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.

Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.

Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.

While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.

There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.

And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.

Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”

I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.

Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.

I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.


AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Review copy by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. All opinions are my own. 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!



The Villain We Love to Hate

January 14, 2016 § 4 Comments

"Matilda" by Roald DahlIn preparation for taking my kids to the Kennedy Center last week to see the national tour of Matilda the Musical, I spent the final day of winter break reading Roald Dahl’s beloved novel to them. That’s right. Seven and a half hours of reading out loud (with a break to bike to lunch and back). It was my maternal Swan Song, a last hurrah before depositing my kids at the front door of their school the next morning and returning home to a (blissfully) quiet house.

It was actually their second time listening to Matilda—the first time was during a car trip last summer—and I almost didn’t opt for a second round. But, in the end, I wanted it to be fresh in all of our minds before we took our seats in the theater (plus, it made for one of the best family dinners later that night, picking apart the differences between the book and the play). But, really, who would pass up a chance to re-read one of the greatest children’s books ever written?

I’m here to tell you that the musical was magical. The sets were spectacular; the music was catchy; the rainbow-colored confetti rained down on us in twinkling slow-motion. We laughed, we cheered, we cried (well, I cried). Several times, I was tempted to jump up on the stage and take the darling little girl with the big eyes who played Matilda into my arms.

But I’m also here to tell you: the book is better.

The pages of Matilda (Ages 9-12, younger if reading out loud) explode with a theatrical intensity all of their own. I’m talking descriptive passages that invoke the cleverest turns of phrases, the most unusual figures of speech. I’m talking dialogue that’s at times so spirited and outrageous that even the most static of readers (which, ahem, I am not) cannot help but be elevated to the status of actor.

Last year, I proclaimed that Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might be my favorite read-aloud book of all time. I think I may amend that to say that Charlie is my favorite read-aloud for the 5-7 year old set, but Matilda trumps it for the slightly older elementary child. (Don’t get me wrong, my five year old was riveted both times; it’s just that my eight year old internalized it on a much deeper level). Despite Matilda’s young age in the book, this is a story about what it means for a child to confront that which is dark and nonsensical and unjust in the adult world—and to forge a path that is instead light, true, and kind. In Matilda, as in all Dahl’s books, the child triumphs.

"Matilda" by Roald Dahl

From the earliest pages, Matilda is a child who calls us to love her (how can we fail to love a child whose favorite pastime is to lose herself in Great Literature, letting the words “wash around [her], like music”?). And yet, Matilda is entirely unloved. Her idiotic, egocentric parents are too busy staring at the “telly” to notice her (Dahl never fails to disappoint with his digs about screen time). In the few occasions that her parents do notice their daughter, they insult her interest in books and diminish her extraordinary intelligence. By five years of age, Matilda has not only taught herself to read and spell, but she can do complex arithmetic problems in her head almost instantly.

"Matilda" by Roald Dahl

Dahl’s specialty is cooking up children who come from the least auspicious beginnings—be it poverty (Charlie), neglect (Matilda), tragedy (The Witches), or straight up abuse (hello, James and the Giant Peach). And yet, all of his young heroes and heroines manage to find their way to the sweetest and most hopeful of endings. It is as if Dahl is saying to any child who needs to hear it, Hey, you may have been dealt a really bad hand, but you get to re-write your story, starting NOW."Matilda" by Roald Dahl

When Matilda reaches kindergarten age and is allowed to escape her toxic home environment for a few hours each day, she hopes to find sanctuary in school. And it is true that Matilda finds her most important ally (and future benefactor) in the lovely teacher Miss Honey, who reads like a breath of fresh, lavender-scented air (despite her having a dark secret of her own). But the tutelage of Miss Honey comes at a price.

Matilda features one of the most infamous villains in children’s literature: the cold, cruel, calculating Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of the school (and former Olympic hammer thrower). Upon hearing that her Christmas present was tickets to see Matilda the Musical, my five year old’s very first response was: “I wonder what Miss Trunchbull will look like!” It’s a name one doesn’t easily forget.

"Matilda" by Roald Dahl

Miss Trunchbull’s scenes in the book (and play) can feel terrifying, even demented. I don’t think it’s going too far to call Trunchbull a sociopath. She picks up children by the ears, she spins them around by their pigtails, and she punishes the most assertive of them by locking them in a tiny closet she calls “The Chokey.” She also reigns down the most monstrous insults: “You ignorant little slug!…You witless weed! You empty-headed hamster! You stupid glob of glue!” (Admittedly, these are lots of fun to read.)

"Matilda" by Roald Dahl

If scenes and verbiage like these are hard for us (American) parents to stomach, let me reassure you on two levels. Firstly, Dahl never underestimates the intelligence of the child reader. The more we’re exposed to The Trunchbull, the more she reveals herself as utterly ridiculous and insanely idiotic. Dahl has a gift for the hyperbolic, and this is Theater of the Absurd. Even her pupils can’t resist poking holes in her tirades. One of my children’s favorite passages:

The children’s eyes were riveted on the Headmistress. “I don’t like small people,” she was saying. “Small people should never be seen by anybody. The should be kept out of sight in boxes like hairpins and buttons. I cannot for the life of me see why children have to take so long to grow up. I think they do it on purpose.”

Another extremely brave little boy in the front spoke up and said, “But surely you were a small person once, Miss Trunchbull, weren’t you?”

“I was never a small person,” she snapped. “I have been large all my life and I don’t see why others can’t be the same way.”

What reader in their right mind can fail to fall in love with hating this woman?

Still, idiocy and irrationality in the hands of power can nevertheless be terrifying and deadly. Here I come to my second reassurance. It would seem that The Trunchbull’s darkness is a big part of the story’s draw for our children. The Atlantic ran a fascinating piece last week about the critical role that fantasy plays in childhood development and the superiority of British (versus American) writing for children in this respect. The article cites “scary villains” as one of the most compelling aspects of fairy tales and fantasy; the mere presence of these monstrous, larger-than-life creatures allows our children to project themselves into the role of the hero or heroine who ultimately confronts and defeats them.

And defeat The Trunchbull is precisely what our heroine does—using a touch of the supernatural. Dahl endows the modest, down-to-earth Matilda with telekinetic powers: she can move things with her mind. The power is short-lived, but Matilda masterfully uses it to pull of The Prank to End All Pranks—a performance which not only sends The Trunchbull running for the hills, but also corrects the injustice in Miss Honey’s past, thereby securing a place for Matilda in Miss Honey’s future.

"Matilda" by Roald Dahl

Last evening before dinner, JP was silently re-reading Matilda to himself for his school’s Book Club. Emily brought me over our duplicate copy and asked me to read it aloud to her. “But honey, we just read the whole book last week. Don’t you want to listen to something else?”

“It’s okay, Mommy, just open to any page and read a little bit. I don’t care what part. Well, maybe something with Miss Trunchbull in it.”

So I did. I opened to a random page and began reading. I figured I’d stop after a few pages (dinner doesn’t make itself). But I couldn’t. I can’t get enough of the way Dahl’s language rolls off the tongue. I get to say things that are wickedly taboo. I get to pretend to be the most outlandish of characters before falling flat on my face. I get to unleash my inner Trunchbull, because—let’s call a spade a spade here—all of us parents have tapped into that irrational rage at one time or another.

But I also get to read the lines of a little girl—a girl so well versed in Great Literature that she can envision a better life for herself—who stands up to injustice and unleashes a full head of brainpower on clearing the way for a new destiny. A girl who, regardless of how fun it might be to channel your energy into hating, ultimately chooses love.

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I Went Sailing with Chris Van Dusen

May 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Circus Ship" by Chris Van DusenChris Van Dusen is a Living Legend in our house. He might be the only author-illustrator whom my husband gets as gushy about as I do. I could go on and on about how If I Built a Car and If I Built a House are the two books most likely to be found next to my son’s bed. I could tell you about how King Hugo’s Huge Ego is so vastly intriguing to my three year old that she demands to read it again and again, as if the Secret of Life is buried within (if only she could make complete sense of it). Or, I could hail Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit as the first picture book to make baseball, Outerspace, and math seem like the coolest trio ever. But I won’t. I’m here to tell you about one of the Best Picture Books Ever. As many of you have already guessed, I am talking about The Circus Ship.

Last weekend, my family got to ride on The Circus Ship. Perhaps it’s a stretch to compare a Potomac River Tour Boat filled with kids, parents, and balloon animals, to a wooden steamboat that capsizes off the coast of Maine, upending 15 circus animals and a villainous ringmaster. But when you have the chance to sail with Chris Van Dusen, you buy tickets first and worry about potential drownings later. So, on a breezy, sun-filled day, thanks to Hooray for Books, our local independent bookstore here in Alexandria, I spent three hours at sea with the creator of this ingenuous picture book. Published in 2009, The Circus Ship is one of those rare books with unanimous appeal. I don’t know of a single child who doesn’t—or wouldn’t—love it. That’s not unlike how I feel about Chris Van Dusen himself (now that we are intimately acquainted). Chris is as lovely as the books that he writes and illustrates. He is contagiously passionate about his work. When he reads his books (which he has memorized perfectly), every person in the audience, regardless of age, is transfixed."The Circus Ship" by Chris Van Dusen

As I heard him read The Circus Ship, I considered its plentiful gifts. If there was ever a book that made the case for what picture books can do—how they can transport and engage on multiple levels at the same time—this is it. We have:

  1. The Rhyme. While often hailed for his illustrative talents, Chris Van Dusen is unparalleled among today’s children’s authors in his mastery of verse, meter, and rhyme. He is every bit as good as the Greats, like Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet. In short, he makes children fall in love with language.
  2. The Performance Factor. With such slick, succinct rhyme that rolls off the tongue, every reading is performance worthy—no matter who is at the helm. Parents: your kids have never hung on your every word like this.
  3. The Pictures. Um, they are A-MA-ZING. As in all Chris’ books, the vibrant, unique color schemes jump off the page; the details invite repeated study but never at the expense of the overall compositions; and the distortions of scale bring drama and humor at every turn. This is accomplished by a very labor-intensive paint called gouache (rhymes with “squash”), whereby every spread takes multiple weeks to render. The memorable “camouflage” scene towards the end of The Circus Ship took five whole weeks to paint.
  4. The Aforementioned “Camouflage” Page. You’ll never find a child that isn’t up for a game of “I Spy,” but you’ll find plenty of parents ready to cringe at the thought of “reading” one of these typical seek-and-find books, whose cluttered pages trump real plot. Enter The Circus Ship, a storybook rich on plot, but with a double-page spread towards the end that reveals the 15 animals hiding from their greedy circus master. It doesn’t matter how many times the kids and I have read this book: we cannot stop until we have found every single animal.
  5. The Animals. Everyone loves the Underdog. But we are outright endeared to one who possesses the courage, stamina, wit, cleverness, and heart to make a better life for himself. Times that by 15.
  6. The Villain. The question my son most wanted to ask Chris was, “How did you come up with the idea for Mr. Paine?” I think what he really wanted to know was, can such a larger-than-life character exist in real life? Mr. Paine is indisputably heartless—he abandons his animals to drown without a moment’s hesitation—but his passionate self-perseverance makes for great theater. When, at the end, he fails to reclaim his profitable circus menagerie, his red-hot cheeks, clenched fists, and steam coming out of his head create an unforgettable image. We almost—almost—feel sorry for him.
  7. The Story Behind the Story. The Author’s Note at the end has become almost as enticing to my kids as the story itself, for it reveals the real-life inspiration behind the book: the 1836 wreck of a side-wheel steamer, carrying 103 passengers and a fleet of circus animals, off the coast of Maine. Of course, there’s no proof that the animals survived, or lived out the remainder of their lives in peace on a remote island (as in The Circus Ship).  And yet, Maine’s history is ripe with rumors and stories of strange wildlife sightings in the years that followed. “So.” JP likes to remind me, “it could have happened.” I get the sense that Chris Van Dusen thinks so, too.

    Courtesy of my husband's photography skills, here's a shot of me stalking Chris Van Dusen. Actually, he's schooling me on the correct pronunciation of gouache. But he is, of course, very nice about it. :)

    Courtesy of my husband’s photography skills, here’s a shot of me stalking Chris Van Dusen aboard The Circus Ship. Actually, we are reminiscing about the time I inaccurately referred to his art two years ago on this blog as computer generated and he very nicely wrote to school me on gouache illustration. 🙂

My Complete List of Favorites Written and/or Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen:
If I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen
If I Built a House, by Chris Van Dusen
Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit, by Chris Van Dusen
King Hugo’s Huge Ego, by Chris Van Dusen
The Mercy Watson early-reader series, by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (NEWS FLASH: a spin-off series launches this fall for a slightly older reader!)
President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (published earlier this year; and, while I admittedly miss the rhyme of Chris’s other books, his comical depiction of bare buttocks elicits more uproarious belly laughs from my children than any book in recent history)

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