The Places We Carry With Us

May 17, 2018 § 6 Comments

Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.

And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.

Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.

Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.

The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.

“I was homesick!”

Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.

When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?

There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.

Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.

Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”

Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”

 

Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”

“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)

“That’s it exactly!”

As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).

The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.

Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.

Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.

 

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Review copy provided by Dial Books for Young Readers. 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!

The Best Book I Haven’t Told You About

April 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

It’s true. I’ve waited four months into 2018 to tell you about my favorite book from 2017. Why didn’t I include this title in last year’s Holiday Gift Guide? Well, two reasons. First, Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Ages 5-9) is not really a “gift-y” book: its subdued cover doesn’t exactly scream READ ME, and its content is not high on the list of what kids think they want to read about. This is a quiet book. A gentle book. A tiny window into one immigrant family’s experience, and the kind of story where what’s not said is equally as important as what is. But oh…this book.

Which brings me to my second reason. This is a book that needs time to percolate with our children. As a parent, I loved it from the second I began it, and I also recognized how topical it was (Kirkus Reviews called it “a must-read for our times,” and it was just awarded a Caldecott Honor, so the Powers That Be clearly agree). I couldn’t wait to share it with my kids. And then, the experience was…anti-climactic. We read it once through, and my children liked it fine—they smiled, they nodded—but that was all. I put it back in our “new books” basket, where it sat untouched for months. I couldn’t in all fairness write about a story that didn’t have the same impact on my children as it had on me.

Herein lies the power of owning select books, of not having to return them to the library after a few weeks. Last week, five months after we first read A Different Pond together, I found my daughter on the couch with it. I watched from a distance. She read it to herself. Twice. I finally approached.

“How’s the book?” I asked.

“Can I read it to you?” she responded. For my daughter, there is no greater sign of engagement than when she volunteers information about a story she’s reading—or, better yet, reads it aloud to me.

I sat and listened. As an intimate read aloud, A Different Pond is perfection: Bao Phi writes clearly, yet poetically; and Thi Bui—her last book was a graphic novel—propels the story forward through visually striking panels which evoke a breadth of emotion. But the best part: along the way, my daughter stopped to point out things, especially things half-visible in the background. She asked me questions. She began to draw conclusions.

This, my fellow book-loving parents, is the magic of a quiet book.

A Different Pond tells the story of a single early-morning fishing trip undertaken by a boy and his father, an event both routine and yet rich in emotional subtext. The story, told in the boy’s voice, comes out of Bao Phi’s own childhood, growing up with Vietnamese parents who were forced to flee to Minnesota as refugees from the war in 1975, when Phi was just a baby. That the time and place specifics are not spelled out until the Afterward lends the story universality; but illustrator Thi Bui also does a brilliant job of giving us atmospheric hints along the way, from the calendar on the kitchen wall (which reads 1982), to the bell-bottom jeans, to the distinctly ‘70s palette of mustard yellows and muddy browns.

What feels distinctive about A Different Pond, amidst the growing number of children’s picture books attempting to capture the “immigrant experience,” is its very, very narrow focus. We spend only a few hours with this father and son, beginning with their departure before dawn for the bait store and ending with their return home at sun up. And yet, what we learn in these few hours is bountiful and deep, like the pond itself. We learn that the boy’s father, when he speaks English, sounds to some “like a thick, dirty river,” but to the boy sounds like “gentle rain.” We learn that this early-morning outing is even earlier than usual, as the father explains to the tack shop owner that he “got a second job” and needs to get to work by breakfast time.

In fact, as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that these fishing trip are not purely or even mostly recreational. They arise from the necessity to eat—and the stark reality that even working two jobs does not bring in enough money for this basic need (“Everything in America costs a lot of money,” the father tells his son). When the father and son climb, hand in hand, over the highway divider and through the dark brush to the edge of the pond, a careful observer will catch the sign visible in the corner of the page: NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT. “See that, Mommy?” my daughter whispered. “I think this is why they have to do it in the dark.”

There is nothing glamorous about fishing off the highway for necessity—and yet, the experience is ripe for connection. (Anyone else having flashbacks of our beloved Danny, Champion of the World?) These impressionable mornings are forming the boy’s view of the world, himself, and his familial roots. The boy tells us about the different people, also fishing, whom they sometimes meet: a “Hmong man…who speaks English like my dad and likes to tell funny jokes”; and a “black man…[who] shows me his colorful lure collection.” The boy connects to his body and to the natural world, rubbing his hands in the cold and looking up “to see faint stars like freckles.” Most significantly, the boy begins to piece together the puzzle that is his taciturn father, their bonding playing out in the smallest of moments. A reassuring squeeze from the father’s calloused hands. The gentle way the father prompts the boy to build a fire. The rising energy in the father’s demeanor, until he bursts out laughing at the “funny face” the boy makes trying to guide a freshly-caught fish into the bucket.

The boy is particularly curious about his father’s former life in Vietnam and the events which led him to move his family across the ocean. But he knows he must wait for an opening and choose his questions sparingly. While the two sit at the pond’s edge, waiting on fish and eating bologna sandwiches, the father offers up a golden nugget: “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam,” he tells his son. The boy asks if his father’s brother was there, too. We learn, gently, that the father lost his brother while fighting side by side in the War. A bite on the line interrupts this conversation, but the seed has been planted. Later, as the two make their way back to the car, the boy wonders “what the trees look like at that other pond, in the country my dad comes from.”

This may be a story about sacrifices, big and small, about one Vietnamese American refugee family who left behind one life to start a new one with next to nothing, but it is also a story about moving out of darkness and into light. What Thi Bui—herself a Vietnamese American immigrant—has done with her illustrations is extraordinary. I have never before seen light—in its multitude of forms—portrayed so tangibly in a single picture book. We have the progression of natural light, from the twilight cast by the stars and moon to the “blue and gray light” of early sun rise, notably stopping before the golden sunshine we expect. We have a range of artificial light: the bare bulb illuminating the linoleum floor of the family’s kitchen; the bold streetlight on the dark street outside the tack shop; the fluorescent light of the carpeted hallway outside the door to the family’s apartment. If not stark, these lights are also not warm, as poverty is often characterized by such unfiltered, unforgiving light.

There is no triumphant sunrise here, just as there is no conventionally happy ending.  The story will continue to unfold long after we close the book, and we can guess there will be many more early-morning fishing trips. But, as the sun fills the boy’s apartment on his return home, the light becomes undeniably softer, yellower. As the boy anticipates his family gathering around the table to enjoy the fish that night for dinner (“Dad will nod and smile and eat with his eyes half closed.”), we also see more diffused light. Finally, as the boy falls asleep, dreaming “of fish in faraway ponds,” his sleeping face becomes the light source itself. It’s as if he is lit from within, comforted and warmed by the love he feels in the everyday actions of his family—particularly, in his bond with his father.

As we move from darkness into light in this story, I also wonder if we are meant to think about the optimism and hope represented by the next generation, by those children on whose behalf immigrant parents make these sacrifices. There is nothing that looks or sounds easy about the life this family is leading; and yet, they clearly lead with conviction, hard work, and love for one another. We alongside our child readers may feel humbled to realize that this quiet stoicism continues to unfold today in immigrant and refugee experiences around us.

That is the power of sitting with a book for awhile.

 

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Review copy provided by Capstone. 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!

What STEM Looked Like 100 Years Ago

April 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color.

At the same time that my mom was smiling at these women’s parasols, I couldn’t stop thinking, These women all look miserable. Their faces looked contorted, if not bored to tears, as they sat with half-completed stitchery in their hands, or perched in the shadow of a towering top-hatted male figure. A few of these women looked directly out of the painting. I felt their eyes on me, a silent, desperate plea. Let me out of here!

 

No doubt I have been influenced by the rebellious heroine in the award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Ages 10-14), the first in a two-book series which I’ve been reading to my daughter (we are partway through the equally delicious second, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate). These novels, written by Jacqueline Kelly, embody everything I look for in a read-aloud book: they’re a (hefty) step above my daughter’s independent reading level; the exceptional writing is packed with challenging, expansive vocabulary; and they carry the potential to deepen my child’s own understanding of her place in the world—in this case, her place against the historical, complicated backdrop of girls coming of age in America.

Like the paintings at the Met exhibit, the books are set at the turn of the century, only instead of France, the backdrop is the Texas countryside. The star is a twelve-year-old only daughter of an aristocratic family, whose father runs the town’s cotton gin. Calpurnia Virginia Tate—or Callie Vee, as she’s affectionately known to family and friends—is rapidly approaching the age where she is expected to come out in society as a debutante; in preparation, her mother encourages her to practice diligently for piano recitals and perfect embroidery worthy of entry into county fairs. While she might be able to capture armadillos and wrestle in the dirt like her six (!) brothers for now, the clock is ticking. Her place will soon be in the home, her attention exclusively on crafting meal plans, raising babies, and managing servants.

But Calpurnia is a restless, inquisitive, sharp-witted soul, whose very purpose, it seems to her, is to question the expectations society has placed so squarely on her small shoulders. She’s okay at piano, but she’s downright terrible at handwork (…“the long striped scarf that I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit”); and her early attempts at making an apple pie had my daughter in stitches. The thought of a life filled exclusively with domestic pursuits feels to Callie like nothing less than a “life sentence”: “I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.”

And don’t get her started on the subject of romance. Callie cringes when three of her little brothers become smitten with her best friend, falling over themselves to carry her books on the walk to school; and she’s even more horrified when her eldest and favorite bother, Harry, begins to blush easily and bring potential (rather vapid) suitors home for dinner. Callie’s take on advances from the opposite sex? “…[I]f any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.”

What Calpurnia discovers she enjoys and excels at most—indeed, what she sneaks off to do at every chance—is something foreign, if not forbidden, to the female sex in her day. That is, investigative science. At the encouragement of her eccentric, reputably cantankerous grandfather, who since his days as a Confederate general has squirreled himself away in the family’s back shed, cataloging flora and fauna found in the nearby river and brush and fermenting pecans in an attempt to create whiskey, Calpurnia becomes an apprentice of natural science.

Armed with a net and a red leather pocket notebook, in which Grandfather encourages her to write her many observations and questions about the natural world, Calpurnia is empowered. She throws herself into the challenge of making sense of Grandfather’s copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book she initially tries and fails to find at her local library, coming of age at a time when the theory of evolution was largely dismissed in Southern culture. (Excerpts from On the Origin of Species and later from The Voyage of the Beagle open each chapter; older readers will enjoy deciphering why certain passages were picked for certain chapters). Indeed, the great suspense of the first book is whether the Smithsonian’s National History Museum in Washington, DC will accept her and Grandfather’s submission of a “vetch” cutting, a flowering plant found in the marshes near their house, and credit them with a newly-discovered species.

To be sure, Calpurnia’s “unladylike” adventures—dodging an angry badger, rescuing the Thanksgiving turkeys from certain doom, and convincing the local photographer to let a plant sit for a portrait—make for much more entertaining reading than a story about readying oneself for domestic pursuits. But our enjoyment of these books isn’t just about the dirt under Callie’s fingernails or the ways she chooses to occupy her time. We are given a window into the emotional world of a girl who is at once confused about why she doesn’t see models of professional, independent women around her (beyond her teachers and the new switchboard operator for the town’s only telephone) and ecstatic at being treated as a collaborative scientist—as an equal—by a grandfather who previously didn’t know her name. The author isn’t afraid to let us see Callie flounder, her confidence soar and then plummet, her questioning nature turn as much on herself as on her beloved flora and fauna. In Calpurnia, we have a crusader, a determined breaker of molds, but we also have an immensely vulnerable and relatable young soul.

“Calpurnia’s world is so interesting, don’t you think, Mommy?” my daughter said one Saturday morning, as she crawled into bed with me and opened the book for me to read. My Emily has long been fascinated by what she calls old-fashioned life, and she references series like Betsy-Tacy and Little House on the Prairie long after we finish them. Indeed, in Calpurnia’s world, there is much that feels foreign compared with modern day, from the skeptical discussions surrounding the first automobile in nearby Austin, to Calpurnia’s horror when her mother ties her ringlets in lumpy wet rags the night before a piano recital (“I smelled like brimstone and looked like a casualty from the War”). And just what exactly is in that bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for Women, which her mother drinks from each time she has a “nervous headache?”

But I think what fascinates Emily most about Calpurnia’s world is the narrow definition of a woman’s place, here an upper-class white Southern woman. It’s hard for our children to imagine this, growing up at a time when girls can become almost anything they want (even if, ahem, they still don’t get equal pay). This, of course, is why Calpurnia is such a compelling heroine. Callie’s magnetism stems from her defiance in the face of these limitations. She doesn’t set out to defy—indeed, her defiance causes her no shortage of discomfort and confusion. She inadvertently defies her parents and, in turn, society by the simple but rebellious act of indulging her own interests, of questioning and engaging with the world around her, instead of sitting idly by. Callie’s enthusiasm for the natural world is contagious. We want nothing more than to join her in the untamed wilderness.

Where Calpurnia’s journey will lead her by the end of the second book—what compromises she’ll undoubtedly have to make—I cannot yet say. But I know that Emily and I will be routing for her with every turn of the page. One thing is for sure: she doesn’t need us to rescue her from some Impressionist painting.

 

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

Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

If you had told me ten years ago, after my first child was born, that three years later I would quit my job, move across the country, and stay home with by then two young children, I would not have believed a word of it. Not in the least because I loved my job, loved the social outlet of going to work every day, loved having others validate my successes, loved a paycheck, and loved having the childcare that allowed me to do all that and still relish quality time with my little one. Sure, I had days when I felt pulled in way too many directions and fantasized about going off the grid. But I never really expected I’d feel fulfilled any other way. I was, after all, a self-identified feminist. I had minored in women’s studies in college. I always intended to model for my children what it meant to be have a successful, robust career outside the home.

And then, for a host of reasons I never saw coming, I made the choice to stay home. And it felt right for our family. It still feels right. My privilege is not lost on me: I know many people would love to make that choice but, for various reasons, will never have the chance. Still, not a day goes by when I don’t question my choice, or feel judged for it, or feel guilty. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and wonder if I’ve come untethered from my feminism, if I’ve limited my daughter’s proximity to female power and influence. Perhaps this uncertainty is what it means to be a woman in today’s world: to question, to obsess, to wonder, to chastise ourselves and our fellow women, even when we don’t intend to, even when we don’t want to.

And yet, it also occurs to me that this very questioning is itself a tremendous gift.  That there are so many ways today to be a woman—so many permutations of working or not working or volunteering (or blogging), so many ways to create a family, so many ways to model success and fulfillment—is owing in large part to the women who came before us. To the women who shook things up, who proved to the world that we were never meant to thrive beneath a single label.

My daughter was highly intrigued when Susan Hood’s Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World (Ages 6-10) showed up at our front door, especially because she instantly recognized six-year-old Ruby Bridges on the cover, icon of the Civil Rights Movement, marching bravely up the steps of an all-white New Orleans school with her lunchbox in hand. Further examination of the book revealed others whom Emily has learned about recently either in school or at home, including Frida Kahlo, whose expansive portraiture began during her months in a full-body cast, and Mary Anning, who became the youngest paleontologist in the 19th century when she unearthed an ichthyosaur on the English coast at just thirteen years of age (Stone Girl, Bone Girl is a favorite in our house, and our family just saw a play featuring Mary Anning’s ghost!).

Shaking Things Up is a fascinating trip spanning 250 years of world history, as seen through the eyes of some of its youngest female rebels. It begins in 1780 with Molly Williams, first known female firefighter in the United States, and ends in 2014 with Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, fierce advocate for girls’ education in the developing world and the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Household names are included, like the daredevil journalist Nellie Bly, but some of the young women will be new to children and (likely) their parents, including anti-hunger activist, Frances Moore Lappe, and cancer researcher, Angela Zhang. All of these women are united by their fierce determination to do what they love or what they believe will make a difference, often staring down stereotypes and battling adversity in the process. Whether consciously or not, they’re blazing a trail for those who follow. “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations,” African-American astronaut Mae Jemison is quoted as saying in the book.

Tantalizing content aside, what makes this book stand apart in an increasingly popular genre of biography anthologies is its unconventional format, perfectly suited to its unconventional heroines. Susan Hood profiles the fourteen young women, not through traditional prose, but with playful and lyrical poems. She even chooses different poetic forms to represent the distinct personalities she seeks to bring to life. For Mary Anning, Hood creates a concrete poem in the shape of the ichthyosaur fossil, Anning’s signature discovery. Pura Belpre, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library, appropriately gets an acrostic poem, where the first letter of each line creates the full alphabet.

For 19th century athlete Annette Kellerman, who took to swimming to strengthen her legs after wearing braces as a young child, then went on to invent the modern swimsuit, a limerick-style poem begins:

There once was a mermaid queen,
lovely and lithesome and lean,
who swam afternoons
without pantaloons—
her swimsuit was deemed obscene!
 
The lady was quickly arrested.
Unafraid, she calmly protested:
Who can swim fifty laps
wearing corset and caps?
Her statement could not be contested.

Some of the poems tell the linear stories of their subjects, while others are more abstract, speaking to the spark of adventure underlying the accomplishments. The free-verse poem, “Lift-Off,” written about astronaut Mae Jemison, strikes a universal chord:

An African proverb says, “No one shows a child the sky.”
No need.
Head back, it’s there in her eyes;
Glittering stars, swirling galaxies
fill her, thrill her…

But wait, there’s more! As you’ve undoubtedly noticed by now, each of the thirteen poems (one poem covers two women) is accompanied by a portrait of the subject created by a different well-known children’s illustrator, including favorites like Melissa Sweet, Julie Morstad, LeUyen Pham, and Emily Winfield Martin. In a book celebrating a range of possibilities for women, we are also privy to a diversity of female artistic styles and expression, rendered in paint, crayon, pencil, and mixed-media collage. Take, for example, Erin K. Robinson’s vibrant palette surrounding the stoic face of Frida Kahlo (“I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”):

Now contrast that with Sophie Blackall’s grey-scale, highly realistic rendering of British operative Jacqueline Nearne, who parachuted down into Nazi-occupied territories to deliver secret messages during World War II:

At times, the synergies between pictures and text are breathtaking. Julie Morstad’s illustration perfectly conveys the message behind “A New Vision,” a poem about Asian-American architect Maya Lin, who at just twenty-one years of age won a competition to design the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Rather than stealing any kind of spotlight, Lin’s stance in Morstad’s portrait embodies the very ideal she sought to represent with her art: she is turned almost inside herself, hand resting on the reflective surface of the memorial as snow falls gently around her.

Maya Lin knew that,
polished to a high shine,
black granite is a mirror
for those who have come to reflect,
those present
who gaze into the past.

Whether Shaking Things Up encourages our children to seek out additional information about the women in its pages (book lists are provided at the end); whether it lends more emotional texture to figures already introduced; or whether it makes them want to draw or paint in a million new ways, our girls (and boys) are all the better because of the way these young women lived their lives. Our young ones may, as they get older, feel overwhelmed by the different paths opening up before them, but they will ultimately be grateful that such abundant choices exist. Celebrating these choices is itself a triumphant expression of feminism.

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

Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

March 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?

When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp?

I am halfway through one of the most compelling parenting books I’ve ever read. In The Self-Driven Child, clinical neuropsychologist, William Stixrud, along with motivational coach, Ned Johnson, make a convincing case for what our children need most from us. Drawing from personal experience and brain science, they argue that the main driver behind children’s well-being isn’t grades, or where they go to school, or what things they have. Rather, it’s how much control children perceive as having over their lives. Do they feel they can direct their lives in a meaningful way? Do they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?

“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being,” the book puts forth.

Perhaps more than we realize, we parents get in the way of our children developing their agency. We don’t mean to, of course. It’s just incredibly hard to sit back and watch our kids potentially sabotage friendships, tests, or the chance for future success. Maybe we want them to do what we did because it worked out so well, or maybe we’re hoping to save them from making the same mistakes we did. In any case, Stixrud and Johnson write:

So often, parents want to play Edward Scissorhands and start pruning their child like a tree, but the reality is that your tree has just begun to grow, and you don’t even know what kind of tree it is.

Sometimes, I would add, we “prune” our children without ever saying a word.

A few weeks ago, I attended my seven-year-old daughter’s “student-led conference” at her Montessori school, where she presented some of her recent work. To kick off the night, she shared a written “self-assessment,” in which she had noted her temperament, values, and interests. On one page was a list of “strong likes” and “strong dislikes.” Under the likes column, she had listed her brother, her father, and me (phew)—along with chocolate cake, polar bears, Helen Keller, and a few other things I couldn’t make out. Under dislikes, she had put “peppers.”

“Like spicy peppers?” I asked.

“No, like the peppers I eat for lunch.”

Ok, wait. My daughter packs her own lunch every morning. More often than not, she puts in red peppers. “You don’t like the red peppers you pack for lunch everyday?”

“I hate them,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“Then why do you pack them?” I had to ask.

“You put them on the counter, so I know you want me to. It seems important to you.”

Clearly, in their book, Stixrud and Johnson are talking about bigger things than bringing peppers for lunch. Or are they? What would have happened if my daughter had complained about packing peppers for lunch one morning? Would I have interpreted it as whining and glared at her in exasperation? Would I have passive-aggressively suggested she pack carrots instead, knowing how little she cares for those? Would I have barked, “They’re already out. Just pack them so you can hurry up and eat your breakfast.” Did she have any choice but to wait until we were on her turf to deliver this information?

I immediately thought about the heroine in Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Ages 5-9), the delightfully funny but astutely provocative early chapter book by award-winners Laura Amy Schlitz (three words: The Night Fairy) and Brian Floca. Published last year and enjoyed countless times in our house since then, Princess Cora and the Crocodile suddenly seems like the perfect, if hyperbolic, meditation on what it means to give our kids agency—before they have to go and unleash their inner crocodile.

You might say our protagonist, Princess Cora, has an agency problem. Meaning she has none. Her well-meaning royal parents have micromanaged every aspect of her life, beginning moments after her birth, as soon as they remember she will someday be queen. “They stopped thinking she was perfect and started worrying about what might be wrong with her. By the time she was seven years old, there wasn’t a single minute when Princess Cora wasn’t being trained.” Training, pruning: in this case, it’s the same thing.

As it turns out, Cora has grown increasingly resentful about her life in the royal castle. The nanny insists she takes, not one, but three baths a day. (“The nanny thought that being clean was the most important thing in the world.”) The King, determined that Cora grow up to be physically strong, stands over her with a stop watch, while she jumps rope in circles across the floor of the dungeon-now-gym. (“Princess Cora knew that skipping rope was good for her, but that didn’t make her like it any better.”) And the Queen only allows her to read books about running a successful kingdom. (“The books were so dull that Princess Cora yawned until her eyes were full of tears.”)

Why doesn’t Cora say something? Well, she tries. Sometimes, while reading books, she “asked silly questions, just to liven things up.” But then she’s criticized for being “inappropriate.” Sometimes, while asked to jump rope, she starts to protest. But then her father puts on a sad face and asks her, “Princess Cora, are you being a good girl?” To which it is assumed there should be only one answer.

Where questions of agency are concerned, it seems girls have it all the harder, feeling pressure to bend not only to parental demands, but also to society’s expectations. Girls, after all, are supposed to be “good.” To be polite and well-mannered. To never be loud or bossy or messy or angry. To never hurt feelings.

So, Cora does one of the few things allowed of heroines in fairy tales. She writes to her fairy godmother. In this case, the protocol for contacting one’s fairy godmother—my daughter loves this part—is to write a letter, tear it up, and leave it on the window ledge, where each of the scraps turns into a white butterfly and flies away.

Cora writes specifically of her wish for a dog (“a dog wouldn’t tell her what to do”), but she finds something much larger at the foot of her bed the next morning. A crocodile. And not just any crocodile. A crocodile who triumphantly exclaims, “I’ve come to rescue you from your awful parents and your mean nanny.” A crocodile who seems every bit the opposite of the neat, quiet, polite princess. (Or is he?) Did I mention this crocodile bites? That he leaves a wake of destruction in his path? That he says things which are very, very rude? That he demands cream puffs all day and night?

The princess and the crocodile hatch a plan: Cora will run away and experience life outside the castle walls, while the crocodile will stand in for her, donning a dress and a mop for hair. (Cora assures him her parents aren’t very observant.)

What follows is a most entertaining juxtaposition: the sweet revelations of Cora’s tromp through nature, interspersed with the uproarious physical comedy of the crocodile wreaking havoc back home. While we might guess where this is going, the delight comes from the delicious details in Schlitz’s narrative and the whimsy of Floca’s drawings.

Cora climbs trees, stuffs herself full of freshly-picked strawberries, and walks barefoot through cow patties (at first thought, “Ew ew ew;” at second thought, “I’m having an adventure!”). Her petticoats rip and her cheeks pink up.

Back at the castle, the crocodile starts by turning the bathroom into a water slide and tossing Nanny into the bath. Later, bored of his reading lesson (the Queen initially assumes she is talking to Cora), he balances the ink pot on his nose until black splotches cover the table; swings from the chandelier; taunts the Queen with “bad rhymes;” and nips at her ankles. Finally, he chases the King around in circles and ties him up with the skipping rope.

“I don’t want to be a good little girl,” the crocodile declares. “I want to be a bad crocodile. And what’s more, I am one!” And that, of course, is when we realize that the crocodile is none other than a metaphor for the anger and rebellion—the maleness, if you will—which good girl Cora has tried so many years to repress.

As we expect, Cora eventually realizes that she misses her parents, and she decides to return to the castle. Only this time, it’s on her terms. As it turns out, the King and Queen and Nanny have also had a change of heart. (After getting locked in the library, the Queen realizes just how boring her books are and throws them out the window.) The grown-ups begin to do something they have never done before: they begin to listen to Cora. This time, she talks clearly, convincingly, and assertively. (“This time Cora didn’t hang her head or turn red or burst into tears.”) Cora speaks of her interest in reading about “sharks and tigers and fairies”; in climbing trees and learning how to juggle; in taking baths but only after getting very, very dirty. To their surprise, her parents discover that Cora’s overall goals for herself aren’t dramatically different from the ones they have for her; it’s only that she has different ideas about how to achieve them.

The Self-Driven Child raises the unsettling question, “If we’re unable to accept our kids as they are, how can we expect them to accept themselves?” The authors challenge us to listen, really listen to our children. They suggest, what if instead of steering our children down a path we deem best, we begin seeing our job as one of “consultant”—helping our children see the pros and cons of a decision but then, ultimately, leaving that decision up to them? After all, if we accept our children as they are, perhaps they won’t feel the need to unleash their inner crocodile just to get our attention. Perhaps they can embrace all aspects of their personality, not just the ones society tells them are most “appropriate.”

After a brief hiatus, Emily has started packing peppers again in her lunch. Maybe her hatred is softening, or maybe it’s just on her terms now.

(And no, I’m not going to tell you what becomes of the crocodile.)

 

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

Our Kids Should Get to Know Harriet Tubman

February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. About slavery, for example, he explains:

I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it. I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.

We can outlaw slavery, Stevenson argues, or sentence lynchers, or desegregate schools, or pass the Voting Rights Act—but only when we begin talking honestly in our schools, homes, and communities about the complicated, nuanced history of growing up African-American at different times in our country, can we understand the tremendous rise in incarceration rates among black Americans, or the “menacing of communities of color and poor communities,” or the defense of Confederacy symbols. “We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.” Not long after reading Stevenson’s piece, I came across an unsettling article in The Atlantic titled “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery.” It cites a new study revealing how grossly misinformed American children are about the history of slavery in our country, largely due to uninformed, “sentimentalized,” or “sanitized” teaching—or even the absence of teaching on the subject all together.

Personalizing the history of enslaved people—for example, encouraging the reading of individual narratives—is an important first step, Stevenson argues, towards internalizing the truth about our country’s history, so that we can begin rewriting the present. As a child, I was fascinated by the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman—specifically, by her involvement with the Underground Railroad. After all, what child isn’t intrigued by a so-called underground railroad that has neither anything to do with trains nor is actually underground? The Underground Railroad was, of course, a secret network of people, some black and some white, who were committed to providing safe harbor, often at great personal risk, to runaway slaves attempting to make their way on foot to freedom in the North. The struggle and heroism displayed on both sides—from the runaways to the helpers—is positively staggering. As such, it has always seemed to me a compelling but still hopeful lens through which to introduce young children to slavery.

I decided to dedicate this past month to sharing books with my kids about Harriet Tubman, especially given that—in part thanks to the media attention garnered last year by our own President’s exhibited ignorance about the American icon—a flurry of new children’s books on the subject have recently been published. (My son tried to convince me he already knew all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5: The Underground Abductor, which admittedly is an awesome book, but I convinced him to humor me.)

If the best of American history is filled with people changing their destinies, turning misfortune into opportunity, and standing up to fight for themselves and, in turn, for those who cannot, then Harriet Tubman personifies the American Ideal. The two books I’ve chosen to discuss today could not be more different; but they work beautifully in tandem: the first bringing new texture to the most commonly known aspects of Tubman’s life, and the second expanding our awareness of her involvement and accomplishments beyond the Underground Railroad.

I am Harriet Tubman (Ages 6-10) is the fourteenth installment in Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’s hugely popular “Ordinary People Change the World” graphic biography series, many of which—as I discussed in the wake of the 2016 election—have become especially near and dear to my daughter’s heart. (When Emily’s school had Biography Day a few weeks ago, there was never any doubt she would go as Helen Keller—because I am Helen Keller.)

One of the biggest draws of this series for young children is its focus on the subject’s childhood. I am Harriet Tubman is no exception. Here, Meltzer and Eliopoulos do an especially adept job of presenting the inhumanity of slavery through the eyes of young Harriet. For children, slavery meant no birthday celebrations (in most cases, children had no idea when their birthdays were). Children had to wear “sacks.” They were forbidden by law to read and write. They were beaten if they didn’t do what their masters demanded. And their families could be split and sold off with no warning, which meant one day you or your loved one might be forced to leave, in many cases never to reunite with family again.

Even when describing horrific events, Harriet’s voice (through Meltzer) emerges emboldened, keeping the subject matter from becoming too overwhelming for her audience: “I know it’s scary. But by hearing my story, I hope you’ll find strength you never knew you had. That’s what happened when I was around seven years old.” At age seven, Harriet explains, in order to escape a beating, she hid in a pigpen for five days, “fighting the pigs for potato peelings.” When she eventually came out of hiding, near starvation, she was still beaten—and yet, the experience changed the way she (and those around her) saw herself: she was not afraid to protect herself. As years went on, she continued to endure abuse and injury at the hands of her owners. Still, each time she didn’t die, she drew faith that God was watching out for her. She began to allow herself to dream of freedom, of letting the North Star show her the way.

At 22 years of age, Harriet narrowly escaped to Philadelphia. Even more harrowing were her thirteen trips back to Maryland to escort 70 others, including strangers and family members, along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Both my children were riveted by these panels: Harriet disguising men as old ladies so they wouldn’t be recognized; hiding with runaways in hidden passages; wading through icy waters by dark; and creating diversions to get slave hunters off her back. “It’s sort of confusing,” my daughter pointed out, “but all the terrible work Harriet had to do when she was a slave, chopping wood and stuff, actually made her strong enough to get through the wilderness like that.” Indeed, the tables had been tuned, one of the many nuanced ironies of oppression.

At its conclusion, I am Harriet Tubman raises the idea that freedom alone is only part of the equation: it’s what we do with our freedom that determines our character. In the case of Harriet Tubman, she dedicated her new life to helping others, believing (her words) “the measure of success isn’t what you achieve for yourself, it’s what you do for others.”

In my life, I was told I couldn’t make my own choices.
Told I would never escape.
But I did.
I fought for my independence.
And once I had breathed the air of freedom,
I knew I needed to help others breathe it too.

 

For more about what the adult Tubman achieved on behalf of others, we turn to our second book. If I am Harriet Tubman begins with its subject as a child, this second tribute to the American icon begins at the end of her life. The lyrical and intimate Before She Was Harriet (Ages 7-12), written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome, actually begins with Harriet’s wrinkles: “Here she sits/ an old woman/ tired and worn/ her legs stiff/ her back achy.”

The title a nod to her birth under a different name, Before She Was Harriet takes readers on a poetic journey backwards through Tubman’s life, from an old woman to the young slave who learned to read by starlight. Each turn of the page peels back another layer, revealing the incredible breath of roles she played in her life, well beyond that of “Moses,” the Underground Railroad conductor for which she is most well known.

For example, before she “was an old woman,” Harriet was a “loud and angry” suffragist, fighting on behalf of women’s rights:

a voice for women
who had none
in marriages
in courts
in voting booths
before her voice became
soft and raspy
it was loud
and angry
rising above injustice

Before she was a suffragist, she was an abolitionist, serving in the Civil War by ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom: General Tubman/ rising out of the fog/ armed with courage/ strong in the face of rebels/ and planters and overseers/ as they watched/ fields burn. Before she was General Tubman, she was a Union Spy, carrying secrets/ across battlefields/ to soldiers/ fighting in the Civil War/ for President Lincoln/ to end slavery.

As the pages continue, they reveal a younger and younger Tubman. Only great restraint on my part is holding me back from citing each one of the evocative, economical poems which deliver these momentous roles and deeds to us. And yet, even as Harriet Tubman emerges a fiery feminist, a fierce warrior, and (let’s be honest) a total Bad Ass, the soft watercolor illustrations allude all the time to her grace, her humility, and her quiet stoicism. She looks, well, human. She looks relatable.

At the end of his interview about the state of race in our country, Stevenson is asked whether he feels hopeful going forward, particularly for the youngest generations. His response gives me chills:

I don’t think we’re allowed, frankly, to get hopeless and beat down, and I think that’s the upside to understanding this history. The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—because my grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved, and her father was in her ear every day of her life talking about slavery, and she was in my ear, I feel the force of their strength. I really do.

Harriet Tubman underscores this power. The power to stand up, to push back, and to fight. The even greater power to help others do the same. These two pictorial accounts of Harriet, of “Moses,” are just a few of the many illuminating narratives children’s literature gives us to help bring our children into the larger narrative of race, racial history, and the move toward racial justice in our country.

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Books published by Dial Books for Young Readers and Holiday House respectively. Review copy provided by Dial. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

If You Like Wonder, You’ll Love This

February 8, 2018 § 4 Comments

On our way to see the movie adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy with a congenital facial abnormality beginning middle school, my son said aloud what we were all thinking: “I wonder what Auggie is going to look like.” Because, of course, there are no pictures in the novel. Even Auggie himself warns us in the first few pages, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Most of what we gather about Auggie’s face comes from what the people around him tell us, when it’s their turn to speak.

Our relentless curiosity about people who look different from ourselves, especially about things which bear little resemblance to our conventional ideas of “normality,” is only natural. Several times in the book, Auggie addresses the curiosity people have about him, especially when seeing him for the first (dozen) time(s). It’s not the curiosity itself that makes him uncomfortable, he tells us; it’s when people—out of shame or embarrassment or even an attempt at kindness—try to pretend their curiosity isn’t there. What causes Auggie pain on a daily basis is all the “not staring.”

Every new class I had was like a new chance for kids to “not stare” at me. They would sneak peaks at me from behind their notebooks or when they thought I wasn’t looking. They would take the longest way around me to avoid bumping into me in any way, like I had some germ they could catch, like I was contagious.

In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, a beautiful visual interpretation of Palacio’s words, Auggie imagines how he would feel if a giant Wookie started going to his school. As Auggie pictures a shaggy Chewbacca standing atop the school steps, surrounded by students trying not to stare at him from the courtyard, he imagines walking up the stairs and looking the creature in the eyes: “I’m sorry if my staring is making you uncomfortable,” he says gently but confidently, offering his hand to the Wookie to shake. A beautiful reminder of how we all want to be seen and acknowledged for who we are.

As moved as my ten year old was by the book and movie of Wonder, I suspected he might be blown away by a similar but true story (after all, Wonder is fiction). My hunch proved to be correct. For all the (certainly well-merited) attention R.J. Palacio has received, I would love to see some of that heaped onto Robert Hoge, an Australian writer who was born with a tumor the size of a tennis ball in the middle of his face, as well as abnormally short, twisted legs—and who narrates his inconceivable life story for middle-grade children in his inspiring memoir, Ugly (Ages 9-13). I just finished reading it to my son, and we were both left moved beyond words.

Robert is born healthy as a horse, albeit on the inside. On the outside, he has a massive bulge from the top of his forehead to the tip of his nose; his eyes are spaced too far apart; his nostrils are splayed; his legs are twisted and too short; and the toes which aren’t missing altogether are bent downwards. (For the sake of us readers, Robert likens his physical appearance to a child’s hasty creation of a sculptured face in clay, only one that suddenly collides with a big angry fist right before being finished.) It takes his mother a week (yes, a week) to summon up the nerve even to visit her son in the ICU. In fact, it isn’t until Robert’s four siblings beg their parents to bring him home from the hospital that his mother and father make the decision to keep him (at which point they never stop loving him).

Whereas Wonder is largely concerned with how Auggie affects and transforms the people around him, Ugly is more focused on the protagonist’s own struggle to come to terms with who he is and to find his unique way in the world (Hage says he wanted to title his memoir, “This is Robert’s big, exciting life of ugliness.”). Spanning birth to high school, Hoge approaches his writing—as he does his life—with dry humor and a disarming directness, which immediately puts us as readers at ease. (There’s a particularly hilarious chapter where he describes trying to pedal a bike without a knee joint; he ends up head down in the bushes: “My bike-riding career had started and finished all in one go.”) But Robert never lets us forget how different he is made to feel on a daily basis, both by the world and by the people around him—and how painful that difference can feel.

Like Auggie with his love of Star Wars and video games, Robert shares many of the same interests as other boys his age, especially team sports. And yet, too often, his disabilities prevent him from indulging these interests, regardless of how much effort he puts forth. He might fall on his face (literally), lose one of his prosthetic legs mid-stride, or be stopped cold by an interfering, usually well-meaning adult. I should mention that, in addition to being a memoir about a child with physical disabilities, Ugly is a fascinating glimpse into growing up in the 1970s and 80s (talk about hands-off parenting!); going to Catholic school (picture a nun trying to pull out Robert’s prosthetic legs from a swamp during a class field trip); and Australian culture (in middle school, Robert finally discovers his talent for “lawn bowls,” a competitive team sport typically favored by retired Australian men).

Robert’s awareness of the extent of his differences expands with age, peaking in that ever-tumultuous time known as middle school. In his previous years in lower school, Robert certainly encounters teasing, but his physical differences are quickly accepted by most of his classmates, and he is well-liked and confident, if somewhat naïve. (Our heart breaks when his fourth-grade love letter to a girl is rejected, and Robert tells us it never occurred to him until later that his appearance could have been a factor.) Nothing prepares him for the litany of verbal insults he faces on a daily basis in middle school.

For my son, the most fascinating part of the memoir was Robert’s “top ten list” of unflattering nicknames he grows accustomed to hearing during his time in middle school. Counting down from ten to one, Robert takes each nickname apart: discussing its origin, rating its originality, explaining why and how badly it hurts, and revealing how he “got over it.” Some nicknames, like Toothpick Legs, are fairly easy for Robert to rebuke in the moment (“They’re not made of wood!”); and some, like Go-Go-Gadget Rob (a nod to the 1980s animated series, Inspector Gadget) even get a few laughs from him for creativity. Others, like Retard, are a painful reminder of how people equate physical disabilities with mental impairment (“my brain worked quite well, thank you very much”); and Cripple is “so broad it seemed to cover all the very worst things I sometimes thought about my disability and myself.” But it’s Toe Nose—so chosen because in one of Robert’s early reconstruction surgeries, doctors use the bone and cartilage from his amputated toes to make him a new nose—that delivers the biggest blow, each and every time he hears it, and is the one name he “never did get over.” Reading through Robert’s analysis of these names, we not only get further glimpses into his incredible resilience, but we are reminded of the very power of words.

As it turns out, Robert’s peers are not the only ones to direct disparaging words at him. Adults can be just as painful. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the book, Robert shows up at an elementary school for a day of community service to help teach second graders, only to have the school’s principal tell him she should have been “warned” in advance about his physical appearance. When Robert apologizes, the principle says “good” and shows him the door. As the reader, I had to choke back tears when Robert goes on to explain that from here on out, he refuses to apologize for what he looks like.

As we get deeper into Robert’s story, we watch him mature such that his path becomes less about trying to fit into the world around him and more about owning his differences—or, as he consistently puts it, his “ugliness.” We witness his delight on the page the first time he realizes he can “use my disability to make people laugh.” To help his bunkmates win a camp talent show, he removes his prosthetic legs and walks around the stage on his hands for several minutes.

But the greatest testament to this evolution comes in the book’s final chapter (spoiler alert!), when Robert at fourteen shocks his family, friends, and us readers by refusing a monumental, long-anticipated surgery which carries the possibility of substantially improving the “normalcy” of Robert’s face, albeit at great risk. At once, Robert decides he is tired of being the clay in someone else’s hands, the canvas for another’s brush. “In that instant, I owned my face.”

I could trust myself to the doctors who had done so many wonderful things to get me so far. I could give them the chance to move me closer to normal, risks, rewards, and all. Or I could take my chances and make my ugly way in a sometimes ugly world just the way I was.

I knew I was ugly. But everyone is uglier than they think. We are all more beautiful too. We all have scars only we can own.

The series of black-and-white photographs which conclude the book, showing Robert as both a child and an adult, serve as a testament to this pride. They are a testament to the agency embraced by this incredibly insightful, brave, and witty soul, whose story reminds us that it’s okay to wonder, but it’s better to step forward and embrace one another.

 

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Book published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. 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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