Yay! It’s time for me to gush about some books and convince you to buy them for every child you know. This has become a yearly tradition for me. (For five years now!)
I admit – I get excited going through my Goodreads list and rediscovering the books I’ve read that year. I get less excited trying to whittle it down to a reasonably sized list to share with you.
Some books have descriptions listed afterward to identify genres and features. For instance, kids love series – if you can get them to fall in love with the first one, they’ll often binge read the entire series.
And if you somehow don’t find a book on this list, check out the extra lists at the bottom of the post.
I’ve been sharing book reviews informally on social media for a while. I noticed that social media review get more reach than do blog posts. Reading will happen no matter where I share, but if I want to reach readers and shine a light on good books, I need to go where the people are.
After a lot of thought (and some handwringing) I have decided to shift to reviewing books on my social media accounts – primarily Instagram. My account is open, so you can view it without creating an Instagram account, though I do reshare to Twitter and Facebook as well.
March is women’s history month, so this month I’m sharing women’s history books that focus on something I love: STEM. Check out these real stories of amazing women all of whom pursued their passions and became experts in science, technology, engineering, or math despite all the odds.
Science: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley
When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, doctors told her mother she would never speak or be able to fit in. They told her to send Temple away. But her mother did not give up. Neither did Temple. As she grew older, Temple found that her visual thinking and attention to detail were strengths. She revolutionized farming and found her voice as a speaker who travels the world.
Math: Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Tiemdow Phumiruk
Katherine Johnson loved to learn and loved math. But growing up in the segregated South – she had to fight to continue pursuing her passion. Her perseverance not only let her reach her dreams, but also made spaceflight possible.
This is the same Katherine Johnson who was featured in the book-turned-movie Hidden Figures, which I have recommended before. While there is a middle grade edition of Hidden Figures, I was delighted to this important story told in a picture book format for younger kids.
Technology and Engineering: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu
Long before there were computers, Ada Byron Lovelace had too much imagination and love of learning to listen when people told her a woman could not be a scientist. She meets a man named Babbage with a similarly impossible dream: a thinking machine. But how to give it commands? Ada goes to work developing a code to talk to this mechanical computer. She ends up inventing computer programming before computers even existed.
Science: Joan Proctor Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala
Joan always loved reptiles – while other girls carried around dolls, she had a pet crocodile. When all the men were called away to war, she got her chance: she got a job working with the reptiles she loved. Eventually, she became a leading expert in reptiles sharing her knowledge so the world would understand just how loveable reptiles could be.
For this month’s Kidlit book roundup, I’m happy to welcome my friend, Deb Aronson. Deb was one of my first writer friends; she welcomed me into our local writer community way back when I was just beginning to learn the ropes. Somehow she stayed my friend despite seeing those early draft. *Shudder*
We’re still friends all these years later and maybe one day I’ll even let her convince me to get on her sailboat. (Maybe…)
Many classic horse stories celebrate the magical connection between humans and horses, of course. Some of my favorites include My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and War Horse. But with racehorse stories, there is an added layer of human and horse joined in an effort to realize their full potential. To me, these stories have a special energy.
Do You Love Sports Stories? Then give these books a try.
Racehorse stories are, at their heart, sports stories. Those that excel are just as Olympian in their achievements as swimmer Michael Phelps or gymnast Simone Biles. There is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. There is the love and care the horse’s human handlers feel for their special horses. They communicate deeply, even if they do it without words. Granted there are also tragic tales at the racetrack, such as when a horse breaks down from a bad step, or when a jockey falls and is permanently injured. There is risk. But for every story of risk there is also the possibility of redemption.
If you hesitate to read about racehorses because of the stories you hear about them being mistreated, I would say to you that those stories are aberrations. True horsemen and horsewomen do not do that to their charges. They care deeply about their horses, even more deeply in some cases than for their human connections. Not surprisingly, you will not read children’s books about those kinds of people.
The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him by Lawrence Scanlan
So, let me tell you about some of my favorite racehorse stories. One is The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him, by Lawrence Scanlan (Harper Collins). Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. He won the last race in the series, the Belmont, by a shattering 31 lengths and his time remains the American record for 1.5 miles on dirt more than four decades later. Scanlan does a great job showing Secretariat’s laid-back personality and his love of racing. It comes as no surprise that any true story about a horse will also tell the story of that horse’s handlers. In Scanlan’s book, we enjoy learning about Secretariat’s devoted groom, Eddie Sweat, and the special bond the two of them had.
Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody
Another inspiring story is Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody (University of Nebraska Press). There have been many books written about Seabiscuit, including the highly acclaimed adult book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand, not to mention a movie. Moody’s book is targeted for upper middle grade readers and has several pencil sketches, though no photographs. One reason Seabiscuit’s story is so grand is because it is truly one of redemption. Set in the 1930s, it is a story of how the love, expertise and careful attention of trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard created a bond so wonderful that Seabiscuit changed from an ornery, nervous, injured and slow racehorse to a gentle, calm, strong champion who beat War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown and the acknowledged champion horse of the country.
Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse by Meghan McCarthy
Picture Book Nonfiction
Although Come on Seabiscuit is for older readers, a more recent picture book by Meghan McCarthy, Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) would be a great read-aloud for younger readers. McCarthy’s illustrations are delightful and she does a great job of telling the story of Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral.
American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion by Shelley Fraser Mickle
In American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion (Aladdin), by Shelley Fraser Mickle, we learn the backstory of the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Mickle tells American Pharoah’s story in such detail you can imagine being there in the stall with the even-tempered stallion. I also came away from the story with a better understanding of many of the humans connected with American Pharoah, from famous trainer, Bob Baffert, and jockey Victor Espinoza, to owner Ahmed Zayat, who I especially came to appreciate.
Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack by Gare Joyce
And finally, I recently enjoyed a book about a less well-known racehorse, Northern Dancer. In 1964 he was, as the book says, “the biggest newsmaker in the country’s sporting scene.” Northern Dancer is another story of an unlikely hero. He was not a regal-looking racehorse, but more in the model of Seabiscuit: chunky, short and plain looking. Having been bred in Canada, U.S. racing fans tended to underestimate him. Gare Joyce, the author of Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack, describes him as “a horse with a competitive spirit and a lot of heart, so he was able to outrun a great number of better bred and more imposing horses.” Who doesn’t love an underdog story?!
Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack by Deb Aronson
Although all these books are about male horses, I wouldn’t want you to think there are not accomplished fillies in the racing world too. However, the surprising thing is how few children’s books there are about them. One of the few is Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack (Chicago Review Press), written by yours truly. Because she raced against, and beat, male horses in three major races, hers is truly a girl power story. This book is the only one of those reviewed that has full-color photographs throughout the text.
See Racehorses in action!
If you enjoy these stories I would also recommend you watch some videos of their most famous races; these thoroughbreds are running machines!
This year I’m continuing my monthly kidlit book reviews. Each month I will spread a little love for some lovely books. Usually, they will come out on the first Thursday of the month, but between holiday craziness and being on deadline, I’m already a little behind. Such is the writing life.
It’s sleeting out here on the prairies today. And as much as I want to pout and stomp my feet because I do. not. like. cold, I think I have to admit defeat. So this month for my Kidlit Karma books reviews, I’m sharing winter picture books with STEM content. Because books make everything better.
Science: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal
I have recommended Over and Under the Snow before, but it’s worth reviewing again. Children love being let in on a secret and here the secret is hiding right under the snow beneath their boots. I love the way this book weaves together a sweet story of a child with STEM facts about animals in winter.
The simple, lyrical text makes this story a good choice for even the youngest preschool scientists, but the beefy backmatter make this a good choice for older child scientists, too. The beautiful photograph illustrations invite reads to observe nature in great detail (without leaving the warmth).
I officially won the 12×12 challenge for the second year running by writing 13 new picture book drafts.
2018 in Reading
I didn’t quite hit my goal to read 500 books again this year, but I’m still really happy with my total. In the past, I hit those high numbers because I read a lot of picture books, but this year I shifted my focus to more middle grade. I hit my goal of reading 75 middle grade or longer works.
My Kidlit Karma project to blog reviews of books each month went really well! I reviewed or hosted reviews nearly every month.
Looking Ahead to 2019
2019 is already starting to fill up! My 2019 is likely to be just as busy as 2018 was. I have two more work for hire picture books to finish by the end of February, I was invited to join a small writers’ group for the first few months, and I’ll be finishing up my novel and begin querying it.
It’s likely to be another roller coaster!
Right now I’m working on setting my goals for 2019. If you’re doing the same, you might want to check out these posts on setting resolutions and goals.
Today is Day 3 when we share our writing successes for the year. All of them. In public. GULP.
Although it makes me feel like a Braggy McBraggypants, I decided to bite the bullet and submit to my blog. Not because I want others to pat me on the back, but because acknowledging my successes is important for me personally.
Writing can be an emotional roller coaster, and most (all?) writers struggle to keep up their confidence and resolve in the face of constant rejection. Having the courage to openly acknowledge our accomplishments helps us see ourselves as successful and capable – things we need to keep going in this pursuit.
A lot of my successes this year happened because I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. So **deep breath** let’s do it again and list it all out in public. In no particular order:
Blogged consistently! (Big accomplishment for me, lol.)
Had my middle grade novel beta read for the first time and got good feedback. I’m rounding up more Beta readers for after the holidays.
Was invited to be part of a writing coach’s new coaching group for women. She’s been coaching one-on-one for a while but we’re her beta session for doing it as a group, so I get to do it for free. Yay! And she reached out to me because I’m “a committed writer who is actively working on her craft”. Which was a nice compliment. 🙂
Read 275 books this year! Usually, I hit higher numbers (500 in 2017) but after many years of focusing on picture books I made a conscious effort to read more MG this year since I write that as well. I’m currently at 73 books that are MG or longer and around 200 picture books. So the overall number is down, but I’m really happy with it.
It’s that time of year again: where I try to convince you to buy books for every child you know this holiday season.
This is my fourth year putting together this list (!!!). It’s always a lot of fun to look back at what I read over the year – like revisiting old friends. I hope you will find some new friends on this list.
I’ve added some codes to help identify particular types of books:
NF = Nonfiction
H = Humor
S = Series
And if you somehow don’t find a book on this list, check out the extra lists at the bottom of the post.
Earlier this month, I Pray Today, my second book for babies and toddler was published. Today is the last day of the blog tour to celebrate.
I’ve been working on book reviews all year, though. Each month I gather up a few books I love and share them with my readers. I call it Kidlit Karma. This month I’m sharing some of my favorite books for babies and toddlers. I’m also going to dive into child development to explain why these books work.
Babies can’t see that well. Newborns’ vision is hazy – they like high contrast because it’s easy to see. You’ll often find the youngest babies staring at, say, a black object against a white background. Or a dark ceiling fan moving against a white ceiling.
By a few months old, babies vision has improved a lot but they often have a hard time understanding 2-D representations of objects.
So, books for babies and toddler often have high-contrast, easy-to-interpret pictures. For the youngest, single images on white backgrounds can be a good choice.
Babies love “baby talk” and it’s good for them. Forget what Great Aunt Bertha told you about only talking to your baby like a grown-up. Baby talk exaggerates the sounds of speech which makes it easier for babies to figure out the sounds they’re hearing and put those together into words. So go ahead and talk to babies in whatever way feels natural to you.
The sing-songy cadence of many rhyming books, help capitalize on this tendency. (Writers: be aware that babies are not less discerning than adults. If you write in rhyme, it needs to have PERFECT rhyme and meter.)
Babies love repetition. They drop the same toy over and over to see if dad will still pick it up, they never tire of peekaboo, and they will gladly have you read the same book over and over and over. While at times it’s infuriating (like the 5th time the bowl of oatmeal gets dropped to the floor), it has an important purpose: babies and toddlers learn best through repetition. Like little scientists, they’re testing if the oatmeal really drops every time. They’re also learning social information: “Will dad pick it up every time?” “Why is his mood changing as I keep dropping this?”
So many books use some kind of repetition: like the repeated phrase “Ciao!”
Speaking of actions, getting a toddler to sit still is a lost cause. They’re busy little beings. It’s easy to read with an immobile baby – harder to keep a toddler still and focused. So many books for toddlers include some kind invitation to action to help keep them engaged with the book.
That could be an action built right into the page, such as lifting a flap or holes designed for little fingers to poke into.
Babies and toddlers are also still working on fine motor skills – such as the ability to grasp and flip a book page without tearing. They need to explore the world and practice these fine motor skills – but it can be murder on a book.
So most baby and toddler books are board books – those chunky cardboard-style book pages that can withstand chewing, banging, other forms of baby love. They even have rounded corners to prevent an eye or mouth from being poked.
Adults Have to Like Them Too
Since your baby will be asking to reread the same book 10,000 times (and they will), books also have to please the adult doing the reading. A newer trend is to write book series’ that focus on topics of interest to a parent (like science, great literature, etc.), but at a level simplistic enough for a baby. No, your toddler won’t be doing astrophysics calculations in their crib. They’re in it for the baby faces and birdies, but the parent can appreciate the science.
At the end of 2017, I made a pledge. I challenged myself to review good books every month in 2018, particularly books that haven’t gotten as much love as I feel they deserve. I call it Kidlit Karma because I’m aiming to spread the love for books that I love.
This summer I’ve welcomed several writing friends to share books that they love. Today I’m happy to welcome Charlotte Riggle, my friend and fellow children’s book writer. Charlotte and I have never met in person, but we’ve traveled in the same small online writing circles for many years.
Charlotte is a voice for disability representation in children’s books. Both her most recent picture book, THE SAINT NICHOLAS DAY SNOW, and her the previous book, CATHERINE’S PASCHA, feature the main character’s disabled best friend. Neither story is about disability, they’re about children being children. They just happen to be different.
Take it away Charlotte!
Books are magical. When you read a book, you can travel into the future or into the past. You can visit cities and worlds you’ve never been to. You can see animals that you never knew existed. And you can meet people that aren’t like the people in your neighborhood.
And all of this magic has a wonderful influence on the minds and hearts of children. Children who meet all sorts of people – different ages, different races, different abilities – are less likely to accept stereotypes. They are more likely to respond with empathy to all sorts of people. And, wonderfully, magically, meeting those people in books does the same thing.
So it’s important that our children read books about all sorts of people. Including people with disabilities. But there are genuinely not many children’s books with disabled characters. So here are three to get you started: a picture book and two middle grade novels.
Picture Book: A SPLASH OF RED: THE LIFE AND ART OF HORACE PIPPIN by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet
If you’re not a student of American art, you probably haven’t heard of Horace Pippin. I hadn’t until I discovered this wonderful book. Pippin is considered a folk artist, or an American primitive artist, like Grandma Moses.
A Splash of Red is a richly detailed biography of Pippin. He was born in 1888 and had what might be considered a privileged life for the grandson of slaves. He attended school through eighth grade. He loved art and drew and painted with whatever materials he could find.
When World War I started, he volunteered to serve. He was injured in combat – his right shoulder was badly damaged. He couldn’t draw anymore. He couldn’t paint. And he couldn’t find anyone willing to hire him.
He married. He helped his wife with her business. And he longed to draw and paint.
Eventually, that passion drove him to do what everyone thought was impossible. He supported his injured right arm with his left hand, and with time and determination, he began painting again.
A Splash of Red is gorgeous, as any book about an artist should be. There’s a wealth of detailed information in the back of the book. The book isn’t intended for very young children. But a child interested in history or art will read this one over and over again.
Middle Grade: INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling
Aven, the main character of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, was born without arms. But she hasn’t let that stop her. She has learned to do almost anything any other kid can do, using what she does have: her mouth, her feet, and her wit. Her friends at school have known her since forever, and they’re used to the way she does things. It’s just not a big deal.
But then her dad gets a job running an run-down theme park in Arizona. The family moves across the country. And at age 13, Aven finds herself in a new school, with kids who don’t know her, and who think she’s a bit of a freak.
Aven doesn’t like being stared at. She doesn’t like being treated as if she can’t do things for herself. She just wants to go home to Kansas. But that’s not an option. So she finds a mystery that needs to be solved. Disappearing tarantulas. Missing photographs. A locked room and a locked desk.
Somehow, the mystery seems to have something to do with her.
Along the way, she makes friends with a couple of boys who are also outsiders: Zion, who is seriously overweight, and Connor, who has Tourette’s. Together, they could do what none of them could do alone.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactusis notable for its realistic and unsentimental portrayal of uncommon disabilities. The characters aren’t written as collections of stereotypes. They are well rounded, interesting, utterly charming human beings. And while they grow and develop through their experiences, they do not encounter miraculous cures.
The book is a delight on every level. The publisher recommends it for kids in grades 3 to 7. But if you have an older child who has a significant disability, or who knows someone with a disability, I’m sure this book will resonate with them.
To learn how Dusti Bowling made sure the characters were realistic, read the interview on the Nerdy Book Club.
Middle Grade: HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS by Merrie Haskell
Tilda is the Princess of Alder Brook. But she isn’t particularly interested in being a princess. She would much rather be a nun, working alone in a scriptorium, copying books – or, even better, writing her own books.
Of course, she’s got a lot of reasons for preferring books to the life of a princess. For one thing, her principality is in dire financial straits. For another, many of her subjects think she’s cursed. She’s got a club foot, after all.
The club foot affects who Tilda is and what she does. It’s not just the people who think she’s cursed. Her own mother won’t let her ride horses or do anything else where she might get hurt.
And there’s the pain. Her foot hurts. A lot. Her maidservant, Judith, knows how to help. But the pain and disability make it hard for her to do some things that are easy for others.
There are days that running away from her life at Alder Brook seems like a good idea.
And when her cousin Ivo kidnaps her mother, and then Tilda, to take Alder Brook away from them, she has to run away to survive. Judith and a would-be squire named Parzifal join her. They decide that, while avoiding Ivo, they should go on a quest to kill dragons.
Because it gives them something to do. And dragons are evil, right?
Well, that’s what Tilda and her companions think at the beginning of their quest. But through their encounters with the Wild Hunt, the Horses of Elysium, an evil magician, and (of course) a dragon, they learn a great deal about dragons – and about themselves.
I don’t just read YA – I read middle grade novels and picture books, too. And Handbook for Dragon Slayers is perhaps my favorite middle grade novel of all time. Tilda’s encounters with the dragon are especially wonderful.