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.


I’ve taken to calling November “Building a Library‘s Month of Failure” around the house. First, my daughter tells me that she wants to “pause” our reading of The Phantom Tollbooth. (Sigh.) Next, she tells me that she doesn’t want me to read her any more chapter books at bedtime, even though my wife – my wife who, in case you were wondering, did NOT start a blog all about how much she loves sharing books with her daughter – gets to read her Harry Freakin’ Potter at bedtime, a book that my kid is LOVING. And, finally, THIS happens…

My daughter, who is lovely and amazing and is such a fantastic reader, comes to me and says, “I want to write a fan letter to my favorite author.”

I perked up IMMEDIATELY. She’d never asked to do this before.

“That’s great!” I said. “Who are we writing to?” In my head, I began thinking about how I could get the mailing addresses for Lane Smith, Kate DiCamillo, Cressida Cowell, Mo Willems, Adam Rex, the estates of Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl, etc. And then she hit me with the bombshell.

“I want to write a fan letter to Daisy Meadows who writes the Rainbow Fairy Books.”

Daisy Meadows. The Rainbow Fairy Books.


Rainbow Magic

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion…

“SERIOUSLY?” I replied in an immature tone, practically guaranteed to send her further into Daisy Meadows‘ open and waiting arms. “She is seriously not your favorite author. Seriously. She’s not, right?” [read the rest of the post…]


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

We see an old guy overanalyzing the heck out of a 26-page book for babies….

In my last post about Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle‘s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, I talked a lot about how reading the book aloud to my daughter became this shared meditative experience between the two of us. It’s a book that, to me, really comes alive when you read it out loud. I also mentioned that Gwyneth Paltrow had narrated an audio version of the book and debated whether the book could sound as powerful coming from a recording. Well, thanks to magic of YouTube, we can test that theory.

There are several different readings of Brown Bear, Brown Bear available on YouTube, so I picked THREE different versions and, dear readers, I’d like you to take a listen to all three and let me know what you think. Is there a version that particularly resonates with you? Do any of them fall completely flat? Would you actually play any of these for your kids? I’m interested to hear your feedback.

The first version is the author, Bill Martin Jr., reading the book himself. He definitely brings his own musical rhythm to the text, singing the lines like they were the lyrics of a children’s song from his youth.

The next reading of Brown Bear is the aforementioned Gwyneth Paltrow version. I’m including a video that has the highest-quality audio I could find, but, just a heads-up, it doesn’t follow along with the book. (There is a version that pairs Paltrow’s reading with a flip through the book – you can see it here – but the audio quality in that video is really bad, so I didn’t think it was fair to feature it.) Paltrow actually reads the book closer to how I read it. She takes her time, she doesn’t sing the words – I never read the book as a song – and she actually does voices for the animals. It’s an interesting take.

The third reading totally turns Brown Bear, Brown Bear into a song. In fact, it sings the entire book to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” If I’m being honest, it would be an understatement to say that I @#$%ing hate this version.

Which one is your favorite? Or would you rather just stick with live readings?


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

I see a book that should be a fixture in any home library…

Ever since I started this blog almost a year ago (our first anniversary is rapidly approaching), I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a post along the lines of “The Ten Essential Children’s Books You MUST Have in Your Home Library.” It’s the kind of article that’s easy to write, it attracts traffic, and it can be a great discussion starter, if done right. (If done wrong, it can be trite, repetitive, and disposable.) However, every time the idea occurs to me, I find myself paralyzed when it comes to trying to define the criteria for the list. What makes a book essential? Will my definition of “essential” correlate to other parents’ definitions? How can I say that these ten books have more inherent value than every other book ever published? I’ve just never been able to tackle the topic in a way that makes me comfortable.

But, with all that said, I will say that, if your kid doesn’t have their own copy of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle, there is something truly significant missing from your home library.

Is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? an “essential” children’s book? To me and my subjective definition of “essential”, yes, it is. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be this – it is a magical picture book to read aloud to a young child.

For younger readers (and I’m talking mostly about kids ranging from newborn to around three years old), it seems like most of the books targeted at their age group fall into one of FOUR main categories.

First, there are STORY books. These are books that – surprise, surprise – tell a story. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They follow the arc of a character from point A to point B. Maybe they have a message or moral to convey. Most books fall into this category – fairy tales, legends, Red Riding Hood, Madeline, Strega Nona, etc.

Second, there are (what I call) STIMULUS-RESPONSE books. These are books that are less structured around a story and are more structured around eliciting some kind of response or feedback from your kid. Pat the Bunny is an example – it’s a book that wants you to (wait for it) pat the bunny. Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is another example. That picture book isn’t setting up a big character transformation or narrative adventure for the Pigeon. Rather, it wants its readers to yell out “NO!” and to answer the Pigeon when he begs to be allowed to drive the bus. These are books designed to encourage interaction. (Press Here is another great stimulus-response book.) [read the rest of the post…]


Superman Family Adventures

You know… for kids… who can read!

I may have mentioned this before, but I love comic books and so does my five-year-old daughter. Our bi-weekly trips to our local comic book store are among my favorite rituals we have. And, almost every time we go, my daughter gets to pick out a comic book for herself. Sometimes it’s a Scooby-Doo comic. Sometimes it’s a Simpsons comic or The Incredibles or The Muppets or a Looney Tunes comic. She loves all kinds of comics. That being said, the only superhero comics that she buys that I know she can read all on her own are created by two men – Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, the creators of Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures. And, in my opinion, they’re one of the few creative teams that are currently creating old-school, monthly, serialized superhero comics for developing readers. And I think that’s awesome.

(“Aw Yeah” is recurring catch-phrase in Tiny Titans, and Baltazar and Franco are two of the founders of Aw Yeah Comics, a comics store in Skokie, Illinois – hence the title of this post.)

Tiny Titans

They’re cute AND super-friendly for developing readers…

Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of great kids’ comics being created today. Last year, I wrote a totally mushy love letter to Toon Books, a groundbreaking comics publisher that creates comic books that are specifically designed to meet the needs of developing and emerging readers. They design comic books that kids can read themselves, which really shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. And, while I adore Toon Books, their comics come in these beautiful hardcover collections and it makes buying one a week a bit prohibitive on the monthly household budget side. Toon Books are both comics and books – the kind of books you could find in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. (And they’re amazing.) However, at the moment, my daughter is really into the kind of monthly serialized comic books that you buy off a rack somewhere. The kind you can roll up into your pocket and whack someone with. Old-school, paper-and-staples comic books.

But, while everything Toon Books publishes is top-notch, clever, and gorgeous, it’s much, much harder to find monthly serialized comics for kids that show the same craftsmanship – particularly when you’re talking about superhero comics. Bongo Comics does some remarkable monthly Simpsons comics and Roger Landridge‘s sadly-no-more Muppets comics deserved all the accolades they received, but SUPERHEROES are the new pre-occupation of my five year old. And, while superheroes can be just as problematic as princesses for young girls (check out my earlier post on Wonder Woman to see what I’m talking about), I knew there HAD to be some great, age-appropriate superhero reading material for a five-year-old girl somewhere in the world of monthly comic books.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find much.

In my post on Toon Books last year, I very begrudgingly confessed that:

Reading comic books with a kid can be a huge pain in the ass.

Oh, how it kills me to admit this, but most comics aren’t made to be read aloud, which makes it incredibly difficult to sit down and read them with a pre-reader child. My daughter was so excited to have me read them to her, but, as I began, almost immediately, we both realized just how dense and confusing comics can be. My finger was constantly bouncing around the page, trying to show her where to read next. The text was super-small and my daughter – who loves being able to identify words on her own – simply couldn’t read the tiny print. The jumble of thought balloons, narration boxes, and sound effects baffled her and, even when we tried to read through a whole comic, at a certain point, she’d get impatient and frustrated with my pace or with being lost all the time. She LOVED flipping through the pages and pouring over the art, the facial expressions, the action – but she’d completely abandoned comics as something she could READ.

[read the rest of the post…]

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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.


The Knight and the Dragon

Some books are more important than others...

If the subtle, subversive charms of The Knight and the Dragon aren’t enough to convince you that Tomie dePaola is one of our most important children’s book creators, I dare you to watch the video below, in which dePaola describes the importance of reading and reading aloud, and not fall in love with the guy.

My favorite part of the interview is where dePaola talks about being asked the question “Why do you think reading is important?” and how he prepared a very “intricate sentence” as his response. And his response was fantastic:

Reading is important because, if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.

Isn’t that great?

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Charlie Cook's Favorite Book

Is that book appropriate for a child to read? What about a pirate? Should I be worried about an alien being offended by the content within?

I’ve started to get some questions from readers about how I cite “age ranges” for certain kids’ books and whether or not, when I talk about “age ranges,” if I’m actually talking about “reading levels.” I understand how the distinction between the two can be confusing, so I’m going to try to clear things up a bit.

(Note to Readers: There is a 95% chance that, in the act of trying to “clear things up,” I will, in fact, make things “infinitely more confusing.” The best thing to do is probably just sit back and enjoy watching me dig myself into a hole.)

So, when I list the “age range” in one of my book reviews, what exactly am I talking about? In my interpretation of “age range,” I’m talking about whether or not the material in the book is appropriate for a child of that age. When I state a certain age range – let’s say “3 and older” – I’m saying “it should be fine to READ THIS BOOK to any kid who’s three years old or older.” (And I’m also implying that it’s OK for your child to browse the book on their own.)

Since I have a five-year-old kid, almost every book I’ve profiled on the blog, in my opinion, is appropriate for any other five-year-old and most should be fine for any kid younger than five too. The only books that I’ve written about so far that I wouldn’t share with my own daughter right now are the books I’ve labeled “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” (that should’ve been insanely self-explanatory).

However, don’t think that “age range” means the same thing as “reading level.” To me, “reading levels” are all about independent reading. A reading level is an estimation of “a child this age should be able to read the text of this book on their own without much help.” While most of the books I’ve profiled fall within my daughter’s “age range” – i.e. the material is appropriate for her – far, far less fall into her “reading level” – i.e. she’d be able to read the entire book on her own.

Is that clear?

In my opinion, age ranges are fairly easy to identify. It’s basically you, as a parent, asking yourself, “When do I think my kid would be old enough for me to read this book to them?” But, to me, reading levels are much, much harder to calculate. Maybe it’s because my daughter is relatively new to independent reading, but I’m not much good yet at looking at a book and estimating whether or not my kid will have trouble with the vocabulary. [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…]