Summer Reading

There are so many good children’s books that come through our doors, and it’s a great joy to watch our children delight in them. I love everything about reading with our kids: going to the library alone or with them to fill up our book bag; bringing the bag home and dumping it out on the floor where they sit happily turning the pages; discovering which books captivate them most (always a surprise); and reading them together again and again. And then, because our four-year-old loves to look forward to things, there’s the anticipation of returning to the library to start the whole process over again. Every week, she asks me, “Did you get me new books? Is today a library day?”

Given all of this, it’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of our library’s summer reading program.

I love the different theme the library organizes each year ( space-themed “Explore a World of Stories,” for 2019), and the sweet little game boards each kid gets to take home, which we tape to our wall near the kitchen table. I love the free themed activities throughout the summer. I love the prizes my kids earn, like tickets to the Children’s Museum, OMSI, or a dip in a Parks & Rec pool. I love, most of all, the opportunity to notice and celebrate reading, a habit that has become central to our home and family life.

For now, our kids are little enough that they don’t really understand the game boards. When asked to, Sky likes to color in the squares for each day we read for 15 minutes, but we usually forget. We read all day long. The kids bring books into our bed first thing in the morning, and demand that we read to them on the potty or in the tub or at meals or before bed. Sometimes I find myself actually saying, “No,” (and fighting off the associated mom guilt) because my voice gets tired! So it’s more a matter of remembering to color in the squares and bring the boards to the library on the days when we can pick out prizes. I have to say, I get really excited about the T-shirts. I like collecting them each year, and I wear all of them regularly and proudly.

Here are some of our fave picks from this summer.


Sky, 4 years old

One of Sky’s surprise favorites was Hansel & Gretel, by Bethan Woollvin, which imagines the story in reverse, as if the children were wicked and the witch good. The illustrations are bright and nostalgic and the narrative is fun to read. We both loved Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli, by Kyo Maclear, with its “shocking pink” end-papers and floral illustrations. I’ve been enjoying the plethora of new children’s books on female heroines and might make a list post about them. Sky liked the part where the young Elsa tried to plant flower seeds on her face (!) and designed a hat that looked like a shoe. I loved the story of a woman turning disappointment into boldness and embracing her eccentricities. I appreciate a good message in a kids’ book– one that teaches a gentle lesson without being heavy-handed. That’s the case with Oliver: The Second-largest Living Thing on Earth, by Josh Crute, a sweet story of a giant sequoia tree who’s so focused on the fact that he’s not the biggest tree in the forest, he doesn’t notice the other amazing trees around him. I may have gotten the chills. We also found a taped-up copy of Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary, in a neighborhood “little library” box, and we’ve been reading it slowly, chapter by chapter, before bed. This is the first in a series I loved as a kid, and its author wrote many of her books while living in Portland, so it’s fun to see characters named after streets we drive through every day.  Another fun read was The Neighbors, by Einat Tsarfati, a funny story with fantastically-detailed pictures, about a little girl who lives in a building with all kinds of interesting people– circus-performers, an explorer and his pet tiger, even a pirate and his mermaid wife. She thinks her own family and their apartment are boring– but there’s a twist. You’ll have to read it to find out.



Books for Both Kids

It’s been a challenge to figure out how to read to both kids. The real estate of my lap is only so big, and someone always ends up getting pinched or crying. But once we settle in, they will now often sit still together for a while and listen to one book. A Lion is a Lion, by Polly Dunbar was a big hit for several weeks. We read it so much they both memorized parts of it, and would shout together, “No, no, no!” and “Now it’s time to go, go, go!” This book is about two children who befriend a lion, who puts on the charm and seems fun and sweet for a while, but then reveals himself to be a regular old scary dangerous lion. The kids learn to shout “NO!” and tell the lion to get the hell out. A fun and yet unexpectedly serious read, with an important safety message. Another book we could read together is one I’ve mentioned before: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. I’m noticing a theme of rhythmic, easily-memorized text paired with animals. Which brings me to that standby, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, a book we now own and that gets daily attention in our house. They love to find the goldbug.


Robin, 18 months

This busy little boy is into anything with wheels. A favorite this summer was Go, Bikes, Go! by Addie K Boswell, with a really well-done rhyme scheme and lots of fun pictures of different bikes. Robin loves to point and shout, “Bike!” any time he sees one out in the real world, so you can imagine the thrill of this book. Another book we’ve had to renew several times is Fiona’s Feelings, by John Hutton, with cute photos of the baby hippo at the Cincinnati zoo, with a surprisingly wide range of expressions. Robin loves this book about the “bippo” and it’s a nice variation on the common “how does baby feel” theme.
Libby Babbott-Klein’s Baby Feminists has lift-the-flap illustrations of famous feminists as babies, all structured on the same refrain: “Before she was a supreme court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a…. baby!” Robin was delighted that he could always supply the right answer. He’d bring us this book, climb into our laps, and start shouting, “beebee!”


Grown-up Books

We kicked off our summer with The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden, by Karen Newcombe, which has been a great resource as we’ve built and tended to three small plots in our neighborhood. This is the first year since our kids were born that we’ve had the bandwidth to start gardening again, and it’s been a challenge to learn how to do so, successfully, in small spaces. This book gives you layout ideas, companion planting guides, rotation plans, and an alphabetized guide to each popular vegetable. I’m singing its praises as we harvest big salads, zucchini, and greens for dinner. Lyle and I both read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter, a sobering look at how the internet, social media and video games have altered both our cultural and psychological landscapes. I’d already been leaning toward completely deleting my social media accounts, and this was the final shove I was looking for. (More on this another time.) It took me all summer, but I finally finished An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, by Matt Richtel. By far one of the best books I’ve read in a long while, this was the book I was looking for when I was researching and writing this essay. I’ve long been interested in immunity, and I appreciate science writing that tells a story, connecting the complexities of human systems to actual living humans. Now I’m on to The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, for the anti-racism book club I attend once a month. This is a book that takes a hard look at mass incarceration as the new racial caste system it is. I attempted to read this years ago, when it was first published, and I’m grateful for the chance to try again, in the company of others looking for change.

Chronicle of Summer Reading

PicMonkey CollageIt was a busy summer of teaching, editing, weddings, overgrown zucchinis, crowded swimming holes, and sleepless nights without air-conditioning. Somehow I got quite a bit of reading time, whether on the MAX to work or on the river bank. Our uninsulated old house was often hotter than it was outdoors, so we found ourselves escaping to the somewhat cooler air near the river.

IMG_3853I also confess to reading Half the Sky, (Nicolas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn’s 2009 survey on the status of women in developing countries) in a canoe.

I really could not put it down. It’s a brilliant argument for the elevation of women worldwide as the human rights issue of our time. It highlights the many strides women and their allies have already made toward reducing maternal mortality, female genital cutting, trafficking, and HIV, and increasing women’s opportunities in education and employment. Well-crafted and personal, the book focuses on specific women in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Congo, and elsewhere, putting real human faces and stories of hope to otherwise cold and dismal statistics.

I closed the book feeling inspired to learn more and do more for women not only for women around the world, but right here in my own community. It’s interesting to note that in 2014, the maternal mortality rate actually rose in the United States, equaling that of developing countries like Afghanistan. Research suggests that this is due to the fact that a huge percentage of American women enter pregnancy without health insurance, and without access to health care. T.R. Reid, author of The Healing of America, writes: “Thousands of times every month in the U.S.A., women show up at an emergency room nine months pregnant, seven cm. dilated, and they’ve never had a pre-natal visit. Those are the women and babies we lose after childbirth.”

I was so impressed with Half the Sky that I picked up Kristof & WuDunn’s previous book, Thunder from The East: A Portrait of Rising Asia (Knopf 2000), and then Peter Hessler’s phenomenal Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, which also proved impossible to leave behind on camping trips. It is a wonderfully meandering and dynamic look at China at the first of the 21st century, when Hessler was a news correspondent in Beijing. Similar to Kristof & Wudunn, Hessler approaches a gigantic topic through the perspectives of the particular individuals that topic affects. Hessler weaves ancient Chinese history, linguistics, politics, and economics through his engaging narrative about his own experience and that of his friends. As an English teacher, I’m excited to pick up his previous book, River Town, about his 1996 Peace Corps term teaching English in rural China.

I attempted to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, because of an interview with artist Daniela Molnar, and because of my interest in developing my consciousness as a teacher in a global work environment. I got about halfway through before I admitted defeat. Sometimes it’s just not the right time for a book– maybe too soon or too late. In my case, I think it was too soon. I need more experience under my belt, or perhaps a primer for some of the dense theories Freire gets into. At the time, I was also looking for more immediate insight into classroom psychology, which I found in Frank Smith’s little treatise on industrial education, The Book of Learning and Forgetting. A fellow teacher recommended it and I whipped through it, stunned by the remnants, in language itself, of the legacy of militarism in the history of modern education. It’s a fascinating read.

Second Person Singular was one of those spontaneous choices made mid-aisle in the library. The grammar teacher in me was drawn to the title first. Translated from the original Hebrew, it’s something of a mystery novel set in modern-day Jerusalem and told from the perspective of an Arab Israeli. It tells the story of two men– one a wealthy lawyer, the other a directionless photographer– who are strangers to each other and yet share the same confusing search for identity in a land where that search is rife with politics and peril.

Earlier in the summer, there was Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America, a passionate look at what it means for one American family to embrace their Muslim identity post-9/11. I found it thought-provoking and engaging, though I also thought it lost steam toward the end, when it began to repeat many of the previous chapters’ points. Idliby’s previous book, The Faith Club, has been on my reading list for a long time, and I hope to pick it up later this fall.