A Tale of Two Nightstands

Seven or eight years ago, I resolved to be better about my non-work reading. I made a list of books I either (a) felt ashamed I’d never read, or (b) hadn’t read once, so long ago, they were practically lost to me now. Books like Don Quixote, The Idiot, Jude the Obscure, Dead Souls, Herzog, My Antonia, The Sound and the Fury. I bought them all and stacked them, neatly, on my nightstand. That was one ambitious pile of paper, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I could almost feel my brain expanding. It’s not worth making excuses here — though, okay, if you insist: work, kids, life, that second glass of wine, this effing blog — but I ended up reading only one of those books, The Sound and the Fury. The rest of the stack sat there untouched for what seemed like forever, accumulating dust, menacing me every night before bed, reminding me of my failure. I finally relegated it to a box in the basement. Pathetic, I know. I didn’t used to be this way. I used to be better. I used to find time for pleasure reading. I used to be more like my kids. I can’t tell you how much vicarious happiness I get now from watching them burn through books, how I envy their undistracted minds. Jenny emailed me the above picture last week of Abby, folded into her little red rocking chair, reading Coraline — which she’d been eyeing nervously for a couple of years, not sure if she was ready for it, having been warned of its deep freakiness by her older sister. Well, she finally took the plunge and knocked it out in one afternoon and then spent the next two days telling me, at great length, every detail of its plot and why it was so good. (Her full review is below.) Phoebe, too: when school ends, a switch is thrown and she goes into overdrive. The week after school ended and before camp started — a rare stretch of five totally unscheduled days — she sat on her floor and read for five hours straight, stopping only because, as she told Jenny after staggering downstairs, she couldn’t “stop her eyes from moving from left to right.” Last weekend, when Phoebe and I were out on one of our long Saturday runs/bike rides, we hit the four mile mark, made the turn to head back, paused for a second, and drank some of her juice box. “Okay,” I said, “we’re half-way there. Homeward bound.” And she said, “Yup, there’s no place like home. Except for maybe the library.” I loved, and envied, that. — Andy

Wonderland by Tommy Kovac, illustrated by Sonny Liew

In a nutshell: “This one is based on Alice in Wonderland. It’s about a girl who is a housemaid for the White Rabbit. Her name is Mary Ann. Her master rabbit is falsely accused of being, like, what’s that word for becoming an ally? Like, joining forces? [Conspiring?] Yeah, the rabbit is accused of conspiring with Alice to overthrow the Queen of Hearts. I don’t want to give the rest away.”

For people who like: “Ummm, books that are, like, a little different from the original. It’s an old story, told in a new way, with a character you’ve never met. She’s cool.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “The artwork. Every page is so beautiful to look at. It’s by the same artists who did the Wizard of Oz graphic novels, so it has that sketchy, kind of spooky feel to it.”

The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

In a nutshell: “In the beginning, a narrator is speaking about how he sees this bat, always hanging on his house. Then the bat leaves his family to be a poet and the story, interestingly, switches the narrator to the bat’s voice. Every night, the bat listens to a mockingbird sing poetry and he likes the idea of that. So he starts writing his own poetry that he can sing. He shows it to the mockingbird and the mockingbird approves of it, but gives him a couple suggestions. Soon he meets a chipmunk and the chipmunk is much nicer. Every time the bat writes a poem, he reads it to the chipmunk. This story is simple, not action-packed, but heartfelt.”

For people who like: “Books that don’t have a big problem or a fancy plot, such as The Mouse of Amherst, The Islander, or Cat Wings.”

The thing Abby loves best about it: “Two things: First of all, the pictures are exceptional. We all know that Maurice Sendak will be a legend forever. Second thing is that the book, you don’t just read words. You image every single simile and sentence, even every word you can see in your head.”

The Baby-Sitters Club (Nos. 1-3), graphic adaptations by Raina Telgemeier

In a nutshell: “This series is about a group of friends with really different personalities that form a babyistting club together. While they’re babysitting, crazy things always happen. Like, a girl catches a fever of 104 and no neighbors answer when the babysitter goes looking for help. Then another group of kids copies their idea for a club, but they turn out to be horrible babysitters who don’t show up for their jobs and things like that, and the real babysitter’s club has to stop them.”

For people who like:Smile, which another one of Raina Telgemeier’s books, and the original Babysitter’s Club chapter books. Basically, these books are way more interesting than they sound. They’re about kids with average, everyday lives, and that can be fun to read about.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “How they always seem to conquer their problems, no matter how tricky. I also love that these are graphic versions of the original books, because graphic novels are my favorite things to read.”

The Great Cheese Conspiracy by Jean Van Leeuwen*

In a nutshell: “This book is about three mice, all different. These mice are frantic for cheese, like every other mouse in the world. They live in a movie theater, and they get bored of eating only popcorn. So soon, a new store called The Cheese Barrel opens up in town. It sells three things: cheese, cheese, and cheese. This is just a mouse’s most favorite destined dream. They go undercover to break into the store and steal the cheese. If you want to know more, read it.”

For people who like: “Little books with a big problem. Back and forth, back and forth problems. You know what I mean. Like, they get the cheese but then they lock themselves out so then they have to get the key…it’s just an example.”

The thing Abby loves best about it: “The characteristics of each mouse. One just eats and eats. One is the smartest mouse probably ever. And the third one is just a strict, funny, know-it-all leader named Marvin.”

*Parent note: Hard to find, but Abby swears it’s worth it.

The Avengers, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

In a nutshell: “This book is a bunch of short stories about six heroes: Thor, Giant Man (also known as Ant Man), Wasp, Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America. These heroes try to save the world from all kinds of different villains. Their most infamous enemy is Loki and he’s…well, he’s hard to describe. He’s like a human, but in a weird-looking costume. But the Avengers always beat the villains.”

For people who like: “Superhero stories! Action-y kinds of things. If you like X-Men or Spiderman or Superman, you will like this. But don’t think The Avengers are just for boys. I read comic books about every single superhero.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “You can always count on superheroes to beat the villain, no matter how tough they seem. It’s kind of a lesson in life.”

Ghostopolis by Doug Tennapel

In a nutshell: “It’s about a normal boy named Garth who gets sent into the afterlife, by accident, by a guy named Frank. Frank works for a ghost agency. While Garth is in the afterlife, he meets a couple new friends and tries to get back into the, umm, like world of the living. Uh, hold on. I have to think about this. What Garth finds out is that the afterlife is ruled by a really bad overlord who is trying to keep him from getting back to his normal life. That’s it, in a nutshell.”

For people who like: “Bone, Amulet, Anya’s Ghost, books like that. If you like suspenseful, darkish, funny books, you’ll like this.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “The character named Bone King. He’s the king of the Bone Kingdom, but he’s not the bad overlord. He’s really creative and funny.”

Breakaway, by Andrea Montalbano

In a nutshell: “This one is about a girl named Lily who loves soccer and who gets suspended from the team after failing to, like, cooperate with her teammates. She’s being selfish, hogging the ball and stuff. So the coach makes her sit on the bench and watch, and while she does, she doesn’t only learn about soccer. She learns lessons. About being friends with people, about being kind. In the end, she earns her way back on the team.”

For people who like: “Stories with moral lessons, not to mention soccer. I love soccer and books with lessons, so I read this in about an hour. And then I read it again.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “The way the girl changes her feelings from the beginning to the end of the story. She learns it’s not just about winning; it’s about being a good friend.”

*Parent note: Look for Montalbano’s new series, Soccer Sisters, in a few weeks. 

I Was A Rat by Philip Pullman*

In a nutshell: “There’s a boy named Roger who used to be a rat. I know it sounds weird, but it’s true because the boy acts different than a regular human being. He has no manners, he eats unexpected things like pencils, and he remembers some little parts about his old life as a rat. Anyway, he finds a couple named Bob and Joan and that couple has to save him from many scary problems — like, people who treat him like a slave or want to use him to make money by treating him like a circus freak. You’ll almost cry when this book ends.”

For people who like: “Classic story tales that have a beginning that make you like, What about that? And then, soon, at the very end of the book, it gets back to it.”

The thing Abby loves best about it: “It’s a dark but interesting and odd book. It’s amazing to think how some people can think of ideas like this.”

*Parent note: I know, I know, it’s Philip Pullman and this is hardly breaking news, but jeez: the guy can write.

Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, edited by Kazu Kibuishi

In a nutshell: “This isn’t really a book. It’s a collection of comics done by different authors. My favorite one is by Raina Telgemeier and David Roman, and it’s about a kid who finds a box and wizards start showing up at his house, asking for it. They — meaning the boy and his friend, Valerie — find out that the box was used by wizards a long time ago to transport themselves to different places. There’s another good one about an explorer who’s walking in a labyrinth and he meets a man that has a box and the man doesn’t know what’s in it. It’s this whole thing on how the man fantasizes what’s in the box — at the end, you find out that it’s just gold inside.”

For people who like: “There’s another book like this, edited by the same person, that’s called Explorer: Flight. He’s also the person who wrote Amulet and Copper, which I really liked. If you like graphic novels or short stories, this is a perfect book for you.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “That you don’t know what to expect in the next story. And there’s something creative about the idea of mysterious boxes. Who doesn’t want to know what’s inside?”


Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

In a nutshell: “There’s a girl named Anya who has a hard life. One day, while walking to school, she falls down a weird hole. In the hole, there’s a skeleton and a ghost-girl named Emily. It sounds weird, I know. When Anya falls asleep in the hole, a person walks by and Emily sees the person and tries to wake Anya up. Anya wakes up and she yells up to the person, who gets her out of the hole. Once she’s out, Emily seems to have come out with her and from that point on, the book is sort of about their relationship. It’s a book about friendship, and when things don’t turn out like they seem.”

For people who like: “Creepy, interesting books. I can’t think of anything like it because it’s really different. What does it make me feel? I don’t know. Umm, just write that I couldn’t put it down.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “The change in character, the way Emily changes in the book. I don’t want to give it away.”*

*Parent note: This book is probably middle grade and above. It has, as Phoebe says: “Smoking, bad words — really — and some boy-girl things. If it was a movie, it would be rated PG-13.”


Hades by George O’Connor

In a nutshell: “This is part of George O’Connor’s Olympians series. It’s the fourth one. Hades is the god of the Underworld, but this is also a story about Persephone, Demeter’s daughter. The story is that Persephone is soooo pretty that Hades kidnaps her — and when he does, Demeter gets really mad and since she’s the god of the Harvest, she stops allowing things to grow. In the end, Persephone is returned to Demeter. There’s a slight catch — but I don’t want to say what it is.”

For people who like: “Myths. Zeus, Athena, Hera. That’s all.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “George O’Connor always changes the myths in the slightest way, which makes it interesting. He makes them a little funnier, and his artwork is awesome.”


Coraline by Neil Gaiman

In a nutshell: “This book, and the movie to it, is very popular, so you might know about this already. But this book makes you almost scream out loud when you read it. It’s about a girl named Coraline who has a boring life — at least, she thinks so. The first part, she moves into a new house where she has her own flat. There’s two other flats in the house. One day she discovers a little door in the wall. She finds the key, opens it, and sees a brick wall. She’s confused. She thinks there might be another flat on the other side. At night, she goes back to the door, opens it, and sees a corridor there. She enters and meets her ‘other’ parents. When she finally sees that life is more fun with the ‘other’ parents, she starts getting scared and brave at the same time. You’ll find out why she has to turn on these parents and have a big fight, and find her old parents. Read to find out more.”

For people who like: “Suspicious books, scary books. Books that suck you in. This book would not be for a person who likes books with no plot.”

The thing Abby loves best about it: “I love that you can visualize the parts and listen to just amazing writing. You don’t just look at the words and read them, you feel them.”

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I LOVE these book review posts! You know, I’ve never read CORALINE, so maybe that’ll be my weekend read. I won’t feel as virtuous as if I’d burned through THE SOUND AND THE FURY, but it’ll still be a whole entire book I can check off “the list.”


Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I love these posts – so many good ideas for the kiddos.


Thank you for these book lists. We are in need of a stash of new summer reading after wearing out our collection of Rick Riordan books. I’m scoping out the library and/or Amazon today!


The Great Cheese Conspiracy!!! That book rocked my world c. 1977/1978, and then, two years ago, when i saw it at a stoop sale, i actually had that panicked, don’t pounce too quickly or someone else will snipe it feeling (never mind that it was the end of the day/sale, and the only other things on the sale table were plastic hangers). So anyway, I got it for like 10 cents. A small price to pay for being transported back to that, as Phoebe put it so well, “can’t stop eyes from moving left to right” thing from so long ago. (Bonus: the stoop sellers knew the author–i think she had lived in the neighborhood.)


this could not have come at a better time. We are ordering all of these books pronto! thank you!


I love your book posts. You (and your girls) always have great suggestions and my 8 year old loves them.


I’m a former 7th/8th grade language arts teacher and new middle grade librarian. I also love cooking and your blog! Bet you didn’t know that your lovely site had school library-loving foodies following it, but you do! Just thought you should know! 🙂 Also, my husband recently surprised me with your book because he knew how much I loved the site and the book was (not surprisingly) fabulous! I laughed (a lot), I cried a little and I’ve already started cooking out of it! Bravo!

Jen James

Dear Andy,

Thank you so much for this post! For the past few days, I have been devouring the book guide you so graciously made available for free for everyone. While I have three voracious readers (9, 9 and 14), I found quite a few recommendations on your list that we haven’t read yet.

I’ve been reading your blog for the better part of a year and it goes without saying that I love it. I bought the book and have been passing it around to the moms at the pool each day, as it’s one of my two books in the pool bag right now. On the cooking side, I made the pork ragu dish the day after I got the book and my 14-year old devoured most of it single-handedly.
As I’m staying at home with my kids this summer (“camp mom”), I’m thinking about having them create their own favorite books lists with summaries. Thanks so much for the various and constant forms of book loving inspiration.


Your book guides are the best. My oldest daughter is just a few years behind your girls and I love bringing home books from the library from your list. Without fail she loves them!!!!


“Coraline” was a great movie and a great book. I actually thought the book was much scarier than the film (Gaiman is THAT good) . . . I read the whole thing one night when I was all alone in a completely dark house. Boy, did I regret that. Never mind that I was, like, 28 at the time.

“Smile” is also a terrific graphic novel–I’d recommend that to anyone whose kids are having major dental/orthodontic woes. It’s autobiographical–I kinda wish it had been around when I was walking around the house with braces and headgear.


Thank you for all your wonderful book reviews! Both my kids are readers and my son is tearing through the “Secret Series” as I write this. I can’t wait to read them. “Smile” was awesome for my daughter-her first graphic novel. Keep the reviews coming!


Another teacher librarian (high five to Taylor!) who also enjoys food, here. I have to admit (slightly embarrassed) that I didn’t know Raina Telgemeier had done graphic versions of the Babysitters Club. So very cool. My elementary students are going to flip. I bought “Smile” at the end of the school year, and couldn’t keep it on the shelf! Actually, my entire graphic novel section is always a mess. I’m really pleased that younger grade graphic novels are taking off!