Gift Guide: Moon Nibbles

December 4, 2018 § 1 Comment

On the list of books published this year which make me wish my children were little(r), Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake for Little Star (Ages 2-5) is at the top. How I used to love reading stories about the moon to my kids (like this, this, and this). For our littlest ones, the world outside their windows is big and new and constantly changing. When they tuck inside the crooks of our arms and listen to us read, they’re seeking reassurance as much as understanding. In that vain, perhaps it’s not surprising that the ever-shifting moon is such a popular subject for children’s book creators, representing as it does the mystery, vastness, and allurement of the universe.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star is a captivating juxtaposition of warm and cold, of the intimacy of a mother and child’s bond and the starkness of the universe. Told in remarkably few words, the story begins without any words at all, on the book’s endpapers, where a mama and her daughter are baking a Giant Mooncake. The mama sneaks a peek at her daughter, who perches on a chair, proudly sprinkling sugar (or is it stardust?) into the bowl. (An Author’s Note explains that the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the time when these Chinese pastries are traditionally baked and enjoyed, was Lin’s favorite Asian holiday as a child.)

While Mama takes the flat, golden mooncake out of the oven and “laid [it] onto the night sky to cool,” she asks her daughter for something that’s typically in short supply in our little ones: patience. “Now, Little Star…your Mooncake took us a long time to bake, so let’s see if you can make it last awhile. Can you remember not to touch this Big Mooncake until I tell you to?” Little Star has every intention of honoring her mother’s wishes, as she gets ready for bed and falls asleep. But when she awakens in the night, the glint of mischief in her eye can only mean one thing.

For the next several nights, Little Star, with her stuffed bunny as companion, softly pitter-patters out of her bedroom and up to the Big Mooncake, which perches warm and luminous against the jet black sky. “Would her mama notice if she took a tiny nibble?” She takes a bite, “so sweet and tasty.” “Would her mother notice if she took another tiny nibble?”

Then, each night, Little Star flies—crumbs flying off her face like moon dust—back to the warmth of her bed.

Of course, for our little listeners, Little Star’s nighttime snacking is meant to correlate with the phases of the moon. On the last night of the story, Mama goes to look for the Mooncake and all that is left is a “trail of twinkling crumbs.”

What Mama does find is Little Star’s plush bunny, dropped and forgotten during her final nighttime escapade, a sign of Little Star’s blossoming confidence. But just because our young children may flirt with independence, doesn’t mean they’re entirely ready for its consequences. At the story’s conclusion, Mama offers Little Star both her bunny and her forgiveness, and the two share an affectionate moment of reassurance. “Little Star looked up, her grin reflecting her mama’s smile…‘Now let’s go make another one!’”

Review copy by Little Brown. 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!

Show Me the Moon

June 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Moon” was one of the very first words uttered by both of my children. When they’re playing outside at dusk, they will shriek at the top of their lungs—“MOOOOOOON!”—upon catching sight of it emerging in the still-blue sky.

If the sheer volume of children’s storybooks dedicated to this subject is any indication, my children are not alone in their enthrallment with the moon. It’s nearly impossible for me to choose one favorite story to profile here (see my lengthy list below), so I will simply go with the newest addition to this already impressive repertoire: Red Knit Cap Girl (Ages 2-5), written by first-time author Naoko Stoop. I’ve mentioned before my weakness for Japanese-influenced picture books; and, like so many of her predecessors, Stoop (who grew up in Japan and now lives in Brooklyn) has created a work that holds together like a perfectly wrapped present: each word is chosen with the utmost care, each picture serves a clear purpose. In a wholly original move, Stoop’s expressive, whimsical watercolors of a little girl and her woodland friends, on a quest to speak to the moon, are painted on pieces of plywood; children can actually see the grain of the wood shining through the paintings, an effect which is especially fitting for a story set in the forest.

But it’s Stoop’s heroine that inspires me to want to read this book to my children (especially my daughter) for years to come. I love Red Knit Cap Girl. I love her curiosity, as she “wonders about flowers, butterflies, leaves, and clouds”—but most of all “about the Moon.” I love her pensiveness, as she experiments with different ways to reach the Moon. I love her courage, as she holds tight to her white bunny and journeys into the darkest part of the forest to ask Owl for advice. I love her leadership and her inclusion of others, as she rallies her forest friends to prepare a celebration to get the Moon’s attention, an affair full of handcrafted paper lanterns. I love her patience, as she waits and waits for the Moon and doesn’t give up. I love her ability to admit that she was mistaken, as only after she has extinguished the lanterns and waited quietly in darkness does “the Moon come out at last.” I love that the Moon is female-personified (none of this man-in-the-moon stuff), and I love her message to Red Knit Cap Girl: “You have made it dark enough to see me and quiet enough to hear me.”

But most of all, I love Red Knit Cap Girl’s interpretation of this message, delivered in the last sentence of the book: “Now Red Knit Cap Girl knows the Moon will always be there for her.” What a wonderful ally for our daughters (and sons) to have as they tuck into bed at night.

Other Favorites About Trying to Reach the Moon:
Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, by Eric Carle (Ages 2-4)
Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes (Ages 2-4)
Moon Plane, by Peter McCarty (Ages 2-4)
Bringing Down the Moon, by Jonathan Emmett (Ages 2-4)
I Took the Moon for a Walk, by Carolyn Curtis & Alison Jay (Ages 2-4)
Many Moons, by James Thurber & Louis Slobodkin (Ages 5-8)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin (Ages 7-12)

Finding Hope on the Ocean Floor

March 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

With no tropical destination in my near future, I am making do with reminiscing about our spectacular trip to Belize for last year’s Spring Break. I also find myself thinking about a book which was perfectly timed with our return home. Whether you are heading to or coming home from a trip to the bottom of the sea, I hope you will join me in singing the praises of this illuminating and inspiring book about saving our coral reefs.

But first, allow me a moment of nostalgia. On one of our early days in Belize—specifically, during our time in Placencia, a skinny peninsula on the southeastern end of the country—we spent a choppy hour and a half by motor boat (thank you, Dramamine) to arrive at a miniature, picture-perfect island. Surrounded by calm, clear turquoise waters, the island boasted exactly two palm trees (one upright and one leaning perilously close to the water), one outhouse, two picnic tables, a charcoal grill, and the passengers from half a dozen small boats, who had decided like us to spend the day on and around its shores.

For the next five hours, with a break only to enjoy a delicious picnic of BBQ chicken, my husband, kids, and I kicked behind a guide as we snorkeled over the immense stretches of coral reefs surrounding this marine reserve. I had not been snorkeling since I was a child, and it was my children’s first time, so we all marveled at the eerie quiet beneath the water, the buoyancy of our bodies, a heightened awareness of our inhalations and exhalations, and the multitude of colorful patterned fish surrounding us, busy and purposeful and seemingly unaware of our intrusion into their lives. It was magical, and each of us later recalled a moment when we had wished it would last forever.

But there was something else. The color of the coral reefs was like nothing I had imagined. And I don’t mean in a good way. Granted, I had been filling my brain for years with the lush paintings in Jason Chin’s Coral Reefs, a book beloved in our family but, as it turns out, more akin to reefs in the Pacific. Still, even adjusting for our Atlantic setting, I knew I was witnessing something troubled. Compared to the fish swimming among them, the reef structures looked faded, dull, lackluster. In the back of my mind, I recalled a phrase I had heard spoken by a friend: coral bleaching.

On a pause with our heads above water, our guide confirmed my suspicion. Although Belize has been spared from many of the extreme effects of coral bleaching—due to its waters facing less fluctuations in temperatures than those of its neighbors—its reefs are nonetheless showing increasing signs of bleaching and dying. Scientists are not entirely sure what is causing this devastating phenomenon, though they suspect a combination of changing ocean temperatures, disease, boating, and overfishing.

When it comes to our planet, bad news seems to wash over us every time we peruse the news. And yet, here is a picture book which gives us a bit of hope, offering a powerful reminder that individuals can and are making a positive difference in protecting our natural resources. In The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs (Ages 7-10), by Kate Messner, gorgeously illustrated by Matthew Forsythe, we are introduced to the living legacy of Ken Nedimeyer, a pioneer who has dedicated his life to coral restoration. It’s a true story of passion, curiosity, investigation, collaboration, and success. It’s a story of hammers and chisels and glue—tools not normally associated with the ocean. It’s a story of possibility.

The Brilliant Deep begins by teaching us a bit about coral spawning, which happens on the night following a full moon. (Did you know that coral spawns? I did not.) On this night, millions of tiny lives are released into the water—“swirl[ing] like a snow globe”—and, while few will survive hungry fish and strong currents, it only takes one nestling into the perfect spot on the shallow ocean floor to grow into an entire coral reef.

Ken Nedimyer came of age during the idealistic era of space travel, when his father worked as a NASA engineer and when anything seemed possible. And yet, Ken was drawn, not to the galaxies above, but to the mysterious world below. He watched TV shows about Jacques Cousteau, learned to scuba dive among the reefs of the Florida Keys, and lined his bedroom with aquariums.

Ken especially wondered about the coral.

They painted the ocean floor fire red and murky gold. How could the reefs grow so large? What made all the different colors and shapes? How could such tiny creatures build such elaborate homes of rock?

But then, as he got older, Ken began witnessing what we did last year in Belize: the corals were losing their color. The fish were decreasing. “Ken watched his favorite place in the world fade away. The reefs were dying, and it seemed like there was nothing he could do to save them.”

As an adult, Ken began operating a rock farm—raising rocks covered with algae, mollusks, and other invertebrates which could be used to filter saltwater aquariums—when it dawned on him that these rocks might be used on the ocean floor to attract staghorn coral spawn. If a coral grew on one of his rocks, he was legally entitled to manipulate it. Enlisting the help of his daughter, Ken began a lifelong project of siphoning off pieces of coral from his rocks, affixing them to other rocks, and creating “coral colonies” which could then be used to rejuvenate dying reefs throughout the ocean.

In the luminous pages which follow, we watch this fascinating, painstaking work unfold, tentatively at first, then later backed by “an army of volunteers,” as part of the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Eventually, the rock farms transformed into underwater nurseries built from metal structures adorned with coral fragments. Ken’s group went on to plant tens of thousands of coral colonies on reefs in the Florida Keys, and the book explains that he is now working to empower other countries with this knowledge. My children were quick to point out that we had seen nurseries like these when we were snorkeling—and they were right. Towards the end of our time snorkeling, our guide had swum us over what looked like miniature coral farms. My only regret is that we hadn’t yet read this book, so we never got to ask if this work was indeed inspired by the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Time and again, The Brilliant Deep returns to the power of one, as witnessed in both nature and human life: one spawning, one colony, one dedicated individual. It takes just one to grow something new. It takes just one to set in motion a chain of events. It takes just one to make a difference. Kate Messner’s excellent backmatter directs young readers to specific ways they can follow in Ken’s footsteps and make an impact on coral rejuvenation; but the takeaway is also broader than that. We only get one shot at this planet. Best to harness Ken’s example and direct our passion and creativity into ensuring the beauty is never allowed to die.

Did you enjoy 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 Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy from Chronicle Books. 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!

Taking Up Space (A Black History Month Post)

February 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

In her modern dance classes, my daughter cherishes above all the few minutes devoted to “sparkle jumps.” One by one, the dancers crisscross the studio at a run. As each one reaches the middle, she explodes into a leap, arms reaching up and out, head tall, like the points of a star. For one perfect moment, my daughter takes up as much space as her little body will allow.

“I love watching you take up space,” I tell her.

Taking up space is sometimes perceived in our society as a nuisance. Even the expression has soured in our language; we say it about someone whose obstinate presence doesn’t seem to be offering anything of value.

But taking up space is power. I’m here, and I have as much a right to be seen and heard as you do. It is also a privilege. A privilege which comes with freedom. A privilege denied to those in bondage. A privilege denied to those who may be free on paper, but who still live under the shadow of oppression.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom (Ages 7-10) is a portrait of a woman who devoted her life to the fight to take up space—and to make sure that space mattered. Lyrically presented by Gary D. Schmidt (who, coincidentally, wrote last week’s middle-grade book) and powerfully illustrated by Daniel Minter, the book is a provocative exploration, not only of Sojourner Truth’s self-emancipation from slavery and crusade to speak out about human rights, but also of the tenuous connection between self-dignity and physical presence.

I asked my eleven year old to pick a word to describe this book. “Intriguing,” he said. He is spot on. So Tall Within is a prime example of a picture book biography targeted at the older elementary child. A book with layers of meaning. A book well researched, offering occasional citations from some of Sojourner’s own writings and speeches. A book whose illustrations invite endless discussion. A book which should be allowed to take up space of its own.

The striking cover of this picture book biography casts Sojourner as an old woman—an erect and imposing figure, the luminous blue of her clothes and glasses contrasting the bronze of the fields behind her, like a clear water basin on a hot, dusty day. One hand wraps around her walking stick, a nod to the final third of the book, which addresses the thousands of miles Sojourner traversed on foot across fifteen years to speak out about the injustices of slavery and the importance of equal rights for African-Americans. The title reads So Tall Within, but it is clear that Sojourner’s inner strength extends to the way she is seen on the outside.

But Sojourner’s imposing presence was earned, not birthed. In fact, it’s fascinating to observe the subtle ways in which Sojourner’s body is painted throughout this story of her life.

Born a slave named Isabella, she “lived in a cellar where the windows never let the sun in and the floorboards never kept the water out.” Her body is small, almost collapsed upon itself, as she perches on a stool—and yet, a careful reader will note the broom in her hand, evocative of the walking stick she will adopt in her free years.

When she is eleven, Isabella is sold “for a hundred dollars—along with a flock of sheep” and never sees her mother again. Here, her body is painted with an almost ghost-like transparency against the brown, dusty background. And yet, her head is erect, her profile distinguished, as it is throughout much of the book—a nod to her mother, who encouraged Isabella to keep her gaze on the stars and the moon, under which her family would always be together. “Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters.”

Isabella has several masters over the years—her final a man named Mr. Dumont in New York State, “who bragged that Isabella could ‘do a good family’s washing in the night, and be ready in the morning to go to the field.’” The illustration accompanying the page where he orders Isabella to marry a slave named Thomas and birth five children is one of the few instances where Sojourner’s face is undistinguished, her features blurred. It is as if her corporeality is literally disappearing alongside her lack of agency. Even her children are mere shadows, like many other slaves pictured throughout the book.

Isabella takes her emancipation into her own hands after Mr. Dumont refuses to honor his promise to free her a year before all slaves in New York were required to be freed by law. “…[T]he summer came and the summer passed. ‘Oh,’ thought Isabella, ‘I have felt as if I could not live.’ So that fall, after the work of the harvest was done, she held baby Sophia close and seized Freedom with her own hands.” She takes refuge with a white couple, who protect her and pay Mr. Dumont for her release when he eventually tracks her down.

Isabella may be a free woman, but she doesn’t transform into the indomitable figure we know today until she begins to stand against the oppression of others. The turning point comes when she learns Mr. Dumont has illegally sold her five-year-old son, Peter, across state lines. “Isabelle traveled miles and miles across New York to Kingston to tell her story to the Grand Jury. They saw how tall within she was. They gave her a letter for the sheriff, demanding that Peter be brought home. She took the letter and walked miles and miles back.” There, in front of the jury and against the backdrop of the Constitution, our protagonist begins to take up more space.

A legal win won’t necessarily correct a human wrong. Isabella learns of the devastating abuse suffered by her son at the hands of his slave owner, wounds from which he will never fully recover. As the Author’s Note elaborates, mother and son will eventually become estranged. This spread is one of the most upsetting in the book—there is little to separate the embracing mother and child from a landscape splattered by what looks like blood-tinged mud—and a powerful visual for our children to witness. “‘What is this slavery,’ wondered Isabella, ‘that it can do such dreadful things?’”

From here emerges the Sojourner we know, who adopts her new name meaning “journey” and begins to “tell the truth about Slavery.” In one illustration after another, she begins to assert a new physical presence. She stands in front of a crowd of people and stretches out her arms. She stands opposite Abraham Lincoln, her erectness matching his. She thrusts out her hand at an oncoming streetcar, after it refuses to stop for her because of the color of her skin.

I haven’t even told you my favorite thing about this book. In So Tall Within, with each transition, almost like mini chapter headings, Schmidt shares a line of poetic text beginning “In Slavery Time” (and, eventually, “In Freedom Time”), which is accompanied by a vertical painting, distinct in feel from the illustrative style of the rest of the story. These vertical paintings are both arresting and stunning—and would alone be worth the price of this book. In his Artist’s Note, Minter describes these paintings as “loosely planted in the times of legal slavery but that parallel the feeling of struggle in today’s streets—the feeling that you may be buried, but you are surrounded by soil that nourishes you.”

Many of these paintings speak to a kind of elusive or budding corporeality, often with allusions to seeds, roots, and leaves. Sojourner Truth drew tremendous strength and courage from her ancestry and her descendants. She was a living reminder that those who grow strong roots beneath the soil can eventually stretch big and tall above ground.

Sojourner took up space by standing tall, by opening her arms, and by using her powerful, persuasive voice to bring awareness to the injustices of her people and of others. She spoke out about the rights of liberated slaves. About the rights of women. She spoke about making prisons more humane and abolishing capital punishment. She once warned that if anyone tried to stop her, she “would rock the United States like a cradle.” One of the most powerful of Minter’s vertical paintings shows a naked slave man’s back alight with horizontal scars, which look (my daughter was quick to point out) like cursive writing in blood. The image is accompanied by the phrase, “In Slavery Time, when Words seemed weaker than whips,” but it is offset by the picture on the opposite page, which shows a crowd captivated by one of Sojourner’s speeches. Words—especially those reaped from the experience of oppression—can become the most powerful of tools.

We must teach our children to look for the light inside each other. We must encourage our children to celebrate their own unique presence, and we must teach them to create room for those who might need more allowance to find their own light, to direct that light out into the world, and to assume their own powerful space.

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 be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Book published by Roaring Book Press. 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!

Hello, Awards Time!

January 31, 2019 § 1 Comment

This past Monday, I watched and cheered at my computer as the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards were announced (more fun than the Oscars for #kidlit crazies like me). Most parents are familiar with the Caldecott and Newbery medals, but there are quite a few other awards distributed, many to recognize racial, cultural, and gender diversity. Overall, I was pleased to see many of my 2018 favorites come away with shiny gold and silver stickers. At the end of today’s post, I’ll include some of these titles, along with links to what I’ve written about them. (If you’ve been following me on Instagram—if not, I don’t know what you’re waiting for—I’ve been celebrating many of them all week.)

Today, I want to devote some space to Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse, which came away with the Randolph Caldecott Medal, for the “most distinguished American picture book for children.” (It’s actually the second Caldecott for Blackall, who won three years ago for this gem). Hello Lighthouse (Ages 6-9) is one of my very favorites from last year; and yet, I haven’t talked about it until now. Why is that? Perhaps because the art in this book is so endlessly fascinating, my observations continue to evolve with every read. I suppose I’ve been at a loss for words.

My children have returned to this book many times, too, although their initial reactions persist. My daughter loves the idea of living in a lighthouse, while my son thinks it sounds like a most terrifying pursuit (“Do you think the waves really get as big as that?” he says, every single time.) One can gleam quite a bit about their differing personalities from these reactions.

Growing up in Manhattan, one of my favorite pastimes was to walk four blocks uptown to the Museum of the City of New York, climb the marble staircase, and gaze inside the miniature rooms of historic dollhouses, decorated in various styles from the first half of the twentieth century (only the well-known Stettheimer Dollhouse still remains). It wasn’t just the old-fashioned décor—the ornate porcelain table settings with tiny silver forks; the canopied beds with imposing walnut posts—that captivated me. It was the romantic notion of seeing into another world—a perfectly ordered one at that—and imagining what it would be like to inhabit these rooms from a distant time.

This memory was the first thing that came to mind when I opened Hello Lighthouse. The story itself is an (equally romanticized) window into life inside a lighthouse, back when lighthouses were operated by human keepers, who lived out their days ascending and descending these narrow circular towers miles from civilization, before their job was rendered obsolete by automation. As Blackall reveals in her fascinating Afterward, she spent years researching and visiting historic North American lighthouses, from New York to Newfoundland. Her passion for the subject matter radiates from every spread in the spectacular end result we hold in our hands.

Beginning with its tall, narrow trim size, Hello Lighthouse is an homage to these beacons of light, there “sentinels” standing guard and guiding ships around dangerous rocks. But it is also an homage to the life of a lighthouse keeper. To the discipline, the danger, and the loneliness. To the magnificent, changeable beauty which comes from the sea and the sky. To the light which must always be kept burning.

In the book’s early pages, the (fictional) keeper lives alone. We watch how he passes his days, steadfast in his near-constant rituals of polishing the lens, refilling the oil, trimming the wick, winding the clockwork, logging the book. Idle time is spent giving the walls a fresh coat of paint (in the Afterward, Blackall mentions how frequently interior walls needed to be repainted, given the wear and tear of the salty air), embroidering, boiling water, or “fish[ing] for cod from the window.” For correspondence, he pens letters, folds them into bottles, and throws them into the water to traverse the seas.

The letters, as it turns out, are for his wife, who arrives one day by tender (along with the predictable shipment of oil, flour, pork, and beans) and is shimmied up the rocks to the base of the lighthouse by means of a cable and pulley. That night, when the keeper “tends the light and writes in the logbook,” he also “sets the table for two.”

These everyday moments might feel mundane to the lighthouse keeper, but they become positively enchanting when viewed—like the dollhouses of my childhood—through Blackall’s circular windows, which populate many of the exquisite spreads. But the real wonder of Hello Lighthouse is the way Blackall nudges us from the passive to the active, from peeker to participant. At every turn, she infuses her illustrations—Chinese ink and watercolor on hot-press paper—with an exuberance of movement. This movement on the page is so encompassing, so effective, that we as viewers cannot help but experience in our own bodies some of what it was like to inhabit a lighthouse. To face off against the elements. To reside all day and night in cramped, narrow, circular spaces.

To begin with, there’s the movement of the wind and waves, the external forces acting upon the lighthouse at different times of day, in different seasons. Even on calm days, Blackall’s brushwork makes the water ripple on the page. In the fiercest of storms, the waves toss shipwrecked bodies and remind us of the dangerous rescues a lighthouse keeper must sometimes perform.

Then there is the circular movement of the lighthouse’s interior, where circular rooms are populated by circular shapes like rugs, candles, and bowls. There is the movement of the spiral staircase, which takes its inhabitants from the bottom of the lighthouse to the top, then down again, all day long. In one of my kids’ favorite spreads—one that purposely produces in the reader an almost vertiginous effect—Blackall manages to show both the keeper, ill and bedridden in his bedroom of circles, and his wife, running up and down the spiral staircase to tend to her husband and the lighthouse “all at once.” (This spread is also an homage to the many women who served as lighthouse keepers, another point Blackall makes in the Afterward.)

In one of my favorite spreads—perhaps best appreciated by one who has herself been pregnant—the circle is invoked as a symbol of the wife’s labor, a labor which has her walking in seemingly endless circles, as her husband “boils water and helps her breathe in—and out” (and, of course, still “tends the light and writes in the logbook”).

Blackall occasionally startles us with an absence of movement, like when ice encapsulates the water around the lighthouse. This spread feels almost eerily still, sitting as it does in such contrast to the others. And yet, there is still movement to be discerned: the lamp continues to radiate its light out into the stillness.

Fittingly, Blackall also gives us a tiny window into what life would have been like for a child inside the lighthouse. The couple’s child, now two or so, sits perched on a circular rope rug, surrounded by a ring of model boats and her working parents. The child looks happy enough, but we know enough of the daily reality of this lighthouse to imagine it would be challenging growing up in such close quarters. The coast guard’s forthcoming arrival with a new automated motor for the lighthouse seems perfectly timed. It is the changing of the guard, only out with the human and in with the machine. The child will get to watch the lighthouse, not from within its circular rooms, but from her new home across the shore. (And I don’t dare ruin the final few spreads for you.)

Hello Lighthouse is escapism at its best, painting an unfamiliar world, then inviting us to step inside and get to know every corner as if it were our own.

Other 2019 YMA Award Winners That I’ve Loved AND Reviewed:

Picture Books:

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, by Grace Lin (Caldecott Honor)

 

Julian is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love (Stonewall Book Award, for an “English-language children’s book of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience”)

 

Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales (Pura Belpre Award, “honoring a Latinx writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience”); I haven’t reviewed it, but it’s ah-ma-zing.

 

Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories, by Sergio Ruzzier (Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor, for “most distinguished early reader book”)

 

Islandborn, by Junot Diaz, illus. Leo Espinosa (Pura Belpre Honor)

 

All-of-a-Kind-Family Hanukkah, by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O’Zelinsky (Sydney Taylor Book Award)

 

Chapter Books:

Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina (John Newbery Medal); link is to my Instagram review

 

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani (Newbery Honor)

 

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, by Ashley Herring Blake (Stonewall Book Honor)

 

 

The Season of Styx Malone, by Kekla Magoon (Coretta Scott King Honor, “recognizing an African-American author of outstanding books for children”); link is to my Instagram review

 

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier (Sydney Taylor Award, “presented to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience”)

 

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang (Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature)

 

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 be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Hello Lighthouse published by Little, Brown and 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!

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!

A Love Letter to Florence

July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.

I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.

(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)

In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)

In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.

If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.

A bit of the magic had followed us home.

In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.

The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.

One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).

“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.

In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.

Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.

“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.

It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.

What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.

The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.

DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.

Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.

Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.

Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice

It was also a big plus that JP read Rick Riordan’s fiction series about the Greek and Roman gods prior to the trip. A little Old Testament review would also have been nice!


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

A Father Worth His Weight (in Pheasants)

June 18, 2017 § 2 Comments

When I was around the same age my children are now, my father used to play Kick the Can with my sister and me in the backyard after dinner on summer nights. Sweaty and exhausted—and probably owing to the giant glass of milk my mother insisted we drink with dinner—the time would predictably come when I would have to go to the bathroom. I would be crouched in my hiding position behind a bush, trying to keep quiet, but mostly trying not to pee. I could easily have run inside, used the bathroom, and come out again. But I didn’t dare. I would rather have hopped about, wincing with every step, risking an accident (and there were some)—all because I never wanted these moments to end. I never wanted to break the spell. The only thing better than the anticipation of my father coming home was the joy of being with him.

I lost my father when I was eighteen—much too young, by all accounts. And yet, the experience of being with my dad still feels as tangible to me as if it took place yesterday. As a parent now myself—one more tired and distracted and grumpy than I sometimes care to admit—what impresses most upon me is how my father seemed when he was with us. He was not merely present when we were together. He delighted in our presence.

My father’s eyes would twinkle as he’d sit across from us over grilled cheeses at the pavilion in the park, and they would widen when we brought him handfuls of chestnuts. His head would lean in as I described every detail of my day and roll back only for a conspiratorial chuckle. He genuinely seemed as excited to read aloud each night as I was to listen (to this day, I cannot read the Little House on the Prairie series with my children without thinking of him). Though I knew sometimes his work would take him overseas or far into the night, I never questioned for a second that he would rather be with us.

Of course, such is the bias of a child who loves her father and thinks he can do no wrong.

“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.” So begins the second chapter of Danny the Champion of the World (Ages 8-12), a story by Roald Dahl starring quite possibly the sweetest and most unusual father-son relationship in children’s literature. (Am I really still talking about Roald Dahl? YES. Yes, I am. And that is because, while at first our favorite was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then it was Matilda, and then it was James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and The Witches, the thing about Roald Dahl is that every one becomes the new favorite. Plus, I’m frantic to think you might not know about Danny the Champion of the World—because I didn’t. And it is FABULOUS. And outlandish. And hysterical. And heartwarming beyond words.)

The first few chapters of Danny the Champion of the World read as an incredibly touching tribute to a single father—something rarely dwelt on in children’s literature—as seen through the eyes of his adoring son. The two share an intimate world, both physically and emotionally. They live in a single-roomed, 150-year-old gypsy caravan, parked behind the filling station which serves as the family business (Danny’s mother died when he was just four months old). Rather than complain of his scanty, isolated accommodations, Danny relishes the closeness his house brings him to his “smiling-eyes” father—and to the wildly entertaining stories which his father spins for him each night (including one your kids will be quick to recognize from a previous Roald Dahl book).

It is impossible to tell you how much I loved my father. When he was sitting close to me on my bunk, I would reach out and slide my hand into his, and then he would fold his long fingers around my fist, holding it tight.

Danny’s father isn’t just a comforting presence and a keen storyteller: he’s also an eccentric, unpredictable, and endlessly fascinating plotter—and it is this quality which endears him as fervently to us readers as it does to our young hero. Who wouldn’t like to imagine himself the son of this quirky, fun-loving man? “It was impossible to be bored in my father’s company…plots and plans and new ideas came flying off him like sparks from a grindstone.” Danny’s father trains Danny “from birth” to be a mechanic, to take apart engines and put them back together. They make and fly kites which soar miles above the ground and “fire balloons” which levitate like lanterns in the dark night. With only the materials around them, they make tree houses and stilts and boomerangs and even a giant soapbox car with a real working engine. And all this before Danny turns nine and our real story begins.

While they may be narrated through Danny’s adoring eyes, these scenes create the unmistakable impression that Danny’s father enjoys being with his son every bit as much as his son enjoys being with him. He delights in tinkering, inventing, playing, and laughing alongside him. This is what makes him so special as a father.

This is also what makes him decide to let Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life”—and here is where a seemingly simple story about a father and son takes a wild and wacky turn (lest you forget this is a Roald Dahl book). The father, as it turns out, has a long history with—and a very heated passion for—the sublegal sport of pheasant poaching. What the what, you say? Pheasant poaching (which, I might add, is a real thing in Britain, even to this day) involves sneaking onto the property of wealthy, stuffy landowners, who stock their backyard trees with expensive pheasants for fancy-pants shooting parties, and stealthily making off with said pheasants in the dead of night. (Roald Dahl never misses an opportunity to subvert the Upperclass.)

“You mean stealing them?” I said, aghast.
“We don’t look at it that way,” my father said. “Poaching is an art. A great poacher is a great artist.”
…I was shocked. My own father a thief! This gentle, lovely man! I couldn’t believe he would go creeping into the woods at night to poach valuable birds belonging to somebody else.

Danny is even more horrified to discover this sport is also highly dangerous, bringing with it the risk of “poacher’s bottom” from the armed “keepers” hired to guard the pheasants. (Again, only in a Roald Dahl book.)

…”You’ve missed the point, Danny boy! You’ve missed the whole point! Poaching is such a fabulous and exciting sport that once you start doing it, it gets into your blood and you can’t give it up.”

In subsequent chapters, as Danny’s father invokes his storytelling prowess to describe the “secret methods” used by him and his own father over the years to catch pheasants—one called “The Horsehair Stopper,” involving soaked raisins strung on single strands of horsehair, another aimed at getting a pheasant to stick its beak into a sticky paper hat—we understand all too well why Danny begins to soften to the idea. Heck, we are softening. My kids are looking at me out of the corner of their eyes like, Mom, are you really reading this to us? Is this even OK? And PLEASE GO ON.

(Don’t worry: no pheasants suffer in the telling of this book. I’m not saying they don’t end up as dinner.)

Ultimately, though, Danny becomes determined to join the fun when he discovers the target of his father’s next pheasant poaching plot. The wealthy landowner Mr. Victor Hazell is not only a “roaring snob,” but he has a history of making nasty, disparaging comments to Danny and his father when bringing his Rolls-Royce to the filling station for a tune up. What’s worse, Mr. Hazell has been plotting to drive Danny and his father out of town for years, desperate to get his hands on their tiny piece of land to complete his massive estate.

Oh, so he’s a bad guy. That’s why it’s OK to steal his pheasants. Heck, it’s better than OK. Let’s get on with it! (This is classic Roald Dahl logic. We can’t help it. We’re all in.)

The last 150 pages—three fourths of the novel—are equal parts hilarious and hair-raising, as father and son cook up and attempt to carry out the most elaborate, unlikely, and daring (nonviolent) plot to poach Mr. Hazell’s 120 pheasants and share them with their working-class neighbors. I would never dare spoil the spoils for you and your children. All I will say is: you will never see it coming.

But amidst pheasants swaddled in baby carriages and our own Danny high tailing an “Austin 7” in a police chase, it remains the relationship between Danny and his father which steals the show: this beautiful, joyful dance between two people who love each other unconditionally, who would journey to the moon and back if it meant being together.

Pheasant poaching might seem a hard act to follow, but Danny wants us to know it’s just one of many wondrous things comprising daily life with his dad (it just happens to make a particularly great story). As the two come down from the high of their mission, dangling their feet off the front step of their cozy caravan (which, by the way, my kids haven’t stopped talking about wanting to live in), they dream about catching trout in a nearby stream and buying an electric oven and making sandwiches for lunch.

And after that?
There would be something else after that.
And after that?
Ah yes, and something else again.
Because what I am trying to tell you…
What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without a doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.

When our parent delights in us as much as we delight in him (or her)—well, we feel for a moment like the Champion of the World. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who share their craftiness, their playfulness, their goofiness, and their mischief-making with their children. And to my own dad, I’ll never forget how much fun we had.

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

Motherhood is Not a Finish Line

May 11, 2017 § 8 Comments

Last week, I was at Trader Joe’s buying flowers for my daughter, who would have the unique opportunity of performing at the Kennedy Center that evening with her community choir. My head was spinning while I was waiting in line to pay, going down the mental checklist of what needed to happen before heading to the concert hall (iron Emily’s uniform, print the parking pass, get the snacks together, etc.). Suddenly, the checkout woman interrupted my train of thought. “These flowers are such a gorgeous orange,” she remarked. I halfheartedly explained that the flowers were for my daughter, that she had a performance that night, and that orange was her favorite color. “These little joys make parenting so worth it,” she mused. “Yes,” I agreed, assuming she was talking about my being in the audience in a few hours. “It’s going to be so exciting.”

“Oh, I’m sure the performance will be great,” she replied, “but I was talking about getting to pick out flowers for your little girl.”

D’oh.

Once again, as a mother, I had found myself at the bottom of that all-too-tempting rabbit hole, of letting my “to do” list eclipse any opportunities for joy in the moment. What could have been a moment of delicious anticipation—and, really, I had deliberated over my flower choice at length—had quickly turned into checking off one more task before the minutes ran out and I had to pick up my kids from school. What could have been a moment of gratitude—to have the occasion to buy these flowers, the time to do so, the money to do so—was lost in a feeling of obligation. What could have been a moment of love and pride and affection was lost in a flurry of distraction.

As I was driving away from the store with my flowers, I caught the tail end of a rebroadcasted Ted Talk by a man who undertook a daring 1,800-mile journey on foot to the South Pole. To Ben Saunders’ surprise—and after nearly starving to death—he came to realize that his own personal reward came less from the completion of his goal than from the journey itself. “Happiness is not a finish line,” he says in the talk. “And if we can’t feel content on our journeys, amid the mess and the striving, then we might never feel it.”

If happiness isn’t a finish line, then neither is parenting. And yet, too often—amid the sleep deprivation, the academic struggles, the phases which seem to start and stop faster than we can count and yet feel terrifyingly permanent when they’re happening—we experience parenting as if it were one giant race. We may inherently understand that our time with our young children is short (and if we don’t, Facebook will remind us), but each time we find ourselves running to Target to replace some article of clothing which is suddenly too short, we’re too busy to realize we’re chasing after something we’ll never overtake.

Included in a short but I hope ever-growing list, there are two things I can almost always count on as a mother to return me to the moment. The first, you will not be surprised to learn, is reading aloud. When I’m reading to my children (something great, that is), time stands still, my mental checklist falls away, and the only thing that matters is delighting together in the words as they come off the page and enfold us in their spell.

The second is snuggling. My firstborn is not by nature a cuddler (though he has warmed to it over time), so perhaps the universe knew I needed a second child in order to get my cuddling fix. In this, Emily has never disappointed. I can be mentally a thousand miles away, but when she climbs in next to me in bed in the early morning, when she puts the back of her soft little hand against my cheek and places her nose where I can’t resist kissing those five tiny freckles, there is no place I’d rather be.

This is all to say that I can relate to each of the animal mothers in the darling new picture book, Mama’s Kisses (Ages 1-4), who are eager and ready to bestow kisses and cuddles on their young brood at bedtime. My kids may be too old for this book (stop it, just stop it!), but it nevertheless charmed every ounce of my maternal being. With spot-on rhyming by Kate McMullan (whose I Stink will forever be imprinted on JP’s second year of life) and whimsically but unsentimentally illustrated by Tao Nyeu (whose abstract orchestration of orange and blue began in this favorite), Mama’s Kisses is a rollicking seek-and-find jungle adventure.

When Mama’s Kisses opens, four mama animals are conversing (and sewing and knitting) in the foreground, while their little ones make mischief in the background. All the words in the book are spoken by the mothers. “Sun’s going down./ Moon’s on the rise./ Let’s find our babies./ And sing lullabies./ They must be yawning./ Sweet sleepyheads./ Our tired babies!/ We’ll put them to bed.”

The joke’s on the mamas (although older children will quickly realize they’ve been in on it the whole time), because the presupposed sleepy little leopard, panda, orangutan, and elephant are in fact frolicking, singing, and marching about with wild abandon. Even more, when they hear the STOMP STOMP STOMP STOMP of their mamas, the young animals quickly sneak off under giant banyan leaves, take playful plunges into the nearby water hole, and then don feathered disguises.

One by one, each mama delivers a soft, sweet invocation to her child (I should be so eloquent when I try to get my own children to leave the park).

Come now, my leopard,
All spotted and pepperered,
Tomorrow you’ll pounce,
You’ll roar and you’ll race.

These invocations don’t exactly have the desired effect (McMullan understands what it’s like to be a parent), so the mamas have to do some playful pouncing of their own—in the form of a good-humored Sneak Attack.

My favorite part of the story then arrives, as each mama curls up with her little one. Four more invocations follow—each given its due in beautiful double page spreads—and these rhymes at last prove irresistible in their power to make sleepyheads submit to mama’s kisses.

Rock-a-bye bear cub,
Come closer now, scootch
So Mama can land
A Panda bear smooch.
         MWWWWAH!

Rock-a-bye fuzzy,
Don’t squirm like a bug.
Here comes a great big
Orangutan hug.
         MMMMMM-UMM!

Watching my daughter sing on stage last week was wonderful, but it wasn’t even the best part of the night. Still thinking about my exchange at Trader Joe’s earlier in the day, I tried my darndest to soak up every moment of the before and after. I delighted in the way Emily ran up and down the terrace under an enormous blue sky in her break between rehearsing and performing; I snuck peaks at her serious face doing breathing warmups with her fellow choristers; and I gathered her up in the biggest, smoochiest, longest hug when, after it was all over (even though it was well past bedtime, and I was eager to take up my post in front of some adult TV), we walked into her bedroom together and she squealed as she saw the vase of bright orange gerber daisies on her dresser.

Happy Mother’s Day to my fellow mamas, my fellow runners of the Great Race that we can’t be faulted for sometimes mistaking for motherhood. May we all just remember to spend a little more time smelling the roses along the way.

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

Morality, Martyrdom, & Murderous Marauders (Yup, for Kids)

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam GidwitzIf the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.

Let me back up.

Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.

Until now.

Enter Adam Gidwitz, formerly known for his deliciously dark (and darkly humorous) retelling of traditional fairy tales in his bestselling middle-grade trilogy A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12). Ever since I first read his essay “In Defense of Real Fairy Tales,” I have known Gidwitz to be someone dedicated to giving kids, not only what their hearts desire, but what their psyches need.

Now, Gidwitz has taken his unique talent for combining blood and gore with the deeply personal and morally inquisitive and turned it on the Middle Ages in The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog) (Ages 11-16).

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Let me just say that THIS IS THE MOST DARING WORK OF CHILDREN’S FICTION I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Never mind that Gidwitz fashions his story in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where oral narratives are delivered over pints of ale by an innkeeper, a chronicler, a librarian, a troubadour, a jongleur, a nun and, ultimately, the Inquisitor himself—each picking up where the other leaves off. Never mind that the book is gorgeously illustrated in the style of an illuminated manuscript by the Egyptian-born Hatem Aly. Those things are just icing on the cake. It’s what Gidwitz does inside the story that’s utterly mind-blowing.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

The Inquisitor’s Tale reveals so many twists and turns, takes so many thematic and narrative risks, that it would feel like whiplash if it wasn’t so riveting. Did a young monk just yank off his donkey’s leg, use it to club to death a band of murderous bandits, and then magically reattach it? Did three children just watch their guardian throw himself in protest onto a pyre of Jewish books being burned on the whim of a Christian king? Did a boy just cure a lactose-intolerant dragon of his deadly farts by feeding him rotted sheep flesh so he would puke up a “long, goopy train of yellow liquid”?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Are three children and a troubadour actually sitting around in a children’s book debating the question, “Why would God make bad things happen?” And actually coming up with answers both profound and humorous?

Cut to my JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

Gidwitz’s book may be a suspenseful, swashbuckling tale of epic proportions, but it is also an intimate window into the souls of the three French children who star in it. Given the clashes in class and religion which permeate every aspect of thirteenth-century society, these children should by all accounts have no reason even to meet, much less form an alliance."The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Jeanne is a lowly peasant girl, desperate to hide her prophetic fits lest she be accused of sorcery and burned at the stake. She is trailed by her loyal white greyhound, Gwenforte, who has died and come back to life (yup). Jacob is a Jewish boy, possessed with magical healing powers from the night he narrowly escapes his village after it is set on fire by Christian peasant boys. William is an orphaned and oddly large oblate (monk-in-training), recently expelled from the monastery where he grew up ridiculed for his supernatural strength and his part-African-Muslim heritage.

Where their class and religion should divide them, the children instead come together over something they have in common: they are all outcasts. Their births would put them in one place, but their abilities prevent them from staying there. A great debate runs through the story: Are the children saints? Should they martyr themselves? And what do these two things even mean?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Ironically, more than their powers, it is the children’s vulnerability which shapes them. As they share their pasts and discuss their belief systems with one another, as they watch strangers react differently to each of them, they begin to question the entrenched divisions of their society. They begin to analyze and critique their own faiths, to ask some of the most difficult and universal of questions about the meaning of life and our role in it. What does doing the right thing look like? And is it worth the expense?

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

By luck or by fate, the three children come up against the central conflict of the story: the planned burning at the order of King Louis IX of all the Talmuds in France, the sacred Hebrew text at the heart of Judaism. During the high Middle Ages, these reproductions were vehemently guarded by Jewish leaders—book printing a painstaking labor of love whereby each page is hand copied—and there were many documented attempts by Christian rulers to obtain and destroy them for the threat to Christianity they believed they possessed. (Never mind that the children discover the central message of the Talmud—“What you would hate to have done to you—do not do to other people”—ironically aligns with the Golden Rule of Christianity—“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Go think on that, kids and grown people.)

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

With the help of “a mountain of flesh, with red hair and bristling whiskers and reddish eyes” named Michelangelo di Bologna, the children stage a plot to save the Talmuds and preserve the Jewish teachings. In doing so, they end up in a climactic showdown with royalty and knights on a battleground of quicksand, against the backdrop of the reverent Mont-Saint-Michel on the outskirts of Paris.

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Had I been exposed as a child to anything approximating Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, would I have grown up with a different appreciation for the Middle Ages? HECK YES! I might have even gone on to study religion and philosophy with fervid passion.

As Gidwitz explains in his equally fascinating fourteen-page Author’s Note, his story is meticulously researched, the product of a year spent in Europe with his wife, herself a professor of the Middle Ages. Many of the figures and events in the book are real (King Louis IX; Talmuds burning in Paris; even Gwenforte is based on a real Holy Greyhound, to my son’s delight), and many others are based on legends of the Middle Ages. All of these parallels are so enticingly explained that I actually exclaimed, “God’s wounds! If only I could go back to school and study this!” (We’re well-versed in medieval swearing now—I highly recommend it.) To which JP replied: “No, Mommy, we need you here. But, don’t worry, I’ll learn it and tell you everything.” Looks like I’ll have to make do with the extensive annotated bibliography at the book’s end.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Again and again, Gidwitz shows us that things are not what they seem, that people cannot be dismissed by the circumstances of their birth, and that actions speak louder than words. (Also: “A hug from a child! Perhaps God’s greatest invention!”) At the book’s conclusion, the children broach the subject of martyrdom with their mentor, Michelangelo, worried that he foresees sacrificial death in their future. Instead, Michelangelo asks William for the Latin definition of “martyr.” The boy replies, “witness,” and Michelangelo responds:

Correct. And have you not already witnessed on behalf of goodness and beauty and justice and God? To Louis and Blanche and dozens of others? Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness—against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world. Yes, children, you will be martyrs. Just as you have always been.

Children may save us all in the end.

In fact, it has always been children—their innocence, their purity, their innate goodness—who offer the most hope, who possess the greatest power to reach across the divides, to stop the destructive cycle of prejudice and persecution, and to open their hearts to love and acceptance.

I only hope we adults will start watching them a little more closely.

GREAT NEWS: Blessedly, The Inquisitor’s Tale will be with us for the long haul, as earlier this week it was awarded the prestigious Newberry Honor by the American Library Association! The other award recipients are similarly mature and daring, with the Newberry Medal going to Kelly Barnhill’s spellbinding dark fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and another Honor going to Lauren Wolk’s haunting and deeply resonant Wolf Hollow (my favorite book of 2016—read my post from last summer here). Do our children have any idea how lucky they are to be growing up at a time when children’s authors are taking off the handcuffs, expanding the literary landscape, and breaking rules all over the place? (Probably not, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

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Book published by Dutton Children’s Books. 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!

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!

God of Summer

June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

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

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

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

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

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

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

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

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

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

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

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

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

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

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

2015 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Lunar Lover

December 8, 2015 § 3 Comments

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" and "Thank You and Good Night"In my 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, I ran a post dedicated to parents desperate for a break from incessant nightly rounds of Goodnight, Gorilla. It strikes me that the two books that I’m discussing today (Ages 2-5) would line up beautifully alongside those others. They are perfect bedtime stories. They are perfect for reading every single night (because, trust me, that’s what you’ll be doing). They are quintessentially sweet, dear, and innocent. And if, after reading them, you want to clutch them to your own chest, I promise not to tell.

We begin with Ida Pearle’s stunning The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House (Ages 2-5). Shhhh, I know I’m not supposed to pick favorites, but if I were to call out the illustrations of only one book this year, it would be this. Brooklyn-based Ida Pearle has got to be one of the most evocative children’s artists today, using her talents in figurative drawing and cut-paper collage (her choice of papers, many of them Italian or Japanese-designed, is sheer eye candy) to produce something at once charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly modern. In my old store in Chicago, we used to display and sell Pearle’s wall prints. I’m positively giddy that her art is finding a more accessible expression now in picture books (Caldecott Committee, are you listening?).

Pearle’s subject—the moon—is a common one in children’s literature. For good reason. Since my children first started to become aware of the world beyond their fingertips, they have been fascinated with the moon (remember this?). Even now at eight and five years of age, they will interrupt whatever conversation we are having in the car to exclaim exuberantly, “Look, there’s the moon!” They feel a personal, intimate relationship with this glowing sphere that seems to follow us as we drive up and down and around our neighborhood streets. Apparently, they are not alone in feeling this way.

Pearle’s book is reminiscent of an older favorite in our house—Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay’s I Took the Moon for a Walk—where the young narrator pays homage to the way the moon seems to keep step with him as he walks home one evening. In The Moon is Going to Addy’s House, the child’s journey has a more contemporary context, immensely relatable to children, as Addy travels by car from a friend’s house in the city (“Addy, your play date is over,” calls Mama. “It’s time to go home!”), down the bustling, summertime streets, across a long bridge, and into the rolling hills of her home in the country.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

On each page, as the sky increasingly darkens and the city lights fade away, Addy and her little sister crane their heads to follow the moon. If they lose the moon behind a tree or a cloud or a boulder, it is “only for a moment.”

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

The narrative voice is replete with the naive egocentricity of a young child: The moon was going to my house! Even during bath and pajama time, the moon is never far.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

At last, Addy comes to her favorite moment of the day: “my nighttime dance,” in which she cartwheels through the grass in her pink-footed pajamas against the brilliant backdrop of the moon.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle
Carried inside and tucked into bed by her loving parents, the girl reminds herself of the friendliness of the night. Of the moon (and a family) that “waits and watches over me, always.”

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

"Thank You and Good Night" by Ida PearleThere is similar nighttime romping—albeit of the less picturesque and more adorable kind—in Patrick McDonnell’s Thank You and Good Night (Ages 2-5), a story about a girl named Maggie who hosts a sleepover for her stuffed bunny (Clement) and his two pajama-clad friends, an elephant (Jean) and a bear (Alan Alexander). McDonnell first stole my heart with The Monster’s Monster, and he endows this new story with the same understated affection and gentle humor (including great names).

The three friends are determined to take full advantage of their togetherness: jumping on the bed, playing hide and seek, doing the “chicken dance” followed by restorative yoga poses, wishing on a shooting star, and enjoying a bedtime story that Maggie reads to them.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

Maggie’s relationship with these three animals reminds me of my all-time favorite series for two and three year olds: Polly Dunbar’s books about a girl named Tilly, who lives in a yellow house with a litany of anthropomorphic animals, for whom she is both a silly playmate and a nurturing caregiver. Maggie, like Tilly, is exercising control in an imaginative domain of her own making, entirely outside adult supervision and participation.

Yet, Maggie is just the gentle touch that these animals need to settle down for sleep. As the moon emits its soft light outside the darkened room, Maggie recites a list of things for which they can all be thankful. There are few things that make me want to go back and have kids all over again, to savor those little hands to hold, those little foreheads to kiss. This page is one.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

The sun, the moon,
a red balloon.
Hiding, seeking
fun with friends,
a shooting star wish
that it never ends.
Cozy pajamas,
a happy surprise,
night birds singing
sweet lullabies.
Bedtime stories,
old and new,
read with love,
to me,
by you.

In their own ways, The Moon is Going to Addy’s House and Thank You and Good Night both end on a note of gratitude. Gratitude for companionship and for constancy. They make the listener feel safe. And important. And loved. And they make us parents feel like drawing out those nighttime dances and subsequent snuggles just a little bit longer, to embrace the majesty of the moon and the fleetingness of time—before the sun comes up again.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

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

Fairies (Not Just for Girls)

June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments

"The Night Fairy," by Laura Amy Schlitz“Mommy, can we plant some chives in our garden this summer?” my son asked me earlier this spring. “You know, for the fairies. It turns out they really, really like them.”

This was how I discovered that my seven year old had been spending his recess time, alongside several of his classmates, building fairy houses out of twigs, stones, moss, leaves, and mud; filling them with wild onion stems; and then returning the next day to discover with delight that things were not exactly as they’d left them. This obsession with fairy houses would later move into our own backyard (with the addition of miniature serving plates fashioned from the caps of milk bottles), and the momentum seems only to be building.

I don’t live under a rock, so I’m aware that fairies are EXTREMELY POPULAR. I was just a bit surprised that my skeptical and scientifically-minded son, the same being who reminds me that there is no such thing as witches, wizards, monsters, and dragons; who loves to do a magic trick and then immediately reveal the technique behind it; who appears (with the exception of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) to have his two feet squarely rooted in reality—that this person would suddenly talk about fairies as if they were as ordinary an occurrence as the postal workers walking through our neighborhood. “I don’t have to see a fairy to know they’re real,” he told me. “Just look outside—there are signs everywhere.”

Don’t get me wrong. JP’s belief in fairy magic, in the idea of miniature people living miniature lives amidst the trees and leaves and grass, makes me bubble over with happiness. (Yes! Let’s believe in what we cannot see! Yes! Let’s find more reasons to play in the dirt!). But the best part? My son’s new-found interest presented the perfect excuse to purchase a book that I (shame on me) had been saving for when my daughter got a little bit older.

I’m frequently asked by parents for recommendations of fairy-themed chapter books. This isn’t just because fairy lore is undergoing a kind of comeback (or maybe it never left?). It’s also because, despite the high demand, there is a surprising dearth of quality literary offerings. Yes, I know your daughter is obsessed with the Rainbow Fairies series, for its colorful covers and overtly girly content, but have you tried reading one of those awkwardly-constructed, downright-insipid books aloud? Bleh. Let her read those on her own if she must. In the meantime, do both of you a favor and get your hands on Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy, which is EVERYTHING A FAIRY BOOK SHOULD BE. This is reading aloud at its best.

Since it came out in 2010, The Night Fairy (Ages 5-10, if reading aloud) has become one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Hold the 117-page hardcover in your hands, and you know you are dealing with something special. It’s petite (as a book about a fairy should be); its pages are thick and glossy; and it features exquisite watercolor plates by British illustrator Angela Barrett. But here’s the clincher: the writing is absolutely exquisite. The descriptive passages soar. The action is tight. The multidimensional characters tug at our heartstrings. And—drum roll please—the story is steeped in the natural world, in the world right outside our front door.

"The Night Fairy" by Laura Amy Schlitz

What The Night Fairy does so refreshingly is to yank the subject of fairies out of the realm of fantastical kingdoms and magic wands and froofy dresses—and return it to its humble, delicate origins. When you strip the glitter off the fairies, you end up with a hint of darkness, a touch of danger and mystery and intrigue. Fairies, we learn, might be magical, but—like all living creatures—they are not invulnerable to the threats around them.

There are those who say that fairies have no troubles, but this is not true. Fairies are magical creatures, but they can be hurt—even killed—when they are young and their magic is not strong. Young fairies have no one to take care of them, because fairies make bad parents. Babies bore them. A fairy godmother is an excellent thing, but a fairy mother is a disaster.

Tell me you are not hooked! Alright, you need more? The book’s central character, Flory, is a so-called “night fairy,” meaning that she was born “a little before midnight when the moon was full.” Night fairies, we learn, perform their strongest magic at night, and Flory is further assisted by a pair of sheer, green wings with feathers on the end—“sensing feathers,” which are intended to alert her to approaching danger.

"The Night Fairy" by Laura Amy Schlitz

That’s all well and good, but Flory’s story begins with tragedy. When she is but three months old and smaller than an acorn, a bat mistakes Flory for a luna moth and crunches down on her wings. Flory’s instinct for survival is strong—she may be small, but she has the fight of a lion—and she decides to try life as a daytime creature, seeking solace in the sunshine, as she waits for her wings to grow back.

"The Night Fairy" by Laura Amy Schlitz

The story is packed with Flory’s subsequent adventures, each one born out of the necessity for shelter, food, and protection, and all set in the garden of a bird-loving human (or “giantess,” as the animals call her). Flory weaves rope bridges out of discarded spider webs, wields a thorn as a dagger in the face of an attacking preying mantis, and over time perfects a “stinging spell” to ward off pesky predators.

"The Night Fairy," by Laura Amy Schlitz

On every page, we are treated to the interconnectedness of the natural world: the harmony that comes from each creature playing its part. Flory’s greatest stride in self-preservation comes from a partnership she forges with a hungry squirrel named Skuggle, who agrees to let Flory ride on his back in exchange for her cleverness at releasing seeds from the garden’s many bird feeders.

"The Night Fairy" by Laura Amy Schlitz

Exciting adventures aside, what made the biggest impression on both of my children (hooray, another book that my children enjoyed together!) was Flory’s emotional development across the book. During the first half, Flory is brusque, rude, and bossy in her dealings with others (the narrator gently reminds us that she has no parent to guide her). Her actions are entirely self-serving. And yet, as she begins to appreciate the diversity of her surroundings, her heart begins to soften in empathy for the other creatures in the garden. She learns to forgive. She learns to listen. She even learns to apologize—and to mean it (“She shut her eyes and tried to imagine being sorry. It was hard work, almost like casting a spell.”)

When Flory puts the needs of others before her own, she opens herself up to the possibility of becoming a hero. And, in the book’s nail-biting climax, Flory becomes just that, successfully rescuing a mommy-to-be hummingbird from the entrapment of a spider’s web and keeping the hummingbird’s eggs warm until the return of their mother. Without even realizing it, Flory simultaneously finds her way back to the rightful realm of a night fairy, to the unique beauty of a moonlit night at the stroke of midnight. She can go back to sleeping during the day.

"The Night Fairy" by Laura Amy Schlitz

When we were about halfway through The Night Fairy, I came across JP slipping the book into his backpack one morning. He had mentioned the previous night that he wanted to “read ahead” at school, but that he would bring back the book at the end of the day. So, I wasn’t surprised when I saw him. I was, however, surprised by the exchange that followed:

“I know that I am going to get a lot of comments when I take this book out at school,” he said.

“What do you mean? What kind of comments?” (Admittedly, I was feigning some ignorance.)

“You know, from kids who think fairies are only for girls.”

“Oh yeah? And what do you think” I asked him.

“I think that there is no such thing as girl stuff and boy stuff. Just lots of really fun stuff.”

“Me too,” I responded, smiling and walking away in my best impersonation of parental breeziness. Only on the inside, I was leaping with joy. Please, oh please, let him always feel this way!

Other Favorite Chapter Books About Fairies:
No Flying in the House, by Betty Brock & Wallace Tripp (Ages 6-12)
Twig, by Elizabeth Orton Jones (Ages 6-12)
Not specifically about fairies, but if you have a Lover of Little Things, I highly recommend the series, The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin. I cannot WAIT to do these with my kids!

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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!

Creative Activism (In Honor of Black History Month)

February 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. LewisLast spring, I took my then three year old daughter shopping for shoes. It was a rainy Saturday, we had just come from her first early morning soccer practice (to which she had worn rain boots), and with plenty of time to kill before lunch, I figured we’d hunt down some sensible, sports-worthy sneakers. As we stepped, hand in hand, through the automatic doors and into the giant monstrosity that is Rack Room, it occurred to me that I had never taken her shopping before. I was feeling a little giddy.

We soon found ourselves standing before towering steel shelves, endless rows filled with mix-matched boxes of child-sized sneakers. “Let’s see,” I said, pulling down a Nike box with a pair of bright turquoise Velcro sneakers. “How about these?”

There was a squeal. “Mommy, look! These ones over here have PRINCESSES on them!” “Oh, wait! Look at that girl over there: she’s got on shoes that LIGHT UP! Those are the ones! Those are the ones I want!”

I started to panic. Oh right, this is why I have never taken her shopping. Why did I forsake my precious Zappos for this place?! As the steel walls and high-pitched whining began to close in on me, I made a quick decision.

“OK, honey, here’s what we’re going to do. You can try on every pair of shoes that you want. Take your time. You can walk all around the store in whatever shoes you want. But when it comes time to leave, we are only going to buy one pair, and it’s going to be a sneaker that Mommy thinks will be good for running. It’s going to be a good, sensible shoe that fits you well. But for now, have at it.”

The girl tried on shoes for two. straight. hours.

Like a kid in a candy store, Emily tried on glitter sneakers and light-up sneakers and sneakers with Disney characters. She tried on lace-up sneakers and Velcro sneakers; black sneakers for boys and rainbow-covered sneakers for girls. She’d point to a box, I’d pull it down, and we’d work together to get the shoes on and off. Sometimes she’d put on a pair for two seconds, sometimes she’d wear one while walking up and down every aisle, and sometimes she changed her mind before the sneakers ever got out of the box.

In the end, we left the store—Emily proudly carrying a bag with the original turquoise Nikes that I had picked out.

This story has approached something of Legend status in our house. “Mommy,” my son will beg, “tell the story of how Emily tried on every shoe in the store!” And I do. And we roll our eyes and chuckle. Even Emily.

But then, recently, one day after school, as the three of us splayed across the couch reading an account of what happened in one Alabama city during the Civil Rights Movement, our shoe story took on a whole new meaning. Because, you see, it had never occurred to any of us that, regardless of which shoes we bought on that rainy day back in April, the mere act of trying them on had been in itself a right. With each shoe that Emily tried on, she was unknowingly exercising a personal freedom—one for which others had once been forced to fight.

Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama (Ages 6-12), written by Hester Bass and beautifully illustrated by E.B. Lewis, chronicles both the small and large events that occurred in this unique Alabama city between January 1962 and September 1963. The book opens with a painting of an African-American girl in an Alabama shoe store. She is seated in a chair, holding up a piece of paper with the outline of her feet traced in black marker. “A girl carries paper pictures of her feet because she won’t be able to try on shoes.” This is the child reader’s introduction to the racial segregation still deeply rooted across the South in the 1960s, despite Civil Rights Acts passed by the American government as early as 1866, and despite the growing momentum created from activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

But the story that follows is one of integration, not segregation. Only it’s not your typical integration story. Contrary to much of what our children will hear about the Civil Rights Movement, the transition from segregation to integration in Huntsville, Alabama—while certainly not a smooth one—was characterized by a surprising absence of violence: no riots, no tanks, no bombs. This would not have been possible without the commitment of both black and white citizens, who ultimately chose to put the health and economic viability of their city above their personal and cultural differences.

Hester Bass, herself a former resident of Huntsville, does an exceptional job of drawing us into the details of what went down in those twenty months. It’s hard not to argue that many of these events displayed sheer creative genius on the part of the African-American community. Yes, there were marches, and yes there were sit-ins at lunch counters, neither dissimilar to what was happening throughout the rest of the South. But, in Huntsville, some black women got “tricky” and started bringing swaddled infants to these sit-ins, because “it’s hard to keep it quiet when a baby goes to jail.” Huntsville was at the time the proud center of the US Space Program, the headquarters of American rocket construction in the quest to put a man on the moon. Dependent on government aid, and the target of high-profile visits from President Kennedy, the city could not afford bad press (like putting babies behind bars)—and people on both sides of the racial divide knew it.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

The African-American community in Huntsville began to assert their presence in other ways, too, like launching hundreds of colorful balloons outside the courthouse, each tied with notes like, “Please support freedom in Huntsville.”

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

Perhaps the most creative strategy was the implementation of Blue Jean Sunday. Traditionally, Easter was cause for the black community to spend a lot of money on new clothing—in some cases as much as a hundred dollars for a special outfit—and the predominantly white shop owners had come to depend on that revenue. In 1962, black leaders in Huntsville quietly urged men, women, and children to don jeans in place of store-bought clothes for Easter services. “They will stand up for freedom by dressing down.” Some people think Huntsville merchants lost a million dollars that spring.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

Talk about using your brain! Talk about putting your imagination to work! Can you think of a more inspiring example of effective non-violent protest?

And it worked! It really worked. First, the Huntsville restaurants, hospitals, bowling alleys, and movie theaters began to desegregate. Then, come September 1963, after a rocky first week of locked doors and police intimidation, a six-year-old boy became the first black student to attend a previously all-white public school. Across town, a private religious school boasted the first incidence of reverse integration in the South, when twelve white students joined a formerly all-black classroom.

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. Lewis

Sure, Huntsville had some extenuating circumstances that other Southern cities lacked (like the Space Program), but still: there was willingness, there was courage, there was a priority of peace on both sides of the racial divide, and that in itself is amazing. I could not get through reading this book without constantly setting it down to exclaim, I cannot believe I never knew about this! This is unbelievable. This is SO COOL. And the best part was: my seven-year-old son was equally riveted. (In all fairness, Emily asked some good questions, too, although the subject matter is definitely geared toward an elementary-aged audience.)

Like most of the best children’s books about race and history, Seeds of Freedom is one that begs to be read aloud and discussed. In our house, it has furthered conversations that we began back with Martin’s Big Words and We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song; and I hope it will lay groundwork for more challenging books, like the newly-published Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March, a first-person account of a teenage girl protester, jailed nine times in the Civil Rights Movement and beaten on Sunday Bloody Sunday (talk about mind-blowing).

It seems to me that, regardless of our racial backgrounds, as twenty-first-century Americans, it is not only our responsibility but our privilege to have these discussions with our children. We have a unique chance to honor history both by encouraging our children to ask questions and by making visible our own commitment to learning alongside them. Even in these modern times, there is plenty of necessity for change—for activism—and I’d like to think that there are creative, non-violent solutions to the racial and cultural differences that continue to divide our everyday lives. I’d like to think a book like this will not only remind my children that the mere act of trying on shoes in a store is itself a personal liberty, but that they hold within their imaginations the power to change the world.

Other Favorites About Activism in the Civil Rights Movement:
We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, by Debbie Levy & Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Ages 5-10; discussed here)
Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, by Andrea David Pinkney (Ages 6-12)
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, by Carole Boson Weatherford & Jerome Lagarrigue (Ages 6-12)
Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges (Ages 8-12)
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March, by Lynda Blackmon Lowery (Ages 10-15)

Review copy courtesy of 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!

Introduction to Snow (Peter McCarty Style)

January 22, 2015 § 6 Comments

"First Snow" by Peter McCartyOn our first snowfall of the year, my seven year old was out the door after taking his last bite of oatmeal. My four year old, never wanting to be but a second behind her brother, yelled at the slamming door, “I’m coming, too!” Then, she took careful inventory of the pile of last year’s snow pants and snow boots and waterproof mittens, which I had tossed down from the top of the closet.

“Mommy, I don’t know if I remember.”

“Here, I’ll help you,” I offered, and I showed her which way to zip up the snow pant overalls and how to wedge her little feet down into the bulky snow boots.

“My feet feel funny. They feel like they’re standing on air,” she said.

I opened the door, felt the snowy wet wind barrel down the front of my pajamas and did a quick parental, “Off you go,” my hand nudging her back.

“Mommy, I don’t know if I remember,” she said again, staring at the two inches of powder on the ground.

“I need to close the door, honey, but you’ll be OK. I think JP has gone around to the back, so you’ll find him there. Have fun!” (Gosh, we sound so annoying sometimes, don’t we?)

The door closed behind her, and I watched from the window as she stood, frozen in place, for several moments on the porch, my little girl somewhere inside the puffy layers of down and nylon. At last, she stepped off the landing and began to take tentative, stiff-legged steps into the cold, white-covered world, slowly making her way around the front of the house in search of her brother.

And it hit me. At four, there are times when my Emily seems so grown up, prattling on about what she did at school, using words like “actually” and “unfortunately,” or walking into a restaurant and reminding me where we sat a year ago when we were last there. Last winter, for the first time since moving to Virginia, we had several legitimate (!) snow days. We went skiing. We went sledding. We built snowmen. And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Emily remembers doing those things. But does she really remember what it felt like? Can I, for just one second, put myself inside her heavy pink boots, lose my hands inside her pillowy mittens, and imagine how alien the snow must seem? How abrasive the cold and wet feels on her nose, on her little cheeks? How unsure she must be, setting up to take those first steps, wondering if she’ll sink into the snow and just keep going down?

A few days later, I purchased First Snow, the newest picture book by one of my favorite author-illustrators: the evocative, the subtle, the genius ink-wielding Peter McCarty. McCarty won the 2007 Caldecott for Hondo and Fabian, although he won my heart a year earlier with his stirring, perfectly composed Moon Plane, about a little boy gazing up at an airplane and imagining what it would feel like to be up in the sky (still one of my favorite picture books EVER). But McCarty may perhaps best be known these days for his anthropomorphic animal stories, starring a cat named Henry and a bunny named Chloe, who first appear in Henry in Love (perfect for approaching Valentine’s Day).

Henry and Chloe make cameo appearances in McCarty’s newest book. Only now, with his signature shaded ink sketches atop rich creamy paper, and his talent for choosing only the bare minimum of words to express human emotion, McCarty takes on the subject of snow—specifically, an anthropomorphic dog named Pedro’s first encounter with the white stuff. Pedro, presumably raised in a tropical climate, comes to visit his cousins Sancho, Bella, Lola, Ava, and Maria in their wintery home (I love the purposeful inclusion of a Hispanic family here).

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

On Pedro’s first morning in his new environment, the cousins storm into his room to announce that it has snowed all night. “‘Put on your boots! Put on your coats! Put on your hat and mittens! We are going outside!’”

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

“I have never seen snow. I don’t think I will like it,” said Pedro.
“Why not?”
“Because it is cold. And I don’t like cold.”

The skeptical Pedro is dragged outside by his enthusiastic, bundled-up cousins, who advise him to move around to stay warm, and then show him how to make snow angels and catch snowflakes on his tongue. Reluctant Pedro is having nothing of it. “It tastes cold,” he says. In typical McCarty style, most of the book’s narrative is told through these short, conversational exchanges. The child reader is left, in the pauses that follow and the details of the illustrations, to draw his own conclusions about the characters’ motives and feelings.

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

When the cousins meet up with the other neighborhood kids (enter Henry and Chloe and their siblings), the group escorts Pedro to the top of the hill for some sledding.

“Why do you go up?” asked Pedro.
“To go back down,” said Henry.

(Can you think of a simpler exchange between two children that more perfectly captures the innocence, the bafflement, the wonder of beholding snow play for the first time?)

The first time I shared this story with my daughter, as we watched Pedro fly down the sledding hill, Emily literally grabbed my arm. Outwardly, she was squealing with laughter, but her firm grip suggested that she was also feeling some of Pedro’s fear. After all, as evidenced the other day, she knows firsthand the uncertainly of venturing into snow-covered territory.

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

As Pedro hits a bump and flies off his saucer, we as readers brace ourselves for the worst. Then, we catch the smile on his face, a smile that widens when—finally surrendering to the wet and the cold—he rolls around where he has landed and begins throwing snowballs at the others. Some invisible line has been crossed. We can all breathe more easily now.

"First Snow" by Peter McCarty

Pedro reminds us that firsts are never easy. As we parents sometimes forget, seconds and thirds can be pretty scary, too. The world outside our front doors is vast and changing. It’s going to be a great ride, but sometimes we need to take our time getting there.

Other Favorite Picture Books Written & Illustrated by Peter McCarty:
Moon Plane (Ages 1-4)
Hondo and Fabian (Ages 2-5)
Fabian Escapes (Ages 2-5)
T is for Terrible (Ages 3-6)
Jeremy Draws a Monster (Ages 3-6)
The Monster Returns (Ages 3-6)
Henry in Love (Ages 4-8)
Chloe (Ages 4-8)

For a list of other fantastic stories about snow, check out this post with its long list at the end!

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 Magic of Fall

October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

"Fall Leaves" by Loretta Holland & Elly MacKayThe other evening, after cleaning up from dinner, I walked into the living room to find JP sticking his nose out the mail slot of our front door. “Mommy, I can smell winter coming! I forgot how delicious it smells! I thought I wanted summer to stay, but now I want winter to come!”

Perhaps because of my children’s innate excitement around seasonal transformations, or perhaps because of wanting to sway my own ambivalence about the onset of winter towards something more positive—either way, I have always had a special place in my heart for stories about fall (remember Fletcher and the Falling Leaves?). This year, I have discovered my most favorite presentation to date. It’s not a story. There are no frantic animals preparing for hibernation (see Bear Has a Story to Tell), or children frolicking in pumpkin patches (although you should still read Otis and the Scarecrow). Rather, there is a simple phrase on each page, accompanied by a stunning picture, and the meaning lies in the intersection between the two.

Fall Leaves (Ages 4-8), by Loretta Holland, with illustrations by Elly MacKay, is one of those picture books that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its simplest, it reads as a kind of lyrical, free verse poem, with one line per page. But each phrase is also a kind of headline, with a smaller-print paragraph below, containing detailed and carefully chosen information about a unique aspect of fall, like the migration of birds, the hibernation of perennials, or the heavy downpours (am I the only one who is consistently blind-sided by these rainy days, assuming every morning is going to bring a bright cloudless sky against which to pick apples and pumpkins?).

On the “Leaves Fall” page, children are privy to an especially well-articulated explanation of why leaves turn colors: how the green chlorophyll, which has taken up residence in the leaves all spring and summer, but is no longer needed for winter’s slumber, now drains away to reveal the leaves’ “true colors.” As if the chilly October nights didn’t feel mysterious enough, now the leaves are revealing secrets, too!

"Fall Leaves" by Loretta Holland

I can’t think of a book that better demonstrates for children the versatility of language—specifically, how the meaning of words can change in context, can transform before your eyes (I am waiting until this year’s Holiday Gift Guide to tell you about Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s interpretation of Roget’s invention of the thesaurus in The Right Word). In Fall Leaves, the word “fall” or “leaves” is on every page, in every headline (“Birds Leave,” “Leaves Twist,” “Apples Fall,” “Sun Leaves,” etc.). JP was immensely pleased with himself when he discovered that “fall” and “leaves” were being used alternately as nouns and verbs (and adjectives)—and that “fall leaves” and “leaves fall” mean two (actually, three!) different things simply by reversing their order.

But the power of this beautifully crafted book likes in its illustrations—in pictures that transport, evoke, and envelop us in the magic of fall. As we move from early fall to the dawn of winter, the light transforms from deep gold to a wispy grey; the landscape, once crowded with rich colors and skipping children, begins to betray a hint of melancholy in its starkness. And yet, the children—the same boy and girl on each page—never stop observing and interacting with their natural surroundings.

"Fall Leaves" by Elly MacKay

All this is achieved through watercolor and cut-paper, which have been set up in miniature theaters and then photographed. Unlike most picture book illustrations that arise out of miniatures (see last week’s post on I Am a Witch’s Cat), here photographer Elly MacKay plays liberally with the depth of field in each shot. Most of the time, the foreground and background of each picture are blurred—an effect which not only gives our eye a specific point of focus, but also gives the landscapes an ethereal quality that we instantly recognize as fall. It’s the difference between standing in front of a tree admiring its different shades, and then walking away to watch all the colors melt together. It’s the way fog looks on a chilly fall morning, or the way the first snow flurries obscure our children’s figures outside our window. It’s the fistfuls of leaves that my children bring into the house—waxy, damp, and vibrant one day; and crinkly, dry, and dull the next. Blink and it’s gone.

Like clockwork, winter is approaching. For now, let’s embrace the magic of fall.

"Leaves Fall" by Loretta Holland

Check out MacKay’s website for other shots of her AMAZING art (I am obsessed) and how she puts it all together. http://www.ellymackay.com/portfolio/

Other Favorite Non-Fiction Presentations of Fall:
Winter is Coming, by Tony Johnston & Jim LaMarche (Ages 4-8; also new this fall and absolutely wonderful!)
In November, by Cynthia Rylant (Ages 4-8)
Hello, Harvest Moon, by Ralph Fletcher (Ages 4-8)

Thank Goodness for Book Pushers

October 9, 2014 § 3 Comments

"A Library Book for Bear" by Bonny BeckerMy husband thought he was very clever when he surreptitiously posted to his Facebook page that The Book Mommy (a.k.a. me) had been overheard muttering to herself, “If I have to pick up another book off the floor, I swear I am getting rid of all of them!” Sigh. We all have our moments. Even the most book-obsessed among us.

Most of the time, I am exceedingly grateful for the sea of books that overtakes our house every day: when books from our overflowing shelves mix with stacks of incoming library books and set my children’s imaginations afloat.

Sea of Books

Case in point.

Yes, I’m firmly in the camp that it is impossible to have too many books (really good books, that is). You might say I’m a lot like the book-pushing Mouse in Bonny Becker’s A Library Book for Bear (Ages 3-6), the latest installment in her beloved Bear and Mouse series, which never fails to have my children roaring with laughter (and which allows me to don a British accent, as that’s how I’ve always imagined Mouse). On the off chance that you’ve been missing out on these delightful stories, you can catch up on past titles here.

In this new story, Mouse drags curmudgeonly Bear to the library. The latter is skeptical: for one, he’s a homebody; and two, he is quite certain that the seven books he already possesses are all he’ll ever need (“three about kings and queens, three about honeybees, and one about pickles”). Can you imagine a greater tragedy than believing you’ve already read everything worthwhile? Thank goodness for book pushers.

"A Library Book for Bear" by Bonny Becker

Mouse opens his arms wide as he takes in all the literary possibilities. “Hmmph! Terribly extravagant!” scoffs the brooding Bear.

And yet, the magic about libraries—for people and animals alike—is that you never feel like you’re being pushed into anything. The journey down a library’s aisles feels like a personal crusade. Lined up in rows, the colorful spines await discovery. What my children will decide to bring home from a visit to the library is predictably unpredictable. On the way to the library, they might tell me they are going to look for books about polar bears and pirates, but after two minutes of browsing, they insist that they are actually even more interested in fairies and submarines.

Ultimately, it’s when Bear eavesdrops on a librarian presiding over story time for a crowd of animals, that he experiences the real thrill of the library: of finding something you didn’t even know you were looking for. In this case, it’s a book about a brave bear, who discovers a treasure chest of diamond-encrusted pickles (obviously). Suddenly, it’s Bear, not Mouse, who doesn’t want to leave the library…at least, not until that story is over and he has checked out the book to take home.

As in all the Bear and Mouse books, Kady MacDonald Denton’s expressive watercolors infuse the story with silly, exaggerated drama, as the two friends argue over which books they like and what proper library decorum should look like (“QUIET VOICES IN THE LIBRARY,” Bear screams). But it’s the escalating banter, leading to a satisfying payoff, that makes for such fun—and which every child who enjoys a good visit to the library will want to hear again and again.

"A Library Book for Bear" by Bonny Becker

Now that’s one satisfied library patron, on his way home.

 

Other Favorite Library Stories:
Library Lion, by Michelle Knudsen & Kevin Hawkes (Ages 3-7) and several others mentioned at the end of this post here
Red Knit Cap Girl and the Reading Tree, by Naoko Stoop (Ages 3-6; another sequel in a wonderful picture book series featuring one of my favorite young heroines, first encountered here)
The Lonely Book, by Kate Bernheimer (Ages 4-8)
Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children, by Jan Pinborough & Debby Atwell (Ages 5-8)
Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, by Barb Rosenstock (Ages 6-10)
That Book Woman, by Heather Henson & David Small (Ages 6-10)

Review copy provided by Candlewick publishing.

Summer Birthday Pick

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetFor all the reading that we intend to do with our children in the summer, many of the days pass instead in a sweaty haze of shifting feet, slamming doors, and long afternoons at the pool. By the time our little ones are ready for bed, their eyelids (and mine, if I’m being honest) are too heavy to sustain more than a few pages.

For this Reading Deficit Disorder that hits right about July, I have just the prescription, which you will want to dish out to your own family, as well as wrap up for all those summer birthday parties. I’m talking about POETRY! Poems are the answer! Allow me to introduce the delightful and timely-titled anthology, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-11), with poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko and spectacular mixed-media illustrations by Melissa Sweet (yes, I’ll say it again: I adore everything that Sweet puts her hands on). This is not the first (or second) time I’ve celebrated seasonal poetry, although these poems are quite different from, say, Muth’s original haikus in Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons. These republished poems span the twentieth century and include many of the Greats, like William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Anne Porter. That’s right: these are not children’s poems. They are everyone poems. Most don’t rhyme; many take some puzzling to figure out; and all of them rely on just a few words to convey loaded meaning. The gift—the real gift here—is that by lending a visual interpretation to each one, Melissa Sweet has made these poems accessible and relatable to children. The other gift, of course, is that each one is just a few lines long, the perfect antidote for restless bums or closing eyes.

Take the poem “Sandpipers,” by April Halprin Wayland, where “Sandpipers run with/ their needle beaks digging—they’re/ hemming the ocean.” I just love Sweet’s collage with the fabric-swatched beach towels and the busy sandpipers up front, poking wavy lines of perfect little needle holes in the sand.

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One might easily pass right over Carl Sandburg’s three-lined poem, “Window,” about gazing out into the night from within a moving railroad car, if it weren’t for Sweet’s stunning double spread with snapshot views of imagined sights outside a train window (my kids love pointing out things they notice in each window).

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While we have been especially enjoying the summer selections, like J. Patrick Lewis’ “Firefly July” and Emily Dickinson’s “The Moon was but a Chin of Gold,” there’s something kind of awesome about recalling (or anticipating?) the damp fog of fall in James Stevenson’s “Screen Door,” or the chill of winter in Ted Kooser’s “Snow Fence.” At the moment, my kids’ favorite poem is Joyce Sidman’s “A Happy Meeting,” which describes what happens when rain meets dirt (first, “soft, cinnamon kisses,” then, “marriage: mud”).

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In all honesty, my daughter may be more drawn to the polkadotted tights and striped rain boots, both front and center thanks to another of Sweet’s brilliant plays with perspective; but at three and a half, Emily’s still a bit young for such abstract language. JP, however, is on the cusp of falling in love with poetry, and he’s especially intrigued by how non-threatening these shorter poems can be to read aloud (I talk more about poetry’s lure for early readers here). For him, the idea of something like rain kissing dirt is unpredictable and silly and, well, pure magic. Much like the fireflies that light up his summer evenings and occasionally take the place of a bedtime story.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of this book free of charge from Candlewick. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

In Honor of the Dads

June 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

Following Papa's Song by Gianna MarinoThis month marks 20 years since I lost my father: my hero, my biggest supporter, the first Big Love of my life. I find that, as my own children get older, and I get to share in their many milestones (just this spring, JP learned to ride a two wheeler, scored his first soccer goal, and passed his deep water test), I am filled with a new kind of sadness over how much my Dad has missed out on as a parent himself.

As graduations wrap up around the country, I think about how my Dad never got to watch me go off to his own beloved Alma Mater. I think about how he never got to hear me rant and rave about my first job at an advertising firm. He never got to step foot into my first apartment, the first space I ever decorated completely on my own. He never got to walk me down the aisle, or get to know the man with whom I would choose to spend my adult life. He never got to parade around photos of his grandkids at work, or show off Manhattan to my daughter, as my Mom did just this past weekend. He never got to read these blog posts, which I know he would have done, because he always, always, made time for my writing.

Following Papa’s Song (Ages 3-6), a new picture book by Gianna Marino, is a stunning and poetic tribute to the father-child relationship. At its simplest, it is about a young whale, who embarks on his first summer migration alongside his Papa, a journey that will take him “farther than [he] has ever gone before.” Little Blue has all sorts of questions, like whether his tail will ever allow him to swim as fast as his father, or whether he’ll still be able to hear his Papa’s song, even when he’s big. It’s when Papa answers this last question that we realize that this story is as much metaphor as it is migration: “Yes, Little Blue. If you listen closely, you will always hear my song.” In parenthood, finding the balance between letting go and welcoming back is itself a dance that never stops playing out from the moment we bring a child into the world.

In the book’s beautifully paced dramatic arc, we watch as Little Blue’s curiosity about the unimaginable beauty beneath the sea leads him off course, landing him at the bottom of the ocean, alone and scared. Marino doesn’t gloss over Little Blue’s fear, but instead devotes several poignant pages to the dark, mysterious sea, filled only with the young whale’s plaintive cry and his strain to hear his father’s song. When the two do finally reunite, the page explodes in a rainbow of color, as father and son soar and splash together on the ocean’s surface.

Following Papa's Song

Marino first won me over with her illustrations in Too Tall Houses, another book with a lovely message, where an owl and a hare inadvertently sacrifice their friendship in a competition for who can build the tallest house. As an artist, Marino has a knack for playing with perspective as a way to heighten drama; and that same talent shines through in Following Papa’s Song, with arresting close-ups of the whales’ expression-filled eyes, as well as affectionate arcs of backs and noses as the duo swims together. But what really elevates this picture book is the color that Marino employs in her richly layered, mixed-media paintings—hues of aqua and jade and pink and yellow that are so deep, so luminescent, so passionate, that we feel utterly entwined in the love of father and son. Not to mention the majesty of the ocean.

Following Papa's Song by Gianna Marino

Dads are the best. They just are. No one’s arms make you feel safer. No one greets you with as much joy. I love watching my children leap into their own father’s arms when he comes home in the evening, or argue over whose turn it is to have Daddy put them to bed. I remember how my Dad used to crawl into my younger sister’s bed in the morning before he left for work, how he’d get under the covers and hold her tight and they’d talk about their plans for the day. Each time my children manage to sweet talk my husband into one more story, one more round of catch in the backyard, I smile in remembrance of all that my father did for me. I still hear his song, and I’ll be following it until the end of my days.

My own seaside romp with my father, circa 1978. Love this picture. :)

My own seaside romp with my father, circa 1978. A perfect day. 🙂

Other Favorite Picture Books That Celebrate Dad:
Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, by Eric Carle (Ages 1-5)
My Dad, by Anthony Browne (Ages 3-6)
My Dad is Big and Strong, But…A Bedtime Story, by Coralie Saudo & Kris DiGiacomo (Ages 3-6, reviewed by me here)
My Father Knows the Names of Things, by Jane Yolen & Stephanie Jorisch (Ages 4-8)
Every Friday, by Dan Yacarino (Ages 4-8)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of this book free of charge from Penguin Group (USA). I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

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