If you like… Roald Dahl

The most consistently popular posts on my blog are these “If You like…” posts, so I thought I might try to do more of them. What better author to start up the series again than Roald Dahl? His books are beloved by kids and grown-ups. His quirky, subversive style has endured for over 50 years with a strong base of adoring fans. But once you finish the 19 children’s books Dahl wrote, what next? While I imagine that very few authors measure up to Roald Dahl in most fans’ eyes, here are a few books that might satisfy readers looking for something similar:

Ms Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera is a whimsical adventure that includes the social satire that Dahl fans enjoy. I read it aloud to my daughter, and we both found it quite charming.

The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld is an absurd fairy tale style story full of wit and wordplay. It’s a princess story, but it’s sarcastic and funny. What could be better than that?

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon is another whimsical adventure story with quirky characters that reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl’s books.  And I wasn’t the only one who saw the similarities. Both the Booklist and the School Library Journal reviews compared the book to Dahl. I will say that it’s a bit long and slow moving at times, but the dreamy nature of the story pulls the reader along well enough.

Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner stars Emily Vole, an abandoned child who has been adopted by a pair of terrible parents who treat her like a servant. But things change for Emily when she gets to know her neighbor Miss String and all sorts of magical things start happening. This is a silly adventure full of the sort of humor and wit that Dahl fans know and love.

Need more suggestions? Try these:

Weird and Wonderful Books for Kids who Like Roald Dahl

If you like Roald Dahl you might also like…

The BFG Readalikes

Living in a Multilingual World

Every document that comes home from my daughter’s elementary school comes in three different languages: English, Spanish, and Somali.  In the hallways, you can see various languages on signs and posters.  Her school isn’t a language immersion school; it’s just a typical school in Minneapolis.  According to the school district, there are 96 languages or dialects spoken by students or their families throughout the city, and her school is only 31% white.

Our kids are growing up in a world in which you can’t count on the people around you speaking your language.  You might have to meet people somewhere between your language and theirs or listen for more than just the meaning of words.

I was thinking about this as I read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, which is written in journal format and includes a lot of Spanish words and phrases throughout the book.  Gabi’s life is in both languages, and it feels real to have both languages represented in her journal.  I don’t speak Spanish, but I loved Gabi’s story.  I connected with her through her intimate and humorous diary entries as she sorted out big issues like cultural identity, family problems, and feminism all while discovering the power of poetry.  It’s a story that will stick with me for a long time.  Sure, I didn’t always know the Spanish words, but I did know Gabi.

At the AWP Conference in Minneapolis in 2015, I attended a session in which M. Evelina Galang spoke about her book Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, and she shared her experience that young people never seemed to question the inclusion of Tagalog in her book the way adult readers did.  The teen readers accepted that it was part of the story and created their own context around it.  Galang advises readers in a post you can download on her web site to “feel the words” they don’t understand.  In her book, Galang creates a rich world full of feeling that will give readers an opportunity to connect with Angel’s experience whether they know any Tagalog or not.

My daughter, a third-grader, is far from reading these teen novels, but she could “feel the words” in Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina, which includes lots of Spanish words in the text as the story follows a young Colombian girl as she learns English. Juana is a wonderfully likable character, and it is easy to relate to her even with a limited knowledge of Spanish.  Her story is just the thing to generate enthusiasm for learning a new language!

I also made sure to share I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien with her last year when a new student arrived in her class. The student had only recently arrived in the country from Somalia and spoke very little English, much like Fatimah in the book. I’m New Here helped us to talk about how it would feel to go to school in a different country and explore how we might connect with people when we don’t share a language. This conversation could easily be had in a classroom setting, and teachers may be interested in the resources available on O’Brien’s web site, including a community event kit and a video. Pair it with Meg Medina’s Mango, Abuela, and Me for the way the story blends English and Spanish as grandmother and granddaughter attempt to communicate despite not speaking each other’s language.

These are the books that reflect the world in which we live, and I hope to see even more cultures and languages (especially Somali!) represented on the shelves of our libraries to help us remember that there are ways to connect with people and things we share with them even when we don’t share a first language.

Exploring Japan

A few years ago, my daughter and I spent a summer exploring the world. Well, not literally. Our family travel budget isn’t nearly large enough to accommodate a world tour. But we felt like world explorers as we read each book in the Dodsworth series by Tim Egan that followed the title character from New York to London, Paris, and Tokyo. For each book, we would seek out as much of the location we could experience from afar as we could.  It may seem silly, but we had a great time armchair traveling to all of these places. Thanks to our imaginary trip to Paris, chocolate croissants have become a favorite treat in our family.

Recently we took our first non-imaginary mother-daughter trip to visit family in Boston, and we were delighted to discover an opportunity to explore a faraway place while we were there thanks to the Boston Children’s Museum. Amid the usual children’s museum exhibits in which kids can play, build, and create is a unique exhibit that allows museum visitors a special glimpse of life on the other side of the world: The Japanese House.

The house, which was a gift to the city of Boston from sister-city Kyoto, is a traditional live-work space from the textile district of Kyoto. We learned that very few of these houses still exist in Kyoto.  In fact, a 2012 National Geographic article featured Kyoto as one of “9 Places to See Before They Slip Away” citing this architectural style as a highlight of Kyoto that is losing ground to modernization. We may never get to Kyoto ourselves, so I really appreciated that this house was preserved and shared this way. For those who are far from both Kyoto and Boston, you can armchair travel via a virtual tour or this video.

My daughter left the exhibit with all sorts of questions about what life is like in Japan now compared to the lifestyle preserved in the exhibit, so when we got back to Minneapolis, we found ourselves poring over books from our local library about children’s lives in Japan and watching this video.

Our favorite book we found was My Awesome Japan Adventure, which is a fictional travel diary about a boy spending four months in Japan. I liked it because it modeled the idea of a travel diary while sharing all sorts of information about Japanese culture. My nine-year-old liked it for the cartoon style, the humorous tone, and the spread that included origami instructions. Either way, it was a winner. ;)

Wherever we end up on our next mother-daughter trip, I hope to find hidden gems and surprises like the Japanese House exhibit there too. Perhaps we’ll keep our own travel diaries as we move from imaginary adventures to real ones out in the world. We may not always be able to go far, but we can always keep a sense of adventure with us.

Book Review: Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez

My initial reaction to Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez was, embarrassingly, “huh?” I was excited to receive a review copy from the publisher because the art looked beautiful, the setting was unusual in a children’s book, and my nine-year-old loves graphic novels.  I expected this to be a rave review all around, but upon receiving the book, I found I didn’t know what to make of it. Sure, the illustrations were as beautiful as I had expected, and the story’s Colombian setting isn’t one often found in books for kids. Those things are true. But I wasn’t expecting a story that was so dark and creepy. Could I share this with my sensitive nine-year-old? It was the stuff of nightmares, I thought.

The book, however, has stuck with me in a way that had me rereading it multiple times. To appreciate the illustrations. To make sense of the story that seemed so unsettling and almost unfinished. It was a book that wouldn’t let me go. That alone must mean something, I thought.

As I reread the story again and again, I found it shifted from the dark and creepy nightmare I saw at first to something empowering. The little girl in the story encounters a strange darkness and instead of running from it, she finds a way to live with it. To allow what might have been scary to be part of her world. The openness of the ending, so unsettling at first, seemed more appropriate when viewed through this lens.

Maybe the monstrous character of Morfie is Sandy’s doubt and insecurity. Maybe the story shows Sandy learning to live with that kind of anxiety and still be creative. I’m not sure what the author intended. But I know that Nightlights deserves to be read. Maybe more than once.

More about Nightlights:

Finding Mother Goose

 

“Mother Goose was a real person?!” my nine-year-old asked in confusion as we walked along the Freedom Trail in Boston last weekend.  Our tour guides (my brother and sister-in-law) had pointed out some of the famous people buried in the Granary Cemetery, including John Hancock, Ben Franklin’s parents, and Mother Goose.

I admit I hadn’t given much thought to whether Mother Goose was a real person or not despite having written an old blog post about the value of nursery rhymes. I figured that her identity, if known at all, was probably lost to history. It turns out that I was right. The woman buried in Boston was probably not the woman behind the rhymes, but legend has it that Mary (or Elizabeth) Goose enthralled the children in her community (including sixteen of her own) with stories and poems which were eventually published. Is this true? I have no idea, but I like the story.

Whoever she may have been, Mother Goose has endured as an almost ubiquitous part of childhood in the English-speaking world for hundreds of years.  Among the loads of picture books that offer the rhythm and rhyme that our little language learners need, Mother Goose’s rhymes have stayed in print. Perhaps it’s adult nostalgia that drives the demand? Perhaps there’s something universal about the poems or the time period they represent?

Whatever the reason, there are many, many editions from which to choose for your little ones. I happen to like Mary Engelbreit’s version for the way Mother Goose’s poems are described in the introduction written by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus: “Her words are both merry and wise. Mother Goose rhymes meet children at eye level with their colorful characters, disarming honesty, and playful feeling for life.”

Of course, I think we can agree that some of the rhymes could use an update like the one that Jane Cabrera gives to “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In Cabrera’s version, the Old Woman is resourceful and capable as she cares for her many children by solving problems, fixing stuff, and working hard.  A brief author’s note shares Cabrera’s desire to celebrate mothers with a version that showed a mom who could take care of her family “despite being very out-numbered!” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.

May 1st is the day Mother Goose is celebrated in schools and libraries around the country. Even if you think you’ve outgrown her poems or you think they aren’t relevant to modern life, take a moment on that day to explore the legend of the person behind the poems and select one of the many editions of her work to share with a child. Let the bouncy rhythm and the silly rhymes remind you that “childish” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just right.

Confessions & Confusions

Unreliable narrators in fiction make for some fascinating reading, and what could be more unreliable than a confession? Strangely, I happened to read two such novels recently.

The first is a teen novel that I hadn’t had on my to-read list until it won a Printz Honor: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. I had heard the Printz buzz around this book, but it never sounded that appealing to me.  I mean, it is set in the 1200’s and is about religion/faith/miracles. The description just never grabbed me. But once I finally gave it a chance, I was engrossed from the very beginning. The book uses many voices to tell the story, but the primary storyteller is Botille, whose confession about what happened twenty-six years ago with regard to the heretic Dolssa is full of layers as she protects the people she cares about from the Inquisitors. What really happened and what is Botille’s invention for the Inquisitor is up for debate and that is only a part of what makes this book interesting.

The second is another historical novel—published for adults—set in the 1920’s: The Other Typist. I picked up this book because of my interest in the time period, especially women’s lives at that time. I really wasn’t expecting this strange (though not necessarily in a bad way) story that left me wondering what really happened even after I finished reading. The reader knows from almost the very beginning that things don’t end well for our main character, and the story isn’t suspenseful so much as it is filled with foreboding in a way that kept me reading despite knowing that bad things were bound to happen. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a while to get there. It is a confession after all, and it takes time to get to the juicy parts of any confession, as our narrator well knows from her employment as a typist at a police station where her job is to record and type confessions.  If you can stick with the story to the end, you’ll be left fitting the pieces of Rose’s story together to determine what you think really happened.

Both of these books were engrossing in a way that surprised me. They each ended up being yet another reminder to myself to be open in my reading choices. Hey Self: Even if a book isn’t what you were expecting or if it doesn’t seem immediately appealing, give it a chance. You might be surprised.

On Wonder

I recently finished reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio aloud to my daughter, which might seem like a surprising choice to some since the book is, arguably, inspiration porn that perpetuates the idea that the people who look significantly different deserve accolades for simply existing and anyone who befriends such a person is a hero.

Frankly, that’s exactly why I chose to read it with her rather than let her find it on her own, which she likely would, considering how popular the book has become. This way we could take the story slowly to parse out what I see as the problematic elements of the story as we read. I have complicated feelings about this book as I expect that many other people in my position—people who are used to being stared at because they have a significantly different body—share. It isn’t easy to read about Auggie’s award for “bravery” at the end of the book when readers are well aware that he has done nothing to deserve it.  It really isn’t easy to watch Auggie accept the eventual popularity he gets at school, which is more condescending than it is kind. As I found reading with my daughter, these aren’t easy things to talk about either.

But in my world, it’s necessary to talk about them. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been given inordinate accolades or given apparent hero status for simply existing. Or how often my long-term partner has been seen as saintly for being with me. So when I read Wonder the first time, I read a book that portrayed ableism, especially internalized ableism, in a way that was painfully affecting and emotional. I admit, I thought it was obvious to readers that August should not have been given the award and that the mascot-like relationship he has with his peers at the end of the book was not healthy friendship. When I finished the book that first time, long before it was published, I was optimistic about the way that this book could share parts of my experience in a way that I hadn’t been able to communicate before.

Unfortunately, the book couldn’t seem to communicate it either. Or perhaps the message that I thought was there never really was. Even on re-reading it now, I’m not really sure. I still found it difficult to read at times in how realistic some of it was. The character of Miranda, in particular, felt real to me in the worst way. I have known people who feel like they deserve some sort of “credit” for befriending people who are different. I have known many, many people who feel that protecting people, the way that Miranda seeks to protect August, is love/kindness/friendship. I truly hope that no one finishes that book thinking that that’s what friendship is. That that’s what August wants from the people in his life. But I’m worried that that’s exactly what people have been getting from this book.

I love that the book has inspired so many people to Choose Kind. I only wonder if people are confusing being inspired by someone for being kind to them when the two actually have very little to do with each other. I love that the book created a place for my daughter and I to talk about healthy friendships, bravery, and other important but not often discussed topics.

I may not like the truths that this book captured about the way we treat people who are different, but that doesn’t make them any less true.  I don’t know that my thoughts about this book or about disability/ableism are fully formed or off base. Here is what I do know: one insensitive thought or action does not define you. Via isn’t a bad person for what she thinks about August. Jack isn’t evil for what he says about August. You aren’t a bad person for double-taking or staring at someone like August (or at me). You aren’t a bad person for being curious or expressing curiosity—even if you express it kind of rudely. That moment isn’t all there is. There is always more to the story. Kindness is being open to the stories you haven’t heard yet.

Choose kind, but know that sympathy isn’t kindness. Pity isn’t kindness. Special treatment isn’t kindness. Know that this book is mostly showing what not to do when it comes to kindness. For me, the book gets at a deeper truth than simply “choose kind.” It shows how the kind choice isn’t always obvious. And sometimes our instincts about kindness are wrong.

To close, here is Stella Young talking about inspiration porn:

The Names We Know (and the ones we don’t)

As I read the ARC of Untwine by Edwidge Danticat back in 2015, I found myself scribbling notes to myself. Names, mostly. The book is full of references to art, music, and history that were new to me. I had to Google Jean-Jacques Dessalines to find out that he was a leader in the Haitian Revolution. Other names dropped into the story turned out to be real contemporary artists whose work connected to the story or the characters in some way. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo were the only names that I knew.  By the time I finished the book I had a list of names—all people about whom I wanted to know more.

Imagining that teen readers of Untwine might be similarly inspired to seek out the stories behind these names, I looked for biographies I might recommend as an “If you liked Untwine” kind of reading list. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be found on teen nonfiction shelves for any of these names beyond Frida Kahlo. While I highly recommend Catherine Reef’s dual biography Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life or Carmen Bernier-Grand’s poetic tribute to the artist Frida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life! to teen readers who want to read about artists of color, two books aren’t enough to make a list or a display in a library.

It was, however, more than enough to make me think more critically about the biographies and histories I recommend for teen collections. There is power in art, music, and history that resonates with your own life, and I want those stories to be accessible to young people.

Perhaps no other book I’ve read has made the power of connecting with history more clear than Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, which I read recently. In this book, another one I finished with a scribbled list of names to Google, Jade discovers and explores African-American history and art that inspires her own art and gives her the strength to speak out. She says after a trip to the symphony with a mentoring group for at-risk young women, “I did not know about James DePreist, and I’d never heard of Marian Anderson. But tonight I feel myself dancing with them. Feel myself traveling the world.”

An “If you liked Piecing Me Together” reading list might include biographies of Marian Anderson, Romare Bearden, and York (the enslaved African explorer who traveled with Lewis and Clark) among others if there are any. It would be a small list. Perhaps Russell Freedman’s The Voice that Challenged a Nation would be the only title on it. That isn’t enough. There isn’t nearly enough for teen readers searching for themselves, for their own histories, to connect the pieces of their lives together.

As Jade, in the book, spoke out about what she deserved, I had to consider how I might use my position to speak up. I’ll be talking about Untwine and Piecing Me Together for sure. I’ll be recommending the biographies listed above and watching upcoming publishing seasons for new teen books featuring artists and musicians of color and other little known history regarding marginalized groups.  I’ve reviewed, booktalked, and recommended books like Answering the Cry for Freedom and Rad Women Worldwide. It may never be enough, but I’ll keep speaking up because I am more convinced than ever that we need these stories.

More New Kid Stories

countingthymeOnce you start looking for something, you see it everywhere. That’s how it has been for me and books about being the new kid. I wrote about Catching a Storyfish a while ago, and since then I have been compiling a list of all the books I have come across on this topic. Just counting the 2016 pub dates, there are The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin Van Draanen, Wish by Barbara O’Connor, and Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin in addition to Catching a Storyfish. Has this always been a popular theme in middle grade or is it just that I am looking for it now? Either way, I suppose, I am happy to have found these books.

I particularly liked the way that Counting Thyme explored the idea that “home is more than just a place” because when you moved as often as my family did, this was a lesson you learned quite young. In the book, though, this is Thyme’s first move, and it comes with some serious complications: her little brother is sick and they have moved across the country so that he can receive some experimental cancer treatment. This isn’t an easy situation for anyone. It hasn’t been easy for anyone in Thyme’s family for a while. She says about the move,

“When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes.”

So that’s how Thyme found herself starting middle school again and having to explain to everyone at her new school that her name is “Thyme with an H-Y” while they look at her like a creature from another planet. She doesn’t tell them that her little brother is sick because she doesn’t want to be “cancer boy’s sister.” If she has to be in New York City, she at least wants to be her own person while she’s there.

Counting Thyme is just what I love about middle grade fiction. It’s sweet and heartfelt. There are serious themes, but it isn’t overwhelming.  In the end, I was happy to have gotten to know Thyme and her family as they made their way in a new city in a difficult situation.

Check out the trailer for more:

Monday Morning Music with Lunch Duchess

iamdrumsHow many female rock drummers can you think of? I could probably come up with five or so off the top of my head. But the girl in I am Drums by Mike Grosso doesn’t know of any other girl drummers, and other kids make fun of her for being the only girl in the percussion section of her school band. Not that she lets that stop her. She’s singularly focused and determined to play the drums no matter what. Even if her parents just think it’s an expensive hobby that they can’t afford or if her classmates say girls look stupid playing drums and have no rhythm. None of that matters to her.

Still, it’s always nice to know you’re not alone.  after an assignment from her drum teacher to listen to amazing rock drummers, she discovers that other girl drummers actually do exist, including Karen Carpenter who sang while playing the drums, which is a bit of a surprise to Sam. She makes a whole list of women rock drummers to listen to for the assignment. I loved Sam’s dedication to her instrument. She didn’t always make good choices, and yet I couldn’t help but root or her in this cute story. Recommended for similarly music obsessed kids.

Today’s music choice adds to Sam’s list of amazing girl drummers: Katherine Seggerman of Lunch Duchess. Like Karen Carpenter, she is a singer/drummer. The quirky grunge-pop might not be everyone’s taste, but it’s well worth a listen.