Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon (or, How I Tricked Maxwell into Reading a Book, Part 2)

Mar 30, 2016

Okay, so before you all think that I'm some extremely controlling mother who monitors every single word my children read, let me just defend myself by saying this: I am totally fine with letting my kids choose (some of) their own books. However, the library can be a very overwhelming place (I know that all too well myself), so if they don't have some sort of plan going in, they end up coming home with stuff that just sits untouched in the library basket because they weren't actually interested in reading it--they just wanted to choose something.

So, meanwhile, I choose my own books for them and then place them strategically around the house or make rather blatant suggestions. Sometimes it works, but, more often than I'd like to admit, it doesn't, and then I'm left with books like Dory Fantasmagory hanging out at our house for weeks until we finally use up all our library renewals and have to take them back.

After I read Dory and the Real True Friend for the Cybils, I went back and checked out the first one because I'd found the second one so funny and delightful. I thought for sure it was a book Max would like. So every time he was looking for something new to read, I'd say, "How about Dory?" You can imagine that it didn't take very many times before that got really old, like, "Really, Mom? Do you only have one book you can recommend?"

Finally, with it's due date looming, I decided to just read it myself. I was in between books at the time, waiting for some of my holds to come in at the library, and even if all my kids were rejecting Dory, that didn't mean I had to.

Within just a few pages, I was laughing . . . like, really laughing, out loud. I couldn't help myself. Dory's imagination is just too amazing. She's the youngest in her family and regularly gets left out of Violet and Luke's games. She usually doesn't mind because she has Mary, her imaginary monster, to play with, but sometimes she just really wants to be included. One day, in another attempt to get her to stop acting like a baby, Luke and Violet tell Dory about Mrs. Gobble Gracker, who is five hundred and seven years old and loves to steal baby girls. In fact, she's actually been looking for Dory.

Instead of being frightened into acting more mature, Dory is fascinated. Her head is buzzing with questions about Mrs. Gobble Gracker, and pretty soon, she is off on an adventure to defeat this evil opponent.

A couple of night after finishing it, the boys were getting ready to go to bed. We had just finished a chapter of Rascal, and Aaron and Max were trying to decide what they should each read in bed.

I decided to make one final attempt . . .

"So, I just read Dory, and it was so funny. I seriously could not stop laughing. Maybe you should try it."

"Really?" Max said suspiciously. "Why was it so funny?"

"Yeah," said Bradley. "Tell us about one of the funny parts."

"Okay," I said. And so I told them about the part where Dory goes to the doctor for a check-up, but she's disguised as a dog because she's trying to outsmart Mrs. Gobble Gracker. Her mom is trying to get her out the door so they'll make their appointment on time. She's saying things like, "Dory, did you hear me say we are in a rush??? We have an appointment. We can't be late." But Dory says, "it just doesn't mean anything to me, because I'm a dog!" At the doctor's, Dory answers all of the questions with "woof-woof!" and Dory's mother is so embarrassed. And, as if that isn't enough, Dory gives the doctor a "shot" at the end by jabbing her sucker stick into the doctor's thigh."

My kids laughed and laughed at this retelling, and then Bradley said, "Please just read the first chapter?"

And so I did. And then my biggest problem was not trying to get them to read the rest of it but breaking up the fight between Max and Aaron because they both wanted to take it to bed with them.

I ended up reading the rest of the book to Bradley the next day, the last two chapters of which were in the car on our way to our family's cabin. Mike kept chuckling, but when we got to the part where Dory keeps getting out of bed because her imagination has gotten away from her and she thinks Mrs. Gobble Gracker is actually real, Mike and I were dying. Our kids looked at us like we were crazy because we were laughing like maniacs in the front seat. (Actually, we were laughing as only parents who have experienced the exact same scenario can laugh, right down to the part where Dory's father says, "Stay. In. Bed! Because it's not safe for you to come out." And then Dory hears him laugh a tiny bit as he closes the door.)

Besides her brilliant imagination, I also just love Dory's story for its honest, candid look at family life. Dory's parents get frustrated (her mom has a little breakdown when she finds Dory's giant fort in the living room); Violet and Luke are jerks (they ignore Dory, call her names, and tattle on her). If it only showed the tension and bickering, I wouldn't have liked it at all. But, just like in a real family, there are some really sweet moments too, and those counterbalance the others and make everything more meaningful and realistic. Her family has a strong foundation of love and friendship, even if the day-to-day moments don't always reflect that super well.

So my ploy worked. I've made Dory converts out of every single person in my family, even Mike. I think we'll be talking about Mrs. Gobble Gracker for years.

Have there been any books that took your kids some convincing before they read them? And . . . are there any other Dory fans out there?

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol

Mar 28, 2016

I've told you before about how difficult it is to choose books for Aaron because he pretty much just goes with the flow and gives me no guidance whatsoever on what he likes and doesn't like. But now that I'm choosing books for Maxwell too, I can see why Aaron doesn't have an opinion: it's because Maxwell stole it.

That kid is bursting with too much opinion. While Aaron will read basically anything, Max will read almost nothing. Okay, I take that back. He has his favorite books that he reads over and over and over again: all of the National Geographic easy readers, almost any picture book about bugs, and his new subscription to Ranger Rick. So obviously, he's a nonfiction kind of kid. And I am totally okay with that.

But then, he's also my child who, after we finish reading a book aloud, will check it out on audio and listen to it on repeat at least twenty times before he returns it. So I know he likes stories too, but I just can't seem to get him to read them on his own. He always has a reason for not reading it: he doesn't like the cover, he doesn't want to read a book about imaginary friends, he already tried a chapter and it was boring, etc.

His birthday was earlier this month, and usually I love choosing which books to give my kids as presents, but this was a struggle. I didn't know if I dared give him a chapter book or if I should stick with something safe. But then I remembered Encyclopedia Brown, and I thought, if I was careful, I could maybe present it in a way that would hook him.

I gave him the first four books in the series but didn't push him to start one on his own. Instead, I just asked if we could read the first one as our next readaloud. He happily agreed . . . he loves being read to.

Encyclopedia Brown's father is the chief of police in Idaville. Anytime he comes up against a case that is too difficult to solve, he shares it with Encyclopedia, who usually picks up on a hidden clue and cracks it without much difficulty. He's so good at solving cases that he starts his own detective agency. The book is a series of standalone cases, but the cool thing is that each one ends just as Encyclopedia Brown solves the case but before he divulges how he did it. The reader is left with a question: "How did Encyclopedia know that?" or "What was Miss Stark's mistake?" The answers are at the back of the book.

My kids loved this format. It really encouraged them to pay attention to details, and by the end of the book, we were getting pretty good at spotting people's inconsistencies or slips of the tongue. Even though each case was totally self-contained, my kids begged for "just one more" every single time. The unknown was so tempting: maybe this time they would be as smart and observant as Encyclopedia.

I think the trickiest case for us was the one about Merko's grandson because of the way the story was worded. It took quite a bit of sorting and unpacking, and even then we didn't figure it out completely.  One of my favorite moments was in the case about the bank robbery. Chief Brown told Encyclopedia all about the robbery while the Brown family was eating dinner. Encyclopedia asked questions, and then Chief Brown asked, "Have you got an idea about this case?" When Encyclopedia Brown answered that no, he hadn't, Mrs. Brown looked hurt: "She had come to expect her son to solve a case before dessert."

But the real triumph for me happened after we finished the book. Maxwell took it to his room and started rereading it right then. And since that time, he has read the second one, too, without any encouragement from me. I think I maybe found something he likes!

Now if I can just hold back on my enthusiasm and pretend like I don't care . . .

Any other suggestions for series that will win over an obstinate and opinionated six-year-old? Stay tuned because, on Wednesday, I'll be sharing another book I tricked Maxwell into reading (and liking!)

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

Mar 24, 2016

You might recall that one of my goals this year is to read at least six books along with Aaron. Because of that, I've been even more interested than usual in trending children's books. So when Janssen chose this book for her Tell Me What to Read winter round and Erica mentioned it on two different book lists (middle grade mysteries and Roald Dahl readalikes), all within the space of  two weeks of each other, it seemed like fate was flashing an arrow and saying, "This might be a good choice."

Kyle Keely loves games. But books? Not so much. So did he submit an essay for the "Why I'm Excited for the New Public Library" contest? Um, no. The prize is a special library lock-in on Friday night, and, sorry, but being locked in a library just isn't that enticing.

But then he finds out that there will probably be games at the lock-in (not to mention movies and food), and he decides to submit an essay at the last possible second. Literally. He only has time to write, "Balloons. There might be balloons."

He's already a little embarrassed about his less than stellar attempt, but it turns to downright mortification when he realizes that Mr. Luigi Lemoncello (the Luigi Lemoncello, world famous game creator) will be one of the judges because, get this, he is the sole financial donor who gave five hundred million dollars to build the library.

The old Alexandria public library was torn down twelve years ago. That means that all the kids who are twelve have lived their whole lives without easy access to a library. The essay contest will select twelve twelve-year-olds to be the very first library patrons. Kyle is twelve, but that's the only thing he has going for him. He thinks.

However, in a sudden twist of events, Kyle is awarded the final spot, proof that, in Mr. Lemoncello's own words, "the game is never over till it's over."

The $500 gift card, glitzy reception, and the Electronic Learning Center (basically a high-tech game room inside the library) are even better than Kyle could have imagined. But the real fun (and the actual point of the contest) happens the next morning when the kids all wake up to find they are still locked in the library and have to solve complex puzzles and play life-size games in order to find the alternate exit . . . and the prize for getting out is far bigger and grander than just a gift card.

Being locked inside a library for twenty-four hours is basically my idea of heaven, so this book should have fulfilled all my wildest dreams, but sadly, it did not. A windowless space filled with holographic images, touch-screen computers, and canned applause just did not wow me in the slightest, but, given the number of times these things were mentioned, I think they were supposed to. For example, at one point, the kids are trying to figure out the square root of 48,629.20271209 (long story . . . ), and Miguel says, "Hang on. There's a calculator app in this desktop computer." Not only is it aggravating to see books being outshone by nothing more than a calculator app, it also just seems like all the "cutting edge technology" will date this book really quickly and not in a charming way.

Personally, I related the most to Sierra Russell, one of the contestants, who hardly gave a second glance to all the fancy screens before she picked up a book, found a quiet corner, and began to read. I guess I should at least be happy that the library had actual paper books in it instead of just e-readers. That's something. (And, as long as I'm being generous, the Rotunda Reading Room, with its floor to third-floor ceiling bookshelves, did sound pretty spectacular.)

Then there was Mr. Lemoncello himself, a quirky, eccentric man who wore squeaky banana shoes, loved riddles, and inserted book titles into all of his conversations ("'You are correct!'" shouted Mr. Lemoncello. 'There's no dead end in Norvelt, not today!'"). He was a Willy Wonka wannabe if ever there was one, but it was just a little too obvious. (And, my friend Sarah brought up a good point: most kids reading this book are going to miss at least half of the cleverly placed book titles, and yet most adults who would appreciate them are not going to read this book.)

If I had read this by myself, all of these annoyances would have overshadowed my overall enjoyment of the book. But I didn't read it by myself. I read it with Aaron, and it was so much fun.

Incidentally, Aaron hadn't been overly excited to read the book because he didn't like the cover. But about halfway through, he said, "I didn't think I was going to like this book, but now it's so good! I just want to find out what happens." We solved the picture puzzles, made real-life comparisons to the arrogant Charles Chiltington, and spied holes in the plot. We cheered on Kyle's team and booed Charles'. I appreciated the emphasis on teamwork and good sportsmanship, and Aaron didn't seem to notice them (probably a good sign, right?). In short, it was just so fun to read and discuss and enjoy a book together.

Aaron and I stayed caught up with each other for almost the whole book, but he did finish before me and inadvertently let slip a rather important spoiler when he asked what chapter I was on. I said, "52," and he said, "Oh, so has _______ happened yet?" "What?! No!" I exclaimed. "Oh, I guess that happens in Chapter 54," he admitted a little sheepishly.

I am a big advocate of adults reading adolescent literature because there are so many amazing books out there that can be enjoyed just as much as an adult as a child. This, sadly, is not one of them. However, if you are an adult reading it with a child, then I think that counteracts (or maybe enhances?) some of its juvenility and makes the whole thing worthwhile.

And, even with all it's focus on technology, the final puzzle (which is not a spoiler) is, "Once you learn how to do this, you will be forever free." The answer, of course, is READ, and I hope that's the message that kids will come away with and not that libraries are only cool if they have Dewey Decimal numbers projected on the ceiling.

What We're Listening to Right Now #5: Six of Our Current Favorites

Mar 21, 2016

I didn't quite mean for it to happen this way, but I guess these music (etc.) posts are becoming something of a regular feature here. Turns out, I love rounding up our current favorites for you, and I LOVE hearing your recommendations for our family! Here's what we've been listening to lately:

1. Wicked soundtrack
Out of all my kids, Maxwell is the one who can get hooked on something and listen to it over and over . . . and over again. He definitely does this with audio books (I wouldn't even try to come up with an estimate for how many times he's listened to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) but also music. A few weeks before this last Christmas, I was narrowing down possible stocking stuffers when I thought of Wicked. Max had never heard it before, but I somehow knew it was just the kind of thing he could (and would) listen to on repeat. And sure enough, the dramatic orchestration, clever lyrics, and intriguing story line instantly grabbed him, and he's been listening ever since. Mike and I are big fans of the play, and even though our kids haven't seen it yet, it's been wonderful to share the music with them.

Favorite song: "One Short Day" (I think. It changes on a daily basis.)

2. Sailaway Stories podcast
Okay, so back in November, I mentioned the Stories podcast as being one of our current favorites. And it was. But just a short time after that, we listened to the Sailaway Stories podcast for the first time, and I have to tell you, I instantly felt my loyalty slipping. To put it rather bluntly, it surpassed the Stories podcast in every way. We still listen to Stories, so obviously we still like it, but if I had to choose between them, I'd pick Sailaway Stories every single time. Here's why: 1) The narrators are phenomenal. Unlike Stories, I don't find myself annoyed by the voices at all. It is a pleasure to listen to, and this counts for a lot. 2) They have a good mix of classic and original stories and rotate through them week by week. 3) Their classic stories are by Thornton Burgess, Beatrix Potter, and Howard Roger Garis, much beloved authors whose old-fashioned stories are completely timeless. 4) Their original stories are actually funny, well-written, and don't feel like they're trying too hard.

Favorite episode: "Spotty the Turtle Wins a Race" (Thornton Burgess' take on the classic tortoise and the hare tale)

3. I Believe in Little Things by Diana Panton*
I try not to judge music too quickly by reminding myself that some of my favorite albums and artists have taken me a few repetitions to warm up to. However, with Diana Panton, there was no need for such reminders. Her voice had me by the second note, and the only thing repetition has done is make me love her more. A Canadian artist, her voice is as delicate as lace and perfectly complements the light jazz style of her music. (Side note: Mike had her pegged as Canadian as soon as he heard "Alice in Wonderland" because, in his words, "no one else could sing that well in French AND English.") This album is made up of sweet, familiar songs from childhood (many of them from beloved movies), and the piano/guitar accompaniment is just as enjoyable to listen to as Diana Panton's voice. I think she's just recently starting to get some (well-deserved) attention in the U.S., and I'm so glad. I want to buy every single one of her albums.

Favorite song(s): "Sing" and "Hushabye Mountain" (sorry, I couldn't choose just one)

4. Dirty Feet by Bobs and Lolo
This is probably the only one on this list that would be categorized strictly as "kids' music," and it's just what kids' music should be: upbeat, fun, lively, and (thankfully) not the least bit annoying. We discovered Bobs and Lolo in December when we checked out their Christmas album, Wave Your Antlers. It was one of those random chances that actually turned out golden. No one had recommended it to me. I just saw it on the shelf, picked it up, and we loved it. A Canadian duo (I guess I'm really digging Canadians this round), they just seem to understand the ins and outs of childhood. Oh, and did I mention they're not annoying? Double win.

Favorite song: "Uh-Oh" (I think Clark must have been their model for this one.)

5. Annie soundtrack
When we went on our San Diego trip, we knew we wouldn't be able to do much in the evenings, so we packed a few classic movies that our kids had never seen: Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Annie (the 1999 version, which definitely is not as "classic" as the one from 1982, but it's the one I prefer). Our kids loved all three movies, but Annie was their favorite. I happened to have the soundtrack on the iPod, and they listened to it that night as they went to sleep. I still have all of the lyrics memorized from when I was a kid, and I've enjoyed singing along again. Plus, I just love Audra McDonald's voice.

Favorite song: The Hard Knock Life (because, whether you're an orphan or not, what kid doesn't think he has the hard knock life on a daily basis?)

6. Those Younger Days by The Hunts
Heidi from Mt. Hope Chronicles mentioned The Hunts several months ago, and so I decided to check them out. Our library didn't have any of their music, but I put in a request for them to buy their newest album, and they did! They are a family band made up of two sisters and five brothers, and their unassuming folk style was exactly the change of pace I was looking for. Their voices are made for each other (as you might expect since they are related), and I've been listening to them both with and without kids when I'm in the car.

Favorite song: "Make This Leap" (one of their more energetic, rhythmic songs that gets Bradley singing every time)

Okay, your turn! I KNOW you have ideas for me, and I promise you I'll check them out!

*I received a copy of I Believe in Little Things, and it was my pleasure to give it a glowing review. I'm so glad to have found Diana Panton's music.

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

Mar 16, 2016

I put Caddie Woodlawn on our readaloud to-read list a long time ago. I had grown up watching the 1989 Wonderworks film adaptation, and I think I'd read the book as well. It seemed like one we'd eventually enjoy reading, although I had no immediate plans for it.

But then my good friend, Sarah, read it aloud to her five-year-old daughter, and she praised it so highly that it quickly bumped its way up to the top of the list.

Caddie is something of a tomboy, growing up wild and free on the Wisconsin frontier in 1864. When her family moved there from Boston seven years before, she and her little sister, Mary, were both frail and sickly. After Mary died, Caddie's father decided Caddie needed to build up her own health in the great outdoors: "Harriet, I want you to let Caddie run wild with the boys. Don't keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying. Bring the other girls up as you like, but let me have Caddie."

And so Caddie's mother does, although she's not always thrilled about it. Caddie swims in the river, makes regular visits to the Indian camp, goes hunting with her uncle, and plows the field with her brothers, Tom and Warren.  Her father's plan works. She is happy and healthy and thinks she has the best life in the world. However, as she grows older, her mother insists on a little more propriety, which Caddie resists at first until she realizes she doesn't have to give up who she is and what she loves in order to become a lady.

We were well into the book when we found out it's based on the life of the real Caddie Woodlawn, a fact I had forgotten (or never knew). We love fiction and are often quite inspired by it, but there's something special when you realize that a character's brave and honorable acts are actually founded in fact. I guess they mean just a little bit more.

For example, let me tell you a little bit about the Hankinson family. When Sam Hankinson settled in Wisconsin, he married an Indian woman and together they had three children. As the town and surrounding area gradually grew more populated, the Hankinsons felt the harsh prejudice and judgment of the white families around them. Eventually, Sam's wife decides to leave her husband and children and return to her people (a decision that seems prompted in part by Sam's own shame of her).

She goes to the schoolhouse to tell her children goodbye, and it is one of the saddest, most heartrending scenes, both for the reader and for Caddie, who can't contain her tears and lets them fall to the book that's open on her lap.

For months, Caddie has been saving a silver dollar she received from her Uncle Edmund, and she finally knows exactly how she wants to spend it. The next day after school, she leads the three Hankinson boys to the general store and buys each of them candy, a top, a comb, and a handkerchief. She spends every last cent, and with each present, the boys' eyes light up a little more.

Later that night, Tom questions her, "But Caddie, you needn't have spent your whole dollar. You could have got them each a top or a hoarhound stick, and kept the rest for yourself."

But Caddie replies, "No, Tom, it had to be all of it. I wanted to drive that awful lonesome look out of their eyes, and it did, Tom. It did!"

It was such a sweet, poignant lesson to me (and hopefully to my kids too). Caddie stripped away all the labels and prejudices heaped upon this family (even by Caddie's own mother) and saw them for who they really were: three little boys who desperately missed their mother. The shopping spree was fun, but the attention she gave them was even more meaningful. For just a few minutes, they no longer felt like outcasts but like royalty.

Something similar happened a little later on in the book, but this time it was between Caddie and her younger sister, Hetty. Hetty is not a tomboy like Caddie. However, on occasion, she tags along with Caddie, Warren, and Tom but mostly just so she can turn on her heel at the least sign of mischief and run home to tattle to their mother. Consequently, the three adventurers avoid her whenever possible.

One afternoon though, Caddie is by herself on the quiet hill north of the house. She has picked a bouquet of flowers and is braiding the stems together while she thinks and daydreams. Then she catches sight of Hetty, and her first thought is one of irritation. She just knows Hetty is coming to disturb her peace by spreading some bit of news she's discovered.

But surprisingly, Hetty just takes a seat beside Caddie and says, "It's kind of nice to be just us two alone . . . isn't it? Without the boys. But I guess it's more fun for you with the boys."

In just those few words, quite a lot is revealed about Hetty: "It was almost as if Caddie had never seen that little face before. Suddenly she understood for the first time that Hetty was all by herself. Minnie was too young, and Tom, Caddie, and Warren had no room in their adventures for a tagging and tattling little sister. Was her eagerness to be the first to tell only her way of trying to make herself important in the eyes of all the selfish older people?"

The moment was so unexpected and sweet that it made me want to weep. For all of her energy and shenanigans, Caddie could be quite mature and perceptive. This was one of those times, and I felt like reaching through the page and giving her a hug when she said, "I think it's nicer since you came, Hetty. I really do."

But if you asked my boys what their favorite part of the book was, it wouldn't be that moment of generosity toward the Hankinson children or this sweet glimpse of sisterly bonding. No, they would most definitely say, "Tom's story about Pee-Wee." One day while Caddie, Tom, and Warren are plowing a field, they decide to take turns telling stories to each other. Tom's story is about a greedy, quick-tempered, and rather heartless farmer named Pee-Wee who uses any misfortune to his advantage. My kids thought this story was so funny and, in a moment that will surely go down in our family's readaloud history, even asked me to read it again immediately after I read it the first time.

A couple of weeks after we finished it, Maxwell brought home a paper from school detailing an upcoming assignment where they had to tell a story to the class. And what story do you think Max wanted to tell? Pee-Wee, of course. Now, as those of you who have actually read the story know, there are some rather morbid moments, which are meant to just be far-fetched and ridiculous, but which might sound rather disturbing coming out of a six-year-old's mouth. Luckily, I was saved because it took him ten minutes to tell, and he was only supposed to talk for two to four minutes (although, if you ever catch Max unoccupied, you will be in for a treat if you ask for his best retelling of Pee-Wee).

Readers are always finding new coming-of-age stories to rave about, but I believe this one could rival just about any of them. Caddie grows and matures throughout the book without losing any part of herself. She is still the same brave, fiery tomboy we started out with, but by the end of the story, she is wiser and just a little softer around the edges. This is due in large part to her father, a man who maybe edged out Atticus Finch as "best father in all of literature" for me. He is gentle and perceptive and lets Caddie know he loves her simply because she is his Caddie.

At the very end, Caddie makes this observation, "I'm the same girl and yet not the same. I wonder if it's always like that? Folks keep growing from one person into another all their lives, and life it just a lot of everyday adventures. Well, whatever life is, I like it."

Is it any wonder that we all fell in love with Caddie?

Have you read Caddie Woodlawn? What lessons did you learn? What was your favorite scene?

The Book Blab Episode 4: 2016 Releases and Two Springtime Reads (with show notes)

Mar 10, 2016

Suzanne and I got together again via Blab and had another great chat, this time about the 2016 releases we're eagerly anticipating and exciting information about an upcoming episode. If you missed watching the video live, you can see the replay below, along with the show notes and links to the things we talked about. Enjoy!

0:42 - Amy's new roof
1:12 - Topic of Episode 4: New book releases in 2016
2:12 - How Suzanne finds out about new releases
3:30 - The two situations where Suzanne stays on top of new releases
4:20 - How Amy finds out about new releases
5:30 - A few blogs that regularly feature new releases
6:40 - A good podcast for new releases
7:28 - Two instagram accounts
8:00 - Publishers Weekly
8:45 - Goodreads
9:14 - Publishers' catalogs
10:20 - Children's literature vs. adult literature
11:24 - Some of the books we're looking forward to in 2016
  • 11:37 - Bands of Mourning (January 2016) by Brandon Sanderson
  • 13:22 - The Thank You Book (May 2016) and Nanette's Baguette (October 2016) by Mo Willems
  • 16:00 - Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood (April 2016) by Liesl Shurtliff
  • 18:08 - Raymie Nightingale (April 2016) by Kate DiCamillo
  • 19:48 - Firestorm (June 2016) by Katie Robison
  • 21:22 - It Ain't So Awful, Falafel (May 2016) by Firoozeh Dumas
  • 23:00 - Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (July 2016) by Jack Thorne/J.K. Rowling
24:50 - Details on The Book Blab's first ever book club
  • 25:34 - The book Suzanne chose for Amy to read
  • 26:57 - Amy's response
  • 28:20 - Details on Hoopla (a lending service through your local library)
29:19 - Two book recommendations for spring reading
  • 30:15 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 31:44 - Amy's recommendation
35:00 - Final wrap up 

Links from the Show:

Blogs for new releases:
Books on the Nightstand podcast

Two Instagram accounts:
Publishers Weekly free email newsletters

Candlewick catolog
Simon and Schuster catalogs

More info on Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

Publishers Weekly article: "Mo Willems Busy, Busy Year"

Liesl Shurtliff's blog

Kate DiCamillo on her newest book

Katie Robison's blog

Hear Firoozeh Dumas pronounce her own name

"'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' Play to be Published as a Book

Suzanne's review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Borrow the audiobook version of A Man Called Ove from Hoopla

Suzanne's review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Amy's review of Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Eight of Our Favorite Poetry Collections

Mar 9, 2016

Last week I told you all about poetry snack time and promised to share some of our favorite books of poetry with you this week. Over the last year or so, we've sampled a fair number and variety of poems and poets. We've enjoyed almost all of them, but these are the ones we've read more than once, decided to purchase, or cuddled up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. In other words, they've passed the test.

Red Sings From Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman
I loved this one long before we started doing poetry snack time. In fact, I can't believe I haven't purchased it yet. I just keep checking it out from the library over and over again because with each approach of a new season, I crave these poems all over again. They capture the quiet beauty and lively vibrancy in our incredible world.

National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry, edited by J. Patrick Lewis
I feel like every family needs to own at least one good poetry anthology for quick and easy access. For our family, it happens to be this one. That's not to say there aren't other anthologies we would love to have (The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry and The Random House Book of Poetry for Children are two that come immediately to mind), but with this one's focus on animals, it's pretty much perfect for our family. It runs the gamut, everything from Robert Frost to Walt Whitman to Jack Prelutsky, and they're all accompanied by gorgeous (and I really do mean gorgeous) photographs. If you check out this book, you'll soon follow my example and buy one for your own library.

Falling Up by Shel Silverstein
I couldn't make up a list of favorite poetry collection and not include at least one by Shel Silverstein. I just couldn't. His poems have delighted and amused my children far too much to not be given their due (even if no one needs a reminder that he's out there). I was fortunate enough to find hardbacks of both Where the Sidewalk Ends and Falling Up at the thrift store, and it is not unusual to find Aaron perusing (and laughing) through one of them. His poems sometimes cross the line into the totally bizarre, but I think that's why we love them so much. They're always a surprise. Plus, his poem "Spaghetti, Spaghetti" was the first one my kids memorized, so he'll always have a nostalgic hold on my heart.

The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky
If you can't get enough of Shel Silverstein, then you should definitely give Jack Prelutsky a try. His poems are similarly wacky, and we find ourselves reaching for them when we need a good laugh. He's also responsible for the poem, "I'm the Single Most Wonderful Person I Know," which was a timely reminder to Maxwell about the importance of humility.

Zoo by Ogden Nash
I didn't come to truly appreciate Ogden Nash until last summer when we checked out his collection of animal poems, and then I finally understood why Mike's siblings are so fond of quoting him. It's because he's so quotable! Most of these poems are quite short (three to seven lines), and my kids only had to hear them two or three times before they were reciting them back verbatim. The humor in them is at once simplistic and sophisticated, which means that both my kids and Mike and I can all read them with equal enjoyment. We especially love "The Panther," "The Shark," and "The Termite."

Mirror Mirror: a Book of Reverso Poems by Marilyn Singer
This one gets creativity points for sure. Each poem is a retelling of a classic fairy tale: first, from one point of view, and then, the word order is reversed to share a different point of view. So we've got Hansel/Gretel and the witch, Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, etc. The poems are accessible enough that even if your kids are too young to understand the structure, they will still enjoy the poems. But if they can grasp the total genius of what's going on, well then, their minds will be blown, and you won't be able to stop them from poring over the side-by-side verses, comparing them, and realizing how just a simple change in the word order can drastically change the telling of the story.

A Child's Calendar by John Updike
This one is our most recent find, and, oh my goodness, it was love at first sight for me. It is a short collection, just twelve poems, one for each month, but it conjured up happy memories and feelings from my past that no poem has ever managed before. For example, this, from "June": "The live-long light / Is like a dream, / And freckles come / Like flies to cream." My heart just yearns for summer! (And those illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman aren't too shabby either.) After we read this collection during poetry snack time, I told my kids that we're going to memorize one poem each month. The one for March is up on our kitchen wall right now.

A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Lewis Stevenson
This list would not be complete without this collection on it. Most of the ones I've mentioned so far are ones I've discovered and grown to love with my own kids. But not this one. No, this one is from my childhood. I can still remember pumping my legs hard on our swing in the backyard and hearing my dad recite, "How do you like to go up in a swing? / Up in the air so blue?" These poems are the essence of childhood. I'm glad they're irrevocably connected to mine and that now they'll be connected to my children's as well.

What are your some of your favorite poetry books? Poetry snack time is coming up again soon, and we'd love to try out some new collections!

Also, P.S., Episode 4 of The Book Blab will be airing on Friday, March 11th, at 9:30am MST. Suzanne and I will be chatting about 2016 releases. Come watch the live video feed right here on the blog!

Raising Readers: What You Need to Know About Nonfiction (Guest Post)

Mar 7, 2016

I discovered Alysa's blog a couple of years ago, and we instantly connected over our love of children's literature.

Alysa is a graphic novel enthusiast (she just finished serving as a Round 2 Cybils judge in the graphic novel category), and since that is not a genre I am particularly well-versed in, I love to go to her blog for recommendations. In February, she made a goal to write a post on her blog every day (every day!), and she totally accomplished it with wit and style and humor.

Today she's sharing some tips about how to raise a reader who loves nonfiction. I feel like I'm constantly on the lookout for great nonfiction books that will please all my kids, but especially my rather picky six-year-old. I hope you find this post helpful, too!

Over the past month or so, I've had a couple of friends ask me about how to help their kids get into reading non-fiction. Perhaps they asked because they know I have an elementary education background. Maybe they asked because they know I judged non-fiction for kids in the Cybils. Or maybe they just asked because we are friends and it was on their minds. Anyway, I thought what I told them might help you, too. 

There are two types of non-fiction: narrative and non-narrative. Actually, there are many types of non-fiction, but they can all be roughly divided into two categories: narrative, and non-narrative. 

You know that a narrative is a story. So, narrative non-fiction is true stories—think about biographies and historical accounts. Non-narrative non-fiction is true facts—think about the Guinness Book of World Records or My First Book of Numbers. 

If your children enjoy fiction, I recommend introducing them to some narrative non-fiction. This category of non-fiction book is designed to be read straight through. My friend Kirstin said that she had tried some non-fiction with her kids but, "they asked me to stop reading! They said they were done. And they never say that they're done with a book." I asked her a little bit about the book, and it was non-narrative. Since her three kids are all pre-kindergarten, I'm not surprised they didn't stay interested in the book. 

What keeps us interested in non-narrative (sometimes called expository or informational) non-fiction, is that it is answering our questions. I know kids who read the dictionary for fun, but I wasn't one of them. I use the dictionary when I have a question. And that's perfectly fine. Informational non-fiction is designed to be dipped into, to be picked up in the middle. It's organized so that you can quickly find what you want and get out. It's a beautiful thing, but it's different from narrative, and kids who don't know how to read in this way might need a little more help from you. Kirstin's kids might have stayed more engaged with their book if she had guided them towards some questions about the subject. If you're not accustomed to pausing during reading and talking with the kids, this could seem strange at first. But if you think of non-fiction books as a way to engage your kids in deep and meaningful conversations, you'll find success. 

It is definitely worth it to help your kids enjoy non-fiction. And it's easier now than ever to get them going on it. Remember when I said you could think of biographies and historical accounts as two kinds of narrative non-fiction? Well there are so many more. There are picture books that tell the story of volcanoes creating island. There are bird watching guides that have a conversational tone and just really suck you in. 

That's the biggest thing that I learned when I judged the non-fiction category for the Cybils. The Cybils only accepts nominees that are narrative, it doesn't take workbooks or collections of facts or other informational non-fiction. And I was totally shocked by how much amazing narrative non-fiction is out there. The quantity and the diversity of the nominees blew my socks off. "This is NOT the non-fiction I grew up with!" I found myself saying. 

So, next time you take the kids to the library, I hope you take a minute to browse the non-fiction in the children's section. (If they have a "new" shelf especially for non-fiction, go praise your librarian.) Now that you know a little more about narrative and non-narrative non-fiction, you'll be better prepared to help your kids pick something they like and learn how to read it.  

Remember, if it's narrative, you can treat it a lot more like a typical read-aloud. If it's non-narrative, don't be afraid to dive in the middle, stop once your questions have been answered, or just enjoy the pictures and captions. Different books are meant to be read differently. 

Alysa makes her online home at Everead, where she has been writing about children's literature since 2008. Her offline home, in Connecticut, is equally well stocked with books, opinions, and optimism. She loves refried beans and being a stay-at-home-librarian to three young patrons.

Poetry Snack Time (the What, the Why, and the How)

Mar 4, 2016

I've been talking about poetry snack time ever since we did it for the first time last summer. I mentioned it in two posts, here and here, and I frequently share little glimpses of it on Instagram. I've had a few of you ask for more details, and so today, I'm sharing what has worked, what hasn't worked, and what we're doing now.

But first, a little credit where credit is due: I did not come up with the idea for poetry snack time on my own. Please. All of my brilliant ideas have been stolen from other people. No, the idea was first planted when I listened to Sarah Mackenzie's interview with Julie Bogart. Julie mentioned something called Poetry Teatime, a (usually) weekly event for her kids where she combined yummy food and fancy table settings with beautiful (or silly or interesting) poetry.

I was intrigued with this idea in part because for years I felt intimidated by poetry. My dad had a few poems he used to read to us ("The Swing" and "My Shadow" by Robert Louis Stevenson, " "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer," and "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), but I wasn't the type to just sit down and become immersed in a poetry collection.

But as an adult, I pushed myself to explore poetry. I tentatively picked up a couple of verse novels and made the amazing discovery that I actually love poetry. Truly love it. Then I started to introduce it to my kids. We found a few favorite poetry collections, and they loved to page through them and select various ones for me to read. We also memorized several of our favorites. (I talked a lot more about this experience in this post: "How to Memorize Poetry With Your Kids.")

When Julie Bogart referenced poetry teatime, I knew it was something we had to try, but I also knew that my boys weren't going to go for anything as fancy and frilly-sounding as "poetry teatime." So the very first thing we did was change the name to Poetry Snack Time. Besides the change in name, I had three goals going into it: make it special without making it complicated, encourage good manners and adventurous eating, and introduce new poems and poets.

First, special but not complicated: I knew from reading Happier at Home that even the simplest things can feel special if they're outside the norm, so I bought some new plates and cups and reserved them specifically for poetry snack time. Now before you start thinking I spent a lot of money on fine china, think again. We're talking plastic picnic-ware: turquoise plates divided into sections and plastic cups with a zig-zag pattern. Nothing fancy or expensive, but they were different and therefore my kids assumed they were special. Each time we had poetry snack time, we set the table nicely (meaning, we spread out a tablecloth or set out place mats and laid out folded paper napkins), and my kids felt the out-of-the-ordinariness of it.

Second, adventurous eating and good manners: Hey, as long as we were going to the trouble of a special snack, I figured I might as well get some extra mileage out of it. Each time we have poetry snack time, we have a drink, two healthy snacks, and one treat. One of the healthy snacks is always a fruit or vegetable, and the other can be something like crackers, popcorn, nuts, yogurt, cheese, or chips (so maybe not necessarily "healthy" but not sugary, if that makes sense). The rule is you have to try everything that is being served, and the way we make this fair is by letting everyone have a turn as the snack chooser. Because of this rule, my kids have tried a variety of new things, and you can bet I use this to my advantage when it's my turn to choose the snack. Red peppers and hummus, kids.

As far as good manners, we use our napkins, speak when our mouths are empty, and ask for things to be passed rather than reach for them. In other words, common sense, but you'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) how difficult it is for these things to become habits.

Third, new poetry and poets. We will always love Shel Silverstein, but I wanted this to be a time to explore some of the work of other poets as well. I haven't been very organized about this (as in, I don't have some master list I'm going off of: "Okay, now we'll read some of Emily Dickenson and then some Henry Wadsworth Longfellow..."). Basically, if I hear about a poetry collection, I check it out. I also spend a fair bit of time browsing good ol' 811 at the library. But although my methods are not sophisticated, they've worked. We've read some Marilyn Singer, Jack Prelutsky, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Updike, and Joyce Sidman, and we have discovered so many new favorites.

So those were my goals, and for the most part, they have stayed intact even as we've made other adjustments and changes.

But now let's move onto the actual logistics.

When we first started doing poetry snack time, I handed out one book of poetry to each child, and we spent the first seven minutes or so quietly reading to ourselves. Then we ate eat, and at the end, each person read their favorite poem aloud to everyone else.

After a few months of this, I realized something wasn't working. My kids looked forward to poetry snack time, but it was so hard for them to endure the seven minutes of poetry reading before diving into the delicious food that sat there tempting them. More and more, they spent the entire time asking me if they could be done reading and if it was time to eat yet and why did they have to read more when they'd already found the poem they wanted to share. I realized poetry snack time was having the opposite effect I wanted it to. Instead of enjoying the poems, they had become the detour between them and the food.

We took a break for a few weeks while I decided what to do. Our current method basically kept poetry and food separate (for obvious reasons . . . I couldn't let them ruin library books by eating Oreos and milk while perusing Robert Frost), but the whole point was to enjoy them together.

So I did what many of you are probably thinking should have been the obvious choice from the beginning: I now read while they eat. I know. Brilliant, right? Their hands and their mouths are occupied, and so the poems take center stage.

If the collection is short enough, I read it cover to cover and then take requests for a few favorites to be read again. If it's longer, then I pick and choose and jump around as I please.

As soon as I realized poetry snack time was going to stick around for the long term, I wanted a way to preserve some of the memories we were making. I picked up some poster board, cut it down to place mat size, and let the boys each decorate one. (Over the summer, Aaron and Maxwell had attended an art class where they painted paper and then cut it up to form collage-type art. We used the extra paper for these place mats.) Then I went to the copy store and had them laminated.

Now when we come to the end of poetry snack time, we have one final task: choose a favorite poem and write the name, author, and date on each of our place mats. Sometimes there's a standout favorite; sometimes we all choose something different. So far, we've been using the back of the place mats, but I anticipate the fronts being used eventually as well . . . littered with dozens of favorite poems and dates, a perfect hodge podge of memories.

I'm sure things will continue to change as this tradition evolves with us, but for now we've hit our stride. Next week, I'll share some of our favorite poetry collections so far, but in the meantime, if you have any questions for me, I'm more than happy to try to answer them.

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