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).
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.
A month ago, a friend asked for suggestions of gifts for her young writer. I immediately knew that fellow Illinois flatlander Juliann Caveny was the perfect person to write this post.
I first met Juli at the 2017 SCBWI Illinois Words in the Woods retreat. Juli has a warm and vivacious personality that oozes out onto her manuscript pages. Juli writes for children of all ages, from preschoolers to young adults, and has a soft spot for quiet, yet powerful stories about friendship and family.
She’s also a passionate teacher with a knack for nurturing budding writers. (True fact: while talking with her, I mentally catalog ideas to use with my own kids.) She also makes an impressive Du Iz Tak costume.
Lucky for all of us, Julie agreed to write this post. (I didn’t even have to twist her arm!) Take it away Juli!
20 Gifts for Young Writers
I have been writing since I was six. That year, for Christmas, I was given my first diary. It wasn’t much later that I “published” my first book. (I typed the entire draft using a Brother portable and recycled dot-matrix printer paper, illustrated each page by hand and used leftover scraps of yarn to bind the book. It was beautiful.)
While some of the tools of the trade have changed since I was young, many have not.
Writers of all ages still get excited with a new package of pens, a clean, ready-to-be-written-in notebook, and the perfect, quiet corner. As a teacher and a mom of three, I’ve supplied many budding authors with practical, fun and inspiring presents. Luck for us, the rest of the world has caught on to our obsession and now there are tons of great gift options for writers, young to old.
These are a few of my favorites. I hope these ideas inspire you to find the perfect gift for the young author (or adult author) on your list this season!
Gifts for Where a Writer Writes
1. Inspiration/Idea Boards – When I was growing up, my parents installed a full-wall of cork-board. I was able to put anything I wanted on that wall and rearrange it without causing damage. Idea boards are important to writers and illustrators. No matter how big or small, give your young author a space to create.
2. Do Not Disturb Sign/Light Box – If you want to avoid having your child write in pen on their door, get them a sign!
3. Pillows/Comforter – Sweet Dreams! This is a gift that we’ve actually DIYed. (Don’t forget to check out the comforter as a set!)
Gifts for the Writer on the Go
4. Noise Canceling Headphones—All my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) student writers have great headphones. It’s a must-have for working in busy spaces or in the car. These are some cute ones, but if you want to look around, make sure the noise canceling rating is on the high end… 20-30dB.
5. Small Backpack—I really like personalized gifts for writers. Make sure any bag or backpack you get for a writer fits their needs—i.e. Do you need room for a laptop? Or notebooks?
6. A Reusable Water Bottle – Authors “in the zone” tend to forget about food and drink. Don’t let your young writer go thirsty!
7. A sturdy and fun Pen/Pencil Pouch – A MUST HAVE! When I’m traveling, I don’t want to have to rely on the pen that was left in the council. My favorites are always kept in a special pouch.
9. Personalized Socks – A friend bought me some personalized socks. Add your kiddo’s favorite book quote, or simply have WRITER AT WORK emblazed on the backs!
10. Scarf/Gloves – More for the teen writer and lover of classics, but you can also check out their selection of headbands and totes!
11. “Thinking” Cap – Caps and hats are always popular with kid writers. (Often I catch my students with their hoodies over their heads as they are tucked in a corner, writing.) I call mine my “thinking cap” and add buttons and details along the way. Look for unique words, phrases or pins to add. Find this one at Kohl’s.
Gifts forWhat a Writer Needs (Old-School)
12. Typewriter – Bring back the thrill of the click-click on a no-tech “qwerty” keyboard. Another way to have the same feel, for a much cheaper price is to try a used AlphaSmart. These were used in schools (before the iPad) and are great for on-the-go. They are battery operated, store up to twelve drafts and convert easily to a word-processing document with the adaptor.
14. A Diary (with LOCK!) – This is the place where all the ideas are born. (Ask Jack Gantos!) It’s from the little notes that an author builds those big stories. Give your kiddos a private place to start writing.
What a Writer Needs (New-School/Low-Tech)
15. Doodle Boards – The perfect spot for the young writer or illustrator that needs to write on everything! There’s no ink, so no mess!
16. Rocket Reusable Notebooks – A “new” tech way of writing. These reusable notebooks, combined with a free app, create a digital space for all your notes and writing.
18. Word Collection Jars. Peter Reynold’s book, The Word Collector, embodies everything a writer loves. Why not give your young author a jar to collect those words in? Just add the words on little slips of paper and let the writing begin!
19. Rory’s Story Cubes—My students and I love these! The cubes can be used on your own, or as a game. Either way, the sets and creating stories with them can be addictive.
If you’re a writer trying to break into the kidlit market, small publishers are a great place to start. I’m also currently writing my third set of work for hire picture books – another great starting place. Tune in to find out about my journey and how you can get started.
Not a writer, but curious how a book gets made? Or what it’s like being a writer? Come and find out!
There will be time for me to answer questions, so now’s the time to get your burning questions answered.
If you’re not familiar withKidlitNation, they’re a nonprofit that works to make the children’s book industry more accessible to people of color. Right now the focus is on education – free webinars and scholarships to professional conferences – but they have big plans for the future.
I’ve been working with them for over a year and they are dedicated, passionate, and all-around awesome. Consider donating a few bucks (any amount helps!) or volunteering a bit of your time.
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.
Big news! A couple of weeks ago my second book, I Pray Today, was published by Ancient Faith Press. And next week I’m celebrating with a blog tour. I’ll be visiting blogs of fellow Orthodox writers and bloggers and covering a wide variety of topics:
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 month’s collection of books are all inspired by my eldest daughter, who is a struggling reader. Yes, children of writers can be struggling readers. So can bookworms. Though I was never diagnosed, I strongly suspect I’m mildly dyslexic.
Yes, writers can be dyslexic, too.
If all of this is throwing you for a loop, I recommend the book The Dyslexic Advantage. Not every struggling student is dyslexic, but for the 1 in 5 students who are dyslexic and the adults that love them, this book is revolutionary.
What if I told you there were books that are easy to read and enjoyable enough that even struggling readers will willingly devour them?
It’s not magic, it’s graphic novels.
So here’s the part where you start telling me that these aren’t real books, etc. Is a child reading a comic getting practice at decoding words? Are they having fun and learning to like reading so they will want to read more in the future? Yes and yes. And that will make them a better and more willing reader later.
It’s about buy-in. My eldest listens to audiobook novels for kids twice her age. So she detests having to read easy readers. Something with a real plot that’s within her ability is very welcome.
Graphic novels have been the gateway for many readers. When you see a child who has struggled for years, picks up a book an inch thick and read it in 5 hours straight – there’s nothing to match their excitement at reading a “BIG” book or your pride at seeing the many hours of hard work come to fruition. And because of that success and excitement, she has read voraciously every since.
Maybe it is magic after all.
So with that in mind, here are some of our favorite graphic novels to get you started.
Graphic Novel: GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier
Cat is not happy about having to move to a new town, but her little sister Maya is sick and they have to make the move to keep her healthy. Once they move, they discover that the town is haunted. But are the ghosts evil or friendly?
This story weaves together the kind of complex social struggles of a middle grade novel with the Mexican custom of the Day of the Dead. I present this book as a refute to the claim that graphic novels don’t involve brilliant bring-you-to-tears storytelling.
Raina Telgemeier has many more award-winning graphic novels, so make sure to check them all out.
Graphic Novel: PHOEBE AND HER UNICORN by Dana Simpson
Phoebe is out skipping rocks one day and smacks a unicorn, breaking her from the spell of her own reflection. As thanks for freeing her, the unicorn grants her one wish. Phoebe’s wish: to be best friends with a unicorn. But she gets a bit more than she bargained for.
My husband was the one to discover this series. It was originally posted as a webcomic and we both fell in love with the humor and wit. We introduced it to our daughter, and that was that.
Making friends is not easy. It certainly wasn’t for shy little Shannon. And even when she had The Group to play with, she wasn’t sure they were friends worth having. Finding real friends is hard, but ultimately worth it.
This award-winning book is full of humor and heart. And though it’s set in the 70’s, the story is timeless
A miraculous new invention gives young Cece the ability to hear for the first time. But school is hard enough without a bulky hearing aid. She enlists the help of her superhero persona El Deafo to take on the school and make friends.
Graphic Novel: CATSTRONAUTS: MISSION TO THE MOON by Drew Brockington
The world has run out of electricity and it will be a permanent lights-out unless the brave Catstronauts can fix the problem.
What’s cuter than cats? How about cats in space! These books are a delight with a fun narrative, purrfect puns, and gorgeous illustrations. My kids giggled all the way through and eagerly asked for more.
It’s a start. But if we’re going to reshape the kidlit community, we need more people acting to make that happen.
I’ve considered how I can contribute to #kidlitwomen and support my fellow female writers. My other great passion (besides writing) is science. In a former life, I was a PhD-track academic studying language and the human brain. So looking for answers naturally led to science and what it can tell us about this moment and this movement.
COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: Now what?
The recent revelations of sexual harassment in kidlit were jarring. (I wish I could say that’s it’s equally jarring to see how men have consistently been supported to the detriment of women, but many of us saw that one coming.)
It’s jarring partly because the view from the outside is a very loving and supportive community. And from the inside, that is the predominant experience. It’s one of the best communities I’ve ever been privileged to participate in.
But predominant experiences aren’t the only experience within our community. Some have experienced harassment, assault, and manipulation. Professional organizations have allowed this to continue for years.
Realizing that the mostly warm fuzzy community you love was also hiding predators is unsettling. Cognitive dissonance is the scientific term for this feeling. It’s the jarring sensation you get when you have two contradictory ideas. It’s like realizing your sweet uncle Bob, that always brought you the just-right book to shepherd you through the turbulent teen years, was also a hit man for the mob. It’s upsetting. It makes you question EVERYTHING.
You have two options:
Deny or downplay the new information that caused the cognitive dissonance. (“Uncle Bob would never do that!” or “But he’s a really nice guy.” or “He’s just been having a really hard time in his marriage.”)
Accept the new information and change your worldview. Taking apart your broken set of beliefs and putting them back together is a truer, better way. It’s uncomfortable, but in the end, it’s better. And it’s the only way to move forward.
Cognitive dissonance doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Reassessing is a necessary part of life. You might still care about uncle Bob, but given what you now know it would be plain stupid not to change how you interact with him.
So in this moment, when our view of the kidlit community has been flipped inside out, take a breath. Don’t resist the discomfort with a “no they didn’t” or “nothing is wrong” or “it’s not a big deal.” Resist the urge to defned or rationalize away what you now know.
Pause. Listen. Process.
Then let your worldview shift. Accepting and acting on this newly discovered reality is how we move on.
BYSTANDER EFFECT: How do I stop sexual harassment?
Ready to take action? Great! You’re determined to be a part of the solution and put a stop to sexual harassment. How do you do that? Let’s start somewhere a little easier.
Imagine you’re in a crowded grocery store – everyone is rushing to get food for the next big holiday. And in the middle of a crowded aisle, an older woman trips and falls. She’s sitting there, leaning against cans of corn beef.
You’re just as harried as everyone else – you’ve got food to buy, preparations to make, kids whining. Do you stop and ask if she’s ok? If she’s fine, you lose time, look a bit foolish, and maybe embarrass her. Lots of other people are there and none of them seem to be rushing to the woman’s aid.
Research says you’ll most likely keep going. It’s called the bystander effect – the more bystanders that see the little woman in the canned-meat aisle, the less each one feels responsible for her.
If you saw that same older woman trip on a remote mountaintop it would be obvious that you should act – no one else is around, and she has no other way to get help. But when you’re surrounded by other people, you don’t feel quite as responsible.
It’s often unclear if help is needed. The woman may just need a minute to regain her composure. Or she could have had a stroke. She might not be able to call out for help because of her physical condition in the moment. But if everyone is looking and waiting for someone else to act, then no one ever gets around to it.
There’s a really simple cure for the bystander effect.
Know that it exists and realize that people are unlikely to act.
Act on that realization.
It’s the same concept that underlies the phrase “if you see something, say something.”
Smile and say hi to the women. Maybe make a joke or tell an anecdote to put her at ease and relieve her embarrassment. “Sometimes I think they put ice on these floors.”
Then offer her a hand up. She may turn it down. She may gratefully smile back, take the hand up then finish her shopping. Or she may be unable to get up or unable to respond. No more ambiguity, call an ambulance. If you need help, single out a specific person in the crowd. Make it obvious that that person, yes, you in the red shirt are now responsible for calling the ambulance. Now you’ve broken through another person’s bystander effect, too.
Now imagine that instead of a feeble woman at the grocery, you’re in a crowded post-conference get-together. Lots of those lovely kidlit folk are chatting about their favorite topic – books! – while sipping wine. You notice a man putting an arm around a woman. She looks a bit uncomfortable but doesn’t pull away. Everyone else keeps chatting, unconcerned. She hasn’t pulled away or asked for help; does that mean she’s fine? Or is it like the lady in the grocery store where everyone is assuming someone else will act. Is she trapped by the social situation in the same way the grocery lady might be trapped by her physical situation? Anyone who has given in to middle school peer pressure knows that you can be manipulated by a situation or a powerful person, be they the popular girl, a schoolyard bully, or a sexual predator hiding among the kidlit sheep. Anne Ursu’s survey results were full of examples of situations where women did not feel they could speak out on their own behalf.
What to do? Like the lady in the grocery, if you see something, do something. Approach with compassion. Try to ease awkwardness and embarrassment. And if you sense a dangerous situation, get help.
If it were me, I would walk up and say “Excuse me, do you know where the ladies room is? Could you show me?” I’ve now engaged, I can better judge the situation. And I’ve given her a valid excuse to leave the situation on good social terms. She can choose to take the hand I extend or not. But if I sensed she was in real danger – like a man separating her from me, trying to pull her away, or preventing her from grabbing that metaphorical hand, I would be more direct. “You look uncomfortable. Do you need help? Would you like me to call someone?”
Would I be embarrassed? VERY. I would probably be beet red and feel like an intruder, but it’s important. If I misread the situation, they can laugh at me later. But if I didn’t….. I don’t want to be complicit through my lack of action.
So you reading this, yes you with the good intentions feeling uncertain how to proceed, step out of the crowd and act. Act when you see someone in need. Act even if you’re not sure help is needed. Act even though you feel embarrassed. Just ACT.
TEND AND BEFRIEND: How do I prevent sexual harassment?
Long ago, researchers found that people have one of two reactions to threat: fight or flight. So when you stumble into a bear in your backyard, you can either fight it or run away.
That research was based on men. New research found a wider variety of responses. They found that women, in particular, are more likely to protect their children and band together for group protection. Since scientists like rhyme as much as writers, they coined the phrase “tend and befriend.”
A single person may seem to have little power, but when those small actions are put together for a common purpose, they can effect enormous change.
So how can tend and befriend work for creating change in the kidlit community?
TEND: First, we need to protect the most vulnerable. That means protecting those that have already suffered sexual harassment. It also means creating protections for those who are more vulnerable such as women who may be harassed by a more powerful abuser. Or women of color who are doubly vulnerable. Acting in the moment is powerful and necessary. Tend to the woman at cocktail hour with the unwelcome arm around her shoulders.
BEFRIEND: If we want to effect large change and create a community where sexual harassment is not tolerated, we need to join together as a band of brave women and their allies. We are stronger together, so let’s use that power.
As a band of women and allies, we can push the gatekeepers of our industry to guard the gates and keep the harassers out. Agents, editors, conference organizers – we as a group should demand that all these people have clear policies and practices that protect us all. SCBWI has begun that process as have some agents. Perhaps others are doing it behind closed doors. But I won’t assume others will act, it’s too important. I will say something.
Throughout the month of March, many women and allies will be sharing their #kidlitwomen stories. Including many ways that we can work together to create a better community for everyone. I will be supporting those people by sharing their ideas and taking action. Be engaged on social media. One voice alone is quiet, many together is a roar that can’t be ignored.
YOUR MANUAL FOR MOVING FORWARD:
Listen and accept that something is broken within the kidlit community.
Shift your view to a healthier, truer one.
Decide to act.
If you see something, say something. Even if you’re unsure if help is needed. (Especially if you’re unsure.)
Support one another but especially tend to the most vulnerable in our community.
Band together and put all out small efforts together to create a big change in kidlit. A change that makes our whole community a safer place.
The #metoo and #kidlitwomen movements are much larger than I can address in a single post. I limited myself to only discussing sexual harassment and how to prevent it. But I could easily have talked about the culture that allowed the harassment to occur. Or about how the system promotes male authors at the expense of female authors. Or how the double-whammy of sexism and racism makes it especially difficult for women of color. Or the role that men need to take to help us reshape this industry into something safer and more equitable for all. I’m leaving those topics to others who are better equipped to speak to that experience. We’re a band of brave women, after all. We don’t need to deliver every message, sometimes it’s enough to pass the microphone.
Since last fall I’ve been writing the Little Elephants’ Big Adventures series. The books are about the adventures of brother and sister elephants, Benjamin and Lucy. They’re humorous and fun. They’re also designed to teach math to preschoolers.
The series is the brain-child of a team of early childhood researchers out of Purdue University. They did research on math language in picture books. Preschool children who were read books that used math language improved their math skills. And not just on the skills taught in the books.
That’s astounding. Imagine being able to give kids a leg-up in school just by reading them a book. It’s already something preschool teachers and many parents do. No expensive equipment or fancy degrees required.
Just one problem. There weren’t many books for teaching the concepts. So they got grant funding to create books for preschoolers based on their research findings.
That’s where I come in.
I was asked early on if I would be interested in the project. Boy was I! My degree in Cognitive Psychology and my experience creating curriculum and writing children’s books made me a perfect fit for the project. I was thrilled. It’s a great combo of my professional training with things I’m passionate about: education and children’s literature.
The first three books have been written and are in the process of being illustrated. Every week I get a new peek at my words coming to life in pictures. As a writer that’s just about the most exciting thing imaginable.
The process was a whirlwind. Anyone who has written children’s books knows that the process is excruciatingly slow. Years to write manuscripts. Years to submit. Then, if you’re lucky, you find a publisher and get to wait a couple of more years for production.
Not this project. Starting early last fall I developed character and story concepts with the Purdue team. Then I wrote and delivered three books. Each went through multiple rounds of revision with the Purdue team. We made sure the stories correctly conveyed the math concepts without sacrificing good storytelling. The illustrations for the first book are almost done. The books are being translated to Spanish as we speak. And all of this has happened in less that 6 months.
The full series will be available sometimes in the next couple of years. I couldn’t be more excited or more proud.