February 16, 2017 § 4 Comments
“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.”
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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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!
February 9, 2017 § 7 Comments
In 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 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.
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?
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?)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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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!
February 2, 2017 § 1 Comment
Robert 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.
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.
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.
Which is funnier—the epic fails or the unlikely successes—is hard to say when your kids are giggling their pants off.
One salon client loves his hippo-styled coiffure; another is horrified by her sudden resemblance to a red-and-black striped panda.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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!
January 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
If 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.
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).
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 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”?
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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!
January 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
This Saturday, following Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States of America, possibly a million or more women will participate in organized marches all over the country, a vehement and vocal response to the objectifying, demeaning, and hostile rhetoric towards women (as well as minority populations) that the president elect boastfully carries with him into office. It will be our way of ensuring that these sentiments are not normalized, that they are not translated into policy, and that they will not turn back the clock to a past that, just a handful of months ago, felt to many (myself included) blessedly out of date.
This past weekend, as I shared with my children Doreen Rappaport’s new picture book, Elizabeth Started All the Trouble (Ages 6-10)—a highly engaging introduction to the 75-year-long suffrage movement started by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848—I was reminded of the legacy of women that stand at our backs, a legacy that suddenly feels hauntingly close. If history is doomed to repeat itself, then we are taking to the streets in 2017 to ensure, in the very best of ways, that it does. Because, as Rappaport reminds us, women who stand up and speak out and do so again and again will force fissures on the most stubbornly patriarchal, racist, and xenophobic obstacles. And it would appear our work is far from finished.
My own children, captivated by Matt Faulkner’s illustrations of the various signs held up by generations of protesting women—“Vote for Equality,” “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” “Respect Your Mother Earth,” “Failure is Impossible,” and “No H8”—were surprisingly quick to point out, “Mommy, people could make those same signs for the March next weekend. They’re still true, aren’t they?” It seems our children are already privy to a living, breathing resistance movement, the likes of which many of us previously glimpsed only in history books.
What I perhaps enjoy most about Elizabeth Started All the Trouble is that, contrary to what its title suggests, it is less concerned with one player in history and more concerned with the diversity of trailblazers and game changers. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott may have formalized a document demanding women’s rights at the historic convention at Seneca Falls, NY on July 13, 1848, but our author suggests that the fight for women’s equality began with our country’s founding mothers. Rappaport’s book opens with a prescient warning delivered over 235 years ago by Abigail Adams to her husband, John, during his work drafting laws for an America that had just declared independence from Britain.
Abigail was ecstatic. She wanted independence as much as John did. But she was worried: Would women be included in the new laws? She warned John that if women were not remembered, they would start their own revolution.
John laughed at her.
It took much longer than Abigail wanted for that revolution to begin. But if finally started, seventy-two years later.
While this eventual “revolution” would most dramatically center on a woman’s right to vote—a pursuit immortalized by Stanton and Mott and adopted by Susan B. Anthony—it was also about fighting against “all the unfair laws against women written by men.”
In that spirit, the book incorporates many of the “firsts” that took place alongside the suffrage movement: Amelia Bloomer, who advocated women trading in their fourteen-pound petticoats for less cumbersome clothing; Mary Lyon, who founded Mount Holyoke College, where women could study the same subjects as men; Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, who opened the first medical school to women; and Lucy Stone, who refused to say the word “obey” in her marriage vows and kept her name in the spirit of “equal partnership.” Young readers may well come away from this book with plans for additional research subjects.
Author Rappaport doesn’t shy away from exposing the hypocrisies embedded in this part of American history either, particularly where the rights of women and African Americans intersected. Stanton and Mott were initially involved in abolitionism—and yet, even as they were allowed in the same room as delegates debating the issue of slavery, they were forced as women to sit behind a curtain so they could not be seen. “How could men who were against slavery deny women their rights just because they were women?” the book asks.
In another example, the freed slave Sojourner Truth “caused quite a stir” at a suffragist meeting by pointing out the gross differences between the treatment of white women versus black women: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best places everywhere…Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”
The right to vote remains the greatest and most opposed struggle of the women’s rights movement, and author Rappaport (with her dramatic pacing) and illustrator Faulkner (with his distortions of perspective) do a stellar job of eliciting awe for the fight it was. What strikes me most in these pages is just how long the suffrage movement endured—how many speeches and marches took place (in snow, rain, hail, and blizzards); how many times people faced name calling, physical attacks, and even imprisonment. This Saturday’s march is daunting enough—but what’s more daunting is that it’s less than a fraction of what our predecessors did!
In the end—and if their struggle wasn’t tortuous enough—most of the longest fighting suffragists did not live to see August 26, 1920, the date in which women were lawfully granted the right to vote with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment (although, as Jonah Winter’s powerful Lillian’s Right to Vote reveals, that was not the final word for African-American women).
Recently in the car, I was listening to an interview on Ted Radio Hour with Krista Tippett, host of the public-radio show “On Being,” She was discussing her Ted Talk on the subject of compassion, and she spoke about what she believes is a frequent misunderstanding of the word. “Compassion is not necessarily about agreeing with someone else,” she says. “It’s not necessarily even about liking them. It is about making a choice to honor their humanity.”
It strikes me that this Saturday’s march—and the future demonstrations which are certain to follow—are, at their core, about just that: about reminding our government, our fellow citizens, and everyone around the world that the simple fact of being human demands that we begin from a place of respect and decency. The United States of America was founded on the promise of freedom and equality. We may have needed frequent reminders of this promise over our 241 years as a country—we are seeing now that we cannot grow complacent—but we will never let our humanity be eclipsed.
Books like Elizabeth Started All the Trouble invite our children into the rich tapestry of activism which continues to shape the way we—both men and women—should be able to live.
Other Favorites About the Women’s Rights Movement:
Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, by Tanya Lee Stone & Rebecca Gibbon
Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles, by Mara Rockliff
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by Jonah Winter (my post here)
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers Strike of 1909, by Michelle Markel & Melissa Sweet (my post here)
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, by Tanya Lee Stone & Marjorie Priceman
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy & Elizabeth Braddeley
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!
January 12, 2017 § 4 Comments
Back when my children were nearing three and six years old, I started a family tradition which might be considered creatively brilliant or utterly insane. You can be the judge. This was during a time when my daughter liked to pretend she was a dog during mealtimes, bowing her chin to her food and licking her plate. I can’t remember what my son was doing across the table, because I’ve evidently blocked it out. What I do know is that no pontification on the importance of table manners seemed to make a speck of difference.
And so, one evening, I announced to my children (and my skeptical husband) that, once per season, we were going to have Bad Manners Dinner, whereupon everyone at the table could eat with wild abandon.
The only catch was that, during all the other days of the year, they had to show appropriate table manners.
From that day forward, every transgression at the table was met with “Save that for Bad Manners Dinner!” or “I think that belongs at Bad Manners Dinner!” IT WAS LIKE YIELDING A MAGIC WAND: the respective horror would disappear as quickly as it had surfaced. The children even began policing themselves, in anticipation of what quickly became a beloved, hilarious, and admittedly bizarre family ritual. Four times a year, during Bad Manners Dinner, we would slurp, burp, and gurgle; we would eat with our feet on the table; we would get up and dance around just because we could. We would drum our forks and knives; we would pretend to snore with our head on our arm; we would whine and complain and insult every morsel on our plate.
Over the years, perhaps as the novelty has worn off and laziness has set in—or maybe because my kids’ manners are now mostly passable, at least by American standards—we remember less frequently to plan Bad Manners Dinner. Today, we are going on almost a year without it. (This may or may not be owing to my husband tearing off his shirt and beating his chest during the last one; there are certain things we cannot un-see—and this also goes for the woman who was walking her dog by our dining room window that day.)
But it occurs to me that this deviation from Standard Parenting Procedure was exactly what our family needed at the time—and probably what it needs a whole lot more often than I can muster up the creativity. It is perhaps the closest I have come to dishing up a “cure” in the likes of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Betty MacDonald’s literary heroine from the 1950s, who dotes lovingly on the children in her small town, while simultaneously administering magical solutions to their bad habits and ill-manners. Your child has a chronic case of Bath Avoidance? Not to worry: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle will give you a packet of radish seeds which, when sprinkled on your child’s dirt-encrusted skin at night, will begin sprouting plants in the morning. In a matter of days, regular bath time will be welcomed with open arms.
A few years ago on a road trip, we listened to every single one of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, read by Karen White. I was perfectly content to stop after the first one (the episodic chapters quickly feel derivative, say nothing of the 1950s gender stereotypes, where Dad puffs cigars while reading the evening paper and Mom frantically preps dinner while placing desperate phone calls to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle). But I was passionately out-voted. The kids were obsessed. They’d strain forward in their seats to hear every word and then throw their heads back in laughter. It turns out they were as charmed by this magical woman—who lives in an Upside-Down House with her eccentric pets and a backyard of buried treasure—as were the children who swallowed her potions and befell the most outlandish (but always effective) consequences.
So I knew we were going to hit gold when I heard that children’s author Ann M. Martin (yup, the same Ann M. Martin I just wrote about) had teamed up with Annie Parnell, MacDonald’s great-granddaughter, to launch a modern-day series starring Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s youthful great niece, Missy Piggle-Wiggle. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the chapter series is illustrated by comics-master Ben Hatke, who can do no wrong in our family’s eyes—and who has endowed his sketches of Missy with much of the same effervescent generosity as Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.
Missy is, like her great aunt, versed in magic formulas. She is also happy to take up temporary residence in the Upside-Down House, after receiving a beseeching letter from Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who has mysteriously departed to search for her missing pirate husband. Missy’s mission is two-fold: she must care for Wag the dog, Lightfoot the cat, Lester the (exceedingly polite) pig, Penelope the parrot, and the temperamental house (which has a mind of its own)—while also answering stressed-out calls from parents who are losing battles with entitlement, sibling rivalry, junk food, talking back, or dinners that never end.
The first book in the new series, Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), was indeed a raging success in our household when I debuted it during Winter Break. (We haven’t laughed that hard since Nanny Piggins, and we’re all very disappointed that we have to wait until next fall for Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Won’t-Walk-the-Dog Cure.)
Contrary to what the title suggests, the first book is ripe with many different behavioral malaises and their cures. After an admittedly somewhat slow start, the new book also maintains the episodic chapter format—each chapter focusing on one child—only this time with refreshing connectivity among the characters, including a budding love interest between Missy and the town’s bachelor bibliophile. (My only wish is that the authors had spun more diversity into this predominantly white small town.)
At the center of Missy’s challenges in the first book is the Freeforall family (you’re going to love the names in this book), including nine-year-old Petulance (who suffers from greediness), her twin sister Honoriah (a premier Know It All), their younger brother Frankfort (whose default response is “Whatever”), and their workaholic parents, Mr. and Mrs. Freeforall, who seem more interested in their lap tops than their children.
But there is also little Melody, who moves in just down the street from the Upside-Down House and suffers from extreme shyness. There’s Heavenly Earwig (seriously, you can’t beat these names), a dear sweet child who is, alas, late to everything. And there’s the previously-health-conscious Linden Pettigrew, whose grating new habit of smacking his giant wads of bubblegum can be heard across town. And that’s just a start.
To Missy’s credit—and I might do well to take a page from her book—she is rarely alarmed by such behaviors, nor does she allow them to cloud her vision of the goodness she believes lies at the heart of every child. Missy’s willingness to bake cookies for any child that shows up at her doorstep makes her a friend and accomplice to all.
Naturally, the reader’s plainest delights come from witnessing Missy’s most fantastical cures. Missy bestows on Heavenly a watch that emits a piercing alarm which only she can hear—the cacophonous compilation of every smoke detector, church gong, and iphone ring in the world–each time she is about to utter “just one more minute” to her waiting parents and teachers.
After Missy slips a powder into Petulance’s glass of milk, whatever object she grabs at or attempts to hoard immediately shrinks to the size of a pea.
Hands down my kids’ favorite antidote: the giant globe-like gum ball that Missy gives Linden, which goes from tasting of apple cinnamon and raspberry one moment to anchovy and dirty sponge the next. (We had some serious family conversations about what “dirty sponge” would taste like. Bleh.)
The quieter delights of the book come from the least outlandish cures—indeed, those involving no magic at all. Missy’s play dates in her backyard, where children bond over digging holes in search of pirate treasure, become the impetus that shy Melody needs to start speaking to others.
And my personal favorite? Well, let’s just say there was not a dry eye in the house during the scene where Missy facilitates a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Freeforall and their children, after the parents overhear the kids say to Missy, “I don’t think they care about us. We aren’t as important as their work.” (As Missy proclaims earlier to her great aunt’s pig, “If only grown-ups were as easy to cure as children.”) All is well that ends well, but sob, that may have hit a little too close to home.
As the New Year begins, my kids may still be hooting over Frankfort, who winds up temporarily trapped in a giant floating bubble after saying “whatever” one too many times, but I am resolving to take inspiration from Missy Piggle-Wiggle. I am resolving to suppress the urge to lecture or threaten or yell (or escape into Facebook) and instead to bring some much-needed levity back into my parenting. I am resolving to listen with compassion, to try the unexpected, and to laugh at ourselves, even if it means standing on our heads while eating spaghetti with our fingers at our next Bad Manners Dinner (is this even possible?). Join me if you dare.
Book published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 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!
December 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
Call it Seasonal Affective Disorder; call it the anticipation of school closures (let’s just give up now); call it the fact that it now takes us seven times longer to get out of the house: whatever the reason, as soon as a cold snap hits every year, I want to hibernate. And yet, consider this, my fair-weathered friends: the polar bear—a creature who lives in the coldest corners of the Earth; who eats, walks and sleeps on ice; and who is surrounded by nothing but white and blue all day, every day—does not hibernate.
That someone can love the cold this much—and, in fact, depend on it for its very survival—is just one of the many things that endear us to the polar bear, as evidenced in Jenni Desmond’s extraordinary tribute, The Polar Bear (Ages 6-10), a factually accurate yet poetic picture book with some of the most stunning illustrations I have ever seen (seriously, I’m not sure I can bring myself to shelve this book, its cover is so gorgeous).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if non-fiction looked and sounded like this when I was a kid, I would know a lot more.
Desmond’s title is the second in a new series about threatened species (I raved about The Blue Whale in this guest post; and I am giddy that her third will feature elephants). She’s never preachy: on the contrary, the only mention of the plight facing the polar bear—global warming, which has led to less ice on which the polar bear can hunt—is in the Author’s Note, which prefaces a 38-page celebration of the physical and behavioral adaptations of this magnificent animal and its unforgiving habitat. And yet, one cannot read this book, in light of that Author’s Note, without feeling both awe for the polar bear’s present and fear for its future.
Invoking a kind of metaphysical book-within-a-book approach that seems to be catching on in children’s non-fiction (see also Jason Chin, whose Redwoods and Coral Reefs are nothing short of astounding), Desmond’s books explore their subjects through the eyes of a child who is reading about them. In the case of The Polar Bear, as a child pulls the same book off the shelf, the line begins to blur between reading and living, until the child herself becomes a kind of witness and companion to the very bear about whom she studies.
She reads that the polar bear is also called a sea bear, and that this huge marine mammal spends most of its life on ice and snow of the frozen Arctic Ocean. In the spring and autumn, the flexible sea ice can bend and give way under the polar bear’s colossal weight. In the summer, there is virtually no ice to hunt across. In winter, the polar bear walks for miles over solid expanses of ice in search of food.
Desmond’s washes of white and grey are all the more striking when contrasted with the whimsy and detail in the girl’s attire—her red and white striped stockings, her red checked crown. A terrain never looked bleaker, yet never more beautiful. (Desmond explains that the polar bear’s coat is actually yellow or grey—and its skin black—but the effect is one of whiteness because of the bright, uninterrupted sunlight).
We are not strangers to books about polar bears in this house. Perhaps because he has always had a deep love of winter himself, my son has chosen to study polar bears more often than any other subject in school; and last winter I posted about Jeanette Winter’s Nanuk: The Ice Bear, a sparse but lovely introduction to the life cycle of the polar bear. Desmond’s book is much denser, aimed at the mind that wants more, more, more, yet the narrative is equally lyrical. A polar bear’s enormous paws, for example, not only “act like snowshoes, spreading out the bear’s weight as it moves across deep snow and fragile ice,” but they have tiny little bumps (like the surface of a basketball) to prevent the animal from sliding. All of these facts are synthesized in real time by the child in the book, as by us.
My kids were fascinated to learn that you can count the rings inside a polar bear’s tooth to find out how long he has been alive. Ditto that polar bears can smell a seal from many miles away—even more so when they stand on their hind legs—and that one seal can satisfy a polar bear for 11 days. I can guarantee your child, like mine, will feel the need to trace each of these dotted lines to see which food source the polar bear is smelling in the book.
We often hear how vicious polar bears are, so I was shocked to find out the polar bear successfully kills only one out of every twenty seals that it hunts, owing to the seal’s superior swimming ability. My respect for these resilient creatures only grows! My kids, on the other hand, were more impressed by the blood spattered across the bear’s mouth and paws after killing and eating a seal—a mess that the finicky polar bear is quick to scrub off once his meal is digested.
More blood is spilled (although not pictured) during the “savage battles” between males at mating time, resulting in the impregnated females digging birthing dens well beneath mounds of frigid snow. Curled around her cubs, this is the closest the female polar bear comes to hibernating—and, indeed, we can certainly relate to the desire to snuggle our little ones close and warm.
Polar bears do not hibernate. They like to sleep though, and can sleep almost anywhere at any time. Like humans, polar bears sleep in different positions. On warm days, they might stretch out on their back with their feet up in the air or lie down on their stomachs. On cold, snowy days, they curl up with a paw over their snout for warmth, letting the snow cover them like a blanket.
It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
This is my last post of 2016. May 2017 dawn with a plethora of new books and a renewed passion for protecting our planet and the marvelous creatures who share it. In the meantime, I hope you and your loved ones sleep tight.
Book published by Enchanted Lion 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!