Best Picky Tween Boy Books

You know how so many people—LIKE ME, I hang my head and admit—talk about how they used to read everything they could get their hands on when they were kids? And how now their own kids, precocious little things that they are, do the same? Well, that just ain’t true for my son! He just might be the pickiest reader ever. Technically, he’s a skilled reader. But when it comes to a book holding his interest, it’s slim pickings. So when my fifth-grade boy says he “loves” a book, and stays up late reading while the rest of us drop off, well, I write it down, people! Here, for parents of other picky readers, a list of the few-and-far-between books that my son has deemed truly not-put-downable:

Masterminds, by Gordon Korman (Everett called this the best book he’d ever read)

a tale adrak and grimm
A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz (series of three)

harry potter
Harry Potter series (duh)

percy jackson.jpg
Percy Jackson series (ditto above)

hunger ganes
Hunger Games series (yet another ditto)

Fablehaven (full disclosure: he refused to read this to himself, but loved it when I read it aloud, and I’m loving it, too!)

(ditto above)

surrounded by sharks
Surrounded by Sharks
, by Michael Northrop

More suggestions, please?

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TBT: When the Sky is Like Lace

sky like lace

Today I’m introducing two new features of my book review blog: Throwback Thursdays, which will highlight old classics and favorites, and Newbie Tuesdays, featuring new releases. Today, Kristin Mahoney writes about a picture book that made a lasting impact on her childhood–and that you should read to your kids, as soon as possible! You can learn more about Kristin (a New Jersey-based mom, literacy specialist, and imminent picture book/middle grade writer) and connect with her on Twitter at @kmcmahoney. Kristin and I met working at women’s magazines in New York and we keep in close touch today.
When the Sky is Like Lace: the Beauty of a Bimulous Night

by Kristin Mahoney

When I was a kid, there were lots of picture-book worlds I wished I could inhabit. But if I’d had to choose just one, it would have been the enchanted land created by Elinor Lander Horwitz and Barbara Cooney in When the Sky is Like Lace. This was as much of an iconic read for my brother and me as better-known classics like The Snowy Day and Blueberries for Sal.

What makes this book so intriguing? I think all kids suspect that something secret and magical is going on after the sun goes down and they’re tucked away in their beds, and here Horwitz confirms that. Imagine a balmy summer night (or, as Horwitz calls it, a “bimulous night”) where you’re not only encouraged to go outside, but it’s imperative that you do so. Otherwise you will miss marching snails, dancing trees, singing otters, and grass that feels “like the velvet inside a very old violin case” on your bare feet.

This setting is rendered through some of the most beautifully poetic language I’ve ever encountered in a picture book. Check out this description of the dancing trees:
“…on bimulous nights when the sky is like lace, the trees eucalyptus back and forth, forth and back, swishing and swaying, swaying and swishing—in the fern-deep grove at the midnight end of the garden.”


And speaking of swooning, I wish I could adequately describe just what a knock-out Barbara Cooney’s illustrations are here. The three little girls exploring the night under an incredible purple sky occupy what, in my opinion, are some of Cooney’s most breathtaking works (given that this is the person who also illustrated Miss Rumphius, Ox Cart Man, and Letting Swift River Go—to name a few—that’s saying something).

For a while this book was out of print and could only be bought for an arm and a leg on ebay (luckily my childhood copy was still in one piece, and I have read it countless times to my own daughters, who love it as much as I do). But it’s back in print and available at normal picture book prices, so I’d highly recommend requesting a copy at your library or local bookstore. As Horwitz says, when it comes to bimulous nights, “you don’t want to miss a thing.”

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First Grade Read Aloud

read aloud 208Ah, reading to first graders: Can anything be easier and more fun? Today was Read Aloud Day in my daughter Cate’s class. Parents were encouraged to come in and read to the kids for a 20-minute block of time (or more if you liked). I signed up, as did four other parents. All in all, the kids got more than two solid hours of reading—a pretty sweet deal for them!

I totally stressed about what to read. It’s odd (or maybe it’s totally natural), but I’m completely confident recommending books for other people to read aloud, but this time I froze up a bit when it came time to make my own selections. I took notes on the back of envelopes as I cooked dinner. I walked through the house pulling books off shelves. I sought my daughter’s counsel, holding options up for her yays or nays.

I needn’t have worried. First graders LIKE EVERYTHING! Seriously, I think I could read the newspaper to them and they’d give me that open-mouthed smile, laughing when they sensed a joke (even if they didn’t get it), clapping at the end, begging for more when I was done.

But still, I put some thought into it. I considered:

  1. Should I read chapter books or picture book? Roald Dahl and similar chapter books are big in first grade. And picture books can be hard to read aloud, as you have to show the picture and read at the same time. But if I do a chapter book, I won’t be able to read it all. I also worried about the English language learners in our class.
  2. Should I try to find something Cate hasn’t heard? That would be more fun for her, right? But that would mean a trip to the library and a book that I haven’t road-tested.
  3. Should I go funny and modern or moving and poetic? Long and descriptive or short and pithy? Patricia Polacco or Mo Willems?

Finally, I went with picture books, books Cate already knew (but approved), and books that were (mostly) funny. Here’s what I read to room 208 today:

Scranimals. My kids love these poems about made-up hybrid animals (the Rhinocerose, the Parotter, the Broccolion!), and we’ve read the book many times through. I randomly read about six poems to the kids, and they loved keeping quiet until the end, when I encouraged them to shout out the combinations (rhino + rose! parrot + otter! broccoli + lion!). Big hit.

Interrupting Chicken. I don’t totally get this book, and I’m not a natural performer or comic, so I don’t know if I give the best rendition, but I can’t deny it’s a crowd-pleaser nonetheless. (When I suggested it to Cate, she said, “Oh yes, definitely that one.” She knows a first grade blockbuster when she sees one.)

Library Lion. This is one of my top five favorite picture books of all time. The kids paid close attention and oohed, awed, and laughed at all the right parts. I had to be very careful toward the end not to cry—I focused on really non-moving things, like my grocery list. I loooove this book.

And here are the back-ups I brought in but didn’t get a chance to read:

Dogger. I didn’t read Dogger, because we ran out of time, but I’m pretty sure it would have gone over swimmingly. If you don’t know this adorable book (another one that makes me cry), check it out immediately. Especially if you’re an Anglophile.

It Looked Like Spilt Milk. I grabbed this one off the shelf because it’s short and visual and entertaining—good for a read aloud. Maybe next time.

Wild About Books. I grabbed this one too because it’s fairly new to us, so Cate hasn’t heard it a million times, it rhymes (so it’s fun to read aloud), and it’s about books, so it somehow felt appropriate.

Next week, I have a steeper challenge: Read Aloud Day in 205—the fourth graders. Yikes.

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After eight years of writing, submitting, receiving rejections, writing more, attending conferences, working with my critique group, hoping, praying, and receiving emails that encourage and compliment but are still, in the end, rejections, I’m finally respresented by an agent. About two months ago I signed with Essie White of Storm Literary Agency. Essie represents children’s book authors and illustrators and so far, I love working with her. It’s wonderful to finally have a close ally in this quest, someone who is just as invested in my writing and publishing goals as I am. I hope to have good news soon. In the meantime, I’ll keep coming back here to ramble and muse about my favorite kids’ books.

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It’s baseball season!

9780060555221I recently had a lovely debate with a friend over which sport was better—baseball or ANYTHING. Baseball is boring, my friend told me. Baseball requires no athleticism—all the players are fat. Baseball is totally ridiculous and inane and Europeans make fun of us for it! Baseball is…America, I countered. It’s lying on the grass with your grandmother, under the stars, listening to the game. It’s history. It’s nostalgia. The rules are totally convoluted, the games take hours, you can go for long stretches without any action—and we love it for all those things.

Those loveable elements make it tailor-made for a picture book subject, and sure enough, the shelves are full of baseball books. (I’ve never seen a football, basketball, or hockey picture book. Just sayin’.) The other day I brought one home called This Is the Game, by Diane Z. Shore, and I’ll treat you to a few pages of its magic:

“This is the Dodger
fulfilling a dream
a Negro Leagues star
joins a Major League team.

This is the season
And this is the inning—
A Major League change, a historic beginning
When young Jackie Robinson
Wears Dodger Blue
And helps to make one single league out of two—

While a crackling radio
Broadcasts the sounds,
And on the front porch,
Neighbors gather around
Marking their scorecards,
Awaiting their call,
As all kinds of people, together,
Play ball.”

Oh, if only I could write in rhyme!

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My favorite holiday picture book: Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo

great joyA little girl notices an organ grinder and his monkey sleeping on the freezing city streets, and just can’t get them out of her mind. Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo, sends a powerful message of caring and tolerance for the holidays, and all throughout the year.

Some books are dripping with emotion. As unsubtle as a Lifetime Christmas special, they will reliably have the tears trickling down my cheeks by the halfway point. The absolutely lovely Someday, by Alison McGhee, fits this bill. (See my earlier post about books that make me cry.)

And then there are the ones that wrench your emotions in a way you can’t quite explain. Great Joy packs an unbelievably poignant punch without a bit of sentimentality. I just love, love, love this book.

What makes it special? The emotion comes at the very end and takes you by surprise. The whole book is quiet and somewhat wistful, even haunting, and you don’t have any sense that something amazing is going to happen. And then, when it does, it just slays you.

What else do I love about it? The way Kate DiCamillo lets the illustrator help tell the story. She doesn’t waste her words. She’s wordy and descriptive when it counts (she tells us several times that the monkey’s little vest is shiny green; this is important), but on several occasions she intentionally keeps her prose spare, letting the beautiful illustrations fill in the blanks of the plot. The very last spread has no words but tells the joyful conclusion; you can easily spend a few minutes looking at it.

Did I mention the beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatouilline? They have an ethereal yet detailed vintage quality. Although DiCamillo never specifies the era, the illustrations suggest the 1950s—that most American and Normal Rockwellish of decades.

Another reason I love it? It seems like a departure for Kate DiCamillo. I think it’s her only picture book, and it has a quieter, gentler voice than we usually see from her. Add it to your holiday picture book list!


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More books that make me cry

Part two in the exciting installment!

Willoughby & The Lion,
by Greg Foley

This is a quiet book, and it took several readings to grow on me. It’s magical and lyrical, and tells the story of Willoughby, who meets a lion who tells him that he can have ten wishes. For his first nine wishes, the boy asks for what you might expect: a huge house, a roller coaster, x-ray glasses. Then, about to make his ninth wish, he turns to the suddenly-quiet lion and asks, “What’s the matter?”
“I miss my home,” the lion answers. “I want to run through the fields with all the other lions.” For his last wish, the boy makes a choice that takes away all the grand things he had asked for before, but grants him something more special: the title of “True Friend.”

, by Shirley Hughes

I’ve read this one so many times that I’m no longer susceptible to it, but I used to always choke up at the part where big sister Bella goes out on a limb to rescue little brother Dave’s stuffed dog from the stubborn girl at the fair.

“Then Bella did something very kind.
‘Would you swap this teddy for my brother’s dog?’ she asked. Right away the little girl stopped crying and began to smile. She held out Dogger to Dave, took the big teddy instead, and went off with him in her arms.
          Then Dave smiled too.
          He hugged Dogger and he hugged Bella around her waist.
          ‘Thank you, Bella,’ he said.”

It gives me hope for my two kids!

miss rumphius
Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney

In the beginning we meet the little girl Alice, who tells a story of her great-aunt, also called Alice. When great-aunt Alice was a little girl, she told her grandfather that she wanted to, like him, travel to faraway places and then come home to live by the sea. He responded that that was all very well, but that she must also do one third thing: somehow make the world more beautiful. Alice said alright—“But she did not know what that could be.”

Fast-forward to the end of the book, when great-aunt Alice is frail and old, and has accomplished all three goals.

“My Great-aunt Alice, Miss Rumphius, is very old now. Her hair is very white. Every year there are more and more lupines. Now they call her the Lupine Lady. Sometimes my friends stand with me outside her gate, curious to see the old, old lady who planted the fields of lupines. When she invites us in, they come slowly. They think she is the oldest woman in the world. Often she tells us stories of faraway places.

‘When I grow up,’ I tell her, ‘I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.’

‘That is all very well, little Alice,’ says my aunt, ‘but there is a third thing you must do.’

‘What is that?’ I ask.

‘You must do something to make the world more beautiful.’

‘Alright, I say.

‘But I do not know yet what that can be.’”

I love full-circle endings.

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More lovely middle grade books

Why read adult books at all, really? There’s so much going on, so many great characters, such awesome plotting and suspense and denouement, in middle grade titles like these. Polly Horvath is a newish author find for me (though not for many, I know), Cynthia Rylant is the reason I started writing kids’ books (and this wonderful story about animals in an ice storm is so rich and atmospheric I’m drawing it out as long as possible), Clement Andrews is another new find for me (and I love him so much I’m going on a binge of his books), and I finally read Because of Winn-Dixie, which I’d been putting off forever because I wasn’t crazy about the title (but it was great, of course).

books 2

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A trio of delicious middle grade novels

award books

Flora and Ulysses, The One and Only Ivan, and The Year of Billy Miller. Yum.

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Books I read this week

Psst: This is an interruption from our regularly-scheduled programming (“Books That Make You Cry Cry [While Your Kids Remain Annoyingly Dry-Eyed]”). I’m hoping to make this a weekly post.

Picture books:

watermelon seed
The Watermelon Seed
, by Greg Pizzoli. The bottom line: A very Mo Willems-esque style. Funny. Great choice to read in a kindergarten class to get them howling. (A first book for this author–impressive.)

exclamation mark
Exclamation Mark
, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. The bottom line: Similar tone to some of their other creations, such as Little Pea. Modern and clever, sure to please teachers and librarians as well as kids.

mitchell goes bowling
Mitchell Goes Bowling
, by Hallie Durand and illustrated by Tony Fucile. Full of action and movement, with emotion and conflict and a satisfying resolution. Dynamic illustrations and a little-covered subject make this fresh and fun. The illustrator also does the Bink and Gollie books.

Chapter books:

vanishing coiin
The Vanishing Coin (Magic Shop),
by Kate Egan. Bottom line: Cute new series (this is the first) about a fourth-grade boy with learning issues who discovers that performing magic may be the first thing he’s really good at. Excellent dialogue and plot, likeable themes of friendship, and fun magic theme to keep readers interested. I enjoyed this one.

hank zipzer
Hank Zipzer, the World’s Greatest Under-Achiever: A Brand-New Me
, by Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler. Bottom line: Like The Vanishing Coin, stars a boy with learning challenges. This one lives in New York City and is about to move on to middle school. This is the 17th in the popular series. With snappy, sassy dialogue, this is a good pick for boys who may have similar learning problems at school. If you don’t like kids tossing barbs back and forth at each though, this may not be for you.


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