off on A Life Skills Round Up
On this blog, I have often stressed the importance of intentionality when it comes to sharing books with children. I’ve talked about the value of stocking our bookshelves with stories whose characters and settings and challenges reflect the greater world, not just the tiny slice taking place under our own roof. I’ve discussed the importance of reading stories that push against gender, racial, or religious stereotypes. I’ve hailed the way reading aloud can showcase the richness of language and the nuance of character, encouraging children to see the value of storytelling and expand their own reading choices. I’ve talked about how choosing a book we’ll enjoy reading goes a long way towards making read-aloud time special for our children and sustainable for us.
Children’s books can also be invaluable tools for imparting life skills to our children. The best of these do so by providing us with language for initiating important conversations. How often do we avoid talking to our children about uncomfortable topics because we’re afraid we’ll mess them up? Maybe we don’t realize we should be having these conversations in the first place. I continue to be grateful for the books that are by my side when parenting gets hard and messy.
Today, I discuss three fantastic new picture books that each tackle a different life skill, from taking accountability when we hurt someone, to setting boundaries around our bodies, to recognizing and calling out racism. There was a time when topics like these were relegated to the fringe of the publishing world, so it’s refreshing to see them taken up by innovative, even award-winning creators and supported by mainstream publishers. The result is books that are a joy to read: warm, cheerful, fun, and funny. They aren’t shaming or preachy or even a little bit boring.
I promise you: sharing books like these with our children makes our job as parents a little bit easier.« Read the rest of this entry »
In Defense of Graphic Novels: A Top Ten List
April 29, 2021 § 1 Comment
Does your child adore graphic novels? You’re not alone. Does it feel like they only read graphic novels? You’re not alone. Do you worry about that? You’re not alone.
Hands down, the most common questions and concerns I hear from parents center around graphic novels. Do graphic novels count as reading? Are graphic novels too easy for my child? Why should I invest in books that my child ends up finishing in one sitting? I wish my child would read “real books” like I did when I was their age. How can I get them to broaden their reading?
Today, I’m going to assuage all these fears by giving you TEN reasons why encouraging reading graphic novels (and comics) translates into literacy skills and a love of reading for pleasure, both of which will serve your children for the rest of their lives. You should not only stop worrying about your kids’ obsession with graphic novels, you should actively encourage it! If you find yourself walking into a bookstore about to tell your child, I’ll buy you anything so long as it’s not a graphic novel, check that ‘tude at the door. (No shame. We’ve all been there.) Your child is taking an active interest in a literary format that is endlessly creative, artistic, entertaining, thought provoking, and aligns with the uniquely visual culture in which they are growing up. This is a good thing, and we’re going to talk about why.
Then, in a few weeks, I’ll be back with a follow-up post on tips to gently nudge your child to expand his reading interests beyond—but never in place of!—graphic novels, including stories with more traditional prose.
But today, without further ado, here are Ten Reasons Why You Should Feel Totally Great About Your Kids Reading Graphic Novels. Oh, and did I mention I’m going to give you dozens of graphic novel recommendations along the way?« Read the rest of this entry »
Losing a Dog
February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
When my son was four and our dog died, I checked out a pile of themed picture books from the library and we read them over and over for two weeks. Every time I asked my son how he was feeling, or whether he wanted to talk about what had happened, he walked over to the pile, grabbed a book off the top, and climbed into my lap. It shouldn’t have surprised me—after all, I have always turned to books to process life experiences—but it did. Before my eyes, I watched this small boy silently work out stuff right there on the page.
One of the most common requests I get from parents is for books about losing a dog or cat. There is no lack of picture books on the subject, but most of them are only OK. Some are beautiful, even profound, acknowledgments of loss—like this and this—and even though I love them, they tend towards the abstract. Others fall into the same trap that we parents do when our children are in pain: they are quick to reassure, to provide distraction, to provide replacement (The dog is happy in heaven! Let’s go pick out a new puppy!). Many pay lip service to the emotional upheaval that is grief, but few model what it means to make space for it.
In my personal experience, grief does not abate without time. Time can’t work alone, it won’t solve all things, but it creates distance, and with distance comes perspective and growth and opportunity. But in the wake of pain, time is at best uncomfortable; at worst it is infuriating, terrifying, and unfathomable. It’s no wonder we don’t like to acknowledge it, much less encourage our children to sit in it.
And yet, here’s a new picture book that does just that—and does it brilliantly. In Matthew Cordell’s Bear Island (Ages 4-8), a full year passes from the moment a girl loses her dog to the time her family welcomes a new one. In Cordell’s expert hands, this year unfolds slowly across every page turn. It unfolds while a girl spends her days on an island with a stick and a bear for company. It unfolds in the physical and mental space of the girl’s anger, sadness, boredom, regret, and fear.« Read the rest of this entry »
When a House Becomes a Home
December 3, 2020 § 6 Comments
It has only been a week since I finished my 2020 Gift Guide and already I need a do over! I started this year’s guide earlier than usual, which meant I was still digging myself out of a hefty “to read” pile, and I’ve since discovered a few gems that positively beg to be included. Like Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House (Ages 3-8). Honestly, this book is so good I might have chosen it as My Favorite Picture Book of the Year (although no disrespect to the two I did choose, because they’re perfection). For sure, it feels like nothing I’ve read this year. It’s raw and tender and gorgeous and loud. It features a single father who reads aloud during bath time, shreds on the electric guitar, and holds space for his son’s feelings, the bad along with the good. And while the story is centered around a modest little old house, it reinforces what it really means for a house to be a home.
My mom has an expression she employs each time I’m preparing to moving into a new space, from dorm rooms, to my first apartment, to the temporary digs we moved into at the start of this pandemic, after breaking ground on renovating what I hope will be our forever home. Whenever I start to worry—That dorm is a 1960s disaster! This apartment hardly has any windows!—she always says with confidence, “You have to make it cute.” Those seven words have become a kind of mantra for me, because there’s inherent optimism in them. It’s the idea that hanging a few pictures, puffing up a few pillows, and putting down a plush rug can transform the spirit of any place. It’s working with what you have. It’s simple. It’s doable.
And it’s true: when we put effort into brightening up our house, we can relax into it. When we make our four walls a tiny extension of ourselves, we can live a little freer, a little louder, a little more boldly. And then there’s the emotional decorating. Because making a house “cute” comes as much from the life we lead inside it: the love we foster, the heartbreak we overcome, the laughs that surprise us, the memories we make. What we give to a house comes back to us as a home.« Read the rest of this entry »
2020 Gift Guide: My Favorite Picture Book for Preschoolers
October 20, 2020 § 5 Comments
Similar to last year (when I picked this and this), I find myself unable to choose between two picture books for my very favorite of 2020. Still, the two I’ve chosen play to slightly different audiences, so I’m using that as an excuse to bring you two picture book posts this week. I’ll begin with my favorite for the littles.
It seems to me that what we should really gift our youngest children this year is what we wish for ourselves: the literary equivalent of a giant bear hug. In a year dominated by disconnection and uncertainty, we have had to work harder to love both one another and ourselves. If we are to fill the void that 2020 has left on our hearts, it will be through care and compassion, including and especially self-compassion. And that’s where The Bear and the Moon delivers beautifully.
Written by Matthew Burgess and illustrated by Cátia Chien, The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) is a playful, poetic story about a bear and a balloon. But it’s also a visceral meditation on life’s impermanence—and on the forgiveness and self-love required to weather these moments of loneliness and sorrow. I’ve always believed that the best picture books should offer a little something to the adults called upon to read them again and again, and The Bear and the Moon provides comfort and reassurance to both reader and listener alike.
And then, of course, there are the mixed-media illustrations, which are in a class by themselves. Smudgy and sublime, they wash over us with a gorgeous palette of purples and blues, accented by the velvety black of the bear and the clean paper cut-out of the red balloon. And that expressive bear face? A thousand times yes.« Read the rest of this entry »