Summer Reading Books for Kids Who Really, Really Like Video Games

We limit video game time around here, which only seems to make it more appealing. Our son especially seems to have video games on his mind a large percentage of the time. Here are some of the books he’s enjoyed during this phase (she called it, optimistically!).


Crypt Quest/Space Battles: A Play-Your-Way Book is a choose-your-own adventure style book, written as if the reader is making video game moves. Excellent Ernesto Cousins 3/Wrestlevania was a close second favorite.


I knew just from the title that our son would be interested in Trapped In A Video Game . It’s a set, so if your kid would like to read more of these, he or she can!


We ordered Pixel Raiders: Dig World from the scholastic catalog, and then had to find Pixel Raiders: Dragon Land . I don’t know what’s going on with the rest of the series—the covers look different and slightly tacky to me.


Yeah, sure, The Ultimate Unofficial Encyclopedia for Minecrafters is an encyclopedia, but it’s text-heavy enough that I consider it reading, and it’s definitely engaging if you have a little Minecraft fan.


There are ten million books in this line, and I can’t really speak to the quality. Our son liked the first one, Diary of a Minecraft Zombie: A Scare of a Dare more than some of the others.


I’ve heard of a variety of reading challenges this year, but many included categories of books I didn’t want to spend time exploring. Also, I have a pretty ridiculous number of already-acquired books I have yet to read. Then, a terrific blogger I follow mentioned My Reader’s Block’s MOUNT TBR CHALLENGE 2019. The challenge is simply to reduce one’s preexisting TBR stack! That’s my kind of challenge! I’m making a not-too-ambitious attempt, the Pike’s Peak challenge—to read 12 books from my To Read shelf.

The shelf:

IMG_6964 (1).JPG

Spillover stacks:


One of the rules of the challenge is that the participant must read books owned prior to January 1, 2019. I’m APPALLED to realize that the majority of books I’ve read this year are also books I’ve acquired this year! No wonder that stack will not dwindle! (“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik was worth it, though!)

Here are two, at least, I can count toward the 12:

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt***½

This is a story peopled by the unhinged. Louisa works at the Waldorf as a maid; her father is a night watchman at a library. An aged Nikola Tesla resides at the Waldorf at this time. On the train, Louisa meets Arthur, whom she does not recognize, but who remembers her from her school days. Not one of these characters is in his or her right mind, and their perceptions, actions, and beliefs are generally bizarre and fantastical.

The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis*****

This is a play, not a novel, and it’s terrific. It’s about an addict in recovery and his relationships with his girlfriend and his mentor. It’s profane, hilarious, and also sad. I loved it.

I like this challenge for the encouragement and for the satisfaction of completing a challenge one did not invent oneself.

We read quite a few books—mostly middle grade—out loud with our children, but I’m not sure if I should count those. Some are rereads, or aren’t from my personal TBR shelf. For now, I think I won’t count them.

This seemed worth posting about for anyone else in my situation. Anchors aweigh!

4 to 5 Star Books From 2018

I’ve been keeping a not-super-organized Google doc list of books I’ve read, year by year. I include a star rating and a few lines to remind me of the story and what I particularly liked or disliked about it. Right now I’m unwilling to list publicly the books I DIDN’T enjoy. Instead, here’s a list of the books I gave 4 to 5 stars this year. The star rating pretty much reflects how much I enjoyed reading it, but I know I can’t promise you’ll feel the same way.


THE MAKER OF SWANS by Paraic O’Donnell ****½

There’s a quote on the cover of this book that calls it, “a deeply pleasurable gothic fantasy.” I cannot improve upon that description. For the first 50 pages or so I felt slightly unmoored; it was hard to get a sense of what was going on with the characters. I’m glad I waited out those first pages because it moved along at a clip thereafter. I particularly enjoyed O’Donnell’s descriptions of magic.


This is an illustrated book about an alien who’s sent to earth to study humans. I found it funny, charming, and thoughtful.

THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro*****

A forgetfulness-inducing mist shrouds post-Arthurian Britain in this novel. The story follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set out to find their son, whom they can only dimly remember. They navigate their way in a world where ogres, sprites, strange wolves, and even dragons exist, but it’s the unpredictable people they encounter who are the most dangerous of all. I loved this book so much, I expect it will be my favorite book of the year. (Update: I was right!)

THE DRY by Jane Harper ****

Detective novels aren’t usually my genre, but if they were, I bet I’d give this 5 stars. Aaron Falk is a white-collar detective, returning to the drought-stricken town of his youth for a friend’s funeral. He stays to investigate the murder, and winds up dealing with unpleasantness from his past, too. This is set in a small mostly farm community in Australia, and for me the setting was part of the book’s interest.

THE WALK HOME by Rachel Seiffert ****

This story has two major narrative threads. The first follows a couple’s meeting, having a child, and slow heartbreak. The second follows that child, an older runaway, after his mother has walked out. It’s set in Glasgow, and I feel I missed occasional clues about prejudices and slurs. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, and though there were times where it felt slow, ultimately I always wanted to go back to it.

I AM MALALA by Malala Yousafzai (with Patricia McCormick)*****

This is the true story of the now Nobel Prize Winner-a girl who spoke out about every child’s right to be educated. The Taliban took over her town in Pakistan and began to threaten her. One day they shot her, on a bus, riding home from school. Malala survived and was moved to Birmingham, England, where she now lives, and she continues to travel the world in support of children’s education. This is an incredibly powerful, inspiring story.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr ****

This is a WWII novel that follows the stories of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives with her father in Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a boy who joins the Nazi forces. That description does not do justice to the scope of the novel; there are many other characters whom we come to know and love. The details of both the technical and natural world are different and interesting, and the writing is excellent.

READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline ****

Wade Watts spends most of his otherwise bleak life in a MMORPG called the OASIS. The creator of the OASIS, “Anorak,” has died, and left behind an epic quest. The person who solves his riddles and completes the quest will inherit his fortune. The competition soon becomes bloody IRL. Wade teams up with three friends to compete against the evil corporate overlords who are also on a mission to complete the quest. This novel is chock full of 80’s movies, tv, music, and video game references, and I’m the right age to enjoy them. It was a fast, pleasurable read.

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides ****½

This is the true story of Captain George De Long and his crew of men who sail the USS Jeanette into the Arctic to explore. Their boat becomes trapped in ice and sinks, and the men make their way across the frozen ocean to try to reach Siberia. Today, it’s mind-boggling to hear the theories these explorers debunk, for example, the idea that there is a warm polar sea at the north pole. It’s a pretty harrowing story, and kept me up late many nights.

SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward ****½

Leonie has a drug habit and a gift for seeing ghosts, including her dead brother. Her 13-year-old son, JoJo, doesn’t trust her, and spends much of his time taking care of his baby sister, Kayla. JoJo’s and Kayla’s father Michael is in jail for dealing drugs. A road trip to the prison to pick up his father turns up all kinds of problems, terrors, and ghosts. This story covers all kinds of territory--racism, the penal system, family--all in a world where mystical, sometimes dark and unpleasant, things can happen. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read this before seeing Jesmyn Ward at her reading, which was terrific.


This book is well written, and it stays well within the lines of drama without venturing into melodrama. The story follows Mia Warren, an artist and single mother, and her daughter, Pearl. They move to a “nice” suburb and become entangled with a kind of legacy family there, the Richardsons. What makes this novel different is that Mia and her daughter are Asian in a majority white community. The story moved at a fast pace, especially toward the end.

EVICTED by Matthew Desmond ****½

This nonfiction book brings to light the struggles of the poorest people in America, and what happens to them and their families when they lose their housing. Desmond reveals some of the ugliest wrongs entangled in the practice of eviction--how women who too often report spousal abuse to the police receive eviction notices for being a “nuisance”; how landlords take advantage of those who are behind on rent by refusing to fix broken toilets/sinks/doors/windows/stoves; and how landlords evict those who request a state inspection. The problem seems too terribly enormous to fix, but Desmond offers some solutions. This is a difficult but important book.


This is a spooky middle grade book set at the Biltmore estate during the time the Vanderbilts lived there. Serafina’s father keeps things running in the mansion, and Serafina pads around the mansion at night, catching rats with her bare hands. She sleeps behind the boiler. Serafina is different, slightly feral, and light on her feet. When children start disappearing at Biltmore, Serafina tells Braeden, Mr. Vanderbilt’s nephew, what she saw in the nights: a terrifying, mysterious figure with a black cloak that seems to swallow children whole. He lurks in the mansion. Serafina is the one who discovers who it is and stops him. I really enjoyed this book--the pace was great, and the plot fairly thrilling.

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles ****

Count Alexander Rostov has committed the crime of being a Count, and during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, he is confined to spend his life under house arrest at the Metropol, a luxurious hotel near the Kremlin. Towles sets the novel almost entirely inside the hotel. The relationships the Count forms, the difficulties and joys he encounters, and his end game all keep the story moving. I enjoyed this very much.

CAREFUL, HE MIGHT HEAR YOU by Sumner Locke Elliot*****

PS has spent the first six years of his life living with his Aunt Lila and Uncle George in Neutral Bay, in Australia. Then ominous whisperings begin about the arrival of his Aunt Ness, and soon she arrives from England: cool, poised, snobbish, and very rich. She has decided she will raise PS part time, and has managed to get PS’s alcoholic father’s approval to do so. Elliot writes deftly from many points of view, and the characters and full story unfold beautifully. I had to slow myself down toward the end of the book, when I reached a portion where I wanted to know what would happen so much that I started reading too quickly. I thought this was an excellent novel.

A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly*****

This is the story of Mattie Gokey, a girl who lives in rural Herkimer County in New York in 1906. Her mother has passed away, her older brother has left, and Mattie struggles with helping her father run a farm and raise her younger siblings. Mattie has a talent for writing and an avid interest in literature, but her life doesn’t leave much room for these things. Mattie’s future seems tied to the farming community, which is far from her her dream. This book is a coming-of-age story, based on the real-life murder case of Grace Brown. It’s worth every penny.

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman****½

Two people recommended this book to me, and it was everything they said it was: touching, funny, and a fast read. The story is about a grouchy widower, Ove, whose plans to commit suicide are waylaid again and again by his neighbors. It sounds sad, but it’s poignant and ultimately feel-good.


This series was definitely a guilty pleasure--high fantasy and romance. It’s YA a la Twilight, and I was pretty shocked at the graphic sex scenes. It isn’t that I have never read sex scenes before, but I suppose I thought the fact that it was YA would make it tamer. At any rate, the story revolves around Feyre, a human who shoots a wolf-that-is-not-a-wolf, and is forced to cross the wall between the human realm and the Fey realm as a consequence. Feyre ends up a prisoner of Queen Amarantha, Under the Mountain, but her suffering ends up freeing the Fey people. It’s more complicated than all that, and I really appreciate the interesting interplay of these imaginary realms and the complicated people. Knocking off half a star for repetitive descriptions, at times.

THE FISH GIRL by Mirandi Riwoe ****

!!!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

Geeeeeeez, this one does not pull any punches. It’s a fast-paced novella about an Indonesian girl who goes to work in the kitchen of a Dutch family. She’s betrayed by the only boy she’s interested in, sent off on a ship with a lustful Dutch captain, raped twice, and then drowned. The characters are good, the writing is good, it’s just . . . oof.

CHERRY by Mary Karr****½

Mary Karr writes an excellent memoir. I’m impressed with how vulnerable she makes herself, writing about all kinds of things people generally keep to themselves. She’s open about sex and drugs and mistakes, and she has an excellent sense of storytelling. This is the third of her memoirs I’ve read, and I guess I’ll just read everything she writes.

WORDS IN DEEP BLUE by Cath Crowley ****½

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this YA book. It opens with a young person’s death-by-drowning, and I wasn’t sure I could take it. Happily, the plot moves on to a different location (a used bookstore, mostly) with a likable cast of characters and the best kind of title-dropping. It’s a love story, a nice one.

ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer **** This literary thriller kept me hooked throughout. I wanted to understand what was happening. The story follows a female biologist, part of a 4 person team exploring a vaguely terrifying place called Area C. We learn early on that she will be the only survivor from her expedition, and then it unfolds. Well done and spooky.

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley*****

I absolutely loved this story about Ada, a girl born with a club foot and a horrible mother. Ada is unable to walk, and her abusive mother keeps her locked up. With the bombing of London imminent, however, the city is busing children to the countryside for safety. Ada takes her little brother, and they leave town. Their lives change forever—and for the better. A++ would read again.

HARK! A VAGRANT by Kate Beaton****

This is a book of comics relating to history and/or literature. I laughed out loud at some of them. Others fell flat for me because I don’t know much about history and am too lazy to read up on some people. Still, fully enjoyable!

HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado****

It’s been a while since I read a short story collection. These were terrific, well written, dark, feminist fantasies. They were racy and disturbing and hard to read and unfolded remarkably. I am jealous of Machado’s talent. Reading more than one at a time left me in a state of existential despair. I thought these were excellent, and yet I’m happy to be done reading them.

12 Books or Series My Elementary Aged Children Liked Enough to Re-Read

I admit it. I’m leaving Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series off of this list because it’s hard to find folks who haven’t heard of them already. This list includes graphic novels and chapter books and one nonfiction book. (Don’t miss #12. It’s great.)

  1. The Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon. (Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7) My kids are both total Ursula Vernon fans. I could include the Hamster Princess series in this list, too.


2. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede (Ages 10-12, Grades 5-7) For a year I’ve been finding these all over the house.


3. D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D’Aulaire and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire We have one myth-obsessed reader. I could do a lengthy post on various mythology based books alone, but I’m already 3 into this list.


4. Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Ages 8-12) I can’t figure out how to do the little tilda to correctly spell “Munoz” on this site. My daughter read this for her book club, and then read it again a couple more times.


5. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan (Grades 5 and up) (But my daughter and many of her 4th grade classmates love it, so.)


6. The Bad Guys series by Aaron Blabey (Grades 2-5, Ages 7-10) I have a second-grade-boy and a fourth-grade-girl, and they both get excited when a new one of these Bad Guys books appears in that Scholastic handout they bring home from school.


7. Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action! by Scott McCormick, illustrated by R.H. Lazzell (Grades K-3) I’ve mentioned this one before because my son chortled through it the first time and immediately read it again.


8. Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke (Grades 4-7) Plus I almost named Hatke’s equally popular graphic series Zita the Spacegirl.


9. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (teen/young adult) My husband heard a review of this on NPR I think, and he bought it. Then he accidentally left it on an airplane. I picked up another copy for him, and when I did, I had our daughter with me. She started reading it in the car and would not relinquish it until she had finished it. Then she read it again. It seems it might be intended for a slightly older audience than fourth graders, but too late now, I guess.


10. The Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (Ages 7 and up, Grades 2 and 3) My kids tried Pilkey’s other big series, Captain Underpants, but didn’t really take to it. This one, however, has been a big hit.


11. The Secret Coders series by Gene Luen Yang (Ages 8-12, Grades 4-6) (Okay, but my 2nd grader really loved them, too.) A friend of mine told me about this series, and my kids sped through them and then turned around and sped through them again.


12. Animals of a Bygone Era: An Illustrated Compendium by Maja Safstrom (I can’t get the umlauts working on here, either; Maja’s last name isn’t spelled correctly.) My cousin’s kids picked this out for our 2nd grade boy, and let me tell you something: this is a GREAT gift. It’s nonfiction, and it’s full of interesting facts. My son kept reading aloud with astonishment, and I was sincerely interested. We all liked it so much, we bought The Illustrated Compendium of Amazing Animal Facts, too, which is just as marvelous if not better. I really hope nobody misses these. They are terrific.

Good Read-Aloud Books for a 6-7 Year Old Boy and an 8-9 Year Old Girl

A good read-aloud for our family has fast pacing, cliff-hanger chapter endings, and interests both adults and children. Here are some of the winners.


I know, like anyone needs me to introduce them to Rick Riordan. Still, The Lightning Thief was a terrific book to read aloud with the kids. We ended up reading the entire series together as a family.


If you have a boy who loves dragons living in your household, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a great choice. My daughter read it on her own, also, more than once. We're big Grace Lin fans around here.


We read Fortunately, The Milk aloud on the excellent advice of my brother-in-law, and then found a great audio book version narrated by Neil himself. We've listened to that version in the car many times.


My husband and I both loved My Side of the Mountain growing up. The kids enjoyed it, too, and it was a pleasantly nostalgic experience reading it aloud together.


My Father's Dragon was one of the first longer books we read aloud to the children, and it was perfect. 


Serafina and the Black Cloak was a fantastic, spooky book to read aloud with the whole family. I was worried it might be too scary for our younger one, but he has been fine with it. We're now halfway through the last book in the trilogy, and I went out and bought another Robert Beatty book, Willa of the Wood, so we won't be bereft when it ends.


I know I've mentioned Dangerous Island before. It was great when I was little, and it's great now.



Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the more accessible Roald Dahl books for younger kids. James and the Giant Peach is a good one, too.  You can read Fantastic Mr. Fox aloud yourself, or you can check out the audio version read by Chris O'Dowd, which it seems I will never stop recommending.


The children mostly enjoyed hearing Ragweed, but I didn't enjoy reading it aloud. Some mice spoke in a vernacular I grew tired of attempting. 


I can just tell this is the kind of list that will need refreshing, and that I'll be too lazy to update.

Survival (or not) Stories

I have a thing for good survival stories--or good disaster stories, really. Happy endings are pleasing, but I'm interested either way. I didn't intend to read in a specific subgenre, yet there seems to be a theme here. I should mention these are for grown-ups.

Most recently I read this one:


Here's a strange fact from page 49: Edmond Halley, who calculated the orbit of Halley’s comet back in the 18th century, also believed “the earth was hollow, suffused with luminous gases, and inhabited by animals and even a race of humans.” To me that sounds only slightly more bonkers than on-purpose sailing a ship to the North Pole to see if the ocean is frozen or not up there. It makes for a pretty thrilling story, though. I stayed up too late reading it.

As I was reading, I was reminded of another, similarly harrowing epic adventure. It takes place on the other end of the earth, though:


It took me a while to find our copy of this book to take a picture of it. We have hundreds of books in no order at all, so when I want to find something I simply scour the shelves for it. I read this one a while ago, but happily I took some notes when I did:


This is a nonfiction adventure/survival account of Ernest Shackleton’s crew. The men become ice locked aboard the Endurance near the south pole and lose the boat. This is the story of how they winter, and how Shackleton and a small group make for a whaling port to enlist a relief ship. It’s amazing, all the more so for being true. After a slow start, I couldn’t put this down.

Here's another excellent book I heard was made into a movie. I didn't bother with the movie because I didn't think it could be better than this:


This is an account of the whaling ship that was bizarrely attacked by a whale, and the crew members who survived. Melville based Moby Dick on this story. It's pretty shocking.

In summary: if you want to spend a few days with your mind in the Arctic/Antarctic/adrift at sea, these are for you. 


Nothing Day

You children call it a “Nothing Day.” You say it with delight: no tennis, no piano, no swimming. Instead, you turn book pages and select markers; you stack Legos and strap on helmets. Really you’re crafting. This feeling, the Nothing Days—and all the Something Days— these are the hours of your tender new lives, the making of you. I want to clutch this time. It’s my history, too, but you dart and laugh, you test your strength, you play and play, all busy with your fast-beating hearts.

Sinking; Book of the Year

I'm editing and editing a third draft of a novel, and it's increasingly feeling like I'm polishing fixtures on the Titanic.   Let's digress.

I once met a woman who was--I swear I'm not making this up--a real, live bounty hunter. She said she read a book a day. A whole book, every day, and I absolutely believed her. Yet when we started listing favorite books, we could not find one in common. The world of books is that big. Also, it was a problem of genre. We just seemed to like different things.

All to say, a few weeks ago I read a book I loved so much it could have been written specifically to my taste, and you might not like it at all. 


THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro*****

A forgetfulness-inducing mist shrouds post-Arthurian Britain. The story follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set out to find their son, whom they can only dimly remember. They navigate their way in a world where ogres, sprites, strange wolves, and even dragons exist, but it’s the unpredictable people they encounter who are the most dangerous. I know it's early to call it, but I loved this book so much, I expect it will be my favorite book of the year.

HOLIDAY Gifts for Kids & Grown Ups 2017

For anyone still buying gifts, I thought I might mention some toys and things that have been popular at our house. Nobody's paying me for this, by the way. 

1. Fractiles

Our kids put together some unexpectedly cool designs with these flat magnets. I've occasionally been surprised at just how long they'll work on their own. (Picture taken from the Fractiles site.)

Our kids put together some unexpectedly cool designs with these flat magnets. I've occasionally been surprised at just how long they'll work on their own. (Picture taken from the Fractiles site.)

2. Invisible Writer Pens There are lots of different kinds of these, and they're available all over the place. Here's the kind our kids have, and one place to buy them:

(Photo taken from the Creative Kid Stuff site.) There are secret messages all over our house, unless there are crumpled blank notes with names on them, strewn about. Always possible.

(Photo taken from the Creative Kid Stuff site.) There are secret messages all over our house, unless there are crumpled blank notes with names on them, strewn about. Always possible.

3. Walkie Talkies and the Jack Stalwart series by Elizabeth Singer Hunt

My daughter was a fan of Jack Stalwart first, and now her brother is tearing through them. He likes a page at the beginning of every book that tells about the spy tech Jack will use in the upcoming story. The Lego walkie talkie pictured above, which the kids have been using, doesn't seem to be available any more. I think a walkie talkie set and the first Jack Stalwart book would make a pretty great gift.

My daughter was a fan of Jack Stalwart first, and now her brother is tearing through them. He likes a page at the beginning of every book that tells about the spy tech Jack will use in the upcoming story. The Lego walkie talkie pictured above, which the kids have been using, doesn't seem to be available any more. I think a walkie talkie set and the first Jack Stalwart book would make a pretty great gift.

4. Adjustable Height Standing Wooden Easel

I'm having a difficult time figuring out exactly which easel we have. I've linked one that's similar, anyway, though pricey.

My daughter and I painted this picture together in her room, and it is one of the most fun projects I've ever done with her. If you want to bond with your 8-year-old, I recommend it! 

My daughter and I painted this picture together in her room, and it is one of the most fun projects I've ever done with her. If you want to bond with your 8-year-old, I recommend it! 


5. The Books of Bayern series by Shannon Hale

There are a variety of covers for this series; I've collected my favorites here. I really like Shannon Hale's stories, and I'm just WAITING to introduce my daughter to them. A couple sites recommend them for grades 6-9 or ages 12+. 

There are a variety of covers for this series; I've collected my favorites here. I really like Shannon Hale's stories, and I'm just WAITING to introduce my daughter to them. A couple sites recommend them for grades 6-9 or ages 12+. 

The last fort our kids built also involved a second wing, with a blanket draped over the dresser and clothes-pinned to the bed. I wish I'd taken a picture.

The last fort our kids built also involved a second wing, with a blanket draped over the dresser and clothes-pinned to the bed. I wish I'd taken a picture.

(Photo from iTunes site.) This has been the screen-time game of choice for a while around here. 

(Photo from iTunes site.) This has been the screen-time game of choice for a while around here. 

And now I'll list a whole bunch of my favorite things, in case you need a gift for a grown-up.

1. The best running socks in the whole world.

2. Ellen Barrett workout videos.

3. This wine. 

4. I know this is a tough sell. I understand it is meant for 5th graders, but THIS COLLECTION OF MONOLOGUES IS GREAT.
I'm just going to keep talking it up until I die.

5. The board game Codenames. 

6. I keep a list of books I've read every year, so I'll just cut and paste some I enjoyed in 2017, though they may have been published in other years:

MR. SPLITFOOT by Samantha Hunt *****

This novel is difficult to put down. The plotline switches between the childhood of Ruth and Nat, two foster children who meet in a less-than-ideal group home, and a later era, when Ruth is on a strange journey with her niece, Cora.  I found the story thrilling, creepy, and unpredictable. Two thumbs up.

THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang ****½

I thought I’d read a couple pages of this one night, and stayed up too late reading as long as I was able. This book follows a woman named Yeong-Hye who has a violent dream and consequently becomes a vegetarian. How the fallout from this affects her family, and Yeong-Hye’s deteriorating mental state, make for a dark, interesting, comfortless but excellent story.


This story follows a beautiful young British girl named Katherine, who attends a dinner with an older man only to discover it is at the house of her Professor, Jacob Goldman. This is the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the Goldman family. Katherine becomes friends with Jane Goldman, who is married to Jacob, and falls in love with two of the Goldmans’ sons, first Roger and finally Jonathan. In between those love affairs, she suffers a devastating loss. The author treats sex breezily, as do all of the characters in the book, and all the characters insult each other nastily yet humorously. I’d be uncomfortable among these folks, I think, and yet I enjoyed reading about all of them.

THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden**** 

This is a fairy tale-esque novel set in Russia. The story follows a young girl named Vasya, who has inherited her “witch” mother’s powers and ability to see spirits. An evil spirit--The Bear-- feeds on fear, and seeks to take over Vasya’s town. The winter demon, or Death, is on Vasya’s side, and together they take on The Bear. I really enjoyed this story, although the ending felt a little too neat.

THE NIX by Nathan Hill ****½

This novel follows Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a troubled English professor, and his mother, Faye, who abandoned him as a child. The timeline switches between 2011, Samuel’s childhood, and the 1960s. The plot is intricate, and I won’t be able to do justice to it with my description; suffice it to say, the writing here is excellent. This is the kind of book where you want to read lines aloud to other people. Hill calls out life truths with insight and humor. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

How We Taught Our Kids to Read

I just want to start off by saying I have no degree in education and I'm not a teacher. For a few years, I worked for the reading team at LeapFrog Enterprises, which had a dedicated learning team of people who DO hold PhDs in education. I learned a lot from them about how kids learn to read, which was more helpful than I imagined it would be when it came time to teach our own children. (I wish I'd had the opportunity to work on a math team, too!) This stuff worked for us, but I know there are lots of different approaches. 

Here's how we went about it, step by step. For the record: the steps are mostly here to enable me to write a somewhat organized blog post. We weren't totally rigid about what we were introducing or anything, like "today is the day we learn vowel teams!" We just did things in order from easy to hard as well as we could. (I'm going to mention some old school LeapFrog products, but no one is paying me to do so. I just happen to think some of them are pretty great.)


The first step was teaching the kids that letters make sounds and the sounds make words. If you're not confident that you're covering all the sounds that letters make--for example, vowels-- there's an excellent (IMO) LeapFrog video called The Letter Factory:

This video is like magic. I can't explain it. Something about the combination of music, visuals, and letter sounds really worked. 

We also spent time sitting on the floor in front of the refrigerator and playing with Fridge Phonics:

Children can hear the sounds the letters make on their own by pressing the letter, but I think we really got more educational value out of it by sitting there and asking what sounds the individual letters made, and sometimes asking if they could think of a word that started with that sound. Once they knew the letters and their sounds, we'd use the magnetic letters to spell easy-to-decode CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. More on those later.

There are hundreds and hundreds of alphabet books out there, and we read those, like everyone else. One I remember particularly is the I Spy Little Letters book, which for a long stretch there was part of a nightly bedtime reading ritual.


An activity I'd do with the kids that *I* found fun, too, was with just scrap paper and a pen. I'd draw a "secret picture" and cover it with my hand. Then I'd get them to try to figure out what the secret picture was by sounding out letters. For example, I'd draw a little cartoon cat and cover it with my hand. Then I'd spell it out one letter at a time. I'd write a "C" and ask, "What does the C say?" Then I'd write an "A" and ask, "What does the A say?" Then I'd write a "T" and ask what it said, and then I'd have them say the sounds all in a row: C-A-T and then, ta-da! I'd show them the picture. They'd get tired of it after 4-5 pictures, usually.

(Confession: I started out using "BAT" as an example here, but cats are much easier to draw.) (I also immediately put on hand lotion after taking the first picture with a hand that looked like a withered chicken foot.) 


After the kids had learned the letters and their sounds, we introduced them to CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. These are words that are the easiest ones to sound out, the Dr. Seuss kind, i.e.: cat, hat, fan, ham, pit, pig, log, pot, jet, net, wet, pup, cup, etc. (At first we avoided r-controlled vowels in otherwise easy words like "car" and "far" and "fur" because the r changes the sound the vowel makes.) 

We did things like read Dr. Seuss books and have the kids sound out a word here and there. I don't mind saying this can get pretty mind-numbing.



One activity we did with those magnetic Fridge Phonics letters was to spell a word like CAT, and then swap out the first letter to see what other words we could make using the "at" ending. It felt so marvelously educational that even doing that with a child for a few minutes made me feel like a rock star. 

There's a nice little Dora the Explorer app called Dora Hops Into Phonics! that features games like that. We used it on the iPad.


Once they had a handle on sounding out CVC words, we slowly worked on the sounds the R-controlled vowels make (the way ur sounds in fur, the way the way or sounds in for, etc.). If you simply Google "r-controlled vowels," you'll find all kinds of word lists and information about them.

We introduced blends (two letters together, like the "st" in stop, the "pl" in play) and digraphs (two letters that make a different sound when put together: th, ch, wh, sh). There are probably a ton of LeapFrog toys that work on those two things, but I know there's an activity that uses digraphs in this Tag Book:  

There's a spread where the reader matches digraphs to words, for example the digraph "th" to the word third.

Around this time we also worked on Silent-E words (or "Magic-E" words). Someone at LeapFrog told me a good way to teach it is to say that an E on the end makes the middle letter stand up and say its name, the way the "a" says "a" in cane, or the way the "e" says "e" in here. 

Here's an old Between the Lions song about Silent-E:


I really liked these sets of Montessori readers called Miss Rhonda's Readers:

New readers can read a whole book and feel accomplished. I had favorites (Run Crab). You can buy the set here:

There are tons of great easy readers out there. I suppose if you are new to the game and haven't started with easy readers you may not have heard of MO WILLEMS and ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE, aka the best easy readers ever.


You're welcome.

Other good ones:

Big Egg by Molly Cox is another good one for kids who are really just starting to read.

Dragon Egg by Mallory Lochr we read several times. It seems like all our reading was egg-themed, but it wasn't, I swear.

Good Night, Good Knight by Shelley Moore Thomas stands up well to rereading, too.

There are too many good easy readers out there to name them all, I suppose. I probably shouldn't have even tried making a list. I think I'll just stop here.


There are so many things to introduce, and I know I'm not covering everything, since of course a lot of reading with a kid is crossing those bridges when you come to them. Some of the concepts I can remember specifically teaching are double vowels like the "oo" in moon, or the "ee" sound in teeth. 

Vowel teams like ou, ea, ie, etc. are tricky because there are so many exceptions. The "ea" in head sounds a lot different from the "ea" in bead.

This is an image from that  Between the Lions  song.

This is an image from that Between the Lions song.

 There's another somewhat helpful Between the Lions song about vowel teams, "When Two Vowels Go Walking," that someone on the Learning Team recommended to me. I might have sung it once or twice during reading time. It's here:

When I couldn't find enough easy reader books on a topic my kid loved, I'd sometimes write up my own and use clip art or look around online for accompanying images. As long as you aren't publishing it, it's a-ok! That way, if there's a vowel team like "ou" you're working on, you can write a "book" about a Cloud that can Shout Out Loud! or whatever. 

Here's a list of sight words that I'd sometimes include in the "books," too.


I love our local library. Libraries are the best. For both kids, the summer they were 3 years old, we signed them up for Summer Reading at the library. They don't have to be reading on their own to do it! It's a nationwide thing that everyone can do! The kids earn credit for every 15 minutes they read on their own or every 15 minutes an adult reads to them. After a certain number of hours of reading, they get a prize. We made a big deal about coloring in the squares every day.

A teacher at our kids' school recommended, a website that has all kinds of literacy materials. I think it's pretty great. Our youngest really liked the stories under the "I'm Reading!" tab. Some of them have little animations here and there.  Sometimes the promise of a screen is more appealing than a book (as I can personally attest! Thank goodness that was the season finale of The Magicians!), but SURPRISE LITTLE FRIEND this is in fact SNEAKY READING.

Another activity I did a lot was I'd sit one of the kids on my lap at the computer and have him or her "write" (dictate) a story. I'd type it out, and he or she would also choose pictures to go with it-- MS Word clip art or occasionally Google images. I really loved this. The stories were often hilarious. Some of them we're keeping forever. Here's one the two wrote together:

Now that the kids are older, we only read to them for 15 minutes per day, and then they read on their own for 45 minutes before bed. (It's not the only time they read, but it's the only scheduled time.) They're pretty independent readers now. The challenge at this point is finding books at the right reading level for them. If the books are too hard, the kids lose interest, but they often WANT to check out those harder books because the COVERS ARE SO COOL.  I recently discovered this useful website:

This last line is my wrapping-up sentence.


"If You Liked" Reading Lists for Grown-Ups

Last week, someone on Facebook asked for a reading recommendation, and I wrote a list of titles so long I had to stop and ice my knuckles.  

No, not really. In fact, I just barely TOUCHED that comments section. Then a couple days ago, I saw the librarians at our library have posted the kind of "If you liked ____ , you might also like ____!" lists I sometimes find helpful. I thought: I will make some of those, too! It will be fun, oh so fun, and no one on Facebook need suffer if they aren't interested! So here we go:



THE COVE by Ron Rash

The Cove is part mystery, and has a kind of gothic feeling to it. It takes place in North Carolina during WWII, and follows a brother and sister who have been shunned by their community because the neighbors think the family is cursed. 



MR. SPLITFOOT by Samantha Hunt 

This novel is creepy and unpredictable. The plot line switches between the childhood of Ruth and Nat, two foster children who meet in a less-than-ideal group home, and a later era, when Ruth is on a strange, fraught journey with her niece, Cora.  


Ward does this thing where she gets four or five different lines of tension pulling the reader through the story. The setting is rural Mississippi, just before Katrina strikes. The characters are sympathetic and interesting. 

THE OUTLANDER by Gil Adamson

This novel is set in 1903 in the American west. I’ve never rooted so hard for a murderess.




STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

This novel follows Dr. Marina Singh, who travels to the rain forest in Brazil to investigate the death of a coworker conducting research there.  


EUPHORIA by Lily King

This story is set in the 1930s. It’s about three anthropologists living near New Guinea and studying the native tribes there. The anthropologists uncover the secrets of the tribes they study, and the secrets of their own lives are revealed, too. The love plot line is heartbreaking and believable.

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

The structure of this story is unusual--it follows the life, or lives, really, of the main character, Ursula Todd. In the book, her life starts over and over again; when events or mistakes lead to the end of her life, it begins anew and an alternate path unfolds. The ending is one we’ve all wished for at one time or another.





WOOL by Hugh Howey
It’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story about human beings who live in an underground silo.



A post-apocalyptic story that moves along at a clip. It's about a girl who is . . . different. I liked the ending.

THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin

This novel has a rapid, tense, they're-coming-to-get-you story line. Perfect vacation book. At least, for people who like to read about a dark, monster-ridden, post-apocalyptic world during their vacations.



This story follows a surgeon named Dorrigo Evans and his company of soldiers who suffer in a Japanese POW camp. Portions of the novel also take place in Australia before and after the war.


MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes

This is a book about the Vietnam war, and I don’t think it could have been written if the author hadn’t experienced it himself. The descriptions are vivid. It kept me up at night.

NOTHING TO ENVY by Barbara Demick

This title is different from all the others on this list so far because it is nonfiction. This book follows the lives of citizens of North Korea who begin as true believers and end as defectors. They give accounts of the incredible and terrible circumstance of living in North Korea. It seems impossible that a regime such as this should exist in modern times. 



The range of topics Orozco covers --from temporary office workers to presidents in exile--is impressive and interesting. I'm a fan.

THE TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders

This is a rare thing: a short story collection, with each story so good it is hard to put down.  There are some dystopian stories, some more traditional, all from really interesting points of view. I also laughed aloud now and then, speaking of rare. 

10 Holiday Gift Ideas for Kids, Namely: Books

I always feel good about giving the kids books for Christmas--hours of fun available to them once the holidays have ended. The recommendations below are not my personal favorites, but the kids'. I'm basing this list on series or single books that have been most popular with our children.

Note: I'm linking to Amazon here because that makes it easy to be consistent, but I also think it's pretty cool to support local bookstores if you have that option. 

1. THE AMULET SERIES by Kazu Kibuishi

This will be my number one recommendation because it's been such a sensation at our place. If you have not heard of this GET READY. We checked book one out of the library, and had to purchase the rest because the kids couldn't wait for them to become available. My seven-year-old has reread these graphic novels multiple times in the last couple months. My husband just finished them and agrees they're really good. I've read book one so far.  The illustrations are gorgeous, and the story is --thus far-- terrific fun. 

Publisher recommended age range 8-12 years, grades 3-7.

2. The Zac Power series by H. I. Larry

This series features a boy spy named--as you may have guessed--Zac Power. Our 7-year-old likes "the exciting parts" of books. These stories seem to deliver, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising, with titles like "River Rampage" and "Frozen Fear." The books had a months-long run as Favored Series earlier in the year, though recently Amulet has eclipsed all else.

Publisher recommended age range 8-11, grades 2-6.

3. The Captain Raptor books by Kevin O'Malley

The 5-year-old in residence here has loved both Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery and Captain Raptor and the Space Pirates. He loved them when he was three. We waited a year for him to forget the books, then checked them out of the library once more, and he loved them all over again. I'm not sure I need to say more than DINOSAURS IN SPACESHIPS.

Publisher recommended age range 5-8 years (oops!), grades K-3.

4. The Princess in Black books by Shannon Hale

It might be hard to find a parent of a K-3 student who hasn't heard of The Princess in Black, but just in case! This book was a hit last year with our then-first-grader, and she's read the subsequent books with enthusiasm, too.

Publisher recommended age range 5-8 years, grades K-3.

5. The Franny K. Stein books by Jim Benton

My brother-in-law recommended this series to us because his kids had enjoyed it. Our second grader read them all, and would read more if they were available!

Publisher recommended age range 7-10 years, grades 2-5.

6. Blackout by John Rocco

I read this picture book to both children when they were younger. It's a rare pleasure to find picture books one enjoys rereading. We all--adults and children-- liked this one.

Publisher recommended age range 4-8 years, preK-K.

7. Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don't Play With Your Food! by Bob Shea

A picture book about a bunny-eating monster. Perhaps my favorite of the Bob Shea oeuvre.

Ages 4-7, PreK-K.

8.  The Sideways Stories from Wayside School series by Louis Sachar

A friend recommended this series to me because her own children liked it. We've been listening to the audio book version of this series in the car, and the stories are fun and frankly bizarre.

Ages 8-12, grades 3-7.

9. The Heroes in Training Series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

It's hard to choose just one based-on-Greek-gods series to name here. They were trending with our elder child last year: Heroes in Training, Beasts of Olympus, Goddess Girls. These I believe were the most consistently reread.

Ages 6-9, Grades 1-4.

10. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This is a personal favorite of mine, but our older child read it recently for her book club and couldn't put it down. It's about a girl who goes on a quest to try to find out how to get things to grow on Fruitless Mountain near her poor village. On the way she meets a dragon and has many adventures. This one is quality storytelling. 

How to Have a Fantastically Fun Kids' Book Club Meeting

I have real ideas to share about book clubs further down, but my first suggestion is: Write a book, have your daughter's book club read it, and then have a ridiculously good time talking to a bunch of bright, engaged, adorable readers.

If you're considering starting up a book club for your kids, I can recommend it. Lucky for me, a friend initiated ours. We often have a craft set up for the kids that's associated with the book. For Horus, the host provided several crafts--the kids made mummies from Popsicle sticks and white yarn and (I think) googly eyes. The children also decorated bookmarks with bat & mummy stickers, and they even had little wooden coffin "sarcophagi" to paint! 

When the book club read a Magic Tree House book, we printed out blank comic strip pages so the girls could make their own comics about it or write different stories about the characters. They also enjoyed stringing their own bead necklaces.

After discussing a Beasts of Olympus book we went out to the driveway and the club drew an obstacle course with colored chalk. I can't even express how cool it was watching these children drawing details they remembered from the book--mythical beasts to dodge, the river Styx to jump, etc. 

Here's a link to a few more ideas. Have fun!


Illustrated Early Chapter Books

Lately I've become very familiar with a certain type of book: the illustrated early chapter book. I'm happy to see more and more books of this sort becoming available. Everybody's different, and I know what appeals to my kids may not appeal to others, but here are some of the titles that worked as early transition books from picture books to chapters. 

The Dragon Masters series written by Tracey West and illustrated by Graham Howells. Dragons,  adventure.  This is a good one. Both my son and daughter enjoyed it.

The 13-Story Treehouse written by Andy Griffiths and illustrated by Terry Denton. Funny, silly, terrific. There are more, if your kid likes it!

The Gumazing Gum Girl: Chews Your Destiny written and illustrated by Rhode Montijo. Superheroes and bubble gum. My kids read it more than once.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny written and illustrated by John Himmelman. I personally enjoyed these stories. One included a paper-folding craft to make a Bunjitsu Bunny. It was easy enough even for me and my 5 year old.

Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe by Noah Z. Jones. Funny fairy-tales very unlike the classics. For example, the first book is entitled, "Moldylocks and the Three Beards." You heard me.


Finally, I want to plug my all time favorite book to read aloud to the kids.  My Father's Dragon. I recommend getting the book this minute for story time tonight.



Read These! An Excellent Run of Middle Grade & YA

I've read a number of terrific Middle Grade and YA books these past few weeks. Here are some standouts:

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry This is an Agatha Christie-esque middle grade mystery with a comedy-of-errors bent. I found this funny, fun, and fresh, and looked forward to reading it until I finished. Thumbs up.

Doll Bones by Holly Black. I didn't know there was such a genre as middle grade horror, but after reading this, I'm glad there is! Spooky, fun, and very well paced, I enjoyed this much more than I anticipated.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. This classic middle grade fairy tale still entertains! I found it particularly creepy how a human could hold a goblin at bay by chanting a rhyme, but that it was difficult to do so when one was scared. Brrrr. 

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. This is YA fantasy by a well-known fantasy writer (whose books I've enjoyed in the past). The novel involves a group of people called "rithmatists" whose 2-D chalk drawings come to life. Part fantasy, part murder mystery, entirely enjoyable.