5 Books About Family - Recommended by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Jennifer, a graduate of Lesley College and Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the author of many books for children and young adults including the early-reader series Andy Shane and the Very Bossy Dolores Starbuckle in which shy, reticent Andy joins forces with an overly-exuberant friend; the bestselling middle grade novel, Small as an Elephant about twelve-year old Jack who’s been abandoned in a National Park; and Paper Things — a nuanced story about homeless siblings. Her newest books are The Dollar Kids and a picture book titled This is MY Room (No Tigers Allowed). Jennifer, a three-time winner of the Lupine Award for Young Readers, lives in Maine with her husband and dog, and when not writing provides trainings in Writer’s Workshop for teachers. We asked Jennifer to give us 5 recommendations for books about family.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your own work
I am a literacy consultant and an author of books for kids and teens. My work ranges from picture books to young adult readers. I’m so pleased that my selected theme is family. My latest novel for kids aged 9-12 is The Dollar Kids – a story about a family that moves to a former mill town and purchases a home for one dollar. In my latest picture book, This is MY Room (No Tigers Allowed), an older sister helps her younger sister transition to her very own room for the first time.
What got you into writing fiction for children?
I took a children’s literature course in college and rediscovered the wonderful writing in stories for kids. Through children’s books, I’ve been able to revisit childhood – not the sentimental picture of a romanticized childhood, but the real and often painfully complex experience. I often say that by writing children’s literature, I am re-raising myself.
Also, when I was teaching elementary school, I wrote alongside my students to model the process. Writing children’s books kept them interested and invested in my examples.
You also work with teachers. Why do you think being an educator is such a demanding job today?
Higher (and often unrealistic) expectations continue to be placed upon teachers, while resources dwindle to their lowest level. The testing culture has created a prescriptive and often ineffective form of teaching that works against the developmental needs of students. In other words, it creates many more problems than it solves.
The first book on your list of recommendations is Saffy's Angel by Hilary Mckay. Why did you pick this one?
I absolutely marvel at Hilary McKay’s ability to create a large, eccentric family that we love instantly. And we not only adore this family collectively within the first few pages, we care deeply about each and every one of its members. (Well, maybe not Dad, but that’s intentional.)
Tell us more about the Cassons. What makes this family so special?
The Cassons are my idealized family. The household is chaotic, the feelings are messy, and yet Eve (Mom) and the four children (Cadimum, Saffy, Indigo and Rose) ban together in the most loving and supportive way. When Saffy can’t find her yellow on the color chart on the wall, her older sister Cadimum paints it there. This is a family that locks arms in times of adversity. Indigo calls his family his pack.
In these books, the kids deal with some tough family issues. Some readers said that they are a bit dark because of it. What is your take on this?
Tough family issues exist. Children not only know they exist, they experience them first hand. There are so many children, for example, who are living, like the Casson’s, with food insecurity. There is nothing more comforting for a child than to see his or her difficulties portrayed in a book with hope and resilience. Without stories, many children are left to handle their very valid concerns on their own.
Additionally, we know that children grow in empathy for others when reading stories about difficult topics.
Next up is The Front Desk by Kelly Yang. What drew you to this one?
I adore Mia’s relationship with her parents who are hardworking immigrants. Together, the three of them run a hotel (owned by a disgraceful landlord). Ten-year-old Mia handles the front desk. The family’s persistence, adherence to their strong values, and willingness to risk their own livelihood to help others is heartening.
The book deals with things that your average kid might not encounter - issues that can be part of daily life for immigrants. Why do you feel this is an important topic to explore?
I worry about categorizing childhoods as typical and nontypical. In 2017, approximately 18.2 million children under age 18 lived with at least one immigrant parent. All children benefit from seeing their own experiences reflected in books -- and reading about the experiences of others.
The third book on our list is Planet Jupiter by Jane Kurtz. What is this book about?
Jupiter’s family are musicians (buskers) who travel from place to place to perform. At the onset of this story, Jupiter’s mother has separated from a long- term boyfriend. Jupiter’s older brother has broken off to earn money at a more stable job. While Jupiter’s adjusting to these changes, her seven-year-old cousin from Ethiopia comes to live with them.
In this book, Jupiter learns that community and family aren't always what you expect them to be. Why is this an important lesson?
We all have ways of deciding where we belong and who we want to spend time with—and sometimes life challenges us to open our hearts to places and people we’ve put in our “absolutely not!” category. Love can surprise us! Changing our minds and hearts can make our worlds bigger and sweeter in all kinds of ways.
Tell us more about your next pick, Tillie Heart and Soul by Mary Atkinson
In this story, Ten-year-old Tillie lives with her gay uncle in piano factory that’s been converted into studios for artists (ten artists and one kid). While the thoroughly delightful Tillie struggles to live apart from her mother (who is recovering from drug addiction), she enters a skating competition and learns to share her best friend.
This is another book that stars an eccentric family. Why do you like books with different-than-normal families?
Ha! Even Tillie has the construct of a “normal” family in her head. Her guilty wish is “that I could have a regular car and a regular house with a mom and a dad and a dog sleeping on the porch.”
But what makes one family more normal than another? Is the two parent, two kid family normal if one is disabled? What if Mom is an alcoholic? What if the family is evicted from their home? What if one member suffers from anxiety or is confused about their sexual identity? You see where I’m going with this.
Why is acceptance so vital to young children?
Acceptance is essential to a child’s healthy development, but it’s also the very thing that helps creates the sense of belonging we want every child to experience.
The “normal family” is a destructive paradigm. It causes children to carry a heavy burden of “otherness” and shame. I, like many authors, work to demonstrate that families come in many different arrangements. More than 2.5 million children are being raised by their grandparents, so in my Andy Shane series, Andy lives with his Granny Webb.
I’m reminded of something my daughter once said: “There are happy divorced families.” It’s a statement that smashes our stereotypes and lets us ask instead, “What do we want for all children?”
Last, but not the least, we have The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. What makes this such a great book?
Here I could go on forever, but I will tell you what I love best about it. Padma is writing about homeless sisters who ban together with other homeless children to protect and support themselves. Homelessness, living on the streets, these are touch topics. Yet Padma truly writes from the perspective of children, she never loses sight of the magical quality of childhood.
I tried to do the same with my book about homelessness, Paper Things, but I’m not sure I achieved it in the sweet way that Padma does.
This book features young people who must use their instincts and grit to survive. Why is grit so important in daily life?
Grit, or persistence, allows us to see adversity as opportunities to grow. The wonderful thing about reading fiction is that it not only helps readers to grow in empathy, it also helps children to grow in grit. (Neurology has shown that our brains believe we’ve had the experience that the characters have had!)
This "family" consists of a group of kids who look out for each other. How do they form a family?
These children fit my definition of family: a group of individuals who form a loving, protective, supportive bond. In a family (no matter the configuration) each individual experiences a sense of safety and belonging. Each individual grows from the love generously given.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on a new novel for kids aged 9-12 titled Crashing in Love. It’s the story of a girl who learns (as all of my characters do) that things are not always as simplistic as they seem.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
My website: www.jenniferjacobson.com
Facebook: Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Instagram: Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Thank you for this opportunity. I loved choosing and discussing some of my favorite books and your questions were wonderfully thought-provoking!