This Week’s Best of the Virtual Book Bag

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It is pouring down rain here in Portland, perfect book weather. Although, my spouse reminds me, that if it were sunny and 70 degrees I would say it’s perfect read-in-the-hammock weather, and if it were snowing, I’d say it’s perfect read-by-the-fire weather. When the air was toxic with smoke, it was perfect read-in-the-safety-of-your-home weather, I suppose.

We loved so many of our finds at the library this week that it was honestly hard to make my kids do virtual school. I may or may not have let them skip P.E., valuable as burpees in front of a Chromebook may be.

Here’s what we were doing instead of jumping jacks this week:

I picked this one because it’s set in Texas (my home state) and it won the Newbery. It sat on our virtual shelf for ages, because my son is always, always, always going to pick something with fighting or magic or at the very least a male protagonist. A turn-of-the-twentieth-century story about a young girl and her relationship with her grandfather just couldn’t compete. I finally asked him to let me start the first chapter, and on the first page he was hooked. So was I, and not just for the nostalgia (sticker burrs!) – Calpurnia is such an honest character: hilarious, practical, infinitely curious. I loved her from the first moment and all the way through. The ironic quotes from The Origin of Species at the head of every chapter are brilliant, and your child will learn so much science along the way without even realizing it. It’s like sneaking spinach into brownies. I would say almost every child will love this story, whether they are into science, family relationships, crushes, history, or a little bit of silliness (the painted turkeys!); there is something for every kiddo in this book. We are going to dive right into the sequel next. Don’t forget to read it like a Texan (git, not get, remember?).

And speaking of grandfatherly mentors . . .

Gossamer by Lois Lowry

After telling his family how spectacular his classroom read-aloud Gossamer is, my son promptly forbade us from reading it because he was afraid of spoilers. After promising up and down and sideways and even swearing by the river Styx, my daughter and I finally received the right to read Gossamer, gasp, before his class finished it. We have system requirements – closed door, sound machine, whispered reading, but all the hoopla is worth it because, well, Lois Lowry. The chapters are short, so it’s easy to say, “Okay just one more chapter,” and feel like a grandma instead of a parent. We are about halfway through and have already had an absolutely delicious sob together. Lowry manages to make you love a character who says and does truly cruel things, and if there was ever a book to help you understand that hurting people hurt people, it’s this one. Empathy abounds in this read-aloud.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier

When I told my husband about Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, all written by women, he asked if I had read Wide Sargasso Sea yet. I hadn’t. Jane Eyre is my go-to pick-me-up book, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to encounter the same characters in a more depressing format. I know, I know – a book about an abused orphan who faces trial after trial is a pick-me-up? Yes. Jane’s grit and resilience and faith in her own worth despite the world’s scorn, and the happy ending that she writes herself, her agency (“Reader, I married him,” not “Reader, he married me”), all of these can make me feel incredibly happy during what may feel like day nine-thousand of rain and grey skies here in Portland. But I checked Wide Sargasso Sea out at the library, because now I was curious. I read it in one gulp (it’s not very long), sobbed a cathartic cry, and then sobbed a mournful cry for the loss of my Mr. Rochester. I thought Wide Sargasso Sea would be like the short stories in Reader, I Married Him, connected but clearly separate. For example, in one of the short stories, Grace Poole is secretly the mother of Adele, which was an interesting idea, but felt like a clear departure from the original. Wide Sargasso Sea, however, tells a story both so faithful to the plot, and such a heartbreakingly different narrative, that I may never be able to read Mr. Rochester the same way again. He was already messy and complicated (which was one of the things I loved about the book, honestly). But now . . . well, you’ve been warned. My husband, by the way, claims no responsibility for ruining, perhaps forever, my relationship with the original. “I only asked if you had read it. I didn’t recommend it.”

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

My husband is on a Calvino kick and started reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler this week. He read a bit of the introduction to me, and I promptly asked to be included in the whole thing. We’ve been reading it aloud every night (thank god basketball season is over). I’ve been surprised by how much chuckling we’ve been doing in this one. It’s early days, but it’s going in the recommend pile so far.

Happy reading, and I’d love to hear what’s in your virtual book bag this week!

Books Celebrating the Great Outdoors

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This week, when the smoke finally cleared and the air was safe to breathe, we practically skipped to the garage to load our kayaks onto our Prius (a most Portland of pairings, I think).

Because this was a moment to celebrate, we decided to drive farther than usual, to a quiet lake in Washington.

It was closed.

No worries, we live in the Pacific NW and there are beautiful natural spaces everywhere you turn. This particular lake was also a campground, and it seemed reasonable to close a campground when the risk of fire is so high. On to the next!

Second lake, closed.

Okay, hmm.

Third lake, also closed.

At this point, we bailed. This was not a kayaking trip (don’t let the kayaks and gear fool you). This was clearly a scenic drive.

Until, you know, we got caught in traffic on the highway.

Still determined to have fun, we started reading all the stickers of the cars crawling slowly by. Of course, one of the first was a “1000 Hours Outside” challenge sticker, which would have felt like cruel mockery if the family inside wasn’t clearly as stuck as we were. As I watched the wheels on their hot pink bikes spinning listlessly above their bumper sticker, I thought, “Solidarity, dude. Solidarity.”

In case you find yourself as homesick for the great outdoors as we have been this week, check out these reads celebrating everything under the sun.

Find some device-ditching inspiration in Beatrice Alemagna’s On a Magical Do-Nothing Day.

(Hey, here’s a silver lining: what if, during this season of virtual schooling, kids start associating devices with school and feel inspired to go outside to play?!)

I will be shocked if your kids aren’t racing to release feathers into the wind after reading Alison Farrell’s The Hike. (I love the labels throughout the illustrations in this fun jaunt through the woods, too!)

City-dwellers don’t despair! The outdoors are for you, too. Check out Florette, The Curious Garden, Finding Wild, or (from my favorite author-illustrator team Sarah Stewart and David Small) The Gardener.

Benjamin Flouw’s book The Golden Glow is both fun and reverent. (Plus more labels here, too!)

I haven’t read Fairy Houses All Year, but from the preview it looks like fabulous inspiration for your little fairy architects.

The Walker children spend literally their entire holiday outside in the classic Swallows and Amazons. Get ready to learn tons of nautical terms in this one. (Fair warning – you’ll have to address the colonialism and derogatory language that come up in the children’s play, but those are always important conversations to have.)

If your children have only a five degree window of weather they are willing to enjoy, try the tips and tricks and general enthusiasm in McGurk’s There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather.

Happy reading!!

Whining is Not So Bad When It’s Done in Verse

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I have a very low tolerance for whining, especially the nonsensical kind.

When my kids say, “I have to eat all this zucchini?? It’s so much!!” I hear, “I scorn the hour you spent on Instagram looking for the perfect recipe for zucchini sauté.” When they say, “I’m not tiiiiiired!” I hear, “I have no desire to have a fully functioning brain.” When they say, “I won’t!” I hear, “I’m not even slightly reasonable.”

So when a child-who-shall-not-be-named started complaining about school (before it even began, mind you), I did not respond with empathy. I forgot all the good advice in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. I didn’t “reflect feelings.” I said (probably with a sigh), “Learning is what you do for fun. Remember when we used to do all those science experiments and projects, how we would study a ‘person of the week?’ Remember when you were obsessed with learning about Leonardo da Vinci? Can’t you channel some of that excitement for the learning available to you today?”

My son responded, “Doth not the appetite alter?”

Yep. That kid just quoted Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Mom’s mood? Immediately improved.

If you are wondering how my ten-year-old became familiar enough with a Shakespearean play to quote it appropriately in conversation, check out the resources below.

Happy reading and play on!

Look at that silly cover. Look at those ridiculous rats! The Wednesday Wars sat in our house for ages because I very literally judged the book by its cover. In the end, I only read it because it won the Newbery, and I was astounded. There are so many layers to this book – school-aged silliness, yes, but it tackles the Vietnam War, family dysfunction, love in its various forms, and oh-so-much Shakespeare. It’s the reason my son says, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” when I’m coming down hard on him, and it’s why our favorite family curse right now is, “Toads, beetles, bats!”

After we read The Wednesday Wars, I tried to decide if my kids were old enough to watch any of Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptations. We opted for Much Ado About Nothing, and I just fast-forwarded the sexy bits. They loved it, and watched it over and over. I bribed my daughter to do something by “letting” her watch it again (It felt like when I let them play NitroType, a learn-to-type game, as a “reward”). Don’t forget to turn on subtitles! It really helps with comprehension. My kids even memorized what they call “the burn scene,” between Benedick and Beatrice: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.”

I think the key to making sure kids love Shakespeare, is to 1. Start with a comedy, and 2. Make sure they understand the basic story-line before they begin. If the kids feel confused, you’ll lose them fast. E. Nesbit has written lovely summaries, this one with fewer illustrations, this one with more.

For even younger readers, Bruce Coville has written many lovely picture books based on Shakespearean plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale. They are even available as an audiobook collection called Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, which we’ve listened to in the car. You know, back before quarantine when we went places.

The talented Marianna Mayer offers another great picture book retelling (a little longer than Coville’s versions), in her adaptation of The Tempest.

For the most skeptical families out there (“My kids will never be into Shakespeare!”), try The Stratford Zoo. These graphic novels are silly and fun, and could be a great introduction for the reluctant thespian.

I must include the absolutely wonderful film Shakespeare in Love, though its “R” rating will put it on the back-burner for many families. My kids haven’t seen it yet.

It’s really nice to have a volume of the complete works. I have the Norton version from college, but there are many options out there.

Book Cover

Actually, thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can have the complete works for free digitally right here.


What if the Reluctant Reader is the Grown-up?

A dear friend of mine sent an e-mail saying she had read about two books in the past six months instead of her usual thirty.

If even the avid readers are struggling to read during a season when it seems we should have more time for solitary hobbies, then what’s a reading advocate to do?

Lower her standards, that’s what.

This season is not the time to tackle Crime and Punishment. It’s not when you are finally going to read Anna Karenina. It’s not even the period when you will convince your reading-averse friend to just trust you and read Pride and Prejudice.

It’s time to read something easier.

Gretchen Ruben already took the stigma out reading kids’ books with her children’s literature reading groups, so there’s no shame. Read them to a child if you are feeling sheepish, but I have spent many a happy hour curled up in a nursing chair or hammock with Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, or The Wizard of Earthsea. Yep, books for teens count, too.

But maybe you have some lingering shame from middle school, when someone teased you for reading something babyish or for stumbling in a class read-aloud (arg!). Maybe you can’t bring yourself to start a children’s book. Okay.

You could try a beach read, like The Two Lives of Lydia Bird (though, now that I think of it, this one’s a little heavy – maybe something by Rainbow Rowell or Jenny Colgan instead).

Or if you feel like this season is too important to waste your time on lighter fare, try the easily readable but still important I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. I haven’t read Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime yet, but given his brilliance in combining comedy with serious social commentary on his show, I’m assuming this one’s a winner, too.

Memoirs are great, just pick someone you love. This probably isn’t the month for something heavier like When Breath Becomes Air or Making Toast or The Glass Castle, but it’s definitely time for something like Bossypants by Tina Fey.

How about old favorites? I’ve read and re-read Jane Eyre so many times the pages are crumbling, much to the bemusement of my dearest friend, who when visiting the home of the Brontë sisters thought, “No wonder they wrote such terrible books.” I love every minute of it, and even my husband (who, gasp, has never read it) will say, “That is a fiction–an impudent invention to vex me.” I love him slightly more every time he does. My daughter (and kindred spirit) is on her thirteenth (13th!) round through the Harry Potter series. So if your brain can’t handle something new, read something old! Even if it’s The Baby-sitters Club or The Seventh Tower Series.

I know most people will groan at this idea, but I love self-improvement books. Want to be motivated to exercise? Read Drop Dead Healthy. Want to organize the kitchen since you are spending oh-so-much-time there these days? Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up. Want to be happier (who doesn’t right now)? Read The Happiness Project. Want to stop having to fuss about how much more domestic work you do than your partner? Read Fair Play. Want general advice in the most interesting of formats? Read Tiny Beautiful Things. Want generally better habits? Read The Power of Habit or Atomic Habits. This category goes on for days.

Another idea – do you love the movie The Princess Bride? Who wouldn’t like to stretch that enjoyment over the course of a novel instead of just an hour and a half of screen time? My kids adored the movie and loved the book even more. Their shouts of “Inconceivable!” make me smile every time. And my husband kept joining the read-aloud and chuckling along with the kids through the adventures. There are so many book-movie combos you could do, like Wonder, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Eat, Pray, Love, Hidden Figures, Becoming, the list goes on!

What about a magazine you used to love? Would leafing through Time at the end of the day make you feel more connected to the outside world? Would Vogue help you de-stress? Would having Sports Illustrated or Vanity Fair or The New Yorker or Bon Appétit on the nightstand make you feel more like you? Do that!

Don’t forget audiobooks. Turn dish time (there are so. many. dishes. right now) into me-time.

Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe you’re just keeping your head above water with childcare and work and technical difficulties and worry. That’s okay.

But it’s also okay to take even five minutes a day to curl up in bed and do something fun for you. Because wouldn’t it be nice to think of quarantine as the season you rediscovered (or discovered!) your inner reader, rather than focusing on all the hard bits?

I think so.

Happy trying!