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Family Matters of the Heart

By Lesley Colabucci and Mary Napoli
 | Jun 06, 2016

Society’s definition of family has expanded to include many more types of relationship structures, with a much broader sense of connectedness to others. Here we highlight recently published books that feature characters who navigate relationships to forge a stronger understanding about their lives. The selections allow readers to examine and discuss families and family relationships from a range of perspectives, both in and out of the classroom.

Ages 4–8

I Wonder: Celebrating Daddies Doin’ Work. Doyin Richards. 2016. Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan.

i wonderIn a celebration of fatherhood, blogger Doyin Richards captures the universal hopes and dreams fathers have for their children. Told through a series of “I wonder” statements followed by a response, the book explores a range of experiences shared by fathers and their children, such as playing outdoors or reading a story. Every page showcases photographs of fathers and their children that capture the spirit and joy of fatherhood. This photographic tribute honors a diverse array of fathers and acknowledges the cherished moments of spending time with loved ones. In the classroom, students can compose stories from their viewpoints to extend their appreciation to someone special.

A Morning With Grandpa. Sylvia Liu. Ill. Christina Forshay. 2016. Lee & Low.

a morning with grandpaIn this delightful picture book, Mei Mei and her grandfather, Gong Gong, spend the morning learning something new from one another. As Mei Mei’s grandfather exhibits the graceful art of tai chi movements, she explores them with her individual style. When Gong Gong demonstrates the Pick Up the Needle from the Sea Bottom posture, he moves like “seaweed brushing the ocean floor.” As Mei Mei attempts the move, she hops and bops until she bumps into her grandfather. Then Mei Mei models how to do various yoga poses as Gong Gong tries each move. Although he finds some poses awkward, the challenge of trying a new activity while spending time with his granddaughter brings him joy. Told with vivid language as well as lively illustrations, this intergenerational picture book celebrates the treasured moments of spending time with a grandparent. The book closes with illustrated descriptions of the tai chi postures and yoga poses along with additional resources.

One Big Family. Marc Harshman. Ill. Sara Palacios. 2016. Eerdmans.

one big familyThe sepia-toned endpapers featuring family snapshots set a celebratory tone for this picture book about spending time with extended family. Each page features a few lines and ends with one word, in bold color and all caps, from a family member. The book starts with “Grandma and Grandpa say / COME”. When the family arrives “Mom says / KISS”, and while playing outside “Cousin Tommy says / RUN”. This repetitive phrasing makes for an appealing read-aloud. The book focuses on the simple ways families come together to enjoy each other’s company, such as playing board games, fishing, and swimming. Young children will be able to compare their family reunions or vacations with the one described in the book. The playful illustrations feature lots of reds, yellows, and oranges, and the story culminates with a family photo shoot showing generations of the family wearing similar colors.

Ages 9–11

My Life in Pictures (Bea Garcia #1). Deborah Zemke. 2016. Dial /Penguin.

my life in picturesIn this first chapter book of a new series, author and illustrator Deborah Zemke introduces readers to a likable and creative protagonist, Bea Garcia. As Bea’s imagination soars, she draws and doodles anywhere, including on her family’s television set. They encourage her to keep her doodles, drawings, and other creative musings in a special book, aptly titled My Life in Pictures.
Throughout this humorous book, readers view excerpts of Bea’s doodles as she chronicles observations, feelings about her relationships with friends, and how she handles the conflict with her rambunctious new classmate and neighbor, Bert. Zemke’s clever format, engaging storyline, and celebration of art as a form of self-expression will surely delight readers.

Weekends With Max and His Dad. Linda Urban. Ill. Katie Kath. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

weekends with max and his dadWeekends With Max and Dad is a heartwarming chapter book about Max and his newly divorced dad as they spend time together. The format of the book, organized over the course of three weekends with mini chapters, is as creative as its characters. Max and his dad navigate their new surroundings, meet their neighbors, and in the process discover more about themselves. One weekend Max surprises his father by hosting an open mic night in their apartment. A few neighbors share their talents in an open, risk-free space, where “nobody has to worry about mistakes.” Mrs. Tibbet recites a poem, Mr. Polaski performs a tune on his accordion, and his niece Estelle plays her kazoo. Finally, Max’s dad strums a blues song on his ukulele while Mrs. Tibbet’s dog, Barkis, howls with delight. Kath’s pen-and-ink illustrations, interspersed throughout, add interest. Urban masterfully captures the gentle and loving emotions between father and son while learning to understand and accept their new living arrangement. 

Ages 12–14

The Most Important Thing: Stories About Sons, Fathers, and Grandfathers. Avi. 2016. Candlewick.

the most important thingAvi’s latest short story collection introduces the intricate, dynamic, and complicated relationships of sons, fathers, and grandfathers. Readers will find seven distinctive stories, each packed with varying and multifaceted levels of emotional intensity, humor, and personal discovery that invite further conversation. In the opening story, “Dream Catcher,” Paul travels to meet his grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran, for the first time. The complicated relationship between his father and grandfather results in unanswered questions. During Paul’s visit, he listens to stories about the past, uncovers information about his family history, and develops an unexpected bond with his grandfather. The final story, “Tighty-Whities or Boxers?” introduces readers to Ryan, who lives with his widowed mom. When his mom’s boyfriend proposes marriage, Ryan decides he doesn’t want a stepdad—he wants a father. If his mom’s boyfriend wants the job of being his father “he’d need to apply for the position.” Ryan creates a job advertisement, drafts interview questions, collects letters of reference, including one from a child/teen, and then arranges for a face-to-face meeting.

Sara Lost and Found. Virginia Castleman. 2016. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

sara lost and foundSara and Anna are sisters. Sara is 10 years old and her sister is 12, but Sara takes care of Anna, who wets the bed and bites while in foster homes. Sara steals paper for them to eat in case they become hungry. Sara also holds on to the letter their mother wrote to them when she left, and she decides whether they should run away. Their father is battling addiction, and this leaves the girls caught between families. In the past they were separated and placed in different foster homes, but they have also spent time together living with the Silvermans. The elderly Silvermans can take care of the girls only temporarily, but staying with them makes the girls yearn for a safe and stable home. After meeting an adopted boy from Chile, Sara begins to wonder if it would be better to be adopted. Although their father reminds them “You’re Olsons. Never forget that,” the letter from their mother reveals her wishes: “And so I run, hoping to give you a chance at a new and better life.” Sara’s story provides an honest and heartfelt glimpse into the foster care system as she finds ways to help her sister, understand her parents, and trust again.
Ages 15+

Unbecoming. Jenny Downham. 2016. David Fickling/Scholastic.

unbecomingOriginally published in the United Kingdom, this young adult novel is full of family secrets. Seventeen-year-old Katie, her mother, Caroline, and her grandmother, Mary, have been living with secrets. Katie’s dad has left, so the family is just Katie, her mom, and her brother, Chris, who has special needs. Katie did not know her grandmother at all, but now Mary, stricken with Alzheimer’s, has come to live with them, and her past is revealed in flashback chapters. Family history is further revealed as Katie witnesses her mother’s resistance to taking care of Mary. Throughout the story, Katie learns more of her mother and grandmother’s past struggles. All the while, she is struggling to figure out her own identity after kissing her female best friend. The stories of these three women are woven together in a way that keeps the readers guessing. Teen readers will even pick up a bit of British slang.

Lesley Colabucci is an associate professor at Millersville University of Pennsylvania where she teaches courses in children’s/adolescent literature. Mary Napoli is an associate professor of reading at Penn State Harrisburg where she teaches literacy courses.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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