May 18, 2017 § 2 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.
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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.
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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!
March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
“We read to practice at life.” So proclaims award-winning children’s author, Linda Sue Park, in her must-watch Ted Talk, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?” Speaking from a childhood spent in and around libraries, Park argues that stories offer children a unique “superpower”: the chance to “practice facing life’s unfairness with hope, with righteous anger, and with determination.” Great works of literature do more than shape us: they become part of who we are.
Hope, anger and determination were present in spades over the past two months, as my son and his third-grade classmates gathered for “literature circle,” a book club of sorts which I’m lucky enough to lead at their school each Wednesday. Selecting A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park’s short but tremendously powerful 2010 middle-grade novel set in and around Africa’s South Sudan, was hardly unique. Part refugee story, part war story, and part exposé on contemporary life in one of the poorest corners of the world, A Long Walk to Water (ages 10-16) has long been hailed as a story which begs to be discussed in the classroom, not only for the meaningful context which teachers (or parents!) can provide to Park’s intentionally sparse writing, but also for way this particular story inspires children to want to learn—and do—more.
Park’s story takes something children (perhaps even most adults) know nothing about, something which happened—is still happening—on the other side of the globe, and transforms it into something tangible, personal, and unforgettable.
Last month, The Atlantic ran an article—“Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present”—which discussed the impact historical fiction can have when read in classroom settings. Historical fiction not only offers an invaluable opportunity for eliciting empathy among readers for the suffering of different ethnic or political groups, but it also encourages the development of critical-thinking skills, which can help children connect these events to things happening closer to home. The article goes on:
Psychology studies show that children develop a strong sense of fairness at an early age and understand when they are receiving less than others. Kids in some countries, including the U.S., have been shown to have “advantageous-inequity aversion,” meaning that they’re bothered when they receive more than others…[T]eachers can build on students’ strong sense of justice to connect discussions of historical events to contemporary civics and issues, guided by the question “what can we do to help the world function better for everyone?”
I witnessed firsthand this transformation among JP and his classmates: over the course of their two months reading A Long Walk to Water, the globe shrank, others people’s problems became human problems, and the kids were left with one of the greatest gifts a book can bestow—wondering how to help. Activism is born in these very pages.
A Long Walk to Water recounts the largely true story of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who at eleven is forced to flee his country on foot, when his village is targeted in 1985 as part of the Sudanese Civil War. When the story opens, Salva is just an ordinary boy, daydreaming at his desk at school, anticipating the pleasure of getting home to his mother’s snack. Suddenly, he is caught up in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, escaping gunfire by running from his classroom into the wild bush outside.
Separated from his parents and siblings, whom he believes are dead, Salva embarks on a long and perilous journey on foot across South Sudan, eventually spending ten years in refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, before being adopted by an American family in Rochester, New York.
In only 115 pages, Park manages to pack a lifetime of drama, much of which is as compelling as it is horrifying, including prolonged periods of starvation, animal attacks, and—most distressing for Salva—the point-blank assassination of his uncle, his only remaining family member.
I called my grandmother one day after our meeting and happened to mention the plot of the book we were discussing. She was taken aback: “Is that even appropriate for children? Won’t it upset them? We didn’t read anything like this when we were kids!” If I’m being honest, these same questions had occurred to me more than a few times, especially when one of the girls complained of nightmares. (Later, she told me this was one of her favorite books.)
But then I thought about the palpable excitement during our discussions, how children were checking out books on Africa from the library, bringing in photos of lions crouched in the Sudanese bush, of refugee camps with sleeping bodies inhumanely crammed against one another. How one of the children, who had been too shy to read aloud from our previous book in the fall, was suddenly volunteering to read passages to the group to make his point. How I could hardly get the children back to their classroom after an hour because they wanted to keep talking.
How these kids wanted to understand, wanted to see the world through Salva’s eyes, to appreciate his remarkable, impossible-seeming journey.
I believe two things help children absorb the blows in this story. First, Park’s prose is as lyrical as it is dramatic, deliberately sparse in gory details, and filled with as much beauty as suffering. Salva savoring a mouthful of honeycomb after coming across a beehive following days without food. Salva smiling at the memory of his father bringing home a cherished mango from market, lodged in the spokes of his bicycle wheels. Salva convincing an Irish aid worker in the refugee camp to teach him English—and the game of volleyball.
Secondly, Salva’s story is one of survival—and, ultimately, one of hope. Salva survives the unlikeliest of circumstances because of his grit, because of his perseverance, because—as the real Salva repeats several times in his Ted Talk, which the kids were fascinated to watch after finishing the book, their favorite character amazingly transformed into flesh and blood—“I just kept on walking.” Time and again, the Salva in the story asks himself, How can I go on? And time and again, he finds a way, not just to survive, but to help others do the same.
“Why do you think Salva is able to go on after all these terrible things happen to him?” I asked my group during our final discussion.
“Because he is brave,” one boy answered quickly.
“But was he always brave?” I asked.
“No, not really.”
“So how did he find his bravery?” I continued.
There was a pause, and then one girl raised her hand. “I think he realized he could stand up to his sadness. That he could sort of turn his sadness into power.”
If I had had my doubts earlier, these words cinched a new certainty: these children got it. If there is a better story for children to hear, I can’t think of it.
As it turns out, Salva’s is not the only story in the book. At the beginning of each chapter—set aside in a different type face—is a dual, albeit much shorter, narrative set 23 years after Salva’s story begins. Nya is a ten-year-old girl living in contemporary South Sudan, old enough to go to school but forced instead to spend eight hours of every day walking to the closest pond to retrieve a single jug of muddy, bacteria-infested water on which her family survives. Nya is without shoes to protect her feet from the blisteringly hot and aggressively thorny path on which she treads, and at times she must drag along her tiny, five-year-old sister. (“But this happened a really long time ago,” one of my students said, “right?” I showed him the date at the top above each of Nya’s chapters: 2008, 2009.)
The relevance of Nya’s story—why it’s there and how, if at all, it relates to Salva’s—is not initially apparent. In fact, many of the children in my group admitted to “skipping” Nya’s installments to jump ahead to Salva’s nail-biting adventures, and we often used our discussion time to go back and read these poetic passages together. During one week’s meeting, I brought in a glass of water, set it in the middle of the table, and tasked the children with thinking about how they would allocate 20 daily cups of water if they were heading up a family of five. How much water would go to drinking, cooking, bathing, washing dishes, watering gardens, and so forth? There was much scratching of heads and scribbling on paper and, by the end, one child couldn’t contain himself: “It would be so much easier if they had running water!” Yes. Yes, it would.
Eventually, most of the group felt invested in Nya’s plight, which made the ending all the more gratifying. Where Salva ultimately finds security in immigrating to America, Nya witnesses the drilling of a well in her village, a turn of events which not only offers an assurance of cleaner water and better health for her family, but a wealth of educational and economic opportunities. The novel’s surprising final page—where Salva and Nya’s stories finally intersect, where Salva (now an adult) makes possible this happy ending of sorts for Nya—created a flurry of excitement and more than a few misty eyes from the children (and me).
A Long Walk to Water concludes with two Afterwards: the first an inspiring “can do” message from the real Salva Dut, and the second an Author’s Note discussing Salva’s non-profit organization, Water for South Sudan, which to date has drilled 282 wells. Immediately—before I could even pose the question—the children began brainstorming ways they could support Salva’s efforts. But what struck me was how quickly the conversation broadened: Should they organize a fundraiser to drill more wells in South Sudan, or should they help fund wells in other countries, or should they help contemporary refugees escaping similar violence and poverty? (One child was especially insistent we find a way to bring Wallmarts to Africa.) For nearly an hour, I didn’t do much more than listen to them hash out well-argued cases, using vocabulary I’m quite sure none of them possessed two months ago.
Whatever plan these children decide on—and I do hope we will get something off the ground this spring (I’ll keep you posted)—one thing is for sure: their world view is expanding; they are beginning to glimpse the multitude of complexities and injustices afloat at home and abroad; and they are not going to sit idly by.
Book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
March 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
My oldest lost his first tooth on a playground zip line. He dismounted victoriously, grinned zealously, accepted congrats from strangers, and posed for photographs. Had he taken a bow, it would have felt fitting.
When my daughter lost hers, two days ago, it played out very differently. In the preceding weeks, she had boasted about her “wiggly tooth.” We thought she was down with the program, having watched her brother embark on this rite of passage. As a parent, I see now that I may have committed an all-too-common slight against the youngest: I failed to give her, well, any information.
After a post-school snack of sugar snap peas, mass hysteria erupted. My daughter’s bottom tooth, my son quickly explained, was hanging by a thread, pointing not up, but straight out the front of her mouth. “This is exciting!” I exclaimed. “It’s about to fall out!” Emily, on the other hand, seemed convinced an alien life form had just invaded her mouth. “I don’t like this!” she wailed, tears streaming down her face. Surely, I thought, it will help if I just remove the protruding tooth, which I did. At which point she began running to and from the bathroom, screaming like a banshee. “MY MOUTH IS WRONG! MY MOUTH IS WRONG! SOMETHING IS WRONG IN MY MOUTH!”
It turns out not everyone is quick to embrace the sudden gap that appears in our mouth when we lose a tooth.
Perhaps this reaction would have been different had I remembered, weeks ago, to get out one of the most treasured books from my own childhood (and, yes, one I read to my son numerous times prior to his losing a tooth). I am referring to the quietly delightful and tenderly reassuring, Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth (Ages 4-8), written by Lucy Bate and illustrated by Diane de Groat. Originally published in 1975, the book went out of print for a spell until it was reissued in 2010, at which point I experienced a delicious wave of nostalgia upon walking into a bookstore.
It’s probably impossible for me to untangle my own childhood memories of being read this story—tied up, as they are, with parental affection—from any objective contemporary evaluation. And yet, I can offer this proof of the story’s timelessness: my Emily absolutely loved it. Before long, she was marching across the street to our neighbor’s house to show off her gummy gap. And, of course, the rest of the evening was spent discussing the business of what to expect from the tooth fairy.
When Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth opens, a bunny girl is sitting around the dinner table with her parents, posturing that her wiggly tooth makes it impossible for her to eat the carrots and beans on her plate, that she should probably just move on to the strawberries she knows are in the fridge. So begins a series of conversations which will feel as intimately familiar to children of 2017 as they did in the 70s.
“You can have strawberries for dessert,” said Mother Rabbit. ‘And you can chew the carrots and beans with your other teeth.”
“Are you sure?” said Little Rabbit.
“I’m sure,” said Mother Rabbit.
“Are you sure, Daddy?” asked Little Rabbit.
“I’m sure,” said Father Rabbit. “I’ve done it myself.”
Turning the page reveals a days-of-the-week spread—in de Groat’s softly shaded artistic style—which has stayed with me in much the same way as Eric Carle’s lineup of food for the hungry caterpillar. (It’s also possible I just like food…and bubble letters.) Foods that Little Rabbit eats with her loose tooth (oranges on Tuesday, watermelon on Wednesday) are contrasted with those she eats with her “other teeth” (cucumbers on Tuesday, lettuce on Wednesday). Finally, on Friday—and the alarmed look on Little Rabbit’s face says it all—she “chewed spinach with her other teeth and chocolate ice cream with her loose tooth, and the loose tooth came right out in the chocolate ice cream.”
Again, the conversation is preciously matter-of-fact:
“I have a tooth in my chocolate ice cream,” said Little Rabbit.
“That’s wonderful,” said Mother Rabbit.
“It’s about time,” said Father Rabbit.
“What should I do with it?” said Little Rabbit.
“You should take it out of your chocolate ice cream,” answered Mother Rabbit.
Little Rabbit goes on to delight in the “window in my mouth,” sticking her tongue into it and filling it with chocolate ice cream to make a “chocolate tooth” (“‘How tasty!’ said Father Rabbit.’”). She gives her tooth a bath and carries it around the house.
But now what? Little Rabbit isn’t convinced she believes in the tooth fairy, nor is she sure she wants the tooth fairy to take away her prized tooth. Perhaps she should make it into a necklace, or use it in a craft project, or take it to the candy shop and pretend it’s a penny? But no, these ideas quickly lose their appeal; and once again, Little Rabbit turns to her mother:
“Mommy,” she said, “what if I believe in the tooth fairy?”
Mother Rabbit put down her flute. “Then you’d better put your tooth under your pillow before you lose it. You can put it in an envelope if you want.”
Putting her tooth under her pillow doesn’t stop her from continuing to ruminate on the existence of the tooth fairy, speculating as to what she does with the teeth she collects (maybe she gives them to new babies?) or—most troubling—what might happen if Little Rabbit wakes up the next morning and her tooth is still there.
This is where some adult readers have taken issue with Bate’s story, suggesting that it might introduce doubt into the minds of young children about this magical being we parents work so hard to conjure up. Even the ending of the story, where Little Rabbit discovers a dime under her pillow the next morning, is somewhat ambiguous, given that Little Rabbit appealed to her parents with a backup plan the night before: “After I’m asleep, could you sneak and look under my pillow and look in the envelope? And if there isn’t a present, could you leave one?…You don’t have to tell me…You could just sneak.”
Let me go on record as saying that both of my children still believe in the tooth fairy after reading this story; if anything, Little Rabbit’s questioning feels to them like a natural reaction. (The better question might be: when did our children stop expecting dimes for their teeth and start expecting one or two or five dollar bills?!) At the end of the day, we can’t definitively know whether the dime was left by the tooth fairy or by a parent, but we can predict with certainty Little Rabbit’s relief and excitement upon its discovery.
Ultimately, the lasting appeal of Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth comes, not from semantics about the tooth fairy, but from the love which emits from every page—from the readily apparent joy (and subdued amusement) which Mother and Father Rabbit take in their daughter, as well as from the comfort and reassurance she takes in them.
While it may be nature’s course, having a part of your body protrude, dangle, and then fall off, feels anything but natural. Thank you, Little Rabbit, for helping me help my Little Emily to find joy in her New Normal.
Book published by Dragonfly Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!