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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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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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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BookPair: Fresh, Feminist Fairy Tales

I have a particular love for fairy tales–the way they reveal truths in the real world, the way they can be retold and rewritten to uncover new truths (see: Angela Carter, Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link): this is a particular magic that fairy tales hold.

Below are two new middle grade books (one due out this summer; one in the fall) that are doing fabulous things with the fairy tale genre for young readers–giving them fresh, feminist voices that are empowering, enriching reads for any reader!


The Girl Who Drank the Moon

by Kelly Barnhill

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Once upon a time, there was a town. Over the town hung a heavy, pungent sorrow. Within the town were a people who sacrificed their youngest child each year to a supposed witch who would keep the town safe from the dangerous woods without in exchange. One year, as fate would have it, that child was Luna. Luna was a special girl–within her was a lineage of powerful magic that she spent most of her life unaware of. She was indeed taken by a witch, but that story is not what it might seem, nor is the witch what she might seem, or is anyone, really, what they might seem.

So much of Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon is not what it might seem, in the best possible way. Her deliciously deft prose is as light and delicate as starlight yet as deep with magic as moonlight. She weaves her unique fairy tale with a sturdily-built world, strange yet beautifully-rendered characters, and plot twists that will leave even the most clever of readers breathless. The story is firmly fantasy, but its heart beats with a very real longing for family, love, and hope. This book is a must-read for fans of J.A. White’s The Thickety and Margi Preus’ West of the Moon.

Available August 9th from Algonguin Young Readers!

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When the Sea Turned to Silver

by Grace Lin

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“To be in prison with the Storyteller is to not be in a prison at all.”

In Lin’s newest addition to her beautiful series based on ancient Chinese folklore, Pinmei’s grandmother, a celebrated storyteller, is kidnapped by the power-hungry emperor. He demands the Luminous Stone That Lights the Night in exchange for her safe return. Little Pinmei, scared and painfully shy, goes off in search of this stone with the help of her friend Yishan. Along the way she encounters many unexpected friends (and discovers many unexpected things about her friends), and finds her voice and and strength through stories.

Stories have power–they give a voice to the silenced, and they reveal injustices committed by those in control.  When the Sea Turned to Silver is at its heart a celebration of storytellers and their ability to change the world. Beautifully complex characters (I love how Pinmei feels pangs of pity even for terrible emperor) and enchanting tales woven throughout give the book wings. There is so much to ponder here about the world we live in and how we can use our voices to speak up to authority, to change narratives, to reveal the truth.

Available October 4th from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers!

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Diverse Book Night at Avid Bookshop

A group of parents approached us at Avid Bookshop, wanting suggestions for books that featured children of color that weren’t “issue” books–essentially, they wanted books for their children to read and enjoy and get lost in that just happened to star a kid who looks like them.  We ended up planning a little event at Avid, and it went so well, I can’t wait to do more! Below are a few of my favorites that I shared.


Little You

by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Julie Flett

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This one’s a tiny board book, but it packs a big, beautiful, poignant punch. I actually just shared this one with a customer today, who began tearing up as she read it. (She bought it immediately). Van Camp’s loving lullaby is a celebration of joy and wonder babies inspire in their parents, and it remains well outside of the mawkish territory these paean-type books can venture into. Flett is one of my favorite illustrators working today–her art is stunningly spare yet sophisticated here, and allows the unique affection found in the parent-child bond to shine through with warmth and serenity. Both Van Camp and Flett are of Native/First Nations heritage–Van Camp is a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation, and Flett is Cree-Métis.

Ages 0-3.

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One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree

by Daniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel

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This is one of my new favorite books to read aloud–I used it for storytime, and it was a HIT. A hilarious take on There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, this book features an upbeat, resourceful little boy who is swallowed by a snake (gasp!), and while inside the snake, convinces it to eat more and more creatures until, well, you know–out they go. The rhythm of Bernstrom’s text is infectious, and Wenzel’s illustrations are vibrant, playful, and spectacularly expressive.

Ages 4-8.

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Water Is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle

by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin

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This remains one of my favorite informational picture books. I love Paul’s lyrical poem and how it streams seamlessly throughout the book and how the page turns are oh so perfectly timed. I love how Chin’s fine attention to detail creates a world and characters that seem so real they could jump out of the book. His watercolor illustrations hint at a deeper story about childhood and family and friendship that flows underneath the information about the water cycle. And the back matter is superb: clear, concise, and seriously engaging.

Ages 5 & up.

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BookPair: The Refugee’s Journey

It might be easy for us in the United States to ignore the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, but according to the UNHCR, there are almost 20 million refugees worldwide, with a total of almost 60 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. From Syria alone, there are nearly 5 million registered refugees–more than half of whom are children. And even right here in the United States, thousands of refugees (most of whom are women and children) are fleeing extreme violence in the “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Honduras.

What does it feel like to have to leave everything behind? To know that you might never see the land or people you know and love again? It’s hard for most of us to imagine. The thought of anyone, especially children, being uprooted by the violence of war and unrest, is a harrowing one. But it is happening all around the world.

There are at least two picture books coming out this fall that address the dilemmas refugees face during their journeys in the most kid-perfect way. For many kids, these books will help them begin to understand what it means to be a refugee. Those kids who have experienced forced migration might find in these books the comfort that they are not alone; that someone is listening to their story.


The Journey

by Francesca Sanna

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Oh, my. This book. What a beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeful, necessary book. A young refugee’s view of their world as it descends into the darkness and loss of war and then into a journey across unknown lands and waters to seek safety, The Journey is ultimately a superbly-done, empathic tale of the plights of too many people in our world right now. The fairy tale-like setting and touches of the fantastical makes a deeply serious story resonate at just the right tone for young readers, and Sanna’s richly detailed art is haunting and graceful, a perfect complement to her poetically moving text. Every child, every adult, should read this book, immediately.

Ages 4 & up.

Out September 13th!

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Teacup

by Rebecca Young, illustrated by Matt Ottley

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Teacup is a lyrical, diaphanous tale of the refugee’s journey–it evokes the loneliness, anxiety, and sadness of leaving everything you know behind to begin anew, tinged with a silver lining of hope for that “speck on the horizon.” Ottley’s textured, breathtaking oil paint illustrations are both incredibly realistic (those clouds!) and beautifully dreamlike, adding gentleness and whimsy to this subtly-told story. Young’s minimal text allows the reader’s imagination to run wild, and unfolds the drama at a perfect pace. Teacup is a book to linger over, appreciating the beauty to be found in the persistence and strength it takes to grow a new life in an unfamiliar place.

Ages 4 & up.

Out October 4th!

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More…

  • If you’re looking for more ways to explore this topic with kids, check out The Guardian’s great teaching resource here.
  • If you’d like to donate to help refugee children, consider an organization like Save the Children or the International Rescue Committee.