Interview for Dragons Beware!

Image First Second

Dragons Beware! is the latest graphic novel of Claudette, a fearless girl who adventures with her younger chef brother, and princess best friend. What? You haven’t read Giants Beware! yet? Go! Go! Go!

I asked the creators of both books, Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre a few questions about the series and the latest adventure, and they were happy to oblige:

Image First Second
Image First Second

GEEKMOM: Claudette is a “leap before you look” type of character. Was there a particular person (or people) in your real lives that inspired her?

JORGE/RAFAEL: We both have lots of leap-before-they-look kind of people in our lives, but there wasn’t a single person who inspired Claudette. Her personality is somewhat inspired by the character Mafalda, an Argentinian comic-strip that both Jorge and I read as kids.

GM: I really enjoy the relationships between Claudette and brother, and best friend. Having a strong female lead in any story is breaking stereotypes, but to have good relationships with her brother (instead of being jealous or competitive with siblings) and enjoy her unashamed girly-girl best friend (instead of putting down “girly” things)—well, that’s just fantastic! Was it purposeful to create the series to be so different?

JORGE/RAFAEL: Thanks! We both like to put new twists on familiar archetypes. But we’re also trying to create interesting characters who we care about that. That means fleshing them out three-dimensionally and when you do that, you can avoid stereotypes. As for Claudette and Gaston: we love that their relationship is both that of siblings and friends–maybe it’s a Latino thing; we’re usually pretty close with our siblings.

GM: What were your favorite stories growing up?

RAFAEL: I loved superhero comics, Batman and Fantastic Four were my favorites. Anything by Kirby, especially in the 70s (Kamandi, New Gods, Mister Miracle).

JORGE: I loved Greek myths, superhero comic books, fantasy books, that sort of thing.

GM: Claudette’s father is a tough and capable guy who is also in a wheel chair. Have you gotten any feedback from wheelchair-bound kids and/or adults who have read the series?

JORGE/RAFAEL: We have not heard from any wheel-bound folks, however we both loved the idea of a warrior not impeded by the fact that his mobility is partially restricted. It makes him even more of a tough guy. And by the way, May is National Mobility Awareness Month.

GM:The dress up scene with Claudette in all the different outfits had my family and I cracking up–hilarious! Did you make yourselves laugh with the sketches? Were there outfits that didn’t make the final cut?

JORGE: I love the scene too. And it’s a pretty good example of how we work to entertain each other. The script only specified that Marie wanted to play-dress up and Claudette was not happy about that. And Rafael drew the really funny page of costumes.

RAFAEL: We always try to crack each other up first! If that works, we run it past our kids, and if that works, then we know we’re on the right track. As I go through the script I’m always trying to find ways to make it visually funny, to complement the funny dialogue that Jorge’s come up with.

GM: In this second book, each of the kids are moving forward in their own plot-lines: Claudette trying to get her father to officially train her, Marie and her suitors. But my favorite was Gaston and learning magic spells are like cooking. Was this planned from the first book? Do you already see where each of their personal stories are going next, or is that book to book?

JORGE/RAFAEL: We’re mostly figuring out the specific steps of each character’s journey as we go along. However, we have a pretty good idea where these characters end up. It’s the getting there that always takes time to figure out. How far do you let each character grow in each book—that’s a toughie. We had talked about Gaston using magic spells since that does feel related cooking. And Rafael drew the spellbook with the ingredients in the back of the book and that just felt right for Gaston.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Dragons Beware! is recommended for ages 5+.
GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

My Favorite Picture Books… Right Now

Julia's House for Lost Creatures. Image credit: First Second
Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. Image credit: First Second.

In the past, we used to pick our picture books willy-nilly at the library with the two kids in tow. Recently, I found out my library offers an online book-requesting service at no cost, so I can reserve titles and have them all bundled up and ready for me to pick up on my way home from work. Since my kids tend to pick books with little thought or care—though they love bedtime stories, they don’t seem to understand that time invested in a careful selection means better stories later on—pre-selecting the book myself has helped us hit a lot more “winners.” So, without further ado, here’s a list of my family’s favorite picture books right now.

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by author-illustrator Ben Hatke (pictured above)

We were already fans of Hatke after reading the graphic novel series Zita the Spacegirl, and this picture book did not disappoint. Julia is new in town, but she doesn’t remain bored for long when she adds a sign to her house: “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” Soon, all kinds of mythical creatures show up seeking shelter and chaos ensues. Good thing Julia’s got a few tricks up her sleeve.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. Image credit: Hachette Book Group
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. Image credit: Hachette Book Group.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by author-illustrator Dan Santat

Santat’s latest book made a big splash last week, after it was announced as a Caldecott Medalist. Beekle is the story of an imaginary friend who’s tired of waiting for his friend to imagine him, so he takes an adventure into the real world to find his friend all on his own. I just can’t decide which aspect of this book I like the best: the art or the story? The whole thing is adorable, right down to the close-up shot of Beekle’s square little bottom sitting in a tree.

Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great. Image credit: Disney-Hyperion
Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Image credit: Disney-Hyperion.

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by author-illustrator Bob Shea

The title alone was enough to sell me on this book, plus there’s a unicorn, tons of cupcakes, and sparkles all over the book cover. That’s so much win just on the cover. The story is equally fun and silly. Goat is pretty jealous of Unicorn, the new kid in town. Now all of Goat’s tricks are nothing compared to what that stupid Unicorn can do. But fear not, Unicorn is one friendly dude who keeps it real, and he thinks Goat is pretty cool himself. What could these enemies accomplish if they become friends?

What Do You Do With An Idea? Image credit: Compendium Kids
What Do You Do With An Idea? Image credit: Compendium Kids.

What Do You Do With An Idea? written Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom

I love this book. I mean, I love this book. The art is fantastic, which is obviously a running thread along my favorite books. In this story, a child gets an idea, represented as an egg. The boy doesn’t know what to do with his idea: He tries to ignore it, people make fun of him for it, etc. As the story goes, the egg gets bigger and bigger and starts to color the sepia-toned world around it. It’s just beautiful. It’s a simple and admittedly abstract concept, and my 4-year-old finished the book in disbelief. “An idea can’t do that,” she said, sounding almost insulted. It opened up the floor to a great conversation about how even a small idea can have a big impact on the world. Slow clap, drops mic.

“You Have to F*cking Eat” Is Funny Because It’s True

Image: Amazon

We all want to make sure that our children have plenty of healthy foods. Those things include fruits and vegetables and whole grains and all of the stuff the doctor asks about every time you bring your precious in for that yearly physical. But what we want, and the reality of what they eat, is sometimes miles apart. That’s what makes “You Have to F*cking Eat” so darn funny.

I once set myself on a mission to have my kids try a new fruit or vegetable every day. They were very little, and the going wisdom was to get them started young so they’d love good food forever. Whoever came up with the going wisdom never met my kids.

I tried, oh, how I tried, but after the umpteenth time that I watched them choke down healthy food, I gave up. That’s right. I just stopped and started making them things that they would eat in order to save my sanity.

Chicken nuggets, pizza, even hot dogs and all their evil whatever-it-is that everyone tells me they shouldn’t eat are all regular parts of their diet. Sometimes, even stuff they love they won’t eat, and I am totally okay with that, too.

Image: Amazon

That’s why when I saw the book, You Have to F*cking Eat, I feared someone had been spying on me during the great veggie-a-day experiment. But no, this is simply the sequel to Go the F*ck to Sleep.

Two of the great trials of parenting are getting your kids to sleep and getting your kids to eat and these two books turn those struggles into children’s books that are really for adults. Just look at all those happy, fuzzy animals on the cover eating while that little girl is clearly not interested. That’s my life, minus the happy, fuzzy animals, unless you count my daughter’s gerbil.

Go the F*ck to Sleep ($14.95) is available right now, while You Have to F*cking Eat ($14.95) can be preordered with a November 12th release date, just in time for Thanksgiving. You can take solace in its pages after you kids eat nothing of the feast save a roll and a piece of turkey so small it would leave a mouse hungry.

(via That’s Nerdalicious)

Megan Jean Sovern on Her Humorous, Heartfelt Middle-Grade Debut ‘The Meaning of Maggie’

Meaning of Maggie
Chronicle Books

One of the best middle-grade reads so far this summer is author Megan Jean Sovern‘s remarkable debut, The Meaning of Maggie (Chronicle Books, May). It is historical fiction—if you consider the ’80s history rather than “just a few years ago”—based on her own family’s experiences dealing with her father’s multiple sclerosis. And while it offers a window into how kids can cope with a parent’s debilitating illness, it is more about how family—with all its imperfections and irritations—can be the force that sustains us.

From the book’s opening lines, it’s clear that 11-year-old Maggie Mayfield is one of the smartest and most fascinating heroines to come along in ages. That’s not just because she asked for Coca-Cola stock for her birthday and still rises early with the alarm clock during summer vacation.

Maggie is a determined future President of the United States, repeat Student of the Month, and defending Science Fair champion. While her two older sisters subsist on a steady diet of  hairspray, makeup, and boys, clear-thinking Maggie sets out to fix her family’s latest problem: Dad and the way his arms and legs have fallen asleep.

Copyright Megan Jean Sovern

GeekMom talked with Megan about her powerful new novel, which Kirkus Reviews calls, “Smart, sensitive, sad, and funny.”

Question: The Meaning of Maggie is inspired by your own family and the ways all of you dealt with your dad’s illness. How much of Maggie is you? Is she the 11-year-old you were? Or wanted to be?

Megan Jean Sovern: Maggie and I share a similar story and the same weird eyebrows, and we both really like snacks. But the comparison sort of ends there. I’m meek and quiet, and Maggie is anything but. Maggie doesn’t give up. She goes to the edge of every earth to find what she’s looking for. She’s emotionally tough and filled to the brim with so many feelings, and I really admire that about her. I’m much more of an emotional wallflower.

Q: I loved every little thing about Maggie, from her planning to be President of the United States to her commitment to the science fair to setting her alarm clock even when school is out to avoid the “summer slide” in the morning routine. Also, lines like this:

“Usually I would have been beside myself about missing a day of school considering I didn’t even miss school when I was sick, which was seldom because I took twice the recommended daily dose of Flintstone vitamins. And even when a cold snuck past Fred and Wilma, I would still NEVER miss school.”

Could Maggie be any geekier?

MJS: Maggie could always be geekier. I mean there are whole realms of Middle Earth she’s yet to explore.

Q: While you dealt realistically with Maggie’s father’s MS, you were never heavy-handed. You managed to balance the seriousness of what she goes through with some delightful humor. How challenging was it to find that right balance? Did you find it hard to write for a young audience?

MJS: I wish I could say I went into a deep dark fire pit of emotion and fought my way tooth and nail to find the right balance of seriousness and silliness. But it was really natural to tell her story this way. In my own life, almost every sad and scary moment was punctuated by humor and grace, and that credit is owed entirely to my parents, who never let us forget to be funny. So it felt really honest to tell Maggie’s story the same way, and I hope young readers feel that.

Q: Maggie is saddled with two older sisters, Layla and Tiffany, who are into boys, their hair, their makeup, and more boys. The way you handle the differences between them is hilarious and heartwarming, as in this passage:

“I had almost liked hanging out with them all day. They weren’t so bad once you got over the fact that their lips were permanently locked to boys who probably didn’t floss.”

It made cheering for Maggie all the more fun. Were you inspired by protagonists from other children’s books when you created Maggie? Did you intend to make her such a smart, capable supergirl?

MJS: I intended to dress Maggie in many layers both literally and metaphorically. I wanted her to ruffle feathers and stand up for herself and never doubt her intelligence. I didn’t want her to be likeable and loveable on every single page. My favorite protagonists are always the ones who challenge you to stick with them even when they let you down. Especially when they let you down. You don’t give up on them because you know, deep down, they are going to pull through and it’s going to be magical. I hope readers know that Maggie is always going to find a way to pull up her bootstraps.

Q: For GeekMoms, like me, who are constantly searching out strong girls and meaningful stories for their kids, Maggie was a welcome discovery. What do you hope readers take away from Maggie’s story? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

MJS: I hope readers give Maggie a fighting chance to figure things out in her own time. She’s precocious, and full of might, and sometimes really hard to love—and that’s okay. I hope she reflects the good, the bad, and the really hungry moments of adolescence. From the very beginning, I set out to a tell story of survival: a story about an ordinary family handed an extraordinary challenge, and it doesn’t tear them a part. It doesn’t send them into a tailspin of dystopian misery. Rather, it brings them together, makes them stronger and even a little funnier.

Q: Spaceballs! Maggie and her dad are big fans, and I suspect you are too! What gives?

MJS: One of the main reasons this novel is set in 1988 is because that’s the year Spaceballs came out on VHS. It’s also set in 1988 because I didn’t want a modern Maggie easily solving the mystery of her dad’s illness with a simple Google search. But mostly I’m just really obsessed with Spaceballs, and I take every chance I get to mention ludicrous speed.

Between the Bookends at GeekMom

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

Once again, the GeekMoms have been reading an incredible variety of books this month. Keep reading to hear about a drug-filled near-future dystopia, a mouse detective, the “lost journal” of Assassin’s Creed‘s Blackbeard, and an academic introduction to the work of Joss Whedon. There’s even one book written by GeekMom’s very own Corrina Lawson. There’s something for everyone, so what are you waiting for?

Afterparty © Tor Books
Afterparty © Tor Books

Karen enjoyed Daryl Gregory’s latest novel immensely. Afterparty is a near-future science-fiction story about drugs, neural modification, and what happens when your brain goes haywire in very specific ways. The main character is Lyda, once a biotech millionaire, who we meet in a mental institution, where she and the angel that she now sees all the time reside. When she realizes that the drug that saddled her with a permanent messenger from God is getting out onto the streets, she takes her leave of the facility, so she and her lover (suffering from a different mental hiccup based on years of drug-enabled, high-level intelligence work) can hunt down the source. At times a road trip novel, at others a thriller, it is also a murder mystery, as Lyda comes closer to finding out the truth about who murdered her wife many years ago. But really, the strength here is in the characters, as is always true with Gregory’s books and stories. Every character is unique, quirky, damaged, motivated, and unforgettable.

Rebecca has been reading Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell, a great web series that has bound books you can buy. It is set in a world starkly divided between nature and technology. Two best friends are living at a school to develop their unique talents. Each is being drawn to opposite ends of the spectrum. The fourth book in the series brings in some teen angst and romance as the girls, Annie and Kat, grow up. The world and plot continue to thicken in fascinating ways, while the humor always weaves its way around every deep moment. Big recommendation for early YA through adult.

The Humans © Simon & Schuster
The Humans © Simon & Schuster

Helen‘s Twitter feed has been jammed with people raving about Matt Haig’s new novel, The Humans. It explores what it means to be human and how we navigate through life’s trials and turmoil, from the perspective of an alien who is masquerading as a Cambridge mathematician. There’s a very healthy dose of humor mixed in with musings on life, love, relationships, animals, mental illness, and peanut butter, making this a feel-good read that prompts you to consider the human condition and revel in the bittersweet paradoxes that life entails.

Tape by Steven Camden is both a love story and a tale of family connections, tied together by a cassette tape. Ryan records a diary onto tape after his mum dies, using it as an outlet for his feelings, especially about his first love. Twenty years later, Ameliah can hear a voice speaking on a old cassette, and it seems to be talking to her. Camden weaves both aspects of the tale together gently and although some twists are easier to see than others, they keep coming as the story progresses. There’s a lot of sadness in here, but it’s tempered by other aspects of the story, as we find out how things turned out for Ryan and the girl he loved.

Take Back the Skies, the debut novel by teenager Lucy Saxon, is an adventure starring skyship stowaway Cat, who is running away from her oppressive life with an abusive politician father. Set in Anglya, a sort of alternate reality Britain, children are disappearing and Cat uses her knowledge of the government to find out who is really in charge and what they are trying to do. She quickly discovers that the populace is being deceived, but by who and why? Although Helen enjoyed this fast-paced tale, some parts moved too quickly for her and seemed to jar a little. She would have liked Cat to spend more time building a relationship with the crew of the Stormdancer, as Cat seemed to settle in very quickly and become completely trusted almost straightaway. Some of the romantic moments also felt a little off-key, but that didn’t diminish the novel’s emotional payoff. Helen is looking forward to reading more from this promising young author.

Laura Dockrill’s new book for children, Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much, concerns the eponymous Darcy starting secondary school and negotiating the changes that this brings. Although Helen is a long way from being in the target audience, it certainly brought back some memories of that difficult time for her. Darcy is a great character, full of fizzy mischief, and also a talented writer who cares for her family and friends a great deal. She deals with a series of social setbacks in her own inimitable style, as she finds out what it’s like to be a small fish in a big pond.

Another great title about those early teenage years is The Bubble Wrap Boy by Phil Earle. Charlie is a social outcast at school, stigmatized for both his small size and his parent’s takeaway business. His overprotective mother embarrasses him, but is also keeping something important from him. Charlie thinks that he has found the way out of his lowly social position: skateboarding. But with a mum who won’t let him out of her sight and an even weirder best friend, can Charlie conquer the skatepark and win the respect of his schoolmates? Helen thoroughly enjoyed this funny and moving book. It covers all sorts of social issues, from bullying and fitting in to grief and guilt, with a real deftness of touch, so that you really root for Charlie. This is one not to be missed.

The Curse of The Brimstone Contract © Samhain Publishing Ltd
The Curse of the Brimstone Contract © Samhain Publishing Ltd.

For the youngest readers, Hermelin: The Detective Mouse by Mini Grey is a real treasure. Filled with Grey’s beautiful, playful illustrations, it tells the long and curly tale of Hermelin, a mouse who lives in a cheese box in an attic and is possessed of a range of skills as befits a rodent Sherlock. As the mysteries build up in Offley Street, it’s up to Hermelin to solve them and save the day. But will the residents of Offley Street be pleased with their savior when they realize that he’s a pest rather than a person? Helen’s daughter loves this book so much that she has taken to sleeping with it on her pillow. There is no higher praise indeed than that from a 4-year-old.

Kay read like a glutton Corrina Lawson’s (our Corrina!) The Curse of the Brimstone Contract. This Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery, with magic underpinnings, a touch of romance, and a polish of steampunk, was a big question mark for Kay before she started, but it definitely found a sweet spot. The story’s heroine, Joan Kreiger, is the kind of heroine Kay loves to see: strong and resourceful, but recognizing realities—and in the Victorian setting as a marginalized Jewish female professional, she has a lot of realities to face. When Joan’s custom designs become involved in several deaths, her fashion business and personal freedom are in jeopardy. She calls on Gregor Sherringford, a consulting detective, to investigate. He not only digs into the mystery, but also into the family secrets. Kay approved of Joan’s curiosity and steadfastness and the believable quandaries. Her special pleasure is villains with sympathetic motivations.

Changing pace, Kay stepped up to the challenge of The Word Exchange, a debut novel by Alena Graedon. This reading experience immersed Kay in a near-future world, where over-dependence on personal technology leads to loss of verbal acuity to the point where scholars and the folks on the street are relying on word vendors to define everything from “fork” to “paradox” to “ambivalence.” The main character, Alana, works with her father at NADEL, the leading American dictionary. When he doesn’t show for their regular dinner date, Alana sets out to discover where he is and how his disappearance relates to the loss of words and the threats to the existence of the dictionary. In this story, language itself becomes both a character and a weapon. Kay suffered along with the characters as they lost not only friends and family members, but the ability to communicate. Although the book was overly muted in its establishment phases, Kay enjoyed it more once all the elements were in play and multiple characters had stories to (try to) tell. This is not an easy book to read, but it is a worthy project for adult language lovers or dystopian and near-future fans.

Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag: Blackbeard: the Lost Journal © Insight Editions
Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Blackbeard: The Lost Journal © Insight Editions

An interactive journal inspired by a popular video game may seem like a weird choice for a sit-down read, but Lisa found the Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag-based book Blackbeard: The Lost Journal to be a surprisingly beautiful (and in some ways historically accurate) work. Lisa owns numerous publications on the subject of historic and fictional pirates, including at least six interactive books, so she is always skeptical of the next “novelty” book to come along. From its elaborate “pen and ink” drawings and watercolor images to its yellowed “authentic-looking” pages and removable “letters of marque” and other artifacts, The Lost Journal is an exceptionally crafted piece of eye candy for pirate lovers, regardless of their interest in the gaming world. The question is, however, is it worth actually reading? With author Christie Golden’s experience in the science-fiction and fantasy genres, the first-person, journal-style narrative is compelling, interesting, and wonderfully done. The attention to history and pirate lore, despite this being a fictionalized account, was also appreciated. Readers do not have to have played or even seen the related Assassin’s Creed game to enjoy this book, but it should also be a much treasured piece in the collection of those who love the game as well.

Fran just finished Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. The story is about Maia, a banished child who suddenly finds himself on the throne of a powerful empire and must navigate intricacies and intrigue while staying true to himself. It is a glorious, sweeping, richly layered story and she found herself cheering for more than one character. She is about to read A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, which is about a young pepper merchant who travels to a distant land and revels in its books and culture, before he learns of the struggles simmering beneath the surface. Fran is completely over the moon about a 2013 favorite read, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (see November 2013’s edition of Between the Bookends), winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Outlander © Dell Publishing Company
Outlander © Dell Publishing Company

Helene has been rereading (for the third time) the complete Outlander series, written by Diana Gabaldon. This latest reread was spurred by the impending June 10 release of the 8th book in the series, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. Helene doesn’t think she will ever tire of reading this series; it has the perfect mix of history, romance, science fiction, kilts, adventure, and mystery. Gabaldon is an incredible storyteller and Helene cannot wait to read the next installment.

On the other side of the storytelling spectrum is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Before starting the Outlander series again, Helene read all five books in Martin’s popular series. While Martin is amazing at describing every detail of a scene perfectly, Helene found herself incredibly disappointed in his storytelling abilities and wonders if even he knows where he is headed with the rest of the series.

Dakster has taken the dive into theMan of Steel novelization by Greg Cox, so she can prepare to watch the movie with her husband. A plus to reading the book before seeing the film is how much she is learning about the background moments of the movie that you don’t see on film. You learn how old Earth was when Kal-El was sent to Earth (hint…hint…it wasn’t anywhere close to when he landed) and the description of Kal in the capsule is much different than what her husband has described in the film. She’s excited to compare the two and see what was included in one and left out of the other.

Sophie has been reading mostly non-fiction over the last month, mixed in between a frankly terrifying volume of fanfiction—the result of sinking deeply and wholeheartedly into the Supernatural fandom. Away from tales of gay angels, she has been slowly working her way through The Fan Fiction Studies Reader from The University of Iowa Press. This collection of foundational texts from the growing field of fan studies focuses on fanfiction and the ways it can be interpreted. After only a few chapters, she is already approaching the genre in a new way.

On a similar note, she is also working her way through Reading Joss Whedon from Syracuse University Press; a collection of essays covering aspects of Whedon’s work. He is one of the most recognized figures in pop culture and his work has touched nearly everyone at some point in his career, making him and his body of work a fascinating subject for study. In particular, Sophie found that the comparison to Shakespeare in the book’s introduction shone a whole new light on Whedon’s casting choices.

Copies of certain titles were provided for review purposes.

Between the Bookends at GeekMom

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

This month’s Between the Bookends covers comical cats, Lemony Snicket causing despondency yet again, and a story of ordinary hardship in World War I.

Dead Americans © Chizine Publications
Dead Americans © Chizine Publications

Sophie has been reading quite a mixture of books this month. She is working her way through Pizza Bomber: The Untold Story of America’s Most Shocking Bank Robbery by Jerry Clark and Ed Palattella; the set reading for a Canvas Network course on FBI investigative methods; and recently finished You Are The Music by Victoria Williamson, which discusses how music affects us throughout our lives. She fell in love with Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a story about fan-fiction author Cath as she begins college, but her book club’s previous selection Fractured by Dani Atkins (soon to be re-published as Then and Always in the USA) impressed her much less. It had an intriguing premise: Protagonist Rachel wakes up in hospital to a world very different to her own, where dead people are still alive. However, the conclusion felt like a let down. She has just started this month’s choice, How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, and is enjoying it very much. Finally, she is reading Dead Americans and Other Stories by Ben Peek. This is a collection of strange, often disturbing short stories that include John Wayne visiting a Wal-Mart and the answers to a questionnaire set to the music of Johnny Cash. It’s all very surreal and very brilliant and if you love Neil Gaiman, then it’s right up your alley.

Another trip to the library with her son has resulted in yet another towering pile of preschooler books entering the house. Current favorites are Mr. Pusskins: A Love Story by Sam Lloyd and Gracie The Lighthouse Cat by Ruth Brown. Her son has also picked out his first Roald Dahl book and together they are making their way through The Enormous Crocodile.

When Did You See Her Last? © Little Brown
When Did You See Her Last? © Little Brown

Lisa still isn’t sure why she continues to read Lemony Snicket. She and her daughter’s venture through Series of Unfortunate Events left her despondent and grumpy for days, not that the author didn’t warn her several times. Currently, she is making her way through his four-part young readers series, All the Wrong Questions, and just completed its second installment, When Did You See Her Last? The series is a noir-ish sequel to his Unfortunate Events, focusing on the 12-year-old Snicket as a recent recruit to an investigative organization of which the reader knows very little. Like most of his works, this series is a frustrating read: All adults are inept know-it-alls, the surroundings are decrepit and dismal, and the situations never seem to resolve themselves (the cliffhanger at the end of the first book hadn’t even been resolved, when the second book threw a whole new mess of “wrong questions” the reader’s way). However, these books are also cleverly penned and filled with resourceful and smart youth (for the most part), as well as witty and fun. For young readers, they enhance deductive reasoning and vocabulary. For adults, they provide page-turning plots and a stream of “chuckle-to-yourself” one liners: “I do not like Honeydew melons,” Snicket quips.”I don’t see the point in them.” The adventure and the silliness, the inability to take things too seriously, and the promise that despite dire circumstances, the strong can endure, must be the reason she keeps reading.

Riot © Hodder Children's Books
Riot © Hodder Children’s Books

This month has seen Helen Barker reading some YA and children’s books. First up was
The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss, which Helen really enjoyed. Centering on the struggle of teenager Pearl to adjust to the loss of her mum, it’s a heartwarming tale about family and a mother’s love. Pearl is a great narrator, self-deprecating and self-centered in the way that only teenagers can be, but you can feel her grief flow through the pages. After Pearl’s mum dies in childbirth, she withdraws from her family and friends, and the book explains how she finds her way back to the people who love her. It’s not depressing or overly sad though, but instead shows how Pearl begins to recover slowly, with help from someone unexpected.

Next up was Riot by Sarah Mussi. Set in a near future Britain where society is on the brink of crumbling, activist Tia is thrown into danger when a peaceful demonstration that she has organized suddenly turns violent. Tia is EVE, an undercover computer expert and white-hat hacker who is trying to stop her father’s parliamentary bill, which would mean forced sterilization of the poor, unemployed, and imprisoned. When the police and government attempt to track her down, Tia goes on the run, aided by riot poster-boy Cobain. It has shades of Cory Doctorow’s fantastic Little Brother and Homeland books, in that the plot concerns young people using technology to organize resistance to government plans, as well as a government starting to erode the liberties and rights of the people. However, Riot doesn’t have quite the same depth of plot or Doctorow’s authentic feel, but it is a fast-paced and exciting story, and it’s also good to see a female main character who is so tech-savvy.

The Time Traveler's Almanac © Tor Books
The Time Traveler’s Almanac © Tor Books

With the centenary anniversary of World War I this year, Helen thought that Stay Where You Are And Then Leave by John Boyne (author of the brilliant The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) would be a perfect choice. The story follows young Alfie Summerfield, son of a London milkman, and his search for his missing father. Alfie’s dad signed up on the first day of the war, and left for France soon after. The letters he sends home become more rambling and incoherent, before they finally dry up altogether. Alfie’s mum says that his dad is on a special secret mission, but Alfie doesn’t believe that is the case. When Alfie discovers that the truth has been hidden from him, he sets off to put things right and bring his dad home. Boyne deals with the hardships of ordinary people during wartime with a real deftness of touch. Although the narrator is only a young boy, so many aspects of the war’s negative effects are shown through his eyes. The hospital and the way that the soldiers are treated is quite shocking, and shows not only how devastating and terrible the experiences were for the soldiers, but how far rehabilitation for our armed forces has come. It’s a good introduction to the war for younger readers, but adults will be able to read between the lines and gain even more from the story.

Fran is reading The Time Traveler’s Almanac, an anthology of time-travel stories edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Divided into handy reference sections including “Experiments,” “Reactionaries and Revolutionaries,” “Mazes and Traps,” and “Communiques,” the encompassing anthology features authors from Isaac Asimov and Ursula LeGuin to Kage Baker, Greg Egan, Vandana Singh, and Charles Stross. Fran’s found that she has to ration herself to one story a day in order to keep from being lost in time herself. She is also re-reading Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars in order to prepare for the final book in the trilogy, Steles of the Sky. It’s due out in early April, and she is very excited.

Copies of certain titles were provided for review purposes.

A Moomin Celebration

Tove simmar på Klovharun
© Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s The Moomins have a been a book translated into 44 languages, a comic strip, a cartoon, a stop action animation, a 3D film, an opera, and a theme park. This year Jansson’s beloved Finland will commemorate her birth with a variety of events and releases.

© Moomin Characters™

Her most famous work, and the reason I know her name, The Moomins, is set in the fictional Moomin Valley in the forests of Finland. The three main characters, MoominPapa, MoominMama, and MoominTroll are a family of Trolls who are accompanied on their adventures by curious friends such as Mymble, Little My, the Hemulen, and Snork Maiden. Not to be left behind by technology, The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My was the first book to be adapted for the iPad. MoominPapa at Sea remains my favorite, but her early work went largely unnoticed until 1951 when it was translated into English.

For those of us who can’t join in the festivities in Finland, I thoroughly recommend the original books:

  • The Moomins and the Great Flood 1945.
  • Comet in Moominland 1946.
  • Finn Family Moomintroll 1948.
  • The Exploits of Moominpappa 1950.
  • Moominsummer Madness 1954.
  • Moominland Midwinter 1957.
  • Tales from Moominvalley 1962.
  • Moominpappa at Sea 1965.
  • Moominvalley in November 1970.

With the addition of five picture books:

  • The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My 1952.
  • Who Will Comfort Toffle? 1960.
  • The Dangerous Journey 1977.
  • An Unwanted Guest 1980
  • Songs from Moominvalley 1993

For more details on the life and times of Tove Jannson, there is a wonderful piece on the BBC website about her, revealing things I never knew. For instance, the first Moomin character was based on Immanuel Kant, and was the result of an argument with her brother! Before The Moomins, her first published work was Sara and Pelle and the Octopuses of the Water Sprite, an encouragement for young voices everywhere, it was published when she was just thirteen.

She wrote fascinating stories and led a fascinating life. At two and four years old, my sons have already been exposed to the Moomins through the various board books available. We have Moomin’s Little Book of WordsMoomin’s Little Book of Numbers, and a mini set introducing the characters. As my eldest son starts Kindergarten this year, it won’t be long before I begin introducing him to the stories I know and love.

If you enjoy Shel Silverstein, Edward Gorey, or Joan Aiken, you will thoroughly enjoy Tove Jansson and her Moomins.

11 Young Reader Picks for National Reading Month

Some of our Young Reader Picks. Images courtesy of their respective publishers.

As children grow and become more confident readers, the choice of books can become bewildering. Children’s publishing is luckily in a vibrant and exciting place at the moment with plenty of fantastic new books being released each month, but it can be difficult to find the right book to inspire and engage young readers as the choice is so vast. In my day job as a teacher of 8-9 year olds, I know the importance of helping children to find the right book, and I scour thrift stores and jumble sales looking for good books for our class library. Local libraries are great for book advice too, as well as good bookshops.

To help point you in the right direction when choosing books for your young readers, the GeekMoms have come up with these books as being great for independent readers, up to around grade 5 (or year 6 in the UK). They would also be wonderful read aloud at bedtime to younger children, who can’t yet manage to read them on their own.

Tales don’t come much taller than Fortunately, The Milk by the wonderful Neil Gaiman. I’m slightly biased having heard him read an extract from this last August, but it’s a very funny story of what happens to Dad when he takes a long time to come back from the shops with the milk needed for his children’s cereal. Time travel, ancient gods, aliens, pirates, and dinosaurs are just some of the things that the harried father has do deal with while trying to provide his children with their breakfast. Older children will be able to read this adventure independently, but it also made a fantastic bedtime story for our 4-year-old. I haven’t seen the US edition, which is illustrated by Skottie Young, but the UK edition has lovely illustrations by Chris Riddell. — Helen Barker

Older children with a sense of adventure will love Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. This is the first of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series about Torak, a boy who lives in a hunter-gatherer society 6,000 years ago. When tragedy strikes in the opening pages, Torak has to find out where he fits in the clan society while bonding with a wolf cub. The author researched wolf behavior and New Stone Age culture and technology, and this research is clearly seen in the attention to detail in the story. The real strength however is in the exciting storytelling and rich language. As well as buying the book, you can also listen to an audio book version for free, read by the great Sir Ian McKellen, no less. — Helen Barker

Oliver’s parents spy the Wandering Isles. Illustration by Sarah McIntyre. © OUP

More adventure awaits in Oliver and the Seawigs, by Philip Reeve and illustrator Sarah McIntyre. For younger readers than Reeve’s Predator Cities/Mortal Engines series, it describes the adventure of Oliver as he tries to rescue his explorer parents from wandering isles, despotic teenagers, and sea monkeys. Yes, sea monkeys. The story is jaunty and the characters endearing, and the whole thing is set off beautifully by the lovely nautical illustrations. I bought this for my daughter for Christmas and she made us read it to her at bedtime three times in a row! — Helen Barker

A girl called September is our heroine in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. It’s a fantastical tale of library wyverns, fairies, and other magical creatures experienced by September, who is thrilled to have been pulled from her boring home life into the magical world. However, as expected, things are not what they seem, and soon it is time for September to make difficult decisions. — Helen Barker

My class of 8-year-olds loved Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Ran Away From the Circus (and joined the library) by poet A.F. Harrold. Fizzlebert longs for normalcy away from the circus, and when the opportunity arises to join the library, he takes it. Unfortunately this starts a chain of events that leave him in a dangerous position, with possibly no way to return to the circus. Children will enjoy this madcap adventure, with a cast of circus characters and some rather creepy pensioners. — Helen Barker

A page from My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, showing Polly Dunbar’s lovely illustrations.
© Candlewick

David Almond has a book to suit almost every reader. For older children, the tale of Skellig is full of mystery and wonder. Younger children will enjoy The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas or My Dad’s a Birdman, both of which are fun, but don’t pull their emotional punches. Almond’s work walks a fine line between fantasy and truth, and there are so many layers that older children will be able to read between the lines and get even more out of the stories. — Helen Barker

An unusual mother/daughter writing team known as Zizou Corder came up with the trilogy of books that start with Lionboy. Set in the near future, when Charlie’s parents are kidnapped he must use all of his skills, including the ability to talk to cats, to track them down. Charlie embarks on a great adventure, bonding with a group of circus lions and attempting to find his parents. — Helen Barker

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd is a great book for older independent readers. It centers around Ted, a boy with Asperger Syndrome, who has a mystery to solve when his cousin disappears while riding on the London Eye. Ted is such a great character, and his Asperger Syndrome is handled in the narrative in a sensitive way. — Helen Barker

Got a Phineas and Ferb fan in the house? I know what they’re doing today! The Book of Doof, with comics written by Scott Peterson, features the hapless villain in a variety of hilarious stories, comics, and tips for finding an arch-nemesis. Kids who are fans of the strangely lovable Heinz Doofenschmirtz will find a lot to love in this fun book. — Kelly Knox

If this has whetted your appetite for brilliant books, you can find more recommendations in our 2013 Caldecott BooksSeven Books British Kids Love10 Picture Books to Inspire Imagination, and 17 Picture Book Picks for National Reading Month posts.

 GeekMom received some of the books on this list for review purposes.

Between the Bookends at GeekMom

Book stack photo: Flickr user austinevan
Book stack photo: Flickr user austinevan.

Between the Bookends returns for 2014 with ghosts in Malaysia, murder and intrigue in Westeros, and a whole lot of My Little Pony!

Sophie has been reading a lot over the past few weeks. She just finished Dan Brown’s Inferno, the January choice at her book club, and rather enjoyed it despite its obvious flaws. She is currently working her way through You Are the Music by Victoria Williamson. It’s described as “exploration of how music makes us who we are throughout our lives.” She’s also (very) slowly progressing through Wanting to Believe: A Critical Guide to The X-Files by Robert Shearman, reading the section for each episode after watching it as part of her complete series rewatch.

With her young son, she is reading My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Volume One by Katie Cook and Never Underestimate a Hermit Crab by Daniel Sean Kaye. The latter is a wonderful series of cartoons about the secret lives of her favorite crustaceans. They also just finished a beautiful edition of T.S. Elliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

Kelly Knox and her daughter recently stumbled upon The Elements of Harmony, a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic guidebook. The companion to the TV show is packed with an episode guide, concept art from the show creator, character descriptions, and even song lyrics. (Kelly and her daughter have been happily singing “A True, True Friend” together.) Official companion books can be hit or miss, but the behind-the-scenes tidbits and close look at the world of Equestria make this one a must-read for Pony fans young and old alike.

Rebecca is currently re-reading a book for a book club she is hosting: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo is a most unconventional romantic ghost story. It is set in the Chinese society of Malaysia during British colonial times, and she finds that setting and culture fascinating! The main character is Li Lan, who was brought up by her widower father, who seems to be more interested in sharing his love of books and maps with his daughter than keeping her in high society. Although that sounds like a great childhood to us now, once she becomes a grown woman, a good marriage is the only way to keep her family finances intact.

A marriage offer comes in from a wealthy family for Li Lan to become a ghost bride—a rarely used practice, where a recently deceased young man is officially married to a living woman. She gains all the status and money of marrying him for real, but is a widow forever (with no children or society life).

That premise was interesting enough for her, and then the dead fiance starts courting Li Lan in her dreams. And he’s a total jerk! Her foray into the Chinese afterlife, and the other people she meets, is a wonderful tale where the setting is just as important as any character in the book.

The last few months have seen Helen go into a reading frenzy, aided by many hours of having to feed her baby. The Kindle app on her new phone is the best thing that ever happened to nighttime feeds. The past six weeks have seen 20 books finished, chosen mainly by what’s on offer in the Kindle store. The main highlight has been George R.R. Martin’s epic A Game of Thrones, which Helen began knowing nothing about and, like many others, is now slightly obsessed by. She’s half-way through a dead tree version of A Clash of Kings now, enjoying the richly detailed world, as well as the excitement and intrigue of such a long-running saga. In a related vein is Rod Rees’ Demi-Monde quartet, including similar levels of sex and violence to Westeros, but this time set in an alternate reality and also concurrently within a sophisticated computer simulation. It also includes a large cast of characters, any of whom might come to a sticky end at any time, but also raises issues of consciousness, morality, and what it means to be human.

On a completely different tack was Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, which didn’t include any gruesome decapitations or battles, but did include mysteries and ancient secret societies instead. It was a quick and easy read, but no less enjoyable for that. After all that fiction, next up is Quantum by Manjit Kumar, which delves into the history of the science of quantum mechanics, and looks at how these theories were debated and discussed by scientists such as Einstein and Bohr. Whether Helen’s sleep-deprived brain can handle this remains to be seen, but she thinks it’s worth a try.

Interview: A Librarian Shares Ways to Grow and Cultivate Strong Readers

Children in the Library
Photo courtesy of iStock

A recent study links children’s reading habits with strong school performance—that those who read for pleasure show an overall higher performance in math as well as subjects like spelling and vocabulary than those who rarely read. So what exactly is “reading for pleasure” when it comes to young children? And why do some kids plop down on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon to read a book, while others run from the notion like it’s animal sacrifice?

I decided to reach out to a school librarian, someone on the front lines and observing young readers on a daily basis. I interviewed Tiffany Whitehead, a library media specialist at Central Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who also blogs over at Mighty Little Librarian.

Geek Mom: What are some of the traits you see in kids who are voracious readers at your school? What characteristics do these kids tend to have that reluctant or less-avid readers do not?

Tiffany Whitehead: My most voracious readers are very confident in their reading interests and preferences, sometimes to the extreme that it’s difficult to get them out of their reading comfort zone. For many of them, their preference is toward science fiction and fantasy. They love books (especially books that are part of a series) that allow them to escape to a totally different world. Less avid readers definitely lack this awareness of their reading preferences. In fact, many reluctant readers think they know what they like to read best (for example, they’ll say, “I like to read mysteries”), but in reality they very rarely even complete a book in the genre they think they like best.

GM: How can parents cultivate young readers? What are some “dos” that parents can employ to encourage their children to read for pleasure? (Books that have movie or video game tie-ins? Starting a book club with friends?)

TW: I think the best way that parents can cultivate young readers is to expose them to an abundance of reading materials. Bring them to libraries and bookstores and let them explore. Encourage them to keep trying new books until they find something they really enjoy, then use that to match them to new books. Take advantage of online resources like Story Snoops [which offers children’s book reviews from a parent’s perspective; search tools help identify fiction for all types of readers] to look for books that you think your child will enjoy and have conversations with them about what they’re reading. But most importantly, make sure that they always have access to lots and lots of books!

GM: What are the “don’ts” that can smother a child’s joy of reading? (Making kids reach a certain quota of books over the summer, making them read books that are above their reading level, mandatory home book reports about what they are reading?)

TW: Don’t force a child into reading a book they don’t enjoy. If they start a book and reading it seems to be painful, encourage them to find something else. Take the reasons that they give for not liking a book (it’s too hard to read, not enough action, confusing because it takes place in a fantasy world) and use that to help them find something different that they may like better. Instead of forcing them into any kind of book regimen like home book reports, reading books on a certain level, or reading a particular number of books, talk with them regularly in a positive tone about what they’re reading. And again, make sure they have plenty of exposure to lots of different books!

GM: Reading for pleasure can be summed up, in my mind, as engagement. When kids are excited about something and want to engage with it—go deeper in their learning and understanding—then they pick up books and material about it. They want to become the experts. But in the world of standardized testing, of nonstop social media, of gaming, their time for reading is limited. What does “reading for pleasure” mean to you? And is it easy for kids to do these days?

TW: To me, reading for pleasure means that you are getting satisfaction from the act of reading. For those kids who are avid readers, they’re always going to make time for reading because it’s what they love. However, for most kids, time has to be set aside for reading. At first it may not be a pleasurable experience because they would rather be doing other things, but if the moment happens where they forget about everything else and find themselves absorbed in the book they are reading. . . THAT is reading for pleasure! For this to happen, we have to set aside time every day for students to read, both at school and at home.

GM: One of the study’s findings is that children who were read to regularly by their parents at age 5 performed better in tests of math, vocabulary, and spelling at age 16 than those who were not read to. What are the benefits for continuing to read to your child, even when they have the ability to read independently? (My two sons, ages 8 and 11, still love to be read to at bedtime, even though they regularly read on their own.) Do you encourage kids to read on their own by a certain grade? When is the cutoff?

TW: Reading aloud to children is so important for a number of reasons. It gives them a reading role model, helps to build fluency by listening to a fluent reader, and it’s a social act as well. Kids do need time for independent reading, but I don’t think there’s a cutoff for reading aloud. Last year at our school, we did a One Book, One School initiative where every teacher (6-8 grades) read Wonder by R.J. Palacio aloud to their students. This was a really powerful force in our school to be able to have school-wide conversation about this book, and the kids LOVED being read to. . . they would beg the teachers to keep going!

GM: What is the ideal scenario you can imagine for getting kids fired up about books? Hook them on series vs. Newbery winners vs. pop-culture tie-ins?

TW: I don’t think there’s an ideal scenario that will work for all readers. Different kids have different interests, and we need to be aware of that. I find that having conversation, getting to know my readers’ interest, and following up when they return a book works for most students. Providing as many opportunities to read, interact with, and talk about books as possible is the way to go. From fun book displays to book challenges to virtual book clubs, I do everything I can to provide students with chances to get excited about books and reading. Building a culture that supports and encourages a love for reading, either at home or at school, is definitely worth the effort!

What do you do?

Thank you, Tiffany, for sharing your expertise. And for GeekMoms out there, what do you do to encourage reading for pleasure at your house? What are some ideas that work for your children?

Two of our three kids regularly read for pleasure, while the third tends to pick up a book only under heavy coercion. Here are a few ideas that we’ve tried, and we’re using them again on our reluctant reader:

  • Parental buy-in: We often have Mom and Dad reading the same book either ahead of time or at the same time, so Junior doesn’t feel like he’s doing the work alone. It also generates great conversations around story, plot, and characters.
  • Book talk: We talk about books other kids are reading, books Mom and Dad are reading, books that are popular right now and why. And to make things especially tempting, we talk about books that Junior might not be ready to read yet. That always seems to catch his attention.
  • Movie tie-in: If we know Junior might have an interest in the movie, we read the book first with the promise that we will watch once we’ve read the book.
  • Reward system: Bribery is definitely in our parenting toolbox. If a dollar or a trip to the bakery motivates Junior to read a book, we’ll do it.
  • The fairies left it: Sometimes if it seems Mom and Dad are pushing a title, Junior rejects it. But if the books are just lying around the house and Junior “discovers” them on his own, he’s much more likely to read them.

Seven Books American Kids Love (That This Brit Never Knew Existed)

Image: Sarah Pinault
Image: Sarah Pinault

A recent behind the scenes discussion at GeekMom about children’s literature prompted fellow GeekMom Sophie to introduce many of our writers, and readers, to the children’s books that are invariably read by British children, and that British parents have memorized! On the flip side of this, having grown up in England only to be the mother of American children, I have been introduced to a whole host of adventures that I had never been exposed to before. Certain books that are considered classic over here, were completely new to me when I started having children at 28. So if you have international friends, this small selection might be just the perfect birthday present you are looking for:

Where the Wild Things Are © Harper Collins
Where the Wild Things Are © Harper Collins

Where the Wild Things Are – Written in 1963 by Maurice Sendak. This book permeates American childhood. It was one of the first Christmas gifts that my eldest son received when he was three months old, and it was the theme of my youngest son’s first birthday party. Max, a mischievous young boy, is sent to his room. Once there, a forest grows and he sails away to an island full of monsters where he reigns as king of the wild things. It is a story of pure imagination that begins with trouble and ends with a mother’s love. It is what I hope happens to my son when he is being a wild thing! Continue reading Seven Books American Kids Love (That This Brit Never Knew Existed)

Review: The Woolyhoodwinks vs. the Dark Patch

All Images:

If you like Shel Silverstein or Edward Lear, then chances are you are already familiar with The WoolyhoodwinksThey’re five characters named Ozard, Ludic, Reddy, Junco, and Fluke, who live in The Great North Woods. In The Woollyhoodwinks: vs. The Dark Patch, their world is changed when a piece of the sky falls down and the dark patch it creates begins to consume their tranquil existence.

Each wink has a different dominant characteristic, and even though the story is simple, you can see how that characteristic can be a bad thing or a good thing depending on how it is acted or not acted upon. It is the traits of the Winks and their responses to the dark patch that drive the story. Ozard approaches things scientifically, Ludic is a bard, Reddy has some peculiar multiple personality issues, Junco has an obsessive focus on things and Fluke is afraid of the dark. There is certainly something for a wide variety of children to identify with.

This book is highly stylized in terms of both illustration and narrative. Continue reading Review: The Woolyhoodwinks vs. the Dark Patch

Actor Jason Segel to Become a Children’s Author?

Jason Segel gets a little crazy in I Love You, Man. Image: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures.

We’ve seen a lot of famous people get deals for children’s books before, but most of them actually have kids. Now, actor Jason Segel will break into the business, with a new series for Random House.

Maybe dating someone with a kid counts?

Either way, Random House Children’s Books just announced plans to publish Nightmares!, a new fiction series geared towards middle-schoolers. The deal is for a trilogy and a companion book, which will focus on a group of kids trying to save their town from nightmarish creatures that have slipped into the real world.

Continue reading Actor Jason Segel to Become a Children’s Author?

Dr. Seuss at Pottery Barn Kids

My daughter's bedroom.
My daughter’s bedroom. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

I grew up in a French-speaking town so Dr. Seuss was just not part of my childhood like it is for many kids in the US.

When I moved to California, I took a job as a mother’s helper while I attended college. One evening, their 5-year-old son asked if I could read to him a Dr. Seuss book. It was my first ever exposure to Dr. Seuss so I didn’t know what to expect. At the time, my English was not so great and my tongue stumbled on every other word throughout the book. All the repeating sounds, unusual sentence structure, silly made-up words, and tricky tongue-twisters were a foreigner’s nightmare. The little boy kept asking me to “read it faster! faster!” Meanwhile I could hear the parents in the next room dying of laughter at my train wreck of a reading session.

I have to admit it was pretty funny, but I still labeled Dr. Seuss as evil in my head and dismissed his books into the category of Things I Most Definitively Do Not Like, where it stayed for a very long time.

Then many years later I had a baby. Through gifts, Dr. Seuss sneakily made its way into my home. I read a few of the books with a fresh perspective and could not believe how fantastic and non-evil they really were after all!

My husband and I strive to expose our daughter to shows and books that demonstrate facts and the scientific method, without necessarily being educational per se. We love Curious George and the Cat in the Hat very much for that. We watch a little bit of Curious George on PBS almost every day, and own most of the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library books. Both provide a huge focus on problem solving (most often through hypothesis testing, analogy, trial and error, and divide and conquer) and critical thinking skills (like evidence through observation, data collection and interpretation, reasoning within and beyond given assumptions, and clear communication without explicit language skills).

Plus, they’re just really fun!

When we bought our first home a few months ago, it was the perfect opportunity to upgrade our toddler from her nursery room to a big girl room. We browsed around the internet to decide on a theme for her new room, and were happy to find two of our favorite characters at Pottery Barn Kids: Cat in the Hat and Curious George.

Curious George Bedding.
Curious George Bedding. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

If I was a normal person, I might have chosen one or the other. But because I have strange commitment issues with seeing the same bedding every single day, I bought both so we could switch back and forth. I also bought the Pottery Barn Kendall bed while it was on sale.

Then I waited for my items to be delivered and figuratively cried a little about how much money I had just spent. It was my first Pottery Barn purchase, mostly because I never before had the guts to spend that much money on home goods. However, I had made a couple of cheap bedding set purchases at discount stores that were definitively not even worth their discounted price, so I decided it was time to bite the bullet. I took a leap of faith into the Pottery Barn kingdom-o-mania. I wanted to buy a high quality item once and be done with home good purchases for a long time.

My one lucky break: I also received a Cat in the Hat quilt from Pottery Barn Kids to review for GeekMom. Now, I could review only the quilt — which was lovely in every possible way — as I was intended to do. However, I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with all of the items I also purchased, the bed especially. Everything is gorgeous, the bedding sets are holding up wonderfully, and the white wood bed feels like soft silk. And of course, my daughter is delighted to see her favorite characters on her bed.

Dr. Seuss Bedroom 2
Dr. Seuss Bedroom. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

Color me a fan. I know not everyone can afford the luxury of purchasing high priced home goods for the sake of saving themselves a little time and sanity, and I would still recommend waiting for a sale to the extend that it might help take the plunge. Nevertheless, I am thrilled with my purchases, all things considered.

My daughter walking around with her Cat In The Hat quilt.
My daughter walking around with her Cat In The Hat quilt. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

And if that’s not geeky for you, Pottery Barn Kids also offers bedding with: Batman, Star Wars, and Spider-Man. You want to know the best part? They even come in sizes up to a queen bed. My daughter doesn’t have a queen bed, but I do! Clearly, Pottery Barn is saying it’s ok for adults to own these sheets too. Clearly.

How Childhood Books Make Us Who We Are

Children’s inner lives may not seem all that complicated. But they are, even if kids may not fully be fully aware of the complexities they’re dealing with until they’re much older. That’s one reason it’s hard for them to talk with their parents about ways they are gaining strength, inspiration, and a strong sense of self.

Their favorite books offer a clue.

Kids are drawn to stories that resonate with challenges they’re facing. Authors know that kids seek out tales that present certain compelling themes. Speaking one’s truth, overcoming adversity, enduring tragedy, relying on wit or cleverness, making a sacrifice, finding a kindred spirit, gaining new powers or knowledge—this is the stuff that translates into purposeful meaning for the young reader.

To understand what our kids are going through as they grow up, it helps to look back at the pivotal books that made a difference during our own formative years. We here at GeekMom have been discussing exactly that.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I (Laura) am everlastingly grateful for The Secret Garden.

It provided solace at a time when none of the well-meaning adults in my life could ease my fears. After several deaths in the family I asked questions about the beginning of the universe, the reasons for existence, and the purpose of death. But the limited answers I was given only fueled my angst. I wasn’t aware why The Secret Garden was such a comfort. I only knew that reading and rereading certain passages helped ease my childhood insomnia.

It wasn’t until years later when I flipped through the pages of my old copy of The Secret Garden that I understood. I was surprised by what else I found in those pages. This book is connected in so many ways to the life choices I’ve made. As I wrote in a recent article, I’m convinced this book saved me.

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

No. I don’t think I had the words to express how profoundly the book restored something that seemed lost to me. I’m not sure I do now either.


Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander

Ellen says that she read this series over and over, starting when she was 11 or 12 years old. She notes,

“While I didn’t realize it at the time, these books had a profound influence on me. Particularly the bit about how Taran, our hero, is galled by his lowly title of Assistant Pig-Keeper. As a nerdy little overachiever, I was galled by it, too, on Taran’s behalf. He was always doing heroic and brave things — sometimes ineptly, sure, but he was a kid. And I wanted to see him get rewarded for his deeds — I wanted to see him elevated to greater status. That doesn’t happen until the very end of the series, and by that time, it’s obvious that glory comes with heavy responsibility.

That’s the lesson, or part of it, and it has affected my viewpoint on life ever since, reminding me of the value of humility and the fact that the value of a person exists apart from the sum of his/her accomplishments.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“I don’t recall discussing this particular lesson with my parents — mostly because I didn’t exactly realize I was learning it at the time. I do remember getting so upset by the death of a major character that I had to wake my mother in the middle of the night (I was up late reading under the covers, of course) to help me deal with my overwrought emotions. That’s another lesson I learned from the books — the emotional impact fiction can have — and it certainly pushed me along the path to becoming a fiction writer myself.”


The House With a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs

Amy is so fond of this book that she says,” Whenever I see that book, even now, I want to hug it to my chest. I can’t wait to read it with my kids when they’re old enough.”  She explains,

“The story follows a boy named Lewis Barnavelt who goes to live with his uncle, who he discovers is a wizard (long before Harry Potter, which I would have loved as a kid). I think my close connection with this book came because of seeing Lewis as a pudgy, misfit kindred spirit. I could relate to him trying to find connections with new people, and wanting to try his hand at something powerful, like magic spells.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“I don’t remember doing so, but I now talk about it often with other parents, especially when talking about books in the Harry Potter genre.”


A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Delphine, who describes herself as “mostly built on books,” says,

“This book is the reason I grew up seeing myself as a princess, and still do, in a way. Not a silly-pink princess. But not necessarily a kick-ass princess, either. I learned that being a princess was mostly a question of moral dignity, the way you act, the way you treat other people, the way you fight and endure, the way you keep your head held high.

That’s what I tried to do, since then.

That’s not easy. Even if you succeed, not every person likes it. Some think you’re too perfectly civilized to be true and dislike you for that reason. Some are intimidated. But that happens a lot to Sara, the young heroine of the book, too, so I could understand and go on using her as a guideline.

Little Princess is a book from the 19th century. I don’t believe 19th century’s children books’ values are all good and accurate for our time. Of course not ! But some are. Smiling to people in the streets, helping them if you have the chance, being generous and kind when you can, apologizing when the anger wins you over (for it will happen, of course). And don’t forget to be proud of yourself sometimes, if you succeed, for you’re a princess, after all.

The other reason why I loved and still love this book is the role it gives to stories. Stories from books or stories from your imagination. Stories read, or read aloud, or told to little ones. All stories are magic. And they are a real comfort when everything else fails you, as it happens for Sara.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“I tried to tell about that to my mother, as a tween or teen. That wasn’t a success. Perhaps I wasn’t able to explain, perhaps my (wonderful) mother isn’t this type of person, isn’t Sara-type as much as I am.”


The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant

Rebecca says she read these two books when she was fourteen and they shaped who she is today. Both were given to her by adults in her family. She explains,

“My dad gave me Clan of the Cave Bear telling me woman kick ass. Although I think I was too young to read that rape scene (though what age would it be OK?), it was the herbs and healing aspect of the book that really pulled something up from inside of me and created a passion I still have to this day. To be fair to my parents, they both are very healthy and raised my sister and I to read labels, take vitamins, and avoid artificial anything. We were the only kids on the block that didn’t have Fruit Loops and Oreos in the cupboard, and I’ve been taking flax oil years before it was hip. But after reading Clan, I started reading non-fiction books about natural healing and herbal medicine. When I became pregnant and a mom at a young age (only a few years after reading that book) I made a commitment to have a natural pregnancy and raise my child with wise woman healing. My family to this day uses 99% natural remedies, especially essential oils, for any sickness and general health. My daughter is now making her own beauty products from all natural ingredients. Yet, I have not given her Clan of the Cave Bear yet. That rape scene still haunts me.

The book that is on my daughter’s reading list (she is fifteen, btw) is The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You. My Aunt Maryanne gave me this book, along with others like it. She and my Uncle Gary (now deceased) have been my spiritual guides from a very young age. I was raised Catholic, and still practice today, but my mind is permanently open from the readings and discussions of theology, spirituality and the soul with my Aunt and Uncle throughout my life. This particular book stood out because it is fiction. I remember sitting on my bed when I finished reading about someone’s incredible spiritual journey that involved dreams (something I have always been obsessive about) and then looking at the cover and seeing the author. A woman. Not a man. The main character was a guy. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t a memoir. How could a fake story affect me so deeply? And that’s when I got the point of the book. Fiction and non-fiction, dreaming and waking…is there that much of a difference? It’s what you take and make of what comes your way that makes you who are are, and your destiny. Stories are powerful, regardless if they came from a true experience or someone’s imagination. After that book, I don’t think my own border between reality and dream has ever closed. Everything just is.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“Clan of the Cave Bear was discussed a lot in the next few years with several people in my family because it was a popular book (and the whole series was a family favorite.) They all thought it was cool that I got into plants. My aunt and I chatted briefly about The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You, but I wasn’t really good on discussions that mattered at that age. But I did tell her I liked the book when I gave it back to her.”


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Alexandra remembers reading this book back in ninth grade. It became her favorite. She writes,

“The character, Francie, was a strong girl growing up in Williamsburg Brooklyn in the years before WWI. Loss of innocence, rebellion, perseverance, and hope were all themes I could relate to. Although I was growing up in a much different time and setting, my life was chaotic and uncertain (my mother was diagnosed with cancer and our family was falling apart). The book resonated with me. It was a great story and I was sad when it was over. Besides, I  love trees. The tree as a symbol and as a living character has stayed with me my whole life.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“I think I told my mother that I loved the book. She grew up in Queens NYC in the 30s and may have read the book as a young adult (it was published in 1943). As I mentioned my mother was ill and my teen years were defined by that. I know I told my English teacher that it was my favorite book, and I think she gave me a copy as a gift–I seem to remember that. I excelled in English and writing in HS  (I was awarded the award for creative writing at graduation) and I know the book influenced my love for the written word.”


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Andrea offers two books she regards as “game changing.”  She says she discovered A Wrinkle in Time in fifth grade.

“I loved the character Meg and found it really empowering to read about a character in glasses who was insecure but with hidden brilliant depths. Go figure. I was the oldest child in my family so maybe I liked that about Calvin, too.

In 9th grade, I discovered Wuthering Heights. Oh my! Probably set me up for a couple of really dysfunctional relationships before I realized that Heathcliff was not actually the ideal man. Also set me up for a lifetime love affair with gothic novels and Victorian literature.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“I didn’t tell my parents. They just expected me to read and be a good student. I don’t remembering them ever being too interested in what I was reading.”


The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley

Corrina started reading the Black Stallion series when she was in second grade. She writes,

“I read The Black Stallion over and over to the point where I nearly read the cover off. Then I
discovered the rest of the series and my all-time favorite was The Black Stallion’s Filly because it was about a filly, Black Minx, that won the Kentucky Derby. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was resentful of the fact only boys seemed to be allowed or encouraged to be interested in sports. To read about a girl–even though it was a horse–accomplish something that everyone said couldn’t be done was empowering to me. It gave me hope for the future that even though I was a tomboy, I could do whatever I wanted.

Just last year, I needed a name for the hero of my superhero story and I went back to these books. I came up with Alec Farley, a mix of Alec Ramsey, the hero of the Black Stallion books, and Walter Farley. I re-read the stories as well and I still got that thrill when Black Minx wins.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“My parents knew and encouraged my love of reading, though horses were a slightly different matter. (Riding lessons cost.) But whenever I wanted books or needed quiet time to right, my parents were always very supportive. To this day, I still have a tapestry that my late father bought for me of three horses, nose to nose, at the end of the race. It meant so much that he acknowledged what I loved.”

The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary

Patricia is somewhat reluctant to disclose the most memorable book from her preteen years. But she warms to the topic.

“Even though it was written in the 50s, it’s a pretty timeless story of a girl trying to rebel against her mother. She gets the chance for a clean start at a new school. I remember the slicker argument Shelley has with her mother. Shelley, the protagonist, wants to wear a plain yellow slicker to school, but her mother gets her this prissy pink raincoat with black velvet buttons. Shelley gets mad and tosses a bouquet of roses down the garbage disposal — apparently a 1950s girl’s ULTIMATE rebellious act– and declares she wants to spend the school year in California, which she was invited to do by a family friend.

It’s a touching first-love kind of story, but with no kissing or sex or anything. Anyway, I distinctly remember thinking ‘Hey — this 1950s girl rebelled, so could I…’

I love the book and now I want to read it over again.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“No, I don’t think I did. I don’t remember discussing any books with my parents.”


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Kalynn read Little Women annually from age eight. She says it molded her self-identity as well as her my understanding of the world. She writes,

“The main character, Jo March, was acutely aware of both her close relationships and the historical events that buffeted her family. The combination of breadth and depth in this particular work of auto-biographical fiction has been a touchstone ever since.

I identified with Jo’s hot temper and her gangly body. One way I have been profoundly influenced by this character is the way Jo made life decisions that went against expectation. Her best friend, the boy next door who was attractive, kind, and wealthy, wanted to marry her. Even though all external signs, and even her own affection for the boy (who by that time a young man), pointed to a happy and prosperous union, she refused his offer. Instinctively, she knew she did not love him in that way and that she was meant to forge a less secure, different path. On more than one occasion in my life, I have followed Jo’s example. Rather than automatically making the more secure, on-the-surface easier choice, I have listened to my heart.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“I don’t remember ever talking to anyone about how much that book meant to me, although I did mount a theatrical adaptation of the story in a friend’s backyard (5th grade, as I recall) and charged a nominal admission for neighborhood kids to watch me play Jo. A handful of people knew about that, including the kids in the audience, and I referred to it in my film school application as my first writer/director/producer gig.”


The Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis

R. L. LaFevers says that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe started her on the series of books that most influenced her as a child. She explains,

“It was my first exposure to fantasy and for the first time I realized that books could deal with more than what was real; that the world of books could match the wildness and longing of my imagination. I had devoured fairy tales and myths as a young reader, but the Narnia books were the first time I learned that stories didn’t have to be old or passed down through the ages in order to have fantasy elements. This completely validated my wild and crazy imagination, which had gotten me in a fair amount of trouble so far. But even more importantly, as a kid the world around me seemed much more layered and frightening and wonderful than any of the adults around me would admit to, and The Chronicles of Narnia spoke to all those layers of reality that were so present for me.

When I closed the last page of the last book, I hugged it to my chest and thought how wonderful it would be, to grow up and have a job where I got to make up new worlds and systems of magic for a living. And now I do. ”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“It never occurred to me to talk to anyone about how much that book meant to me, although they probably guessed since I reread them twice a year for about four years. But it was too important to me, too precious to risk having the adults in my life ruin it with their lack of understanding. So I kept mum.”


The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Natania says it was all about discovering hobbits. She writes,

“Most people started the Lord of the Rings at the beginning. But, seeing as the library didn’t have The Fellowship of the Rings, I figured there was no harm starting with The Two Towers. I was fourteen, I think, and this was oddly after I’d read lots of very grown up things, like the majority of Stephen King’s oeuvre. But hobbits, indeed, and Merry and Pippin, especially, considering they are the first hobbits to appear in The Two Towers. I read every scene they were in with bated breath.

I had a tough childhood (who doesn’t, I guess) dealing with illness and a family always struggling to make ends meet. I often felt as if the kids around me didn’t understand that sort of trial, having grown up in a very privileged area. But the inherent merriment in hobbits, the youthful optimism, the camaraderie… for me, Merry and Pippin (and to some extent the rest of the Fellowship) really were surrogate friends in a world where I felt as if I didn’t fit. More importantly, those hobbits went on to do amazing things in spite of a world that didn’t expect it of them (neither locally nor globally you might say!), and I took that to heart. Sometimes high school felt like my own personal trip to Mordor. But I made it. And now I live a very hobbity existence with my husband, son, animals, books… but always writing my adventures into the margins.”

Did I tell the adults in my life what the book meant to me?

“Oh, I tried. But my parents didn’t read. Or at least, they hadn’t read fiction for so long (in the case of my dad; to my knowledge, my mother never read fiction) that it fell on deaf ears. I sat in my room for hours putting Tolkien’s poems to music, I wrote the continuing story of Merry and Pippin. Sometimes I think I wanted that story to be real so much that I purposefully kept it to myself. There is something remarkably powerful about a private joy. Later, I branched out into the community that grew around the films and whatnot, but in my early teens, Middle Earth was very much my own place. And I was definitely reluctant to let others in. I remember a friend casually telling me he’d read the books and didn’t think they were anywhere near as good as Robert Jordan, and I felt very furious indeed that one could say such terrible things about Tolkien’s Middle Earth! Clearly, he’d missed something.”


What books made you who you are today? Did you share any of that book-related inner growth with the adults in your life? And does looking back at these influences give you a glimpse of your own child’s complex emerging selfhood?

The Reason We Should Read Picture Books to Older Kids

I was quickly cruising through my email inbox on Friday morning, making sure there wasn’t something urgent needing my attention, when I came across a link to a New York Times article about how picture books are losing popularity. The subject matter stopped me in my tracks. I skimmed through the article, tagging it for a more in-depth read once I got my nine-year-old on the bus for school.

But the whole time we were going through our school morning routines the idea gnawed at me. The main point of the article is the idea that parents are anxious to get their kids into chapter books. There’s pressure to get your kid moving along the academic track as quickly as possible. Picture books are seen as something for little kids, a minor step on to bigger and better things. I understand the pressure parents are under to keep their children moving forward academically. But letting go of picture books too early is not the answer.

Because I work in a library I have access to all the newest picture books and I bring them home by the bagful. The youngest child in my house is almost 10, and I’m proud to say he and I often curl up with a stack of big rectangular books. There are many reasons he still enjoys these weekly sessions on our living room couch.

For one thing, a lot of the subject matter in picture books is relatable to children of many ages. Some concepts that the younger group may not pick up on will be the launching-off point for an in-depth discussion with an older child. Many picture books deal with relationships, from friendships at school to confusing life situations like a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease. My son and I have had some valuable heart-to-hearts after reading through a picture book.

Then we could move on to illustrations. I’m a member of a SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and through our meetings I’ve met many amazing illustrators who work in a wide range of mediums. The artwork in a lot of picture books is stunning. Almost once a week I come across a book at the library that has pictures I’d frame and hang on a child’s bedroom wall. By reading picture books to my son I’m exposing him to all types of art and artists. He gets the value of an illustration on a much higher level than a preschooler ever could.

Then I’m reminded of a lesson I learned in my elementary education classes in college. The topic was reading to children, and all of the positives that can come from it. Someone questioned our professor, wondering how reading to an infant or toddler could do any good. I’ll never forget his answer. “A child who’s read to, even before he has any concept of a book, learns to associate the warm cozy feeling of being nestled in a parent’s arms with reading. For the rest of his life he’ll have positive feelings about learning and reading.”

I think the same carries over into the topic of reading picture books to an older child. Sure, my son bounds up the stairs and reads chapter books before he goes to sleep every night. And the nights we aren’t reading picture books, we’re snuggled up together as I read aloud a chapter book that’s just a smidge above his own reading level. But it’s nothing like the positive feelings he gets from our time poring over picture books, discussing the pictures and themes long after the story is over.

Chapter books are great. They have their place and there are many great ones to choose from. But I truly believe we do our kids a great disservice to abandon the world of picture books too early, seeing them as a childish step that has no place in an older child’s reading world.

I hope the New York Times article ends up being just a blip on the publishing radar. My dream would be for parents to understand the value of a great picture book and how they can enrich their elementary age child’s life just as much as it did their preschooler’s. Books are many kinds of wonderful. Let’s not forget the value of each step.

(For more on this topic, visit GeekDad.)