Finding the Right Books for My Child's Reading Level

Each fall my kids start a new reading log for school. The teacher usually gives her students a lot of freedom to pick their books as long as the titles are at the appropriate reading level. Many parents (me included) are confused by all the leveling systems and would not know how to find a level Q book if their life depended on it. So what's a mom to do? Well, I learned about the Teacher Book Wizard from my daughter's first grade teacher and have been a fan ever since. Don't be fooled by the name, parents can use the Wizard too.

The Book Wizard will help parents find:

  • Book and author information
  • Reading levels
  • Book-based lesson plans, booktalks and discussion guides
  • Series lists

There is even a little widget you can add to your personal or school blog that let's you search on the spot:


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Family Literacy Moments: Sleepover Party

When my daughter's two best school friends slept over last weekend, the incipient waning of her childhood hit me full force. She is eight (and two-thirds!) and her friends are both are nine already, and the three of them together were just so BIG. Physically big. They took up a lot of room. They weren't that much shorter than us grownups. The cadences of their voices, as they compared their favorite TV characters and gossiped about school, weren't those of little kids. The three of them practiced their dance moves for the upcoming school performance; they watched "High School Musical 3" and ate popcorn; they ran around screeching and generally acting like lunatics.

As they were settling down for bed, somehow the conversation turned to Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man, which all of them had read and loved. They spent some time chuckling together over it, reminding each other of the funny parts, asking me if I remembered how that little red hen on the back cover gets all freaked out about the UPC barcode, and just generally enthusing.

I was quietly amazed. I mean, here were these Big Kids, who just an hour earlier had been doing their best to practice at being teenagers...and now they were all getting equally worked up and excited over a picture book

We turned out the lights and told them it was time to go to sleep, but the energy was still running high, and the shrieking didn't stop, so after a couple of attempts to shush them I asked if they wanted to hear a story. Maybe Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock?

"Oh, we know that one," they scoffed, their scorn for such a babyish activity as storytelling obvious in their manner (my daughter was the most scornful). Same thing when I offered to tell Mabela the Clever.

But then, in one last-ditch attempt, I suggested the story about the man whose house was too small. (the most famous book version is Margot Zemach's It Could Always Be Worse.) Two of the girls dismissed that story too, with a "We know that one already!" but, "I don't!" said the third girl, and her friends agreed to let me tell it for her sake.

But once I'd actually started, even the two initially-reluctant girls got into it, suggesting what terrible effects each new animal might have (poop! noise! feathers!). They were a more sophisticated audience than the five-and-six-year-olds with whom I've mostly shared that story, and could tell right away what the pattern was--man complains to Rabbi, Rabbi suggests bringing more animals into the house, things get worse--and predict what would happen next. And they were even patient, if not particularly forthcoming, with my teacher-ish leading questions after the story (What do you think the moral is? What changed between the beginning and the end?)

When I'd finished, my daughter, stalling for more awake time, begged for a read-aloud story, so I read them a section from a library book we had around, Cornelia Funke's A Princess, A Pirate, And One Wild Brother, a lively story of a little girl who defeats some terrible pirates. Again, all three girls were totally into it.

After that, they were finally calm enough to at least act like they were going to go to sleep. Even though they didn't actually conk out for a while, the screaming stopped, and the energy was distinctly more low-key. It made me think about the magic of story shared out loud, and how grounding and relaxing that can be, how it can bring a group of people together, even if they're divided by something as fundamental as age.

I'm grateful that telling stories, talking about books, and reading aloud together is something that she feels comfortable doing with her friends and parents together, even at the advanced age of almost-nine. I don't have any illusions that my kid will welcome a storytelling intrusion on her parties for much longer. But, come to think of it, maybe there are some advantages to having an older, more autonomous kid. Like, maybe next time  they can tell the stories...

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The Joys of Summer...Reading

This is the time of year when a children's librarian's mind lightly-- or not so lightly--turns to thoughts of summer, and, specifically, thoughts of summer reading programs. Summer reading programs have become a staple of public libraries all over the English-speaking world, and maybe beyond. The basics are simple, and don't vary too much from program to program: generally, kids are given a form of some kind with which to keep track of their reading, and then collect rewards from the library--anything from stickers to iPods--when they reach a reading goal.

The specifics vary: Usually there's a theme of some kind, with a catchy slogan, but not always. The reading goal can be expressed in number of books, number of pages, days of reading, minutes of reading, or maybe some other standard that I haven't even thought of. The materials--reading forms, posters, maybe other stuff like bookmarks, postcards or activity booklets--can be simple or elaborate. Often, the libraries incorporate programming--entertainment, visiting authors, completion ceremonies, even sleepover parties--into the summer's plans. Some libraries emphasize completion of the goal, and some focus on participation rather than finishing.

No matter what the details, though, the purpose is the same: to encourage kids to read for pleasure, and to read books of their own choosing; to build connections between families and libraries; and to address the "summer slide"-- the documented drop in reading abilities of the average kid over the long summer vacation.

I've promoted summer reading programs in three different library systems, and ran one at my old school. I even work for a summer reading program; I'm the coordinator for the amazing province-wide British Columbia Summer Reading Club. When I'm on the desk, checking lists and giving out stickers, I love seeing kids get enthusiastic about books over the summer, and I get a big kick out of seeing what they're reading. It's a great time to talk about books, swap recommendations, and just get a chance to revel in the joy of reading.

This year, Scholastic is getting in on the party, with the Scholastic Summer Challenge, a web-based program with booklists, activities, rewards--all designed to encourage kids to "Read 4 or More" books. The program kicks off tomorrow, April 30, at 1 PM Eastern time (10 AM Pacific) with a live webcast game show.

It strikes me that an enterprising kid could sign up for the Scholastic challenge and the program at their local public library--chances are, your library has a Summer Reading Program and is gearing up, even as you read, to put it into action come June. Then kids can have double the incentive, and double the fun. (And you don't even have to tell them it's good for their reading level.)

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Sunshine State Stories

Greetings from Florida, an enchanted land where the sun shines all day, snow is nonexistent, and my daughter and her little cousin convene peacefully over Playmobils for hours at a time!

When we fled our Northwest home for this vacation (a process that involved dragging our suitcases down our icy and unplowed hill, and a hair-raising and yet agonizingly slow cab ride through snow-blocked streets with a driver who cheerfully explained that he makes most of his money trading stocks on the Internet, and then proceeded to do just that, while driving, until we made him stop) I admit that, aside from the chance to spend time with family, the warmth and the mouse-ears were foremost in my mind.

But there's much more to Florida. When I browsed through the local library catalog today in search of children's books set in the Sunshine State, I realized that my image of the state, and some of my understanding of its complex nature, has been formed by a bunch of children's books. It's such a vivid setting, it's no surprise that it's been the inspiration for some of the most notable kids' novels of recent times--and a few older ones, too, like...

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski. I came upon this 1945 Newbery winner as a kid, and even then it seemed old-fashioned and unthinkably far away (I grew up in New Jersey). Flipping through my sister-in-law's copy the other day, I got a strong, visceral rush of memory, brought on by the illustrations as much as the text: Birdie and her sister walking through the forest to school in their bare feet and sunbonnets; the mean, probably abusive neighbor who lets his pigs forage wild instead of fencing and and feeding them; and of course the cover illustration, the cheerful but slightly stylized Birdie, gathering her the strawberries that her family is optimistically farming under hardscrabble conditions. For anyone who thinks Florida is mainly about beaches, retirees, and Disney, Strawberry Girl offers a humanizing window into the state's real-life history.

Hoot and Flush, both by Carl Hiaasen. It was a good day for children's literature when Florida mystery writer Hiaasen started writing kids' novels. Both of these are about kids who solve mysteries, get in trouble, go on secret missions, cope with irascable school bus enemies and quirky little sisters-- all that fun stuff. But they're also about the constant bitter struggle between Florida's land and ecosystem and the people (in Hiaasen's books, comically mean and nasty people) who want to pave it over and make money off it, by building restaurants in owl's habitats or by dumping sewage into the ocean. The kids save the day, and very entertainingly, but in the meantime you get a strong sense of the powerful forces that are constantly struggling for Florida's soul.

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. You know that devastation of the environment thing that Florida's got going, that Carl Hiaasen writes about so engagingly? Edward Bloor's got his eye on that, too, only he turns it up to Eleven. On the surface, it's a thriller: Paul is a sort of geeky, legally blind kid who slowly uncovers the truth about his creepy, bullying football-hero older brother, Erik.  But Paul and his family have just moved into a brand-new fancy development in Tangerine, Florida, and all through the book, there's a strong sense of nature fighting back against the humans who are trying blithely to ignore its existence: there are flash floods, sinkholes. weird burning smells...Tangerine is much, much more than a "message" book (I find it weird that it didn't win an award), but the message is there, loud and clear: if you mess with the Earth, the Earth will mess with you.

Because of Winn-Dixie
and The Tiger Rising, both by Kate DiCamillo. The day after we got here, we were out shopping at a strip-mall when I looked across the street and saw a literary landmark: " A Winn-Dixie! Look, look!" I didn't really expect to go in there and find a stray dog that would change my life, as Opal does in DiCamillo's quiet masterpiece, but it did remind me that Winn-Dixie (the book) is actually set in Florida, as is a lesser-known book by the same author, The Tiger Rising, in which a quiet, shy boy discovers a tiger being kept in a cage in the woods behind the hotel where he lives. Come to think of it, both these books have a sort of juxtaposition-of-lush-nature-and-human-commerce element to them, as well. It seems to be a Florida kind of theme.

The View from Saturday and The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, both by E. L. Konigsburg. Konigsburg is best known for her very New-York-centric From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but she lives in Florida and is very much a Florida writer. The most memorable sections of The View from Saturday, in which the lives and talents of four smart sixth-graders and their teacher coalesce in an Academic Bowl competition, take place in Florida, where one character has a moment of triumph as best man at his grandfather's wedding, and another, feeling alienated and lonely during a visit to her divorced father, experiences an epiphany while helping sea turtles on the beach (that was my favorite part of the whole book).

Konigsburg's newest novel, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, unfolds in the small (and invented) Florida town of St. Malo, in which the flamboyant, cranky, elderly Mrs. Zender is reluctantly preparing the contents of her house for auction, largely assisted by eleven-year-olds William Wilcox, whose mom runs estate sales, and Amadeo Kaplan, who is new in town and mightily peeved about it. Like the others listed here, this book strikes me as a Florida novel not just because it happens to be set there, but in how you get the sense that people's lives, and their treasures, and the complex and untold stories behind both themselves and their possessions, have washed up and come to rest on these seemingly tranquil, sandy shores, and that sunshine and apparent simplicity can hide truths as well as revealing them.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that one of the highlights of this vacation has been a visit to the local library, where my 4-year-old niece proudly showed us all how to use the self-checkout machine. The library building is gorgeous, and the entrance to the children's room is especially striking and brilliant: it's a transparent Lucite arch which is also a huge aquarium filled with vibrant tropical fish. Kids (and visiting adults, too) find it endlessly fascinating, it pays homage to the local ecology, and it appeals to budding scientists and fantasy-lovers alike, because it's both naturalistic and magical. Sort of like Florida itself, and the literature it has inspired.

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End-Of-the-Year Reader's Advisory Clearance, Part 2

Just under the wire, before the old year ends, here are the rest of the random book-recommendation requests I've been meaning to write about. Enjoy! (Part 1 is here.)

4. Books for 11-to-13-year-olds for a mother-daughter book group sponsored by a clothing store; books should focus on fashion and/or on the distinction between inner and outer beauty and girls finding their own identities:

  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares (though it might be a bit mature for an 11-year-old, depending on the individual kid)
  • Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. Very popular, and features a teenage girl who is very much an individual inside and out.
  • Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld. Thought-provoking and action-packed, set in a future world where everyone becomes beautiful at age 16.

5. Book for a 16-year-old boy, very smart but has dyslexia, hates to read, likes sports, wouldn't want anything too babyish, has to read a novel for school:

  • Seek, by Paul Fleischman. One of my favorite teen novels ever. It's in the form of a radio play, so it reads quickly there aren't a lot of words on the page, but it's sophisticated and thoughtful and multifaceted—definitely not "dumbed down" in any way.

  • Stuck in Neutral, by Terry Trueman. Shawn is brilliant, funny, and has a fantastic memory for everything he's ever seen or heard. But he has such severe cerebral palsy that he can't move or communicate in any way, so all those thoughts stay stuck in his head. And now he's getting the sense that his father has decided that the best thing for Shawn is to end his life. He's in danger, and there's nothing he can do about it. Taut and suspenseful, without one wasted word.

6. Books for a 6-year-old girl who wants to read chapter books but isn't really up for it yet:

  • For a kid who's not really ready for even easy chapter books but likes the *idea* of chapter books, then some easy readers with short "chapters" might do the trick: any of the fabulous, funny Fox books by James Marshall, or Cynthia Rylant's Henry and Mudge books, or old standbys like the Frog and Toad or Little Bear books.
  • Some of the titles on this list of Best Easy Readers are also excellent—the list includes easy chapter books as well as the classic "easy reader" format.

That's all for now--I hope you and the children in your life all find the perfect books in 2009!

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My Books-as-Therapy Regime This Week

Ironically, considering the festive atmosphere of the holiday season, it’s been a rough couple of weeks for me and my family: just a pile-up of illnesses, crabbinesses, bad news from extended family, car troubles, frustrations, and small disappointments. One of those times when the job doesn’t come through, the kid is cranky, spouses quarrel, the pictures won’t hang right, the car won’t start, you slip on the ice, and the toast burns. One of those times that seem like a series of terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days. One of those times when you could really use a visit to the bunny planet.

There have been some bright spots: the snow, though it is a pain to shovel and makes our hilly street treacherous, is beautiful. Arguments aside, our family has generally managed to enjoy each other. An old friend is coming up to visit next week. We still have our jobs, which is something in these tough times.

And, not surprisingly for me, I’ve found books to be a comfort, different books in different ways.

After waiting for years until she was old enough to appreciate it, I took my childhood copy of E. Nesbit’s The Story of The Treasure Seekers off the shelf and started reading it aloud to my daughter.  Soon the three of us were gathering in her room most nights at bedtime, laughing together at the misadventures of the six Bastable children in their quest to restore their family’s lost fortunes. My daughter gets a huge kick out of the realistic bickering of the kids, the silliness of their schemes, and the way that the narrator makes a big deal out making the reader guess his identity—he’s one of the kids, but won’t say which one he is—when all along he’s leaving the most transparent clues.

My spouse and I have been smiling quietly at some of the grownup jokes that Nesbit scatters through the book, and also marveling at how a novel written over a century ago can feel so fresh and contemporary. Maybe it’s not such a surprise; after all, The Treasure Seekers is the story of a middle-class suburban family fallen upon hard times: the father has lost all his money in investments, and the flawed but well-meaning, funny, imaginative and enterprising children are worried, confused, and anxious to help. That the city is London in the 1890’s and not New York or Seattle in 2008 makes less difference than you’d think.

On my own, and on the recommendation of several bloggers, I’ve been reading the young adult novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart, a tale of pranks, banter, wit, devilry, and adolescent high spirits. Everything about this book is just delicious, from the wry, deadpan narrative voice, to Frankie’s habit of creating what she calls “inpeas,” or “neglected positives”, like “maculate,” to mean messed up (the opposite of “immaculate”) or “mayed” meaning pleased and delighted (i.e. the reverse of “dismayed”). It’s nonplussing and off-kilter and yet eminently logical, just like most things Frankie does. This novel is leaving me absolutely gruntled.

And in the car, I’m about a third of the way through the CD version of a book I’ve been wanting to read for over a decade, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. So while I’m schlepping up and down the highway through the snow, to mail packages or get to work or hunt down ginger ale for my sick kid, I’m also far away in the Cholistan Desert with Shabanu, grieving with her at the sale of her beloved camel to pay for her sister’s dowry, and rejoicing with her at being reunited with her family after weeks away at the market. Even at this early point in the story, it’s evident that Shabanu is not a happy feel-good book. But even so, it’s oddly soothing to become so absorbed and utterly taken up by the tale and voice of someone whose life is utterly different from mine. The book is also helping me to appreciate what I have, from refrigeration to literacy to self-determination as a woman.

So, that’s how it’s going for me these days. What books help you get through the rough spots?

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A Holiday Shopping and Best-Of Bouquet

‘Tis the season for best-of-the-year lists. And also for panicky shopping. The Kidlitosphere contains several helpful posts on both accounts this week.


I was getting overwhelmed at the thought of pulling together various publications’ lists of the Year’s Best Books, when I came upon a post from Susan of Chicken Spaghetti, who has solved my dilemma by doing the work for all of us: her Best of the Best: Kids’ Books 08 post includes links to over twenty Years’ Best lists, from the Abilene Reporter News to the Toronto Public Library, including lists from the New York Times, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the Horn Book, School Library Journal, and many many more. She promises to keep it updated as more lists are published, too. Thanks, Susan!


As for the best-of lists at various blogs, there are too many to keep track of, but this Book Recs for Holiday Shopping from Around the Litblogosphere post at Chasing Ray is a valiant compilation of best-book and gift-recommenation posts.


Right here at the Scholastic website, The excellent folks at the Kid Lit Kit blog are compiling a list of bloggers’ favorite new books of 2008—if you’ve blogged about a spectacular book this year, email them (or if you don’t have a blog you could just try leaving a comment on their site).


Also on the Scholastic site, check out these crafty Book-Inspired Gift Kits, which combined well-loved picture books with handmade items and tips for coming up with more ideas yourself! Great for a joint project to work on with kids.


But the Queen of creative book-giving packages has got to be MotherReader, who has outdone herself this year and presented readers with a series of five posts totaling 105 ways to give a book, for kids of all ages (and even some adults).


A few of my favorites from her inspired list:


  • Pair picture book stunner How I Learned Geography with an inflatable globe.


  • Wrap up A Crooked Kind of Perfect with those excellent socks from the cover.


  • Looking for something a little offbeat? Maybe Cowboy and Octopus with a cowboy hat or an octopus.


  • Take sweet picture book Lissy’s Friends and pair it with an origami kit.



…for a hundred (really!) more ideas, check out MotherReader!


And this post wouldn’t be complete without a hat-tip to Jen Robinson’s Book Page, whose Friday Afternoon Visits post this week led me to several of the sites above. Thanks, Jen! And thanks to everyone who wrote these terrific and EXTREMELY helpful posts!

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Birds, Bees, and Books

You know how they say that when your children want to know about the facts of human reproduction, they will ask you? I have found that this is not always the case. My daughter, for example, likes to observe and put things together on her own, and hates to reveal her ignorance or to talk about anything that she might find embarrassing; I think she senses that adults also find it awkward to talk about sex, and so she just keeps her questions to herself.

We’d had the Where Babies Come From conversation a couple of years ago, but I thought now that she’s eight she might have some further questions; she’s made some self-consciously goofy remarks lately about sex and about when girls start to develop, so I took that as a sign that these subjects were on her mind. Right about that time, a post on Saltypepper’s Livejournal reminded me about two of my favorite books on the topic, It’s So Amazing! and It’s Not the Stork!, both by Robie Harris. So I brought them home from work and left them casually lying around the living room.

And lo and behold, my kid found them, and glommed onto them, and looks at them whenever she has a spare moment, and does not want me to return them to the library. Sometimes when she’s paging through them, we’ll ask her if she has any questions about what she’s reading, or point out something we notice, or aspects of the book that reflect (or, sometimes, don’t reflect) our own values, so the books have been a good avenue for opening up discussion as well.

Encouraged, I brought home some more similar titles to see what she thought. She and I both liked My Mom’s Having a Baby! by Dorie Hillstead Butler, with illustrations by Carol Thompson, which would be an especially good choice for an older preschooler who’s expecting a sibling. My Mom’s Having a Baby!, like It’s Not the Stork, is geared for kids aged around four and older, and is clear and factual about both how the baby gets started and how it grows.

I thought Nicholas Allen’s Where Willy Went…The Big Story of a Little Sperm was kind of silly, but my daughter appreciated the goofy humor and the personification of Willy, the little sperm who was not very good at math, but was “VERY good at swimming” and who triumphs over 300 million other sperm in the Great Swimming Race to the Egg. Where Willy Went…probably works best as a supplementary title once kids already have the basic facts down.

My own favorite of these books is It’s So Amazing! This title is meant for slightly older kids than the others—the cover lists the suggested reading age as 7 and up—and goes into more detail about things like the changes in the human body from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, and some alternative methods of insemination and ways to make a family, as well as about different sexual and nonsexual kinds of love, as well as the basics of how the sperm and the egg meet and how the baby grows (with some truly amazing pictures of the fetus at various stages of preganancy). There’s also a short but valuable section on “okay touches” and “not okay touches.” The information presented throughout is both thorough and nonjudgmental. It’s a good book to page through more than once, as the amount of information can be kind of overwhelming to take in at one sitting.

One aspect of both the Robie Harris books that I especially like is Michael Emberley’s illustrations. It’s got to be a daunting assignment, to illustrate a book for kids about sex and the human body: you have be very, very accurate, but at the same time take care to be, as Saltypepper puts it “not, um, prurient.” He really pulls it off, in a way that’s funny and nonthreatening. Two cartoon characters, a bird and a bee, act as guides and provide clarifying and sometimes jokey comments in both books, personifying two reactions that kids are likely to have: the bird is curious about every detail, and the bee is often embarrassed and wants to change the subject.

Whatever your feelings or beliefs are about when and how your child should learn about sex, I’d highly encourage taking a look at some of these books, and thinking ahead of time about which—and, sometimes, what parts—of them you want to share with your children. Whether they ask or not, most kids want to know, at some point, how they got here, and it’s so useful to have tools for helping them learn this information in an age-appropriate and factual way.

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Focus on the Cybils, Part 2: Middle Grade Fiction

There’s nothing to warm a librarian’s heart like coming home from a late shift at work and finding your daughter curled up in bed with a book. And a hefty book, at that: Roald Dahl’s The BFG. For some time now, she’s been zooming through short, easy chapter book series along the lines of the Rainbow Magic and Magic Tree House, but this was a step beyond. My mom reported that she’d been deep into it the book all afternoon.

We’ve had an eventful and very exciting week, what with the election and my mom visiting, but I couldn’t bring myself to make her turn off the light right away. 

“It’s the best book,” she said sleepily when I finally pried it out of her hands.

Even as I write this, Cybils panelists are reading reading reading like my kid was last night, winnowing the nominees town to a short list of finalists. The Middle Grade Fiction panelists have their work cut out for them, with over a hundred novels for children to choose from. 

These are ten that I would love to curl up with myself, and that have already made someone say to themselves—and to the Cybils organizers—“this is the best book”.

A book about a kid whose baby teeth haven’t fallen out yet. How did I miss this all year? My kid is in third grade and her baby teeth have only just started to fall out and I didn’t know there were any books about this phenomenon in the whole wide world!

I keep hearing terrific things about this book and it sounds like it has just the right mix of magic and coming-of-age to appeal to lots of kids. As well as, well, me.

Ooh the Harriet the Spy fan in me is totally looking forward to this one.

My favorite kind of historical novel: a regular kid with a distinctive narrative voice trying to have normal growing-up experiences in the midst of a Big Event, in this case the Civil Rights Movement.

I’ve actually read this one and it is so gorgeous. It has that perfectly jewel-like satisfying well-put-together feeling that just makes me so happy. Also it has a military father who defies stereotypes by being warm and thoughtful.

I read this one too and liked it in some ways even more than the first Moxy Maxwell book. You learn more about her family, her father especially.

Who wouldn’t want to read about a 2nd grader who’s so scared of school that he needs a Personal Disaster Kit, but plays a superhero named Firecracker Man at home? Cool. Fun.

Like tales of Jewish immigration to Ellis Island, the books I’ve seen about the Cultural Revolution have seemed to mostly feature girl protagonists. Here’s one about a boy, and it looks pretty good.

What are the odds of not one but two kids’ novels in the same year whose titles refer to being hit by lightning? From a brief glimpse at their respective descriptions, it seems like these two deal with similar themes, too: friendship, fitting in, and having your world turn upside down. Different settings, though, and very different first-person voices.

There are lots, lots more that look truly excellent, but I had to cut off my picks at some point lest I overwhelm anyone reading this. Here, once again, is the link to the whole list of Middle Grade Fiction nominees.

Happy reading!

November 9, 2008

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Nothing But the Tooth

Because what better day to write about teeth than on Halloween, the Scourge of Dentists?

Also, because my kid had extensive dental work done yesterday. Poor little muffin. She was really anxious and scared beforehand, and then the appointment took over an hour; the dentist discovered an unexpected cavity as well as the other hole we’d already known about. He also “shaved” some other teeth that are getting in each other’s way (ow!) and pulled out one stubborn long-rooted baby tooth.

I wasn’t terribly surprised about that extra cavity. My girl has quite the sweet tooth, and dental care, especially tooth brushing, is a constant struggle in our house. We’ve tried nagging, sticker rewards, sparkly pink toothpaste …and still she weeps and stalls and carries on as if we’ve demanded that she stick needles in her mouth, not a fancy motorized Hello Kitty toothbrush.

Finally, earlier this fall, I gave bibliotherapy a shot, and brought home a few tooth-related books from the library. She brushed aside the factual and didactic titles, but glommed onto Open Wide: Tooth School Inside by the inimitable Laurie Keller. Not only is it packed with fascinating (really!) tidbits about teeth, but also with sly and silly jokes, puns, and sarcastic asides. For several days I was able to convince her to brush her teeth just by promising to sing the Tooth School anthem (“We are the teeth, we do the chewin’…” sung to the tune of “We Are the World”) while she brushed.

Another story that tickles the funny bone is Sweet Tooth, by Margie Palatini, wherein Stewart’s tooth tries to take over his life, demanding cake and candy at every turn, until he fights back with (argghh!) crunchy vegetables. Palatini has a light touch and is good with the funny stuff, but it’s Jack Davis’s illustrations that take the cake: his goofy, slapstick riffs on proportion and perspective are almost surrealistic, as befits the whole concept of a obnoxious, bullying tooth.

Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions from Around the World, by Selby Beeler, is one of my favorite tooth books. Dozens of kids from all over the globe briefly explain what they do when their baby teeth fall out. The Tooth Fairy doesn’t fly everywhere, it emerges (though sometimes a mouse or another spirit might be involved in tooth pickup) and teeth don’t always go under a pillow; they’re just as likely to be thrown on the roof, buried in the ground, or even fed to a dog! This book would make a perfect nonfiction companion to Penda Diakite’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa, in which the African tooth fairy visits Anima while she’s visiting her family in Mali and leaves her two hens!

No hens were left at our house last night, but we did awake this morning to the cry of a jubilant—if still swollen-lipped—girl. Let’s just say the Tooth Fairy is very generous in compensation for surgically extracted teeth.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy Halloween…and don’t forget to brush!

October 31, 2008

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