Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

How to pick the best books for the kids in your life (and their parents)

A person poses for a portrait
Lisa Von Drasek poses for a portrait. Lisa Von Drasek is the Curator of the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

When it comes to gift-giving, you may have heard this saying: Something to wear, something to read — something you want, something you need. If you're looking to buy a child in your life something to read, we’re here to help!

Lisa Von Drasek is the curator of the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature at the University of Minnesota. And she talks with MPR producer Melissa Townsend about books she loves and how to find books the children in your life with love.

Here is the full list of book titles and authors that Lisa Von Drasek mentioned in this interview (in the order that they were mentioned):

“Moonlight” by Stephen A. Savage

“The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner” by Marissa Moss

“Where We Come From” John Coy, Shannon Gibney, Sun Yung Shin, Diane Wilson, Diane MBD

“Katie Catsitter” series by Colleen Venable and Stephanie Yue

“Captain Underpants”, “Dog Man”, “Cat Kid Comic Club” by Dav Pilkey

“Sandor Katz and the Tiny Wild” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, and Julie Wilson from Readers to Eaters publishing company

Maizy Chen’s Last Change by Lisa Yee

Poetry by Joyce Sidman, her latest book is “Hello, Earth!”

“The Real Dada Mother Goose: A Treasury of Complete Nonsense” by Jon Scieszka

“Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland

“A Deadly Education: A Novel (The Scholomance)” by Naomi Novik

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.   

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here. 

Audio transcript

SPEAKER: For many of us, we're approaching gift giving season and you may be struggling to find just the right thing. Well, our producer Melissa Townsend talked with someone who might be able to help.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: I was talking with someone recently about buying gifts for her children on the holidays. And she said she follows this motto, "something to wear, something to read, something you want, and something you need." And I thought that sounds kind of good. So if you're looking to buy a child in your life, something to read, we're here to help. Lisa Von Drasek is the curator of the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature at the University of Minnesota. And she's here with me today to talk about her picks for new Minnesota children's books this holiday season. Welcome, Lisa. Thanks for being here.

LISA VON DRASEK: Oh, I'm so glad to be here. Thanks for asking me.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: So first of all, it feels to me like when it comes to children's books, it's often the parent or the caregiver who is doing the reading, especially for young kids anyway. So it feels important that the book is enjoyable to adults too. What's your take on that?

LISA VON DRASEK: I think if you're talking about reading aloud to young children, absolutely. You want something that's fun and fabulous. Often when somebody walks into a bookstore or to a library, they'll say, "I need a new book to read for bedtime." And one that I can recommend for that is Moonlight by Stephen Savage, which is just the most charming, sweet, mellow, and you don't have to pull it up on an app to put the kid to bed. You can have the sharing time, or what we would call lap time.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: I'm a parent who, when my kids were little, would hide books that they really loved and I really didn't love. How do you engage parents in recommendations for these kinds of books?

LISA VON DRASEK: OK. So books that-- you should never ever, ever read aloud a book that you don't like. So preview the books in the library. Preview the books in the bookstore. Pull books off the shelf, read them together, because picture books are an art form like music. If you love a song, you want to hear it over and over again. So pick one that you would love to hear over and over again. They say that should read three books a day. One that's a familiar favorite, two that's a new-ish one, but maybe when you've read before a couple of times, and then one a brand new one. So make going to the library a weekly habit, because you're never going to be able to afford that many books. And if you read that many books, by kindergarten your kid will have read over 1,000 books.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Wow. What's the advice for parents who really aren't big readers themselves?

LISA VON DRASEK: Audiobooks.


LISA VON DRASEK: There are so many wonderful audiobooks. And you can listen to them in the car. You can listen to them as a family as you're preparing dinner. It counts as reading. You should just note, that counts as reading, because what you're doing here is you're building an audio vocabulary. And if you haven't heard the words said aloud, how are you going to be able to recognize it when you're sounding it out on the page?

Right before we started, I was talking about how one of the books that I love, love, love for middle to upper YA is a book called The Woman Who Split the Atom, The Life of Lise Meitner. And that's by Marisa Moss and you might know her from the Amelia notebooks. So how do I choose my books? I go to the authors I love, love, love. And this was such a wonderful surprise about a woman scientist, non-fiction, highly illustrated, that I knew nothing about.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: So let's get to some more recommendations. What's your first pick, maybe you already made it that nice bedtime book, for really young children, those who aren't reading on their own yet?

LISA VON DRASEK: Thousands and thousands of books are published every year. So it was very hard to come up with one, or even one author that I love, love, love. I am just going back to over and over again a book called Where We Come From. I don't know if you know this book. It's a few authors. Diane Wilson, Shannon Gibney, Sus Yang Shin, and John Coy.

And these four Minnesotans describe where they come from, not only I come from Bemidji, I come where my family comes, from where the human race comes from. And it's a simple language picture book, it's repetitive, it's lyrical, and it's so much a jumping off point for families. And that's why I think it makes a great holiday book is we can spend some time asking ourselves that question, where did grandpa come from?

MELISSA TOWNSEND: I love that. Yeah. You could see how that would just push you into a lot of personal storytelling. That's cool. What about books for readers who have a little bit more experience? They can read on their own maybe second or third grade, but you're not past that elementary stage.

LISA VON DRASEK: I'm a huge fan of the comic book format. And do you know the Katie Catsitter books?


LISA VON DRASEK: Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue, and there's two in that series. And for the kids who love comics, Dave Pilkey from Captain Underpants fame and Dog Man. He has a brand new series called the Cat Kid Comics Club. There's a brand new one in that series.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Oh, that's very cool. So are you finding a lot of these protagonists, the characters in these books are White or BIPOC? Are we getting a nice representation nowadays?

LISA VON DRASEK: We are more and more. Publishers are really seeing that. For example, I'm often looking at editors like Cynthia Leitich Smith and the books that she's publishing. She's focusing on indigenous stories fiction, or independent presses. Do you know a independent press called Readers to Eaters?

MELISSA TOWNSEND: I've never heard of that. No.

LISA VON DRASEK: It's a fabulous press from the West Coast. It's picture books. All their books are about food, and eating, and creating, and growing food. And their newest volume is Sandor Katz and the Tiny Wild. And you can imagine that the Tiny Wild are those microbes in the atmosphere that can create sauerkraut and kimchi.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: How does a parent ask their child, "What do you want to read?"

LISA VON DRASEK: Well, see, I think it's not what you want to read, because that's like saying to a kid who says I'm bored and you give suggestions. And that's not the way to go. It's what do you like. What do you like?

MELISSA TOWNSEND: What do you like?

LISA VON DRASEK: Every kid knows what they like. They like cars if they're young children. They like dinosaurs. They like to dance. They like to sing. That's where you jump off to what do you like to read. What do we like to share? Do we love language? Poetry would be perfect. Anything by Joyce Seidman, who's one of our treasures, a Minnesota writer of poetry, because poetry is fun. I can't pick up a book and go, "This is a book for everyone." What do you like to read? I'm asking you.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Oh. The books that I really love are the books that I read to my kids. Actually, I was just thinking about Sandra Boynton books, right? Just the way she plays with language, and they're so clever. I have every one of those probably saved for my kids long after they wanted to read them.

LISA VON DRASEK: OK. I have the cleverest, fun book for you to share with your family. It's the Dada Mother Goose by John Scieszka, brand spanking new.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: OK. I'm writing it down right now.

LISA VON DRASEK: Language. I just was in the bookstore paging through it, laughing out loud sitting, just-- that's the thing. That's for your family. That might not be for my brother's family, but that's how you find out.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Hey, we just have about a minute left, and I didn't want to leave out our teens and tweens. So talk to me a little bit about a book or two you would recommend for our 12 to 14-year-olds.

LISA VON DRASEK: Oh. I don't know if you know Justina Ireland? I will read anything by her. She has a series called Dread Nation. It's fantasy, science fiction, I guess you would call it speculative fiction. And what it is it's alternative history. So what if during a period of the United States history it was completely different. So that's one.

And again, speculative fiction, Naomi Novik has a series called The Scholomance series. I was dying for this third one to come out. I grabbed it early from the library. And it does not disappoint. And so if you're looking for something that's kind of a cross between Harry Potter, which is in boarding school, and Hunger Games, Naomi Novik has your number.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: OK. Well, this is terrific. But I love that you say the key question is to ask what do you like, and I bet librarians across the state will be able to help people figure out a book to match what they like.

LISA VON DRASEK: Librarians and independent booksellers.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Thank you, Lisa.

LISA VON DRASEK: Oh, you're so welcome.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: That was Lisa Von Drasek. She's a curator of the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature at the University of Minnesota.

SPEAKER: What a delightful conversation. That was our producer Melissa Townsend. And there were some really good ideas in there. If you did not get a chance to catch all of those titles and the names, you can find all the book titles and author names on our website. We're going to upload all that information this afternoon to nprnews.org.

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