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 Should Get to Know Harriet Tubman

February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Like Wonder, You’ll Love This

February 8, 2018 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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!

Introducing Activism to Children

November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments

Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer & Christopher EliopoulosIn light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.

What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened?

In the first 48 hours following the shocking results, I was unable to turn away from the news, inhaling every editorial or opinion piece that I could find—as if, taken together, all those words could fill the chasm that I felt breaking open inside me. Two common refrains did provide some element of sense-making—at the very least, something I could echo to my children: one, that many of the people who voted for our president-elect do not support his hateful rhetoric but did so because they or their communities are hurting in very real ways; and two, that with a country so vehemently divided, we have to start listening to one another if we are going to find a productive and peaceful way forward.

Eventually, though, the news just made my head hurt more. (I then went through a period of emotional eating, but we’ll leave that out…plus, it hasn’t completely ended and, come to think of it, I think I’m getting low on peanut butter ice cream…)

Ultimately, though—as has been true so many times in my life—it is books that are serving as my therapy, books that are giving me hope. In my alone time in the car, I am listening to Sissy Spacek’s beautiful recording of To Kill a Mockingbird and taking heart in everything that comes out of the mouth of Atticus Finch. Immediately following the election, I read to the kids Debbie Levy’s new picture book biography, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, mostly so I could reassure myself that there are still people in power fighting for decency and justice. Then, over the weekend, the kids and I cozied up and rejoiced in Ratpunzel, the latest in the deliciously feminist “Hamster Princess” series, because, well, escapist therapy feels pretty great right now.

But the most fortuitous book-related turn of events came when the kids and I stumbled upon a collection of books about the very heroes from our past who can inspire us to stand up in our future. These are true stories that address many of the very prejudices and injustices that I believed were mired in our country’s past, but which I am now painfully aware were not all that deeply buried after all.

As kismet would have it, last week’s election was immediately followed by the arrival of our Scholastic mail-order books, which my kids have been eagerly anticipating ever since they turned in their orders at school a few weeks ago (the newsprint circulars from Scholastic are another thing that has not changed in this country).

I had been pleasantly surprised when my six year old originally picked out a “starter set” of five titles in Brad Meltzer’s “Ordinary People Change the World” series, seeing as she has shown zero interest in biographies to date (or, if I’m being honest, in most non-fiction). Of course, she’s exactly the reader that Meltzer intended to target when he decided to introduce historical figures through conversation, cartoons, and a child-centric view of the world, in such titles as I am Abraham Lincoln, I am Rosa Parks, I am Albert Einstein, I am Jackie Robinson, and I am Amelia Earhart. (In less than a week, we have since added I am Jane Goodall, I am Martin Luther King Jr., I am George Washington, and I am Helen Keller to our collection. And I am Lucille Ball and I am Jim Henson are on our list.)

If I was originally surprised by my daughter’s selection, I am even more surprised that, in the days following our initial reading of the first five books, my daughter has carried them everywhere. She reads them in the bathroom. She reads them at night by flashlight. And, since she can’t actually read, she asks me to read them aloud to her again and again.

I am even more surprised that my third grader has stopped what he’s doing—every single time—to look over our shoulders as we read them. As if he too can’t get enough. He even took three to bed with him last night.

I am even more surprised by how animated and excited I become while reading these books, as if optimism—and not outrage or heartbreak—is raining down upon us for a few precious minutes.

I am even more surprised that I’m saying this about these particular books. Because I have, admittedly, been slow to get on the bandwagon of Brad Meltzer’s popular series, which launched almost three years ago. There’s much about Christopher Eliopoulus’ illustrations—the oversized heads, the gaping black mouths, the blunt backgrounds—that I initially mistook for crude (the adult-in-a-kid’s-body still kind of freaks me out). I preferred reading about Einstein through the sublime art of On a Beam of Light, or Lincoln through the abstract palette of Looking for Lincoln. But, of course, my six year old doesn’t.

So, while I’ve recommended the “Ordinary People Change the World” series to schools, even brought them into my kids’ classrooms from the library, I never really saw them as worthy to own. Of course, I hadn’t ever sat down and read one cover to cover. Until now.

Now, I get it. Because Meltzer’s writing is utterly captivating. The choice to write in the first person is unique (“It’s like I’m hearing their real voices, Mommy!”), and the choice to directly address the child reader makes it impossible to look away.

Each book is a living and breathing example of what it looks like to stand up for what you believe, to stand up for what you love, to stand up for what is right. Each book showcases obstacles that had to be overcome, nay-sayers that had to be denied, and courage that had to be summoned. Each book demonstrates the way in which determination, combined with hard work, a hefty dose of creativity, and serious guts, fuels ordinary people to make the extraordinary happen.

It turns out that Eliopoulus’ blend of cartoons and comics perfectly complements the tone of the narrative, heightening the indignance of the voices, the unfairness of the situations, and the celebration of expectations overturned. As a bonus, his pictures lend humor to many of the pages (and if there’s one thing that will get my youngest interested in history, it’s humor).

When Rosa Parks talks about how she used to wonder if rainbows would come out of the “colored” drinking fountains—the ones that were outside and around the building from the “white only” fountains—we want to reach through the page and hold her little hand.
"I am Rosa Parks" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

When the character of Jackie Robinson confides to the child reader about bravery, we lean in to listen. Jackie was not by most definitions a brave kid: “In fact, as a kid, I didn’t like sleeping alone. I used to sleep in my mom’s bed. Even when she tried to bribe me, I wouldn’t leave.” And yet, years later, his passion for baseball—and for winning at baseball—led him to persevere against all odds, despite pitchers throwing fastballs at his head and catchers spitting on his shoes and letters that threatened to hurt his family.

"I am Jackie Robinson" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

These books are much more sophisticated than I presumed at first glance—scintillating for a kindergartener, yet still plenty meaty at 30-40 pages for a third and fourth grader. Neither do they shy away from hard truths. In I am Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln watches as a boat sails down the Ohio river carrying slaves chained to one another (“I didn’t do anything that day, but for years, the memory of those people…it haunted me.”).

"I am Abraham Lincoln" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

In I am Martin Luther King Jr., many of the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement—and the violent reactions they sometimes spurred—are vividly brought to life, including the Children’s Crusade (“The chief of police told the firemen to spray the children with water hoses and attack them with dogs.”).

"I am Martin Luther King, Jr." by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

Defiance comes in many forms. Both my kids were fascinated to learn that General George Washington used invisible ink and code names to draw up plans that the British couldn’t read (“How’d we win? We were smarter. We were sneakier. We were fighting for a cause. For freedom!”).
"I am George Washington" by Brad Meltzer & Christoper Eliopoulos

Helen Keller, mocked for her “dumbness” and initially told she couldn’t attend college—even after she had taught herself to speak—went on to fight for the access of public universities for all people, regardless of disabilities. Because activism breeds activism, she also went on to become a suffragist, an early advocate for free speech, and a fighter for equal rights for black Americans. And she did so by making sure that she met with every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson (“But let’s be honest. They met her.”)

"I am Helen Keller" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

Jane Goodall’s love for the planet and the animals with whom we share that planet feels especially poignant right now; and the undeniable cuteness of the chimps in I am Jane Goodall doesn’t hurt. (“Listen to the feelings in your heart. We are responsible for the animals around us. We must take care of them. When one of us is in trouble—be it human, creature, or nature itself—we must reach out and help.”)

"I am Jane Goodall" by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos

It’s hard to say how much my daughter understands about this presidential election and its ramifications. Probably not a whole lot. In the 48 hours that followed, while her older brother was busy listing off organizations that we should give money to and describing signs he wants to make for the yard (Peace for All), Emily just kept asking, “Can’t they have a do-over?”

But I wonder if, perhaps on some subconscious level, she was drawn to these books because they carry with them a note of hope in a time that feels dangerously close to listing toward hopelessness. Children don’t have to understand the particulars about our government to pick up on the uncertainty and uneasiness that exists in the air right now. These books reassure us of the greatness in our country and across the world, of the resiliency of mankind, and of the potential for one person to make a difference.

Each of Meltzer’s biographies closes with a call to action, an encouragement to stand up in the name of human dignity. One of the most fitting passages, given our current social climate, comes out of the mouth of Rosa Parks (via Brad Meltzer).

In my life, people tried to knock me down.
Tried to make me feel less than I was. They teased
me for being small. Being black. Being different.
Let me be clear: No one should be able to do that.
But if they try, you must stand strong.
Stand for what’s right.
Stand up for yourself (even if it means sitting down).

Brad Meltzer needs to write a whole lot more of these books—and FAST. I hope to see an even greater diversity of races, religions, and sexual orientations represented in the people he decides to profile. I promise you, we are going to read every single one. Multiple times.

If I can encourage my children to bear witness to these acts of dismissal, hate, and bigotry on paper, then hopefully they will spot them in real life, too. If the language for talking about these acts already exists in their lexicon, then hopefully they will not shy away from speaking out, not only when the time is right, but every time it’s right.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

With these small books, our children (and us) have an opportunity to climb inside different slices of history, to witness how activism can take a multitude of brave and peaceful forms, and to perhaps even feel some of the bewilderment, outrage, thoughtfulness, and determination of ordinary people who spoke up and acted out to change the world.

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

Winning Against All Odds

September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

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

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

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

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

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

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

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

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

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

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

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

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

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

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

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

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

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

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

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

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

Teamwork conquers all.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

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

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

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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!

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