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 »
May 17, 2018 § 9 Comments
Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.
The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.
“I was homesick!” « Read the rest of this entry »
March 8, 2018 Comments Off on Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)
When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?
When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp? « Read the rest of this entry »
November 16, 2017 Comments Off on In Praise of One Exasperating Girl
Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 18, 2017 § 6 Comments
It is often with trepidation that I watch my daughter prepare to work on a picture or a card. She sets out her paper, her drawing instrument of choice, and animatedly explains her Vision to anyone in the vicinity. “I’m going to draw a bird for my teacher,” she says, “because she loves birds.” I smile, but I try not to look too eager…or too stressed…or too anything. I try to look neutral. I attempt to recede into the kitchen—or, better yet, disappear into the basement to throw in a load of laundry—because I know from experience what likely lies ahead.
There are several minutes of happy humming, her preferred background music while she works. Followed by a sudden, guttural, downright masculine “UHHHHHGGGGGGHHHHHHH!” Followed by the sounds of said drawing instrument being thrown across the room. Followed by great, gasping sobs. “It doesn’t look like a bird at all! Its beak is terrible! It’s THE WORST BEAK IN THE WORLD! I hate this bird! I hate it!” Followed by the sound of paper crumpling, fists slamming, and stomping feet coming to find me. “Why did you tell me to make a bird? Don’t you know I am the WORST DRAWER OF BIRDS?!” (Ummm, I never said…)
My six and a half year old is rarely ruffled. She goes with the flow, handles curve balls with ease, and loves trying new things.
But she cannot handle mistakes. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 2, 2017 Comments Off on Wiggly Teeth
My oldest lost his first tooth on a playground zip line. He dismounted victoriously, grinned zealously, accepted congrats from strangers, and posed for photographs. Had he taken a bow, it would have felt fitting.
When my daughter lost hers, two days ago, it played out very differently. In the preceding weeks, she had boasted about her “wiggly tooth.” We thought she was down with the program, having watched her brother embark on this rite of passage. As a parent, I see now that I may have committed an all-too-common slight against the youngest: I failed to give her, well, any information. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 15, 2016 § 2 Comments
Perhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve read on the Internet lately is BookRiot’s series of interviews with middle-grade authors regarding a renewed commitment—in response to the misogynistic rhetoric that seemed to win out in this past election—to writing strong female protagonists, of giving our daughters literary role models of persistence, resilience, compassion, and action. The future can only be bright if our girls see themselves as integral to every part of it. Or, in the more poetic words of Lindsay Egan, author of Hour of Bees (on my list to read):
“We writers are implored to write characters with goals, characters who want things, characters who act to move forward. But in light of the current political climate, I feel it’s a real imperative now for me to write female characters who do things. Girls who speak up, girls who defend others, girls who make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, girls who dream and think and work for the world they wish they had. Girls who don’t accept hate or unfairness and fight to make things better. Girls who sacrifice their own comforts for the safety of others. Girls who know that showing kindness is never weakness. Girls who DO things. The future is coming, and I want the girls of the future to remember that change is in their hands.”
December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
I am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”
So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 26, 2016 Comments Off on Taking the Stage
This past Sunday, my five year old took the stage for her first ballet recital. She had been on a similar stage in previous years, for the culmination of her creative movement classes, but this was the first time that she was—in her words—“going to look like an actual ballerina.”
And she did. Not so much in her tentative leg extensions and arm raises; not so much in the piece of satiny fabric draped around her waist (which looked nothing like the tutu Emily had envisioned her costume would entail); but in her gorgeously perfect posture. I sat three quarters of the way back in the audience, my life’s blood just a pink speck on the stage, but oh my goodness did she stand upright like she had all the confidence in the world: her shoulders down her back, her chest lifted, her chin tilted upwards ever so slightly. It was the posture of someone whose body has never failed her, who has not yet felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, who stands like that simply because she is totally and completely at home in her person. It also happens to be the posture of a ballerina. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 5, 2016 § 1 Comment
“Mommy, I wish this day would last forever,” my daughter said into my eyes last Saturday, in our third hour of watching street performers under a brilliant blue sky in Washington Square Park. It was our annual trip to New York City, something I’m lucky enough to do every fall with my son and every spring with my daughter. We had just spent an action-filled few days looking at art, making art, dining in style and dining at street vendors—but there was something about these unstructured hours in the park, the sun finally making itself felt, where I watched my daughter become totally and completely entranced by her surroundings.
There was a woman with hot pink hair on one side of her; a woman with a brilliant purple head wrap on the other. Emily sat on the rounded edge of a fountain that wasn’t in use, watching shirtless men in baggy blue sweatpants flip backwards and spin on their heads where the water would normally flow. In the distance, she could still keep her eyes on the creepy but fascinating human sculpture—a bald man (woman?) adorned in chalky gold body paint, who stood frozen atop a slim pedestal, waiting for someone to drop a dollar into his bucket, at which point he would slowly come out of the pose and strike another. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 7, 2015 § 4 Comments
In this age, where our self-worth seems increasingly defined by how busy we are, I find that one of my greatest challenges as a mother is quieting the “to do” list in my head when I am around my children. I’m not talking about simply spending time with them. I’m talking about being in the moment with them. I might be on the floor playing Candy Land, but I’m secretly fretting over when I should start dinner. I might be throwing a ball in the backyard, but I’m all the while thinking about the mountain of weeding that needs to get done.
My children know I love them. But how often do they feel the gift of my time?
This winter, I fell in love with a picture book by the lovely Scottish author-illustrator, Debi Gliori, titled Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg (Ages 4-8). It’s about dragons, yes, but it’s also about penguins and a landscape of ice and snow, so by all accounts, I should have shared it with you in the height of snow days and sub-zero temperatures. Except that it’s also one of the most beautiful portraits of motherhood that I’ve ever come across in a children’s book (it’s right up there with this one). So, I’ve been saving telling you about it until Mother’s Day, a time for celebrating those who are trying so hard every day to do right by the little ones we love. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
Sometimes I think there has never been a more distractible child than my Emily. Ask her to go upstairs for a hair bow, and she’ll come down ten minutes later with a baby doll. Ask her to take a bite of her food, and she’ll break into song before the fork gets halfway to her month. There are days when I think she was put on this earth to teach me patience (and, Holy Saints in Heaven, I am failing).
The temptation to sweep in and finish the job is often too great for me. If I just shove her feet into these shoes, we can leave the house! If I just usher these last few bites into her mouth, this dinner can actually end! Although, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s more than mere efficiency that I seek. It’s more than a desire to control the chaos around me. Doing something for my daughter is as much about the sheer pleasure of my feeling needed. (Remember this?)
As parents, we know we’re supposed to nurture a drive for independence in our children, to prepare them for the day when they won’t need us anymore. At the same time, parenting has become this Super Important Identity that we’ve assumed—at times it feels like it has obliterated all other identities!—and it’s natural to feel validated, encouraged, and protected each time our little ones seem to need our help. Even though our head reminds us that we’re supposed to get out of their way, our heart just can’t keep from meddling.
Introducing my daughter’s new favorite book: Little Red Henry (Ages 3-6), by author Linda Urban and illustrator Madeline Valentine. I challenge you to find a preschooler who won’t instantly relate to this tale of a little boy, the youngest of three, whose well-intentioned but incessantly doting family never lets him do anything himself. (The title is a nod to the moralistic fable, The Little Red Hen, about the bread-making hen whom no one will help—only here, it’s the opposite.) « Read the rest of this entry »
January 8, 2015 § 1 Comment
In what increasingly feels like the Age of Excess, one of my greatest parenting rushes has become the Art of Purging. Quick, toss the stacks of paint-splotched easel paper while the kids are still at school! Drag missing-pieced toys to the curb as the garbage truck rounds the corner! Bag up old PJs, hats, and shoes for Goodwill! I look around my newly streamlined rooms and closets and feel a brief, momentary thrill. In a matter of weeks, it will feel like I need to purge again.
While we’re busy tossing out, our children are busy holding on. “Wait! I want to save my (broken) balance bike for my own children!” my son laments. “Can we put my old dresses in my memory box?” asks my daughter.
It recently dawned on me that, if left to their own devices, children make marvelous recyclers. This past fall, on a Sunday morning, while my husband was overseas for work (read: far, far away), I lay in bed burning up with a fever and cursing the Murphy’s Law of Motherhood, whereby moms only fall prey to The Plague when we’re on our own with no one around to help. I drifted in and out of sleep and didn’t realize until it was approaching lunchtime that my children had been awake and downstairs for hours. My son poked his head in: “Hi, Mommy. It’s OK, you don’t need to come down. I just wanted to let you know that we have been playing with the recycling.” « Read the rest of this entry »
September 10, 2013 § 3 Comments
My youngest turns three today. Lately, everywhere I turn, I am reminded of how fast she is growing. “Mommy, Mommy, my toes are sticking out of my sandals!” she cried jubilantly one morning a few weeks ago; “I growed into a big girl!”
It’s no wonder, then, that she immediately fell in love with Alison Murray’s precious new picture book, Little Mouse (Ages 18 mos-4 yrs), where a little girl proclaims that she is no longer her Mommy’s “little mouse”; on the contrary, she is tall (like a giraffe), strong (like a bull), hungry (like a horse), and brave (in the face of a lion). On top of that, she can make her voice and her body do amazing things, from trumpeting (like an elephant) to pumping high on the big girl swing (like a bird). « Read the rest of this entry »
August 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
Once again, I find myself singing the praises of Mo Willems, whose Time to Pee! (Ages 1-4) proved just what my daughter needed to get her potty training on. For those of you who have navigated these murky waters before, you will agree that there are VERY FEW decent potty-related books for kids. There are useless books about princesses sitting on potties. There are patronizing books that suggest you’re only a big kid if you use the potty. But there are far too few that are clever and helpful, fun and functional. But that’s OK. Because all you really need is one great book—and, lucky for us, there’s Time to Pee!
Truth be told, I had been dreading potty training my youngest. I had it too easy with my firstborn. If I told you about how he emphatically decided upon turning two that he wanted to poop on the potty and never looked back, you would hate me. Except that you can’t hate me, because I literally had nothing to do with it (JP has always been a child to take matters into his own hands, skeptical that his parents don’t really know what they are doing and not entirely incorrect much of the time). So when my daughter turned two and showed ZERO interest in anything having to do with the potty, I simply told myself that she wasn’t ready. But then, yikes, almost an entire year passed, and here we are just a few short weeks from her joining her brother in Montessori, where she’ll be expected to do things like wear underwear and wipe her own butt; suddenly, “I no interested in the potty!” seemed like a recipe for disaster. So we took the plunge, gave away all remaining diapers (this tip from the parenting book, Diaper-Free Before 3, a fantastic recommendation from our Montessori director), and casually placed Time to Pee! on the top of a reading pile in the bathroom.
Now, I’m obviously not going to tell you that a children’s book (even one by the brilliant Mo Willems) was the single factor in Emily’s fairly quick and painless transition to the potty (much of the heavy lifting was in fact done by Big Brother). But what I can tell you is that the language in Time to Pee! repeatedly crops up when Em is talking about using the potty. At face value, the book reads like a straightforward (never patronizing) instruction manual, illustrated with Mo’s signature black-outlined doodles: you get “that funny feeling” while playing; you tell a grown-up that you have to go; you march yourself down the hall and into the bathroom, where you pull down your undies, do the deed, and get back to playing. Done. No problem. All the important logistics are covered, like waiting until you are done before grabbing for toilet paper (thank you, Mo) and washing hands afterwards. But then, because it’s Mo Willems, and because he is so darn perceptive about how kids’ minds work and what they are thinking (and obsessing and worrying) about, the book is loaded with humorous touches. “Please don’t ignore it!” (next to a boy with crossed eyes and legs). “Now is your chance to show how BIG you are!” And my favorite: “Everything will still be right where it was” (as the child returns to her tea party).
But the real unsung heroes here are the mice. Yes, that’s right, the hundreds of enthusiastic mice delivering each message, rolling out the red carpet and hoisting up the flags, serenading the potty goer and giving the thumbs up with a coy, “Go for it dude.” Three days into potty training, I tried to follow Emily into the bathroom after she announced that she had to pee. “No, Mommy! You don’t come in! I’m having a party with the mice.” And just like that, I found myself once again singing the praises of Mo Willems.
Other Favorite Potty Stories for Kids:
Even Firefighters Go to the Potty: A Potty Training Lift-the-Flap Story, by Wendy A. Wax, Naomi Wax, & Stephen Gilpin (long after JP was potty trained he still requested this book 10 times a day for two years)
Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi (yes it’s weird, yes it’s kinda gross, but it’s actually quite effective (and my kids love the camel’s “two hump poop”))
A Potty for Me, by Karen Katz
Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle, by Axel Scheffler (my daughter loves this sweet, simple series about two friends—and, lo and behold, they have a potty story about an accident during a playdate)
May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
I’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.
But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.
Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.
Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)
*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.
May 7, 2013 Comments Off on A Story to Grow Up On
If you’re big into symbolism (or if you, like me, tear up when inscribing books for gifts), then you’re going to want to give Miss Maple’s Seeds to all the young seedlings celebrating birthdays this spring. There are lots of wonderful picture books about seeds (Jean Richards’ A Fruit is a Suitcase for Seeds and Bonnie Christensen’s Plant a Little Seed are two favorites), but none have the magical realism of Miss Maple’s Seeds (Ages 3-7), written and illustrated by newcomer Eliza Wheeler.
Miss Maple is an eccentric, not-quite-of-this-world sort (a bit like my neighbor, who converses with chipmunks in her backyard). Out of her home inside a hundred-year-old Maple tree, she runs a kind of orphanage for lost seeds, dividing her time between searching for “seeds that got lost during the spring planting” and caring for those seeds until they’re strong enough to lay down roots of their own. “‘Take care, my little ones…for the world is big and you are small,’” she continually reminds her seeds—all the while bathing them, taking them on educational outings to learn about different soil types, reading to them “by firefly light,” and giving them chances to practice “burrowing down into the muddy ground” during thunderstorms. “She’s taking care of them like they’re her babies!” my son was quick to point out, an observation that quickly captured the attention of his younger, doll-obsessed sister.
The story’s prose is unquestionably beautiful: lyrical, concise, and easy to connect back to our own children and the figures (parents, relatives, teachers) who so lovingly and carefully nurture their growth. But it is Wheeler’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations, light and airy and with just a touch of whimsy, which make this gem soar. Sporting a willow weed hat, pointed nose, and delicate slit eyes, Miss Maple epitomizes tenderness in all that she does, whether sweeping her hearth to welcome new seeds or bidding each one farewell as she sends them down the river in lantern-lit leaf boats to find new homes.
One of our favorite illustrations looks like something out of a naturalist’s guide, depicting twenty seeds with their species’ names captioned below in cursive writing (presumably from the hand of Miss Maple). From the fat acorn to the oval pumpkin seed to the single grain of wild rice, the page exhibits not only the visual diversity of nature’s seeds but also the magic which seems to lie within (a giant sunflower grows out of THAT minuscule thing?).
We could all use some of Miss Maple’s tenderness in our own relationship with the Earth, just like our own children need the reassurance that “even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.” I dare you not to tear up when you copy that quote inside the cover of this book for your next gift.