Children’s Nonfiction

A.K.A. – stuff that is real. These books help impart facts to your children, which is a big help, since that’s what parents are supposed to do too. Children’s nonfiction can include biographies, historical books, works about science, art, math, anything in the “real world.” If you need to explain to your kid why the sky is blue, this is normally your place to start.

I love the variety of book spines on my kid's bookshelf...

I love the variety of book spines on my kid’s bookshelf…

I’ve never been a big fan of lists like “50 Books Your Kid HAS to Read” or “The 100 Best Children’s Books OF ALL TIME.” Typically, they make my blood pressure spike, tossing me between joy (“Ooh, good pick!”) and rage (“No Sylvester and the Magic Pebble? Those Philistines!”), and I spend more time debating their selection criteria and omissions than enjoying their recommendations. That said, I do think there are certain TYPES of books that every kid should be exposed to, the kinds of books that truly introduce them to the best of what the written word has to offer.

Here are my (very subjective) picks for the EIGHT essential kinds of books that every kid should have in their home library:

BOARD BOOKS

Board books are more of a format than a literary genre, but their impact can be profound. They are the training wheels of literature. They can be given to crazy little toddlers and those ankle-biters can browse them, chew on them, do whatever they want with them, and those thick cardboard pages will ENDURE. They teach kids that books are there to stay AND they allow their chubby little fingers to perfect the art of the page flip, which is possibly the greatest technical innovation in the history of reading. (Sorry, eReaders, but you can’t compete with the awesome power of the perfectly-placed page turn.)

MYTHOLOGY

Our world has a ridiculously rich and involved cultural history and it would be a shame not to introduce your child to it at a young age. And I’m not just talking about Greek Myths, which, granted, can have a bit too much god/animal coupling for young readers. I’m talking about the stories, the BIG STORIES, that everyone in our world knows. The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Cinderella, Noah and the Flood, Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, stories of Anansi, King Arthur, Superman, and Strega Nona – the foundational stories. The stories that are referenced throughout every other story your kids will be reading for the rest of their lives. That foundation HAS to be laid somewhere and it should start at home.

BOOKS YOU LOVED AS A KID

Yes, you can’t expect that your child will have the exact same taste as you do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to share your favorite books with your kid. At the very least, it will show them what it looks like when a book truly has a profound effect on a person, when a book is treasured and loved. And who knows? They may surprise you.

BOOKS THAT SUIT THEIR PERSONALITY

This may be hard to hear, but, if your kids love talking about farts, burps, and boogers, you should buy them some books about farts, burps, and boogers. That doesn’t mean that you should ONLY let them read about what they want, but, if you really want your child to enjoy reading, they have to know that their interests are represented in the books they read, even if those interests are completely incomprehensible.

Reading only one kind of book is boring...

Reading only one kind of book is boring…

POETRY

I know a lot of adults who don’t enjoy reading poetry personally, but I can’t stress enough how powerful poetry can be for young readers. If normal prose is a Volvo, poetry is a Lamborghini – it takes language, floors the accelerator, and really shows you what words can do. Poets like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein teach kids that, when assembled correctly, even in ways that don’t seem to make sense, words can make a person feel a ridiculously deep range of emotions, and kids LOVE THAT. [read the rest of the post…]

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This looks like a cool one...

This looks like a cool one…

It started simply – I asked myself, “I wonder what new kids’ books are coming out in October.” Two hours later, I was still browsing through publisher catalogs, muttering to myself, “That looks so cool, that looks so cool, that looks so cool…” There just SO many epic kids’ book releasing this month (the number of titles coming out on October 7th alone is ridiculous) and I couldn’t be happier about it.

In an effort to share the amazing, I decided to put together this quick guide to 21 books that are coming out this month that I’m personally EXCITED about and that I think you should be excited about too. Sometimes, it’s because I like the creators’ early work, sometimes, I just like the concept, sometimes, I am literally judging the book by its cover. This is a TOTALLY subjective list. But, at the very least, this should give some of you a heads-up about some very cool books that are on the horizon and, if I missed any fantastic-sounding upcoming titles, PLEASE let me know in the comments section below. Enjoy!

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bean_stalkA Bean, a Stalk and a Boy Named Jack by William Joyce, illustrated by Kenny Callicutt

Format: Picture book
Release Date: October 7th

Why You Should Be Excited: It’s the newest picture book from William Joyce, the creator of A Day With Wilbur Robinson, Dinosaur Bob, and the beautiful, beautiful The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which Joyce adapted from his Oscar-winning short animated film. So… yeah, there’s some pedigree here.

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creaturefeaturesCreature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: Jenkins makes some of the most consistently beautiful and informative picture books I’ve ever read – my daughter adores his Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember – so I can’t imagine this one will be anything less than fascinating.

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eyezoltarThe Eye of Zoltar: The Chronicles of Kazam by Jasper Fforde

Format: Young adult novel
Release Date: October 7th

Why You Should Be Excited: I haven’t read the previous Chronicles of Kazam books, so I’m not speaking from experience, but I love, love, LOVE Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series, which makes it hard for me to deny the potential on this one.

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graveyardbookThe Graveyard Book Graphic Novel: Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell

Release Date: October 7th                     
Format: Graphic novel

Why You Should Be Excited: Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of my favorite young adult novels of the past ten years and the first volume of Russell’s graphic novel adaptation was impressive. (I really love Russell’s prior comic adaptation of Gaiman’s Murder Mysteries story.) Plus this volume features the conclusion of The Graveyard Book, which I’ve written about before and absolutely adore.

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greatescapeThe Great Escape: Magic Shop Series by Kate Egan and Mike Lane, illustrated by Eric Wight

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Chapter book

Why You Should Be Excited: I haven’t read the early volumes of the Magic Shop series, but the description sounds very cool – I love magic stuff – and the real reason I’m excited is the artwork by Eric Wight, who’s absolutely amazing and who created the totally fantastic Frankie Pickle series of early readers.

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ivangorillaIvan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: C’mon, this is Applegate adapting the remarkable story behind her 2013 Newbery Medal-winning YA novel into a gorgeous-looking picture book. A new take on The One and Only Ivan that I can share with even younger readers? No-brainer. I’m in.

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kidsherriffKid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea, illustrated by Lane Smith

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: Because… Lane Smith. He’s a picture book god and is responsible for SO many of my daughter’s favorite books. And his previous collaboration with Bob Shea, the picture book Big Plans, is super, super funny. I’m looking forward to this one. [read the rest of the post…]

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It delivers what it promises...

It delivers what it promises…

I love coffee table books. They’re just these huge, panoramic sources of information and, as a kid, I particularly loved them because, in addition to being beautiful, they also seemed like something that belonged to the world of parents. There’s something about a kid reading an over-sized coffee table book that just feels subversive, like the kid is somehow reaching above their station and accessing forbidden knowledge. That is one of many reasons why I found impossible to resist buying my daughter a copy of Maps by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński, a gorgeous world atlas by Big Picture Press that’s so beautiful, you’ll want to frame every two-page spread and hang it on your wall.

I encountered Maps for the first time last week during an impromptu trip to New York City. I had some time to kill, so I found myself browsing the New York Public Library (OK, I’ll admit, I was doing a self-guided Ghostbusters walking tour) and I saw Maps in the gift shop. After two minutes of flipping through it, I was hooked and it became my daughter’s souvenir from my trip.

Maps isn’t an exhaustive world atlas. It features 52 maps – including hand-drawn maps of all seven continents and individual maps of several major countries in each. (North America, Antarctica, and Australia are easily served, while the rest of the continents only get featured selections.) While that might rankle any completists out there, I should say that Maps isn’t trying to be an exhaustive cartography resource. There are other atlases for that (or even apps). What Maps is trying to accomplish is a little more interesting and a little harder to do. It’s trying to give kids a taste of what the rest of the world is like. It’s trying, through art, to convey a sense of what these countries are all about. Which is ambitious to say the least, but I think it largely accomplishes its goals.

Click to expand this to something closer to its in-person glory...

Click to expand this to something closer to its in-person glory…

Each country gets a two-page spread and, in addition to the country’s rivers and borders, Mizielińska and Mizieliński populate each map with an exhaustive series of icons and details that call out some of the distinguishing features of the country in question. The marginal illustrations show you what the people look like, they recount the country’s history, they show you the food, the flora, the fauna – each map really does try to show young readers how each country FEELS, which is a lot more impressive to me than any topography or latitude-and-longitude map. [read the rest of the post…]

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Lonely Planet Not For Parents Travel Book

This is a fun book about travel for kids, but it’s not actually about kids travelling – which is an important distinction.

One of the most common grade-school writing assignments is the classic “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” However, if you go to a bookstore or library and look for books where real kids actually explain what they did do on their summer vacations, family trips, or any other travel experience… you’re not going to find much. Or at least I didn’t. Maybe I’m just not Googling correctly, but, if there are books out there collecting really superior examples of travel writing for kids, they shouldn’t be this hard to find.

First, let me explain what I’m NOT referring to when I say “travel writing for kids.” I’m not referring to books about geography or other cultures. I’m not referring to nonfiction books that open with “Hello, my name is ____. I am from _____. Let me tell you about my country.” And I’m not referring to maps, atlases, or any kind of reference book. (If you want a particularly good example of a fun, readable geography book for kids, I’m a big fan of the Lonely Planet Not For Parents Travel Book.)

What I am talking about are travel memoirs, first-person accounts of people travelling across the globe and sharing with their readers how those experiences made them feel. And there are so many fantastic travelogues and travel memoirs that are written both by adults and for adults – for example, the nonfiction works of V.S. Naipaul, Alexis de Tocqueville, Paul Theroux, Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing is, technically, travel writing), Bill Bryson, Colin Thubron, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck (and his Travels with Charley) – the list goes on and on.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Michael Palin, the former member of Monty Python-turned-world-explorer, who’s responsible for a remarkable series of BBC travel documentaries and accompanying volumes of travel memoirs. (Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days is a particular favorite.)

But, while the world of adult travel writing is robust and varied, there are almost no works of travel writing that address the experience of children travelling, either coming from the perspective of adults travelling with their children or the perspective of the kids themselves. Which feels like a hugely missed opportunity.

A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Journeys Across America

Wilder’s diaries aren’t just historical nonfiction, but they’re also solid examples of travel writing that’s actually about a young person travelling.

(The only big exceptions to my “no travel writing for kids” argument – that I’m aware of – are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s diaries from her family’s journeys across the American frontier, which, I’ll admit, I haven’t read.)

Personally, I love travelling with my daughter. We’re not an exceptionally well-travelled family, but, whenever I take my daughter somewhere she’s never been before, the best part of the trip is always seeing the place through her eyes. Travelling with a child forces you to adopt an entirely different perspective as a traveler. Because, when you travel with your kid, you have to be both their steadfast travel companion, the person who’s going to lead them out into the big scary world, AND you also have to take on the responsibility of placing that big scary world into context for them. [read the rest of the post…]

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Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes

Revolting never tasted so good…

Even though there are hundreds of kid-friendly cookbooks on the market, we only own one. Why? Because a). my kid usually loses interest in cooking after a few stirs and b). once you own a kids’ cookbook called Revolting Recipes… really, how can any other cookbook really compete with that? It’s just a glorious concept brought to life by one of the best children’s writers of all time.

If you asked me to rank my daughter’s favorite authors of all time, Roald Dahl would always be at the top of the list. (Though Kate DiCamillo, Adam Rex, and a few others would give him a run for his money.) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of the first books we ever read her – we used to read it to her to calm her down as a baby – and, since then, our library of Dahl books has just grown and grown. So far, we’ve read her Charlie, The Enormous Crocodile, The Witches, The Magic Finger, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and James and the Giant Peach, and she’s adored them all. And her first-grade teacher is currently reading her class The BFG, so my daughter is coming home every day breathlessly recounting what she’s heard and telling us endlessly how much she loves the book. (We’re probably venturing into Matilda next.)

Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes

Isn’t that just glorious?

There is a lot of food – crazy, extravagant food – running throughout Dahl’s works. There’s actually a terrific blog called Dahlicious that’s devoted to the “delicious and disgusting food of Roald Dahl.” To that end, towards the end of his life, Dahl worked with his wife Felicity to collect Revolting Recipes, a cookbook designed to bring to life some of Dahl’s crazier culinary creations. (Revolting Recipes was published four years after Dahl’s death in 1994. Before he died, Dahl assembled a list of all the foods from his various works and attached a note to his wife that read, “It’s a great idea, but God knows how you will do it.”)  The recipes that Felicity Dahl and Josie Fison eventually put together are all accompanied by fantastic photographs by Jan Baldwin and original illustrations by longtime Dahl collaborator Quentin Blake, which make every dish look absolutely fantastic. [read the rest of the post…]

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Jim Henson: The Works

Reading about the Muppets is almost as fun as watching the Muppets…

To say that my wife and I are big fans of Jim Henson would be a massive understatement. Henson and the various fruits of his labor were major, defining influences in both of our young lives, so, when we had a daughter, I’ll admit, we were pretty determined that the Muppets and their ilk would play a major role in her life too. Were we pushy about introducing the Muppets to our daughter? YES. But, fortunately, she did gravitate towards them quickly on her own and seemed to legitimately love them as much as we did. (For an example of what happens when you push something onto your child when they’re NOT ready or interested in it, read my previous post about my attempts to read my kid The Phantom Tollbooth.)

My daughter devoured every episode of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street that we’d share with her. She adored a Muppets poster that has hung over her bed since she was born, obsessively trying to memorize the name of every character in the line-up. (Her favorite obscure Muppet was always Angus McGonagle, the Argyle Gargoyle.) And she’s dressed up as both Miss Piggy and Fozzie for Halloween. She was a Jim Henson fan before she could even comprehend who Jim Henson was. And, because she took to the Muppets so eagerly, I, of course, started seeking out books about the Muppets and other Henson projects that she might enjoy. However, strangely, there are not a ton of Muppet books available for kids. There are a lot of Sesame Street books, but if you’re looking for kids’ books about the Muppets, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, or any other non-Sesame Henson project, the choices are fairly few and far between.

(There were a few tie-in books released with the new Muppets movie in 2011, but the ones I’ve read weren’t very good.)

However, there are options out there, if you’re willing to look for them. So, if you think your kid might enjoy the Muppets or if you’re a pop culture-obsessed parent-to-be that wants to push Ms. Piggy on your progeny, here are six books – a mixture of fiction and nonfiction – that might help foster a love of The Muppets in your developing reader.

1. Jim Henson: The Works by Christopher Finch

Jim Henson: The Works

No coffee table should be without this book…

One of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. This gorgeously designed coffee table book is an amazing chronicle of the life and works of Jim Henson. (See my previous article “The Importance of Coffee Table Books for Young Readers“.) Jim Henson: The Works covers every aspect of Henson’s career – from his early days as a puppeteer to his final days as a media icon – and draws together a fantastic collection of photographs and primary source material about Henson’s life. Will your young child be able to read the text on their own? No. Probably not until they’re older. But this is a book that was made to be browsed. My daughter adores flipping through the pages of this book – we’ve brought it on almost every road trip we’ve ever taken. She’d spend hours just combing through the pages, finding new images that she loved or reading small excerpts that caught her eye. And, because the book has such a multi-tiered appeal (the images are accessible to the youngest readers, the text will be captivating to older readers), I can tell that this is a book that will remain on our bookshelves for years to come. (Still in print. Relatively easy to find online.)

Jim Henson: The Works

One of my favorite pictures from the book…

2. Sesame Street: Unpaved by David Borgenicht

Sesame Street: Unpaved

My kid tore through two different copies of this book…

While, yes, there are many other Sesame Street books available for kids – my favorites come from the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club – this is one of the few age-appropriate books available that really present a compelling history of the show itself. Another excellent kid-friendly coffee table book, Sesame Street: Unpaved assembles a beautiful visual history of perhaps the most influential work of children’s television ever made. The book offers a really compelling history of the show (including some interesting behind-the-scenes stories for older readers) and has sections devoted to all of the major Sesame Street characters, both human and Muppet. Like Jim Henson: The Works, this is another book with an appeal that spans generations. Kids will browse it endlessly for the pictures and their favorite characters, and older fans will appreciate it as an entertaining world of cultural history. (Out of print, but you can get used copies for under 8 bucks on Amazon and other venues online.) [read the rest of the post…]

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So You Want to be President

It’s good to be the president, eh?

In my last post about the odd and enduring picture book legacy of former U.S. President William H. Taft, I mentioned the Caldecott-winning picture book So You Want to be President?, written by Judith St. George and illustrated by David Small. It is seriously one of the best nonfiction picture books about American history that I’ve ever read and, with the 2012 U.S. President Election rapidly approaching, I actually can’t think of a better history book to share with younger kids who are just starting to register the elections on their radar.

So You Want to be President? is not a partisan book AT ALL, which is one of its best qualities. Rather, St. George and Small go out of their way to portray the American Presidents as human beings – much time is spent breaking down the demographic details of the men who’ve made it into the Oval Office.

So You Want to Be President

If you want to feel good about the American presidency this election season, this is a great place to start…

For example, the book, structured around the question “So You Want to Be President?”, offhandedly mentions at one point, “You probably weren’t born in a log cabin. That’s too bad. People are crazy about log-cabin Presidents. They elected eight.” We learn a lot about where presidents came from, what they did before they were presidents, and both the good and the bad accomplished in the name of the presidency are acknowledged.

St. George does a fantastic job of creating an engaging, data-driven portrait of the history of the American presidency, while, at the same time, really conveying that call that drives a person to become the President as something ultimately positive and aspirational. To quote St. George, discussing the various presidents:

Some succeeded. Some failed. If you want to be President – a good President – pattern yourself after the best. Our best have asked more of themselves than they thought they could give. They have had the courage, spirit, and will to do what they knew was right.

All that plus the book is a hoot to read and is visually brilliant, thanks to David Small. (We even get to see Nixon bowling!) What more could you want?

So You Want to Be President?

The original edition of “SYWTBP” paid a nice tribute to those who hadn’t made it to the White House yet… at least, not when the book was originally published.

I have just one additional note to add about So You Want to be President? – Be aware that there are several editions of the book currently in circulation. The picture book was originally published in 2001 and it’s been revised twice since then. The first revision (in 2004) worked in information about George W. Bush. There were sections in the original picture book that talked about relatives that became presidents and the number of presidents named “George”, so the revision makes total sense. And, according to Penguin, there was also an even newer revision that has incorporated information about Barack Obama. I find that revision to be particularly significant, not because of my personal politics, but rather because both the original and 2004 editions include a page where St. George informs her readers:

Every President was different from every other and yet no woman has been President. No person of color has been President.

And that page is accompanied by an illustration of Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro standing in a roped-off section just outside of the oval office. I haven’t seen the new edition – my library only has the original versions – so I’m not sure if Ferraro is now all alone in that waiting area, but I’m definitely pleased to have one less person waiting in the wings to one day make it to the White House.

If you’re interested to learn more about So You Want to be President?, watch this clip from the great Weston Woods animated version of the book (narrated by Stockard Channing) and consider reading it with your children before November 6th. You won’t regret it.

(If you can’t see the video due to Flash issues, click here to see it. You can also find a much longer, less interesting video read-through of the entire book here.)

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William H. Taft

All the hip kids are into Taft these days, right?

One of the best things about having kids is that they just so deliriously, gloriously weird. And I mean “weird” in the absolute best sense of the word. I love how impossibly random my daughter can be. She’s just this beautiful little sponge who soaks up so many inputs and pieces of information from the world around her, and I never can predict how she’s going to process that information and spit it back out again. This is all a prelude to explain why I was so surprised that one family vacation and one trip to our local library could ever inspire my five-year-old daughter to turn to me one day and say, with complete earnestness, “Dad, my absolute favorite U.S. President is President William H. Taft.”

That’s right. William H. Taft. The twenty-seventh President of the United States. Also known as “Not one of our best-known presidents AT ALL.” He’s the guy who came after Teddy Roosevelt, a.k.a. “TOTALLY one of our best-known presidents, plus he was in those Night at the Museum movies, so it REALLY wouldn’t be weird if your five-year-old knew HIM.” But, nope, my kid likes Taft. She’s funny that way.

So, how did my daughter become enamoured with a president whom some might understandably label as “obscure”? Well, earlier this year, we visited some friends who live right outside of Washington D.C., and we spent one day walking around the National Mall, seeing the White House, visiting the various memorials, and generally having a great time. I wasn’t prepared for how much my daughter enjoyed the experience. She was endlessly curious about everything we walked past, and I spent the day trying to explain everything from the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to the cause of the Korean War.

(One of my favorite moments was, while standing outside the FBI Building, finding myself very seriously explaining The X-Files to my five-year-old. I, apparently, want my kid to “believe.”)

But, for whatever reason, the thing that really interested my daughter were the U.S. Presidents and, when told she could pick out one souvenir, she selected a laminated placemat with all the presidents on it from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial gift shop. She combed over that placemat for our whole drive home to Michigan, peppering us with constant questions like “What’s a Whig?” or “Which were the good presidents and which were the bad presidents?”

William H. Taft

William H. Taft: The Man Knows His Food…

We were walking to our local library a few days after we got home from D.C. and my daughter informed me that she wanted to get some books on the presidents. I said that was a great idea, and she then asked me if I knew any stories about the presidents. I paused for a moment and said, “Well, did you hear about the president who was so fat he got stuck in the White House bathtub?” That was, of course, William H. Taft.

My daughter’s eyes went HUGE with excitement. “You are joking,” she said. “Really?” She then started laughing hysterically. Once she stopped, I recounted a half-remembered anecdote about Taft, being the fattest president on record, once getting stuck in the tub – a bathtub that he later replaced with a tub supposedly big enough to bathe four men. My daughter went CRAZY for this story. She loved it. She couldn’t get enough of it. She kept asking me for more details, which I didn’t have. I’d heard the story once before and wasn’t entirely sure it was true.

Once we got to the library, my daughter ran over to the youth librarian and the two of them disappeared into the stacks together. Minutes later, she came running back to me, beaming and holding a picture book. “I found it! I found it!” she yelled.  And she opened her book to a lovely illustration of the late great William H. Taft being hoisted out of a bathtub.

William H. Taft

The picture in question…

I don’t think my daughter thought I was lying about my Taft story, but the fact that she was able to find a book so quickly with such visual proof of my anecdote – she just thought it was the best thing in the world. That something that crazy could actually happen to an American President. It somehow turned Taft into this legendary figure in her mind, far more interesting than John Adams or Richard Nixon. [read the rest of the post…]

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Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

The right reading material is a MUST for any good family road trip...

Whenever we get close to school vacation breaks or whenever I’ve finally banked so many vacation days at work that I have to start taking time off (or else lose it), our family mentally begins preparing itself for spending a whole lot of time in the family car. We start making mix playlists for the iPod, we start buying local-color travel guides for the freeways we’ll be traveling, we stock up on Trader Joe’s snacks, and we mark every Panera, Starbucks, and Chick-Fil-A on our Google Map printouts (good eats and reliably clean bathrooms). We’re a car trip family, plain and simple, and our daughter, as a result, has had to become comfortable with sitting for very, very long stretches of time strapped in a backseat booster.

She’s five now and she’s suffered through multiples drives from Michigan to various road-trip destinations – Chicago, Philadelphia, Cape Cod, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Nashville, and many, many trips to Florida to visit family. And, knock on wood, for the most part, she’s been amazing in the car. She chills out, she doesn’t complain, she enjoys the journey, and, best of all, she almost NEVER watches the portable DVD player we secretly bring on each trip as our “weapon of last resort.” She basically just has four main criteria for giving us no hassles on a car trip – As parents, we need to bring 1). Music she likes, 2). Lots of snacks, 3). Some toys (normally action figures) to play with, and 4). A metric TON of books. And that seems like a pretty fair deal to me. If I’m going to strap her into the backseat of a car for two days in a row, with no control over where she’s going and no ability to unbuckle herself and move around, the LEAST I can do is let her bring as much reading material as she wants. So, inevitably, we end up bringing one overflowing, ridiculously heavy tote bag full of books on each trip.

And, over the years, I’ve received a fantastic education on which kids’ books work well for road trips and which don’t. I’ve watched my daughter destroy an $18 Caldecott winner ten minutes into the trip and never look at it again, and I’ve watched a $5 bargain table book from Barnes & Noble captivate her interest across three states. Road trip books are a unique breed, but there are a few simple rules and constants that, for me, have really helped define what books are worthy to spend 20 hours in the backseat resting on my daughter’s lap. So, as a service to all the other current and future car trip families out there, here are my picks for eight essential road trip books for kids.

1. Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

One of the best road trip kids' books of all time...

I’m just going to put this out there – Richard Scarry books are, hands-down, the BEST road trip kids’ books of all time. They really are. And many of the reasons why this is true that go well beyond Scarry’s obvious skill as a storyteller and illustrator. First, normally, Richard Scarry’s books are HUGE, which is PERFECT for a car trip. His books, like Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, are large, wide but thin hardcovers that give kids 60+ pages of reading material. (They’re also crazy durable and fit easily into tote bags.) When a kid opens a big Richard Scarry book on their lap in a car, they’re opening up a whole new visual world for them to lose themselves in. The opened book almost takes up their whole field of vision, which is GREAT for a road trip. It makes the reading experience that much more immersive and engaging.

Next, Scarry packs a ridiculous amount of detail into his two-page spreads. One spread might have forty vehicles, a whole town map, multiple animal families doing multiple things, 30+ jokes, and tons of visual easter eggs and hidden pictures for your kids to obsess over and while away the hours with. (My daughter really loves trying to find Goldbug and Lowly Worm on each page.) Scarry gives his young readers an experience akin to looking at an illuminated manuscript or a medieval tapestry or a Diego Rivera mural – they could flip through Scarry’s illustrated tableaus for days and still discover new details that hadn’t jumped out at them before.

Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go is a particular favorite because it’s really funny – there’s a running joke about the police chasing down the delinquent Dingo Dog that my kid adores – and it’s thematically perfect for reading in the car. Cars and Trucks and Things That Go is like a travelogue of the most insane freeway ever, filled with every variation of car or truck imaginable, so it’s a fantastic visual companion for a kid who’s stuck watching traffic out their window all day. While Cars and Trucks and Things That Go seems made for road trips, any of the large format Scarry books work well too – we’re also big fans of Scarry’s Great Big Schoolhouse, Scarry’s Favorite Storybook Ever, The Adventures of Lowly Worm, and the compilation of his Sam and Dudley mysteries, The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries. We’ve taken at least one Scarry book with us for every car trip we’ve gone on for the past three years and I don’t see that trend ending anytime soon.

2. The Berenstain Bears Series by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears

The Berenstain Bears are our go-to "take into the restaurant" books...

I run hot and cold on the Berenstain Bears books. On one hand, I like them because they were the first series books that my daughter ever fell in love with and I think most of the earlier titles in the series are really well executed. On the other hand, some of the characters are a bit one-dimensional and sitcomy (Mama can be such a wet blanket), and the more recent Berenstain Bears aren’t nearly as good as the earlier titles (and they get increasingly more preachy as the years go on). All that being said, I think Berenstain Bears books are great car trip titles. Why? On a practical level, the books are inexpensive (no worries if you lose one on the road), they’re hard to destroy, and they’re thin enough that you can easily bring 10 of them with you and still have plenty of room in your daypacks. (They’re also IDEAL books to take into restaurants – compact, light, tough, and way more manageable than Richard Scarry’s enormous tomes.)

On a creative level, Stan and Jan Berenstains are really skilled visual storytellers and, even if your kid isn’t reading yet, they can follow the action via the illustrations and still understand the majority of the story. Plus, in my experience, on a road trip, kids tend to pick a few items to obsess over – a particular toy, a CD, a book series – and they spend the majority of the trip ridiculously focused on those items. If your kid is into series fiction, find AS MANY of those titles as you can manage and bring them with you. I think the recurring characters and familiar story structures really sit well with kids trying to pass the time in the backseat. [read the rest of the post…]

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Last Monday was the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day where my daughter was old enough to actually ask us about Dr. King and the resulting discussion was awkward, to say the least. The awkwardness began with my daughter’s recounting of what she’d learned about Dr. King in kindergarten, which, of course, was completely jumbled and reprioritized once it passed through her still-developing brain. First, we heard that Dr. King had bombs thrown at his house, then we heard that he got shot (“With a gun, Dad. With a GUN. And he DIED.”), and then we heard, “He just wanted people to love each other.”  And those were my daughter’s main talking points about Martin Luther King Jr.  – bombs, a gun, and loving each other. It was weird and earnest and cute all at the same time.

Martin's Big Words

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We went to a bookstore on MLK Day and my daughter got very excited to see a picture book on Dr. King that her teacher had read in class – Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier. She was so enthusiastic about the book that we bought it for her and spent her bedtime reading and discussing it. Martin’s Big Words is an excellent introduction to the life of Dr. King and the concept of “civil rights” as a whole. My daughter was extremely confused about why white people could make a black person give up their seat on a bus, so we had to try to explain racial inequality to her on the fly and I think it went OK. It’s always hard to tell what she absorbed and what she didn’t, but it was a good discussion to have and Martin’s Big Words was a great facilitator of that discussion.

And Martin’s Big Words doesn’t shy away from things like Dr. King’s assassination, but, to its credit, it does present those details in a very authoritative, non-threatening way for younger readers. I was impressed at how, as a book, it balanced the concerns of its young reading audience with its mission of educating those same kids about the reality of the American civil rights movement. Our kid’s nonfiction collection at home is primarily made up of science books at the moment, so I’m actually really pleased to have such a great work of social history in our home library now.

As I’ve mentioned on this site before, the second that I found out that I was having a daughter, the g-word – GENDER –  became a BIG priority for me. I started spending an obnoxious amount of time examining how gender was addressed in every book that came our way, from The Berenstain Bears to Madeline. However, when I look at a book like Martin’s Big Words, I get concerned that – while spending so much energy worrying about gender, steadfastly letting my daughter know that she didn’t need a prince to save her and plying her with books that backed that argument up – our home library may have relatively ignored two other major social concerns that perhaps deserved the same attention. Those two issues in question? Race and class. [read the rest of the post…]

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