Category Archives: families

That whole big world outside your window

frances pauleyFrances Pauley, a.k.a. Figgrotten, mostly lives in a world of her own, although she moves through what passes for the real world.  She’s created a rocky living room outside her house, and she prefers to be there – rain, snow, or shine – over most other places in the world, even though she’s got a loving family and an awesome teacher and all.  Well, most of her family is loving.  Teenaged sisters can be wild cards when they live in an uncharted swirl of anger and drama.  Figgrotten also has a best friend, her bus driver, who makes her think about things in new ways and exposes her to a kinder way of interacting in the world.

Reality has a way of intruding on routines, though, and when things start to upend Figgrotten’s life in uncomfortable ways, it’s stressful and sad and upsetting.  Recognizing the good around her might bring her some awareness, some peace, something new to think about.

This is a wonderful book about a quiet and thoughtful kid.

Recently, there’s been a bit of an uproar in northwestern Iowa over some folks who’d like to have more control over what’s accessible to everyone at their public library.  They seem to think that removing or labeling the materials that fall under their umbrella of someone else’s agenda will make it better for everyone because they think they know what’s better for everyone.  They apparently haven’t read the Library Bill of Rights.

This book is an example of what they might want to label or remove.  Why?  Because it mentions a male teacher maybe having a boyfriend or husband.  It’s one conversation towards the end of the book, and it actually shows the character’s growing empathy for others.  She wants her teacher to have love in his life, like most of us want for our friends and families and teachers.

We all live in the same world, people.  You can live your life.  I can live mine.  If you don’t want your kid to read that book, you’re the parent.  Parent.  I don’t believe stopping your kids from seeing it will make it not exist,  It won’t mean they don’t seek it out on their own later, but go for it.  That’s your right as a parent.  It’s not your right to make that choice for me or my kid or anyone else, however.

And by the way, you’d be missing out on a whole lot of wonderful lessons about community and caring and family if you missed this book.  That’s what I want my kid to learn.  Sigh.  Rant over.

The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley by April Stevens

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“Sing, don’t cry, even if it is only in your soul”

singdontcryMy abuelo was not a cool musician who sang songs when he came to visit.  He was more of a pipe-smoking, western-reading, Wheel of Fortune kind of guy.  But I’m so glad Angela Dominguez had an abuelo who played the guitar and sang and knew the power of music.

Sing, Don’t Cry is a sweet picture book, highlighting the love of grandparents and grandchildren for each other, while also illustrating the power of the wisdom older people can pass on to younger ones.  Sure, when you’re a kid, you might not always remember to sing your way out of a crisis, but it’s a message that you could carry with you into your teen or adult years and be able to rediscover when you’re thinking about your abuelo or abuela and need a little boost.

Sing, Don’t Cry by Angela Dominguez

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Change, loss, hope…again.

100stringsSometimes it’s enough to read a story that could take place next door to you.  No magic, no long-lost rock star parent, no spy agency looking for kids to recruit.

Steffy is that kid you know who likes to cook and is kind of quiet but a good friend.  She likes her sister, at least most of the time, and she loves her Auntie Gina who has taken care of her since her mom’s accident years ago.  Mom is living in a care facility for people with brain injuries.  Dad is gone.  Until he isn’t.

Is it a good thing Dad is back?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Lives are so complicated.  Grief and loss and change are complicated.  Cooking is simple.

I’ve started a lot of realistic fiction lately, but I haven’t made it past the first few chapters very often.  This book was different.  It’s a quick read, but not one you have to read all in one sitting.  Steffy and the other characters are people with flaws, who make mistakes and then make other mistakes while they’re trying to fix things.  Kind of like all of us. It has a happy ending, but maybe not the happy ending you expect.  Like life, I guess.  I think that’s why I liked it so much – its imperfections make it special, and it doesn’t force a predictable happy ending on what we see around us every day.

And there are recipes.  That’s good, too.

One Hundred Spaghetti Strings by Jen Nails

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A voice in the wilderness. Or Wisconsin.


Once in a while I find myself reading along, thinking “oh, this is nice realistic middle grade… problems to be solved, problems solved… everyone learns something… and we’re good.” I’m waiting for predictable things to happen, and then when they happen, they’re somehow not quite as predictable as they seemed in my head.

Amina and her friends and family are so well and lightly drawn – little details scattered here and there which highlight who they really are—that an otherwise predictable story floats along for a while.  Then you realize there is more to all of this than making new friends and keeping the old.  Hena Khan managed to sprinkle in things about Amina and her friends’ families and cultures which further the story instead of falling like heavy look! here’s the diversity part bricks.

And it’s genius, because the differences within all of our families are about who we are in all parts of our life – school, friendships, home – and life is complicated.  I liked the book while I was reading it, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how special it is.   Listen to this voice.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Clayton, Cool Papa, and Wah-Wah Nita

I cclayton-birdan relate to Clayton Bird.  I may be a middle-aged white woman living in Iowa, but I understand his pain.  I might not have grown up with a blues-playing grandpa–mine was known to ride a banana seat bike now and then, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a guitar—but I know how important people other than parents can be when you’re growing up.  I remember being angry about injustice when I was a kid, or at least what I saw as injustice in my own life.  And I know grief, really crushing grief that hides out in unexpected places and hits you at all the wrong times.

Clayton is the kind of character everyone can relate to on some level, although he might not look like many of the kids I knew growing up.  That’s what’s so wonderful about Rita Williams-Garcia’s work.  Her characters are simultaneously universal and completely unique.  The small details make you think of your Uncle Rich or that kid you went to school with who had a goofy nickname or your best friend’s mom or whoever.   His story, like many of Williams-Garcia’s, celebrates an ordinary life with extraordinary moments—moments which reveal quite a bit about our society as a whole and how kids navigate it. Her characters’ experiences reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you live.  It’s a gift we are so, so lucky to be able to witness and enjoy.

And if all that weren’t enough, Ms. Williams-Garcia mentions Kathi Appelt in her note at the end of the book.  We all know (or maybe we don’t) just how crazy I am about Kathi Appelt.  I’ve practically thrown her books at the 5th graders I visit if I find out they have somehow managed to miss them.  And  I don’t stop at once a year – she comes up repeatedly.  Actually, I’ve kind of done the same with Rita Williams-Garcia’s books (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama) because they are a different and wonderful brand of fabulous.   Clearly, I’m just going to get worse.  Prepare.  Beware.

Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

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Re-Counting by 7s

countingSometimes books just hit us at the perfect moment.   There’s something in our past, our present, or what we think might be our future, something that a book or a character or even just a phrase captures precisely.  That, my friends, is Willow Chance and Counting by 7s in a nutshell.  Willow is obsessive, awkward, analytical and an outsider.  But somehow, she’s all of the things we know ourselves to be, too.  She’s trying to find her way.

I don’t do much re-reading – there are always too many new books to get to– except for my annual trips to Hogwarts in French and German, which is my way of reminding my brain of its many and varied pathways.  But my book club decided to read Counting by 7s, and after trying to listen to it in the car unsuccessfully (some books work that way for me and other just don’t), I scrounged up my son’s copy. (He rereads it regularly.)

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s writing is just incredible–direct, powerful, illuminating, wonderful.  Switches of perspective happen seamlessly, although the characters don’t seem to share very much.  Willow is an oddball genius, as labeled by Dell Duke, her school counselor who lies about having a cat and can’t throw things away.  Her new friends, Mai, Quang-ha and Pattie probably have a few issues, too.  Mai would like to have bunk beds; Quang-ha would like to be left alone; Pattie thinks about nail polish a lot, maybe too much to realize what her life is really about.  Then there’s Jairo, a cab driver who becomes convinced Willow is his personal angel.

In the end, all of these oddballs form a family. It’s a happy ending, but it doesn’t feel sappy or cloying.  And passing through their lives reminded me of so many painful and happy days of my own – experiencing soul-crushing grief, seeing a garden grow, and finding a new friend who is completely different but perfect for me.  It’s a trip you should take, too, whether you’ve been there before or not.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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Best Man. Best. Best. Best.

the-best-man-hi-res-coverWho makes up our family?  Is it just people who have biological connections to us?  Can our friends become family?

Love is at the center of The Best Man, but it’s not just the people getting married at the beginning and end of this book who are experiencing it.  Archer grows to love his friend Lynette, although she’s bossy and opinionated (and often right!), even though it’s not cool to be friends with a girl in the social world of sixth grade.  Archer loves his family, especially his quirky dad, his creative grandpa, and his sports fan uncle.  He even admires his student teacher.  They are the “best” men Archer aspires to be someday.

What’s beautiful about this book is the simple way daily life for Archer is both full of drama we can all understand and an ongoing testament to the love he and the other characters have for each other.  It’s normal.  It just is what it is.  For kids who don’t have that at home for whatever reason, it’s a glimpse into what a healthy family life can be.

It’s no surprise that Richard Peck does such a masterful job of putting Archer’s voice into this story.  Everything he writes lifts the ordinary to a higher level, making it seem lovely and special and light and even funny.  His characters fill your brain; you feel their confusion and know their pain, but you also sense the joy they carry inside.  The fact that Archer is going to be in a wedding for two men might have been shocking even ten years ago, but it’s also ordinary now in a simple and beautiful way.  Love is love is love is love.

The Best Man, Richard Peck

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Lost and found


Lucy is a dog, lost and trying to survive after an adventure took her too far from home.  Eleanor is lost, too, with a distracted father to complicate things.  (Where do the dishes and snow globes go?)  Sam is the juggler, her dad, trying to literally and figuratively keep all the balls in the air in a soul-sucking job, dreaming of success.

It’s a little hard to categorize Lucy.  At first glance, it’s a picture book, maybe just a really long one.  But as you read, you notice it’s split into acts.  Is it a play or a movie?  A graphic novel?  Does it matter?

The illustrations carry you along.  (Although it’s completely different, I had some Harry the Dirty Dog flashbacks, which made me like it even more.) The story repeats itself just enough to having you looking for subtle changes in each new day.  Will they find each other?  They will.  Will they find what they’re looking for?  Yes, perhaps.  Will you love it?  You will.

Lucy by Randy Cecil

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We make our own family – international & interspecies edition

what elephants know

Why was two-year-old Nandu being protected by a pack of wild dogs when Devi Kali (an elephant) found him?  Why would the head of one of the king’s elephant stables take him in?  Why would a retired, expatriate teacher care so much about him?  Or a holy man?

Nandu, it’s clear, has something special.  It could be his connection to animals or the way he navigates and understands the wildness around him.  The world of humans can be frightening and dangerous – bandits, false accusations, politics – but the world of the wild is one he understands.  It’s easy to see why he’d prefer life with his elephants over dealing with people who cheat and lie or only look out for themselves.

We’re lucky Nandu’s story was shared with us.  It’s clear from the author notes and praise that Eric Dinerstein, who spent years in Nepal researching animals, has a lot of other things going on.  We’re lucky, because Nandu’s story is one about a child bridging the old world and the new, learning how to adapt, figuring out what he cares about, and creating his own family.  It’s a story that speaks to many kids of all kinds of backgrounds in a quiet and powerful way.


What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein

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Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne Lang and Max Lang

families lang

The older I get, the more I realize that the family of my birth is not my only family. Kids see this all the time. They have aunties and cousins who are not related and brothers who are best friends. It’s not always recognized in picture books, though, so it’s nice to find this book and see such a wide range of family here. Some kids have one mom. Some have two dads. Some have Uncles Hal, Al, and Sal and a robot butler to serve tea! (Where’s MY robot butler to serve tea?  I want to know THAT family.)

In April 2009, the Iowa Supreme court announced its decision in Varnum v. Brien, which allowed same sex marriages to take place and be recognized in Iowa. I’ve lived in Iowa for a long time, and although people who didn’t want gay marriage suggested that things would basically go to heck in a handbasket, it’s been six years, and I can’t see that anything bad has come of it.  It’s made a lot of people happy, including me, since friends and family can now marry the person they love just as I could. Today the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments about same sex marriage. The world has changed. We need to let it change sometimes.

And we need to celebrate the world that is — a wonderful, crazy world made up of all kinds of families.  Read this book.  You will love it, too.

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