This Blog Belongs To…

Starring Jules (Third Grade Debut) Cover(1)Okay, here we go. So I set up this blog when I was waiting to see if I would get a book deal myself. It was a place to put my writing while I wondered (read: paced, worried, chewed nails) what was next for me professionally. In an instant, it became so satisfying to write about the books I loved as a child, the books I read out loud to my children now, and the ideas and emotions stirred up nightly by books written for and about the lives of children (and also, highly imaginative Siamese cats. I’m looking at you, Skippyjon Jones).  The idea for the blog was the books and the characters that lift us up—having taken inspiration from Ramona and her Father and those mood-altering tin-can stilts.

But when I sat down today, to think about which books have spoken to me recently–which ones lifted me up–I wasn’t thinking about the upcoming Newbery and Caldecott announcements. Everyone else in the children’s book blogging universe has that well covered. Instead, I thought about The Life of Ty, a series about a regular boy–a regular, counter-climbing, baby-penguin-stealing, slightly neurotic, completely authentic kid. I love these books because my son loves them. And he loves them because he sees himself in them. The same way he loved Billy Miller so much he has now read it three times, and has written his name inside the cover. And all of this got me thinking about Ramona again. About how chapter book series sometimes get washed away in the tidal wave of outstanding middle grade reads, in a way that maybe they didn’t used to, back in my day, back when I read Ramona and wrote my name carefully inside the paperback cover–This Book Belongs to Beth Levine–because it was mine and because there was a long enough pause for reflection in my reading life to know that I would want to own this book for posterity. (And because I never remembered my book fair money so I would probably have to make that one last a while.) And now, in the sea of spectacular books for children, there is less time for pauses. Fewer carefully written declarations of ownership on the inside flaps of nighttime reads. (Due possibly to the advent of online book club ordering for the delinquent child!)

I understand this so well because my own daughter outgrew chapter books as fast as she grew into them, trading in her Cinderella Smiths and her Clementines and yes, her Ramonas, for Wonder and Out of My Mind, and book after book that resonate with her the way The Trumpet of the Swan stayed with me. And the thing is, I am—so far—a chapter book writer. I write essays for grown-ups, too, and I have one or two middle grade novels in the works, but my own chapter book series is special to me because it is special to the kids who read it, if only for a split second of their accelerating, warp-speed little lives. These kids see themselves in Jules. The same way I understood how singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” at the top of her lungs in the rain while clunking down the street in tin-can stilts, lifted the bad mood right off the shoulders of my beloved Ramona, these kids understand what it feels like to over-think, to worry, to be talented even, and not know what to do with it.  The same kids who are bursting with creativity and stories and who think their little brothers are not so terrible, and the ones who adore their parents and their teachers but who are terrorized by behavior charts and the possibility of vomit. This is the stuff of early elementary school and early family life and it is meaningful.

I have never written here about my own books because it seemed self-serving to do so. But the time has come. (And frankly, no matter how much I beg, borrow, and steal. And beg. Did I say that? No one else is doing it.) I want kids to read these books and I want teachers and librarians and parents to read them too. So much so, I made a video trailer to rope you in! They are for everyone. There are four of them now. Check them out of the library! Introduce them to your school librarian! Pick one up at your local indie bookseller! (Okay, go easy on yourself–buy them online!)  And then share them with the early elementary kids in your life who I think will see themselves somewhere inside, and please while your there, say this to your young reader: write your name on the flap.

And it will be yours.

(And then, ahem—make sure you remembered to pack the book fair money.)

prizes, southern charm, and other things you get out of PARP week

Tonight my daughter was reading Sheila Turnage’s superb Three Times Lucky when I rudely interrupted her. It was time for sleep.  “There is a murder in this book, Mommy.”  I had been in a hurry until she said that. I half sat down. I knew if I fully sat down it would scare her, make her think that the murder in Tupelo Landing was deadly serious and maybe not fictional. And at this moment it was more important to emphasize the fake in fiction.

“Nothing interesting usually happens in Tupelo Landing,” she insisted.  Was that a drawl? She’s been working on her drawl. “Like here,” she continued. “Nothing like that ever happens here.”

So?” I shrugged.

“So, there might be a murder.” Pause. “Possibly me.”ThreeTimesLu

If that doesn’t make you laugh it’s because I am not telling the story well. She’s like a sitcom character, my child. Finding drama in otherwise earnest moments. She is able to deliver lines like that one, possibly me, without making you feel the least bit sorry for her.  And yet she is genuinely concerned—she is having an awakening reading this book, the same way she perked up when she met August in Wonder, or when Mr. Terupt found himself in a coma, or when she met the wide-awake Melody in Out of My Mind. My daughter willed her way through that one, careening toward triumph with a girl whose experience very few could possibly understand in any complete way. But Melody means the world to her now.  The experience will stay with her absolutely forever. (And don’t think my husband and I didn’t do a quick Google search when my daughter emerged in tears from her room, searching frantically for some news on Mr. Terupt’s gloomy condition. And don’t think we didn’t all breath a sigh of relief when we discovered a sequel. Yeah, we did. We ruined it.)

This week is P.A.R.P. week (Parents As Reading Partners) at my kids’ school and we all make a big old effort to read together as much as possible. We read beside them, read out loud to them, let them read out loud to us, and it’s a fun way to spend the week, because who doesn’t need a little more pressure during the school week, am I right? No, really. It’s nice. They love it. There are prizes.

To me, though, the real partnership comes when my kids are reading without me.  I have written about the little things I do to test my kids, to make sure they would survive out in the wilds of suburbia if I’m running late to pick them up.  Will they be scrappy? Will they have gumption like Mo LoBeau? Would they think to make a home out of an abandoned boxcar? Maybe. And, I think the reading will help. Our kids are more sheltered than ever. We shield them from so much in part because there are more bad things out there than ever before, and many of them are but a clickety-click away. Partly, though, they are sheltered because we manage their every breath, log them in and out of things all day, keeping tabs on their homework, their instruments, their tests, their social schedule, their sports. It is the way it is now, no matter how much I want to retreat to the Atari and MTV haze of my own 80’s youth.  Frogger, anyone? Right.

THEREFORE, I let my daughter read books about things that are big and scary and emotional and grueling as my gift to her.  Please read these things so you will see the world and all the people in it and all their strife and all their glory and may it make you a more complete and more resilient human. And so her school librarian is apparently not so happy with me. You hear these things through the 9-year-old grapevine, the gossips. My daughter has indeed been told that some of her favorite books are inappropriate. She is wonderful and well-meaning, our librarian. I trust her taste level and her vast experience and her intentions. She loves books and children and she makes my kids wish every day was a library day.  It is her job to be a gatekeeper, and I’m a-okay with her opinions the same way I’m okay with murder in Tupelo Landing. I can handle it. And I think, with my help, my daughter can handle it, too—coping and feeling and trying on a southern drawl because the exposure has meant something to her.  I can’t help how it makes me smile, talking about murder and Southern-ness at bedtime. I know, I know. You had to be there.

But here’s the thing. Together, my daughter and I will find our way through this book and many others still to come.  G-d willing, we’ll hunker down under the covers and hold hands, talking about lots of things in the years to come. I’ll help her, she’ll help me. We’ll be partners.

From Where Shall My Help Come?


I spent yesterday with a very religious Jewish women. A newly single mother of 7 children, she is also a musician heavy on Beastie Boys influences, a producer, a camp counselor, a laundress, a sister and an aunt. But mostly, she is a believer.

And she wears a head scarf to prove it. And she says a bracha before eating a handful of cashews. She gives thanks to God regularly. The same God, presumably, to whom I give thanks when I make Shabbat dinner for my kids and we bicker over who will say motzi—the blessing over the challah—that evening. And then my husband blesses my children—a tidy two of them—and we give silent thanks again, for their health and goodness. And then we return to our secular lives. There is a Yankees game to watch, laundry to fold.

But for two days there has been this cricket trapped in a wood beam in my living room. All day he is quiet, and all night long he chirps with such sharpness and echo that I have to retreat to my bed and close the two doors in between us to escape. Ordinarily I love crickets, love the sound of them in symphony—outside of the screened windows. Outside.

I tried setting a trap (hoping he would hop out the way he hopped in)—a trap of apples and watermelon—wikihow suggested a drizzle of molasses, but that seemed excessive. Nothing. The chirping persisted. And again he was quiet during the day. But when he started up last night, my religious friend was here and she suggested we consult Perek Shira, a text that praises each and every creature on earth. She’s a hippie, my friend. We were going to praise the cricket to let him know he has been heard and understood and blessed, maybe? I was skeptical, but such is desperation. It makes us suddenly and deeply pious.

Unable to find a recitation specific to the cricket, we combined the locust and the grasshopper and we really did dwell on the simple invocation from Psalms, in hopes of quieting him but also saving him and ourselves from calamity. Calamity. And the thing is, all of the sudden the chirping stopped. Just like that. At just the right moment—the same way the red sea parted just when it was supposed to, just in time. And it took my breath away for a while. We said our goodbyes, my friend and I, and I didn’t tell my kids what we had done because I was afraid. Of what? That they would believe in God and prayer. Yes.

Because here is the thing. A little girl died last week, a nine-year-old girl. On the last night of sleep-away camp. And I am only connected to her the way people are sometimes connected—through grandparents who attend the same synagogue, friends who grew up with the parents, 9-year-old daughters born the very same year, one on the west side and one on the east. And both girls went off to camp for the first time, and only one of them came back. Thousands came back really. But one did not. Calamity. And it is just so very hard to believe in God this week. Because a nine-year-old girl is gone from this earth for no good reason—is there ever any good reason? Nothing happened in the nick of time the way it was supposed to, the way the red sea parted, saving all those people and gobbling up all of the evil. And I don’t believe for one second that God saved the cricket. But maybe we gave him some peace and he let go. And the grasshopper says, “I lift my eyes to the mountains from where shall my help come?” (Psalms, 121:1)

I do believe in a lot of things—in Mother Nature and modern medicine and Bob Dylan and yes, the Beastie Boys. So, I’m saying a prayer. Because such is desperation. May this little girl find her way to the angels and be given the wings she deserves, and may she be cared for and may she be praised. And please, may her family find some peace on this earth.

Maybe the cricket stopped chirping right then because he felt heard, cared for, praised. And that was all I could do for him, in the end.

And all I can do today is give, in Riley Sandler’s memory and in her honor.

God Bless.

An Open Letter to Governor Jan Brewer:

BootsWhile we road-tripped through your great Grand Canyon State last week, I worked with my daughter on her rocks project for school. With all that red rock and limestone all around us, she and I were charged with delving into the architecture of the Jefferson Memorial—a grand and important monument made solidly of Georgia marble and limestone and built in the image of the Pantheon of Rome. Things a third grader knows.

We also learned about the words inscribed in the dome and on the walls of this wide, open-to-the-public structure. And so very much was evident. Self-evident if you will. And yes, I know. We all know that Jefferson wrote those gorgeous words, but perhaps didn’t mean them just that way. But, to my nearly 9-year-old daughter, there is no context for their meaning. They mean what they mean.

Things like:

“I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man…”

So, what is tyranny? A question easy to answer with examples from other perilous times—The Holocaust, Slavery, etc. But I didn’t use those examples. I used the current one. Yours. Your state. A state my mother lived in for a long while, attracted to its ambiance, its seeming closeness to God. It does really feel spiritual there.

And the thing is, I so wanted to post pictures of our trip to your state the minute I returned home. I wanted to show my friends and family my kids smiling faces and their fake-falling-into the-Grand-Canyon poses.  I wanted to advertise the exceptional Pink Jeep Tour we took in Sedona at sunset. It was so mind-blowingly beautiful. It raised my depressed, wintered-out Northeastern spirits right up to the pink and purple sky, I swear. And every last person we met, well they were so kind, so open, their skin glowing with all that Southwestern sun you’ve been hoarding down there.

But now I’m wondering, would they have smiled so broadly, given my kids one more loop around the rocky road on that Jeep tour if they had known that the proud grandfather of my children is also a proud gay man?

Would they have been so kind and loving toward my son when he left his baby blanket behind, sending it free of charge to our deep blue state? I’ll never know. I only know that the one teensy downside of our entire trip was this bill that’s on the table. Your table, Governor. A bill so horrid from its very design, from the very tiny seedling planted in some hateful person’s mind, that I’m not sure I can forgive your legislature for even trying.

That said, I would. I forgave you for allowing a man with a not-so-concealed weapon to shop for cowboy boots right along side my young children. And I’m a Northeast liberal, so that’s saying something.

I would forgive you and your state if you veto, Governor Brewer. And I would post those pictures, and I would even come flying back to suck in some of that fresh, desert air and Southwest cooking. Or else, maybe I’ll go to California. There’s plenty to do elsewhere. From sea to shining sea.

Things a third grader knows.

Thank you for your consideration,

Beth Ain

“I cried so much, I’m washed enough.” (or, The Genius of Kevin Henkes)

billy miller

I spend a lot of time with a 6 year old boy, which is to say that I spend a lot of time tripping over forts improbably made out of board game boxes and empty toilet paper rolls. I don’t ever get used to it either. I’ve written about the tiny little pieces of things that send me over the edge sometimes, and I picture myself making good on all those promises to throw it all away or better yet, give it all away to a deserving, imaginary child who will take good care of these things, sorting it all into tidy boxes at the end of each day.

And I notice right away when a space is absent of boys. I might walk into the home of a person who has two girls or even four girls (four!), and maybe there is noise, maybe there is a karaoke microphone set up and Taylor Swift songs screeching into the quiet, and maybe it smells a little like cheap nail polish and the inside of crayon box. But I never trip over anything. I don’t step on a stray lego piece on my way to the kitchen. I don’t sit down on the sofa and, like the princess and the pea, feel the need to dig my hand into the crevices and pull out a matchbox car or a flashlight.  There are no ottomans turned over, no shoe boxes with holes ripped out of them so that the poor stuffed animal inside can breathe.

Six year old boys are special—maddeningly creative, smart, intuitive. They are builders and designers, ball throwers and questions askers.  And sometimes they read, but mostly they need to be read to. Sometimes zombie stories and the diaries of forlorn little brothers. But most times, Frog and Toad and Stuart Little and a little Amelia Bedelia just so they can feel especially in the know before they fall asleep at night.

But what has become of books for this age group, for this type of enterprising, wheels-churning kid? Where to go after Encyclopedia Brown and the Boxcar Children have solved their last case?

I know.

Read The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Read it every night, with the lights low and while your little boy, who is maybe emotional but definitely not dramatic listens to every single word of a book so quiet and so memorable, your voice cracks when you read it out loud.

Billy is the rarest of characters. He is a very real reflection of the kind of boy I live with—the one with all the fort ideas. The one who pays very close attention when I explain something. The one whose fears are quiet and small, and hidden easily behind little shrugs and deep breaths.

Billy is scared the way kids this age are scared—not of monsters and lightning, but of not being smart enough, of not being able to handle second grade or the sassy girl at his table. Scared of hurting someone else’s feelings, too. And the kicker here is that he summons the courage to do some very challenging things all by himself in that internal way that boys do things, even as he challenges others—to a stay-up-all-night sleepover or to a new way of looking at art.

And then—ahem—there is chapter three in the section called Mother. And I can’t write about it or even think about it without feeling so grateful for it, for the portrayal of a mother so complicated and capable and a boy so very interested in her. To find the courage as a writer to tell the real story of how little boys and their mothers share moments, private and important and damp with night air but no tears. Well, this chapter is what makes this writer so special to me. This book is what makes him great.

What Henkes is so brilliant at here is showing how eventually those tiny little pieces of boyhood get picked up and clicked back together and they become the building blocks of little men. Little men who use big voices and who want to do well every day, and who—in between building volcanoes and making mudballs—are mindful of others. Little men whose bravery reduces the voices of the mothers who read to them in the low lights at night to small, cracking whispers.

Ultimately, The Year of Billy Miller is a family portrait. A smart and funny and charming look at the average American family. But if you look closely, you will also see what you look like on a bad day, and later on in the best possible light. And you will see your children dragging sacks of weird things down the stairs and making each other laugh. And you will see the disappointments and the triumphs of each day you spend trying to do better. You will see yourself in here and I suspect you will return to it time and again because it feels good and because you love it, and the best part is that your kids will love it to. Because it is a portrait of them and when you get down to it, what kid doesn’t like to stare at themselves making faces in the mirror?

New Year, Newish Me*

*(Nothing to do with kids’ books, everything to do with #jewishgirls twitter prompts…)

I sometimes read Goop—Gwyneth Paltrow’s aspirational online lifestyle magazine–browsing the recipes and clothes that might change my life if I could just…would just…shop for the ingredients, do the gritty work celebrity fitness addicts do in their kitchens all afternoon, soaking beans, sautéing greens, developing new ways to keep quinoa at center stage–brush my teeth with it? Does it do anything for teeth? And I would track down those dance pants—the cool ones no one knows about yet, the ones from the real deal dance studio in LA, the ones that would make me return to a dance class ruled by Lululemon and girls who elbow each other for the front row to a round of applause for being the coolest.

The freaking coolest.

But I don’t do any of those things ever. I read Goop for fantasy. Because I already buy organic enough, sauté enough, eat quinoa enough (or at least from time to time), having sworn off gluten and its devilish ways years ago. And because those girls in my dance class will always look better—and dance better, let’s face it–in their lulu than I would ever look in anything, even underground dance pants from LA.fresh start

But a few weeks ago, I read in Goop a fine piece of writing by Jill Kargman ( that had nothing to do with any of these things. It had to do with Fall and the Jewish New Year and hitting a reset button after a long, sticky summer of routine-less days. And I felt her in that piece—her dismay at the lazy haze of a summer spent, in my case, nursing an injury that precluded my usual exercise routine, a summer spent staring at a blinking cursor on a laptop I practically had to dust-off for all the breaks I took in between writing.

I too, love fall, and partly because of Rosh Hashanah and the apples and the changing trees, and partly because of the changing me. I don’t make resolutions so much, but I do clean out my kids’ rooms for a new school year, shed my bulletin board of last year’s announcements, entering picture day and parents’ night into my calendar with double reminders.

And I do kiss my kids faces hard on the first day of school and tell them to be their best selves, to be curious, to be good to their friends and their teachers. Some of this I do to be organized and less of a yeller, but some of it—that last stuff for sure I do, because I pounded on my chest in a synagogue while my kids played tag in the lobby. Berating myself for things I could have done better or could have done without. And how is it going, you #jewishgirls asked in your prompt for this week? (

So far my kids are still smiling on their way out of the car, I haven’t yelled (so much), and I even combed their hair for picture day. Also, and this one’s important—like high holy days important—when my daughter asked me what to say when her friend asked her with some disdain why she was wearing a certain plaid, button down shirt (too preppy, prehaps?), I didn’t tell her to do any of the chest-pounding-worthy things I would have said pre-fast.

I said, “tell her you love her shoes.”

So far, so good.

“After Miranda was done saving her own life, she called someone who could commiserate…”


I was at the movies this weekend and it was crowded, so crowded I had to sit in one row with my first-born while my husband sat a few rows up with our second child. It was a funny movie and I found myself glancing behind me and up, trying to catch my husband’s eye—searching, I guess, for a shared moment.
Afterward, he said, “didn’t you love the Isaac reference?” We had seen Despicable Me 2 and it was loaded with in-jokes for the parents. Brilliant, really. “I did,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I had tried to get his attention and not just because of the Love Boat thing, but others, too. I didn’t tell him this, because what a luxurious life I lead. And I don’t mean physical luxury like a house and car and a being able to afford to take our children to the movies on a Saturday night.
The luxury for me, is having a partner in these things. Someone who will continue with the math lesson when I have to leave and throw something against a wall, someone who will figure out if we should re-finance our house, someone who will run to my child when they fall off a swingset because I am too chicken to look. Someone who will find ways to keep me writing and thinking when I can’t see the story through all the backpack flyers and dishes to do. Someone who will call 911 if I can’t get to a phone.
There is a scene in an old Sex and the City episode where Miranda almost chokes to death by herself in her apartment, triggering a big worry over whether or not anyone would have known. My mother always references this when she tries to explain what it feels like to live her home life all alone. We laugh at this because it’s funny in an absurd way.  It could happen to any of us when we are home alone—it doesn’t really mean anything except to the person who is actually alone. The person who has to do most things by themselves.
We tell a funny story in my family about the time my mom took my brother and me to see Scarface in a movie theater when we shouldn’t have been allowed past the ticket counter. She loves Al Pacino, my mother—then and now. What I think is that she did not have a sitter, did not have a date either, and decided to take us along for the ride. A ride that ended not so far into the movie with my mom yanking us out of the theater all at once, and coping with the new middle of the night concerns of her children. Concerns like how to get blood off of a shower curtain.
And by and large this is how we lived, with one parent trying to do the emotional and physical work of two. One parent, trying to make it to carpool pickup on time in the wake of starting her own business, finding some semblance of a social life, and also knitting herself into the fabric of a community that was built on the backs of couples and families with long legacies, and not single mothers.
She has never had another person with whom to exchange knowing glances, to talk about what’s going on at work, what’s going on with the kids. She has had people, but not one person and it’s different. And lately I’ve been thinking more about this. Every night, when the lights are off and the kids are asleep and the dishwasher is running (having fought about who should load it, run it, unload it again in the morning) my husband and I talk in the dark, sometimes very late into the night—what starts out as a grocery list might turn into a list of where we want to go on vacation, where we want to go in life. It’s all a big gossip really, but when we fall asleep, him deeply, me less so–angsty about mysterious noises and potentially waking children–what luxury to have him to call on, just in case.
You are not alone, I always tell my mom. Because you carpooled us and took us places and showed us new things (the plantations of the South! the Freedom Trail! Andre Agassi! Gary Hart! Israel! Bloomingdales! Scarface!), and picked us up when we were belly-flopped on beds (me, sobbing through most of my teenage years) and found ways to build us up without someone else to help with the heavy lifting–to consult with, fight with, laugh with, sit on a sofa and breathe with. Because of all that, you have us.
I seek you out every day, and today especially because it is my birthday and because every ounce of who I am has to do with the things you did and the things you still do on my behalf. Sadly, I have to do more than glance a couple of rows back—I have to dial my phone, or find a facetime opportunity, or book a flight, but when I do and when our minds meet, or our eyes meet, I know that because of the balls life threw in your direction—the ones you caught and the ones you missed—in many ways we have always been partners, always will be–always finding ways to sort it out all together when the movie ends.
Luxury indeed.