In Praise of Audiobooks

A friend recently asked me if audiobooks “count.”

If by count, you mean are they the best gift to always-optimizing, hyper-scheduled human beings, that they make drugery magical and car rides infinitely more enjoyable, that they are the greatest technological advance of all time, then . . .

YES.

(Okay, no, that last bit is hyperbole, but it feels true.)

There seem to be many people who “love to read” but haven’t read since childhood, grown-ups who remember the March family antics better than their own, but can’t remember the last time they read anything they couldn’t scroll through while waiting in line at a food cart (this is Portland we’re talking about).

I read eighty-three books last year, and that clearly isn’t because my life allows for lots of lounging in the hammock. You, too, can read more than a book a week and – this is the magical bit – without changing one thing on your schedule. Here’s what you need to know:

Getting the Audiobooks

If you’re willing to spend some money to make the process a breeze, subscriptions like Scribd or Audible provide audiobooks on your smartphone, making access incredibly easy. I prefer Scribd because there are no limits, but I honestly don’t use either service unless someone gifts it to me for a holiday, because I’m incredibly cheap.

If you, too, want to pay zero dollars for your fun, the library is your friend. Most libraries have an app for your smartphone (our county uses Libby). You should immediately fill up your holds with books you are interested in reading. Every time you hear of a title you’d like to read, put it on hold. When you pick up your phone to scroll through Instagram, tap the library app first and put a few titles on hold. By using this system, you will always have books arriving in your loans category and will be able to choose what you feel like reading and won’t have to wait on a hold request.

If you’re a little more old-school, just check out audio CDs at the library. They’re easy and safe for kids to use (no web browsing to tempt or distract), and in our many years of checking out audiobook discs, we’ve only had one that was too scratched to play.

When to Listen

The list is truly endless here. I read my own books during any task that doesn’t require headspace: dishes, laundry, making the bed, chopping vegetables. Just wait. You will actually be thrilled to clean your bathroom when the latest Ann Patchett novel pops up in your loans.

Don’t forget the car. Oh my goodness, the car. When my kids are tired and cranky from the crazy extroverted environment that is school, they are more likely than not going to fight over something ridiculous, like the fact that one must have known the other was thinking of picking up that book or that the other is singing a song that is too scary (i.e., in a minor key). The solution to all your car woes is to turn on one of the Harry Potter books and let J.K. Rowling solve your problems. No parenting necessary.

My kids also listen while building LEGO sets, having a snack, getting ready for bed. If you are listening as a family at home, I highly recommend getting a small, portable speaker to connect to your phone or laptop, to avoid the inevitable, “Shh!! I can’t hear!!”

Bonus Benefits

In The Read-Aloud Family, Sarah Mackenzie shares the story of a woman who says that C.S. Lewis’s Aslan will always have the voice of her father. I love that idea, that my kids will hear my voice when they think of Jo March or Anne Shirley. At the same time, I also recognize that Jim Dale’s Hagrid sounds a lot more like a half-giant than my version. If you have any self-conscious feelings about reading aloud to your child, whether because English isn’t your first language or because you feel silly doing voices or just because you’re tired, audiobooks are ideal, especially if you listen alongside your child.

You may think your read-aloud days are done the second your child reads her first Elephant and Piggie book, but it’s really not true. My husband and I are grown-ups (mostly) and we still read to each other; we’re in the middle of Mistborn right now. We feel very strongly about never aging out, and audiobooks are the perfect bridge to keep the read-aloud spirit alive in your family.  If your tweens cringe at the thought of being read to, they may not object to listening to an audiobook in the car. Or, well, even if they do, you can say it’s just for you and wait for them to get sucked in.

Below are a few of our favorite audiobooks. Enjoy and happy listening!

 

If you’re listening to Palacio’s Wonder in the car, make sure you have tissues. And maybe skip the mascara that day.

 

Stockard Channing and Neil Patrick Harris are practically family at this point, thanks to years of listening to them read The Ramona Quimby Audio Collection and The Henry Huggins Audio Collection

 

Jessica Almasy sounds exactly like Clementine. Lots of giggles as we listened to this one.

 

Tom Hanks reading Ann Patchett. TOM HANKS reading ANN PATCHETT! What are you waiting for?

 

Jim Dale has been our constant companion over the past few months. I think the entire Asby family is going to mourn when we finish Book Seven.

 

Enjoy!

 

Books for Santa’s Biggest Fans

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When my son was in preschool, I was eating brownies with a bunch of moms, listening to them chat about the verbal acrobatics required to keep the magic of Santa a reality in their house. Oh, look what you found! Santa must have made an early delivery! No, Santa’s not watching you sleep, that’s just a silly song. Of course you’re not naughtier than Emma! Santa brought her that giant swing-set to share with nice friends like you.

They asked me how I handle tricky Santa questions with my son, and I said, “Oh, he knows Santa is pretend.”

[Silence.]

Maybe you are feeling as shocked as my friends looked in that moment, but reader, let me assure you, the kids are all right.

With my son, he asked point blank if Santa was real or pretend and we answered honestly because that felt right to us. We are considerate magic-breakers, though, so we told him it would ruin the fun of the pretend if he told friends, “Santa’s actually not real.” He played it cool.

With my (not so quiet) daughter it was a little trickier. She got a modified version: “We [as in, the parents] don’t believe in Santa, but we can’t prove he doesn’t exist. If he only comes to those who believe, then how would we know?”

My son decided this was interesting and wanted to set up an experiment. I mean, you can’t just take your parents’ word for it, right?

They left cookies out for Santa and made us promise not to eat them. I was worried they would be disappointed on Christmas (we were going to keep our no-cookie promise), so they decided that if the cookies were still there in the morning, they could eat them when they woke. Win, win.

Despite the fact that we are shameful Santa heretics, we really do LOVE reading about Santa. I get chill bumps every time I read The Polar Express, and today when my seven-year-old walked in and saw all the wrapped presents under the tree (I was a busy elf today), she said, “Santa came early! [Then stage whispered] I know he’s not real, I just like to pretend.”

The following are lovely read-alouds, whatever your feelings about Ol’ Saint Nick.

Because it’s magical every time. 

 

Everything by William Joyce is an adventure, and Santa Calls is no exception.

 

Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a longer read, perfect for big fans.

 

Here Comes Santa Cat is as delightfully silly as it sounds.

 

Even more silliness in The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold

 

Santa from Cincinnati is a coming of age story for the boy who would become everyone’s favorite gift-giver.

 

And for your favorite little bear, check out Where Teddy Bears Come From

 

And Welcome Comfort by Patricia Polacco to tug at your heartstrings

 

Happy Reading and Merry Christmas!

In Praise of YES Day + Books for the Birthday Kid

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Happy YES day from the Asby family, where our family of four celebrates three birthdays this week.

But wait – YES Day?

YES Day is the one and only day of the year, when the answer to every request is an enthusiastic YES.

May I have birthday cake for breakfast? YES.

May I wear pajamas all day long? YES.

May I play video games for four hours straight without even a side-eye of disapproval from my mother?? YES.

We have Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld to thank for our family birthday tradition of YES Day, and we will never go back.

Now, lest you think you will have to hand over the car keys to your ten-year-old on YES Day, let me share a few ground rules:

  1. Requests must be reasonable (relatively, anyway).
  2. Requests must not hurt another person (“Please can you make my sister eat the vomit-flavored jelly bean?” would be promptly vetoed)
  3. Requests must live entirely within the current day (you can’t ask for permission for a sleepover next month or a raise on your allowance)
  4. Requests that involve money must not be extravagant (you could ask to eat lunch at Boxer Ramen, but not for that $400 Harry Potter LEGO set).
  5. YES Day ends at your regularly scheduled bedtime.

You may adjust the rules for your family, perhaps creating a firm budget that your child may spend however they like. We allow requests that require a little prep work; my son wanted a homemade cake and a scavenger hunt* to find his presents (see photo above; it was spectacular!), both of which we prepared beforehand, but you don’t have to do that. If you’re afraid that your kid will be sad to have missed a traditional party, remind them that they can have friends over on YES Day, and even sing “Happy Birthday” and eat cake. I like this glorified play-date version of a party, because I don’t have to clean my house or be in party-mode, and the birthday kid still gets to be with friends and feel celebrated.

I see your skeptical face, reader, but let me tell you that every parent I’ve known to try out a YES Day has been astounded by how ordinary the requests are. It seems that simply having an entire day of not being told what to do, of finally getting to hop into the driver’s seat (metaphorically speaking!!!) is pretty priceless.

Whether you go YES Day or traditional party (or both!), the following reads pair well with cake and ice cream.

Happy reading and happiest of birthdays to you all!

Of course, Yes Daywhich started it all.

 

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree is hilarious and charming and manages to teach without being preachy at all.

 

Ten Rules of the Birthday Wish makes me feel like we maybe need Ten Rules of the Perfect YES Day . . . 

 

When’s My Birthday has the names of Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson on the cover. Enough said.

 

Of course, there is Seuss. “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

 

And for the perfect gift for that one-year-old who has everything, try Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Your Birthday Book, complete with exclusive interviews to be completed in later years.

Enjoy!

 

*Many thanks for the clues that came from or were inspired by QuickHunts.com!

Children’s Books Don’t Make Death Easier, Just Easier to Talk About

This post isn’t going to be as heavy as it sounds.

It also contains serious Little Women spoilers, so if you haven’t read that most cozy of classics, please stop reading this post, grab a few pickled limes (you know you have some handy) and read Little Women right now before someone ruins it for you.

(And read it in time for Christmas when the new film adaptation comes out!)

My husband somehow made it to college without reading Little Women (poor soul), despite the fact that his high school sweetheart was named after two of the sisters (Megan Elizabeth here, nice to meet you). He and I have always loved reading aloud together, even before we had tiny Asbys, and as soon as I realized the giant hole in his literary experience, we added Little Women to the top of the read-aloud list.

All this to say . . .

(Spoiler Alert!)

Marcus and I were sitting inside his red Grand Prix (I’m still so nostalgic about that car) between classes, reading about the first time Beth gets sick. Once Marcus knew for sure she was going to make it through, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I was really going to hate this book if Beth died.”

Um…yeah, well.

In the end, Marcus didn’t hate the book. To be honest, he was probably afraid I wouldn’t marry him if he did. And anyway, his favorite character in any novel or movie or miniseries is always the Beth character, and she always dies. He’s had to get used to it.

I’m speaking lightly, but death, real death, isn’t light, and it can be hard to know how to talk about it, especially with children.

I do talk to my kids about death. I talk to them about everything, really, and I’m sure I’m blundering massively along the way. Nevertheless, I fall firmly into the let’s-talk-about-it camp, and I’m in good company I think (check out Mr. Roger’s “Death of a Goldfish” episode, which – full disclosure – I haven’t actually seen, only read about). I believe that it is possible to talk about death with children in a way that is honest without being overwhelming.

The following are titles that have made it easier for me to talk to my sweet boy and girl about the reality of life and death and loss. Do preview them before sharing with your children, as some of them are heavier than others. And have a box of tissues handy, if only to signal that it is okay and important to cry.

 

Of course Margaret Wise Brown knew that kids want to talk about death. Beautifully illustrated by Christian Robinson, The Dead Bird follows a group of children who find a dead bird and hold a ceremony to honor it. My children asked to read this over and over when they were younger.

 

Ida, Always is the first book that comes to mind when I hear a child has experienced a loss. This one feels pretty close to perfect to me.

 

Rosie & Crayon is about the death of and grief over a beloved pet.

 

Aunt Mary’s Rose tells the true story of one family’s loss and love through generations.

 

Grandpa’s Stories is poetically written and beautifully illustrated and is “for everyone who misses someone.”

 

My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon and  Maybe Tomorrow? tackle the grief that children carry after loss. And Oliver Jeffers does the same in:

 

The Heart and the Bottle

 

Her Mother’s Face explores loss when the memories of the loved one are few because the time together was short.

 

I almost didn’t check out Cry, Heart, But Never Break, because the cover felt a little too scary. I couldn’t resist the title, though, and it is more gentle than the cloaked representation of death would suggest.

 

Finn’s Feather is about a child whose brother has died. It manages to be both deeply sad and uplifting.

 

Walk With Me is imaginative and poignant and explores a complicated grief exacerbated by poverty.

 

For a graphic novel that explores loss, check out Pilu of the Woods.

 

Imaginative, dream-like, A Ladder to the Stars is fantasy, and as such, can invite some questions that a more literal book may not.

 

The Purple Balloon by Chis Raschka is inspired by children drawing purple balloons as they approach their tragically early deaths.

 

Boats for Papa describes a child who makes boats and sends them to his Papa, lost at sea. The Pond is another book about creating something to honor a father.

 

The boy in The Scar has lost his mother and is desperate to hold on to anything that will keep her memory present with him.

 

And What Comes After a Thousand is a celebration of relationship, first and foremost.

 

Where the Red Fern Grows is one of many chapter books that addresses death and grief, but it was the first (after Little Women) that I thought of for this post, in part because I could hardly get the words out through my sobs when I read it to my son, and since he too rarely sees me cry it felt very important in our family’s story. There are thousands of chapter books that deal with death and loss, of pets, family members, friends and strangers. My children are still young and we have barely scratched the surface of the chapter book world, so please share in the comments the novels that have helped you or your children think about death and grief and life with loss. I would love to hear from you.

Hugs from the Asbys.

 

 

The Best Part of Halloween is Reading Spooky Books

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My children are acutely aware of my personal failings, and (in their opinion) chief among them is my laissez-faire attitude about decorating for the holidays, specifically Halloween.

In my defense, isn’t Halloween sort of awesome all by itself? Don’t other people do enough to made the day special without my interference? Look at that spooky yard across the street with all the gravestones! What about that house with eighteen carved pumpkins elevated on stakes? And their school even has a costume parade which makes me feel like my children live in a Beverly Cleary novel.

With all that effort being expended, I feel pretty good about the two things I manage to do every year: 1. Carve a pumpkin (okay, my husband and kids always do that, but I buy it), and 2. Purchase costumes and take the kids trick-or-treating.

This year I decided to surprise those monkeys and decorate one day while they were at school. Yes, this was in part because I got to the library early and it wasn’t open yet, and YES, Target is just across the street, so I thought I might as well pop over and buy some of that incredibly wasteful stretchy spiderweb so my children would love me again.

And oh, they did. You would have thought I had spun the web myself.

If life were fair, my children would also note that they have read the absolute BEST spooky books, thanks to the valiant efforts of their superhero book-master mother. But I suppose books at this point feel like a given.

Happy reading and Happy Halloween!!

(Because we Asbys are total wimps, this list doesn’t include Coraline or, you know, anything by Stephen King. If you prefer scary over spooky, you’ll have to look elsewhere.) 

 

The Widow’s Broom is the book that made me decide to write this post. I get spooky chills every time.

 

The Bake Shop Ghost is long but lovely. I heard a librarian read it to a large group of sugared-up Halloweeners and (even though I love it!) I thought, “There is no way they’re going to make it through this entire book,” but I was absolutely wrong. Never doubt a children’s librarian.

 

The Spider and the Fly is a poem I remember reading again and again as a kid. While I felt mostly nostalgia, my children found this one very scary. They kept shouting, “No!” and I think felt really outraged at the end. The illustrations are perfectly terrifying in this one.

 

Zen Ghosts is another soothing delight from Jon J Muth.

 

She Made a Monster  has one truly scary page, but if your kids can handle it, it’s a beautiful read.

Frankenstein Takes the Cake and Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich marry silly and spooky in two volumes of poetry and fun.

What There is Before There is Anything There is a thoughtful and beautiful, like everything I’ve read by Liniers.

 

The Dark – Snicket and Klassen. Enough said.

Creepy Carrots is both funny and just scary enough to delight.

Leo: A Ghost Story is about friendship and kindness and inclusion, so obviously I love it.

 

There’s No Such Thing as Ghosts! Right??

 

Spooky Old Tree, a classic!

 

How to Make Friends with a Ghost is a cheerful not-scary-at-all read for the anti-fear crowd.

 

For the littlest spooks, try Ghost in the House

 

Now put these on hold at your library and plop down by a bowlful of candy!

 

Books for Kids Feeling Presidential

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As previously established, I am spectacularly cool, so I don’t mind sharing that I sing the names of the American presidents to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” while I brush my daughter’s teeth. Actually, when I started this ritual, I had to add all the presidents after Coolidge, and then still had a couple of lines of verse to go after Obama. To finish it off I sang, “Maybe if she had more time then next would be your Mama!” You should invite me to your next Fourth of July BBQ. I’m a riot.

In the early days of this routine, my daughter was still very young and mispronounced many words. A vocabulary staple was “bama” instead of bottom, as in, “sit on your bama,” or “wipe your bama.” When I got to “Obama” the first time, her eyes widened in delight and then she rolled over laughing. “Oh- BAMA?? Oh-bama?!

But despite my ability to crank out the names of the presidents in chronological order, I realized my actual knowledge about those presidents was less impressive. Ever on alert for personal failings, I medicated my ignorance with a very fun binge of The Washington Post‘s Presidential podcast. Then to reinforce my newfound knowledge, I stocked up on the excellent books recommended in the podcast a bunch of children’s literature featuring presidents.

If you’re like me, and absolutely loyal to Lillian Cunningham, you will note that some of the following authors get it wrong. I found myself saying, “It was the contaminated water, not the long-winded speech in the rain!” or “His legacy is MUCH more complicated than that!” or simply, “But Lillian said!” Nevertheless, I took a breath, relaxed a bit, and found the following reads a joyful jaunt into our nation’s history.

Happy reading! And don’t forget to crank up the Hamilton soundtrack.

 

Susan Katz delivers delightfully silly poetry that even the most poetry-averse young patriot will enjoy.

 

David Small illustrated this one. That’s all you need to know. (Okay, also the original version won the Caldecott.)

 

Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Lives of . . .) by [Krull, Kathleen]

I have to say I’m always a little surprised when I pull out the dinner time books and my kids say, “The president book!” when I ask which book they want first. Lives of the Presidents provides a short bio (some very short, like Polk’s or Fillmore’s) for each president in chronological order. While the illustrations are cartoonish and really quite fun, the content itself is academic in format, but interesting and informative.

 

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library will help any young book enthusiast find our third president a kindred spirit. Rosenstock does mention that Jefferson bought and sold people, though she doesn’t emphasize the point. This can be a book that sparks a conversation about Jefferson’s complicated and contradictory relationship with liberty, but it is not a book that explores his participation in slavery in depth.

 

In another picture book from Kathleen Krull, kids learn about President Lincoln’s fondness for jokes, limericks, and the like. My son really enjoyed Lincoln’s childhood poem, “Abraham Lincoln/his hand and pen/he will be good but/god knows When.” This book manages to tackle a heavy time in our nations history in a lighthearted way that doesn’t belittle the darkness of the time.

 

Those Rebels, John & Tom explores a complicated friendship, which I find to be very relatable for children, who are no strangers to friend drama. And if they can’t get enough, try Worst of Friends, too.

 

Speaking of relatable, Don Brown presents Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood, a story of grit and perseverance and enthusiasm sure to inspire any kiddo.

 

 

My kids loved Dream Big Dreams, a collection of photographs from Pete Souza, especially this one:

When his trip director weighed himself at the University of Texas and Obama stepped on the scale for laughs

 

Grace for President because WHERE ARE THE GIRLS??

 

Madame President and John, Paul George & Ben are pure fun, two more Lane Smith treasures.

 

Lafayette! (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #8): A Revolutionary War Tale by [Hale, Nathan]

Gettysburg the Graphic Novel is worth it for the powerfully illustrated “Gettysburg Address” at the end alone. If the beginning is too slow for your kids, encourage them to skip ahead. Speaking of graphic novel histories, my kids have also enjoyed reading about American history via Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. I haven’t read them, but I’ve seen my children disappear behind their covers for hours, so at the very least they are interesting.

For kid-pleasing independent reads about the American Revolution, check out the Magic Tree House #22 Revolutionary War on Wednesday or I Survived the American Revolution, 1776.

 

What Presidents Are Made Of is full of interesting portraits and fun facts. It’s a quicker read than some of the others, so it’s nice for the shorter attention spans of younger children.

 

And for the tiniest of readers, check out This Little President. So, yeah, they’re mostly just going to be interested in the sounds of the rhyming text and the bright colors, but, hey, you can pretend they’re little prodigies if you like.

Enjoy!