Medieval Tales for Kids

I’m currently reading Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, and it has me happily immersed in the stark but beautiful world of 14th-century Norway. Though this dense tome is decidedly not for children, it got me thinking about what medieval tales I would like to share with young readers. Spanning about 1,000 years, the middle ages were a mystifying time of religious expansion, war and famine, and incredible art and literature. It is no wonder that there are so many books that use medieval times as a backdrop, especially as we consider how, in many ways, things have not changed as much as we might think.

whitecatmonkcollage.jpegThe White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith

The White Cat and the Monk is based on the 9th-century Old Irish poem “Pangur Bán” . This beautiful graphic novel-esqe picture book evokes a filmic quality as it follows a monk on his simple but meaningful purpose–reading and learning. The monk juxtaposes his pursuit of knowledge with his cat’s instinctual mouse-hunting–both require concentration, both so necessary. Sydney Smith is one of my all-time favorite illustrators–with simple, elegant lines, he summons a mood that reaches right out to the reader. Here, he brings a quiet, contemplative, yet joyful atmosphere that works perfectly with the poem. In an age of constant distraction and smartphones glued to faces, this book is a breath of fresh air. Ages 4 & up.

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The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or, The Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly

This middle grade novel is a clever, kid-friendly spin on The Canterbury Tales–in France in 1242, travelers converge on an inn to tell the tale of three children–one child on a mission from the monastery he serves, one a Jewish boy fleeing violence and devastation in his village, and one a peasant girl whose visions have gotten her in trouble at home. And they are accompanied by the girl’s dog, who rose from the dead. As each traveller tells a different part of the story, sometimes contradicting one another, Gidwitz weaves together a tale rich, heartfelt, and hilarious. Aly’s illuminations gorgeously (and humorously) evoke medieval texts, and often tell parts of the story that are left untold by the narrators. If that’s not enough to draw you in? There’s a lactose-intolerant, farting dragon. Ages 9 & up.

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passiondolssacover.jpgThe Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

This young adult (but readily adult crossover) novel is also set in medieval France focuses on Dolssa, a young woman whose lover is of the ethereal, holy variety and who has a gift for communicating with the divine. This incited the jealousy of a young monk who brands her heretic and attempts to burn her at the stake. She escapes, and ends up colliding into the world of matchmaker Botille and her sisters, forever changing their lives. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, this tale is immersive, peppered with phrases from the regional languages spoken at the time and full of such well-developed characters you’ll feel like you’ve lived a little inside each of them after reading. Ages 12 & up.

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(Board) Books for Baby

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I last wrote here! A lot has changed in these ten months, as I am now expecting a little one come late winter. Over the past several months, I have been alternately exhausted, elated, and anxious–and sometimes all three at once. Of course one of the first things I thought about was what books I had to have for the baby’s library. I have a list that continues to grow, and for someone who lives immersed in children’s books, winnowing the list to a manageable size is a sweat-inducing challenge. So in order to give myself the ultimate challenge, I’m highlighting my top five (board) books for my little one, in no particular order because c’mon.

babywantcollageWhat Does Baby Want? by Tupera Tupera

Spoiler alert: Baby wants milk. This tiny book has so much going for it–a pro-breastfeeding message, gleeful cheekiness, and a unique and clever design.

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nicebookcollageThe Nice Book by David Ezra Stein

Because one thing I want my kid to learn is that “love was meant to be passed on” (and that there are many ways to be nice). And Stein’s art is full of joy and childlike playfulness, so it’s fun for little eyes to look at.

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oppozoocollageThe Opposite Zoo by Il Sung Na

This is the only book on this list that was originally published as a picture book, but it is one that translates perfectly to the board book medium. Minimal text and bright, dynamic illustrations invite gazing and reading aloud.

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globalbabiescollage.jpegGlobal Babies / Bebés del mundo by the Global Fund for Children

My favorite thing about this book is that it highlights, in the simplest ways, that while we may look very different from one another, we have a whole lot in common. I’m of the opinion that it’s never too early to introduce this concept to little ones, and this book does it brilliantly for babies. And I love that this edition is bilingual!

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animalscollageMy Soft-and-Cuddly Animals by Xavier Deneux

I absolutely love all of Deneux’s innovative board books, but I love this one in particular for its two-in-one combo: The black and white color scheme that appeals to the youngest of eyes and the tactile element that promotes sensory exploration. Perfection!

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New Year, New Books

One thing that gives me hope for a good 2017 is that there are SO MANY wonderful books arriving in the coming year. Here are a few picture books that I am particularly excited about (so far), one for each of the first three months of the year.

January

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A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

Combine delicious, tongue-tying wordplay with gorgeous yet goofy illustrations, and you have my absolute favorite book so far of 2017. My review is here. And this one comes out on Tuesday, 1/3–HOORAY!

Ages 3+

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February

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Tony by Ed Galing, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

It would be very, very difficult for me to not love a story illustrated by Erin E. Stead, but the story behind this one gives it an extra specialness. On his blog, Philip Stead gave the origin story of Tony, and I guarantee if you read it you will find yourself a little misty-eyed. I think for 2017 we should all remember “that there are beautiful things happening in the world that go unnoticed.” And start noticing them–this book is a good start. My review is here.

Ages 3+

Out February 7th.

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March

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Bird, Balloon, Bear by Il Sung Na

This one’s for all those shy kindred spirits out there–may you find this lovely book helps you find the courage to find and cultivate friendships with those who are kind, loving, and understanding. My review is here.

Ages 2+

Out March 14th.

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Favorites of 2016: Or, Ten Picture Books That Got Me Through This Topsy-Turvy Year

It has been a YEAR. Our country and world seem infinitely more fractured and fraught than it did at the beginning of 2016. But more often than not, books have been the bright lights in the dark for me. I remember reading Frog & Toad as a kindergartener while my classmates and I huddled in the hallway for a tornado warning–it is one of the first reading memories I have, and it was the first time I realized that reading could bring comfort and carry me away from the abyss of anxiety.
The following are ten of my favorite picture books of 2016 for countering the abyss and empowering young readers with imagination, attention, kindness, empathy, and humor.

bearwhowasntthere_final.jpegThe Bear Who Wasn’t There: And the Fabulous Forest by Oren Lavie, illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch

A book to encourage readers to question everything–even who they are–and to expand their imagination. Plus, who wouldn’t want a friend like Turtle Taxi to help us find our way home? (Ages 6+)

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thejourney_final.jpegThe Journey by Francesca Sanna

A book to help some readers see a world that isn’t always so safe and sound, a world that many people they know or have yet to meet have experienced. Other readers might find their own story in these pages. My review is here. (Ages 4+)

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bestfrints_finalBest Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis

A book to show readers that though “best frints” might sometimes “use their teef and not their words” to solve problems (like a shmackled sposship), a little taypo and  twire and a spewdriver and more than a little camaraderie can go a long way. Also, laughter always helps. (Ages 3+)

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whengreenbecomestomatoes_finalWhen Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano, pictures by Julie Morstad

A book to guide readers gently and beautifully through the seasons, from tasting the sunshine in summer berries to appreciating the magical stillness of a snowy day. (Ages 6+)

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archiesnufflekins_final.jpegArchie Snufflekins Oliver Valentine Cupcake Tiberius Cat by Katie Harnett

A book to help readers appreciate good, old-fashioned human-to-human interaction and how it builds a community, one person at a time. We all belong here. My full review is here. (Ages 4+)

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whatcoloristhewind_finalWhat Color is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

A book to give readers a sensory experience unlike any other they can get from a book (except The Black Book of Colors). This gloriously meditative and inventive book is meant to be touched as much as it is meant to be read, from cover to cover. (Ages 5+)

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samsoninthesnow_finalSamson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead

A book to improve any reader’s bad days. I’ve lauded this book over and over, and though it was hard to choose between the two books Stead published this year (I still love you, Ideas Are All Around), this one was a clear winner for me. It’s great for reading aloud and reading alone, in tough times and good times. My review is here. (Ages 4+)

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deadbird_finalThe Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, pictures by Christian Robinson

A book to show readers that beauty can be found in unexpected places, even in death. This one is the perfect combination of frank and gentle, and is a perfect introduction to understanding the circle of life. (Ages 4+)

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soundofsilence_finalThe Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito, illustrated by Julia Kuo

A book to help readers learn how to listen around the sounds to find the silence. In world filled with so much noise, it is essential to have the skills to listen carefully. (Ages 5+)

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storyteller_finalThe Storyteller by Evan Turk

And finally, a book to celebrate the power of stories to bring people together and stop destructive forces. We need those truth-filled stories more than ever right now. (Ages 6+)

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On Kindness in Dark Times

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

-Mister Rogers


I’ll not mince words here: I supported and voted for Hillary Clinton because she was, to me, the only (and historically the most) qualified candidate. She had devoted her entire adult life to serving others. And above all else, she showed incredible poise and compassion in the face of some of the vilest hatred and bigotry. And yes, she is a woman who almost had that ultimate glass ceiling shattered.

I was heartbroken by the results of the election. But I know that despair does nothing for anyone. It’s paralyzing. And I know that all the hand-wringing, saftey-pin wearing, and blog post writing is not going to help. That’s why I’m pledging to hold my elected officials responsible–keep calling them, keep writing them. And to keep donating to and volunteering with causes that are on the side of justice and equality.

On Thursdays at Avid Bookshop, I do storytime, and this week’s was so poignant. I read books on belonging and acceptance. And as I looked at all of those little faces, I felt a little spark of hope.

Yesterday, I got an email from the Clinton campaign, reminding me that one of the ways I can keep up the good work is to “promote love and kindness where [I] live.” And today, World Kindness Day, seems an apt time to share a few of my favorite children’s books that promote love and kindness. You can bet I’ll be recommending these at the shop, hoping that the kids who read these will grow into adults full of empathy, compassion, and love for one another.


Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, pictures by Christian Robinson

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This one is my always-favorite for finding magic in the everyday–a key to being kind. Every person has a gift and a story, and like Nana, we just need to find “the beautiful where [others] never even [think] to look.”

My review.

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Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

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The message throughout the book that “you must do something to make the world more beautiful” is a clarion call. And it is all the more urgent now.

My review.

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Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead

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This is one of the books I read for storytime this week. From the dedication “to anyone who is having a bad day” to Samson’s decision that it is “better to walk than to worry,” the deliberate acts of kindness that fill this book had me nearly weeping. Honestly, pick up any book written by Stead, and you’ll find kindness, friendship, and gentleness within–it was hard to pick a favorite, but this one has my heart right now.

My review.

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Zen Ties by Jon J Muth

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Sometimes being kind to those who have a tough exterior can reveal a light within–leading to unexpected friendships. Let Stillwater show you the way.

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Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk

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When anger has its reigns on us, it is destructive. But if we can learn to transform it into compassion, we can bring light into the world. A necessary book for these dark times–and you can take a pledge to “Live Your Life as Light.”

My review.

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The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson

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This one in particular, but really–the entire Moomin series is full of inclusiveness and little kindnesses. From author Kyo Maclear’s blog:

The Moomins and the Great Flood may be a story about a terrible disaster but it is also a story about the formation of an extended family where misfits and orphans are always welcome, where ‘making kin and making kind,’ in the sense Donna Haraway has proposed, can ‘stretch the imagination and can change the story.’

“….If there is a ‘take-away’ from the Moomin stories it is that closed system thinking cannot help us. Rather than retreat into a private world of grief or flummoxed passivity, we need to find ways of treating our  vulnerability as an open window. Faced with ecological disasters, brutal wars, and the threat of destruction looming over the future of their world, the Moomins practice an insistent openness. We must too.”

See more of her comments about this book and it’s relevance to the times here.

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On Seeing and Loving the Little Things

Autumn, for me, has always been a time of quiet reflection and introspection. Summer is full of the loud and lush: crickets chirp throughout the night, cicadas rattle in the trees, and bees buzz through the brightest-colored flowers. Autumn has a beautiful taciturnity about it–the chilly wind quiets the dinny hum of summer, making beatific birdsong and crunching of leaves stand out all the more. I come to appreciate the Little Things more easily in the autumn: the way a maple leaf gracefully drifts to the ground, the way the sunbeams filter through treetops on a misty morning, or the quiet scuttle of a cheeky chipmunk dashing back to its burrow. This season invites me to “feel the welcome of small particulars” that Marilyn Nelson describes so perfectly in the poem below.

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Roxanne Steed. Autumn Morning at J. Alden Weir Farm. 2013. Oil on Belgian linen.

Step out of the frame again, and be
enveloped in birdsong and dapple.
Feel the welcome of small particulars:
the grove beside that boulder,
the white horse tied in front of that barn.
With eyes made tender, see
those elms, from shadows on the grass
to the highest leaves’ shimmer.

With your friends, lovers, family, stride
across this chromatic broken brushwork.
Sit a minute at the granite picnic table
with the artist’s daughters, dressed in summer white.
You can daub this earth, so lyric, so gentle,
from the limited palette of your own love right now.
Any place you care for can hold an easel.
Everything around you is beautiful plein aire.

-Marilyn Nelson, from Weir Farm (source)

Of Flowers and Friendship

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Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead

“A common flower, a weed that no one sees… But for us, a noble thing, the dandelion.” Thus is the humble dandelion beatified in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. In Philip C. Stead’s Samson in the Snow, Samson, a lone wooly mammoth, tends his dandelion patch with a level of care and attention that suggests he feels a similar way about these tiny bursts of sunshine. He is waiting for a friend, you see. But for now, the flowers are his sole company.

Then, a little red bird visits him (is that you, friend of Ruby?) and asks to take some flowers for her friend who “is having a bad day,” and whose “favorite color is yellow.” Samson tenderly gathers a few flowers for her to take, sees her on her way, then falls asleep, dreaming of “the color yellow.”

He wakes to white all over, as a blizzard has befallen the previously summery landscape. Samson is worried about the little red bird being caught in the storm–so worried, in fact, that he goes in search of her. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say Samson ends up with two more friends than he had before.

Philip Stead creates stories of friendship that gently nudge open your heart, filling it with warmth, magic, and inspiration. Each book of his is transformative to its readers. Dedicated to “anyone who is having a bad day,” Samson is a picture book that will definitely transform readers (and probably their days, too). Stead’s consistently innovative and expressive art (a combination of monoprint, pastels, etc.) is on display here, rendered in a limited palette of blues, greys, and browns with bright splashes of yellow (of course) and red. That final spread, showing Samson and his new friends after the storm has passed? Pure happiness, put on the page. Stead’s pacing here is also particularly poignant, as wordless spreads inform readers about the little red bird’s distress as Samson searches for her.

Reading this book is like receiving a lovingly-gathered bunch of flowers from a dear friend. It is brimming with kindness, heart, and comfort. It should be read over and over and over. For those children who understand what it is to be lonely, to yearn for friendship, this book will be exactly what they need–a gentle, touching reminder that friends can be found where you least expect them.

Ages 4-8.

On shelves today!

Published by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

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