I want to develop reading habits in my children but I don’t know how. How can I ensure I’m raising readers? Does this sound like you? If so, you aren’t alone. This post has our essential reading tips and strategies to help you raise kids who love to read.Read More
Thirty thousand followers on Instagram! How on earth did that happen?
I’m still not sure how I got so lucky, but ever since I planted roots into the magical world of children’s literature, I wake up each morning with a smile. Trite, maybe, but absolutely true. Every day, I wake up excited to read with my students in our school library. I run to my mailbox in the afternoon to see what books may have arrived from publishers. Most important? I eagerly anticipate nightfall so my sweet boys and I can snuggle together for storytime.
As you know from my recent post about how and why I began reviewing children’s literature, Happily Ever Elephants began as a result of a difficult time in our family’s life. Writing about our family’s favorite stories and sharing those words with you helped ground and guide me, and I can say without hesitation that this has been the most inspirational journey. Together, my boys and I have grown, persevered, and read stories that filled our hearts with happiness — stories that taught us to always search for opportunities even when times were challenging. The books we love — and the books we choose to share with you — remind us that people are filled with goodness, kindness is cool, we can conquer tough obstacles, and laughter has the power to heal.
Happily Ever Elephants has been a true labor of love, and I am grateful for the incredible and vibrant community of fellow book lovers we have created. We are all here for a common purpose: because we believe in the power of words to change worlds. We know that reading is fundamental to the growth of our children, that storytime creates unbreakable bonds with caregivers, and that a great book nurtures empathy in our little ones. I can’t stress it enough: reading is vital to the healthy development of young hearts and minds.
Because we hit a big milestone this weekend (30,000!!!), Pickle, Bo and I wanted to take a moment to say thank you because we are unbelievably grateful for your support. Thank you to the authors and illustrators who work tirelessly to brighten our worlds with stories that enchant us and with characters who become like family. Thank you to the agents and publishers who edit, toil and push to get these tremendous works of literature on the shelves and into our hands. Thank you to my fellow “bookstagrammers,” mom bloggers, and other “kidlit” friends who never tire of talking books with me. And, finally, thank you to our followers. We wouldn’t be where we are without you, and we are so grateful that you turn to Happily Ever Elephants for guidance when you want to select magical and meaningful stories for your children.
Thirty thousand people. Wow. I am honored and humbled… but, mostly, I am excited to see where this book-loving journey takes us next. For all of you who similarly believe reading gets “two trunks up,” THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!
With love and gratitude,
Lauren, Pickle and Bo
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There’s one question I get asked repeatedly — and it’s the same question I often find myself shying away from answering: why did you start reviewing children’s books? There’s a simple answer, I suppose. But there’s also a very long one. So long, in fact, that sometimes giving you the simple answer feels like a cop-out. I’ve been at this blog thing for nearly three years now, and I’ve built up quite an incredible and loyal community, so I guess it’s time to share the long and short of it.
The short answer is easy: I love the written word. Ever since I was a little girl, reading was a visceral experience for me. I found power in books — a transcendent force that plucked me from my pink flowered bedroom and placed me squarely in the midst of every story I read. I found pieces of myself in every book I picked up, and I loved reading so much that I began writing my own stories too. Words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters. They were, and still are, an integral part of my life.
But I’m not giving you the whole truth if I stick to this response. So here’s the long answer.
Though I loved reading, I couldn’t actually make it my career, right? I couldn’t read for a living. Or could I? Be a lawyer, some said. All you’ll do is read and write, they said. So I listened. It seemed like a perfect fit, and I thought being an attorney would be incredible. Reality check? It was not. For me, being a lawyer was wholly unsatisfying, and I felt stifled by my inability to be creative. My career felt like a chore, and while I know many people feel this way, I really struggled with it.
But then I got married, and I shoved that dissatisfaction away. Shortly thereafter I had my first beautiful boy (who we call “Pickle” on the blog) and then a second one (“Bo.”) And then the walls came crashing down around me when, at ten days old, Bo suffered from a perinatal stroke. A stroke? I didn’t even know kids - much less infants - could have strokes. But there I was, with a baby that needed significant intervention, and that was my new reality.
Instead of Mommy and Me classes, I spent every day rushing my sweet infant across town from therapy appointments to doctor appointments and then back for more therapy. I learned more about the inner workings of the brain, gross and fine motor skills than I’d ever cared to know, and I came home every day feeling lost and scared. Only one thing felt right during these hellish months: story. Reading to my sweet boy seemed like the one thing in our suddenly off-kilter world that I could make sense of. It was the one thing I could still control. We read about the significance of perseverance and the importance of embracing our unique characteristics. I put much emphasis on the notion that however we may look, whatever challenges we may face, we are all human, plain and simple. And of course, I read him stories to make sure he knew how much he was loved: truly, wholly and deeply.
I went back to work when Bo was about six months old, only to rediscover an old friend: dissatisfaction. It manifested in a different way though. Here I was on a daily basis asking Bo to put his best self forward. I was challenging him with exercises, pushing him to learn to crawl, walk and simply move appropriately, making him work when I knew it was downright hard. Yet all this time, I was pursuing a career where I knew I wasn’t the best version of me. I wasn’t challenging myself, I wasn’t pursuing my passions, and I wasn’t chasing my dreams because of one simple fact: I was terrified.
And then it hit me. I was a total hypocrite.
How could I possibly ask my son to persevere when things got tough, to be the best kid he could possibly be, when I wasn’t doing those same things myself? It was an awakening. As I grappled with these tough questions, I began reading and writing profusely. I bought way too many picture books, picked up old manuscripts, began new ones and, kind of as a fluke, put together a private facebook page where I began sharing our favorite picture books with friends who were constantly asking me for recommendations. It felt gratifying to share the stories that helped my own family grow and laugh. And every day that I wrote, I felt stronger, happier, less afraid, and more grounded.
When that small facebook group went from 20 friends to 200 group members in the span of two days, someone told me to start an Instagram page. So I did, and when that took off, I began my blog. And guess what happened next? The school where both of my kids were in the early childhood program was looking for a librarian -- someone who knew children’s literature, loved kids, and had a passion for reading and literacy. I got the job. It would be a huge change, but Bo was doing great, and I felt ready. A month later, I traded in the courthouse for the schoolhouse, and from the very first second, I knew I was home.
Months later, my husband and I decided our marriage was no longer working, and we got a divorce. The feeling that I’d failed my boys was excruciating. But, once again, I found solace in story — and in sharing the stories that helped us with others. Seeking out picture books to help us find our inner courage, cope with challenging emotions, and accept a new family structure became even more important than ever, and I credit extraordinary books with getting us through these challenging times. Truth be told, books still get us through the tough days, because that’s what story does. Whether we have physical or mental differences, non-traditional family structures, fears about going to bed or school or the doctor — every time we opened the cover of a book, we were on level playing field. We were all on the same first page. There was nothing more magical - or more meaningful - than sharing stories with my boys and letting the words and illustrations gently spark important conversations we needed to share with one another. Stories became the foundation of our home and the heart of our little threesome. They helped us heal. And there has become nothing more fulfilling for me than sharing the stories that have crept their way into our hearts with you, in the hopes that your children and your students will find as much meaning - and as much hope - in them as we have.
So there you have it, the (extremely) long and (not at all) short of it, the perfectly imperfect path that got me here, with you, doing what I love. And even though it’s had ebbs and flows, even though some days I’m scared out of my mind, I’ve never looked back. I’m all in. And I’ve never, ever felt happier.
Thanks for letting me share the whole truth.
Want to see the books my boys and I love? Make sure to check out these posts!
William Shakespeare gave voice to one of my all time favorite quotes: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” I’ve always loved this, not just for its understated power, but because it so perfectly epitomizes everything I think about children. Are they small? Yes. But never be fooled by a child’s stature alone. What kids may lack in size, they compensate for with big dreams, inquisitive minds, and open hearts. They are, in no uncertain terms, fierce in their being, fierce in their emotions, and fierce in their love.
A child will be the first to tell you when a mean word comes out of a classmate’s mouth or a sibling acts in a naughty manner. Instead of turning his head in the opposite direction, he will be the first to ask why a child wears braces on his legs, or why a person begs for money on the street corner. He will also, without a doubt, be the first to reach across the table to hold hands with someone who may be different from himself. Our kids do not have negative associations with “other” unless we, the adults, place them there.
Children ask questions, demand answers, and seek tangible analogies to help them understand the complexities of the world in which they live. They are, undoubtedly, pint sized barometers of right and wrong. Let’s use their insatiable curiosity and unwavering moral compasses to teach them that though they may be little, they are, without question, more fierce than many people three times their size. We — parents, caregivers and educators — can harness their innate ability to view the world through righteous eyes by showing them they have the power to make a change if they see behaviors or events they believe are wrong. We can teach them that though they are small, their voices are mighty and they have the ability to make a difference in their school or their community. Whether they hold a hand out to a classmate being bullied, organize a book drive for schools that have been destroyed by natural disasters, or run a bake sale to raise money for a homeless shelter, there are things our kids can do to explore solutions to some of our society’s greatest challenges.
There are so many meaningful stories that can help our little ones find not only their voices, but ways to right the wrongs they see around them. Together we can build a community of children who believe in social justice and who are ready and willing to make important changes in their worlds. By facilitating this conversation when our children are young, we can build the foundation for greater understanding and activism as they grow.
Our children are fierce; let us never underestimate them. For I know I’m not alone when I say I have no doubt that they can be, in the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi, the change they wish to see in the world. Let’s utilize great books to help them on their way.
Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story
by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus; illustrated by Evan Turk
Atheneum Books for Young Readers (2016)
The indomitable duo that brought us Grandfather Gandhi is back with another story about Arun’s grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi. In the second book, Arun – frustrated with the confines of life in his grandfather’s service village – throws the nub of a pencil into the grass. When his grandfather makes him take a flashlight to retrieve it that evening, a conversation ensues between the elder and his grandson about how waste can contribute to violence. With a fabulous look at how “passive violence” occurs frequently and is often a root cause of physical violence, this beautiful story explains how each of us can examine and modify our own actions to create even the smallest of changes for the betterment of society.
A Long Walk to Water
by Linda Sue Park
HMH Books for Young Readers (2011)
When eleven year old Salva’s school is attacked by rebel soldiers in 1985, Salva and his classmates have no choice but to flee. What he doesn’t know at the time is that this attack will result in many horrifying years on the run in Sudan, dodging bullets and struggling to survive. Salva eventually makes it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he is selected as one of 3,000 young men to travel to America. A Long Walk to Water alternates between Salva’s story and the grueling daily struggles of a young Sudanese girl in 2008, who walks for nearly eight hours a day to bring water home to her family. This interwoven story will leave readers astonished, stunned, but mostly inspired, as Salva’s struggles are eventually channeled into a moving account of change.
There is so much hate in this world. Too much hate. And sometimes, in the midst of this darkness, it becomes all too easy to forget about the other side of the coin—the side that suffuses many of our lives on a regular basis. The side that shines a light on humanity. Goodness. Compassion.
I get it. Turning on the news can be frightening, and sometimes, the stories seem to get bleaker by the day. Some days, watching the news leaves me feeling nothing but sick to my stomach. It is on those days especially that I sit and I wonder what I, a mom of two small boys, can do to make a difference. Sometimes I fear it is not much. I am not involved in governmental affairs. I am not a lobbyist, a politician, or a policy maker with connections to the powers that be. Heck, I am not even a teacher. So how can I make an impact here? How can I flood the world with goodness?
In the wake of recent current events, I’m reminded of the words of a great icon from my childhood: the kind-hearted Mister Rogers. His television show exemplified those qualities we must remember still exist in the world today. Mister Rogers once stated, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” I love this quote—it is so powerful in its simplicity, so profound. There are always people helping. And often times, these helpers are people just like you and me—parents and educators and caregivers who have the power in our own homes and schools to reach and help so many children.
Maybe I don’t have the ability to bring about social change on a global level, but there are certainly things I can do as a parent to spread compassion. I can start by talking to my boys. I can model the virtues of kindness and empathy—the very traits I hope to instill in them. I can teach them the value of diversity, and how the world could be a magical place if only we learned to embrace our differences instead of rejecting them.
It may sound like a daunting task, but there is one time-tested way to impart these powerful lessons to your children, and it is actually not challenging at all. To the contrary, it is quite simple: read to your kids. Read every day. Flood their story times with books about acceptance and empathy, like Worm Loves Worm and Last Stop on Market Street. Convey the message that we are all one and the same—we are all people, with beating hearts and healing hands—with books like Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. Show them the beauty that can be found in celebrating inclusiveness with books like Strictly No Elephants and Spork. Impart the message of peace with the beautiful Grandfather Gandhi .
Children’s literature has the power to communicate those values that we must never let be eclipsed by hate. It has the power to transcend gender, race and religion. Kids books have the power to unite us all for humanity’s sake—to make the world a little brighter.
I am so confident that we can do better. We MUST do better. We must do it for our children, to guide them into a new day where compassion glows strongly and divisiveness is always overshadowed by love.
So for our kids’ sake, I say this: be the change. Be a helper.
We can do it together.
Let’s start with books.
This post originally appeared on All the Wonders to kick off the #BooksForBetter initiative.
The team at All The Wonders is proud to spearhead the #BooksForBetter initiative, whose goal is to give families and teachers a resource to find great read aloud books that celebrate diversity, compassion and inclusiveness. We envision a movement that will grow well beyond our efforts, but we’re getting it started with a monthly Twitter chat and Instagram campaign.
Join us the first Monday of each month (beginning August 1, 2016) at 8pm EST for an #ATWchat about children’s books that showcase the human potential for goodness. Then post your favorite books on this topic on social media under the hashtag #booksforbetter. We’ll be compiling and sharing your ideas, making it simple for every family to find #booksforbetter.
I was in the sixth grade. The assignment? I couldn’t tell you exactly, but it had something to do with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We had to personalize it—make it our own. I can’t tell you much about what was in my hierarchy, except for the fact that the base of my pyramid—the component I needed the most of to survive—was none other than something I still love dearly: books. Forget about food and water. Forget about candy or swimming pools or television shows or sleepover parties. Books and reading were what I needed to survive.
It has always been like that for me, I suppose. Reading has always been as essential for me as breathing, and it is readily apparent within the first few minutes of anyone who meets me. There is no denying that I have a book buying habit like others buy fancy shoes or handbags. (Thank goodness it’s not quite as expensive!) And there is certainly no denying that raising readers—instilling a love of books in my two young boys— is one of the most important missions I have as a mom. Because what is life without story?
I’ve always believed that magic happens when tiny fingers turn the pages of a beloved book. Stories provide avenues of amusement, entryways to intrigue, and doors through which discovery abounds. The simplest of sentences can launch us to the stars and back again, helping us land safely in our haven of blankets and pillows after completing an expedition to save the earth, all in mere moments. Through story, we can help our children navigate oceans of emotions and experiences. We can provide them a safe place to grapple with difficult topics and challenging feelings. We can give them laughter and comfort, and we can teach empathy and inclusiveness and kindness. Most importantly, we can use books to unlock their collective imagination. What other tool is better equipped for such worthy and important objectives?
Perhaps that’s why books have always been the base of my hierarchy and why I hope to pass this love onto my children. It is certainly why I began my Instagram account and my blog, Happily Ever Elephants, both at which I review children’s literature, as nothing is more important to me than getting great books into the homes and hearts of children and families everywhere. Here on All the Wonders, I’ll continue to share long form book reviews, and I will also share my thoughts on how we as parents can be sure to raise little bookworms, instilling a love of story and an insatiable curiosity in our kids. And now, without further ado, my contribution to the ATW Big Book Block Party: five of my favorite books to unlock your child’s imagination.
Please Bring Balloons, by Lindsay Ward: A note, a carousel and a polar bear. Is it a dream? A fantastical adventure? We are still wondering—and that’s so much a part of why we love it. Both artistically beautifully and perfectly fanciful, we adore this captivating story!
The Whisper, by Pamela Zagarenski: A magical book whose words have suddenly gone missing. However will the story get told? There are no rules for the protagonist, just exquisite illustrations for which she begins—with hesitation at first, and then an increasing amount of confidence—to develop opening sentences. An enchanting read about the magic of storytelling, this is a treasure in our home.
School's First Day of School, by Adam Rex: A school with first day jitters? A school with feelings? We love this story and how the protagonist, a brand spanking new school, becomes a sentient being, complete with all of the anxieties that come hand in hand with opening day. If schools have feelings, what other things have feelings that we may never think about? A perfect read for the end of summer, and a wonderful way to get those creative juices flowing.
The Day the Crayons Quit, by Oliver Jeffers: A crayon on strike? A whole box on strike?! Who would have thought that each color has its own personal qualms about how it may (or may not) be used? If you want to get your kids laughing and you don’t already have this in your library, it is a must. A wildly imaginative read, and tons of fun, too.
Lion Lessons, by Jon Agee: A little boy takes lessons to be a lion, literally. Seven steps, and you can be one too! This new book is laugh out loud funny and totally ignites the imagination. If there are lion lessons, what else might there be? Kangaroo classes? Pirate practices? Sorcerer sessions? So many possibilities, so much room for pretend play and beyond the book activities.
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Chlorine clings to my hair, bug spray lingers on my skin, and wet bathing suits from days spent in the pool hang—drip! drip!—over the shower door to dry. It is camp and barbecues, fireworks and sunglasses, all rolled into one. It is freedom, friendship and fireflies; drizzly days wearing pajamas until sunset; mid-week sleepovers spent giggling until sunrise.
For me, though, summer was even more than that. Those wondrous days meant more than just adventures with friends and vacations with family and relay races with the sun searing down on my shoulders. I always thought the most extraordinary part of summer was having unlimited time in between activities to lose myself in a good book. The end of the school year meant the magic was just beginning.
Most kids longed for summer recess and the freedom that accompanied the end of required reading, science projects and those pesky math problems that always made me want to pull my hair out (decimals! I despised decimals!). But for me, summer was a turn toward reading, not away from it. It was a trip to A Likely Story, my favorite bookstore on Sunset Drive, where the bookish sales ladies always knew exactly what I had to read next—no requirements, no restrictions, just good stories. They filled my arms with book after glorious book until all that could be seen above the stack I held was the pink scrunchie holding my hair back and some fly away, frizzy ringlets. My smile may have been hidden behind the books, but my mom knew it was there. She could tell by the way I hugged these stories to my chest, the way my fingers danced along the colorful spines.
And then, just like that, my days were set, as certain as the bright Miami sun. I’d come home from camp and devour book after book on a chaise in our backyard. Sure, to the untrained eye, I was simply lounging under the swaying palms outside my bedroom window, but those who knew me knew I wasn’t just in the backyard. Those who knew—those who casually stated with the wave of a hand, “Oh, Lauren’s outside reading again”—they understood I was on a magical journey to some far away destination.
These were my summers: reading anything and everything, as much as I could get my hands on, books stacked so high they came nearly to the top of my dresser. Those summers were how I readied myself for the next year, how I learned to navigate my first crush, how I knew about the “cool” things to tape to the inside of my locker door, and how to conquer the bully who wanted to take me to town because I did better than she did in class. It was through my summer stories, even the “fluffiest” of reads, that I truly learned how to navigate my world.
This is what I want for my boys.
Granted, they are still young enough that “summer” doesn’t mean much to them. But I know that as they grow, it is my job to give them that gentle nudge, a nod toward books, and to keep reading with them even when the school doors are locked and the days are long and bright and full of promise. So much of summer’s palpable enchantment is inspired by the pages of the greatest stories, the ones that unlock imaginations with the simple turn of a phrase.
As my kids grow up, then, I have one goal and one goal alone when the last bell rings and my little ones come bounding out of their classrooms on that final day of the year. Just because the school year ends doesn’t mean the story does. After all, summer is a gift. So is reading. I’d say the two go hand in hand.
A new baby is coming! Which means the clock is ticking, and it’s time to start planning, stat. When you learn you’re expecting, it is only natural to have a sudden urge to get on top of your life and organize … everything. By week 20 you’ve figured out how to decorate the nursery, and you’ve spent hours making sure every corner of the room is designed just so. One month later, you’ve researched every baby blog imaginable and made sure to add the perfect gizmos and gadgets to your registry. By week 35, you’ve packed and repacked your hospital bag so many times that you can recite its contents as quickly as you can recite the pledge of allegiance. You know the Gymboree class schedule, where the music classes are, and which libraries have story time on which mornings. Your little one’s bookshelves are filled with beautiful stories before he even arrives.
But every once in a while, things don’t go according to your master plan. Every so often, despite the perfect ultrasounds and the easy pregnancy and the crazy research that has ensured your delivery and baby and life with a newborn will go off without a hitch, things happen that are totally and hopelessly outside any realm of possibility you’ve ever imagined. And life feels totally and hopelessly out of control.
I should know. It happened to me.
When my newborn baby had a perinatal stroke at just ten days old, everything I had planned during the nine months of my pregnancy went out the window. Instead of Mommy and Me classes, I was dragging my infant across town from therapy appointments to doctor appointments and then back for more therapy. I learned more about the inner workings of the brain and gross motor and fine motor then I’d ever cared to know, and I came home every day feeling lost and scared and anxious. I could have fallen apart — stranger things have happened — but instead, I did the one thing that felt right: I turned to story. Reading to my sweet boy seemed like the one thing in our suddenly off-kilter world that I could make sense of. It was the one thing I could still control.
Though I read every night with my older son, raising a reader became doubly important to me when it became clear that my second child could face challenges for which we had never prepared. Why? The answer is simple. Ever since I was a little girl, I found power in books, some transcendent force that plucked me from under the warm comforter in my bedroom and placed me squarely in the midst of the stories I read. Through reading, I learned how to handle challenges before I actually faced them in real life, I sorted through emotions I never realized I grappled with, and I discovered how to be brave. I found myself in every book I read: in every character, every plot, every setting. And despite my quirks — despite my twiggy legs and braces and poodle hair — every time I opened the cover of a book, I felt like the playing field had been leveled. We were all on the same first page.
This magic is what I wanted for my baby. And so we read during tummy–time, bathtime, playtime, and that magical in-between time when we snuggled together in the dim light of his bedroom before I laid him down for the night.
Through story, I believe my son has learned the power of the words “I think I can, I think I can,” (The Little Engine That Could). Our books have imparted the significance of perseverance (Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer), the power of friendship (A Sick Day for Amos McGee and Gossie), the value of empathy (A Home for Bird) and the importance of embracing our unique and beautiful characteristics (Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of the Girl Who Floated). Through story, my sweet boy will always remember how much he is loved: truly, wholly and deeply (Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You).
Now, nearly 18 months later, my warrior baby is thriving. He cruises all around the house, talks up a storm, loves to read, and is this close to walking independently. While I know we have a team of doctors and therapists to thank, I also like to think that some of his fighting spirit comes from the stories he’s been hearing on repeat since his infancy, due to his control-freakish, reading-obsessed mom.
So maybe my pre-natal planning wasn’t so far off the mark after all. And my little one’s first word?