In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Graphic memoirs, for kids and adults alike

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happiest of holidays! I'm so glad to hear that things are humming along at the store, despite the odd objection to stories that are "too sad."

As we head into the school break, I wanted to highlight a couple of books we've recently fallen in love with, excellent reading for both kids and adults.

The kid appeal: both are graphic novel memoirs (have I mentioned we're a little obsessed with graphic novels?), both focused on the early to middle childhood years of the author/protagonist, both full of humor and intelligence and drama, both featuring smart, creative girls.

The adult appeal, especially to adults around my age: the major action in both books takes place in the 1970s and 1980s, so they have a real time capsule quality (walkmans! slouchy socks! the San Francisco earthquake! the Waltons!).

Book number 1 is from our beloved Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile and the Rapunzel story in Fairy Tale ComicsSisters is billed as "the companion to Smile." In Smile, Telgemeier focused in depth on her fraught dental history (she knocked out her adult front teeth in an accident, and years of surgery and complicated braces followed). In Sisters, the braces take a back seat, and Telgemeier focuses on her fraught relationship with her younger sister, Amara.

The frame story puts Raina, Amara, their younger brother Will, and their mom in a minivan on a road trip from San Francisco to Colorado for a family reunion. Bickering abounds, and frequent flashbacks (with the pages tinted slightly yellow, to make it clear what's a flashback and what is present day) expand on the sisters' history. It feels like such a real family -- the back and forth among the siblings, expert at pushing each others' buttons, the ways in which small moments of connection break through. Amara loves all nature, including lizards and snakes; Raina thinks they're disgusting, and a snake figures prominently in one of the book's later scenes. The road trip offers a chance for the sisters to take stock of their relationship to each other, and to realize that their parents' marriage is in trouble. It feels like a pivotal summer.

Isabel bought Sisters at her school book fair, and we must have read it 12 times through in the first week. Both Isabel and Eleanor identified with the family deeply (two sisters! who bicker! and their brother is also named Will!), though thankfully there is no parental tension looming on the horizon in our house. We took Smile out of the library not long afterward, and we have now read it at least as many times. Telgemeier's illustrations are a little goofy and totally expressive, and she's able to explore complicated emotional material in clear and accessible ways. An absolute hit.

Book number 2 captured Eleanor before Isabel.  In El Deafo, Cece Bell tells the story of losing most of her hearing at age 4 after a bout of meningitis. It's the mid-1970s, and she's outfitted with two different hearing aids, both enormous by today's standards: a smaller one for home, and the large "Phonic Ear" for school. The people in El Deafo are depicted as rabbit-like creatures, with long ears, so the wires connected to the hearing aids are extremely visible, as Bell says they felt to her as a child.

Cece wears the Phonic Ear as a box hanging around her neck (underneath her overalls, which she wears every day to hide the box). Her classroom teacher wears a microphone, which allows Cece to hear her speech far more clearly. It turns out that the microphone is quite powerful, allowing Cece to hear her teacher anywhere in the building: in the teacher's lounge, even in the bathroom. This, then, is her superpower. Cece fights off her feelings of loneliness and difference by imagining herself as El Deafo.

El Deafo, which came as a gift from you, resonated for me because of the history of deafness in my family: as we've written about before, both of my father's parents were born deaf, and communicated largely through lip-reading rather than sign language. Cece struggles with self-identifying as deaf, and rejects learning ASL when her mother encourages it. She depicts herself as both lonely and independent, always very much herself. In one of my favorite details, she wears a red two-piece bathing suit and nothing else for pretty much the entire year she's four.

I think El Deafo resonated for the girls, especially Eleanor, because of Bell's depiction of elementary school friendships and their vagaries. There's a lot to talk about here (as there is in Smile) in terms of making friends, and standing up to your friends when they treat you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, by focusing on your differences. Eleanor's research into the life of Helen Keller (which led us to another terrific graphic novel) also whetted her interest in the subject of deafness.

Isabel loves to read graphic novels on her own, but I think she had trouble making sense of this one without adult help. She picked it up and put it down, fully getting into it only when we sat down to read it aloud together. Recently, it has come into the rotation of books she reads in bed on weekend nights -- the highest accolade.

Have a wonderful holiday, and give my love to your amazing family, all home together for Christmas!

Love, Annie

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas and Hanukkah and seasonal spirit

Dear Annie,

I love the passing of the code-breaking to a new generation.  This is giving me tons of ideas for Christmas presents for your household.

The store is in full holiday mode: shelves that were well-stocked in the morning have gaping holes by afternoon.  I'm seeing customers I see only once a year -- and never have quite enough time to talk.

I thought I'd give a tip of the Santa hat to Christmas books we've loved and blogged about in the past:

and some Hanukkah ones too (tonight's the first night):

I have two stories from the bookselling frontlines this year, good illustrations of the extremes of the season.  I'll start with the Grinch-y one.

A grandmother asked me about books for an 8 year-old good reader who "doesn't like anything sad."  (Nothing sad, or nothing scary, are frequent requests.)  I offered Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which we have all loved.  It's the story of a girl who runs away from home to find the Man in the Moon and to ask him to change the fate of her parents, who are poor farmers.  It's a magically wonderful book.  No, said the woman, too sad.  Actually, I said, it's pretty uplifting.  No, she said, it's about poor people: "too sad."  So much for the spirit of the season.

But for every customer like that, I talk with dozens and dozens of kids and adults who are just happy to be in the midst of books.  My other story is about literature always being in people's lives.  A dad asked me to special order one of the Who Was books I was out of: Who Was Bruce Lee? (the range of subjects of those books keeps getting wider and wider).  He left his name and number: his first name was Dickon.  Ah, I said, a great name from children's literature.  Dickon is the Yorkshire boy in The Secret Garden who's deeply in sync with nature.  "Yes," he said, "My mother was reading The Secret Garden to my sister when I was born."  That alone was wonderful, but I wondered if he might be a bit tired of the book, having been so closely tied to it.  "Oh no," he said, "I love it.  I'm looking forward to being able to read it to my daughter."

So here's hoping readers everywhere have books they're looking forward to giving to and reading with the kids in their lives.



Saturday, December 6, 2014

Codes and ciphers for your 8-12 year old

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Yes, tell me more about about your experiences with book fairs! I'd love to see the list you've developed. With Eleanor in 2nd grade, Isabel in kindergarten, and Will just under 2, I'm going to have plenty of opportunities to be involved with elementary school book fairs for the next -- gulp -- ten years. Tomorrow we volunteer at Isabel's Barnes & Noble fair, for which I've been compiling the teachers' wish lists. I'm loving the glimpses into different classrooms that this affords, and have already started thinking about how to do it more smoothly next year.

As the holiday season rolls around, I wanted to recommend a book I bought for Eleanor last Christmas, which has turned out to have tremendous staying power:

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, by Paul B. Janeczko.

It's a fabulous introduction to codemaking, written in clear, accessible prose. Here's the beginning of Chapter 1:

Before we talk about making and breaking codes, we need to realize that most of the time when people talk about making codes and breaking codes, they are not talking about codes at all. They're really talking about ciphers. What's the difference? A code is a system where every word or phrase in your message is replaced by another word, phrase, or series of symbols. On the other hand, a cipher is a system where every letter of your message is replaced by another letter or symbol.

For now, let's stick with codes. For example, you and your partner can make up code words for places in your neighborhood. Your code word for "post office" might be GREEN. Your code word for "playground" might be AWARD.

A code can also be a number. We might say that the code for "post office" is 71715. And the code for "playground" is 71716. Again, the words or numbers don't matter, as long as you and your partner know what they mean.

Janeczko packs the book with examples of codes and ciphers from history, and brief stories about the people who have used them: Thomas Jefferson, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, The Shadow. He explains the way particular systems have worked, and offers practice codes to encipher and break. The text is broken up with drawings and challenges -- it's easy to dip into and out of. Chapter 2 is all about code breaking, and includes handy frequency lists:

As you know, Jeff is a puzzle-maker and puzzle-solver from way back, so bringing this book into our house was a no-brainer. He and Eleanor solve Ken-Ken puzzles together on the weekend, and I thought this might lead to further father-daughter play. It has.

Eleanor was a little young for Top Secret when I gave it to her last year -- the age range on the back of the book says "9 and up," and that feels pretty accurate to me. She didn't sit right down to read it cover to cover. But when Jeff's birthday came around last August, she pulled out the book and took it to bed with her every night for a week, creating five different enciphered messages for him to crack to reveal the locations of his presents. Last week, Jeff presented Eleanor with an enciphered message, and she used techniques in the book to decipher it. I have a feeling it's going to be in use for a long, long time.

If you don't have a code-breaker parent in the house, you might give a copy to your kid's best friend, and get them started encoding and enciphering messages to each other. Or is this asking for trouble?

I hope your holiday season is getting off to a rousing start. I'd love to hear what you're recommending at the store right now.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Diversity in the details

Dear Annie,

Happy post-Thanksgiving!  That was a very impressive list of resources for diverse books.  You talked about getting involved in school book fairs -- excellent!  Most of my knowledge comes from supplying one annual book fair which gets all its books from us, with which we've evolved a really lovely list.  We should talk about book fairs more in the future: I think a lot of schools charge into them without defining why they're doing them.  A blog for another day.

Today we have one more request from your bid for same.  Dawn writes:
 I'd like to learn about more books like *Anna Hibiscus* that are good for gently introducing children to global diversity. At Alice's insistence we read *Anna Hibiscus* together three times, and it was only our insistence on moving on to *The Borrowers* that kept us from reading it again.
Anna Hibiscus is of course a big favorite of ours.  Dawn, I assume you know it's a four book series.  Anna lives in a family compound in a city; Atinuke's No. 1 Car Spotter lives in rural Africa.  So far there are only two Car Spotter books.

I'm interpreting Dawn's question as having to do with more or less contemporary real life situations.  Moving south to Botswana, adult novelist Alexander McCall Smith has written two early-chapter book series for kids.  One chronicles the elementary school life of Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. 

The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case
, Precious solves a case involving an unjust accusation of theft.  Her father, whose legacy funds her detective agency in adulthood, is very present in Precious's young life, a constant storyteller. 

Iain McIntosh's illustrations give a refreshingly different feel to the book series.

They're gentle and engaging mysteries.

McCall Smith's earlier children's series is about a boy named Akimbo, whose father is head ranger in a game preserve.  The stories include everyday life scenes, and adventures he's involved in because of his father's work.  Akimbo and the Lions is a younger variation of Born Free: Akimbo raises a lion cub but then realizes he has to send it back to the wild when it starts scaring his neighbors.  In Akimbo and the Elephants, he tries to catch ivory poachers who have been killing elephants.  They're great stories -- I used to sell a lot of them.  They're all now unfortunately out of print -- links are to alibris used listings.

Back to the north of the continent, a classic picture book:
The Day of Ahmed's Secret
by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin (written in 1995).   Ahmed, bursting with excitement because he has a secret, drives his donkey cart through the streets of Cairo delivering bottled cooking gas.  (Spoiler alert: the secret will be revealed.)   We get a sense of the intensely rich and varied street life of the city.  When he finally gets back home, he announces the secret: he's learned to write his name.  I once had a customer who used this one as the central book in a first grade book group about urban life.

Another what-life-is-like on the street picture book is On My Way to Buy Eggs, by Chih-Yuan Chen.  A girl in Taiwan walks to the store to buy eggs, finding constant diversion in what she sees: a shadow, a blue marble, a pair of glasses.  Also not available new in the U.S.  Link is alibris.

I hope, Dawn, that these are books you haven't yet discovered.

Happy reading!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Increasing kidlit diversity in book fair season

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It's school book fair season! Last weekend, Eleanor's school held a book fair at Barnes & Noble; this week, Isabel's school is running a Scholastic book fair in their multipurpose room. I have mixed feelings about both endeavors.

On the one hand, both kinds of book fairs encourage buying and reading books. They end up supporting the schools, to some extent, and get kids fired up about using their money to buy books. They turn book-buying into an activity central to the school community, and offer an easy way for parents to get more books into their children's hands if they don't frequent bookstores regularly.

On the other hand, the book-buying isn't going to support any nice independent bookstores. Much of what gets bought are highly-marketed franchise books and book-related swag: books packaged with toys or dangling plastic charms, junior novelizations of movies and video games, cute little cheap erasers.

We came out of the B&N fair having supported the Frozen franchise yet again (Will is now just as obsessed as Isabel. He sees anything Frozen-related and calls out, "Da Do!" a.k.a. "Let It Go!"). What Eleanor wanted most in the world was the latest Percy Jackson Heroes of Olympus book (we can't get it from the library, as we did the first 9, because the waiting list is 500+ people long). We redeemed ourselves slightly by buying a George O'Connor Olympians book for an upcoming friend's birthday, and donating a couple of books to Eleanor's classroom.

On Monday, I volunteered for a bookselling shift at Isabel's Scholastic book fair. Leaving aside my misgivings about the number of Lego Chima books sold, there is something beautiful about seeing a room full of kids browsing through tables of books. The school had also set up a "pay what you can" table of donated books, so that every kid attending the book fair could walk home with a book of his or her own, no matter their family's finances.

All this has made me interested in getting involved in planning next year's book fairs, and seeing how much I can tweak the content. What's the ratio of commercial stuff to good but lesser-known kids' books that will make money for the school AND send kids home with books they'll want to reread? I'd love your bookseller's opinion on this question.

Two friends and blog readers recently asked us about how to help make their school book fairs more diverse and multicultural. I'm afraid that because of fall craziness and family sickness, my thoughts on this are woefully late (apologies, Jonathan and Liz!), but perhaps they'll be useful for the next book fair season?

I started out with some Googling, and came across a number of excellent lists, and a growing movement aimed at making the world of children's books more diverse.

First, the movement:

Bloggers Valarie Budyar, of Jump Into a Book, and Mia Wenjen, of Pragmatic Mom, teamed up last year to create Multicultural Children's Book Day. On January 27, 2015, there will be a host of blog posts and other activities aimed at increasing awareness of children's books that celebrate diversity, and getting more of those books into classrooms and libraries.

The organization We Need Diverse Books was founded last spring by a group of authors and grassroots activists. Their campaign began as a response to the trade convention BookCon, which put forward an author panel consisting entirely of white men. After a wildly successful Twitter campaign (#weneeddiversebooks), the organization has begun to build programs to increase diversity in books used in classrooms, created an awards and grants program, and begun planning for a Children's Literature Diversity Festival in 2016 (in Washington, D.C.!).

These two sites led me to a number of excellent book lists featuring children's books with diverse characters:

The Multicultural Children's Book Day website has a nice set of book lists here.

Pragmatic Mom collects multicultural booklists here. My favorite is her Top 50 list, which is broken down by age group.

What Do We Do All Day has a list of 21 books which include diverse characters.

We Need Diverse Books has a collection of lists here.

Ink & Pen collects some good lists here.

And of course, we have our own list of Picture Books with racially diverse/mostly non-white characters.

So while it's troubling that these campaigns and lists need to exist in 2014 -- shouldn't we be at a point where the representation is far more equal? -- it's heartening to see that they're here, ready to be explored.

Love, Annie

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reading routines with multiple children? Help!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

When we put out a call for readers' questions last month, our friend and guest blogger Faith asked a few good ones. You wrote to her about horse books for kids, both picture book and chapter book level. Faith also asked for advice about reading with multiple children of different ages:

Strategy question: How do people manage bedtime reading with multiple (say, 4) children at different levels, when some are ready to listen to chapter books, but also when the oldest child has to read a book from school aloud to the family each night???

She elaborated:

I'm okay with not having the full attention of all audience members -- we've been doing that for years. I'll just add in our personal wrinkle, which is that our 1st grader comes home every night with a book that she has to read out loud to us (and I have to sign off on her "reading log.") These are books like Amelia Bedelia and Frog and Toad, so they take a substantial amount of time to read. And, she's a pretty fluent reader, but if you've ever heard a 1st grader read (I know you all have), you'll understand that there's NO WAY that this is keeping her sisters' attention. 

So, by bedtime every weeknight there's usually no time (or attention span) left for Erick or me to read to them. And this is particularly frustrating because our kindergartener and 1st grader are at the perfect age to start listening to some really great chapter books, but how do we structure time for that after the read-aloud? Also, all four girls share a room, so separate bedtimes would be challenging (though not necessarily impossible.)

My first thought was to ask some other parents of multiple children to weigh in on Faith's question. I emailed two other friends/guest bloggers: Cyd, mom of four girls between the ages of 7 and 1, and Matthew, dad of a girl and two boys between the ages of 6 and 3.

Cyd goes the highly structured route, with separate reading-with-mom times for Rebekah (7) after her sisters are in bed, and Ellie and Klara (almost-6 and 4) early in the morning before their sisters are up:

This works pretty well, except for the cries of "She *touched* me!!" Klara has always been precocious in terms of her interest in listening to higher-level books and her ability to understand them (she was obsessed with Ramona before she turned 2, showing interest in chapter books well over a year and a half earlier than either of her two big sisters) so books that work for Ellie work for her.  I have to have several books going at a time, as if one of them gets up before the other, I can't read her a book that both of them are listening to....

Luckily Anna (age 15 months) is asleep both early in the morning when I read to Ellie and Klara, and at night when I read to Rebekah, so I can focus on reading without trying to prevent her from climbing stairs, eating dog food, or tearing other books to pieces.  When I do read to everyone in the afternoon, she's pretty happy to toddle around from sister to sister and play with Legos or pat the dog.  She is just starting to be interested in books (current favorites: "Peek a Who" and "Dear Zoo") but she doesn't have a prolonged attention span so she doesn't have a designated reading time -- yet.

Matthew tends to keep everyone together:

For the most part, I read to all three kids at once, even though there is almost a four-year gap between August and Alden. This means sometimes August listens to us reading pretty sophisticated middle-grades stuff and sometimes Alden sitting in on Berenstain Bears, but I think there's value all around. August gets to absorb the syntax of language even if he's not retaining it all, and Alden gets to practice her reading as we go through the simpler stuff. 

Though he, like Faith, does separate out the learning-to-read time:

As Alden gets more and more into independent reading, I do more one-on-one reading time with her, so that we can really take the time she needs to work through the language (the pace tends to frustrate her brothers' interest in the story moving along a bit more briskly). Also, Kato, who is a pretty advanced reader, sometimes knows words Alden is still puzzling through, and so I need to remove him from the equation so that her pride isn't bruised. 

I remember that your routines with Lizzie and Mona were of the more structured variety, with one read-aloud book going for each girl with each parent, and maybe also one you'd read aloud together -- is that right?

In the weeks since I started thinking about this question, Cyd and Faith have been emailing, and Faith has developed a new reading routine:

Either Erick or I (we'll try to alternate) takes Fiona into our bedroom where we can snuggle up while she reads to us. The other girls each choose a short book, which is read to them by the other parent. Then, everybody convenes in the girls' bedroom, where I read them one chapter of a longer chapter book (Fiona chose A Bear Called Paddington to start). It worked really well last night (some whining over Fiona's private read-aloud aside), and I felt so much better knowing that everyone was at least getting read to at their level at some point! The down side: It's LONG -- usually 50 minutes to an hour from start to finish.

As these responses rolled in, I started to think about the reading routines in our house. This question felt timely for me, because in the last couple of months, our regular routines have been changing in drastic and not altogether welcome ways.

We've had a pretty stable system for years: I read to the girls first thing in the morning for about 15 minutes, while they're waking up, and we have a second official Reading Time every evening, with everyone in pajamas and brushed teeth. In between, there are books scattered around the house, and the kids pick them up and read on their own or grab me or Jeff to demand that we read them.

Three major factors have recently begun to torpedo this routine. First, Eleanor's independent reading has skyrocketed to the point where she often just wants to read to herself at bedtime -- there's no reason to compromise on a book with Isabel if Eleanor can just keep reading what she wants. Second, Will now has definite opinions about what he wants to read. He's no longer content to play while I read to the girls for any length of time (and it's been many months since he was the baby nursing on my lap under the book). Now, if I try to read something he doesn't want, he'll yell and try to rip it out of my hands. Finally, we moved from an apartment into a two-story house, and getting ready for bed has slowed exponentially now that it requires moving between floors. We start at our usual time, but by the time everyone is ready for bed, Reading Time has dwindled to 10 minutes or less.

Like Faith, my three kids share a bedroom and a bedtime -- there's no chance for regular bedtime reading to one kid without the others being involved. And because of Jeff's often late work hours, there's no guarantee on any weeknight that I'll have a second parent in the house to take one or two kids into another room. I wish I could set up something as structured as what both Cyd and Faith now have -- I really miss sustained chapter book reading time -- but that feels like an impossible goal in my current life.

What to do?

What to do, when you add in Isabel's kindergarten reading books that she's supposed to read aloud to us every night? When Eleanor, who is ripping through books on her own, resists reading aloud, we think because she's unsure of how to pronounce some of the words? What to do, when Will insists on reading Chugga Chugga Choo Choo 6 times in a row? (Which, by the way, is a terrific train book -- great rhythm and totally appealing illustrations which make the train set in a kid's bedroom seem enormous.)

I guess the answer is the same as with so many other aspects of parenting: we muddle through, and try to do the best we can for everybody, and then it changes again. I'm trying to be more conscious of getting the bedtime routine started earlier. I'm trying to get Will interested in the books Isabel has to read aloud (and often holding another book for him as she reads, toggling my attention back and forth). When Jeff is home, I'm trying to eke out more chapter book time with both girls, as we get close to the end of Inga Moore's gorgeously illustrated version of The Secret Garden. I'm trying not to get frustrated by the impossibility of giving every kid what she or he wants.

But man, if anyone else has suggestions on how to achieve a better balance of individual and shared reading time, I'm all ears.

Love, Annie

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The early reluctant reader: non-graphic novels

Dear Annie,
What an excellent entry on graphic novels for the reluctant reader.  Graphic novels for kids have exploded in the past few years in such a satisfying way.

Jean said a few things about Casey that made me want to offer a few more possibilities.

She's not a fan of anything with princesses or those kind of stories (unless, perhaps, if the princess is wielding a sword).

Can't get past that sentence without offering a brand new book: 
The Princess in Black
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale: the team that brought us Rapunzel's Revenge.  I have mixed feelings about the illustrations by LeUyen Pham -- a little too cute -- but it's a fun book.  Princess Magnolia is living a Clark Kent existence, serving tea and being prim and pink and proper, when her magic ring, well, rings -- and she makes a polite exit:

The secret of course is that she's the masked Princess in Black.  Her prancing unicorn Frimplepants gets the alarm from his magic horseshoe, sheds his horn and sparkly mane and tail and emerges as Blacky, the princess's faithful pony.  They race off to answer the call from Duff the goat boy whose flock is about to be eaten by a large blue monster:

The battle continues for the next two pages with lots of sound effects.  The princess manages to keep her identity secret from all, although it's clear the goat boy is going to figure her out and become The Goat Avenger and her loyal sidekick.  The type is big and sparse, but the book is 89 pages.  Feels kind of Mercy Watson reading level.

Another book around that level is the energetic and definitely non-princessy Lulu and the Brontosaurus.  It feels like a chapter book, but the type is big, the page-turning is frequent.  And it's a riot.  You described it wonderfully here.

Jean says Casey likes a good battle, and that she'll read anything with cats.  Has their family discovered the Warriors series yet, by Erin Hunter?  The official site is, appropriately, at  They're chapter books that are definitely more advanced than Casey's Magic Tree House level -- but it seems to me they could be right up her alley.  The books are about cats who live in the wild and have created clans with codes of honor and warfare.  Some of their members are house cats who have escaped to the wild and joined them.  This is a  series in which the animals are definitely anthropomorphized, but they still act like cats, and have issues about surviving in the wilderness.  Right now there are five different six-book series which follow the clans and characters.  Whenever a new one comes out, a couple of kids will show up within a day or two looking for it -- a sure sign that it's a series with legs.

I just discovered from wikipedia tonight that Erin Hunter exists in name only.  The books are written by five different authors, including your pal Tui, who writes middle grade fantasy books which Eleanor has loved under her own name as well.

And coming back to your wonderful post, there's also a series of graphic novels based on the Warriors characters.  Here's a bit of Tigerstar & Sasha: Into the Woods:

The books are better than the manga, but there's still the feel of the Warrior world.  Publishers are doing more graphic novels of longer books these days.  The goal is to hook kids on the easier-to-read comic books, then transition them to the longer ones.  Could this be a plan for Casey?


Aunt Debbie

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Graphic novels for the reluctant early reader

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Though I never went through a horse phase myself, and so far my kids haven't caught that bug, your horse book recommendations may be the beginning of a new interest in our house. I've requested a few from the library, and the way Eleanor is burning through books these days, I'm pretty sure I'll be requesting more.

Today's reader question comes from Jean, the mom of Eleanor's good friend Casey. During a recent playdate, Jean and I got to talking about our kids' experiences with reading. Casey (also in 2nd grade) is reading some, but it's been a bit of a struggle for her, and she doesn't generally pick up books on her own. Here's Jean:

I think she's resistant to reading on her own for a couple of reasons. 1) You've known Casey since she was 2. She is a very energetic kid. Running around and playing active games is when she is happiest. So she's not a natural bookworm....2) Something you said at your house really resonated with me and it makes sense for Casey: she LOVES when we read to her, which we do every day. And we'll read The Wizard of Oz, or Harry Potter, Magic Treehouse, Jenny and the Cat Club. Books that are (with the exception of maybe the Magic Treehouse books) well beyond her level. She likes a good story, but can't read at the level of a good story yet.

Jean would like to find books that Casey really wants to read:

She loves a good battle, especially when the good guy pulls through at the end. She loves adventures and mystery. She's not a fan of anything with princesses or those kind of stories (unless, perhaps, if the princess is wielding a sword). But she loves magic. And cats, as you know. Anything with cats....We are trying not to force it too much because she'll come into it in her own time. But it would be great to have books around that she may just want to pick up on her own!

Given my kids' recent reading history, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I recommended Casey and Jean check out some graphic novels. Graphic novels have bridged a gap for us, allowing for a variety of different kinds of reading. For both Isabel (who can read very few words, but will pore over pictures for hours on her own) and Eleanor (who reads all the words and doesn't dwell as much on the pictures, but enjoys them), they encourage an independent reading experience, while still making room for reading together.

With this in mind, I scoured our posts and created a new page to add over there on the right: a list of all the graphic novels we've discussed on the blog, by theme and by appropriate age range.

Here are a few I think Casey would love, many with links to previous blogs we've written about them:

Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale. This is the present we've bought for Casey's upcoming birthday: Rapunzel reimagined as an active, braid-whipping heroine. She's awesome and has a sense of humor, and the way the Hales play with the original story is great fun.

Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke. Zita is a girl from earth whose curiosity and impulsiveness cause first her best friend (a quiet boy named Joseph) and then Zita herself to shoot off to another galaxy. Zita has to find and rescue Joseph, teaming up with a ragtag bunch of aliens and robots. There's a real emotional punch here, too. Sequels Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl are also excellent.

Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley, by Jeff Weigel. Alanna, the 11-year-old heroine, finds and protects a nest of baby dragons, dressing up as a dragon herself so that they won't become accustomed to humans and be in later danger. Alanna is another active, strong heroine -- I think Casey would like her. There are clearly more Dragon Girl books coming, but this is the only one out so far.

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat (and other Ottoline books), by Chris Riddell. Though the yellow cat in the first title turns out to be a bit of a villain (sorry, Casey!), these books are quirky and tremendous fun. They contain terrific characters, both human and animal, and each has a not-scary mystery as a central part of the plot. Strictly speaking, I suppose they are only half graphic novel -- many of the pages contain typed text as well as comic book-style illustration.

Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye, by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue. All the characters here are animals who live in a pet shop, where Sasspants (the guinea pig of the title) and her sidekick, Hamisher the hamster, solve mild, funny mysteries. In Book #5, Raining Cats and Detectives, the plot involves the disappearance of a large, sleepy cat. Bonus: if Casey likes these, there are a bunch of them.

This week, we discovered Cleopatra in Space, by Mike Maihack. The premise: 15-year-old Cleopatra, who will grow up to be ruler of Egypt, touches a magic tablet and is zapped into the space-age future. It turns out that the future is governed by highly intelligent talking cats (!), who tell her the galaxy is in great danger, and a prophesy says that Cleopatra will come to save them all. In this telling, Cleopatra is uninterested in schoolwork, but highly energetic and a terrific fighter. Like many of the other heroines mentioned here, she is impulsive and stubborn, but ultimately good-hearted. There's not as much emotional depth here as in Zita the Spacegirl or Dragon Girl, and some of the vocabulary in the expository parts feels a little dry/advanced for kids, but overall it's a fun read.

For an early-reader taste of several of the big names in contemporary graphic novels, try Comics Squad: Recess! This is an anthology of eight stories, each centered around something that happens at school recess. It includes a story from Gene Luen Yang (whose American Born Chinese is awesome but won't be appropriate reading for our kids for several years); a story starring Babymouse, by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm; a story starring Lunch Lady, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka; a story by Raina Telgemeier (whose Smile and Drama will be accessible to our kids in just a few years), and more.

Both of the previous books, along with Dragon Girl, were recommended to us by Holly, frequent guest blogger and mom of Eleanor's best friend Ian. Another of Ian's favorites which has become a hit in our house is the odd little series Tiny Titans, by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani. In it, DC Comics characters appear as elementary school-age kids, with appropriately kid-friendly plots. Perhaps "plots" is too strong a word: most of the stories are 2-4 pages long, short sketches, often with punchlines. I'll confess I'm not captivated by them, but Ian, Eleanor, and Isabel certainly are.

I'll close with recommendations for two long, intense series, and another great web resource.

Everything you say about Casey's love of a good battle, magic, and princesses only if they are sword-wielding makes me think she might love Jeff Smith's Bone books. This is the series that completely obsessed Isabel for several months. They are wild, wonderful books, which our entire family ended up reading several times through. Fair warning: the action, especially in the last couple of books, gets violent, and a few characters you come to care about deeply don't survive (though all the main ones do). Characters include the Bone cousins (strange rounded little white people), the sweet and ultimately fighting awesome secret princess Thorn, her tough cow-racing Gran'ma Ben, and a couple of rat creatures whose attempts to chase Fone Bone down are a fabulous excuse for slapstick. Try the first book: Out from Boneville.

The Amulet series, by Kazu Kibuishi, is another captivating read. Where Bone starts on the mellow side and gets progressively darker, Amulet leads with what I find to be its darkest episode.

In Book One: The Stonekeeper, Emily and Navin's father is killed in a car accident from which Emily and her mother escape. Mom, Emily, and Navin move to an old creepy family house, which turns out to contain all kinds of secrets left by Emily's great-grandfather. The greatest of these is the stone bequeathed to Emily: she becomes a Stonekeeper, possessed of great power but unsure whether the force animating the stone is good or bad. As if their father's death wasn't bad enough, Mom is kidnapped by a scary alien thing, and Emily and Navin set out into another world to rescue her.

The ensuing story (which covers six books so far, and isn't over yet) contains a wide variety of animal and robot characters, elves, both good and evil, and people who seem to be real but turn out to be animated by magic. The visuals are spectacular.

Finally, if this isn't enough for you, check out the graphic novel recommendations at A Mighty Girl (which is a pretty great website for other kinds of books, too).

And to think, back in my day we subsisted on Archie comics! Times have changed for the better.

Love, Annie

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Horse books for kids

Dear Annie,

Early chapter books: we've got such a good list of them.  It's a wonderful step in a child's reading progression.

I thought I'd take up another of our reader questions, this one from guest blogger Faith.  She asked four questions, but I'm just going to start with one.  For her four girls, she wants:
 Horse books that are somewhere between Marguerite Henry and easy readers.
Billy and Blaze, getting to know each other.

I've amassed a small pile, starting with picture books, then non-fiction, and finally some early chapter books.  We've posted on this blog 632 times, so sometimes when I start writing, I just check to see if we've mentioned a particular book before.  We do have an entry about the first picture books I was going to recommend to Faith: the Billy and Blaze books, written between 1936 and 1970.  Turns out that it was a guest blog, written by none other than our own Faith.  So we have an expert here.  I'll try to find some lesser-known books.

Next there's
Fritz and the Beautiful Horses
by Jan Brett.  The people in a medieval city don't let Fritz within its walls  because they don't consider him beautiful enough.  Fritz seems little and Jan Brett-cute to me, buy hey, that's the story.  Fritz ends up saving a group of children and becoming the most popular horse in town.  Lots of nice horse pictures.

And on the more obscure end of the spectrum, Rosie's Magic Horse by the great Russell Hoban, illustrated by the equally great  Quentin Blake.  Rosie collects popsicle sticks.  When she adds a new one to her collection, it wants more from life:
"I could be something." [said the new stick]
"What?" said the old stick.
"Maybe a horse," said the new stick.
"In your dreams," said the old stick.
"We'd like to be a horse, too," said some of the other sticks.
They become a horse (named Stickerino), galloping into Rosie's dreams.  They all go off to find treasure to pay Rosie's parents' bills.  The mission is a success, and Rosie's dad wakes to find a chest of gold on the dining room table.  Lovely.

On to  chapter books, starting with
Horse Crazy
  by Alison Lester, illustrated by Roland Harvey (in the tradition of Quentin Blake).  It's a four book early-chapter series from Australia.  Two girls have adventures with different horses in each book: they're very nicely done, with much attention to horse personalities.  The books have a website with profiles of each of the horses.   The first book, The Silver Horse Switch, tells the story of a dissatisfied domestic horse trading places with a brumby -- the Australian term for a wild horse.

Another series, Horse Diaries, is up to at least 11 books now.  They're illustrated chapter books by a variety of authors, each a diary from the point of view of a horse in a different historical period.  The first is set in Iceland in 1000 A.D.   There's Vermont in the 1850s,  Austria in 1938, Nevada 1950, etc.

And then there are True Horse Stories, a Canadian series of slightly fictionalized biographies of real horses by Judy Andrekson.  Most of them are horses who have been through some form of adversity but because of a strong relationship with a human being they go on to become skilled show horses.  In
Little Squire
a very small horse and a kinda short guy both grow up separately in Ireland and come to America.  They find each other, establish a delightful man/horse friendship, and participate in jumping exhibitions around the country.  The horse has a very nice sense of humor.

I Wonder Why Horses Wear Shoes
Finishing off with two non-fiction books. There are number of this genre, at many reading levels.  They give a little history, some cautionary information about how much work goes into owning a horse, and lots of information about horses today. 
I Wonder Why Horses Wear Shoes is the reading level of a advanced early reader.  It answers 31 questions, including: Why do horses need grooming? How many kinds of horses are there? Whose horse had eight legs? (Eleanor and Isabel?) Which horses do cowhands ride?  Who sits in a sulky?  What is a chukka? I learned a few things reading it.
Eye Wonder Horses and Ponies

DK, a publisher that gets lots of mileage out of an excellent photo library, has a non-fiction series aimed at kids in the early grades called Eye Wonder.  The reading level is a little tougher than the I Wonder Why series, and the layout is excellent.  All their books open anywhere on a self-contained two-page spread  giving lots of information on whatever the topic is.  They've got one called Eye Wonder Horses and Ponies.

It does the usual topics, plus things like horse whispering, different styles of holding the reins, and feral horses -- it even devotes a paragraph to brumbies.

So there are a few horse books.  I hope some of these are new to you and the girls, Faith.  And when will they be getting horses of their own?



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Animals and magic in the great early chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your breadth of book knowledge makes me so happy. Now I'm excited to read more of the books you recommended for 13-year-old Jack!

Today I'm responding to another reader request. Chloe, a friend from college and mother of Jackson, writes:

Jackson (nearly 5) has finally been showing interest in beginning chapter books -- we've been reading Winnie the Pooh (which he seems to tolerate) and at school they just finished Charlotte's Web (which he loved). What are the great early chapter books -- that have ZERO Ninja Turtles in them -- that we can read to him? He can't read yet on his own. He is that classic boy-kid who loves superheroes as much as he loves animals...ok, maybe superheroes a little more.

Chloe, you're at a fabulous point!

Our pages of book lists (over there on the right) are a good place to start. Check out Early chapter books and the sections on "Diaper bag books" and "Short chapter books" on the Learning to read books page.

Aunt Debbie has already pointed you to My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett, and some thoughts on the transition to chapter books, with its possible pitfalls (the Stuart Little problem!).

Knowing the intense love of animals going on in your house, a few specific recommendations:

The Doctor Dolittle series, by Hugh Lofting. The veterinarian Doctor Dolittle can speak and understand animal languages -- not through any kind of magic, but because he pays attention, bonds with the animals, and is open to learning from his parrot, Polynesia. Some books are narrated by 9-year-old Tommy Stubbins, who becomes Doctor Dolittle's apprentice. Bonus: chapters are short, and the animal characters are all well-drawn.

Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. The version we love is slightly abridged, but gorgeously illustrated by Inga Moore -- pictures on almost every page. Mole, Water Rat, Mr. Badger, and the indomitable Toad of Toad Hall are vivid companions.  Right now the girls and I are reading Inga Moore's version of The Secret Garden (first time for Isabel, a re-read for Eleanor). Moore's illustrations break open books that would otherwise be inaccessible to most 5-year-olds.

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden, might also be a hit. The animal characters are wonderful, and, like Doctor Dolittle, it has a nice young boy as protagonist. (Also like Doctor Dolittle, there's some unfortunate racial stereotyping -- see blog posts linked above.)

Let's throw in a little magic:

The Amazing World of Stuart, by Sara Pennypacker, was one of Isabel's favorite early chapter books last year. In it, 8-year-old Stuart makes himself a cape out of 100 ties, and suddenly gains superpowers. The catch: he has a different power each day, and doesn't know what it will be.

Half Magic, by Edward Eager. This has become one of my favorite gifts to give kids in the 5-7 age range. Four siblings find a magic coin, which grants wishes -- but, it turns out, only half of what they ask for, so they have to get creative. Eager's writing is totally engaging and terribly funny. If you and Jackson like this one, he has several more in the series.

Isabel's love of superheroes has found a natural extension in the Narnia books and D'Aulaire's Greek Myths and Norse Myths. (As you may have noticed, we're on a real mythology kick over here.) If you're up for some graphic novel action, I can't say enough good things about George O'Connor's Olympians series.

Then there's always Roald Dahl, who tosses in fine sprinklings of magic and makes for a gripping read-aloud, though the undercurrent of misanthropy always turns me off a little.

Finally, two more that don't fall into either the animal or superhero/magic categories, but which we've loved as entry-level chapter books for their depiction of kids:

Jamie and Angus, by Anne Fine, focuses on the relationship between a boy (Jamie) and his stuffed Highland bull (Angus). It is fine and tender, with a nice British flavor.

Anna Hibiscus, by Nigerian storyteller Atinuke, is also wonderfully warm, and provides a window into life in an African city. Lots to enjoy and discuss.

Do let us know if any of these are a hit with Jackson!

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The middle school boy challenge

Dear Annie,

I love your family's immersion in dragons and gods and goddesses, not to mention half-bloods.  Your description of Dragon Girl inspired me to order it for the store.

We've put out a call for book queries and and received quite a few.  I thought I'd start with a question from our virtual cousin* Helen, for her son Jack.

Finding books for a middle school boy has been challenging.  Choices seem to be limited to dystopian drama, dragons/swords fantasy or sports. . . .
 He complains that there are so many more books "for girls"...He's read all of the Alex Ryder books, The Lorien Legacies (Pitticus Lore), that dragon series (Eragon), Ender's Game, Maze Runner, City of Ember, His Dark Materials, City of Bones etc.
Setting aside the boy/girl debate, I'll list a bunch of books I hope will tickle Jack's fancy.  Jack's list are all popular multi-book series: spy thrillers,  sci-fi, alien invasion, post-apocalyptic worlds, parallel universes, and dragons.   I'll start with a few not-so-usual-suspect series that fall somewhere along those lines:

-- A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, blogged by us here.  It's about a parallel universe, not unlike those in the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman.  I would stress to Jack the point made in the blog: the cover makes it look like dreamy chicklit -- it's not.  Ignore the cover.  So far there are only two books in the series in the U.S.

-- A darker but well done series is
The Last Apprentice
by Joseph Delaney.  It's set in a medieval world beset by witches, ghouls and other evil beings.  There's a Spook, who's a sort of exterminator of the occult, hired to root out and eliminate evil characters.  12 year-old Tom becomes an apprentice to the Spook, and is thrown into this creepy shadow world.  One of the other characters is an excellently ambiguous one: the reader is never quite sure which side she's on.

-- Annie and I have both loved the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness, which takes place on another planet, but explores the shortcomings of human civilization eloquently.  See our blog entry here

-- I haven't read the
Leviathan trilogy
by Scott Westerfeld: second and third volumes are called Behemoth and Goliath.  One of my indicators of a good series is when the sequels sell almost as well as volume one, which is true with this one.  It's steam punk virtual history:  World War I re-imagined with one side armed with huge and complex machines; the other side has genetically engineered animals (the Leviathan is a flying whale).

-- And for the high-tech spy thriller fan, there's the
I, Q
series by Roland Smith.  Two step siblings traveling with their parents' rock band discover a lot of suspicious behavior, which it turns out is part of a much larger international espionage intrigue.  Each book takes place in different U.S. locations: Philadelphia, the White House, Alcatraz and the Alamo, to name a few.

Okay, so there are some series.  Here's more of Helen's query:
  There are so many YA options for him but he does think they are all the same kind of story and would like to find different kinds of stories. He goes through non-fiction phases but nothing recently. He loves history so I would like to find some biographies and historical non-fiction that was suitable for his age (13).
Hmm.  Jack, what do you mean by "the same kind of story"?  I'll take some guesses here, starting with two YA novels that create a contemporary teenager and put him in a fantastic situation.

by John Corey Whaley is one of ten nominees for the National Book Award this year.  16 year-old Travis was dying of cancer, so he and his family agreed that he would be frozen -- or at least his head would be -- until the technology to revive him is invented.  This turns out to take only five years, so he wakes up as a 16 year-old boy with a new, buff body, his best friend and girlfriend graduating from college, and everything different but not totally new.  It's funny and thoughtful.

-- Every Day by David Levithan is the story of a disembodied personality who wakes up each day in a different body.  Blogged about here.

-- And then there's
, by Mal Peet.  It combines magical realism and soccer, all set in the Brazilian rain forest.  It's beautiful, strange, and definitely different.


- Read anything by Steve Sheinkin, who's a fantastic writer.  I've blogged about his bizarre and amazing Lincoln's Grave Robbers.  His
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
about resistance to racism in the Navy during World War II is another one on the National Book Award Long List.  Over the summer, I read Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, which won a Newbery Honor last year.  It tells the story of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, but it also has lots of relatively new information which I hadn't known.  The Russians had spies at Los Alamos who were passing the secrets of the bomb as it was being developed: the story of how they did it reads like a spy thriller.

-- No history buff's middle school years are complete without Left for Dead by Pete Nelson.  The atom bomb, torpedoes, sharks, the movie Jaws, and the search for justice spearheaded by a sixth-grade boy.  Here's the blog entry.

-- Another history narrative, written for adults, is Steven Johnson's
The Ghost Map
.  It's about the London cholera epidemic of 1854, which brought about the birth of the science of epidemiology.  It reads like a mystery: we carry it because it was the store owners' son's favorite book when he was in middle school.

And as long as I'm on the subject of adult books, I'll end with two sports books:
--Blood, Sweat and Chalk
by Tim Layden is about the history and current use of football plays.  For the serious football fan.

-- And last, there's
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
by Michael Lewis.  It's the story of Oakland As general manager Billy Beane developing statistical measurements of players' abilities.  It's got good plot, a team of underdogs, math and baseball, all in one book. 
A true sports fan can have fun arguing with some of Lewis's conclusions, but it's a good read.

So there you are, Helen and Jack.  I hope most of these are ones you haven't come across yet.  Let me know if any of them are keepers.



* Our families go way back.