Father's Day Reading

Scene of the crime…

With Father’s Day hitting this Sunday, it inevitably got me thinking about my dad, specifically about my dad and reading. My dad died when I was ten. A huge portion of my memories of my father involve watching him read. My dad read ALL THE TIME. He would take piles of books out from the library and sit on our couch, all day and night, and he would read and read and read. He would chain-smoke Benson & Hedges 100s while he read and he would never, ever return those books to the library.

NEVER.

We had mountains of past-due library books in every room in our house, topped with sliding whitecaps made from all of the overdue penalty slips that arrived in our mailbox every day, begging us to return all of the publically-owned books we were hoarding. Those slips were largely ignored.

My dad loved our local library and so did we. And the librarians loved my dad. He was well-read, charming, had an adorably thick Scottish brogue, and always treated the librarians with respect, which is ironic, given how little respect he paid the library’s return policy.

Father's Day Reading

This was our preferred branch for “borrowing” books…

I have vivid memories of driving carloads and carloads of long-hoarded books down to Detroit’s main library branch after – if I’m remembering correctly – some kind of legal action was finally threatened. Fortunately, a friend who worked in the library system “fixed” the problem for us, but only after we did our best to return as many of the ill-gotten books as we could. I remember us meeting him after-hours at a side door of the main branch and just throwing what looked like hundreds of books onto carts, so he could log them back into the system and prevent the library police from taking my dad away to the overdue debtor’s prison. (At least, that was how it felt at the time.)

In retrospect, I am struck by three main thoughts about our long period of familial library larceny.

#1). That was just crazy behavior. Crazy. Seriously, who does that?

#2). I can’t help but wonder if that whole mess was even a partial inspiration behind my own desire to create such a large “bought-and-paid-for… look, I even have the receipts!” home library for my daughter.

And, #3). I wonder if that’s why I never had any books that belonged to my father.

Because, even though you could easily describe my father as a voriacious reader, after he died (which wasn’t that long after our “Great Midnight Library Return” adventure), we barely had any of “his” books left in the house. I’m a person who owns a lot of books. If you went through my bookshelves at home, you’d find an odd mix of titles, but you’d also find copies of every book that ever really MEANT something to me. So, with that in mind, it feels very odd to me that my dad, who also, apparently, treasured books, didn’t do the same thing.

Now my father grew up really poor in Scotland and we were pretty broke when I was a kid, so maybe book-ownership was just an extravagance that he simply didn’t have. Maybe he relied on public libraries completely to supply himself with books, which makes for a nomadic reading existence, because, eventually, you have to give those books back. (No matter how hard we fought to prove that rule wrong.) But it always felt unusual to me that my father, the big reader, left such a non-existent book footprint in our home. There was no “Robbie Burns Memorial Library” left on our bookshelves after he was gone. (On the flip side of that, after I die, my daughter is going to be stuck with figuring out what to do with forty different copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

BUT that book footprint got a little more distinct last year when my mother moved out of my childhood home after living there for thirty-six years. As I was helping her clean out our house, she pulled a very dusty box-set of three books off a high shelf. It was a 1965 edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. In the decades I’d lived in that house, it was the first time I ever noticed them.

Lord of the Rings

One box-set to bind them all…

“These were your dad’s,” my mom said. “They were a gift from his friends.” She opened to the title page of Return of the King and showed me the inscription – “To Robbie from the Boys – June 1973.” [read the rest of the post…]

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How good is Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green ? I brought this up when I wrote about Mo Willems a while back, but there are a few children’s book creators who are so consistently good that their continuing excellence almost starts to seem commonplace. You find yourself expecting it – “What? Another Kate DiCamillo triumph? About time. I expect nothing less…” (Cut to entitled parent rolling their eyes and tagging their latest Tweets with #firstworldproblems.)

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Lane Smith is one of those creators that my family completely takes for granted. We are huge fans of his work as an author and illustrator across a whole slew of titles like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Seen Art?, Madam President, Cowboy and Octopus, Princess Hyacinth, It’s a Book… the list goes on and on. My daughter swears up and down that Smith’s The Big Elephant in the Room and The Happy Hocky Family – two books that he both wrote and illustrated – are two of the funniest books she’s ever read. And we very purposely don’t own either title, because, when we take them out from the library, she sees it as an enormous treat.

All that being said, with the regard that we have for Smith’s body of work, it’s really spectacular to know that he can still surprise us as a creator. Specifically, I’m talking about his latest picture book, Grandpa Green, a book that I think, stands as a big shift in tone for the author, but it’s a shift that pays off beautifully.

First, don’t get me wrong. It’s NO surprise that Smith, as an illustrator, has delivered another gorgeous picture book. He’s proven himself as one of the most playful and innovative artistic talents in kids lit for years, so the fact that you want to frame every page of Grandpa Green and hang them around your house isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. I will say that Grandpa Green probably most closely resembles Smith’s Princess Hyacinth, but it adds this wonderful muted palette of greens and grays to an organic storytelling world that Smith creates out of an intricate and beautiful topiary garden. The ways that Smith is able to express emotion, memory, and the passage of time through the composition of this living, breathing garden is really something to behold.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Smith’s topiary wonderland is amazing

For me, the big surprise of Grandpa Green is the emotional punch that Smith delivers as an author. Smith has always been funny and painfully clever – see It’s a Book as a prime example – but Grandpa Green has a much, much deeper emotional core than any of his previous books. The premise is heartfelt and elegant – a young boy recounts the life of his great-grandfather as he wanders through a topiary garden that collects some of his great-grandfather’s treasured memories. We see a shrub sculpted to remind us of “Grandpa Green” as a baby, another sculpted as a tribute to his first kiss, another representing his service in World War II, and another series of meticulously-designed garden creations curated into a loving tribute to his wife. We follow Grandpa Green’s great-grandson as he lovingly walks through the garden, touring through his grandpa’s memories and collecting his misplaced gardening tools. [read the rest of the post…]

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Photographic Proof That Detroit Is the Home of Ilvermorny, J.K. Rowling’s North American Wizard SchoolI’ve got big news for Harry Potter fans. Some of you may have read my earlier post (“Why Detroit Is the Perfect Home for Ilvermorny”), which collected my arguments for why I thought that the Motor City would make an ideal location for J.K. Rowling’s recently announced North American wizarding school. Well, my daughter and I were so eager to get our theory confirmed that we took a drive down to Detroit to see if we could find any evidence of Ilvermorny. And guess what? WE FOUND IT!

You could see Ilvermorny all over the Motown and we had a terrific time checking out the classrooms, the library, the Great Hall – what a school!

I posted the first batch of our Ilvermorny pictures on my Instagram account and I’ve collected some of the best ones below. I have even more to share, so keep checking back to see more snapshots from our amazing school visit. (You can read more of my Ilvermorny theories and tweets, if you follow the #ilvermorny hashtag on Twitter.)

Photographic Proof That Detroit Is the Home of Ilvermorny, J.K. Rowling’s North American Wizard School

And, fellow Detroiters, if you have additional photographic evidence that Ilvermorny is, in fact, in our beloved city, please share links to the pictures in the comments below. I know the “official” announcement of Ilvermorny’s location hasn’t been made yet, but I am really proud to see so much evidence of the noble wizarding tradition in my hometown. I think Detroit would be (and is) a great home for Ilvermorny.

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Why Detroit Is the Perfect Home for Ilvermorny, J.K. Rowling’s North American Wizarding School

It looks like Detroit architecture to me…

Last week, Pottermore, the official website for all things Harry Potter, announced the existence of FOUR previously unmentioned, international wizarding schools. We learned about the Brazilian school of Castelobruxo, Africa’s esteemed Uagadou school, and Japan’s magical academy, Mahoutokoro – all with new descriptions penned by J.K. Rowling herself. We also learned the name of the long-awaited North American Wizarding School – Ilvermorny – though Pottermore hasn’t released Rowling’s description of the school or the school’s location yet.

All we got was a name and an illustration of the school, shrouded in clouds, hovering above the Great Lakes region. And, as an impatient fanboy, that got me excited, because I’m from the Great Lakes region. Specifically, I’m from Detroit, one of the most notorious and misunderstood cities in North America, and I personally think that Detroit would make a TREMENDOUS home for Ilvermorny. I really do. I think that wizarding academy has been here all along.

J.K. Rowling might prove me wrong in a few days, but, in the meantime, I took to Twitter today to make my case for why Detroit would be the idea home for Ilvermorny, and I think I have a few decent points. If you agree, chime into the discussion and show me your reasoning. If you disagree (philistine!), tell me why Ilvermorny exists anywhere else.

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Crash Adams Is the Strong KidLit Heroine That Your Daughters (and Sons) Have Been Waiting For

Crash Adams is 10 and I’m pretty sure she could kick my butt

I have a nine-year-old daughter, so every time I go into a bookstore, I am on the lookout for strong female protagonists. I spend an inordinate amount of time flipping through books that have been recommended by friends, quickly trying to evaluate their female characters, hoping that they’re active, interesting, and actually contribute something to the story. Basically, I’m trying to get a sense of whether or not the female lead will cause my daughter to pump her fist and scream “Heck yeah” or quietly shut the book and forlornly say “But she didn’t DO anything.”

Crash Adams made my daughter pump her fist.

The Adventures of Crash Adams: One Ear Returns is the first in a new, independently published middle-grade reader series by Mike Adamick. I’m a big fan of Adamick’s. He has a tremendous blog and he’s written a number of incredibly fun nonfiction books – titles like Dad’s Book of Awesome Projects, Dad’s Book of Awesome Recipes, and Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Projects.

Adamick’s nonfiction works celebrate the wonders of kids getting their hands dirty and actually making something, doing something, building things from scratch, and his first foray into fiction carries those themes over nicely. The story of One Ear Returns is simple and short, but the character is anything but.

Crash Adams is a dirt-covered, self-reliant ten-year-old girl whose family moved out to a small farm in Marin County, California a few years earlier. Crash roams the wilderness surrounding her farm with her faithful dog Zorro – who is preternaturally skilled at understanding commands – and learns as much as she can from experiencing nature firsthand.

If your kids enjoyed Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, they’ll find a kindred spirit in Crash. She’s the kind of singularly capable, adventurous kid that we don’t see in many works for middle-graders. In juvenile novels, you get a lot of precocious children. You get curious and precocious kids like they’re going out of style. But Crash isn’t precocious. She’s clever and quick and hardened by experience, even though she’s only ten. She feels like a throwback, like the lead character from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book who was dropped off in modern-day California and was told that she could ditch the gingham and put on a pair of jeans. [read the rest of the post…]

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A Letter to My Mom

My mom is getting a pretty cool Mother’s Day gift this year…

A few months back, I got a very unusual invitation. I was asked to contribute to an anthology titled A Letter to My Mom, a book of letters written by celebrities and normal folk (like myself) in which we all take a moment to thank our moms for, well, being moms. (It was the continuation of a series started by Lisa Erspamer – the previous volumes were A Letter to My Cat and A Letter to My Dog.)

I like my mom. A lot. She has sacrificed a lot for my sister and I over the years and she loves and nurtures my daughter in the tradition of the best kind of grandparents, so I was very happy to be given such a unique opportunity to say “thanks” to her in such a public setting. (She’s really pretty great.) Well, the book was just released and it’s now on sale. I am 100% biased when I say that it would make a great Mother’s Day gift, but I’m allowed, right? It’s my first legitimate book credit.

And, oh boy, the company I get to keep in this book is SURREAL. Not only does the book collect my heartfelt letter to my mom, but it also collects letters from celebrities like Melissa Rivers, Shania Twain, will.i.am, Christy Turlington, Kristin Chenoweth, Mariel Hemingway, Josh Groban, Monica Lewinsky, Dr. Phil McGraw, Suze Orman, Kelly Osbourne, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York… the list goes on and on.

A Letter to My Mom

A brief excerpt from my letter, in which I compare my mom to Keyser Soze from “The Usual Suspects”…

The book is sentimental and sweet and wears its heart on its sleeve, which is easy to do when you’re talking about people that you love. So, if you’re so inclined, seek out A Letter to My Mom. It’s a celebration of all things “mom” and I had a great time contributing to it.

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April 2nd is International Children’s Book Day, an annual event that celebrates reading, literacy, and the million-and-a-half wonderful things about children’s literature. So, as I was trying to think of something to say on the topic (that I haven’t already said), I kept coming back to one recurring thought – I LOVE READING IN BED.

I do. I really do.

The Under-Appreciated Art of Bedtime Reading

Normally, when we read in bed, we’re both in our pajamas and firmly tucked in, but we don’t invite photographers to those events…

I don’t think beds get enough credit from the publishing industry. They are the IDEAL environments for reading, particularly for reading with your kids. Case in point: There’s a new start-up company in New York, Casper, which sells mattresses made of latex and memory foam – a friend has one and digs it. But the thing that I LOVE about this company that is they not only send you your bed, but, with each mattress, they send you a book to read IN your new bed. (And you can sign-up for email bedtime reading updates on their site too.) They KNOW that their mattresses have more than one use.

I think that’s genius. I mean, I know that’s ultimately just a marketing campaign, but it’s a GREAT ONE. Why don’t more people market books and beds together? Beds and books should always be seen as symbiotic entities. Yes, my kid reads everywhere — at the breakfast table, on the toilet, on a shelf in one of our closets that she calls her “reading nook.” Reading isn’t only for bedtime, BUT some of our best, most memorable reading moments have occurred in bed.

When I bought the final Harry Potter book the morning it was released, I retreated into our guest room, sprawled out on the bed, and only came out for bathroom breaks and to loudly annoy my wife with comments like “OH MY GOD, YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE WHO JUST DIED!” When I was first introducing our infant daughter to books, we started in our rocker next to the crib (which was intimate and amazing), but I still remember the day she got her first big-girl bed and I could finally squeeze into it with her and read a pile of our favorite picture books until I could feel her fall asleep on my right shoulder. (Her side of the bed is right, mine is left. No idea why, but we never deviate.)

My daughter has been introduced to Hogwarts, Narnia, Oz, and thousands of other precious literary landscapes in her little twin bed, with a hodgepodge pile of pillows behind us, her discounted Muppets sheets from Target below us, and her fire-engine red IKEA desk-lamp next to us, giving us just enough mood lighting to always try for “one chapter more.”

You’ll see a lot of talk online about the importance of creating safe reading spaces for kids and I couldn’t agree more. Kids needs places where they really feel comfortable to curl up with a good book and let themselves explore. But, personally, I think beds are often overlooked as reading spaces, which is a shame. Not only are beds comfortable – sometimes they’re too comfortable and you do more sleeping than reading (I get that criticism) – but they also represent these inviting, safe places, where we spend almost a quarter of our lives. We’re open in bed, we relax in bed, we let our guards down in bed.

Those are just a few of the reasons why bedtime reading with your kids is so important. It’s that symbiotic relationship between bed and books. Lying in bed can make you more open to the ideas, images, and emotions of a book, BUT the right book can also act as the perfect guide into a really restful night of sleep. The rhythms of reading are soothing – they can both expand your mind and relax it. Reading in bed can either give you a mental workout that knocks you out or it can give you a mental massage that lulls you into a deep, deep sleep. I will say that, without a doubt, my daughter always, ALWAYS sleeps better if we read to her before bed.

So, for International Children’s Book Day, here’s what I want you to do – Grab a children’s book, an old favorite, and read it in bed tonight. If you have kids, great. Revisit a classic with them and enjoy the togetherness. If you don’t have kids, no big deal. Find one of your childhood favorites and just try to lose yourself in the images and cadences and the memories of reading in your pajamas.

OH, and, if you are a parent, make sure that your kid has enough pillows, a good bed-side lamp, and a flashlight, so they can keep reading long after you told them to stop. (Some things are more important than sleep.)

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WHAT IF YOU CAN’T THINK OF A GOOD BOOK TO READ AT BEDTIME?

Fair question. Here are a few of my favorite bedtime kids’ books. Some are soothing, some are beautiful, some are uproariously funny and actually wake your kid up, which sounds counter-productive (which it is), but it’s a whole lot of fun too… [read the rest of the post…]

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Brightly: A Great New Resource for Raising a Reader

It takes a village to raise a reader (or, at the very least, a few good websites)…

If you follow the Building a Library Facebook page (and, if you don’t, you should!), you’ve probably seen me share quite a few links from a site called Brightly lately. It’s a new site from Penguin Random House that brings together book recommendations, seasonal inspirations, and helpful tips for parents who are taking an active interest in the reading lives of their children. Now, full disclosure, I’ve been writing a lot for Brightly lately, so, am I biased? Yes, I am. But, even with my bias, I definitely think you should check Brightly out.

It’s not just Penguin Random House recommending their own books. The site collects all kinds of book recommendations, from all kinds of publishers, and it has some really excellent contributors writing for it. And I don’t even mean me this time. OK, if you want to read my pieces for Brightly (bias!), here’s a selection of some of my recent articles for them:

Mystery-Solving Siblings: 5 Action-Packed Books for Kids
Why Should Dads Read With Their Kids? I’m Glad You Asked…
All the Presidents Books: Fantastic Kids’ Books About U.S. Presidents
5 Unconventional Love Stories for Kids
5 Books That Are Perfect for Your Junie B. Jones Fan
One Dad’s Reading Resolutions for the New Year
Why It’s Okay That Your Kids Want to Read Books You Hate
5 Legitimately Funny Books to Read Aloud with Your Kids

BUT I am proud to say that the site also has a bunch of really smart, thoughtful contributors who are much better writers than I am (which is both inspiring and vaguely annoying). Here are some of my favorite, not-written-by-me pieces:

6 Tips to Make Reading Fun, Not Frustrating
Why Parents of Teens Should Really Read YA
How to Encourage a Love of Books and Reading in Preschoolers
Get Them to the Shelves: Young Adult Books for Boys
Understanding the Common Core: A Primer for Parents
Ask the Librarians: What Should I Be Asking My Librarian?
The Importance of Reading Aloud to Big Kids

So, yeah, I’m biased, but I definitely think you should give Brightly a chance. It gathers a lot of truly engaging and interesting material for parents who are working their hardest to inspire a love of reading in their kids, which is something to be applauded. (And, if they employ me as well, that’s even more cause for applause…. I keed, I keed…)

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How to Make Sure That Your Baby Shower Book Won’t Get Returned

Don’t follow the leader! Find a way to make your baby shower book stand out from the pack…

There was recently a post on Brightly (a site I’ve been writing for) that I really liked – “8 Baby Shower Books That Won’t Get Returned” by Janssen Bradshaw. Not only did it offer some great gift book suggestions, but it also got me thinking about the subtle politics that go into buying a friend a really great gift book for their baby shower. Because, let’s be frank, you WANT your book to be the favorite. You want your book to be the hit of the shower. And, more than anything, you don’t want your book to suffer that fate worse than death for a gift book – to be returned, with a stack of similar books, for (shudder) store credit.

So, how do you make sure that your baby shower book stands out from the pack? For starters, don’t buy anyone Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, Guess How Much I Love You, or any other standard shower staple. Yes, they’re fantastic books, but they’re PREDICTABLE. Any bookish parent worth a damn is going to get ten copies of those titles from ten different people. They’re the baby shower equivalent of the letters Pat Sajak gives you as freebies during the final puzzle of Wheel of Fortune.

What other advice can I give you? After reading Bradshaw’s article, I took to Twitter the other day to list off some of my favorite tips for buying baby shower books. Some are no brainers, some are super-passive aggressive, and a few are borderline evil. But they should give you a decent idea of how to plan out your baby shower book purchase and ensure that your book finds a place of honor on their child’s bookshelf for years to come.

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If you want any specific ideas for other superior shower books, here are a few suggestions I’ve had in the past:

Five Great Board Books That Aren’t Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny
Building a Library for Friends: Great Starter Books for Your Best Friends’ Baby

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The Bedroom Companion and Dr. Seuss

This is NOT the new Dr. Seuss book you’ve been hearing about…

There was considerable hubbub last year about the discovery of a “lost” Dr. Seuss bookWhat Pet Should I Get? – and, while I’m all for more of Theodor Geisel’s linguistic mayhem being unleased onto the world, lately, I’ve been dealing with a very different sort of Dr. Seuss discovery. Because, while a new Seuss kid’ book is undeniably exciting, not too long ago, I discovered that Dr. Seuss occasionally worked “blue” – that’s right. Dr. Seuss used to pen risqué cartoons for our grandparents’ generation. And if that either a). grosses you out or b). blows your mind… join the club.

My unexpected discovery came after a friend of mine showed me some books he found in his grandparents’ basement (they’d recently passed away). He wasn’t sure if they were valuable or not and wanted to get my opinion. Our focus immediately turned to one of the titles — The Bedroom Companion or A Cold Night’s Entertainment (1935, Farrar & Rinehart), a book with the over-the-top subtitle “Being a Cure for Man’s Neuroses, A Sop to His Frustrations, A Nightcap of Forbidden Ballads, Discerning Pictures, Scurrilous Essays in Fine, A Steaming Bracer for The Forgotten Male.”

I will admit – our first reaction to the book was “Oh my god, did we just find your grandfather’s ‘secret’ stash?” However, upon flipping through the pages, The Bedroom Companion turned out to be a much more interesting (and less salacious) book than we’d originally thought. It was a “War Edition” of the book (produced “in accordance with paper conversation orders of the War Production Board”), and it’s a collection of bawdy essays, cartoons, and songs for men. (There are even instructions at the beginning, loudly declaring “Women Must Not Read This Book!”) It’s basically Maxim for the Greatest Generation.

The material inside is a weird mix. Some of it is surprisingly literate (almost academic to a fault), and some of it is surprisingly gross and sexist. (There are songs inside that no man, particularly not anyone’s grandparent, should ever, ever sing.) But the thing that REALLY caught our attention in the table of contents was the name DR. SEUSS. Apparently, Geisel contributed two cartoons to the collection and, while his cartoons are probably the least racy cartoons in the whole book, they’re also WAY more adult than anything I’d ever seen from the author of The Cat in the Hat.

Here’s the first (and probably most suggestive) cartoon:

The Bedroom Companion and Dr. Seuss

This is MUCH more racy than what I saw on Mulberry Street… (click to enlarge)

It’s… well… jeez… how do you talk about this cartoon without making a million bad Hop on Pop puns? For my part, beyond the vicarious thrill of watching one of my childhood idols tell a slightly dirty joke, I have to say that what really delights me is that, while this scene plays out, two unmistakably Seussian birds – that could’ve come right out of Horton Hears a Who — are sitting on that palm tree, watching the incident play out. [read the rest of the post…]

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