“I like what I see when I see myself through your eyes.” What does that mean to you?
In this first At The Lamp-Post video interview, authors Emily Jenkins (Toys Go Out) and Katherine Applegate (Crenshaw) answer that very question. Follow along as they discuss their books and characters, as well as the magic of having and being a friend.
Read to Them is proud to share six new winter titles that have been added to our catalog. Each of these titles is also supported by our regular resource materials and online supplements that can be found on the Digital Resource Hub. We invite you to take a look at the blurbs for each book below, and hope that one – or more! – of these titles will be a fantastic future read for your school community.
The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin (Sweet Spot)
“Finding yourself means deciding what your values are, what you want to do – that kind of thing.”
In Grace Lin’s own words,“The book is fiction, but almost everything had a real life inspiration.” Spend the Year of the Dog with ten year old Pacy as she endeavors to find herself, only to discover: a new best friend, a skill that blooms into a life-long talent, and the ups and downs of being one of two Taiwanese-American girls in an elementary school.
This book is perfect for introducing students to a culture that may be pretty different from their own. With The Year of the Dog, readers dive into Chinese traditions and customs made accessible for all grade levels, creating curiosity and developing empathy as each facet of Pacy’s culture unspools on the page. And if any kids are budding writers and illustrators, Pacy’s story of self-discovery is sure to keep their dreams alive.
Cody Harmon, King of Pets by Claudia Mills (Intro and Sweet Spot)
“What kind of pet show would it be if Cody Harmon, king of pets, couldn’t enter any pets at all?”
Cody Harmon really struggles with writing essays, math quizzes, and really anything related to school. When Principal Boone announces that the school will be hosting a pet show, though, Cody knows his time to shine has arrived. There’s only one problem: the entry fee to the pet show. With a huge heart and a menagerie of animals to choose from, Cody offers up his pets to classmates who don’t have their own, which somehow brings more challenges Cody’s way.
Cody Harmon will appeal to students who face academic difficulties, who may need encouragement to shine a light on their strengths that lay beyond the classroom. The complicated situation – and its resolution – between Cody and his best friend, Tobit, present a very real moral dilemma not to be missed. And the hijinks at the Pet Show Celebration offer a hilarious celebration of animals – including a pet pig!
Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech (Intro and Sweet Spot)
“Okay,” Louie said. “I accept the mission.”
“To save this pitiful motherless donkey.”
When Louie’s father brings home Winslow, Louie endeavors to take care of this sickly little donkey until it manages to recover. He doesn’t have the best luck when it comes to nurturing small creatures, but that doesn’t stop Louie from trying. His older brother, Gus, is far away in the army, and caring for Winslow makes Louie feel closer to Gus for the first time in ages. With the help of his new friend, Nora, Louie helps Winslow grow… and even faces a challenge he never could’ve anticipated: letting go.
In true Sharon Creech form, Saving Winslow grants readers the opportunity to grapple with big feelings in an accessible way. Loss is always hovering in the book, but Creech provides a fine balance with the light-hearted. Older students will find plenty to discuss while younger students will enjoy Saving Winslow as a quick read aloud with loads of substance. If you’re looking for a title that’ll touch your heart and guide your school community on a journey of finding one’s purpose, this is the book for you.
Wish by Barbara O’Connor (Intermediate and Middle School)
“You can’t judge people for the mistakes they make. You judge them for how they fix those mistakes.”
Due to circumstances out of her control, Charlie Reese is sent to live with relatives she barely knows in Colby, North Carolina. She’s made the same wish every day since the fourth grade, and this move makes it seem unlikely that her wish will ever come true. However, to Charlie’s surprise, her aunt and uncle are the first folks in an unexpected line of love and support; there’s a set of heartfelt neighbors, a delightfully eccentric boy, and a skinny stray dog called Wishbone. In time, Charlie’s wish does come true – just not in the way that she anticipates.
This novel offers a way for kids to work through big feelings (namely anger) in a way that’s constructive and can be used outside the classroom. (Charlie’s friend, Howard, gives her a code word to help cool her temper.) Stories about foster care – even in children’s literature! – can be dark and sad, but this is a feel-good story filled with hope, and appreciation, and no small amount of love. And even a happy ending!
The Terrible Two by Jory John and Mac Barnett (Intermediate)
“On your first day at a new school in a new town, you got to decide what kind of kid you were going to be.”
Miles is not happy to be moving to a town that’s known for one thing – cows. In his old school, Miles was considered the best prankster, but a rival, Niles, is already the reigning prank master in Yawnea, so trying to reclaim that title in Yawnee Valley seems to be impossible. Still, Miles has so much knowledge in the art of pranking, it seems wasteful not to try… and once these two stop pulling pranks on each other, Miles and Niles team up to pull off the Biggest Prank (Possibly) Ever.
Even the most reluctant readers are sure to find themselves captivated by the clever, off-the-wall pranks Miles and Niles think up. The tone of Terrible Two is consistently up-beat and its humor will appeal across age groups with everything from the cow-centric fun facts to dead-pan zingers from Miles. It also turns out there’s even a code to pranking with honor. The illustrations throughout the novel capture the characters’ personalities and the narrative’s high energy, something that is sure to aid younger readers in a school read aloud.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez (Intermediate and Middle School – available in Spanish!)
“Turning an insult into something you embrace is a good way of empowering yourself.”
On her first day at a new school, Malú dresses as her most authentic self: winged eyeliner, dark lipstick, a Blondie t-shirt, and silver Chuck Taylors. It upsets her when she’s pulled from class for being a distraction. But it’s not so bad, not when it sets Malú on a path to assembling a punk band of like-minded misfits to audition for the school talent show. When they’re barred from entering for being “too loud”, Malú and her pals are determined to launch their own Alterna-Fiesta, instead.
The First Rule of Punk is a brilliant way to encourage students to let their voices be heard, to embrace the non-traditional, and soothe those who feel like being different is a bad thing. Given that Malú is half-Mexican, the novel highlights Mexican traditions, foods, and a brief history of Mexican-American immigrants that is often glossed over. Punk is also punctuated with great food, great music, and zines, a homemade and surefire way to encourage students to express themselves through mixed media.
C.S. Lewis once said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”
How can it be that friendship can provide so much warmth and joy – and so much worry and pain?
We’ve got over 150 titles on our recommended reading list at Read to Them. And friendship could be a theme in virtually every one, because friendship, itself, is so dynamic. Friendship is affirming. Friendship is about establishing commonality and shared interests. Friendship is about who you like to laugh with – and who it’s fun to talk or walk or write or hike or water ski with. Friendship is about finding people who will be there for you when you need them.
Friendship is also about finding people who will stand up to you, challenge you, and even disappoint you. You can only be disappointed when you come to care – when you value a friendship and rely on it and maybe even depend on it – emotionally. That’s what happens to characters in the three great titles we’d like to take a look at together.
“Toys Go Out” Illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky
Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out (first of a snazzy little trilogy) is about three toys who are friends. Or are they? The little girl who owns them says they are her best friends. But the toys seem thrown together arbitrarily. Jenkins has wisely drawn distinct characters who are alternately prickly, confident, vulnerable, and curious. They come to learn about the world, life, and each other through their mishaps and adventures. In one special chapter, Lumphy, the stuffed buffalo, ends up in the basement and meets Frank, the terrifying washing machine…who turns out to be welcoming and comforting, quick with a song to ease Lumphy’s worries. (“Dance that buffalo shuffle with me!”) As lovely as that is, it’s not the sort of friendship we’re interested in. That’s too easy.
We learn a subtler lesson about friendship when the Little Girl is going on an outing to the beach and decides to take only Plastic, the little red ball, along on the trip. This is Plastic’s big moment to shine as she is often overshadowed by StingRay, who can be cocky and supercilious and a bit of a blowhard. While Plastic is away, StingRay is distressed that she has been passed over for the trip, a blow to her faltering self-esteem. She ought to be a worthy beach companion, what with all of her knowledge of sea creatures like “jellyfish made of grape and raspberry jelly” and “garbage-eating sharks.” She assumes and asserts she is a “floater” who can “float as well as Plastic, any day.” But, in truth she is a sinker, a crushing revelation she discovers in the bathtub. At the bottom of the tub, StingRay has an epiphany. She realizes that as a dry-clean only StingRay she has missed her friend Plastic. When Plastic returns, StingRay admits, “It was very un-bouncy around here without you.” Jenkins expertly shows young readers that sometimes that bravado that can be oh so annoying is actually hiding a different truth. And sometimes letting it go makes you vulnerable, ready to be a true friend.
In Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw, Jackson’s family is facing some tough times and Jackson really needs a friend. It looks like his family is going to be homeless again…and then the mysterious Crenshaw appears. Crenshaw isn’t the everything-you-want-him-to-be pal from central casting – there to say and do the right thing every time. He is a giant imaginary cat who does buck up Jackson’s spirits, buthe is also mysterious and gnomic. Is he real? Will he always be there? Jackson could try to pretend he doesn’t see the odd skateboarding cat – or need him – but the reader can tell the boy does need this quirky new friend. Eventually Crenshaw spells it out for him: “Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.”
Is this true for imaginary friends – or all friends? Is Katherine Applegate sharing a larger truth about all friendships? Is Jackson only usingCrenshaw like a favorite picture book? It doesn’t seem that way. It sure seems like Jackson wants to understand the whole imaginary friend thing better, but not look too tenaciously for fear of ruining the effect. Is that friendship, too?
Eventually Jackson learns to grow from an actual human peer – the daring Marisol. She is the kind of friend who is willing to challenge Jackson to be someone he’s not. Yet. Jackson prefers the routine, the familiar, the dependable. (His family has been homeless – he craves what is sure.) But Marisol says, “I like not knowing everything. It makes life more interesting.” She is challenging Jackson to be more daring, too – to be willing to explore life with her, unsure of what will happen next. Well, that’s what friends are for – right?
In Christopher Paul Curtis’s beloved Bud, Not Buddy, we see vulnerability as an essential part of friendship, this time in a more conventional human realm – no talking toys or magical cats here. As a child who has visited and been returned from several orphanages, he has learned not to trust adults – at all. It’s Curtis’s special magic that we can learn this truth and laugh at the same time. One of Bud’s running motifs is his Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. For example…
RULES AND THINGS 87
When an Adult Tells You They Need Your Help with a Problem Get Ready to Be Tricked – Most Times This Means They Just Want You to Go Fetch Something for Them.
Bud has a couple of friends from the orphanage. And he does meet the estimable Deza Malone (worthy of her own sequel) along the way. So how is it that Christopher Paul Curtis manages to concoct a winning children’s book where Bud spends nearly all his time in the company of adults – especially the musicians in what turns out to be his grandfather’s jazz band? It’s because Curtis has subtle, sophisticated friendship fare to show us – and teach us – readers all.
Bud may purport to live by Rule #118…
You Have to Give Adults Something That They Think They Can Use to Hurt You by Taking It Away. That Way They Might Not Take Something Away That You Really Do Want. Unless They’re Crazy or Real Stupid They Won’t Take Everything Because if They Did They Wouldn’t Have Anything to Hold Over Your Head to Hurt You with Later.
But the truth is, over the course of the novel Bud learns something else entirely. His grandfather, Herman E. Calloway, may be forbidding and stern and distant, and Miss Thomas may act motherly in ways he sorely craves, but it’s the other members of the band who each find their way to get to know Bud – and to let Bud get to know them. It happens without Bud’s really realizing. (And Curtis is smart enough not to tell us; he lets us see it and come to recognize it just like Bud.)
Bud feels welcomed and included when he gets to eat with the band: “I didn’t notice before how funny Mr. Jimmy was. The stories he was telling about traveling around the country with Herman E. Calloway had us all laughing so much that even the nosy people at all the tables near ours quit eating and were busting their guts and throwing their two cents into the stories.”
When Bud realizes he’s been included…he breaks down and sobs. Miss Thomas and the band comfort him, but not for long. And once the shell is cracked, he is truly welcomed. They give him a recorder (and eventually a full blooded sax). Even better, they give him a nickname. A nice admirable nickname? No, a teasing nickname: Sleepy (because he sleeps ’til noon the first night) and Bone (because he’s so skinny), thus: Sleepy LaBone. It’s a process, and a name, that communicates a central truth of friendship – if you’re with us, you’ve got to be able to give it, and take it. And, Bud, you can take it.
All of this – the laughing and the crying and the teasing and the mutual admiration – are perfect examples of the special yin/yang of true friendship. You have to expose yourself, to risk trust and embarrassment and love, to develop the true connection of friendship. And for Bud, it’s with a confounded bunch of adults!
I think Madeline L’Engle figured it all out when she concluded, “To grow up is to accept vulnerability.”
Why do we read children’s books? Why do we share all these happy, sad, joyful, painful, lesson-filled stories with the children we love? To help them learn and grow. To help them grow up, not too fast, but grow up all the same. We can’t sugarcoat it for them. The best stories don’t shy from risk or vulnerability or pain. That’s what earns credibility with kids. We want to broaden and enrich their experience to help them grow up well, so we show them both sides of friendship – the salt and the sweet, the joyful and the painful.
Welcome to the rest of your life. What should we read next?
Bruce Coffey is Read to Them’s Director of Programs
“I can always get back if anything goes wrong,” thought Lucy.
She began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and
through the wood toward the other light. In about ten minutes
she reached it and found it was a lamp-post.”
– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Read to Them currently features 150 books in its active catalog. We’re book people, after all, so we’re passionate about carefully selecting books by a wide-range of voices to enrich a child’s personal library. We talk about books and what’s in them every day. Conversations about characters, themes, and even single lines enrich our work and our relationships. The books we love provide the details that help us build the connections that come from a love of reading.
We’d like to invite you to pull up a chair and join our conversation and share your reading insights, too, by stopping by At The Lamp-Post.
Each month, we’ll select a theme and highlight three books that illustrate subtle aspects of that theme. In January, we’ll be all about Friendship – how unlikely friends come together, how not all friendships look the same, how vital it is to show vulnerability in a friendship, how friends help you see yourself in a different light.
We’ll be sharing examples of these subtle themes in Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins, Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, and Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.
Our table has plenty of open seats. We can’t wait to talk with you and invite you to make your voice heard. Please join us this month – At The Lamp-Post!