Hogwarts

You may have read about this place in “Hogwarts: A History”…

Earlier this year, a few days after my daughter finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, she came down with a fever and had to stay home from school. I kept her company that day and, by 10 am, we were both fairly bored. As she sat on the couch, listlessly playing with some new Harry Potter Lego mini-figures, out of nowhere, I asked her, “Hey, wanna make them their own Hogwarts?” Her eyes INSTANTLY perked up and that kicked off one of the most purely fun sick days we’d ever shared.

I ran around the house, collecting every appropriately-sized cardboard box that might make a good Great Hall, dormitory, or potions classroom. I then gathered up all the cardboard cylinders I could – paper towel rolls, wrapping paper tubes, a breadcrumbs container, etc. – to make castle towers, tunnels, and, in, at least one case, a Chamber of Secrets. We raided ever dollhouse and Playmobil set my daughter owned for furnishings and, after she insisted on making her own Forbidden Forest, we used an old piece of posterboard to act as our foundation, allowing us to sketch out the perimeter of the grounds and attach a series of plastic trees (mostly old birthday cake toppers) using globs of Play-Doh.

Here are some pictures cataloging our Homemade Hogwarts. (If you click on any of these, it will take you to a bigger version of the picture AND an online album with even more pictures of “the grounds.”)

Homemade Hogwarts

Our homemade, maker, whatever-we-had-handy version of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

We’re not a particularly “crafty” family. We don’t paint murals on our walls or hand-make our own Valentine’s Day cards or anything. But, for whatever reason, my feverish daughter and I embraced this homemade Hogwarts project with both hands, working on it for hours. We geeked out over every detail and even learned to love all of its wonderfully well-intentioned mistakes and imperfections. This isn’t a Pottery Barn Hogwarts. This is a cobbled-together, warts and all, magic-marker-and-scotch-tape Hogwarts, born of discarded Amazon boxes and the love of a six-year-old.

Homemade Hogwarts

A Nimbus 2000-view of our cardboard Hogwarts

We adored building it so much that it remained in the center of our dining room floor for MONTHS (until we eventually carefully transplanted it down to the basement playroom). [read the rest of the post…]

{ 2 comments }

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Do I really need to suggest this book to parents? It’s kind of a gimme, right?

Earlier this year, my six-year-old daughter finally read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And she loved it, which wasn’t a huge surprise. Her mom and I are big fans of the series ourselves and there’s a reason why so many millions and millions of readers have embraced J.K. Rowling‘s most famous creation. Despite what some lit snobs will tell you, they’re excellent books.

So, to get this out of the way, if you’re building a home library for your kid, go get all seven Harry Potter books. They’re easy to find – heck, the law of averages suggests that you probably already own them. If you personally don’t love the Potter series, there’s a very decent chance your child will, so it’s kind of a no-brainer purchase. (And, even if you’re not up for buying them yourself, there’s a 99.5% chance that every library in a thousand mile radius of your house will have multiple copies of all seven books.)

As such, this isn’t going to be my normal “OHMYGOD, have you heard of this book? You HAVE to read it” review. It is safe to assume that you’ve heard of the Harry Potter books and much, much better writers than I have sung their praises before, so there’s not much point in me adding in my two cents six years after Deathly Hallows was published.

But, as a parent who knew as soon as he found out that he was having a kid that he wanted that kid to one day read the Harry Potter books, I’d like to talk about the three parts of Sorcerer’s Stone, the first chapter in the series, that I was legitimately nervous for my daughter to read.

I was anxious for several reasons. For starters, my daughter had been dancing around the Harry Potter series for almost a year. The books were solidly on her radar before, but she was afraid that they were “scary“, so she didn’t want to read them and I wasn’t going to push the matter. I was fine with waiting until she felt she was ready. However, her attitude towards Harry Potter started to change during her first grade year, largely because so many of her classmates had read and loved the series. My kid suddenly wanted to buy Harry Potter Legos and would come home every week, telling me she’d learned new spoilers about what happened in the books (some were right, others were totally, hilariously wrong).

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The covers for the new editions of the Harry Potter books are pretty great…

Finally, one day, my daughter came home from school carrying a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that she’d checked out from the school library. “I think I want to read this,” she told us. After we reminded her that we OWNED all seven books and she didn’t actually need to take them out from the library – kids are gloriously weird sometimes – my wife tenuously started reading her Sorcerer’s Stone at bedtime, with me nervously asking, every night, how it was going.

I’d already had the experience of trying to read my kid a book beloved by her parents only to have it blow up in our faces – i.e. my abortive attempt to introduce her to The Phantom Tollbooth – so the LAST thing I wanted to do was find out too late that we’d forced Harry Potter onto her too soon, tragically coloring her opinion of the series for the rest of her life. Also, I was nervous because my daughter is a very introspective, thoughtful kid and I was afraid that she might be really, really sensitive to some of the darker moments in the book.

If you’re a parent who’s concerned about reading Harry Potter to your child – just in an effort to compare notes – here are the three elements of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I was really afraid would land wrong with my daughter: [read the rest of the post…]

{ 4 comments }

Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon

Hubie’s school has some serious HR problems…

Yesterday, I told my six year old that I hadn’t recommended a book on my blog in a while and I told her that I wanted her to pick the next book I’d write about. She ran over to her bookshelf and, after a few moments of internal debate, she walked back and handed me The Gym Teacher From the Black Lagoon.

Sigh…

It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting (or hoping for), but a promise is a promise.

Let me put this out there right upfront – My kid LOVES Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon series. LOVES it. She’s loved it since she was three. And I know many other kids who feel the same way. My feelings about the series, however, are more complicated.

It’s not that I think Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon books are bad books. They’re not. I like them. I particularly like Jared Lee’s illustrations, which are entertaining and goofy and always remind me of a fun hybrid of Sandra Boynton and Laura Cornell.

Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon

Hubie lives in a constant repetitive loop like “Groundhog Day” or “Memento”…

They’re lightweight, durable, inexpensive, and, with the exception of early Berenstain Bears titles, they’re normally the highest quality books on those spinning wire racks at bookstores that are normally filled with crappy Barbie titles and uninspired Disney tie-ins. Black Lagoon books are perfect for light reading, car trips, or excursions to a restaurant.

BUT, all that said, my big complaint about the Black Lagoon books is that they are incredibly, incredibly REPETITIVE, a trait that can antagonize parents, while, at the same time, delighting kids, apparently. If you’ve read one Black Lagoon book, you’ve almost literally read them all. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 3 comments }

Apologies and Where I’ve Been…

by Tom B. on August 22, 2013

Building a Library

Um, yeah, I have no good excuse for taking so much time off…

So, as some of you may have noticed – if anyone reads this blog anymore – that I haven’t posted in a long time. A very, very long time. Like the whole summer, practically.

And you may be asking yourself, “Tom, have you forsaken us? Have you recommended all of the books you care to recommend? Are your suggestions for ‘building a home library’ now complete”?

The answers are – yes, I did forsake you a little bit and, no, I’m not done recommending kids’ books.

In fact, I have lots more recommendations coming in the next few weeks, even though you have NO reason to believe that claim, based on this past summer.

My excuses are extremely mundane. It’s been a weird summer. Work has been hectic, life has been hectic – but that’s pretty normal. Mostly, I’ve been dealing with the most selective form of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced.

During this summer, I’ve actually written quite a few things, including seven chapters of a young adult novel I’m working on that I’m convinced (today, at least) will never, EVER be done.

But, whenever I’ve sat down to write for this blog, I’ve been blocked. Blocked entirely.  I would try to write a glowing review of a book we just discovered at the library and… nothing.  Just nothing and a blank brain and anxiety and excuses for going to sleep early and/or watching Game of Thrones on HBOGo again. So… yeah… I’m a bad, bad kids’ book blogger.

However, I think I’ve turned the corner. In fact, I didn’t even let myself post this mea culpa until I had four subsequent book posts written and in the hopper, so I can guarantee that some new content IS coming.

So, if you stuck with this blog, thanks a ton. If you bailed during the doldrums, hopefully, I can win you back someday. But new stuff is coming and I can’t wait to share some new recommendations with you and steal some suggestions from you guys as well.

Thanks for listening,

Tom

PS – I just read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for the first time last week. Oh my god, how good is that book, guys? I mean, seriously, I tossed it onto the “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf as soon as I was done. Just a gorgeous book that made me want to give fictional Meg Murray a hug for at least a week.

A Wrinkle in Time

What a seriously cool book… I even love the ’70s-looking, Zardoz-esque cover of this old paperback.

PPS – The Hope Larson graphic novel adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time is similarly amazing. A brilliant work of adaptation. I know me liking a comic book isn’t a huge surprise, but… wow. It’s seriously good.

A Wrinkle in Time Graphic Novel

One of the best graphic novel adaptations I’ve ever read…

{ 9 comments }

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…]

{ 6 comments }

If you’re in a participating area of North America today, try taking your kid to Free Comic Book Day today, May 4th. There are a lot of really amazing books available and they’re free, free, FREE. If you’re wondering if there’s a participating store in your area, you can click HERE for the FCBD store locator. It’s an event that’s definitely worth seeking out.

Free Comic Book Day

Admit it – Getting free comics is much, much cooler than voting…

Some stores put on more of a show than others. Some will have people in elaborate costumes, prizes, comic book artists signing copies of the free books. And others will only have the books themselves and not much else. But, regardless for how elaborate your local store’s celebration is, Free Comic Book Day is a great opportunity to pick up some high-quality free reading material for your kids – comic books that have been designed to draw in new readers and introduce them to all that comics have to offer.

Free Comic Book Day

Here are some of the free comics we picked up this morning…

So, if there’s a participating store nearby you, maybe swing by with your kids and see if they’re interested. All it’ll cost is some time… unless your kids end up REALLY liking the comics and want you to buy some of the non-free ones, which… isn’t all that bad either.

Plus, Hugh freakin’ Jackman also thinks you should celebrate Free Comic Book Day and who are you to argue with Les Miserable Wolverine? Have fun today!

{ 3 comments }

CYOA: The Abominable Snowman

It’s never too early to teach your kids about Yetis…

Even though I regularly blog about sharing books with my first grader, I actually have a very hard time remembering what books I enjoyed reading when I was in elementary school. I have fond memories of the early picture books I loved when I was really young (like The Monster at the End of The Book) and I still have copies of the books that got me through middle school (most memorably, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but I can barely recall what, if anything, I was reading between first and fifth grades. However, the one exception to that memory blackout involves Choose Your Own Adventure books. I ADORED Choose Your Own Adventure books. I read them non-stop, almost obsessively, and, when I picture my childhood bookshelf in my mind, I can see whole rows of those thin white paperbacks with the numbers and red bubbles on the side.

So, when I recently stumbled onto the “Choose Your Own Adventure” shelf in the kid’s section of our local library, I’ll admit – I totally forced my daughter to bring a few home. She wasn’t entirely sold on the concept, but she could see how excited I was and quickly agreed to try some, if only to shut me up.

And, I’m pleased to report, it resulted in some of the most entertaining read-aloud time we’ve had in MONTHS. They were a huge, huge hit.

You can find a list of the entire Choose Your Own Adventure back catalog here. The titles we checked out came from the 2005 re-release of the series, which took some of original titles from the 1970s and 80s editions, and revamped them with updated text, pictures, and titles. We started with the first book in the re-released series, The Abominable Snowman by R. A. Montgomery, and a CYOA picture book (which was new to me) titled Sand Castle, also by R. A. Montgomery.

If you’ve never read a Choose Your Own Adventure book before, they’re a little hard to explain. They’re not like much else in the kid lit market. They sort of resemble chapter books, in terms of length and reading level, but, structurally, they’re something completely different. CYOA titles are sometimes referred to as “game books”, which is semi-accurate, if only because the word “game” suggests something interactive.

Choose Your Own Adventure

SO much cooler than the Star Wars opening crawl text…

The structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure book is designed to make the reading experience immersive. They’re written from the rarely-used second-person point-of-view – so the narrator is always referring to the reader as “You.” When a kid opens a CYOA book, they’re told something like, “You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis” or “You are born on a spaceship traveling between galaxies on a dangerous research mission.” It sets the stage for the adventure to come and it prompts the young reader to actively use their imagination while they listen. The lead character is never described in detail because “You” are that character. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 4 comments }

Free Comic Book Day

Seriously, how can Arbor Day ever hope to compete?

Parents – Want to have a fun time with your kids at an event that actively encourages them to read? Then you should definitely take advantage of Free Comic Book Day, which takes place this Saturday, May 4th. I can tell you from experience that it’s a whole lot of fun.

What is Free Comic Book Day? To quote the official FCBD website:

Free Comic Book Day is a single day – the first Saturday in May each year – when participating comic book shops across North America and around the world give away comic books absolutely FREE to anyone who comes into their stores.

Now – important qualification coming – that doesn’t mean that EVERY comic in the store is free. What is does mean is that most of the major comic book companies publish special “free” issues for the stores to pass out on Free Comic Book Day. These free books are often designed to hook new readers, so they make a great introduction to comics and comic series that your kids may not have been exposed to yet.

If you’re interested to see what titles are available for Free Comic Book Day, Glen Weldon (from NPR’s Monkey See blog) compiled a wonderful breakdown of the best free comics for kids this year. You can find it here: Which Comics Should I Get? Your Free Comic Book Day Cheat Sheet

And, if you click on this link, you can find the Free Comic Book Day Store Locator that can help you find a store near you that’s participating in FCBD this year.

Free Comic Book Day by Sergio Aragones

I love this Free Comic Book Day promo image from the great Sergio Aragones. (Click to embiggen.)

FAIR WARNING #1 – Most stores don’t let you take unlimited copies of the free comics. Most have some policy or limit in place. Some stores only let you take one free comic per person (Boo!), some let you take four comics per person (Yay!), and, if your local store isn’t getting much foot traffic that day, some stores will let you take as many as you want (Double Yay!). You might want to call ahead to confirm your local store’s policy. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 2 comments }

Where I’ve Been Lately…

by Tom B. on May 1, 2013

Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late

This is how I felt for the entire month of April…

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed a teeny-tiny reduction in the number of updates lately. Oh hell, let’s be honest – I took the entire month of April off.  Why? Because April was a great, glorious time-suck of a month this year. It wasn’t the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot suggested, but it was one of the busiest months I’ve had in a very long while.

Work commitments, father of a first-grader commitments (I appeared as a lovely magician’s assistant in my daughter’s talent show performance), personal commitments, writing commitments (Have I mentioned that I’m currently writing a YA novel? Guess what? Writing is HARD) – As a month, April totally got away from me this year, and Building a Library suffered as a result. Sorry about that.

On the plus side, I was able to squeeze in some quality library time with my daughter, so I have a lot of new discoveries and re-discovered old favorites to share in May. OH, and to prove that I haven’t been a complete sloth, I thought I’d share with you some of the articles I’ve been writing over the past few months for other websites. So far, this year, I’ve had pieces featured on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and 8BitDad.com, AND I’ve appeared twice as an on-camera commentator on Huffington Post Live, which was surreal and awkward and even a little bit fun. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 0 comments }

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

A story as progressive as “The Country Bunny” is a perfect fit for PBS…

I always look to see if there’s any accompanying video content available whenever I make a book recommendation – an author interview, a book trailer, etc. – and I found a real gem while looking for video related to The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes this week.

Apparently, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Nebraska Public Television and the Nebraska Department of Education developed a children’s show to promote reading called Once Upon a Time. The show revolved around a witch who loved stories so much that she locked Marion the Librarian in her tower until (to quote the theme song) “the witch is happy / And lets Marion go away.” So the show mostly involves Marion reading stories to kids each week from the witch’s tower- it’s like a mash-up of old locally-produced children’s shows (like Bozo the Clown and Mister Dress-Up) and the old PBS classic Reading Rainbow.

(There was an oddball Canadian kids’ show about reading – the weirdly sci-fi Read All About It – that I adored, even though its floating-head main villain, Duneedon, terrified me when I was younger.)

Once Upon a Time

This is how we got kids to read in the ’70s and ’80s…

Once Upon a Time is low-budget and a bit cheesy, but the 33 episodes are so earnest and charming that it’s hard not to feel a lot of affection for the show. I would’ve LOVED it as a kid. Plus Marion the Librarian read lots of really great books, including The Country Bunny, Make Way For Ducklings, Madeline’s Rescue, Horton Hatches The Egg, Stone Soup, and more. So, if you’re interested in checking out a nicely nostalgic public TV take on Du Bose Heyward’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, here you go:

{ 0 comments }