The Stories Behind the News

As I type, I have Minnesota Public Radio News playing in the background.  We usually have MPR News playing at home or in the car. And we often find ourselves discussing what we’ve heard throughout the day or read on other news outlets at dinner.  My husband and I make time for debates and for the recent political party conventions, and we talk about them and about the issues they raise.  A lot. In front of our eight-year-old daughter.*

Sometimes it’s easy to think that she probably isn’t paying attention to the radio or to the conversations we are having about politics or issues, but every once in a while, she’ll interject a question or a comment that brings us back into the smaller world of our dining room table and forces us to consider how to explain issues related to race and police brutality, terrorism and refugees, or other difficult topics to a privileged eight-year-old kid. Honestly, I don’t always want to explain any of these things to her. There is a part of me that wants to turn off the radio and keep our discussions fixed on sunshine and lollipops until after our daughter’s bedtime.

In reality, I know that keeping her disconnected from the world won’t do her anymore favors than overwhelming her with information will, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to find the appropriate balance. While my advice is probably just repeating what I’ve read or heard from others, here’s what has worked for me: Find out what your child already knows before you start explaining something. It turned out that my daughter already knew a great deal on the subject of refugees from classroom discussions at school last year, so when the subject was in the news again, she wanted to join our dinner time discussion with her own thoughts and opinions.

journeyFor parents or teachers who want to give age-appropriate context to words like “migrant” and “refugee,” I recommend The Journey by Francesca Sanna. This picture book is about an unnamed child and her family whose lives are disrupted by war. It is a powerful look at the refugee experience that came from author/illustrator Francesca Sanna’s desire to capture the stories of the people behind the news, which is important for helping kids understand and empathize. Sanna’s book doesn’t shy away from the darkness, but it still offers some sense of hope. It’s a book that will linger in your mind, as Julie Danielson put it in this Kirkus feature, and I think that’s true for both child and the adult readers.

When I read it with my daughter, we talked about the power of stories and imagination as it is portrayed in the book. We discussed the open-ended conclusion of the book and shared ideas about where a family might find safety if they needed it. No matter what you’ve gleaned from news stories about immigrants and refugees, The Journey will deepen what you know. I know it did for us.


*Within reason, of course. Here is a guide from PBS Parents about kids and the news that gives some good advice.

On being the new kid

catchingI started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.

Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”

“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock.  My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.”  I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”

Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”

Read more about Catching a Storyfish:

  • Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
  • School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”


In Words and Pictures


While it was Young Adult Literature that drew me to the world of children’s book initially, once I started exploring picture books, I fell in love with picture book illustration as an art. I loved the variety, the experimentation, and the visual storytelling evident in the picture books I saw. I can’t claim to be an expert on artistic styles or media, but I know what I like, and after over ten years in the kidlit world, I have a pretty good idea of what works with kids, critics, or both.

The In Words and Pictures exhibit at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design is an opportunity to see a small window into the picture book world to get a sense of what is possible when it comes to picture book illustration. The exhibit includes Debra Frasier’s cut paper collages from A Fabulous State Fair Alphabet, Betsy Bowen’s wood block prints from Antler, Bear, Canoe, and a variety of other artistic styles. But the really interesting part, for kidlit fanatics like myself or kids who are curious about the story behind the books, are the notes and sketches paired with the art that give a sense of the process.

What better way to show kids that the process is messy than to show them the way a rough sketch goes through so many iterations before it becomes the book they know and love?

winterithewarmestI must admit, I was particularly captivated by Lauren Stringer’s paintings from Winter is the Warmest Season, which has long been one of my favorite wintery picture books.  But all the artists and books in the exhibit—from veterans of the field like Nancy Carlson to some that were new to me—taken together offer a fascinating look at the different paths that these stories take from idea to publication and all the twists and turns in between.

If you can get there in the next few days, I highly recommend In Words and Pictures to families. Even those who aren’t usually drawn to art exhibits may find that the opportunity to see where your favorite books come from or discover a new favorite is the real pull here. While you’re there, have a seat in the cozy reading nook and grab a book to read. Whether you are a book lover or an art appreciator, it’s well worth the visit.

What Cats Want

hissyHaving recently read Hissy Fitz by Patrick Jennings, a book written from the point of view of a cat, my eight-year-old has taken to espousing bits of cat related wisdom as though she hasn’t heard us say basically the same thing again and again.

Most recently: “You don’t pet a cat. You let a cat pet you.”

I suppose it could be kind of annoying to have her acting as though such cat facts are new to her when they really shouldn’t be, but since she is actually remembering to feed and water our cat on her own now that she has read this book, I can’t complain too much. ;)

Read more about Hissy Fitz:

Or read more from a cat’s point of view:

  • My Pet Human by Yasmine Surovec
  • Little Cat’s Luck by Marion Dane Bauer

Monday Morning Music with Sleater-Kinney

“Girl Groups: Because no one can do it alone.”

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I have particular affection for YA novels that reference music that I like. So when the BFF character in We Were Never Here by Jennifer Gilmore gives the main character an “old-school” mix CD of girl bands with the words above stenciled on the case, I cheered. She’s right. We can’t do it alone, and while music can’t fix our problems, it can save us. As the protagonist notes in the book: “There are different ways to be saved.”

On that note, here is some Sleator-Kinney. Because you can’t do it alone.

Also on my girl group playlist: Bruise Violet.

Apartment Life

brownstoneSeveral months ago, my daughter decided that jumping rope was her new favorite thing to do. Since most of my family’s favorite things to do are not even close to strenuous physical activity, I was happy to encourage her interest in jumping rope.

The problem? It was winter, and we live in an apartment.

It didn’t take too many thumps on the floor for us to declare, “No jumping rope inside.” But I admit I had a vision the apartment life in The Brownstone by Paula Scher in which the residents of an urban apartment building shuffle living spaces to create just the right sense of harmony. It isn’t easy when you have hibernating bears living below tap dancing kangaroos or a jump roping eight-year-old.

I’m happy we live on the first floor with no neighbors beneath us. I’ve lived in all  sorts of apartments as a child and as an adult, and I can tell you from experience that it isn’t easy to live so close to a kangaroo when you’re a bear. These days, I’m just trying not to be the kangaroo to anyone else.

Fortunately, it’s spring, and we can finally send our jumping roping eight-year-old outside.

Whether you live in an apartment with kids or not, The Brownstone is a humorous look at problem solving and getting along with whoever you happen to live near. Recommended.

More about The Brownstone:

Reading Sad Stories

What is it about tearjerkers that always pull me in? Books like The Secret Hum of a Daisy, The Thing About Jellyfish, and Counting by 7s are among my favorite recent children’s novels. Each book explores loss and grief in a way that feels very profound to me, though I have not experienced such loss myself. Not like the kids in those stories anyway.

No one I have been close to has died–a fact for which I am quite grateful. But my childhood was marked by regular losses, of a sort, as my family moved again and again for the first twelve years of my life. It wasn’t death, but it was a real grief that I felt as I left behind friends and familiarity for an unknown place with people who didn’t belong to me.  I feel like I spent my childhood saying goodbye and searching for a sense of home. Not so different from the kids in those books.

freeverseFree Verse by Sarah Dooley struck a particular chord with me. In the story Sasha lives in a mining town. Everyone in the town is affected when there is an accident in the mine. They all know how dangerous it is, and yet the miners go to work every day regardless. That’s the job.

That was my dad’s job for most of his life. He called himself a miner, but he didn’t actually extract anything from the earth. “Tunneller” would perhaps be more accurate as he and his crew dug mostly sewer tunnels several hundred feet underground. No less dangerous than any other sort of mining, I assure you. But that was the job.

Sasha has lost everyone she loves. Her father to the mines. Her mother to the wider world. Her brother, most recently, to a fire. As she finds a new family and a new sense of home, it isn’t easy for her to make sense of the choice to work in the mine when you have a family. Her cousin Hubert tries to explain, and I felt like my dad would be nodding in agreement if he heard Hubert’s speech about how proud he is of his work.  It’s work that matters. It’s work that not just anyone can or will do. “The equipment, the training–it’s not some dumb hillbilly job,” he tells Sasha.

Still Sasha asks, “But if something bad happens to the guy in your job, where would his family be?”

Hubert doesn’t have an easy answer to that. Neither did my dad, I suppose, though I admit we didn’t talk much about it.

Perhaps that’s what draws me to these stories. I may be a grown up who has never experienced the loss of a loved one like the kids in these books, but there is a part of me that will always be trying to sort through difficult questions and find a sense of home for myself where the answers–never easy–at least feel like they fit.

Each of these stories offer a bit of hope that we can find what we will find our fit if we keep trying. If we keep letting new people into our lives, if we listen to their stories, and try to understand, we’ll create a sense of home.  These are the stories, Free Verse especially, I wanted to find as a kid to get me through the goodbyes and the questions.

Crocodile Stories

It seems to be a general rule that every story in which an amputee character gets any page time at all will also feature a crocodile. Or maybe a shark or a tiger. It doesn’t matter what wild animal one chooses, and it doesn’t matter what the truth of the story is. What matters is surprising people.

No one expects much from a less than fully limbed person, and I can speak from personal experience when I say that it can be rather draining to live a life in which people don’t expect you to be able to tie your own shoes or do much of anything for yourself. I surprise people on a near daily basis by my ability to accomplish the most basic of tasks.  In a world of such constant underestimation, there is an almost irresistible pull to really surprise people, to shock them into considering their assumptions, to change the story they’ve told themselves. That’s where the wild animals come in.  No one ever expects a crocodile.

While it is perhaps something of a cliche for an amputee character to make up some wild story about their limb loss, I can’t deny that it happens. I laughed when I read  the scene in A Time to Dance when Veda responds to rude people with a crocodile story. I’d have done much the same if I were her. I did much the same many times as a teen. I am, and always have been, happy to answer questions asked kindly, but there was a time in my youth when rude questions, comments, or staring were almost certainly answered rudely or with a crocodile story intended to shut down the conversation by surprising people.

In The Doldrums, Adelaide tells a crocodiledoldrums story with the words “chewed it clean off” when a man stares at her prosthetic leg. The man is so surprised he leaves the cafe without his coffee.  Later she finds that the story works initially with the other kids at her new school, but it quickly gets out of hand.  A word of advice: if your goal is to shut down the conversation, a crocodile story will only work with adults.  Kids will just be more interested and probably call you “crocodile girl.” That is exactly what happens to Adelaide. It isn’t exactly a winning strategy for getting people to leave you alone, and it definitely won’t make you any friends.

However, I have found that it is often the people who don’t react quite like everyone else who make the best of friends.  Adelaide’s crocodile story makes Archer, a wannabe adventurer, jealous. “It’s an odd thing to be jealous of a girl whose leg was eaten by a crocodile. Few people would be jealous of that. But Archer was few people. And it wasn’t so much the loss of a limb as it was the entire story.” That, of course, is the beginning of a real friendship, or at least, it becomes a real friendship when they eventually get past Adelaide’s story and Archer’s jealousy.

It has been a very long time since I told a crocodile story about myself. These days I am much more focused on keeping the conversation open, but there are times when I am tempted. Especially considering the real story of my limb difference is so boring. Of course, I’ve learned that the boring story is the most unexpected of all.  The truth is, I’ve gotten so much more surprise from “I was born this way” than I ever did from any wild animal story I told as a kid.


My Newbery & Caldecott Award Picks

I may say this every year, but it always seems true: It has been a good year for children’s books.  As usual, I am more excited about the Youth Media Awards announcement on Monday than I am about the Academy Awards or the Grammy’s or any other honor. Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, etc. These are the awards that matter in my world.

drumdreamgirlmarketstreet_bgThere are so many great picture books this year, but there are two, in particular, that I really want to be honored in some way on Monday.  Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, which I blogged about here, is a personal favorite. It’s a quiet story, but full of warmth.  Dream Drum Girl by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael López is a book for dreamers of any age. I am rooting for both of these to pick up a Caldecott Medal or Honor.  But I realize that the competition is tough.

thingaboutjellyfishechowarthatsavedThe Newbery is a harder to predict for me as I haven’t been able to read as many of the eligible titles this year.  Of what I have read, three stand out: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, and The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  I think all three of these might make you cry a little, if you’re like me anyway, but they all offer a bit of hope too.  No matter how the awards shake out on Monday, I hope you’ll read them and share them.

I’ll decline to mention any Printz hopefuls due to potential overlap with the Walter Award (my service on the Walter Award committee means that my opinions on these books are confidential), but I am looking forward to returning to my usual endless chatter about teen fiction in 2016.  Stay tuned! ;)

Homeschooling never ends

thisismyhomeI quit school after sixth grade.  I’d already already attended five different elementary schools and one middle school in six states, and the twelve-year-old me felt like I’d seen all that public school options had to offer. I was pretty sure I could do just as well educating myself as many of the schools I’d experienced. Probably better in the case of the last school I attended.

So I spent the summer between sixth and seventh grade convincing my parents to let me quit, to let me take charge of my own education.  It took all summer, but it worked.  That was how we became homeschoolers. It was a wonderful and empowering experience for me, and while I have chosen public school for my daughter, I still strongly support homeschooling as an option. It has become much more mainstream in the years since my family homeschooled, but it’s still really rare to see a homeschooling family in a children’s book.  That’s why I was really excited about Jonathan Bean‘s new semi-autobiographical picture book, This is my Home, This is my School.

I completely agree with what Jonathan Bean says in the author’s note: “Homeschooling never ends.” The mindset behind my family’s decision to homeschool has stayed with me. I still look for opportunities to learn wherever I am, to explore my community, and to take on new projects. I hope that no matter where my daughter attends school, she picks up on the values that I still hold from my homeschooling experience.

Read more about This is my Home, This is my School: