reader recommendations

We’ve spent a lot of time in the library this summer (insane heat will do that) and, as a result, my list of books that I’m aching to recommend keeps getting bigger and bigger. I literally have a notebook where I write down frantic notes like “Must share this with new dads!” or “Best zoo book ever? Have to tell people!” (I can’t decide if that behavior is enthusiastically earnest or borderline psychotic. I should probably ask my wife.) But the fact that I sometimes decide to write 3,000 words on a certain comic book series I particularly like – thank you again for your patience, dear readers – means that I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I’m anxious to recommend. So, as I prepare to spend a week away at a lovely little cottage by a lake, I wanted to call out three fairly amazing picture books that have been on my radar lately that I think are perfect for any bored early reader looking for something interesting to read this summer.

Quick word of warning – None of these books are recently published titles and at least one of them seems to be out-of-print, so this list isn’t about “hot new reads that just came out for Summer 2012!” These are just three books that happened to fall into our realm of interest recently, largely thanks to our local library and some friendly recommendations.

The Dunderheads

Your favorite heist movie conventions wonderfully packaged for kids.

So, for the next three days, I’ll be sharing one pick per day, starting today with…. The Dunderheads (2009) by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by David Roberts.

The Dunderheads is the picture book equivalent of a really smart, really entertaining, big-budget summer movie. And it’s a wonderful example of an author finding a great way to have some character-driven fun with genre conventions. In the past, I’ve discussed how, before my daughter was born, I was a little obsessed with how I would introduce her to classic fairy tales and folk tales. I was adamant that we had to have copies of all the canonical legends of the past, so I could teach her about all of the big storytelling archetypes, myths, tropes, and idioms that she’d be encountering as a new reader. In my mind, I thought, “How can she know when a picture book is riffing on Cinderella if she hasn’t read Cinderella yet?” While that turned out to be way less of a problem than my fevered “new dad brain” thought it would be, I’ve remained really aware of how my daughter has been introduced to new genres and story types through her reading.

We picked up The Dunderheads at the recommendation of a librarian and, little did I know, that it would serve as my daughter’s introduction to one of my favorite genres of all time – THE HEIST GENRE. That’s right, The Dunderheads is a heist movie for kids in picture book form, and it revels in playing with all of the glorious “heist movie” details, tropes, and quirks that any even casual film fan knows by heart. The Dunderheads was written by Paul Fleischman, a Newbery-winning author and poet, and gloriously illustrated by David Roberts (whom you may remember from Iggy Peck, Architect), and it’s apparent that both creators are having a blast with their “heist caper for kids” adventure. In the jacket copy, the creators of The Dunderheads reference Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies and it’s a totally apt comparison. This is a story about a kid putting together a team to right a wrong by stealing something back from a bad guy, and its creative influences seemingly come much more from classic movies (the Ocean’s movies, The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Great Muppet Caper) than classic literature. [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.


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…]


Scholastic 100 Greatest Books for Kids

The interactive bookshelf is equal parts cool and infuriating...

I didn’t mean to be quite so critical of the Scholastic “100 Greatest Books for Kids” list in my last post. As someone who started a blog that’s all about recommending great children’s books to readers, I think I can understand the noble aspirations that are probably behind the creation of the list and I definitely can see how some people might find a “100 Greatest” list valuable. However, that being said, I still think the overly sensational presentation of the list robs it of a large portion of its inherent value. Yes, it’s great that some very educated, very passionate people assembled such a strong reading list, BUT I think their contributions are overshadowed by the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of suggesting that these 100 books hold more value than ANY other children’s titles. The “100 Greatest Books for Kids” opted for the inflammatory over the educational, and I think that was a bad call.

But that isn’t to say that “best book lists” are always a bad idea. They can be AMAZING, when they’re done right. So, in response to Scholastic’s “100 Greatest Books for Kids”, I thought I’d pass along five other examples of “Best Books for Kids” lists that (I think) present their recommendations in much more constructive and enlightening ways.

(I seriously debated calling this post “The FIVE Best Books for Kids Lists OF ALL TIME” – which probably would’ve done wonders for my SEO – but I wasn’t sure how obvious the sarcasm would be.)

1. National Education Association’s Kids’ Top 100 Books vs. Teachers’ Top 100 Books

National Education Association

The NEA "best books" polls have very interesting results...

In November of 1999, the National Education Association ran an online survey to see children and young adults would select as their top 100 favorite books– you can read the results here. While, like the Scholastic list, this is a “top 100” list, I like the NEA list because it’s clearly the result of a survey and, as such, saying that these picks were the “favorites” of the survey audience is a much less incendiary comment than saying that someone has identified the “100 greatest kids’ books EVER.” There are some weird picks and selections I don’t agree with, but I think it’s a fascinating document of what kids were reading at the time. (Also, since the survey took place in late 1999, don’t expect to see anything too recent on the list.)

The other great aspect of this list is that the NEA suggests that you cross-reference the list with a 2007 survey they did where teachers were asked to select their top 100 examples of quality literature for children – you can read that list here. There are some FANTASTIC suggestions on the teacher list – I prefer their picks to the kids’ list – and I think the teachers did a much better job of creating a balanced selection of new and iconic titles than the Scholastic list did. Granted, there is NO commentary to accompany these lists – it’s just a big dump of titles – but I think their selections and the perspective that they bring on their respective audiences make up for that shortcoming.

2. The Guardian’s “Building a Children’s Library” Recommended Reading List

Guardian Building a Children's Library

Such a great resource...

I originally discovered the UK Guardian‘s “Building a Children’s Library” section online right after I registered the domain name for this site and was a few days away from launching it. Suffice to say, it caused me a very unpleasant afternoon filled with self-doubt and self-serving proclamations of “But it’s already been done before? WHY BOTHER?!” However, after browsing through the site for a few hours, I quickly realized that, while all about promoting the joys of reading, our sites had very different missions and voices. (At least that’s what I tell myself, so I can sleep at night… sob.)

The editorial team of the Guardian has done a blisteringly admirable job of putting together a primer for any parent looking to assemble a list of “classic” children’s titles for their kids. They break their recommendations into several different age groups – Classic children’s library: 0-3; Classic children’s library: 4-7; Books for tweens; and Teen library – and they provide some excellent and well-written commentary to accompany each title. More than any other “best books” list I’ve found online, the Guardian‘s recommendations do an amazing job of providing context for each title and really giving a nice, concise argument of WHY this title is perfect for its age group. (They also pick many wonderful-sounding UK titles that might not be familiar to US audiences – that’s another plus in my column.) One warning: The Guardian’s “Building a Children’s Library” site seemingly hasn’t been updated since around 2005 – and some lists date back to 2000 – which is a shame.

And, I’ll admit, I have a big crush on the Guardian‘s “About the Library” summary where, in a few paragraphs, they completely reject the sensational posturing of the Scholastic “100 Greatest List” and rather revel in how subjective, personal, and human their recommendations are. Here’s an excerpt:

This list is not intended to be definitive. It is merely a jumping-off point, a place to start exploring the world of books. In recent years publishing for children has become a growth area. The shelves of bookshops – but not, alas, our cash-starved libraries – are stuffed with new titles and classics. Where to begin? How to choose? We hope that this list will help you and your children and teenagers plunge in and develop your own taste and own likes and dislikes. … [read the rest of the post…]


100 Greatest Books for Kids

It is pretty funny watching something called "The 100 Greatest Books for Kids" making adults so very, very angry...

Earlier this week, USA Today and Scholastic’s Parent & Child Magazine released their picks for the 100 Greatest Books for Kids – a list that they’ve been counting down to since last December and that, in a few short days, has already inspired some pretty heated feedback on the internet. The “100 Greatest” list found its ways onto my radar after Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief of the Horn Book, posted a link to the list on Twitter accompanied by the comment “this is a very strange list.” Sutton followed up with a question on his blog – “Does anyone know how this list was put together?” – which, frankly, is what I think ANYONE would immediately ask after reading the list.

You can check out the list for yourself HERE.

I dug around Parent & Child‘s press materials and got a better idea of the “how” and the “why” the list was created. First, let’s look at the “why.” The list was ostensibly created to mark the various BIG reading events that will be taking place during March this year, including the 15th anniversary of the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day (March 2nd, which also happens to be Dr. Seuss’ birthday) AND March just happens to be National Reading Month. (We just received our March calendar from my daughter’s kindergarten class and they’ve got multiple “National Reading Month” events planned for every week.)

In terms of the “how,” here’s how Parent & Child explains what went into the creation of their “100 Greatest Books for Kids” list:

To create our list, we asked several highly respected literacy experts, educators, and parents for suggestions. They came through in a big way — nearly 500 books were in the running. We used a variety of criteria to narrow down to 100 and then rank our titles, including diversity of genre, topic, format, ages and stages, authorship, and cultural representation. Factors such as literary and/or illustration excellence, popularity, and longevity or innovative freshness were all qualities of books in the final round.

100 Greatest Books for Kids

Their #1 pick is "Charlotte's Web", which is a good book, but is it the best of all time? (And is that what the list is saying? I'm confused.)

So, on the surface, I can generally understand how and why they decided to take on this project. I can. But here’s the thing – Sutton is right. Dead right. It is a strange list. All of these kinds of lists are STRANGE lists.

Whenever someone takes it upon themselves to assemble a list of “The 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century” or “The 10 Books That Will Change Your Life” or any of those huge, declarative “I am OBJECTIVELY ranking things that are inherently SUBJECTIVE and you will shut up and like it” lists, I don’t think it is ever, EVER a good idea.

Granted, the lists’ authors might disagree. Chances are, one of their main aims with this list was to stir controversy, get some publicity, and sell some newspapers and magazines – and, in that sense, by writing about the list on my blog, I’m giving them EXACTLY what they want. (Dammit.) BUT, beyond naked attention grabbing, I don’t think anyone can prove that lists like this one provide much positive value to the general public.

That’s one of my biggest issues with reading lists like this one – they are designed to be confrontational and inspire arguments, even though those arguments provide NO benefit to their target audience. When Parent & Child declares “these are the 100 GREATEST kids’ books“, they are blatantly implying that these titles are superior to EVERY other title that didn’t make this list. So, if Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is my favorite kids’ book and it didn’t make this list (it didn’t), by saying these books are the “100 Greatest”, it is, in effect, telling me that, “Your favorite book isn’t even good enough to crack our top 100. You are WRONG.” [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…]


Iggy Peck, Architect

Iggy Peck, Architect is next on our reading list

One of the core reasons for this blog existing is that, selfishly, I really want to know what other people’s kids are reading, and I really, really want recommendations for great kids’ books that haven’t crossed our path yet. We got some great submissions last week – which was very cool, since the blog has only existed for a week, so thanks for the charity, dear readers – but one stood out for me as an early favorite. Based on a recommendation from my lovely friend Megan McKnight, the next book we’re hunting for is Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts.

(Or maybe we’re just going borrow it from Megan or… ooh, our local library has it… oh, OK, we’re totally getting this book now.)

According to the description of the book:

Iggy has one passion: building. His parents are proud of his fabulous creations, though they’re sometimes surprised by his materials. But hey! What’s wrong with a tower built of diapers? (Even dirty ones!)

Dear Ig has it made until second grade. That’s when he meets his match. His teacher, Miss Lila Greer, frowns upon architecture. Banned from building in school, second grade becomes a bore until one day a fateful field trip lets Iggy Peck show the world his true talents!

It was named one of Time Magazine’s Top Children’s Books of 2007 and won a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award. And, more importantly, it looks very cool. I LOVE the graphic paper backgrounds to Iggy’s illustrations. And, coincidentally, I recently had a long conversation with my daughter trying to explain what an architect does. We have lots of books about the actual construction process – “Biff Builds a House” and so on – but we haven’t encountered many that actually get into the planning/artistic inspiration aspects of what architects do.

On the author’s website, you can find some great sample pages and other resources if you’re interested.

So, thanks Megan for the suggestion! If anyone else has suggestions for what we should try to read next, just email me and pass it on.