Monthly Retrospective

Here we are smack in the middle of summer, with long days and short nights and, for much of the country, a heatwave.  I hope your weather is exactly the way you like it and, above all, that you’re getting the reading time I always count on from summer.  You may or may not remember me talking about seasonal reading before, but there are certain books I associate with certain seasons– Moominland Midwinter for the coldest depths of winter, The Secret Garden for early spring.  Summer isn’t like that for me.

Summer in my childhood world was always a perfect orgy of reading everything: fairy tales and folklore, novels and poetry, plays and picture books.  The only thing I didn’t read as a child was, to the best of my recollection, even a single graphic novel or comic book.  My loss, I believe, and I’m making up for it now.  For the rest, though, it was an incredibly diverse assortment of reading, without paying any attention to what was too young or too old a book for me.  I did a lot of my most adventurous reading in the summer, probably since I had time to really dive in and explore without that pesky school getting in the way.  I had dreams, and books were my gateway to those dreams.

This list here today is a sort of tribute to that diverse dreaming: in our spotlights we have a very young book (I Use the Potty), a slightly older picture book (How to Catch a Mouse), and a spooky YA novel (The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle).  Overall for the month we have a lot of humour and a little scary (Rookskill Castle again).  We have folklore (A Squash and a Squeeze) and originality and history.  We have poetry (One Little Two Little Three Little Children) and almost poetry (Twelve Kinds of Ice).  We have a lot of fun stuff, basically, and I hope you find something in here you enjoy!

How to Catch a MouseHow to Catch a Mouse: Clemmie is such a great mouser that she’s never even seen a mouse in her house, until… uh oh!  If my daughter is anything to judge by, children will love to watch Clemmie and clamour to warn her that THERE REALLY IS A MOUSE!  Come on, Clemmie, find it!  Philippa Leathers has a witty, gentle touch in the text, and her muted colours with the glowing Clemmie standing out from the page will capture both parents and children.

I Use the Potty


I Use the Potty: Come, ye, and join our young protagonist as he shares the joy of accomplishment with you: He has learned to use the potty! The flush of excitement (that was totally intentional) is contagious, and my daughter has been encouraged to seek her own victories after seeing our protagonist’s joy in his. The illustrations are engaging with their bold lines and limited but, again, bold and bright palette. This is a truly bewitching guide to getting on the potty train!

Charmed Children Rookskill Castle

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle: An eerie and mysterious novel about the adventures a group of children experience when they’re sent to Scotland to avoid the London bombings at the outset of WWII.  With a dark and Gothic atmosphere, the novel is still lively and sympathetic due to the protagonist, Kat Bateson.  In fact, if you don’t fall in love with Kat, you should probably check your vital signs because I just can’t imagine any living being not finding themselves enthralled by her keen intellect, the regular battles between her pragmatism and imagination, and, above all, her loving warmth for her family. Get ready to shiver in delicious fear as you watch these children battle an unknown foe…

Lastly, to answer the burning question: “What is the Changeling reading?”  For the past few nights we’ve had a return to an old favourite: The Tea Party in the Woods.  Thanks for reading along, as always, and we’ll be back on Thursday with our regular musings!

Monthly Retrospective for July

I wondered, as I was scrolling through the past month, whether this month even had a theme.  But then it clicked: some of my own anxiety about my work and whether I was Doing the Right Thing (a PhD dissertation, even if you have as wonderful an advisor as mine, is an excellent vehicle for anxiety) must have crept in.  This month has had a lot of contemplative books: books about finding yourself, finding your place in the world, loving yourself and others for who they truly are, or just about voice, whether listening to another’s voice or finding your own.  That means we have a real range of books!  Some are old (Mrs. Tittlemouse) and some are very new (Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig), some are religious (Dear Pope Francis) and others have a more universal feel (Gaston).  But I find all of them uplifting– perhaps the most explicitly uplifting being Beatrix Potter and her Paint Box and, above all, The Monk and the White Cat.

This is a shorter month than usual since I took a little working vacation: my vacation posts with all of the excellent book links in them are here– The Perils of ProcrastinationVacationChecking in from TorontoChecking in from Toronto II.  But short or not, I still found it agonizing to choose books to spotlight for the month.  Here they are, in the end, and I hope you find them as inspiring as I do!

Pangur BanThe White Cat and the Monk: Based on the Old Irish poem Pangur Bán, a monk lives with his white cat, each pursuing his own craft: scholarship or hunting.  This is a particularly inspirational and uplifting book.  The illustrations reflect the contents, moving from darkness to light as the monk’s thoughts likewise become enlightened.  Children will love hunting for the hidden animals in the manuscript pages, and parents will be awestruck by the glorious illustrations.  This is wonderful for toddlers and up, and when I say “up” I mean all the way up to parents, who will find themselves saying with me, “How about this cat book again?”


Dear Pope Francis

Dear Pope Francis: Pope Francis receives, and delights in receiving, letters from children all around the world.  In this book, he answers questions from these letters: questions ranging from the religious (How did Jesus walk on water?) to the secular (Do you enjoy dancing?).  Everything from the title to the layout gives the children’s questions the privileged place in this volume: they’re in colour, they’re transcribed for easy readability, and let’s not forget that the Pope’s answers make sure we take every child’s voice seriously.  A must-read for the religious, but I think everyone can appreciate this book.

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig: This might be my absolute favourite book of the month.  Striking a perfect balance between nostalgia and originality, Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake evoke Beatrix Potter’s own tales while presenting a wholly new one which gives readers a flavour of the famous author-illustrator’s childhood and personality.  Children will love the illustrations of animals and emphasis on the pets she kept.  (Parents may be forced to come up with an answer to requests for snakes and lizards!)  Parents and children alike will love the humour and honesty of both the story and the illustrations.  And let’s not forget that it’s just an excellent story.

Finally, here is my list of all pieces for the month of June:

  • Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig (I’d recommend for ages 5+, although the Changeling, who’s nearly 3, already enjoys it.)
  • Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box (Lyrical, with watercolour text to match the images.  The Changeling requests it a lot, so toddler and up is probably fine.)
  • Mrs. Tittlemouse (Toddler and up, especially for parents and anyone who frets about housekeeping.)
  • Dear Pope Francis (Grade 1 and up.  If your kids have big questions, they’ll probably enjoy the validation.)
  • Gaston (Toddler and up.  Being a story about love and family, this is a great one for snuggles between parents and children, and for conversations about loving someone for who they are.)
  • The White Cat and the Monk (Toddler and up.  A story about finding and understanding your place in the world.)

Monthly Retrospective May 2016

AHEM: Be sure to scroll down all the way so you don’t miss the announcement about a little contest with a book prize!

First thing first: dear my readers, do you love the little book house up there as much as I do?  I just got it made for us and I’m so happy about it I couldn’t resist a little bragging. (It was made for us with pencils and coloured pencils by Clare Dean, who caught exactly the “book illustration” style I described to her rather romantically.)

On to the books. As those of you who have been reading along this month know, this month was all about reading picture books with an eye to how older children might respond to them. This was inspired by Betty Carter’s article in The Horn Book Magazine, Escaping Series Mania, in which she argues for the value of inspiring older children to read more picture books. So almost everything today is going to be going back to the same question: What can an older reader (say, Grade 1-3) get out of a picture book?

The very first thing which occurs to me is how little I altered my choices and methodology when I decided to experiment with making a month about older child readers. I attribute this to two things: a) I already read a fair number of “older” picture books, such as Jazz Day and Willy’s Stories; b) It’s really not hard to find value in giving even ostensibly “younger” books (such as Apples and Robins, which is listed for ages 4-6) to older readers. After all, I find value in reading them at age 29, so why not at age 9?

Thus much for my stint on the soapbox. I’m going to give you my spotlights now, and as a new little feature, keep scrolling after the spotlights for a few words from an editor at Charlesbridge (remember Feathers: Not Just for Flying?) about what one of their books has to offer an older audience.

One last thing: remember my Chesterton craze? Well, I’m stymied. I’m still reading Chesterton, but E. T. A. Hoffman has also somehow turned up. Flitting back and forth between the two is really weird. Bombs and automatons and placid smoking and wild crazes… I’m telling you, it’s a very strange place to be right now. But I can’t put either one down voluntarily, so I’m taking votes as to who I should focus on first. Chesterton or Hoffman? You tell me.

Now for the spotlights:

Ada Byron Lovelace

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine:

The story of young Ada and how she grows up to write what’s considered the very first computer program– before the computer even became a reality.  This is a brilliant match between author and illustrator, the story is clear and compelling, and the premise is strong without being overwhelming: Don’t let societal conventions stop you from pursuing your passions.  Ada was a mathematician at a time when women weren’t: maybe you can be, too.  For authors, this is an exemplar in the art of “show, don’t tell.”

Have You Seen My DragonHave You Seen My Dragon?: A young boy travels through New York City looking for his dragon, always accompanied by a large, and scaly friend who somehow goes unnoticed. Witty, whimsical, and just wise enough to bring you back again and again, this is now on my “buy for every child I know” list. Steve Light does things with black and white art punctuated by unexpected colours that make my own pens speechless with awe.

Apples and Robins
Apples and Robins
: There are apples, there’s a tree, there’s a ladder, a bird, a birdhouse. Then comes a storm. The child gathers the apples and rebuilds the birdhouse, and we watch what happens as the seasons continue to turn. The prime attraction in this book, what will engage younger readers, are the brilliant colours and shifting shapes as the pages turn: cleverly cut paper turns geometric shapes into birds. But older readers will appreciate both the breathtaking pictures and the story of the year turning and the seasons changing– and beginning again!




WHOOSH jkt 300.jpgThis was generously shared with me from Julie Bliven at Charlesbridge: WHOOSH! is about Lonnie Johnson’s eventual and accidental invention of the Super Soaker—one of top twenty toys of all time. A love for rockets, robots, inventions, and a mind for creativity began early in Lonnie Johnson’s life. Growing up in a house full of brothers and sisters, persistence and a passion for problem solving became the cornerstone for a career as an engineer and his work with NASA. Older readers might engage happily and enthusiastically with this particular picture book because it shares themes of curiosity, perseverance, and experimentation—traits innate to many kids as they navigate what does and doesn’t interest them in this vast world.

How about an experimental contest?

Write to me at by Friday, June 17 with a story about a bird near you (it doesn’t have to be a robin– I have a blue jay nesting near me!) for a chance to win a copy of Apples and Robins.  

Rules: One submission per person.  One winner.  Deadline is June 17, and I will choose a winner by a random number generator on Monday, June 20.  I’m afraid you do have to be in the USA or Canada.  Apart from that, have fun!  Share widely, and anyone can submit so long as you’re in the USA or Canada.

Finally, here is my list of all reviews for the month of May (and, erm, June so far):

The last thing I’ll leave you with is the Changeling’s current reading obsession: A Castle Full of Cats.  Every day now.  She’s starting to “read along.”

And that’s it for this month!  On Wednesday we’ll be back to reading new books.

Best of the Blog so far

I just want to remind you that for future retrospectives plus who knows what else (I have ideas, yes, I do…), you can now sign up for my monthly newsletter.

For this first retrospective, since we have so many books to cover (around 60!), I don’t want to limit myself to just three.  Instead, I’m giving you six spotlighted books, and we’ll lay out the others I’ve covered here so far in a nice, easy-to-skim format.  Believe me, oh my best beloveds, it was hard to narrow it down even to six.  How can I overlook brilliant classics like Outside Over There?  Or leave out Canadian classics like The Balloon Tree?  Or omit all board books– what about Here Babies, There Babies?  (Uh, so yes, I just cheated.  It’s my blog.  I can cheat if I want.)  But I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it’s just a blog post, and all books are going to be sorted out nicely at the end here.  But to make me feel better we can call these books “ones which popped out at me and hit me round the head even after quite a long time.”  It makes me feel better because I hate choosing favourites between my sweet paper babies.  (A Child’s Garden of Verses and Madlenka’s Dog.)

Now, let’s get to the best part of this: the books.  When I look over the past 6o-ish books we’ve talked about so far and think about what stands out to me, there are two elements that smack me right between the eyes.  Both of these come up repeatedly in my short list here: a) Either works by an author-illustrator, or by a combo of author and illustrator who are strikingly well-matched; b) The theme of a journey or travel, whether literal or figurative, which is navigated by ingenuity, perseverance, and inspiration.

These are obviously each very broad aspects of children’s literature, and I imagine they’ll continue to come up again and again.  Anyway, I’ve included three books where the author is also the illustrator: The MarvelsThe Fox and the StarSwap!.  They are each very different: One is a YA novel, one is an all-ages parable, and one is a humorous picture book for as young as you want to go.  What does this actually tell us?  Pretty big lessons, including that art and writing are two related means of communication, and there are few barriers that can’t be overcome by an excellent practitioner of either one.  You can produce a striking masterpiece as innovative in its way as Tristram Shandy, or you can be a second William Morris producing a second News from Nowhere, or you can stand on the shoulders of Edward Lear’s brilliant nonsense (and probably bounce, because nonsense always bounces).  And, in all of these schools, you can lay about you with pen and brush and explode everything done before.  If you’re good enough.  Brian Selznick, Coralie Bickford-Smith, and Steve Light are all good enough and to spare, and that’s why I chose them, and chose to spotlight author-illustrators.

All of them, of course, also talk about some kind of travel, some kind of journey through space or mind.  A mission, perhaps we can call it.  That makes sense: all books need to be propelled by a mission, a travel.  Some of the best examples of that drive, that journey through the book we’ve encountered so far are: SwanInstructions, and Fairyland.  Whether the journey is completely personal (Swan), figurative (Instructions), or painstakingly realistic (Fairyland), all of these are about some form of journey.  As I said, you have to have some kind of a journey from the first to last page of a book, but sometimes the journey is one you simply observe, and some journeys take you with them and return you a changed person.  All of these fall in the latter group.

Here are our spotlights for the month: Swan

Swan: This was my first post for a reason.  It’s really just that good.  It’s a biography, but it’s the biography that will teach children that the very best biographies will take you through someone else’s life and experience.  Anna teaches you how she lived and why– and inspires you to persevere as strongly, dream big, and dance through the difficulties of life.  Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad made a beautiful book, still one of the best I’ve seen since I started the blog.

The Fox and the StarThe Fox and the Star: I still think this is one of the most beautiful books I own.  It is also one of the most surprisingly accessible.  I read it with my Changeling and she loves it, but– forgive me for bragging– she’s quite a smart toddler.  And yet, so far, despite reading it with everyone I can lay my hands on, I haven’t seen it fail to enchant every single reader I meet.  Beautiful and wise, by the lovely Coralie Bickford-Smith, this is truly a special book.


Instructions: Talk about a dream team of author and illustrator (Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess are at their best). This book lets you dream, and dream about stories.  I don’t know how else to put it: it’s a book which will take you with it, and then, when you come back, you’ll take it with you all your life and be glad of it.  It will change how you see stories, and, frankly, I just think a generation of children who grew up reading this will make the world a better place.  Read it with your children, and, on a rainy day, curl up with some tea and read it yourself.


The Marvels: This book is the perfect synthesis of the two elements I mentioned above.  There’s the author-illustrator brilliance at work with Brian Selznick’s glorious pencils wreaking wonderful havoc with your expectations as you look and read, and then there’s the literal and figurative journeys throughout the book: sea travel, theatre as an analogue to the sea, and the characters’ own journeys as compared to both.  This is a lush and beautiful book to hold in your hands, and it’s just as lush an emotional experience to live through reading.  It will break your heart, but it will also heal it, and you will be glad of it.

Girl Who Circumnavigated FairylandFairyland: This is the only series I’ve written about, and I still feel I hardly began to touch on its true brilliance.  If you’ve ever felt that it was horribly unfair for all those authors to obliterate the magic at the end of their books and/or make the kids go home (C. S. Lewis, I’m looking at you), then these are for you.  Cat Valente takes you on a journey and is as anxious to get back to Fairyland as you are.  She doesn’t hide the longing or pass it off with some tired moral about how the real world is just as magical– she knows that, and she knows you know it, too.  We still want and need Fairyland, and she takes us there.  And what we find there surprises us: I found myself there.  Maybe you will, too.


Swap!: I love a good laugh, and a good think, and this book provides both.  Once again, we see the best of author-illustrator work here.  We also see gleeful whimsy, and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s sometimes just what you need.  Going from nearly-nothing to something wonderful is a journey in itself in this book, and you just know it’s going to launch into a fantastic adventure as soon as the ship has sailed off of the last page.  I encourage you to stow away and sail with it.

So, that’s it for my “short” list of recommendations for the first of these retrospectives.  As I said above, future months will be shorter since I won’t be catching up from over three months’ reviews!  The last thing here is my list of all other reviews to date, which, again, is longer than it will be in future:

And that’s it for this month!  On Friday we’ll be back to reading new books.