Class of 2017 or 2018 or 2019 . . .

It’s that “dads and grads” time of year again. When I was growing up, graduations were only a special event for high school and college, but these days, there are graduations from every possible school year or event!

There are some wonderful, meaningful gifts you can give to the graduate in your life that will last much beyond the summer of 2017. One of our favorites is Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Buy this while your child is young. Each year, take it to your child’s teacher and have him or her sign a little message to your child. How meaningful it will be when you give it to your child at the end of high school or college, after the significant people in his/her life have written special messages! A true keepsake.

If you haven’t prepared for that long-term commitment and you’ve got a graduation this year, we have other wonderful gifts. For the writer and reader, we have beautiful journals that use the text of a classic book as the lines for writing. Your young writer will be inspired that he/she is writing on the words of a famous author!

If you are having a graduation party this year, pick up a unique gift that many people can participate in: Letters to the Graduate. Everyone at the party can write a letter to the graduate, and they are all stored in one collection for the graduate to read in years to come.

And a book signed by the author would make a wonderful gift for any child or any age. We have a large selection—from Little Goldens to picture books to chapter books. A specially chosen book is a treasured gift. Congratulations to you and the new graduates in your life! Let us know how Once Upon a Storybook can start them on their “happily ever afters.”

My New FAVORITE Picture Book!

What can you say about a story about a French snail? How about, "Oui oui!"

We get new picture books every single week, and sometimes I get a bit weary of the same themes, the same plots, the same sweet illustrations. They’re all wonderful, of course, but there’s nothing that sets them apart.

Today we opened Escargot by Dashka Slater. It’s unassuming enough . . . with a cute little snail (dressed in a French striped shirt and ascot) on the cover. But when you start reading it, you immediately see that Escargot is a pretty special snail—He tells you so himself! You know that slimy trail snails leave behind? Well, Escargot is so proud of his shiny trail, and he wants to know if you, the reader, have one too!

Escargot’s mission is to get to the salad at the end of the book, and using reader involvement, he gets there! You get to rub his shell and make scary faces (but not too scary!). Just try reading this book without a French accent! I’m not good with accents, but it’s written so that you can manufacture one pretty easily, and it surely shows Escargot’s true personality when read that way.

This is a clever, fun, entertaining story with a unique character (just watch, we’ll have a run on snail stories now). The way he interacts with the reader is endearing. After a few reads, I bet a snail will be on your list of your favorite animals!

Preparing for the Red Carpet of Literature!

In the bookselling industry, there is no bigger day than the Monday morning each year when the Youth Media Awards are announced by the American Library Association. Nerdy book people like me will be up at the crack of dawn to hear the audio feed live, as the awards are announced on the East Coast. There are numerous awards, like the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for "substantial and lasting contributions to children's literature" and the EB White Award, given to the best read aloud. But, of course, the final awards of the morning are the Caldecott and the Newbery Awards.

In the scheme of things, my little opinion doesn’t count for much—certainly the Newbery and Caldecott committees don’t listen to me!—but I am going to share my predictions/hopes for this year’s awards with you. This is a big step for me—it is my first year of making actual predictions on paper.

The Newbery Award is given to the best written book of the previous year. It is almost always a chapter book for the 4th-6th grade set, but last year we were all surprised that a picture book, Last Stop of Market Street was chosen. Here’s my prediction for this year:

Pax by Sara Pennypacker This is a book about a boy and his dog. Except that the dog isn’t a dog—he’s a fox. But he’s been raised since he was a kit by Peter. The story starts with Peter’s father driving Peter and Pax to a remote area—where the father insists Peter give up Pax. Peter reluctantly gives up his pet, but feels incredible remorse and realizes later that he must rescue Pax, who has never spent a day in the wilderness on his own.

Pax, once he is dropped off, just sits by the side of the road, knowing that his boy somehow mistakenly left him there and that, of course, he will soon return.

The book is the process of Peter and Pax reuniting. But as they get closer to each other, more and more time passes. And with each passing day, Pax reverts more to his fox nature.

The beauty of this book is in the perspectives. Told completely in third person, we see the story of Peter in the odd chapters and the story of Pax in the odd chapters. Pax is not anthropomorphized at all—as he becomes more in tune with his instincts, we see how foxes really perceive, react, and live. These are my favorite chapters.

So what happens when Pax and Peter finally meet up? It ends the only way it could end, and it is beautiful.

The Caldecott Medal is award to the best illustrated book of the previous year. There are so many incredible entries. Just when I think I’ve made up my mind, a blogger will mention one that I hadn’t really considered. Then I add another one to my list.

This is my prediction for the Caldecott Award:

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel This amazing picture book is all about perspective. Many different animals come across the cat as he wanders inside and outside, and they all see him differently. Literally. The bee sees him with its 100 eyes. The fish sees him through a water-filled glass bowl. Some of the animals “see” the cat with their instinct or preconceptions. Like the dog, who truly has no respect for the cat, sees the cat as lanky and snarly. This creative perspective on how we look at things has a lot of crossover for how people look at animals, other people, and situations—we all see things differently. So much good discussion can be had from this wonderful, colorful story.

Be a Friend by Salina Yoon We at Once Upon a Storybook have a Salina Yoon bias, we must admit. But, truly, we believe this book is worth a Caldecott. The color palette is beautiful for storytelling, and the use of dotted lines to show how Dennis, the main character—a mute boy—talks with his hands, is really unique. I really love this book. It tells a beautiful story of friendship, both through words and pictures, which complement each other perfectly.

Miracle Man by John Hendrix I am a Christian, which might make you think I am biased toward this book. But if you take a look at it, you, too, will be wildly impressed by the creative artistry of John Hendrix, who uses creative typeface to tell the story. “Rise and Walk,” Jesus’ words to the lame man, are created as buildings of the town. Every page takes awesome liberties with text. Butterflies float together to make the word “Alive.” Yes, this is the story of God’s Son, Jesus and how He walked the Earth. But it is also an artistic masterpiece. Please take a look at it!

There are dozens of books that could win Caldecotts and Newberys this year. There is traditionally a single book that wins each Medal, but there are also Honor books (sometimes too many!), so my hope is that at least ONE of my predictions/selections will be chosen as a Medal or Honor winner.

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Sharing Your Thankfulness . . . with a Book

Are you spending Thanksgiving Day at someone’s house this year? An aunt? A grandma? A neighbor? Etiquette dictates that you take a little gift to thank that person for his or her hospitality. And we have just the perfect thing!

There are two amazing books for Thanksgiving.

In November by Newbery Medalist Cynthia Rylant is richly illustrated with Jill Kastner’s warm fall watercolors. You want to curl up inside the book and feel as cozy as the people in the paintings. This beautiful poem to November will remind you why it is such a special time of year. It would make a beautiful gift to anyone with or without children. Displaying this book at Thanksgiving will remind all of your family and friends about the warmth of Thanksgiving memories.

Giving Thanks is compiled and edited by Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson. The amazing illustrations in this collection of sayings, poems, and scripture, are done with the cut paper art of scherenschnitte. Because the entries are all different lengths, it is a wonderful gift for a family with children of any age. Including this book in your Thanksgiving decorating will remind your family and friends to be reflective and intentional with their thanks.

Both of these books are on display at Once Upon a Storybook between now and Thanksgiving, and we hope you will come in to see their beauty. I bet there is someone in your life for whom you are so thankful that a book about thanksgiving would be the perfect gift.

Powerful Books for Significant Events

September 11.

For anyone over the age of 20, the date evokes a powerful feeling. Not only did we see what happened, but we felt the fear, talked with friends and family for weeks, and saw—firsthand—the changes it made in our culture.

But children don’t have that same connection with that event. They did not live through it. For them it is an historical event. How do we go about teaching children of the significance of that event without filling them with fear or giving them more information than they can handle?

We are very fortunate to be living in a time when books are written for kids that deal with significant topics in a sensitive way. There are a number of books about 9/11 for kids of all ages, just like there are books about WWI for kids of all ages. These books can show the events of a terrible tragedy but in a way that helps the child feel safe.

I would like to highlight four titles that help kids understand what happened on September, 11, 2001.

Fireboat (Maira Kalman) 2005
This wonderful book shows the history of a fireboat in NY Harbor that came out of retirement on 9/11 to aid with the firefighting, rescue, and recovery. The first half of the book talks about the job of the harbor fireboat. Then the book shows what happened to the Twin Towers. Because the art is somewhat abstract, the falling of the buildings does not look like the video we have all seen over and over again. It does not show anything violent or graphic. Fireboat emphasizes the heroes and the job they did in helping people during a very difficult day. This book is appropriate for 1st grade and above.

14 Cows for America (Naiyomah) 2008
Maasai tribal members, after hearing the story of the September 11 attacks from a young Maasai who was in New York on that day, decide to present the American people with 14 sacred cows as a healing gift. This beautiful story is more about sacrifice and healing than the painful event and shows how the world comes together after a tragedy. This books is appropriate for 2nd grade and above.

Nine, Ten: A September 11th Story (Baskin) 2016
This story is about four kids, from different parts of the country, whose lives intersect during 9/11. The book deals specifically with the day 9/11 happened and how it affects these four children. This book is appropriate for 4-6th graders and above.

The Memory of Things (Polisner) 2016
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 16-year-old Kyle Donohue watches the first Twin Tower come down from the window of Stuyvesant High School. Moments later, terrified and fleeing home, he stumbles across a girl perched in the shadows, covered in ash, and wearing a pair of costume wings. Kyle makes the split-second decision to bring the girl home. What follows is their story, told in alternating points of view, as Kyle tries to unravel the mystery of the girl so he can return her to her family. This is a stunning story of friendship and first love and of carrying on with our day-to-day living in the midst of world-changing tragedy and unforgettable pain—it tells a story of hope. This book is appropriate for ages 12 and up.

Of course every child is different. Every parent needs to decide what his or her children are ready for. But please remember that books are safe places to explore difficult topics, including historical events. Use them as tools to teach, train, and encourage sensitivity in your children. And as you share these powerful historical stories, you will have the opportunity to share what you experienced and felt on a life-changing day in history.

A Revelation about Graphic Novels

I’ve never been much a fan of graphic novels. I can appreciate the art. And I have been taught about the literary significance of this new genre. They just haven’t appealed to me much.

Graphic novels are a combination of comic style art and storytelling. Readers have to navigate sometimes a whole page at a time, rather than the traditional linear style of reading, line by line. Sometime the reader has to read an image and its accompanying text vertically, sometimes speech bubbles overlap each other, and sometimes, like I said above, a whole page of image has to be read. This very visual genre is a sophisticated type of storytelling for a generation of readers that is already very adept at reading images and at reading text from multiple angles. (When you read a website, you can access information in a variety of ways—there is almost no one right way to get information on a website, and young readers are picking up this skill much faster than those of us who have always read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.)

Today, thanks to the recommendation of a young friend and professional reader, Maddy Posner, I purchased and read (in one sitting!) Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge. Reading this book was a completely new reading experience for me. I did have to navigate pages in a whole new way, but this story made it very easy. And I really don’t know how this book could have been written any other way. As a reader, I got to see inside protagonist Paige’s head and inside her art journal entries. It was magically expressed. Perhaps my favorite thing about Page by Paige, though, was that as I was reading it, not only did it speak to me and remind me of my insecurities as a high schooler, but I kept thinking of people I had to recommend it to throughout my reading excursion. I literally thought of five specific people who would love it for different reasons. The reader gets to watch Paige develop her voice right before his/her eyes. She moves from introverted and insecure to confident and ready to take risks . . . because it is a graphic novel, we get to see it.

The writing was beautiful and lyrical and the words are often woven into the artistic images. The art is pen sketches that reflect the feelings and attitudes of an insecure high school girl who has just moved to the big city.

This is what graphic novels should be—not just comic books but visual representations of stories. I hope you will pick up Page by Paige (for 5th graders and up) or Roller Girl (Jamieson) or Smile (Telgemeier) or El Deafo (Bell) or The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Selznick) or BabyMouse (Holm) or Lunch Lady (Krosoczka) or any one of the other very interesting graphic novel titles that we carry. They may not be your favorite genre, but the style is very likely going to speak to your kids.

Making Orange County History Come Alive

There is a book that has been on my shelves for a year and a half, and despite it being a double-medal winner, I had never read it . . . until a man came in my store a few days ago to purchase and educate me about this treasure.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation is the factual story of the Mendez’s fight for their children to receive an equal education. Had it been appealed at the state level, this story would have been the Brown vs Board of Education of the 1940s. Instead, it was decided at the state level that the Mendezes were treated unfairly and were able to attend the previously all-white school.
There are two reasons every Orange County classroom should have this book. First, it is a significant story (told for children) about the history of school acceptance. It shows injustice and how a family bravely and legally fought for their rights. It is inspiring, as we see Sylvia Mendez be rejected from the all-white school and then have the victory that resulted in her having the right to attend that school and learn and make friends there.

Second, this is a local story. This happened in the Westminster School District in the 1940s. The locations of “Santa Ana,” “Westminster,” “Garden Grove,” “El Modena,” “Orange County,” and even “17th Street” are specifically mentioned. There are so few children’s books that are specifically about Orange County, and this one is an award-winner! This is the way history comes alive for children. They will read about Sylvia’s school on 17th Street, and later that day, they can be driving along on 17th Street themselves!

The illustrations by author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh are a combination of collage and contemporary illustration. They are unique and folkloric at the same time.

Teachers, school librarians, principals of Orange County, do you have this book in your school library? It is a must-have for every school! Come by and read it today to see for yourself!

Take Me Away!

Summer reading should have an element of escapism. Here’s a wonderful quote from a new book, Fleabrain Loves Franny (Joanne Rocklin) that describes the experience of getting lost in a story: “When Franny read a book, the waiting stopped. Pittsburgh time slipped away when she was reading, and only the hours of the other worlds were true” (p27).

Fantasy is especially magical in this way. When a world has its own unique setting and creatures, it is easy to be absorbed in its world and forget your own. Although most fantasy is known for castles, adventure, magical creatures, even books with talking animals are considered fantasy and encourage kids to think outside the limitations of their bedrooms.
Harry Potter is an obvious choice for a great fantasy summer read. With seven volumes, a reader can become completely absorbed in the world of Hogwarts. But if you’ve already read the Harry Potter series, here are some other ideas to help you escape to a new world:

  1. Keeper of the Lost Cities (Shannon Messenger). In this fantasy series, Sophie Foster has never quite fit into her life. The reason? Sophie’s a Telepath, someone who can read minds. No one knows her secret—at least, that’s what she thinks… Sophie has hidden memories that she needs to uncover to save the world, and she will do it with the help of a new Telepath friend. The 5th and final book in this series will be released this November, AND the author, Shannon Messenger, will be coming to Once Upon a Storybook in August!
  2. Peter Pan (Barrie) The ultimate story about a kid who won’t grow up has spawned a number of new fantasy adventures (like Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry). Peter’s world is a child-centered adventureland. Especially appropriate for boys, Barrie’s book is full of mischievous fairies, aggressive boys, and wayward pirates.
  3. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis) This notable story from the Lewis Narnia series is the most enchanting of the books in the classic series. This ultimate good vs. evil story, known for its spiritual allegory, stands firmly on its own even for the most secular readers.
  4. Roald Dahl books (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, James & the Giant Peach, The BFG) Everything by Dahl has a unique Dahlish voice that makes the fantastic seem normal and the normal seem strange. A little big ghoulish, a little bit fantastical, and a little bit morbid—these books hook kids because of their oddness and creative use of language.
  5. Fairest (Gail Carson Levine). Takeoffs on the traditional fairy tales, Levine modifies her stories just enough that you know you are not reading the original. The twist in Fairest is that members of the kingdom are judged on the quality of their voices, which is especially powerful for one who can “throw her voice” to help others. Especially good for girls, as the protagonists are female, readers will enjoy Levine’s twists on the typical fairy tale.
  6. Land of Stories (Chris Colfer) In this magical series, a brother and sister duo fall into fairy tale land and need to rescue their father who has fallen in previously. All of the typical fairy tale characters live in various regions of this world, and readers enjoy running into the Big Bad Wolf and Sleeping Beauty, among others. The latest book in this series has just been released!

There is no end to the variety of books in the fantasy category. Let us help you choose an interesting one today!

Choosing a Newbery for Your Summer Reading

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Let a summer read take you to a new place—a new place in history or a new place of knowledge or a new place in your imagination !

One way to do this is to choose books that have been chosen before . . . by “experts.” Newbery Award winners are proven to be high quality and stimulating reads. The American Library Association has chosen these books over all others published in the same year, as the very best for children. You can trust that the author will take you on a special journey.

Don’t know where to start? Give one of these a try:

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A Wrinkle in Time (Madelyn L’Engle, 1963) The beginning of science fiction for many kids, A Wrinkle in Time is an incredible story of family love in the backdrop of multiple dimensions. Every world proves to have its unique challenges, but Meg will find her way through them because of her family. This is a book every 12-yr-old girl should read--and it’s great for boys, as well!

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (O’Brien, 1972) My favorite read aloud is also a wonderful journey for the imagination for reading silently. Just the cover and title alone give enough info to make the reader ask lots of questions! In this very realistic story, rats have built a sustainable community under a human farm. Mrs. Frisby needs their help to move her very ill son from their home among the crops before the farmer comes in with the tractor and tills them under. Reading about her story and the evolution of the rats is very adventurous!

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Wilma Taylor, 1977) This historical fiction novel will feel particularly relevant to this summer’s events and give young readers a lot to mull over. What is “equal”? What is “fair”? What is “just”? Watching the experiences of the Logan family will stir up empathy for readers.

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The Giver (Lowry, 1994) The beginning of dystopian literature, this book is an amazing look at a futuristic society where “sameness” is valued and emotional connection is more than discouraged. Readers will empathize with Jonas, as he learns about the history of emotions and has to decide what to do with his new knowledge.

Tale of Despereaux (Kate DiCamillo, 2004) In the framework of a fairy tale, readers are guided through this fantasy in four parts. The characters, both animal and human, are rich and the perspectives varied. Readers will learn to understand loneliness and differentness from this story.

There are gobs more Newbery Honor and Award winners at Once Upon a Storybook. Always look for the silver or gold sticker on the cover to be assured of the quality of a purposeful and absorbing story!

Understanding Leveled Readers

As little ones are just learning to read, it is especially important to have appropriate reading material for them to practice with. These books will not only support the skills they are developing, but they will foster this new passion with appealing story lines, favorite characters, and fun facts that will encourage them to continue coming to books for information and entertainment.

The way publishers have done this is with a system of books called “leveled readers.” The stories are classified from easiest to most difficult based on the vocabulary, sentence structure, print size, number of pages, and print-to-illustration ratio. The frustrating thing is that each publisher has its own methodology for classifying its levels. So a Level One from the I Can Read! series by HarperCollins is not necessarily comparable to a Level One in the National Geographic leveled readers series.

So how to know what is the best reader for your child? Let’s learn a little about how these readers are set up:

If you look on the back side of the reader, you will be “trained” on each publisher’s techniques for ranking the levels. For instance, for a “Level 1, Beginning Reading” in the I Can Read! Series, the description is “Simple sentences for eager new readers.” So most of the sentences will have the traditional “Subject—Predicate” format. What this doesn’t tell you is about the level of vocabulary. Many I Can Read! Level 1s have compound and multi-syllabic words, like “everything,” “beginning,” and “nonsensical.” There are also words that are more complicated than a simple phonetic structure, like “fashion.” So if you are choosing Level 1 for kids who are just learning their sounds and know some sight words, you will have a frustrated child! This is a good series of stories based on favorite characters, though, like Fancy Nancy and Pete the Cat. Reading about their favorite characters is definitely motivating to young readers!

The Step Into Reading series, though, has this definition for their Level 1: “Preschool-Kindergarten. Does your child know the alphabet? Is your child eager to begin reading? Step 1 is the perfect step! Big type and easy words, rhyme and rhythm, picture clues.” In Level 1 for Step Into Reading, there is typically a single large print sentence on each page. The vocabulary is simpler.

There are a couple of reader series that I particularly love because they are arranged by short/long vowel sounds, which tends to be how early readers learn to read. The first is the Usborne phonic readers. They have cute titles like Bee Makes Tea and Ants in Underpants and emphasize a single vowel sound in each book. My favorite leveled reader series is from a small publisher called Brave Mouse Books. These darling stories are illustrated with photographs of hand-created felt animals. The stories are truly engaging, especially for the limited vocabulary available for each vowel sound. If you are looking for short stories to reinforce phonics principles, you should definitely have a look at these!

All leveled readers are good for a few things.

  1. They introduce the concept of story very well. Because they are relatively short, kids are able to see the beginning/middle/end of a story as they read.
  2. They have a lot of color illustration/photography, which is both engaging and helpful to the reading process. Early readers can take clues from the illustration to understand the vocabulary.
  3. They are helpful for fluency. Kids tend to read Leveled Readers over and over again. My daughter kept a bin of them under her bed and read them at night. As they reread the same stories, they will become familiar with the vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammar of our written language. They will start to see quotation marks and question marks and how the characters respond to those symbols. Kids who reread the same material become stronger readers!

Leveled readers are not going to teach children to read, but they can be a great supplement and reinforcement for those early reading skills.

Thoughts on Summer Reading

Well, it certainly is summer in Southern California! We’ve gone from May gray to June gloom to the current and predictable hot days of summer. Since you don’t want to feel like you are constantly having to entertain your kids during this two-month school break, help them get started on their summer reading so they can entertain themselves!
Over 30 years of research has shown that children who do not read during the summer actually lose a percentage of the academic gains they made during the school year.

According to the School Library Journal (Nov 2010, “Summer Reading Programs Boost Student Achievement, Study Says”), formal summer reading programs even increase students’ reading skills during the “down time” of summer:
Based on the findings of a recent three-year study by Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, we can confirm what many librarians have long suspected: students who take part in their local library’s summer reading program significantly improve their reading skills. In fact, we found that kids who participate in these programs are 52 Lexile points ahead of their peers who do not.
Woohoo! A shout-out to summer reading programs like ours 

I loved summer reading as a kid—you probably did too. I remember hours of lying on my bed reading Nancy Drew, Judy Blume, Madeline L’Engle, and Beverly Cleary. I remember finding new treasures at the library. I remember checking out cookbooks and how-to books, joke books, and activity books, and then taking them home to try them out.

Most schools have a required summer reading list for their students. That is great! There is not enough time to read every great classic, so encourage your child to enjoy these opportunities to be introduced to great classics that other kids have been reading for generations. And if you didn’t have a chance to read that classic, read it along with the kids! It’ll give you some great things to discuss, and it will be a beautiful memory-maker.

But I think summer reading is good for so much more than just getting some prep for the upcoming school year. Summer reading gives kids some great opportunities:

  1. Great opportunity to develop new interests
    Like I said, for me, summer was a time to spend hours going through the rows at the library. I would look through craft and activity books and see what I could make at home. I don’t remember anything turning out like it did in the books, but my friend, Michelle, and I had fun creating.

  2. Great opportunity to try a new genre
    Kids love reading series—that’s no secret. Since Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children, kids have loved collecting, reading, and sharing books with the same characters and predictable plotlines. But summer might be a good time to try something completely new—a mystery for the fairy tale lover, a biography for the adventure series lover. The nice thing about summer reading is that if you don’t like a book you start, you just put it down. No pressure! No one is checking over your shoulder for comprehension. No one is forcing you to finish a book because you have a requirement to have a certain amount done by the end of the school year. It’s a great time for experimenting.

  3. Great opportunity to read “dessert” books
    For some reason, kids are drawn to books that aren’t always very edifying or exemplary. They want to just read something silly. Or from a movie they like. Or that has a cute magical pony on the cover. These will not be the classics they remember for the rest of their lives, but it is reading! I call these “dessert” books. You don’t want to make a meal of them, but an occasional dessert never hurt anyone ;-) And I think it’s fair to say we enjoy more dessert during the summer than other times of the year. So it should be with reading. There is nothing wrong with kids reading Captain Underpants during the summer.

  4. Great opportunity to read as a family
    Swiss Family Robinson, The Hobbit, The Secret Garden, Firefly Hollow (notice how I stuck my new favorite in there with these amazing classics?)—These are fabulous summer reads for families to do together. Books travel easily and anywhere—in a motel room, on the beach, in an RV, by the backyard fire pit. One summer, I read Frindle (Andrew Clement) aloud to my kids while we traveled in an RV to a variety of national parks. I loved that I would read one chapter a night, and it would kill them that I would stop at the end of each chapter—I loved leaving them wanting more! They couldn’t wait for the next night’s installment.

Since we know that summer reading at least main tains academic levels, this summer let your child read . . . read anything . . . as you enjoy your various adventures together.

Wouldn't You Read a Book About Origami Yoda?

One of the joys (and dangers) of working at Barnes and Noble is actually having contact with the books that I would otherwise just read about in my professional journals. And, I confess, it is hard for me to say no to an interesting book. Predictably, I spend a significant portion of each paycheck on the new "most interesting" books.

Last week, I saw a display for The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. I couldn't walk past. Flipping it through it, I saw the dream book of any 12-yr-old boy.

Origami Yoda is about some 6th grade kids whose very odd friend (he has Aspergers, although it is never stated outright) makes an origami Yoda finger puppet that gives surprisingly good advice. The mystery of the book is trying to figure out if Origami Yoda is real, by some sort of mystical power, or if he is just the odd boy sharing insights.

The beauty of this book is that Tom Angleberger truly remembers what is like to be an awkward 6th grader. The characters are sixth-grade-like and relateable without being stereotypical.

The story is told as a series of episodes, from the perspectives of various students, about interacting with Origami Yoda. The book pages look like wadded paper that has been smoothed out. The main character, Tommy, illustrates the pages in doodle style. After each Yoda episode, the case is analyzed by Harvey, a kid who refuses to believe in Origami Yoda, and by Tommy, who is trying to remain neutral.

This book has the warmth of Frindle, the silliness and style of Captain Underpants, and the personality of the Lemony Snicket series. It's a perfect book for a 4th-7th grade boy, and it's a great reluctant reader. But anyone who likes fun books about kids should love this book. Fortunately, there are two more books in is series, Darth Paper Strikes Again and The Secret of the Fortune Cookie Wookie (available for order), and I can't wait to read them!

Andrew Clements, An Author for Boys (and Girls too :-) )

There are countless websites devoted to discussing boys and books. There are numerous reasons for this (which I will discuss another day, as it is a very interesting discussion), but today I want to focus on an author who appreciates and understands boys. He writes intelligently about their motivations, ideas, creativity, and experiences because he lived them himself, growing up in a traditional family in the 50's and 60's.

I love Clements' books not only because they appeal to boys, but also because they are not too edgy. If today's "boy books" don't have poop and fart jokes or bad language and budding sexuality or fantasy-laden futurism, then authors seem to think boys won't want to read them. Yes, boys like all those things, and I'm glad they do and that there are books that appeal to those interests. But Andrew Clements seems to have found a way of communicating that isn't banal but still includes humor, technology, and hormones. His genre of choice is usually realistic fiction, which means boys are reading about things that could really happen to them.

Clements' first and most popular novel is Frindle, about a boy who provokes his teacher by creating a new word for "pen." He encourages all of his classmates to join him in this mini-rebellion. Boys love this book because it has some mutiny and a budding leader . . . but he's not too bad--just experimental.

Allow me to share a personal story. When I was working in a cognitive training center last year, I was developing a curriculum for teaching reading comprehension to children who struggled academically. Most of our students, no surprise, were boys. One mom asked me for some suggested titles for her reluctant reader son, who "hated reading." I gave her a short list (including Frindle) that he would work on at home and during his sessions with his trainer.

One day I was sitting at my desk, and a little whirlwind ran through the front door, past my desk, and to his trainer who was going through the program with him. "Joe! Joe! Guess what? I LOVE READING!" I had tears in my eyes, and Joe had a hard time keeping it together. He asked this student, "What changed? What has happened since last week?" "This book," he announced, waving his copy of Frindle. By then, his mom had met me at my desk. She said, "I just ordered everything Andrew Clements has written. I've never heard my son care about a book before." That's what it takes with reluctant readers--finding THE book--the one that will draw them into the world of books.

So, Frindle saved this student's life, if you dont mind me being a little melodramatic.

My personal favorite of Clements' is Things Not Seen. A 15-yr old boy awakes one day to discover that he is invisible. It has elements of science fiction, but it is a beautiful relationship book, as the boy befriends a blind girl (who has no way of knowing he is invisible). This book was very meaningful to one of my sons, who read it when he was 15. There are a couple of sequels to this storyline (Things Hoped For and Things That Are). These are great books for early teen boys who don't necessarily crave manga or futuristic technology.

As realistic fiction, these books are ones that boys can relate to. Most of Clements' books star boys, which is an appealing element to boy readers. They are clever and enjoy typical boy things. Clements' boys are "everyboy," in a good sense. They are relatable and enjoyable, but they are not perfect. Most of the stories take place in a school setting, also relatable to most boys.

If you have or know of a reluctant reader boy, or if you just want an entertaining story to read to your kids or for them to add to their summer reading list, add Andrew Clements' titles to your list. (Hint: The Clements' books that are early readers--ages 9-12--all have the same cover illustrator. They are done by Brian Selznick--remember him? The Invention of Hugo Cabret? [see entry on 6/6].) Here's a sampling:

Middle Grade Readers Frindle The Landry News The Janitor's Boy The Jacket A Week in the Woods The Report Card The Last Holiday Concert Lunch Money Extra Credit Trouble-Maker

Teen Readers Things Not Seen Things Hoped For Things That Are

Go Ahead . . . Judge a Book by Its Cover!

While you were growing up, how many times did you hear, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Innumerable times, no doubt. The expression appropriately encourages us to look beyond the exterior to what is underneath.

It is obvious to me that this expression has seen its time, at least in the literal sense. Yes, it used to be that book covers were pretty generic and unvarying. Most of these dull book covers would lead readers, especially children, to make assumptions about the stories that may not necessarily be true. But now, covers add personality to books that would otherwise be nondescript.

Illustrators are some of the most famous artists of our day. They are paid greatly for their bookcover contributions. And they are guided by savvy editors who know what markets they are trying to reach with each book.

What can a cover tell you?

  1. What age group this book is appropriate for.
  2. What gender (if there is a specific gender) it is targeted to.
  3. The tone of the story--if it is silly or serious.
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You can see that the Snow White story (Jarrell) is a more serious, artistic take on the fable. Snowballs, by Lois Ehlert, is fun for young children.

How do illustrators and editors do this?

  1. Selecting a font that fits the mood of the story.
  2. Choosing the color scheme that will draw potential readers in.
  3. Deciding on a specific character, item, or scene to highlight on the cover.

By the tone and font, the reader can see that Andrew Clements' Frindle is a friendly book for kids. The serious tone of Number the Stars (Lowry) hints to its plotline during the Holocaust.

We are a visual people, aren’t we! We appreciate color and shape and texture. And since we all have different tastes, it is perfectly appropriate to let your initial reaction to a cover be something that guides you (although not exclusively) to or away from a book. If a book has a rugged font for the title and dark colors covering the front, I will shy away from it. (I realize I have just described an entire section of Young Adult literature--science fiction fantasy!) And that is perfectly appropriate! A book designed with that look is probably not going to appeal to me, and it wasn’t intended to.

e.e. cummings' Little Tree, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray

When I saw this book displayed a number of Christmases ago, I was immediately drawn to the fact that it was a picture book of a famous poem by e.e. cummings. But I don’t think I would have picked it up if not for the dreamy, wistful cover by Deborah Cogan Ray. I knew immediately that I had to have it—it’s a visceral response that we often have to books. If you feel you have to have it, it is not because the book has meaning to you yet or even because it was so cleverly titled (although many books are); it is because the cover and title font have done their job of speaking to your heart.

Certainly, a cover illustration should not be the only prerequisite for choosing a book, but don’t feel guilty if you are drawn to specific things! Books you will probably enjoy should look like you would enjoy them.

So the next time you warn someone not to judge a book by its cover, just be sure you aren’t talking about a real book!

A Look at The Book Thief

I have just finished perhaps the most interesting book I have ever read. I can't say it was my favorite, but there were so many unique things about it, that I appreciate it on a deeper level than "favoriting."

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is not just another in the long list of young adult Holocaust books. (Goodreads lists 183.) The narrator of this unique story is Death. Yes, the Grim Reaper. When my daughter told me about this book a couple of years ago, that, itself, was enough to get me curious enough to read it. More than any book I have ever read, this story had that elusive literary quality of "voice"--something so hard to explain but beautiful when it's done well. The book has a mournful tone that could only be spoken by one who knows and understands death--even the parts that are not "sad" still feel melancholy.

So, why would one want to read a melancholy book like this? Why would a person want to read about the horrors of history that overwhelmed the world in the early 1940's?

Because The Book Thief is about so much more. It is a different kind of coming of age book--lifechange, maturity, relationships; dealing with abandonment, guilt, and secrets. It is about the power of words--infectious, inflammatory words and passionate, compassionate words. Written words, spoken words, and even unspoken words.

Let me give you an excerpt to whet your appetite: " She was suddenly aware of how empty her feet felt inside her shoes. Something ridiculed her throat. She trembled. When finally she reached out and took possession of the letter, she noticed the sound of the clock in the library. Grimly, she realized that clocks don't make a sound that even remotely resembles ticking, tocking. It was more the sound of a hammer, upside down, hacking methodically at the earth." (p. 259) This metaphorical speech is indicative of the book's interesting style. Here is the narrator speaking about his job: "Five hundred souls. I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I'd throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms." (p. 336) Although the book is full of thoughts of the Grim Reaper, they are not morbid or graphic. You come away seeing the dichotomous position this character is in.

This is what historical fiction does for its readers--provides them with multidimensional characters, complex human emotions, against the backdrop of history. Reading books like The Book Thief is a way to help children understand the pains of war, as well as the reality of events like the Holocaust. And because they are reading about characters their own age, teens come away with a clearer reality of what that part of history felt like.

Not everyone should read this book. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone younger than 13, and even then, it might not be appropriate. There is a considerable amount of bad language (although we are given the German form frequently, so it isn't the same as reading words you know to be socially unacceptable in your own language.) As a Christian, I don’t like the overuse of God's name in the inflammatory sense. And, of course, with a narrator like Death, it destines to be a book with a considerable amount of death, so particularly sensitive teens would be wise to avoid it.

I have always said that Schindler's List is so much more than a movie--it is an experience. I would have to equate The Book Thief to that, as well. Not a fun read, but a rich one.

Again, there are many very well written books about the Holocaust. Here are a few that you might find interesting. I have ordered them by age-appropriateness.

Number the Stars (Lois Lowry)

The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne)

The Devil's Arithmetic (Jane Yolen)

I Am David (Anne Holm)

Night (Elie Weisel)

Strong Female Characters for Girls to Know and Love

I've been discussing boys in literature and books that are good for boys for the past couple of weeks. I thought it would be appropriate to focus on girls in literature--the kinds of girls we would all like our daughters to be. As I researched and remembered stories with memorable girl characters, it took me back to my childhood, when books began to be powerful to me. Because books are like good friends, I know I absorbed some of the character qualities of these powerful female characters.

Making lists is always risky. Certainly, I will have left out many favorites. And I hope to hear from many of you on who your favorite female characters are. The list that was supposed to be 5 I had to stretch to 6. To help me narrow the list, I put some parameters on myself:

  1. The characters had to be from literature intended for children/teens. That removed the powerful Jo from Little Women and Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
  2. They had to be fictional characters. This meant I had to take out Laura from the Little House series (sorry, Lori!).
  3. They had to have no distracting characteristics. For me, this meant no characters who are nosy, disrespectful to parents, violent, or just make me feel "icky" Unfortunately, Hermione from harry Potter fits into this category. (I sure hope to hear from someone on that!)
  4. It's not about the genre or plot. I focused on the characters themselves--their strengths, their passions. I asked myself if I would want to be their friends.

So, here is my list of 6 strong female characters that every girl (and boy!) should read and become familiar with. Interestingly, some of the characters were written with the character traits I admired, and some of them grew into the traits.

6 - Margaret (Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume)

Genre: Realistic fiction Thank you, Aunt Judy, for introducing me to this wonderful character by giving me this book for Christmas many, many years ago! I related to Margaret so much. She loves her parents but is at the age where she doesn't quite know how to show it anymore and is trying to pull apart from them, to become her own young woman. During her 6th grade year, she is asking questions about life, friends, her body, the future. She desperately wants to know and understand God, and she seeks Him out--although she doesn't find Him where she thinks she will. Moving to a new town, she is thrust into a new school and new friendships at this emotionally challenging time. I love her intimacy with God. Character Qualities: inquisitive, persistent, loyal friend Quote that Expresses Margaret's Personality: "Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow, God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else." (Okay, maybe this wouldn't be the best choice for a boy.)

5 - Mrs. Frisby (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O'Brien)

This is my favorite cover for this book. When I teach it, I ask students to predict who the character is on the front and what he/she is holding. It's my favorite read-aloud of all time!

Genre: Science fiction/fantasy The brave Mrs. Frisby has two major differences with most of my other chosen women: She is a mother (thus, not a peer of most readers) and she is an anthropomorphic character--a mouse that acts like a person. Mrs. Frisby embodies courage, as she must protect and act during a very dangerous time to ensure the safety of her sick son. In one of the book's most thrilling episodes, she must drug a cat to provide safety for the rats to complete their important plan. Except that she is a rat, Mrs. Frisby is a very normal mother. She has never done anything eroic up to this point, which is what makes her bravery so real to readers. Every girl should have a role model like this brave mama. Character Qualities: courage, sacrifice Quote that Expresses Mrs. Frisby's Personality: "As she hurried home, Mrs. Frisby considered just how much she should tell her children about all that had happened--and all that was going to happen. She decided at that stage, at least, she would not tell them about their father's connection with the rats. Also that she would not say she had volunteered to put the sleeping powder into Dragon's bowl. That would worry them; she could tell them, perhaps, when it was safely done" (p 150).

4 - Esperanza (Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan)

Genre: Historical fiction For all of her young life, Esperanza had been a rich and somewhat spoiled girl, living on her family's ranchero in Mexico, until her greedy uncle makes demands that she and her newly widowed mother cannot accept. They secretly leave Mexico and become day laborers in California's Central Valley. When her mother falls ill and is unable to work, Esperanza "rises" be a hard-working breadwinner for her family. Readers see the unfairness of life through Esperanza's eyes, but they also learn of hope (esperanza, in Spanish). Character Qualities: perseverance, hard work, loyalty, determination, hope Quote that Expresses Esperanza's Personality: "As the sun rose, Esperanza began to feel as if she rose with it. Floating again, like the day on the mountain, when she first arrived in the valley. She closed her eyes, and this time she . . . glided above the earth, unafraid. . . .She had her family, a garden of roses, her faith, and the memories of those who had gone before her. But now, she had even more than that, and it carried her up, as the wings of the phoenix. She soared with the anticipation of dreams she never knew she could have, of learning English, of supporting her family, of someday buying a tiny house. Miguel had been right about never giving up, and she had been right, too about rising about those who held them down" (p. 249-250).

3 - Meg Murry (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle)

Genre: Science fiction/fantasy As one of the most popular and well written science fiction fantasies of all time, A Wrinkle in Time explores time travel through the perspective of family relationships. Meg, a wallflower, becomes a rescuer, using her faults as her strengths--stubbornness becomes tenacity, anger becomes hatred of evil. Her very relateable character is an inspiration to real girls everywhere. Character Qualities: tenacity, loyalty/love of family, determination Quote that Expresses Meg's Personality: "Father said it was all right for me to be afraid. He said to go ahead and be afraid. And Mrs Who said--I don't understand what she said, but I think it was meant to make me not hate being only me, and me being the way I am. And Mrs Whatsit said to remember that she loves me. That's what I have to think about. not about being afraid. Or not as smart as IT. Mrs Whatsit loves me. That's quite something to be loved by someone like Mrs Whatsit" (p. 176).

2 - Charlotte (Charlotte's Web by E. B. White)

Genre: Animal fantasy The world's wisest spider, Charlotte will forever be equated with friendship and sacrifice. While living in Zuckermans' barn with a host of farm animals, Charlotte develops a friendship with the insecure pig, Wilbur, and eventually saves his life with her savviness. Character Qualities: faithfulness, wisdom, encouragement Quote that Expresses Charlotte's Personality: "Wilbur blushed. 'But I'm not that terrific, Charlotte. I'm just average for a pig.' 'You're terrific as far as I'm concerned,' replied Charlotte sweetly, 'and that's what counts. You're my best friend, and I think your'e sensational. Now stop arguing and get some sleep,'" (p.91)

1 - Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery)

Genre: Historical fiction The optimistic spirit of orphan Anne Shirley makes her one of the most hopeful and enduring characters of all time. Seeing the good in everyone, dreaming of possibilities, and having undying loyalty to her "bosom friend" Diana Anne is a hero of every dramatic preteen. This historical fiction story has no serious villains and no epic storyline. Instead, the reader enjoys observing the growing up of a girl to a young woman on Victoria Island during a kinder, gentler time. Character Qualities:optimism, loyalty, creativity Quote that Expresses Anne's Personality: "Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for the imagination then, would there?" (p. 21)

I can't wait to hear your favorite females in literature!

The Best Books for Teens . . . And All of Us!

I love NPR (National Public Radio). It's how I get 90% of my news. NPR is also known for its well developed lists. Today they came out with NPR's Top 100 Books for Teens, and, boy, did they get it right!

Although there is the requisite Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight series, most of this list's books are strongly character-driven. Number 14 on the list is my recently mentioned Anne of Green Gables--a strong female character that every girl should know. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, ranked #25, develves into the thought process of an autistic teenager. If I Stay, #75, focuses on a girl who has awoken from a coma and, with no memory of her past, must reconstruct her life. Many of the plot-driven books are exciting action stories that I have loved: The Giver (#12), The House of the Scorpion (#93), To Kill a Mockingbird (#3).

Every genre is covered. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series and Paolini's Inheritance series showcase fantasy literature. But science fiction fantasy, realistic fiction, and even historical fiction are well represented, as well.

My favorite thing about this list is that it is not just this year's favorites. Some of the foundational works that have motivated teens for decades are listed. A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, Go Ask Alice, and, on every junior higher's required reading list, Call of the Wild are listed alongside the newest teen literature.

As I read through the list and saw many books I have read, I was excited to see many books that are on my to-read list. It's nice to know I have some good reads to look forward to! With five titles listed in the top 100, John Green is certainly the teen author to watch!

The best thing about this list is that it proves that teen literature is not just for teens! Some of the best books of all time and some of the best of current literature is in the teen market. Don't let a "teen" label keep you from the great characters and stories in literature!