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A special offer 💸 A book gift guide 🎁 And partridge in a pear tree 🍐
Can we read? No. 58
Good morning! Thanks for being here today. I write this newsletter for the sheer love of it but it is work, and it makes it a heck of a lot more fun knowing you’re on the the other end.
(Welcome to my new subscribers! If you’d like to know who the heck I am, and what you’ll receive from me when, hop on over to my about page.)
ALRIGHT! I’ve got two special offers for you today, as a little holiday celebration and double-thanks from me to you.
🌟 50% off an annual subscription 🌟
From now until December 16, if you sign up for an annual subscription, you’ll get 50% off for a year.
It’s unlikely I’m going to run another discount for awhile — and certainly not one this big — so if you’ve been on the fence, now’s the time to channel your inner deer and jump 🦌 (Can you tell I’m from Wisconsin? This is the only animal I have ever seen clear a fence with my own eyes.)
🌟 And! Gift subscriptions 🌟
Guess what isn’t affected by supply chain issues, shipping delays, or even-longer-than-usual lines at stores? Gift subscriptions to newsletters!
If you know someone who would benefit from a weekly guide to children’s books that does the hard work for them, now is a great time to give them this gift.
Who could these people possibly be?
A new parent
Friends with young children
Grandparents! (Thank god for grandparents!)
Your child’s teacher or daycare provider (or both)
A school librarian and/or your local children’s librarian
Any good soul that works with kids whom you’d like to thank for all their hard, mostly-unrecognized work
If you purchase a gift subscription and would like to have a physical object to tuck into an envelope or wrap, feel free to print this handy, official Can we read? PDF.
A large portion (probably 100%) of proceeds from gift subscriptions will go toward the Madison Reading Project’s annual community book drive, a program that provides books for thousands of kids in my county through the end of the year and beyond.
I’m truly grateful for your continued support and enthusiasm for the work I do here. I strive to be helpful to you and bring value to your life and, of course, hook you up with the best books possible so you can spend time on what matters most — actually reading to your kids. Thank you!
Do you know the newsletter For the Love of Words? Olivia Mardwig’s amazing offering is part reading group, part writing workshop for kids 8-13. Each month pairs a book with creative writing exercises to match (this month’s is Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which is nothing less than my very favorite book of all time — for kids, for adults, my very favorite book of all time, period — which shouldn’t surprise me because Olivia has excellent taste. She is doing pretty incredible work, online and in-person (if you’re in NYC, she runs classes!), celebrating and cultivating a love of reading and writing by providing the space for kids to share their writing and thoughts with each other.
This isn’t just to tell you that I want to be Olivia when I grow up, though — but rather to share that she and I teamed up to create a book gift guide! I covered ages 3mo-8yo, she covered ages 8-16yo, and I’m not even going to pretend to be modest about the outcome: it’s awesome.
Check out the book gift guide here ⬇️
Now for some other titles that would make great gifts and/or additions to your library holds list…
Can I Give You a Squish? by Emily Neilson (2020)
My husband’s favorite thing about the pandemic is that it became socially acceptable not to touch anyone. Unless it is from me, our children, or his mother, he literally never wants a hug, and as the years have gone by and I have watched him navigate the world while struggling to uphold this personal boundary (and watched, too, as people have completely ignored it, if not outright mocked him for it), I’ve wondered: is it ever going to sink in, culturally, that it’s okay to say no?
Enter Can I Give You a Squish? I don’t often run right out and buy a brand-new book but it does happen (see Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder, which I raved like a maniac about in issue No. 50) and that is just what I did after we checked this out of the library.
Kai is a little mer-child who loves giving squishes. He starts off his day by giving his mama a big squish, spends the morning giving each of his sea friends a big squish, even facilitates a big group squish. So when he sees a little puffer fish he races toward it and delivers a big old squish, only to find the fish has a scared, upset puffer fish reaction — POOF!
Kai feels terrible, so his friends help him by suggesting, “Maybe there is something else you can give besides a squish to show that you want to be friends.” As they work through ideas together, puffer fish included — practicing fin bumps, tail claps, tentacle shakes, and even a crab-claw pinch — Kai comes to realize, “Every fish likes their own kind of squish!” And everyone learns that is utterly okay.
Neilson’s digital illustrations of Kai’s dreamy underwater world are lovely but what is loveliest of all is this book’s tender-but-crystal-clear message about consent, which is presented in a way that’s lighthearted, even joyful, and perfect for little readers — a message that may be powerful enough to change the world for big readers, too, especially if they don’t like a squish.
Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis (2018)
Once upon a time,
in a kingdom far from here,
lived a charming prince
who was handsome and sincere.
We’re all familiar with this beginning, are we not? Except here, after his parents search far and wide for a suitable bride, this prince just isn’t feeling it — he appreciates they they’ve tried but, he tells them, “I’m looking for something different in a partner by my side.”
Thankfully a terrible dragon appears to terrorize their village, for every good love story needs a hero — and this one arrives, true to trope, in shining armor. The prince battles the dragon but is unable to defeat the beast without the help of the knight, who ends up saving the prince’s life and, of course, marrying him. (What, did you expect things to veer from tradition here?)
Lewis’ colorful and active digital illustrations are straight out of a Disney movie — adding to the sense of this story’s familiarity for sure — but it’s Haack’s smooth rhyming narrative and refreshing reboot on perhaps the oldest tale of all that makes this one a total winner.
(Haack has also has a same-sex title featuring two women, Maiden & Princess, which is illustrated by Becca Human, that definitely works if you would like the same story told from that perspective.)
Spinky Sulks by William Stieg (1988)
Most people are familiar with — or have at least heard of — William Steig, he of Doctor DeSoto, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and many worth others, including the original (and much better) Shrek, but fewer have delved into his back catalog. Which is a shame, because there are some gems there, Spinky Sulks among them.
When the reader meets Spinky he is super angry at his family — “They were supposed to love him, but the heck they did. Not even his mother.” (Literal LOL from me every time.) His family’s major transgression is never revealed but their sincere efforts to apologize and get back in his good graces unfold all day and even overnight — his sister and brother beg his forgiveness; his mother brings him a tray of food; his father lectures him (“Spinky had to cover his ears to avoid listening to this malarky”); they even call in his Grandma, who brings Spinky his favorite candy, all to no avail. Spinky is sulking to a degree that puts even my own once-upon-a-time highly-impressive levels of sulk to shame. Finally Spinky decides, “Maybe these people [don’t] know how to behave, but at least [they’re] trying.” He sneaks inside, prepares a huge meal for his family to wake up to the next morning, after which, they are much more careful about Spinky’s feelings.
I have to be honest: the first time we read this one, I didn’t like how Spinky calls his family stupid (in his mind) on the first page — social-emotional regulation is hard enough for all parties in my house, we don’t need to be giving anyone ideas — but my then-4yo grabbed onto this book and wouldn’t let it go, which told me: she was getting something important, and, let’s be real, something honest from it. (Maybe we don’t go so far as to call our families “stupid” even in our own minds but we all absolutely get our feelings hurt, feel upset and frustrated, and struggle with one another. I guess if that’s not happening with your crew, congratulations? For the rest of us humans, this book is so relatable, and offers a measure of comfort and reassurance that clashing with your loved ones is a normal part of sharing a home and a life.)
So we kept reading it — we still read it often — and it’s not just because Steig’s classic pen and watercolor illustrations are pitch-perfect, always, but also because Spinky’s story, Spinky himself, helps kids (and adults!) recognize and work through the entirely human feelings that occur again and again (despite best efforts) inside a real, imperfect, deeply loving family.
Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (2006)
I don’t blame anyone who thinks that a story about the day-to-day life of three toys can’t possibly be interesting — I looked at this short chapter book for years, wondering what the hoopla was about myself — but you’d be wrong. The problems and escapades of a buffalo named Lumphy, a ball named Plastic, and a StingRay named, you got it, StingRay, are not only interesting, they’re completely enthralling — every time I tried to put this one down both my children would beg, “Just a little more!” (If that isn’t the mark of a great read-aloud, I don’t know what is.)
Lumphy, Plastic, and StingRay are the beloved toys of a little girl who lives in an ordinary house and lives a pretty ordinary life — but to her toys, the world is fairly new and mostly mysterious, and their explorations (of the basement, of the sea), wonderings (looking things up in the dictionary, wondering what Plastic really is), and adventures (run-ins with animals, a trip through the wash) are not just factors but the total sum of this book.
You know who else sees the world from a fresh, even experimental perspective? Beings who have only lived on this planet a few shorts years (if that long), who experience it all with little to no explanation? Children. The personification of, say, a bath towel (wise old TukTuk) or a washing machine (the hardworking but oft-forgotten Frank) makes utter sense to them, as do questions about the way the world works, and why.
Beyond the deep, existential — but completely familiar — elements of this book is the sheer pleasure of Jenkins’ clear writing: the distinct personalities she has created for each of the three toys is masterful and wonderful, and the story she has written is so entertaining and funny it really is difficult not to clamor for more. (Good thing this is the first in a trilogy.)
This sweet, humorous tale is so good its appeal is wide and long-lasting: a 4yo can and would enjoy this, but so would a 10yo (so would a grownup, for that matter). Highly recommended.
That’s all for today, you beautiful humans. See you next week!