Author Focus: Jennifer A. Nielsen

We (and I say “we” a lot in this post, because Jennifer Nielsen books have become a family affair) were first introduced to Jennifer A. Nielsen through her historical fiction novel, A Night Divided. While I haven’t read it yet, most of my kids have. They love it and are continually shocked when they remember I haven’t read it yet. If you ask us for a historical fiction recommendation, A Night Divided will surely be on the list.

My oldest picked up the first book in the Ascendence Trilogy, The False Prince when she was in junior high. She was hooked. She couldn’t stop reading until she had finished all three books. The same was true of my son when he read it this past summer. This fantasy series is full of high adventure, twists, turns and a good dose of humor. It is a lot of fun and has become a favorite at our house.

I finished Nielsen’s newest book Resistance this week. Resistance is another historical fiction novel and in my opinion it is her best yet. Set in Poland just before the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it follows a young Jewish girl determined to do everything she can to fight the Nazi’s. It was excellent. I have told my kids they HAVE to read it.

With such strong feelings towards so many of her books, I wanted to share them with you. Below are short descriptions of Nielsen’s books. Most fall in the fantasy genre, but the two historical fictions listed we highly recommend.

If you are looking for quality books for your teens and pre-teens, Jennifer A. Nielsen would be a great author to try.

The Lovely World of Picture Book Biographies

These days it is easy to find beautiful picture book biographies. I feel like I see new ones on the shelves of libraries and bookstores or featured in pictures in my Bookstagram feed all the time. They are plentiful and abundant. It is lovely.

A picture book that gives us a glimpse into the life of someone else and the challenges they overcame is a good thing. Add in illustrations and a story that is relatable for readers of all ages (and I do mean all ages) and you have a good, GOOD thing. Today I am going to highlight some of my favorite discoveries to date.

The best thing is I am constantly discovering more of these treasures through Bookstagram, the library and other sources. Rest assured, this will not be the last picture book biography session we share together.

In light of that, I am limiting this list to ten books that would make an excellent addition to any library, including yours.

Quick Picks: What My Kids are Reading

As I have been blessed with a large passel of kids with a variety of ages, interests, and reading likes and dislikes, I thought I’d do a “quick pick” list inspired by them. Below are the books my kids are currently reading. If you are looking for ideas for your young reader, maybe one these books will inspire them.

The Newbery’s of 2013

Several years ago I set a goal to read all of the Newbery Medal and Honor books. I looked up and typed out the titles of all the winners over the years all the way back to 1922 when the award began.

If you don’t know what the Newbery award is, every year the ALA (American Library Association) will bestow the seal of the Newbery Medal on the children’s book they deem the most distinguished of the previous year. Named for an 18th century English bookseller, the Newbery Medal was the first children’s book award in the world. (If you are interested, you can read John Newbery’s story in the picture book Balderdash! by Michelle Markel.) While there is only one medal winner each year, the ALA always acknowledges additional books with the Newbery Honor award.

I don’t read the books in any particular order. Once I complete one, I head to my spreadsheet and change the color of the title from black to orange. While the orange is growing, there is a lot of black because there are a lot of books. Some I have loved, some I haven’t cared for, all I hope to share, eventually.

The Year of the Dog and other Pacy Lin Novels

The Year of the Dog is a work of fiction, but almost everything in this story and the two Pacy Lin novels that follow are based on real life inspirations from the author’s life. I think that is part of what makes this trio of books so special.

There are so many things I love about these books. The stories are shared simply with lovely illustrations sprinkled throughout. I love the Chinese traditions the main characters celebrate and discuss and I love the emphasis on story telling. There are many “stories within a story” as Pacy’s mom and others share about their childhoods. This multi-generational element adds a special touch to the books.

Recommended Reading for your Teenager from Mine

I am often asked for recommendations for readers that fall into the teenage sector. It can be hard to find books that capture their attention and aren’t overrun with sex, violence and language. So, I asked my teen reader for her recommendations. She gave me a list of eleven. A few have been pulled from middle-grade shelves and one is geared towards adults, but the majority come from the YA shelves of our library. Maybe one of them will spark the interest of your teen reader.

From Amazon: Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life -- until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father's prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?

From Mya: I love the sense of community between the people and the family in this book as they travel through labor camps and other hard trials. I also love the kind, loving and determined mother in this story.

From Amazon: World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Told in alternating points of view and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson's Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein's Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the
 Wilhelm Gustloffthe greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity and love can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.

From Mya: I had never heard of this ship sinking and I was astounded and horror struck by the story. This book is amazing at portraying the emotions and trials at the end of World War II in Germany. I couldn’t put it down.

From Amazon: Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

From Mya: I love the character of Cal and how she is always trying to learn new things and how she doesn’t follow the norms of the time period. I also really loved her relationship with her grandpa.

From Amazon: Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. The higher the number the safer they are. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home. Maybe. The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won’t tell him. The boys only wanted to make money to help their impoverished family, instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive—until Khadija comes into their lives. 

She’s the first girl who’s ever come to camp, and she’s a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape.

Inspired by true-to-life events happening right now, The Bitter Side of Sweet is an exquisitely written tour de force not to be missed. 

From Mya: I love this book because it was a story that I had never heard of before. I also love how close the brothers were to each other and how they looked out for each other. I hate that this actually happens and isn’t always a happy ending.

From Amazon: In this companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, Doug struggles to be more than the "skinny thug" that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.

From Mya: This book is sooo good! I love it because of it’s Jane Eyre references (one of my favorites!). And, I love how this kid hates everything about the town he moves to, but as life goes on he falls in love with it.

From Amazon: As the fiftieth anniversary approaches, there's a renewed interest in this infamous 1955 murder case, which made a lasting mark on American culture, as well as the future Civil Rights Movement. Chris Crowe's IRA Award-winning novel and his gripping, photo-illustrated nonfiction work are currently the only books on the teenager's murder written for young adults.

From Mya: This book told the story of Emit Till and his murder case from an unbiased perspective. It was thought-provoking and a book I was glad I read.

From Amazon: In the four most bloody and courageous days of our nation’s history, two armies fought for two conflicting dreams. One dreamed of freedom, the other of a way of life. Far more than rifles and bullets were carried into battle. There were memories. There were promises. There was love. And far more than men fell on those Pennsylvania fields. Bright futures, untested innocence, and pristine beauty were also the casualties of war. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece is unique, sweeping, unforgettable—the dramatic story of the battleground for America’s destiny.

From Mya: I love, love, love how this book gave me a totally new perspective on the Battle of Gettysburg. I also love how the author gives you a good understanding of the men who fought in that battle in a way that makes you root for them as the story is told.

From Amazon: It was the summer of storms and strays and strangers. The summer that lightning struck the big oak tree in the front yard. The summer his mother died in a tragic accident. As he recalls the tumultuous events that launched a surprising journey, Samuel can still hardly believe it all happened.

After his mother's death, twelve-year-old Samuel Chambers would do anything to bring her back. Prompted by three strange carnival fortune-tellers and the surfacing of his mysterious and reclusive neighbor, Sam begins his search for the Tree of Life--the only thing that could possibly bring his mother back. His quest to defeat death entangles him and his best friend Abra in an ancient conflict and forces Sam to grapple with an unwelcome question: could it be possible that death is a gift? 

From Mya: This was a good book. It did a good job of showing the pain of a loved one’s death and the fight between good and evil during that time. I am looking forward to reading the sequel!

From Amazon: As twelve-year-old Marlee starts middle school in 1958 Little Rock, it feels like her whole world is falling apart. Until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is everything Marlee wishes she could be: she's brave, brash and always knows the right thing to say. But when Liz leaves school without even a good-bye, the rumor is that Liz was caught passing for white. Marlee decides that doesn't matter. She just wants her friend back. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are even willing to take on segregation and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.

From Mya: I love how the main character wants to fight for what is right even though it might risk the safety of everyone she cares about. I could relate with her and really loved reading this book.

From Amazon: It's 1943, and eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is en route to New Mexico to live with her mathematician father. Soon she arrives at a town that, officially, doesn't exist. It is called Los Alamos, and it is abuzz with activity, as scientists and mathematicians from all over America and Europe work on the biggest secret of all--"the gadget." None of them--not J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project; not the mathematicians and scientists; and least of all, Dewey--know how much "the gadget" is about to change their lives.

From Mya: This book gave me a new perspective on the atomic bomb and what it might have been like for the families of the scientist who worked on it. I really enjoyed reading it.

From Amazon: The New York Times bestselling true story of an all-American girl and a boy from Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin's class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. 

Martin was lucky to even receive a pen-pal letter. There were only ten letters, and fifty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one.

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends --and better people--through their long-distance exchange. Their story will inspire you to look beyond your own life and wonder about the world at large and your place in it.

From Mya: The amazing thing about reading this book is getting to watch this unique relationship survive and bloom even though hardship and distance. Their friendship was so special and powerful to read about. My coach told me the audio book is amazing too.

Let’s keep the list going. What have your teens been reading that they would recommend?

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Board Books for Baby and You

Many children are introduced to the wonders of books and reading through the kid-friendly, hardy little readers we know and love as “board books.” Created to withstand all that an infant and toddler can throw at it, these books are a staple in most nurseries.

I was recently perusing the board book section at my local book store, and oh my word, this category of books has evolved since I had littles crawling around my home. The act of reading while snuggling with our babies and toddlers is always a pleasure. Add to that content the parent enjoys reading and you have a perfect match. Plus, a board book that allows me to introduce some of my favorite things (Pride and Prejudice for instance) to my kids is an absolute win.

The board books I discovered are so fun, I had to share. If you have babies or toddlers at home, need a gift idea, or want to add to your own collection simply because, this list is for you.

Exercising Veto Power at the Library

I love reading books out loud to my kids. I always have. Given the choice between playing games, crafting together or reading a book I choose book every time. No question. For me, time together reading trumps every other option.

However, we all know that books are NOT all created equal. It pains me to say there have been books my kids have asked me to read that made me cringe inside. You know what I’m talking about. Those picture books that are heavy, even dripping with words, with not a story in sight. Or, books that feel like they take an eternity to finish even though you technically reach the end in less than ten minutes. And let’s face it, there are only so many Dora the Explorer, Ninjago and Batman books one person can be expected to handle in one read aloud session.

Family Stories that Spark the Imagination

There are certain books that jumpstart the imagination quicker than others. I would imagine the type of book that does this best is a little different for everyone. The Trolley Car Family by Eleanor Clymer was one of those books for me.

The Trolley Car Family is the story of a family that suddenly finds themselves in a tough situation. The dad, a trolley car driver looses his job because all the trolley cars in the city are being replaced by buses. Eventually the family decides to move the trolley car out into the country and live in it. 

There was something about setting up the trolley car as a home and figuring out life in a new place that would get my imagination going the multiple times I read it. I remember thinking about that trolley car and designing my own hideaway. I would look for houses or forts behind bushes and up in trees. I would imagine what it would be like to set up house and live in a new environment like they did in the book. 

I loved how the kids had a level of independence that allowed them to explore and imagine and contribute. It was inspiring to me as a child and I still love reading these types of books as an adult. They take me back to my childhood and they still spark my imagination.

Today’s list contains books in this vein. These are books filled with families and children living and learning together. They are books where kids are allowed to have adventures. They are books in which ordinary days are filled with ordinary-turned-extraordinary adventures through the magic of storytelling. They are some of my very favorites.

Epic Adventures and Where to Find Them

One of my favorite types of book to fall into include book series of epic proportions. I love stories that pull you into the long-standing battle of good verses evil along with tales of sacrifice, courage and doing hard things. 

There are a few obvious books that come to mind in this category. The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my all-time favorite series. The Lord the Rings is another. Hidden within the pages of these books are moments of profound insight and wisdom that have shaped my life. They hold scenes that I think of when I need a dose of courage in my real-life decisions. 

Of course, Harry Potter also falls into this category. This series is fully entertaining and so hard to put down. If your child gets lost in the first one, chances are he or she will want to keep reading to see how the saga ends. 

One thing I love even more than getting lost in an epic saga is watching a story pull my kids in hard. It is even better when that story leads to a request for the next book from the library ASAP.

If your kids love to get lost inside of an epic adventure or have never tried, this list is for you. Below are five series my kids and I have loved that might be good fits for your kids too. Some of them have profound insight and wisdom sprinkled inside (if you look for it), all of them are epic in nature with excellent stories at their heart. 

Book #5: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

My kids are back in school and I am excited to get back to sharing books with you. To transition into business as usual, I thought I’d start things off by highlighting my favorite reads from this summer. Today, allow me to share book 5 of 5:

Book #5:  A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Book #4: Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

My kids are back in school and I am excited to get back to sharing books with you. To transition into business as usual, I thought I’d start things off by highlighting my favorite reads from this summer. 

Book #4:  Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Book #3: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

My kids are back in school and I am excited to get back to sharing books with you. To transition into business as usual, I'm starting things off by highlighting my favorite reads from this summer. Today is day 3; let me tell you about book 3.

Book #3:  Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Book #2: The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

My kids are back in school and I am excited to get back to sharing books with you. To transition into business as usual, I'm starting things off by highlighting my favorite reads from this summer. Today is day 2; let me tell you about book 2.

Book #2:  The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

Book #1: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My kids are back in school and I am excited to get back to sharing books. I have not spent a lot of time on this little piece of internet this summer, but, I have absolutely been reading. To transition into business as usual, I thought I’d start things off by sharing my favorite summer reads. Every day this week I will talk about a different book that left its mark. 

Book #1:  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Literary Links and a Guest Post

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It's been a little quiet here this month. Our family has been traveling and busy with the things of summer, including, of course, summer reading. And, let me tell you, I have a few books I can't wait to share. This blog might be quiet on the front page, but behind the scenes my mind is churning with ideas for future posts. Stay tuned! 

A bit of fun news: I was super excited to put together a guest post with five of my favorite middle grade fiction recommendations for a fellow literary blogger this week. If you are looking for book recommendations for yourself and/or your kids, head on over to the blog Top Shelf Text. You will find loads of book ideas, and if you are interested you can find my post here.

I discovered Top Shelf Text though the podcast What Should I Read Next by Anne Bogel which just happens to be another great place to discover new books to try. My personal TBR list has grown exponentially since I started listening. 

I hope you are soaking in these summer days even as the start of school feels alarmingly close on the horizon. I still have a list of books to read that I will probably not make it through, but as the saying goes, "Between the pages of a book is a lovely place to be."

What have your favorite summer reads been this year? My TBR list always has room to grow. 

Summer Boredom Busters Courtesy of Mr. Dewey's Decimals

“Mom, I’m bored.” These dreaded words tend to echo around our house more and more as summer lengthens into July and August. Often followed with a request to play video games, no matter how many times I have told them no. My resolve to help my kids embrace boredom tends to be at it’s strongest in June. But my kids are persistent and by mid-July and August, their resolve for playdates with Mario begins to make me seriously question my resistance. 

I will often prescribe a list of ideas to cure their boredom woes. Read a book. Go play outside. Would you like a chore? Rarely are my suggestions met with enthusiasm. And when it’s the 304th time I’ve suggested the same tired ideas, we all sigh at my lack of creativity.  

Recently I had an epiphany. I don’t know that it will chase the boredom from their lives permanently, but it definitely provides more options with the potential to push them away from Mario towards more creative endeavors and strengthen my resolve against video games closer to the end of July. 


Quick Pick Books for When Your Kids Don't Know What to Read Next

Have you ever walked into your local public library with your kids determined to emerge well-stocked with armloads of books only to find yourselves overwhelmed and unsure what books to pluck from their overstuffed shelves?

Me too! 

With so many options, it can be challenging to figure out exactly what book to read next. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are 10 books (covering a variety of genres and ages) to give you some direction. The next time your kids feel library overload, see if they'd like to give one of these stories a try: 

Welcome Summer

Summer is fully here. For me, this means kids are home from school. It also means slower mornings, chores, vacations, baseball games, swimming pools and of course, lots of reading. This change in schedule also brings with it a lot less quiet and a lot more interruptions. 

And that translates into the need for a few small changes to the blog. It means this post is really more for me than it is for you. While I say I am telling you what to expect, in reality I am giving myself permission to let go. 

So, here is what you can expect and where you can find me this summer:

Amazing Audio Books To Listen to on your Summer Vacation

Good listening material is essential over the summer, whether it be for long road trips, short excursions around town, or something to listen to quietly in your room. Audio books offer an excellent source of listening material that the whole family can enjoy both together or on their own. 

Our family has not listened to a huge number of audio books yet.  I have, however, been pulling together a list of potential listening material for our upcoming road trip.

To help me with my list and maybe with yours, I asked a friend whose family loves listening to audiobooks together to share a few of their favorites. 

Whatever your listening needs are this summer, consider the following list of audio book recommendations from Sharlin and her family: