Winning Against All Odds

September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James BrownWe are still feeling the effects of Olympics Fever in our house. Before his weekly swim lesson, JP flaps his arms back and forth across his chest, a.k.a. Michael Phelps. Emily vaults off the arm of our leather chair and lands with her hands above her head, chest lifted. I’m still smiling at the charisma of Usain Bolt, who runs so fast it’s scarcely comprehensible. While we were watching the Olympics one Saturday afternoon, with footage of fencing and archery and discus throwing, JP exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were this many sports!” (We aren’t typically a sports-watching family, as I’ve mentioned before.)

For all the glory that my children witnessed unfolding on the television screen this past summer, I don’t think they really grasped the guts that were involved. The sacrifices made. The arduous, sometimes circuitous journeys of these athletes to Rio. What actually went on behind the scenes.

I started to feel like I was doing these athletes a disservice by not talking to my kids about how painfully difficult—how physically and mentally trying—these journeys to victory often are.

I announced to my nine year old one night in late August that I had the perfect book to keep the spirit of the Olympics alive in our house. The choice was partly selfish: I have long wanted to read the adult version of this story.

Daniel James Brown recently adapted his bestselling adult non-fiction book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for a young audience. The Young Readers Adaptation, similarly titled The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, is intended for ages 10-18.

Here’s the gist: Against a backdrop of the American Depression and the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Brown’s two books tell the story of nine rowers from the University of Washington—an unlikely bunch of loggers, fishermen, and farmers—whose incredible work ethic and fresh approach to the sport of crew took the entire world by surprise when they snatched gold in front of Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

At the center of The Boys in the Boat is one rower in particular—Joe Rantz—whose childhood would be considered heartbreaking by even the harshest skeptic. Painfully abandoned by his family as a young teenager, Joe was left to make his own way in the world, often resorting to grueling physical labor in the Pacific Northwest in an effort, not only to feed his almost always starving body, but to scrape together enough money to attend college and secure a place on a sports team that held the promise of belonging and acceptance. This guy, with the skills of a lumberjack, without two nickels to rub together, this guy is in the boat that wins an Olympic gold.

It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is a head-scratching, white-knuckling, jumping-on-the-bed story of unadulterated inspiration. It will rival the most exciting sporting event you’ve ever seen on TV.

Last night—after the climactic final chapter, where my son alternated between clutching my arm and burying his head under his pillow, even though we already knew the outcome of the race—JP told me this was the BEST BOOK OF HIS LIFE. (He may have inherited my fondness for hyperbole, but this is still saying something.)

I’ll admit, I was surprised by how quickly the story grabbed the two of us. JP had never heard of crew prior to this book. I myself knew almost nothing about the mechanics of the sport—nor did I have any appreciation for the physical stamina and technical prowess involved. (Despite attending a high school and university with prestigious rowing programs, I never attended a single race, a fact I now find rather devastating. At last, I am ready to stand in the cold spring rain and watch a regatta!)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And there is a lot of crew in this book. Nearly every race in the two years leading up to the Olympics is detailed across multiple pages. It may seem hard to believe, but JP and I were on the edge of our seat (well, pillow) every single time. Even the art of boat-making—the proper terminology is shell-making—is described with such romance that we could almost smell the freshly-sanded cedar from JP’s bedroom.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

Still, for as much rowing as fills the pages of this book, The Boys in the Boat is ultimately about something transcendent. It’s a familiar theme that runs through most great sports stories: triumph in the face of devastating odds. And it’s delivered by Brown in a way that spears our hearts and elevates our souls.

I asked JP at breakfast this morning what most struck him about the story. He didn’t even hesitate: “Joe’s life. Everything was so hard for him. Things were always going wrong. I didn’t know that someone like that could be an Olympic champion.”

I would argue that everything was often going wrong, not just for Joe, but for all the boys in Joe’s shell.

It has been said about real life: you can’t make this stuff up. But seriously: you could not make this stuff up. Because the odds are stacked against these young men nearly every step of the way.

Let’s start with Joe’s childhood. When Joe’s stepmother (his biological mother dies of cancer when he is four) convinces his father to pack up the car with Joe’s younger siblings and leave Joe behind at fifteen years of age, my son could not get over it. She is so mean! When Joe finds work in a mine, on a dam, as a janitor—when he chops wood all day instead of tossing a ball in the backyard with this dad—our hearts broke again. Is it any wonder Joe initially struggles to trust his fellow oarsmen, to embrace the spirit of teamwork?

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

The socioeconomic backdrop of the book is equally at odds. There’s the wasteland of the West during the Dust Bowl. There’s the juxtaposition between the working-class boys of the Washington crew team and the wealthy sons of bankers and doctors that make up the elite teams of the East Coast. When the Washington boys visit Poughkeepsie, New York each year for the national regatta, they squat in shell houses without warm showers or sealed windows, while teams like Princeton and Cornell get cushy digs complete with personal chefs. Indeed, when the Washington team discovers that they have to pay their way to Berlin—or risk forfeiting their spot—they rely on the charity of thousands of individuals and corporations during a radiothon back in Seattle.

Then there’s the relentless weather (and, as you know, ours is a house obsessed with weather). Rowing in Seattle means rowing in frost, in sleet, in snow. In hard-driving rain. It means rowing when you can’t feel your hands.

There are the Nazis. There is Hitler’s attempt to dress Berlin as a kind of pristine movie set for the Olympics, in an effort to disguise to the world the ethnic cleansing that has already begun. There’s the muddied intentions of the German Olympic Committee, who re-write the rules in real time to ensure that the Germans are in the fastest lanes and the Americans in the slowest. (The 1936 Olympics were also privy to the rise of African-American Jesse Owens on the track field, yet another slap in the face to Hitler’s assertion of the natural supremacy of the Aryan people.)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And then there’s what happens to one of Joe’s crewmates in the days and hours leading up the race of his life. I don’t dare spoil it for you—but suffice it to say that this obstacle would stop any mere mortal. The determination and loyalty that surface instead left me with goosebumps.

The answer to beating all these odds comes from something imparted to the author by Joe on their first very interview. Good rowing—winning rowing—is never about the individual; it’s “about the boat.” Joe is not talking about the physical shell (although the Husky Clipper has assumed iconic status in rowing history). He is talking about teamwork. Only when you give yourself over to your teammates does the boat become greater than the sum of its parts. Only then can you begin to touch greatness. Or, put more technically later in the book:

What they needed was to find something rowers call their “swing,” and they were not going to get there acting like individuals. Many crews never really find their swing. It only happens when all eight oarsmen row in such perfect unison that no single action by any one of them is out of sync with those of all the others. All at once, sixteen arms must begin to pull together, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold in unison, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must begin to bend and straighten. Each tiny action must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman.

Teamwork conquers all.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

JP’s and my success with this book is undoubtedly a tribute to Brown’s engaging and heartfelt writing. But it is also a tribute to the power of reading aloud. There is absolutely zilch chance that I could have convinced JP to read this book on his own, with its 220 oversized pages of minuscule print. There is also little chance that, without the astonishment and wonder of the very engaged nine year old beside me, I would have been quite so enthralled myself. In sharing this story with one another—our intimate team of two—we gave ourselves a gift.

But the greatest gift comes from the human spirit, which so soften surprises and surpasses expectation and understanding. These boys have become my son’s heroes. Names like Joe Rantz, Bobby Moch, Roger Morris, and Don Hume. Neither one of us will forget them quickly.

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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!

In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids

September 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Journey Trilogy by Aaron BeckerA few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).

But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor).

Wordless books can be a hard sell. They can be an especially hard sell for parents, because what exhausted parent wants the pressure of making up a narrative when the relief of bedtime is so near? How can I read a book with no words? Can’t my kid just look at that on his own?

Hear me out.

For starters, education researchers have long touted the value of wordless picture books as a tool for pre-literacy. When children are learning to read—when they’re caught in that delicate balance of needing to cherish small successes but not fully versed in phonograms and sight words—they can look to pictures for valuable clues about what the text might be saying. (He’s picking up a fork, so that word must be “fork”; there’s a grimace on his face as he’s eating, so that must mean the words are going to be about him not liking it).

When children are forced to extract a narrative from pictures alone, they become well versed at using visual clues to decode text.

I would argue that the value of wordless picture books extends well past the early-reading stage. Wordless books can help make close readers of our children, a vital skill for academic success at every grade level.

Especially in the hands of a visual wizard like Becker, the reader is rewarded for every extra second he or she takes to study the pictures. On nearly every spread in Journey, Quest, and Return, there is mystery, intrigue, wonder, and confusion. Repeated readings only deepen our experience, reveal things that our eyes—in our haste—missed the first time.

Let’s talk about that haste for a minute. (We are listening to Charlotte’s Web in the car these days, so I feel inspired to quote the wise Charlotte: “…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”)

When my nine year old tears through beloved series like The Hardy Boys, Hazardous Tales, and I Survived, I can’t help but wonder: how carefully does he read? Does he skip over passages when he doesn’t understand? Does he take time to notice the language, the details of a setting, or the way a character is described? Does he have an opinion about the book, other than “It was epic!”?

I try very hard not to scrutinize or judge (outwardly) my children’s reading habits. If my kids are reading, I want them to read—without my asking loaded questions about whether they’ve finished a book or what they are learning from the story or whether they will read aloud parts to me. I want them to read for the love of the thing. I want them to discover their own motivations for reading outside parental or adult pressure.

Instead, I try to model good books and good reading practices. I choose books to read aloud that showcase beautiful language, complex characters, and plots rich in shades of grey and murky emotions. I often share aloud my own feelings about the things we’re reading. I tell them which questions are giving me pause. Much of the time, they are quick to join me in conversation.

As it turns out, I don’t have to be reading books with words to accomplish that.

Weeks back, when that box showed up at our doorstep and my kids jumped up with Return in their hands, then ran through various rooms to locate the first two titles in the trilogy so that we could read all three books straight through, I was reminded that sharing wordless picture books with our children can be another immensely valuable way to teach them to slow down and cherish the intricacies of a story.

It’s a credit to Aaron Becker just how hard my children and I are willing to work to interpret his lantern-hung forests, his purple skies, and the rock-clad walls of his prophetic caves. (Interesting side note: in the author’s bio printed on the jacket cover of the newest book, we learn that the exotic kingdom depicted in the trilogy, with its lavish domes and flowing canals and frenetic kings and emperors, is inspired by Becker’s visit as a child to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—the same walled island we all grew to love in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See).

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

Here’s the gist of what my kids and I have surmised from the time we’ve spent with these books.

In Journey, a girl escapes boredom by drawing a doorway into a magical land and inadvertently finding herself in the center of an enslavement plot. Her creativity, along with the artistic aid of a like-minded boy, guides her safely home again, while at the same time giving her the companionship she has been seeking.

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

In Quest, Becker’s second book, the girl with the red crayon and her new friend with the purple crayon are drawn back into the mysterious world, where greater intrigue and suspense greet them. We learn that their crayons are part of a larger set of six that, in the right hands, can return color and freedom and prosperity to this grey and conflict-laden kingdom.

"Quest" by Aaron Becker

Now at last, in Return, we are given the final pieces of the puzzle. It was my son who came up with the idea that the bad guys aren’t simply after the crayons; they’re after art. Or, rather, they’re out to destroy the transformative power of making art. It was also my son who pointed out details that I initially missed: how the green emanating from the emperor’s boat is a sickly, unnatural green, a slime green, a green that somehow instinctively identifies him as evil.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

Our reading of these books is full of “Wait, look at that!” and “Oh, now I get it,” and “But what it THAT?” Three heads huddled over the same book. Three sets of fingers pointing. Three voices contributing to one shared understanding.

Perhaps there’s a third, even more powerful benefit that comes from sharing wordless picture books with our children—and that’s the opportunity to collaborate with them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as we make the difficult transition into the rigidity of fall routines: of rushing to school, of rushing home from school, of trying to get dinner on the table and everyone to bed at an early hour so that we can make some semblance of an attempt at doing it all over again the next day.

Too often, I parent from a place of authority rather than a place of collaboration. But how can I insist that my children develop flexibility unless I am willing to demonstrate It myself? Wordless picture book, like the Journey trilogy (and I’ve listed other favorites at the end of this post), present a rare gift for us parents to embrace the benefits of honoring our children as partners, rather than progeny.

Appropriately, this happens to be precisely how the trilogy concludes. If the first book casts a less-than-favorable light on the girl’s parents—her mother chatting on the phone while cooking, her father too busy on his computer to respond to the girl’s entreaties to play—the third book spins a more optimistic narrative.

Return begins when the father looks up from his work and, seeing his daughter’s kite dropped at his feet, goes in search of her.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

When he finds her red door, he ducks and enters—until he, too, is a character in the vivid magical world that has bewitched his daughter on so many occasions. As it turns out, and as the girl only recognizes once she has forgiven his indifference and welcomed him into her imagination, the father has a critical role to play in the unfolding drama. The two share an adventure which, not only brings them closer together, but reveals a secret about the father’s own history with art and imagination. A door once closed has opened again for him.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

We do not need words on a page to comprehend the sheer joy on the girl’s face at the realization that she has an accomplice in her beloved parent. (Hint: see if your child picks up on the subtle change in the endpapers from the beginning of Return to the end; my daughter had to show me, and I almost broke down sobbing, so close to home did it hit.)

In a few months—and at a time when we aren’t rushing—I plan to get out these books again and encourage my kids to look at them alongside me with fresh eyes. I imagine they won’t need convincing. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover and interpret and learn from these sensational pages.

 

Other Favorite Wordless Picture Books:
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 3-6)
Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd (Ages 3-6)
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (Ages 4-8; I challenge you to get through this story of connection without tearing up.)
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Ages 4-8)
Pool, by Jihyeon Lee (Ages 4-8, reviewed by me here)
The Girl and the Bicycle and The Boy and the Airplane, by Mark Prett (Ages 4-8)
Fox’s Garden, by Princesse Camcam (Ages 4-8)

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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!

Severe Weather Alert

September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligottWe interrupt this program for a Special Weather Statement.

Tonight’s forecast includes freakishly strong winds, wild fluctuations in temperature, and all forms of precipitation. Power outages possible. Lightning probable. Children begging to hear one more bedtime story guaranteed.

What do you get when you cross real science with monsters?

Easily the most fun educational book about the weather.

There are few books I will purchase before opening them. Mathew McElligott’s Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster (Ages 6-9) was one. For starters, the kids and I became fans of this new series when the first book, Mad Scientist Academy: The Dinosaur Disaster, came out two summers ago (again, easily the most fun we’ve had learning about dinosaurs—and, in fact, the only fact-based dinosaur book that has ever captured my daughter’s attention).

madsciencedinosaur

Secondly, my eldest has long been weather obsessed, so those who live with him have no choice but to eat, sleep, and breathe weather factoids. In the presence of dark clouds, it is statistically impossible to have any other conversation with him.

Lastly, there is the subjective truth that nobody does monsters for young kids better than McElligott (one of his earliest books, Even Monsters Need Haircuts, continues to be read on a regular basis in our house, because we never get tired of one of the best surprise endings EVER). In McElligott’s pencil-clad hand, the Frankensteins, vampires, and werewolves of our collective conscience emerge, not as monstrous, but as gentle, funny, clever comrades. Albeit eccentric and occasionally sandwich-obsessed.

Here’s what you need to know about the Mad Scientist series: the overzealous green-faced scientist, Dr. Cosmic, runs a school for young monsters called Mad Scientist Academy, where he showcases his latest technological inventions designed to bring science—quite literally—to life. Before Dr. Cosmic’s creations are rolled out, the students get a crash course in the subject at hand, knowledge that proves valuable when disaster inevitably strikes.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

McElligott hits on a sweet spot for today’s audience with both the content and format of this series. Not only does he pick scientific subjects for which his readers already have an enthusiastic interest, but he never talks down to his audience. He packs a surprisingly large amount of factual information into concise and engaging comics (I’m talking a gazillion times more aesthetically pleasing and less long-winded than The Magic School Bus series). The text and illustrations are brimming with levity and gags, whooshes and KABOOMS.

Perfect for reading aloud, yes, but also a reluctant reader’s paradise.

In The Weather Disaster, Dr. Cosmic arrives on the scene in his custom-designed Wearable Weather Balloon, which boasts, among other features (see blueprints on the book’s end papers): atmospheric data collection sensors, solar charging panels, and a pressure regulator valve.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

Through Dr. Cosmic’s flight demonstration, the students are provided not only with the definition of words like meteorologist, atmosphere, and hygrometer, but also with the basics of how clouds and wind are formed. (My husband was overheard exclaiming in the other room, “Oh, so that’s how lightning is created!”)

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

The Sky Suit isn’t the only thing Dr. Cosmic is eager to show off to his students. He has been hard at work building something that he (prophetically) calls CHAOS, a Cooling/Heating Air Flow Operating System, which uses solar and turbine power to create the “perfect” temperature inside the school (gone are the days of sweaty locker rooms and drafty classrooms).

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

And yet, Dr. Cosmic steps away just as things are going awry. Vents in the same room are blowing different temperatures, the greenhouse is flooding, the swimming pool is buried under snow, and there are increasingly black clouds looming in the control room.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

With Dr. Cosmic suddenly MIA, our young students are left to fend for themselves: to don their detective hats and make sense of what is happening, relying in large part on their recently acquired scientific knowledge.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

As it turns out (Spoiler Alert!), the only viable solution is for the mad apprentices to create the perfect storm: to set the stage for a tornado that will blow the top off the building and provide for them a means of escape.

Did I not tell you we’d be in for some monstrous weather this evening?

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

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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!

Laughing Our Way Back to School

September 8, 2016 § 4 Comments

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt(Before we get started—HELLLLOOOOO AGAIN!—I thought I’d link to three guest posts that I wrote as part of a Summer Reading Series for the local blog, DIY Del Ray, in case you don’t follow me on social media (which you should). There’s one on picture books about the garden; one on recent new installments in our favorite early-chapter series; and one on my favorite middle-grade chapter books so far this year. These are all fantastic books and perfect for any time of year.)

And now, let’s get down to today’s business.

As I write this, my kids have been back in school for a few short hours. The house is blissfully, rapturously, guiltily quiet. The good news is that I can finally do laundry in the basement without my children scootering—and I mean, quite literally scootering—around me. The bad news is that I can’t get cuddles or kisses or giggles whenever I want.

As my kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to see summer end. I will miss my buddies. I will miss our lazy mornings (only the mail carrier knows how long we stayed in our pajamas). Most of all, I will miss our adventures—the way every new shade of green, every sun-kissed rock, every goldfinch and swallowtail and cicada becomes something to marvel at and remark on.

And I will, of course, miss the many hours we curled up to read together (as well as the times when we were too busy catching a ferry or celebrating a swim meet or chasing fireflies to read at all). Lest you think my silence this summer meant that we didn’t discover piles of new books, I can promise you redemption this fall. We have a lot to catch up on.

Beginning with what we read at the very end of our summer break.

We returned home from three weeks of glorious beachy romping to supply lists and new school orientations and conversations about how lazy little beach bums were once again going to have to start making beds and packing lunches. It suddenly seemed like dusting off our brain cells was going to be no small endeavor.

If you can’t change it, you might as well laugh at it—or so my grandmother preaches. And so, in that vein, in order to lighten up our transition from summer to autumn, to hold on to a bit of the recklessness as we heed the routine, I broke out The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, an episodic chapter book by Australian comedy writer R.A. Spratt, with sporadic illustrations by the equally kooky Dan Santat (Ages 8-12; younger if reading aloud).

It’s hard not to love a book that begins with the following disclaimer:

Unless you are a pig, do not copy Nanny Piggins’s diet IN ANY WAY…You really should not try a lot of the things Nanny Piggins does either. For example, throwing heavy things off roofs.

This is where I should probably add my own disclaimer: If you are one of those parents (no judging) who enjoys nothing less than the moral didacticism of Little House on the Prairie, who can’t fathom spending their time reading NOTHING OF SUBSTANCE (well, apart from excellent writing and wonderfully dry wit), and who under no circumstances wants to introduce impressionable minds to subversive ideas of eating chocolate for every meal or dancing on tables or forging sick notes for school…then, by all means, please skip this post and you and I will reconnect next week.

But if your kids laughed their heads off at Pippi Longstocking, and if you want something to read this fall that is almost as good as extending summer break, then please allow me to introduce you to Nanny Piggins: nanny to the three well-mannered Green children, former flying circus headliner, and—in case you’ve been skimming—an actual pig (“the type bacon came from”). Think Mary Poppins, if Mary Poppins had shown up in the dead of night, liked to dress flamboyantly, and had absolutely no intention of holding her charges (or herself) responsible for chores, schoolwork, or finances. And if Mary Poppins had been a pig. A walking, talking, and—if we’re being honest—extremely clever pig.

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

Nanny Piggins may not do most of the ordinary things that nannies or parents do (because where’s the fun in that?), but she does undeniably love Derrick, Samantha, and Michael from the start. She dotes on them and listens to them and respects them infinitely more than their demonized father—the widowed attorney Mr. Green—who is far too busy helping his clients evade tax laws to bother with his children (or find them a human nanny, despite his horror at sharing a dinner table with a pig).

Which, as far as the children are concerned, is just peachy. They’ve never had more fun in their lives: sampling Nanny Piggins’ three-course chocolate meals (she also makes a mean pie); drawing with crayons on their clothes (after blowing the clothing allowance on chocolate, Nanny Piggins helps the children fashion tartan school uniforms out of their existing clothes); or trying to row to China on an anything-but-ordinary beach day (they get picked up by a fishing boat in time for dinner).

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

Of course, even with Nanny Piggins at the helm, life is not always a day at the beach. Several chapters hinge on suspense, as our porcine wonder—with the help of her young accomplices—attempts to escape near catastrophe. Whether the peril arrives in the form of Nanny Piggins’ former ringmaster (come to re-enslave her in the circus), or Mr. Green’s evil sister (come to charm Nanny Piggins out of a job), or Boris, the esteemed Russian dancing bear and an old friend of Nanny Piggins (come to hide out in the Green residence), there is no challenge too great for the theatrical subterfuge of our heroine.

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

Ironically, as fun as they are to read about, these hyperbolic adventures are not what ultimately endear us readers to Nanny Piggins—or even what necessarily get the most laughs. Rather, it’s the sheer naivete—the unfettered delight of discovery coupled with the blatant cluelessness—of a pig trying to take her place in the world of humans. Whether it’s trying to make heads or tails of abstract portraiture at the art gallery (“some were done with yellows and greens and other colors you would never see on a real person’s face no matter how sick they were”) or the national educational mandate, Nanny Piggins is increasingly perplexed by human ways.

Nanny Piggins could not hide the full extent of her ignorance any further. She had another question to ask.
“So, what exactly is ‘school’? Exactly.”
“What’s school?!” exclaimed Derrick. “Did you never have to go?”
He could not believe that anybody as clearly knowledgeable about so many important things, such as how to make fake blood and what was the best type of stick for making a slingshot, could have had no formal education.

Nanny Piggins earns the adoration of her child subjects because she confronts the world—wide-eyed and befuddled—much the way our own children do. Even us parents would do well to remember that, seen through our children’s eyes, the world is as mystifying as it is magical, as humorous as it is humane.

And there are so many boundaries to test along the way.

Oh, did I mention the best news? There are two sequels: Nanny Piggins and the Wicked Plan and Nanny Piggins and the Runaway Lion, both of which are lying in wait for my little fools. I told my kids that, after their grueling First Day Back in the Grind, we’d come straight home to laugh ourselves silly. In fact, it’s nearly pick-up time. I’d better run.

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

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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!

Facing the Past to Better the Future

June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred D. TaylorLike many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.

But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.

“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.

How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves?

How do we ensure our children will grow up in a country that celebrates differences, instead of condemns or even merely tolerates them? How do we ensure our children won’t make the same mistakes that generations of their forbearers did—and which some of their contemporaries are dangerously close to repeating?

In the midst of this unsettling time, I am once again reminded of the small but not insignificant power that we as parents have in what we choose to read with our children. Our time with them as willing listeners may be fleeting, but it is time that is immensely valuable. When we read to our children, we shape the way in which they see the world. We encourage them to ask questions of themselves and of others. And we give them a working vocabulary to navigate the undeniably treacherous terrain of life.

This past spring, I had the privilege of leading a book club with some of the children in my son’s elementary class on a book that made an indelible impression on me as a child—and which today, even as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, feels as valuable as ever.

Mildred D. Taylor’s 1976 novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Ages 10-15, possibly younger if reading aloud), tells the story of a black family’s perseverance amidst the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi in the early 1930s. Told through the eyes of the nine-year-old daughter, the story is also a coming-of-age one, as Cassie trades the innocence of her youth for a sobering understanding of the way in which race so narrowly defines her family’s place in the world.

In writing this book and the sequels that follow, Taylor set out to put down on paper the various stories that her father and other family members had passed down to her about their childhood in the South—living at a time when blacks were no longer enslaved, but were “still not free.”

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder addresses a part of our country’s past that has often been kept quiet. In writing the book, Taylor did more than simply catalog her family’s oral histories. She dared to write outside the history books. She dared to tell the kinds of stories that had been deliberately withheld from textbooks; and in doing so, she gave the world a deeper, fuller, truer portrait of the southern American experience.

You want to motivate kids to tackle a book whose reading level might initially seem daunting, or whose cover might seem like it has nothing to do with their day-to-day reality? Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that people (not that long ago) went out of their way to keep secret. Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that many people—the very perpetrators of the kind of inhumanity exposed in these stories—would like to pretend never happened.

These children were every bit as shocked and spellbound by the novel as I remember being when I read it as a child.

And that is because this is MIND BLOWING stuff.

For starters, there’s the realization that the Logan children walk over an hour—usually barefoot on the dirt road—to get to their all-black school, while the children headed towards the white school tear by in school buses whose drivers purposely kick up mud in their wake.

There’s the descriptive contrast (which we sketched out together one week) of the white and black schools: one with manicured lawns and bleacher-framed athletic fields; the other with crabgrass checked by a roaming cow.

There’s the chilling scene that commences when Cassie’s teacher makes a big fanfare of presenting each member of the class—for the first time in the history of the school—with his or her own reader. Cassie and her brother’s excitement is quickly tainted when they open the readers and learn by the ledgers inside the cover that they are actually twelfth in line to use the books—and that their turn has only come because the white school has worn down the pages to the point of disintegration. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the twelfth spot is labeled “nigra.”

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And this is all from the first chapter.

What follows goes well beyond poverty and offensiveness and cuts clear into injustice, emotional cruelty, and physical violence. Black adults in the novel face burning (“the skin was scarred, burned, and the lips were wizened black, like charcoal”), tarring and feathering, and even death—all at the hands of white community leaders. The children in the book may be on the outskirts of such attacks; and yet, they face bullying of a different sort, like when Cassie is spit on and shoved into the street by an older white girl, after refusing to address her as Miz Lillian Jean.

I’ll admit that, several times early on in the book club, there were moments when I questioned whether I had overstepped in my book selection. These were largely eight and nine year olds, while Roll of Thunder is probably more appropriately suited for eleven and twelve year olds. The vocabulary is challenging, the sentence structure complex, and on top of that there’s Southern dialect. Most significantly, there is graphic and upsetting subject matter, including offensive language. Were these children ready for this? Were they even capable of understanding it?

Since the book was first published, Roll of Thunder has been criticized and even banned in various communities, particularly in the South, for—among other things—its use of the word nigger. In the new forward to the book, Taylor defends her work: “My stories will not be ‘politically correct’…as we all know, racism is offensive.”

The benefit of reading a book like this in the context of a book club or at home with parents is that it allows for controlled, guided discussions. Early on, the children and I looked up the history of the word nigger: its derivation from the word Negro—a word initially keyed by black intellectuals out of pride and respect for an African heritage—and its bastardization in the hands of white supremacists. We had passionate debates as to whether it was appropriate to say the word in the context of sharing passages aloud from the book; some children remained steadfast in their vehemence that they would not utter the word in any context.

Despite the challenging reading level and upsetting content, week after week, the kids kept showing up.

Even more, they astounded me with their insight and their passion.

They would stop me around the neighborhood and update me on where they were in the reading, reminding me of how many days until our next meeting and asking if I was as shocked as they were about what was happening.

During book club, they would request to act out scenes, not only to audition their Southern accent, but also to make sense of various grown-up practices, like buying on credit, which play a key role in the novel’s politics.

They were fascinated by the cover—a stirring illustration by Kadir Nelson for the book’s 40th anniversary—and often speculated on Cassie’s thoughts, while simultaneously emulating her defiant arms-crossed stance.

On their own, they memorized the Negro spiritual from whence the book’s title is derived and which is cited several times as Cassie’s rallying cry. They chanted it in unison as I walked into the room one week, their voices drumming together in a steady beat, their fists pounding on the table in emphasis.

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

How do I account for this kind of enthusiasm and engagement?

One word: Cassie.

By casting Cassie as the heart and soul of the story, Taylor gives the child reader a kindred spirit, one who transcends skin color or experience with prejudice. At the end of the day, Cassie is a nine-year-old child. She is fiercely protective of her siblings and deeply loyal to her self-respecting and determined family. She questions everything that is happening around her, and her unwavering sense of justice will feel familiar to any elementary child. She is both afraid and brave.

There are many other well-developed and relatable characters in the book—including Cassie’s older brother, Stacey, who was another favorite with my group—but it is through Cassie’s raw, innocent, inquisitive eyes that we are drawn firsthand into this very ugly side of American history.

Still, do not misunderstand me. Amidst the ugliness, there are plentiful moments of beauty, hope, and courage throughout the novel. There are the ways—many of them quiet and subversive, born out of cleverness as opposed to physical violence—that the different members of the Logan family wield power in the community, asserting their rights and enlisting others in the fight.

There is the love—and the deep, deep tenderness—that the Logans have for one another and the ways in which the older generation embeds in the younger ones the sacredness of family history, a reverence for the earth, and a way to preserve human dignity at all costs.

In reaction to a particularly upsetting demonstration of white power in the book, one of the book club members burst into tears and said she wished she wasn’t white. I realized we needed to take a step back and refrain from falling ourselves into the trap of vilifying an entire group of people because of their race.  And so we spent the next twenty minutes talking about the white characters in the book who do respect their black neighbors, who go out of their way to offer friendship, and who even at times speak out against others who oppose their views. It is actions, not skin color, that should command our attention and judgment.

On another day, we watched a contemporary video about the pitfalls of labels, be they race or religion or gender related. Then we watched it again.

One of the most profound realizations of the entire book club came on the heels of one of the most surprising chapters in the novel, when Cassie—after spending weeks submitting to Lillian Jean in an effort to earn her trust—lures Lillian Jean into the woods and beats her up. Some of the children admitted to being as duped by Cassie’s intentions as Lillian Jean herself, although all agreed that they figured out what was happening long before Lillian Jean did. I argued that Lillian Jean’s bewilderment at being “turned on” by Cassie is especially interesting, in light of the fact that Lillian Jean has gone out of her way to insult Cassie for most of her life.

“Why should it come as such a shock to her that Cassie would want to be mean back?” I asked the children.

There was a long pause, and then one child spoke up: “I know this sounds weird, but I don’t think Lillian Jean thought she was being mean all those times. I think she thought she was doing what everyone else like her was supposed to be doing.”

Another child jumped in: “It’s like her parents and all the other adults in her life have always been telling her, ‘you have to be mean to black people,’ ‘black people aren’t the same as us,’ and so she just thinks that’s how it is.”

And another: “It’s like my name. My parents have always called me by my name, so I know that it’s my name. If someone tried to tell me it wasn’t my name, I wouldn’t even believe them.”

May I remind you that these children are only eight and nine years old?! Oh, the wisdom that can be unearthed in our children! Because, of course, they are exactly right about the power of brainwashing, of the power that we as parents possess in the way we teach our children about the world.

After we finished the book, as we wrapped up our final meeting, I told the children I had two questions.

“Would you like to be friends with Cassie?”

The unanimous, affirmative shouts were so loud that they likely carried out to the street.

“If Cassie came over to your house for dinner, what would you want to ask her?”

Several of the children immediately responded that they would ask her how she felt about things that happened in the book—particularly during the nail-biting events of the final pages.

One girl was silent for a few minutes. Then she said, “I don’t think I would like to ask her about anything that already happened. I would like to ask her how she is enjoying the rest of her life.”

I continue to be struck by this statement—by the generosity and kindness and optimism that it reflects. (Of course, I immediately jumped at the chance to plug Mildred Taylor’s sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken.)

We all want to believe that things will get better. We all want to believe that, like the Logan family, we will do everything in our power to see that it does.

Right now, our children are still so young—still so innocent in the way they see the world. And yet, what they see and hear and read is beginning to open their eyes wider. With this widening comes not just power but responsibility: what they do with that power will depend on what examples of leadership we continue to share with them.

Let our children always have characters like Cassie to inspire them to stand up for what is right and just, to resist the danger of lumping groups together with labels, and to celebrate the rainbow of colors and individuality around them.

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Review copy 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!

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton JonesLast year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.

But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.”

I’ve seen what my kids can do with a pile of stuffed animals and two sheets—heck, I’ve even watched them play Tic Tac Toe on the living room floor with masking tape and kitchen cutlery—so I should know that they can do this. Heck, I do know it. They can battle boredom. I’ve seen it time and time again. And yet, the mere thought of little hands hanging on me and little voices whining for another snack and little feet pattering on my heels as I try and straighten the house—all of these the predictable precursors to the creative process—make me want to get out my wallet and head to Target.

Stop the madness. Summer should be my children’s time to plug fully and uninterruptedly into their imaginations. I need to resist staging; I need to resist meddling; I need to turn them loose in the backyard and shut the door behind them.

Thankfully, we have books like Elizabeth Orton Jones’ Twig (Ages 7-9, or younger if read aloud) to remind us of what fun can be made out of what is already on hand—that is to say, out of almost nothing at all.

Originally published in 1942, re-released in 1970, and then updated with an introduction from the author in 2001, Twig has every ounce of the nostalgia, charm, and quirkiness that we would expect from a 70-year-old chapter book (although, arguably, it does romanticize poverty to a fault). Hilarious blog posts like this one aside, we should perhaps take a page out of the parenting books of our own childhood, when we tromped around the backyard with skinned knees and itchy bug bites and our parents seemed almost surprised to see us at the end of the day. Magic almost always happens in children’s stories when the parents turn their backs.

Parents of fairy lovers rejoice! I have a found you another chapter book, which—like our beloved The Night Fairy—is based in the natural world, is beautifully told, and stars characters every bit as innocent and genuine and likeable and funny. Take a look at Twig‘s Table of Contents and tell me you don’t want to start this story at bedtime tonight.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

The author never comes out and says it directly, but Twig, the little girl at the heart of the story, is clearly poor. She lives on the “fourth floor of a high sort of house in the city,” has safety pins for buttons, and wears a piece of grocery string around one of her shoes to keep it from falling apart. She doesn’t appear to have any siblings, nor any fellow children as neighbors. She also doesn’t appear to have a single toy.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

What she does have is a backyard, which she shares with two sparrows, a cat, an ice-wagon horse, a leaky drainpipe, and a single dandelion. It is out of these things—as well as discarded household objects—that Twig constructs and stars in the most fanciful and amusing of adventures.

The story begins with a fairy house. Not the fairy house of our children’s imaginations, with mossy rocks and grassy beds and twigs tied with twine. This is a strictly urban fairy house, made from an empty, overturned can of tomatoes with a slit down the front (“where somebody’s can opener had made a mistake”). Twig furnishes the house with a thimble (cooking pot), a bottletop (which makes a table when balanced on the thimble), a piece of shiny paper (mirror), and an old feather (a broom to sweep the floors). And then she waits for a fairy to move in.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

A fairy does move in, although not the “pretty little fairy” Twig was expecting. Elf is an eager, mischievous, cap-sporting boy fairy with a potato skin for clothing and a high-pitched voice (“like the tiny little squeak which was in Twig’s Papa’s Sunday shoes”). We later learn that he has escaped from the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and is eager to try his hand at magic in “real life.” As far as Twig is concerned, Elf exceeds expectations the moment he tries out a magic spell from his trusty red book and ends up miniaturizing her. Suddenly, the two are keeping house together inside the tomato can, and it isn’t long before they are bantering like an old married couple.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Seen through the eyes of Twig’s new miniaturized self, the backyard becomes a place of wonder and excitement. She swings from the leaves of the lone dandelion. She drinks tea out of old toothpaste tops. Along with Elf, she climbs up the ice-wagon horse’s tail and takes a siesta nestled inside the horse’s ears. (Of course, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary is not without its limits: Twig has to draw the line when Elf brings a cockroach into the tomato can and attempts to endear him to Twig as a pet named Chummie.)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

But my daughter’s favorite adventures come when, perched on the back of Mrs. Sparrow, Twig and Elf take trips up to the nest to help the mother-to-be sit on her eggs. For one, the four eggs end up hatching on their watch, and Twig and Elf are beside themselves trying to figure out how to hush the endless “squa-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-k” of the ravenous babies (many giggles here). Secondly, the page-long description of the nest is itself fascinating—a regular archaeology site of discarded treasures. In addition to straw and horse hair and old feathers, there is “a piece of silver tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree,” a burnt match, the first six inches of a tape measure, and “a little limp piece of rubber from an old balloon” (“Oh! Twig had never seen such a mess!”)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Anyone hoping for some conventional fairy lore will not be disappointed, as the last third of the story brings the arrival of the Fairy Queen, who descends from Fairyland “with a long pink dress on, and hair that was as yellow as Twig’s Papa’s taxi, and wings you could see right through—like cellophane.” She is followed shortly by the quirkiest character in the book: a white-haired, wizened fairy named Lord Buzzle Cobb-Webb, who arrives on the Royal Magical Cobb-Webb Kerchief, addresses Twig as “young whipper-snapper,” and prepares to escort the Fairy Queen, Elf, and Twig if she so desires back to Fairyland.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

So commences my favorite scene, as Twig wrestles with her understanding of what is real, what is pretend, and who is the true mastermind behind these events. Of course, the savvy reader has suspected the answer all along: the book’s story is Twig’s creation—and, as such, Twig has the power to tell it again, tell it differently, or tell a new one altogether.

It’s the Fairy Queen who reveals Twig’s power to her. When Twig complains that she can’t make the trip to Fairyland on account of her “ordinary old dress,” the Queen assures her that it’s not what lies on the outside that matters, but what lies within.

The Queen looked up at the little round bud at the top of the dandelion stalk. “Do you know what is inside of that plain ordinary little round bud?” she asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered Twig. “A beautiful flower.”
“There is something just as beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen.
“Something—beautiful! Inside of—me!” said Twig. “Honestly, Your Majesty! How could there be?”
“How could there be a beautiful little flower inside of the little round bud?” asked the Queen.
Twig lifted her shoulder several times. “I don’t know!” she said. “There just is, that’s all.”
“And there ‘just is’ something beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen. “It’s called imagination.”
“Is that so?” said Twig. “What can it do?”
“It can do magic,” said the Queen.
“Magic!” squeaked Twig. “What kind of magic?”
“Any kind of magic you wish,” said the Queen.
“Well, for goodness sakes!” said Twig.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Imagination—the most precious childhood companion—doesn’t cost a cent.

My children have built their fair share of fairy houses in our backyard over the years. Here’s hoping that this summer, they will go one step further and allow their imaginations to take up residence front and center, to see their surroundings with fresh eyes, and to create new stories that will be no one’s but their own. The next time my kids tell me what to buy this summer, I’m going to tell them to take out the recycling. That should be everything they need to get busy.

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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!

God of Summer

June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai GersteinAs a stay-at-home parent, I greet the arrival of summer with equal parts giddiness, relief, and dread. I know I will watch my children grow before my eyes more rapidly than during any other season. I know the front hall will be draped with wet towels, half-empty coolers, and bottles of sun block. I know we will picnic in beautiful places. I know my children’s boredom will give way to creative partnerships the likes of which I could never predict. I know there will be tears; there will be yelling; there will be hysterical laughter. I know the noise will drive me into the laundry room. I know there will be long sticky cuddles while reading together on the couch. I know there will be dance parties. I know my children will jump at every chance to stay up and catch fireflies. I know their eyes will close the second their heads hit the pillow—and that mine will follow close behind.

For any ambivalence I might have about summer’s arrival, my children have none. For them, summer is something to be greeted with unadulterated ecstasy—the skipping, jumping, eating ice cream, and wearing whatever they want kind. In this, they feel a kinship to a certain Greek god in Mordicai Gerstein’s wildly infectious new picture book, I am Pan! (Ages 5-10).

For any parent whose days of studying Greek mythology are buried under dust, allow me to give you a refresher. Pan—with his horns and hoofed feet—is the exuberant god of the wild. He is god of noise and confusion, of silliness and mischief. He is the originator of the word “panic,” speaker of exclamation marks, and lover of honey, fruit and flowers. In short, he is every child’s alter ego: the kid (well, kid at heart) who can get get away with anything, who can act up and out on every whim, and who somehow remains adorable through all of it. He is the Curious George of Mount Olympus.

Traditionally, Pan is associated with fertility and the season of spring, a connection briefly alluded to in the book’s final page. As far as my children are concerned, though, he should be the god of summer. He represents everything that summer break promises to them: the freedom to romp, frolic, and laze about to their hearts’ content.

As if the very notion of a god of noise wasn’t enticing enough, Mordicai Gerstein has given our children a visual and narrative rendition of Pan’s story that explodes and entertains at every turn. It’s not the serious treatment that Gerstein gave to his spectacular Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, but something closer in tone and style to his earlier summertime story, How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers. In I am Pan!, Gerstein outdoes himself: trading in typeset completely for hand lettering, presenting all dialogue in speech bubbles, and challenging the very boundaries of the picture book. Whether or not your kids already love comics and graphic novels; whether or not they already love (or even know anything about) Greek mythology: I guarantee that they are going to run to the highest hilltop and sing out their love for this book.

As Pan’s autobiography—yes, the entire book is narrated by the egocentric rascal—the book also serves as a fun and lighthearted introduction to Greek mythology. I mentioned a few posts ago that my eight year old is already well down the mythology path (he immediately hijacked this book until he had read it three times through); but most mythology texts are too dark or complex for my five year old. NOT THIS ONE. Gerstein reveals just the right amount of information about Pan’s fellow gods and goddesses, lends just the right amount of frivolity and hilarity to the family saga that is Mount Olympus. My daughter’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued. (As I’m typing this, she is home sick from school and literally wrangling the book away from me.)

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In a jam packed, visually prolific 72 pages, Pan gives us eleven highlights of his life, beginning with his birth. Is it any surprise that, in lieu of a heartbeat, the midwife heard shouts, snickers, and giggles coming from his mother’s womb?

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Hands down a favorite with both kids is the moment when Pan is introduced to Zeus, described on more than one occasion as exceedingly “grumpy.” Pan, still a baby (although it only takes him an hour and fifteen minutes to become fully grown), reaches out and bonks Zeus on the nose. To everyone’s surprise, Zeus is immediately smitten.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Eventually, though, Pan wears out his welcome with his extended family on Mount Olympus (“He delights my heart, but he’s a menace,” says Hera) and is sent to Arcadia to rule over grassy hills, idyllic waterfalls, and shepherds and nymphs.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In Arcadia, where Pan becomes master of his own domain, noisy drama and physical comedy reign. Pan plays a role in some of Greek mythology’s most entertaining stories, including serving as the catalyst for King Midas’ jackass ears, falling in love with an echo, and rescuing Zeus’ sinews from a monster even noisier than him. (I bet you never thought you could have so many bizarre conversations with your kids).

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

If myths were originally told to explain elements of our world, Pan’s stories are no exception: Pan crafts the first love song, is the inspiration behind the marathon, and—most famously—invents panic. For all his larger-than-life personality, Pan is a great lover of naps. When he initially arrives in Arcadia, he promises “laughing, singing, dancing, and all kinds of noise, celebration and gaiety”—but with one exception: nap time. When an ant interrupts Pan’s nap with a sneeze, Pan explodes, and the sound makes every living creature around him jump with panic. Pan quickly discovers that his ability to ignite panic is his greatest superpower—more effective than all the bows and arrows combined—and he later uses it to help the Greeks win against the Persians.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

For all the trouble he stirs up, Pan is not a trouble maker at heart (the same may be said of Curious George). He is simply motivated by the egocentricity, jealousy, and desire that affect gods and humans alike. Ultimately, though, it’s his innocent and uninhibited gaiety that readers will remember long after the final page. Pan plays songs on his reed pipes that make “the birds dance with the clouds” and the “bunnies dance with the foxes.” He loves his family with a boisterous, almost suffocating kind of affection. He feels the joy of living in his bones and horns and hooves, and he simply cannot bear to keep it in.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Whether we’re ready or not, summer is nearly upon us. May your little Pans find endless channels for their own exuberance—and may you find moments of quiet in which to enjoy them.

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Review copy provided by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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