Biographies in Books

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Recently, during a visit to the Harvard Book Store, I saw an awesome display. Staff members had selected books that represented their reading biographies. Each book included a short description of why the book was significant to the reader.



The card above reads: “Read this when I was 9, growing up in Manhattan and obsessed with wolves, sled dogs and wilderness survival.”


Many of their selections were obvious touchstone novels and others less well known. Of course, it made me wonder what books I would choose for a reading biography.


I think there are three books that shaped my life as a reader:


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – One of the Harvard Book Store staff members chose this one as well. Her description says it perfectly: “Ask a woman my age about important books in her life, and there’s a good chance this will be on the list. We all wanted to be Jo.”

Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid; what it was she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her; and, meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, run, and ride as much as she liked. A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.”


Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – This was the first book that made me truly aware of good writing. It was literally the first time I noticed language. White’s simple and beautiful sentences can still take my breath away.

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.”


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I remember feeling very sophisticated the first time I read this book – although in high school I didn’t really appreciate it. Since then, I’ve read it ten times and the paragraph describing Daisy and Jordan sitting on the couch is one of my favorite passages in the English language…..

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”

There was another bookstore display that caught my attention – this one at McNally Jackson, my favorite bookstore in New York.  So true, right?



Talking With Kids about Race….

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At a time when racial tensions are erupting across the country, on talk radio, and on the campaign trail, my guess is that conversations are also taking place around family dinner tables. It’s not an easy conversation to have with young children who may not see racism in their daily lives, but they definitely see skin color.  A friend of mine, Katy, who is white, has two young black daughters. She says that well-intentioned friends will often encourage their own children to be “color blind,” and not acknowledge that Katy’s daughters are black. But as she says, “my children know they are black.”  Not answering their question sends the wrong message and “discounts their interest in a conversation.”

As Katy said, “kids don’t see race. They see skin color.”  In fact, her two young daughters first described their skin as brown – which, of course, is the true color. “Being black” is a social construct.  When young children ask about someone’s skin color, it’s adults who add the overlay of racism, the history of slavery, and racial tensions. Kids are genuinely asking why some people’s skin is darker than others.  The answer to a child’s genuine curiosity, Katy said, is that “dark-skinned people have more melanin in their skin than light-skinned people.”

Like many subjects that can cause discomfort for parents, sometimes a book is a good way to spark a conversation.  Here are ten recommendations for books to introduce children to our ethnically diverse world in a way that encourages healthy and honest conversations about race and identity.


Families by Shelley Rotner (a picture book celebrating all kinds of families – for the youngest children)


One Family by George Shannon (another good book to introduce young children to all kinds of family units)


Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families by Robie Harris (a colorful book about families. I often recommend this title to parents looking for a book to start a conversation about adoption, divorce, same-sex couples and other family structures.)


Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford (a picture book biography for older children about Gordon Parks, a photographer who chronicled the racial inequality in the mid-20th century.)


The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko (the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who met in Virginia in 1958. They were not permitted to marry in Virginia, though, because Mildred was African American and Richard was white. They did get married – in Washington, D.C. But when they returned to Virginia, they were arrested.)


Firebird by Misty Copeland (Copeland tells her story of being an African American soloist with the American Ballet Theater. A beautiful book about a young ballet star.)


Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (Before Brown v. Board of Education, Mexican-American children in California fought to end school discrimination. Before reading this book, I had never heard of Sylvia Mendez, a young girl who wanted to attend the local public school, but was instead directed to the “Mexican school.”)


Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter (An inspiring picture book biography about Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.)


Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki (Published in 1993, this book remains one of my favorites. I remember reading it to my son many times when he was young and I still recall his questions about the WWII-era Japanese internment camps.  Baseball was a way to pass time for the young boy in this story, but of course the symbols – like his game-winning home run are appropriately obvious to young readers.)


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (An absolutely essential – and beautiful – read for everyone between the ages of 10 and 90. Written in verse, Woodson tells her story of growing up in South Carolina and in Brooklyn.)

Relatedly, I was in the Harvard Book Store this week and saw this display at the check out….


and in the children’s book section….



Books for the Beach Bag….


There are so many summer reading lists that, lately, I’ve spent more time looking at lists than reading books!  Last week, during a segment on the South Shore radio station, WATD, I listed 5 books to put in a beach (or pool or river or small stream) bag for young children. When their fingers are wrinkly from the water and it’s time to wrap up in a towel and eat a snack, any of these would be good to pull out….


Sea Rex by Molly Idle (A girl enjoys a “carefree day of fun in the sun” with her younger brother, her teddy bear and…..a T. Rex who wears a sailor’s cap!)


Ice Cream Summer by Peter Sis (Written as a letter to his grandfather, a young boy reports on his many summer activities – all of which include ice cream!)


Pool by Jihyeon Lee (In this wordless story, a boy goes to a very crowded public swimming pool where he discovers that more rewarding adventures exist underwater.)


Beach by Elisha Cooper (This book, published in 2006, remains one of my favorite summer picture books because there’s so much to look at – sandcastles and seagulls and swimmers. Cooper is known for small watercolor vignettes, and here he captures all the joy of a day at the beach – beginning with an empty stretch of sand and ending when the beachgoers pack up their picnics and towels and return home.)


Beach Feet by Kiyomi Konagaya (This is the experience of one boy’s day at the beach. Because the reader completely enters this particular child’s reality, this perspective reminds me of one of my favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – Baby at Play by Thomas Eakins.


Both the book and the painting show a child completely absorbed in their activities – responding to hot sand and cool water or playing with blocks. The children remain happily oblivious to being watched.)

And if you’re a “middle-aged person” reading this post, here’s a good list from the Huffington Post.  One of the books on this list, The Children Act, is next on my list!




Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

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I had a treat this past weekend – I got to read an advanced copy of Katherine Applegate’s new middle grade novel, Crenshaw. The cover is reminiscent of her Newbery-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, another beautifully written poignant story that reminded me how much I love books that make me sad and happy at the same time.


Crenshaw is the story of a boy named Jackson and a large, athletically gifted – and imaginary –  cat named Crenshaw. This is how it opens:

I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat.

Thing number one: He was a surfboarding cat.

Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL.

Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.”

Jackson and his family are in a tough situation. His parents don’t have enough money to continue paying rent or anything else. His father has multiple sclerosis. Jackson remembers the first time, a few years earlier, that his family had to live in their minivan and they may have to return to life on the road. Crenshaw is an imaginary cat who shows up when Jackson needs him. He takes bubble baths and is generally awesome.

As I write this short review, I’m appreciating Applegate’s story even more than when I read it. I’m thinking about how few books there are about kids facing financial insecurity and about how much family and friends (real or imaginary) can help us navigate our way through hard times. Crenshaw is a book (and a cat) that opens hearts and reminds us that many children spend their days worried about things completely out of their control.

Crenshaw should be added to your fall reading list – publication date is September 22!

On a completely different note, two things that made me smile last week:

I saw this in one of our lower elementary classrooms. Kind of an awesome book project, isn’t it?


And taking a walk one day, I saw two of these little marshmallow-shaped creatures in random spots. They made me smile, as I’m sure they did everyone else who noticed them!



Ten Summer Reads for Ten-Year-Olds….

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I’ve listed six books for six-year-olds and eight for eight-year-olds so today…..the number is ten of course!

Here are ten books to recommend to kids looking for something to read this summer. There are many more suggestions on Inly’s summer reading list which is available at


Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones (I finished this new book yesterday while eating a salad at Panera. After I closed the cover, I looked at the people at tables near me and wondered who I could give it to. Really anyone between 8 and 88.  I’m in the middle of that age range and absolutely loved this debut novel about Sophie, a girl whose family moves from Los Angeles to a farm her family inherits after the death of her Great Uncle Jim. The story unfolds in a series of letters Sophie writes to Agnes from Redwood Farm Supply and her beloved – and deceased – Abuelita. I’m meeting with students on Monday morning to talk about summer reading. Jones’s novel will be at the top of my list.)


Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff (All of Graff’s novels are awesome, but I have a soft spot for Albie, the 10-year-old main character of Absolutely Almost.  No one seems to understand him – Albie’s father isn’t around much and his mother criticizes his reading selections, telling him that “Captain Underpants is for babies.” He doesn’t get any relief from his grandfather either. But then he meets Calista, his new babysitter and an art student, who actually listens to Albie.)


The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea by Eileen Beha (This is just an old fashioned – in the good sense – story. It’s told from the perspective of Throckmorton Sock Monkey!)


The Perfect Place by Teresa Harris (Twelve-year-old Treasure and her younger sister have to move to Virginia to live with their great aunt Grace.)


Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai (Eleven-year-old Ariana and her family’s grocery store, Kabul Corner, is  threatened when another Afghan grocery store opens nearby. A perfect introduction to the experiences of immigrants.)


Sisters by Raina Telgemeier (Every-ten year-old may have already read this understandably popular graphic novel about a family road trip, but if you know someone who has missed it, you can be a hero for introducing Telgemeier’s books!)


The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John (A fast-paced story about two pranksters planning the ultimate prank! Give this one to fans of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.)


The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm (Eleven-year-old Ellie’s life changes when a boy shows up at her house, and he happens to be…..her grandfather!  With his encouragement, she develops an interest in science.)


Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt (A hero’s journey about Tuk, a bighorn sheep, who leads his flock to a better grazing ground – the blue mountain. The journey, like all good quests, is filled with obstacles – most of them on four legs!)


Super Sniffers: Dog Detectives on the Job by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (I could have listed more novels, but it seemed a nonfiction book should get a slot and dog books are still a common request by ten-year-olds. Kids will be fascinated by how dogs are trained to smell things like drugs and explosives.)

Last week, I looked over a stairwell into a classroom where a 5th grade girl was reading – and pacing.  It was awesome to watch her turn pages and walk laps around her classroom….






Eight Summer Reads for Eight-Year-Olds….

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Following last week’s post which featured six books for six-year-olds, today we focus on eight-year-olds.  So many good books – it’s hard to select only eight. But if pressed by a very persistent child looking for suggestions, this is the pile of books I would give to him or her:


Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater (Published in 1938 and a Newbery Honor Book in 1939, Mr. Popper’s Penguins has never been out of print. There’s even a 2011 movie starring Jim Carrey – which I’ve never seen.)


The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeannie Birdsall (The first book of the nostalgic and comforting books about the Penderwicks family. There are now three sequels, including the recently published The Penderwicks in Spring. Every time I read one of Birdsall’s novels, I’m reminded of reading books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women in the dark and cool rooms of the public library in Xenia, Ohio.)


The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng (The first in a series of books about Anna Wang.  Cheng’s short novels are told in first person so readers can empathize with Anna’s questions, the challenges of friendship, and in the first book – the joys of reading!)


Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (The classic book about being eight. What I remember most vividly about this Ramona book is that it’s the one where she throws up in her classroom. That fact alone seals the deal when kids aren’t sure about checking it out!)


Frindle by Andrew Clements (Nearly 15 years of recommending books to kids, and I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t like Frindle. Even the most reluctant readers love the story of Nick Allen who comes up with a new name for the pen – frindle.  Just last week a parent asked me to recommend a book for her son who “can’t find anything he likes.”   I gave her Frindle.)


Firebird by Misty Copeland (A picture book with bold and colorful illustrations by Christopher Myers. Structured as a conversation between Copeland, an African-American soloist with American Ballet Theater, and a young black girl, Firebird is an inspiring and beautiful book.  By the way, the Boston Ballet water bottle was already on the table – a perfect prop!)


The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes (A 2014 Newbery Honor book, Henkes’s chapter books for new readers follows a year in the life of second grader, Billy Miller. Each of the novel’s four sections is told from the point of view of someone in Billy’s life: his teacher, his father, his mother and his three-year-old sister. This one would be a fun family read-aloud!)


Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (I am including the greatest novel ever written on the list for eight-year-olds, but in truth it could go on lists of books for any age.)

Although it’s cold and rainy today, there are hopeful signs of summer everywhere…..




And it’s never too early for a fall preview!  Judging from last week’s book-related podcasts and blogs, here’s a preview of books that generated buzz during last week’s BookExpo America in New York City:


In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware (The next Gone Girl?)


The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz (a continuation of Stieg Larrson’s Lisbeth Salander series)


City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg  (The author received a $2 million advance for his 900-page debut novel set in 1970s New York)


Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Purity Tyler doesn’t know who her father is, but she wants to uncover his identity. “There’s a kind of fabulist quality to it.  It’s not strict realism. There’s a kind of mythic undertone to the story,” Franzen’s editor said.)

Next week – Ten Summer Reads for Ten-Year-Olds…






Six Summer Reads for Six-Year-Olds…


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The words “summer” and “reading” are beautiful on their own, but joined together they create sunny images of decks, beaches, poolsides, and back yards – preferably with a cold drink nearby!  It doesn’t really matter what you’re reading. Maybe you’re planning to read a book from your childhood or tackling a classic you missed in high school.

Kids enjoy summer reading too. There are usually no major writing assignments attached to their books. At Inly, our 4th through 8th grade students are required to read during the summer and they contribute to an on-line book discussion which most of them enjoy. They are given a list, but we hope it points the way to the riches in their local libraries and bookstores. They can choose, from among other categories: fiction, biography, history, nature, poetry, and graphic novels.  I have read pro and con arguments about summer reading lists – and completely agree that the selections made by some schools don’t make sense for summer reading. A friend’s son entering the tenth grade was assigned to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even though he lived in another state, I was tempted to call the school and ask what they were thinking. For most students, Twain’s novel requires discussion and support. Trying to read it on your own at the end of August is guaranteed to destroy any joy in the story.

That being said, if selected carefully, the books on summer reading lists can enrich a child’s summer. Many wonderful books are not featured at chain book stores and may not be on display in the public library. Each September, during the first few days of school, I hear variations of this comment: “That was such a good book, and I would never have known about it!”  It is our goal to choose books that can be read and enjoyed and make a kid laugh, explore a new interest, or consider another point of view.

Time to get to this year’s list!  Because we want kids to have lots of choices, the list is too long to include here.  Over the next few weeks, I will highlight some of my favorite titles for different age groups. Today: six books that will be enjoyed by most six-year-olds, either to read on their own or to enjoy with a friend or parent.  The next post will have eight books for eight-year-olds and after that ten books for… get it!

Six Books for Six-Year-Olds:


Ling and Ting by Grace Lin (I’m cheating a bit with this title because there are three books in the series so far – with a new one coming this fall. Each short chapter book includes six related stories about Ling and Ting, twins who stick together, but are not – as the title says – “exactly the same!”)


Tales for Very Picky Eaters by Josh Schneider (Winner of the 2012 Geisel Award honoring books for beginning readers. Schneider knows what makes kids laugh – gross foods, references to funny smells and over-the-top silliness. James is a picky eater, but when he tells his father that broccoli is disgusting, his dad suggests James eat “a very sweaty sock.” The stories continue as James names more foods he won’t eat and his father’s ideas get more outrageous.)


The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt (Most six-year-olds may already be familiar with this hilarious book about crayons protesting their predictable uses, but every time I pull it off the shelf, kids want to hear it again.)


Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes (I love the Toon Books series of mini graphic novels for new readers. In this adventure, Penny wants to play pirate with her brother, Benny, but he’s not too excited about that idea. He even tries to lose her by pretending to play hide and seek, but not “seeking” after Penny hides. Of course, they ultimately play pirate together and it’s lots more fun!)


Chicken Squad: The First Misadventure by Doreen Cronin (Dirt, Sugar, Poppy, and Sweetie from Cronin’s The Trouble With Chickens get their own series!  In their first “misadventure,” the small detectives try to figure out what “ENORMOUS and FRIGHTENING” thing frightened a squirrel named Tail.)


Princess in Black by Shannon Hale (The system tells me we have two copies of this brightly colored book in our library. The books have not actually spent any time on the shelf though so it’s hard to know!  Hale’s book looks like something Mary Blair would have illustrated for Disney, but Princess Magnolia stands firmly in the 21st century. She’s not singing with birds flying around her head – she’s an action hero!)


One more thing – unrelated to six-year-olds……I read in today’s New York Times that Chelsea Clinton has written her first book, a children’s book titled It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going! The book will be released in September. If you want to know more, here’s the link: