Archive for ‘Award-Winning’

August 2, 2013

the secrets of parenting with books

This was a YA book I could NOT put down. I think EVERY SINGLE parent needs to read it right now. And most teens, too. I chose this book for its title and cover. This might make me shallow, but it totally worked. Because Aristotle and Dante DO discover the secrets of the universe, or at least some of them, and they do it in a really realistically teen way.

aristotleanddanteTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author
: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genre: Fiction, Realistic Fiction
Age: 12 and up

And the cool thing about the parents? Well for starters, they aren’t dead! When is the last time you read a kids’ book where the parents were still alive? Still thinking about that one? Exactly. ALL FOUR parents are involved, and all, despite various issues they might have, are phenomenal role models, or at least doing their best. (And not in a cheesy, role-your-eyes I can’t believe my mom is making me read this book kind of way. Not that your kid would EVER roll his eyes…)

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a compelling story about two teenage boys. Both are Mexican-American, which is already an identity with which they struggle, in different ways. And both are discovering sexuality, and again, they discover their own in really different ways. Aristotle is rough around the edges, completely silent inside and out (which makes him a really unique 1st person narrator–he doesn’t understand himself well enough to tell you all the details). Dante is more refined, more talkative, inquisitive. He wants to save the dead bird in the street.

Aristotle and Dante become fast friends and what happens next is nothing less than the story of all boys who grow up. It will, in particular, speak to those teenage boys who are finding out that their own sexuality might be different than the status quo, but I believe this is a book whose teenage angst will speak to all of us: gay, straight, young, and old.

And like I said, this is a book for parents. If you are having a hard time talking with your kids about growing up, having friends, or being gay, please read this book. Give it to your kids to read. And, like Ari’s father, sit down at the kitchen table one day and just start to talk. You might be surprised where it gets you.

If all books were like this, EVERYONE would read kids’ books, everyone would read with their kids, and this blog would be totally irrelevant.

And you don’t have to take MY word for it. This book won the Michael J. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, and the Pura Belpré Award. Seriously. It has three medals on the cover.

If you like this one, I would suggest: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. All are great coming-of-age boy stories with a real MC and real problems in a real world.

June 3, 2013

Putting Down Roots

kathy headshotHi! I’m so excited to introduce Kathy Higgs-Coultard, who is a new contributing writer for The Family That Reads Together. This post is great timing for me as my son and I just planted our first garden; we will see how THAT goes. Kathy’s writing will be featured on the 2nd Monday of each month. Kathy’s contributions will mainly focus on the traditions, (mis)adventures, and discoveries she’s experienced while raising her four children to be voracious readers and writers. You can read more about Kathy at our about the authors page or visit her at Write with Kathy.

Putting Down Roots

I have never been much of a gardener.  I think the problem stems from my love/hate relationship with plants—I love them, they hate me. No matter how much care and attention I give a plant, it always dies. So when we decided to transplant our four children from Forest Hills–a subdivision dominated by pachysandra, myrtle, and impatiens, to a new home on two acres of wooded property, I panicked. Especially when Laura (then six) announced, “Now we can finally have a garden.” Her face was so bright and hopeful, I did what any good mom would do. I lied. “Yes, sweetie,” I said, “a garden. We can do that.”

To my defense, I did not intend it to be a lie. Laura and I researched plants and chose those best suited to shady areas. We fertilized. We watered. We prayed. We really, really tried. But the hostas we used as a border along the back of the yard were nibbled down to nubs. The tulips we planted in a mulch bed were gnawed to nothing. And the purple azeala Laura loved withered to barren sticks when some creature burrowed under it. “Why does everything I love die?” Laura asked.

I knew how she felt. I’d begun to wonder if maybe Mother Nature herself hated me. It was possible that she still held a grudge from that time I cut every bud off my grandmother’s rosebush and used them to frost a mud pie. Maybe Mother Nature had sicced her forest friends on our garden.

Then, in the serendipitous way things always seem to happen, I came upon one of my favorite childhood stories while leading a book drive. “I loved this book,” I told Laura, showing her the cover of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. She liberated it from the pile and insisted we begin reading it that night.

Night after night we worried over Mrs. Frisby’s plight to move her sick child before the farmer could plow up her home. When we got to the part where Mrs. Frisby goes to visit the rats living under the rosebush, Laura jumped up and yelled, “That’s what happened to the azeala!” To test her theory, she set up an observation station by the picture window overlooking the backyard. It took a few weeks of on and off again observing for us to learn that it wasn’t rats living under our azeala, but hosta-eating rabbits. We also discovered that deer enjoy a tulip or two in the evening. Most impressive were the variety of birds flitting through to snag berries off the wild bushes at the wood’s edge. We even spied a family of wild turkeys, although they seemed more interested in using our yard as a shortcut to somewhere else than a feeding ground.

“We need to go back to the garden guy,” Laura announced when we talked about her findings. I nodded. Tim would be able to give us tips on protecting our garden from our furry friends. But Laura shook her head. “No! We need to find out what other animals eat and plant that, too! Maybe we could see opossums, and raccoons, and unicorns.”

Oh my.

mrsfrisbyTitle: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Author: Robert C. O’Brien
Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction
Ages: Listening 5 yrs and up; Independent 8 and up

1972 Newbery Medal Winner. Although some older books do not capture the attention of today’s children, this book pulled my kids right in and held them enthralled as they worried for Timothy’s health and Mrs. Frisby’s safety. Side note: O’Brien’s daughter wrote two sequels to this book.

touchabutterflyTitle: Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids
Author: April Pulley Sayre
Genre: Nonfiction
Ages: Adult

Beautiful—in photos and lyrical language, April invites parents to create nature adventures in our own yards. From helping readers understand the necessary components of a habitat to providing advice on how to build a low maintenance, sustainable environment for wildlife, April encourages all to approach wildlife gardening with confidence and to include their children in the adventure.

What about you? Do you have gardening attempts to share? Successful or otherwise?

November 24, 2012

You ain’t slick and I ain’t stupid

To quote a movie I cannot stand, this book had me at “hello” and held onto me all the way to goodbye. After a wonderful, family-filled, post-Thanksgiving day yesterday, complete with family, a workout, a walk in the snow, and an after-dinner movie, we joked about crashing the Michigan frat parties that were likely just starting up as we trodded off to bed, the hour still in the single digits. But if I’m not staying up for parties anymore (yeah, right, ’cause I used to all the time…) there is one thing that will keep my light on, and Like Sisters on the Homefront, a 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Book by Rita Williams-Garcia, meant I didn’t turn it off until about one o’clock this morning.

Sisters grabs you from the first page, when Gayle’s mother, hearing the bathroom door too many times in a row, immediately knows something is up. And immediately knows what that something is. Gayle’s voice rings and sings through perfect prose as the defiant 14-year-old is dragged to an abortion clinic by her mother and then sent away from her beloved New York City to live with relatives down south. Gayle already has one child, a baby who comes with her on the journey, and is indeed with her every moment of the day. Gayle struggles mightily against her God-fearing, Jesus-worshipping family, but even as you know what’s coming, or think you know, this book will have you turning the pages quickly.

Whether you fall for Gayle immediately (like “Great” does, the family matriarch who lies dying in her bed and shares life-changing stories of the past with her) or whether it takes you some time to warm up to her (like her cousin “Cookie” who can belt out the Lord’s music like nobody’s music, might depend on who you are and where you’ve been. But that you will fall in love for her I have no doubt. True, this book deals with adult themes–a very young girl is a mother, and on top of that, she’s experiencing the pains of abortion throughout much of the story. But this isn’t pain for pain’s sake. This book feels real. You meet these characters so intimately, you will ultimately feel like your mother sent you down South to live with them. Some mothers might shy away from a book like this, but to the extent that it’s appropriate for me to do so, I would discourage that. This book is filled with positive messages, the good kind that are honest, learned the hard way, and rooted in a messy but caring family.

Title: Like Sisters on the Homefront
Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Genre: Fiction
Age: 7th grade and up

If you read this book with your daughter, there are a lot of good conversations you could have at the end. (Hint: one of them does NOT start out with the phrase “and that’s why you shouldn’t have sex until you are 35!”) 🙂 But Gayle has been using sex to get something she doesn’t have anywhere else. What is it? And why doesn’t she have it. Gayle talks about about the baby’s daddy and her latest boyfriend, but we don’t see them at all in the book. Why not? Ask your daughter about it. What is the difference between Gayle and Cookie when Cookie finally admits her own crush? And what happens that fateful night when Cookie rushes to the car? What is Cookie thinking and why does what happens next happen?

If you’re not ready for the romantic/sexual side of the conversation, this book has a lot more to offer about family and history. Why is everyone so keen to hear the “Telling” before Great passes away? What does it mean to know one’s own history and why does that matter? There’s a wonderful passage where Great tells Gayle she should never be angry at another African because they could be family, separated by slavery, time, and geography. Isn’t that something we could all learn?

The last line in this book is still whispering itself softly between my ears. The imagery of the scene is dancing in my mind, even after a good night’s sleep, even after a morning with my own family, who I appreciate through the lens of this newly-read book, resting on my brain, now a part of me.

As Gayle often says, she “ain’t stupid”. But that doesn’t mean she has nothing to learn.

And that’s why we read.

September 26, 2011

a single good book in A SINGLE SHARD

My husband constantly makes fun of my reading habits. Examples: when one of his relatives picked us up at the airport and I spent the entire car ride home reading a book by flashlight. Well, flashlight app to be more accurate. Yes, I have a flashlight app and yes, it’s probably the most used of all my phone apps. It’s also great for reading at night in hotel rooms when the kids are trying to go to sleep.

Last night I told him I was exhausted and going to bed early and he came upstairs two hours later to find me with my nose in a book. I think I just have a special fondness for staying up late with a book. It conjures memories of Nancy Drew books in elementary school, staying up way past bedtime.

Recently, it conjured a different memory–that of staying up late reading to cram for a class in high school and college. I haven’t had to do that in while, but with my SCBWI writer’s conference coming up, I was mortified that I was about to meet Newbery Award-winning author Linda Sue Park without actually having read any of her books. So after the first day of the conference I came home and started A Single Shard around 9:00 so I’d be ready for my intensive with her the next day. My husband turned the lights out and put his head under the pillow.

9:00 PM for me today is probably the equivalent to what 2:00 AM was for my college self. It seemed a daringly late time to be starting a project; it felt like a secret endeavor, like I might get in trouble or had something important to do.  Maybe both. And so there I sat, cuddled under the quilt, my family asleep, sharing the nighttime hours with a story about a young boy. A simple story, told with simple words, on a simple night. It was heaven. I’m on a Linda Sue Park kick right now, so you’ll be hearing about more of her books later.

Title: A Single Shard
Author: Linda Sue Park
Genre:  Middle Grade
Age: 8 – 12, upper elementary and young middle grades

Summary and Review:

It won a Newbery so I don’t need to tell you it’s a great book. This is the story of a homeless boy and the man he lives with under the bridge. It is the story of the boy’s quest to learn pottery. It’s the story of how he learns about himself and how he learns to belong to others.

What stood out most to me about this book was how disarmingly simple it was. The prose is clean and spare, light on its feet. I found out at the conference that Linda Sue Park is also a poet and that comes through strongly in this book. If I told you what happened in the book–the boy wants to learn pottery and apprentices to a potter, you might start yawning. But even though the action is there, and the plot strong, it’s the characters that make this a story you want to read. It’s the boy’s simple yet ardent desire and his willingness to work hard—and always put others first—to fulfill it.

I read it about a week ago. I liked it then, but the more I think about it, the more the story seems to seep into some place deep inside me and I like it more and more every time I think about it. What really stayed with me is the boy, the main character, and how straightforward, honest, and hard-working he was. He was the kind of kid you’d like to raise, or teach, or meet, or be, depending on whether you are reading this as a parent, a teacher, a girl, or a boy.

August 16, 2011

Life, death, and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS

One of the hardest things about being a parent is watching a perfect, innocent baby grow up in a world that is neither perfect nor innocent. My heart wrenches as he asks the tough questions “does the fish break when the dinosaur eats it?” or “when will the bug be undead?” But learning about the cycle of life is something that everyone must do, and I’m lucky that so far my son has only had to learn it when it comes to the food he eats and the bug his friend stepped on.

(It’s especially hard because my son seems to have inherited my tendency to over-empathize with anything and everything. As I read this book on the airplane, I had tears streaming down my cheeks. And, as my husband will attest to, that’s not a spoiler, because I often cry when I’m reading or watching a movie, whether it’s happy, sad, or just is.) 🙂

But when you do have to tell the tough truth and talk about the tough issues, there is absolutely nothing better than a good story. Something that gives meaning to the world, something that tells you that you are not alone. Something that says you will be okay.

I am so glad that I found this book. Or did it find me? It seemed to jump off of the table at a small independent bookstore when I was on vacation. The message in the story–that we should celebrate life to its fullest is one that everybody should hear. It’s a story that anyone would love, whether they are seeking solace from a recent loss, or just picking up a book to enjoy.

Title: each little bird that sings
Author: Deborah Wiles
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Age: Middle Grade, 9 and up

Summary and Review:

I love, love, love this book. I love the wacky character names (Dismay the dog, Declaration the friend, Comfort the narrator and main character). I love the extended family of interesting characters all crammed into one house. I love the small town and the closeness that brings to the community. I love the unique setting–the funeral home where the main character lives with her family. And I love the younger sister, Merry, the toddler who asks of almost anyone she sees who stops to rest for a minute (or longer): “Dead?” The one word question is funny when she’s wrong and poignant when she’s right.

The main character is a girl, and I think this will appeal to mostly girl readers, although she is very tomboyish. One of the main plot hurdles the character encounters is also girl-related, when her best friend betrays her confidence and their friendship in a hurtful way at a time when she was needed the most.

The narrator goes through a lot in this book, and she learns a lot along the way. It’s the best of middle grade fiction–tackling a topic that an adult book would handle poorly. It’s a reminder of why I like this genre: any adult fiction in which this many characters die (I’m not giving away much here–they do run a funeral home) would be depressing, dark, and take itself WAY too seriously. But this book doesn’t need any pretense. It’s about life, from friends and family, picnics and tuner sandwiches, dogs and cousins. And so, so much more.

It’s a well-deserved National Book Award Finalist.

Follow-up with the kids (SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT)

If you are reading this just to read it because it’s such a great story, there’s a lot you can talk about. Why does Declaration turn on Comfort? If you told the story from Declaration’s perspective, what might she say? Why does Comfort hate her cousin so much and what helps her to change her mind?

You could also talk about Comfort’s relationship with Great Great Aunt Florentine and compare it to any of the relationships your own children have with older relatives.

From a writing perspective (and here’s where the spoiler comes), talk about why the dog has to die. What does that add to the story. Why is the dog’s death (and here I’m giving my own opinion) so much more powerful to Comfort–and even sadder perhaps–that the people who die? I might hypothesize that it’s because it’s unexpected–living in a funeral home, she’s used to dead people. It’s also untimely–the dog died in an accident, the people of old age. The author alludes to a comment by an editor in her acknowledgements that implies that there wasn’t a dog in the first draft. How do you think the first draft might have been different? Is your budding author working on a story that might benefit by adding a character, canine or not?

If you are reading this book specifically to help a youngster think about death, talk about where Comfort got to by the end of the story. She realizes that the only thing to do is to keep on living and enjoy life. Why is that so hard to do sometimes? And why does death help us realize that?

At the end, tears or no, this is a happy story. It just sometimes takes some sadness to get to the truth about happiness.