I’m re-posting a round-up from last year (on my now-obsolete blog A Patch of Earth) about winter reading with my daughter Sky. I wrote quite a few reading round-ups on that blog and had a lot of fun reflecting on the books my daughter especially liked at her current age, because there are SO many incredible children’s books. It’s a practice I’d like to do more of here on my professional website, because as writers we are truly shaped and formed by the books we read, from childhood on up.
I’ve enjoyed getting to immerse myself in reading with my kids– but it’s not always easy to find books that resonate with your child. We have a wonderful children’s librarian at our local branch who consistently chooses exceptional books to feature in the children’s section. Now that I’m wrangling a wiggly 1-year-old while keeping tabs on my 3.5 year-old as she free ranges through the stacks, I have even greater appreciation for the easy-to-grab books available on the top of the main shelves. (THANK you, Jeanie.)
But even then, books that I love for Sky aren’t necessarily the ones that she loves– especially as she gets older and more independent– so I’m happy to share her favorites here, at 2.5 (2018) and 3.5 (2019). I share my own favorite reads as well.
After nearly ten years in the rainy Pacific Northwest, there is nothing I look forward to quite so much as spring. Whether because of the sharp contrast with the long gray days of winter, or because of the wide variety of flowering plants in yards and parks, spring in Portland is outrageously beautiful. Cherry trees lay down carpets of pink on city streets, and renegade daffodils and crocuses disrupt tidy lawns, even the narrow edges of used car lots. It’s warmer out and there are those lovely, sudden downpours through big shifting clouds. It comes at exactly the right time, when most of us are starting to feel blue and impatient, with just enough color and unpredictability to get us through the remaining two months of rain.
Sky and I planted some sweet peas the other day– one of those surprising days of pure sunshine. Somehow I always end up planting them several weeks too late, but they bloom anyway.
So in honor of spring and in celebration of a relatively warm, easy winter, here’s a look at some of our favorite books from last season.
Sky (2.5 years old)
Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match, Megan Maynor
Do friends have to like exactly the same things in order to get along? Maybe not. This sweet book teaches the importance of being true to yourself in friendship, in a subtle and humorous story that preschoolers can grasp. Sky liked how the penguin wore his pants as a hat. This was a repeat request at bedtime in our house. Happily, there are several in a series about Ella and Penguin.
Fire! Fuego! Brave Bomberos, Susan Middleton Elya
A catchy rhyme with Spanish words mixed in, and a glossary in back for pronunciation. The fire crew suits up and heads out to put out a house fire and rescue a cat, with just the right blend of realism and play for little ones, so it’s not too scary. This was the perfect book for Sky, who attends a bilingual preschool and has an apparently typical preschooler obsession with firetrucks. I think these obsessions have their roots in fear. Just as with her fascination with the car wash, haircuts, and doctors, Sky is working out her fear of firetrucks through play and repetition. The sound of sirens was initially really frightening for Sky, but after we visited a fire station and talked to the firefighters, the sound became something she was excited about and interested in.
Busy Builders, Busy Week, Jean Reidy
This was one of those books I wasn’t particularly crazy about, but Sky absolutely LOVED. It’s a great two-for-one: lots of construction verbs (dig it, doze it, dispose it!) paired with a lesson in the days of the week. Each day, a construction crew of animals moves onto the next phase of construction on a mystery project. (Spoiler alert: it’s a whimsical animal-themed playground.) This is another story told in rhyme, and Lyle and I were both shocked when we realized Sky could recite huge portions of the book after less than a week of reading it. Little ones’ minds never cease to amaze us.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
I discovered this book in a funny way. I had just gotten Robin down for a nap when Sky woke up from hers, so I grabbed my iPad and hunted for a short cartoon on Amazon for us to watch together, because she pretty much never uses an “indoor voice.” I was searching for Winnie the Pooh and found this beautiful little film instead. Watch the film and read the book: it’s fun to see how they animated the watercolor illustrations, and expanded on the story to give it a little more depth. We renewed this book several times and had lots of fun acting out “going on a bear hunt.” It even helped once when I needed to encourage her to keep walking. “Oh no, it’s a doorway! We can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. We’ve got to go through it!”
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
I’ve had a surprising amount of time to read during this fourth trimester, mostly while Robin is nursing or napping. I loved this novel and tore through it in just a few days– a beautifully written, interlocking narrative about two families in a seemingly-perfect, manicured Ohio suburb. One of the main characters is an artist and I loved reading about her creative process, as much for the story as for the way Ng carried it off. I feel like writing about art is one of those tricky things, like writing about sex: it’s really easy to do it badly. Ng does it well. This book also explores powerful themes of race, class, and motherhood and surprised me with its emotional punch.
We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Got about halfway through this before I had to return it to the library, where there are about a thousand holds on the waiting list. I jumped right back on the waiting list so I can finish the rest. His essays and notes are dense and thought-provoking and well worth the time to read slowly. I appreciate how he goes to the center of the issues surrounding white supremacy in the US, then goes even further, shedding light on complexity and resisting any easy answers. His notes show his writer’s mind at work: he writes about what he thinks went well and what he didn’t quite accomplish in each essay, and that gives me hope. It means he’s not done writing yet, not for a long time I hope, and it’s refreshing to hear a writer grappling “out loud” with the struggle to master one’s craft. Especially one as gifted as Coates.
The Selfless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen
Another dense read, worthy of time and reflection– but much shorter. This book was published around the time I was born, in response to an era of “yuppies” bent on upward mobility and a level of materialism our country had never seen before. I never thought about the connection between my struggle to address consumption and materialism in my life with the year I was born. In a sense, I’ve been steeped since birth in a culture of more-more-more, and my generation is arguably the first to grow up seeing upward mobility and material wealth as natural, valid aspirations. (This is a huge assumption, but it’s my feeling that previous generations grew up with a much stronger sense of civic duty and communalism than mine did.) There’s so much to think through in this book, a look at the gospel through the lens of modern consumerism. I keep returning to the big three temptations Nouwen highlights– the temptation to be spectacular, relevant, and powerful– as drivers of consumer culture.
I just discovered that we’ve read almost 900 books together since we started tracking our checkouts at the library in July 2017. That’s a lot, but it doesn’t surprise me too much since Sky tends to tear through books pretty quickly. We go to the library once or twice a week, and she checks out a lot of early readers featuring Disney characters and super heroes, while I scan the stacks for educational books on things she’s curious about, plus slower-paced picture books with beautiful illustrations. I recently implemented a 20-item limit on her card because we were having trouble keeping track of all the library books scattered around our home. Some books don’t interest Sky much; we will read them once and then set them aside for our next library trip. She tends to read and reread the early readers (either looking at the pictures or having us read them aloud to her.) I don’t push her to read them herself. If she shows an interest, I will help her sound out a word here or there, then have her be in charge of reading the word again when it shows up in the text. If she gets annoyed with it, I drop it and just read to her. To me it’s more important to nurture the great joy she takes in the experience of reading and stories. I know she will read at her own time, when she is ready.
Here are the books we returned to quite a lot this winter (and spring.) Plus two bonus books for our newest reader.
Robin, 16 months
Robin has been a very busy guy since he started walking at 13 months. Unlike his sister, he did not show any interest in sitting to read a book until very recently. Then suddenly, it was like he “got” that reading was a special activity he could do. Now he loves to run and get his books from the shelf, bring them over, and sit in our laps to listen to the story. He always chooses the same two books: Five Little Monkeys by Eileen Christelow, and Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. He likes to turn the pages and join in reading, as these books have a heavy, repetitive rhyme scheme. He shakes his little finger and says, “Mo-mo MUN-kee dump da DEH,” his version of “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” Or he will very insistently “Vroooom!” as we read through the story of the friendly blue truck.
Sky, 3.5 years old
Two books that stand out for me from the past six months are Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings, by Francie Latour, and Under the Christmas Tree, by Nikki Grimes. Both made an impression on me because Sky fell asleep while we read them– several times. Not out of boredom, but because these books share a winning combination of beautiful illustrations and lyric, vivid language. I really enjoyed reading them aloud– can you remember the last time you said that about a children’s book, and meant it? Grimes’ book is a collection of simple, evocative poems about the Christmas season from a child’s perspective, while Latour’s in the story of a young girl’s visit to her painter aunt in Haiti, where she sits to have her portrait done and learns about her country’s history.
Similarly, Thunder Horse, by Eve Bunting combines dream-like paintings with a magical story about a tiny horse given to the speaker by her aunt, which grows up to be a mysterious, full-sized pegasus. The pegasus eventually has to go, and so it’s a story of loss told gently enough for a young reader. (Spoiler: the pegasus does eventually return to visit the little girl.)
The remaining books appealed to the classic prechooler obsession with underpants and barf. I can’t count the number of times we read and renewed Sometimes You Barf, by Nancy Carlson, and Underpants Dance, by Marlena Zapf. Sky had her first experience with the stomach flu this year, and it was a bewildering experience that left her with a lot of questions. The book is a semi-humorous explanation of what happens, and what the people around you tend to do, when you barf. Meanwhile, Underpants Dance helped us talk about why we don’t show our underpants outside the home, through the silly story of a wild 3-year-old’s stubborn dance.
This winter, I’ve been deeply engrossed in biology, taking prerequisite courses in microbiology and anatomy and physiology as I prepare to begin my acupuncture program in September. My reading energy and time has been redirected to my textbooks, but I’ve still made time to read for pleasure. I just can’t seem to go for long without a good read. I savored the e-book Punking: The Praxis of Community Acupuncture, by Lisa Rohleder (free! but please donate to POCA!), with tons of great links to outside resources on the science, sociology, and psychology behind the effectiveness of community acupuncture for pain management and addiction.
Lisa’s book led me to a curiosity about Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker in the 1940s, a radical hospitality organization in New York City that sparked a national movement, and turned the idea of charity on its head. I read Day’s grandaughter’s new memoir of her grandmother, a personal look at Day’s relationship with her daughter Tamar, and ultimately the web of relationship binding Day’s extended family to the larger Catholic Worker movement. I appreciated Hennessy’s eloquence and candor, as she took on the daunting task of humanizing a woman variously condemned or subjected to hagiographic awe– neither of which fully illuminate the remarkable legacy of a woman who was, finally, as gifted and flawed as anyone else. Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessy, was an engrossing read.
Likewise, I enjoyed The Gifts we Keep, by Kate Grindeland, the 2015 winner of Multnomah County Library’s Writer Project, for its portrait of a family wrestling loss and painful truths about themselves. Grindeland writes in the alternating perspectives of five characters, giving each a unique and moving voice. I found myself in awe of her ability to unravel the knot of tightly-held family secrets through each character’s thoughts and actions, taking her time doing so and never seeming burdened by plot. Thanks to a recent collaboration with PSU’s Ooligan Press, this book is now available in both print and e-reader editions. I’m so impressed with our library system. Love this new venue for independent publishing and fresh voices.
Finally, I’m finishing up Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter, which is confirming a lot of what I’ve felt for some time about social media. I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it up for good soon. I get that there’s benefit, but I’ve personally continued to find it more harmful than helpful. I’d like to return to more direct, simple ways of connecting with others, and reclaim my capacity to reflect and process information offline. The final 1/3 of Alter’s book offers some simple, effective strategies to do that, though his ultimate takeaway is not to give up on social media entirely, but rather to find a balance.