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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A nativity that breaks the mold

Dear Annie,

One more shopping day to go.  The store has been its usual nutty busy self these past few weeks.  We've sold out of a lot of good books, but are having fun finding the right matches for the kids Santa is just starting to think about.  Almost 200 of the new Star Wars movie books, which went on sale last Friday, have already sold.

In keeping with the season, I thought I'd mention one more nativity book.  As you probably know from your mother, our parents' household always incorporated the Bible story of Christmas into our non-religious life.  My interpretation of that as a grown-up is that if you're going to get all the pagan and commercial benefits of the holiday, you need to acknowledge the religious underpinnings too.  In 1950s Pleasantville, this meant staging a nativity pageant in our living room.  Two of us would be Joseph and Mary, Judy's doll Annie played Jesus every year, and the third child would read relevant Bible passages aloud.  Someone would play whatever instrument he or she was learning at the time, and there would be some giggling about the King James wording.

I've already written about my favorite nativity book for kids: Julie Vivas' exuberant Nativity.  (That post is full of links to many of our other Christmas blog entries.)  It's still the best.  But here's another for the construction-minded child:
The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids
  by Brendan Powell Smith.  Yep, it's the nativity illustrated with tableaux of Lego figures.  Smith seems to have the corner on many stories with Lego illustrations, including several Bible stories for kids, and more comprehensive Old and New Testaments for adults (circumcision in Lego: who knew it could be so vivid?).

The wording in this one leaves something to be desired.  But the illustrations are a kick.  Consider, for example, the progression of Mary's pregnancy, from annunciation (left), to Joseph's discovery of her condition (center) to the arrival in Bethlehem (right):
Makes one think about Lego bricks a little differently.

The baby ends up in a sort-of manger in a stable Joseph is trying to make livable:
Always a pleasure to have a variety of interpretations to offer readers.

Merry Christmas and much love to you and yours!


Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Holiday Choice: the Gift of Other Lives

Dear Annie,

Here we are this holiday season, with many of us are feeling horrified at the tone and content of political discourse in America.  How to handle this with the children we love?

You know me: I look to children's books.  One of the things we can do this year -- and any other year -- is to give children the gift of other people's lives.
We've written here (and here and here) about books as mirrors/books as windows.  The mirrors reflect back readers' own experiences; the windows let them experience worlds they haven't known.  And of course, one reader's mirror can be another's window.  Americans need more looking into the windows of those who we are not.

Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco
by Judith Robbins Rose provides a nuanced window for many of us.  Aimed at kids from 9 to 13 or so, it's the story of Jacinta, the U.S.-born child of undocumented parents in Colorado.  Most of her world is the barrio in which she lives, with little contact with the Anglo culture.  Then a white television news reporter reluctantly agrees to become her mentor through a community center.  Everything is new and threatening, including a ride with her sister to an indoor swimming pool:
Long after we should've been at the pool, we took another turn.  Then we were on a freeway.
   I gripped Rosa's hand.  Her sweaty hand.
   We'd been places in Papi's truck, but never on the freeway.  Driving on a freeway is like begging la policia to drag you back to Mexico.   
One of the things I like about this book is that it's full of flawed characters.  Jacinta gets jealous, fights with her sister, tries to manipulate situations to her advantage.  But she's a very believable 11 year-old.  Her mentor introduces Jacinta to white privilege in action: she's an assertive woman who's used to getting what she wants through manipulation of her fame and veiled threats.  The girl is impressed by what she sees as a woman being powerful, but eventually understands the arrogance.

Lots for readers to think about in this book.

Thinking about others is one of the things we can give children in books.  Here's a quick list of books we've written about over the years that speak to some of the issues roiling around right now.  They immerse their readers in other lives.  There are lots more -- readers, please add more below.  This is just a start.

A Long Walk to Water  - what leads people to become refugees
Day of Ahmed's Secret - daily life in a busy arab city.
Anna Hibiscus  - daily life in Africa, including children learning about poverty
brown girl dreaming - growing up black in America 
American Born Chinese - one teenager coming to terms with his Chinese identity
Persepolis - living under -- and eventually leaving - an increasingly repressive government
diversity in kidlit - lots of resources
Wonder - an amazing and now-classic book about a severely deformed child.
Almost Home by Joan Bauer and Hold Fast by Blue Balliett - we haven't written about these: both are middle grade novels about American families becoming homeless.
All American Boys - I haven't read this one but it sounds excellent -- link is to School Library Journal.  The story of an incident of police violence told through the voices of the black teenage victim and a white classmate who witnesses it.

Wishing good holidays to all,


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Scientific women

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Welcome back from summer! It's lovely to hear from you, and to get a glimpse of the goings-on at the National Book Festival.

You asked whether Harry Potter has made an appearance in Eleanor's life. It's interesting: several of her friends and 3rd-grade classmates have gotten very into the books, but Eleanor is holding off. Twice, she's tried starting to read the first book on her own, and each time she has stopped because she feels like it's "too scary." This from a girl who within the last year devoured all of Percy Jackson, and is two-thirds of the way through the Books of Beginning, both series which include great violence, battles, magic, and end-of-the-universe stakes. And yet there's something about Harry that she doesn't feel ready for. As we've discussed in person and you've mentioned on the blog, there's a lot of material in the later Harry Potter books that isn't really appropriate for elementary-age kids, so I'm fine with Eleanor waiting until the books click for her. I've thought about beginning it as a read-aloud, but right now most of our read-aloud time also includes Isabel, and I don't really want to start Harry Potter with an almost-6-year-old.... Ah, well. Thankfully, there's plenty of time for reading and rereading.

Isabel has started out her first-grade year by declaring that she wants to become a rock star, and that her favorite subject is science. As if by magic, two of your recent gifts chronicle female scientists who became rock stars in their fields. Both books have become huge hits over here.

The Tree Lady, by H. Joseph Hopkins, is a picture book chronicling the life and times of Kate Sessions, the scientist and tree hunter who brought trees to the desert climate of San Diego in the early 1900s.

On each page, Hopkins positions Kate as an exception to the rules of her world:

Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in the woods of Northern California. She gathered leaves from oaks and elms. She collected needles from pines and redwoods. And she braided them together with flowers to make necklaces and bracelets.

It was the 1860s, and girls from Kate's side of town weren't supposed to get their hands dirty. 

But Kate did.


When Kate grew up, she left home to study science in college. She looked at soil and insects through a microscope. She learned how plants made food and how they drank water. And she studied trees from around the world.

No woman had ever graduated from the University of California with a degree in science.

But in 1881, Kate did.

A nice proud feminist vibe throughout!

The illustrations, by Jill McElmurry, are beautifully specific: pictures of plant cells, specific (labeled!) types of leaves and desert trees, a real sense of the desert climate in the San Diego scenes.

There's enough of a story here to make it interesting, and enough scientific detail to encourage questions and further investigation.

The graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks, gets far deeper into the complexities and triumphs of scientific research. This is a book you can get lost in.

Primates provides a clear and well-dramatized introduction to the work and lives of these three primatologists, the first to live with and study primates for years in their natural habitats: Goodall with chimpanzees, Fossey with mountain gorillas, and Galdikas with orangutans. Each woman tells her own story in first-person, and in her own font and color, which helps keep the voices distinct. There are similarities in the stories, but the very different personalities of the researchers come through well.

The fourth voice in the book is that of Louis Leakey, the anthropologist and archeologist who gave all three women their start. He believed that women were better-suited to this kind of work: more patient, more observant. Through Leakey, the three women meet each other, so there are some nice moments of crossover.

Ottaviani and Wicks don't romanticize the details of living in the bush. You get a real sense throughout of the difficulties and privations of each woman's chosen career: leeches, trekking through forest, sitting for hours, days, weeks in observation. All three come across as passionate and unconventionally brilliant, deeply dedicated to the animals and their land.

While non-kid-friendly details are alluded to in the book -- Louis Leakey's womanizing, Dian Fossey's murder -- the stories are kept age-appropriate. It feels to me like a book that will deepen with rereading as you learn more about each woman's life from other sources.

I think that Isabel responds to the fierce determination of the women depicted here: their focus and refusal to be put off. I have a feeling there are more animals in her future.

Love, Annie

Saturday, September 12, 2015

National Book Festival

Dear Annie,

I spent last Saturday at the National Book Festival, which now takes place in a huge convention center and not in the circus-like tents it formally occupied on the National Mall.  Worse ambience now, but better climate control.

The day felt like a series of meditations on the theme, "Why write?"  First up was Kwame Alexander, who won the Newbery Medal this year for his novel-in-poetry,
The Crossover
"There's no such thing as a reluctant reader," he said, only someone who hasn't found what they want to read (a man after my own heart).  His own discovery of poetry at age 12 connected him more intensely to the written word.  He talked about poetry, because of its economy of language, as a basic building block, one from which the reader can move on to other genres.  When children are small, he said, they love poetry -- Seuss, Silverstein.  "My goal [in writing] is to bring back that love."  Start with poetry, he says, and other kinds of reading will follow.

For others, it has to do with the author's need to write.  The person who introduced Libba Bray, author of a slew of hugely popular YA novels, many of them historical/magical, quoted from her website bio:
Three weeks after high school graduation, I had a serious car accident. I demolished my face and lost my left eye. ... It took many years to put me back together again, but most of the pieces seem to be in the right places, and anyway, that’s when I discovered how powerful writing can be, because writing everything down kept me alive. This is how I know that writing can save your life. ... Should you ever find yourself in a bad, hopeless place, please know that you can write your way out of something that feels completely unwinnable and into something better and, just possibly, into something wonderful.
El Deafo
Cece Bell, author of El Deafo, came with the clunky hearing aid which was central to the book and strapped it on herself (still fits: she's a small woman).  A strong contrast to the two small aids she now wears behind each ear, which she removed to show us.

She talked a lot about how uncomfortable she had been with deafness, not identifying with other deaf kids when she was growing up.  A child in the audience asked how it felt to write about herself.  "It was terrifying to write an autobiography." she said.  "I live in a hearing world.  I was terrified I would offend others who are deaf."   The result of taking the risk and writing about herself, though, brought a profound result:  deaf people reacted to her account, she met more members of the deaf community than she ever had.  "I've made new friends who are deaf.  It's been a great ride," she said, with a trace of tears in her eyes.  Writing about her isolation led to new connections.

Books as a connection among people came up frequently at the festival.  I spent some time listening to kids who had won writing contests read their essays.  Allison Templeton, a winner in the "A Book That Shaped Me" contest, credited the Harry Potter series with staving off loneliness. She wrote about changing schools in fourth grade, and finding new classmates who were also reading the series.  The most important thing, though, was how the books kept an old friendship going:
Without the same teachers, classes, or even friends in common any more, we turned to Harry Potter as a topic of conversation.  We spent hours debating whether Professor Snape was good or evil.  We laughed about Fred and George Weasley's funny sayings.  Being able to discuss our favorite characters, our emotions while reading and predictions about what would happen next helped hold our friendship together.
Anyone who was of reading age when the books first came out will recognize this behavior.  For an earlier generation, Harry Potter was a mass phenomenon.  It makes me happy to see that Harry provides the same connections -- of immersion, anticipation, speculation -- on a smaller scale for succeeding generations.

How does your family feel about Harry Potter?  Does Eleanor have interest in reading the books?



Friday, July 31, 2015

Read it again, Mom

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Yet again, you've provided me with a treasure trove of titles to add to my own YA reading list. I have a feeling Eleanor will be getting to these stories of responding to adversity as well, fairly soon.

An interesting thing has happened in my reading with Eleanor over the last few months. We have always managed to carve out reading time for the two of us alone, time for the longer chapter books that Eleanor has had the interest in and stamina for since she was quite young. For almost five years, the books I read to her during this time were books above her reading level -- books she quite literally could not read on her own. As her reading level has skyrocketed, I knew this was going to change.

There are a shrinking number of age-appropriate books that Eleanor is interested in and can't read to herself -- we're pretty much down to Anne of Green Gables and its ilk. This summer, I bought her 26 E. Nesbit novels for 99 cents on a Kindle, and she's read about half of them already. I started Caddie Woodlawn with her recently, hoping to read that together, but she took it to bed with her and finished it that night.

Which is the other problem: reading on her own, Eleanor can finish a thick novel far, far faster than she and I can read one together. Our reading time is limited to early mornings and stolen afternoons; her solo time, especially over the summer, is almost endless.

The result? Eleanor will read a book to herself, sometimes even re-read it alone, and then ask me to read it aloud to her. Our last three read-alouds have been books she has read on her own, but I haven't yet read.

This leads to a major role-reversal: it's Eleanor who knows the plot of the story, where the climax is coming, what's going to happen to the characters. She's read the ending. I'm reading it cold, trying to fend off her hints and reveals (she's terrible about spoilers), and sometimes surprising her when I guess which way the plot is going to go, based on my own years of reading.

What is it that makes Eleanor choose some books and not others as read-alouds post-solo-read? (I need a name for these: read-agains?) I think part of it is that they're books with characters and subject matter she wants to talk about in more depth. She races through books so fast that sometimes Jeff and I wonder how much detail she's retaining, and how many words she might be skipping over (though her vocabulary grows by leaps and bounds each month). Read-alouds are a way to slow things down.

The first books Eleanor chose as read-agains were the Penderwick series, which you wrote about here as a series to follow Harry Potter, and I wrote about here when Eleanor asked me to read it aloud a few months back. We've now done the second and third Penderwick books as read-agains, and the fourth book (which Eleanor read in one day when we took it out from the library) is next on our list. There's nothing too disturbing about the Penderwicks, but there are some fairly adult emotional themes that reading aloud has given us the chance to discuss. The Penderwicks' mother dies of cancer before the beginning of the series, just after the birth of the youngest daughter, and dealing with her loss is a theme that runs throughout the books. Jeffrey, the boy befriended by the Penderwicks in the first book, has never known who his father is. In book 3, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, he and his father discover each other, and their reactions are complex -- there's a lot of anger and hurt along with the joy of discovery, which Eleanor wanted to talk through.

Our most recent read-again was The Emerald Atlas, the first book in John Stephens's trilogy The Books of Beginning. This is high fantasy: dark magic, time travel, dwarves, wizards, a quest to save the world from a deeply evil power. The heroes are siblings Kate, Michael, and Emma, who were separated from their parents as small children and have moved from orphanage to orphanage for ten years when the story begins. Over the course of the novel, they discover that each of them has a special, prophesied connection to one of three Books of Beginning, which together contain magic which can create and destroy worlds. The Emerald Atlas, which imprints 14-year-old Kate, allows its possessor to move through time. It's a gripping, well-written book, and the siblings emerge as realistic and likable characters -- I want to get to know them better.

Isabel moved in and out of this read-aloud -- some parts of it are quite scary, and much of the plot revolves around all the children of a town being separated from their parents and under threat of death. Eleanor often reacts strongly (and loudly) to suspense. But because she had read the book already, Eleanor was able to reassure Isabel (and me) that all of the main characters were going to be okay. Reading it first gave her this power.

I'm tempted to pick up the fourth Penderwicks book on my own, to finish The Books of Beginning myself after I've put the kids to bed -- I want to know what happens next! But I'm also loving this new reader's role my oldest child has placed me in. It's a good summer for surprises.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bad things happening

Dear Annie,

I love your Summer Reading post.  The pick-up-a-book-for-yourself line to grown-ups was a lovely reminder at the end.

I would add one other element in helping one's children be engaged with reading: give them space.  Unscheduled time when they can curl up with a book or play in other ways helps kids to find their own pace, including the most satisfying times to read, and for how long.  And limiting screen time for the entire family will help everyone to engage more with books and each other.  Just as kids benefit from seeing parents read, it helps them to see parents who don't need to be constantly plugged in.  NY Times column on this last week.

I had a lovely challenge from a mom the other day.  I often speak with parents who are looking for books with action and adventure, but nothing scary.  There are lots of concerns out there about kids' fear thresholds.  And many parents recoil from books in which the mother is dead.  But this mom said, "My daughter wants books where bad things happen."  The girl was 10, and it turned out she wasn't looking for unalleviated tragedy.  It was more wanting a plot driven by some form of adversity.  I offered a lot of books, most of which the girl had already read, but the process of applying her Bad Things standard to familiar stories gave me fresh eyes.

She wanted neither historical fiction nor fantasy.

Books which fit into the definition, but which she'd read already:

Counting by 7s
by Holly Sloan: Both parents are killed in an accident in the first chapter.  The book is about the odd and endearing main character's quest to find people with whom she can belong.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio: Spectacular book about a boy with severe facial deformities. Link is to blog entry singing its praises.

Out of My Mind
by Sharon Draper: Spectacular book about a girl with cerebral palsy who can't communicate.

by Cynthia Lord: Girl grappling with her relationship to her autistic brother.

Rain Reign by Ann Martin: Girl on autism spectrum who finds and loses a dog.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech: Girl sets off in search of her missing mother (at that point, I was searchng for dead-mother books).

All of these books are basically optimistic stories which affirm the goodness of human nature.  But in order to get to that conclusion, bad stuff has to happen.  This girl wanting bad things is, I think, a step in becoming a more mature reader.  If bad stuff happens -- we're talking about kids' books here -- the journey to resolution is bound to follow.  Which makes for a more interesting and also more emotionally complex read.

The winners were:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.  Set in what is now South Sudan, it's the grimmest of the list.  The book alternates chapters about a fictional girl who must walk 8 hours a day to bring water to her family, and a real boy who was one of Sudan's Lost Boys, displaced by war.  The fictional character and the real guy meet at the end of the book.

Anything But Typical
, by Nora Raleigh Baskin.  Like two of the books above, this one features a kid on the autism spectrum.  He befriends a "neurotypical" girl through a kids' online site, then panics when he's presented with the opportunity to meet her in person, afraid that she'll see only his difference.

Love, Ruby Lavender
by Deborah Wiles.  A delightful, often-epistolary novel about the relationship between a small-town girl and her grandmother.  During the course of the book, the circumstances of the grandfather's death come to light.

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay: Well, I just love it.  And Saffy is dealing with the pain of not having known for 8 years that her birth mother had died when she was little, leaving her to be raised as a sibling among her cousins.

by Sharon Creech.  A girl who really really doesn't want to go is sent to a Swiss boarding school, in the midst of kids very different from her.

Things I should have offered:

The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis.  A black family goes from Michigan to Birmingham, arriving just before the church bombing.  It has a lot of grim intensity, but also wonderful characters and hilarious moments.

The Search for Baby Ruby
, by Susan Shreve.  Baby is kidnapped while being babysat in a hotel by her teenage aunt -- much family drama.

I didn't try the concept of action thrillers: books where bad things are perpetrated by villains, the CIA, or enemies of the CIA.  I don't think they would have had the emotional depth she was going for.

Now I'm longing for the mom -- or preferably the mom and the daughter -- to come back so I can see where she'll be heading from here.



Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to support your kid's summer reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Summer! A little later than much of the rest of the country, we here in New York are finally done with the school year, and ready for the mix of camps, playgrounds, travel, and crushing humidity that awaits us. Of course, there's also summer reading.

Ah, summer reading. That list you get from your kid's school of a variety of titles suggested -- or required -- to be read over vacation in order to prevent a summer slide in reading skills. The list that promises nagging, nudging, even bribing to get your kid to read. The list that threatens to make reading feel like homework, something to be avoided all summer long.

It doesn't have to be this way.

As a teacher and as a mom, I've spent a lot of time over the last 15 years thinking about what makes kids want to read. Our whole blog is based on the idea that if you surround kids with books, read to them regularly, and help them find the books that will spark their interest and deepen their passions, they will become readers. Summer reading can be a positive part of this. Here are a few suggestions on how to make it work for your whole family:

Let your kid choose what to read.
Many summer reading lists are actually "suggested summer reading" lists. If your child's school encourages reading over the summer, but doesn't require that students read books strictly from the list, branch out! Use the list as a jumping-off point, but look for other lists as well (we have a few good ones over there on the right side of this page, like this for middle-grade readers, and this for YA). Find out what your kid's friends are reading, and pick up some of those books, or do a book swap. Browse libraries and bookstores. Think about your kid's interests, and look together for books that will support and deepen those interests.

If your child's school requires that students read a selection of books from the summer reading list, help your child "interview" the books in order to choose which ones to read. That is, teach your child what adult readers do when deciding whether or not to read a book: look at the cover, read the back cover or jacket flap, open up the book and read a few pages, look up book reviews. Learn a little bit about each of the books before making a decision. And let your kid be the one who makes that decision.

Let your kid read books s/he loves, even if you don't love them.
There's a lot of talk these days in education about helping students find "just right" books: books that they enjoy and are able to understand independently. The more kids enjoy reading, the more they will read. The more they read, the better readers they'll become. As they become better readers, they will naturally want to find books that are a little more challenging -- but challenge isn't something you need to push for during the summer. (Think about what you choose for your own beach reads.) The most important thing is that your kid is reading something s/he wants to read. Is it a comic book or graphic novel? There's a lot to be said for the joy of text combined with visuals. Is it an endless series you find totally drekky? Well, at least you don't have to read it to your kid out loud.

Make choosing a book feel like a special event.
Plan trips to your local library. Before you go, do some digging: find titles and authors you're going to look for. Look books up online and put in a hold request. I've downloaded the Brooklyn Public Library app onto my phone, and now all three of my kids know that they can ask me to put something on my hold list at any time. They love looking at book cover images on the phone, and the excitement when a book they've requested arrives is huge. There it is on the hold shelf, with their last name on the spine in bold letters, waiting especially for them. Browsing in the library can also yield terrific finds, but it's good to go in with a plan.

Plan trips to your local independent bookstore. Again, make a list of titles and authors you're looking for, and call ahead if there's something you want to order in. Booksellers can have great suggestions, and there's nothing like browsing through shelves of brand-new books.

Read aloud to your kid.
Along with your child's independent reading this summer, choose books to read together. This might be a place for you to introduce some of your own childhood favorites, possibly books that are written a little above the level your child can read on his or her own. Recently, Eleanor has been asking me to read aloud chapter books that she's already read on her own. Sometimes this means that she knows the plot before I do, which she clearly enjoys; often I think the re-reading allows her to process more deeply what she sped through the first time. Reading aloud is warm quality time, and can lead to wonderful conversations.

Pick up a book for yourself.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to help your child with summer reading is to pick out some good summer reading for yourself. Talk to your kid about what you're reading, and why you chose it. Let your kid see you reading -- it's the purest kind of modeling.

Of course, none of these ideas are limited to summer use -- they're good year-round. Happy reading!

Love, Annie

Friday, June 12, 2015

Redefining Dork

Dear Aunt Debbie,

And then there are the books that your kid loves and you hate.

Over the last couple of months, as we read The Penderwicks together each morning and Eleanor encouraged me to make The Marvelous Land of Oz our next bedtime chapter book with Isabel, she has also continued her own voracious independent reading habits. At school, she exhausted her own 2nd-grade classroom library, and wrangled herself permission to go book-shopping in a 3rd-grade classroom (with a teacher known for her love of books). At home, Eleanor provides me with a constantly updated list of titles she wants to take out from the library (thank heavens for the public library!), and we cart them back and forth to our local branch.

The series that has risen to the top of the library list most recently is Rachel Renée Russell's Dork Diaries. I glanced at them as we brought them home: cartoony drawings, fake-handwriting font, lots of lines WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS!!!! Very tweeny feeling.

I had a sense that these were not going to be my new favorite books. Still, like you and Neil Gaiman in this 2013 lecture, I'm a big believer in letting kids read pretty much anything they want, at least if it's not wildly age-inappropriate and if they can read it to themselves without you getting involved. But I do like to keep tabs on what Eleanor is ingesting, so we can talk about it afterwards.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to sit down and read one of the Dork Diaries books: number 6, Tales from a Not-So Happy Heartbreaker. And wow. There is so much not to love.

The books are written as a series of diary entries of middle-schooler Nikki Maxwell, the "dork" of the title. Nikki has two best friends (sorry, "BFFs!!!"), a bratty younger sister, a perfect-boy crush, and a nemesis, MacKenzie: "a shark in lip gloss, skinny jeans, and platform heels." Pure evil. Nothing redeeming here.

What does dork mean, in this context? Apparently it means that Nikki sees herself as unpopular, second-guesses and self-censors her thoughts and actions, and pays extreme attention to every possible slight from the kids around her. Like Bella in Twilight and a host of other middle-grade and YA heroines, she's a girl who constantly talks about how uncool she is without noticing that the people around her all seem to like her. Her intense focus on her own flaws is accurate to the middle school state of mind, I suppose, but it's also not really what I want my daughter reading as she grows into those years.

As I read, then skimmed, through the book, I started thinking about the conversation I wanted to have with Eleanor. Not an "I hate your book choice, please stop reading this series" conversation -- as I've mentioned before, I read my share of Sweet Valley High and other gender-essentialist drek in my time -- but a "Hey, I read this book, and here's the thing I don't like so much about it, what do you think?" conversation.

One of the things that bothered me the most about Nikki was her self-censoring. There's a subplot throughout the book about Nikki needing to pass a swimming skills class, but being terribly afraid of sinking. She talks a lot about how she's going to fail, brings in flotation devices she's not allowed to use, almost drowns during an exercise, and then in the last chapter swims perfectly across the pool when she thinks there's a shark following her (it's a scuba fin). So apparently she could swim just fine the whole time.

At one point, Nikki dives in scuba gear:

"Sorry, Miss Maxwell," my teacher said. "But you're diving for plastic rings, NOT sunken treasure! No scuba gear is allowed!!"

Apparently, it was against the pool rules. But HOW was I supposed to know THAT?!

The only sign about rules I saw said...

1. NO running!
2. NO eating!
3. NO horseplay!
4. NO peeing in the pool!
5. NO float toys!

There was nothing on that list that said...


That's when I totally lost it and yelled at my teacher: "Sorry, lady, but I'm NOT some humpback whale capable of diving to the deepest, darkest, most dangerous depths of the pool. I NEED my mask, wet suit, regulator, tank, and scuba fins. Besides, the water is so deep my eyeballs could pop out. And I could die from decompression sickness.

"Worse yet, YOU didn't even bother to have an ambulance here just in case I needed to be rushed to the hospital! So let me see YOU dive to the bottom of the pool without having a massive stroke or something!"

But I just said that in my head, so no one else heard it but me.

That diving skills test was SO unfair! I should definitely get a do-over!! I'm just sayin'!!

Whew. Good thing she didn't actually try to make a case to her teacher directly when she thought something wasn't fair. Much better to keep quiet and rant about it afterwards.

Walking Eleanor to the school bus yesterday morning, I opened the conversation. I told her I'd read the book, she asked what I thought, and I said I wasn't crazy about it. I focused on the way that Nikki talks about herself negatively, her lack of self-confidence, and how those things play into stereotypes about girls. Eleanor said, "Mom, I don't want to be like Nikki -- it's just a book!" and I said I knew that, but I wanted her to think a little bit about how Nikki talks about herself while she's reading. She agreed that it was weird that Nikki acted like no one likes her when they clearly do. And then the bus came, and she got on, with another couple of books tucked into her backpack. So much more to take in, so much more to process.

Love, Annie

Friday, May 15, 2015

Roller Girl!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your latest gift may have changed the course of our lives. Thanks to you, and thanks to graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson, we spent last Saturday evening watching the Brooklyn Bombshells battle the Bronx Gridlock, rooting for Hela Skelter, Sexy Slaydie, and Squid Vicious.

We're on our way to getting deeply hooked by roller derby, and here I'm holding up the reason why:

Roller Girl, Jamieson's first graphic novel, is the newest addition to our Must Have Graphic Novel shelf, which also houses Bone, Zita the Spacegirl, The Olympians, Sisters, and Smile

The heroine here is 12-year-old Astrid, in Portland, OR, the summer before junior high school. Astrid falls in love with roller derby after her mom takes her and her best friend Nicole to a game. Though she can't skate, she signs up for junior derby camp over the summer, assuming that Nicole will sign up with her. When Nicole chooses dance camp with a friend Astrid hates, Astrid finds herself going it alone -- working hard to become a decent skater, pushing herself intensely, and working through all of the complex friend-breakup feelings that so often come with junior high. 
Before reading the book, I had only the dimmest notion of what roller derby was. Jamieson -- a derby player herself; she skates for the Rose City Rollers under the name Winnie the Pow -- explains the basic rules clearly at the outset, and weaves in more information throughout the storyline.

When we got to the game last Saturday, both Eleanor and Isabel were immediately able to identify not only blockers and jammers, but several moves by name: "Look, pivot turns!" The technical detail, presented smoothly as part of the story, is one of the book's big pluses.

Astrid's sports success narrative is another. While her story follows the basic plotline we've all seen before in movies and books (start out a newbie, train hard, weather disappointment, keep training, play in a big exciting game at the end), what I loved here is that Astrid is initially really bad at skating, and that she toughs it out. Her stubbornness and at some points real burning anger are part of what give her the strength to get good, and when she gets good, she's still, realistically, not all that good. She feels like a real 12-year-old, all the way through.

And more things to love: Astrid is the only child of a single mom who regularly takes her and Nicole out for Evenings of Cultural Enlightenment (roller derby is one). The single mom status isn't the story -- there's no mention of Astrid's father, and she and her mom are just presented as a family without further comment. 

Perhaps most of all, there are the warmth and humor that go hand in hand with the celebration of female toughness. Derby names are an art form, punning and tongue in cheek. In the book, Astrid's idol is named Rainbow Bite, and her coaches are Heidi Go Seek and Napoleon Blownapart. At the game we went to on Saturday, one of the players called herself Davy Blockit, and did her first laps around the track with a coonskin cap before putting on her helmet for the game. Of course, the kids came up with their own names after reading the book: Eleanor chose Conan the Librarian, Isabel went with Twisted Sister, and Ian with Freakachu.

There are lots of tattoos in roller derby, much dyed hair (hair dyeing plays a big part in Astrid's plot, too), and a general sense of campy fun. And there is deep heart. Roller derby in its current incarnation has deep ties in the LGBT community; on Saturday, derby players all over the country wore warmup jerseys reading "Do It for 57," a reference to the suicide of a 15-year-old transexual derby player who killed himself because of bullying.

Both Eleanor and Isabel finished reading the book and immediately declared that they wanted to join junior derby. Gotham Girls, the New York derby league, has a junior derby team, and they take girls as young as 8. After watching the junior derby play at halftime on Saturday (my favorite names there: Little Orphan Slammie and Smacklemore), we're starting to do the research to sign Eleanor up. If it works out, I'd be proud to be a derby mom.

Love, Annie

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Exiles: so much better than the cover!

Dear Annie,

Spring is finally arriving, but it's fall book ordering season in my world.  I've been reading lots of books about Santa and dreidels the past few weeks.  By chance, in the middle of all that, I discovered that a book that I'd believed to be long out of print is alive and well.  Well, but cursed with what may be The Worst Cover Ever for a children's book.

The Exiles is another four-sister book, this one by Hilary McKay, author of the wonderful Saffy's Angel and sequels.  Even more than Saffy, this one is all in the characters.  The Conroy sisters are sent to the seaside for the summer to live with their grandmother while the parents renovate their house.  The two older sisters (Naomi and Ruth) find it difficult to do anything but read books constantly; the younger two (Phoebe and Rachel) love a good book, but also manage some imaginative mischief. 

Their grandmother -- called by all Big Grandma -- puts them on a regimen of outdoor activities, chores, and no books.  The girls are not enthusiastic.
There were plenty of reasons why she should be called Big Grandma.  For a start she was very tall and muscly, and she ate a lot.  Also, she wore men's pajamas and drank whiskey at bedtime.  In a lot of ways she was huge.  Her house was very big, too; even the toilet was higher than ordinary people's toilets.  It had a wooden seat which always felt warm, and by Monday morning Naomi had decided that the only thing she really liked about Big Grandma's house was the toilet seat.
Big Grandma sees the girls' escape into reading as anti-social, and she's determined that they find other ways to engage themselves.  Slowly, of course, they all adapt to country life even as they resist it.
All by herself Phoebe [age 6] had acquired a new hobby.  It was her own invention.  Nobody had helped her, nobody but Phoebe would even have thought of it.  You filled a bucket with water, tied a bit of string on the end of a stick, held the stick over the water, and there you were.  Fishing in a bucket.  The total hopelessness of the activity was very soothing.  It was the perfect sport.  Without the emotional stresses of success and failure, she was entirely free to enjoy the pleasure of the moment. 
After a hike in which she is immobilized by fear of heights, Naomi (11) sneaks back to the high spot, willing herself to overcome the fear, and falls and breaks her arm.  She trudges back to the house and the swirl of breakfast conversation around her as she repeats four times, "I've broken my arm" before she is heard, distills the chaos of the family.  The reader feels her pain, but still has to laugh.

McKay creates completely believable characters all of whom can be intensely annoying and yet children one would want as friends.  The sisters' constant search for reading material -- cookbooks are read and re-read, Shakespeare is the only volume that's rejected -- continues through the summer.  Slowly the reader takes in that it's all a grand plan on Big Grandma's part. 

Big Grandma becomes more likable, but maintains her crusty aspects.  The night after Naomi breaks her arm, Big Grandma sleeps in her room:
  "D'you mind if I put the light on and read?"
  "Very much indeed," said Big Grandma.  "Try counting sheep jumping over a gate."
  "I don't know what sheep look like jumping over a gate.  I didn't know they could jump."
  "Try it."
   Naomi tried it for a few minutes.  "They keep bashing their knees," she said eventually.  "Big Grandma?"
  Big Grandma dragged herself awake again.
  "D'you think this house is haunted?  Ruth does."
  Big Grandma made an enormous concession, recognizing that if Naomi did not have something to take her mind off her broken arm she was quite liable to lie awake and talk all night.
  "I suppose it might be a little bit haunted!"
  "Is it?"
  "Perhaps a bit," repeated Big Grandma grudgingly.  "In a manner of speaking.  A rather flamboyant manner of speaking, and not strictly true."
It's a delightful book, and a perfect summertime read.



Friday, April 3, 2015

Heroines of the month: Penderwicks, Clementine, and Frances

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We're coming out of a rough March, which culminated in a stomach flu that decimated Isabel's kindergarten class and knocked us for a loop. Through it all, we've continued to read up a storm. All three kids have gravitated recently towards reading and rereading of books with terrific, spunky heroines.

It's funny you should mention The Penderwicks in your last post. I tried reading it to Eleanor a couple of years ago, when she was still too young for it, then finished it myself and thought, eh, as you did. But Eleanor read it on her own last month, and liked it so much she asked me to read it to her again as a read-aloud. It's growing on me this time through. I like the variety in the characters of the sisters, who are Little Women-ish in some respects: Rosalind, the oldest, has a mothering/romantic Meg vibe; Skye, the second, is the rebellious one, and the one I suspect is author Jeanne Birdsall's favorite. But there the similarities begin to break down: it's Jane, the third daughter, who is the writer in the family, while Skye prefers to do math, and both are terrific soccer players. Batty, the youngest, is an animal-lover and wears butterfly wings everywhere. We've just gotten the second and third books from the library; I think we're hooked.

Isabel has for the first time found a non-graphic novel chapter book series she wants to read straight through: Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker. These books have just the right combination of elementary school suspense and relief. What will happen when Clementine cuts off her friend's hair (at her request) and then her own (to match) and colors both of their heads with marker? What will happen when she sells items that people in her building have given to charity back to other people in her building to earn money for a present for her mom?

Pennypacker's quirky sense of humor first jived with Isabel when you sent us The Amazing World of Stuart, and continues here. We never learn Clementine's little brother's name, because she refers to him by the name of a different vegetable every time he's mentioned (she got stuck with a fruit name, so why didn't he get a vegetable name to match?). In one book, Clementine goes on a shopping trip to an Asian grocer to look for new vegetable names: Mung Bean Sprout, Bok Choy. Clementine is a terrific artist, can do advanced math problems in her head, and really doesn't like pointy things. As a parent, I appreciate her family as well: Mom is an artist who wears overalls and tolerates a good amount of mess; Dad is the super of their apartment building in Boston, and they have a sweet, affectionate relationship with each other and their kids that reminds me of Anastasia's parents in Lois Lowry's series. Isabel's favorite so far is The Talented Clementine, which focuses on a talent show and Clementine's fear of having no stage-worthy talent. We have not been allowed to return any of these to the library, and our library shelf is pretty much glowing orange.

Finally, what does Will want every day? The Frances books! I wouldn't have picked these fairly long picture books for a two-year-old, but this is the kind of happy discovery that you get to make when your house is full of books for kids of all different ages at once. Will doesn't say "Frances," but refers to each of her books as "My book." (In the case of A Baby Sister for Frances, it's "My baby book.") He asks for them every day, morning, afternoon, and night. I think I could probably recite all of A Birthday for Frances from memory, and that is not a short book. I'm not sure how much of the story he's getting -- mostly, he likes to point to the characters and name them, and refer to any character who's shown smaller in the distance as "baby" -- but he wants us to read them, cover to cover.

We have read our four Frances books so many times over the last month that I went ahead and added a fifth to our bookshelves: Best Friends for Frances. My dim memory of the book was that it was about kids excluding each other because of gender, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to bring that idea into the house. Happily, the way Russell and Lillian Hoban handle the issue is lovely. Frances's best friend Albert does exclude her, first to walk around by himself and catch frogs and snakes, which she doesn't know how to do, and then to play baseball with another boy, who says it's a "boys only game." What I'd forgotten is that the story is largely about Frances realizing she can be best friends with her little sister Gloria. It turns out that Gloria knows how to catch frogs, and wants to play baseball, and the two of them get together a giant picnic and bring along two frogs in a jar, for frog races. The picnic basket attracts Albert, who realizes the error of his ways, and everyone ends up playing baseball together. The moral: anyone can be a best friend, even sisters. I'll confess that I've read the book a little louder, hoping my girls would hear it, too.

Love, Annie

Saturday, March 21, 2015

After Harry Potter: good (and different) books

Dear Annie,

Funny you should be writing about the BabyLit books now.  Just last week a customer came in saying her 6 year-old insisted on being Anna Karenina for Book Character Day because she loved reading Will's favorite BabyLit book to her baby sister.  Go figure.

Hi, I'm back from a hiatus of sorts.  The always-interesting Cyd has sent us a question I couldn't resist.  Rebekah -- 7 years old?  almost 8? -- plowed through all of Harry Potter recently.  So Cyd wants to know:
...what to read next?  What can I give her that won't feel like a huge let-down after those enormous HP volumes, that fully realized world? It doesn't need to be fantasy - in fact, she's not particularly into fantasy - but I want something just as rich. I think of some of the things I loved at her age - Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, - but they feel so much less compared to HP. I think she's a little young for Cynthia Voigt; I have read her all of Frances Hodgson Burnett; I have read her all (yes, ALL) of Louisa May Alcott; I am reading her much of L.M. Montgomery. She really likes historical fiction and for Hanukkah I bought her a 30-volume set of My Story books, which is the British version of the My America books (which she had already ripped her way through), and they are decent books but they're not Harry.
When one's child is doing amazing things -- in reading or any other endeavor -- she doesn't have to have a steady diet of the same kind of amazing.  Just as adults vary what they read, kids like to do that too.  As you know, we read the unabridged Les Miserables to Lizzie (at her insistence) when she was in second grade.  The following year she fell in love with the Animorphs series and charged through about 12 of them before abruptly dropping them and moving on to other things that I'm sure her parents liked better.  Variety is a great thing in all our lives.

So Cyd, I'm interpreting your query as looking for good stuff Rebekah can immerse herself in next.  So here are a bunch of authors worth sampling.

These four, like J.K. Rowling, wrote series in which one returns to beloved characters in successive books, seeing how they're growing up and their worlds are changing.

Hilary McKay wrote Saffy's Angel and its sequels.  Plots and themes abound in these books, but what makes them special is the four children of the eccentric Casson family.  One goes on to book after book to find out how these friends are doing.

When it came out, I wasn't immediately taken with Jeanne Birdsall's
The Penderwicks
.  It felt like it was trying a little to hard to have an old-fashioned feel: a family of four girls (oh. you probably already know this one, Cyd) having wholesome adventures on summer vacation while still missing their dead mother.  But talking with kids over the years, and seeing how many come back for the sequels -- #4 is due out on Tuesday -- has changed my mind.  I gave an advance copy of the book to a wonderful family one of whose children dressed at The Penderwicks: the book for Halloween.  They talked with me about the excitement of opening the book and catching up with the characters, who are now old friends.  It sounded so much like our family's experience with the Harry Potter books -- it was really moving.

Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time and sequels has more of what Cyd calls the "fully realized world."  You did a lovely blog on them here.

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books feature children from three different families who have summertime adventures in England and Scotland in the 1930s.  They have everything to do with kids and boats and elaborate games of imagination.

I would encourage Cyd and Rebekah to pick up E. Nesbit and Edward Eager again.  They're both delightful, and they spend a lot of time -- with a heavy dose of humor -- on siblings in large families.  Eleanor loved the Half Magic series almost four years ago, but if she were to revisit those books now, she'd get lots more out of them.  Just as Rebekah may end up with the thrill of discovery all over again if she picks up Harry Potter when she's 12.  E. Nesbit is viewed as a seminal writer of 20th century children's literature because she wrote about realistic relationships among family members.  My favorite of her magical books is Five Children and It, in which everything that can go wrong with a wish does.  But the one our entire family loved best was
The Railway Children
, the story of city children who move with their mother to the countryside after their father is falsely accused of spying.

The Prydain Chronicles -- starting with The Book of Three -- by Lloyd Alexander could be a lot of fun for  Rebekah.  They're loosely based on Welsh mythology.  Harry Potter incorporates elements of lots of mythology of the British Isles -- she might find some familiar stories.  The current Book of Three paperback has a scary image that I've found turns some kids off.  The book isn't as creepy as the picture.

And while we're adventuring, don't forget Robert Louis Stevenson.  Treasure Island is still a great read.

Moving closer to the twenty-first century, I suspect Rebekah would connect with Sharon Creech's books.  Walk Two Moons is her best-known, and spectacular -- it has a lot to do with characters telling each other stories.  Mona and Lizzie's favorite was Bloomability, about a lower-middle class girl who ends up in a Swiss boarding school for a year, completely out of her element, and figures out what's important in people and in life.

 And last, there's some contemporary historical fiction.  Has Rebekah tried any books by Karen Cushman yet?  Here's a complete list: most of them are set in medieval or Elizabethan times.  She's probably best known for The Midwife's Apprentice, which won a Newbery medal.  Most of her main  characters are children who have been rejected by the people who should be caring for them.  They learn to make their own way in the world, often with the help/supervision of unlikely adults.

I hope there are some surprises in this list.  Enjoy!



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cute for grownups -- but also for kids?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Among the many kinds of board books out there in the world, one of my least favorite has always been the Cute for Grownups board book. You know the kind I mean: books which feel like they were written to be marketed to the hip friends of new parents who will pick them up at the counter of a trendy gift shop on their way to a baby shower. These are the books that a browsing shopper might find chuckle-worthy in the moment, but they're not really for children.

I'm talking about titles like the Baby Be of Use series, or the nine book series which started with
Urban Babies Wear Black
. And of course there's Go the Fuck to Sleep, which made the rounds a few years ago, and for which you had much less patience than I.

I've been given a few of these types of books over the years, and have quietly deep-sixed them before having to run the risk that a child will get attached to one and I'll have to read it aloud twelve thousand times while feeling vaguely annoyed.

So when my mother (your sister, and generally a terrific judge of children's literature) bought us a board book version of Anna Karenina, I was skeptical.

In the BabyLit series -- of course it's a series -- Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver reimagine a number of classic works of literature as concept board books. Anna Karenina is "A Fashion Primer," and introduces dress and accessories vocabulary; Wuthering Heights is "A Weather Primer," using direct quotes to illustrate the various kinds of weather Heathcliff and Catherine are exposed to ("Breezy," "Stormy"); Frankenstein is an "Anatomy Primer."

Despite my misgivings, Will fell in love with Anna Karenina immediately. I think the attraction resides in part in Oliver's illustrations, which are attractively blocky and colorful. Will's love of dress-up, which he shares with his older sisters, may also play a part.

In the last year, I've read a number of the BabyLit titles in stores and at friends' houses (suddenly, they're everywhere!). I've found them a little uneven in quality -- some are spot-on, both funny for the grownups reading them and interesting for the kids, some less so.

Hands down, my favorite is Pride and Prejudice: A Counting Primer. Here's the entire text, with a couple of illustrated pages to give you the flavor:

1 English village
2 rich gentlemen
3 houses
4 marriage proposals

5 sisters
6 horses
7 soldiers in uniform
8 musicians
9 fancy ballgowns (this is Eleanor and Isabel's favorite page)
10 10,000 pounds

When I got to 10 the first time I read it, I laughed out loud.

Have I been bamboozled by the hip nerd feel of these books? Are they just as obnoxious as the other Cute for Grownups books I've eschewed over the years? They feel different in character to me, but I'm willing to hear an argument. What's your take on this genre?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Dear Aunt Debbie,

Suddenly, Isabel can read.

Of course, it isn't sudden at all: we've been reading together for more than five years, pretty much since the day she was born. She's been "reading" on her own for quite some time as well, poring over picture books and graphic novels, staying up on weekend nights with her own reading light and our copy of Smile or one of the Olympians books while Eleanor whizzes through another chapter book in the bunk above and Will sings to his stuffed animals.

But, like Eleanor when she was first learning to read, Isabel has been resistant to reading out loud at home. Her fabulous kindergarten teacher sends her home every night with a book baggie containing a small pile of early readers. As part of her homework, she's supposed to read these books aloud to an adult, and practice the sight words taped to the baggie.

Cue the misery: resistance to reading aloud, complete resistance to trying to sound out any word she didn't know (or hadn't memorized). Book baggie evenings often culminated in hysterical wild guesses and dissolving onto the living room floor in boneless refusal. Needless to say, we weren't doing this every night. The level of the readers Isabel was bringing home (first A and B, then C and D) was rising based on what her teacher saw at school, but we weren't seeing any difference in her reading at home.

A few weeks ago, I went in to meet with Isabel's teacher to talk about her reading. Ms. Mazor took me through Isabel's school work, showing me how Isabel has been telling stories: first in pictures, then through accompanying words, and in her latest story, writing the words first so that she could get them down, leaving space for the pictures to come later. The writing she showed me was dramatic and vivid, and her message was clear: silly mama, you have nothing to worry about here.

Here is Isabel's story of her own birth:

For Isabel, clearly, writing and reading are happening hand in hand. The comprehension is there, and the mechanics are catching up.

The week after this meeting, Isabel picked up a note I was sending in to her teacher and read it aloud. Then it was a couple of pages of P.D. Eastman's Go, Dog. Go! Then every other page of The Cat in the Hat.

On Sunday, we sat down with The Cat in the Hat and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and Isabel read 100 pages of Dr. Seuss in one sitting. (As our guest blogger/kindergarten teacher Clara noted when Eleanor was learning to read, some of those early readers are weirdly long.)

Her mom and her dad and her sister are so delighted.

Love, Annie