Building a Library

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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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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I’ve told this story before, but, when my wife told me that we were going to have our first child, the following day, I drove to the bookstore and I bought my yet-to-be-born daughter a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer.

It was the very first thing I ever bought her. We hadn’t bought any clothes or toys or diapers yet. We hadn’t even gone to the doctor’s to confirm that the pregnancy test was right. But the moment that I found out that I was going to be a father, that I was going to be responsible for bringing a child into the world, an impulse in my brain clambered above the fog created by all of my worries, fears and anxieties, waved its arms and proudly announced, “HEY, the kid needs a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth!”Tom_Burns_RR_Pic

And I listened. The best part was I already owned a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I wanted her to have her own copy. It felt important to me and, to be honest, it still does.

From that first moment, I KNEW, I knew in my bones, that reading was going to be an absolutely essential part of being a father and I wasn’t wrong. During my wife’s pregnancy, as I sat there thinking about what could I EVER impart to a young child that would ever be worth a damn, my mind kept coming back to the same answer – BOOKS. I could give her books.

That didn’t mean I had to BUY her a lot of books (even though I did). It just meant I had to introduce her to books. I had to lead her to books. And that responsibility unlocked something primal in my brain that I didn’t know was there before. For the first time in a long while, I was driven. I had purpose. I was a DAD and I had a job to do.

Other dads might hunt or fish or work at a bank for their families, but me? I knew what I had to do. I had to make sure that my kid knew that, yes, there IS a monster at the end of this book, but, you know what? It’s not what you think. (It’s better.) [read the rest of the post…]

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So… it’s been awhile, eh?

Yeah, so, apparently, I am a bad, bad blogger. I know it’s been ages since I’ve updated Building a Library and that sad fact has bugged me every single day since my last post.IMG_1810

I could make excuses about life getting in the way and so on and so forth, but the real reasons are almost as mundane as that cliché.

First, I needed a break. I was burned out. So I took a break. Then I got writer’s block. And, for the life of me, I couldn’t find two words to say about the David Wiesner book, even though I’ve written THOUSANDS of words on David Wiesner in the past.

Then I started writing a novel. It’s a YA novel something I’ve been dreaming about FOREVER and I got really excited about finally finishing the damn thing. Don’t believe me? Here’s my first crappy paragraph, which, according to a famous Hemingway quote, is probably crap (I’m cleaning his words up a bit):

It started the same way it always did – something horrible happened to the children.

Not “chilling” horrible or anything overtly graphic, thought Stacey as she doodled absent-mindedly on the legal pad next to the cash register. She never imagined the kids being physically harmed or beaten or anything. But, every time the daydream came, if she was being honest with herself, something unspoken, something whispered and alluded to, always did come for the children first.

It was just part of the story.

So… yeah, needs work, right? Well, I was halfway through it and… I got laid off from my job. First time ever. Totally devastated. So I started writing for other websites to make the ends meet and I found I really liked it. I started serving as one of the Dads & Families editors at The Good Men Project (a very cool site), I contributed to 8BitDad (another favorite of mine), and I became a blogger at The Huffington Post (la-de-dah). Here are some of my favorite bits I’ve written for them over the past few months:

Our Family Was Handed an Anonymous Note at a Baseball Game Last Night—This Is What It Said
How and Why You Should Support the #DadsRead Campaign This Father’s Day
The Importance of Buying Normal Clothes for Our Daughters and What You Can Do About It
9 Tips for Taking Your Kid to Their First Comic-Con
Daddy-Daughter Dances: I Do Not Want to Date My Daughter
My 7-Year-Old Daughter Tried to ‘Catfish’ Me

Long story short. I now have a new job (yay!), I’m back to writing (yay!), and I MISS Building a Library. A lot.  As such, I’m going to be contributing more regularly to the site in the near future and, once you see that I actually haven’t abandoned the site again, I hope you’ll continue to check us out.

I can't blame ya...

I can’t blame ya…

Thanks for your patience, hope you remember me, and I hope you’re finding outrageous great books to share with your kids.

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Hey visual learners – Building a Library is continuing its painful slouch into the twenty-first century by finally kicking of our brand new Instagram page! (At this rate, we’ll be joining Pinterest in 2015, just in time to pin pictures of our hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers.)

You can find us at instagram.com/buildingalibrary or you can click on that cool little Instagram logo in the upper right-hand side of this page.

Building a Library Instagram

Because looking at pictures of books is way, way more fun than looking at what your co-workers are eating…

What can you expect from the Building a Library Instagram page? Mostly pictures of over-priced hipster breakfasts. (Kidding.) OR, what’s more likely, is that you’ll be seeing cool little snapshots from our home library collection, recommendations for awesome new kids’ books, fun images of interesting book paraphernalia and minutiae, and any other weird little items I can dig up during my hunt for amazing reading material for my daughter. That’s the plan, at least.

Building a Library Instagram

I kind of adore these Harry Potter book-ends that my mom got us…

So, subscribe to the Building a Library Instagram page and, since I’m new to Instagramming, if you know of any Instagram accounts that I really should be following, please leave your recommendations in the comments section below. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see which filter hides my thinning hair best. (Darn you, Amaro, why can’t you hide my flaws better??)

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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…

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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…]

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Building a Library

Some of my daughter’s favorite books do not appear on these shelves…

I realize that this is going to sound like complete BS coming from a guy who keeps a running tally of how many books his kid has at the top of his website (a tally that the guy is terrible at updating, if you haven’t already noticed), BUT this is something I really do believe in. PARENTSYou definitely, absolutely should NOT own all of your child’s favorite books.

I get that this sounds counter-intuitive. “Why would I deny my kid something he or she loves? My child loves BOOK A. Shouldn’t I encourage my child to read in any way that I can? And wouldn’t owning BOOK A encourage them to read it at home again and again?”

Vanellope von Schweetz

Sage advice from the voice of Vanellope von Schweetz

Those are valid points and I’m not saying that your kid shouldn’t own ANY books that they love. But they definitely shouldn’t own all of them. To better explain what I mean, I’m going to lift a passage from comedian Sarah Silverman‘s totally charming (and hysterical) autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. In one section, Silverman introduces a maxim that she lives her life by. That maxim is “to encourage everyone, in all things, to ‘Make It a Treat.'” As she describes it:

“Make It a Treat” is similar in spirit to “everything in moderation,” but still very distinct. “Moderation” suggests a regular, low-level intake of something. MIAT asks for more austerity; it encourages you to keep the special things in life special.

The Big Elephant in the Room

My daughter loves this book…

I absolutely LOVE that philosophy and I think it’s a particularly important philosophy to re-enforce in kids. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about – Two years ago, we checked a copy of Lane Smith‘s The Big Elephant in the Room out from the library. We read it at home that night and my daughter went berserk. She went crazy for it. I have NEVER seen her laugh like that. We’re talking howls of laughter. The book KILLED her. She couldn’t have loved it more. We read it multiple times every day during the check-out period and, after we returned it, my daughter begged me to buy her a copy to keep at home.

And I said no. [read the rest of the post…]

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Happy Holidays from Krusty the Clown

It’s always good to remember the reason for the season – our sponsors.

I’m never sure what holidays people celebrate, so, at this time of the year, I always swipe a line from my personal favorite spiritual leader, Krusty the Clown, and declare, “Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Kwazy Kwanza, a Tip-Top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan.” And, if I missed your preferred celebration, I truly do apologize. As 2012 grinds down to halt, I mostly just hope that all parents, kids, and everyone in between are healthy, happy, and have some great reading material at their disposal.

And, if you are celebrating Christmas today, I hope your morning is more like this:

And less like this:

Happy Holidays!

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Building a Library

Get it? She’s wearing a hardhat because… because we’re “building” a library. And she’s reading an inappropriate book, so… that’s funny, right? RIGHT? Is this on?

I have to update my profile on Twitter. At the moment, the text reads: “I’m trying to build a library for my 5-year-old daughter. And I’m blogging about the noble quest of searching for great books for your kid.” But I don’t have a 5-year-old daughter anymore. As of today, I have a proud, defiant, weird, warm-hearted, passionate, hysterical 6-year-old girl.

And, even though the fact that she’s getting older is both beautiful and bittersweet, I’m supposed to be the grown-up in our relationship, so I guess I’m just going to have to suck it up and be happy for her… I guess.

To commemorate her birthday, I wanted to post a picture of my daughter reading one of her favorite books and then I realized… I have no pictures of her actually reading. I have a few photos of her chewing on books when she was a baby, but, really, think about it, when do you actually take pictures of people when they’re reading? I’ll tell you – NEVER. It is not a natural act to take a picture of a person while they’re reading. But, now that I realize that I don’t have any pictures of my daughter reading, I am going to be photo-stalking her like a crazy paparazzo every time she sits down to read a book.

So, without any candid independent reading shots to share, here’s what I’ve got…

This picture appeared in a local parenting magazine (without my prior knowledge) – it’s my daughter and I listening to Caldecott-winning author and illustrator Philip Stead – best known for A Sick Day for Amos McGee – reading his fantastic picture book Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat.

Kerrytown Book Fair

Ten bucks says my daughter is thinking, “That IS a big boat…”

And this is a picture taken on the day my daughter got her very first library card. She got to pick out two books to take home that day – and she chose The Big Elephant in the Room by Lane Smith and Three Pigs by David Wiesner. Sometimes she has great taste. (Other times, she totally doesn’t.)

First Library Card

Gotta love a kid who loves such great books…

Happy Birthday, Charley. Thanks for inspiring the library.

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