Facing the Past to Better the Future

June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred D. TaylorLike many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.

But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.

“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.

How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves?

How do we ensure our children will grow up in a country that celebrates differences, instead of condemns or even merely tolerates them? How do we ensure our children won’t make the same mistakes that generations of their forbearers did—and which some of their contemporaries are dangerously close to repeating?

In the midst of this unsettling time, I am once again reminded of the small but not insignificant power that we as parents have in what we choose to read with our children. Our time with them as willing listeners may be fleeting, but it is time that is immensely valuable. When we read to our children, we shape the way in which they see the world. We encourage them to ask questions of themselves and of others. And we give them a working vocabulary to navigate the undeniably treacherous terrain of life.

This past spring, I had the privilege of leading a book club with some of the children in my son’s elementary class on a book that made an indelible impression on me as a child—and which today, even as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, feels as valuable as ever.

Mildred D. Taylor’s 1976 novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Ages 10-15, possibly younger if reading aloud), tells the story of a black family’s perseverance amidst the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi in the early 1930s. Told through the eyes of the nine-year-old daughter, the story is also a coming-of-age one, as Cassie trades the innocence of her youth for a sobering understanding of the way in which race so narrowly defines her family’s place in the world.

In writing this book and the sequels that follow, Taylor set out to put down on paper the various stories that her father and other family members had passed down to her about their childhood in the South—living at a time when blacks were no longer enslaved, but were “still not free.”

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder addresses a part of our country’s past that has often been kept quiet. In writing the book, Taylor did more than simply catalog her family’s oral histories. She dared to write outside the history books. She dared to tell the kinds of stories that had been deliberately withheld from textbooks; and in doing so, she gave the world a deeper, fuller, truer portrait of the southern American experience.

You want to motivate kids to tackle a book whose reading level might initially seem daunting, or whose cover might seem like it has nothing to do with their day-to-day reality? Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that people (not that long ago) went out of their way to keep secret. Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that many people—the very perpetrators of the kind of inhumanity exposed in these stories—would like to pretend never happened.

These children were every bit as shocked and spellbound by the novel as I remember being when I read it as a child.

And that is because this is MIND BLOWING stuff.

For starters, there’s the realization that the Logan children walk over an hour—usually barefoot on the dirt road—to get to their all-black school, while the children headed towards the white school tear by in school buses whose drivers purposely kick up mud in their wake.

There’s the descriptive contrast (which we sketched out together one week) of the white and black schools: one with manicured lawns and bleacher-framed athletic fields; the other with crabgrass checked by a roaming cow.

There’s the chilling scene that commences when Cassie’s teacher makes a big fanfare of presenting each member of the class—for the first time in the history of the school—with his or her own reader. Cassie and her brother’s excitement is quickly tainted when they open the readers and learn by the ledgers inside the cover that they are actually twelfth in line to use the books—and that their turn has only come because the white school has worn down the pages to the point of disintegration. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the twelfth spot is labeled “nigra.”


And this is all from the first chapter.

What follows goes well beyond poverty and offensiveness and cuts clear into injustice, emotional cruelty, and physical violence. Black adults in the novel face burning (“the skin was scarred, burned, and the lips were wizened black, like charcoal”), tarring and feathering, and even death—all at the hands of white community leaders. The children in the book may be on the outskirts of such attacks; and yet, they face bullying of a different sort, like when Cassie is spit on and shoved into the street by an older white girl, after refusing to address her as Miz Lillian Jean.

I’ll admit that, several times early on in the book club, there were moments when I questioned whether I had overstepped in my book selection. These were largely eight and nine year olds, while Roll of Thunder is probably more appropriately suited for eleven and twelve year olds. The vocabulary is challenging, the sentence structure complex, and on top of that there’s Southern dialect. Most significantly, there is graphic and upsetting subject matter, including offensive language. Were these children ready for this? Were they even capable of understanding it?

Since the book was first published, Roll of Thunder has been criticized and even banned in various communities, particularly in the South, for—among other things—its use of the word nigger. In the new forward to the book, Taylor defends her work: “My stories will not be ‘politically correct’…as we all know, racism is offensive.”

The benefit of reading a book like this in the context of a book club or at home with parents is that it allows for controlled, guided discussions. Early on, the children and I looked up the history of the word nigger: its derivation from the word Negro—a word initially keyed by black intellectuals out of pride and respect for an African heritage—and its bastardization in the hands of white supremacists. We had passionate debates as to whether it was appropriate to say the word in the context of sharing passages aloud from the book; some children remained steadfast in their vehemence that they would not utter the word in any context.

Despite the challenging reading level and upsetting content, week after week, the kids kept showing up.

Even more, they astounded me with their insight and their passion.

They would stop me around the neighborhood and update me on where they were in the reading, reminding me of how many days until our next meeting and asking if I was as shocked as they were about what was happening.

During book club, they would request to act out scenes, not only to audition their Southern accent, but also to make sense of various grown-up practices, like buying on credit, which play a key role in the novel’s politics.

They were fascinated by the cover—a stirring illustration by Kadir Nelson for the book’s 40th anniversary—and often speculated on Cassie’s thoughts, while simultaneously emulating her defiant arms-crossed stance.

On their own, they memorized the Negro spiritual from whence the book’s title is derived and which is cited several times as Cassie’s rallying cry. They chanted it in unison as I walked into the room one week, their voices drumming together in a steady beat, their fists pounding on the table in emphasis.

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor

How do I account for this kind of enthusiasm and engagement?

One word: Cassie.

By casting Cassie as the heart and soul of the story, Taylor gives the child reader a kindred spirit, one who transcends skin color or experience with prejudice. At the end of the day, Cassie is a nine-year-old child. She is fiercely protective of her siblings and deeply loyal to her self-respecting and determined family. She questions everything that is happening around her, and her unwavering sense of justice will feel familiar to any elementary child. She is both afraid and brave.

There are many other well-developed and relatable characters in the book—including Cassie’s older brother, Stacey, who was another favorite with my group—but it is through Cassie’s raw, innocent, inquisitive eyes that we are drawn firsthand into this very ugly side of American history.

Still, do not misunderstand me. Amidst the ugliness, there are plentiful moments of beauty, hope, and courage throughout the novel. There are the ways—many of them quiet and subversive, born out of cleverness as opposed to physical violence—that the different members of the Logan family wield power in the community, asserting their rights and enlisting others in the fight.

There is the love—and the deep, deep tenderness—that the Logans have for one another and the ways in which the older generation embeds in the younger ones the sacredness of family history, a reverence for the earth, and a way to preserve human dignity at all costs.

In reaction to a particularly upsetting demonstration of white power in the book, one of the book club members burst into tears and said she wished she wasn’t white. I realized we needed to take a step back and refrain from falling ourselves into the trap of vilifying an entire group of people because of their race.  And so we spent the next twenty minutes talking about the white characters in the book who do respect their black neighbors, who go out of their way to offer friendship, and who even at times speak out against others who oppose their views. It is actions, not skin color, that should command our attention and judgment.

On another day, we watched a contemporary video about the pitfalls of labels, be they race or religion or gender related. Then we watched it again.

One of the most profound realizations of the entire book club came on the heels of one of the most surprising chapters in the novel, when Cassie—after spending weeks submitting to Lillian Jean in an effort to earn her trust—lures Lillian Jean into the woods and beats her up. Some of the children admitted to being as duped by Cassie’s intentions as Lillian Jean herself, although all agreed that they figured out what was happening long before Lillian Jean did. I argued that Lillian Jean’s bewilderment at being “turned on” by Cassie is especially interesting, in light of the fact that Lillian Jean has gone out of her way to insult Cassie for most of her life.

“Why should it come as such a shock to her that Cassie would want to be mean back?” I asked the children.

There was a long pause, and then one child spoke up: “I know this sounds weird, but I don’t think Lillian Jean thought she was being mean all those times. I think she thought she was doing what everyone else like her was supposed to be doing.”

Another child jumped in: “It’s like her parents and all the other adults in her life have always been telling her, ‘you have to be mean to black people,’ ‘black people aren’t the same as us,’ and so she just thinks that’s how it is.”

And another: “It’s like my name. My parents have always called me by my name, so I know that it’s my name. If someone tried to tell me it wasn’t my name, I wouldn’t even believe them.”

May I remind you that these children are only eight and nine years old?! Oh, the wisdom that can be unearthed in our children! Because, of course, they are exactly right about the power of brainwashing, of the power that we as parents possess in the way we teach our children about the world.

After we finished the book, as we wrapped up our final meeting, I told the children I had two questions.

“Would you like to be friends with Cassie?”

The unanimous, affirmative shouts were so loud that they likely carried out to the street.

“If Cassie came over to your house for dinner, what would you want to ask her?”

Several of the children immediately responded that they would ask her how she felt about things that happened in the book—particularly during the nail-biting events of the final pages.

One girl was silent for a few minutes. Then she said, “I don’t think I would like to ask her about anything that already happened. I would like to ask her how she is enjoying the rest of her life.”

I continue to be struck by this statement—by the generosity and kindness and optimism that it reflects. (Of course, I immediately jumped at the chance to plug Mildred Taylor’s sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken.)

We all want to believe that things will get better. We all want to believe that, like the Logan family, we will do everything in our power to see that it does.

Right now, our children are still so young—still so innocent in the way they see the world. And yet, what they see and hear and read is beginning to open their eyes wider. With this widening comes not just power but responsibility: what they do with that power will depend on what examples of leadership we continue to share with them.

Let our children always have characters like Cassie to inspire them to stand up for what is right and just, to resist the danger of lumping groups together with labels, and to celebrate the rainbow of colors and individuality around them.


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Review copy by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton JonesLast year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.

But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.”

I’ve seen what my kids can do with a pile of stuffed animals and two sheets—heck, I’ve even watched them play Tic Tac Toe on the living room floor with masking tape and kitchen cutlery—so I should know that they can do this. Heck, I do know it. They can battle boredom. I’ve seen it time and time again. And yet, the mere thought of little hands hanging on me and little voices whining for another snack and little feet pattering on my heels as I try and straighten the house—all of these the predictable precursors to the creative process—make me want to get out my wallet and head to Target.

Stop the madness. Summer should be my children’s time to plug fully and uninterruptedly into their imaginations. I need to resist staging; I need to resist meddling; I need to turn them loose in the backyard and shut the door behind them.

Thankfully, we have books like Elizabeth Orton Jones’ Twig (Ages 7-9, or younger if read aloud) to remind us of what fun can be made out of what is already on hand—that is to say, out of almost nothing at all.

Originally published in 1942, re-released in 1970, and then updated with an introduction from the author in 2001, Twig has every ounce of the nostalgia, charm, and quirkiness that we would expect from a 70-year-old chapter book (although, arguably, it does romanticize poverty to a fault). Hilarious blog posts like this one aside, we should perhaps take a page out of the parenting books of our own childhood, when we tromped around the backyard with skinned knees and itchy bug bites and our parents seemed almost surprised to see us at the end of the day. Magic almost always happens in children’s stories when the parents turn their backs.

Parents of fairy lovers rejoice! I have a found you another chapter book, which—like our beloved The Night Fairy—is based in the natural world, is beautifully told, and stars characters every bit as innocent and genuine and likeable and funny. Take a look at Twig‘s Table of Contents and tell me you don’t want to start this story at bedtime tonight.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

The author never comes out and says it directly, but Twig, the little girl at the heart of the story, is clearly poor. She lives on the “fourth floor of a high sort of house in the city,” has safety pins for buttons, and wears a piece of grocery string around one of her shoes to keep it from falling apart. She doesn’t appear to have any siblings, nor any fellow children as neighbors. She also doesn’t appear to have a single toy.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

What she does have is a backyard, which she shares with two sparrows, a cat, an ice-wagon horse, a leaky drainpipe, and a single dandelion. It is out of these things—as well as discarded household objects—that Twig constructs and stars in the most fanciful and amusing of adventures.

The story begins with a fairy house. Not the fairy house of our children’s imaginations, with mossy rocks and grassy beds and twigs tied with twine. This is a strictly urban fairy house, made from an empty, overturned can of tomatoes with a slit down the front (“where somebody’s can opener had made a mistake”). Twig furnishes the house with a thimble (cooking pot), a bottletop (which makes a table when balanced on the thimble), a piece of shiny paper (mirror), and an old feather (a broom to sweep the floors). And then she waits for a fairy to move in.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

A fairy does move in, although not the “pretty little fairy” Twig was expecting. Elf is an eager, mischievous, cap-sporting boy fairy with a potato skin for clothing and a high-pitched voice (“like the tiny little squeak which was in Twig’s Papa’s Sunday shoes”). We later learn that he has escaped from the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and is eager to try his hand at magic in “real life.” As far as Twig is concerned, Elf exceeds expectations the moment he tries out a magic spell from his trusty red book and ends up miniaturizing her. Suddenly, the two are keeping house together inside the tomato can, and it isn’t long before they are bantering like an old married couple.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Seen through the eyes of Twig’s new miniaturized self, the backyard becomes a place of wonder and excitement. She swings from the leaves of the lone dandelion. She drinks tea out of old toothpaste tops. Along with Elf, she climbs up the ice-wagon horse’s tail and takes a siesta nestled inside the horse’s ears. (Of course, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary is not without its limits: Twig has to draw the line when Elf brings a cockroach into the tomato can and attempts to endear him to Twig as a pet named Chummie.)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

But my daughter’s favorite adventures come when, perched on the back of Mrs. Sparrow, Twig and Elf take trips up to the nest to help the mother-to-be sit on her eggs. For one, the four eggs end up hatching on their watch, and Twig and Elf are beside themselves trying to figure out how to hush the endless “squa-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-k” of the ravenous babies (many giggles here). Secondly, the page-long description of the nest is itself fascinating—a regular archaeology site of discarded treasures. In addition to straw and horse hair and old feathers, there is “a piece of silver tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree,” a burnt match, the first six inches of a tape measure, and “a little limp piece of rubber from an old balloon” (“Oh! Twig had never seen such a mess!”)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Anyone hoping for some conventional fairy lore will not be disappointed, as the last third of the story brings the arrival of the Fairy Queen, who descends from Fairyland “with a long pink dress on, and hair that was as yellow as Twig’s Papa’s taxi, and wings you could see right through—like cellophane.” She is followed shortly by the quirkiest character in the book: a white-haired, wizened fairy named Lord Buzzle Cobb-Webb, who arrives on the Royal Magical Cobb-Webb Kerchief, addresses Twig as “young whipper-snapper,” and prepares to escort the Fairy Queen, Elf, and Twig if she so desires back to Fairyland.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

So commences my favorite scene, as Twig wrestles with her understanding of what is real, what is pretend, and who is the true mastermind behind these events. Of course, the savvy reader has suspected the answer all along: the book’s story is Twig’s creation—and, as such, Twig has the power to tell it again, tell it differently, or tell a new one altogether.

It’s the Fairy Queen who reveals Twig’s power to her. When Twig complains that she can’t make the trip to Fairyland on account of her “ordinary old dress,” the Queen assures her that it’s not what lies on the outside that matters, but what lies within.

The Queen looked up at the little round bud at the top of the dandelion stalk. “Do you know what is inside of that plain ordinary little round bud?” she asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered Twig. “A beautiful flower.”
“There is something just as beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen.
“Something—beautiful! Inside of—me!” said Twig. “Honestly, Your Majesty! How could there be?”
“How could there be a beautiful little flower inside of the little round bud?” asked the Queen.
Twig lifted her shoulder several times. “I don’t know!” she said. “There just is, that’s all.”
“And there ‘just is’ something beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen. “It’s called imagination.”
“Is that so?” said Twig. “What can it do?”
“It can do magic,” said the Queen.
“Magic!” squeaked Twig. “What kind of magic?”
“Any kind of magic you wish,” said the Queen.
“Well, for goodness sakes!” said Twig.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Imagination—the most precious childhood companion—doesn’t cost a cent.

My children have built their fair share of fairy houses in our backyard over the years. Here’s hoping that this summer, they will go one step further and allow their imaginations to take up residence front and center, to see their surroundings with fresh eyes, and to create new stories that will be no one’s but their own. The next time my kids tell me what to buy this summer, I’m going to tell them to take out the recycling. That should be everything they need to get busy.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

God of Summer

June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai GersteinAs a stay-at-home parent, I greet the arrival of summer with equal parts giddiness, relief, and dread. I know I will watch my children grow before my eyes more rapidly than during any other season. I know the front hall will be draped with wet towels, half-empty coolers, and bottles of sun block. I know we will picnic in beautiful places. I know my children’s boredom will give way to creative partnerships the likes of which I could never predict. I know there will be tears; there will be yelling; there will be hysterical laughter. I know the noise will drive me into the laundry room. I know there will be long sticky cuddles while reading together on the couch. I know there will be dance parties. I know my children will jump at every chance to stay up and catch fireflies. I know their eyes will close the second their heads hit the pillow—and that mine will follow close behind.

For any ambivalence I might have about summer’s arrival, my children have none. For them, summer is something to be greeted with unadulterated ecstasy—the skipping, jumping, eating ice cream, and wearing whatever they want kind. In this, they feel a kinship to a certain Greek god in Mordicai Gerstein’s wildly infectious new picture book, I am Pan! (Ages 5-10).

For any parent whose days of studying Greek mythology are buried under dust, allow me to give you a refresher. Pan—with his horns and hoofed feet—is the exuberant god of the wild. He is god of noise and confusion, of silliness and mischief. He is the originator of the word “panic,” speaker of exclamation marks, and lover of honey, fruit and flowers. In short, he is every child’s alter ego: the kid (well, kid at heart) who can get get away with anything, who can act up and out on every whim, and who somehow remains adorable through all of it. He is the Curious George of Mount Olympus.

Traditionally, Pan is associated with fertility and the season of spring, a connection briefly alluded to in the book’s final page. As far as my children are concerned, though, he should be the god of summer. He represents everything that summer break promises to them: the freedom to romp, frolic, and laze about to their hearts’ content.

As if the very notion of a god of noise wasn’t enticing enough, Mordicai Gerstein has given our children a visual and narrative rendition of Pan’s story that explodes and entertains at every turn. It’s not the serious treatment that Gerstein gave to his spectacular Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, but something closer in tone and style to his earlier summertime story, How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers. In I am Pan!, Gerstein outdoes himself: trading in typeset completely for hand lettering, presenting all dialogue in speech bubbles, and challenging the very boundaries of the picture book. Whether or not your kids already love comics and graphic novels; whether or not they already love (or even know anything about) Greek mythology: I guarantee that they are going to run to the highest hilltop and sing out their love for this book.

As Pan’s autobiography—yes, the entire book is narrated by the egocentric rascal—the book also serves as a fun and lighthearted introduction to Greek mythology. I mentioned a few posts ago that my eight year old is already well down the mythology path (he immediately hijacked this book until he had read it three times through); but most mythology texts are too dark or complex for my five year old. NOT THIS ONE. Gerstein reveals just the right amount of information about Pan’s fellow gods and goddesses, lends just the right amount of frivolity and hilarity to the family saga that is Mount Olympus. My daughter’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued. (As I’m typing this, she is home sick from school and literally wrangling the book away from me.)

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In a jam packed, visually prolific 72 pages, Pan gives us eleven highlights of his life, beginning with his birth. Is it any surprise that, in lieu of a heartbeat, the midwife heard shouts, snickers, and giggles coming from his mother’s womb?

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Hands down a favorite with both kids is the moment when Pan is introduced to Zeus, described on more than one occasion as exceedingly “grumpy.” Pan, still a baby (although it only takes him an hour and fifteen minutes to become fully grown), reaches out and bonks Zeus on the nose. To everyone’s surprise, Zeus is immediately smitten.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Eventually, though, Pan wears out his welcome with his extended family on Mount Olympus (“He delights my heart, but he’s a menace,” says Hera) and is sent to Arcadia to rule over grassy hills, idyllic waterfalls, and shepherds and nymphs.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In Arcadia, where Pan becomes master of his own domain, noisy drama and physical comedy reign. Pan plays a role in some of Greek mythology’s most entertaining stories, including serving as the catalyst for King Midas’ jackass ears, falling in love with an echo, and rescuing Zeus’ sinews from a monster even noisier than him. (I bet you never thought you could have so many bizarre conversations with your kids).

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

If myths were originally told to explain elements of our world, Pan’s stories are no exception: Pan crafts the first love song, is the inspiration behind the marathon, and—most famously—invents panic. For all his larger-than-life personality, Pan is a great lover of naps. When he initially arrives in Arcadia, he promises “laughing, singing, dancing, and all kinds of noise, celebration and gaiety”—but with one exception: nap time. When an ant interrupts Pan’s nap with a sneeze, Pan explodes, and the sound makes every living creature around him jump with panic. Pan quickly discovers that his ability to ignite panic is his greatest superpower—more effective than all the bows and arrows combined—and he later uses it to help the Greeks win against the Persians.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

For all the trouble he stirs up, Pan is not a trouble maker at heart (the same may be said of Curious George). He is simply motivated by the egocentricity, jealousy, and desire that affect gods and humans alike. Ultimately, though, it’s his innocent and uninhibited gaiety that readers will remember long after the final page. Pan plays songs on his reed pipes that make “the birds dance with the clouds” and the “bunnies dance with the foxes.” He loves his family with a boisterous, almost suffocating kind of affection. He feels the joy of living in his bones and horns and hooves, and he simply cannot bear to keep it in.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Whether we’re ready or not, summer is nearly upon us. May your little Pans find endless channels for their own exuberance—and may you find moments of quiet in which to enjoy them.

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Review copy provided by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Taking the Stage

May 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintockThis past Sunday, my five year old took the stage for her first ballet recital. She had been on a similar stage in previous years, for the culmination of her creative movement classes, but this was the first time that she was—in her words—“going to look like an actual ballerina.” And she did. Not so much in her tentative leg extensions and arm raises; not so much in the piece of satiny fabric draped around her waist (which looked nothing like the tutu Emily had envisioned her costume would entail); but in her gorgeously perfect posture. I sat three quarters of the way back in the audience, my life’s blood just a pink speck on the stage, but oh my goodness did she stand upright like she had all the confidence in the world: her shoulders down her back, her chest lifted, her chin tilted upwards ever so slightly. It was the posture of someone whose body has never failed her, who has not yet felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, who stands like that simply because she is totally and completely at home in her person. It also happens to be the posture of a ballerina.

Emily believes herself to be a ballerina every time she dons her pink leotard, tights, and ballet shoes. Her leaps may be unrecognizable as such, but in her mind they are the leaps of stardom. When I sneak peeks on her in class, working at the barre, her face is scrunched in concentration. And then I catch her catch sight of herself in the mirror, and I watch as her face breaks into a silly smile. She waves her arms purposefully and tilts her head, all for the sole purpose of delighting in her mirror image.

And yet, for all her age-appropriate moments of self-absorption, Emily is also beginning to identify with the larger world. She is seeking out ways to understand her actions, her personality, her appearance, in relation to those around her. One such world is, of course, that of “actual ballerinas.” Emily has heard her teacher talk about her own dancing; she has thrice been to The Nutcracker. She romanticizes this professional realm of rehearsals and performances, and she is hungry to forge a connection with it.

It is this hunger—this hankering to exist on the periphery of real ballet—that Barbara McClintock so lovingly captures in her new picture book, Emma and Julia Love Ballet (Ages 4-8), which she has both written and illustrated. McClintock gives us a day in the life of Emma, a young red-haired aspiring ballerina, and her professional counterpart, Julia, whom Emma gets to watch perform that evening at a prestigious venue. Every action in Emma’s (presumably weekend) day—waking up, driving to ballet class, learning movements at the barre, eating an early dinner with her family—is mirrored by a similar one in Julia’s life—waking up, taking the bus to the studio, rehearsing, snacking with other dancers before the show.

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

As I’ve mentioned before, Barbara McClintock is beloved in our house: her jewel-toned, highly detailed India ink watercolors have a sweet, romantic quality that tugs at the heart strings. McClintock is at her best when she features passionate, determined young heroines. One of our favorite picture books is Where’s Mommy?, written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by McClintock—the parallel stories of a little girl and a young mouse living under the same roof—whose visual presentation takes a side-by-side approach similar to what we find in Emma and Julia Love Ballet. For young readers, these books present more than an opportunity to compare and contrast: they encourage readers to see themselves as part of a larger whole.

At five years old, Emily is only just beginning to understand that the world does not begin and end with her, that there are literally billions (well, maybe in her mind hundreds) of things happening at any given moment, most of which she cannot see (and might not even be able to imagine). In Emma and Julia Love Ballet, McClintock isn’t simply saying, Hey kids, here’s what professional ballerinas do to get ready for a performance. Rather, she’s saying, Hey kids, look at how what you do in and around ballet class is similar to (and a little different from) what professional dancers do. The leap is not large: after all, my Emily already believes she looks the part.

The book’s text is sparse (McClintock is an illustrator by trade), which means there are ample opportunities for conversation, the likes of which reading specialists often cite as the biggest benefit of sharing picture books aloud with young children. “We stretch like that in my class!” “Look, Mommy, she gets her leg really straight; I’m still working on that.” “I can tell Julia is the star of the show, because she has the fanciest tutu.” None of these things are spelled out in the text; yet all of them factor into the visual narrative. (McClintock, who wrote the story to honor her older sister’s childhood obsession with ballet, sat for hours in studios sketching professional dancers.)

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

The story peeks when Emma arrives with her parents (and older brother—this detail has not gone unnoticed in our house) at the giant theater, which towers above her with vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Here, McClintock’s spread is guaranteed to elicit goosebumps from aspiring dancers and theater goers alike.

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

In the audience, Emma watches as Julia and the other dancers “bend, and swirl, and leap” across the stage. “Emma watches every move. She can feel every lift of the dancers’ arms, every step and pause.”

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

Naturally, with one ballet recital under her belt, my Emily is now a self-proclaimed expert on all matters of the stage: “When you are waiting in the wings, Mommy, you have to be COMPLETELY SILENT. Then, when you go out on stage, it’s like it’s happening by magic, and the people in the audience are thinking, where did those dancers even come from?”

At the end of the performance, Emma’s parents take her backstage, so that she can meet Julia and get her autograph. “‘Someday,’ Emma tells Julia. ‘I will dance onstage—just like you!’”

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

My Emily feels the need to point out—every single time we read this story together—that Emma should have brought Julia a bouquet of flowers when she went backstage. Emily was quite thrilled to have received three herself last Sunday. It’s all part of the gig.

Ballet Recital


Other Favorite Picture Books About Ballet and Dance Performance (fiction and non-fiction):
Tallulah’s Toe Shoes, Tallulah’s Tutu, Tallulah’s Solo, Tallullah’s Nutcracker, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger (Ages 4-9; see my post here)
Lili at Ballet and Lili Backstage, by Rachel Isadora (Ages 4-8)
A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey & Floyd Cooper (see my post here; Ages 5-10)
Firebird, by Misty Copeland (Ages 5-10)
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad (Ages 6-10)
Alvin Ailey, by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney (Ages 6-10)
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jim Greenberg, Sandra Gordan & Brian Floca (Ages 8-12)
Child’s Introduction to Ballet: The Stories, Music, and Magic of Classical Dance, by Laura Lee and Meredith Hamilton (Ages 8-12)

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Review copy courtesy of Scholastic. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Subterranean Thrills

May 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose StudioThere was a moment on the subway, during our recent trip to New York City, when my five-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Wait. Mommy. Are we actually underneath buildings and streets?” At first, I was a bit taken aback. Since birth, she has ridden on the subway, both in New York and at home in Washington DC. Why is she just grasping this now? And yet, the more I watched her absorb my affirmative answer, then spend the next several days kneeling on her seat, staring out the window into the blackness of the roaring tunnel, the more I realized that the whole concept of the subway is in itself quite astonishing.

Astonishment is exactly what the “distinguished citizens, reporters, and government officials” of New York City felt on February 26, 1870, when an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach led them into a 294-foot-long tunnel that he had helped build underneath the streets of New York, in order to showcase his fan-powered train that he believed would solve the city’s transportation problem. How this came about and what happened next—the largely forgotten story of New York’s unofficial first subway, which predated by 42 years the city’s plans to build an official subway system—is detailed in the fascinating new picture book, The Secret Subway (Ages 6-12), by Shana Corey and illustrated by Red Nose Studio.

Engineering, garbage, corruption, secrecy, and spectacle: it’s all here. Not to mention the arresting visuals that are Red Nose Studio’s three-dimensional illustrations, whose play of light against dark, gloss against grit, perfectly pit the lure of new technologies against the backroom politics of nineteenth-century urban life.

The book opens by asking the reader to imagine what the cobblestone streets of the “greatest city on earth” looked like in the 1860s, when pushcarts and open-air buggies bumped into one another and horses kicked up dust and garbage. “Something had to be done!” Ideas, many of them outlandish, were tossed around, from moving roads to railways on stilts.

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

Beach, the son of a publisher and a self-proclaimed inventor (he would grow up to become co-owner and co-editor of Scientific American magazine) had his own vision: What if he built a train powered by an enormous fan? he wondered. It would travel underground, where there was no traffic or trash or weather to worry about. People would get where they needed as if by magic! (In fact, if we look beyond the graffitied seats and the bodily exchanges and the braking screeches, riding the subway even today does feel a bit magical. Especially as seen through the eyes of our un-jaded children.)

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

In the long line of history-makers who had to break rules to overcome great obstacles, Beach was no exception. He knew he’d never get permission from the city to dig up the streets—especially not from “Boss” Tweed, the man who unofficially ran the city’s political scene. So Beach did something super sneaky. As my son would say, he lied, but just a little and for a really good reason. Beach asked permission to build a series of mail chutes under the city (pneumatic tubes were already in use in London) and Boss Tweed agreed. Beach then assembled a team of workers but, in addition to building tiny tunnels throughout the city for mail chutes, they also built IN SECRET and IN THE DARK OF NIGHT a much larger tunnel—eight feet wide and lined with brick and steel—that was big enough for a train. For 58 days, Beach’s men tunneled under cobblestones, sewers, and pipes with a hand built machine that allowed them only sixteen inches of progress per day. For 58 nights, wagons hauled away clandestine loads of rock and dirt—all while “Boss Tweed lay tucked in tight.”

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corety & Red Nose Studio

Talk about outside-the-box (outside-the-tunnel?) thinking!

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

A good sales person knows the value of theatrics in a pitch, and Beach was once again no exception. He not only mailed out calligraphic invitations in advance of his grand reveal (“You are respectfully invited to be present on Saturday, February 26, 1870, from 2-6 o’clock pm”), but he decorated his office, located in the basement of Devlin’s Clothing Store, with “glowing gaslights,” paintings, flowers, “a fountain that glittered with goldfish,” and a spread of cheeses and pastries. Beach then invited his distinguished guests down six more steps, where a single car waited on tracks that disappeared through a hole in the wall.

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

In time, Beach’s invention opened to the public. The next spread displays a kind of thrill and unreserve typically reserved for amusement parks, whereby men with top hats and women with pinafores are jerked one way and then another, as they experience their twenty-five cent ride aboard the fan-powered train. “Remarkable!” “The railroad of the future!” “The problem of tunneling Broadway has been solved!”

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

And yet, change is rarely seamless. Beach’s invention met with criticism from shopkeepers, who wanted to keep potential customers above ground, as well as from Boss Tweed himself, who had promised his own people a chance to plan a railroad. Eventually, the governor squashed Beach’s proposal to expand, and “the underground train was stopped in its tracks.” Over time, Beach’s tunnel was abandoned…and, for a while, completely forgotten.

That is, until February of 1912, sixteen years after Beach’s death, when a team of construction workers, building what would become New York City’s official subway system, ran into “a little railroad car rusting in its tracks, and a tunneling machine perched at the end.” Beach’s story was revealed, now poised for the day when someone like Shana Corey would write it into the records for our children.

As if Beach’s invention wasn’t inspiring enough, there’s a second creation story hidden in the The Secret Subway. And I mean quite literally hidden. Peel off the book’s dust jacket, turn it over, and there is the story of how the art in the book came about. Chris Sickels (a.k.a. Red Nose Studio) has detailed the process by which he researched images of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, sketched out the story, created color studies, formed characters’ bodies out of wire and foam, sculpted heads from polymer clay, built a railroad car from a cardboard tube, and painted backdrops for his photographs. My kids were obsessed. (My kids were so obsessed, we had to go out and purchase Red Nose Studio’s 2010 picture book, Here Comes the Garbage Barge, in order to see if its cover had the same artistic reveal. It does. Plus, the story, based on the true events of a garbage barge that traveled up and down the East Coast trying for 162 days to unload excess garbage from Long Island, is equally captivating.)
"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

A few days into our real live subway adventures below the streets of New York, my daughter spotted something on the N train. “Mommy, look! Doesn’t that look like the book we have about the subway?” Indeed, above the row of faces opposite us was an illustration of a man running down a subway platform, which looked stylistically similar to the art in The Secret Subway. When we got home, I researched it, and sure enough, Red Nose Studio was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design to create a “subway card” to display on certain contemporary subway cars. It seems that once you start tapping into the history of trains tunneling underground, the wonder never ceases.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Tugging at the Heartstrings (A Mother’s Day Post)

May 5, 2016 § 1 Comment

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser“Mommy, I wish this day would last forever,” my daughter said into my eyes last Saturday, in our third hour of watching street performers under a brilliant blue sky in Washington Square Park. It was our annual trip to New York City, something I’m lucky enough to do every fall with my son and every spring with my daughter. We had just spent an action-filled few days looking at art, making art, dining in style and dining at street vendors—but there was something about these unstructured hours in the park, the sun finally making itself felt, where I watched my daughter become totally and completely entranced by her surroundings.

There was a woman with hot pink hair on one side of her; a woman with a brilliant purple head wrap on the other. Emily sat on the rounded edge of a fountain that wasn’t in use, watching shirtless men in baggy blue sweatpants flip backwards and spin on their heads where the water would normally flow. In the distance, she could still keep her eyes on the creepy but fascinating human sculpture—a bald man (woman?) adorned in chalky gold body paint, who stood frozen atop a slim pedestal, waiting for someone to drop a dollar into his bucket, at which point he would slowly come out of the pose and strike another.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself as well, but the moment might not have stayed with me if Emily hadn’t called it out, and I was grateful that she did. It has been a tough few months for me. I’ve been nursing a shoulder injury, and the near constant physical pain of my body has meant that all too often my children’s voices have reverberated like nails on a chalkboard in my ears. It took a few days in a different environment (and a welcome shot of cortisone) to bring me back to myself and to remind me that motherhood brings with it the greatest joys, both big and small.

Maybe it’s because Emily is my second child—and will be my last—that I am continually fixated on her age. This is my favorite age, I think. I long to hold onto the age before me with desperate fervor. And then, without fail, the next age comes along and it’s even better. I may mourn her soft baby curls, or the bullish way she once used her stubby legs to propel her scooter down the sidewalk, but these memories have given way to a myriad of others that are equally poignant. I only hope I will continue to feel this way.

Still, right now, Emily is five and a half and, THIS, I’m convinced, really IS the best age. It was her fourth time in New York, but it was as if she was seeing the buildings and the subways and the people with fresh eyes—through the lens of this sweet spot of five and a half, where innocence meets knowledge, where outside stimulation is eagerly embraced and picked apart and digested right there on the face and in the eyes and in the voice for the whole world to see.

But especially for me to see. Because “I wish this day would last forever” wasn’t just about the sun and the sights; it was also about the bond we had nurtured so beautifully over the past few days. It was that push-pull dance that our children do with us, that not mutually exclusive desire for independence and closeness.

A few years ago, on these very pages, I swore to you my disdain for overt, sentimentalized, pastel displays of maternal love, books that feel like they are cooked up by publishers to prey on the hormones and generally unbalanced states of us mothers. Well, this is where I eat my words. Because I need you to make an exception for a new picture book, titled You Made Me a Mother (Ages 1-6), written by Laurenne Sala and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (many of you will know her as the illustrator of the bestselling Fancy Nancy series). I need you to give this book to yourself and then to every mother of young children that you know. And then I need you to get your box of tissues ready. And, if you don’t believe me, you can watch this video, which was scripted by Sala for an ad campaign before she put down a version of it on paper—and before Glasser got involved and turned it into something lovely to share with young children.

My kids love hearing stories about themselves as babies. About where they were born, whether they cried, how long I held them and gazed into their eyes after they took their first breath. “Did you always know you would love me?” is a favorite question of my daughter. You Made Me a Mother facilitates these precious conversations. It also reminds us—as we sometimes need to hear—why we do what we do.

An homage to motherhood, the book reads as a mother’s monologue to her young child. It opens with a memory of the mother’s changing belly—“I felt you. You were a pea. Then a lemon. Then an eggplant.”—and goes on to mention some of the ways that the mother prepared for baby’s arrival, like eating spinach and reading books. “Can you tell I was nervous?” the mother asks. (“Yes!” my own daughter always responds at this part, basking in the revelation that grown-ups have vulnerabilities, too.)

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

And then there’s the baby’s birth—“Love. Big fat love.”—followed by sweet depictions of cuddling and rocking and, as the baby becomes a toddler, splashing and spinning.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

No homage to motherhood would feel genuine without mention of the bumps in the road. Nervousness continues to surface: the mom is pictured hovering over an upset child, who might be sick (my children’s guess) or might be tantrumming (my guess). We also register exasperation on the mother’s face, when another time the child wanders (I’m guessing not for the first time) into her room in the middle of the night. (Personally, I think a bit of time could have been devoted to the drudgery of dishes and laundry that also accompanies the territory of parenthood.)

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

But then, a new day dawns, the sun comes up, mother and child are at the park, and:

…you smile. And you say my name. You grab my hand with those little fingers. And I remember that everything is magic.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

PLEASE, Universe, don’t let my daughter ever stop holding my hand! Don’t let her deliciously soft skin develop even the tiniest roughness! Don’t let the light stop dancing in her eyes! Because these are the Band-aids that every mommy needs on her worn out body.

I’ve heard it said that having a child is like watching your heart run around outside your body. I might like this variation even better:

If I could, I would open my heart, and love would rain down all over you. And you would giggle. And I’d do it all over again.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

Despite our hearts swelling to bursting inside our bodies, we all know that we cannot stave off the day—even if they can’t fathom it now—when our little ones won’t be so little anymore, when they will detach from our hands and seize the world with their own. When they won’t share every discovery, mourn every disappointment, with us. And we would walk, hand in hand. Until you let go.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

I already see it in my eight and a half year old. The way he runs into school with scarcely a glance behind him. The way the other day, in response to my telling him that I loved him, he responded, “OK,” and glanced longingly at his friends. And yet, admittedly, this makes the moments when he does expose his vulnerability—when he seeks me out with his eyes or pours forth his emotions onto his dinner plate—even more special. Getting glimpses of the man he will someday become—and to think that I was there in the very beginning—is nothing short of astounding.

So maybe motherhood does get better with every age. Even when they let go. And maybe, by then, we’re better, too.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.

Review copy provided by Harper Collins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee MasseMy eight year old has been on a Greek mythology craze for the past six months. For years, he has been hearing references to mythology made in his mixed-ages classroom, has been seeing classmates walk in and out of school with related books tucked under their arms, has even been listening to one classmate proclaim the pomegranate seeds in her lunch to be the “fruit of the gods”—but he has never showed any genuine interest himself.

Until now.

One night at bedtime, perusing his shelf for something his dad could read to him (I’m a bit territorial about letting my husband “butt in” on a chapter book that JP and I already have going), JP pulled out D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (Ages 7-12). At 192 oversized pages, this pencil-illustrated tome is still the ultimate foundation for children embarking on the endlessly fascinating myths created by the Ancient Greeks in their formation and understanding of Western civilization. Thence began for father and son a beautiful foray into the terrifically twisted realms of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, jealousy and betrayal, wars and loves, vanity and indifference. (Yes, I’m the one who has to butt out now.)

Then, for Easter, my husband gave JP the boxed set of George O’Connor’s astounding graphic novel series, Olympians (Ages 9-15), a deliciously dark, no-holds-barred approach to dramatizing the rises and falls of the different Greek gods. If you’ve harbored any doubts about the value of the rapidly-growing graphic novel genre, these books might singularly reform your thinking, as they did mine. They are not only tremendous visual feats, but they are wickedly smart. Still, my favorite thing about this series comes in the Afterwards to each book, where O’Connor explains his narrative choices and interpretations of the myths. Not only do our kids get a rare and compelling glimpse into the creative process, but they are themselves encouraged to ponder the complexity and ambiguity of the different myths.

Shhh, could that be the stirrings of literary criticism in our children?

As much as I want to safeguard this reading bond that my husband and son have created around mythology, I couldn’t resist a little one-off involvement of my own. Furthermore, with it still being National Poetry Month for another week, I wanted to let you and your own mythology lovers in on the latest picture book gem by Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse. Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths (Ages 7-12) is actually the third installment of “reverso poems” by this author-illustrator duo (the earlier Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow are centered on classic fairy tales), but it’s the first time that one of my kids has been old enough (or interested enough) to really sink his teeth into the delightful novelty of these poems.

What is a “reverso poem,” you ask? Something that only a poetic magician (or magical poet?) like Marilyn Singer could possibly construct. As Singer herself invented the form, it seems only fair to use her words to define it:

A reverso consists of two poems. You read the first poem top to bottom. Then, you read the poem again with the lines reversed, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and that second poem says something completely different.

Cool, huh? A poem that is designed to be read from top to bottom and bottom to top!

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

Since Echo Echo, Marilyn’s newest work, concerns itself with the Greek myths—and since most of these myths naturally pit two characters against one another (heroic Perseus slays the snake-headed Medusa; revengeful Athena turns the mortal Arachne into a spider)—each set of poems allows us to explore two different points of view. Sometimes the words of the poems are the words of the characters themselves; sometimes they come from a third party. But in every set of poems, we are reminded that there are two sides to every story.

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

The poem “Demeter and Persephone,” based on the heart-wrenching story of mother and daughter, originally devised by the Ancient Greeks to explain the four seasons, is one of the most poignant examples of the two opposing poetic voices at work. (While prior familiarity with the different myths featured in these pages will help the child reader get more out of the poems, Singer includes a brief synopsis of the relevant myth below each poem.) In this particular myth, Hades, god of the underworld (referred to as the “thief” below), kidnaps Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth’s bounty. In her despair, Demeter threatens to make all of the earth barren if her daughter is not returned to her. A deal is struck: Hades promises to return Persephone to Demeter for six months of the year (spring and summer representing her return), although Persephone must live among the dead with Hades for the other six months (fall and winter representing her descent).

We hear first from Demeter, beseeched with all the anger and resentment of a grieving mother determined to have her revenge. She addresses her only daughter:

I hate the thief.
Do not ask that
I forgive Hades.
will turn to
will leave this land cold and dark.
this mother’s lonely
shed no
I feel such
No more
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
There will be
six months of grief
after so much joy and laughter.

Persephone, however, adopts more of a “glass is half full” attitude. She chooses to focuses on the happiness she will experience each spring when she is reunited with her mother.

So much joy and laughter
six months of grief.
There will be
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
No more
I feel such
Shed no
This mother’s lonely
will leave this land, cold and dark.
will turn to
I forgive Hades.
Do not ask that
I hate the thief.

With that second ending, is Persephone merely resigning herself to her fate, or is she opening the door to the possibility of loving Hades?

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

“Narcissus and Echo” is another favorite, based on the story of the vain young mortal, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in a pond (my kids think this is hysterical) and is turned by the gods into a flower—while Echo, the woman who loves him unrequitedly, is turned into a mournful echo. (Can we take a second to note how much great vocabulary comes out of reading Greek mythology?)

Here’s Narcissus, bent on being uninterrupted while basking in his own beauty:

a nymph?
an echo?
Leave me,
foolish pursuer!
I will forever be the
I desire—
the most beautiful of youths—
a flower among men.

Then Echo, who plans to fight the good fight forever:

A flower among men!
The most beautiful of youths!
I desire
I will forever be the
foolish pursuer.
Leave me,
an echo
a nymph,

All the poems in the book are enhanced by the Canadian artist Josée Masse’s seductive acrylic paintings, romantically infused with twilight blues and golden yellows. To be sure, Masse’s visual interpretation of the myths is much more whimsical (think “G-rated”) than George O’Connor’s, yet there is still plenty in these pages to mystify and transfix. In fact, my five-year-old daughter, who is too young for D’Aulaires Book (not to mention Olympians), has several times picked up Echo Echo on her own to page through the art. After she has looked at a picture for awhile, she’ll often ask me to read the synopsis of the myth below it—suggesting that this book might also serve as an introduction to Greek mythology for the younger set.

Masse’s art is rich with symbolism and plays with and subverts imagery in much the same way that the reverso poems themselves do. Each painting—furthering the idea of two points of view—is set up as two images, which either bleed into or oppose one another, always with a discernible divide down the middle. One of our favorites is the one that accompanies “Theseus and Ariadne,” a poem about Theseus’s attempt to navigate the Minos labyrinth and kill the half-bull-half-man Minotaur that lies within. The poem alludes to the ball of thread, which the king’s daughter, Ariadne, gives to Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze. On one side of Masse’s painting, the Minotaur’s dense, snorting body dominates the foreground; in the other, only the outline of the Minotaur remains, his head having dissolved into a labyrinth of thread, beside which Theseus stands armed. Visual poetry!

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse"

Or how about “Pandora and the Box,” the Greek’s version of Eve and the apple, where the first woman created by the gods opens a forbidden box and inadvertently releases evil into the world. Here, Meese has painted two figures of Pandora overlapping one another: one is bright and full of light and one is enveloped in a black shadow. And yet, interestingly, the box, which appears in both frames, is the inverse of the figures in whose hands it rests. Are we to consider that there is light to be found amidst evil and evil to be found in the most bucolic of scenes? For that matter, looking at the ghoulish green creations pouring from the box, what exactly is “evil”?

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

The Ancient Greeks developed their myths to make sense of the world unfolding around them. To make sense of why things are the way they are, why people are the way they are, and why it either matters much or matters not at all. Thousands of years later, we may not necessarily need these myths to help us navigate the seas and the stars—and yet, their characters and deeds continue to surface in literature, in art, in music, and in the language we speak. It’s not only exciting for our children to begin to make these connections, to identify a common thread throughout Western culture, but also to stand these myths on their heads and explore their every nuance. Only when we question the foundation below us, can we build something even stronger.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.

Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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