Picture Book Biographies

When I was little, I had a set of picture book biographies. I haven’t been able to find them since, but I remember that the series included books about Beethoven, Ben Franklin, and maybe Nellie Bly (the set skewed heavily white and male, but there were a few women included).

While I know that hardcover sets like this still exist*, I love the beautiful, creative stand-alone picture book biographies (and collective biographies) that have been published with what seems like increasing frequency in the past few years. Our reading at home skews toward fiction, but I’ve always felt that biography, while technically nonfiction, has fiction’s appeal: it’s the story of someone’s life. Plus, you usually learn something else – about history, or outer space, how to make a vaccine, or the latest in bridge-building.

*I like the Little People, Big Dreams series; they’re pitched to a younger audience, and they do a good job introducing young readers to a diverse array of historical figures, like Agatha Christie, Josephine Baker, Wilma Rudolph, Stevie Wonder, and David Bowie.

This list is not at all exhaustive, but includes many of the picture book biographies I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. I’ve separated them into a few loose categories, and some books appear in more than one category.

Authors

Just Like Beverly: A Biography of Beverly Cleary by Vicki Conrad & David HohnCover image of Just Like Beverly

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade & Cozbi A. Cabrera

You Are My Friend: The Story of Mister Rogers and His Neighborhood by Aimee Reid & Matt Phelan

Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM)

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed & Stasia Burrington

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett & Diana Sudyka (Maria Mitchell)Cover image of The Spacesuit

The Spacesuit: How A Seamstress Helped Put A Man on the Moon by Alison Donald & Ariel Landy

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker & Tiemdow Phumiruk

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins & Lucy Knisley

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly & Laura Freeman

Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How A Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch & Teresa Martinezmarioholeinsky

The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine by Linda Elovitz Marshall & Lisa Anchin

Dr. Fauci: How A Boy From Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor by Kate Messner & Alexandra Bye

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret by Jess Keating & Katie Hickey

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs by Kate Messner & Matthew Forsythe (Ken Nedimyer)

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Rachel Dougherty

Musicians, Dancers, and Artists

Cover image of JosephineDancing Hands: How Teresa Carreno Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle & Rafael Lopez

Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World by Kim Tomsic & Brett Helquist

Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson by Leda Schubert & Theodore Taylor III

Firebird by Misty Copeland & Christopher Myers

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell & Christian Robinson

The Noisy Paintbox: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock & Mary GrandPre

Activists and Politicians

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel & Melissa Sweet (Clara Lemlich)Cover image of All the Way to the Top

All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel, Nabi Ali, & Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner & Adam Rex

The First Woman To…

Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper by Candace Fleming & Julie Downing

Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon by Kim Chafee & Ellen Rooney

herfearlessrun

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett & Diana Sudyka (Maria Mitchell)

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed & Stasia Burrington

The Spacesuit: How A Seamstress Helped Put A Man on the Moon by Alison Donald & Ariel Landy

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret by Jess Keating & Katie Hickey

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Rachel DoughertyCover image of Secret Engineer

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker & Tiemdow Phumiruk

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins & Lucy Knisley

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly & Laura Freeman

Favorites of January-June 2021

To make my year-end recap a bit easier, I sometimes do a mid-year recap of favorite books I’ve read so far. “Favorite” is defined loosely (I’ve never been able to stick to a top ten), but these are books that I really enjoyed, that I will recommend enthusiastically to others, and that I think will stay with me. Over the past few years, my reading has skewed heavily toward middle grade fiction and picture books (as is obvious below), and as always, the books I read between January and June 2021 were not necessarily published in 2021 (though some were).

Adult FictionCover image of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

  • Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia: If you liked The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin as a kid, your grown-up self will love this.
  • We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
  • Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
  • The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
  • Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
  • Afterlife by Julia Alvarez
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: If you liked Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller but wondered what the women in the story were up to…Cover image of Piranesi
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: Like unreliable narrators, journal-style narrative, and portal fantasy (e.g. Slade House by David Mitchell)? Enjoy.
  • The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken
  • Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher: Wildly inventive fairytale fantasy adventure, both gruesome and hilarious. (T. Kingfisher = Ursula Vernon)
  • The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Adult Nonfiction

  • You Never Forget Your First by Alexis CoeCover image of Braiding Sweetgrass 2020
  • The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri (see also: Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri)
  • Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
  • Save the Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody
  • Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Young AdultCover image of Winterkeep

  • The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein
  • Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (see also: The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri)
  • A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
  • Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
  • Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore
  • Kent State by Deborah Wiles (audiobook)
  • Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulleyfirekeepersdaughter
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
  • Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
  • Switch by A.S. King
  • Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli
  • Pumpkin by Julie Murphy

Middle Grade

  • Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte (graphic novel)
  • Hamster Princess (series) by Ursula Vernon: Do not be silly like I was and avoid these books because of the glitter on the covers. Ursula Vernon is a genius, and these fractured fairytales with their hamster hero are perfection.
  • From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
  • Ruby Lu (3-book series) by Lenore Look: Ramona and Clementine, make room.
  • The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
  • Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk
  • History Smashers (nonfiction series) by Kate Messner
  • The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
  • Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan
  • Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable (graphic novel)
  • The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford
  • Starfish by Lisa Fipps (novel in verse)
  • Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
  • The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park
  • Ancestor Approved by Cynthia Leitich Smith (ed.)
  • Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Hilda (series) by Luke Pearson
  • Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field by Angela Ahn
  • The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung
  • The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga
  • Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden
  • Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston: The magic and adventure and world-building of Harry Potter, but imagine if Harry was as smart and resourceful as Hermione (and Black and American)
  • Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
  • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  • Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

Early Readers

  • “Living In…” (series) by Chloe Perkins (nonfiction, geography/history)Cover image of Haylee and Comet
  • Fox & Chick (series) by Sergio Ruzzier
  • Haylee & Comet by Deborah Marcero

Picture Books

  • There’s A Skeleton Inside You! by Idan Ben-Barak & Julian Frost
  • When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith
  • Sootypaws by Maggie Rudy: A brilliant and beautiful Cinderella retelling
  • Lonesome George, The Giant Tortoise by Francine Jacobs & Jean Cassels
  • The Polio Pioneer by Linda Elovitz Marshall & Lisa Anchin
  • All the Way to the Top by Annette Bay Pimentel & Nabi Ali
  • Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham
  • Everyone Gets A Say by Jill Twiss & EG Keller
  • A Family Is A Family Is A Family by Sara O’Leary & Qin Leng
  • Just A Minute by Yuyi Morales
  • What A Lucky Day by Jashar Awan: Gives stereotypes a poke in the eye.
  • Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
  • Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand & Nabi Ali
  • Amy Wu and the Patchwork Dragon by Kat Zhang & Charlene Chua (sequel to Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao)
  • This Is the Rope by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Scarlet’s Tale by Audrey Vernick & Peter Jarvis: If there was a Kid’s Choice Award at my house, Scarlet’s Tale would have the picture book category locked down. See also: Imogene’s Antlers by David Small.
  • The Farmer trilogy by Marla Frazee
  • A Small Kindness by Stacy McAnulty & Wendy Leach
  • Animals Brag About Their Bottoms by Maki Sato: A perfect storytime book for all ages.
  • Neville by Norton Juster
  • Watercress by Andrew Wang & Jason Chin
  • Dozens of Doughnuts by Carrie Finison & Brianne Farley
  • Let’s Dance by Valerine Bolling & Maine Diaz
  • My Tiny Life by Ruby T. Hummingbird by Paul Meisel
  • Dessert Island by Ben Zhu
  • Oh Look, A Cake! by J.C. McKee: It’s I Really Want the Cake meets A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals.
  • I Am Not A Penguin: A Pangolin’s Lament by Liz Wong: See also The Angry Little Puffin by Timothy Young
  • There Must Be More Than That! by Shinsuke Yoshitake
  • Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas by Cheryl Bardoe & Jos. A. Smith
  • In the Half Room by Carson Ellis
  • The Oboe Goes BOOM BOOM BOOM by Colleen AF Venable & Lian Cho: There are many wonderful picture books about musical instruments, but this one is louder than all the others, and I mean that in the best way possible.
  • Bird House by Blanca Gomez
  • A Second Is A Hiccup by Hazel Hutchins & Kady MacDonald Denton
  • Avocado Asks: What Am I? by Momoko Abe: For those that don’t fit neatly into checkboxes.

It’s been an excellent half-year of reading. What are some of your favorite books that you’ve read/listened to so far this year? What are you looking forward to? There’s going to be a great batch of new books published this fall (including, even, a few written for adults, from authors such as Lauren Groff, Sally Rooney, Amor Towles, Ann Patchett, and Mary Roach). Whatever else happens this fall, at least there will be books.

Speculative Fiction and Visionary Fiction: What if?

Not everyone is familiar with the term “speculative fiction”: generally, it’s an umbrella term that includes both fantasy and science fiction, but I also describe it as fiction that asks, “What if…?”

Cover image of The View from the Cheap SeatsBack in 2016, I wrote a post quoting Neil Gaiman extensively: “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” In 2013 (and before that, and since then), he spoke about the power of fiction on empathy and imagination; he wrote, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.” In his collection of nonfiction essays, The View From the Cheap Seats, he wrote more on the same theme:

“There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:
What if…?
If only…
If this goes on…”

In a recent discussion of speculative fiction (including fantasy and science fiction), a classmate linked to a related piece of writing on the idea of “what if”: in her 2015 essay “Rewriting the Future: Using Science Fiction to Re-envision Justice,” Walidah Imarisha writes,

“For all of our ability to analyze and critique, the left has become rooted in what is. We often forget to envision what could be. We forget to mine the past for solutions that show us how we can exist in other forms in the future. 

That is why I believe our justice movements desperately need science fiction. Stay with me on this one…”

octaviasbroodShe writes that science fiction “allows us to imagine possibilities outside of what exists today,” and asserts that science fiction is the only genre that “allows us to question, challenge, and re-envision everything all at once.”  Imarisha uses a new-to-me term as well: “Visionary fiction offers social justice movements a process to explore creating those new worlds….This term reminds us to be utterly unrealistic in our organizing, because it is only through imagining the so-called impossible that we can begin to concretely build it. When we free our imaginations, we question everything….That is why decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive decolonization process of all.”

Imarisha writes that “visionary fiction centers those who have been marginalized in larger society, especially those who live at the intersections of identities and oppressions.” It takes a visionary – often an outsider, someone young or marginalized or discounted by mainstream society – not just to see what is wrong, but to imagine alternatives that seem impossible at first.

Some people may discount the fantasy and science fiction genres out of hand, but writers of speculative fiction are some of the most creative writers and thinkers of their times. They often use their invented worlds to help readers see the problems with our own world by taking them to extremes (“If this goes on…”) or making radical changes to societal norms (“What if…?”). Imarisha writes, “Whether it’s Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or Star Wars, these fantastical worlds end up exploring issues like war, racism, gender oppression, power, privilege, and injustice.”

It’s not all space operas and dragons and unicorns (although so what if it is?) – sometimes it’s using fiction as a sandbox to imagine and envision ways to improve the one real world we do have. I’m planning to read Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements later this month and get some new ideas. What if…things can be different?

 

First day of school/back to school picture books

If the first day of school were a person, it might wear the t-shirt that says “I’m kind of a big deal.” This fall, especially, the first day of school (or first day back to school) is a big deal, after most schools moved to remote education in mid-March 2020, and some stayed largely remote until spring 2021.

This list on the topic of attending school for the first time, or attending a new school, includes books that focus on common fears and worries (and provide reassurance, and sometimes humor). Many books also have themes of inclusivity and kindness. A few books on the list are not specifically about the first day of school, but are thematically relevant.

Why am I posting this in July, with the start of school over a month away? Because kids are people, and people are different. Some kids do better with a lot of preparation; others would rather skip the anticipation/worry and dive right in when the time comes. Public libraries are likely to have back-to-school displays, which may get picked over quickly. Request a handful of titles that look good to you now, and you won’t be scrambling the last week of August. (Or if nothing on this list appeals, ask your local library or bookstore staff for more recommendations!)

wedonteatourclassmatesOliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes

Owen by Kevin Henkes

Chu’s First Day of School by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex

Goose Goes to School by Laura Wall

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. HigginsCover image of School's First Day of School

Geraldine by Elizabeth Lilly

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

The Class by Boni Ashburn, illustrated by Kimberly Gee

So Big by Mike Wohnoutka

The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-NewtonCover image of The Class

On the Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López

A Small Kindness by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by Wendy Leach

First Day of School by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell

Time for School (Tinyville Town) by Brian Biggs

Scarlet’s Tale by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Peter Jarvis

Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choismallkindness

Yoko by Rosemary Wells

Ways to Welcome by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Joey Chou

I Feel Teal by Lauren Rille, illustrated by Aimee Sicuro

Don’t Hug Doug by Carrie Finison, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman

What are your favorite first day of school books?Cover image of Danbi Leads the School Parade

Homeschooling in Middle Grade Fiction

Tonight in my #kidlit class (“Collections and Materials for Children”), we discussed two middle grade novels that featured homeschooled characters. I started building a list of others (see below), but I’m sure there are more out there. What did I miss? And what do you think of these portrayals of homeschool education in fiction?

Libraries, museums, and parks are all valuable resources that support lifelong learning for all ages. As a public librarian, I was always happy to see homeschool groups come in to use the library resources.

  • The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (sequel: The Lotterys More or Less)
  • All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (graphic novel)
  • Schooled by Gordon Korman
  • The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy (the main characters are not homeschooled, but they have some friends who are)
  • For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
  • Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord
  • The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
  • Sunny by Jason Reynolds (part of the Track series, but works as a standalone)
  • The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss
  • Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern (decidedly YA and not MG!)

Picture perfect families

A few picture books we’ve read recently started me thinking about the theme of families. Once I started making a list, one book quickly led to another – and this is not an exhaustive list! Many of these books include grandparents and extended family; a couple include foster parents (Just Like A Mama and A Family Is A Family Is A Family); one explains “what makes a baby” in a way that includes all kinds of families; and many are multicultural and inter-generational.

I have a separate list of books about when new siblings are added to a family, which I’ll share in a future post.

How families get started…

  • What Makes A Baby by Corey Silverberg, illus. Fiona Smyth
  • Nine Months by Miranda Paul, illus. Jason Chin

GrandparentsCover image of Grandma's Tiny House

  • Grandma’s Tiny House by JaNay Brown-Wood, illus. Priscilla Burris
  • Maud and Grand-Maud by Sara O’Leary, illus. Kenard Pak
  • Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins, illus. Sara Palacios
  • I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illus. Julia Kuo
  • A Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Liu, illus. Christina Forshay
  • Drawn Together by Minh Lȇ, illus. Dan SantatCover image of Mango Abuela and Me
  • Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina, illus. Angela Dominguez
  • Just in Case by Yuyi Morales
  • Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells
  • The Button Box by Margarette S. Reid, illus. Sarah Chamberlain

Mamas

  • Saturday by Oge MoraCover image of Saturday
  • Pecan Pie Baby by Jacqueline Woodson, illus. Sophie Blackall
  • City Moon by Rachael Cole, illus. Blanca Gomez
  • Me & Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Dads

  • Jabari Jumps by Gaia CornwallCover image of Jabari Jumps
  • Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illus. Vashti Harrison
  • The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl

Families together

  • A Family Is A Family Is A Family by Sara O’Leary, illus. Qin LengCover image of A Family Is A Family Is A Family
  • Home Is In Between by Mitali Perkins, illus. Lavanya Naidu
  • When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith, illus. Nicole Neidhardt
  • Just Like A Mama by Alice Faye Duncan, illus. Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
  •  All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O. Zelinsky
  • Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illus. Charlene ChuaCover image of Just Like A Mama
  • A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams (1983 Caldecott Honor)

Early readers/beginning chapter books

  • Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi, illus. Hatem Ali
  • Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy by Laurel Snyder, illus. Emily Hughes

I hope you discover something new on this list that you come to love and share. And please, feel free to add your favorite family books in the comments!

Let’s Talk About Feelings: Social-Emotional Learning Picture Books

Recently, a friend asked in a group text for books on helping kids identify and name feelings. We came up with several titles in our group, and I reached out to a couple of librarian friends for more suggestions of social-emotional learning (SEL) books. Kids experience all kinds of Big Feelings, and being able to identify and name them is an important skill. Books in the first category below cover a broad range of feelings; books in the second category focus particularly on feelings that can be overwhelming, like fear, anger, and sadness, and mCover image of The Rabbit Listenedany offer strategies to manage these strong emotions. Finally, there are a couple of nonfiction titles. If there’s a book you think belongs on one of these lists, please add it in the comments!

A range of feelings

  • Happy Hippo, Angry Duck: A Book of Moods by Sandra Boynton: This simple board book is great for babies and up – really exaggerate your facial expressions and tone of voice as you read.
  • The Way I Feel by Janan Cain: This also comes in board book format; it identifies and describes a number of key feelings
  • The Feelings Book by Todd Parr: Feelings are always changing – share them with someone you love.
  • The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld: When a child’s magnificent tower of blocks collapses, they don’t want to talk about it, or ruin someone else’s, or rebuild it just the same – they just want to be listened to.Cover image of I Feel Teal
  • I Feel Teal by Lauren Rille and Aimée Sicuro: A girl’s moods are rendered in different colors over the course of the day; the text encourages readers to let all their feelings through – “they’re the palette that makes you YOU.” (A librarian friend recommends My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss and The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar, both of which likewise pair colors and feelings.)
  • The Color Monster by Anna Llenas: A little girl takes a monster by the hand and helps it identify its feelings, leading to a feeling of contentment.
  • In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek: Readers enter a little girl’s heart through these heart-shaped die-cut pages, where each page turn reveals a different emotion inside.
  • Wild Feelings by David Milgrim: “Do you ever feel _____? …Of course you do. Everyone does.” Both kids and grown-ups experience the whole spectrum of feelings.Cover image of The Color Monster
  • When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith: On each page spread, the author shows a different act, and how it makes the people involved feel. The text includes questions, encouraging discussion.
  • Random House Book of Poetry for Children, edited by Jack Prelutsky: Sometimes poems use fewer words to say more. This collection has plenty of funny, goofy, nonsense poems, but covers most feelings too.

Sad/mad/scared/worried

  • Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer: A grumpy penguin figures out how to wash away a persistent case of the grumps. (For a slightly longer picture book on the same topic, try Sophy Henn’s Pom Pom Panda Gets the Grumps.)
  • The Bad Mood and the Stick by Lemony Snicket: Illustrates how a bad mood can move from one person to another through the way that people treat each other.
  • Swarm of Bees by Lemony Snicket: The swarm of bees represent anger; a beekeeper calms them down.
  • Ruby Finds A Worry by Tom Percival: The worry starts out as a little scribble, but as Ruby ignores it, it grows. It’s only when she sees another kid with their own worry and they talk about them that their worries shrink.Cover image of Ruby Finds A Worry
  • The Worrysaurus by Rachel Bright: A little worrysaurus goes into a worry spiral until he remembers his mom’s good advice and uses good coping tools to restore his equilibrium.
  • When Sadness Is At Your Door by Eva Eland: When a child opens the door to a large, amorphous, seafoam-green creature, it begins to follow them around. “Try not to be afraid of sadness. Give it a name. Listen to it. Ask where it comes from and what it needs.”
  • Dear Substitute by Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton Scanlon: A student is taken aback by the unexpected presence of a substitute teacher; throughout the day, she slowly adjusts to the change.
  • When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bangs: Sophie does get really angry, her anger rendered in intense bright colors – but she takes herself out of the situation and calms down by herself, without help, before returning, demonstrating that it’s possible to feel Big Feelings and recover.Cover image of When Sadness is at Your Door
  • The Big Angry Roar by Jonny Lambert: A lion cub needs to let his anger out, but none of the other animals’ suggestions work at first. Finally, the strategy of taking deep breaths, counting to ten, and making funny faces puts the lion cub in a calmer frame of mind.
  • The Angry Little Puffin by Timothy Young: In this comical story, a puffin stuck in the penguin exhibit at the zoo is deeply annoyed – until a little girl spots him and tells her dad all about puffins, and how they are different from penguins. Just being seen and understood changes his mood completely.
  • Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney: Mama Llama displays calm and patience in the face of Llama Llama’s drama. Her most powerful tool? Empathy. (She doesn’t want to do the grocery shopping, either!)
  • How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague: The comically oversize dinosaurs offer young readers a chance to critique and learn from their behavior.
  • Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri: This is a graphic novel for young readers about facing fears, with support and on their own.

NonfictionCover image of How Do You Feel

  • How Do You Feel? by Lizzy Rockwell: After an initial spread showing several kids on a playground, the subsequent pages zoom in on each child’s expression and identify their emotion; the final endpaper shows expressions labeled with their emotion.
  • What Are Feelings? by Katie Daynes: This short, lift-the-flap book from Usborne lets readers explore happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and worry
  • All About Feelings by Felicity Brooks: This Usborne title goes a bit more in depth, explaining how to recognize, manage, and talk about feelings; it also includes a note for grown-ups.

Mid-April, middle grade

It’s been a little while since I wrote about middle grade novels, which I continue to inhale because they are so good. Middle grade characters are at an age where they’ve got a little bit of independence, they’re figuring out their identities and their friendships and their feelings. They’re making mistakes, they’re learning, they’re having ideas, they’re testing boundaries. In short, middle grade is absolutely fascinating, and although publishing is still overwhelmingly white, it’s getting more diverse (and therefore more interesting) by the year. Reading fiction has always been one of my favorite ways to learn about history and about other cultures; I read nonfiction too, but it tends to be the stories in novels that stay with me. Here are a few recent (2019-2021) middle grade novels I’d love for more people to read:

Wash your hands and grab your aprons…

  • Cover image of A Place at the TableA Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan: Pakistani-American Sara’s mom runs a cooking club at school, and that’s where Sara meets Elizabeth, who’s Jewish, and whose mother is also studying for the U.S. citizenship exam. The girls orchestrate a study group of two for their mothers, and become friends in the process.
  • Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu: In this graphic novel, twelve-year-old Cici, who has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, enters a cooking competition, but is unsure if she can win by cooking Taiwanese food.
  • From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks: After receiving a letter on her birthday from her father in prison, Zoe strikes up a secret correspondence with him, enabled by her grandmother, and decides she must clear his name – all while winning a baking competition, and (maybe) making up with her best friend next door.

Now put on your dancing shoes (or not)…

  • Cover image of Lupe Wong Won't DanceLupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera: If “Chinacan/Mexinese” Lupe gets all As, she’ll get to meet her hero, pitcher Fu Li; but her A in P.E. is threatened when Coach announces that the next unit is…square dancing. Lupe goes on a campaign against it, roping her friends into helping her. Readers will see that it’s possible for kids like them to be activists and make change that’s meaningful to them. I did not get hooked immediately, but I kept going, and toward the end there was a part that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t talk for several minutes.
  • Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina: Anything new by Meg Medina is cause for celebration in my book, and Merci doesn’t disappoint. Adolescence keeps tossing Merci curveballs (“If I’m too young for it all, why is it happening anyway?”): her beloved grandfather Lolo has Alzheimer’s, her older brother is away at college, she’s stuck working in the school store with Wilson, and Edna Santos won’t shut up about the Heart Ball. Merci makes some big mistakes, but she still has the support of her family and friends.

On the road and Underground:

  • Clean Getaway by Nic Stone: Scoob’s dad cancels their vacation when Scoob gets in trouble at school, so when Scoob’s grandma swings by in a new RV, he hops in – and leaves his phone behind. But the road trip turns strange, with G’ma, who’s white, telling Scoob, who’s Black, about using the Green Book when traveling with his Black grandfather decades ago. Scoob learns some family truths before he returns home.Cover image of Planet Omar
  • Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian: Middle child Omar introduces his British Muslim family in a funny, relatable way. Sketches accompany the story, which includes getting lost in the Underground on a field trip with only the school bully for company.

New York and New Jersey:

  • Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable: Katie’s two best friends go off to camp, leaving her stuck in sticky New York, so Katie tries to earn the money to join them for the last week of camp. She gets a sweet cat-sitting gig for an upstairs neighbor, but begins to wonder…is Madeleine actually the supervillain known as the Mousetress? Super fun; I read it in one sitting.
  • Cover image of Like VanessaLike Vanessa by Tami Charles: Vanessa is elated when a Black woman is crowned Miss America for the first time, and a white teacher encourages her to participate in the first-ever Miss King Middle pageant, even though her skin is much darker than Miss America’s. Vanessa is skeptical, but Mrs. Walton isn’t the typical white savior, and she understands Vanessa better than Vanessa expects. Throughout, Vanessa writes in her diary, and works to solve the mystery of her mother’s absence.
  • Cover image The Year I Flew AwayThe Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold: Ten-year-old Gabrielle’s parents send her from their home in Haiti to live with relatives in New York, where she promptly makes an ill-advised deal with a witch called Lady Lydia. Gabrielle’s new friends – a talking rat called Rocky and a Latina classmate called Carmen – help Gabrielle regain what she’s lost. Readers willing to go with the flow will love this magical book about identity, language, culture, and what it means to be American.

Historical fiction (1930s, 1970s):

  • Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk: When the Great Depression hit, Ellie and her family move from a town to a mountain in Maine; Ellie and her father take to it, but Ellie’s mother and older sister haven’t adapted as well, and when Ellie’s father is injured and lies in a coma, the burden falls on all of them. Ellie takes the initiative to explore and meet others on the mountain – some of whom are already connected to her family in surprising ways. This immersive book reminded me a bit of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.
  • Cover image of Dawn RaidDawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith: Thirteen-year-old Sofia’s diary entries show a dawning awareness of anti-Polynesian racism in Wellington, New Zealand. She writes about McDonalds and go-go boots, the Polynesian Panthers and dawn raids (police raiding Pacific Islanders they suspect are “overstayers,” though the 60% of overstayers who are white are never targeted), and eventually makes a speech at her school recounting her first-hand experience. A time and place rarely written about for the middle grade audience in the U.S.

Poetry/Novel in verse:

  • The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park: A teacher asks the class to think about the one thing they’d save in a fire (assuming people and pets are safe). The class muses, then shares; grayscale illustrations of their rooms and possessions accompany the modern Korean sijo poetic style.
  • Cover image of StarfishStarfish by Lisa Fipps: Ellie doesn’t mind that she’s fat – she minds that almost everyone, including her own mother, bullies her for being fat. Luckily for Ellie, she has two good friends – one old, one new – and a skilled, kind therapist to help her realize a way forward in the world.

Pacific Northwest, Native American #OwnVoices:

  • The Sea in Winter by Christine Day: During a week of spring vacation in the Pacific Northwest, Maisie goes on a hiking trip with her family, but struggles with a healing ACL injury and with the idea that her dream future as a ballet dancer might not come to pass. Maisie’s family – mom, younger brother, and stepdad – are all Native American; both Maisie’s parents support her, gently explaining that “dreams change.”

Fantasy, Newbery Honor:

  • Cover image of A Wish in the DarkA Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat: Is life fair, or unfair? Characters’ beliefs change in this dreamy yet fast-paced Les Miserables-inspired Thai fantasy novel. Pong, born in prison, and Nok, daughter of the warden, start out on opposite sides but move toward similar conclusions. Absolutely original, hard to put down once you’ve started.

Many voices, many stories

As promised in my 2020 Reading Wrap-Up, a separate post about essay and short story collections.

Reading fiction – especially fiction about people whose lives are different from your own – builds empathy.

Meeting someone in real life can be the most effective way to break down prejudice against a group.

Even those who normally read voraciously have had trouble concentrating on reading, due to anxiety, trauma, or burnout this year.

How are these three things related? They all highlight the value of short story and essay collections, particularly anthologies. These collections have both breadth and depth: each piece of writing delves deep, and each has a different perspective. Together, each facet makes up the whole, and the reader comes away with more insight, more knowledge, more empathy.

Every person is only one person; we are all our own main characters. But we can do the work of learning about others’ lived experience, through fiction and memoir and essay. We cannot be considerate if what needs consideration is invisible to us; as Minh Lê writes in The Talk, “Obliviousness is not an excuse.” (My alma mater takes it one step further with its motto, Non satis scire – to know is not enough. And my husband’s alma mater continues with the motto Do something.) We cannot do something until we know.

So, for those who are short on time and/or attention, but who want to enjoy the reading experience again, delve deeply into others’ lived experiences, and hear from more and more varied voices, I recommend any and all of the following essay and short story collections.

Above: Cover images of A Map is Only One Story, Disability Visibility, and Come On In

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alice Wong – If I could choose a handful of required reading books for everyone, this would be one of them. “Stories are the closest we can come to shared experience….Like all stories, they are most fundamentally a chance to ride around inside another head and be reminded that being who we are and where we are, and doing what we’re doing, is not the only possibility.” -Harriet McBryde Johnson

A Map Is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary – The statue of liberty has one message for immigrants; our current media landscape and politics tell another. But, except for Native Americans, everyone in the U.S. is an immigrant or is descended from immigrants, and it is incumbent on us all to ensure that the doors that were open for us remain open for others. “Immigration is not, ultimately, the story of laws or borders, but of people.” -Introduction

It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race, edited by Mariam Khan – If you’re a Muslim woman, this book may be a mirror; the rest of us should be grateful for the chance to peer through this incredible bank of windows (see “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” by Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990). “I believe the role of the writer is to tell society what it pretends it does not know.” -Mona Eltahawy

The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love, and Truth, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson – Many of the pieces in this collection take the form of letters or poems to the authors’ children. The creators have different backgrounds and identities – African-American, Jewish, Cherokee, bilingual – but, as Duncan Tonatiuh writes, “Recognizing our similarities is a powerful way to combat prejudice.

The Moth and The Moth Presents All These Wonders, edited by Catherine Burns – The stories in these collections come from NPR’s “The Moth” radio show and podcast. The storytellers are wildly diverse in age, gender, race, class, socioeconomic status, career, geographic region, and any other way you can think of, but they have one thing in common: they can tell a story. “We live in a world where bearing witness to a stranger’s unfiltered story is an act of tremendous compassion. To listen with an open heart and an open mind and try to understand what it’s like to be them…takes real courage….And when we dare to listen, we remember that there is no ‘other,’ there is only us, and what we have in common will always be greater than what separates us.” -Catherine Burns

Come On In: 15 Stories About Immigration and Finding Home, edited by Adi Alsaid – The characters come from different places and have different experiences, every single one worth reading. “Don’t let anyone’s ignorance make you feel that you don’t belong somewhere. You belong wherever you are.” – Sara Farizan

Once Upon an Eid, edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – Joyful stories of teens celebrating Eid with their families and friends. It reminded me a bit of My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins, but there are so many Christmas books published in the U.S. and not nearly enough about Muslim holidays. “Special days start when you run toward them.” -S.K. Ali

Do you have short story or essay collections you’d like to add to this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

2020 Reading Wrap-Up

Well, 2020 was a year. (As Sloane Crosley wrote in The Clasp, Was there a worse compliment than the one with no adjective?”) At many times during the year, the only good news was news from the publishing world: wonderful new books from debut authors and illustrators, and eagerly- (impatiently-) awaited new books from established authors and illustrators.

As always, I read many new books this year, as well as many new-to-me books published in previous years. In this post, I’m going to highlight only my favorites published in 2020, because this was a tough year for authors and illustrators and I want to cheerlead their books as best I can. Betsy Bird at SLJ is doing a superb and even more detailed/themed job of this over on her blog; see “31 Days, 31 Lists.”

Here’s my 2019 reading wrap-up. And now, on to 2020’s reading:

Total number of books read: 619. Fewer than last year! But we did a lot of re-reading.

Partially read/started-didn’t-finish: 12. Some cookbooks, some poetry, some children’s books that were over the head of the kiddo so we only read sections, or I skimmed.

Picture books: 324. There were so many outstanding picture books published this year. We also re-read many of the picture books we discovered last year and the year before, but I’m focusing on 2020 titles especially:

  • My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
  • One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey by Henry Cole
  • Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez
  • Maud and Grand-Maud by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Kenard Pak
  • If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall
  • On Account of the Gum by Adam Rex
  • Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le
  • Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton
  • Lift by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat

Early readers: 31. I still love Laurel Snyder’s Charlie & Mouse with my whole heart. We also discovered Saadia Faruqi’s fabulous Meet Yasmin this year. (If you are in charge of a school library or children’s section of a public library and don’t have Yasmin – get them!!) Mo Willems’ perpetually popular Elephant & Piggie books are even more fun now that the kiddo reads, so we each choose a part (I’m usually Gerald) and read aloud together.

Chapter books: 21. Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory was a huge hit with everyone in our family this year, in audio and print. We also read Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace, more Ivy & Bean by Annie Barrows (with illustrations by Sophie Blackall), and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty.

Middle grade (some overlap with YA): 88. A few standouts published in 2020:

  • The Thief Knot (A Greenglass House Story) by Kate Milford
  • Show Me A Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
  • Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
  • The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
  • Wink by Rob Harrell
  • We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly
  • When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
  • Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (novel in verse)
  • Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
  • A Place at the Table and A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi (of Yasmin fame)
  • The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman
  • Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar
  • Three Keys by Kelly Yang (sequel to Front Desk)
  • Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap
  • King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender (National Book Award)

YA/teen (some overlap with MG): 41.

  • Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles
  • Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (graphic novel memoir)
  • Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X, With the Fire on High)
  • Parachutes by Kelly Yang
  • Again, Again by E. Lockhart
  • Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone

Adult fiction: 51 (including about 16 romance novels, because if there was ever a year where a HEA was required, it was this one).

  • The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
  • The Book of V by Anna Solomon
  • A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
  • Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • The Searcher by Tana French
  • The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
  • The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams
  • Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
  • Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2019)

Nonfiction: 35ish (some overlap with other categories; not including 9 how-to books; 87 total nonfiction books, including books written for children). A few standout 2020 titles in this category:

  • Having and Being Had by Eula Biss
  • How You Say It by Katherine D. Kinzler
  • You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy
  • The Genius of Women by Janice Kaplan
  • The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantú
  • The Black Friend by Joseph Frederick
  • The Story of More by Hope Jahren
  • How to Be A Conscious Eater by Sophie Egan
  • It’s Not About the Burqa, edited by Mariam Khan (2019)
  • Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
  • History Smashers: The Mayflower by Kate Messner (middle grade)

Graphic novels: 17. I heard New Kid author Jerry Craft speak (virtually, of course) and he mentioned that there are several storylines that are only depicted in the illustrations of his books, not in the text at all; careful readers (or re-readers) will pick up on those. Visual literacy is literacy! A few more 2020 titles to mention:

  • Stepping Stones (Peapod Farm) by Lucy Knisley (middle grade)
  • Snapdragon by Kat Leyh (middle grade)
  • Twins by Varian Johnson (middle grade)
  • When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson (MG/YA)
  • Go With the Flow by Karen Schneemann and Lily Williams (MG/YA)
  • Class Act by Jerry Craft (MG/YA)
  • Flamer by Mike Curato (YA)

Short stories/essay collections: 14. I have a whole separate post about this coming up, but to highlight just a few more 2020 titles:

  • Disability Visibility, edited by Alice Wong
  • A Map is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary
  • A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott
  • Why Did I Get a B? and Other Mysteries We’re Discussing in the Faculty Lounge by Shannon Reed
  • Come On In, edited by Adi Alsaid
  • Once Upon an Eid, edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed

Audiobooks: 15. We also do a lot of re-reading on audio – for example, the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker, narrated by Jessica Almasy; the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, narrated by Stockard Channing; the Dory Fantasmagory series by Abby Hanlon, narrated by Suzy Jackson; the Princess in Black series by Shannon and Dean Hale, narrated by Julia Whelan.

Screenshot of LibraryThing Author Gender pie chart

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: 132. And our reading life – and life-life – is so much deeper and richer for having these mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. More faces, more stories, more variety.

Five-star ratings: 17. (There are an awful lot of 4.5 and 4-star ratings as well.) Several of these were picture books, but there’s also a cookbook (Pastry Love by Joanne Chang, which I happened to have checked out from the library when everything shut down in March and kept – and baked from – for months) and Alix E. Harrow’s smashing new novel, The Once and Future Witches.

Re-reads: 8 according to LibraryThing, but I don’t have an accurate way of tracking this, other than to note “re-read” in my review. It was definitely more than eight, but they were mostly picture books, early readers, or chapter books. I did read Seanan McGuire’s In An Absent Dream twice this year – it’s my favorite of her Wayward Children series. And I’ll likely re-read Kate Milford’s Greenglass House or one of its companions between now and New Year’s, as is my December tradition – I just bought a copy of Bluecrowne.

None of us can be sure what 2021 holds, but I feel reasonably certain that whatever else, there will be books. Thank you to everyone involved in that process: the authors, illustrators, agents, editors, publicists, publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers.