Stories from Camp


Earlier this week, I sat at the Wood Tick table at Camp Read-a-Lot.  Fortunately, there were no actual wood ticks.  Just teachers, librarians, and books.  Lots of books.  I started the morning by standing up in front of everyone and talking about books.  I made sure to wiggle my toes and listen for background sounds to calm my nerves as a friend had suggested.  I hope it worked.  It was all a bit of a blur, to be honest.

The real memorable Camp moments were later when William Alexander took the stage.  Here is a writer who knows what stories can do.  He spoke of the contradictory way people perceive fantastic fiction–it’s silly or foolish, but it’s also dangerous.  Not unlike the way comic books or video games are often perceived.  As a culture, we keep fighting over fiction without taking into account that we are wired for storytelling.  We need stories–foolish and serious.  Kids, especially, need stories of all sorts as they work out the intricacies of their worlds.


At this point in the presentation, I was live tweeting as quickly as I could.  Eventually I stopped trying to tweet it all, but not before he thanked librarians and teachers for perpetuating the love of reading aloud.  He said, “Read aloud always. Learn what delicious language tastes like.”

I have to admit, I haven’t read Goblin Secrets.  Even after it won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, I didn’t give it a chance.  Frankly, it’s rare that I pick up a fantasy novel.  But I have been won over.  In this PW interview Alexander said, “The thing about all stories, really, but especially about fantasy, is that they have the potential to throw our basic assumptions about ourselves into question.”  Perhaps it’s time I gave the genre another chance.

Thursday 3: Great Read-alouds for Families

Recently I was in a bookstore.  You might not think that sounds like news, but it’s actually pretty rare.  Between working for a book company and being a regular library user, I don’t get to bookstores very often.  My daughter went directly to a spinning rack of easy readers with her favorite characters on the covers while I stood in the entrance to the children’s area taking in the view of all the books I have yet to read.  Frankly, it was even more overwhelming than the stack(s) of advance reading copies that are always piled on my desk at work or on the book cart that lives in my cube.  I mean, at least those books aren’t even published yet.  Here were all sorts of books old and new that either I want to read myself or that I want to read with my daughter.

Here’s the question that occurred to me as I stood there taking in all the books: How do you choose what to read with your kids?  It’s my job to know the good books, and I still felt overwhelmed.

In case anyone else out there is feeling overwhelmed, I thought I’d share a few recommendations for family read-alouds.

  • Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins – There are many, many books about toys that are secretly alive, but this book is near the top of that mountainous stack.  It’s funny and often insightful.  Not to mention, there’s the mystery of what Plastic could possibly be.  Why it Works as a Read-Aloud: There’s something about this book that appeals to a wide age-range, so for families with multiple kids of various ages, this is one you can enjoy reading with your preschooler and your primary grader.  
  • Violet Mackerel’s Remarkable Recovery by Anna Branford – I discovered this book at work and brought home the ARC to read to my five-year-old daughter.  We loved it!  Violet Mackerel is a delightful character with big ideas and creative problem solving.  We tracked down the first book in the series at the library, and we will likely keep up with the series.  Why it Works as a Read-Aloud: There are several instances of characters bursting into song that can be fun if you are willing to get into the spirit.  Also, the chapters are pretty short, so it isn’t a huge time commitment to read a bit when you can.
  • The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy – A cat who likes cheese who teams up with a bunch of mice to get what he wants?  It’s kind of silly, but it’s a lot of fun.  Why it Works as a Read-Aloud: There’s humor, wordplay, and references to Dickens and other British writers.  Some of it will go above the kids’ heads, but there’s a lot they will like here too.

Need more recommendations?  Check out this Family Reading Guide I created for a parenting group I attended.  Or the condensed version I handed out at the zine fest last year.

What have you been reading with your kids?  What have been some of your favorite read-alouds?

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made from these links may benefit this blog.  Thanks for your support! :)

If you like… Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt


In fifth grade, I was more likely to be found reading The Baby-Sitters Club than anything remotely “literary.” I was a strong reader, but I was in it for entertainment.  (To be honest, that’s probably still true.) So back in fifth grade, when my friends were all raving about some book they’d just read, the eleven-year-old me was interested but apparently not interested enough to get beyond a chapter of Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt.  It landed squarely in the “did not finish” pile, and I went back to reading comfortable formulaic series novels.

I’m happy to report that eventually my reading tastes up-leveled to more challenging choices–like Homecoming.  To my surprise, the novel I had once dismissed as boring was anything but.  It was an epic search for a home and exploration of family.  Even as an adult, I am still drawn to novels, notably by Joyce Carol Oates and Elizabeth Strout, that take on themes of home and family.

However, one thing I learned doing reader’s advisory on the front lines of a public library is that kids and teens who ask for read-alikes are usually looking for books with similar situations.  Read-alikes for adults may focus on writing style or literary themes, but for young people, it’s all about the main plot element.

In the case of Homecoming, it’s actually pretty easy.  Kids-on-their-own is quite common in children’s literature.  You might direct readers to Runaway by Wendelin Van Draanen or Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker for examples of kids making it on their own.  They are both excellent books that I recommend often.

keepingsafetheBut the book that I would reach for is Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor.  I would choose it for the kids-on-their-own plot and the Northern Minnesota setting, but mostly I would choose it for the family.  The Stars, much like the Tillermans in Homecoming, are a family that will stick with you.  And, really, that’s what I’m looking for in a Homecoming read-alike.  Highly recommended.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Families like Zach’s

This video of Zach Wahls, who was raised by two moms, speaking out about gay marriage has been going around Facebook and Twitter again.  I imagine you’ve seen it already, but if you haven’t, please take the time to listen to this well spoken young man’s words.

You might also be interested in this bibliography I made last year featuring books for kids and teens about LGBT families.  Please feel free to download and share the bibliography with anyone who might appreciate it.  I’m happy to say that the list already needs to be updated.  Here are a few more books for kids and teens that feature LGBT families:

  • Vanita Oeschlager has two books to choose from on this subject.  A Tale of Two Mommies has a boy recounting the ways his moms are different from each other.  It clearly shows how his family isn’t that different from any other.  A Tale of Two Daddies offers the same look at a different family make-up.  Both are reassuring picture books for younger kids.
  • If you are looking for something subtle, you might try Freckleface Strawberry: Best Friends Forever by Julianne Moore.  Now, I know some people have strong opinions on books by celebrity authors, but this book might be of interest for the fact that one of the characters has two moms.  It is a very brief mention, but it not a big deal at all.  Just one aspect of the character’s life.
  • For older readers, I have another celebrity authored title, Playground by 50 Cent. It is aimed at middle schoolers, and it isn’t revealed until well into the book–as the main character becomes okay with it–that the mom’s friend Evelyn is more than a friend.  The book also takes on bullying from the bully’s perspective, and it will probably appeal to kids with an interest in gritty urban fiction.
  • Teen readers might be interested in Calli by Jessica Lee Anderson, which is about a teen in a family with two moms and her relationship with the foster child they take in.  You can download the first five chapters on the author’s web site.

Feel free to share your favorite books featuring LGBT families in the comments. I’d love to have more to add to my list!

On reading children’s books

I’ve read a handful of books about raising girls in the hope that I’ll know what to say when my daughter, now three, starts asking questions about sex or searching for independence over closeness. I feel prepared now for issues of bullying and body image thanks to books like Odd Girl Out and The Body Project, but none of the books I’ve read addressed something as simple as a girl’s first crush. For that I had to turn to fiction.

After reading Nora Raleigh Baskin’s new novel for tweens, Summer Before Boys, I was reminded of the strain girls’ friendships fall under as they grow up. I want to tell my daughter to be patient, to keep her girl friends close even when they aren’t totally in sync with her. Things change quickly, and girl friends are important. This is something that even grown up girls forget, and I recommend this book, in particular, to girls of all ages.

Alice McKinley grows up in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series, and Alice in Rapture, Sort of is the “summer of the first boyfriend.” The book captures this confusing time with a particular perception. It reminded me to make sure my daughter knows that it’s okay to not know and to let her in the secret: your friends probably aren’t sure yet either.

While I continue to read books for parents, I think that children’s books have had the strongest impact on my parenting than anything I’ve read aimed at adults. With children’s books, I find myself put into the child’s (or teen’s) perspective. If it’s a good book, I walk away from it with a far greater respect and empathy for young people than I had before reading it.

This is why I continue to recommend children’s or young adult books to you. I’m not trying to say you have the mentality of a child or otherwise insult you. I’m trying to create stronger opportunities to connect with the world around you. Kids are everywhere. Don’t you ever wonder what’s going on in their world?

Library of the Early Mind

“The best children’s stories are wisdom dipped in art and words.”  –Peter Reynolds in Library of the Early Mind

This afternoon, I attended a screening of the documentary Library of the Early Mind at the Minneapolis Central Library.  The sparsely filled auditorium held librarians, teachers, and other people affiliated with the business of children’s literature, but I would love to see this film move beyond that audience.  The film is a fascinating look into what we all remember about children’s books from the people who created them.  It is a celebration of what children’s book can do, the power they have, and the way they bring stories alive.  I particularly liked the Peter Reynolds quote above, which I hope I’m remembering properly since I didn’t take notes during the film, but there were so many great moments.  Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, is hilarious.  Jack Gantos talks about life as a writer in a way that makes you really get why he would choose to smuggle a bunch of hashish into the country (or try to, at least) and how his time in prison turned him into a writer.  I highly recommend his memoir, A Hole in My Life.  And I have added another book to my endless “to read list” thanks to this movie: David Small‘s Stiches.

In the panel discussion after the film, we learned from the director that inspiration for the documentary came from an article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik about Babar, which you can listen to here.  He also mentioned that right as the film was about to be released the New York Times started the discussion about picture books possible demise (read that here).  The members of the panel were of the opinion that picture books are not dead or dying.  The field is changing, but the love of story remains strong.  And picture books remain a powerful way of telling stories.

Here is the trailer:

This is a movie for anyone interested in stories. There is another screening tomorrow evening at the Galaxie Library in Apple Valley. Check it out.