In Praise of One Exasperating Girl

November 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

How often do we climb inside our children’s heads and look around? How often do we push past the in-our-face behaviors to understand the nuances of feelings behind them?

Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it.

I was tempted to embark on the Clementine books two years ago after our enormous success with Ramona. (Suffice it to say that when we finished the Ramona books, we had to read all the Henry Huggins titles, simply because Ramona would make occasional appearances.) I was again tempted to start Clementine every time Emily begged me to read Dory Fantasmagory or one of its sequels (I credit the third, about Dory’s struggle to learn to read, with convincing Emily to put forth more effort on the subject herself). Or Lulu’s Mysterious Mission. Or the Cody books. But I bided my time, because I knew I was saving the best for last.

OHHHHHH YES.

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading aloud anything this much. I mean, quite literally, that reading aloud these books—narrated in Clementine’s insistently dramatic, alternately confident and bewildered voice—is beyond entertaining. Clementine is the kid who talks with such gumption, such purity of heart, that adults have to do all they can to keep from laughing (or maybe, if they’re related to her, bury their face in their hands).

“I’d better not go to school today,” I told my mom on Wednesday as soon as I woke her up. “I have cracked toes.” I put my foot right up on the pillow next to her face so she could see without getting up. This is called Being Thoughtful.
“Nope,” she said, without even opening her eyes to see if it was true.
“Well, that’s not all,” I said. “I also have the heartbreak of sore irises.”
“Nope,” she said again, and she still didn’t open her eyes.
“Actually, I think I have arthritis,” I said. “Mrs. Jacobi was breathing on me in the elevator the other day, and I must have caught it.”
“Oh, please,” she said, but this time she opened one eye. And then she made exactly the sound Polka Dottie used to make when she had a hairball.

There’s no question that Emily’s own tangible excitement (dare I say obsession?) also enhanced my enjoyment. She even created a secret Clementine signal. When she’d curve her fingers to make the letter “c” at me from across the dinner table, I knew she was thinking about Clementine. On weekend morning, when she’d climb into bed with me and make a “c” with her hands, I knew she was about to procure the book from underneath the covers. “Oh, Mommy, I think about her all day long,” she said one day after school. “I just can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.”

After all, these books are full of trouble. Of mistakes, of misunderstandings, of escapades that go terribly, often hilariously wrong. Only Clementine would overhear her parents discussing a surprise party—complete with a cake reading “Goodbye and Good Riddance!”—and assume they were plotting to get rid of her. (In fact, they’re celebrating Clementine’s clever solution for relocating the hordes of pigeons sprawled across the stoop of their apartment building.) Only Clementine, in an effort to ensure her favorite teacher won’t win a sabbatical in Egypt and leave her, would submit a letter to the judges filled with fabricated criminal accusations. Only Clementine would turn shoe shopping into such a prolonged calamity of indecision that her parents would begin bribing one another for the chance to avoid taking her shopping ever again.

There’s undeniable appeal in watching life play out from the safe confines of a book’s pages. But I’d argue that the appeal of Clementine goes deeper than simply watching a third grader navigate the shifting expectations of academic, social, and family life.

What author Sara Pennypacker does so brilliantly (and with more than a little help from Marla Frazee’s expressive pencil sketches) is to create a window into the inner-workings of the mind of a girl who is often judged prematurely or incorrectly or unfairly. When Clementine is sent to the principal’s office for not paying attention in class again, we know—because she’s our narrator, after all—that she was paying excellent attention, just not to what her teacher was saying. In fact, she never stops paying attention: to pointy things (which freak her out); to the fourth graders playing outside her class window (as a future fourth grader herself, it’s imperative she understands their “rules”); to devising a list of excuses to get out of performing at the school talent show.

I remember a friend telling me she abandoned the first book after Clementine chops off her friend’s hair, then her own, then colors both scalps with permanent marker. “I don’t need my daughter getting any ideas. That girl is a pain in the you know what!” she relayed to me in horror (only she didn’t say “you know what”). But if we don’t read on, we miss the chance—like most of the adults around Clementine—to understand why she did what she did: how she was trying to help her friend, who had accidentally gotten her hair caught in the scissors in art class. How when she saw that her own actions had made her friend feel even worse, she did the same to herself in solidarity. How she chose the permanent markers because they were the most special thing in her artist mother’s supply closet. Clementine doesn’t understand why the principal, not to mention the two mothers, can’t see this. Heck, she doesn’t understand why they aren’t impressed that she could sheer someone’s head with a pair of plastic scissors in the first place.

[Also] it is very hard to color hair with a marker, let me tell you. But I did it. I colored all of Margaret’s hair chunks Flaming Sunset, and then another really great idea popped into my head and I drew Flaming Sunset curls all over her forehead and the back of her neck so her hair would look more like mine. It looked beautiful, like a giant tattoo of tangled-up worms. When I am a grown-up, I will have hundreds of tattoos.

Here’s what we come to understand about Clementine: she may be the Curious George of chapter books, igniting chaos at every turn, but it’s only because she is trying her very best to put things right, to connect with others, to save the day. She wants so badly to be understood, to have people look at her with that awe-filled “I must be dreaming” expression, as she puts it.

Throughout the books, more and more adults come to see Clementine for the kind, passionate, perceptive soul she is. They take her most infuriating qualities—her impulsivity, her stubbornness, her inattention—and recognize the strengths they belie. She has an eye for things most people miss. She has conviction to take down life’s injustices. She is resourceful. She’s an artist, a writer, a pigeon tamer, a kitten rescuer, and a whiz with numbers. When people, like her beloved teacher Mr. DeMatz, give her a chance to rise to the occasion and put their confidence behind her, she rarely disappoints.

Hands down, my favorite non-Clementine character is her father. As facilities manager for the apartment building where the family lives in the basement, he’s usually around when Clementine returns from school. He takes his daughter’s mood swings or mis-steps and approaches them with calm and humor. You can feel the mutual affection and respect, even while Clementine reminds him that “fathers aren’t supposed to be comedians.” When she’s in a funk, he gives her the keys to the service elevator and lets her ride it up and down. When she pitches a fit upon discovering her parents are having a third baby, he stages Project Pentagon, and the two covertly build a five-sided kitchen table so no one will ever be squished.

Over the course of the six books, which span Clementine’s entire third grade year into summer, we witness significant emotional maturity in her, albeit in realistic fits and starts. She learns to “press her mouth together in a pencil line” rather than to say something inappropriate or hurtful. She learns to stand up to peer pressure; and to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. She realizes that, as much as she detests her name (and insists on calling her brother by different vegetable names, so he can experience what it’s like to have a “food name”), she’s like a clementine in one fundamental way: she is made up of different sections. Sometimes those sections are in harmony with one another and sometimes they are not. Because life—and people—are rarely that straightforward.

This is series writing at its best. The kind of writing where the characters seep into your consciousness, where just when you think you can predict what is going to happen, someone does something so unexpected, so vulnerable, so thrilling, it pulls the rug out from underneath you. Did I mention that every one of the book’s endings left my eyes more than just a little watery?

Ultimately, these pages are testimony that there are often complicated motivations and feelings at work behind outwardly “difficult” behaviors. Daydreamers have rich interior lives. Disruptors have important things to stew about. Indecisive children don’t want to miss out on anything. Impulsivity means someone hasn’t learned to control her passions. If we get rid of labels and try to see the whole of our child, we might begin looking at her or him the way Clementine’s parents do, as if she was “the winning ticket in the kid lottery.”

 

P.S. Sara Pennypacker is currently through book two of a new series titled Waylon, about a science-loving boy in Clementine’s class who may or may not have actual superhero powers. Obviously, we’ll be reading that…because it’s rumored that our favorite gal makes the occasional appearance.

A Statue on the Move

November 9, 2017 § 3 Comments

“Did you know the Statue of Liberty is moving?”

My son and my mother were leaning out over the Hudson River, craning to see the iconic green statue, on our recent trip to New York City to visit Grandma.

My mom looked up, confused. “They’re relocating the Statue of Liberty?”

“No,” JP said. “The statue is supposed to look like it’s moving. Her right foot is lifted like she’s taking a step. Most people don’t know that.”

In fact, this is my son’s (also my) favorite new fact to drop on people. Perhaps not quite as shocking as relaying that if all the sharks died, the oceans would eventually dry up—but pretty darn close. Because who stops on his way to gaze up at Lady Liberty’s seven-pointed crown and her iconic raised torch to look down at her heels?

We can thank literary wunderkind Dave Eggers for shedding light on this fascinating detail—and for authoring a 108-page children’s picture book that reads so quickly, so fluidly, and so hilariously, that we hardly realize we’re learning about the enduring symbolism behind the largest sculpture “in all the land.” This is a whole new interpretation of narrative non-fiction, and I love it. I can’t remember the last time a non-fiction book showed up on our doorstep and both kids promptly read the entire thing, cover to cover, to themselves, in one sitting. (Although the book is such a read-aloud delight I couldn’t resist reading it to them a few more times.)

Her Right Foot (Ages 6-12) assumes a conversational approach meant to surprise as much as delight, and artist Shawn Harris’ bold and contemporary paper collages brushed with India Ink perfectly complement Eggers’ signature irreverence. The book assumes the reader comes with a basic familiarity of the Statue of Liberty, including perhaps some mistaken assumptions.

I’ll admit to being as astounded as my children. Did you know that the most recognized symbol of immigration in the world was herself an immigrant?  As the book explains in its opening pages, the Statue of Liberty was not only designed in France as a gift to the United States on its one hundredth anniversary, but it was originally assembled to completion in Paris.

But it’s so much more fun when Eggers tells it:

Did you know this? Ask your friends and even your teachers if they knew that before the Statue of Liberty was assembled in New York, she was first constructed in Paris. Your friends and teachers will be astounded. They will be impressed. They might think you are fibbing.

But you are not fibbing. This really happened. The Statue of Liberty stood there, high above Paris, for almost a year, in 1884.

After they assembled the statue in Paris, they took it apart.

But we just put it together! the workers said.

That is absurd, they said.

They said all this in French, the language of the French, a people who appreciate the absurd.

In other words, the Statue of Liberty once sailed across the sea to come to rest in America (in 214 crates, to be exact), much like the immigrants she welcomes every day.

Eggers goes on to discuss the Statue’s assembling on what was then Bedloe’s Island, across from New York’s bustling harbor. My kids were especially interested to discover that the statue originally looked brown. Or perhaps they were especially interested in how Eggers chooses to explain this to his young readers: You may have thought the illustrator of this book was not so good at his job, because we all know the Statue of Liberty to be a certain greenish-blue. But the Statue of Liberty was made of copper, and copper starts out brown. In fact, it stayed brown for 35 years.

More of the Statue’s symbolism is unpacked, from her seven-pointed crown (seven seas, seven continents) to the book she holds with the signing date of the Declaration of Independence. Readers might already know that the torch she carries “is a symbol of enlightenment, lighting the path to liberty and freedom,” but it’s unlikely any child knows that Thomas Edison once proposed to put a giant record player inside the Lady so she could speak. (In the end, though, this idea was considered a bit strange and was not pursued.) Or that a dinner party once took place inside the statue for a bunch of gourmand French writers.

All this spans the book’s first half and is a compelling build up to Eggers’ central and favorite revelation, something he noticed when visiting the Statue with his family a few years ago. The Statue of Liberty, as it turns out, is anything but statuesque. This 150-foot woman, weighing 450,000 pounds and sporting a 879 size shoe, is on the move. Her entire right leg is constructed mid-stride, her foot lifting out of bondage chains which lie broken at her feet. Why is this detail omitted in so many lessons and books about the Statue of Liberty? More importantly, Eggers asks, what does it mean?

Where is she going?

After some tongue-and-cheek responses which perhaps have more hipster than kid appeal (Is she going to the West Village for her vintage Nico records?), Eggers settles into a gentle but deeply moving 17-page meditation on what it means to honor the journey of immigrants and refugees. On what it means to welcome Italians, Polish, Norwegians, Glaswegians, Cambodians, Estonians, Somalis, Nepalis, Syrians, and Liberians.

On what it means to give promise to “the poor, the tired, the struggling to breathe free.”

Eggers wonders:

If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, if the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States, then how can she stand still?

Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of a statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest.

She is not content to wait.

She must meet them in the sea.

We don’t know for sure why the Statue’s foot is raised or what the artist intended. But Eggers’ theory hits all the right notes—and is as timely as ever. Our Lady Liberty is a mover, a shaker, and an empathizer.

In last night’s election results here in Virginia, a refreshing picture of inclusion emerged. Among other firsts for positions in our state government were an openly transgender female, an Asian-American woman, and two Latina delegates. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first-ever Sikh mayor. I am hopeful for the first time in many months that Americans are moving towards embracing a vision of patriotism based on the melting pot out of which our country’s greatness will emerge.

But, as Lady Liberty herself reminds us, there is always more to be done. More steps to take.

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Review copy provided by Chronicle 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!

Understanding Bravery

November 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

I heard the sobs before I saw him. It was a Monday evening, two weeks ago. My daughter and I were sitting in the living room, reading the fifth book in the Clementine series (more on that another time, because OBSESSED) and waiting for my son to ride his bike home from soccer practice. In between paragraphs, I kept sneaking glances at the open front door. I had expected JP at seven, and it was now twenty minutes past. Darkness had fallen. He has his bike light, I kept telling myself. He’ll be fine.

And then, from outside, I heard heaving gasps of air. I flew through the door, just in time to witness my ten year old throw himself off his bike and collapse onto the pavement in a fit of tears. “What on earth has happened?” I cried, all manner of horrors racing through my mind.

“I CAN’T FIND MY WATCH!” he wailed. “I took it off during practice and I thought I put it in my bag but I must have put it next to the bag and I didn’t remember until I was halfway home and then I rode back to the field and tried to use my bike light to find it but it was too dark and I was feeling around on the grass where I thought it was and…and…and…”

My first reaction, which I did my best to conceal, was one of immense relief (Lord, child, I thought you had been chased by a masked man with a chain saw!). But then I realized who was standing—actually, lying—before me.

Some kids have a lovey. Some kids have a threadbare monkey or a favorite fidget or a magic feather.

My son has a watch.

From an early age—long before he could tie his own shoes or read a sentence—JP taught himself to tell time. It was as if he took one look at the great big world outside our front door and thought, There is no way I’m going out there unless I can track every second. He asked for a watch that Christmas, and he has almost never left the house without it. I have never attended a teacher conference where the teacher hasn’t said, “JP really likes to keep the class on schedule!”

My son’s watch is the compass by which he charts daily life.

So, I understood that, for JP, losing his watch was something worth falling to pieces over (the same cannot be said for other occasions of hysteria in our house). I also recognized—and my heart swelled—that he had shown great courage in the minutes between leaving practice and arriving home. As he re-enacted every moment for me, I pictured him laying out the contents of his bag on the sidewalk after he had suddenly remembered to check for his watch while riding home. I pictured him deliberating, then turning back to the park, now shrouded in darkness, trying in vain to make his bike light shine down on the patch of grass he wanted to search. I pictured him alone. My sweet, sensitive boy, out there in the pitch black on his hands and knees, trying to find a $23 watch that had years ago transformed into a kind of talisman for living.

I didn’t hesitate. Despite dinner in the oven, despite a traveling husband and an overtired younger child, despite the chilly, starless night, I said to JP, “Go get the big flashlight and I’ll drive you back.” The three of us piled into the car, drove the six blocks, and Emily and I watched as the little spot of light that was JP traversed the small stretch of field where he believed he had lost the watch. After a few tense minutes, the light began bobbing quickly towards us, with JP cheering victoriously, “I found it!”

“Mommy,” my daughter whispered just before JP opened the car door, “it’s just like Dad and the Dinosaur.” And she was right. The scene was straight out of Gennifer Choldenko and Dan Santat’s new picture book, Dad and the Dinosaur (Ages 4-8), which I first read to my daughter at the end of the summer and which she has often been seen reading to herself this fall.

In the story, a boy named Nicholas—another soccer player—has a secret. People, especially his parents, are always raving about how “brave” he is. Yet, Nicholas himself feels anything but brave. This outward display of bravery, Nicholas believes, comes not from within himself, but from the tiny dinosaur figurine he secretly carries with him everywhere, tucked into a pocket or pushed down into his soccer sock or tied into the lining of his swim trunks.

In Nicholas’ mind, it’s the dinosaur that’s brave—and that bravery extends to Nicholas by proximity. The toy dinosaur in his pocket may be little, but Nicholas feels its great boldness when he tackles a climbing wall. He personifies the dinosaur’s ferocity when he tears down the soccer field to score. Caldecott-winning illustrator Dan Santat outdoes himself in these pages, seamlessly weaving the fantastical, large-scale dinosaur of Nicholas’ imagination with the dwarfed reality of the mini figure.

Nicholas even sleeps with the dinosaur underneath his pillow. “Dinosaurs like the dark, bugs are nothing to them, and they eat manhole covers for lunch and everything under them for dinner.”

Then one evening, after winning his soccer game, Nicholas realizes his dinosaur is missing. As the sun sets, Nicholas crisscrosses the field on his hands and knees searching for it. When his mom asks him what he’s doing, he replies, “Nothing.” He has never told anyone about the dinosaur, about what it does for him.

Without his trusty talisman, the world suddenly looks a lot scarier. Shadows creep up from underneath manhole covers on the drive home and tap him on the shoulder as he lies in bed with his eyes pressed shut.

Later, when his dad comes in to check on him and finds him still awake, Nicholas decides to come clean. “I lost my dinosaur. He’s the brave one. Not me.”

The dad doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t ask loaded questions, doesn’t brush away Nicholas’ feelings by telling him to “man up” and assuring him no silly dinosaur has the power to make someone brave. He simply says, “Let’s go find him, then.” In the middle of the night, the two drive across town and search the “spongy grass” by flashlight until they find what they’re looking for. And when they get home, Dad even helps Nicholas give the dinosaur a bath before sliding him gently under the pillow.

To be sure, Nicholas falls asleep comforted by the return of his beloved dinosaur. And yet, we as readers come away with the impression that, for Nicholas, an even greater reassurance lies in the strengthened bond with his father. By inviting his father into his emotional life, by letting him glimpse the vulnerability beneath the “strong,” Nicholas has perhaps shown more courage than ever before.

As I tucked my own son into bed on the night of The Great Watch Rescue, he gave me one of the longest, tightest hugs in recent memory. “Thank you, Mommy, for taking me back to the park tonight.” I like to think that what he was really saying was, Thank you for seeing me.

Parenting wins are rare, at least in our house. So I’ll take it. I went to bed feeling lighter and happier than I had in a long time. And I also wondered if, without realizing it, I had been influenced back in August when I first read Dad and the Dinosaur, that I had carried a little bit of the dad with me all this time.

I like to think books come into our lives for a reason.

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Review copy provided by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. 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!

10 Reasons to Keep Reading to Children Long After They’re Reading Themselves

October 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.

Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”

To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”

But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.

#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.

Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.

When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)

#9: Reading aloud expands our children’s vocabulary.

Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:

Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.

Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty).  Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).

#8: Reading aloud enhances the things we do with our children when we aren’t reading.

In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.

Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.

#7: Reading aloud can blow our children’s minds.

Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)

Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite revelation, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.

#6: Reading aloud convinces our children we can (occasionally) be funny.

Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.

If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.

#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.

As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).

Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.

Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”

(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)

#4: Reading aloud gives us a chance to talk to our kids about the messy stuff.

For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.

I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.

It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.

#3: Reading aloud nurtures optimism.

When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.

Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.

#2: Reading aloud means bonding as a family.

I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).

Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.

And that brings me to my last point.

#1: Reading aloud slows down time.

How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.

And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.

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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!

When the Question Becomes the Answer

September 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet that have spent the last three months in and around a swimming pool, it occurs to me that my children are shedding their summer skin in more ways than one. (And not all of them are gross.) They are preparing for the great mental and emotional journey that a new school year demands. They’re working to put aside the comfortable, unhurried, joyful freedom of summer for stricter routines, increased expectations, and long days of scrutiny. As first and fourth graders, they know they will be doing real work, work that others will oversee and critique, work that might one moment feel exciting and the next feel tedious or overwhelming or downright scary. They know they will be navigating new social terrain, new faces among peers and teachers, perhaps even new behaviors from old friends.

They know, but they don’t know. They know that they don’t know.

At the beginning of each new day, our children have to screw their courage to the sticking-place of the Great Unknown. They get out of the car, get off their bikes, and they walk into this tentative, uncertain thing that is life, hoping to come back with a few more answers.

Perhaps because back-to-school season is itself such an intimidating journey, Dashka Slater’s new picture book, The Antlered Ship (Ages 5-9), strikes a poignant chord. Of course, it could also be the delicate color washes atop brazen graphite and pen by Terry and Eric Fan, who made their exquisite debut last year with The Night Gardener and have now outdone themselves. The book is absolutely gorgeous, right down to the cover, which is printed on such sumptuously thick and textured paper that it might have ruined all other picture books for me. Right off the bat, The Antlered Ship feels like the perfect gift to put into the hands of our young crusaders.

The story is about a young fox with questions. Not the insistent “whys” that my children used to pose as a response to everything I told them (“We need to leave the park now.” “Why?” “Because we have to make dinner.” “Why?” “So you can eat.” “Why?” “Because otherwise you’ll be hungry.” “Why?”). No, the fox’s questions are—like my children’s now—more loaded, hesitant, and thoughtful. They’re also questions which don’t always have an easy or straightforward answer. Or any answer at all.

On the drive home from school the other day, while her older brother was carpooling with another family, my newly seven year old seized this rare opportunity to hold court by asking a series of questions. Whether these questions had just popped into her mind or whether she had been mulling them over all day or all week was unclear. What is clear is that her mind is infinitely expanding—and not linearly. She asked:

How come we can still hear the other cars when we’re inside our own?

How do the moms’ bellies go back in after they push out the babies?

How come when people are shy they can’t just swallow their shyness?

The questions swirling inside the mind of Marco, the anthropomorphized fox in The Antlered Ship, are not dissimilar to my daughter’s, if arguably a bit more poetic. The fox wonders:

Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad?

Why don’t trees ever talk?

How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?

Marco’s problem is that he can’t find an audience for these questions. When he poses them to his fellow foxes, they look at him blankly and respond, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?”

So when a mysterious wooden ship—carrying seafaring deer and bearing a massive masthead carved in the shape of a stag’s antlers—docks in a harbor looking for a new crew to sail to a distant island, Marco volunteers. He hopes the ship’s destination might land him alongside some foxes who do know the answers to his many questions. Marco and the deer are joined as well by a band of adventure-seeking, checkers-playing pigeons.

Marco may have a clear destination and goal in mind, but he must venture into the Unknown to get there. Like any journey, things are not always smooth sailing—and they often give rise to even more questions. For starters, there are rough storms, with “waves crash[ing] over the sides of the deck.” “Why is water so wet? Marco wondered…”

The deer prove themselves useless at navigating, and the pigeons are full of complaints about the damp crackers. Marco is not immune to crankiness himself, but he decides they all need to “do the best we can.” He begins by throwing together a warm stew from a recipe book he finds and then moves the group towards consensus on navigation.

The fox’s good nature is contagious, and the animals begin to embrace adventure for adventure’s sake, navigating the Maze of Sharp Rocks as a team and later going head to head with a line-up of warring pirates.

At last, the group reaches their destination: an island replete with waving grasses, fruit trees, and plenty of animals willing to listen to the sea crew’s bombastic accounts of their voyage.

Marco, however, doesn’t share the others’ elation. To his despair, he can’t find a single fox. “I have failed,” he tells his shipmates. “No foxes. No one to answer my questions.” The corresponding spread reveals that even in the togetherness on the ship, the fox has been alone. For all his leadership, he has yet to make himself vulnerable, to invite anyone to share in his uncertainty.

And yet, Marco’s mates challenge him. “What questions?” the pigeon asks. And Marco at last screws his courage, takes a deep breath, and begins to ask questions. Including, “‘What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?”’

Then ensues a discussion, as each of the three offers up a thought on friendship. Maybe, Marco offers, “you make friends by asking them questions.” The trio goes on to ask each other more questions: Should they head home? Should they have more adventures? And my favorite:

“Is it better to know what’s going to happen?” wondered Marco. “Or better to be surprised?”

(You could have knocked me over with a feather when my nine year old son, who insists on us telling him in detail where we are going and what we are going to do there, answered without hesitation, “Surprised.”)

There is no end to life’s questioning. Even when we are lucky enough to uncover an answer, another question arises. What Marco hoped to find on the other side of the sea was actually on the ship with him the entire time: not the answers, but the companionship with which to weather the questioning.

This lovely story challenges our own children’s assumptions. Do we really need all the answers to feel better, to feel more secure in the uncertainty around us? Maybe what we need—what we really, really need—are people to whom we can ask our questions. People with whom we can sit, musing aloud, in the comfort of a car, or on a twirl across the playground, or as we are being tucked into the covers at night. These people don’t have to be related to us, they don’t even have to look like us or talk like us. They only need to listen—and, possibly, to offer up some questions of their own.

Don’t worry, my little crusaders. The world will be big and scary, but you don’t have to figure it out to be in good company.

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Book published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 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!

What to Listen to With Your Kids (Audio Book Roundup)

September 7, 2017 § 2 Comments

Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.

So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.

Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes.

For those yet to expose their kids to audio books, let me offer a thought. Oftentimes, what my children enjoy most—and what tends to be easiest for them to follow (after all, the road can be distracting)—is listening to books they have already read (or have listened to me read). Speaking from personal experience, kids forget much of what they’ve heard in the past, and they listen with the fresh ears of whichever emotional milestone they’re encountering right now. In other words, great books are great each and every time they’re read.

One last thing before we begin: it so happens that this list is almost exclusively classics—or, at least, most are published over forty years ago. Trust me when I say that we listened to plenty of contemporary selections this past year. It’s just that the ones below rose to the top, both in content and in performance, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. There’s something about these books that, even the first time we hear them, feels like old friends.

Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery, Howliday Inn, The Celery Strikes at Midnight, Nighty Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, and Bunnicula Strikes Again! written by James Howe, read by Victor Garber (Ages 8-12)

Vampire bunnies, mysterious night happenings, and haunted hotels—all with a healthy dose of misunderstanding and mayhem? A better series for October you won’t find. The only reason we didn’t keep going with the series after the first six (!) books is because Broadway actor Victor Garber stopped reading them. At that point, we were so invested, so enamored, so used to laughing our heads off at the banter—there’s Harold, the pragmatic middle-aged canine narrator; Chester, the hyper-paranoid cat (Woody Allen’s “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after me” comes to mind); and Howie, the gullible sidekick puppy—that the new reader’s voices felt ALL WRONG, and we all three started yelling, “Turn it off! Turn it off!”

All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, and More All-of-a-Kind Family, written by Sydney Taylor, read by Suzanne Toren (Ages 6-12)

At one point last year, my son turned to me and said, “Mommy, you are getting really good at making food that I like.” I realize this was (probably?) intended as a compliment and not a backhanded nod at my servitude, but I still thought my children might benefit from listening to stories about families for whom everyday life is about making ends meet, sharing workloads, and prioritizing family togetherness. There is perhaps no sweeter cure for entitlement than Sydney Taylor’s classic about a Jewish-American immigrant family (think five daughters with another on the way), living in turn-of-the-century New York City. These are stories about penny-pinching, but they’re also stories about growing up in a time when being tall enough to reach the letterbox was a thrill worth savoring, when a single lost library book could lead to weeks of hard work and sisterly collaboration. As a bonus, my kids got a primer on Jewish traditions and holidays, and Toren’s rendition of the father’s Yiddish accent is pretty awesome.

Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones (Ages 6-12)

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s loosely autobiographical stories have inspired some of the best hours I’ve spent with my children this year—and not just listening to them, but discussing them. I had read the first five books to my children years ago and they loved them then, but what we lose in Garth Williams’ warm pencil sketches is more than made up for with the addition of real fiddle music, which opens and closes chapters and which Pa delights in sharing with his girls. Cherry Jones is a masterful reader, quiet and understated, conjuring up young Laura’s wide eyes as much as Pa’s seasoned chuckling ones, and enfolding us in her storytelling like we were all snuggled up under a warm quilt. We are now seven books in and gearing up to finish with Laura’s “grown-up” years in These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years.

HOLD UP, people. I need to say two things to the nay-sayers (among them, my husband, who playfully teases us, “So what happened in the book today? Did they paint the house and sit around for four hours watching it dry?”). For those who think the Little House books are boringly old-fashioned or (horror) just for girls, I offer up my nine year son as proof: no one gets in the car faster to listen to the next installment than him—not even his younger sister, who talks about Laura, Mary, and Carrie as if they were her own siblings. Pioneer life is fraught with hardship and ruin at every turn, be it blizzards or bears or fire or swarming grasshoppers. It’s the very essence of grit.

For those who think the Little House books are racist: you’re right. The treatment of Native Americans, while realistic for the period in which the stories are set, is grossly stereotypical, often uncomfortable, and certainly—as with many classics—demanding of discussion and supplemental reading (I strongly suggest the historically accurate Kaya series by American Girl, about a Nez Perce girl living in the 1700s).

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, performed by Anne Hathaway (Ages 6-12)

This recording alone might be enough to justify an Audible subscription (Audible likes to put out exclusive recordings by Hollywood celebs). Before listening to Anne Hathaway perform L. Frank Baum’s original text—more lighthearted, humorous, and fabulously weird than the Judy Garland movie, with a vast and ever-changing cast of characters—I would not have thought it possible for one person to create so many unique voices. How Hathaway manages to do just that, then seamlessly bounce back and forth between them all, I’ll never know, but I guess that’s why she gets paid the Big Bucks. Here’s another case where we had read the book together as a family a few years ago, but it was like falling in love all over again.

The Witches, written by Roald Dahl, performed by Miranda Richardson (Ages 8-12)

While we’re on the subject of witches (and celebrities), let’s talk about my favorite Roald Dahl book from when I was a child (yup, here I go, telling you once again to share Roald Dahl with your children). True, this one is not for the faint of heart, being about real witches lurking under the disguise of regular-looking people, but the breathless terror with which I turned its pages as a child no doubt contributed to my love of reading today. How then could I resist a performance by Miranda Richardson, whose voice for the Grand High Witch will come dangerously close to blowing out your car speakers, at the same time that her soft, matter-of-fact delivery of the protagonist’s Grandmamma will make you wish you had a Norwegian grandmother of your own? As with all Dahl’s stories, the cleverness of a hapless young child outsmarts the lot of them.

(Whatever you do, don’t let your kids listen to Roald Dahl’s The Twits. It’s a liability. I simply cannot endorse it. I mean, you would be setting a bad example—your children might laugh at such disgusting, despicable behavior. Heck, they might even start making up their own stories about beards that never get washed or gluing furniture to the ceiling. Ok, fine, I can see some of you are going to do it anyway. Just don’t say you did it on my advice.)

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien, read by Barbara Caruso (Ages 8-12)

Of all the stories listed here, this is the most complex: a fantastical tale of a group of escaped, highly intelligent lab rats, who build a high-tech civilization under a stretch of farmland, and an ordinary field mouse, who discovers their secret on her quest to save her children. But it might also be the most intellectually rewarding. It won the Newberry Medal in 1971, and it was another favorite of mine as a child (I remember thinking Mrs. Frisby was the bravest mother in the world). What I didn’t remember are the fascinating ethical questions raised by the novel. What is intelligence? What if every species could learn to read? What is community? How should we treat one another—and at what expense?

Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan, written AND read by E.B. White (Ages 5-12)

I’ve already alluded to the joy of listening to these stories in a previous post, so I’ll just leave it at this: if you ever have the chance to listen to E.B. White read his own prose, seize it with open ears.

Boredom can be good, certainly it is necessary, but it doesn’t have to happen in the car. I promise my next list will include more contemporary reads, but in the meantime, happy back-to-school season and happy listening.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com (Audible) 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!

A Love Letter to Florence

July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.

I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.

(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)

In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)

In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.

If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.

A bit of the magic had followed us home.

In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.

The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.

One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).

“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.

In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.

Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.

“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.

It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.

What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.

The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.

DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.

Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.

Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.

Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice

It was also a big plus that JP read Rick Riordan’s fiction series about the Greek and Roman gods prior to the trip. A little Old Testament review would also have been nice!


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Review copy by Viking, PenguinYoungReaders Group. 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!

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