write meg!’s 2020 reading honors

It was quite the reading year for me, friends! Not like the old days, exactly, but closer than I’ve been in the five years since welcoming my first child. I read 40 books, surpassing my annual goal of 36. That’s double what I accomplished two years prior, and 15 more than the year before.

On face value, it would be easy to say the pandemic thrust me back into the arms of my beloved books — and that’s partially true. But personally, even more than the virus, my son and daughter are now old enough to entertain themselves for more than 30 seconds — and I was able to get caught up in something for myself every now and then.

As I shared last year, I can feel bits of myself returning as Oliver is now 5 and Hadley is 3. Also? I just made more time for myself, accepting that I cannot pour from an empty cup. Reading is self-care. There were times I shunned the vacuum in favor of my Kindle, and I don’t regret it.

At the end of last year, I made some reading predictions for 2020 — not knowing, of course, that the world would soon come to a stand-still and we’d all be spending more time at home than ever. I wrote, I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom.”

I think I accomplished that. In the wake of COVID-19 and ongoing racial injustice in 2020, I challenged myself to do more than just escape through books. While of course I read for enjoyment and entertainment, I also read to grow. I’m surprised by how many of my reads were non-fiction — and how much of an impression they had on me.

Maybe they’re ready to make one on you, too.

Katherine Center is an insanely talented writer and a sorceress who makes me lose all track of time. Things You Save in a Fire (2019) was a slow build that erupted into a major burn, leaving me with the malaise that follows a really great read after I closed the final pages. Cassie and the rookie — a love story for the ages.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six (2019) was an audio, and I can’t honestly imagine loving it as much in print. The performance was incredible. It was so well-acted and realistic that I was often overcome with the urge to google the band, convinced this was a real documentary rather than a fictional account of a band’s ascendence and betrayals. After finishing, I found myself still researching any scraps of truth behind the novel (i.e. Fleetwood Mac). Very well done.

Jennifer Weiner is a stranger to few of us, and Mrs. Everything (2019) was a sweeping novel that introduced two new characters I couldn’t help but love. Jo and Bethie are the stars of this multi-generational storyline. Novels that span decades can feel sprawling and disconnected, but Weiner — talented as ever — made it work beautifully. I shed a few tears, had a few laughs, and finished with much to ponder about family and sisterhood. A full experience as a reader, and one of my favorite Weiner works to date!

Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (2019) was an early audio that captured my imagination. I really felt for each sibling in different ways (OK, each sister — Joe was tougher to empathize with). Lillian felt the most “real” to me: real, human, flawed … as are we all. Alternating viewpoints are read by different narrators, and the sumptuous quality of the language was really on display.

Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order (2020) was my final read of the year. A fresh spin on the time-travel trope, Oona was thought-provoking and entertaining. Though I put the pieces together on several plot points early, that didn’t hamper my enjoyment in the slightest. The familiar moral of the story was a welcome reminder that the cup is already broken — and it is our goal to soak up every bit of happiness we can.

Brantley Hargrove’s The Man Who Caught the Storm (2018) was an instant favorite from last summer. I couldn’t put it down, first of all, and have often thought about storm chaser Tim Samaras since finishing. Compelling writing and a fascinating subject matter combined into one unforgettable story.

Running Away to Home (2011) called out to me from my bookshelves at the height of the pandemic. Jennifer Wilson’s story of moving her young family to her grandparents’ ancestral village in Croatia satisfied both my quarantine-induced wanderlust and the resonant ideas of being happy with the here and now. Jennifer and husband Jim realized the rat-race suburban life was leading to stuff, not satisfaction — and left in search of more. It was published a decade ago, but felt just as relevant today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) needs no introduction. Read by the author, the audio version is powerfully affecting as Coates — in a slim volume that packs an unforgettable wallop — breaks down the construct of race and, in so doing, shakes the Dreamers awake. “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it,” Coates writes to his son. As a parent, certain passages — “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered” — were breath-stealers. Required reading for all.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019) is another book so epic in scope, it’s hard to fathom it’s true. As I wrote then, I knew very little about Chernobyl except for its shorthand as a way to describe “an epic disaster,” and this stunning book is anything but. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and detailed to a degree that is truly stunning to behold. I can only stand back in total awe of Higginbotham’s creation: a true story that often reads like poetry, from “the throat of the reactor” to the cold beds of a Moscow hospital. I didn’t want it to end.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016) needs no accolades from the likes of me … but I’ll give them anyway: this book — unbelievable in scope — is, I feel, what all great journalism aspires to be. I have remembered poignant scenes and lessons many times, and find myself talking about it often. In Milwaukee, Desmond follows eight families as they “struggle to keep a roof over their heads,” the description reads. “Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.”

Past reading honors:
2019 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011
2010 | 2009 | 2008

Swept up in ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm’

Man Who Caught the StormI thought I was a writer until I read Brantley Hargrove.

Well, scratch that: I am a writer, but I am not Brantley Hargrove.

Pick up The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras and you’ll know precisely what I mean.

In a book that is equal parts biography and thriller, the beloved film “Twister” rendered in beautiful language outside of Hollywood, journalist Hargrove delves into the life of Tim Samaras, a self-taught engineer who changed the course of tornado science with his brilliance, grit … and pure appreciation of twisters.

I get it. Family members relate with fondness the years in which I could recite the upcoming weather forecast for the next 10 days by heart. I once asked Santa to bring a Doppler radar for Christmas. While cousins at Grandma’s begged for Nickelodeon, I insisted on round-the-clock Weather Channel. Around age 10, I remember tracking a hurricane until I fell asleep, then waking at the crack of dawn to hurriedly check its progress near Florida. I was glued to the screen. How high was the storm surge?

In short, I’m a weather geek.

I might have pursued being a meteorologist had I not decided, sometime around middle school, that I was “terrible” at math. I wasn’t, in hindsight; it just didn’t come naturally to me, and I wasn’t used to working hard.

My own obsession with tornadoes never wavered, though. I’ve watched hours of footage of classic twisters over the Great Plains — and researched extensively the shocking F4 tornado that leveled large parts of the town next to my own in 2002. (I idolize the Capital Weather Gang. Dream job, man.)

Basically, I came to Hargrove’s The Man Who Chased the Storm already predisposed to love it. It had all the elements that would combine into a gripping, memorable page-turner that would dominate my waking hours for the days it took me to tear through it. Love it I did.

Shockingly, I wasn’t familiar with Tim Samaras before I started reading this account of his life and work; I approached with fresh eyes and was completely immersed in his world. Samaras reminds me very much of my own husband — enough that I immediately pushed my finished copy into his hands. Ham radio operator, electronics buff, brilliant with both his hands and mind … there’s much to admire about Samaras.

Tim Samaras

Though the book has no choice but to end on a sorrowful note, so much about Tim demands to be celebrated. Hargrove does a fantastic job of balancing the famous storm chaser with Tim the father, husband, colleague, and friend.

As we ride along with this crew of dedicated storm chasers, saying you “feel like you were there” through Hargrove’s incredibly well-researched book is an insult to the term. Take this, from its very opening pages:

Fog clings to the low swells of eastern-Colorado rangeland as dawn breaks. The mist walls off the far horizon, and for a few short hours the high plains feel a little more finite. The still air is cool and heavy, almost thick enough to drink. This is how these days often begin. The atmosphere is primed, the air a volatile gas. All it needs is a match. …

[Tim] is already en route to the plains from his home in suburban Denver. As the sun reaches its peak, his hail-battered Datsun pickup enters the storm chaser’s cathedral. … Once the sheltering Front Range fades from the rearview mirror, he’s naked to the lungs of the earth, in an unadorned country where the passage of miles can feel more like a few hundred yards.

I could really just quote, like, the entire book, but I want you to go read the book. It really is just that good — and quite the wild, memorable ride.

Perfect for:

  • Weather geeks who crave the data and the drama
  • Non-fiction lovers who want to learn while reading their bios
  • Readers ready to laugh, cry … and open new Google tabs to research while reading

5/5

Personal copy gifted by my sister; not sent for review.

Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

I’ll go first: until a few weeks ago, next to nothing. As the wife of a physicist, I’ve been with Spencer as he “talks science” on many occasions. He’s great at breaking things down when I ask questions, but I usually have to get him to start at the beginning. As an English nerd, I’ve always fashioned myself to be someone only moderately capable of understanding something like a positive void coefficient.

Adam Higginbotham’s stunning Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster changed all that. Not only am I apparently capable of understanding scientific principles a decade-plus after I last set foot in a classroom, but I can enjoy it, too. When Higginbotham is at the helm, at least.

Midnight in Chernobyl opens with the key players of the infamous April 1986 disaster — and that’s fitting, of course, given how many people and oppressive power structures all contributed to the eventual failing of the No. 4 reactor at the power station in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR. I already felt lost in the roll call, but my husband convinced me to stick with it. The names — unpronounceable, at first, to my western ear — all soon came sharply into focus: Akimov. Dyatlov. Brukhanov. Legasov.

It’s not about one person . . . not several people. Not a single system or single failure. Not just a single finger on one fateful button. “The holes in the Swiss cheese lined up,” as they say. And since zero people need a dissertation on Chernobyl from me, I’ll leave you to much wiser folks if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Better yet — read this book! It’s loads more fun than a bunch of Wikipedia entries, I assure you. Even if it is very interesting to see corresponding photos of everything Higginbotham describes.

What’s amazing about that, though, is I already had a thick stack of mental pictures: of the dark, water-filled tunnels beneath the reactor and its deep, burning throat; of the reactor hall blown open, and the people scrambling in its wake. Of the radioactivity so thick that it actually shrouds the bottoms of photos in something like fog. Higginbotham describes everything so poetically, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about nuclear meltdown. About science. This? It reads like literature.

I was hooked.

It’s no surprise that the author is a journalist. The book describes everything in stunning detail; his passion for the subject is evident. The level of research must have been insane. I loved when, toward its final pages, Higginbotham himself entered the narrative, describing the settings of his interviews with Chernobyl scientists still living or spouses left behind, picking up the radioactive wreckage all these years later.

Chernobyl2Now suitably intrigued by Chernobyl, like so many before me, I’ve started watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries after the kids go to bed. Spencer has already watched the whole thing through once (twice?), and it’s not exactly light bedtime viewing . . . it’s disturbing, of course. Incredibly well done and memorable, but not relaxing.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started, though. From the evacuation of Pripyat — now an extreme tourist destination — to the government cover-ups and human toll eventually collected in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6, it’s impossible to look away from this terrible slice of history.

The show is great, but I didn’t need it to deepen my understanding of Chernobyl. Everything depicted in the show is as I’d imagined from Higginbotham’s writing. Midnight in Chernobyl paints such a vivid picture that I scarcely needed to “see” anything at all.

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.

5/5

See more on Goodreads

write meg!’s reading honors for 2019

Since becoming a mom, I’ve struggled to read and write the way I once did (see Exhibit A: this entire blog). But as my kids get older, I feel little pieces of myself — my “old” self — bubbling up to the surface.

And almost without warning this fall, I … started reading again.

I was nervous at first. Could I keep this up? Was it a fluke? But after I cracked open my Kindle day after day, night after night, I felt it: that intoxicating pull of a good story … a draw much stronger than playing the 418th level of Candy Crush on my phone. My reading mojo had returned. I’m back.

While I don’t make new year’s resolutions, per say, I’m definitely trying to be more intentional with my time and attention. And I’ve realized something that was missing through my exhausting days (months, years …) as a new mom: the ability to tune out, even for a little while.

For me, like many of you, that portal comes through reading. It centers me.

Though my official count for 2019 only comes to 25 books, I’m proud to have read so much just in the last few months. I’ve lost touch with what’s buzz-worthy here in the book blogosphere, so my recent favorites are not necessarily … recent.

Still, here’s what I loved most in 2019:

how to walk awayHow to Walk Away by Katherine Center, who creates characters that are so relatable you look for them in Target. As usual, this novel was gripping and addictive — impossible to quit, with a well-built and believable love story set in a hospital during the main character’s rehabilitation after a plane crash.

Sounds … well, really over-the-top to write it out like that, but I swear Center is a magician! She is such a beautiful, heartfelt writer, and I’ll be coming for Things You Save in a Fire in 2020.

girl you leftThe Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, transitioning between time and place with a haunting refrain. Loved the angle of art and the providence of works, which dovetailed nicely with my newfound interest in the Gardner Museum heist (have you listened to the Last Seen podcast yet?!).

Moyes’ historical tale isn’t as beloved as the blockbuster Me Before You and its follow-ups, but I still think she’s hugely talented with some truly memorable passages here.

Overdue LifeThe Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms — like reading a transcript of my own life. It was almost too much sometimes … like Harms had peeked behind the curtain that is my overly-caffeinated exterior to share private pieces of my soul.

Single mom Amy, long saddled with the responsibilities of her household after her husband unceremoniously flees their family, is a character most (all?) of us can relate to. She’s tired. She’s trying. I loved the redemptive transformation here. Read it in a few sittings and couldn’t wait to return between breaks.

I'm FineI’m Fine and Neither are You by Camille Pagán, with its ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The whole story was absolutely painful to read at points … so painful that, at 2 a.m., I had to force myself to put it down lest I read until morning and do nothing about the terrible ache in my best.

Still, it was life-affirming, too: powerful and relatable. As with Amy Byler above, there’s plenty of Penny in all of us. And pretending to be fine doesn’t mean we are fine. Accepting that is the first step to real change. I dig it, man.

Raising Your SpiritedRaising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, which has changed the way I parent our four-year-old son: totally a spirited child. Just having that moniker — “spirited” — changed how I think about and relate to my son. Not wild. Not difficult. Not stubborn. Just … different. Spirited.

Kurcinka’s compassion and practical advice have helped me to examine my own impatience as a parent so I can be my best self for my intense son. It also helped me see that I’m not, in fact, a bad or lazy mother … one who would rather give in to have peace than fight to be “right.” 

Basically, parenting is freakin’ hard. But the suggestions provided here have helped restore a measure of peace to my house. I definitely view my relationship with Oliver differently now, and have been able to take a step back and get myself together many times thanks to the practical examples in this book. If anyone out there thinks they might have a spirited child (you’ll know if you do…), highly recommend this one. Thanks for the recommendation, Mom!

So what’s up in 2020? I’m not sure, but I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom. And plenty of fun ones, too! (I’m reading American Royals now, for example — escapism to the max.)

It’s all about balance. And coffee.

And reading with coffee.

… Now we’re talking.

Circling like it’s 1996

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It would appear overnight: rows and rows of paperbacks, “chapter books” and illustrated classics. When the Scholastic Book Fair rolled into my middle school, setting up shop amidst the short stacks in the library, I didn’t even try to act cool. Who can act cool in the face of a veritable literary buffet?

Having some of my parents’ cash in my pocket and the autonomy to choose any book I wanted was intoxicating. I remember obsessing over the flyer sent home, tallying up the costs for stories I wanted to share with Mom and Dad (I always went overboard — imagine). I’d come home clutching a new purchase like Walk Two Moons, an all-time favorite. Then I’d collapse on my grandparents’ couch after school and get lost in another world until dinnertime.

My husband casually dropped the first Scholastic flyer sent home from the kids’ preschool on the kitchen counter with all the other mail and detritus, like it was just another piece of paper.

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I wasn’t ready for the buoyant whoosh of emotion that hit me when I saw it. I’m talking serious, legitimate excitement … I mean, as excited as a frazzled 34-year-old mom with a pinched nerve in her back can get, anyway. I sat down with this thing like it was a particularly juicy bit of gossip I wanted to absorb in great detail.

And absorb I did. I started circling books like it was 1996, y’all. Curious GeorgeLittle Owl’s SnowDinosaurs Don’t Have Bedtimes! Few stories were safe from my Sharpie.

Never mind that we have stacks and stacks of children’s books already — some I began collecting long before Oliver and Hadley were even born. But as my sister correctly pointed out, the collection we have now features baby-approved or extremely “young” stories. As we get closer to Ollie learning to read himself, I’m investigating the early readers and beyond.

I chose two new stories to add into the bedtime rotation, placing our order online (hello, 2019!). I’m definitely more excited than they could possibly be.

And now, the hardest part … the wait.

Why I quit making reading lists — and why I’m back

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I didn’t keep track of a single book I read in 2018.

Given how immersed I was in cataloging everything I read up until my kids arrived, that felt strange. Even after I found myself with little energy and less desire to keep up with full-blown reviews, I was updating Goodreads with the audiobooks I’d listened to, at least.

But for 2018? Cold turkey. I was tired. Reading had become less a pleasurable pursuit than a strange struggle to “keep up,” both in the book blogging world and outside it. I felt like I’d created something with write meg! and I needed to crank out content to appease … someone.

Publishers? Readers? Myself?

So I stopped. If it doesn’t give you joy, why do it? And, to be honest, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open until 9 p.m. Once the kids were in bed, I was right behind them. My job is very busy. The house is always a mess. So many responsibilities tug at me day in and day out, and I needed to loosen the hold of those that I could.

Here’s the thing, though: being a reader is part of my identity. I don’t feel like myself without my books. Novels are a vacation. A trip from reality. A chance to escape, to punch out, to be “someone else” for a while.

Without books, I’m … me. Exhausted mom of two.

I wanted to find my way back to reading … but without the self-imposed pressure I’d come to put on myself as a blogger and reviewer. There had to be a better way.

So I rediscovered books in 2018 — just for myself. The kids were sleeping more. Our household was less disrupted. I returned to novels like reconnecting with a best friend — just without the requirement that I evaluate every single one. I was tired of my obsession with counting everything.

Life was stressful enough. I just wanted to read.

So I did. But I didn’t review or catalog. I didn’t set reading goals, nor did I keep a running list of what I’d purchased or finished or borrowed.

2018 became the year of the lost book.

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Turns out … well, I miss my lists.

I am lists. Lists are me.

When I don’t have them? There’s … nothing. A total blank where my favorite reads from 2018 should be.

Did I not read anything compelling last year? Nothing memorable, influential, worthwhile? This can’t be true, especially knowing I give most books the 10-page test — if it doesn’t hold my attention after 10 pages, I quit.

Yet without my trusty spreadsheets and up-to-date Goodreads account, I struggle to think of a single title I loved in the last 12 months.

That just won’t do.

So I’m back. Last week I flipped on the lights of my dormant Goodreads account, shaking the dust from every surface. I’ve finished three audio books since January 1, and absolutely loved Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away. I’m thick in the middle of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and love it so much, I don’t want it to end.

And, of course, there’s my kids’ bedtime reading. The rhyming undercurrents of my daily life.

For Hadley, it’s Five Little Pumpkins. For Oliver, Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?

I mean, where do they sleep at night?

Do they dream of holes they dug?

Do their moms reach front to backhoe when they give a good night hug?

These are the questions of our era, friends.

And with little readers in the making (and much more reading for me!), I look forward to answering them.

Books on Oliver’s shelves

Oliver and books

Last Christmas, shortly after announcing my pregnancy, I received a gift for Baby J that made me cry — and it wasn’t just the hormones: two sweet board books from Magan at Rather Be Reading, favorites of her daughter’s. The official beginning of our little one’s library.

In April, Baby J became Oliver, and our son’s book collection has grown exponentially. Like many excited readers and parents-to-be, I’ve been quietly building his stash for years. I wrote about my “secret” book-buying back when he was the proverbial twinkle in my eye, and I’m finally able to share many of the books I’ve been collecting with him.

At nearly 6 months old, Ollie is starting to show an interest in “reading.” I prop him up in my lap with a book in front of us, then try to be patient as we’re inevitably interrupted by baby hands slapping the pages or a hunger cry breaking the momentum.

I love reading aloud. Not to, you know, toot my own horn or anything, but I was pretty much the designated class reader in fourth and fifth grade. So.

Since my reading talents have been dormant for the better part of two decades, I’m really livin’ it up now. The whole reading-to-my-belly thing never felt natural, but reading to an actual infant is an entirely different experience.

Ollie is too little to have obvious preferences, but he does kick his little feet crazily to a few “favorite” books. Here’s what we have stacked in the nursery right now.

(And P.S.: taking a page out of Steph’s book, I created a Goodreads shelf to catalog Ollie’s reading adventures. I plan to keep up with them there!)


Children's books


The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen
Illustrated by Dan Hanna
This unique, adorable story — with very clever rhyming — chronicles the Pout-Pout Fish’s excuses to friends as to why he’s a total downer. A shot at love turns that frown upside down. The Pout-Pout Fish is so much fun to read, I find myself thinking of the little rhymes — “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face . . .” — throughout my work day. You know: alone.


On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman
If you want an instant parent tearjerker, look no further. A sweet, soothing story describing the uniqueness of each child welcomed into the world.

Nothing we’ve read feels as personal nor has impacted me as deeply as this book, which was a gift from a family friend in New York. We didn’t receive it until Oliver had been home from the NICU for a few weeks, but I read it once and immediately fell in love. I’ve read it with and without Ollie, and have the entire story memorized.

The “night” part is what gets me, I guess. Oliver was born at almost 10 p.m. I remember laying alone in my hospital room after my husband went to see him, the first person in our family to touch his tiny hand. Though I know it’s cliche, we were changed forever. On the Night You Were Born so perfectly summarizes those feelings for me, and how special and unique each tiny baby is. It’s just . . . a beautiful book.


Don Quixote by Jennifer Adams
Illustrated by Alison Oliver
This retelling of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous story is simple, but compelling to little eyes: bold colors and vivid illustrations with both English and Spanish words. Something about this book ignites a fire in Ollie; he kicks his feet like a madman and loves it.


Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
Illustrated by Leslie Staub
A story that packs a powerful punch. Regardless of skin color, nationality or origin, children everywhere are alike, linked and connected. A great primer for teaching about differences, tolerance and friendship.


Firebears, the Rescue Team by Rhonda Gowler Greene
Illustrated by Dan Andreasen
If you know a future firefighter (or even if you don’t), Firebears will captivate them. The story of a rescue squad ready to (adorably) protect the community, the Firebears come to the aid of neighbors and cats stuck in trees before fighting home fires.

Given I was a child so paranoid about flames that my parents purchased a fold-up ladder for my second-story bedroom, this might have freaked me out as a tot — but the message about safety is a good one, and I love the vertical images of the bears sliding down the fire pole. Cuteness.


The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
This classic has enchanted me since childhood with its bright colors, beautiful illustrations and evolution of a hungry caterpillar who eats everything, then eventually emerges as a butterfly. This was the very first book I read to Ollie (who slept the whole time, of course): short and truly sweet!


A Halloween Scare In . . . by Eric James
Illustrated by Marina La Ray
Written for each state (we have Maryland), this Halloween story will delight children and parents equally with its local places, clever state connections (the flag on a mailbox!) and cute story about being yourself and facing fears. My hometown is mentioned, which is really icing on the witch-shaped cake. Very adorable!


I’m always seeking new reads for Oliver’s collection. What are some of your favorites? What books do your little ones adore? Please share!