I fell in love in Africa once. On horseback. Surrounded by giraffes and impala. My boyfriend and I were backpacking around southern Africa, and that’s when I knew my heart was his.

Reader, I married the guy. We moved to Portland and acquired jobs, a mortgage, and two kids. It’s great, really, but I miss traveling. I miss that sense of not knowing what the day before me will bring, and I dream about going back to Africa.

Paula McLain, whose Paris Wife was a big success in 2011, has just published Circling the Sun, a new novel about Beryl Markham, the pilot, horse trainer, and author of West with the Night. West with the Night is an awfully good memoir that I’ve owned forever and finally read after finishing McLain’s book. Hemingway said of it that "this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book." (The story goes that Hemingway wanted to sleep with Markham and she refused him!) 

It must be said that both books skirt the very real issue of how British colonists treated the natives-- but I still couldn’t help being beguiled by their descriptions of Kenya in the early 20th century.  I long to join all the expats on Karen Von Blixen's veranda to sip gin and tonics and watch the hills in the distance turn a darker and darker shade of purple as the sun goes down. I want to go riding along Lake Elementaita in the early morning, scattering  thousands of flamingos who take to the sky as we draw closer, and I want to go on safari again and see lions stalking a kudu in the long grass.

Paula McLain is so good at putting my fantasies on the page. Someday I'll get to travel the world some more, but until then, Circling the Sun offered a great escape, one I think you might enjoy. 

On car trips, my husband and I used to pretend that there was a noise-proof window between the front seat and the back. One of us would hit an imaginary button on the dashboard, and-- in our minds-- the window would close, so we couldn’t hear our little darlings squabbling and shrieking in the back seat at all-- except that sadly, we could still hear them, due to the unfortunate imaginary nature of the window.

I wish that we’d discovered audiobooks for the car ages ago! A whole lot of library users have apparently wised up to their usefulness in the past few years;  I've been asked frequently lately for audiobook suggestions for family car trips. So I’ve made some lists of great audiobooks that can be enjoyed by listeners of various ages, one in CD format and one in downloadable. You might also consider consulting two excellent lists a  colleague of mine made: this list of classics on audio and this one for very young listeners.

It’s amazing how much kids will settle down when they’re involved in a story. I tried to find audiobooks that would be interesting and involving for the adults in the car, as well. So go ahead-- plan a summer getaway. Just don’t forget the audiobooks.

Or the barf bags. (But that’s another story.)

As I write this, my coworkers and I are all a little excited. Our boss, who we really like, will any minute now become a father for the first time. The parents who work here are especially delighted because we’ll be reminded of our own experiences of becoming parents, and maybe we'll get to share some hard-won wisdom with the new dad.

One thing I’ll definitely share, when the time comes, is Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense.

Feeding babies and children can be really fun. I remember the summer that my first child was able to eat real food; the parade of summer fruits she got to experience for the first time--strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches. We got marionberries that were as big as her fists, and she ate them with concentration and joy, purple juice dripping down her chin.

But feeding small children can also be hugely frustrating. One day they love scrambled eggs. The next, they are affronted that you would even suggest they eat such a thing. Many parents react by feeding their children only the tried and true favorites, which can lead to a pretty limited diet, and there’s frequently a lot of stress and discord around feeding issues. Child of Mine can really help. The main thing I got from this book was a firm grasp on what should be my responsibility and what should be my children’s. My job is to provide a variety of healthy foods at regular intervals -- so I decide “what” and “when”. My kids decide if they’re going to eat and how much. I haven’t followed this perfectly, but it kind of set us on our course, and my kids definitely eat their fruits and veggies. So if you have a small child and feeding is an issue -- which it is for just about everyone at one time or another -- check out Child of Mine.

My son, who is eleven, had a hard, hard year at school. He had the kind of teacher who even assigned seats during lunch. When the kids did self-portraits to hang up for Back-to-School Night, she told my son that he should draw some eyelashes on his picture of himself, and when he refused, she drew them on herself. (I am not even kidding.) He’s wildly relieved that summer vacation is here, and I know he envisions himself playing Minecraft twelve hours a day.

Not so fast, pal. I love the lazy days of summer, but I’m still mean enough to limit screen time and insist on fresh air, exercise, and reading. He likes to read, so this won’t be too hard for him, and, if I do say so myself, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding books for him. While I'm all in favor of books that are just plain entertaining, I’m especially happy when I can find books that are full of facts about history and science that are so much fun, he won’t mind that he’s learning as he reads. Check out this list I made of books that meet this criteria and find some treasures-- a hilarious graphic novel about the Presidents of the United States-- a book about dolphins who use tools-- and a book that takes crazy questions ("What would happen to the Earth if the Sun didn't exist?" or ""How much space does the Internet take up?"), then answers them with rigorous science.

A friend told me a few years ago that his son-- who is right around my son’s age-- acted like he had to learn, immediately, exactly how the world and everything in it works. One of the things that I love about kids is this kind of endless curiosity, and one of the things I love about my job at the library is that I get to help satisfy it.

The True Meaning of Smekday came out in 2007, so this spring's sequel, Smek for President, was an unexpected joy. I read both books with my 11-year-old son, who still lets me read out loud to him, although at this point, I'm afraid that every book is going to be the last. If you've already read the first book, then you'll want to read the second one, which is almost as good as the first. If you haven't yet read The True Meaning of Smekday, here are some reasons that you should give this kid's book with crossover appeal a try:

1) The main character is named "Gratuity"-- her mom liked the sound of it-- but is nicknamed "Tip". This kind of offbeat cleverness runs through both books.

2) Tip is a strong, smart, resourceful girl, AND a girl who just happens to be biracial, in a book that's not about race at all, really.

3) There's an alien from the planet Boov whose name on Earth is inexplicably J-Lo, even though he has nothing to do with Jennifer Lopez-- and he is extraordinarily funny. Seriously. Several times while reading these books, my son and I laughed until we couldn't breathe and our faces were wet with tears.

4) Wildly inventive comics are scattered throughout the book like little treats waiting to be discovered. 

5) J-Lo and Tip team up to save the world in an insanely goofy and original way.

6)This story has at its heart a deep and beautiful friendship. It doesn't matter that Tip is human and J-Lo is an alien. They're true to each other.

7) Both books are wonderful read-alouds for an adult and a child to experience together. Honestly, even if you read it to yourself, you're going to want to read parts of it aloud to anyone who happens to be in the room.

I suppose I should mention that there’s a movie based on the first book which was also released this spring. I’m afraid to see it because I can’t believe it’ll be as good as the book, but let me know if I’m wrong, okay? And in the meantime, here’s a list I made of absolutely wonderful read-alouds for a parent to read with children who are perfectly capable of reading to themselves-- but they’ll still allow you the pleasure of reading to them. 

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