Archive for early chapter books

Why I love children’s books & Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder

I love children’s books. I really, really love them. Frequently, I find that I prefer young adult novels and middle-grade novels far more than adult novels. Very frequently.

I’ve always loved children’s books. I think my problem was that I never really figured out the transition to adult books. Back when I was the proper age to be reading kids’ books, I would sit at the bookstore, often for an hour or so (luckily I had a very understanding dad and a very similar sister) and I would go one by one through the children’s books on the three or four bookcases reserved for books for my age group. That’s how I’d find the books I wanted to read — by going one by one and reading the back and examining the cover. When I became that awful age when people tell you the adult section is more your speed, I was lost. I couldn’t go through all the adult books one by one to figure out what I wanted to read. And so I didn’t know how to find good books. I’d find an author or two that worked for me and read all I can, but then I was lost again. And honestly, I actually stopped reading for a while because I just couldn’t figure it out.

Eventually I got a little better. I started going to the Housing Works Bookstore in NYC where I could go through the 2 bookcases dedicated to review copies. It wasn’t that I wanted to read the newest releases, it was that I could finally go back to my childhood where I could just drop my stuff at the bottom of the bookcase and look through the books one by one.

Now though, I’m letting go of the embarrassment and I’m ready to admit that I just love children’s books and even though I’m much older than (some) authors intend to write for, I am happiest there.

Which brings me to Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder. Because while I readily admit my love for children’s books to some friends, some of the time, this is a book that reminds me that it’s OK to yell from the top of my very snowy roof how much I love children’s books. Because my friends, this book rocks. It is beautifully, so beautifully, written. I know there are many complicated books out there about miserable people who lead miserable lives in miserable third world countries and they get many, many prizes. But in my opinion, Any Which Wall is a perfect book, and far surpasses all those unhappy books. It’s sweet and kind and really lovely.

Officially, here’s the description:

Four kids, a mysterious wall, and a good helping of common magic!

If you had a magic wall that could take you to any place and any time, where would you go? Would you want to visit castles and desert islands? Would you want to meet famous wizards, terrible pirates, beautiful queens, and dastardly outlaws? If so, then you are just like Henry and Emma, and Roy and Susan—and you will probably like this story a lot. In fact, you might even wish something similar would happen to you!

But truthfully, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about a 12-year-old girl whose best friend moves away, and thinks she’s too cool and old for unicorns and kindness. It’s about interesting kids who wish interesting things. It’s about being brave and being scared and the possibility that magic does really exist. And in the absolutely magical chapter I just read to Jonah tonight, it’s about remembering that while just having fun is not usually the subject of children’s book chapters (because nobody was being chased and there was no danger), having fun is worth mentioning. Listen to this:

No, nothing bad happened at all. It was a fun afternoon and free of all disaster, and it didn’t affect anything that happened afterward, not even a little. In fact, I wouldn’t bother to include this particular adventure in the book since it doesn’t matter much to the story.

Except that it does. Because fun does matter. It matters a lot.

Laurel, thank you so much for writing this exquisite book. Not just because I got to read it (twice now) and recommend it to as many people as I can. But because for the last three weeks, Jonah and I have snuggled together and read it every night, and I’ve been able to share it with him.

My recommendation? Buy it in hardcover. Buy a couple of copies — enough to read it out loud to 6-9 year olds; and have 8-10 year olds read it on their own.

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Encyclopedia Brown

Encyclopedia BrownRemember Encyclopedia Brown? I loved the series as a kid, and I have to say that I even love it now as an adult. I remember trying desperately to figure out the mysteries, and never being able to do it. One great thing about getting older is that finally as an adult, I can now figure them out! Now as I listen to them, I hear the out-of-place detail, I can figure out the type of clue that Encyclopedia looks for.

I don’t need to describe the series by Daniel J. Sobel because I’m sure you know them well. They’ve aged pretty well — I think I’m the only one who notices how many mysteries depend on not having had a cell phone or the fact that there’s no internet… There’s a little colorful ethnic stereotyping going on, so you just need to watch out for that.

My editionMy seven-year old has been reading my old copies, and then we’ve been listening to the stories in the car. Just good clean stories — the kind that still makes me smile. Do you remember any Encyclopedia Brown mysteries from when you were a kid?

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This Totally Bites

I can’t believe I hadn’t blogged about this before (OK, so it’s probably because it’s been a little while since I last blogged).

This Totally Bites

This Totally Bites by Ruth Ames ROCKS. Emma-Rose Paley is a fantastic heroine who looks a little more vampire-ish than the rest of her family. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that her great-Aunt Margo is coming for a visit from Romania and looks a lot like Emma-Rose. And for the fact that Great-Aunt Margo is clearly up to something other-worldly. Could it be that Emma-Rose’s aversion to garlic and sunshine are more than just a question of taste?

Clearly, This Totally Bites is playing off the current vampire craze, setting this story up for the 8-12 crowd who are a little young for Twilight. But it’s way more than that. The storytelling here is way beyond what you get in most young chapter books — it really moves and the plot builds and the characters are remarkably developed. I’ve given this to a few reluctant readers who plowed through it and demanded more! What I really like about the story though is the ending, which I won’t give away. I expected that she couldn’t be a vampire. Or maybe Ames would make her a vampire? But the ending is much more inventive than I could have predicted.

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Passover Books!

OK, so I think this isn’t too last minute to be useful. Depending on what you are looking for, there are some really nice Passover books out there. So here, in a nutshell (kosher for Passover nuts only please), is the round up of titles to consider:

If you are looking for a great book to really get into the story of Passover, check out:

Nachshon

Nachshon

Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim by Deborah Bodin Cohen. Great for the 6 and up set, this is the story of Nachshon, the Biblical character who is said to be the one to first step into the sea (before it split). Didn’t help (according to Cohen, not the Bible) that he was afraid of water. But freedom means living up to your fears… Beautifully illustrated and a great book to help you discuss freedom and the Exodus story. New this year!

Yankee at the Seder

Yankee at the Seder

Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber. Great book. Really, really great book. It’s the end of the Civil War and a Yankee Soldier happens upon a Southern child eating matzah outside. Of course, the family invites him for seder. There’s nothing boring or didactic about this story — it’s just great. Pictures are lovely, writing is lovely. Highly recommended and new this year!

Miriam’s Cup by Fran Manushkin. Better for girls, ages 6 and up. This book really delves into the Biblical narrative, from the point of view of Miriam, Moses’ sister. The illustrations are stunning.

If you are looking for something that can be used at your seder, check out:

Let My People Go!

Let My People Go!

Let My People Go! by Tilda Balsley. A play about the plagues (oy vey), it’s actually a lot of fun. Last year, I got our whole seder table participating, with my (then) 5 year old playing Moses. There’s lots of words for the narrator to say and the other parts are pretty easy to remember (even for a 5 year old).

Wonders and Miracles

Wonders and Miracles

Wonders and Miracles by Eric Kimmel. A fantastic seder companion filled with interesting information and incredible photographs and illustrations, it really explains each part of the seder. It’s perfect for kids who like to know things, as well as adults. Highly recommended, even though it’s non-fiction.

If you are looking for some books that are just plain fun, check out:

Only Nine Chairs by Deborah Uchill Miller. What happens when 19 guests are expected but there’s only 9 chairs? It’s pretty funny what they come up with. The illustrations feel dated, but the book is hilarious. Great for 2-4 year olds.

Passover!

Passover!

Passover! by Roni Schotter. Nice and light Passover experience for very young children (ages 1-3).

Passover Magic by Roni Schotter. This is sadly out of print, but if you can find it, it’s really great. A lovely story about a young girl during her family’s celebration of Passover — it’s pretty much a perfect book. Ages 4-7.

No Matzoh For Me!

No Matzoh For Me!

Pearl’s Passover by Jane Breskin Zalben. A great collection of stories and activities that will last kids through all seven/eight days of Passover. Better for girls, and kids ages 5 to 7.

No Matzoh for Me! by Nancy Krulik. It’s Passover time and you are cast in your Hebrew school play as the Matzah? Not the Pharoh, not even a plague or Moses but Matzah?? Great for kids 5 to 7.

If you are looking for a chapter book, check out:

Penina Levine

Penina Levine

Penina Levine is a Hard-boiled Egg by Rebecca O’Connell. A modern day Jewish family with a very modern day Jewish girl at the center. Penina is a great heroine, and luckily there’s another book in the series: Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake. Probably better for girls…

The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. OK, it’s very heavy, but so so good. Hannah is really bored at her family seder and wishes she wasn’t there. Her family is annoying and the whole seder is pretty meaningless to her. Until she opens the door for Elijah and suddenly, she’s not in the present time anymore, she’s stepped into Poland in the early 1940s. Yes, it’s heavy, but so good.

If you are looking for something for a child who is really ready to understand the meaning of freedom, check out:

The Secret Seder

The Secret Seder

The Secret Seder by Doreen Rappaport. An illustrated book for older children, this is the story of a family who is pretending to be Gentiles during the Holocaust. The lengths that they are prepared to go to celebrate Passover and have a secret seder, is heart-breaking. There’s no violence and difficult images, but the idea of what they are saying during the seder vs. how they are living is really challenging.

OK, it’s a pretty solid list, though I’m sure I’m missing stuff. Any favorites I left out?

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Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains by Laurel Snyder

So, I’ve been focusing recently on books for younger readers, mostly out of laziness since I read to my young readers often. However, I recently read a fantastic new early chapter book/ middle-grade novel that I couldn’t wait to share with you all. 

Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains

Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains

Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains by Laurel Snyder is the kind of book that children who love good stories will fall in love with. It’s the kind of book that you get sucked into, that you wind up staying up way past your bedtime to keep reading under the covers. For those of you who have children who dive into books with that kind of passion, this is the book for them.

Best of all, if you are looking for a book that you can read to your slightly younger reader, say a seven year old, this is a great option. It’s the story of a young girl and her best friend, who just happens to be a prince. The young girl is one of those lovely plucky heroines, but there’s a sadness to her also, as her mother disappeared when she was a baby. At least she thinks she disappeared, it’s better than thinking the alternative. Now don’t get discouraged, this isn’t a heavy book. It’s a funny adventure story as the young girl goes looking for her mother on the slightly magical Scratchy Mountain, and discovers what’s really important. And the prince? Well, at first he’s out of the picture as the King wants him to start learning to be a real prince (very fun stuff here), but ultimately he realizes that being a real person is more important, and a real person both follows his best friend, and his heart.

With great characters, some nice adventures, and just enough magic to keep it enchanting, this story is a winner. It seems like Laurel Snyder has a new book coming out — I can’t wait to see it.

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Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

Sometimes I play the following game: would I be willing to live like the parents do in the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books in order to have access to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? Usually, the answer is yes. Yes, I would be willing to go back to calling people Mr. this and Mrs. that. I might even be OK staying at home with no outside job. I might even be OK with the highlight of my day being an invitation to an exclusive ladies’ group. Yes, all this in order to have access to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

For those who haven’t yet read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle: write down the information and buy the books or get them from the library. Now. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has “cures” to common children’s problems, like not wanting to brush your teeth, not turning off the TV, not bathing, etc. She has answers my friends, answers. Let me backtrack. Written by Betty MacDonald in the 1950s, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is a woman who lives alone in an upside-down house. When parents have difficulties with their children, they turn to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle who has a delightful cure that does not involve bribery, yelling or glasses of gin and tonic. There’s a bit of magic involved, but mostly a lot of natural consequences.

For instance, in the car this morning, we listened to The Radish Cure from the original Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. The cure for a girl who refuses to bathe? Don’t bug her about it, just let her get filthier and filthier until her body is caked with topsoil. After a few weeks (ugh), go into her room while she is sleeping and plant tiny radish seeds on her arms and head and torso. When they sprout three leaves, you can pull them out. In the story at least, the girl quickly spent the day in the shower after the radishes were removed.

The stories are just funny enough for kids and spark lots of “what if” thoughts for parents. The parents in the stories are hilarious: all their kids are perfect, so it feels very much like real life (You mean your child won’t go to bed on time? My Jimmy loves to jump into bed the moments I give the word…).

There are a few different Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle titles. The ones I know best are the original, Happy Birthday Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm. You can find them all here.

And the audio version of the stories is also great — excellent narrator and something I can stand to listen to…

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Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel

I think I would be hard-pressed to find many parents who have not read Frog and Toad to their children. They are perfect little gems of stories, great for children of varying ages (always important if you have only one voice and more than one child). And, they are wonderful to listen to in the car (or anywhere your ipod or CD player takes you) — especially since they are narrated by the great Arnold Lobel, author and illustrator of the series.

Owl at Home

Owl at Home

Much less well known but equally wonderful (honestly) is Arnold Lobel’s Owl at Home. The downside of Owl at Home is that there is only Owl (no Toad to play off Frog and Frog to play off Toad). But luckily, Owl is just silly enough to make it on his own in these stories. With a similar humor found in Frog and Toad, Lobel plays with Owl’s misunderstandings (like when he becomes scared of the two bumps at the bottom of his bed).

But, again like Frog and Toad, there is also something sweet about Owl’s silliness — like when he thinks the moon is following him home. He finally believes he has convinced the moon to stay over the lake when it hides behind the clouds but then, in his bed, he feels sad to be all alone. Guess what fills his room with light? A good friend, who knows not to leave you even when you ask him to.

A great discovery for all those who wish there were more Frog and Toad stories.

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