Rescue and Renewal

March 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

The car was loaded, the final bags stuffed into any available hole. The children were corralled, buckled into their car seats with containers of cold pancakes on their lap. The timers on the hallway lights were set, the locks on the doors checked one last time. My husband and I climbed into the car, and—35 minutes behind schedule (always 35 minutes behind schedule)—we backed out of the driveway to embark on ten hours of driving en route to Cape Cod.

And then JP shouted, “Wait! My harlequin beetles! I forgot them!” (On the list of things you never predicted your six year old would say.)

JP had just come off a week of farm camp, where he had become passionately proficient at picking off garden pests. His delight each night at rattling off facts about the life cycle of the kale-loving harlequin beetle was exceeded only by the discovery of said beetle in the vegetable boxes on our own back deck. As children are apt to do, JP quickly captured one and placed it in a mason jar. A few days later, when his shrieks sent us flying into the kitchen from all corners of the house, JP proudly showed us that the beetle had laid a number of tiny black-striped eggs on the underside of one of the jar’s leaves. No number of suggestions that perhaps these eggs would be better suited for our backyard would diminish JP’s insistence that it was now his job to care for them (especially as the mother harlequin appeared to be shriveled up and un-moving in the corner).

And so we turned the car around, reopened the house, and wedged the mason jar between JP and Emily’s mound of stuffed animals in the back seat.

From a very young age, even before they empathize with their fellow humans, many children seem to feel innately called to protect the animal world. As any parent knows who has phoned animal control to ask advice on saving an injured bird fallen from a nest, children are relentless in their insistence to do right by the feathered, furry, scaly, or shelled creatures that inhabit their everyday lives. Before they’re reading proficiently or tying their shoelaces tightly, they recognize one arena in which their small size is power enough.

JP’s brief stint as caretaker of harlequin beetle eggs has nothing on what a young Chinese girl accomplishes with an injured crane in Ji-li Jiang and Julie Downing’s stirring picture book, Lotus & Feather (Ages 5-8), published at the tail end of last year but, in my opinion, perfectly suited to these early spring weeks. Jiang and Downing beautifully capture the self-articulated responsibility exhibited by a child towards an animal in need. Even more powerfully, their story reveals that this bond between child and animal can be mutually beneficial.

The story of a girl who rescues a crane after it is shot is as steeped in symbolism as it is in drama, drawing us deep into the characters’ emotional lives. When Lotus witnesses the magnificent bird collapse to the ground, she is alone. She is accustomed to solitude, a winter illness having “taken her voice” and seemingly destined her to an isolated, friendless life. Lotus’ only companions are a hand-fashioned reed whistle, with which she makes music, and the caring grandfather with whom she lives in the village. (Other reviewers have pointed out that the red scarves worn by Lotus and her classmates presume the time period to be the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s/70s.)

The grey, bleak, and quiet lake at which Lotus crouches to collect reeds mirrors her inner pain as much as it introduces the environmental message of the story. Just the day before, Lotus’ grandfather told her, “This lake used to be so alive…But now…it has been ruined by greedy fishermen and hunters, and by ignorant people who took over land where animals once lived.”

The sudden appearance of the endangered and regal crane in the desolate landscape—its “long, curved neck…crowned with a red top like a dazzling ruby”—is at once identified as a sign of hope and beauty to the sorrowful little girl, although we do not yet know just how important this gift will be. What we do understand is that Lotus’ silent exterior belies a feisty spirit: when she hears the gunshot and watches a poacher descend upon the injured bird, she makes “a noise like thunder” by drumming on her metal pail with a reed cutter. The poacher flees, and Lotus gathers up the bleeding bird and carries her home to her grandfather. (With each reading, my children seem to linger longer over the picture of the crane’s tragically listless body draped over Lotus’ arm).

It turns out Lotus’ grandfather has a history of rescuing animals, and he teaches Lotus how to care for the crane, how to feed it rice soup and keep it warm in a nest of blankets. What he doesn’t need to teach her is how to stroke its head the way he does when Lotus is sick. For three days, Lotus barely leaves the bird’s side, even sleeping beside him.

As the crane—whom Lotus names Feather—begins his rehabilitation, there blooms a beautiful friendship, one marked by trust, companionship and music, as Feather learns to dance to the sound of Lotus’ reed whistle. The friendship sets into motion a chain reaction, as Lotus’ classmates begin to hang around Lotus, seeing playfulness and courage where once they saw only silence. Whether Lotus is saving Feather or Feather is saving Lotus becomes deliciously, perfectly blurred, as in the case of all the best friendships.

The transformative power of compassion—that a single act of love yields countless others—continues throughout the story, coming to a head in a scene inspired by true events. When a nearby earthquake causes flooding in Lotus’ village in the middle of the night, Feather is the first to realize the front steps are underwater. His insistent crowing not only alerts Lotus and her grandfather, but becomes a warning cry to the other villagers, as Lotus and her grandfather jump into their boat and row down the rapidly flooding roads. That night, “over three hundred villagers were saved. Feather was the hero.”

The warmly rendered watercolors pay homage to the passage of time on every page, as the barren land of late fall gives way to the powdery snow of winter gives way to the rebirth of spring, a time marked (among other things) by  the appearance of migrant birds on their return journey north for summer. The cyclical journey seems also to echo Lotus’ decision to play hero once more to her friend—this time in encouraging Feather to join the migrating birds. “She didn’t want her friend to leave, but she knew she would never separate him from his home and family.”

Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment because I relish reading aloud books like The Lion and the Bird and A Letter for Leo, which have similar character-adopts-struggling-animal-and-later-releases-animal-back-into-the-wild plots and always, always make me cry. Or perhaps I want my children to be as intrigued as I am by what is left when the animal is gone. Lotus misses her friend terribly, but she is no longer the isolated girl she was before Feather came into her life. One of the final spreads shows Lotus playing her reed whistle among a small group of children, one of whom is leaning affectionately against her. Choosing and working to save Feather may have been adventurous, it may have felt right, but it accomplished something even greater: it cast Lotus in the center of her own story.

JP’s harlequin eggs ended up hatching in Cape Cod. It was admittedly astonishing to come down to breakfast and find a mason jar crawling with tiny black-and-red-and-yellow-decorated beetles. What happened to the creatures when JP released them into the lush gardens outside our rental house is something we’ll never know. Fortunately,  Lotus’ story has a more gratifying ending. The following fall, Lotus opens the door to find a familiar face. And what’s more: the wetlands outside her village are beginning to return to their original splendor.

When we care for the living world around us, there is no end to the surprises, delights, and redemption we experience in return. And when we recognize our limits and let things go, we are left to see the beauty uncovered within us.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Disney Hyperion. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

 

Activism Born on the Page (A Book Club Post)

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

“We read to practice at life.” So proclaims award-winning children’s author, Linda Sue Park, in her must-watch Ted Talk, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?” Speaking from a childhood spent in and around libraries, Park argues that stories offer children a unique “superpower”: the chance to “practice facing life’s unfairness with hope, with righteous anger, and with determination.” Great works of literature do more than shape us: they become part of who we are.

Hope, anger and determination were present in spades over the past two months, as my son and his third-grade classmates gathered for “literature circle,” a book club of sorts which I’m lucky enough to lead at their school each Wednesday. Selecting A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park’s short but tremendously powerful 2010 middle-grade novel set in and around Africa’s South Sudan, was hardly unique. Part refugee story, part war story, and part exposé on contemporary life in one of the poorest corners of the world, A Long Walk to Water (ages 10-16) has long been hailed as a story which begs to be discussed in the classroom, not only for the meaningful context which teachers (or parents!) can provide to Park’s intentionally sparse writing, but also for way this particular story inspires children to want to learn—and do—more.

Park’s story takes something children (perhaps even most adults) know nothing about, something which happened—is still happening—on the other side of the globe, and transforms it into something tangible, personal, and unforgettable.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article—“Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present”—which discussed the impact historical fiction can have when read in classroom settings. Historical fiction not only offers an invaluable opportunity for eliciting empathy among readers for the suffering of different ethnic or political groups, but it also encourages the development of critical-thinking skills, which can help children connect these events to things happening closer to home. The article goes on:

Psychology studies show that children develop a strong sense of fairness at an early age and understand when they are receiving less than others. Kids in some countries, including the U.S., have been shown to have “advantageous-inequity aversion,” meaning that they’re bothered when they receive more than others…[T]eachers can build on students’ strong sense of justice to connect discussions of historical events to contemporary civics and issues, guided by the question “what can we do to help the world function better for everyone?”

I witnessed firsthand this transformation among JP and his classmates: over the course of their two months reading A Long Walk to Water, the globe shrank, others people’s problems became human problems, and the kids were left with one of the greatest gifts a book can bestow—wondering how to help. Activism is born in these very pages.

A Long Walk to Water recounts the largely true story of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who at eleven is forced to flee his country on foot, when his village is targeted in 1985 as part of the Sudanese Civil War. When the story opens, Salva is just an ordinary boy, daydreaming at his desk at school, anticipating the pleasure of getting home to his mother’s snack. Suddenly, he is caught up in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, escaping gunfire by running from his classroom into the wild bush outside.

Separated from his parents and siblings, whom he believes are dead, Salva embarks on a long and perilous journey on foot across South Sudan, eventually spending ten years in refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, before being adopted by an American family in Rochester, New York.

In only 115 pages, Park manages to pack a lifetime of drama, much of which is as compelling as it is horrifying, including prolonged periods of starvation, animal attacks, and—most distressing for Salva—the point-blank assassination of his uncle, his only remaining family member.

I called my grandmother one day after our meeting and happened to mention the plot of the book we were discussing. She was taken aback: “Is that even appropriate for children? Won’t it upset them? We didn’t read anything like this when we were kids!” If I’m being honest, these same questions had occurred to me more than a few times, especially when one of the girls complained of nightmares. (Later, she told me this was one of her favorite books.)

But then I thought about the palpable excitement during our discussions, how children were checking out books on Africa from the library, bringing in photos of lions crouched in the Sudanese bush, of refugee camps with sleeping bodies inhumanely crammed against one another. How one of the children, who had been too shy to read aloud from our previous book in the fall, was suddenly volunteering to read passages to the group to make his point. How I could hardly get the children back to their classroom after an hour because they wanted to keep talking.

How these kids wanted to understand, wanted to see the world through Salva’s eyes, to appreciate his remarkable, impossible-seeming journey.

I believe two things help children absorb the blows in this story. First, Park’s prose is as lyrical as it is dramatic, deliberately sparse in gory details, and filled with as much beauty as suffering. Salva savoring a mouthful of honeycomb after coming across a beehive following days without food. Salva smiling at the memory of his father bringing home a cherished mango from market, lodged in the spokes of his bicycle wheels. Salva convincing an Irish aid worker in the refugee camp to teach him English—and the game of volleyball.

Secondly, Salva’s story is one of survival—and, ultimately, one of hope. Salva survives the unlikeliest of circumstances because of his grit, because of his perseverance, because—as the real Salva repeats several times in his Ted Talk, which the kids were fascinated to watch after finishing the book, their favorite character amazingly transformed into flesh and blood—“I just kept on walking.” Time and again, the Salva in the story asks himself, How can I go on? And time and again, he finds a way, not just to survive, but to help others do the same.

“Why do you think Salva is able to go on after all these terrible things happen to him?” I asked my group during our final discussion.

“Because he is brave,” one boy answered quickly.

“But was he always brave?” I asked.

“No, not really.”

“So how did he find his bravery?” I continued.

There was a pause, and then one girl raised her hand. “I think he realized he could stand up to his sadness. That he could sort of turn his sadness into power.”

If I had had my doubts earlier, these words cinched a new certainty: these children got it. If there is a better story for children to hear, I can’t think of it.

As it turns out, Salva’s is not the only story in the book. At the beginning of each chapter—set aside in a different type face—is a dual, albeit much shorter, narrative set 23 years after Salva’s story begins. Nya is a ten-year-old girl living in contemporary South Sudan, old enough to go to school but forced instead to spend eight hours of every day walking to the closest pond to retrieve a single jug of muddy, bacteria-infested water on which her family survives. Nya is without shoes to protect her feet from the blisteringly hot and aggressively thorny path on which she treads, and at times she must drag along her tiny, five-year-old sister. (“But this happened a really long time ago,” one of my students said, “right?” I showed him the date at the top above each of Nya’s chapters: 2008, 2009.)

The relevance of Nya’s story—why it’s there and how, if at all, it relates to Salva’s—is not initially apparent. In fact, many of the children in my group admitted to “skipping” Nya’s installments to jump ahead to Salva’s nail-biting adventures, and we often used our discussion time to go back and read these poetic passages together. During one week’s meeting, I brought in a glass of water, set it in the middle of the table, and tasked the children with thinking about how they would allocate 20 daily cups of water if they were heading up a family of five. How much water would go to drinking, cooking, bathing, washing dishes, watering gardens, and so forth? There was much scratching of heads and scribbling on paper and, by the end, one child couldn’t contain himself: “It would be so much easier if they had running water!” Yes. Yes, it would.

Eventually, most of the group felt invested in Nya’s plight, which made the ending all the more gratifying. Where Salva ultimately finds security in immigrating to America, Nya witnesses the drilling of a well in her village, a turn of events which not only offers an assurance of cleaner water and better health for her family, but a wealth of educational and economic opportunities. The novel’s surprising final page—where Salva and Nya’s stories finally intersect, where Salva (now an adult) makes possible this happy ending of sorts for Nya—created a flurry of excitement and more than a few misty eyes from the children (and me).

A Long Walk to Water concludes with two Afterwards: the first an inspiring “can do” message from the real Salva Dut, and the second an Author’s Note discussing Salva’s non-profit organization, Water for South Sudan, which to date has drilled 282 wells. Immediately—before I could even pose the question—the children began brainstorming ways they could support Salva’s efforts. But what struck me was how quickly the conversation broadened: Should they organize a fundraiser to drill more wells in South Sudan, or should they help fund wells in other countries, or should they help contemporary refugees escaping similar violence and poverty? (One child was especially insistent we find a way to bring Wallmarts to Africa.) For nearly an hour, I didn’t do much more than listen to them hash out well-argued cases, using vocabulary I’m quite sure none of them possessed two months ago.

Whatever plan these children decide on—and I do hope we will get something off the ground this spring (I’ll keep you posted)—one thing is for sure: their world view is expanding; they are beginning to glimpse the multitude of complexities and injustices afloat at home and abroad; and they are not going to sit idly by.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Wiggly Teeth

March 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy BateMy oldest lost his first tooth on a playground zip line. He dismounted victoriously, grinned zealously, accepted congrats from strangers, and posed for photographs. Had he taken a bow, it would have felt fitting.

When my daughter lost hers, two days ago, it played out very differently. In the preceding weeks, she had boasted about her “wiggly tooth.” We thought she was down with the program, having watched her brother embark on this rite of passage. As a parent, I see now that I may have committed an all-too-common slight against the youngest: I failed to give her, well, any information.

After a post-school snack of sugar snap peas, mass hysteria erupted. My daughter’s bottom tooth, my son quickly explained, was hanging by a thread, pointing not up, but straight out the front of her mouth. “This is exciting!” I exclaimed. “It’s about to fall out!” Emily, on the other hand, seemed convinced an alien life form had just invaded her mouth. “I don’t like this!” she wailed, tears streaming down her face. Surely, I thought, it will help if I just remove the protruding tooth, which I did. At which point she began running to and from the bathroom, screaming like a banshee. “MY MOUTH IS WRONG! MY MOUTH IS WRONG! SOMETHING IS WRONG IN MY MOUTH!”

It turns out not everyone is quick to embrace the sudden gap that appears in our mouth when we lose a tooth.

Perhaps this reaction would have been different had I remembered, weeks ago, to get out one of the most treasured books from my own childhood (and, yes, one I read to my son numerous times prior to his losing a tooth). I am referring to the quietly delightful and tenderly reassuring, Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth (Ages 4-8), written by Lucy Bate and illustrated by Diane de Groat. Originally published in 1975, the book went out of print for a spell until it was reissued in 2010, at which point I experienced a delicious wave of nostalgia upon walking into a bookstore.

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy Bate & Diane de Groat

It’s probably impossible for me to untangle my own childhood memories of being read this story—tied up, as they are, with parental affection—from any objective contemporary evaluation. And yet, I can offer this proof of the story’s timelessness: my Emily absolutely loved it. Before long, she was marching across the street to our neighbor’s house to show off her gummy gap. And, of course, the rest of the evening was spent discussing the business of what to expect from the tooth fairy.

When Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth opens, a bunny girl is sitting around the dinner table with her parents, posturing that her wiggly tooth makes it impossible for her to eat the carrots and beans on her plate, that she should probably just move on to the strawberries she knows are in the fridge. So begins a series of conversations which will feel as intimately familiar to children of 2017 as they did in the 70s.

“You can have strawberries for dessert,” said Mother Rabbit. ‘And you can chew the carrots and beans with your other teeth.”

“Are you sure?” said Little Rabbit.

“I’m sure,” said Mother Rabbit.

“Are you sure, Daddy?” asked Little Rabbit.

“I’m sure,” said Father Rabbit. “I’ve done it myself.”

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy Bate & Diane De Groat

Turning the page reveals a days-of-the-week spread—in de Groat’s softly shaded artistic style—which has stayed with me in much the same way as Eric Carle’s lineup of food for the hungry caterpillar. (It’s also possible I just like food…and bubble letters.) Foods that Little Rabbit eats with her loose tooth (oranges on Tuesday, watermelon on Wednesday) are contrasted with those she eats with her “other teeth” (cucumbers on Tuesday, lettuce on Wednesday). Finally, on Friday—and the alarmed look on Little Rabbit’s face says it all—she “chewed spinach with her other teeth and chocolate ice cream with her loose tooth, and the loose tooth came right out in the chocolate ice cream.”

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy Bate & Diane de Groat

Again, the conversation is preciously matter-of-fact:

“I have a tooth in my chocolate ice cream,” said Little Rabbit.

“That’s wonderful,” said Mother Rabbit.

“It’s about time,” said Father Rabbit.

“What should I do with it?” said Little Rabbit.

“You should take it out of your chocolate ice cream,” answered Mother Rabbit.

Little Rabbit goes on to delight in the “window in my mouth,” sticking her tongue into it and filling it with chocolate ice cream to make a “chocolate tooth” (“‘How tasty!’ said Father Rabbit.’”). She gives her tooth a bath and carries it around the house.

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy Bate & Diane de Groat

But now what? Little Rabbit isn’t convinced she believes in the tooth fairy, nor is she sure she wants the tooth fairy to take away her prized tooth. Perhaps she should make it into a necklace, or use it in a craft project, or take it to the candy shop and pretend it’s a penny? But no, these ideas quickly lose their appeal; and once again, Little Rabbit turns to her mother:

“Mommy,” she said, “what if I believe in the tooth fairy?”

Mother Rabbit put down her flute. “Then you’d better put your tooth under your pillow before you lose it. You can put it in an envelope if you want.”

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy Bate & Diane de Groat

Putting her tooth under her pillow doesn’t stop her from continuing to ruminate on the existence of the tooth fairy, speculating as to what she does with the teeth she collects (maybe she gives them to new babies?) or—most troubling—what might happen if Little Rabbit wakes up the next morning and her tooth is still there.

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy Bate & Diane de Groat

This is where some adult readers have taken issue with Bate’s story, suggesting that it might introduce doubt into the minds of young children about this magical being we parents work so hard to conjure up. Even the ending of the story, where Little Rabbit discovers a dime under her pillow the next morning, is somewhat ambiguous, given that Little Rabbit appealed to her parents with a backup plan the night before: “After I’m asleep, could you sneak and look under my pillow and look in the envelope? And if there isn’t a present, could you leave one?…You don’t have to tell me…You could just sneak.”

"Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth" by Lucy Bate & Diane de Groat

Let me go on record as saying that both of my children still believe in the tooth fairy after reading this story; if anything, Little Rabbit’s questioning feels to them like a natural reaction. (The better question might be: when did our children stop expecting dimes for their teeth and start expecting one or two or five dollar bills?!) At the end of the day, we can’t definitively know whether the dime was left by the tooth fairy or by a parent, but we can predict with certainty Little Rabbit’s relief and excitement upon its discovery.

Ultimately, the lasting appeal of Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth comes, not from semantics about the tooth fairy, but from the love which emits from every page—from the readily apparent joy (and subdued amusement) which Mother and Father Rabbit take in their daughter, as well as from the comfort and reassurance she takes in them.

While it may be nature’s course, having a part of your body protrude, dangle, and then fall off, feels anything but natural. Thank you, Little Rabbit, for helping me help my Little Emily to find joy in her New Normal.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Dragonfly Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Survival Skills

February 16, 2017 § 5 Comments

"The Wild Robot" by Peter BrownWhen my daughter was five, we were sitting at the dinner table discussing our days. “I almost forgot,” Emily said. “The craziest thing happened to me today!”

“Oh yeah? What was that?” we all asked.

Emily leaned in conspiratorially, as if getting ready to impart significant information. “I didn’t have a single sip of water all day. BUT I STILL SURVIVED! Can you believe it?”

It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing, not wanting to diminish her stone-sober revelation. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about her words since. Clearly, whether at school or from a book or in conversation, Emily had absorbed something about “what every living creature needs to survive.” But she had only internalized half the story. What must it be like to make sense of the world through bits and pieces, to rarely grasp the full picture, to live your life in a perpetual loop of uncertainty and astonishment (as if you could accidentally “off” yourself at any moment)?

This, I realized, is what it’s like to be a child.

In his first foray into chapter books, Peter Brown (already beloved in our house for this, this, and this) perfectly captures this same befuddlement, anxiety, and marveling with which young eyes view the world. Only, in the case of The Wild Robot (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), the innocent protagonist is not a child but an erect, talking robot named Roz, who is inadvertently activated on a wild, remote island by some curious sea otters, after they discover her crate washed up from a shipwrecked container ship. Roz—short for ROZZUM Unit 7134—has no understanding of anything prior to the moment she opens her eyes, nor whether she has a purpose. She knows only that she has been designed to “move, communicate, and learn” and that she has been programmed with Survival Instincts which “made her want to avoid danger and take care of herself so she could continue functioning properly.”

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

As our robot begins to navigate the diverse terrains of the island—rocky shore, craggy mountain peaks, pinecone-blanketed forest—she meets with a variety of physical upsets. But it is during her encounters with the wild inhabitants of the island—particularly the ferocious bears—that she begins to understand the magnitude of the challenge before her: in order to survive, she must adapt like the creatures around her. She must become wild. She must climb over rocks like the crab; she must seek out higher ground at the threat of rain like the deer; she must camouflage herself like the stick bug. Like a committed anthropologist, she must observe their behavior, and she must learn their language.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

The Wild Robot has been recommended by many—owing to its short, staccato-like chapters, its frequent illustrations done by Brown himself, and its plethora of animal characters—as a book for young independent readers. But it would be a mistake to take this as proof that the story is simple, that it doesn’t pose some fascinating questions or offer some complicated—at times somber—answers.

If you are going to share this book with elementary children, I would argue that The Wild Robot works best, certainly most powerfully, as a read-aloud. I say this not just because robot voices are fun to do. Not just because there are a multitude of animals with their own personalities (read: more fun voices). Not just because of the elegance of the prose, the understated and surprising humor, or the way in which the story beautifully crescendos from a quiet beginning to a nail-biting conclusion.

I say this because, when all is said and done, the story delivers a profound message about what lies at the heart of survival. It’s a message that’s vitally important for the times in which we are living, and a message that can be strengthened when we choose to witness it alongside our children.

It’s a message of community.

As artificial intelligence, Roz is not designed to feel emotions: her initial drive to observe and befriend different animals stems, not from feelings of loneliness or empathy, but from a practical, learned understanding that she needs allies in order to survive. Her offers to help certain animals—even her adjustment to a more cheerful voice (she learns the art of performance from watching an opossum)—initially come from a place of selfishness: I’ll rub your back to increase the chances that you’ll rub mine. Roz removes a porcupine’s quills from a fox; the fox in turn helps spread the word that Roz is not a “monster.” Roz helps fell trees for the beavers; they, in turn, show her how to build a shelter.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

It may be selfishly motivated, but what a wonderful lesson for our children: unsolicited helpfulness as the first step toward making friends.

Because Roz is programmed to learn, she quickly understands that individual alliances are only part of the larger puzzle to survival. She must cast herself at the center of an interdependent community. She builds a garden, not because she has any use for food, but because it attracts the squirrels and deer and birds to her front door each day. During the coldest, snowiest winter the island has ever seen, Roz builds forts with fireplaces to keep her friends from freezing (she insists they agree to a temporary predator-prey truce). Roz doesn’t simply coax the animals out of their fear of the shiny metallic newcomer; she secures their loyalty and protection—something which turns out to be even more important than anyone anticipates before the story ends.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

And here’s where the magic happens. The more Roz seeks to understand the motivations of others, the more she begins to experience—dare we call it feel?—as much a responsibility to her fellow animals as they feel to her. Where one act of helpfulness ends and another begins becomes brilliantly, perfectly blurred. Roz has enfolded herself completely into the ecosystem to which she was once an outsider. In her straightforward wisdom:

‘…I used to be shiny, like the surface of the pond. I used to stand straighter than a tree trunk. I used to speak a different language. I have not grown bigger, but I have changed very much.’

Nowhere is Roz’s rising sense of responsibility to her fellow creatures more touchingly conveyed than in her care for a young gosling, whose family she inadvertently destroys when she causes a mudslide. Because Roz sees the world in terms of problems to be solved, she is determined to save the remaining egg by bringing it to another family of geese. And yet, the orphaned gosling has another idea in mind—that is, once he hatches from the egg and imprints on the robot. “You’ll have to act like his mother if you want him to survive,” Roz is advised by the leader of the geese. And yet, once again, what starts as an act—learning to build a fire to warm Brightbill’s feathers, rocking the gosling to sleep—is quickly replaced by a mutual fondness for one she calls “son.”

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

As is fitting for a story about the natural world, there is struggle, violence, and death alongside joy, beauty, and survival. As our narrator gently reminds us, “the wilderness really can be ugly sometimes.” And yet, when frozen corpses give way to springtime blossoms, we are reminded that we cannot have one without the other. Again, interdependence emerges as a central theme.

In an ending that is anything but simple—haunting, open-ended, and hopeful—Roz, too, must play her part in upholding the delicate balance of the island. I don’t dare give anything away, but I will relate this anecdote. When we were halfway through the book, my son started reading ahead after I left his room each night (always the sign of a Big Win). One night, he came down the stairs to find me in the living room. “I finished,” he announced. “And?” I asked. “It’s…really…interesting. It’s…really…amazing. You’ll see when we read it tomorrow.” And I did see. It’s an ending that might raise more questions than it answers, but it also leaves us with a certainty that we are stronger when we are looking out for one another.

It puts me in mind of something Mother Theresa said—and which a friend shared recently on her Facebook page in response to the unrest in our country right now: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

If we wish to help our children someday understand what Mother Theresa meant, if we wish to raise them in a world that moves toward inclusiveness, we can start by reading them The Wild Robot.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Little, Brown. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

For Girls & Their Besties (A Valentine’s Day Post)

February 9, 2017 § 7 Comments

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart LovelaceIn keeping with my tradition of recommending friendship-themed stories for Valentine’s Day (see past posts here and here and here, last year’s exception aside), I am hearkening back to a cherished series from my own childhood. If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, it’s as resonant as ever.

When I was six years old—a quiet girl with mouse-brown hair held neatly between two plastic barrettes—I rode a school bus to my first day at public school in the inner-city of Milwaukee. I remember nothing about the bus ride, nothing about what was on the aluminum lunch box and Thermos which I remember being proud to have in my backpack, and nothing about the inside of my classroom.

What I remember is the playground: a vast sea of grey concrete and black asphalt, populated by masses of children who towered over me, whose games of kickball and double-dutch and hopscotch seemed enshrined in the shouts and shrieks of a coded language. I stood trembling along the edge. Large red rubber balls whizzed by the side of my face.

Probably I wouldn’t remember those details—they would have faded like the colorful posters that probably adorned my classroom walls—would it not have been for what happened next. A girl of roughly my same size—a girl with similar brown hair and softly dimpled cheeks—approached me. I don’t remember the exact words she used when she asked me to be her friend, but I do remember the tenacity, the directness of her voice. I remember thinking she was doing something I would never have been brave enough to do.

And then she put her hand in mine, and I wanted to die of happiness. I wanted to hold that hand forever, to savor the touch of someone who wasn’t family, but whom I knew immediately and with certainty would make leaving my family each day tolerable, even delightful. Our first real true friend is a lifeline to our future, a taste of the joy that intimacy holds for us when we are lucky enough to find it.

My daughter has been lucky to have such a friend since she was one year old. I marvel at the bond between these two girls: one sturdy boned, the other spritelike, the two bonded by their own fanciful imaginations, pressed together in incessant, giggly chatter since before either of them said much to anyone (“Is it possible they are having actual conversations?” I used to wonder. “About what?”). Last spring, on the sorrowful occasion of Emily’s friend moving, I made each girl a photo book with five years of memories. It wasn’t until I laid out the photos that I realized the girls were touching in almost every single one. When they weren’t deliberately holding hands, they were leaning into one another, resting a hand casually, maybe unaware, on the other’s arm.

It is this frequent, gentle touch that so often distinguishes young female friendships. And it threatens every time to bring me to my knees when I consider, as a parent who was once a young friend herself, the sweetness of it.

It is this sweetness that shines through every delicious page of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved series, published in the 1940s and set in turn-of-the-century Mankato, Minneapolis, where two five-year-old girls living across the street from one another strike up a lifelong friendship. This friendship renders them, not Betsy, not Tacy, but Betsy-Tacy, a collective entity greater than the sum of its parts. Together, these girls embark upon daily adventures, both real and imaginative, which not only shape their personalities but which challenge them to be better than they could be on their own. Oh, and did I mention they are almost always holding hands?

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

The only thing more gratifying than sharing with my six year old a favorite series from my own childhood was watching her fall madly in love with it. And I mean madly. Her mounting adoration (getting out of bed each morning, she would cry, “I can’t wait for you to read more Betsy Tacy tonight!”) surpassed even my most ardent expectations. I’ve noticed something about my Emily: for all the animal characters and fantasy themes we enjoy together, it is the stories with reality-based girl characters—those who engage in the same kind of daily activities she does—which rise to the top (Ramona Cleary, Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, Dory Fantasmagory, Nancy and Plum). Add to that a friendship between two girls with big imaginations and even bigger hearts (three, once the girls befriend newcomer Tib), who spend their days huddled together making up stories about what it would be like to live in the clouds, establishing secret clubs, and performing plays about flying girls in the circus—and I should have known we were destined for a Big Win.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Admittedly, I almost didn’t read the Betsy-Tacy books aloud to Emily. Because I really do credit them with sparking my own independent love affair with reading, I initially thought Emily should wait to read them on her own. And yet, I’ve noticed that children today are often reluctant to pick up the classics we loved as kids. The pacing and the character development can be slower than much contemporary literature for young readers, which seems written with a “grab-‘em-out-of-the-gate” mandate. And then there is the enigma of old-fashioned settings: would my daughter know what a hitching post was? Or why the girls return home for “dinner” in the middle of the day?

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Call me a control freak (you would not be the first), but I simply couldn’t risk my daughter missing out on these books. And so I read them to her. And I swear to you: she has never pressed her little body into mine so fervently, as if willing herself into the stories, or at least into the bond we were building around them. “Tell me again, Mommy, about how these were your favorite books when you were my age?” she would ask. (But seriously, with everything going on in our country right now, is it really so terrible to want to escape to a time when little girls spent their days picnicking under giant oak trees, when their biggest mistakes were lopping off each other’s braids to wear in pillboxes around their necks?)

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Reading the books aloud meant I could justify purchasing The Betsy-Tacy Treasury, which contains the first four books in the series (with Lois Lenski’s original black-and-white illustrations), beginning when the girls are five and continuing through their tenth year: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. The anthology also boasts forwards by Ann M. Martin, Judy Blume, and Johanna Hurwitz, all of whom gush about the bond they felt as children with Betsy and Tacy. (Anna Quindlen goes so far as to put Maud Hart Lovelace on the same pedestal as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, so clearly I am not alone in my affection.) And the anthology contains a fascinating Afterward, which points out which events and characters in the books were derived from Lovelace’s own childhood, with the inventive young Betsy—who pens her own stories while perched in a tree—a stand in for Lovelace herself.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy and Tacy are largely what one would consider “good girls”: joyful in their approach to life, models of inclusion in their play, regular participants in family chores, and eager to listen, comfort, share with, and praise one another. But lest you think the Betsy-Tacy stories are mere sugar and spice and all things nice, I assure you there is a healthy dose of mischief, mistakes, and drama, which grows in complexity as the books advance. (After the first four, the series continues with six more books in three subsequent treasuries, spanning high school, college, marriage, and Betsy’s writing career, though I told Emily we should probably wait until she’s a wee bit older to read those.)

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

When they are six, the girls take advantage of being alone in Betsy’s house by cooking (and then forcing themselves to eat) “Everything Pudding,” using all the ingredients they can reach in the kitchen. When they are only slightly older, to the later horror of their mothers, they pretend to be poor beggars at a stranger’s house, simply because they run out of snacks on a walk. And when they are ten years old, they sink to insincere tactics to convince a classmate to take them with her to the Opera House, an undergoing that comes at a price and with a good old fashioned lesson on how we treat others.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

How we treat others is perhaps the most enduring theme throughout Betsy, Tacy, and Tib’s friendship. And it’s one that feels especially topical today. The girls aren’t only developing their appreciation for one another’s differences, they are also opening their eyes to the differences of others. On several occasions, Lovelace reminds us that children are often the first to see past the stereotypes of race and class. Betsy and Tacy’s zeal to earn signatures on a contest sheet might be what initially lures them into the small immigrant settlement on the other side of the hill, known to their mistrusting neighbors as “Little Syria”; but it’s their ability to connect with the wide-eyed, giggly Syrian girl whom they find there that begins to bridge the two communities (how’s that for topical?). Later, in the fourth book, Betsy inadvertently brings about a reunion between her mother and her estranged uncle, all because of her kindness towards a wealthy old widow whom Betsy alone recognizes as lonely.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Long before there were television, video games, and giant trampoline parks, there were backyard sheds and grassy knolls and trees to climb. To be sure, the Betsy-Tacy stories are a specific portrayal of white middle-class suburban America in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Tib is the first in her town to ride in a “horseless carriage”!). And yet, Lovelace’s transcendent themes of friendship and adventure, resourcefulness and optimism, will find a warm place in the hearts of many of our daughters today. At least, they did in my daughter.

Happy Valentine’s Day to the girls who are lucky enough to have someone to hold their hands; to the girls brave enough to initiate these special friendships; and to the girls who have them to look forward to.

(P.S. My nine-year-old son would like me to add that he stole the book several times while Emily and I were reading it and that he found the stories “very good,” especially the third and fourth books.)

(P.P.S. If you still aren’t buying the friendship-book-for-Valentine’s-Day gift, go ahead and check out this romantic beauty. That may or may not be what Emily is getting this year, seeing as we’ve already read the above recommendation. Or I may cave and get her this.)

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Harper Perennial. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Comic Relief

February 2, 2017 § 1 Comment

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick GreenRobert Frost wrote, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Given the headlines of the past two weeks, it’s getting increasingly difficult to laugh at ourselves. Thankfully, we can turn to literature and art to restore our sanity.

When it comes to choosing reading (or television) material, my husband is fond of reminding me that he “only wants a laugh.” Such proclivity doesn’t exist in me. True to form, I began January by losing myself in Adam Haslett’s devastating (if devastatingly beautiful) novel, Imagine Me Gone, where at one point a manic-depressive father sits across from his recently teenaged son and laments silently, “If I ever had the care of his soul, I don’t anymore.” I couldn’t look at my own (rapidly-aging) children for the rest of the day without crying—much less handle reading the news—so I traded in that book for Tina Fey’s performance of Bossypants, which I listened to for the next two weeks in the car. Doubling over the steering wheel in convulsive laughter feels like more appropriate self-care for the times.

Interjecting giggles into our family life came more easily with John Patrick Green’s Hippopotamister (Thank you, Betsy Bird, for rounding up your favorite 2016 graphic novels). An entrée into the graphic novel format for newly independent readers (Ages 5-10), Hippopotamister juxtaposes simple panels with full-page illustrations—each one executed with pitch-perfect timing, laugh-out-loud silliness, and heartfelt emotion. (There are even “how to” drawing instructions for the main characters at the end, should anyone wish to try his hands at comics creation.) We read it thirty two times last month.

The book stars two animals who live at a city zoo which has fallen on hard times. The ticket counter is covered in cobwebs; the office is a mountain of abandoned paperwork; the habitats are dilapidated; and the residents sport mangy manes, lackluster teeth, and dampened spirits.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Take-charge Red Panda is the first to jump ship: “I’ve decided to leave the zoo and live amongst the humans,” he announces, claw in air. As he returns with salivating tales of the “outside world,” he quickly wins over his loyal pal, Hippo, although Red Panda suggests he change his name to Hippopotamister, so he will be taken more seriously by the humans. (Try finding a name that’s more fun to read aloud.) The two set off to find fame and fortune—or, at least, to land a job.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Author-illustrator Green is a whiz at letting his pictures reveal gags which his text does not. Observant readers discover that, for each job the duo attempts—construction worker, hair stylist, chef, banker, dentist, fire fighter, paleontologist, and so on—the prideful Red Panda fails spectacularly, while the modest Hippopotamister succeeds brilliantly.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Which is funnier—the epic fails or the unlikely successes—is hard to say when your kids are giggling their pants off.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

One salon client loves his hippo-styled coiffure; another is horrified by her sudden resemblance to a red-and-black striped panda.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

At an upscale trattoria, the Hippopasta Primavera (complete with “sprinkling of parmesan over sautéed onions”) looks mouth-watering, while the Antipasto A La Red Panda is an absurd assortment of insects, pebbles, lint, Red Vine licorice, and car keys. In my kids’ favorite scene (OK, mine), the restaurant is promptly shut down by the Board of Health for “serving rocks” and the two friends are sent packing.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Even more absurd, the two friends appear oblivious to the stark contrast in their on-the-job performance. That is, neither friend overtly acknowledges what is obvious to us: Hippopotamister could make a career in any of these professions, while Red Panda doesn’t seem suited for any of them (with one hilarious exception, but I won’t ruin that for you). Following each trial or audition, the two simply pick up and move on without looking back. Is the former hopelessly clueless while the latter stubbornly self-absorbed?

Or is there something else at work?

Here’s where my kids and I venture to suggest that there’s more to Green’s story than surface silliness: Hippopotamister isn’t about to embrace a job that would leave his best pal out in the cold. “Don’t worry, Red Panda! I know you can find us an even better job!” is Hippopotamister’s refrain of solidarity after each failure, followed by the latter’s insistence, “This [next job] is going to be the best job ever!” The two are a team, determined to succeed together or not at all.

This teamwork culminates in the delightful feel-good ending, where Hippopotamister returns to the zoo and puts each of his new skills to work restoring it to its former glory (See, kids, no job is ever a waste of time!). With joyful pride, Hippopotamister balances the books, styles the lion’s mane, makes gourmet meals to perk up the monkeys, and builds sturdy enclosures.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Even better, for all his newfound abilities, Hippopotamister recognizes a shortcoming which only Red Panda can fill: that of entertainer. Red Panda has a quirkiness which adults find maddening, but which kids (as evidenced by the way they hang all over him at the daycare stint) find irresistible. A diligent zookeeper with a magnetic head of Customer Relations? Now that’s a winning duo.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Red Panda and Hippopotamister’s antics are a welcome comedic break from the stresses of the real world. But they also remind us that if we keep on laughing through every failure and piece of bad news, we might keep our sanity intact long enough to succeed. What success looks like may not be clear, but so long as we’re willing to don different hats and surround ourselves with loyal friends, we’re bound to find out.

Other Laugh-Out-Loud Favorites from the Past:
Penguin Problems, by Lane Smith
Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, by Bob Shea & Lane Smith
Goodnight, Already! by Jory John & Benji Davies
A Visitor for Bear, by Bonny Becker & Kady MacDonald Denton
Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins
Dory Fantasmagory series, by Abby Hanlon
Arnie the Doughnut series, by Laurie Keller
Mr. Pants series, by Scott McCormick & R.H. Lazzell
Battle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, by R.A. Spratt & Dan Santat

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by First Second, an imprint of Roaring Book Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Morality, Martyrdom, & Murderous Marauders (Yup, for Kids)

January 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam GidwitzIf the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.

Let me back up.

Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.

Until now.

Enter Adam Gidwitz, formerly known for his deliciously dark (and darkly humorous) retelling of traditional fairy tales in his bestselling middle-grade trilogy A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12). Ever since I first read his essay “In Defense of Real Fairy Tales,” I have known Gidwitz to be someone dedicated to giving kids, not only what their hearts desire, but what their psyches need.

Now, Gidwitz has taken his unique talent for combining blood and gore with the deeply personal and morally inquisitive and turned it on the Middle Ages in The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog) (Ages 11-16).

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Let me just say that THIS IS THE MOST DARING WORK OF CHILDREN’S FICTION I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Never mind that Gidwitz fashions his story in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where oral narratives are delivered over pints of ale by an innkeeper, a chronicler, a librarian, a troubadour, a jongleur, a nun and, ultimately, the Inquisitor himself—each picking up where the other leaves off. Never mind that the book is gorgeously illustrated in the style of an illuminated manuscript by the Egyptian-born Hatem Aly. Those things are just icing on the cake. It’s what Gidwitz does inside the story that’s utterly mind-blowing.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

The Inquisitor’s Tale reveals so many twists and turns, takes so many thematic and narrative risks, that it would feel like whiplash if it wasn’t so riveting. Did a young monk just yank off his donkey’s leg, use it to club to death a band of murderous bandits, and then magically reattach it? Did three children just watch their guardian throw himself in protest onto a pyre of Jewish books being burned on the whim of a Christian king? Did a boy just cure a lactose-intolerant dragon of his deadly farts by feeding him rotted sheep flesh so he would puke up a “long, goopy train of yellow liquid”?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Are three children and a troubadour actually sitting around in a children’s book debating the question, “Why would God make bad things happen?” And actually coming up with answers both profound and humorous?

Cut to my JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

Gidwitz’s book may be a suspenseful, swashbuckling tale of epic proportions, but it is also an intimate window into the souls of the three French children who star in it. Given the clashes in class and religion which permeate every aspect of thirteenth-century society, these children should by all accounts have no reason even to meet, much less form an alliance."The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Jeanne is a lowly peasant girl, desperate to hide her prophetic fits lest she be accused of sorcery and burned at the stake. She is trailed by her loyal white greyhound, Gwenforte, who has died and come back to life (yup). Jacob is a Jewish boy, possessed with magical healing powers from the night he narrowly escapes his village after it is set on fire by Christian peasant boys. William is an orphaned and oddly large oblate (monk-in-training), recently expelled from the monastery where he grew up ridiculed for his supernatural strength and his part-African-Muslim heritage.

Where their class and religion should divide them, the children instead come together over something they have in common: they are all outcasts. Their births would put them in one place, but their abilities prevent them from staying there. A great debate runs through the story: Are the children saints? Should they martyr themselves? And what do these two things even mean?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Ironically, more than their powers, it is the children’s vulnerability which shapes them. As they share their pasts and discuss their belief systems with one another, as they watch strangers react differently to each of them, they begin to question the entrenched divisions of their society. They begin to analyze and critique their own faiths, to ask some of the most difficult and universal of questions about the meaning of life and our role in it. What does doing the right thing look like? And is it worth the expense?

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

By luck or by fate, the three children come up against the central conflict of the story: the planned burning at the order of King Louis IX of all the Talmuds in France, the sacred Hebrew text at the heart of Judaism. During the high Middle Ages, these reproductions were vehemently guarded by Jewish leaders—book printing a painstaking labor of love whereby each page is hand copied—and there were many documented attempts by Christian rulers to obtain and destroy them for the threat to Christianity they believed they possessed. (Never mind that the children discover the central message of the Talmud—“What you would hate to have done to you—do not do to other people”—ironically aligns with the Golden Rule of Christianity—“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Go think on that, kids and grown people.)

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

With the help of “a mountain of flesh, with red hair and bristling whiskers and reddish eyes” named Michelangelo di Bologna, the children stage a plot to save the Talmuds and preserve the Jewish teachings. In doing so, they end up in a climactic showdown with royalty and knights on a battleground of quicksand, against the backdrop of the reverent Mont-Saint-Michel on the outskirts of Paris.

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Had I been exposed as a child to anything approximating Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, would I have grown up with a different appreciation for the Middle Ages? HECK YES! I might have even gone on to study religion and philosophy with fervid passion.

As Gidwitz explains in his equally fascinating fourteen-page Author’s Note, his story is meticulously researched, the product of a year spent in Europe with his wife, herself a professor of the Middle Ages. Many of the figures and events in the book are real (King Louis IX; Talmuds burning in Paris; even Gwenforte is based on a real Holy Greyhound, to my son’s delight), and many others are based on legends of the Middle Ages. All of these parallels are so enticingly explained that I actually exclaimed, “God’s wounds! If only I could go back to school and study this!” (We’re well-versed in medieval swearing now—I highly recommend it.) To which JP replied: “No, Mommy, we need you here. But, don’t worry, I’ll learn it and tell you everything.” Looks like I’ll have to make do with the extensive annotated bibliography at the book’s end.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Again and again, Gidwitz shows us that things are not what they seem, that people cannot be dismissed by the circumstances of their birth, and that actions speak louder than words. (Also: “A hug from a child! Perhaps God’s greatest invention!”) At the book’s conclusion, the children broach the subject of martyrdom with their mentor, Michelangelo, worried that he foresees sacrificial death in their future. Instead, Michelangelo asks William for the Latin definition of “martyr.” The boy replies, “witness,” and Michelangelo responds:

Correct. And have you not already witnessed on behalf of goodness and beauty and justice and God? To Louis and Blanche and dozens of others? Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness—against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world. Yes, children, you will be martyrs. Just as you have always been.

Children may save us all in the end.

In fact, it has always been children—their innocence, their purity, their innate goodness—who offer the most hope, who possess the greatest power to reach across the divides, to stop the destructive cycle of prejudice and persecution, and to open their hearts to love and acceptance.

I only hope we adults will start watching them a little more closely.

GREAT NEWS: Blessedly, The Inquisitor’s Tale will be with us for the long haul, as earlier this week it was awarded the prestigious Newberry Honor by the American Library Association! The other award recipients are similarly mature and daring, with the Newberry Medal going to Kelly Barnhill’s spellbinding dark fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and another Honor going to Lauren Wolk’s haunting and deeply resonant Wolf Hollow (my favorite book of 2016—read my post from last summer here). Do our children have any idea how lucky they are to be growing up at a time when children’s authors are taking off the handcuffs, expanding the literary landscape, and breaking rules all over the place? (Probably not, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Dutton Children’s Books. Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Julia's Bookbag

Unique Recommendations from The Book Mommy

Sunlit Pages

Unique Recommendations from The Book Mommy

What Do We Do All Day?

Books and Activities for Kids

There's a Book for That

Where book love and the joy of a classroom community are shared

The Picture Book Review

Picture book reviews, reviews of books with pictures, and pictures of books!

the family that reads together

a Kid Lit Blog for parents

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)

Blog & website of children's book author Tara Lazar

This Kid Reviews Books

A Place for Kids and Grown-Ups to Discover Books

What to Read to Your Kids

Unique Recommendations from The Book Mommy

musing

a laid-back lit journal

Peter Brown Studio

Unique Recommendations from The Book Mommy

The Horn Book

Unique Recommendations from The Book Mommy

Number Five Bus presents...

potentially interesting interactions with fellow book people

Design Mom

Unique Recommendations from The Book Mommy

Delightful Children's Books

Find a book to delight a child.

%d bloggers like this: