We Knew Him When

January 6th, 2013 · 7 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

If you didn’t believe Andy (and MacArthur) when he said George Saunders was a genius, maybe you can believe today’s COVER OF THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE that has declared Tenth of December “the best book you will read this year.” In honor of the Saunders coronation, we wanted to point you towards last year’s DALS guest-post where Saunders weighed in on his favorite kid books of all time.  The post still, to this day, is one of the most popular in our three-year history, and still, to this day, makes us cry when we read it.

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Soccer Mom Conundrums, Solved

July 30th, 2012 · 4 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

You may have gathered by now that the only thing we like more than grilling up a big ol’ leg of lamb or writing about grilling that big ol’ leg of lamb is watching our daughters play soccer. I remember when they were young, other parents who had a few years on us, warned once soccer kicks in, you can kiss your weekends goodbye. The sad truth is that even though our friends are probably sick of us giving our one-word excuse for why we can’t go to the barbecue or the birthday party (“soccer”), and even though we had to cancel our Memorial Day vacation plans this year for a tournament (first place, plus a winning goal scored on a breakaway, ahem), I’m not sure what else I’d rather be doing on a Saturday than sitting in my fold-out chair, chatting with parents, and cheering for a fleet of pony-tailed girls who have come to be some of my daughters’ closest friends. (I ask you: Is there anything in the world better than a pony-tailed girl in an oversized soccer uniform?)

But sometimes I wonder if I’m a little nuts. Like when I wake up on the first Saturday of the summer without soccer in the schedule and feel bereft. Or when I go to bed at night thinking about how we can get our 50-pound center midfielder to shoot with more power. Or when I watch the US women’s Olympic team (soccer or otherwise) and think, if I ran a few more miles each week, maybe, just maybe, I could make the 2016 Games? It’s desperate times like these when I’m grateful to have Coach Andy to talk to.  Coach Andy – not to be confused with my Andy, aka First Place Loser Andy – is Andrea Montalbano, my 8-year-old’s soccer coach, and mother of two soccer stars herself.  She started playing when she was eight, went on to four years of Division 1 ball at Harvard, then, as a producer on the Today show, covered, among other things, the 1999 US Women’s National Championship. But best of all, she’s written a bunch of soccer books for girls that Phoebe loves maybe even more than her Man U T-shirt. You’ve already heard about Breakaway, and now, in time for the Olympics, comes Lily Out of Bounds, the first in her series called Soccer Sisters. (2013 Update: Volume 2, Vee Caught Offside, has been released!) In other words, Coach Andy knows a little something about soccer and soccer parents. I thought she might be able to answer a few of my burning questions.

First off, tell me about your book. What does it mean to be a Soccer Sister and how can my daughter become one because it sounds really cool?

AM: A soccer sister is a friend who plays with you, win or lose, who always has your back, who laughs at your worst jokes, who will pick you up and dust you off. The friend who will love you just the same – even if you really blow it.  It actually doesn’t have to be soccer, but really any friend who “gets” you. In the book, 13-year-old soccer star Lily and her teammates live and play by a “Code” for Soccer Sisters and the book is about her struggling to stay true to this code.

Speaking of Codes of Conduct, how does a parent talk to their kid’s coach about getting more playing time or trying out a new position without coming off as a total creep?

AM: Well first off, I absolutely think that parents should talk to coaches but if parents are telling the coach what the players want too often, then it’s a sign that the players don’t have right relationship with their coach. But when kids are too young to speak up for themselves, I think the worst possible time to talk about that kind of thing is right before or right after the game when everyone’s emotions are unusually high. Practice is the place to do it. If you come up to me before practice and ask, “Can Abby try playing center half?” usually I’ll say “sure!” then figure out a way to take it into game plan. But if you do it before a game it’s harder. You don’t want to insert a little unhappiness into the pre- or post-game.

You started playing when you were eight. What pushed you to play competitively and keep playing competitively? Did you have Tiger parents?

AM: They were the opposite of tiger parents. They were supportive but never really had much to do with soccer. My father lived on another continent and my mother worked full time. Until I could drive, I was always reliant on other parents or teammates to drive me to practice and games. I started playing when I was 8 and things got really busy when I was 15 or 16. I was taking AP classes, sometimes playing on three teams at one time, driving an hour each way to practice (more…)

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Kid Book Picks from Pseudonymous Bosch

July 27th, 2011 · 9 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized


“Ask me a question.”

Every Saturday afternoon, I go for a long run, and Phoebe bikes alongside me, and this is what she says to me the minute we hit the trail. “Ask me a question.” Which is really her way of saying: Ask me a question about a book I am currently reading, and I will summarize the plot for you while you run, which will distract you from the agony of exercising. Some of these summaries are quick, easily dispatched. Family lives on prairie, endures terrible storms, long winters, and much suffering, but survives. Girl deals with embarrassing dental issues, gets braces, endures much teasing, but survives. Handsome man has superpowers, saves world. The past few weekends, though, things have gotten a little more involved. “Tell me about this Pseudonymous Bosch guy,” I say to Phoebe, as we set out. “What are those books about, exactly?” Phoebe pedals for a bit, thinking. “Hmmmm,” she says. “That’s hard.” “Try,” I say. “Well,” she says, “they’re basically about the five senses: smell, sight, feel, hearing, and taste. There’s a lot of chocolate in the third book. And there’s this group of evil guys called the Midnight Sun, who are trying to figure out The Secret, which I think is about immortality. The main characters are named Cass and Max-Ernest and… it’s hard to explain.” She’s often still explaining when we stop, forty-five minutes later.

I first encountered the Pseudonymous Bosch books two and a half years ago, on one of those gray winter days when the town library is closed and you’re sitting in your house, dying of claustrophobia and getting on each other’s nerves and it’s too cold to do anything outside, so you end up — jail break! — camping out in the kids’ section at Barnes and Noble, trying to avoid spending money on Care Bear sticker books. The kids wandered off, and I did, too. I found a book and picked it up based entirely on the title (The Name of This Book is Secret) and the beauty of its cover. God, was this a nice looking, well thought-out, creative book. I flipped to the back flap, to see who was behind it: based on the author bio alone, I wanted to have it. Then I opened it up, and here’s what I saw on the third page:


Okay, now I REALLY wanted this book. Or, better, I couldn’t wait until our kids were old enough to read a book this weird and fun. Two and half years later, we find ourselves in the summer of Pseudonymous Bosch. Phoebe is obsessed. (Jenny and I wish she’d be a little less obsessed, to be honest, as it feels like we never see her anymore.) She’s knocked off all four since school ended, and is awaiting the fifth, You Have to Stop This. (Memo to P. Bosch fom Phoebe: Hurry the heck up already!) Unfortunately, that next installment is going to be a little bit later than it otherwise might have been, as Pseudonymous himself was kind enough to take precious writing time to contribute the next installment of our Summer Reading Series, a roundup of his favorite mysteries for kids. To be a nine year old again…

As my readers well know, I am a secretive author, desperately afraid not just of the public spotlight but even the smallest penlight. (It’s the batteries—I have trouble replacing them in my remote location.) Nonetheless, I occasionally find myself making appearances at glamorous venues such as elementary school cafeterias and the backs of chain bookstores, most of which seem to close permanently a few days later. Why a phobic character such as myself should choose to expose himself like that is a question best left to my psychiatrist. (I mean, my publicist). I have, however, learned to come armed with certain provisions to protect myself against the prying public. They are, in no particular order: large scratch-proof sunglasses, emergency chocolate rations, a discrete handheld sound-effects machine (sirens, gunfire, broken glass, farts, etc.), and book recommendations.

Why book recommendations? Because What books do you recommend? is almost always the one hundredth question I get (the first ninety-nine being What is your real name?). Because my books are meant to be mysteries, I usually recommend mystery books. And because my audience is meant to be younger, I usually recommend adult mysteries. I figure somebody else has already recommended The Hardy Boys or Harriet the Spy, so instead I mention Edgar Allan Poe or Dashiell Hammet or Dorothy Sayers (the latter author being a particular favorite of mine when I was a kid). But I fear that you—the reader of this blog—are most likely an adult. Thus, out of sheer perversity, and also because it was requested, I am going to recommend a few children’s titles that have lately held my interest. One thing that is wonderful about young readers is that they still retain the power to be mystified. As an adult, I find that children’s books help restore my sense of mystery. Hopefully, these books will do that for you, too. And if you have an actual child by your side, all the better.

The Circus in the Mist by Bruno Munari (only available used)

This almost wordless book was one of my favorites when I was very young and I still love to look at it. Written and illustrated—perhaps the best word is created—by the Italian designer and book-magician Bruno Munari, The Circus in the Mist takes the reader on a journey into a “mist,” which is represented by translucent vellum pages. Spare yet playful, each page teases you into turning to the next. In the middle of the book, you are rewarded with a circus, and all its fun and familiar acts, but at the end you are returned to the mist, as if to say that the mysteriousness of the mist itself—not the circus it hides—is the true wonder. (more…)

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Summer Reading List: Daniel Handler

July 18th, 2011 · 15 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

You should have seen the look on Phoebe’s face when I told her that Daniel Handler was going to contribute a Summer Reading List for DALS. It’s how I imagine my own face would have looked if, back in 1981, my dad had walked through the door and said, “Hi everyone, yeah, long day at work. I’m just gonna go upstairs and put my bathrobe on. Oh, and Andy: the Rolling Stones are going to play at your birthday party this year.” Daniel Handler — and how many people, other than close relatives, can you say this about — has had a genuine, rock star-like impact on our oldest daughter’s life. The thirteen mind-blowing books he wrote, under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, are the books Phoebe might well remember most when she’s old and forty. First of all, she read them all in about two weeks, curled up on the corner of our family room couch, and we basically didn’t see or hear from her until she was done. We’re talking serious, deep transportation. Second of all, these books give you faith in the human imagination. They’re so beautifully, joyously done. In some ways, they’re the books that opened her up to the value of darkness in a story, and of the way good and evil, and life and death, can coexist. “Imagine lemonade,” Phoebe said, when I asked her to describe what the books are like. “Only with barely any sugar.” Which is exactly how I would have put it, happy as I was to discover these books, too, after so many years of unrelenting cheeriness and pointless plot-iness and overweening cutesiness and, as Phoebe suggests, way too much sugar. (I’m not naming names.) You can never accuse Daniel Handler of ever using too much sugar. That goes for his adult books as well, and, we presume, for Why We Broke Up, the young adult book he is publishing this fall with the illustrator, Maira Kalman, with whom he has partnered before, to gorgeous results. (This is a go-to gift book for us.) We are huge Daniel Handler fans here at DALS, and we’re honored to have him tell us about his favorite picture books. (Plus one not-so-picture book that he couldn’t resist throwing in. See: Darkness, above.) Without further ado, Daniel Handler on what your kids should be reading this summer…

Dillweed’s Revenge by Florence Parry Heide

This one was written a long time ago, and Edward Gorey was supposed to illustrate it, but he pulled a jerk move and died. It’s really remarkable, the story of a young man with terrible parents who evntually finds ways to deal with them — through monstrous acts of witchraft and menace. It was finally illustrated by the amazing Carson Ellis, who’s probably best known for the album covers she does for her husband’s band, The Decemberists. The art has this kind of abstract, Rothko-y, wet quality to it. It’s old-fashioned Victorian meets the dark unplummable depths of the human soul. For kids!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (note: this is coming out in September, but you can pre-order now) (more…)

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The Reading List: George Saunders

July 7th, 2011 · 25 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

I remember exactly where I was when I read the short story, “Pastoralia,” by George Saunders: I was finishing lunch at my desk, back when I had hair and worked at Esquire magazine on 55th Street. As soon as I finished, I copied it and – this was 2000, remember – faxed it to a couple of the writers I worked with, no cover note attached. I thought it would inspire them. A few hours later, the emails started coming in: “I’m never going to write again.” “Jesus, man.” “Why would you do that to me?” Would I do this again? I would. Because great writing is inspiring and George Saunders is a great and inspired writer. He has the distinction of being the author of some of my all-time favorite grown-up fiction (my favorite is the story collection, Pastoralia, but really: you can’t go wrong), my all-time favorite kid fiction (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, for ages 6-12, which we have featured before), and some of my favorite non-fiction (collected, thank you god, here). He’s also a genius. (True story. He’s way too modest to tell you this, but he’s a winner of the crazy-prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant.) What I’m saying is, we love George Saunders, love his beautiful, generous view of the world, and love the fact that he is a friend of DALS. We asked him for a Summer Reading List for Kids, and here’s what he sent us. I don’t know about you, but I’m buying all of them. Take it away, George…

Well, to start with, an apology/disclaimer. Our kids are grown and I’ve been away from kids’ books for awhile, although I well remember the thrill, on a cold autumn night, of snuggling in with both our girls and feeling like: ah, day is done, all is well. Some of what follows may be old news, but hopefully one or two will be new to you.

Okay. Let’s start with Kashtanka, by Anton Chekhov and Gennady Spirin (Ages 9-12). I’ve written about this at length at Lane Smith’s excellent website, but suffice to say it’s a beautiful, simple, kind-hearted story with illustrations that are beautiful and realistic with just the right touch of oddness.

Speaking of Lane Smith, who is, to my mind, the greatest kids’ book illustrator of our time, I’d recommend all his books but maybe particularly an early one, The Happy Hocky Family (Ages 4-8). It’s funny and arch but at its core is a feeling of real familial love. With Lane, every book has its own feeling, and this one is sort of minimal and yet emotive – right up my alley.

Back when we were doing our book together, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Lane turned me on to The Shrinking of Treehorn, by Florence Parrry Heide (Ages 6-8). This is one of those books that stakes out its claim to greatness by showing something that, though harsh, is also deeply true: Grownups often don’t see kids and don’t listen to them. The illustrations are masterpieces of 1970s cool, by the great Edward Gorey.

I love The Hundred Dresses (by Eleanor Estes, illustrated Louis Slobodkin, ages 7-9) for a similar reason. On this ostensibly small palette of a kid’s book, Estes has told a deep unsettling truth, one that we seem to be forgetting; as Terry Eagleton put it: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” Here, poverty equals petty humiliation, which drives a child, Wanda Petronski, to lie, and be teased for the lie, and then to create something beautiful – but the great heart-dropping trick of this book is that the other characters in the book discover Wanda’s inner beauty late, too late, and she is already far away, and never gets to learn she has devastated them with her work of art, and changed her vision of the world. This is a book that, I think, has the potential to rearrange a child’s moral universe in an enduring way. (more…)

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