My Favorite Picture Books of 2017

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This week: my favorite picture books of 2017. I am increasingly drawn toward the 32-page format. There, the world is often more beautiful and more clear about “right and wrong” than what we see around us. Kindness and generosity usually win out over self-interest. These are the books that rose to the top of my list this year:

Life on Mars by Jon Agee (Agee’s books are always a bit unusual, and this clever story is no exception.)

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna (The most beautiful book of the year – and an ode to the joy of a device-free day)

Windows by Julie Denos (perfect for one-on-one sharing)

A Good Day for a Hat by T. Nat Fuller (a funny pre-school book about finding just the right hat)

Bruce’s Big Move – and others by Ryan Higgins (all of Higgins’s books are guaranteed story time hits)

After the Fall by Dan Santat (what happened after Humpty Dumpty “had a great fall?”)

Robinson by Peter Sis (a magical and colorful book about the power of imagination)

And this little trio of books by Kazue Takahashi, the most recent of which was published in 2017 –

Kuma Kuma Chan: The Little Bear

Kuma Kuma Chan’s Home

Kuma Kuma Chan’s Travels

Takahashi’s books are peaceful and simple – and I find myself looking at them more often than many of the other books in my house. I bought the first one in a bookstore in Vermont, and since then, there have been two more installments in the little bear’s adventures.

One other observation: 2017 was a good year for foliage-covered book jackets. They all tend to blur together on the bookstore shelves…

Finally — the picture at the top is a picture of my colleague, Mary, talking with one of our students about Maps. This book:

Happy Reading!


My Favorite Middle Grade Novels of 2017

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For those of you with a reader between the ages of 8 and 12 on your holiday shopping list, here are my favorite middle grade novels of 2017. Because “middle grade” includes a wide range of readers, I’ve divided this list between younger and older. Obviously, the categories are fluid depending on the child, but it may provide some guidance. Middle grade is that big section of novels that kids begin reading after Magic Tree House-style early chapter books. Common transition books include Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and of course Harry Potter.

Middle grade novels keep are typically fast paced, and the plot generally moves in a straight line rather than jumping around. But as kids get older, the stories become more complex and thoughtful.  It’s also helpful to look at the age of the protagonist. Most of the time, the main character is about the same age as the potential reader.

Here are my favorite middle grade novels of 2017:

Young Middle Grade

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes

Older Middle Grade

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

See You In the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Saving Marty by Paul Griffin

The End of the Wild by Nicole Helget

Amina’s Voice by Amina Khan

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

In other holiday news, on Saturday I was one of the judges for the Scituate Harbor Gingerbread House contest. My qualifications? I enjoy eating gingerbread, and I certainly appreciate the time and creativity the participants dedicated to this festive start to the season.


Things Worth Sharing….

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It’s Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Our son returned to Boston, there’s one more piece of pumpkin pie that I’m saving for tonight, I supported small businesses on Saturday, and packed away the turkey my son made when he was three (he’s now 22) until next year…

Along with the regular Thanksgiving festivities, I read (of course) and caught up on a few articles from the “to read” stack. I also prepared for Thursday’s event at the James Library – including one more reading of Stack the Cats, which is only math book I’ve ever loved.

If you have time for more reading this weekend, here are a few links to check out:

Pat Hutchins, the author of many classic children’s picture books died at the age of 75. I read many of her picture books in graduate school, but I’m looking forward to re-reading The Wind Blew and Rosie Walks when I return to school tomorrow.

I also read an excellent article from The Atlantic about picture book author and illustrator, Barbara Cooney. It reminded me how important her books are for encouraging curiosity and courage:

I also read The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange. I was drawn to it because of the beautiful cover and then more interested when I saw this:

Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month in October 2016

‘Superbly balanced between readability and poetry… this is an assured debut.’ The Guardian

‘Rich with nods to classics like Tom’s Midnight Garden… [An] outstanding debut.’ The Bookseller

‘Startlingly good.’ The Telegraph (Number 10 in The Telegraph’s Top 50 books of 2016)

This would be a wonderful holiday gift for a young reader (ages 10-12) who loves fairy tales and classic children’s novels. The book that came to mind the most was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Strange’s novel has a secret dark forest rather than a garden, but there are hidden passageways, ghosts, and even a character locked in a bedroom like Colin Craven in Burnett’s novel.  Set in England after WWI, The Secret of Nightingale Wood is about a girl named Henrietta whose family is suffering after the death of her older brother. With the help of her beloved fairy tales and a woman (a witch?) who lives in the woods, Henrietta helps to heal her family. A perfect winter read.

As I was leaving school after our Grand Friends Visiting Day on Wednesday, I walked down the stairs and saw one of our students:

Fortunately, her father was standing nearby with his phone and he caught this perfect moment.

Happy Reading!

Time to Make Your Book Shopping List…


It’s list season!  There’s a new “best books of 2017” list in my email every day, and although there are many books that appear on every list (Lincoln in the Bardo), there are surprises too. For example, the Washington Post’s 10 Best list includes Saints for All Occasions by  J. Courtney Sullivan, a novel published in May, but I may need to loop back to that one…

Along with Nancy Perry, my friend and colleague from the Norwell Public Library, I am making my own list of the best children’s books of 2017.  It’s fun for us to compare notes. Although we generally agree on the books to be presented at our annual James Library event, there are several that one of us is more passionate about than the other.  In the middle grade fiction category, Nancy is more enthusiastic than I am about Swing It, Sunny by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm. I like it, but it did not reach Sunny Side Up heights for me.

We are in complete agreement that A Good Day for a Hat by T. Nat Fuller is one of the best picture books (for young children) of 2017.  It is a brightly colored and fun book that is a guaranteed hit for story time.

Outside of our list, which I will post after the event, we decided to include ideas for book themed gifts. It occurred to me that between libraries, Kindles, and random book purchases, some kids have already read the most popular books. Along with that, the holidays are an opportunity for parents, grandparents, and friends to indulge a child’s special interest.  And so for you early shoppers, here are books to expand a child’s horizon or support a new hobby…

Dreamers, Designers, Builders

Out of the Box: 25 Cardboard Engineering Projects for Makers, by Jemma Westing

When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon, by Natasha Wing

Fallingwater by Marc Harshman

The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter

Engineered! Engineering Design at Work by Shannon Hunt


To Infinity and Beyond…

My Journey to the Stars by Scott Kelly

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

Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space by Tam O’Shaughnessy


Kind Words 

Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt

Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee

Most People by Michael Leannah

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers

A Different Pond by Bao Phi

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs


Inspirational Women

The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter

Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai

The World Is Not a Rectangle by Jeanette Winter

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton

There are other categories, but I wanted to save room for these pictures –

There was no posing involved in this picture!  Just a wonderful moment for a teacher and student in the library this week:

And a new mural at the very popular Four Square Court, designed and painted by our middle school students with the help of Marshfield artist Sally Dean:

Happy Book Shopping!


New York, Kipling, and Midnight at the Electric…

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We were in New York last weekend, but although it was a short visit, there was still time to go to the Strand. We arrived at 10:55 a.m. on Sunday for the bookstore’s 11:00 a.m. opening, and there were people lining up outside.  It was a wonderful moment – to see a line at a bookstore. I should have taken a picture, but instead we hurried into line. One of the best things about the Strand is the display signs. This was one of our favorites:

I purchased a copy of Midnight at the Electric, a young adult novel by Jodi Lynn Anderson, to read on the train ride home.  The starred Kirkus review sparked my interest, but I didn’t expect the novel to be so powerful.

This is a really good book and definitely one to add to your list for anyone ages 12 and over.  It opens in the year 2065 and a sixteen-year-old named Adri is preparing to move to Mars. To train for the launch and life on Mars, Adri goes to Kansas to stay with her 107-year-old cousin, Lily. At Lily’s house, Adri finds letters that lead her to the story of Catherine, who lived during the Dust Bowl and then to Lenore, who lived in England during WWI. It sounds confusing, but all of the stories are connected in a way that left me tearful at the end of the book. This is my favorite kind of reading experience – a book that was not on my “list,” but ended up being one of my favorites of this year.

Speaking of the Strand, this week’s The New Yorker cover is awesome – an illustration by Jenny Kroik of a woman shopping at New York’s go-to independent bookstore. This one will find a place on our walls.

While we were in New York, we saw an exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center. John Lockwood Kipling: Arts & Crafts in the Punjab and London focuses on Kipling’s work as an illustrator and designer in British India. He was also the father of Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book and Kim.  I read about the exhibit when it was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but it would have been a challenging day trip.

Kipling spent ten years teaching at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai) and eighteen years as the curator of the  Lahore Museum in Pakistan. His influence on both cities was remarkable. As part of the exhibit, there are videos about the buildings he helped to design, but his illustrations are the stars.

This one is interesting. It’s a menu for Rudyard Kipling’s twenty-fifth birthday celebration. Designed and drawn by John Lockwood Kipling, the illustration shows Rudyard as a baby being carried and below that, Lockwood and his wife looking into Rudyard’s crib. The adult Rudyard is the man smoking a pipe.  It’s hard to read the menu, but it includes turbot and oyster sauce and plum pudding.

This is an 1884 illustration of Rudyard’s sister, Trix, that reads: “An unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed, happy in this — she is not yet so old, but she may learn.” Not sure what to make of that, but a beautiful picture.

I’ve also been working with Nancy Perry, my friend and colleague at the Norwell Public Library, to prepare for our annual presentation of our favorite children’s books of the year.  This year’s program will be on Thursday, November 30 at the James Library in Norwell at 7:00 p.m. It is a free and fun evening of conversation about books. An added bonus is that Buttonwood Books and Toys will be there to sell books. Please join us if you can.

At school, I’m reading Countdown by Deborah Wiles with our middle school students as part of our focus on life in post-WWII life in America. Inly’s 6th graders are learning how to be responsible and smart news consumers. Yes, we are talking about how to spot fake news!  We are looking at how to navigate the wild world of the internet and who to trust – no easy task in this divisive climate, but the kids are having fun.

I’ve been somewhat obsessed with book covers recently.  Given all of the “noise” in our ears and eyes, a book cover that causes you to stop and look is powerful.  Books may be old technology, but seeing someone’s art as a billboard for a story, is one of the greatest pleasures of book shopping.

Here are a few that caught my attention this week:

A friend saw this copy of Brave New World at her parent’s house –

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of RBG vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter has a wonderful dust jacket, but….

This is what’s under the jacket –

And the end pages are worth the price of the book –

All of the sudden, it’s really cold and windy and there is no denying that winter is almost here. My response was to buy these:

Happy Reading!

Series Books, A Pretend King, and a Pig….

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The other day, unpacking a box of new books, I noticed that every one of them was part of a series. Lots of kids were waiting for them, and it’s always fun to make special deliveries, but it occurred to me that many of the new books we get are installments in popular series. Sometimes, while shelving Dog Man or The Bad Guys, I look at the stand-alone books and wonder how to get them into kids’ hands.  I totally understand their passion for a series. It’s fun to re-enter the lives of familiar characters and worlds – like seeing an old friend. And for new readers, a series can help build fluency since the basic structure of each book remains the same.

When I display new books, older students will often ask if a book is going to be a part of a series. I don’t lie, but I don’t want to discourage them from reading it so I give a non-committal answer like “that would be awesome!”

Of course, the best way to sell a book is reading it myself so this week I read two new stand alone middle grade novels, The Player King by Avi and Saving Marty by Paul Griffin.

Avi’s new book is a rags to riches (and back again) set in 15th century England. A young orphan boy, Lambert Simnel, is “discovered” by a friar with his own agenda who transforms Lambert into the prior king’s nephew and the rightful heir to the throne. After a “My Fair Lady-style”crash course – polishing the boy’s appearance and language, he successfully fools others (and himself) that he is the true  king. Naturally, his efforts do not go over too well with Henry VII’s crowd, and palace intrigue and a big battle ensues. I thought the story seemed somewhat far-fetched, but some internet research backed it up.  Recommend The Player King to fans of historical fiction.

I chose Saving Marty because it’s a story about a boy trying to save a pig.  Of course, it reminds me of Wilbur, another pig who was rescued from becoming a ham sandwich. While Saving Marty is not Charlotte’s Web, it is a lovely and moving story.

At the center is Renzo, a boy who lives with his mother and grandfather. Since Renzo’s father’s death, the family has struggled to make ends meet, relying on their failing peach farm and the sale of pigs and puppies among other work. Marty is Renzo’s best friend. He’s a pig, but he doesn’t know that. Marty happily follows the family dog around and sleeps indoors. He’s grown up as a house-pig, and Renzo depends on him for friendship. Saving Marty is a gentle book. In some ways the tone is reminiscent of one of my favorite adult novels, Jim the Boy by Tony Earley – hard truths at the center, wrapped up in the strength of family.

One of my favorite book lists of the year was released this week. The New York Times Book Review announced its 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2017.  Here’s a link to the list:

There are three books I predicted and hoped would be on the list: On A Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, Town Is By the Sea illustrated by Sydney Smith, and The Way Home in the Night by Akiko Miyakoshi.

Two are new to me, but I ordered them today: Plume by  Isabelle Simler and Feather by Rémi Courgeon.

There may be too many series on the library shelves, but what did I order this week?  A new series. After reading this New York Times article about Hilde Cracks the Case by Hilde Lysiak and her father, Matthew Lysiak, I had to order it.

The perfect combination of a real girl, solving real mysteries, and now real books!

And finally….. Halloween. I took this picture of students looking at new books on my desk:

A friend who lives in Cambridge sent these two pictures of a neighborhood that chooses a Halloween theme for their decorations. This year….books!

Happy Reading!

What Makes a Good Read-Aloud?

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There is no shortage of excellent picture books. Library and bookstore shelves are overflowing with 32-page worlds to entertain and inspire, but working in a school library has made me particularly focused on books that are good read-alouds. I read stacks of picture books, many of which are perfect for one-on-one sharing, but finding the perfect story to entertain a group of young children is more challenging.  A book that successfully hits the sweet spot ticks lots of boxes:

  • Pacing.  It can’t be too text heavy, and the action has to keep moving
  • The book has to be large enough for a group to see.  Peter Rabbit is awesome, but his maneuverings around Mr. McGregor are best seen up close
  • It’s relatable to lots of kids. There are kids who love football and kids who love bugs. We read books about everything, but the best read aloud books have wide appeal
  • The pictures need to both enhance and extend the action. This is key. The perfect picture book is helping the listeners by showing what’s happening in the text – while also moving the story along
  • The characters are memorable and distinctive.  Think of the pigeon!

Here are ten of the Inly Library’s go-to read aloud books:

Milo’s Hat Trick by Jon Agee

Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol

Mother Bruce by Ryan Higgins

The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Chicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt

The Great Gracie Chase by Cynthia Rylant

Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev

The Pigeon Books by Mo Willems

And new to the “Top Ten” list is…..

I’m Afraid Your Teddy Is In Trouble Today by Jancee Dunn and Scott Nash

If your stuffed animals look like they have a secret, this book may be the answer. A very cute teddy bear invites his friends over for a party and the results are predictable – a mess in the kitchen, jumping on the bed, and drawing on the walls.  Read I’m Afraid Your Teddy Is In Trouble Today with No, David! by David Shannon for a hijinks-filled story time!

From a group of stuffed animals having a party to a very quiet book about windows….

The other new picture book I want to share this week is better for close looking. Windows by Julia Denos invites children to take an evening walk around a neighborhood and look through the windows. The book is written in second person, making it clear that the child reading this book is a participant in the walk: “You can take a walk, out your door into the almost-night. You might pass a cat or an early raccoon taking a bath in squares of yellow light.”

Windows is especially wonderful because not only does it glow with life on every page, but the boy in the book, in an homage to Peter from The Snowy Day, is a young black boy wearing a red hooded sweatshirt.

Denos’s book would be perfectly matched with to The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsatto and Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson – stories about walking and observing.


Inly’s Lower Elementary students have completed their first book projects of the year, and as always, many are delightful and creative. One student, a first grade boy, based his project on Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs and illustrations by Nizar Ali Badr.

Happy Reading!