June 18, 2017 § 1 Comment
When I was around the same age my children are now, my father used to play Kick the Can with my sister and me in the backyard after dinner on summer nights. Sweaty and exhausted—and probably owing to the giant glass of milk my mother insisted we drink with dinner—the time would predictably come when I would have to go to the bathroom. I would be crouched in my hiding position behind a bush, trying to keep quiet, but mostly trying not to pee. I could easily have run inside, used the bathroom, and come out again. But I didn’t dare. I would rather have hopped about, wincing with every step, risking an accident (and there were some)—all because I never wanted these moments to end. I never wanted to break the spell. The only thing better than the anticipation of my father coming home was the joy of being with him.
I lost my father when I was eighteen—much too young, by all accounts. And yet, the experience of being with my dad still feels as tangible to me as if it took place yesterday. As a parent now myself—one more tired and distracted and grumpy than I sometimes care to admit—what impresses most upon me is how my father seemed when he was with us. He was not merely present when we were together. He delighted in our presence.
My father’s eyes would twinkle as he’d sit across from us over grilled cheeses at the pavilion in the park, and they would widen when we brought him handfuls of chestnuts. His head would lean in as I described every detail of my day and roll back only for a conspiratorial chuckle. He genuinely seemed as excited to read aloud each night as I was to listen (to this day, I cannot read the Little House on the Prairie series with my children without thinking of him). Though I knew sometimes his work would take him overseas or far into the night, I never questioned for a second that he would rather be with us.
Of course, such is the bias of a child who loves her father and thinks he can do no wrong.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.” So begins the second chapter of Danny the Champion of the World (Ages 8-12), a story by Roald Dahl starring quite possibly the sweetest and most unusual father-son relationship in children’s literature. (Am I really still talking about Roald Dahl? YES. Yes, I am. And that is because, while at first our favorite was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then it was Matilda, and then it was James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and The Witches, the thing about Roald Dahl is that every one becomes the new favorite. Plus, I’m frantic to think you might not know about Danny the Champion of the World—because I didn’t. And it is FABULOUS. And outlandish. And hysterical. And heartwarming beyond words.)
The first few chapters of Danny the Champion of the World read as an incredibly touching tribute to a single father—something rarely dwelt on in children’s literature—as seen through the eyes of his adoring son. The two share an intimate world, both physically and emotionally. They live in a single-roomed, 150-year-old gypsy caravan, parked behind the filling station which serves as the family business (Danny’s mother died when he was just four months old). Rather than complain of his scanty, isolated accommodations, Danny relishes the closeness his house brings him to his “smiling-eyes” father—and to the wildly entertaining stories which his father spins for him each night (including one your kids will be quick to recognize from a previous Roald Dahl book).
It is impossible to tell you how much I loved my father. When he was sitting close to me on my bunk, I would reach out and slide my hand into his, and then he would fold his long fingers around my fist, holding it tight.
Danny’s father isn’t just a comforting presence and a keen storyteller: he’s also an eccentric, unpredictable, and endlessly fascinating plotter—and it is this quality which endears him as fervently to us readers as it does to our young hero. Who wouldn’t like to imagine himself the son of this quirky, fun-loving man? “It was impossible to be bored in my father’s company…plots and plans and new ideas came flying off him like sparks from a grindstone.” Danny’s father trains Danny “from birth” to be a mechanic, to take apart engines and put them back together. They make and fly kites which soar miles above the ground and “fire balloons” which levitate like lanterns in the dark night. With only the materials around them, they make tree houses and stilts and boomerangs and even a giant soapbox car with a real working engine. And all this before Danny turns nine and our real story begins.
While they may be narrated through Danny’s adoring eyes, these scenes create the unmistakable impression that Danny’s father enjoys being with his son every bit as much as his son enjoys being with him. He delights in tinkering, inventing, playing, and laughing alongside him. This is what makes him so special as a father.
This is also what makes him decide to let Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life”—and here is where a seemingly simple story about a father and son takes a wild and wacky turn (lest you forget this is a Roald Dahl book). The father, as it turns out, has a long history with—and a very heated passion for—the sublegal sport of pheasant poaching. What the what, you say? Pheasant poaching (which, I might add, is a real thing in Britain, even to this day) involves sneaking onto the property of wealthy, stuffy landowners, who stock their backyard trees with expensive pheasants for fancy-pants shooting parties, and stealthily making off with said pheasants in the dead of night. (Roald Dahl never misses an opportunity to subvert the Upperclass.)
“You mean stealing them?” I said, aghast.
“We don’t look at it that way,” my father said. “Poaching is an art. A great poacher is a great artist.”
…I was shocked. My own father a thief! This gentle, lovely man! I couldn’t believe he would go creeping into the woods at night to poach valuable birds belonging to somebody else.
Danny is even more horrified to discover this sport is also highly dangerous, bringing with it the risk of “poacher’s bottom” from the armed “keepers” hired to guard the pheasants. (Again, only in a Roald Dahl book.)
…”You’ve missed the point, Danny boy! You’ve missed the whole point! Poaching is such a fabulous and exciting sport that once you start doing it, it gets into your blood and you can’t give it up.”
In subsequent chapters, as Danny’s father invokes his storytelling prowess to describe the “secret methods” used by him and his own father over the years to catch pheasants—one called “The Horsehair Stopper,” involving soaked raisins strung on single strands of horsehair, another aimed at getting a pheasant to stick its beak into a sticky paper hat—we understand all too well why Danny begins to soften to the idea. Heck, we are softening. My kids are looking at me out of the corner of their eyes like, Mom, are you really reading this to us? Is this even OK? And PLEASE GO ON.
(Don’t worry: no pheasants suffer in the telling of this book. I’m not saying they don’t end up as dinner.)
Ultimately, though, Danny becomes determined to join the fun when he discovers the target of his father’s next pheasant poaching plot. The wealthy landowner Mr. Victor Hazell is not only a “roaring snob,” but he has a history of making nasty, disparaging comments to Danny and his father when bringing his Rolls-Royce to the filling station for a tune up. What’s worse, Mr. Hazell has been plotting to drive Danny and his father out of town for years, desperate to get his hands on their tiny piece of land to complete his massive estate.
Oh, so he’s a bad guy. That’s why it’s OK to steal his pheasants. Heck, it’s better than OK. Let’s get on with it! (This is classic Roald Dahl logic. We can’t help it. We’re all in.)
The last 150 pages—three fourths of the novel—are equal parts hilarious and hair-raising, as father and son cook up and attempt to carry out the most elaborate, unlikely, and daring (nonviolent) plot to poach Mr. Hazell’s 120 pheasants and share them with their working-class neighbors. I would never dare spoil the spoils for you and your children. All I will say is: you will never see it coming.
But amidst pheasants swaddled in baby carriages and our own Danny high tailing an “Austin 7” in a police chase, it remains the relationship between Danny and his father which steals the show: this beautiful, joyful dance between two people who love each other unconditionally, who would journey to the moon and back if it meant being together.
Pheasant poaching might seem a hard act to follow, but Danny wants us to know it’s just one of many wondrous things comprising daily life with his dad (it just happens to make a particularly great story). As the two come down from the high of their mission, dangling their feet off the front step of their cozy caravan (which, by the way, my kids haven’t stopped talking about wanting to live in), they dream about catching trout in a nearby stream and buying an electric oven and making sandwiches for lunch.
And after that?
There would be something else after that.
And after that?
Ah yes, and something else again.
Because what I am trying to tell you…
What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without a doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.
When our parent delights in us as much as we delight in him (or her)—well, we feel for a moment like the Champion of the World. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who share their craftiness, their playfulness, their goofiness, and their mischief-making with their children. And to my own dad, I’ll never forget how much fun we had.
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Book published by 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!
May 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
It never fails to astonish me how long my kids can withstand a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Earlier this spring, we waited in line for three hours to get tickets to an art exhibit, and they entertained themselves for at least an hour playing this hand game. Long after myself—and every adult around us—was ready to banish the words “rock,” ‘paper,” and “scissors” from the English language, my kids kept going. Alas, this is not a quiet game.
Perhaps when I could have been pondering nobler pursuits, I have instead been asking myself: What is it about this highly repetitive game (“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot! Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”) that lends itself to such welcome repetition? The answer, I’ve decided, is larger than simply immediate gratification or the apparent thrill of saying “shoot” over and over. RPS is the perfect game of chance. Rock trumps scissors trumps paper trumps rock. (That’s all the Trumps you’ll get out of me.) It’s an equilateral triangle—a closed system, if you will–where each opponent has an equal shot at winning and losing. (Apparently, this is not strictly true, as some professional players—yup, they exist—are able to “recognize and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents’ play.”)
Apparently, I am not the only one spending quality time contemplating a greater meaning behind this mundane game. Two of the cleverest, funniest, and most subversive children’s book creators—Drew Daywalt (author of the wildly popular The Day the Crayons Quit) and Adam Rex (illustrator of Chloe and the Lion and How This Book Was Made, to name a few musts)—have teamed up to imagine what the backstory to this age-old game might look (and sound) like. Let’s just say it didn’t take me more than half a second to decide we needed to own The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors (Ages 5-10). (It’s also a beautiful reminder that elementary children are not too old for picture books.)
Long before they make one another’s acquaintance, the anthropomorphized Rock, Paper, and Scissors have a taste for battle. Each spends his or her days seeking out opponents. Rock, for example, who lives “in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard,” baits a clothespin on the laundry line: “Drop that underwear and battle me, you ridiculous wooden clip-man!” To which the clothespin replies, “I will pinch you and make you cry, Rock Warrior!”
A battle ensues—and yet, despite Clothespin’s big talk, Rock is quickly victorious.
As we quickly understand, no matter whose buttons Rock pushes (“You, sir, look like a fuzzy little butt,” he says to an apricot, to which the latter responds, “What?! I challenge you to a duel!”), Rock always dominates. And yet—as anyone who has antagonized a younger sibling will understand—rather than feeling satisfied with this predictable turn of events, Rock finds himself disheartened by what he realizes are not “worthy challenges.” “Smooshing you has brought me no joy,” he mutters atop a squashed apricot.
A similar search for a worthy foe is simultaneously taking place in both the “Empire of Mom’s Home Office” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer,” where Paper and Scissors respectively take on computer printers (“Noooo! Not a paper jam! Paper is victorious!”) and adhesive tape.
Probably because I’m always asking my children to lower their voices, they think my reading a book which demands shouting and taunting and battle noises is absolutely hysterical (puts me in mind of this). But I must admit: with writing like this, I kinda do, too. If you can’t beat ‘em, sometimes you have to join ‘em. (Plus, the scene where Scissors forges into “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer” and refuses to bow down before a bag of cocky dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets—she spears them to bits instead—is sheer brilliance.)
Like mine, your children will relish the anticipation of the inevitable: Rock, Paper, and Scissors at last meet (in the “great cavern of Two-Car Garage”) and discover worthy opponents in one another. The battles are “epic and legendary” and the trash talk even better. Says Scissors, “I hope you’re wearing your battle pants, rock warrior.” Replies Rock: “If by ‘battle plants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes…yes, I am wearing my battle pants, weird scissory one!”
The surprise comes when each in turn is finally beaten. Where we might expect sorrow from the defeated, instead there is elation. “You have made me so happy by beating me!” cries Scissors to Rock. The latter (not having challenged Paper yet, to whom he will fall) responds, “I wish I felt your joy, Scissors, for I have yet to meet a warrior who can beat me.”
There’s pride to be taken in a hard-fought loss to a worthy opponent. And perhaps this message is not all that foreign to our children. After all, they beg and plead for “one more minute” of playtime—sweaty and grassy, they chase each other back and forth across the backyard—but when we bring down the parental “That’s enough,” when we guide them through the front door and into the bathroom and over to the dinner table and into the bath and into bed, they know they’ve lost. They’re free at last to give up the good fight and surrender—with a sleepy smile on their face.
And prepare for Round Two tomorrow.
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Book published by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperColllins. 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!
May 18, 2017 § 4 Comments
It is often with trepidation that I watch my daughter prepare to work on a picture or a card. She sets out her paper, her drawing instrument of choice, and animatedly explains her Vision to anyone in the vicinity. “I’m going to draw a bird for my teacher,” she says, “because she loves birds.” I smile, but I try not to look too eager…or too stressed…or too anything. I try to look neutral. I attempt to recede into the kitchen—or, better yet, disappear into the basement to throw in a load of laundry—because I know from experience what likely lies ahead.
There are several minutes of happy humming, her preferred background music while she works. Followed by a sudden, guttural, downright masculine “UHHHHHGGGGGGHHHHHHH!” Followed by the sounds of said drawing instrument being thrown across the room. Followed by great, gasping sobs. “It doesn’t look like a bird at all! Its beak is terrible! It’s THE WORST BEAK IN THE WORLD! I hate this bird! I hate it!” Followed by the sound of paper crumpling, fists slamming, and stomping feet coming to find me. “Why did you tell me to make a bird? Don’t you know I am the WORST DRAWER OF BIRDS?!” (Ummm, I never said…)
My six and a half year old is rarely ruffled. She goes with the flow, handles curve balls with ease, and loves trying new things.
But she cannot handle mistakes. Mistakes are her Sworn Enemy. Never mind that they often derive from some subjective and unrealistic notion of perfectionism. They feel paralyzing to her. They are a giant Road Block which she cannot see past.
Because I read the Internet, I know it is my job to help my daughter embrace mistakes. Mistakes mean you are learning! Mistakes mean you are taking chances! Mommy and Daddy make mistakes all the time! So I’m supposed to say. And I do say. And her teachers say. And even her brother says. But anyone can see Emily doesn’t buy these platitudes. Not for a second. Because she doesn’t know the answer to the question she’s too afraid to ask: What do I do when I make a mistake?
And then debut author-illustrator Corinna Luyken’s exquisite The Book of Mistakes (Ages 5-99) came into our lives. I cannot stress enough the poetic power of this book. Just two pages in, and I knew—I knew deep down in that primal mothering part of my being—that this was the answer my Emily had been waiting for. An answer that’s light on the telling, heavy on the showing, and even bigger on the interacting.
“Picture books are a primer for how to be a human.” So was the powerful opening statement of a panel which I recently attended at the formidable Politics & Prose bookshop in Washington DC. Among the diverse children’s authors and illustrators gathered to discuss the theme of “journeys” in their picture books was Corinna Luyken herself. Luyken followed up this intro to say that, in conceiving The Book of Mistakes, she wanted to encourage children to find their own voice, to stop caring so much about what others want them to be. “The biggest mistake we can make is trying to be anything other than ourselves,” she said.
If picture books are to teach us how to be a human, including how to discover and embrace our unique way of doing things, then they must show us that mistakes are a natural part of this process. Even better, that the messiest, ill-conceived mistakes can sometimes be transformed into the most surprising, heartening rewards. (Could the “incorrectness” of a bird’s beak on paper be the beginning of something beautifully unusual?)
What The Book of Mistakes does so convincingly is to demonstrate that mistakes need not always be the endings they appear to be. Rather, mistakes can be beginnings. They can be springboards. The world doesn’t have to grind to a halt, the pages don’t have to be torn up, each time we make a mistake. If we open ourselves to the possibility of re-imagining, mistakes might take us to places even better than where we thought we were heading.
Luyken’s book begins and ends with a tremendous amount of white space and very sparse text, a combination which begs the child reader to pay close attention to the black line drawings which build exquisitely from page to page. (Luyken explained during the panel that her art is inspired by the greats of Gorey, Lear, and Sendak.)
Opposite the story’s opening words, “It started,” is a partial line drawing of a face—much like a child herself would do. In this face, only one eye has so far been drawn. Turning the page reveals the second half of the sentence, “with one mistake,” as it does the addition of a second eye. What is the mistake? It didn’t take long for my children to point out that the second eye has been dawn larger than the first.
On the next page, things get more problematic, as often is the case when we try a hasty correction. “Making the other eye even bigger was another mistake.” The artist has presumably tried to match the size of the first eye to the second eye and ended up with two eyes even more grossly asymmetrical. My children were by now totally captivated: their adamant sense of symmetry making them as uncomfortable with the distorted eyes as the off-page artist herself appears to be.
When we turn the page a third time, we begin to witness the magic which happens when an artist takes back creative control. “But the glasses—they were a good idea.” The artist has added a pair of wide-rimmed, seafoam-colored glasses around the eyes, intentionally detracting from their oddness.
With each turn of the page, new mistakes give way to new ideas. An extra-long neck and anatomically-challenged elbows are obscured with an Elizabethean-style collar some elbow patches. The awkward space between the girl’s feet and the ground suddenly makes sense with the addition of roller skates. Ink smears become feathers. Stray pencil marks become strings for brilliant yellow balloons, which our roller skater suddenly holds up with great purpose. Bit by bit, a story line begins to unfold.
New characters emerge. My children’s favorite is a girl with one leg (mistakenly) drawn longer than the other. No cause for alarm. Perhaps this girl is born to climb trees, our narrator imagines. (“An extra-long leg would be a really helpful thing for climbing trees,” my daughter said. “Or maybe her leg only stretches when she climbs trees—like a kind of super power?” my son offered. They have totally drunk the Koolaid by now.)
Luyken plays with perspective from page to page, as if teasing us readers to guess at what the cumulative result will be. What happens when all of the artist’s mistakes come together in a single scene? It turns out there’s no predicting the magical realism which transpires—this, of course, is the whole point—and the climactic, nearly wordless spreads mean we can gaze for hours and still devise new interpretations.
Then there’s the ending, dramatically paced across three pages, as much a metaphor as it is a literal question. “Do you see/ how with each mistake/ she is becoming?” the book asks about our roller-skating, balloon-beckoning girl, who races to join a celebratory gathering of other imperfect beings under the canopy of a large tree. And, of course, I broke out in tears, because truer words have never been spoken about my own daughter. About all of our children. About all of us.
Thank you, Corinna Luyken, for giving me a new way to talk to my children about this crazy, messy, beautiful thing called life—and their uniquely crazy, mess, beautiful “becoming” in the midst of it?
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Book published by Dial Books for Young Readers/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!
May 11, 2017 § 8 Comments
Last week, I was at Trader Joe’s buying flowers for my daughter, who would have the unique opportunity of performing at the Kennedy Center that evening with her community choir. My head was spinning while I was waiting in line to pay, going down the mental checklist of what needed to happen before heading to the concert hall (iron Emily’s uniform, print the parking pass, get the snacks together, etc.). Suddenly, the checkout woman interrupted my train of thought. “These flowers are such a gorgeous orange,” she remarked. I halfheartedly explained that the flowers were for my daughter, that she had a performance that night, and that orange was her favorite color. “These little joys make parenting so worth it,” she mused. “Yes,” I agreed, assuming she was talking about my being in the audience in a few hours. “It’s going to be so exciting.”
“Oh, I’m sure the performance will be great,” she replied, “but I was talking about getting to pick out flowers for your little girl.”
Once again, as a mother, I had found myself at the bottom of that all-too-tempting rabbit hole, of letting my “to do” list eclipse any opportunities for joy in the moment. What could have been a moment of delicious anticipation—and, really, I had deliberated over my flower choice at length—had quickly turned into checking off one more task before the minutes ran out and I had to pick up my kids from school. What could have been a moment of gratitude—to have the occasion to buy these flowers, the time to do so, the money to do so—was lost in a feeling of obligation. What could have been a moment of love and pride and affection was lost in a flurry of distraction.
As I was driving away from the store with my flowers, I caught the tail end of a rebroadcasted Ted Talk by a man who undertook a daring 1,800-mile journey on foot to the South Pole. To Ben Saunders’ surprise—and after nearly starving to death—he came to realize that his own personal reward came less from the completion of his goal than from the journey itself. “Happiness is not a finish line,” he says in the talk. “And if we can’t feel content on our journeys, amid the mess and the striving, then we might never feel it.”
If happiness isn’t a finish line, then neither is parenting. And yet, too often—amid the sleep deprivation, the academic struggles, the phases which seem to start and stop faster than we can count and yet feel terrifyingly permanent when they’re happening—we experience parenting as if it were one giant race. We may inherently understand that our time with our young children is short (and if we don’t, Facebook will remind us), but each time we find ourselves running to Target to replace some article of clothing which is suddenly too short, we’re too busy to realize we’re chasing after something we’ll never overtake.
Included in a short but I hope ever-growing list, there are two things I can almost always count on as a mother to return me to the moment. The first, you will not be surprised to learn, is reading aloud. When I’m reading to my children (something great, that is), time stands still, my mental checklist falls away, and the only thing that matters is delighting together in the words as they come off the page and enfold us in their spell.
The second is snuggling. My firstborn is not by nature a cuddler (though he has warmed to it over time), so perhaps the universe knew I needed a second child in order to get my cuddling fix. In this, Emily has never disappointed. I can be mentally a thousand miles away, but when she climbs in next to me in bed in the early morning, when she puts the back of her soft little hand against my cheek and places her nose where I can’t resist kissing those five tiny freckles, there is no place I’d rather be.
This is all to say that I can relate to each of the animal mothers in the darling new picture book, Mama’s Kisses (Ages 1-4), who are eager and ready to bestow kisses and cuddles on their young brood at bedtime. My kids may be too old for this book (stop it, just stop it!), but it nevertheless charmed every ounce of my maternal being. With spot-on rhyming by Kate McMullan (whose I Stink will forever be imprinted on JP’s second year of life) and whimsically but unsentimentally illustrated by Tao Nyeu (whose abstract orchestration of orange and blue began in this favorite), Mama’s Kisses is a rollicking seek-and-find jungle adventure.
When Mama’s Kisses opens, four mama animals are conversing (and sewing and knitting) in the foreground, while their little ones make mischief in the background. All the words in the book are spoken by the mothers. “Sun’s going down./ Moon’s on the rise./ Let’s find our babies./ And sing lullabies./ They must be yawning./ Sweet sleepyheads./ Our tired babies!/ We’ll put them to bed.”
The joke’s on the mamas (although older children will quickly realize they’ve been in on it the whole time), because the presupposed sleepy little leopard, panda, orangutan, and elephant are in fact frolicking, singing, and marching about with wild abandon. Even more, when they hear the STOMP STOMP STOMP STOMP of their mamas, the young animals quickly sneak off under giant banyan leaves, take playful plunges into the nearby water hole, and then don feathered disguises.
One by one, each mama delivers a soft, sweet invocation to her child (I should be so eloquent when I try to get my own children to leave the park).
Come now, my leopard,
All spotted and pepperered,
Tomorrow you’ll pounce,
You’ll roar and you’ll race.
These invocations don’t exactly have the desired effect (McMullan understands what it’s like to be a parent), so the mamas have to do some playful pouncing of their own—in the form of a good-humored Sneak Attack.
My favorite part of the story then arrives, as each mama curls up with her little one. Four more invocations follow—each given its due in beautiful double page spreads—and these rhymes at last prove irresistible in their power to make sleepyheads submit to mama’s kisses.
Rock-a-bye bear cub,
Come closer now, scootch
So Mama can land
A Panda bear smooch.
Don’t squirm like a bug.
Here comes a great big
Watching my daughter sing on stage last week was wonderful, but it wasn’t even the best part of the night. Still thinking about my exchange at Trader Joe’s earlier in the day, I tried my darndest to soak up every moment of the before and after. I delighted in the way Emily ran up and down the terrace under an enormous blue sky in her break between rehearsing and performing; I snuck peaks at her serious face doing breathing warmups with her fellow choristers; and I gathered her up in the biggest, smoochiest, longest hug when, after it was all over (even though it was well past bedtime, and I was eager to take up my post in front of some adult TV), we walked into her bedroom together and she squealed as she saw the vase of bright orange gerber daisies on her dresser.
Happy Mother’s Day to my fellow mamas, my fellow runners of the Great Race that we can’t be faulted for sometimes mistaking for motherhood. May we all just remember to spend a little more time smelling the roses along the way.
Review copy from Dial Books for Young Readers/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!
April 20, 2017 § 2 Comments
“Don’t leave the water running!” shouted one of my Girl Scouts, as she waited in line behind her fellow Daisies to wash hands during one of our recent meetings. She turned to me. “That’s true, right? My mom says you shouldn’t waste water.” I told her I thought that was a commendable goal, and then another girl asked why. A third girl piped in: “Because otherwise there won’t be any water left in the oceans, and the fish will all die.”
This is not dissimilar to adages which I have used with my own children in the past. And I’ve heard plenty of other parents try out similar renditions. But I’ve also felt slightly disingenuous and awkward delivering them, because explanations like these are neither correct nor that simple. A child has only to visit the beach and stare out into the vast expanse of blue to feel some futility at the prospect of draining the oceans by leaving the tap running a few extra seconds. It simply doesn’t hold up, and what seems implausible doesn’t ultimately motivate behavior. Perhaps the real reason we end up saying shorthand things like this is that many of us don’t know the ins and outs of how our planet’s closed-water system sustains itself. (Guilty as charged.)
With Earth Day this Saturday, I was thrilled to discover that children’s author-illustrator Molly Bang and MIT ecology professor Penny Chisholm have once again teamed up to release the fourth installment in their critically acclaimed non-fiction “Sunlight Series.” Even better, their latest title is dedicated to the water cycle! If there’s anyone who can aid me in my quest to better understand the science around me—and then impart this science to my children—it’s Bang and Chisholm. In pairing highly detailed explanations about the sun’s sustaining role in our planet with rich, shimmering oil paintings, Bang and Chisholm seem to be on something of a crusade to bring our children into the fold of Mother Nature, igniting a life-long passion for conservation. And since these books benefit tenfold from being digested alongside a parent or teacher, we adults are in a position to learn just as much as our children. (You might remember how mind-blown I was by Bang and Chisholm’s previous title, Buried Sunlight, which reveals the slow and painstaking process behind the sun’s creation of fossil fuels, which we humans gobble up as if we were guaranteed an endless supply).
Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth (Ages 7-10) follows in the tradition of its predecessors, whereby a personified, off-screen sun directly addresses the reader: “I am your sun. My energy warms your days. I light up your world.” The sun, we quickly understand, is also the master puppeteer responsible for moving water around the earth. Right off the bat, the book debunks a common misconception: that our oceans are as rich in water as they appear. True, Earth is the “blue planet”—and yet, the oceans are “actually just a thin, thin film covering most of your planet.” Here follows a visual which I’ll admit made my mouth fall open, say nothing of my children.
If all of the Earth’s water were rolled into a ball, that ball would be only a fraction of the size of our planet. If you then extracted just the fresh water from this model—and then just the fresh water that’s readily accessible (i.e. not trapped in ice or deep below the ground)—the blue ball is nothing more than a tiny dot compared to the size of the earth.
How can this tiny speck of fresh water sustain “ALL life on Earth”? The answer is through endless permutations of recycling, each made possible directly or indirectly by the sun. Similar to how water flows in and out of our body and those of other living creatures, water is forever traversing our planet: evaporating into the sky from the salty oceans, moving across land in clouds, raining down on mountains and rivers, and seeping through sand and gravel into aquifers held deep underground. Some of this water is released back into the atmosphere when plants use the sun’s energy to photosynthesize, thereby riding clouds back to the oceans, while other water returns to the seas via the rivers that flow there.
Even the oceans themselves are constantly cycling water, in the form of giant currents like the Gulf Stream and the Ocean Conveyor Belt, which subsequently regulate Earth’s temperatures by dispersing the warmth generated at the equator (my weather-obsessed son was riveted) and ensuring that nutrients find their way into the mouths of sea creatures.
At every turn, Rivers of Sunlight resists the temptation to simplify. And yet, while it delves deeper into the water cycle than any picture book I’ve encountered for elementary children, the prose on each page remains lyrical and uncluttered (with much of the complex science reserved for the book’s extensive and exceptional twelve-part index). Water alone is not enough to sustain life on our planet. It’s the moving of water wherein the magic lies. The “rivers of sunlight,” which move through our bodies, through our oceans, and across our land tell more than just a narrative: they are the stuff of poetry.
The movement of water around Earth is hardly arbitrary, nor can it be to do its job. Time and again, our narrator emphasizes the delicate balance upon which each turn of the water cycle hangs: the precarious implications of delivering too much or too little water to one area, of draining aquifers faster than rain can replenish them, of rising sea levels, of dumping waste. The total amount of water on our planet is fixed. Despite an ever-increasing population, there will never be one drop more than what we have now. Reading this book, it is impossible not to come away with the conviction that we must manage this water carefully, even before our sunny narrator appeals to us on the final page to uphold our end of the bargain. “I, your sun, will do my part to keep Earth’s water clean and flowing. Will you do your part? Will you find ways to use water sparingly and keep it clean?”
My children were even more inspired by the last paragraph of the Appendix, a meatier and more vivid call to action.
The next time you drink a glass of water, remember this: All those water molecules have been constantly moving, through sea and sky, lakes and streams, through plants and worms, insects and elephants—giving them life. Where might those molecules go next as they leave your body and move on? What are ALL the ways those molecules sustain life on Earth and shape the very nature of our blue planet? TREASURE YOUR WATER: IT IS YOUR LIFE.
There’s your answer the next time your children ask why they should care about conserving water. Then send them outside so they can experience firsthand the beauty worth saving.
Book published by Scholastic. 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!
April 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
Last summer, we vacationed in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our family’s first foray into one of the major National Parks, and we had gotten the idea six months earlier while watching National Parks Adventure, the astoundingly beautiful and nail-biting IMAX movie (can we talk about those mountain bikers?!), directed by Greg MacGillivray and narrated by Robert Redford. All four of us left the Smithsonian theater feeling like we were missing out. Our regular hikes around our local wetlands preserve—beloved as they are—suddenly didn’t feel like…enough. Turns out we were right. In Acadia, after days of hiking around sparkling lakes and in and out of deliciously fragrant pine forests, of scrambling over vast expanses of rocks flanked by crashing waves, my son exclaimed, “This is what we should do on every vacation! Which National Park should we visit next?”
Next week is our spring break, and we’ll be stay-cationing. But, while our feet will be traversing our neighborhood parks, our imaginations will be taking flight on the adventures in the mountain of spring releases that have recently landed on our doorstep. Of all the new spring titles, probably the one I’ve most anticipated is Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon (Ages 9-13), a staggering and richly informative window into the ecology, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon.
Jason Chin is one of my favorite contemporary writers and illustrators of non-fiction picture books for older children, in large part because of his unique narrative and artistic style of “dropping” us into the center of the action. If there was ever a case to be made for owning books, look no further. Each of Chin’s Coral Reefs, Redwoods, and Island: A Story of the Galapagos (the latter being an intro into evolution for kids) begs to be read over and over, with new eyes and ears for information missed the first several times. I am never more in awe of the natural world than when I read Jason Chin to my kids.
Truthfully, as a destination, the Grand Canyon has never been high on my list. For some reason, I pictured crowds, a few (awesome) photo opps, a nerve-wracking drop off, and a whole lot of rock. Still, I suspected that Jason Chin would change my mind. Because, well, he’s Jason Chin. And I was correct.
What I also knew is that my nine year old wouldn’t need any convincing to dive into Grand Canyon with me. An oversized book chock full of maps, scientific diagrams, and rocks? Have I mentioned that the floor of JP’s closet is piled high with shoe boxes overflowing with rocks? On any beautiful day, JP is as likely to be using his rock hammer in the backyard as anything else.
JP and I each had the same reaction upon opening Grand Canyon to the first endpaper, a pencil-shaded map of the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon, including areas both inside and outside Grand Canyon National Park. The sheer scale amazed us, with some parts of the Canyon as much as 18 miles wide! Why had I not realized this before?
It’s a daunting task, taking on a piece of land this vast and diversely complex, but Chin is up to the challenge, weaving a central narrative arc in the second person alongside considerable scientific detail, much of which will take time to digest fully (the extensive six-page Afterward provides even more information). As a father and daughter backpack through the Canyon, we are introduced to the five disparate ecological communities they encounter, from the Desert Scrub at the bottom of the Canyon to the Boreal Forest at the top.
Taken together, these ecosystems comprise literally thousands of different species, including twenty-nine that don’t live anywhere else on Earth and many, like the great California condor, that are close to extinction. Chin has diagrammed many of the native predators and prey around the borders of their respective pages. My daughter is the animal lover in the family, and these miniature sketches are her favorite part of the book (though she’s likely too young to grasp much of the geology that is interspersed).
While father and daughter are walking amidst these ecosystems of today, they are also diving—in Chin’s case, quite literally—into the past. Here is where JP and I were goggle-eyed. Because, as Chin demonstrates so powerfully, every piece of the physical Grand Canyon is an historical clue as to what North America looked like hundreds of millions of years ago. Thanks to the erosion provided over time by the Colorado River, we can see straight into the bottommost layer of rock on our continent, the so-called Vishnu Basement Rocks, formed 1.84 billion years ago. Where else can you stare down history quite so dramatically?
As the duo works their way up the Canyon, passing through a sequence of thirteen disparate rock layers, die-cut pages reveal fossilized clues as to how the Earth has changed over time. Here, science and imagination intersect, and Chin shines as magnificently as ever. On one page, our young protagonist spots a ripple mark preserved in stone; on the next—her imagination at play—she is 1.2 billion years back in time, when that same rock used to be tidal mud and “the only living things on Earth were microbes, such as algae and bacteria.”
As she moves up to the rock layer known as the Bright Angel Shale, she bends to examine a trilobite fossil; on the next page, she is whisked back 515 million years to when the place she stands was part of the ocean floor and that same trilobite—“the first known animal to have had eyes”—made tracks in the gritty sand.
On and on we travel, back to prehistoric times of giant dragonflies, early reptiles, and more complex sea creatures, all in existence long before there was a canyon through which to walk. Still, we never leave the present for long: the wild diversity of the modern-day Canyon occupies the bulk of the pages and transfixes our young explorer much the way the trails and forests and streams of Acadia captivated my children last summer. What the father and daughter do not see—the mountain lions, the wild turkeys, the woodrats—are there on the page for us as readers to marvel at, reminders that the wilderness is always far more extensive than our human eyes allow in the moment.
As I write this final paragraph, JP has come over and is sitting beside me. The book is open, and he is lending sound effects to the Colorado River, the central force behind the Canyon’s creation. He is tracing over the final endpaper, a cross-section of the canyon which integrates both the rock layers with the different ecological communities. I cannot help but smile as he tries to pronounce each label, interrupting to make guttural sounds to indicate erosion and landslides, an ever-humming backstory in his mind. I love this side of my son, his incessantly curious, animated, insistent self, filled with awe and admiration for the ever-changing natural world. I cannot help but want to surround him with books like this, books that will give deeper context to the next time he ventures out, whether into our backyard or into one of our country’s most precious resources, the National Parks.
Who’s coming with us to the Grand Canyon?
Book published by Roaring Brook 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!
March 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
The car was loaded, the final bags stuffed into any available hole. The children were corralled, buckled into their car seats with containers of cold pancakes on their lap. The timers on the hallway lights were set, the locks on the doors checked one last time. My husband and I climbed into the car, and—35 minutes behind schedule (always 35 minutes behind schedule)—we backed out of the driveway to embark on ten hours of driving en route to Cape Cod.
And then JP shouted, “Wait! My harlequin beetles! I forgot them!” (On the list of things you never predicted your six year old would say.)
JP had just come off a week of farm camp, where he had become passionately proficient at picking off garden pests. His delight each night at rattling off facts about the life cycle of the kale-loving harlequin beetle was exceeded only by the discovery of said beetle in the vegetable boxes on our own back deck. As children are apt to do, JP quickly captured one and placed it in a mason jar. A few days later, when his shrieks sent us flying into the kitchen from all corners of the house, JP proudly showed us that the beetle had laid a number of tiny black-striped eggs on the underside of one of the jar’s leaves. No number of suggestions that perhaps these eggs would be better suited for our backyard would diminish JP’s insistence that it was now his job to care for them (especially as the mother harlequin appeared to be shriveled up and un-moving in the corner).
And so we turned the car around, reopened the house, and wedged the mason jar between JP and Emily’s mound of stuffed animals in the back seat.
From a very young age, even before they empathize with their fellow humans, many children seem to feel innately called to protect the animal world. As any parent knows who has phoned animal control to ask advice on saving an injured bird fallen from a nest, children are relentless in their insistence to do right by the feathered, furry, scaly, or shelled creatures that inhabit their everyday lives. Before they’re reading proficiently or tying their shoelaces tightly, they recognize one arena in which their small size is power enough.
JP’s brief stint as caretaker of harlequin beetle eggs has nothing on what a young Chinese girl accomplishes with an injured crane in Ji-li Jiang and Julie Downing’s stirring picture book, Lotus & Feather (Ages 5-8), published at the tail end of last year but, in my opinion, perfectly suited to these early spring weeks. Jiang and Downing beautifully capture the self-articulated responsibility exhibited by a child towards an animal in need. Even more powerfully, their story reveals that this bond between child and animal can be mutually beneficial.
The story of a girl who rescues a crane after it is shot is as steeped in symbolism as it is in drama, drawing us deep into the characters’ emotional lives. When Lotus witnesses the magnificent bird collapse to the ground, she is alone. She is accustomed to solitude, a winter illness having “taken her voice” and seemingly destined her to an isolated, friendless life. Lotus’ only companions are a hand-fashioned reed whistle, with which she makes music, and the caring grandfather with whom she lives in the village. (Other reviewers have pointed out that the red scarves worn by Lotus and her classmates presume the time period to be the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s/70s.)
The grey, bleak, and quiet lake at which Lotus crouches to collect reeds mirrors her inner pain as much as it introduces the environmental message of the story. Just the day before, Lotus’ grandfather told her, “This lake used to be so alive…But now…it has been ruined by greedy fishermen and hunters, and by ignorant people who took over land where animals once lived.”
The sudden appearance of the endangered and regal crane in the desolate landscape—its “long, curved neck…crowned with a red top like a dazzling ruby”—is at once identified as a sign of hope and beauty to the sorrowful little girl, although we do not yet know just how important this gift will be. What we do understand is that Lotus’ silent exterior belies a feisty spirit: when she hears the gunshot and watches a poacher descend upon the injured bird, she makes “a noise like thunder” by drumming on her metal pail with a reed cutter. The poacher flees, and Lotus gathers up the bleeding bird and carries her home to her grandfather. (With each reading, my children seem to linger longer over the picture of the crane’s tragically listless body draped over Lotus’ arm).
It turns out Lotus’ grandfather has a history of rescuing animals, and he teaches Lotus how to care for the crane, how to feed it rice soup and keep it warm in a nest of blankets. What he doesn’t need to teach her is how to stroke its head the way he does when Lotus is sick. For three days, Lotus barely leaves the bird’s side, even sleeping beside him.
As the crane—whom Lotus names Feather—begins his rehabilitation, there blooms a beautiful friendship, one marked by trust, companionship and music, as Feather learns to dance to the sound of Lotus’ reed whistle. The friendship sets into motion a chain reaction, as Lotus’ classmates begin to hang around Lotus, seeing playfulness and courage where once they saw only silence. Whether Lotus is saving Feather or Feather is saving Lotus becomes deliciously, perfectly blurred, as in the case of all the best friendships.
The transformative power of compassion—that a single act of love yields countless others—continues throughout the story, coming to a head in a scene inspired by true events. When a nearby earthquake causes flooding in Lotus’ village in the middle of the night, Feather is the first to realize the front steps are underwater. His insistent crowing not only alerts Lotus and her grandfather, but becomes a warning cry to the other villagers, as Lotus and her grandfather jump into their boat and row down the rapidly flooding roads. That night, “over three hundred villagers were saved. Feather was the hero.”
The warmly rendered watercolors pay homage to the passage of time on every page, as the barren land of late fall gives way to the powdery snow of winter gives way to the rebirth of spring, a time marked (among other things) by the appearance of migrant birds on their return journey north for summer. The cyclical journey seems also to echo Lotus’ decision to play hero once more to her friend—this time in encouraging Feather to join the migrating birds. “She didn’t want her friend to leave, but she knew she would never separate him from his home and family.”
Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment because I relish reading aloud books like The Lion and the Bird and A Letter for Leo, which have similar character-adopts-struggling-animal-and-later-releases-animal-back-into-the-wild plots and always, always make me cry. Or perhaps I want my children to be as intrigued as I am by what is left when the animal is gone. Lotus misses her friend terribly, but she is no longer the isolated girl she was before Feather came into her life. One of the final spreads shows Lotus playing her reed whistle among a small group of children, one of whom is leaning affectionately against her. Choosing and working to save Feather may have been adventurous, it may have felt right, but it accomplished something even greater: it cast Lotus in the center of her own story.
JP’s harlequin eggs ended up hatching in Cape Cod. It was admittedly astonishing to come down to breakfast and find a mason jar crawling with tiny black-and-red-and-yellow-decorated beetles. What happened to the creatures when JP released them into the lush gardens outside our rental house is something we’ll never know. Fortunately, Lotus’ story has a more gratifying ending. The following fall, Lotus opens the door to find a familiar face. And what’s more: the wetlands outside her village are beginning to return to their original splendor.
When we care for the living world around us, there is no end to the surprises, delights, and redemption we experience in return. And when we recognize our limits and let things go, we are left to see the beauty uncovered within us.
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!