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…]


Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

Finding perceptive, interesting book suggestions can be hard…

While I love doling out kids’ book recommendations to other parents, the sad fact is – my knowledge of children’s literature is woefully finite. If we’re talking about any of the books in our home library or our local library favorites, I can puff my chest out and throw out suggestions like nobody’s business. But, if a parent or friend needs a recommendation for a book that lies outside of my home library wheelhouse, I need help. And, since there are thousands upon THOUSANDS of kids’ books that never make it into our extended library circle (despite my best efforts), I find myself looking for help with reading suggestions all the time.

As such, I thought it might be helpful if I listed some of the places I go when I’m looking for really great book suggestions. Some of these resources are fantastic at making themed recommendations – i.e. the best books for Spring, Easter, Arbor Day, etc. – and some are just excellent at profiling the coolest new children and young adult titles that totally should be on your radar. So, if you want to be a fake kids’ book expert like I am, here are five superior resources that will really make you sound like you know what you’re talking about.


This is where librarians get all their inside information…

Anybody who loves literature should have bookmarked and they should check it daily. It’s a site designed for collection development librarians – a.k.a. the people at your local library who decide what books they should buy for your community. The founders of EarlyWord keep a very keen eye on what’s being published by all of the major publishers, specifically so they can let librarians know what books they should be keeping an eye on as well. They alert librarians about hot new titles, they keep track of literary awards, they profile books that have been mentioned on TV or that have been turned into movies lately – all because they know that those are the books that patrons will be asking about at their local libraries soon. has a Kids’ Section that’s extremely worth checking out on a weekly basis. They have a recurring feature called “Kids New Title Radar” where they profile the most significant new kids’ books coming out every week. Their kids’ section collect kids’ book trailers, they suggest reading lists for major holidays and events – it’s an amazing resource. And, if you check out the right-hand sidebar of the site, you can find a treasure trove of valuable information, ranging from a calendar of upcoming book-to-film adaptations to a downloadable Excel list that collects every kids’ book that made it onto a major “best books” list in 2012. This is easily one of my favorite sites on the web.

2. The Books on Top of the Shelves in the Kids’ Section at Your Local Library

I’m not going to point out that your local youth librarian is a great resource for reading recommendations because…well, duh. That’s their job. If you’re struggling to find really good books for your kids and you haven’t asked your local librarian for help yet, you’re missing out. So, while the importance of kids’ librarians may be obvious (to me, at least), some of the things they do for you on a regular basis may not be. For example, when you walk into the children’s section of most libraries, you’ll see a variety of books prominently displayed either on top of the shelves or arraigned on a rack at the end of the shelves. Again, this may be obvious, but… you know they’re there for a reason, right?

Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

No, no, the good stuff is ON TOP of the shelves…

All of those “featured books” aren’t there to add a splash of color to the shelves. They’ve been placed there ON PURPOSE by the librarians. This is how they communicate their personal reading suggestions or how they highlight new, exciting titles that the library has just acquired. Whenever I enter the children’s section at our library, the very first thing I do is a circuit around the shelves to see what the librarians are suggesting this week. Thanks to the simple act of balancing a book on top of a shelf, I have “discovered” so many spectacular books that never would’ve been on my radar before. So, the next time you’re at the library, be sure to keep your eyes on the shelves. [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…]


The American Library Association announced the winners of their major 2013 book awards on Monday, and the award that always catches my attention is the Caldecott Medal, named in honor of nineteenth-century illustrator Randolph Caldecott. The award is presented to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” from the past year, and former winners include such Building a Library favorites as A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Erin and Philip Stead, Flotsam by David Wiesner, and many, many more. This year, the 2013 Caldecott Medal was awarded to This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

That fish totally stole that hat and now he’s being rewarded?

I couldn’t be happier about this selection. I wrote a glowing review of Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back last year, and This Is Not My Hat continues the hat-swapping fun. It’s a hysterical read and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The ALA also named five Caldecott Honor Books for 2013Creepy Carrots!, illustrated by Peter Brown (artist of the great The Purple Kangaroo and Children Make Terrible Pets), written by Aaron Reynolds; Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen (winning a Medal and an Honor Citation.. nice), written by Mac Barnett (author of the hilarious Chloe and the Lion); Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger; One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small (creator of one of our favorite books ever, Imogene’s Antlers), written by Toni Buzzeo; and Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Mary Logue.

We’ve read This Is Not My Hat, Creepy Carrots!, and Extra Yarn so far and definitely recommend them. We’re hoping to snag the rest soon, but I’m sure that, following the award announcements, their library hold lists exploded. BUT, if you’d like to sample this year’s Caldecott books before you get in line at the library, I put together this collection of book trailers and videos for all of the 2013 Caldecott honorees. First up, let’s take a look at the book trailer for the 2013 Caldecott Medal winner This Is Not My Hat.

Next, Peter Brown talks about how The Twilight Zone inspired his artwork for Creepy Carrots.

This fan-produced book trailer for Extra Yarn gives you a very cool, very thorough look at Jon Klassen’s fantastic artwork. [read the rest of the post…]


Ferndale Public Library

This is our swanky local library. We’re big fans.

As I ramp back up into a normal posting schedule (my apologies again), I thought that, rather than write my normal once-a-week, 3,000 word ode to a 32-page picture book, I’d give you guys a week-long look at what titles caught the eye of my daughter and I during our semi-weekly trip to our local library. (We don’t normally go weekly – mostly because you can keep the books for three weeks and we like to re-read titles we like to death.)

We took out FIVE books from the library on Friday, so, from Monday to Friday, I’ll share a brief profile of one book a day to give you a taste what attracted our attention in the children’s section last week.

I just want to give other parents an idea of what a trip to the library is like for our family and, in return, I’d love, LOVE to hear about your family’s library rituals and routines. How many books do you take out at a time? (I always feel like we might be taking out too many.) Do you browse for books with your kid? Do you make decisions together or do you let them go completely alone? Do you sometimes veto their book choices? Do your kids ever ask the librarian for suggestions? I’d love to know – if only so I can measure our own rituals against yours and then decide whether your routine makes me feel inferior, superior, or just right.

To give you some fodder to start judging me, here’s what our normal trip to the library looks like:

Just kidding – my daughter is marginally quieter than the Cookie Monster at the library. When we’re not looking for cookies, we generally take out 5 to 6 books every time we hit the library and maybe a DVD for the weekend. (We usually go to the library on Friday after school.) We start in the children’s section and my daughter and I browse around a bit and pick out 2 to 3 books together. I usually gravitate to the “new materials” shelves, while my daughter likes to browse the librarian’s picks (i.e. the titles that they display on the tops of shelves) and she’ll also check in on some of her favorite authors. (She always does a quick walk-by of the shelves where they keep the Melanie Watt, Lane Smith, Mo Willems, and David Wieser books.)

For those first 2 to 3 books, we make our decisions together. We look around together, we talk about what we see, and we come to an agreement on our first batch. (During this period, I usually end up reading her one short book at the kids’ tables, but we don’t do a lot of actual out-loud reading at the library.)

My daughter then asks to play with the computers for a while – usually a Reader Rabbit, Dora, Arthur, or I Spy game. While she does that, I browse by myself, picking out 2 to 4 more books to present for her majesty’s approval. After some computer time, she says “yay” or “nay” to my books – she always cuts a few of my picks, so I always pick too many – and normally does one last circuit to make sure she hasn’t missed anything good. We then might check the DVD shelf to see if there’s a movie we want to watch on the weekend. (This usually involves me saying “no” to many, many DVDs until we come to a begrudging compromise.)

Our book picks vary from week to week. There’s usually one or two old established favorites, something from the new release shelf, an easy reader, and, now that’s she’s older, maybe a chapter book. OH, and there’s at least one terrible, terrible media-tie in book – a reader or picture book based on a movie or TV show that she insists on picking out herself and that I can hardly ever veto. (Can someone please start a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a good Scooby Doo book? PLEASE?)

And that’s what our library trips normally look like. We check out our books, my daughter makes me walk through the anti-theft scanners first because she’s crazy paranoid about the alarm going off, and we go home with a ton of really, really great books. It’s easily one of my favorite rituals we have.

So, if you’re interested (totally understand if you’re not), check back during the work week and see what kinds of books we ended up with last week. It’s a pretty diverse mix, which should definitely give you a sense of what we’re currently reading. Hope this isn’t a pointless exercise and, most of all, hope you enjoy it.


Kids Library Card

"I'm going to go check out Fifty Shades of Grey now!"

What a great way to kick off Children’s Book Week. My daughter came home from the library yesterday literally vibrating with excitement. My wife had taken her there to do research for a school project (on “Giant Japanese Spider Crabs” of all things) and she couldn’t wait to show me something. “Dad, DAD! Look what I got!” And she then proudly – very proudly – held up her very first library card. Not her parents’ library card. HER library card. Her own PERSONAL library card with her very own name on it.

It’d never occurred to me that, as a kindergartener, my daughter was now old enough to get her own library card. She’s always checked out books under my card. But my wife, suddenly realizing that our daughter was old enough, asked her if she wanted to go up to the front desk and get her own card and she INSTANTLY lit up and nodded her head. She even asked my wife to take her picture with her new card before they’d left the library.

Now, in reality, this won’t really change our trips to the library very much. Even though she might check out books under her card, as her parents, we’re still going to be the people ultimately responsible for the books, for driving her to the library, for exercising some veto power in what she can check out and what she can’t. The big change, however, is in the sense of pride and empowerment my daughter now has about having HER OWN library card. To her, the library card is a symbol of independence and maturity. She picked out a special place on her dresser for it and asked if we could get her a wallet for “all my cards now because now I’m going to have a lot of them.” She even asked at dinner last night, “the next time we go to the library…. Can I just go in and you guys wait in the car? I have my own card now.” Granted, that’s not going to happen, but I love that, in her mind, that one little library card has now transported her to such a level of maturity that she thinks she could spend an afternoon browsing the library all by herself while my wife and I twiddle our thumbs in the parking lot. (Hopefully, she’ll remember to crack a window.)

After my daughter received her library card from the front desk, my wife told her that she could check out any two books she wanted. My wife then waited for our child, left to her own devices, to return with a series of cheaply-produced Scooby Doo, Star Wars, or Disney books. A few minutes later, she got a very pleasant surprise. Our daughter chose – on her own – two completely fantastic books to be the inaugural titles for her first library card.

Kids Library Card

Every now and then, my kid has EXCELLENT taste.

The first was The Big Elephant in the Room by Lane Smith, one of our favorite author-illustrators. My daughter has, more than once, called Big Elephant “one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.” (I met Lane Smith last year and told him that my daughter said that. His playful response? “She’s right!”) The second book she picked was the Caldecott-winning picture book The Three Pigs by David Wiesner. (I wrote about Wiesner’s Tuesday back in February and suggested Three Pigs as a readalike here.) [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.


Comic Book Guy

You expect me to believe that CHILDREN have the ability to select their own "Best-Books-Ever"? Hardly...

After all this talk about grown-ups ranking the “best kids books ever!”, I decided that I wanted a different perspective on the issue and went looking for examples of actual kids talking about their favorite books of all time. I limited my search to video sources because I wanted to actually see and hear the kids discuss the books they were really in love with. (I assumed that most five- to ten-year-olds wouldn’t have blogs of their own, which… let’s be honest, totally dates me.)

I was definitely surprised at how few videos on the subject I found on YouTube. I thought there would be plenty, and there were many videos of grown-ups and teenagers discussing their favorite books – mostly adult titles and mostly filmed in dark, poorly lit rooms, as if they were afraid of being discovered by someone. But searching on “best books for kids” or “favorite children’s books” on YouTube just didn’t return that many quality results.

The best YT videos I found on the subject came from a site called Mom Kids Books – a site that touts “great books for kids recommended by moms.” I like how they did their videos, which was essentially just setting up a camera and letting the kids talk. I particularly dug this video by seventeen-year-old Tessa talking about her favorite book, The Phantom Tollbooth. (Yes, fine, I am crazy biased about this one. I admit.)

Here’s another great “my favorite book video” from Mariah talking about her favorite book, The Very Fairy Princess.

As my search went on, I actually had much better luck finding videos of kids talking about their favorite books on Vimeo. The Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado has a FANTASTIC Vimeo channel with a really compelling selection of videos. I especially loved their KidsVIEW on Books series, in which, again, real kids get on camera to discuss the real books they love. The best part about the KidsVIEW videos is that they offer a very honest portrayal of what young kids really like to read. Some of these kids love award-winning books by acclaimed children’s authors like Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Cornelia Funke, to name a few, and some of these kids just absolutely love books like Barbie: Scavenger Hunt or Star Wars Revenge of the Sith: The Visual Dictionary. [read the rest of the post…]


Caldecott and Newbery Medals

You know those silver and gold medal stickers that you occasionally see on kids' books? THIS is where they come from...

This past Monday was one of the biggest days of the year for children’s and young adult publishing. It was AWARDS DAY – the day when the various award committees of the American Library Association (ALA) get together at their Midwinter Meeting and announce the recipients of the ALA Youth Media Awards, which rank among the most prestigious children and young adult literary awards in the world. It’s pretty much the Oscars for awesome kids’ books.

The prizes include the Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature; the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children; the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults; the Coretta Scott King Book Award recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults; the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader book; along with many, many other insanely renowned honors.

You can read a full breakdown of the various award categories and winners here. And you can find some wonderful coverage of the awards and award winners here or here.

I didn’t do a big breaking news announcement of “who won what” on Monday because a). this isn’t a breaking news site and b). unlike the Oscar nominations, where I mostly just complain about the quality of the nominees – How did “Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets get snubbed for best song? How? HOW?? – I take a much more reactionary approach to the ALA Youth Media Awards. [read the rest of the post…]


I’ve spent a lot of time hunting down books to add to my daughter’s collection and, hands down, one of the best parts of that experience is stumbling upon a book that I’ve never heard of before and slowly and suddenly realizing… “Oh, this is a good one.” You just get hit with this wave on unexpected pleasure, the sort of heady ego-boost that comes from accidentally finding yourself exposed to, what seems like, secret knowledge. “Oh, I’ve found a very, very good book here. And I didn’t hear about it from a friend or from a book review or a librarian… I found it MYSELF. I’m the person who gets to tell everyone I know about this one.” Don’t ask me why. But it gives me a little shot of endorphins, which is really, really sad.

Bats at the Library by Brian Lies

Bats at the Library

This was my experience with being introduced to Bats at the Library by Brian Lies, a completely sensational picture book, all about a charming colony of bats expressing their love for their local library. Remember that smug little sense of self-importance I spoke of earlier? I was totally awash in that sensation when my daughter and I discovered Bats at the Library in the remains of a very picked-over children’s section in a going out-of-business bookstore back in March. And, trust me, that hipster-esque ego charge of finding a book that “you probably haven’t heard of” becomes even more sad when you later realize that, even though you’ve never heard of it personally, the book in question was a best-seller (12 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list) and a major award winner (won the 2010 Bill Martin, Jr. Picture Book Award, among other prizes). It’s like bragging that you found this great new little boutique called “Target” that you just can’t wait to show to all your friends.

But, regardless of my lame personal hang-ups and constant need for affirmation, Bats at the Library has become a big favorite in our household on its merits alone. The basic premise is simple – a group of bored bats are excited to discover that a window has been left open at the town’s library, so the colony heads over for an impromptu “Bat Night at the library!” The good-natured, excitable bats (think Stellaluna, only cuter) have a grand old time, playing with the overhead projectors, splashing around in the water fountain, exploring pop-up books, and reading, reading, reading. Lies is a masterful artist – his playful, detail-packed paintings remind me of the great David Wiesner – and, in Bats at the Library, his verse is almost just as equally well-executed. His rhyming lines balance the bats’ cheeky excitement with a real reverence for the pleasures of reading. To quote the bats at the end of their adventure: [read the rest of the post…]