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Happy Mother’s Day!

Mothers—sometimes we’re lauded and sometimes we’re hated, but someone is always yelling for us. With that theme in mind, here are three of my favorite books to read on Mother’s Day:


“My Mother is So Smart,” by Tomie dePaola.

I’ve always loved those Mother’s Day questionnaires teachers have our kids fill out each May. It’s fun seeing what pops into my girls’ mind when they’re put on the spot and asked to finish a sentence like: “My mom always says…”

While there’s a laugh in a child’s inability to accurately assess her parent’s age or what her mother might do with an hour’s free time, there’s invaluable wisdom in the answers she gives when asked to articulate when she has the most fun with her mom.

As a mother, I want nothing more than to have my children know they’re loved infinitely and unconditionally, and I can only hope that they appreciate the unique qualities I offer as their mother.

The legendary author Tomie dePaola leaves no doubt as to how he feels about his mother, Florence, or Flossie, as she was better known. Like much of his other work, “My Mother is So Smart” is autobiographical, and it is everything a mother could ever ask for in a tribute from her child.

DePaola writes: “I knew form the time I was really little that my mother was smart.”

He praises her cookies, popsicles and warm breakfasts. He recalls the winter she taught him to walk and the Halloween she made him a bird costume. He speaks with pride of the time she taught the whole neighborhood to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and the Fourth of July when she showed all the kids how to make their initials with sparklers. He notes that she could drive his grandfather’s delivery truck and dance the polka. And he shares with awe her ability to “change into a movie star when she and my father go out at night.” For the grand finale, dePaola reveals his mother could even stand on her head.


DePaola’s reverence for his mother is moving, and the specificity of the attributes he praises in her make the book all the more intimate. DePaola published “My Mother is So Smart” in 2010 at the age of 76, 10 years after his mother’s passing. At the ages of 9, 7, 3 and 16 months, I wonder what my children think makes me special. And what memories of me will they honor when they’re in their seventh decade?

I’ll be 35 this summer and my mom is a youthful 62. Over the course of our three and a half decades together, I’ve been lucky enough to amass more memories with my her than I could ever possibly record, but I’ll cherry pick a few in honor of her this Mother’s Day:

  • She decorated my childhood bedroom with heart wallpaper and bedding; so many hearts, she told me, so I would always know how much she loved me.
  • For years, she tucked notes into my packed school lunches
  • She once mailed me a tin of chocolate covered raisins at sleep-away Girl Scout camp because she knew I’d be homesick
  • She has the best handwriting of anyone I know
  • She’s a determined gin player and if you’re betting money, you better bet on losing it
  • I probably complained about what was for dinner more nights than not when I was a kid, but these days, there’s nothing that beats having her show up at my house with fully cooked dinner.
  • Best of all, she has boundless love for her daughters, and there’s not a day we don’t know it.



“Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth,” written by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise.

I’m only nine years into this gig, but I’ve already received my fair share of vitriol from aggrieved children. One of the best insults I’ve ever received as a mother was the time Charlotte called me a “trash mommy.” I can’t, for the life of me, recall what I possibly did to upset her, but she searched her little preschool vocabulary for the worst word she could come up with and she landed on “trash.” It seems, at least at that point, I was doing a pretty good job watching my language around the kids.

In “Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth,” Mother Rabbit earns her son’s ire when she insists that he clean up his playroom before he can visit the circus that’s just arrived in town.

I can very specifically remember the hopelessness of attempting to put order to a destroyed playroom—my mom would send me and my sisters into our basement to clean up our mess of Barbies—it felt like descending into a pit of despair from which we’d never emerge.


Little Rabbit’s playroom looks about the same—detritus evenly spaced across the entire floor. Try as he might, his efforts at tidying only seem to make the room messier. When Mother Rabbit concludes that he won’t see the circus that day, boy is Little Rabbit angry:

“’I never get to do anything fun!’ Little Rabbit yelled. ‘It’s not fair! You’re so mean! I’m…It’s…You’re…’ But he was too angry to continue.”

Left pouting in his room, Little Rabbit decides to take drastic measures. He climbs out his playroom window and runs away to join the circus. But before he’ll take Little Rabbit on, the ringmaster wants to know what sort of act he can bring to the table.

“’Well,’ said Little Rabbit, ‘I have the Meanest Mother on Earth.’”

The ringmaster tells him if he can sell 100 tickets to see this horrific mother, Little Rabbit will be included in the evening’s show. With promises of a punishment-plotting, two-headed, green-toothed, tail-eating monster, Little Rabbit draws a big crowd. But when the spotlight shines on Mother Rabbit, the crowd feels short-changed and their anger mounts.


Mother Rabbit saves the day when she promises them an even more terrifying act: The Messiest Room on Earth. The crowd follows them home, where it is properly stunned by Little Rabbit’s rank room. Before leaving, the visitors are invited to take a souvenir or two from the mess, and when the last leave, Little Rabbit finally has his clean room and a greater understanding of just how lucky he his to have a mom like his.
sistersketch“Little Rabbit and the Messiest Room on Earth” was written and illustrated by the sister team of Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise who say they “spent many hours as children avoiding the loathsome task of cleaning their room” but make note in their bio that their mother, Marjorie Klise, is actually “the nicest (and smartest) mother on Earth.”


Their story walks the humorous balance of sympathizing with a child’s frustrations but also smirking at that child’s tendency to cast his mother as “the meanest” over the smallest disputes. I believe I was most recently compared to an “evil stepmom” when I asked my second born to put her shoes away.


where's mommy big

Where’s Mommy?” written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock.

We received this book as a gift from a friend with excellent taste in children’s books (is their anything better you can ask for in a friend?), and it has remained one of my all-time favorites ever since.

“Where’s Mommy?” introduces us to Mary and Mouse Mouse, a little girl and the juvenile mouse that lives below her family’s floorboards. The two are fast friends, but they can’t tell a soul, because:

“If Maria’s parents knew there were mice in the house, they’d get a cat. And if Mouse Mouse’s parents knew their daughter was friends with a human, they’d flee to a hole in the ground.”


Illustrator Barbara McClintock depicts their parallel worlds in fascinating detail—Mary’s family’s cozy mid-century modern, with quirky art, stuffed bookshelves, and scattered children’s toys; and Mouse-Mouse’s subterranean residence, cobbled together from cast-offs from the human world above, bringing to mind the beloved Borrowers: a flashlight for a floor lamp, a watch as a wall clock, and gummy bears standing in as playthings. This plethora of details is what I love most of about McClintock’s work and often leaves me wondering how much time must go into a fully-illustrated spread. The images are certain to captivate the child reader and they always leave something new to discover on subsequent readings.

Beverly Donofrio’s story follows Maria and Mouse Mouse one evening as each gets ready for bed, but can’t find their mothers when it’s time to say goodnight.


When neither gets an answer and their mothers fail to appear, the girls’ shouts intensify, and, before long, the halls are echoing with their voices. It’s funny, when our children are babies, we can’t wait to hear them say “mama” for the first time; but once they master it, they certainly learn how to abuse it.

They search the house, top to bottom; their fathers are of no help, and neither are their siblings. Just when they’re certain their mothers have disappeared, Maria and Mouse Mouse discover them in the backyard shed having a lovely chat together! It turns out that Maria and Mouse Mouse aren’t the only ones with a secret friendship.

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I was recently in New York to see my youngest sister Lindsay’s Master of Fine Arts thesis show. New York and I haven’t always gotten along—I once had a panic attack shopping on Fifth Avenue in December. So this time around, I was determined to find my happy place in the city with which I just haven’t yet made friends.

I can, of course, appreciate the city’s museums, innumerable restaurants, Broadway Shows and Central Park, but the book scene is where it’s at for me. When I’m in Minneapolis, I can’t leave town without visiting Wild Rumpus or Red Balloon Bookshop; when I’m in Denver, my first stop is The Bookies, and I’m excitedly planning my first trips to the Book Bar and Second Star to the Right, both in the Mile High city, later this summer.

So I set out in search of New York’s finest children’s bookstores, a la Meg Ryan’s The Shop Around the Corner —a place with plenty of shelf space to display recommended titles and a knowledgeable staff, eager to talk shop.


And, boy, did I find it in Books of Wonder! I walked into the store late on a Friday afternoon—the weather outside was dreary, gray and cold—and was greeted by a warm, glowing space, filled with golden, oak shelves chock full of thoughtfully and tidily arranged books. Is there anything more beautiful?

Not until later did I learn that this very bookstore was, indeed, the inspiration for the corner bookstore in “You’ve Got Mail.” The director, Nora Ephron, was a longtime Books of Wonder customer, and she sent her set designers to study every detail of the store in order to recreate it as closely as possible on a sound stage. Meg Ryan even spent a day working at Books of Wonder to prepare for her role, and staff members helped arrange books on the film set.

I spent nearly 2 ½ hours in this cozy utopia of children’s books, perusing virtually every title on the shelves from board books to young adults. The store was blissfully free of the junk that clogs the shelves at big box stores back in Iowa—no Disney characters or books based on TV shows and movies, no stuffed animals or toys or games that I recall. Just the best in children’s literature, including everything from the great authors of the past to today’s big hitters and everyone in between. It’s the perfect place to take a child and turn her loose—there isn’t a title she could pick that wouldn’t be up to snuff.

Not only did they have “all the books,” they had stacks of books signed by my favorite authors and illustrators at no mark-up. (Signed additions can also be purchased or pre-ordered on their website here; currently available are “Dragons Love Tacos 2: The Sequel” by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” by Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney). Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that seemingly half of today’s successful authors and illustrators only live a subway ride away in Brooklyn, no joke: Peter Brown, Sophie Blackall and Sergio Ruzzier, to name a few. They might as well form an artists’ commune.

I came away with a signed copy of “The Castle in the Mist” by Amy Ephron for my 9 year old, Eloise, who loves magical fantasy. It’s been described as a combination of “The Secret Garden” and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” both revered classics.


For my almost-8 year old Charlotte, I selected a signed copy of “The Princess Test” by Gail Carson Levine, who also wrote “Ella Enchanted.” The book is a reimagining of “The Princess and the Pea” (my favorite fairy tale) with a very particular (read: spoiled) blacksmith’s daughter standing in as the heroine. For those who know my Charlotte, I think you’d agree she might have a bit in common with this aspiring princess.

princess cover

HornBookWhile these signed editions impressed the big girls, I was most excited about my find for 3-year-old Flora. I’ve subscribed to the Horn Book Magazine for years, and this publication is pretty much the authority on anything and everything happening in the children’s book world. So it’s rare a new release escapes my eye and surprises me when it shows up on a bookshelf unanticipated.

However, that’s just what happened with “Tales for the Perfect Child,” a book originally published by author Florence Parry Heide in 1985 but re-released with updated illustrations by Sergio Ruzzier in March of this year.

Heide, who died in 2011, was best known for storytelling that encouraged the mischief in children and reflected their vexation with the adults in their lives. “Tales for the Perfect Child” was certainly written in that vein. It contains eight short stories about children who subtly outwit their parents’ best efforts to make demands of them.

There’s Arthur, who doesn’t want to put on dress clothes to go see Aunt Eunice with his mother; he’d rather stay home in his old clothes and watch his favorite television program. But Arthur doesn’t argue with his mother. Instead, he gets dressed up, heads to the fridge to pour himself a big glass of grape juice and, whoops, most of it gets all over his nice dress clothes. Seeing as he’s no longer presentable, Arthur’s mother leaves her messy child at home, and Arthur gets to watch his favorite program, just like he wanted.


Harry is a child after my own heart. Harry can’t have ice cream until he finishes his carrots, so he waits until his mother leaves the room and puts all of the carrots in “a small plastic bag he kept in his pocket for special times.” When his mother returns, he is commended and gets his ice cream. As a child, I didn’t have any secret bags in my pockets, but I did make mid-dinner trips to the bathroom with my cheeks stuffed with peas like a hamster and into the toilet they went. To quote Heide: “There’s always a way to get out of eating something yucky.”


And I’d be remised if I didn’t mention Harriet, whose special brand of skills will unfortunately be all too familiar to the adult reader (it’s certainly the environment in which I prepare dinner every night):

“Harriet was a very good whiner. She practiced and practiced, and so of course she got better and better at it. Practice makes perfect.”

Harriet wants a piece of pie before dinner, but her mother tells her guests are coming and the pie will be served after the roast beef. Harriet continues to whine and her mother continues to tell her “no” while attempting to finish cooking dinner. But because “a good whiner sticks to one subject” and “a good whiner never gives up” and “good whiners make it very hard for anyone to think of anything else,” Harriet’s mother burns the gravy and hands over the slice of pie to shut Harriet up.


I think there’s something therapeutic for kids in reading stories about children who get the upper hand. The greatest battles between parents and children in our family are in determining who gets to decide what the child wears, what they eat, when they have to help and when they get to play. Our children can live vicariously through Heide’s characters, who all seem to have control over getting and doing what they want.

Heide’s wit and insight on the child’s mind are genius, but Sergio Ruzzier’s illustrations are just as brilliant.

As I mentioned earlier, Ruzzier lives in Brooklyn, but he’s Italian by birth. When he first moved to New York in 1995 to gain a foothold in the picture book world, he was disregarded and told his work was too “European.” It’s undeniable that Ruzzier’s work is unique—pen and ink with soft, chalky watercolors; quirky little animal characters, many with distinctive elongated noses.



From “Two Mice” by Sergio Ruzzier

Ruzzier’s work is unmistakable and ALWAYS fabulous, which is how I knew I had my hands on something special when I pulled “Tales for the Perfect Child” off the shelf at Books of Wonder and caught sight of his cover illustration.


For Heide’s book, Ruzzier has limited himself to pen and ink with light and dark shades of turquoise. He’s drawn Heide’s mischievous children as mice, rabbits, ducks, pigs, puppies, cats and even bugs; and while Ruzzier has chosen animals, his ability to create humor and attitude in those little figures reminds me of Maurice Sendak’s children in books like “A Hole is to Dig” and “Chicken Soup with Rice.”



He shows us Ruby obediently “watching” her younger brother Clyde, but he makes it clear by her unconcerned expression that’s she’s doing nothing more than watching as Clyde wreaks havoc throughout the house.


And Arthur’s accident with the grape juice that destroyed his nice suit and tie? Not so much an accident.



And that Harriet? When in full-whine mode, she’s a disagreeable, nasty-looking child, but once she gets what she wants, how innocent and adorable she appears.


If you end up loving this book as much as I do, get excited because Ruzzier also has created new illustrations for “Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To,” another Heide classic about a set of children who are careless, discontented and lazy. The book will be rereleased on July 25th.



And if you’re ever in NYC, be sure to indulge at Books of Wonder. They often have stunning window displays created by well-known children’s book illustrators.


Also, watch for a post to come about another fabulous children’s bookstore I was able to visit.

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She Persisted!

While researching the illustrator Alexandra Boiger for my last post, I discovered some incredibly exciting news … Her most latest project is a collaboration with Chelsea Clinton on a picture book called, wait for it … “She Persisted” !!!!


The book, due out on May 30th, according to the publisher, “introduces tiny feminists, mini activities and little kids who are ready to take on the world to thirteen inspiration women who never took no for an answer, and who always, inevitably and without fail, persisted.”

The project was likely in the works before Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell verbally attacked Senator Elizabeth Warren and later told the Senate: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” However, “she persisted” has become the battle cry of women like Warren and those featured in Clinton’s upcoming book, whose persistence has shaped our country.

The book features Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey and Sonia Sotomayor. But a surprise cameo by another inspiration women is promised. One can only hope Clinton pays tributre to BOTH her mother, Hillary Clinton, and Warren, whose determination inspired the title.

“She Persisted” is available for pre-order on Amazon. You can bet I have my order placed, and I’m looking forward to reading about these inspirational women with all four of my daughters.

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It’s inevitable. If my cell phone comes anywhere near the vicinity of my ear, one of my four children will either:

  1. start crying, usually while clinging to my leg
  2. hit one of the others
  3. hurt herself
  4. desperately need my attention for what later turns out to be an inconsequential matter

So we moms hide away in closets, pantries, garages and closets in our desperate attempts to finish actual conversations with fellow members of the adult human race. Either that or the person on the other end of the line is forced to suffer through my attempts to talk over the background screeching with teeth clenched and increasing frustration and volume.


Amy Reichert capitalizes on this phenomenon in her book “While Mama had a Little Chat.” She turns the tables, though, and imagines a scenario in which the pleas of the pestering child may actually warrant some attention.

As bedtime is nearing, Mama answers the ringing telephone. Before delving into a “quick little chat” with Uncle Fred, she tasks daughter Rose with completing her nighttime routine, promising she won’t be long.

Ever left your children to ready themselves for bed while you finish the dishes or squeeze in one more load of laundry? Yeah, NOT.GONNA.HAPPEN.

Rose would argue, however, that she had the best of intentions. It’s just that the doorbell rang … and in walked “four muscley men” with supplies from the party store: tables, chairs, balloons, twinkly lights and silverware. They’re wrongly under the impression that Rose’s household is hosting a shindig that evening.

Mama Chat6

Ever so politely, Rose begs her mother’s attention:

Mama Chat1

Put off, there’s nothing Rose can do to stop the arrival of eager part-goers, caterers and a magician. She’s sawn in half and a jazz band joins the mix, inviting her to fill in on drums. The party is reaching full strength and full capacity, just as Mama calls down the hall informing Rose that her conversation is at its end.

Mama Chat3

Fearing she’ll be chastised for all the hubbub, Rose hustles the musicians, the magician, the waiters, and those four party-supply delivery men out the door. Miraculously, when Mama hangs up the phone and heads to check on Rose, all is well.


Reichert has written the parallel frustrations of Mama and Rose with perfect humor. Mama promises a “quick little chat,” but all children know “a second or two” can just as well mean something closer to an hour. Meanwhile, one hardly needs the bold typeface to hear the all-too-familiar shriek in Rose’s voice when she screams: “MAAAAAAAAMA, I need you right now!” Really, right now?

Mama Chat2As an added bonus, Reichert composed this story using inventive rhyme, creating a rhythm that’s fun for both the reader and the listener.

Reichert’s story is spot on, but it was Alexandra Boiger’s illustrations that first drew me to the book. With one glance at the cover, I recognized her distinctive style from another of our picture book favorites, “The Little Bit Scary People,” in which she partnered up with author Emily Jenkins.

Boiger’s characters are richly detailed and amusingly unique – large-nosed movers with hair-covered forearms, cater waiters with bushy eyebrows and thin comb-overs, women with all manner of hairstyles. And each character is illustrated with playful, energetic and immensely expressive body language. Boiger’s color palette is distinctive, as well – she mixes mainly cool blue and aqua backgrounds with bold, vibrant splashes of warm reds, oranges and yellows.

Take note of Boiger’s name — anything she lends it too is bound to be a sure bet!

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I just got back from a family trip to Denver, and by “just” I mean a little over a week ago, but it takes a mom at least that long to catch her breath after surviving the packing, the airport, the late bedtimes and days without naps.

We spent four days in the Mile High City with my younger sister, Allison, who has lived in Denver for five years and is an expert on just about everything the city has to offer. We ate some phenomenal meals at several of the Denver’s most lauded restaurants, saw an stunning exhibit of Chihuly glass at the Denver Botanic Gardens and successfully completed a mountain hike with the kids in tow.


While seeing the sites and enjoying delicious food are always important priorities when we travel, discovering a city’s indie literary scene is typically my personal prerogative.

On past trips to Denver, I was introduced to Tattered Cover, one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States. It has three locations, including one in the hip LoDo (lower downtown) district. This particular store is housed in the historic C.S. Morey Merchantile Building, which dates back to 1896 and was once deemed “the most elegant business house in the West.” Its soaring ceilings, wide staircases, century-old brick and gorgeous wood support beams make the modern-day store the epitome of warehouse chic. Two stories are a filled with endless wood shelves chock-full of the best books in print today, with recommended titles elegantly displayed and accompanied by staff synopses. I could easily spend days on end perusing the offerings and reading in this book lover’s utopia.

Tattered Cover

When it comes to children’s books, though, Denver boasts another literary gem. Hidden in a strip mall on the city’s southeast side, The Bookies is inarguably one of the very best children’s book stores in the country.

Bookies Images

Earlier this fall, I was researching stores for the trip we’re planning to New York sometime in the next year. In the process, I discovered this list from BuzzFeed Community, which compiles the “14 Absolute Best U.S. Kids’ Bookstores,” as voted on by teachers in an online poll. Listed at #10 was The Bookies.

As a one-time journalist (trained at the world’s best J-school – MIZZOU-RAH!), I have my doubts about the authoritativeness of any list generated on BuzzFeed (I’ve seen plenty that are full-blown ridiculousness). But the list DID include the Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis and Reading Reptile in Kansas City, two bookstores I know for a fact are among the best in the business.

With that in mind, we found our way to The Bookies with just enough time to pop in for a look before dinner on our second day in Denver. One step in the door, and I was like a kid on Christmas morning. Never before have I seen such an expansive and comprehensive collection of board books, pictures books, chapter books, teaching supplies and wonderful toys. Twenty minutes, let alone 20 hours, would never be enough to do this store justice.

That afternoon, with the clock ticking on our dinner reservation, we came away with a hastily selected chapter book for each of the big girls, one truly wonderful board book for Flora and a determination to return. Which we did. The next day. And the next day. And if floo powder really existed, I’d be there right now.

Here’s what makes The Bookies exceptional. Not only do they have one of the most thorough collections of children’s literature in the United States, they also have some of the most helpful, friendly and knowledgeable employees you could ask for. Give me a picture book section that isn’t dictated by Disney princesses and I can easily find books that both meet my high standards and entertain my girls. But discovering new chapter books for Eloise and delving into Charlotte’s preferred genre of graphic novels makes me feel like a fish out of water. That’s where my new best friend Ryan steps in (although I don’t know if Ryan knows he’s my new best friend).

Ryan is an ever-smiling, 28-year-old youth literature expert who can just as easily talk to children as he can their book-obsessed parents. He told me he had worked at The Bookies for a year, and it’s apparent that he’s one of the lucky few whose job mirrors his most passionate interest.

Ryan just so happened to be the store’s go-to employee for graphic novels, so I commandeered his help, leaving other customers in my wake. I told him I have absolutely no familiarity with graphic novels, that Charlotte is drawn to them and I needed help finding selections that weren’t too dark. Ryan was off and running, and, man, did he hit it out of the park on his first at bat. I set Charlotte up in a corner of the store with more than a half-dozen of his recommendations, including:

Graphic Novel Recommendations

“Cleopatra in Space, Book One: Target Practice,” by Mike Maihack

“Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!” by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

“Sidekicks,” by Dan Santat

“Explorer: The Lost Island,” a collaborative volume directed by Kazu Kibuishi and created with the help of several other comics greats

“Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitude,” by Jarrett Krosoczka

“Squish: Super Amoeba,” by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

“Binky to the Rescue” by Ashley Spires

“Zita the Spacegirl,” by Ben Hatke

Meanwhile, Ryan and I continued on our stroll around the store, this time in search of chapter books with these criteria: must be outstanding, preferably not part of a series and appropriate content for a 6 year old who’s capable of reading nearly anything in the store. Here were some of Ryan’s suggestions:


“An Elephant in the Garden,” by Michael Morpurgo

“A Tangle of Knots,” by Lisa Graff

“Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes,” by Jonathan Auxier

“Wonder,” by R. J. Palacio

“Princess Academy,” by Shannon Hale

“The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate,” by Jacqueline Kelly

“The Lemonade War,” by Jacqueline Davies

“The Land of Stores: The Wishing Spell,” by Chris Colfer

And anything by Gordon Korman, including “Swindle” and “The Hypnotists.”

And that’s how we spent two hours on our second trip to The Bookies.

But here’s the problem… I hadn’t even hit the picture book section yet. So my dear, indulgent sister returned with me for a third time the next day while the girls fit in a quick nap before we had to head the airport. I power shopped like it was Black Friday, and 45 minutes later I had a sack full of new picture books and board books about which I couldn’t be more excited.

So, the girls might not have ended up with any souvenir sweatshirts, but they’ll be enjoying our loot for the next year, at least. And the best part was, nearly all of our selections were available in paperback, and The Bookies offers a 15% discount when you pay in cash, so the pocketbook didn’t suffer TOO badly. We did push the limits on the airline’s bag weight limits on the way home, though. I felt like a narcotics smuggler as I was stuffing the girls’ rolling carry-on bags with all of our books.

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I’ll use almost any excuse to give my girls books: the first day of school, the last day of school, lost teeth, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the first of December, Christmas, and, of course, our upcoming holiday – Halloween.

I’ll admit, I do this in large part to satisfy my own obsession with children’s books, but, honestly, what better gift can you give your child than a book? They certainly don’t need any more candy than what they’ll collect trick-or-treating!

Oftentimes, I skip the holiday-themed books in an effort to stock the shelves with books that hold their interest year round. However, over the years, we’ve collected a fair number of fantastic books that celebrate the traditions of this spooky holiday. Here are my favorites:


Harriet's Halloween Cover

“Harriet’s Halloween Candy,” written and illustrated by Nancy Carlson. (My all-time Halloween favorite)

Carlson is an author/illustrator from Minneapolis who published a series of “Harriet” books in the mid-80s, including this one from 1982, that readers of my generation may remember. In this story, Harriet returns home from trick-or-treating with an enormous haul of candy. She carefully organizes her stash: “First by color. Then by size. And finally by favorites.”

Looking on is Harriet’s little brother, Walt, who was too little to trick-or-treat. Harriet’s mother instructs Harriet to share with her little brother, and she begrudgingly hands over a teensy-weensy piece of coconut candy (“Harriet didn’t like coconut anyway”). She then hoards the rest of her candy until the next day, when she decides the only way to keep it safe for her own consumption is to eat it all, then and there. Unsurprisingly, she ends up green in the face and sick in the stomach and decides maybe it’s time to share.”

The book is often lauded for its lessons on sharing, but what I love most about the story is the perfection with which Carlson illustrates a child’s obsession with Halloween candy. I assessed, hoarded and overate my Halloween candy every year, just like Harriet. And just like Harriet, I ended up with more stomachaches than I liked.

Room on the Broom Cover

“Room on the Broom,” written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Sheffler.

This book is on display everywhere for Halloween, so if you don’t have a copy already, you must pick one up! It’s a wonderful introduction to the awesome author-illustrator team of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (both of the U.K.). Donaldson rivals Suess for her talent with rhyming verse (I’d argue, she comes out on top; I know, blasphemy!), and Scheffler’s illustrations are playful, colorful and simply one-of-a-kind.

If you like what you see, be sure to check out all the rest of their collaborations here; we particularly love “The Gruffalo,” “The Scarecrow’s Wedding,” “Zog,” “Stick Man,” “Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book,” “The Snail and the Whale,” “The Smartest Giant in Town” and “A Squash and a Squeeze.”

In addition to the incredibly imaginative rhyming verse and the fabulous illustrations, “Room on the Broom” is wonderful because the story can be read year-round. Sure, the main the character is a witch, but Halloween isn’t the setting.

This friendly witch is simply taking a ride through the skies with her cat when a strong gust of wind blows off her hat. They go in search of the lost hat and are assisted by a polite dog who recovers the missing item. In return, the dog wonders if there’s “room on the broom” for a dog like him. The dog is welcomed into the fold, and the trio sets off together on the broom. However, the wind hasn’t let up and the witch subsequently loses her bow and wand. A parrot and frog come to her rescue in those instances, and each is welcomed aboard.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the broom cannot carry the load of them, and it snaps in two. The poor witch falls into the clutches of a hungry dragon in the mood for “witch with french fries.” But once more, the witch’s comrades come to her rescue, utilizing tactics much like those of the Town Musicians of Bremen. To thank her dear friends, the witch concocts a magical stew from which rises a brand-new broom “with seats for the witch and the cat and the dog, A nest for the bird and a pool for the frog.”

This is a fabulous book about new friendships and comraderie, plus every child likes a story about a magic witch’s stew!

Little Old Lady Cover

“The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything,” written by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd.

This is another classic from the ‘80s, but the story and illustrations have a timeless appeal, which is why it remains in print and widely available today. The book is based on an older folktale about a spooky body that appears bit by bit, and it’s perfect for children who are begging for a “ghost story” but may not yet be ready for the real deal.

In Williams’ rendition, a “little old lady who was not afraid of anything” sets out for a walk in the woods. After the sun goes down and the forest darkens, she encounters a pair of shoes, walking on their own accord and making an ominous “clomp, clomp” sound. She sternly tells the shoes: “Get out of my way, you two big shoes! I’m not afraid of you!” The little old lady bravely continues on her trek home but soon encounters: a pair of pants, a shirt, two white gloves, a tall black hat and, finally, a “very huge, very orange, very scary pumpkin head” that says “boo, boo.”

Now it seems the “little old lady who was not afraid of anything” might just be a little frightened. She runs home as fast as she can and locks the door. When she hears a knock at the door, she summons up her courage and confronts the creepy collection of body parts. She tells them that, despite their best efforts, she’s not afraid of them and encourages them to try scaring the crows in her garden instead.

Ghosts in the House Cover

“Ghosts in the House,” written and illustrated by Kazuno Kohara.

This book was named one of the best illustrated children’s books of 2008 by The New York Times, and for good reason. Kohara’s linotype prints are stunning – the bold black illustrations stand out against vibrant orange paper, with white, semi-transparent ghosts as the only other contrast. I’m tempted to order a second copy of this book just so that I can frame pages from my original copy as Halloween decorations.

While the illustrations are irresistible, the story is equally endearing. A little girl and her cat move into a house on the edge of town only to discover it’s haunted. But Kohara lets us in on a little secret: “the girl wasn’t just a girl. She was a witch!” And that witch knows how to catch ghosts. She pulls her witch’s hat out of her suitcase, and she and her cat round up the mostly-friendly ghosts. Once caught, they send them through the washer, hang them up to dry and inventively turn them into curtains, tablecloths and blankets, making the house into the perfect home for a witch and her cat.


Five Little Pumpkins Cover

“Five Little Pumpkins,” illustrated by Dan Yaccarino.

Yaccarino is the illustrator behind the popular Nickleodeon shows “Oswald” and “The Backyardigans,” as well as several successful children’s books, including “Every Friday” and “Boy and Bot.” In this board book, he’s offered a playful visual reference for the quintessential Halloween rhyme, a rhyme I remember learning as a preschooler and one that my daughters performed at every one of their Halloween parties:

“Five little pumpkins, sitting on a gate.

The first one said, ‘Oh my, it’s getting late.’

The second one said, ‘There are witches in the air.’

The third one said, ‘But we don’t care.’

The fourth one said, ‘Let’s run and run and run.’

The fifth one said, ‘I’m ready for some fun.’

Ooooooooooo went the wind and out went the light.

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.”

The book serves as a great prompt for older children who enjoy performing the rhyme, and its short verses and bright illustrations make it captivating for babies and toddlers.

Halloween Faces Cover

“Halloween Faces,” by Nancy Davis.

Davis combines graphic, color-blocked illustrations with the inventive use of die-cut pages, to create a book in which you are able to try various Halloween masks on a boy and girl as you turn the pages. Similarly, the second portion of the book includes die-cut pages that reveal silly, happy, scary and spooky pumpkin faces. The final spread is a fold out that reveals a Halloween party scene, attended by adorably dressed trick-or-treaters.

Who Said Boo Cover

“Who Said Book?,” written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Ana Martin Larranaga.

A lift-the-flap book in which a vampire demands to know “who said boo.” Each spread includes a page with a door flap, behind which hide various Halloween characters, none of whom claim to have said “boo.” The tiniest door reveals a mouse, who admits to being the culprit, and the supposedly scary ghost, witches, ghoul, vampire and skeleton yell “EEEEEEEEEEK!” in fearful response.

This book earns merit for the universal appeal of its lift-the-flap format, its creative and unexpected rhymes and the cuteness of its illustrations.

Witch's Night Out Cover “Witch’s Night Out,” written by Janet Sacks and illustrated by Luana Rinaldo.

This super cool pull-tab book is part of a series of “mini magic color books.” Images revealed through die-cut openings initially appear in black and white. When the tab is pulled, however, the image is revealed in full color. The text makes use of the cute trick and asks readers to guess the color of various characters’ accouterments. For example, we are introduced to Wendy Witch who lives in the land of friendly witches. What color is she wearing? When her image escapes the right margin of the page, we find her wearing a green dress, candy striped tights and purple hat and boots. Similarly, the reader is invited to guess the color of her cat, her friend William Wizard’s cloak and hat, and the color of the moon. Kids are bound to love this one because they’ve never seen pull-tabs works quite this way before.

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My dog has been immortalized in children’s literature!

If you’ve visited the newly remodeled and reopened Ames Public Library, you may have sat in on reading of “Dog Tales Too: Old and New,” the sequel to the book that introduced us to the library’s beloved mascot, a big blue dog named Smyles.

Dog Tales Too Cover

Roger KluesnerThe book was co-authored by my good friend and former neighbor, Roger Kluesner, who also happens to be a board member for the library’s Friends Foundation and was highly involved in the library’s remodel. Local children’s book author Sarvinder Naberhaus helped shape his vision into wonderfully rhymed verses.

Roger was inspired to write the book after observing Iowa State University’s sheep dog, Chester, patrol our neighborhood long after a large portion of his pastureland was converted into a residential development. Despite the fact that his flock was contained to the west and the south of our houses, the big, shaggy, black dog still felt the need to keep watch over the entirety of his former territory.


Roger imagined the fictional Smyles might also have struggled with the upheaval in his living circumstances, after spending two years in the library’s temporary home on Lincoln Way before returning to the newly remodeled facility on Douglas Avenue. In addition, Roger was quite familiar with the many real-life concerns of those who were uncertain about all of the drastic changes being made to original library, parts of which date back to 1904.


In “Old and New,” Smyles and Chester the Sheep Dog makes each other’s acquaintance while Smyles is touring the town with the bookmobile and his librarian friend, Miss June. Smyles lends a sympathetic ear when Chester expresses his unease with the changes being made to his farmland home. Smyles invites Chester to join him as the bookmobile completes its route, and, along the way, Smyles shows Chester many of Ames’ landmarks that also have been modified in some way over the years.

Ames Landmarks

When the duo makes a stop at Ada Hayden, they run into the one and only Honey B. Good, ever eager for a game of fetch with her tennis ball. For those who know our fabulous dog, you’ll immediately recognize her beautiful golden eyes, red coloring, friendly demeanor and pretty feminine face (yes, I’m biased).

Honey's Appearance

I am so grateful to Roger and illustrator Gordon S. Roy for honoring Honey by including her in this book. Roger is well aware of my children’s book obsession, and it was so kind of him to give me a personal connection to a book that’s sure to be cherished by the children of Ames. In addition, Honey was Austin’s and my first “baby” and the first dog that I’ve trained competitively in obedience – both of these roles earn her a permanently precious place in our hearts, something our friends who also train dogs will understand well.

Honey B. Good

As the book reaches its conclusion, Smyles and Chester join the residents of Ames as they celebrate the library’s grand reopening. When the ribbon is cut, Smyles bounds through the door, eager to be back home.

Library r

As he explores the remodeled library, Smyles is both comforted by what is familiar and thrilled by all that is new, including a vibrant green storytime room and a children’s reading area dubbed “Smyles’ Corner.” As Chester the Sheep Dog puts it: “Your home’s Old and New. It’s changed just like mine has; now I’m not so blue. I can’t herd my sheep far beyond pasture’s end, but I can still guard them and I’ve made a new friend.”

New Library FeaturesIt was Roger’s hope that all those who love the library would embrace the “renewed” building in a similar fashion. Hints of the library’s 104-year history are still apparent, but what’s not to love about more than doubling the facility’s square footage? Or the soaring ceilings and bright and airy spaces? And certainly all of the library’s patrons are happy to see the library (and Smyles) back in its rightful home.

Dog Tales Conclusion

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