Putting One Book in Front of the Other

October 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

My children have heard a lot about the Supreme Court in recent weeks—mostly delivered via their parents and mostly accompanied by outcries of frustration and despair. Still, as much as I want them to understand my concerns with what today’s political actions reveal about the values of our leadership, I also don’t want my discourse to taint (at least, not permanently) the way they view our government’s enduring institutions.

In short, our family needed a pick-me-up. I needed both to remind myself and to teach my children about the Supreme Court Justices who, right now, are fighting for fairness under the law—and who arrived there with poise, valor, humanity, and moral clarity.

In this week’s op-ed in the New York Times, the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, cites recent statistics in which young girls are outnumbering boys in political participation and activism. Under the (awesome) title “Maybe Girls Will Save Us,” Saujani makes a case that this growing political interest in young girls may be related to the “plentiful, visible, diverse role models” that they are witnessing rising up around them (a record number of women are set to run for the House of Representatives this year, for instance).

One of these inspiring role models could easily be Sonia Sotomayor—our first Latina Supreme Court Justice—who speaks to her own journey to the Supreme Court in her new picture book, Turning Pages: My Life Story (Ages 7-10), illustrated by Lulu Delacre. (Another obvious choice would be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but our family has read Deborah Levy and Kathleen Krull’s picture book biographies of RBG so many times, we needed a fresh story to pull us out of our slump.) I knew little about Sotomayor’s story before reading this book; when I finished it, I realized that her path in so many ways personifies the American Dream.

While Turning Pages reveals biographic details about Sotomayor’s life—including her Puerto Rican ancestry, her upbringing in the Bronx, her struggle with diabetes, her studies at Princeton, and her pursuit of the law—it never reads like a traditional picture book biography. In fact, I don’t think my eight year old, normally reticent toward biographies, even realized I was reading her one. With an intimacy that feels marvelously accessible to her young readers, Sotomayor talks about her life, not as a list of struggles and accomplishments, but as it was continually and diversely influenced by the many books she devoured as a child and young adult.

More than simply a story of her life, Turning Pages is an ode to the written word, a love letter to the guiding power of reading in Sotomayor’s life. Each spread in the book, each path on which Sotomayor embarked, celebrates a different way in which what she read inspired her thoughtful and driven approach.

Sotomayor’s language is as invitingly poetic as the written words that first flavor her childhood. Even before Sotomayor learned to read, she experienced the poems her Abuelita would recite during family parties, poems which “sent a charge through the room and sparked memories of her faraway island home.” Here, Sotomayor tells us, she began to understand that writing could be “electrical currents that jolted feelings to life.”

Diagnosed at seven with diabetes, Sotomayor developed the courage to administer herself daily shots with the help of her beloved comic books, casting herself alongside favorite action heroes. “Books, it seemed, were magic potions that could fuel me with the bravery of superheroes.” (It goes without saying that this page was a bit hit with my kids.)

Books kept Sotomayor company on trips back to Puerto Rico, where she began to embrace her heritage, and they also helped her “escape” the sadness left behind by her father’s death, when she was just nine years old. Both my children were captivated by Delacre’s extraordinary art here, which juxtaposes the long, black-streaked faces of Sotomayor’s mourning family (“That really does look like sadness,” my son said) with Sotomayor’s bright escape down the library halls in a newspaper boat bearing herself and a library card. The library quite literally becomes a safe harbor.

Sotomayor devoured non-fiction and fiction alike, both serving to broaden her world view. She cites a particularly memorable day as one when a deliveryman dropped off a full set of encyclopedias, purchased for her and her brother by their mother. “I felt like a deep-sea diver exploring mysterious depths. Books were my snorkel and flippers, helping me get there.” Fiction, too, encouraged this desire to unearth every stone. I admit to a special fondness for the spread in which Sotomayor steals down the stairs like her favorite literary detective, Nancy Drew.

As Sotomayor grew, she also began to use reading as a way to uncover the less tangible “truths about the world around me.” She credits Lord of the Flies with the first time she understood the purpose of laws—and the danger of lawlessness. She also references the Bible at her Catholic high school, which cautioned that we “shouldn’t be so quick to judge people who do the wrong things.” Finally, she sings the importance of reading to develop empathy for different struggles and ways of living. She would choose texts stretching from the “farthest reaches of the planet” to “the little island closest to my heart: Puerto Rico.”

If books began to steer her moral compass and help her understand the individual’s place within a larger community, they also helped her persevere. While nothing about Princeton University matched her childhood in the Bronx, she studied relentlessly to “catch up,” even pouring over grammar books to hone her writing skills. (It was fun to tell my kids that I similarly spent many hours writing my thesis in a cubicle underneath Firestone Library, though I was also then forced to admit to myself that I have far less to show for it than Sotomayor.)

The final pages are devoted to law books—what Sotomayor calls, the “maps to guide us to justice”—which she, as a young lawyer, regularly referenced when convincing a judge of right and wrong, and as a judge, sourced to ensure fair treatment of all people. Now, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, she turns her attention to “the founding document of our government, the Constitution of the United States.”  Of course, in crafting her decisions and opinions, Sotomayor has made her own lasting contribution to the written word.

Sotomayor’s life undoubtedly comes through as impressive, but her telling also radiates humility. The numerous real-life snapshots, which grace the book’s front and back endpapers, make her feel even more approachable. To our children—our own inquisitive, voracious readers—Sotomayor’s path feels not only aspirational, but attainable. Like putting one foot in front of the other, she puts one book in front of the other.

Books are there when we need them, they deepen our world view, and they just might be the catalyst for our young readers to follow in the footsteps of other women change makers in this country’s leadership.

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

 

 

The Surprising Backstory Behind The Monopoly (Wo)man

September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Children are never fools when it comes to laying claim to our attention. They know exactly what they’re doing when they pull out a wordless book for us to “read,” quickly sabotaging our hope of a quick bedtime. Similarly, when our children walk into the room with Monopoly under their arms, they know they’ve turned our innocent consent to a family game into a lost Sunday afternoon. Show me a child who loves Monopoly, and I’ll argue that the appeal is more than the sum of dealing money, lining up those little green houses, and the rush of saying to one’s parents, “You owe me $2000!” (that’s Boardwalk, with a hotel). Because I was once a child, who enjoyed nothing more than racing my dad to see who could lay claim to Boardwalk and Park Place, I know that the Very Best Part of Playing Monopoly is that it takes for-freakin’-ever.

The story of how Monopoly came to be may not be as long-winded as the game itself, but it did span decades. When author Tanya Lee Stone was assigned by her editor to write a book about “how Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman during the Great Depression, went on to become a millionaire by inventing Monopoly” she was slightly disappointed. After all, her sweet spot is writing picture book biographies of historic women who pushed boundaries (ones we’ve loved as a family include Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, and Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace).

Imagine Stone’s delight—and our surprise—when her research into the backstory of Monopoly revealed that it was not, in fact, Charles Darrow who came up with the game in the first place. It was a woman named Lizzie Magie. She even filed a patent for her invention. Twice.

Say what?! A woman invented and patented the game, but a man reaped millions for it? (If your children are shocked by this turn of events, there may be hope for us yet.)

In Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented (Ages 7-12), Stone unearths the fascinating details behind the creation and branding of a game that children (and adults) have been enthusiastically (or reluctantly) playing since the late 1800s. Stone’s conversational tone engages from the start—“What kind of Monopoly player are YOU?…Do you buy up all the properties you can? Do you always want to be the banker?”—before she commences with her history lesson. Similarly, illustrator Steven Salerno does such a bang-up job of drawing in the same oversized, cartoonish style as the game box itself—including weaving in familiar elements like the Monopoly man and the black steam engine—that I’ll be damned if my kids, upon finishing the book, didn’t immediately drag out our own dog-eared box and begin to set up the game. (Consider yourself warned.)

Lizzie Magie (1866-1948) was a clever, comedic woman with a penchant for activism. Specifically, she was concerned with the intersection of wealth and poverty in the late 1800s, when greedy landowners continually escalated the rents of their city tenants simply because of the monopoly they held on the land they owned. The resulting situation—“in which the landlords could become wealthier while renters, or tenants, stayed poor”—was one Lizzie decided to expose with the design of a game she patented and titled the Landlord’s Game in 1903.

Half the fun of this book for my kids was tracing the evolution of the game that eventually became known as Monopoly, beginning with identifying similarities in Lizzie’s initial design. In fact, there is lots about the early game that will sound familiar to our kids, including a square board, two different kinds of cards to draw, twenty-two properties with purchase prices and rent values, a “Go to Jail” corner square, and four railroads.

Over the next six years, not only did Lizzie make various revisions to her game, but the people to whom she handmade and distributed the game added their own ideas—including the students in a business class at the University of Pennsylvania, who were responsible for changing the name to Monopoly. In 1909, Lizzie attempted to sell an updated design to the Parker Brothers game company. The Brothers turned it down, on the basis of it being “too challenging and educational” (there’s a thought for ya). Still, Lizzie grew more determined, updating her patent in 1924 with a design that included creating houses and hotels for players to purchase for their properties.

The popularity of the game continued to spread, as did people wanting to put their own enduring stamp on the design. A Quaker teacher in 1930, for example, renamed the properties after different streets and neighborhoods in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Funnily enough, on a road trip through New Jersey about a month before we discovered this book, my son read out this fact from his trusty Atlas.) Eventually, the game piqued the interest of Charles Darrow, a salesman down on his luck during the Great Depression. After a dinner guest showed it to him, Darrow became so enamored with the game that he decided to clean up the design—including adding some of the iconic visual elements we recognize today—and to craft a number of stenciled boards to sell to friends.

Darrow soon approached Parker Brothers and convinced them to purchase Monopoly. Before the deal was finalized, however, Lizzie Magie’s patent was discovered, and George Parker found himself on her doorstep, begging to her to release the patent to him for a mere $500. Lizzie agreed, content to have her game reach a mass audience, although perhaps unaware that her initial agenda—to reveal the disparity of wealth when one person assumes sole control of a property—was in the end her personal demise. Charles Darrow went on to make a million dollars from the sale; the Parker Brothers even more. Today, Darrow is still credited on the box itself with the game’s invention.

Before the book concludes with a wealth of back matter, including updates on more recent changes to the game—Did you know that in 2017, thanks to a Facebook survey, the boot, thimble, and wheelbarrow pieces were replaced by a penguin, rubber ducky, and T.Rex?!—author Stone encourages her reader to discuss and debate the fairness of Monopoly’s sale. Did the right person get the money? Who ultimately deserves the credit for Monopoly’s success?

Playing Monopoly may be an education in landowning, renting, and taxation, but its origin story is an even more complicated lesson in business—particularly, in the gender politics that have long informed business in this country. My kids will inevitably con me into playing this game for hours and hours, but I intend not to let them forget its fascinating backstory with a feminist twist.

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Book published by Henry Holt 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!

Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Kids Need to Know Harriet Tubman

February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Like Wonder, You’ll Love This

February 8, 2018 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Book published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

2017 Gift Guide (No. 3): For the Underdog…well, Horse

December 5, 2017 § 2 Comments

These days, it’s rare that my son and daughter will gravitate towards the same picture book. Not because they don’t still enjoy picture books. Even though they read chapter books on their own—even though we’re always reading a chapter book (or two or three) together—both of my kids still adore picture books. I hope to nurture this love by leaving ever-changing baskets of picture books around the house. Long after children are reading chapter books, there is still so much to be gained from picture books, not the least of which is an introduction to a range of subjects alongside gorgeously vibrant, innovative art.

But as much as they love a good picture book, my kids are not often enamored with the same book. Which might be why the exceptions especially thrill me. This is partly why I’ve saved Patrick McCormick and Iacopo Bruno’s Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero (Ages 6-12) for my Gift Guide. If you’re looking for a book that hits both ends of the spectrum, this is it. Might you know a girl, like mine, with a budding but fervent interest in horses? (“Remember, Mommy, you promised I would be old enough for horseback riding camp when I was seven,” says my seven-year-old Emily every day.) Might you know a boy, like mine, with a slightly unsettling, hopefully-age-appropriate obsession with war? (Overheard just yesterday, as JP was playing with his army figures: “Let’s stage the bloodiest battle in history!”) Got a kid who loves history? Loves an unlikely hero? You see where I’m going here.

Sergeant Reckless introduces us to the only animal to officially hold military rank in the United States: a lanky, reddish-brown, always-ravenous mare, who defied all odds to serve with the Fifth Marine Regiment Anti-Tank Company, heroically changing the course of the Korean War in its final months.

The story begins when Lt. Eric Pedersen sets eyes on the horse near an abandoned racetrack. Tasked with motivating men long exhausted from “hauling heavy ammunition uphill to a powerful new canon nicknamed the ‘reckless rifle,’ the lieutenant has long speculated on the value of a mule. The “scrawny sorrel mare” is no mule, “but she reminded him of a horse he’d had as a boy, so he took a chance on her.”

Pedersen’s fellow Marines aren’t sure what to make of the horse—referred to as Pvt. Reckless—who immediately begins sleeping, eating, and training in the tented base alongside the men. For starters, the horse has an unending appetite, one that quickly, without supervision, extends into non-edibles, including helmet liners and poker chips. But her love of the same things the Marines eat—oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate, scrambled eggs, and even “ice-cold Coca-Cola”—means she is surprisingly fast to train. She quickly learns to kneel, retreat, follow, and, finally, to carry the bulky, loaded “packsaddle” which is instrumental to the Marines’ mission. Still, the men continue to question whether a skittish ex-racehorse is up to the task of working amidst unpredictable explosions, “white-hot flares,” and the chaos of battle.

What becomes increasingly evident, both to the Marines and to us readers, is that Reckless’ larger-than-life appetite is matched by a playful humor and an unfaltering earnestness. We learn in the (excellent) Author’s Note that former journalist Patricia McCormick first learned about the equine hero from the cook of the Fifth Marine Regiment Anti-Tank Company, who told her stories about how the always-hungry Reckless would sneak into the cook’s tent in the early morning and lick him until he agreed to follow her to the mess hall. She was also a frequenter at the poker table.

The horse’s obvious affection, not only for food but for her fellow soldiers, extends onto the battle field. The first time Reckless witnesses the powerful cannon’s blast, she jumps straight into the air (“even with six shells on her back”); and yet, she quickly yields to calming strokes from the Marine’s hand. It isn’t long until she seems almost unfazed by the noise. Skirmish after skirmish, steadily and without fail, Reckless does her job, albeit with the help of chocolate bars tossed affectionately her way.

Reckless’ story culminates in the Battle of Outpost Vegas, an event spanning ten dramatic pages in the book and earning the mare two Purple Hearts. In a single day, over the course of fifty-one trips, the horse carries a total of nine thousand pounds of ammunition across thirty-five miles of steep terrain. When the cease fire comes at last, Reckless is promoted to sergeant and retired with full military honors.

Italian illustrator Iacopo Bruno, whose art makes this already-fascinating story positively irresistibly, has long been attracted to unusual, less-known slices of history, often where an “underdog” surprises and surpasses. (His previous books have been hits in our house: my son was fascinated by Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France; and my daughter adores Anything But Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic.) Bruno’s extraordinarily detailed illustrations—rendered in pencil and digitally colored—have a realistic, hand-chiseled look, which seems perfectly suited to historical narratives. What’s perhaps most remarkable here is that in a war story for young children (something we don’t often see in picture books), he doesn’t shy away from some of the harsh realities of violence—and yet, he counters it with the warmth of camaraderie, with the sweet, unwavering, two-way devotion of one animal to her Unit.

It’s this perfect union of drama and devotion which gives Sergeant Reckless its broad appeal. But it’s the story’s presentation of heroism, found in the most unlikely of subjects, which will endure long after the reader, boy or girl, closes the book.

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

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 3): For the Aspiring Writer

December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa SweetI am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”

So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

Before this biography landed in our hands, my family was already engaged in a love affair with E.B. White. Or, should I say, with his voice. Last summer, on a road trip from Virginia to Maine, we listened to E.B. White’s recording of The Trumpet of the Swan, his third and final novel for children, about a boy named Sam Beaver and a trumpeter swan named Louis, “who has a speech defect—along with other problems, including a money problem” (this was White’s description, upon submitting the manuscript to his editor, Ursula Nordstrom). Then, this fall, we listened to White read Charlotte’s Web, by many accounts his “magnum opus,” a story of the redemptive friendship between Wilbur the pig and the grey barn spider Charlotte (Nordstrom suggested he change only one word before publishing it). Both The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web were already familiar to us—my kids had heard them in school and at home. And yet, listening to White read them in the car, it was as if we had on fresh ears.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

White’s voice, like the man behind it, is unassuming yet commanding. Gravelly yet gentle, even but never boring, his voice is like that of an old family friend, who sits back in his chair after dinner to weave a story—and to whom you find yourself drawing closer and closer. White doesn’t employ fancy inflections for the characters: in the spirit of his New England accent, he speaks as a matter of fact. We are left with the nakedness of his words—and perhaps just a hint of underlying amusement about the events they relate—and these words themselves awaken in us awe, startle us to laughter, and move us to tears. (My son was consoled to learn he was not alone in his tears: in recording Charlotte’s Web, it took White seventeen takes to get through the chapter in which Charlotte dies.)

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

In listening to White read his stories, we marveled at the new details we noticed, like the juxtaposition between the dramatic pontifications of Louis’ cob father and the economical practicality of his mother; or the diverse cataloging of Wilbur’s slop meals. Then, in reading Some Writer! (its title an allusion to Charlotte’s praise of Wilbur in her web), we developed a greater appreciation for these observations. It turns out that Louis’ father was modeled after White’s own father (“Father…didn’t hesitate to say in twenty words what could be said in six.”). Similarly, the detailed descriptions of Wilbur’s life stemmed, not only from White’s intimate familiarity with farm chores, but from heartbreak after his own pig died from disease. When White was giving input into the movie adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, he cautioned the director that “the film should be a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung.”

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

While certainly my children’s favorite part, the attention to Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little (White’s first children’s book), comprises only three of thirteen chapters in Sweet’s book. Taken as a whole, the book reads like a traditional biography, beginning with White’s birth in 1899 outside New York City (born Elwyn Brooks White, he went by Andy all his life, and Sweet invokes his first name throughout the book in a fitting nod to his modesty) and ending eighty-six years later on White’s beloved farm in Maine.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

My son—on the heels of his own summer vacation in Maine—took a keen interest in White’s first encounter with Maine, during his childhood summers spent at Belgrade Lakes, initially undertaken on a doctor’s order for White’s hay fever. It was on these chilly shores that White, in the spirit of Sam Beaver, began the observations of the natural world that would later infuse his children’s stories.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

With his wife (fellow writer Katharine Sergeant Angell, for whom White composed love poems) and his young son, White settled in Maine, raising animals for food. Writing may have come easily to White, but money never did, especially in the years his beloved wife was ill. Most of what Write wrote—he was a freelance writer for The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as a prolific letter writer—was not for children, and came out of both his need to make a living and a commitment to presenting life in its grit and glory. White’s innate ruggedness and scrappiness, which we first glimpse in his post-collegiate road trip across the country, comes through beautifully in Sweet’s pages: he never opted for the easy path, but he always acted true to his passions.

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White was insistent that, upon death, his farm be sold: he did not want it turned into a museum. Sweet explains that White shunned the notion of author as celebrity, believing that an author’s duty was “to transmit, as best as he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world.” He wrote of his own work: “All that I can say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around.” Anyone who has read White’s books knows you don’t have to dig at all before you’re marveling at the craftsmanship of a spider’s egg sac, or the stillness of a pond underneath a blanket of ice. It seems to me that, for White, his most meaningful legacy would be for our children to share in this love.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

Every Tuesday, my son joins his class on a trail hike through the forest preserve that begins steps from his classroom. This week, the hike took place in the pouring rain. When JP got into the car at pick up, he was bursting with excitement, gesturing wildly from the backseat as he described the scene: “Mom, you would not believe the creek today: it was like rapids! If you tried to walk across it, you would be swept away! We had to hold onto the tree branches because the wind was whipping against our faces, and one kid slipped in the mud on the way back up so we had to stage a Rescue Mission, and the whole time the water was making this crashing sound, and it was seriously the Best. Day. Ever.” If White had been next to me in the car, I believe he would have been smiling.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

While on the subject of weather, I have to close with one final citation from Sweet’s book, because White’s words seem almost prophetic, given the political, social, and environmental landscape in which we find ourselves, on the heels of this past election. At the same time, his words remind us of the cyclical nature of life, something central to the themes of his children’s classics. This excerpt is from a letter White wrote in 1973:

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time, waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Ever the optimist: in his essays and letters and poems and novels, White reminds us that one only has to take a canoe out on a lake at sunrise to experience the good that exists around us.

And this book reminds us that words can sometimes be the greatest gift of all.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

(Well…that wasn’t exactly brief. But you didn’t really think I could pull that off, right?)

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

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