series

The Berenstain Bears and the Big Blooper

If Sister Bear can be fallible, can’t we all?

I write a lot about the joys of reading aloud to your kid. This is a cautionary tale about what happens when reading aloud goes wrong.

Before we begin, for the record, I am a fan of The Berenstain Bears. While I know some parents who find their books to be provincial and occasionally preachy, I think, for the most part, Stan and Jan Berenstain are extremely skilled at crafting very engaging and accessible stories for early readers. (I should note that I, personally, very much prefer the earlier Berenstain Bear books – Old Hat, New Hat; The Berenstain Bears’ Science Fair; The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter, etc – to the newer editions that Jan co-wrote with their son Michael.)

The Berenstain Bears series was the first example of series fiction that my daughter really fell in love with, and I think that’s a pretty common occurrence. Many parents are comfortable buying their young children Berenstain Bears books for a variety of reasons – the stories are well told, the art is consistent, the books are inexpensive, the characters are captivating, the quality of the storytelling greatly outshines the other books on that one spinning rack at the bookstore (normally, cheap Barbie or princess books) – the list goes on and on. Berenstain Bears books have become a foundational pillar of modern children’s literature because they’ve created this very warm, very safe place for young readers to return to again and again.

Which was why I was so surprised when a Berenstain Bear book made me say the F-word in front of my daughter.

LET ME EXPLAIN…

The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies

It looks SO innocent on its cover, doesn’t it?

OK, in reality, the incident was maybe 90% my fault, 10% the book’s fault (maybe more like 70/30). The book in question was The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies, a fun little tale of Brother and Sister Bear learning not to expect toys, candy, and presents every time they go out to the store. It’s a book designed to tell children not to lose their minds in front of the candy rack at the supermarket checkout, so I fully support Stan and Jan‘s intentions behind writing the book. It has a great lesson at its core. HOWEVER, it also features a tongue-twister that completely got the better of me one night at bedtime. [read the rest of the post…]

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Santa reading his holiday mail

Dear Santa – Please bring me these kid’s books that don’t exist yet. Signed, A Blog You Probably Don’t Read…

Have you ever gone looking for a particular book for your child only to realize, after a few days of furious Googling and bookstore calling, that the book in question simply does not exist? I have. Once you realize it, you just sort of sit there and go, “Wait a minute, you mean there aren’t ANY kid’s books about the first time you chip your tooth at the zoo… or the fictional outer space adventures of Neville Chamberlain… or the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota? How is that possible?” (If those books do, in fact, actually exist, the world is an even cooler place than I thought it was.)

Sometimes, the non-existent book in question is just a random idea that pops out of my head. And, trust me, they’re not always solid concepts. (“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a book about the history of macaroni that was made out of macaroni and you could then boil it and eat it when you’re done?”) Other times, I am legitimately surprised to find a topic that doesn’t have an accompanying kid’s book to help my daughter better understand it. I am just so used to having libraries upon libraries of age-appropriate children’s books at my disposal to help my kid contextualize anything and everything that, when I find a gap in that coverage, it can be a jarring experience. (Last month, I spent a solid week trying to explain the Large Hadron Collider to my very curious six year old. I really could’ve used a Caldecott-nominee to back me up on that one…)

So, since the holiday season is a time for wishing to omniscient bearded deities, I decided to collect this list of Seven Children’s Books That I Really, Really Wish Existed. These are all the kinds of books that, as a book fan and as a parent, I would love to read with my daughter and that I hope someone, somewhere decides to write and publish one day.

(And, if these books already exist, TELL ME. I did cursory research on all of these ideas before posting this article, but I will gladly admit my mistake – and probably buy the book – if I missed any major titles.)

1. Kaiju for Kids

Kaiju from Gumby's Winter Fun Special

Kaiju monsters go wild in a panel from one of the greatest comic books ever – “Gumby’s Winter Fun Special”

What does “kaiju” mean? Here’s a link to the Wikipedia definition, but the shortest, most direct answer I can give you is “Kaiju = Godzilla.” Fans of the kaiju genre might debate that over-simplification, but, when you hear nerds talking about kaiju, they’re normally talking about the giant monster movie genre, most typically identified with Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra, and their ilk. Big monsters (a.k.a. men in suits), breathing fire and firing lasers, having battle royales in the middle of a cardboard city as the miniature locals run away screaming. Sometimes the giant beasts are good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re just an unstoppable force of nature. But they’re always big, tough, and looking for a brawl.

I think kaiju is just a PERFECT genre for kids. I mean, for a young child, what could be cooler than a 50-foot-robot and an impossibly big dinosaur throwing buildings at each other? (Seriously, what Fancy Nancy book could ever compete with that?) Plus, visually, the kaiju-style battles nicely parallel how kids play with their own toys. Give a kid some action figures and toy cars and, eventually, those giant toy men and women are going to roar and step on those cars. It’s imprinted in our DNA. And, even though there’s fighting in kaiju, I wouldn’t say that the genre is particularly violent. There are a lot of men-in-suits being thrown around balsa-wood cities, but there’s not a lot of bleeding, death, or pain. There’s mostly just stomping, roaring, and shoving things out of the way… which kind of sounds like a kindergartener to me. The definitive visual style of kaiju movies is based on contrasts – huge monsters transposed on top of relatively small cities. I think that contrast of images can be very fun and very powerful for kids, particularly for younger children who are still working on their motor skill development. If you’re a kid who’s still learning how to tie your shoes or properly hold a pencil, I think it would be incredibly satisfying to watch these lumbering beasts, bigger than anyone else around, stumble and fall and wreck things with impunity.

Godzilla Pooped on My Honda

Final image from the poem “Godzilla Pooped on My Honda” from Adam Rex’s brilliant “Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich”

A quick Amazon search turned up a few out-of-print Godzilla picture books from the 1990s – copies of the best-looking title, Godzilla Likes to Roar, is now selling for more than $180 – but I can’t believe there aren’t more kaiju kid’s books. And they don’t need to be Godzilla books per se. I think a talented author or illustrator would have no problem coming up with new original kaiju monsters, replete with zippers down their backs, to populate a fictional metropolis, and I would love to see a children’s book creator really nail those parallels between the oddly-sized awkwardness of both fifty-foot dragons and five year olds. It just sounds like way too much fun.

2. First Trip to the Movies

First Trip to the Movies

She promptly shushed me soon after taking this picture…

This one really surprises me. As a parent, you are very aware of historically “big” landmarks in your child’s life. Their first step, their first haircut, their first day of school, and so on. And most of those landmarks have some sort of picture book or Berenstain Bear book to acknowledge and/or commemorate those momentous rites of passage. However, I couldn’t find any picture books about one of my daughter’s biggest “big” moments – her first trip to the movies. [read the rest of the post…]

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How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse

My daughter BEGGED me to find this book at our library.

And we’ve come to the end of our week! (Cue the Rebecca Black song.) Welcome to the FIFTH installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, our new series in which we spend an entire business week profiling the various books that my five-year-old daughter and I checked out from our local library last week. We came home with five books and we’ve been listing the books in the order they were selected, so today we’ll talking about the fifth and final book we chose to take home with us. Our fifth title was a chapter book – How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series by Cressida Cowell, which follows the “heroic misadventures” of a young Viking-in-training named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III.

You might be familiar with the name “How to Train Your Dragon” from the successful (and actually very good) 2010 DreamWorks animated movie, which was based on the original book.

But before I start talking about How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, you need to know THREE things:

1. The How to Train Your Dragon movie was a very, very loose adaptation of the original book. (There are some significant differences.)

2. We have not actually finished reading How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse. We’ve only had it out for a few days and it’s a 272-page book. My daughter and I read a few chapters at bedtime most nights (but I don’t out her down every night). So… I won’t be talking about many specifics regarding How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

3. I absolutely love – LOVE – the How to Train Your Dragon series. For me, it will forever be the first chapter book series that my daughter ever fell in love with, which has won it a very special place in my heart.

Are we all set on my three very important things? (Insert self-mocking emoticon here.) I opened with those because I really wanted to establish exactly why my five-year-old was checking out the fourth chapter in a series of juvenile novels for young readers. It’s because she’s over the moon for the adventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and she’s INSISTING that we read every single book in the series.

How to Train Your Dragon series

The first eight books in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series. The ninth book – “How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword” – is not pictured.

So, how did we start reading the How to Train Your Dragon series? Well, long-time readers of this blog will remember that, in the past, my daughter would never, ever let me read longer books with her at bedtime. At the time, the longest title we’d ever read to her at bedtime was probably one of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson books. But several parents we knew were already reading their children chapter books and early YA novels at bedtime, raving about how their kids were just LOVING the first Harry Potter books, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and so on. And my wife and I – we wanted in on that action. It just sounded like way too much fun. [read the rest of the post…]

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Awful Ogre Running Wild

Wonderful poems about gloriously gross things…

Welcome to the fourth installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, the newest chapter in a weekly series where we take a look at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out at our local library last week. I’m listing the books in the order they were selected and this fourth book definitely falls into the category of “old favorite.” Every time we hit the library, we end up coming home with, at least, one book that we’ve checked out multiple times before. My daughter loves to re-read books that connected with her in the past and so, when she saw  Awful Ogre Running Wild by Jack Prelutsky and Paul O. Zelinsky sitting on the “Librarian’s Picks” shelf last week, I KNEW we were coming home with it.

I know some parents are hesitant about reading poetry to their children. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because “poetry” is a loaded word for certain people. Maybe, to them, “poetry” conjures images of Sylvia Path, Emily Dickinson, beatniks, hipsters, and holier-than-thou coffee shop readings, and they just can’t get past that. While a part of me sympathizes with that prejudice, the vast majority of me just wants to slap them. Parents, perhaps without them even realizing it, read poetry to their kids ALL THE TIME, whether they’re singing a nursery rhyme or reading Dr. Seuss aloud. In fact, a huge percentage of picture books are actually poetry books – they’re narrative poems with rhyme, meter, etc. – but I guess those parents just see the images as the focus point. Who knows?

But one of the many reasons that I’m so fond of Awful Ogre Running Wild is that it’s a picture book that REVELS in its poetry. It’s a book that proudly classifies itself as a poetry book and announces on its cover that its author, Jack Prelutsky, is the Children’s Poet Laureate. (Ooh la la.) And, in cooperation with renowned illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, Prelutsky has created one of the most kid-friendly poetry collections ever, a book that wonderfully taps into the Id of children everywhere and turns all things gross and boorish into something beautiful.

Awful Ogre Running Wild

There’s a carbon footprint joke here somewhere, but… I can’t get there…

The book introduces us to Awful Ogre, a giant immature cyclops who smashes and destroys everything in sight. (Awful Ogre actually first appears in Prelutsky and Zelinsky’s Awful Ogre’s Awful Day, but… though I’m ashamed to admit it… our library doesn’t have it.) And Awful Ogre – he’s rude, he’s dirty, he’s destructive, and… he looks like he’s having a great time. Zelinsky does a really amazing job of making Awful Ogre into something distinctly monstrous, but in a really lovely, charming way. He’s a brute, but he’s a loveable brute. In the world that Prelutsky and Zelinsky create, the people that have to interact with Awful Ogre recoil at the very sight of him, but, as readers, the authors make it tremendously fun to watch the Ogre’s oblivious, joyful destruction from a distance. [read the rest of the post…]

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Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1

The children have to learn about The Clone Wars sometime, right? Right?

Welcome to the third installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, a good-natured peek at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out during our last trip to our local library. We’re going in order, so let’s talk about the third book my daughter picked out, otherwise known as “the book I have no control over.”

Remember, in my introductory post to this series, when I said that my daughter gets to pick put one book every time that I can’t veto? Well, per usual, for her no-veto pick, she went for a book based on a movie or a TV show. Usually, that means Scooby Doo, but this week it meant… Star Wars.  Specifically, a Star Wars comic book anthology called Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1.

And, as a big pop culture geek, Star Wars is kind of a hot button issue with me. Like a lot of people, I adore the original trilogy, despise the prequels, and beyond-despise the various unnecessary and artistically-suspect revisions George Lucas has made to the original trilogy. But, after observing my daughter’s first year of kindergarten, I have to say – there is NO other pop culture property that is more prevalent in the minds of young children than Star Wars right now. Maybe it’s the due to the popularity of Star Wars Legos or maybe it’s because the children of the ‘80s grew up, had kids, and decided to share their favorite trilogy with their offspring at a very young age, but, man oh man, in my experience, five- and six-year-old boys and girls will NOT stop talking about Star Wars.

(I said “boys and girls” right there to be inclusive, but I will say, in my limited sphere of experience, boys do seem to be WAY more into Star Wars than girls. And I don’t know why. It might be the guns. It might be that the overwhelming majority of Star Wars characters are male. It might be the big, glowing, phallic swordfights… who knows? But I will say, earlier this year, my daughter was the only girl invited to an all-boys Star Wars birthday party and… yeah, I’m still brimming with pride.)

Darth Vader and Son

Being a parent in the Star Wars era isn’t easy… (Image taken from the very funny “Darth Vader and Son” by Jeffrey Brown.)

However, the Star Wars issue is difficult in our house because, while it is VERY much on my daughter’s radar, I won’t let her watch the movies or the Clone Wars TV series yet. I just think she’s too young and it’s too violent. And that’s hard because almost ALL of her friends watch the movies frequently. So, instead, since she is really, really eager to learn about Star Wars, we talk about the Star Wars universe A LOT. (Fortunately, as a card-carrying geek, I have an almost-photographic memory about Star Wars lore.) I’ll flip through Star Wars books with her and she has some Star Wars toys (including some of mine from my childhood). I also show her a decent amount of YouTube clips – a selection of short glimpses of Star Wars-related material that I deem appropriate.

For example, there are some pretty funny animated Lego Star Wars videos online at the moment. Or there are these crazy “Star Wars Dance-Off” videos from the Disney Studios Star Wars Weekends that have to be seen to be believed. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Chewbacca’s Axl Rose impression.) Or, at times, I will show her small clips from the actual movies. I normally keep these short, but I have given her brief looks at lightsaber fights, space battles, Ewoks, etc. Since it is SUCH a front-of-mind topic with her peers, I have no problem sharing with her knowledge of the Star Wars universe – showing her videos, having discussions, letting her play with the toys – but I’ll be damned if I let peer pressure force me to show her the movies before I feel she’s ready for them.

Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1

How do I explain Jedi haircuts to my daughter?

That’s a long preamble to say that, when my daughter showed up with a Star Wars book in her hands at the library and asked if she could check it out, I definitely went through some conflicting emotions. (Particularly since it was a Clone Wars book. Why did my child have to be born in the age of the prequels?) I eventually let her check out the book in question – Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1 – and here are the three reasons why:

1. It wasn’t a mindless retelling of the movies. It was a new story. Granted, Clone Wars Adventures is set during the Clone Wars – the dumbest of all wars – but nothing is worse than a corporate-produced kids’ book that just recounts what happened in a movie. At least, the author had to try to create something new and not just say “and then this happened… and then this happened…”

2. It was a graphic novel – a format that I really love and that my daughter is really enjoying. She’s very into comic books right now and Clone Wars Adventures is a neat little Star Wars comics anthology series, published by Dark Horse Comics, with three separate stories per volume. The format is also pretty cool for young readers – big readable text, only 2-3 panels per page, and the library-binding editions are hardcover and super-tough. [read the rest of the post…]

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People by Blexbolex

These are the people in your neighborhood… your incredibly eclectic neighborhood…

Welcome back to the second installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, a brief glimpse at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out during our last trip to our local library. We’re going in order, so I can now tell you that the second book we picked out is… a very unusual book. It’s a picture book. (OK.) And a word book. (Seems a bit young for a five-year-old.) A 200-page word book. (What? Really?) A 200-page word book that teaches kids about contortionists, centaurs, fakirs, tattooed men, rabbis, cat burglars, and more. (You’re messing with me, right? Right?)

It’s an extremely cool book called People by Blexbolex. That’s right. Blexbolex.

Reason Why France Is Pretty Cool #497: A guy can rename himself “Blexbolex” and it doesn’t seem completely ridiculous. I mean, it’s a little odd, but I think the guy pulls it off. Maybe I’m just cutting him some slack because I’m so fond of his book. People is easily one of the best designed and most visually stunning titles we’ve checked out from the library all year. We’ve danced around it for the past few weeks. The past three times we’ve been at the library, my daughter has taken it off the shelf, paged through it, considered it, and put it back. For whatever reason, last Friday was the day the book finally came home with us and I’m glad it did. I suppose you could call People a word book – it just has a single illustration of a person and a word describing that person on each page – but it’s really so much more than that.

(For those of you who don’t know, a “word book” is a pretty common kind of picture book for really young readers. It’s primary purpose is, simply, to teach children new words. They’re filled with images of common, everyday things and the word identifying each object appears right underneath the image. Richard Scarry is the KING of the word book.)

The illustrations in People are beautiful. They’re wonderfully simple and iconic representations of different kinds of human beings, done in a fashion that almost makes them look they’re screen-printed or stamped onto each page. But Blexbolex’s concept goes way, way beyond where normal word books leave off. People is a big book – 200-plus pages – and Blexbolex fills each page with extremely insightful images of a HUGE variety of people. And we’re not just talking about firemen and doctors.

People by Blexbolex

They’re like flash cards for humanity…

The book starts with a two-page spread of Man and Woman, but, after that, the pairings get more and more specific and unique. You get match-ups like Couple -Bachelor, Corpse-Retiree, Friend-Foe, Builder-Demolisher, Monk-Rabbi, Nudist-Invisible Man, Amputee-Cyclops, Princess-Werewolf, and so on. Some of the people-types are a little on the unusual or almost macabre side, but there’s nothing mean-spirited or inappropriate about them. My daughter loved encountering words, terms, and personality-types that she’d never encountered before. (“Daddy, what’s an Emir?”) [read the rest of the post…]

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Chloe and the Lion

A triumphant recounting of a storybook disaster.

Welcome to the first installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, a quick look at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out from the library during our last visit. I’m going to list these in the actual order that we picked them out, so we’ll start with a title my daughter grabbed off the “New Releases” shelf in the kids’ section – Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex.

I’m a big fan of artist Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (an absolutely gorgeous picture book and dead funny too), so his name was what caught my eye with this title. I pointed it out to my daughter and, after quickly scanning some pages, she declared, “We’re getting this one.” Chloe and the Lion is ostensibly all about a girl named Chloe who encounters a lion in the woods, but it’s really a flat-out comedy, all about storytelling, how books work, and the relationship between storytellers and their creations.

In the opening pages, we see claymation versions of Mac Barnett and Adam Rex introduce themselves – Rex is a multimedia master – and we even get to see the maquette version of Rex illustrate the lead character Chloe. Things quickly fall apart as Barnett and Rex get into a creative squabble, Barnett tries to replace Rex, his replacement doesn’t work out, then the writer tries to draw Chloe himself (he’s a terrible artist) until… as he finally admits, “This book is a disaster.”

My daughter loved the chaos of the storytelling and the variety of art styles throughout the book – when Rex quits the story, he’s replaced by a very different kind of artist and, when that artist leaves, he’s replaced by the writer doing a very bad job of being an artist. So the story is all about the wonderful art of second guessing yourself to death. Once Rex tells Barnett that perhaps Chloe’s story would be more exciting with a dragon (rather than a lion), everything falls apart. Barnett’s attempts to shut down any criticism of his original idea leads to several different artistic versions of the lion (the best one is Barnett’s childish sketch that is painfully ashamed of how it looks), a storyline that doesn’t know where to go (Chloe meets a hilarious cross-section of characters that all seem like they belong in other stories), and a begrudging revelation that, OK, maybe the author DOES need to listen to others from time to time.

There’s something about the whole meta-narrative thing – where characters in a book know that they are, in fact, characters in a book – that just cracks my daughter up. She kept comparing Chloe and the Lion to Melanie Watt’s Chester series – in which a picture-book cat gets into a fight with his illustrator – which is one of her favorite books of all time. The Chester comparison ALONE might’ve sealed the deal on Chloe and the Lion for her and this was the ONE book this week that she actually asked me to read to her IN the library, which, like the Chester comment, is another high compliment. [read the rest of the post…]

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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.

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