A Balm for the Soul (& a Perfect Valentine)

February 9, 2023 § 2 Comments

At a time when we’re normally asked to assume New Resolutions in the name of Self-Improvement, I actually began 2023 by stumbling onto some news that took the pressure off. Want to join me in shedding unnecessary guilt? Read on, good book people!

In January, The Today Show ran a news piece on their website, authored by Sarah Lemire, with “10 Surprising Psychological and Physical Perks Associated with Reading.” Most of them weren’t news to me—I’d previously read, for example, the 2016 study about recreational reading lowering mortality rates by as much as 20% (heck, yeah!)—but one of the perks had me doing a double take. According to a 2009 study, 30 minutes of reading has the same ability to decrease stress as 30 minutes of yoga. The article discusses the link between reading and wellness by quoting from a licensed psychotherapist:

“Reading has been connected to meditation in terms of the way our brain processes our environment and our physiological state,” Zoe Shaw, Psy.D., licensed psychotherapist and author of “A Year of Self-Care: Daily Practices and Inspiration for Caring for Yourself,” tells TODAY.com.

“If you’re sitting in a chair or laying in your bed and you’re focusing on reading, your body can actually go into a type of meditative state,” Shaw says. “So, you can get some of the benefits of meditating by reading.”

DO YOU REALIZE WHAT THIS MEANS? I can let go the burden of traditional meditation! Yes, I know meditation offers a myriad of benefits guaranteed to alleviate stress, but I really, really don’t like it. I hate it! (There, I said it.) Time and again, I’ve proven to be terrible at it, and my failure only creates more of the thing I’m supposed to be driving away! (I chronicled some of this here, because occasionally I get inspired to try again. At least, with the help of kids’ books.) While I have successfully adopted some mindfulness strategies—a few times a day I bring my attention to my breath—I cannot embrace the discipline that comes from true, sit-in-a-chair meditation.

Praise the literary gods, because it turns out that if I adopt the discipline of reading for at least thirty minutes a day—which I already do!—then it’s akin(ish) to meditation. It turns out I’ve been practicing meditation all along! I finished that article and I felt like throwing myself a party.

We all need the gratification that comes from being told, early and often, that we are already enough.

Enter Julie Fogliano’s thoughtful new picture book, all the beating hearts (ages 4-8), sublimely illustrated by Cátia Chien. It’s a book that echoes the message that we’re enough just as we are. It’s a poem that reads like a balm for our soul. It has nothing in common with Valentine’s Day other than a beating hearts message, but I’m all for using Valentine’s Day as an excuse to collect books that remind us of our connection to one another.

With her lyrical poetry at once grounded in detail and abstract in ideas, Julie Fogliano excels at authoring books that are about everything and nothing at the same time—my favorite kind of books, if I’m being honest. (I guess it’s no surprise that these are favorites, because Julie Fogliano’s work has made frequent appearances on this blog, including here, here, here, and here, that last being the second post I ever wrote! If you follow me on Instagram, you might have caught yesterday’s post about another new Fogliano title that would also be perfect for Valentine’s Day. So, yes, Team Fogliano.)

I’m also a card-carrying fan of Cátia Chien, originally from Brazil, whose art made Matthew Burgess’ picture book, The Bear and the Moon, my 2020 pick for Favorite Picture Book of the Year. In the case of all the beating hearts, her impressionistic pastel and colored pencil artwork, which often distorts form in ways that tug at our imagination, feels like a perfect fit for Julia Fogliano’s open-ended text.

One of the reasons I’ve always tried to uphold the daily practice of reading aloud to my kids is because it’s one of the few moments across the course of the day where I’m completely immersed in what I’m doing. The chatter in my brain quiets, and I can direct my attention to the task at hand—not just the words or pictures on the page, but the experience of sharing them with my children. I feel their energy alongside mine. It’s a moment of grounding. A moment of inspiration, joy, levity, or contemplation, depending on what I need it to be. Now, I can add meditation to the list.

In all the beating hearts, Fogliano and Chien invite us to reflect on our collective presence, the way we’re co-existing with every rotation of our planet in a way that’s “together but apart/ the same but exactly different.” It’s not a new concept for a picture book, the idea of drawing comfort from the reminder that we are not alone. That there’s wonder to be found in the predictability of our everyday lives. That, as Anne of Green Gables reminds us, “Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.” But it’s done here with the full package, from the poignant lyricism to the jewel-toned illustrations to the extra-large trim size. And it’s one parents will relish reading, because its message feels equally good to us.

Let’s take a look inside.

each day starts/ with the sun/ and hopefully/ something to eat/ and something to wear/ and possibly somewhere to go/ or somewhere to stay

The book moves us from daybreak to nightfall to daybreak again, as it distills everyday life into distinct, predictable components, while still allowing for variety and possibility. Days might be full of work or play, or “work AND play,” or days might contain “nothing much at all.” All of these scenarios are weighted equally, the message being that all of them are OK and nothing is fixed. To drive home this last point, Chien incorporates movement into her spreads, often in the form of background swirls, leaning bodies, or rounded forms.

The poem nods to the joy of flowers blooming and birds taking flight, while also introducing the idea that “some things will die.” Young readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the polar bear stranded on a shrinking piece of ice, depending on what they’re ready for.

The side-by-side existence of happy and sad continues throughout the book, with a reminder that love is the consistent bridge between the two, even when we can’t see it. along the way/ there will be love/ with its arms wrapped around us tight

Some days we might wish to be anywhere else, but other days “we’ll be filled right up to the top/ with the feeling/ that everything is exactly right.” I love the way Chien has depicted one child’s happiness in a pool, as if the feeling cannot be contained in the roundness of a head; it broadens and contorts.

Even at night, even when “we close our eyes/ and drift/ into a dream,” movement does not stop completely. Time presses on, and so do our heartbeats. This is another thing that connects us to one another.

for a little while there/ we are all just hearts/ beating in the darkness/ strong and steady and sure/ each beat/ a reminder/ that we are here/ and alive/ together but apart/ the same, but exactly different

I love the way the book validates our rest: “for just a little while/ there in the dark/ that is all/ we need to be.”

Morning comes again, “bright and blinding and full,” and with it comes a clean slate, a fresh start. Here, the poem moves beyond the rituals of eating breakfast and donning clothes to speak to something more existential. When “everyone is busy being/ everywhere and everything else,” how do we keep from getting lost, from feeling invisible? How can we “be heard above it all”?

The answer, the poem suggests, comes once again from tuning into our beating hearts, into the ever-present reminder that we are “here and alive,” that we are “already everything we need to be.” These “strong and steady and sure” beats are what settle us, and they’re what connect us to one another.

The pulsating visuals of the final spread conjure up the image of a pregnant belly; the womb, after all, is where a child’s heart first beats in tandem with another. There may be no better Valentine to give our children than a bookish reminder that they carry within them—always have and always will—the source of everything they need to greet the sunrise, surrender to the nightfall, and connect to the spectrum of experiences, good and bad, in between.

Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m active most days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Book published by Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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