The Book Nerd: Planning Our Day Around Readalouds

The Book Nerd: Suzanne talks about how she plans her homeschool day around readalouds

Some people begin homeschooling because they want to tailor their child’s education to his or her individual needs. Others want to give their child the opportunity to explore a particular interest or talent. I decided to homeschool because I wanted to read to my kids. 

It started with a story on the “new homeschool movement” that aired on NPR many years ago, back when my 15-­year-­old was a toddler. I don’t remember anything they said about the hows or whys of homeschooling, but I do remember that they had a clip of the mother of a homeschooled family reading Harry Potter aloud to her children as (described by the reporter) they all snuggled together on a large comfy chair. I loved it. It started me thinking that maybe homeschooling wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. It sent me to the library to check out a stack of how-­to books, and ultimately it led to 10-plus years of homeschooling for the toddler and his three (eventual) siblings. 

I do realize that you don’t actually have to homeschool to read to your kids—­­all my friends who send their children to school like normal people read to their children on a regular basis­­—but I found it easy to commit to a lifestyle that involved wearing pajamas after noon, eating dinner surrounded by stacks of curriculum, and lots of snuggling on comfy chairs. And, just like I’d imagined it, we have plenty of time for the intersection of my two favorite things in the world: my kids and books. It’s not a surprise that our days revolve around reading aloud. 

We begin each homeschool day with Mom’s read­aloud, a tradition that grew out of our daily struggle to get everyone up and out of bed for lessons. The prospect of math wasn’t very motivating first thing in the morning, but now we ease into our day with about 20 minutes of reading aloud. I get to pick the book, so I can sneak in those personal favorites that the kids have not quite gotten around to reading. (This is how I made sure my teenage son didn’t miss out on Little Women.) When we read The Never­ending Story by Michael Ende, I found an edition just like the one I checked out from my local library 30 years ago, printed in green ink for the story of young Atreyu and his friend, Falkor the luck­dragon, and their quest to save Fantastia, and in red ink for Bastian, who is reading Atreyu’s story and gradually discovering that he may be part of the adventure. I’m sure my library also had a copy of Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, the first book in the Melendy Quartet, but somehow I never discovered it, so my children and I were introduced together to the four Melendy siblings, growing up in pre-World War II New York and pooling their money to create the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club. 

Another new acquaintance was Fern Drudger, modern day heroine of N.E. Bode’s The Anybodies, who discovers that despite being raised by tragically boring parents (they work for the firm of Beige & Beige and like to collect toasters), she actually belongs to a family with magical powers and a very special house made of books, where lunch is green eggs and ham and Borrowers live in the walls. We so enjoyed Fern (and her narrator, who likes to break into the action to complain about his old writing teacher) that we happily followed her through two sequels, The Nobodies and The Somebodies. 

Once we’ve gotten around to math and our other morning lessons, we break for lunch and then gather together again on the couch for homeschool read­alouds. We’ve done the same cycle of read­alouds with each child, beginning with myths and legends from around the world, and moving on to adaptations of classic literature. It can be difficult to find adaptations that are clear to modern readers without sacrificing too much of the original story, but we always enjoy Geraldine McCaughrean, whose retellings of classic stories (from The Odyssey to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights to The Canterbury Tales and beyond) are witty and detailed. Another favorite retelling of an old story is T.H. White’s version of King Arthur’s childhood, The Sword in the Stone, which combines medieval culture and cheerful anachronism as it describes how Merlin turned the Wart (as Arthur was known) into various animals as part of his education. (T.H. White continues Arthur’s story in the rest of The Once and Future King, of which The Sword in the Stone is the first part, but the tone gets considerably darker and more adult, and I haven’t attempted that as a read­aloud.) Towards the end of our read­aloud cycle, we spend some time with Shakespeare and the best collection of adaptations I’ve found so far is Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories and its follow-up, Shakespeare Stories II. Garfield also developed Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, a series of BBC­-produced 30­-minute versions of the plays which are fun and entertaining, along with being good warm-­ups for full­-length productions. 

We end our day with evening read­aloud, where each child gets to pick his or her own book. We’ve read everything from the Betsy­-Tacy series to The Lord of the Rings, and a while back we spent several months working our way through all of Harry Potter, which involved lots of snuggling in Mom’s large comfy bed (as we don’t quite fit on a chair anymore). It was a lovely full­-circle moment, but I’m happy to report that there’s no end in sight to our read­aloud journey. I look forward to sharing more of our favorites for reading aloud or reading anytime, ­­and I can’t wait to hear about yours. Happy reading! 

This column was originally published in our very first issue of HSL, back in spring of 2014.

Book Review: The Birchbark House


by Louise Erdich

I discovered Louise Erdrich in college and quickly became a huge fan, collecting most of her books and following her career, which is studded with awards and honors. I think her prose is beautiful and her subject matter and characters fascinating, but what I have always liked best about her is her humor. When I found out that she had written a series for young adults, I knew I had to read it to my boys. And I’ve just finished the first book: The Birchbark House

Both my boys loved this book. However, they didn’t think they would like it. My 10-year-old son took one look at the cover and groaned. I let my 7-year-old play instead of sitting on the sofa to listen, but he was in earshot. About halfway through the book, he began to sit still and listen with his brother and me. I knew they were both listening when they burst out laughing at a very funny part near the end of the book.

They were captured by the main character’s spirit. She’s a young girl, named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop. She has a special way with animals, befriending two bear cubs, and she even has a crow for a pet. We learn how her family, members of the Anishinabe (now called Objibwe or Chippewa), build their homes and feed themselves. We spend a full year with them, including the very tragic winter of 1847, but the beauty and messages in this book are uplifting. We are carried along as Omakayas learns important life lessons and discovers whom she really is.

This book had everything in it that I hoped for and felt was important for my two boys to hear. First, it helped them see how the Native American tribes were affected by the arrival of white settlers. (I trust we will continue to learn about this as we continue the series.) Second, it has strong female characters. Third, it allowed them to hear beautifully written prose—something that I haven’t found in every young adult fiction book. This book also deals with loss and grief and healing in a beautiful, sensitive way. 

This book would make a perfect readaloud in your homeschool because it’s a story that every age can enjoy, but even if you don’t have young children to read it to, you should read it. It’s that good.

Summer Reading: Cuckoo Song

Cuckoo Song
By Frances Hardinge
“Oh no, of course I couldn’t possibly understand you.” Violet’s shadowed face seemed to be wearing a grim and serious smile. “I know, you woke up one day and found out that you couldn’t be the person you remembered being, the little girl everybody expected you to be. You just weren’t her any more, and there was nothing you could do about it. So your family decided you were a monster and turned on you.” Violet sighed, staring out into the darkness.

”Believe me, I do understand that. And let me tell you—from one monster to another—that just because somebody tells you you’re a monster, it doesn’t mean you are.”

Something is wrong. Triss can’t remember anything about the accident, and no one will talk to her about it. Her sister can’t stand to be in the room with her. Her parents whisper behind closed doors. Someone has ripped up her diaries. And even her dolls seem to hate her.

If you’re a Frances Hardinge fan, you already know that nothing is ever what it appears to be, and this dark, tender fairy tale of a novel is no exception. As Triss discovers the truth about her accident, her father’s mysterious business partner, her brother’s death, and her own existence, she’s plunged into mysterious world where nothing is what is seems. Hardinge envisions a vivid post-World War I England, still scarred by loss and fear, and her descriptions are lush and dream-like. Triss and her younger sister Pen form a wary alliance, and their relationship is one of the highlights of the books—a complicated, definition-defying, sisterly connection that feels heartbreakingly authentic. 

There’s a faint note of horror underlying the book from its beginning, which sometimes rises to the surface with a shrill crescendo—as when the children of a hidden village try to literally pull Triss apart as she walks through the village streets—but the horror always twists through the absolutely ordinary details of everyday life. It’s unsettling—but it’s supposed to be. Triss’s existential crisis may be supernaturally spurred, but it’s really not so far removed from the questions of reality and identity that any 13-year-old girl might face. Like any good fairy tale author, Hardinge lets her story speak for itself—there’s no heavy-handing moralizing or sense-making of the events that unfold. Much like Triss, the reader is left to find her own meaning.

I don’t think Hardinge is right for every reader. Though her work is for middle grades readers—and there’s nothing in it that wouldn’t be appropriate for that age—The Cuckoo’s Song is dark and complicated. Some parts are genuinely terrifying. But it’s a very, very good book and definitely worth reading.

(If you're playing summer reading bingo, I read this one because I hate the U.S. cover.)

Summer Reading: If You Liked the Warrior Cat Books

Epic tales starring animal heroes? Yes, please! These books share some of the things we love most about the Warrior Cats series.


The Grannyman
By Judith Byron Schachner

In The Grannyman, an old cat who’s had a long, happy life meets a young kitten eager to learn about the world.



An intrepid young house cat finds his calling—and an unexpected mentor—in Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria.



By Tor Seidler

You’ll feel like you’re roaming the wilds with Blue Boy and his wolf pack, including all the hope and heartbreak of life in the wilderness, when you read Tor Seidler’s Firstborn.


Your next teen read

Dive into a complex world of feline mythology and set off on a Watership Down-esque quest with cat hero Fritti Tailchase in Tailchaser's Song, an absorbing fantasy novel.


Your next grown-up book

By Akif Pirincci

Curious house cat Francis sets out to solve the murders of some neighborhood cats in the engaging, lively mystery Felidae (translated from the original German).

Summer Reading: If You Liked the Sisters Grimm

Revisit your favorite fairy tales in these tellings-with-a-twist.

Your next picture book

Alexander T. Wolf finally gets to tell his side of the story in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.


Your next chapter book

The Wide-Awake Princess
By E. D. Baker

Sleeping Beauty’s little sister Princess Annie is totally immune to magic—so when her sister’s curse kicks in, Annie is the only one who can save the day in The Wide-Awake Princess.


Your next readaloud

Princesses and scrappy tailor’s sons get all the fairy tale fame, a fact which the motley crew of princes in The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom sorely lament. Be prepared to pause for laughter.


Your next teen read

By Marissa Meyer

In Cinder, a futuristic, dystopian imagining of Cinderella set in New Beijing, Cinder is a cyborg mechanic and Prince Kai is at the center of an intergalactic balancing act. (The story continues, following different fairy tale characters, in the Lunar Chronicles series.)


Your next grown-up book

The Sleeper and the Spindle is written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell. It’s also a thoughtful, nuanced short story retelling of the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty narratives.

Summer Reading: If You Liked the Narnia Books

It’s hard to finish an utterly engrossing series like the Chronicles of Narnia, but we’ve rounded up some equally magical fantasy books that will keep you reading happy at every reading level.


Your next picture book

Free Fall
By David Wiesner

It may seem like a stretch to recommend a wordless book to Narnia fans, but Free Fall (by Caldecott winner David Wiesner) lets imagination narrate with its gloriously illustrated story of a boy who falls asleep reading an atlas and dreams his way through a series of fantastic adventures.


Your next chapter book

Just like Narnia, The Dark Is Rising sequence is a thrilling, complex mythology of children pulled into the great battle between good and evil—pulling from Celtic, Norse, and Arthurian traditions. Start with Over Sea, Under Stone.


Your next readaloud

More people should read The Hounds of the Morrigan, a thrilling fantasy set in Ireland. Pidge and his little sister set off on a quest to find a lost stone that may prove pivotal in the battle between the forces of good and evil, but the deadly hounds of the Morrigan are fast on their heels.


Your next teen read

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. With its Taoist ethics, feminist sensibility, and nuanced world building, Earthsea is a worthy follow-up to the Narnia books for older readers.


Your next grown-up book

Lots of people miss C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi take on the ideas in Narnia, written for adults, which starts with Out of the Silent Planet. If you loved Narnia, you’ll definitely want to check out Lewis’s grown-up version.

Summer Reading: When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There
By Joan G. Robinson

Reading level: Middle grades

She turned and began running back along the dyke, thinking how strange it was—about being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’. It was nothing to do with there being other people, or whether you were ‘an only’, or one of a large family...she knew that now—it was something to do with how you were feeling inside yourself.

I lucked into a funny-smelling, plain-covered hardback of When Marnie Was There at a library sale at some point during middle school, and it was love at first page. Anna, an orphan, is sent by her kind-hearted but not-sure-what-to-do-with-her foster mother to stay with some friends who live by the sea.

Anna has never fit in anywhere. She’s never had a friend. And she spends much of her time and energy trying to keep her face blank, so that it’s perfectly clear that she doesn’t want friends anyway. But then she meets Marnie, who’s as lonely as she is and frustratingly mysterious. Anna and Marnie vow to keep their growing friendship a secret from everyone else, but having a real friend is already changing Anna—she forgets to avoid people and keep her expression completely neutral. Then, one day, with no warning, Marnie vanishes, and a big family with lots of children moves into the house on the marsh. To Anna’s great surprise (and despite her initial reluctance), she discovers that being Marnie’s friend has opened the door for her to be friends with other people.

It’s a simple little story with a neat twist that I won’t give away and dreamy, introspective prose that’s really lovely to read. Anyone who’s ever felt on the outside of things (which is really everyone, isn’t it?) will identify with Anna, and like Anna, be captivated by the bewitching, capricious Marnie and by the wild marsh and sea, which become characters themselves. I especially love the little current of sadness that runs through the book, right up to and through the (otherwise happy) ending. Childhood is equal parts happy and sad, finding and losing, delight and sorrow, and I think When Marnie Was There hits that winsome balance just right, so that if you get a little teary at the end (and I do), you’re smiling, too. Highly recommended.

(Summer reading bingo: See the movie adaptation—it’s delightful!—to mark this one off your card.)

Summer Reading: If You Liked Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Who can resist the perfect combination of words and pictures? Add a spunky hero with a few problems, and you’ve got worthy Wimpy Kid follow-ups.

Your next picture book:


In Luke on the Loose, a boy follows a flock of pigeons in an increasingly wild chase out of New York’s Central Park, through Manhattan, and all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge. 


Your next chapter book:

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid gone British, with a doodling, diary-ing hero who just wants to make it through middle school alive.


Your next readaloud:

Timmy Failure would like to believe that he’s the greatest detective in the world, but he’d be wrong. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made has delightful illustrations on every page but enough story to make reasonable for a readaloud.


Your next teen read:

By Noelle Stevenson

Nimona is a smart, sassy comic about a shape-shifting girl who teams up with a not-so-evil villain to take down a not-so-great hero. It may just turn out to be your new favorite fantasy story.


Your next grown-up book:

Sacred Heart
By Liz Suburbia

In the weird, unresolved Sacred Heart, teenager Ben is just trying to survive adolescence while her parents—and all the other adults in town—are off on a four-year pilgrimage. This coming-of-age story nails the awkward ordinariness and utter strangeness of being a teenager.

Summer Reading: Henry Reed Inc.


Reading Level: Middle grades

I have this mental list of books that I wish PBS would turn into brilliant television adaptations, and near the top of the list is Keith Robertson’s utterly delightful Henry Reed series, about a U.S. diplomat’s son who spends most of his time with his globe-trotting parents in Europe but comes home in the summer to stay with his down-to-earth aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Henry’s fascinated by the American capitalist spirit, and most of the stories are about his summer earnings efforts. (The stories are set in the 1950s, when American enterprise was still bathed in a warm and folksy golden glow.) I would watch this show, with its rural New England landscapes and bright 1950s costuming, compulsively.

Henry Reed Inc. (the first in the series) is also a quintessential summer read. In it, Henry comes to stay with his aunt and uncle for the first time in the little town of Grover’s Corners (if that sounds familiar, it’s also the name of town in Our Town), a rural town near Princeton, New Jersey. Henry’s determined to start a summer business, and he teams up with the girl next door, Midge, who’s smart, brave, curious, and every bit Henry’s equal. (Midge is one of my all-time favorite female sidekicks, and I’d like to Robertson a cookie for creating such a great example of a feminist character who’s totally believable as a pre-teen girl, an inhabitant of her time, and an independent-minded woman.) Because of their proximity to Princeton, the two decide they’re most likely to find research gigs, but their jobs end up being more varied than they’d expected, from raising worms and painting turtles to accidentally discovering oil. And along the way, they create plenty of friendly havoc, including a traffic jamming bathtub accident so crazy it makes the local news. Henry, bless his heart, has no real sense of humor, which makes his first-person reporting of these incidents even funnier.

This is an old-fashioned summer story, with the same vibe as books like Gone Away Lake, where summer is a little big magical and anything can happen. The plot is full of wacky escapades, but really, not much happens—there are no dramatic denouements, just a series of adventures that end with Henry packing his bags and saying “See you next summer!” The characters feel like real people, even the just-passing-by folks, like the Princeton engineers who get stuck in Henry and Midge’s traffic jam. And the illustrations, by Caldecott winner Robert Robert McCloskey are just great. Henry Reed is definitely a character who deserves more attention—and adding Henry Reed Inc. to you summer reading list would make a great start.

(If you're playing Summer Reading Bingo, this one counts for "Read the first book in a series.")

The Life-Changing Magic of Embracing My Kids’ Reading Choices

Love this! The best books for your child to read are the books she WANTS to read. Great literature will always be there, but they're more likely to dive into it if they've learned to love reading. #homeschool

My ten-year-old daughter plucked the book off the library shelf because she liked the look of it. It had a hot-pink spine, a cover photo of a girl’s arms protectively clutching a stack of notebooks to her chest, and a catchy title: Jessica Darling’s IT LIST: THE (totally not) GUARANTEED GUIDE to POPULARITY, PRETTINESS & PERFECTION.

“Oh, ick” was my first response, though I kept my opinion to myself. Don’t girls get enough pressure to obsess about their appearances and social status? I silently groused. Do they have to be pelted with it in books, too? 

As strong as my feelings were, I managed to stay off my soapbox and keep my mouth shut. I remember all too well the day my sophomore English teacher noticed me reading Flowers in the Attic. My teacher had always supported and encouraged my love of writing and my insatiable reading habit. But at the sight of V. C. Andrews’ notorious novel in my hands, she sighed, “Oh, you shouldn’t be reading garbage like that. It won’t do your writing any favors, reading something so poorly written.”

I know she meant well, but I felt mortified—caught in the act of gobbling down the literary equivalent of Ho-Hos cupcakes. That feeling of shame stuck with me a long time (though it didn’t stop me from sneak-reading the rest of the series). In that moment was born a vow: if I ever had kids, I wouldn’t shame them for what they liked to read. 

Throughout my kids’ early years, we hauled a little red wagon down the block to our local library just about every week and came back loaded with books for what we called “reading jamborees”—us snuggled up on our cat-clawed beige couch with a teetering stack of picture books and comics collections. Our reading jamborees ranged from Greek mythology and modern classics like the Frog and Toad books to Garfield comics. We were indiscriminate and voracious, devouring gorgeous, artfully crafted picture books alongside merchandising tie-in books starring Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Barbie, reveling in all of it—no judgment. No shame.

If I dismiss a book they love as trash, I suspect it’ll make them less likely to share with me about other things they love.

Now that my daughter is ten and my son is thirteen, I’ve continued to follow a “no-judgment” policy when it comes to what they read (though I do tend to ask them to wait if a book seems too violent or sexy for their maturity level). I really can’t know how much my kids love or value a certain book, how much of their own emerging identity is connected to what they feel about a particular book. If I dismiss a book they love as trash, I suspect it’ll make them less likely to share with me about other things they love. 

Do I want my kids to experience great literature? Of course! And perhaps in part because I’ve been open to what my kids like, they often give what I like a chance, too. Few things make me as happy as seeing my kid finish a book I admire and then declaring, “That was pretty good.” Or even better: “I’d like to read more books like that.” In turn, they sometimes recommend books to me that I never would have found on my own—and end up rocking my world.

Which brings me to Jessica Darling’s IT LIST. My daughter gulped up that first book, then discovered it was the first in a trilogy and read the other two. And then one day, she said, “I think we should read the first Jessica Darling book for our next mother-daughter read-aloud.” 

I was not prepared for how much I loved this novel.

The trilogy’s protagonist Jessica is a smart, awkward girl starting junior high. Her older sister Bethany, now in college, was once a top junior-high “IT Girl,” a cheerleader with “infinity BFFs” and all the most popular boys vying for her attention. Bethany has never paid much attention to Jessica, so Jessica is thrilled when Bethany offers her “Bethany Darling’s IT List,” a “guaranteed” four-point guide to popularity, prettiness, and perfection.

Jessica dutifully tries to follow Bethany’s pointers. Naturally, chaos ensues. 

This novel wasn’t trying to be a guide to popularity at all! It was using sly humor and great, relatable characters to demolish the idea of trying to be popular following someone else’s rules. It was about the lifelong task of letting go of worrying about how to be an “IT girl” and instead embracing who you really are. As I read, I became more and more convinced that the series’ author, a novelist named Megan McCafferty, must be a genius.

I shared a few stories of my own and saw my daughter’s eyes light up with the recognition that I really had been a girl her age once, too.

This book! It gave my daughter and me so much great fuel for discussions I wish I could have had with my mom when I was ten. Together, we mused over questions like “Why does Jessica hang out with girls she doesn’t actually enjoy or feel comfortable with?” and “Why is Jessica trying to follow her sister’s advice when it’s so clearly wrong for her?” We pondered what we’d do if we were in some of the predicaments that Jessica faces. I shared a few stories of my own and saw my daughter’s eyes light up with the recognition that I really had been a girl her age once, too. 

 We’re about to start Jessica Darling’s IT LIST 3: THE (totally not) GUARANTEED GUIDE TO STRESSING, OBSESSING, & SECOND-GUESSING. We’re also looking forward to the upcoming release of a movie based on the first book. Author Megan McCafferty has said she hopes to host some mother-daughter book club events in conjunction with the movie release. If she visits anywhere near us, I’ll definitely be there with stars in my eyes to thank her for what she does. 

When I was a tween and teen, there were two things I remember craving most of all from the adults in my life. I wanted them to show some curiosity about who I really was (as opposed to who they thought I ought to be), and I wanted to feel that they accepted the real me. My no-judgment policy about my kids’ reading has been one way to cultivate that kind of curiosity and acceptance. And whether I’m laughing with my kids over the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid installment or talking with them about why they think one author’s handling of multiple points-of-view works beautifully while another author’s, well, doesn’t, I feel grateful to have had the reading experiences I’ve had with them. And it’s all because of a vow sparked back when I was sixteen, long before I ever became a mom.

Summer Reading: If You Liked Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys

home|school|life's Friday roundup of the best homeschool links, reads, tools, and other fun stuff has lots of ideas and resources.

Let’s face it: Few things are as fun as racing to put together the clues before your favorite intrepid detective solves the case. We think these books make worthy follow-ups (or lead ups!) to the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

Your next picture book

Alphabet Mystery
By Audrey Wood

In Alphabet Mystery by Audrey Wood, the lowercase letters must team up to find little x, who’s gone missing just before his mom’s big birthday bash.


Your next chapter book

By Gary Paulsen

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen introduces Mudshark, a kid whose reputation as a great problem solver is challenged by a case of disappearing erasers at his school. 


Your next readaloud

Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief
By Wendelin Van Draanen

Sammy Keys and the Hotel Thief by Wendelin Van Draanen kicks off a mystery series about a 12-year-old detective who finds trouble wherever she goes. In this book, Sammy spies a thief in action. Unfortunately, the thief sees her, too.


Your next teen read

By Kathy Reichs, Brendan Reichs

Virals by Kathy Reichs starts another series, when sci-phile teens led by Tory Brennan rescue a dog from a medical testing facility, kicking off a chain of events that will put them hot on the trail of a not-so-cold case and launch a surprising new phase of their lives.


Your next grown-up book

The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters is the first book in the delightful Amelia Peabody mysteries, in which an eternally curious 19th-century spinster decides to take her inheritance to Egypt, where she falls in love with Egyptology and becomes caught up in an old-fashioned whodunnit.

9 Books for Latino Book Month

Fill your May reading list with books that celebrate Latino culture. Lean ustedes, y disfruten!

Everyone knows about Brown vs. the Board of Education, but not many people know that almost ten years before the Supreme Court struck down the separate but equal standard for school, a Mexican-Puerto Rican-American fought against the same kind of segregation in California. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (EG) tells her story.

The allegory is obvious but still effective in Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote (EG)—a tale about a young bunny who strikes out north in search of his father, who left to work in the carrot and lettuce fields there and hasn’t returned home.


The Dreamer
By Pam Munoz Ryan, Pam Muñoz Ryan

In the graphic novel Luz Sees the Light (EG), Luz’s community is struggling with high gas prices and power outages, and Luz thinks turning a deserted lot into a community garden will make her barrio a better place.

The Dreamer (MG) is fictional biography of Pablo Neruda, recounting the childhood of a shy boy who finds beauty and mystery all around him with a dazzling combination of poetry, prose, and artwork.


Return to Sender
By Julia Alvarez
The Tequila Worm
By Viola Canales

Julia Alvarez tackles tough questions about ethics, morality, and migrant workers in Return to Sender (MG), a simple, sensitive story about two families whose lives intersect on a Vermont dairy farm.

In The Tequila Worm (YA), Sophia experiences culture shock when she wins a scholarship to a posh boarding school, where she must find ways to stay connected to her Mexican-American family and its traditions while finding her place in a different world.


Under the Mesquite
By Guadalupe Garcia Mccall
The Book of Unknown Americans
By Cristina Henríquez

While Lupita’s Mami battles cancer at a faraway hospital, teenage Lupita takes care of her seven younger brothers and sisters in Under the Mesquite (YA), a novel in verse about growing up in a Mexican-American family.

A motley collection of immigrants, brought together in a Delaware apartment complex, tell their stories in chapters that alternate with a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl in The Book of Unknown Americans (YA).


The House on Mango Street
By Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street (YA) isn’t so much a novel as a collection of vivid, lyrical, almost impressionist vignettes, telling the story of a Mexican-American girl growing up in Chicago. 


We use the abbreviations EG (elementary), MG (middle school), and YA (high school) to give you a general idea of reading level, but obviously you’re the best judge of what your child is ready to read.

New Books: Dragon Slippers

Dragon Slippers
By Jessica Day George
I had a fine new pair of shoes and was on my way to the King’s Seat to find work. It was the stuff of fairy tales.
Of course, in fairy tales, the young heroine did not get too hot and feel sweat running down the back of her neck and into her bodice.

Technically, I guess Dragon Slippers isn’t a new book—it was the first book from the author of Tuesdays at the Castle—but since it got a much-deserved relaunch recently with a fancy new cover design and since a lot of people (including me) missed it when it first came out, I think it belongs to this series.

Creel is not your typical heroine. When her impoverished family decides to sacrifice her to the local dragon in the hopes that a wealthy knight will rescue her, marry her, and allow the whole clan to prosper, Creel discovers that the local dragon has zero interest in holding damsels hostage or battling questing knights. She seizes the opportunity, borrows a pair of mysterious blue shoes from her reluctant captor, and sets off for the capital with only a bit of embroidery thread and her wits to guide her. En route, she befriends another dragon and begins to brainstorm ideas for finding work sewing and eventually opening her own shop. Creel has no desire to be a princess—an idea that’s reinforced when she has an unfortunate encounter with the spoiled, arrogant princess who’s betrothed to her country’s crown prince. The crown prince himself is pretty nice, Creel discovers, when she unknowingly makes friends with his younger brother and finds herself caught up in a political power struggle between two kingdoms, with the allegiance of the dragons and the safety of her realm at stake. Though she’d rather be making pretty dresses, Creel knows she has to do what she can to help her kingdom and the dragons who have become her friends.

This is a delightful, girl-powered story—and one in which the heroine doesn’t have to become a warrior to save the day. Creel is consistently, awesomely herself throughout this book—she changes and grows, of course, but in normal, everyday ways that normal, everyday people change and grow. She’s intelligent and resourceful, good at her job, and willing to stick her neck out when she believes in something, whether it’s dealing with a mean girl at work or coming up with a plan to get the dragons on the right side of the coming war. There’s a little light romance, but Creel isn’t looking for a Prince Charming—she’s much more excited about the prospect of opening up her own shop. I was afraid I’d be constantly comparing this book to Dealing with Dragons (which I adore), but other than the fact that book books include friendships between girls and dragons, the two are really nothing at all alike.

We did this as a readaloud and then my daughter reread it on her own, so I feel safe recommending it. (And it’s a series! I can’t wait to pick up the next installment.)

Find more fun fantasy books.

New Books: Worlds of Ink and Shadow

Papa was very wise when he called my writing a childish habit, and I think he understands that, for me, its a dangerous one as well.

Here’s the thing you should know about me: I cannot resist historical fiction. I eat it up. I cannot get enough. Honestly, I still credit much of my knowledge of actual history to reading Sunfire romances in middle school. (Caroline was my favorite.) Also, like a big chunk of the literary world, I am a little obsessed with the Bronte sisters. (Working on the Charlotte Bronte reading list for our spring issue was definitely one of the highlights of my year so far.) I tell you this so that you will know how sincere I am when I tell you that I wanted to love this book, which is historical fiction about the Bronte family. Sadly, for me, it didn’t quite do it—but if you haven’t spent as many years obsessing over the Brontes as I have, you might like it more.

Because, really, we know a lot about the Brontes. We know that their prim, parsimonious father was suspicious of their creative drives. We know that they grew up, poor and obscure, in far-from-London Yorkshire. We know that Charlotte was plain and passionate, and that Branwell was troubled and tempted by easy comforts. We know that Emily was a romantic drawn to the wildness of the moors, and that Anne was sensible. We know that the most lived parts of their lives were in their literary works. And we don’t really learn much else about the Brontes in the course of this book.

I liked the idea of Worlds of Ink and Shadow, which is that the imaginary worlds created by Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell become real. In their created worlds, the young Brontes are like gods, controlling the actions of their characters while lurking in disguise on the sidelines. (And in their imaginary worlds, you can see hints of great Bronte characters, like Jane Eyre’s Rochester and Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, begin to emerge.) But the pull of the imagined worlds is too strong, and the siblings begin to lose their hold on reality and to realize that the price they must pay for their vivid imaginations may be too high. 

But the story falls flat—perhaps because Coakley’s Brontes feel like rough sketches of what most of us already know—there’s nothing revelatory or surprising about the internal lives of the four siblings. Even the mystery of how their imaginations come so vividly to life falls flat, trading a superstitious deus ex machina for a more nuanced examination of the cost of an authentically creative life. Some parts—the ever-present ghosts of their dead sisters, the angry criticism of their father, the hints of the Brontes’ novels-to-come—are well drawn. But in the end, I closed the book, unsatisfied.

I wanted to love this book and I didn’t—but it’s worth a spot on your YA library list to see if you feel the same way.