April 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color.
At the same time that my mom was smiling at these women’s parasols, I couldn’t stop thinking, These women all look miserable. Their faces looked contorted, if not bored to tears, as they sat with half-completed stitchery in their hands, or perched in the shadow of a towering top-hatted male figure. A few of these women looked directly out of the painting. I felt their eyes on me, a silent, desperate plea. Let me out of here!
No doubt I have been influenced by the rebellious heroine in the award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Ages 10-14), the first in a two-book series which I’ve been reading to my daughter (we are partway through the equally delicious second, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate). These novels, written by Jacqueline Kelly, embody everything I look for in a read-aloud book: they’re a (hefty) step above my daughter’s independent reading level; the exceptional writing is packed with challenging, expansive vocabulary; and they carry the potential to deepen my child’s own understanding of her place in the world—in this case, her place against the historical, complicated backdrop of girls coming of age in America.
Like the paintings at the Met exhibit, the books are set at the turn of the century, only instead of France, the backdrop is the Texas countryside. The star is a twelve-year-old only daughter of an aristocratic family, whose father runs the town’s cotton gin. Calpurnia Virginia Tate—or Callie Vee, as she’s affectionately known to family and friends—is rapidly approaching the age where she is expected to come out in society as a debutante; in preparation, her mother encourages her to practice diligently for piano recitals and perfect embroidery worthy of entry into county fairs. While she might be able to capture armadillos and wrestle in the dirt like her six (!) brothers for now, the clock is ticking. Her place will soon be in the home, her attention exclusively on crafting meal plans, raising babies, and managing servants.
But Calpurnia is a restless, inquisitive, sharp-witted soul, whose very purpose, it seems to her, is to question the expectations society has placed so squarely on her small shoulders. She’s okay at piano, but she’s downright terrible at handwork (…“the long striped scarf that I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit”); and her early attempts at making an apple pie had my daughter in stitches. The thought of a life filled exclusively with domestic pursuits feels to Callie like nothing less than a “life sentence”: “I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.”
And don’t get her started on the subject of romance. Callie cringes when three of her little brothers become smitten with her best friend, falling over themselves to carry her books on the walk to school; and she’s even more horrified when her eldest and favorite bother, Harry, begins to blush easily and bring potential (rather vapid) suitors home for dinner. Callie’s take on advances from the opposite sex? “…[I]f any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.”
What Calpurnia discovers she enjoys and excels at most—indeed, what she sneaks off to do at every chance—is something foreign, if not forbidden, to the female sex in her day. That is, investigative science. At the encouragement of her eccentric, reputably cantankerous grandfather, who since his days as a Confederate general has squirreled himself away in the family’s back shed, cataloging flora and fauna found in the nearby river and brush and fermenting pecans in an attempt to create whiskey, Calpurnia becomes an apprentice of natural science.
Armed with a net and a red leather pocket notebook, in which Grandfather encourages her to write her many observations and questions about the natural world, Calpurnia is empowered. She throws herself into the challenge of making sense of Grandfather’s copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book she initially tries and fails to find at her local library, coming of age at a time when the theory of evolution was largely dismissed in Southern culture. (Excerpts from On the Origin of Species and later from The Voyage of the Beagle open each chapter; older readers will enjoy deciphering why certain passages were picked for certain chapters). Indeed, the great suspense of the first book is whether the Smithsonian’s National History Museum in Washington, DC will accept her and Grandfather’s submission of a “vetch” cutting, a flowering plant found in the marshes near their house, and credit them with a newly-discovered species.
To be sure, Calpurnia’s “unladylike” adventures—dodging an angry badger, rescuing the Thanksgiving turkeys from certain doom, and convincing the local photographer to let a plant sit for a portrait—make for much more entertaining reading than a story about readying oneself for domestic pursuits. But our enjoyment of these books isn’t just about the dirt under Callie’s fingernails or the ways she chooses to occupy her time. We are given a window into the emotional world of a girl who is at once confused about why she doesn’t see models of professional, independent women around her (beyond her teachers and the new switchboard operator for the town’s only telephone) and ecstatic at being treated as a collaborative scientist—as an equal—by a grandfather who previously didn’t know her name. The author isn’t afraid to let us see Callie flounder, her confidence soar and then plummet, her questioning nature turn as much on herself as on her beloved flora and fauna. In Calpurnia, we have a crusader, a determined breaker of molds, but we also have an immensely vulnerable and relatable young soul.
“Calpurnia’s world is so interesting, don’t you think, Mommy?” my daughter said one Saturday morning, as she crawled into bed with me and opened the book for me to read. My Emily has long been fascinated by what she calls old-fashioned life, and she references series like Betsy-Tacy and Little House on the Prairie long after we finish them. Indeed, in Calpurnia’s world, there is much that feels foreign compared with modern day, from the skeptical discussions surrounding the first automobile in nearby Austin, to Calpurnia’s horror when her mother ties her ringlets in lumpy wet rags the night before a piano recital (“I smelled like brimstone and looked like a casualty from the War”). And just what exactly is in that bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for Women, which her mother drinks from each time she has a “nervous headache?”
But I think what fascinates Emily most about Calpurnia’s world is the narrow definition of a woman’s place, here an upper-class white Southern woman. It’s hard for our children to imagine this, growing up at a time when girls can become almost anything they want (even if, ahem, they still don’t get equal pay). This, of course, is why Calpurnia is such a compelling heroine. Callie’s magnetism stems from her defiance in the face of these limitations. She doesn’t set out to defy—indeed, her defiance causes her no shortage of discomfort and confusion. She inadvertently defies her parents and, in turn, society by the simple but rebellious act of indulging her own interests, of questioning and engaging with the world around her, instead of sitting idly by. Callie’s enthusiasm for the natural world is contagious. We want nothing more than to join her in the untamed wilderness.
Where Calpurnia’s journey will lead her by the end of the second book—what compromises she’ll undoubtedly have to make—I cannot yet say. But I know that Emily and I will be routing for her with every turn of the page. One thing is for sure: she doesn’t need us to rescue her from some Impressionist painting.
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Book published by Henry Holt & Company. 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 22, 2018 § 2 Comments
If you had told me ten years ago, after my first child was born, that three years later I would quit my job, move across the country, and stay home with by then two young children, I would not have believed a word of it. Not in the least because I loved my job, loved the social outlet of going to work every day, loved having others validate my successes, loved a paycheck, and loved having the childcare that allowed me to do all that and still relish quality time with my little one. Sure, I had days when I felt pulled in way too many directions and fantasized about going off the grid. But I never really expected I’d feel fulfilled any other way. I was, after all, a self-identified feminist. I had minored in women’s studies in college. I always intended to model for my children what it meant to be have a successful, robust career outside the home.
And then, for a host of reasons I never saw coming, I made the choice to stay home. And it felt right for our family. It still feels right. My privilege is not lost on me: I know many people would love to make that choice but, for various reasons, will never have the chance. Still, not a day goes by when I don’t question my choice, or feel judged for it, or feel guilty. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and wonder if I’ve come untethered from my feminism, if I’ve limited my daughter’s proximity to female power and influence. Perhaps this uncertainty is what it means to be a woman in today’s world: to question, to obsess, to wonder, to chastise ourselves and our fellow women, even when we don’t intend to, even when we don’t want to.
And yet, it also occurs to me that this very questioning is itself a tremendous gift. That there are so many ways today to be a woman—so many permutations of working or not working or volunteering (or blogging), so many ways to create a family, so many ways to model success and fulfillment—is owing in large part to the women who came before us. To the women who shook things up, who proved to the world that we were never meant to thrive beneath a single label.
My daughter was highly intrigued when Susan Hood’s Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World (Ages 6-10) showed up at our front door, especially because she instantly recognized six-year-old Ruby Bridges on the cover, icon of the Civil Rights Movement, marching bravely up the steps of an all-white New Orleans school with her lunchbox in hand. Further examination of the book revealed others whom Emily has learned about recently either in school or at home, including Frida Kahlo, whose expansive portraiture began during her months in a full-body cast, and Mary Anning, who became the youngest paleontologist in the 19th century when she unearthed an ichthyosaur on the English coast at just thirteen years of age (Stone Girl, Bone Girl is a favorite in our house, and our family just saw a play featuring Mary Anning’s ghost!).
Shaking Things Up is a fascinating trip spanning 250 years of world history, as seen through the eyes of some of its youngest female rebels. It begins in 1780 with Molly Williams, first known female firefighter in the United States, and ends in 2014 with Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, fierce advocate for girls’ education in the developing world and the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Household names are included, like the daredevil journalist Nellie Bly, but some of the young women will be new to children and (likely) their parents, including anti-hunger activist, Frances Moore Lappe, and cancer researcher, Angela Zhang. All of these women are united by their fierce determination to do what they love or what they believe will make a difference, often staring down stereotypes and battling adversity in the process. Whether consciously or not, they’re blazing a trail for those who follow. “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations,” African-American astronaut Mae Jemison is quoted as saying in the book.
Tantalizing content aside, what makes this book stand apart in an increasingly popular genre of biography anthologies is its unconventional format, perfectly suited to its unconventional heroines. Susan Hood profiles the fourteen young women, not through traditional prose, but with playful and lyrical poems. She even chooses different poetic forms to represent the distinct personalities she seeks to bring to life. For Mary Anning, Hood creates a concrete poem in the shape of the ichthyosaur fossil, Anning’s signature discovery. Pura Belpre, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library, appropriately gets an acrostic poem, where the first letter of each line creates the full alphabet.
For 19th century athlete Annette Kellerman, who took to swimming to strengthen her legs after wearing braces as a young child, then went on to invent the modern swimsuit, a limerick-style poem begins:
There once was a mermaid queen,
lovely and lithesome and lean,
who swam afternoons
her swimsuit was deemed obscene!
The lady was quickly arrested.
Unafraid, she calmly protested:
Who can swim fifty laps
wearing corset and caps?
Her statement could not be contested.
Some of the poems tell the linear stories of their subjects, while others are more abstract, speaking to the spark of adventure underlying the accomplishments. The free-verse poem, “Lift-Off,” written about astronaut Mae Jemison, strikes a universal chord:
An African proverb says, “No one shows a child the sky.”
Head back, it’s there in her eyes;
Glittering stars, swirling galaxies
fill her, thrill her…
But wait, there’s more! As you’ve undoubtedly noticed by now, each of the thirteen poems (one poem covers two women) is accompanied by a portrait of the subject created by a different well-known children’s illustrator, including favorites like Melissa Sweet, Julie Morstad, LeUyen Pham, and Emily Winfield Martin. In a book celebrating a range of possibilities for women, we are also privy to a diversity of female artistic styles and expression, rendered in paint, crayon, pencil, and mixed-media collage. Take, for example, Erin K. Robinson’s vibrant palette surrounding the stoic face of Frida Kahlo (“I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”):
Now contrast that with Sophie Blackall’s grey-scale, highly realistic rendering of British operative Jacqueline Nearne, who parachuted down into Nazi-occupied territories to deliver secret messages during World War II:
At times, the synergies between pictures and text are breathtaking. Julie Morstad’s illustration perfectly conveys the message behind “A New Vision,” a poem about Asian-American architect Maya Lin, who at just twenty-one years of age won a competition to design the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Rather than stealing any kind of spotlight, Lin’s stance in Morstad’s portrait embodies the very ideal she sought to represent with her art: she is turned almost inside herself, hand resting on the reflective surface of the memorial as snow falls gently around her.
Maya Lin knew that,
polished to a high shine,
black granite is a mirror
for those who have come to reflect,
who gaze into the past.
Whether Shaking Things Up encourages our children to seek out additional information about the women in its pages (book lists are provided at the end); whether it lends more emotional texture to figures already introduced; or whether it makes them want to draw or paint in a million new ways, our girls (and boys) are all the better because of the way these young women lived their lives. Our young ones may, as they get older, feel overwhelmed by the different paths opening up before them, but they will ultimately be grateful that such abundant choices exist. Celebrating these choices is itself a triumphant expression of feminism.
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Review copy provided by HarperCollins. 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 8, 2018 § Leave a comment
When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?
When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp?
I am halfway through one of the most compelling parenting books I’ve ever read. In The Self-Driven Child, clinical neuropsychologist, William Stixrud, along with motivational coach, Ned Johnson, make a convincing case for what our children need most from us. Drawing from personal experience and brain science, they argue that the main driver behind children’s well-being isn’t grades, or where they go to school, or what things they have. Rather, it’s how much control children perceive as having over their lives. Do they feel they can direct their lives in a meaningful way? Do they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?
“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being,” the book puts forth.
Perhaps more than we realize, we parents get in the way of our children developing their agency. We don’t mean to, of course. It’s just incredibly hard to sit back and watch our kids potentially sabotage friendships, tests, or the chance for future success. Maybe we want them to do what we did because it worked out so well, or maybe we’re hoping to save them from making the same mistakes we did. In any case, Stixrud and Johnson write:
So often, parents want to play Edward Scissorhands and start pruning their child like a tree, but the reality is that your tree has just begun to grow, and you don’t even know what kind of tree it is.
Sometimes, I would add, we “prune” our children without ever saying a word.
A few weeks ago, I attended my seven-year-old daughter’s “student-led conference” at her Montessori school, where she presented some of her recent work. To kick off the night, she shared a written “self-assessment,” in which she had noted her temperament, values, and interests. On one page was a list of “strong likes” and “strong dislikes.” Under the likes column, she had listed her brother, her father, and me (phew)—along with chocolate cake, polar bears, Helen Keller, and a few other things I couldn’t make out. Under dislikes, she had put “peppers.”
“Like spicy peppers?” I asked.
“No, like the peppers I eat for lunch.”
Ok, wait. My daughter packs her own lunch every morning. More often than not, she puts in red peppers. “You don’t like the red peppers you pack for lunch everyday?”
“I hate them,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“Then why do you pack them?” I had to ask.
“You put them on the counter, so I know you want me to. It seems important to you.”
Clearly, in their book, Stixrud and Johnson are talking about bigger things than bringing peppers for lunch. Or are they? What would have happened if my daughter had complained about packing peppers for lunch one morning? Would I have interpreted it as whining and glared at her in exasperation? Would I have passive-aggressively suggested she pack carrots instead, knowing how little she cares for those? Would I have barked, “They’re already out. Just pack them so you can hurry up and eat your breakfast.” Did she have any choice but to wait until we were on her turf to deliver this information?
I immediately thought about the heroine in Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Ages 5-9), the delightfully funny but astutely provocative early chapter book by award-winners Laura Amy Schlitz (three words: The Night Fairy) and Brian Floca. Published last year and enjoyed countless times in our house since then, Princess Cora and the Crocodile suddenly seems like the perfect, if hyperbolic, meditation on what it means to give our kids agency—before they have to go and unleash their inner crocodile.
You might say our protagonist, Princess Cora, has an agency problem. Meaning she has none. Her well-meaning royal parents have micromanaged every aspect of her life, beginning moments after her birth, as soon as they remember she will someday be queen. “They stopped thinking she was perfect and started worrying about what might be wrong with her. By the time she was seven years old, there wasn’t a single minute when Princess Cora wasn’t being trained.” Training, pruning: in this case, it’s the same thing.
As it turns out, Cora has grown increasingly resentful about her life in the royal castle. The nanny insists she takes, not one, but three baths a day. (“The nanny thought that being clean was the most important thing in the world.”) The King, determined that Cora grow up to be physically strong, stands over her with a stop watch, while she jumps rope in circles across the floor of the dungeon-now-gym. (“Princess Cora knew that skipping rope was good for her, but that didn’t make her like it any better.”) And the Queen only allows her to read books about running a successful kingdom. (“The books were so dull that Princess Cora yawned until her eyes were full of tears.”)
Why doesn’t Cora say something? Well, she tries. Sometimes, while reading books, she “asked silly questions, just to liven things up.” But then she’s criticized for being “inappropriate.” Sometimes, while asked to jump rope, she starts to protest. But then her father puts on a sad face and asks her, “Princess Cora, are you being a good girl?” To which it is assumed there should be only one answer.
Where questions of agency are concerned, it seems girls have it all the harder, feeling pressure to bend not only to parental demands, but also to society’s expectations. Girls, after all, are supposed to be “good.” To be polite and well-mannered. To never be loud or bossy or messy or angry. To never hurt feelings.
So, Cora does one of the few things allowed of heroines in fairy tales. She writes to her fairy godmother. In this case, the protocol for contacting one’s fairy godmother—my daughter loves this part—is to write a letter, tear it up, and leave it on the window ledge, where each of the scraps turns into a white butterfly and flies away.
Cora writes specifically of her wish for a dog (“a dog wouldn’t tell her what to do”), but she finds something much larger at the foot of her bed the next morning. A crocodile. And not just any crocodile. A crocodile who triumphantly exclaims, “I’ve come to rescue you from your awful parents and your mean nanny.” A crocodile who seems every bit the opposite of the neat, quiet, polite princess. (Or is he?) Did I mention this crocodile bites? That he leaves a wake of destruction in his path? That he says things which are very, very rude? That he demands cream puffs all day and night?
The princess and the crocodile hatch a plan: Cora will run away and experience life outside the castle walls, while the crocodile will stand in for her, donning a dress and a mop for hair. (Cora assures him her parents aren’t very observant.)
What follows is a most entertaining juxtaposition: the sweet revelations of Cora’s tromp through nature, interspersed with the uproarious physical comedy of the crocodile wreaking havoc back home. While we might guess where this is going, the delight comes from the delicious details in Schlitz’s narrative and the whimsy of Floca’s drawings.
Cora climbs trees, stuffs herself full of freshly-picked strawberries, and walks barefoot through cow patties (at first thought, “Ew ew ew;” at second thought, “I’m having an adventure!”). Her petticoats rip and her cheeks pink up.
Back at the castle, the crocodile starts by turning the bathroom into a water slide and tossing Nanny into the bath. Later, bored of his reading lesson (the Queen initially assumes she is talking to Cora), he balances the ink pot on his nose until black splotches cover the table; swings from the chandelier; taunts the Queen with “bad rhymes;” and nips at her ankles. Finally, he chases the King around in circles and ties him up with the skipping rope.
“I don’t want to be a good little girl,” the crocodile declares. “I want to be a bad crocodile. And what’s more, I am one!” And that, of course, is when we realize that the crocodile is none other than a metaphor for the anger and rebellion—the maleness, if you will—which good girl Cora has tried so many years to repress.
As we expect, Cora eventually realizes that she misses her parents, and she decides to return to the castle. Only this time, it’s on her terms. As it turns out, the King and Queen and Nanny have also had a change of heart. (After getting locked in the library, the Queen realizes just how boring her books are and throws them out the window.) The grown-ups begin to do something they have never done before: they begin to listen to Cora. This time, she talks clearly, convincingly, and assertively. (“This time Cora didn’t hang her head or turn red or burst into tears.”) Cora speaks of her interest in reading about “sharks and tigers and fairies”; in climbing trees and learning how to juggle; in taking baths but only after getting very, very dirty. To their surprise, her parents discover that Cora’s overall goals for herself aren’t dramatically different from the ones they have for her; it’s only that she has different ideas about how to achieve them.
The Self-Driven Child raises the unsettling question, “If we’re unable to accept our kids as they are, how can we expect them to accept themselves?” The authors challenge us to listen, really listen to our children. They suggest, what if instead of steering our children down a path we deem best, we begin seeing our job as one of “consultant”—helping our children see the pros and cons of a decision but then, ultimately, leaving that decision up to them? After all, if we accept our children as they are, perhaps they won’t feel the need to unleash their inner crocodile just to get our attention. Perhaps they can embrace all aspects of their personality, not just the ones society tells them are most “appropriate.”
After a brief hiatus, Emily has started packing peppers again in her lunch. Maybe her hatred is softening, or maybe it’s just on her terms now.
(And no, I’m not going to tell you what becomes of the crocodile.)
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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments
Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. About slavery, for example, he explains:
I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it. I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.
We can outlaw slavery, Stevenson argues, or sentence lynchers, or desegregate schools, or pass the Voting Rights Act—but only when we begin talking honestly in our schools, homes, and communities about the complicated, nuanced history of growing up African-American at different times in our country, can we understand the tremendous rise in incarceration rates among black Americans, or the “menacing of communities of color and poor communities,” or the defense of Confederacy symbols. “We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.” Not long after reading Stevenson’s piece, I came across an unsettling article in The Atlantic titled “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery.” It cites a new study revealing how grossly misinformed American children are about the history of slavery in our country, largely due to uninformed, “sentimentalized,” or “sanitized” teaching—or even the absence of teaching on the subject all together.
Personalizing the history of enslaved people—for example, encouraging the reading of individual narratives—is an important first step, Stevenson argues, towards internalizing the truth about our country’s history, so that we can begin rewriting the present. As a child, I was fascinated by the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman—specifically, by her involvement with the Underground Railroad. After all, what child isn’t intrigued by a so-called underground railroad that has neither anything to do with trains nor is actually underground? The Underground Railroad was, of course, a secret network of people, some black and some white, who were committed to providing safe harbor, often at great personal risk, to runaway slaves attempting to make their way on foot to freedom in the North. The struggle and heroism displayed on both sides—from the runaways to the helpers—is positively staggering. As such, it has always seemed to me a compelling but still hopeful lens through which to introduce young children to slavery.
I decided to dedicate this past month to sharing books with my kids about Harriet Tubman, especially given that—in part thanks to the media attention garnered last year by our own President’s exhibited ignorance about the American icon—a flurry of new children’s books on the subject have recently been published. (My son tried to convince me he already knew all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5: The Underground Abductor, which admittedly is an awesome book, but I convinced him to humor me.)
If the best of American history is filled with people changing their destinies, turning misfortune into opportunity, and standing up to fight for themselves and, in turn, for those who cannot, then Harriet Tubman personifies the American Ideal. The two books I’ve chosen to discuss today could not be more different; but they work beautifully in tandem: the first bringing new texture to the most commonly known aspects of Tubman’s life, and the second expanding our awareness of her involvement and accomplishments beyond the Underground Railroad.
I am Harriet Tubman (Ages 6-10) is the fourteenth installment in Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’s hugely popular “Ordinary People Change the World” graphic biography series, many of which—as I discussed in the wake of the 2016 election—have become especially near and dear to my daughter’s heart. (When Emily’s school had Biography Day a few weeks ago, there was never any doubt she would go as Helen Keller—because I am Helen Keller.)
One of the biggest draws of this series for young children is its focus on the subject’s childhood. I am Harriet Tubman is no exception. Here, Meltzer and Eliopoulos do an especially adept job of presenting the inhumanity of slavery through the eyes of young Harriet. For children, slavery meant no birthday celebrations (in most cases, children had no idea when their birthdays were). Children had to wear “sacks.” They were forbidden by law to read and write. They were beaten if they didn’t do what their masters demanded. And their families could be split and sold off with no warning, which meant one day you or your loved one might be forced to leave, in many cases never to reunite with family again.
Even when describing horrific events, Harriet’s voice (through Meltzer) emerges emboldened, keeping the subject matter from becoming too overwhelming for her audience: “I know it’s scary. But by hearing my story, I hope you’ll find strength you never knew you had. That’s what happened when I was around seven years old.” At age seven, Harriet explains, in order to escape a beating, she hid in a pigpen for five days, “fighting the pigs for potato peelings.” When she eventually came out of hiding, near starvation, she was still beaten—and yet, the experience changed the way she (and those around her) saw herself: she was not afraid to protect herself. As years went on, she continued to endure abuse and injury at the hands of her owners. Still, each time she didn’t die, she drew faith that God was watching out for her. She began to allow herself to dream of freedom, of letting the North Star show her the way.
At 22 years of age, Harriet narrowly escaped to Philadelphia. Even more harrowing were her thirteen trips back to Maryland to escort 70 others, including strangers and family members, along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Both my children were riveted by these panels: Harriet disguising men as old ladies so they wouldn’t be recognized; hiding with runaways in hidden passages; wading through icy waters by dark; and creating diversions to get slave hunters off her back. “It’s sort of confusing,” my daughter pointed out, “but all the terrible work Harriet had to do when she was a slave, chopping wood and stuff, actually made her strong enough to get through the wilderness like that.” Indeed, the tables had been tuned, one of the many nuanced ironies of oppression.
At its conclusion, I am Harriet Tubman raises the idea that freedom alone is only part of the equation: it’s what we do with our freedom that determines our character. In the case of Harriet Tubman, she dedicated her new life to helping others, believing (her words) “the measure of success isn’t what you achieve for yourself, it’s what you do for others.”
In my life, I was told I couldn’t make my own choices.
Told I would never escape.
But I did.
I fought for my independence.
And once I had breathed the air of freedom,
I knew I needed to help others breathe it too.
For more about what the adult Tubman achieved on behalf of others, we turn to our second book. If I am Harriet Tubman begins with its subject as a child, this second tribute to the American icon begins at the end of her life. The lyrical and intimate Before She Was Harriet (Ages 7-12), written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome, actually begins with Harriet’s wrinkles: “Here she sits/ an old woman/ tired and worn/ her legs stiff/ her back achy.”
The title a nod to her birth under a different name, Before She Was Harriet takes readers on a poetic journey backwards through Tubman’s life, from an old woman to the young slave who learned to read by starlight. Each turn of the page peels back another layer, revealing the incredible breath of roles she played in her life, well beyond that of “Moses,” the Underground Railroad conductor for which she is most well known.
For example, before she “was an old woman,” Harriet was a “loud and angry” suffragist, fighting on behalf of women’s rights:
a voice for women
who had none
in voting booths
before her voice became
soft and raspy
it was loud
rising above injustice
Before she was a suffragist, she was an abolitionist, serving in the Civil War by ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom: General Tubman/ rising out of the fog/ armed with courage/ strong in the face of rebels/ and planters and overseers/ as they watched/ fields burn. Before she was General Tubman, she was a Union Spy, carrying secrets/ across battlefields/ to soldiers/ fighting in the Civil War/ for President Lincoln/ to end slavery.
As the pages continue, they reveal a younger and younger Tubman. Only great restraint on my part is holding me back from citing each one of the evocative, economical poems which deliver these momentous roles and deeds to us. And yet, even as Harriet Tubman emerges a fiery feminist, a fierce warrior, and (let’s be honest) a total Bad Ass, the soft watercolor illustrations allude all the time to her grace, her humility, and her quiet stoicism. She looks, well, human. She looks relatable.
At the end of his interview about the state of race in our country, Stevenson is asked whether he feels hopeful going forward, particularly for the youngest generations. His response gives me chills:
I don’t think we’re allowed, frankly, to get hopeless and beat down, and I think that’s the upside to understanding this history. The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—because my grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved, and her father was in her ear every day of her life talking about slavery, and she was in my ear, I feel the force of their strength. I really do.
Harriet Tubman underscores this power. The power to stand up, to push back, and to fight. The even greater power to help others do the same. These two pictorial accounts of Harriet, of “Moses,” are just a few of the many illuminating narratives children’s literature gives us to help bring our children into the larger narrative of race, racial history, and the move toward racial justice in our country.
Books published by Dial Books for Young Readers and Holiday House respectively. Review copy provided by Dial. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
February 1, 2018 § 8 Comments
Compared to last week, this week’s book may a lighter pick, but it will do no less to make better parents out of us. In fact, it’s possible I needed this reality check more than my kids.
There are days when it feels like my children leave a trail of oopses in their wake. Days when my daughter—at seven, I tell you!—can’t seem to get a single forkful to her mouth without losing some of it down her shirt and onto the floor. When my son leaves his aircraft carrier outside his sister’s door and she steps on it with bare, now-bloodied feet. When just-poured glasses are knocked over by careless elbows; when Christmas ornaments become dislodged and shatter to pieces on the floor as running feet whiz by; when HOW ABOUT NO ONE MOVE BECAUSE THE HOUSE WAS JUST CLEANED AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!
Of course, I exaggerate. My children are calm, careful, tidy little people who are aware of how much space they take up. Just not all/most/much of the time.
Cartoonist Andrea Tsurumi’s new picture book, Accident! (Ages 5-8), explodes with hyperbole on every page, gently poking fun at the way we—children and parents alike—invoke unnecessary drama around the most common occurrences in life: oopses. By the time we are finish the story, Tsurumi has us wondering, what if we take the emphasis off the mistake itself and ask instead, how do we make it better? It is not an exaggeration to say that this book has become something of a rallying cry for our family in recent weeks.
In order to write a book illustrating how life doesn’t have to fall to pieces every time we unintentionally break, bump, or spill something, it is necessary to fill pages with breaks, bumps, and spills. Tsurumi accomplishes this with a chain-of-events storyline which begins small—cleverly, on the title page itself—and crescendos into complete chaos. A young, high-energy, anthropomorphized armadillo (named Lola) cartwheels across the floor and inadvertently knocks over a pitcher of orange liquid, which spills to cover nearly every inch of an upholstered white chair. Her reaction is one of sheer horror: “Oh No! I’ve ruined everything!”
Presumably fearing the wrath of her parent, the armadillo quickly decides she will run away to her public library (“they have books and bathrooms”) and “stay there until I’m a grownup.” As Lola races headfirst down the block, all she knows is that she’s running from her problem. What she doesn’t yet realize—but what our wise narrator informs us—is that she’s running “right into everyone else’s.”
Sure enough, everywhere Lola turns, there are cries of “Oh no!” A bear sits on a swing and breaks it. An anteater runs her grocery cart into a lamb, who flies up and lands in a freshly-baked cake being delivered by a blowfish. A giraffe slips while carrying a tray of hot cookies. A hairdresser momentarily looks away and ends up scissoring off the entirety of her (equine) client’s mane. Cars crash. Garden hoses get pointed in the wrong direction. Baseballs smash through windows. Both the absurd and the commonplace intersect in visual abundance.
I’ll admit I suffered from a case of visual overload when I first read this book. It took my daughter taking me back through the different pages, pointing out and chuckling over sub-plots too numerous to count, that sold me on the endless opportunities for creative engagement and repeated perusal. (Once again, I am reminded of what visual learners this generation is.)
The cries of dismay and outrage on all sides—victim and offender—become more extreme with every page: “We’re so unlucky!” “Ruined!” “Disaster!” “Big bad trouble!” “Mayhem!” “Fiasco!” “Calamity!” “Catastrophe!” (Talk about a fun lesson on synonyms.) Perhaps the expletive to ring the truest with our little ones—and, if you’re anything like me, may elicit a tiny twinge of guilt: “I AM THE WORST!”
As Lola races through the chaos erupting around her, she pauses three times to invite others facing similar retribution or retaliation to join her in escaping to the library. Soon, she and four others are storming the library doors.
Here, author-illustrator Tsurumi does something wittily unexpected. Conventional literature has taught us to see libraries as sanctuaries: indeed, that’s precisely why Lola has chosen to go to one. And yet—perhaps reminding us readers just how pervasive, how common, accidents are—Tsurumi extends the very chaos of the outside world into the library itself. Shelves tumble like dominoes, and books and office supplies soar into the air. (My favorite detail: the owl, meant to be stamping books, is instead stamping someone’s head.)
Lola again flees the scene, more frantic than ever. Until she comes face to face with a small reddish-orange bird—coincidentally (or not?) the same hue as the liquid spilled in the story’s opener. Repeated readings will reveal that the bird has been there all along, witnessing Lola’s oops and then trailing alongside her, like a quiet guardian. The bird lands on the armadillo’s tail and seems to call a kind of forced time out. In response to Lola’s insistence of “Disaster! Fiasco! Mayhem! Calamity! Cat-as-tro-phe!” the bird replies, simply, “Accident.”
Under the curious gaze of what has now become a crowd of onlookers, the bird gently nudges, “And now we make it better.” At once, brooms and mops are procured, helping hands are offered, and sincere apologies are delivered. Our children are given a road map for what to do following their inevitable oopses: what comes next? and how do you say it?
When Lola returns home, cleaning supplies in hand, she finds her mother has just provoked a minor catastrophe of her own: she is surrounded by scattered papers, an overturned coffee mug, and spilled doughnuts. This time, Lola is able to offer some perspective. “An accident,” she reassures her mother. And, as Lola removes a doughnut from her mother’s ear, the latter responds, “Exactly.”
I remember a particular dinner at our house. It took place years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Dinner preparation had run long, bedtime loomed, my husband was traveling, and all I wanted was to sit and enjoy the steaming plate of pasta I held in my hands. But, as I carried my plate and glass into the dining room, where my children already sat bent over their food, my socked foot slipped on the hardwood floor and my glass tumbled to the ground. The glass (because I have learned) was super-duper thick and didn’t break, but the water spilled everywhere. I think I must have looked like I was going to cry, because my son jumped up from the table and said without hesitating, “You sit down, Mommy. I will wipe it up.” Oh, how many times I have remembered this incident too late, after I have already barked at one of my children to “Be careful!” “Pay attention!” “Look where you’re going!”
When the pitcher overturns, when the ornament falls, when they mess up the world around them, our children don’t need fingers pointed at them. They don’t need eyes rolled, voices raised, or insults thrown. What they need is the opportunity to “make it better.” And sometimes they even need us to roll up our sleeves and get down in the trenches with them. After all, what goes around comes around, and goodness knows we all make mistakes.
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!
January 25, 2018 § 1 Comment
I heard a story shortly before the holidays which I haven’t been able to get out of my head. It was from an associate who serves with me on the Capitol Choices Committee. Normally, in our monthly meetings, we are all business: we get in, we debate that month’s new titles, and we get out. But, at the end of our December meeting, this librarian asked to deliver a few personal remarks. She told us how she had been in New York City the weekend prior (funny enough, so had I) and had been walking on Sunday evening to Penn Station for her train home. It was blustery, growing colder by the minute, and the streets were still dusted with the previous day’s snow. About half a block ahead of her was a man. She described him as middle-aged, well-dressed in a dark wool overcoat, and carrying a briefcase. Keeping pace behind him, she watched as the man suddenly took off his coat, draped it over a homeless man sitting in a doorway, and kept walking. All without missing a beat.
My associate broke into a jog, determined to catch up to the man and thank him. When she did, he simply responded, “He needed it more than I did.” And kept walking.
This story became the topic of our family dinner conversation that night and has continued to surface since then. In the wake of hearing about extraordinary selfless acts, there is often a natural course of response: we go from feeling deeply moved, perhaps gratified or hopeful that such compassion exists; to wondering, would we do the same if given the chance? Too often, we quickly re-immerse ourselves in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and forget all about it.
What does it mean to love the people around us?
It is by and through small acts that children measure the world. Growing up on the streets of New York, I remember my parents talking to me about the futility of dropping change into someone’s begging cup: it was better, they believed, to write a check to an organization whose mission serves the homeless than to give your money to a single individual whose motives might be suspect (the implication: he might waste it on The Drink). My parents were generous individuals, who meant no harm by this view and may have even been right; certainly, they had a point about scope of impact. But scope of impact doesn’t matter in a child’s small eyes.
Now, when we visit New York, my son will often carry his allowance in his pocket and delve it out into various open guitar cases and coffee cups throughout the city. When he runs out of money, I oblige him extra dollars. In the aftermath, his eyes sparkle. He has looked at someone else and made a choice to reach out. However small doesn’t matter to him.
Everyday acts of love abound in Matt de la Pena and Loren Long’s new and much-anticipated picture book, Love (Ages 6-12). It should be noted that everybody in the children’s book world is talking about this book. And yet, while I normally reserve these pages for books that might otherwise fall under your radar, this book deserves its praise sung by many.
Love was born out of Matt de la Pena’s (you’ll remember him from Last Stop on Market Street, another book that takes my breath away) personal despair over the “divisiveness of our country” and his desire to “write a comforting poem about love” for his daughter.
As it turns out, Love is the perfect book to usher in a more hopeful New Year—although not necessarily in the ways we might expect. It is the perfect book to remind ourselves and our children what it means to reach over the edge of fear, anger, uncertainty, sadness, and difference—and connect. And it is the perfect book to remind us that, whether in our happiest and darkest hours, love is present. We need only to open our eyes to it.
Written in the second person—at once, the narrator both intimately addresses the reader and refers to the global experience of childhood—the book opens with a fairly traditional, even expected proclamation of parental love: that of proud, adoring new parents keeping vigil beside their sleeping child.
Already we have a visual clue about the uncharted territory ahead: a brilliant display of racial, economic, cultural, and urban diversity, the likes of which have rarely been presented in a picture book that isn’t strictly about diversity. This is a book about life, about community. How refreshing that the pages actually look like the American towns and cities we dwell in.
As we turn the page, we begin to realize that this is not business as usual for a picture book tribute to love. In the second spread, de la Pena’s poetic text may be about a man playfully bouncing his toddler on his lap in the back of a taxi cab, but the foreground of the accompanying illustration tells a second story: that of a boy in a wheelchair presenting his hot dog to a homeless amputee on a park bench.
As we turn more pages, we are greeted with more manifestations of love, both the familiar and the unexpected. A father dances with his daughter on the sun-drenched roof of their trailer at sunset, while the mother, standing over the sink, carefully inspects a plate to ensure it’s clean. A police officer laughs while pulled in opposite directions by two squealing, gangly children, amidst the spray of the fire hydrant on a steamy summer afternoon.
De la Pena’s text marries with Long’s illustrations in ways that are sometimes indirect but always magical, creating an impression greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of the above sprinkler spread, the run-on words wash over us, helping us to imagine a scene even broader than what Long has painted. In fact, the words invite us to place ourselves in the picture.
In a crowded concrete park,
you toddle toward summer sprinklers
while older kids skip rope
and run up to the slide, and soon
you are running among them,
and the echo of your laughter is love.
But just wait.
In a deeply moving essay for Time magazine about the process of writing Love, de la Pena confesses that his first draft was so focused on reassurance and uplift, so focused on painting a rosy picture of the world for his daughter, that it rang false. “I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity,” he writes. His next draft is what we have in our hands today.
About a third of the way through, the book begins to move from joy-filled moments to those of confusion, loss, hurt, and sadness. It’s as if the book is asking, what happens in these darker moments, in the ones that don’t get talked about, in the ones children don’t entirely understand?
In the book’s first demonstration of adversity, an old woman turns a young girl away from the smoke engulfing her burning apartment building and directs her instead towards the stars in the night sky. (In all of his illustrations, Long showcases just enough detail to conjure emotion, while keeping more frightening images at bay.)
On the night the fire alarm blares,
you’re pulled from sleep and whisked
into the street, where a quiet old
lady is pointing to the sky.
“Stars shine long after they’ve flamed
out,” she tells you, “and the shine they
shine with is love.”
But while there’s a clear “helper” in that old woman (I’m reminded of the Mister Rogers quote: Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping), in the pages that follow, we are left with some ambiguity about when and if help will come. In the most unsettling illustration—one which de la Pena and Long bravely fought to keep against their publisher’s initial concerns—a child crouches in fear under a piano, while his parents rage at one another. Our only clues about what has happened come from an overturned chair in the corner, a mother burying her head in her hands, and a father storming out of the room, leaving behind an empty Old Fashioned glass with fresh ice cubes. …it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover. It’s summers, too. And friendships. And people. (Although note the dog by the child’s side.)
Sometimes, we are told, we have to recognize “a love overlooked.” This next scene is quietly poignant: a boy watches out the window as his father makes his way through the snow to the bus in the early morning and his sister hands him a glass of orange juice and a plate of toast. A love that wakes at dawn and rides to work on the bus. A slice of burned toast that tastes like love.
Like the great orchestral symphony of life—we rise, we fall, we rise again—de la Pena and Long bring us back to pages brimming with the delight and joy found in everyday connections. One boy fishes with his grandfather. Another listens to his uncles tell “made-up stories,” while throwing horseshoes with him in the backyard. A girl lies on her back in the grass and hears love “in the rustling leaves of gnarled trees lined behind flower fields.”
My favorite spread reveals the love our children can choose to see spread across their own faces when they look into the mirror.
In an homage to growing up and leaving home, which concludes the book, the child reader is told that, while he or she might hear platitudes of good luck in preparing to set out, it’s not really luck that’s needed at all.
Because you’ll have love. You’ll have love, love, love.
Love is at our backs, although not always in the ways we anticipate or even think we need. But love also radiates out from within us. It can influence and direct our actions in the world, assuming we choose to let it. Let us not hold back. Let us feel; let us give. Let us go boldly forth with love at once our greatest guide and our greatest witness.
Review copy provided 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!