When my daughter was in the fifth grade, she’d often exit the car at school drop-off with a book snuggled securely under her arm. At some point during my drive home, I would realize she’d forgotten her lunch. I’d finagle a U-turn and brave LA morning traffic—again—to leave the meal with the school secretary. Although this led to a certain level of infuriation the fourth time it happened, I was reminded of myself at that age. Immersed in the worlds of long-awaited books, carefully circled in the monthly Scholastic flyer, it was easy for me to forget about a ballet lesson or an orthodontist appointment. Remembering this, I’d tamp down my frustration and gently scold my daughter, understanding that reading is its own form of nourishment. Anna Quindlen said, “Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” In my daughter’s case, they are also more crucial than lunch. Below are selections that have nourished the children of Literary Mama editors in recent months.
Reviews Editor Autumn Purdy writes: “A voracious reader, my ten-year-old daughter is drawn to classic literature and fairy tales. Because she devours about 100 books a year and reads way above her age and grade level, I often have difficulty finding appropriate books to match her literary pursuits. When our public library began offering a monthly subscription bundle, a service whereby the librarians choose a personalized stack of books for your child based on their interests and favorite genres, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity for their expert help. Last month, my daughter received a wonderful collection of stories in her bundle, including The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange. This middle-grade novel reads like a modern-day fairy tale, and the first-person narration completely captivated my daughter. She became quite emotional when describing the premise: ‘The book takes place in 1919, England. The main character, Henrietta, and her family move from London to the country after they have a house fire, and Henrietta’s older brother dies in it. He went back into the house to find Henrietta but didn’t know she had already escaped. Then the mom becomes sick. At first, I didn’t know why, but it was because she was really sad.’ My daughter came alive when retelling Henrietta’s affinity for reading. ‘I liked how Henrietta was always thinking about books. Many of them were stories I’ve already read, like Alice in Wonderland, and fairy tales I loved, too.’ Henrietta explores Nightingale Wood and befriends Moth, a mysterious woman who, according to my daughter, ‘is sort of like a witch, but a nice one,’ and begins having visions of her dead brother. ‘He magically appears,’ my daughter stated, ‘especially whenever Henrietta is afraid.’ The book’s cast of characters includes a curious doctor who cares for Henrietta’s bed-ridden mother, a bereaved father working far away, a younger sister, and a nanny. Mysterious happenstances and acts of courage abound. Lucy Strange’s The Secret of Nightingale Wood includes all the other-worldly elements of a classic fairy tale to keep readers intrigued: tragedy, fantasy, mystery, suspense, good versus evil, a cast of strong and relatable characters, and a concluding, ‘happily ever after’ ending.”
“When I read through the majority of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with my older child,” says Senior Editor Libby Maxey, “he was in kindergarten, and mostly didn’t notice my on-the-fly expurgation of squirm-inducing racism. Now, I’ve returned to the series at the request of my younger child, who is 12, and therefore quite old enough to talk about Ma’s contempt for Native Americans and the politics of westward expansion. In fact, he’s usually the one who interrupts the story to note evidence of casual prejudice. Even so, he loves the coziness of reading by the fire while Laura and her family spend their own cozy evenings in the company of Pa’s fiddle. Having finished By the Shores of Silver Lake last month, we’ve lately been slogging through The Long Winter, which is a less laborious slog now that we can see hints of spring in New England. As my reading companion puts it, ‘If you live in a cold climate, [the book] makes you feel better, because at least you’re not waking up covered in snow.’ Nor are we stuck waiting for the train to make it through the Tracy cut, with nothing to burn for heat or light but twists of hay. My older child lost interest after Little Town on the Prairie because Laura had gotten too old and left him behind; it remains to be seen if that will prove true for my younger child, despite following her adventures at an older age. Meanwhile, I’m preparing myself for an important conversation about the history and attitudes behind minstrel shows.”
Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Editorial Assistant Kristen Mulrooney writes: “Last year my kids received Jory John’s The Bad Seed as a gift, and the picture book was an instant hit. Since then we’ve collected John’s other food-narrated books, The Good Egg, The Couch Potato, and The Cool Bean. Each of the books in the series are stuffed with food puns, wordplay, and visual gags—some that my 3- and 5-year-old pick up on, and some that are purely for my enjoyment. My kids love the watercolor illustrations and the repetition they’ve learned to read along with, e.g. ‘I’m a bad seed. A baaaaaaaad seed.’ More than that, these stories offer a nuanced look at complicated feelings that I’ve never quite seen in a children’s book. The Cool Bean, for instance, tells the story of a bean who loses touch with his friends after they become part of the cool crowd at school. I expected a standard, ‘It doesn’t matter what other people think of you’ story, but instead I was delighted to find that the book reaches out to other ‘cool beans’ and shows them how simple kindnesses could change the sad narrator’s outlook. The other books in the collection gently cover topics like stress, anxiety, and how we’re in control of our own actions. I love how John’s books reassure my kids (and myself, to be honest) that our feelings are valid and we have the ability to make choices to change our paths.”
“When the pandemic hit last March,” writes Editor-in-Chief Amanda Jaros, “my son’s eighth-grade history teacher sent home the book Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, to further the class discussion about Middle Eastern politics. In the early throes of pandemic quarantine, I suggested to my son that we read it aloud together, like the many books we read aloud throughout his childhood. However, Habibi begins with the main character, thirteen-year-old Liyana Abboud, having her first kiss, and the read-aloud quickly became a no-go for my thirteen-year-old. The chaos of the pandemic left Habibi by the wayside for my son, but after reading the first few chapters myself, I had to keep going. Nye’s poetic skill brings to life this middle-grade novel about Liyana, daughter of an American mother and Palestinian father, and her family’s immigration to Jerusalem. Missing her childhood home in St. Louis, Liyana struggles to adapt to life in the West Bank. She must learn Arabic to speak with her relatives, make friends in her new high school, and most challenging of all, navigate the ongoing tension and violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis. When Liyana befriends, and crushes on, a Jewish boy, she realizes more than ever how alike we all really are, and how important it is to bridge the divide between conflicting people. Nye brings the difficulty of the Middle East conflict to a scale that a middle-schooler can comprehend, and I admit I’m disappointed that my son never finished the book. A year into the pandemic, however, we’ve yet to return Habibi to the school. Perhaps I’m hoping my son will pick it up again. If he does, he’ll find, like I did, that Habibi shines a light on how expansive and beautiful the world truly is when we step beyond our closed, quarantined doors.”