Good Books to Give Kids This Christmas

Dana-tested, Stabenow-approved, all guaranteed good reads as well as good read-alouders. I’ve been known to read at least parts of them out loud when I’m alone in the room myself.

gorillaFor the toddlers, try Peggy Rathmann’s Good Night, Gorilla. At the end of the day the zookeeper goes home, and he doesn’t go home alone. The illustrations are delightful, I’m smiling now just thinking about the mouse with the banana on a string. See also Where Are You Going, Manyoni?, Mama, Do You Love Me?, and I Want My Hat Back.

paperbagFor storybooks for beginning readers, my personal favorite is Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess. (Hey, dragon!)
(Too soon to say if I’m thrilled about this.)

henryI also love D.B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, wherein Henry David Thoreau morphs into a bear (there are five books in the Henry series now). Also the The Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters by Janet & Allan Ahlberg, the tale of a postman on his bicycle delivering the mail to the occupants of an enchanted forest, but this is mail you get to take out of its envelopes (and check out the postmarks and the stamps) like you’d just taken it out of your own mailbox.

harrisFor middle schoolers, Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen will make them laugh (just make sure they don’t try any of that at home), Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness will make them cry, and E.L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday will make them want to have tea on Saturday afternoons.

hunger-gamesEveryone knows the story of Katniss Everdeen now, but new readers are growing up as we speak. Read the books with them–you’ll be astonished by how much more they give you than the films do of this tale of a post-apocalyptic America where there is very little bread and only one–and fatal–circus. See also The Smell of Other People’s Houses and Property of the State.

lions-pawAnd for those of you poor deprived readers who have never come across this book before, I am delighted, nay, ecstatic to announce the return to print of The Lion’s Paw by Robb White, including the original illustrations by Ralph Ray. It’s about damn time. In World War II Florida, Penny and Nick run away from the orphanage and hide out on the sloop Hard-a-Lee, owned by sixteen-year old Ben, whose father is missing in the South Pacific. Uncle Pete is going to sell the Hard-a-Lee, but instead Ben, Penny and Nick light out for the territory, and that’s just the beginning of their adventures.

Top 10 Books That Make Me Want to Quit Writing

[From the vaults, October 16, 2009]

Here’s my top ten list of books that make me want to quit writing,
because I’ll never write anything this good, so why am I bothering.

pp1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
I know, kind of obvious, but I defy anyone, whether they’re reading it for the first time or the fiftieth, not to have at minimum twenty laugh-out-loud moments. We are most seriously pleased.

monte2. Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer.
A new addition to the list, and please note how far up. Phenomenal prose style (by page 30 I was looking for people to read aloud to), delightful characters, and you can smell the dust on the trail. A lot to say about frontiers and what gets left behind when they’re gone.

tey3. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.
A British policeman flat on his back in a hospital solves a double homicide four hundred years old. Terrific on every level, characters, plot and setting(s).

lamb4. Lamb, the gospel according to Biff, Christ’s childhood pal by Christopher Moore.
First time Jesus ever died that I felt like I’d lost a friend. Entirely too many great scenes to recount here, beginning with Jesus resurrecting his brother’s lizard and, later, a jittery Jesus on a caffeine high buzzing around Antioch marketplace healing everybody. A funny book, yes, but also very, very smart.

civil-contract5. A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer.
Actually, pretty much anything by Georgette Heyer, who wrote the best dialogue in the English language. I love this book because it’s her most realistic novel, but I also love The Unknown Ajax, Frederica, The Foundling, Venetia, Cotillion, Friday’s Child, okay, I’ll stop.

trustee6. Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute.
You’ll remember Nevil Shute for On the Beach and A Town Like Alice, but this was his best story, about engineer Keith Stewart’s round-the-world journey to recover his orphaned niece’s inheritance, and the adventures he has along the way. Illiterate heart-throb sailor Jack Donnelly is one of my all time favorite characters.

folly7. The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.
A book which informed my entire world view. In it, Tuchman posits the existance of folly, or the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest–in other words, why nations keep shooting themselves in the foot. She uses the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the walls of Troy as her template, and then goes on to talk about how the Renaissance popes caused the Reformation, how the British lost America, and how the US lost in Vietnam. A lively, engaging prose style with more than a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

lion8. The Lion’s Paw by Robb White.
I grew up on a fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska, and I was always looking for books about other kids on boats. In this one, Ben, Penny and Nick run away on a yacht called the Hard-A-Lee, and they’re not coming back until they find a rare sea shell called a lion’s paw, because when they find it Ben’s father will return from the war in the Pacific. Great details, great characters, and White’s heirs finally got it together to bring this book back into print, yay! See also The Pearl Lagoon by Charles Nordhoff and The Sea Flower by Ruth Moore.

gate9. The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper.
In post-apocolyptic America, the women have a plan to study war no more. Tepper doesn’t chicken out, either, she’s got an idea and she sees it through to the bitter end. Or as she puts it, the Damned Few.

seersucker10. The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas.
A couple of American politicos go to the African nation of Albertia to run the election campaign of Chief Sunday Akomolo, and there is nothing they won’t do to win. Funny, smart as hell, and an ending that will knock you sideways.


How not to wrestle an alligator.

[written for Mystery Scene Magazine’s “Writers on Reading” column, February 2013 issue]

I was raised on a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska. In port, at low tide, it was a forty-two foot climb up an often ice-encrusted ladder to get to the library, but if you’re a born reader and an icy climb is the only way you can get to the library, you climb.

The Seldovia Public Library was one room in the basement of city hall. It was open once a week, on Monday nights, for three hours, seven to ten. Because there were so few books, each patron could check out only four at a time. Susan the librarian started me on Nancy Drew.

I read all the Nancy Drew Susan had in short order, and then I read everything else on her shelves. Because I was a kid on a boat, I was always looking for stories about other kids on boats. Eventually, Susan found me a copy of The Lion’s Paw by Robb White.

It’s World War II. Fifteen-year old Ben’s father is lost at sea in the Pacific. Penny and Nick are siblings on the lam from the orphanage that would split them up. They stow away in Ben’s sailboat, the Hard A Lee. Ben’s uncle is going to sell it, so Ben, Penny and Nick decide to run away on the Hard A Lee together.

My favorite kind of book is a how-to book. You can’t put enough detail into a book about how someone lives their life or does their job or falls in love or commits a crime to suit me. The Lion’s Paw is a how-to book. How to run away. How to sail a boat. How to be a captain. How to be crew. How to hide a sailboat in plain sight. How not to wrestle an alligator.

How to go on a quest.

There is that one book every writer can point to as the story that inspired them to tell their own. The Lion’s Paw may be the first book I ever read where I looked at the author’s name on the cover and wondered, “Who is this guy? How does he know all this stuff?” and more importantly “Did he write anything else?”

He did, and I read it all. And then I started writing my own.

And it is finally again in print. Buy it here. I promise you won’t be sorry.