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.


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…]


Every year, my wife and I have the same problem around Christmastime – “How many books are too many books?”  We’re lucky enough to have a kid that actually, honestly appreciates books as a gift (provided that there are other gifts as well), so she’s come to both expect and love the books she receives on Christmas morning. (Don’t believe me? Check this video out.)

Our only issue is making sure that we’re not overloading her with SO many books that she gets overwhelmed and the really good ones get lost in the crowd. So, this year, we tried to restrain ourselves, but… we still got her some very, very cool books. These are the ones we landed on and, if you somehow run into my daughter between now and the 25th (which would be super-weird), just play along and don’t spoil the surprise, OK? Here’s what we got her:

The Search for WondLa and A Hero for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi

These were my daughter’s most requested books for the year. She’s a HUGE fan of Tony DiTerlizzi, a fantastic author and illustrator who (along with Holly Black) is responsible for The Spiderwick Chronicles, which are among my daughter’s favorite books of all time. AND we checked out The Search for WondLa from the library a few months ago and she LOVED IT. It’s a really cool, very engaging science fiction story about a resourceful girl named Eva Nine, who is raised in an underground sanctuary by a robot and eventually ventures out into the strange outside world. Eva is a great character and it’s a fun, classic quest with beautiful illustrations and, I realized later, it is one of the first sci-fi stories that my kid ever read all the way through. (They make a lot of fantasy for younger readers, but not a lot of science fiction.) She loved the first WondLa book and wanted to know where the story went, so now she’ll have her own copy of the first book along with the second chapter, A Hero for WondLa. I think she’ll adore them.


The Animal Book by Steve Jenkinsanimal

I’m excited about this one. We discovered The Animal Book at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor and my wife and I knew we were going to buy it immediately. Steve Jenkins makes some of the coolest nonfiction books I’ve ever seen. He’s a remarkable scientist and artist and his book Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember is one of the most read titles in our home library. This encyclopedic look at the “fastest, fiercest, toughest, cleverest, shyest, and most surprising animals on Earth” is BEAUTIFUL and I know my daughter will spent hours combing over every page.


Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenterqueen

I will be 100% honest with you – I have not read this book. But I can tell you why I bought it. First, my daughter LOVES weird true stories from history. She loves knowing about how President Taft got stuck in the bath, she loves hearing about Annie Taylor, the woman who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and, as such, I think she’ll love this true story about Queen Victoria’s real-life bathing machine, which allowed her to swim in sea water in private. The second reason I think she’ll love the book (and the main reason why this title caught my eye) is the fact that it was Nancy Carpenter who illustrated it – Carpenter illustrated two of my daughter’s most beloved picture books, 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore and 11 Experiments That Failed. [read the rest of the post…]


The Death Eaters are coming for you!

The Death Eaters are coming for you!

Two weeks ago, my daughter’s elementary school had their annual Fall Festival and I got talked into… I mean, I got the privilege of helping head up the haunted house. Actually, it’s called The Haunted Hallway because, basically, we have a few hours to transform two sections of school hallway into something that can creep out a K-6 audience. But WEEKS of planning happens before that short set-up time, particularly regarding the “theme” of the haunted house, which has to be both appropriate and interesting for elementary school kids. This year – and I couldn’t have been happier about this – the theme was HAUNTED HOGWARTS. That’s right. A Harry Potter Haunted House.

It made the kidlit/Potter-nerd in me completely geek out and it couldn’t have been more perfect because my daughter is currently reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (She’s almost done. ______ _____ just died. She’s sad. We’re dealing with it.) Originally, we hit onto the idea because we thought that it would be really creepy to have Dementors going after the kids, but, after a few weeks of planning, we didn’t end up having Dementors at all. (The costume was tricky and we couldn’t figure out a good “Dementor Kiss” effect.)

Instead, the students entered a hallway in Hogwarts (complete with floating candles and talking pictures) where Professor McGonagall warned them that Voldemort and the Death Eaters were on the rise. Next, they went through a pitch-black Forbidden Forest, where they got whomped by parents in Whomping Willow costumes and almost got eaten by a giant spiders. They then moved onto Diagon Alley, getting harassed by goblins all the way, until they ended up in a graveyard where Voldemort and some masked Death Eaters were waiting for them. (I was a masked Death Eater who jumped out from behind a curtain, yelled “Avada Kedavra!”, and pointed my wand at them – which was really an air-compressor hose that loudly sprayed a stream of air at them, making the kids scream and run out the exit.)

It was a whole lot of fun and I’m proud of what we accomplished on a very small budget in a very small amount of time. Here are some pictures of our nerdy parents having DIY fun in J.K. Rowling’s world…

This was the first Hogwarts Hallway. Isn't that backdrop painting cool?

This was the first Hogwarts Hallway. Isn’t that backdrop painting cool?

Our very own Acromantula (i.e. big-*** spider)

Our very own Acromantula (i.e. big-*** spider)

Our homemade Diagon Alley...

Our homemade Diagon Alley…

... complete with creepy Kreacher-esque goblins (yes, I know Kreacher was a house-elf, but they're still creepy)

… complete with creepy Kreacher-esque goblins (yes, I know Kreacher was a house-elf, but they’re still creepy)

[read the rest of the post…]


rexhallow_0004Before I get started, let me say that I know that saying anything is the “best EVER” is one of the internet’s most heinous and frequent sins. Everything online has to be the greatest or the worst. People can’t disagree on the web — they either destroy their opponents or come off as an epic fail. Everything is heightened and over-the-top, which means that nothing is really heightened or over-the-top, so, when someone online tells you, “This is the best ever,” there’s no real reason why you should think that they’re talking about anything special. EXCEPT THIS TIME… because Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and its sequel, Frankenstein Takes the Cake, are seriously the best Halloween books for kids EVER.

If you haven’t been overwhelmed by incredulity yet, let me explain. Yes, I realize that people like sharing spooky books with kids around Halloween time and I love that. For younger kids, you can give them something clever (but safe) like The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky or Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall. (Both great.) For older kids, you can go classic like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving or modern classic like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (Super creepy.) But, for me, Halloween is really all about that sweet spot where unbridled fun and playful spookiness collide and I don’t know of any other kids’ titles that tap into that crazy tone overlap better than Rex’s Frankenstein books.franksandcover

For those unfamiliar, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake are two insanely creative illustrated poetry collections that utilize a breathtaking variety of art styles and rhyme schemes to tell short stories about some of the most famous monsters of all time – Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, the Mummy, witches, yetis, zombies, Godzilla, and, of course, the titular Frankenstein.frankcakecover

If that sounds cool, yes, these are incredibly cool books, but you also need to know that the poems are FUNNY. The Frankenstein books are among the funniest kids’ books we own. Get a load of the titles of some of the poems: [read the rest of the post…]


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…]


The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

Did you know that the Easter Bunny was a working single mom? True story.

Easter is an odd holiday. While it has admittedly deep religious significance for Christians, for the rest of the world (and for Christians too), Easter mashes together a very weird pastiche of cultural iconography, presumably all about the celebration of “Spring.” Easter is a holiday symbolized by bunnies who deliver eggs (as opposed to chickens who are normally responsible for egg production), cute little chicks that apparently came from eggs that escaped the bunnies’ dye factories, a metric ton of candy, and really, really big hats. I’m not entirely sure how that all comes together to celebrate the Spring Equinox, but, like most major holidays, it’s just weird enough to work. I don’t understand Easter, but I like it and I really enjoy sharing it with my daughter.

And one of the best ways I’ve found to share Easter with my daughter is reading her The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, a book that I regard as THE definitive Easter book for kids. You can find many Easter-themed books at the bookstore, just begging to be tucked into that weird fake grass in your child’s Easter basket, but, trust me, no book has ever done a better job of creating a more enchanting and engrossing mythology around Easter than The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

The Country Bunny might be the world’s first feminist holiday icon…

Originally published in 1939, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was actually authored by Du Bose Heyward, the author best known for writing the novel Porgy, which was the basis for George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Heyward originally composed the story simply to entertain his nine-year-old daughter Jenifer – the book’s subtitle is “as told to Jenifer” – until Marjorie Flack, a noted illustrator, asked him to collaborate with her into turning The Country Bunny into a children’s book.

(If you want a much more detailed and beautifully written account of the book’s origins, check out the entry on The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes on Anita Silvey’s wonderful Book-a-Day Almanac.)

So, what’s so special about this seventy-four-year-old picture book? For starters, it creates one of the most coherent mythologies around Easter that I’ve ever read. As the book opens, Heyward explains to us:

We hear of the Easter Bunny who comes each Easter Day before sunrise to bring eggs for boys and girls, so we think there is only one. But this is not so. There are really five Easter Bunnies, and they must be the five kindest, and swiftest, and wisest bunnies in the whole wide world, because between sunset on Easter Eve and dawn on Easter Morning they do more work than most rabbits do in a whole year.

In The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, Heyward transforms the Easter Bunny into a shared role held by five different rabbits of varying shapes and sizes, which, as a parent, I think is fairly genius. Particularly because, around Easter time, kids are barraged with Easter Bunny meet-and-greet opportunities and the colors and sizes of those Easter Bunny costumes vary WILDLY. But, thanks to The Country Bunny, when my daughter asks me why the Easter Bunny at the mall was white and the Easter Bunny at the grocery store was brown, I can just say, “Hey, remember The Country Bunny? There are five all together, so…” (I realize that Heyward probably wasn’t thinking about furry character photo ops when he wrote the book, but, hey, it works for me.) [read the rest of the post…]


Nursery Rhyme Comics

This book could not be more popular in our household…

Back in May, I wrote a positively glowing review of Nursery Rhyme Comics, a 2011 collection of “50 timeless rhymes from 50 celebrated cartoonists” that my daughter instantly adored. Seriously. She LOVED IT. It became the book my daughter talked about endlessly, the book that she wanted to check out every single time we visited the library.

To give you a full picture of her unbridled affection for Nursery Rhyme Comics, here’s a telling excerpt from my original review:

Do you want to know how much [my daughter] loved it? The next day, after I had to read her the whole anthology AGAIN, she asked me, “Do you think Santa will bring me this book for Christmas if I ask him?” For those of you without kids, just FYI, that’s maybe the single greatest endorsement ANY kids’ book can EVER have. That’s like a movie winning 12 Oscars and making a billion dollars at the box office.

That’s right. She asked for it from SANTA. That’s a big deal for a kid. And that happened back in May and, right before Christmas, my daughter asked me again – she remembered – and she asked, “Do you think Santa is going to bring me my own copy of Nursery Rhyme Comics?”

C’mon, parents, how could Santa say no to that? With that in mind, I present this quick video of our 2012 Christmas morning. (The “He” my daughter keeps referring to in the video is, of course, Santa.) So, thanks, First Second Books and Chris Duffy (editor of Nursery Rhyme Comics), as you can see, you guys – and St. Nick – really made my daughter’s Christmas.


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!


One of the perks of my day job is that, every year, they do an EPIC holiday book sale. For two days, a group at my office sells a tremendous selection of children’s and young adult titles at discount prices and donates all of their profits to Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the nation’s largest nonprofit children’s literacy organization. So, I get amazing kid’s books delivered to my work, sold at bargain prices, and all the profits go to one of my favorite charities. That’s what I call a WIN-WIN-WIN scenario.

Holiday Book Sale Titles

Look upon and tremble at my hoard of books!

They just finished this year’s book sale and I walked away with a selection of really impressive titles. Some were old, some were new. Some were library favorites, some I’d never heard of. But I’m very pleased with all of them. So, in the spirit of the holidays (and so I can brag about my shopping prowess), I thought I’d give you a quick breakdown of the five books I purchased this week – which range from picture books to chapter books – all of which I’d definitely recommend for any home library. Enjoy.

1. Along a Long Road by Frank Viva

This picture book first got on my radar thanks to Carter Higgins‘ great review of it on Design Mom (Carter is also responsible for the fantastic Design of the Picture Book blog), so, when I saw it at the book sale, I scooped it up without even opening it. (Mine!) I then walked around the book sale for ten minutes, trying to read it and browse at the same time, but it wasn’t really working. Along a Long Road is just such a brilliant and beautifully executed picture book that it absolutely demanded my full attention. Frank Viva is a major talent and I honestly can’t believe that this is his first book for children.

Along a Long Road

Such a pretty book…

Along a Long Road

Even the cover flaps are gorgeous!

Along a Long Road is a gorgeous celebration of just getting on your bike and riding. Viva’s stylish layouts follow a lone cyclist riding his bike “along a long road”, “going up around a small town and down into a tunnel” – the reading rhythm actually rises and falls with the rider’s momentum. And that undeniable sense of momentum is helped by the fact that Viva ingeniously designed the book “as a single, continuous thirty-five-foot-long piece of art.” That’s right – the cyclist’s journey was originally composed as one long, long single canvas and somewhere, I promise you, a fan of this book is right now working on a way to transform the cyclist’s journey into the coolest wallpaper runner EVER for their baby’s nursery. Along a Long Road is sophisticated, energetic, and engaging and, while reading it, all I could think about was Lane Smith’s The Happy Hocky Family and Queen’s epic “Bicycle Race” anthem – which, c’mon, is pretty awesome. The New York Times named this as one of the “10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2011” and they weren’t wrong. Very highly recommended.

EXTRAS: Along a Long Road has one of the best designed book websites I’ve seen in a long while. If you want to dig deeper into this beautiful book, this is the place to start. [read the rest of the post…]


Children's Book Week

Children's Book Week has been going strong since 1919...

If you thought last week was packed with festivities – with all the celebrations for “May the 4th Be With You“, Cinco de Mayo, and Geek Christmas (i.e. The Avengers premiere) – trust me, it’s got NOTHING on this week, particularly if you’re a fan of kids’ literature. What am I talking about? Well, today is the first day of Children’s Book Week, the “longest-running literacy initiative” in the United States. From May 7 to May 13, there will be hundreds of events across the country – parties, author appearances, book festivals, readings, and more – all focused on promoting the importance of reading for children.

There are official events sponsored by the Children’s Book Council – I am embarrassed to say that I live in a state that isn’t sponsoring an “official” event – but there are also going to be tons of grassroots, unofficial events and programs at local libraries, schools, and so on. If you want to see if there’s an official event in your area, click here. If your local area isn’t on the list, I’d suggest checking the website of your local library to see if they’re hosting any special events for Children’s Book Week. (If they’re not, I’d still call them and ask what they’re doing for Children’s Book Week this year, if only to shame them into putting together an event for next year.)

Every year, the Children’s Book Council has a well-known illustrator create a poster for Children’s Book Week and it would be hard to top the poster they’ve created for this year. For 2012, David Wiesner, who might currently be the greatest living children’s book illustrator, has painted a fantastic poster, in which a collection of some of the most iconic characters from kid’s literature – ranging from George & Martha to Babar to the Stinky Cheese Man and so on – parade down a street of bookish brownstones in celebration of Children’s Book Week.

Children's Book Week

I love this poster so much...

The Children’s Book Council has been providing people copies of these posters FREE of charge (which is amazing), provided that you pay for the return postage. I’m not sure if the CBC will still be distributing the posters now that Children’s Book Week has already begun (the promotional window pay have passed), BUT I got my hands on some extra ones. So, if you don’t feel like contacting the CBC, I have FIVE extra copies of this year’s amazing David Wiesner poster for Children’s Book Week. Email me with your mailing address if you want one and I’ll send them on to the first five people who request them.

But, all promises of swag aside, please find either an official or unofficial way to acknowledge Children’s Book Week with your kids this year. It’s a wonderful opportunity to remind them how powerful and transformative reading can be.