History Come to Life

October 27, 2016 § 2 Comments

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy JakobsenHands down, my favorite day last summer was spent with my then eight year old at Ford’s Theatre, otherwise known as The Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. If there’s anything more fun than watching our children learn, it’s learning alongside our children—and that is precisely what happened as JP and I made our way through the narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the hours preceding and immediately following his assassination, and his legacy as it lives on today.

Plugged into our audio tour—the “kid version,” where two middle-school students conversed into our ears about the different exhibits—JP and I were totally riveted: making wide eyes at one another over something that was said, or taking off our headphones for a moment to discuss something further. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, like it was the first day of a new literature elective in college and I was scanning the syllabus for all the new books I would have an excuse to buy.

Midway through the tour, we took a break to lunch down the street at Shake Shack (because duh), and JP looked over his bacon cheeseburger at me and said, “Today is the coolest day ever, don’t you think, Mommy?” Later, as we browsed the gift shop, he added, “I think I want to read every book written about Abraham Lincoln,” and I had to resist dropping to the floor and gushing tears of joy.

It has been six years since we moved to the Washington, DC area, and I wonder if we’ll always feel like tourists. The magnitude of things to do and see here feels nearly insurmountable. But the challenge also appeals to me. In this contentious election season, I am fighting hard to remain optimistic—and, thankfully, around every corner in DC is something to squash (even temporarily) the cynic in me. At every turn, I am reminded of the ideals upon which our country was founded, the courageous and tireless leaders that have come before, and the good and hard work that still lies ahead.

If it wasn’t so darn exhausting, I’d consider pulling my kids out of school and romping around the city every day with them. Because it’s one thing to learn something in a classroom, but it’s another to stand in the face of it.

Instead, we have summer breaks and weekends. Plus, as of a few weeks ago—and ten years in the making—we now have Kathy Jakobsen’s My Washington, DC (Ages 5-10), a picture book introduction to some of the most historic and significant DC landmarks and the history behind them.

This is not the first picture book to take kids on a tour of Washington, DC, but it is arguably the best. Or, at least, it’s the one our family has been holding out for. We have been intimately acquainted with American folk artist Kathy Jakobsen for some time now. Her previous children’s book, My New York, sits atop a shelf in my mother’s closet in Manhattan, waiting to be pulled down each time my kids visit. We have planned entire weekends off this book. Just two weeks ago, when JP and I made our annual fall pilgrimage to the Big Apple, we trudged all the way to the top floor of the American Museum of Natural History to see the giant prehistoric sloth that is mentioned by the young narrator of My New York.

Like My New York, My Washington, DC showcases the city through the eyes of a young girl named Becky, who arrives by train at Union Station with her best friend, Martin, and her artist mother. The three traverse numerous sights on Capitol Hill and The Mall, including the Supreme Court, three Smithsonian museums, The White House, and four of the memorials. The route can be traced on the book’s endpapers, which (as in My New York) comprise a simple but lovely hand-drawn map of the city equally useful to kids and parents.

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

Along the way, Jakobsen (via our narrator, Becky) has a knack for pointing out details that will surprise and intrigue her child readers: the moon rock available to touch at the National Air and Space Museum (“even though I haven’t been to the moon, I can say I’ve touched it”), or the “whispering gallery” in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol, where John Adams pretended to be asleep but was “really listening to his enemies talking at the other end of the hall!” (I so want to try that out with my kids.)

"My Washingon, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

Did you know that, at the Library of Congress, kids can visit the Archive of Folk Culture to listen to recordings of American Indian songs and stories (in their tribal languages), as well as a “collection of jump-rope songs sung by sixth-grade girls at a Washington, DC school?” (Planning that right away, too.)

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

All of these narrative tidbits are monumentally enhanced by Jakobsen’s lavish oil paintings, which are packed with so much detail (not to mention stars and eagles and an orange tabby cat to find on every page) that one could pour over them for hours. I challenge you to find a child who isn’t immediately obsessed. Long after my eyes are crossing, my kids (always up for a game of Where’s Waldo?) will point out Becky in her “I Heart DC” tee. The richly colorful crowds of people, which surround Becky on almost every page, are a fine tribute to the diversity that comprises both the American people and those that vacation here from around the world. (The crowds are, of course, both the blessing and the curse of living here.)

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

My kids’ personal favorite: a double-page spread showcasing the hundreds of pets that at one time or another have lived at The White House, from the goat that Abraham Lincoln’s son once drove through his mother’s party, to the alligator that John Adams housed in a bathtub after it was re-gifted to him by a French general (I had to look up the details of this last point, as I did many of the animals pictured, but that is half the fun of this book!).

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

My personal favorite is the fold-up-and-out page of the Washington Monument, which shows on one side the way it looks from afar and on the other the diversity of stones that make up much of the obelisk—engraved stones that were donated by states, countries, tribes, and organizations, after the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money and issued a plea for help (even the Boy Scouts are in there!). ! I remember getting a cursory look at these stones from the glass elevator that took the kids and I down from the top of the monument two years ago. Now that we’ve poured over them in detail, we need to go back and see how many we can spot.

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

Ornate borders frame many of the illustrations, and Jakobsen rarely misses a chance to incorporate quotations that adorn the walls of the buildings and memorials (“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”). The Star-Spangled Banner, The Declaration of Independence, The Presidential Oath, The Gettysburg Address: all of these are seamlessly worked in, not to mention a spread devoted to The Bill of Rights in its entirety (and which is reproduced inside the book’s cover as well, in case you want to hang it up).

"My Washington, DC" by Kathy Jakobsen

Mind you, the book is not perfect. There are a few bizarre omissions (the paragraph about the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial doesn’t directly mention race, even as it speaks of equality). To JP’s great disappointment, Ford’s Theater is not mentioned at all. Still, most of what’s left out of the book lies in our echoed cries for MORE! MORE! MORE!, as we wish the book would go on for another 35 pages.

With 250 years of history, Washington, DC is, after all, a city that cannot be explored in a single bound. But this book gives us a pretty cool start, don’t you think?

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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!

Standing Up to “Passive Violence”

October 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany HegedusInvoking the eloquent and emotionally-charged words of Michelle Obama last week, I must echo that what is happening in our country right now has “shaken me to my core.” It’s not just the vulgar “locker room” banter from a certain presidential candidate, loaded language that has awakened sordid memories of my own experience with sexual aggression and objectification—and made me suddenly painfully aware that my own daughter will likely walk a similar and sometimes terrifying path.

It’s not just the blatant hostility slathered across so many of the election signs lining our highways, obscene graphics and words that render me speechless as I struggle to explain to my inquiring children why a certain presidential candidate would be depicted on a billboard as the Wicked Witch of the West.

It’s not just the new jumpiness that I feel this week, with talk of impending riots following Election Day, of conspiracy theories and refusals to concede, and of indirect but horrifying calls for assassination.

It’s all of this put together: the vitriolic rhetoric, the fear mongering, the way we have divided as a country and turned on one another. If we complain, we are told by defenders: calm down, these are just words. Just bragging. Just jokes. Just ego.


This not what our country is about, I say to my children. These are not the values upon which our country was built: values of decency, of tolerance, of humility, of freedom. A country that harbors knowledge, that respects facts and invites intellectual discourse. A place where we can agree to disagree and do it with grown-up words and handshakes.

We can do better than this.

In my quest to cleanse our family from the oppugnancy of this election—because, if only for the sake of self-preservation, I have to believe it can be done—I was fortunate to come upon a new title in the Grandfather Gandhi series. The original picture book, Grandfather Gandhi (Ages 6-12), came out in 2014 (you can read my post here) and is written by children’s author Bethany Hegedus in partnership with Arun Gandhi, the 82-year old fifth grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who spent two formative years as a teenager living alongside his grandfather at the Sevagram ashram in India. We have returned to this story in our house time and again, the story of a boy struggling to make sense of his grandfather’s vision for peaceful living. (In fact, it was my son who suggested we re-read it just last month on International Peace Day; proud moment for @thebookmommy.)

Imagine our collective joy upon discovering that Hegedus has again teamed up with Arun Gandhi to write another true story from the latter’s experience on the ashram, this new book titled Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Ages 6-12). The title is a nod to perhaps the most frequently quoted of Gandhi’s teachings: Be the change you wish to see.

I can’t let another moment pass without mentioning the extraordinary power that illustrator Evan Turk bestows upon both of these stories with his breathtaking mixed-media spreads, involving watercolor, pencil, thread, and cotton, just to name a few. When I tell you that my children can’t get enough of Turk’s pictures, I am not exaggerating. From these illustrations, my children can feel the heat of the sun in the fiery sky. They can feel the bodies pressing up against one another as they crowd together to hear Gandhi speak. They can feel the gentle love in Gandhi’s hand gestures. And they can feel the confusion and frustration and awe radiating from Arun’s bright young eyes.

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

If the first Grandfather Gandhi story is concerned specifically with anger—with the idea that we have a choice in how we express our anger, in what we let it do to both our body and to the bodies of others—then this new story addresses the hurt we can do to ourselves and to one another in the seemingly quieter moments of our life. Be the Change raises the specific link between violence and waste, a link that the teenaged Arun doesn’t initially understand when he comes to live at the ashram.

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

“The purpose of ashram life,” our young narrator tells us, “was to live simply and non-violently,” and everyone had to take vows to that effect. “The one I found the hardest was the vow not to waste…I wasn’t sure how not wasting food or other items made life nonviolent.” He listens to his grandfather give speeches about how nonviolence should “pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts,” but these complicated words just make Arun’s brain hurt.

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

As in the first story, things come to a head in a moment of young rebellion, as Arun surrenders to his own frustration. Tired of having to make do with a “nubby” stub of a pencil—all because he took a vow not to waste—Arun tosses it freely into the tall grass on his walk home from lessons one day.

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

I left it there. On purpose. I was a Gandhi—didn’t I deserve a new pencil? Why is a nubby pencil so important?

That evening, after the sun goes down, when Arun approaches his grandfather about a new pencil, Gandhi reminds his grandson about the sacredness of taking a vow before others. He tells him, smilingly, “This morning you had what appeared to be a perfectly good pencil…You will have to go and look for it.” And then he walks Arun to the door, hands him a flashlight, and points him “toward the night.” (You go, Mahatma! How about that for parental inspiration?)

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

My children were spellbound by what I can only describe as the sheer humility that seeps from Turk’s subsequent illustration, from the tall scrubby grass through which Arun crawls on his hands and knees “for hours,” feeling for the pencil, and the swirling openness of the deep purple sky above him. We are small and the world is enormous.

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

In the months that follow, through the relentless rains of the monsoon season, Gandhi seeks to help his grandson internalize the relationship between waste and violence. The concept of passive violence, as contrasted to physical violence, begins to take shape for Arun, as it does for us readers. We begin to understand that there are environmental and social ramifications of depleting resources, that our own seemingly small actions can send into motion a chain of events (deprivation can lead to hoarding which can lead to people striking out) that can physically hurt both our planet and ourselves.

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

And here’s where it gets really good. Together, Gandhi and Arun craft a sketch of a tree, with examples of physical violence hung from the branches on one side and examples of passive violence on the other. In the weeks that follow, Arun incorporates different types of thoughts and actions onto one side or another. “Both branches were heavy with leaves, but the passive side became enormous.”

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

This might be one of the most useful things I’ve ever done as a parent. The kids and I had to work a bit to make out Arun’s chicken scratch, but once we started, we couldn’t stop. Things like yelling, teasing, leaving the lights on, lying, being jealous, taking a friend’s things, gossiping, not sharing, not forgiving (this last one is particularly interesting): these are just a few of the things that Arun labels as passive violence. “Have you ever thought about these things as acts of violence?” I asked my kids. “No way,” JP answered. “I thought violence just meant shooting people and stuff.”

You guys, this is how we will stand up to these politicians, to the indecent and inhumane rhetoric surrounding this election. This is how we will take back our country. Alongside our children, we will seek to identify and nullify passive violence. We will reform ourselves, and then we will raise a generation of Americans who carefully and intentionally weigh their words and actions against how they may affect others, of the hurt and pain and even physical harm that could arise. We will teach our children to prioritize peace, not only when it’s convenient, but because it is always essential.

We must be the change we wish to see.

"Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

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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!

How I Read My Kids the Riot Act

October 13, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane SmithI’m not going to sugar coat it. The transition back to school has been rough for our family. I have never been so happy to see a month wrap up as I was when October dawned—and even then the grumpiness of September continued to encroach on us. Maybe it’s the sheer exhaustion of starting at a new school, of having to make new friends and navigate new expectations. Maybe it’s because we had a particularly lovely summer of togetherness. Maybe it’s because my kids are lazy little lie-abouts who, if left to their own devices, would probably never leave the house.

I’m not debating the legitimacy of their grumpiness.

All I know is that, for five weeks, my kids got into the car at 3:30pm, answered “Good!” when I asked them how their day was, and then proceeded to complain about absolutely everything. “The grapes in my lunch were mushy!” “The sleeves of this shirt are too long!” “My bug bites are killing me!” “It’s too hot in this car!” “It’s freezing in this car!” “You can’t make me go to the park. I hate the park!” And then they’d turn on each other, shoving and bickering and yelling until I started to wonder if the only way out of this nightmare was to drive off the road.

I had just had the previous seven hours to myself—seven glorious hours to put my life in order, to bask in a quiet house, to have adult conversations and maybe even get a leg up on dinner. By all accounts, I should have been well fortified.

But, as every parent in the pick-up line knows, re-entry into parenting can be brutal.

I tried empathy. I tried indifference. I tried losing my sh$%. Nothing helped. Three weeks in, I told a friend, “Our house is in a State of Crisis.”

No one could see the good in anyone or anything.

Desperate times call for desperate measures—or, at least, a loosening of the pocket book—and so the first thing I did was to join Audible and start purchasing reams of audio books. Now, when the kids get into the car, I give them a big smile, tell them how happy I am to see them, and then—before they have a chance to open their mouths—I hit play. Their bodies immediately relax. They stare quietly out the window. Occasionally, they cast conspiratorial looks at one another and erupt into giggles (I had forgotten how funny the canine narrator of the Bunnicula books can be). By the time we arrive at home or at tennis or at the playground, we are once again capable of calm, constructive conversation. Check.

The second game-changing strategy I employed was to land on a metaphor—this with the help of Jory John and Lane Smith, whose new picture book, Penguin Problems (Ages 4-8), is now officially our family’s Misanthropic Mascot.

Penguin Problems stars an Antarctic penguin who suffers from an affliction of general grumpiness. Absolutely nothing pleases him: not himself, not his habitat, not the other penguins.

It’s too early to get up. His beak is cold. All the other penguins are squawking in his ears. The sun’s too bright, the ocean’s too salty, and there is so. much. snow. “What is it with this place?”

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

He doesn’t like waddling. He looks silly when he waddles. Waddling is the worst.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

What’s even worse is that he looks the same as everyone else. And everyone else looks exactly like him.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

There are eye rolls. There is sarcasm. There is snarky banter that anyone familiar with Jory John will relish (grumpiness is, after all, a Jory John forte: remember Goodnight, Already!?).

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

Oh, you guys, it’s funny. It’s so funny. It’s funny, because—for one brief hallelujah moment—it’s NOT OUR KIDS TALKING LIKE THIS. Because our kids are snuggled up against us. Or, in our case, quietly eating oatmeal with their eyes fixed on the book (“I found a character whom you might relate to,” I began the other morning at breakfast, as I pulled out my new purchase and started reading.).

“I have so many problems!” yells the misanthropic penguin. “And nobody even cares!”

“Hahahaha,” my nine year old roared. “He sounds just like Emily and me!” Yup, I thought. Yup, that’s right. My plan is working.

Enter a wise walrus (the tortoise of the South Pole, if you will). This Dalai-walrus is a stranger, not initially a welcome sight to our penguin, but he goes on to deliver a full-page soliloquy to our friend on the merits of an Attitude Adjustment.

I sense that today has been difficult, but lo! Look around you, Penguin. Have you noticed the way the mountains are reflected in the ocean like a painting?…here me now, my new friend: I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, and I am quite sure you wouldn’t, either. I am certain that when you think about it, you’ll realize that you are exactly where you need to be.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

(Side question: can we all hold hands and agree to start using the word “lo” in our daily discourse?)

Though our black and white friend doesn’t recognize it at first, the walrus’ sentiment has just the right blend of empathy and butt-kicking to reset his outlook (“Maybe that walrus has a point. After all, I do love the mountains.”). May I also mention that it’s exactly the sort of speech that I need my kids to hear every so often? Much better coming from a walrus in a funny book than from me.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

It’s not just the text that draws us into this book. There’s something compelling (and crazy cute) about the art. The palette of the book is black and white and grey (think dirty snow), with touches of muted blue and yellow and orange. By all accounts, it is lackluster.

Or is it?

Because the wide eyes of Penguin exude the same sweet befuddlement that I sometimes catch in the eyes of my own children. The icy blue of the mountains looks almost sugary sweet. The snow seems powdery soft.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

In fact, the more we look at these pictures, the more we start to see beyond the grey and the grump. This is the power, not only of a rosier outlook, but also of the veteran Lane Smith, whose talent has always lain in infusing seemingly simple layouts with surprising textures and shapes and expressions that keep us coming back again and again (remember Grandpa Green?).

So now, when my children are stuck in a downward spiral, when they wake up on the wrong side of the bed and come into my room to announce that they are not getting dressed and they are not going to school and they are not interested in a hug so don’t even think about it, I say with a gleam in my eyes, “Do you have penguin problems?” They roll their eyes but they also chuckle. And then they walk away and open their dresser drawers.

And our day starts (or ends) just a little more peacefully.

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

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!

Celebrating Yellow Time

October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Yellow Time" by Lauren StringerThere is a row of ginkgo trees that the kids and I used to pass every morning on our drive to school. For six years, beginning in early October, we would watch as the trees’ leaves transformed into a beguiling bright yellow—one of the purest, most saturated articulations of yellow that I have ever come across in the natural world. And still, we quivered in anticipation, because we knew that the best part was still to come.

Every ginkgo yields to the mysterious fate of losing all its leaves at the exact same moment. If you can catch the release—and we were lucky enough to do so on a few occasions—it is like a delicate rainfall of sunshine. If you miss it, you still have a few hours to catch the luminous carpet of gold that billows on the sidewalk beneath the bare boughs. It is infectious. It is magical. It softens the blow of winter’s coming and returns us to the present of fall, the most impressively beautiful of the seasons.

Blink and you’ll miss it, though. Which is why we have to be ready to savor the fleeting beauty. Before we know it, the leaves dry up and clear out. The damp, crisp air sets in, and the darkness infringes on our after-school hours. The pumpkins on the doorsteps decay, if they don’t get eaten by squirrels first. The only apples left on the trees are too high for us to reach.

Lauren Stringer coins autumn Yellow Time in her lush and lovely new picture book, which beams with the essence of this magnificent season as seen through the eyes of children (Ages 3-6). It’s a cover that catches your eye across the bookstore and beckons you over (at least, it did me). Stringer is no novice to capturing the spirit of the seasons (nothing sends my kids straight to the pantry for hot cocoa faster than Winter is the Warmest Season­). Nor is she a stranger to glorious monochromatic aesthetics, which we might remember from the washes of green against which a girl dances in the sublime Deer Dancer.

E.B. White wrote a letter to a class of sixth graders in 1973, thanking them for sending him their creative essays (bear with me: our household is E.B. White Obsessed right now, in no small part owing to Melissa Sweet’s new illustrated biography—more about this in upcoming weeks). White concluded his letter, “I was pleased that so many of you felt the beauty and goodness of the world. If we can feel that when we are young, then there is great hope for us when we grow older.”

Lauren Stringer makes children see the natural world and love every bit of it.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

In Yellow Time, Stringer is concerned with the moment just before and just after the leaves fall, the period of time in which the crows are cawing but the “geese have already gone,” and the squirrels are “too busy to notice.” That moment when the leaves surrender their grip on the branches and swirl to the ground, leaving little hands to explore and rake and gather them up to press between pages of books.

Children run in
the yellow air.
They let it catch their hair
and cover their sweaters.
They jump and turn
in yellow time.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

Stringer’s loose, poetic prose mirrors the sleepy, dream-like quality of fall. Much like the way we feel when we catch the filtered sunlight hitting a bale of hay after a busy afternoon spent picking (golden-delicious) apples.

Just before yellow time,
the air smells different.
Like wet mud and dry grass
with a sprinkle of sugar.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

I was so struck by the loveliness of this book that I decided to donate a copy to my daughter’s Montessori classroom, in the spirit of Emily’s recent fall birthday. At six years of age, Emily works alongside three, four, and five year olds, and the rainbow of skin tones and hair colors in her classroom is a beautiful sight. Stringer’s book echoes the diversity of our American communities, where neighborhood children of different ages and ethnicities take to the streets in a shared enjoyment of fall.

Yellow Time reminds us and our children that the fleetingness of fall magic will soon be upon us. The book reminds us to be alert, to open our eyes, to run outside while we can still be parka-less and twirl in the cascades of yellow (and red and orange and, yes, even brown). As the wind picks up, we will pull up our sweatshirt hoods and breathe in giant gulps of it.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

This fall, with both children at a new school, a different morning commute means that we no longer drive by the ginkgo trees. I nearly forgot about them until I opened these pages for my children, and my son reminded me. “You’re right,” I replied, suddenly crest-fallen, recalling the delightful anticipation in our car when we would turn onto the ginkgos’ street. I considered, briefly and silently, how fall is as much about change and loss as it is about precious rituals and awe-inspiring beauty.

But my daughter was quick to reassure me: “Don’t be sad, Mommy. We’re going to keep our eyes peeled and find lots of new yellow.” And, truth to told, the yellow mums on our porch are already looking pretty great.

Get ready.

It only comes
once a year.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

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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!

Winning Against All Odds

September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James BrownWe are still feeling the effects of Olympics Fever in our house. Before his weekly swim lesson, JP flaps his arms back and forth across his chest, a.k.a. Michael Phelps. Emily vaults off the arm of our leather chair and lands with her hands above her head, chest lifted. I’m still smiling at the charisma of Usain Bolt, who runs so fast it’s scarcely comprehensible. While we were watching the Olympics one Saturday afternoon, with footage of fencing and archery and discus throwing, JP exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were this many sports!” (We aren’t typically a sports-watching family, as I’ve mentioned before.)

For all the glory that my children witnessed unfolding on the television screen this past summer, I don’t think they really grasped the guts that were involved. The sacrifices made. The arduous, sometimes circuitous journeys of these athletes to Rio. What actually went on behind the scenes.

I started to feel like I was doing these athletes a disservice by not talking to my kids about how painfully difficult—how physically and mentally trying—these journeys to victory often are.

I announced to my nine year old one night in late August that I had the perfect book to keep the spirit of the Olympics alive in our house. The choice was partly selfish: I have long wanted to read the adult version of this story.

Daniel James Brown recently adapted his bestselling adult non-fiction book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for a young audience. The Young Readers Adaptation, similarly titled The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, is intended for ages 10-18.

Here’s the gist: Against a backdrop of the American Depression and the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Brown’s two books tell the story of nine rowers from the University of Washington—an unlikely bunch of loggers, fishermen, and farmers—whose incredible work ethic and fresh approach to the sport of crew took the entire world by surprise when they snatched gold in front of Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

At the center of The Boys in the Boat is one rower in particular—Joe Rantz—whose childhood would be considered heartbreaking by even the harshest skeptic. Painfully abandoned by his family as a young teenager, Joe was left to make his own way in the world, often resorting to grueling physical labor in the Pacific Northwest in an effort, not only to feed his almost always starving body, but to scrape together enough money to attend college and secure a place on a sports team that held the promise of belonging and acceptance. This guy, with the skills of a lumberjack, without two nickels to rub together, this guy is in the boat that wins an Olympic gold.

It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is a head-scratching, white-knuckling, jumping-on-the-bed story of unadulterated inspiration. It will rival the most exciting sporting event you’ve ever seen on TV.

Last night—after the climactic final chapter, where my son alternated between clutching my arm and burying his head under his pillow, even though we already knew the outcome of the race—JP told me this was the BEST BOOK OF HIS LIFE. (He may have inherited my fondness for hyperbole, but this is still saying something.)

I’ll admit, I was surprised by how quickly the story grabbed the two of us. JP had never heard of crew prior to this book. I myself knew almost nothing about the mechanics of the sport—nor did I have any appreciation for the physical stamina and technical prowess involved. (Despite attending a high school and university with prestigious rowing programs, I never attended a single race, a fact I now find rather devastating. At last, I am ready to stand in the cold spring rain and watch a regatta!)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And there is a lot of crew in this book. Nearly every race in the two years leading up to the Olympics is detailed across multiple pages. It may seem hard to believe, but JP and I were on the edge of our seat (well, pillow) every single time. Even the art of boat-making—the proper terminology is shell-making—is described with such romance that we could almost smell the freshly-sanded cedar from JP’s bedroom.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

Still, for as much rowing as fills the pages of this book, The Boys in the Boat is ultimately about something transcendent. It’s a familiar theme that runs through most great sports stories: triumph in the face of devastating odds. And it’s delivered by Brown in a way that spears our hearts and elevates our souls.

I asked JP at breakfast this morning what most struck him about the story. He didn’t even hesitate: “Joe’s life. Everything was so hard for him. Things were always going wrong. I didn’t know that someone like that could be an Olympic champion.”

I would argue that everything was often going wrong, not just for Joe, but for all the boys in Joe’s shell.

It has been said about real life: you can’t make this stuff up. But seriously: you could not make this stuff up. Because the odds are stacked against these young men nearly every step of the way.

Let’s start with Joe’s childhood. When Joe’s stepmother (his biological mother dies of cancer when he is four) convinces his father to pack up the car with Joe’s younger siblings and leave Joe behind at fifteen years of age, my son could not get over it. She is so mean! When Joe finds work in a mine, on a dam, as a janitor—when he chops wood all day instead of tossing a ball in the backyard with this dad—our hearts broke again. Is it any wonder Joe initially struggles to trust his fellow oarsmen, to embrace the spirit of teamwork?

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

The socioeconomic backdrop of the book is equally at odds. There’s the wasteland of the West during the Dust Bowl. There’s the juxtaposition between the working-class boys of the Washington crew team and the wealthy sons of bankers and doctors that make up the elite teams of the East Coast. When the Washington boys visit Poughkeepsie, New York each year for the national regatta, they squat in shell houses without warm showers or sealed windows, while teams like Princeton and Cornell get cushy digs complete with personal chefs. Indeed, when the Washington team discovers that they have to pay their way to Berlin—or risk forfeiting their spot—they rely on the charity of thousands of individuals and corporations during a radiothon back in Seattle.

Then there’s the relentless weather (and, as you know, ours is a house obsessed with weather). Rowing in Seattle means rowing in frost, in sleet, in snow. In hard-driving rain. It means rowing when you can’t feel your hands.

There are the Nazis. There is Hitler’s attempt to dress Berlin as a kind of pristine movie set for the Olympics, in an effort to disguise to the world the ethnic cleansing that has already begun. There’s the muddied intentions of the German Olympic Committee, who re-write the rules in real time to ensure that the Germans are in the fastest lanes and the Americans in the slowest. (The 1936 Olympics were also privy to the rise of African-American Jesse Owens on the track field, yet another slap in the face to Hitler’s assertion of the natural supremacy of the Aryan people.)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And then there’s what happens to one of Joe’s crewmates in the days and hours leading up the race of his life. I don’t dare spoil it for you—but suffice it to say that this obstacle would stop any mere mortal. The determination and loyalty that surface instead left me with goosebumps.

The answer to beating all these odds comes from something imparted to the author by Joe on their first very interview. Good rowing—winning rowing—is never about the individual; it’s “about the boat.” Joe is not talking about the physical shell (although the Husky Clipper has assumed iconic status in rowing history). He is talking about teamwork. Only when you give yourself over to your teammates does the boat become greater than the sum of its parts. Only then can you begin to touch greatness. Or, put more technically later in the book:

What they needed was to find something rowers call their “swing,” and they were not going to get there acting like individuals. Many crews never really find their swing. It only happens when all eight oarsmen row in such perfect unison that no single action by any one of them is out of sync with those of all the others. All at once, sixteen arms must begin to pull together, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold in unison, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must begin to bend and straighten. Each tiny action must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman.

Teamwork conquers all.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

JP’s and my success with this book is undoubtedly a tribute to Brown’s engaging and heartfelt writing. But it is also a tribute to the power of reading aloud. There is absolutely zilch chance that I could have convinced JP to read this book on his own, with its 220 oversized pages of minuscule print. There is also little chance that, without the astonishment and wonder of the very engaged nine year old beside me, I would have been quite so enthralled myself. In sharing this story with one another—our intimate team of two—we gave ourselves a gift.

But the greatest gift comes from the human spirit, which so soften surprises and surpasses expectation and understanding. These boys have become my son’s heroes. Names like Joe Rantz, Bobby Moch, Roger Morris, and Don Hume. Neither one of us will forget them quickly.

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

Review copy provided 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!

In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids

September 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Journey Trilogy by Aaron BeckerA few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).

But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor).

Wordless books can be a hard sell. They can be an especially hard sell for parents, because what exhausted parent wants the pressure of making up a narrative when the relief of bedtime is so near? How can I read a book with no words? Can’t my kid just look at that on his own?

Hear me out.

For starters, education researchers have long touted the value of wordless picture books as a tool for pre-literacy. When children are learning to read—when they’re caught in that delicate balance of needing to cherish small successes but not fully versed in phonograms and sight words—they can look to pictures for valuable clues about what the text might be saying. (He’s picking up a fork, so that word must be “fork”; there’s a grimace on his face as he’s eating, so that must mean the words are going to be about him not liking it).

When children are forced to extract a narrative from pictures alone, they become well versed at using visual clues to decode text.

I would argue that the value of wordless picture books extends well past the early-reading stage. Wordless books can help make close readers of our children, a vital skill for academic success at every grade level.

Especially in the hands of a visual wizard like Becker, the reader is rewarded for every extra second he or she takes to study the pictures. On nearly every spread in Journey, Quest, and Return, there is mystery, intrigue, wonder, and confusion. Repeated readings only deepen our experience, reveal things that our eyes—in our haste—missed the first time.

Let’s talk about that haste for a minute. (We are listening to Charlotte’s Web in the car these days, so I feel inspired to quote the wise Charlotte: “…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”)

When my nine year old tears through beloved series like The Hardy Boys, Hazardous Tales, and I Survived, I can’t help but wonder: how carefully does he read? Does he skip over passages when he doesn’t understand? Does he take time to notice the language, the details of a setting, or the way a character is described? Does he have an opinion about the book, other than “It was epic!”?

I try very hard not to scrutinize or judge (outwardly) my children’s reading habits. If my kids are reading, I want them to read—without my asking loaded questions about whether they’ve finished a book or what they are learning from the story or whether they will read aloud parts to me. I want them to read for the love of the thing. I want them to discover their own motivations for reading outside parental or adult pressure.

Instead, I try to model good books and good reading practices. I choose books to read aloud that showcase beautiful language, complex characters, and plots rich in shades of grey and murky emotions. I often share aloud my own feelings about the things we’re reading. I tell them which questions are giving me pause. Much of the time, they are quick to join me in conversation.

As it turns out, I don’t have to be reading books with words to accomplish that.

Weeks back, when that box showed up at our doorstep and my kids jumped up with Return in their hands, then ran through various rooms to locate the first two titles in the trilogy so that we could read all three books straight through, I was reminded that sharing wordless picture books with our children can be another immensely valuable way to teach them to slow down and cherish the intricacies of a story.

It’s a credit to Aaron Becker just how hard my children and I are willing to work to interpret his lantern-hung forests, his purple skies, and the rock-clad walls of his prophetic caves. (Interesting side note: in the author’s bio printed on the jacket cover of the newest book, we learn that the exotic kingdom depicted in the trilogy, with its lavish domes and flowing canals and frenetic kings and emperors, is inspired by Becker’s visit as a child to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—the same walled island we all grew to love in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See).

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

Here’s the gist of what my kids and I have surmised from the time we’ve spent with these books.

In Journey, a girl escapes boredom by drawing a doorway into a magical land and inadvertently finding herself in the center of an enslavement plot. Her creativity, along with the artistic aid of a like-minded boy, guides her safely home again, while at the same time giving her the companionship she has been seeking.

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

In Quest, Becker’s second book, the girl with the red crayon and her new friend with the purple crayon are drawn back into the mysterious world, where greater intrigue and suspense greet them. We learn that their crayons are part of a larger set of six that, in the right hands, can return color and freedom and prosperity to this grey and conflict-laden kingdom.

"Quest" by Aaron Becker

Now at last, in Return, we are given the final pieces of the puzzle. It was my son who came up with the idea that the bad guys aren’t simply after the crayons; they’re after art. Or, rather, they’re out to destroy the transformative power of making art. It was also my son who pointed out details that I initially missed: how the green emanating from the emperor’s boat is a sickly, unnatural green, a slime green, a green that somehow instinctively identifies him as evil.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

Our reading of these books is full of “Wait, look at that!” and “Oh, now I get it,” and “But what it THAT?” Three heads huddled over the same book. Three sets of fingers pointing. Three voices contributing to one shared understanding.

Perhaps there’s a third, even more powerful benefit that comes from sharing wordless picture books with our children—and that’s the opportunity to collaborate with them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as we make the difficult transition into the rigidity of fall routines: of rushing to school, of rushing home from school, of trying to get dinner on the table and everyone to bed at an early hour so that we can make some semblance of an attempt at doing it all over again the next day.

Too often, I parent from a place of authority rather than a place of collaboration. But how can I insist that my children develop flexibility unless I am willing to demonstrate It myself? Wordless picture book, like the Journey trilogy (and I’ve listed other favorites at the end of this post), present a rare gift for us parents to embrace the benefits of honoring our children as partners, rather than progeny.

Appropriately, this happens to be precisely how the trilogy concludes. If the first book casts a less-than-favorable light on the girl’s parents—her mother chatting on the phone while cooking, her father too busy on his computer to respond to the girl’s entreaties to play—the third book spins a more optimistic narrative.

Return begins when the father looks up from his work and, seeing his daughter’s kite dropped at his feet, goes in search of her.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

When he finds her red door, he ducks and enters—until he, too, is a character in the vivid magical world that has bewitched his daughter on so many occasions. As it turns out, and as the girl only recognizes once she has forgiven his indifference and welcomed him into her imagination, the father has a critical role to play in the unfolding drama. The two share an adventure which, not only brings them closer together, but reveals a secret about the father’s own history with art and imagination. A door once closed has opened again for him.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

We do not need words on a page to comprehend the sheer joy on the girl’s face at the realization that she has an accomplice in her beloved parent. (Hint: see if your child picks up on the subtle change in the endpapers from the beginning of Return to the end; my daughter had to show me, and I almost broke down sobbing, so close to home did it hit.)

In a few months—and at a time when we aren’t rushing—I plan to get out these books again and encourage my kids to look at them alongside me with fresh eyes. I imagine they won’t need convincing. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover and interpret and learn from these sensational pages.


Other Favorite Wordless Picture Books:
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 3-6)
Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd (Ages 3-6)
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (Ages 4-8; I challenge you to get through this story of connection without tearing up.)
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Ages 4-8)
Pool, by Jihyeon Lee (Ages 4-8, reviewed by me here)
The Girl and the Bicycle and The Boy and the Airplane, by Mark Prett (Ages 4-8)
Fox’s Garden, by Princesse Camcam (Ages 4-8)

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

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!

Severe Weather Alert

September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligottWe interrupt this program for a Special Weather Statement.

Tonight’s forecast includes freakishly strong winds, wild fluctuations in temperature, and all forms of precipitation. Power outages possible. Lightning probable. Children begging to hear one more bedtime story guaranteed.

What do you get when you cross real science with monsters?

Easily the most fun educational book about the weather.

There are few books I will purchase before opening them. Mathew McElligott’s Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster (Ages 6-9) was one. For starters, the kids and I became fans of this new series when the first book, Mad Scientist Academy: The Dinosaur Disaster, came out two summers ago (again, easily the most fun we’ve had learning about dinosaurs—and, in fact, the only fact-based dinosaur book that has ever captured my daughter’s attention).


Secondly, my eldest has long been weather obsessed, so those who live with him have no choice but to eat, sleep, and breathe weather factoids. In the presence of dark clouds, it is statistically impossible to have any other conversation with him.

Lastly, there is the subjective truth that nobody does monsters for young kids better than McElligott (one of his earliest books, Even Monsters Need Haircuts, continues to be read on a regular basis in our house, because we never get tired of one of the best surprise endings EVER). In McElligott’s pencil-clad hand, the Frankensteins, vampires, and werewolves of our collective conscience emerge, not as monstrous, but as gentle, funny, clever comrades. Albeit eccentric and occasionally sandwich-obsessed.

Here’s what you need to know about the Mad Scientist series: the overzealous green-faced scientist, Dr. Cosmic, runs a school for young monsters called Mad Scientist Academy, where he showcases his latest technological inventions designed to bring science—quite literally—to life. Before Dr. Cosmic’s creations are rolled out, the students get a crash course in the subject at hand, knowledge that proves valuable when disaster inevitably strikes.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

McElligott hits on a sweet spot for today’s audience with both the content and format of this series. Not only does he pick scientific subjects for which his readers already have an enthusiastic interest, but he never talks down to his audience. He packs a surprisingly large amount of factual information into concise and engaging comics (I’m talking a gazillion times more aesthetically pleasing and less long-winded than The Magic School Bus series). The text and illustrations are brimming with levity and gags, whooshes and KABOOMS.

Perfect for reading aloud, yes, but also a reluctant reader’s paradise.

In The Weather Disaster, Dr. Cosmic arrives on the scene in his custom-designed Wearable Weather Balloon, which boasts, among other features (see blueprints on the book’s end papers): atmospheric data collection sensors, solar charging panels, and a pressure regulator valve.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

Through Dr. Cosmic’s flight demonstration, the students are provided not only with the definition of words like meteorologist, atmosphere, and hygrometer, but also with the basics of how clouds and wind are formed. (My husband was overheard exclaiming in the other room, “Oh, so that’s how lightning is created!”)

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

The Sky Suit isn’t the only thing Dr. Cosmic is eager to show off to his students. He has been hard at work building something that he (prophetically) calls CHAOS, a Cooling/Heating Air Flow Operating System, which uses solar and turbine power to create the “perfect” temperature inside the school (gone are the days of sweaty locker rooms and drafty classrooms).

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

And yet, Dr. Cosmic steps away just as things are going awry. Vents in the same room are blowing different temperatures, the greenhouse is flooding, the swimming pool is buried under snow, and there are increasingly black clouds looming in the control room.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

With Dr. Cosmic suddenly MIA, our young students are left to fend for themselves: to don their detective hats and make sense of what is happening, relying in large part on their recently acquired scientific knowledge.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

As it turns out (Spoiler Alert!), the only viable solution is for the mad apprentices to create the perfect storm: to set the stage for a tornado that will blow the top off the building and provide for them a means of escape.

Did I not tell you we’d be in for some monstrous weather this evening?

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

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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!

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