26 Books for Sandy Hook

December 14, 2012.

I remember where I was and what I was doing. With a few minutes to spare before heading out to pick up my son, I grabbed my iPad and tapped on the CNN app to browse the news for a bit. Immediately, a shocking image appeared.

Tears began to stream down my cheeks as I proceeded to read that a shooter had entered a Connecticut elementary school, and there were certainly casualties. Like many people, I was in shock. Later in the day, it was revealed that 20 first graders and 6 adults had been gunned down by a lone shooter, who’d committed suicide on the scene. To learn more about the victims and memorials their families have set up, click here.


My son was a first grader at the time of this massacre, and his gap-toothed grin was mirrored in the photographs of the victims that began to emerge.

my beautiful boy

The night of the murders, and for many ensuing nights, I know I wasn’t alone in the fact that I had difficulty sleeping. I would leave my daughter, nestled next to my husband, and quietly walk down to my son’s room just so I could stare at his moonlit face, sleeping peacefully.

My heart ached for the parents who were now faced with empty beds and the utter injustice of never being able to bask in their children’s beauty again.

My mind flashed back to an incident that occurred two years prior, when my son was 4. He was riding his bike and I was pushing his sister in her stroller. We dutifully waited at the crosswalk, and as soon as the light changed, I told my boy to go ahead. As he began to pedal, my peripheral vision grasped that a city bus was making a left turn, blindly headed for my child. I threw on the stroller brakes, screamed my son’s name, and ran into the street. He stopped his bike, and we moved back to the safety of the sidewalk. Meanwhile, the bus plowed on through the crosswalk, completely oblivious to the near collision. I immediately enveloped my son in a crushing hug and burst into tears, all too aware that we had narrowly averted an unthinkable tragedy.

The terror I felt in that moment has haunted me on and off ever since. The terror I felt in that moment, the inability to breathe when I allowed my mind to wander to “what if”, was utterly paralyzing.

And, I am keenly aware, the terror I felt in that moment pales in comparison to the terror, the horror, of the news relayed to the families of the 26 people killed at Sandy Hook. Their children, their loved ones, were murdered, their bodies shredded by bullets from a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle with high capacity 30 round magazines.

Are these guns necessary? What exactly did our forefathers mean when they adopted the second amendment that December day in 1791, almost exactly 221 years prior to the Sandy Hook Massacre? Do the rights laid out in the second amendment trump an individual’s basic right to life?

The Monday after the shootings it took all of my strength to muster the courage to bring my son to school. The instinct to hold him close and not let him out of my sight waged war against my gut feeling that if I didn’t bring him that day, I probably never would. I started to shake when we pulled up to the school and I noticed police cruisers parked outside. I walked him to his classroom, gripping his hand a little tighter than usual. As he dove into his morning routine, my eyes filled and his teacher gently put her hand on my arm and said, “I know.” This woman, a first grade teacher and a mother, certainly had to muster her own strength to make it to her classroom that morning.

Taking comfort in the calm energy of his teacher, I left the school, only to spend most of the day terrified that he would somehow find out about the shootings. My husband and I decided not to share the horrific news with our 6 year old, and I was biting my nails all day in fear that he would somehow hear the news on the playground or in the hallways. How would I explain to him that 20 first graders were murdered in their classroom? How would I convince him that he was safe at his school? Then I started thinking about my classroom, the library. Where would I hide students? How would I lock all of the doors and cover all of the windows in an emergency?

It didn’t take long for my sadness and fear to morph into anger.

Is this really the land of the free, the home of the brave? Is our society so numb that instead of stricter gun laws we are practicing lockdown drills, laying most of the blame on mental health issues, and even arming teachers? Should a child at school be so terrified and certain of his imminent death that he feels compelled to write a final message to his loved ones on his hand? Must we shatter our children’s innocence in the name of gun “rights”?

Holy Mother of God, why am I even asking myself these questions? Why are we asking ourselves these questions?

At this point I could easily launch into a tirade, and would feel perfectly justified in doing so (I’m looking at you, NRA). Since I already have a supportive, constructive forum for that, I’d like to humbly offer a different approach.

Lyndon Johnson said, “A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.” And then there’s this gem:


There is great power in arming our children with thoughts and words of compassion. As a preemptive strike against an increasingly violent culture, why not fill our kids’ minds with inspirational stories of activism, hope, kindness, and peace? I like to think that books can be part of the solution. In honor of the 26 lives lost at Sandy Hook, here’s a list of 26 of my favorite empathy-inspiring books.

  1. A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz
  2. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
  3. A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip C. Stead
  4. Almost Home by Joan Bauer
  5. Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein
  6. Bluebird by Bob Staake
  7. Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
  8. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  9. Crenshaw by Kate DiCamillo
  10. Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
  11. El Deafo by Cece Bell
  12. Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
  13. Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
  14. How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham
  15. I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire our Children by Marian Wright Edelman
  16. Malala, A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, A Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter
  17. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
  18. One by Kathryn Otoshi
  19. Otis and the Scarecrow by Loren Long
  20. Paperboy by Vince Vawter
  21. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
  22. Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
  23. Snowflakes Fall by Patricia MacLachlan
  24. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
  25. Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman
  26. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wouldn’t it be lovely if, on such a horrible anniversary, people snuggled up with a child they love and one of these powerful books? Let’s work together to arm our children with words, self confidence, and empathy. This is one small step we all can take on the path to these senseless tragedies becoming a thing of the past, a sad chapter in our nation’s history.

The Thing About Jellyfish

the thing about jellyfish

Title: The Thing About Jellyfish
Author: Ali Benjamin
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Year of Publication: 2015
Genre: realistic fiction

Friendships either grow and evolve, or sometimes they completely fizzle. Suzy Swanson’s childhood friendship with Franny fizzled in sixth grade. In a desperate, misguided attempt to win Franny back, lack-of-social-skills-but-super-smart Suzy does something truly disgusting. Before the situation is rectified, Franny tragically drowns. As a result, Suzy retreats into a silent world. The protagonist has two primary struggles in this novel: she harbors guilt for the fact that her issues with Franny were never resolved, and, unwilling to accept that awful things sometimes happen, she becomes obsessed with finding a reason for Franny’s death.

There are several aspects of this novel that I appreciate.

The jellyfish tie in. Did you know that jellyfish have been around for at least 600 million years? Did you know they’ve survived five mass extinctions on our planet? How about the fact that jellyfish populations are exploding and depleting other creatures, like penguins, of their food supply? Ali Benjamin seamlessly weaves these facts and many more into Suzy’s story.

The way it is organized like a scientific experiment. The sections of the book are divided into the steps of a scientific experiment: purpose, hypothesis, background, variables, procedure, results, conclusion. This ties in nicely with the jellyfish information that is presented, and with Suzy’s grief process.

The fact that Suzy’s brother is gay, and it’s not a big deal. Aaron’s sexuality is never discussed, it’s just a part of the story. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I appreciate the fact that diverse family structures are becoming more commonplace in children’s literature.

It doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending. What real experience of guilt or grief does? Suzy grows and comes to a place of acceptance by the end of the book, but she definitely doesn’t go skipping off into the sunset. As a reader, I was left with some residual sadness.

The Thing About Jellyfish is a fantastic debut novel that is sure to inspire conversations about awkward social moments, grief, and friendship.

Favorite Halloween Books

Halloween Books

Fall has arrived in all her glory, and my family is enjoying the beautiful month of October. There are so many things to love about this time of year in Colorado: cooler weather, leaves crunching under foot, gorgeous reds, oranges and yellows, the first snow. Naturally, my children are getting really excited about Halloween! We’ve got pumpkin patches to visit, costumes to prepare, parties to attend, and (as always!) books to read. I’ve included six of our favorite Halloween picture books below, many of which are oldies but goodies!


big pumpkin

Title: Big Pumpkin
Author: Erica Silverman
Illustrator: S.D. Schindler
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year of Publication: 1992

Some of Halloween’s most well known creatures (a ghost, a vampire, a mummy and a bat) team up with a witch to help her solve the problem of how to get an enormous pumpkin to her house in order to bake a pie. This story has a rhythmic pattern and a sweet message about how even the smallest among us can make a difference.


creepy carrots

Title: Creepy Carrots
Author: Aaron Reynolds
Illustrator: Peter Brown
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year of Publication: 2012
Literary Awards: Caldecott Honor (2013), Odyssey Award Nominee (2014), An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Young Readers (2013), and others!

OK, I realize this is not really a Halloween book, but it’s phenomenal and a great choice for older children. The many shades of gray combined with bright orange definitely give it a Halloween look. Creepy Carrots is a great spooky story with a twist. Hop on over to the library and grab a copy!


dog and bear

Title: Dog and Bear: Tricks and Treats
Author & Illustrator: Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Year of Publication: 2014

I am a big fan of Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and the Dog and Bear books were a hit with my kids when they were toddlers. They still pull them out from time to time and giggle at the adventures of these two characters. Tricks and Treats is one of four books in the series, and just like the other books, there are three short stories within. The last story in particular would be great to use to demonstrate the importance of illustrations (in this case the story wouldn’t make sense without them).



Title: The Hallo-wiener
Author & Illustrator: Dav Pilkey
Publisher: The Blue Sky Press
Year of Publication: 1995

If I had to choose my absolute favorite Halloween book, this would be the winner. I mean, just look at the dogs’ expressions on the cover! Full of puns, this is a funny story with a message about bullying. The author/illustrator, Dav Pilkey, is most famous for his Captain Underpants series. He doesn’t disappoint with this hot dog of a tale!


little old lady

Title: The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything
Author: Linda Williams
Illustrator: Megan Lloyd
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of Publication: 1986

Younger children love acting out this classic story. An old lady is walking home through the woods when she is approached by several articles of clothing and a pumpkin head. She insists that she is not frightened, but continues to walk at a quicker pace. The story has a repetitious pattern and an ending that many kiddos are able to predict. Spoiler alert: The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything would be great paired with a scarecrow craft!


room on the broom

Title: Room on the Broom
Author: Julia Donaldson
Illustrator: Axel Scheffler
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of Publication: 2001

Silly rhymes and patterned text make this a read aloud winner. I like to pair this story with props: a witch’s hat, a bow, a wand, and a cauldron make it even more magical!


What books would you add to this list?

The Night World

night world

Title: The Night World
Author: Mordicai Gerstein
Illustrator: Mordicai Gerstein
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Year of Publication: 2015

Perfect for bedtime, this is the story of a young boy whose cat wakes him up and draws him outside in order to enjoy the breaking dawn. Much to the boy’s delight, the world looks completely different at night. Waiting for the sunrise is a ritual for the neighborhood critters, who gaze toward the east murmuring, “It’s almost here!” and “Look!”.

night world book

In typical Gerstein fashion, the illustrations are stunning. With the story, they progress from dark and shadowy to bright and colorful.

night world book

The Night World could easily lead into a deeper discussion about the symbolism of darkness and light. I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes on that topic, courtesy of Pinterest. Enjoy!




10 Things to Remember when Camping with Children

The first time we took our children camping was about a year ago. Since it was our initiation into this brave new world, we planned a “simple” car camping trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, only about an hour from our house.


It was completely exhausting and utterly unrelaxing, yet somehow worth it in every way.

We spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing food, organizing our camping gear, and making sure we had clothes packed for weather that can change on a dime. The four of us crammed into the car around all the packed goods and spent an hour driving to the tune of, “Are we there yet?” and “When are we gonna be there?” broadcasted on repeat from the backseat.

As soon as we arrived at our campsite, the kids took off to run around in the forest and climb on the rocks, while Mom and Dad began the process of unloading the car and setting up the tent. We had a very dear visitor while we worked.


Once our tent was up and the air mattresses and sleeping bags were arranged, we were on to prepping dinner…and so it went for the next 48 hours. The kiddos had a blast and Mom and Dad were eventually able to “relax” with a nice hike, gorgeous views and time around the campfire with friends and family. Have we been camping since? Nope, but the next time we go we’ll be even more prepared, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll get easier every time.

So, without further ado, I give you:

10 Things to Remember when Camping with Children

1. Prepare food ahead of time.
One of the reasons it took ¾ of a day to pack and get ready to leave the house is that I prepared all of our food ahead of time. The effort paid off; the fact that delicious, nutritious food was just a bear box away helped calm everyone’s nerves.

camping with kids

2. Relax about the dirt, the cold, the heat, the potential for cuts and scrapes, the rain, the bears, the bugs…RELAX.
This one is tough for me. Relaxing while you are in charge of the well-being of two little humans can be…impossible difficult. Also, I can’t stand public restrooms (hey, at least the campsite had restrooms, right?).

3. Bring a game or two along for quiet time in the tent or as an escape from the rain.
A couple that our family enjoys are Spot It! Gone Camping and Jr. RangerLand Animal Tracks Matching Game.

4. Savor being unplugged.
Though the thought of returning to a slew of emails seemed daunting, I was really looking forward to being cut off from everything and everyone. As it turned out, we had better reception at the campsite than we have at our house. I still tried to make it a point to pretend like I didn’t have service.

5. Pack baby wipes.
The uses for these little wonders are endless: cleaning faces, soothing scrapes, wiping up spills, cooling foreheads, and the list goes on!

6. If you are a coffee drinker, do yourself a favor and pack Starbucks Via, or another high quality instant coffee.
I am a bonafide coffee snob and I’m not ashamed to admit it. There’s nothing like a hot cup of strong coffee with a healthy dose of half and half to kick start my days! Trust me, you DO NOT want to waste your time (or your good mood) on attempting to rough it with some kind of hand pressed nonsense.

7. Bring a fully stocked first aid kit.
Within about 10 minutes of arriving, we tore through several bandaids and salve applications (see #s 2 and 9 on this list).

8. Bring plenty of trash bags.
We actually forgot to pack trash bags (!) and were pretty thankful that the other family remembered them, especially considering there were no trashcans at our campsite.

9. Kick off your shoes and go barefoot.
My son is a huge fan of earthing, also known as running around without shoes and socks. There is definitely something to be said for the calming effect of wiggling your toes in the dirt and resting your feet on a bed of pine needles.

10. OF COURSE, be sure to pack interesting camping related books!
One of the highlights of our trip was laying in the tent and reading by the light of our headlamps. We brought along:

camping books for kids

Bears Beware (Zigzag Kids #5) by Patricia Reilly Giff is a cute beginning chapter book.

The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks by Barb Rosenstock has wonderful illustrations and is the interesting tale of how our National Parks came to be.

Curious George Goes Camping by Margaret Rey & H.A. Rey features everyone’s favorite mischievous monkey and his camping adventure. When we first read this story to our daughter (who was two at the time), she was absolutely fascinated with the skunk and the need to take a tomato juice bath to wash away the stink. It has been a family favorite ever since.

Katie Goes Camping (Katie Woo) by Fran Manushkin is a fun early reader.

Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping by Mèlanie Watt is humorous and a great reminder to just relax and go with the flow.

What would you add to the list? What are your family’s favorite books to read while camping?

Who Wants a Hug?

who wants a hug

Title: Who Wants a Hug?
Author: Jeff Mack
Illustrator: Jeff Mack
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of Publication: 2015

We’ve all known that person: the impossibly cheery, look-on-the-bright side individual who thinks the world’s problems can be solved one hug at a time. Of course, we’re also familiar with our fair share of pessimists: complainers who always have something snarky to contribute to conversations. This adorable book features a lovable, huggable bear and a rather jaded skunk. While the bear skips through the woods offering hugs to one and all, the skunk attempts to thwart his kindness.

who wants a hug

Adorable illustrations and a slight twist at the end of the story make this an enjoyable read for children and adults, both sweet and sour.

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise

hoot owl

Title: Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise
Author: Sean Taylor
Illustrator: Jean Jullien
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Year of Publication: 2015

I absolutely love owls. Yes, they’re kind of trendy, but they’re also beautiful birds of prey. I’m very thankful that I live in a place where I wake to their eerie hoots regularly. Once in a while I’m even graced with a sighting.


Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise is an adorable picture book. Owl is a rather confident fellow, and this story follows his costume-changing attempts at catching prey. When his disguises fail repeatedly, Owl grows hungrier and hungrier but never loses faith that a tasty meal is soon to be his.

The book’s repetitive pattern and humor make it an enjoyable read aloud for younger students, and the author’s use of similes is a perfect focal point for older students.  It would pack even more punch paired up with some nonfiction books about owls. The illustrations in this book would be great fun to try and recreate. Maybe the next time I read this little gem with Caden and Carmen I’ll hand them some oil pastels and paper and see what happens!



Title: Gaston
Author: Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrator: Christian Robinson
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Year of Publication: 2014

Most children will take the story at face value: a bulldog puppy (Gaston) accidentally ends up with a poodle family and, in spite of his efforts, doesn’t really fit in. From this standpoint, the book acts as a springboard for conversations about differences within families, and the idea that, ultimately, love makes a family.

Christian Robinson's illustrations are so eye-catching!

Christian Robinson’s illustrations are so eye-catching!

But wait, is there a deeper, darker side to the story? Well, stereotypes do play a prominent role. The bulldogs are portrayed as rough and tumble while the poodles are dainty and polite. There’s definitely some gender stereotyping going on. Also, I tend to lean toward a French accent when reading this book out loud.

At first the charm and simplicity of the story overpowered any of my concerns about stereotyping, especially since I’m pretty sure the author did not have any malicious intent. But perhaps that’s part of the issue? Upon further reflection, I started to think obsess about the importance of recognizing stereotypes when you see them.

It is critical to teach children this skill.

I’ll continue to sing the praises of this book, but my lessons centered on it will delve into the power of (intentional or unintentional) hidden messages.

The War that Saved My Life

the war that saved my life

Title: The War that Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Publisher: Dial Books
Year of Publication: 2015
Genre: historical fiction

Ten-year-old Ada and her little brother, Jamie, were born to a cruel, unloving mother. “Mam” is ashamed of Ada’s clubfoot, and refuses to let her leave their tiny London flat. Mam flies off the handle regularly and hurls verbal insults, and her fists, at the children. Ada takes the brunt of the abuse, and is often locked into a tiny, roach-infested cupboard. As Hitler’s troops and the threat of bombing become imminent, English parents are ordered to send their children to the countryside. Mam refuses to let Ada evacuate with Jamie, but the young heroine finds a way to outwit her. The siblings end up in a small coastal village, under the care of Susan, who immediately declares that she is “not nice”. Though she is in the midst of deep grief over the recent death of her partner, Becky, Susan warms to the children. Under her care, and with fresh air, regular meals, and a newfound passion (and talent) for horseback riding, Ada blossoms. Her joy and hope are marred by a sense of dread. When will she and Jamie have to return to Mam? What will happen to them then?

Strong characters and a believable description of World War II events make this book a wonderful read. The topics for discussion are plentiful: clubfoot, abuse, neglect, Operation Pied Piper, grief, spies, ponies, hope, friendship, bomb shelters, family, resilience, and the list goes on. A subtlety I appreciate about the novel is that one can infer that the relationship between Susan and Becky was deeper than friendship. The fact that the author doesn’t come out directly and say this is so gives their relationship a sense of (much deserved) normalcy.

Ivan the Gorilla

ivan the gorilla

Dian Fossey said, “The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.” There is something truly majestic about these human ancestors. I find their hands and facial expressions to be particularly awe-inspiring. Both of these books are about a silverback gorilla named Ivan, torn from his home as an infant and put on display in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Ivan spent twenty seven years of his life in a cage. Katherine Applegate’s books are a moving tribute to a gorilla who won the hearts of many. Let’s start with the novel, which was released a couple of years before the nonfiction picture book.

one and only ivan

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: Patricia Castelao
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of Publication: 2012
Literary Awards: Newbery Medal (2013), Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books (2012), School Library Journal Best Books of the Year (2012), and others!

“I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.” With these words, Ivan begins to narrate the story of his life. I love the voices of the animal characters in this book: wise Stella, the elderly elephant; a surly dog named Bob; little Ruby, a young elephant who becomes the catalyst for change; and of course Ivan, who enjoys finger-painting and is a good friend to all. It is a heartbreaking story, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

the one and only ivan

The One and Only Ivan has been popular as a read aloud at my school, and it is also a book that students regularly check out. The combination of widely spaced text and small but sweet illustrations make this novel accessible to young readers. It’s pretty heavy, so I’d recommend reading it first so you’re ready to process with your kiddos if necessary. Be sure to pair it with the following picture book.

ivan the gorilla

Title: Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of The Shopping Mall Gorilla
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: G. Brian Karas
Publisher: Clarion Books
Year of Publication: 2014

Like the novel, this book is terribly sad yet ultimately uplifting. Beautiful illustrations and carefully selected words recount Ivan’s journey from central Africa to captivity in a shopping mall. Thanks to the protests and letters of concerned humans, Ivan ended up spending the last part of his life at Zoo Atlanta, under the loving and watchful eyes of scientists and his many fans.

ivan with flowers

Ivan at Zoo Atlanta, photo from Tacoma News Tribune

Ivan was fifty years old when he died in 2012. Don’t miss Jodi Carrigan’s note on the very last page of the book. She was Ivan’s main keeper during the last years of his life, and counted him as her best friend. “His life has been a symbol of the way animals shape our lives . . . and the power we have to shape theirs.”