children’s books

  • My favorite books of 2021 so far

    straw beach bag with books, a picnic blanket and a hat, spread out on a green lawn

    Affiliate links are used in this post. As an Amazon affiliate I may earn from qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

    Guys, I’m writing this from the library – THE LIBRARY! If that’s not a sign that things are returning to normal, than I don’t know what is!

    Anyway, today I’m going to be discussing books, specifically my five favorite books of 2021 so far. There’s quite a range of tones here, but honestly hasn’t this year been an emotional rollercoaster anyway? It makes sense that the books I’ve read would match (or counteract) that same unpredictability.

    Here are my favorite books from the first half of 2021.

    Favorite novel: Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (also available through Book of the Month

    Hockey. Suspense. YA romance. A socioeconomic examination of the opioid crisis on Native reservations in the early 2000s. While these may not all be genres/topics you are necessarily looking for in a book, the combination is what makes The Fire Keeper’s Daughter my favorite fiction read of 2021 so far. The plot is intricately woven and complicated, to say the least, but know three things. First, Daunis, the protagonist, is one of the strongest, best-written main characters I’ve encountered in years. Second, trigger warnings abound, so proceed with caution and do your research before reading if you have certain topics you need to avoid. And third, Barack and Michelle Obama will be adapting this book into a Netflix TV show!

    Favorite children’s book: What is God Like? by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner
    I spoke about this book a little bit a few weeks ago in my post about switching churches. I didn’t learn about Rachel Held Evans until after she died in 2019, but I wish I had known her. When she passed away, her friend Matthew Paul Turner (one of my favorite children’s book authors) was asked to finish this story she had started. This book they co-created is an incredible, inspiring celebration of the concept of God, especially for young children. Throughout the story, we meet characters of different ethnicities and races, a child with a wheelchair, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The story switches pronouns for God along the way – sometimes God is He, sometimes She, sometimes They. I love this book so very much, and if you are a friend of mine with a young child, I’m probably going to talk your ear off about this book at least once in the next few months!

    Favorite poetry book: What Kind of Woman by Kate Baer
    I’m as shocked as you are that I’m listing a poetry book here. I normally don’t “do” poetry. Heck, one of the main reasons I wasn’t an English major was that, despite my love of writing, I didn’t want to have to study poetry! Kate Baer’s work is different, however. Her poetry tackles motherhood, body image, feminism, mental health and more in a raw, powerful way. Her “Erasure” series of poems is my favorite. In these, she takes online comments she’s received and blacks out select words, using the words remaining to form uplifting messages out of the hate. Baer’s second book, I Hope This Finds You Well, comes out this fall, and I’ve already preordered it!

    Favorite nonfiction book: Getting It Done When You’re Depressed (Second Edition) by Julie A. Fast and John D. Preston (also available on Zulily)
    How much do I love this book? So much that I bought it twice, in e-book and paperback formats, so it’s always with me. I’m currently rereading it, and I’m getting even more out of it the second time around. The authors have an incredible talent for putting in words different aspects of depression that I always assumed were just my own unique weaknesses. I feel seen and understood in a way no other book has ever made me feel. My favorite feature of this book is that each chapter also has a script portion for you to share with loved ones when you are depressed and don’t know how to put your specific experience into words.

    Favorite cookbook: Everyday Dinners by Jessica Merchant
    Confession: I own the hardcover and e-book copies of this book, too. Jessica Merchant is the Pittsburgh-based founder of my favorite cooking blog, How Sweet Eats. In her latest cookbook, she focuses on easy weeknight meals that you can (but don’t have to) prep for in advance. Because let’s be real – I’m never going to prepare a week’s worth of meals on a Sunday. It just isn’t my style, although I admire all you folks who swear by it. Like Merchant, I would much rather preparing components of a meal here and there in pockets of free time throughout the week. So far, my favorite recipes are the Cajun-Lime Sweet Potato Salad and the Chicken Romano Meatballs. Seriously, I dream about both of these dishes. I’m planning on making several more recipes from this book over these next few days during the holiday weekend!

    What has your favorite book been so far in 2021? I’d love to hear from you! Also, if you want to expand your family’s summer reading selection, I’ll be sharing recommendations for young readers in the next week or two, including some FREE printables! (Admit it, you love free stuff!)


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  • An exciting new partnership!

    “Can you start a website where you curate all these awesome finds?” my son’s therapist asked me half-jokingly (I think) last year.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I often cope with JB’s diagnosis by shopping. I’m always hoping there’s a certain toy or piece of equipment that can help him develop skills a bit more easily, or make this therapy sessions more fun for him.

     I am thrilled to announce I am now an affiliate partner of Zulily.com – my favorite online retailer! 

    Without a doubt, Zulily has been my top source for therapy (whether speech, occupational, physical or feeding therapy) and sensory items for JB. It is also where I’ve found the best selection of toys and books featuring people with disabilities.

    In addition, I do most of my holiday shopping – birthdays, Mother’s and Father’s Days, Christmas, Easter – on Zulily. Since the pandemic, I’ve also been doing most of my own clothing shopping on Zulily. (Their shoes and plus-size offerings are especially fantastic.)

    See the photo above? Those are all Zulily purchases I was able to grab in a three-minute mad dash through my house. Even the area rug is from Zulily.

    Over the next few days, I’m going to be sharing some of my favorite Zulily finds both here on the blog and on social media. I’ll also be sharing suggestions from Jessica N. Turner, one of my favorite bloggers out there and a big career inspiration to me.

    Is there anything in particular you are looking to purchase right now that you could use help finding? Let me know!

    Please note: I know I sound like I’m doing an infomercial for Zulily, but this is not a sponsored post. If you buy something through the affiliate links used in this post, I may be compensated, but other than that, I’m just an [over]eager fan who loves a good sale.

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  • Finding a faith community that fits

    When I started Joyful, Brave and Awesome, I said this blog would not be a place to discuss religious views, except for when related to the blog’s central message of inclusion.

    Well, over the past year our family has made some changes in how we practice our faith, and I wanted to share our experience with you.

    My husband and I were raised in and educated by the Catholic Church. We met while attending the same Catholic high school, were married in the Church, and baptized our son in the Church. Over the past several years, something shifted, though. I came to a point where the ever-increasing list of things I disagreed with was far too burdensome to make me want to practice my faith anymore. My husband felt similarly, and we discussed switching to a different denomination, but never actually followed through with it.

    As JB’s disabilities became more apparent and we learned more about his genetic syndrome, we struggled with how to give our son a faith community like the one we we grew up with – attending worship services, learning prayers, having traditions – while staying true to our beliefs.

    We tell JB every day that his differences don’t make him any less worthy of respect or love. He can achieve anything – pursue a career, fall in love and get married, raise a family, participate in social events, etc. Just because he was born a little different than other people doesn’t mean he is not enough, or is inherently wrong or bad. How could we justify telling JB these reassuring messages, while at the same time belonging to a group that limits people’s rights simply because of how they were born?

    I knew that if we wanted to lead by example and teach my son to have faith and believe in a higher power, my husband and I needed to make a change. As one person astutely pointed out, we were looking for a church that “preached what we practiced.”

    One of the good things about the pandemic was it caused churches to livestream their worship services. Our family was able to “attend” different Sunday services without worrying about when to sit, stand, kneel, sing, pray, etc. We also didn’t need to worry if JB had a meltdown, or if his feeding pump alarm went off, or if the building was wheelchair accessible. We ended up finding a local parish in a different denomination that is a much better fit for our family. This group has welcomed us with open arms, and has gone out of their way to make sure services and special events are accessible and accommodating for JB.

    I realize no church or religious family is perfect, and JB – like any other kid – will face hardship throughout his life regardless of his religious affiliation. But I also know that, as his mom, it is my job to provide him with a safe environment that fosters confidence, compassion, and tolerance.

    Recently, I have connected with an online community of writers and readers who believe in the importance of inclusion in faith-based writing. I am so excited by the work these group members are doing! As part of this group, over the next few weeks I will be sharing information about a new children’s book called What is God Like? that illustrates the themes of faith and inclusion in one of the most beautiful ways I’ve ever seen.

    You can see a preview of the book here.

    I’d love to hear if you have positive stories of inclusion and faith, whether disability-related or not. I’m also curious if you have any stories of changing your religious practices during the pandemic. Feel free to share in the comments!

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  • Using milestones to measure our children and ourselves

    Affiliate links are used in this post. As an Amazon affiliate I may earn from qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

    When I was little, I loved looking through my baby book. As the firstborn child, my book was obviously meticulously filled out with each and every detail about my first year or so. (#SorryNotSorry, dearest younger siblings!) I couldn’t believe I was ever that tiny, or my parents were so young, or hairstyles and eyeglasses were so big – long live the 1980s!

    When I was pregnant with JB, my husband and I purchased a baby book called When We Became Three. It had all sorts of cute prompts about how we met, what our first date was like, who attended our wedding, what my pregnancy cravings were, etc., all the way up to the baby’s second or third year.

    I stopped filling the book out when JB was about four months old. It was clear that the categories and questions no longer applied to the “Three” that “We” had become.

    From the moment they are born, our kids are literally measured against other children, as we are given not just their height and weight in inches and pounds, respectfully, but also as percentages compared to other children their age.

    Then the developmental milestone questions start. Each pediatrician appointment those first few months (and years) is filled with questions like “Is s/he grasping toys?” or “Is s/he making consonant and vowel sounds?”.

    If a child doesn’t meet certain milestones, additional assessments may be made, including a variety of formal tests that literally break down the child’s emotional, intellectual, social, physical and developmental progress in terms of age. Imagine getting an official medical document saying your several-year-old child has the social skills of a several-month-old infant, for example. Guess what? It feels like a slap in the face, and a giant F written in red pen across your forehead. “YOU HAVE FAILED AS A PARENT,” that document screams, no matter how many times doctors, therapists, and loved ones tell you “it’s just how they have to write it” or “it needs to be an objective assessment”.

    Yes, I get that they need to use consistent measurements in these reports. That’s how science works; I am aware of this. It is not some big conspiracy to make us millennial parents feel triggered. But I also get that it’s pretty likely the medical professional who came up with these reports, just like the professional who coined the term “failure to thrive”, wasn’t an insecure new parent already trying to keep their head above water during this terrifying new chapter of their life.

    Every time I need to fill out new patient forms for JB, I’m faced with pages of these same milestone questions: “Can your child speak in complete sentences? When did your child first smile? At what age did your child begin eating solid foods? When did your child quote The Office for the first time?” (Okay, that last one was obviously made up, but I definitely WILL be returning to JB’s baby book to mark that momentous occasion when it happens!)

    Some parents of disabled kids like using the term “inchstones” – as opposed to “milestones” – to describe the small but significant steps of progress their children make. I don’t personally use this word, because I feel like it unintentionally does the opposite and minimizes disabled kids’ efforts under the guise of being “cutesy”.

    I do, however love the idea of celebrating a child’s individual achievements and timelines. For our family, that meant texting family, friends and former therapists when JB showed us he could identify animals and colors. It meant taking photos and cheering when he started bearing weight on his legs without trunk support. It means telling him every day how proud we are of his hard work and determination.

    We have made it a priority to fill JB’s bookcase with stories of characters accomplishing things at their own pace through perseverance. Here are a few of our family’s favorite picture books on this topic:


    Well, that’s my rant about milestones. I completely understand that none of the above scenarios are intended to shame parents. However, realizing something is not meant to be taken personally, and not actually taking it personally, are two very different things. So I guess one of my 2021 resolutions is going to be not seeing “FAILURE AS A PARENT” whenever I fill out forms or answer physicians’ questions. Because “learning to give myself some credit” is one milestone I’ve been meaning to check off in my own baby book for almost 35 years now!

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  • Demystifying disabilities

    (Please note: This post was written before I knew about author/activist Emily Ladau’s incredible book Demystifying Disability. The similar post title is a complete coincidence. I highly recommend reading her book and following her on social media!)

    A few weeks ago, a college friend reached out to me on Facebook with the sweetest message. She wanted to know if I had any recommendations for how she and her young children should best engage with kids with disabilities in a way that is respectful and supportive.

    First of all, I’d just like to thank this friend, and others who have asked me similar questions. Seriously, though, the fact that parents want their children to know about and celebrate differences is absolutely reassuring to me, as I prepare to send JB off to preschool next month. It gives me hope that kids are becoming more accepting of and comfortable with people not exactly like them.

    As for what to say when meeting someone with a disability, (child or adult), I’m quickly learning everyone is different at what they appreciate or don’t appreciate. But so far, I’ve been amazed by how well my friends and their kids have come to accept and embrace JB!

    It’s funny, but there are two different – and totally appropriate – reactions kids typically have to learning about JB, whether it’s his wheelchair, his feeding tube, his hand and head movements, or his lack of talking:

    1. The kid shrugs and says “Oh,” and moves on to another topic or walks away.
    2. The kid says, “Oh,” and then asks an amazing follow-up question like “Does he drink Magic Formula like Boss Baby?” (In case you were wondering this same question: Yes, JB gets formula, and I guess it’s kind of magic in the fact that it gives him all of his nutrition. No, he doesn’t drink it. And no, fortunately JB – unlike Boss Baby – doesn’t sound like Alec Baldwin!)

    I find my friends and I have the best luck explaining it in the terms of showing what’s different between the children but what also is the same. So if the child asks why JB doesn’t walk, we answer, “His legs aren’t strong enough yet to walk like you do, but he has this cool chair that helps him get around. Isn’t it cool how many ways there are to move and explore?”

    Or if they point to JB’s feeding tube, we’ll say, “That’s how he gets his food in his belly. It’s like how you’re eating your sandwich by mouth and it goes into your stomach. Isn’t it amazing how many ways there are to eat?”

    This way they see what’s different but also what they have in common.

    The main thing is to explain there’s nothing to be afraid of – kids with disabilities are still just that – KIDS. They enjoy dinosaurs, Disney movies, hockey, stickers, iPads and other things just like other children.

    I promised my friend I’d compile a list of some of my favorite children’s picture books that explain disabilities in easy, approachable language. I also thought I’d share this list on the blog, as it is holiday shopping season and people are looking for great gift ideas. Enjoy!

    1. Daniel’s New Friend by Becky Friedman: This story recaps the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episode of the same name. It introduces Chrissie, a new character who uses leg braces and crutches. I love this book and TV episode because they show Daniel and his friends showing curiosity in their friend’s equipment, then moving on to get back to playing. They don’t completely ignore the difference, but rather it’s acknowledged, and then accepted. (Side note: This story is also included in the collection Daniel Tiger’s 5 Minute Stories.)
    2. Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor: “Why would a Supreme Court Justice write about kids with disabilities?” I know that was my first thought when I heard about this book. It turns out that Justice Sotomayor had diabetes starting at a young age, but her classmates never asked her questions about it. She wanted children to know that curiosity and questions are good, and that disabilities and chronic health issues can be respected and talked about. There are a variety of disabilities and differences mentioned in this book, such as asthma, blindness, deafness, autism, food allergies and dyslexia. Also, the illustrations are incredibly beautiful.
    3. We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio: This book is a spinoff of the New York Times Bestseller Wonder. It follows Auggie, a young boy with facial differences, and his dog, Daisy, as they go on adventures. The message of the entire Wonder collection is to “Choose Kind”, and frankly we could all use that reminder. If you want to hear a sample of We’re All Wonders, check out this video of Luis from Sesame Street reading it aloud.
    4. We’re Different, We’re the Same and We’re Wonderful by Bobbi Jane Kates: This Sesame Street book first published in 1992 discusses differences of all kinds, without ever using words like nationality, race, gender, religion or disability. Are the illustrations a little dated and cheesy? Yup, but that’s part of its charm!

    I’d love to hear your favorite books for helping explain differences – whether disabilities, gender, religion, race, etc. – to children. Feel free to share your recommendations!

    Please note: These opinions are all entirely my own, and I have not been compensated to review any of these books. That being said, there are Amazon affiliate links in the above post. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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  • The seaweed is always greener

    We’ve been somewhat strategic about the children’s TV shows JB watches. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with screen time; I just don’t want him knowing who Caillou or Peppa Pig is, out of fear that he’ll start wanting to watch them and I’ll have to listen to them. Better to stick with nostalgic favorites: Muppet Babies, Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood, and Sesame Street. (Some may call this selfish, but I call it self-preservation.) There’s one newer show, however, that JB can’t get enough of – Splash and Bubbles – and as a result, he’s completely, utterly fascinated with ocean life. Latching on to his love of all things underwater, our family recently took a day trip to Boston’s New England Aquarium.

    Before heading to the aquarium, we did a bit of research about what to expect. Is the aquarium handicapped accessible? Could we bring his stroller and feeding pump? Would there be quiet places to take a break if JB was getting overstimulated? The answer to all of these questions, luckily, was a resounding yes! I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I was by the New England Aquarium’s attention to detail regarding accessibility and inclusion.

    When we arrived, we were able to borrow a free sensory kit from KultureCity, filled with fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones, some picture communication cards, and other helpful items. We didn’t end up using the kit, but knowing it was there if we needed it was a huge relief.

    Regarding wheelchair accessibility, I was pleasantly surprised by how much JB could see and experience from his seat. Many parks and museums have guardrails placed right at JB’s eye level, making it hard for him to see or interact with the attraction. The focal point of the New England aquarium, however, is a central tank extending four floors tall, with floor to ceiling viewing windows, and a ramp spiraling around it. As a result, you can see the animals (and occasional scuba divers) from almost any angle. Even better, JB was able to get very close to the glass, immersing him in the experience.

    In one of my favorite moments of the entire visit, a sea turtle swam right up to the glass, and JB started smiling and waving. JB then began making a “muh-muh-muh” sound and signing “more, more, more!” It was an interaction I’ll never forget.

    (I could make some type of joke about how this turtle helped JB come out of his shell, but I’m too mature for that kind of nonsense.)

    JB had another memorable animal encounter at the Edge of the Sea Touch Tank. An aquarium guide, seeing JB in his wheelchair unable to reach the tank, brought a hermit crab in a small container over to him, so JB would be able to see and touch the crab like the other visitors. It was probably just a small moment for the employee, but this inclusion meant the world to us, and to JB.

    Before we left the aquarium, we obviously had to visit the gift shop. (I’m a firm believer that it isn’t an actual museum/zoo/aquarium/theme park visit unless you visit the gift shop.)

    “We are not buying him another toy today, no matter what,” I vowed all morning, citing the mountains of toys already taking over our home.

    My husband and sister both smiled, knowing I would never actually uphold this promise. Sure enough, we ended our visit with a brand-new “wildlife rescue kit,” basically a doctor’s kit and a stuffed animal (JB chose a sea lion) inside a cute little pet carrier. I have to admit, though, it was a smart purchase – he plays with it almost every day. So look out, we may have a future veterinarian on our hands!

    Joyfully recommended…

    One way we’ve been encouraging JB’s “under the sea” interest is through picture books. Here are some of our family’s favorites:

    • An Anthology of Intriguing Animals: This book ticks off boxes for everyone in our home. Gorgeous book design inside and out (for me)? Check! Interesting animal facts (for my science teacher husband)? Check! Cool photos of animals both underwater and on land (for JB)? Check!
    • Manfish: If you had told me pre-parenthood that one day I’d list a biography of Jacques Cousteau as one of my favorite children’s books, I would have called you crazy. But this book is so breathtakingly beautiful, I would willingly hang up the pages as artwork around my home.
    • Three Little Words: Imagine the adorable, uplifting “just keep swimming” spirit of Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, combined with soothing watercolor illustrations of the beloved Pixar fish. Three Little Words will brighten your day no matter how bad the world may seem. 

    (There are Amazon affiliate links in the above post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

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