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.

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.

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:

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:

Moving isn’t easy

Moving isn’t easy. I should know.  I moved twelve times before I was twelves years old. I considered myself quite the expert. I knew how to pack boxes and say goodbye, and I knew what to expect on the first day at a new school. I can tell with certainty that it was never easy. I never wanted to move. I never wanted to leave friends or belongings behind. I never had a choice.

yardsalelennyandlucyThere were many times when I felt like Callie in Yard Sale or Peter in Lenny & Lucy, and I don’t remember having  books like this back then.  I had to find my own way.

I’ll be honest, books like these still affect me deeply. They tell a story that I can feel in my bones: moving can feel like more than you can bear, but you will bear it. You’ll lean on your family or you’ll find some other way to cope. But you will be okay.

If my childhood taught me nothing else, it is that you will begin to feel at home anywhere if you try.

My most recent moves have been by choice. They’ve been less about emotional upheaval, and more about the usual physical upheaval of packing and unpacking. This last move was only a half a block from old to new, so the disruption of life and routine was minimal. Still, in any move, it takes conscious effort to feel at home in the new space, to create new habits, and to find the comfortable feeling that makes us happy to be there.

I am happy that books like Yard Sale and Lenny & Lucy exist. I hope they are shared widely with a wide variety of readers. I think they will resonate with anyone saying goodbye, settling in, or trying to adjust to a new set of circumstances. They certainly did for me.

How to take a road trip

arewethereyetiWe have just returned from our second road trip of the summer, and I offer you these bits of experience for any future car travel you might undertake, especially with a child.

  • The right music is key to a good road trip.  You want crowd pleasers and sing alongs for the ultimate road trip soundtrack.  The day we left happened to be a beautiful, sunny day.  Naturally, we listened to The Cure and Depeche Mode for the sing-along portion of the trip.  Later we threw in some Schoolhouse Rock for our daughter–well, maybe for us too. ;)
  • Don’t miss an opportunity to include an educational activity.  This is pretty much my motto in life for both myself and my daughter, and in this case I made a Road Trip Scavenger hunt that my daughter mostly just doodled all over.  Hey, I tried.
  • Stop to appreciate your current location when you can.  We were in a bit of a time crunch on this trip, so there were minimal stops.  We did, however, have lunch in Champaign-Urbana on our way home, which was really cool.  I hadn’t been back to my alma mater in years, and it was a neat, nostalgic side adventure.
  • If anyone in your party is prone to car sickness, stick with audio books.  On this trip, we listened to the first Harry Potter book.  My husband and daughter hadn’t read it yet or seen the movie, and it was fun to see them experience the beginning of the story for the first time.
  • For those little travelers who can read in the car, share Are We There, Yeti? by Ashlyn Anstee for a comical school bus trip that will charm readers and maybe make them forget they are stuck in a car for hours at a time.  It publishes later this month, but here is a preview:


Thursday 3: Dads in Picture Books

“Dads are so in,” Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl said in the latest episode of Pratfalls of Parenting.  I laughed when I heard that, but I think it’s true.  At least when it comes to picture books. Prove it, you say?  Here are a few new picture books that come to mind:



Dad’s First Day by Mike Wohnoutka is about a little boy’s first day of school.  The little boy is completely ready for school, but the dad isn’t quite there yet.  This is exactly how I felt when my daughter started preschool.  Very cute story for parents, especially dads.

Ask Me by Bernard Waber follows a father and daughter as they walk and talk on a fall day.  The little girl’s loquacious inquisitiveness will be familiar to many parents, and the lovely art by one of my favorite illustrators adds to the sweet father-daughter story.

Tad and Dad by David Ezra Stein is a bedtime book about a little tadpole and his very patient dad who just wants to sleep.  We’ve all been there, right?

Want more? Try these links:


Something Extraordinary

something-extraordinaryThere is something extraordinary about a wish. A wish can set your imagination free and open up possibilities.  Sometimes those wishes even come true, though perhaps they’ve always been true.  Perhaps what is happening around us is as wonderful as all the things we can imagine.

That is what I took away from Ben Clanton‘s new picture book, Something Extraordinary.  I have to admit to a particular weakness for picture books that encourage readers to slow down, observe the world closely, and appreciate it, and this book certainly falls into that category.

But I also love the idea that wishes do come true, and that our world is more vivid when we take the time to notice what is happening around us.

Read more about the book:


It’s Okay to Ask

its-ok-to-ask-thumbAsking is better than staring at me.  Asking is better than avoiding me.  Asking is better than making up something about me that isn’t true.  I have been saying these things for years–mostly assuring embarrassed parents that it’s okay that their child asked me about my prosthetic arm–but now I’m not alone.  In addition to the fantastic Jacob’s Eye Patch, now there is It’s Okay to Ask from Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.  Two picture books and me all saying the same message will surely convince people, right? ;)

On MPR News, Tom Weber spoke with a Gillette doctor and a young patient about the book and their experiences talking about disabilities, and he expressed surprise that it was okay to ask about someone’s disability.  “Has that really been the thing we said about how we should interact?” he asked more than once.  The guests assured him that questions aren’t necessarily rude.  It’s the intent behind the questions that is either friendly or rude.  I found myself nodding along at what the guests were saying over and over again.

Here’s what I know about questions:

  • “What’s wrong with you?” is probably not the best question, but even if your child does ask it that way, it’s okay.  It’s a teachable moment.  Encourage them to rephrase it without making them feel bad for being curious.
  • Questions are better than assumptions, and the best questions assume the least.  “How did you lose your arm?” for example assumes I lost an arm, which I did not, but I understand that it isn’t always easy to come up with the best phrasing on the spot.  Don’t stress about the best way to put it.  It’s usually pretty clear when someone means a question nicely.
  • Equipment makes questions easier.  I get way more questions when I am wearing my prosthetic arm than when I go without it.  It seems people are usually more comfortable asking about a piece of technology than they are about a physical difference.

I offered more points to consider in this post on The Blogunteer back in 2012.  In that post, I said:

“It’s okay to be curious. That is probably the most important thing I want to tell people.  The key is how you express your curiosity.”
That is still true.  Questions are okay.  Even poorly worded questions are okay.  The important thing is that we move past staring at or avoiding people with disabilities or physical differences.  I’d rather have to answer an impolite question than always be Other.  As in the book It’s Okay to Ask, once we get past our differences, we can get to what we have in common.
Have a question about my limb difference or prosthetic arm?  See Fake Arm 101 for answers to some common questions or send me an email with some question I haven’t covered yet:


Now Available: Wild About Shapes

wildaboutshapesWhen you see a title like Wild About Shapes, you probably think you know exactly what kind of book you’re getting.  Circles, squares, triangles, etc.  No surprises.  File it on the shelf next to the math concept books, and call it a day.  Most of the time, you’d be right on.

Not this time.

Wild About Shapes by Jeremie Fischer is nothing like you’d expect.  It is one delightful surprise after another.  The “shapes” referenced in the title are really, well, abstract blobs of color that don’t look like much of anything until you turn the acetate page. Then you can see the animal–that’s where the “wild” comes in.  In the end, it’s almost magical that way the animals appear out of nowhere.

The spiral binding will probably mean that most libraries pass on this book, and that’s a shame.  It’s a fun, kid-friendly book that will have readers of all ages considering visual perspective, color, and space.

This is a book to be experienced.  I think it will surprise you.


Thank you to Flying Eye for providing me with a review copy.  Opinions are my own.