December 8, 2016 § 2 Comments
I 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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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!
November 17, 2016 § 10 Comments
In 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.
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.
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.”).
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.”).
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!”).
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.”)
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.”)
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!
September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments
We 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.
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!)
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.
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 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.)
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.
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!
November 19, 2015 § 6 Comments
A. A. Milne’s iconic classic, Winnie the Pooh, the collected tales of a stuffed-bear-come-to-life and his friends, was one of those books I was most excited as a new parent to read to my children. I still have the copy that once belonged to my own mother and her brothers: a water-stained hardback with their own handwritten improvisations along the way.
While I vaguely recollect reading and enjoying this classic as a child myself, I’ll admit that my more prominent memories are of decorating friends’ yearbooks with A.A. Milne quotations (“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” said Piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered.) Pooh and his friends, it seems, have an enduring resonance.
When it came to cracking the spine on this treasure for my firstborn, I didn’t anticipate how surprisingly sophisticated A.A. Milne’s writing is. I first tried to read Winnie the Pooh to JP when he was only three and a half. Big mistake. The dry humor was over his head (it’s hard to find Owl’s misspellings funny when you don’t know how to spell yourself); and the sudden jumps in narration were jarring (one minute we’re in the 100 Acre Wood, the next we’re in Christopher Robin’s bedroom hearing about the 100 Acre Wood). I would be erupting in giggles, while JP would be eyeing me as if to say, This is funny why?
We tried again when JP was six, with much greater success, although I think the beauty of Pooh (in the vein of other classics, like The Little Prince) is that it can be re-read at almost every age from here on out for different gain. The 100 Acre Wood is like a microcosm for the world. In it, we encounter the same personalities that we do on the outside. Look at bossy pants over there, hopping around like ‘ol Rabbit. Cool it with the Kanga-like cheerleading, kay? I need a lunch date with my Piglet.
One might argue that, at the heart of this microcosm, is Pooh bear himself, the lens through which the child reader sees the world. Pooh is the very embodiment of childhood innocence. He spends his days moving through states of befuddlement, hunger, distraction, anxiety, and discovery. He’s Every Child. As much as we observe and chuckle over what Pooh’s friends are doing, we feel what Pooh feels.
Today, 89 years after A.A. Milne published his classic, we are being treated to a new picture book that will likely be as mind blowing for your children as it is for mine. WINNIE THE POOH WAS REAL. That is, there was once a real live bear named Winnie. A bear who was adopted by a World War One veterinarian and named after the soldier’s Canadian hometown, Winnipeg. A bear who became the Mascot of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade and kept the soldiers’ spirits high in training camp. A bear who, when the soldiers were shipped out to France, eventually came to reside in the London Zoo. A bear who was visited every day in the zoo by a little boy named Christopher Robin—along with his father, the aspiring writer A.A. Milne.
A bear who was—drumroll, please—a female.
That’s right: as Lindsay Mattick chronicles in her irresistibly charming new picture book, the inspiration for Milne’s Pooh was, in fact, a female Canadian-British bear named Winnie, whom Milne’s son adored and played with at the London Zoo for many years (and for whom he named his own stuffed toy bear).
It’s the backstory of how Winnie came to the zoo that takes center stage in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. Author Mattick has a personal connection to this story: she is the great-granddaughter of Captain Harry Colebourn, the veterinarian-soldier who initially befriends Winnie outside a Canadian train station on his way to care for the horses in the Army’s training camp. The book is actually framed as a bedtime story, which Mattick herself is delivering to her own eager son, so that he might learn about his great-great grandfather.
You might say Finding Winnie is three love stories wrapped into one. A solider and his bear. A boy and his bear. A mother and her son.
Captain Harry’s relationship with Winnie is love at first sight. He parts with twenty dollars (a lot in those days, Mattick explains to her son) to purchase the Bear from a trapper at the train station. At first, the Captain’s entire regiment is horrified: “We are on a journey of thousands of miles, heading into the thick of battle, and you propose to bring this Most Dangerous Creature?” But Henry’s heart makes up his mind for him: “There is something special about that Bear,” he professes to himself.
My children go mind-blown-crazy for true stories, although it’s rare that I can find one that’s as interesting to my eight year old as it is to my five year old. My oldest is obsessed with trying to understand what war looks like; my youngest just wants sweet stories about animals. This book manages a bit of both: it gives behind-the-scenes glimpses of World War One, alongside humorous anecdotes of the pet Bear’s insatiable appetite, playful antics, and avid curiosity.
Finding Winnie’s broad appeal is in no small part owing to Sophie Blackall’s soft yet stirring ink-and-watercolor illustrations. Have I mentioned my obsession with Blackall? Her art is at once feminine and masculine; at once nostalgic and fresh. Her play of color and light infuses emotion into every single detail. In short, her touch is pure magic (heck, she got me to love a story about wrestling back in 2013!). She could illustrate the Dictionary and I’d probably walk around hugging it to my chest.
“There is something you must always remember,” Harry said. “It’s the most important thing, really. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my Bear.”
But where one love story ends—Mattick reassures her son—another begins. The book goes on to explore the playful relationship between Winnie and Christopher Robin in the early 1900s. It’s not long before Christopher Robin is granted permission to enter Winnie’s enclosure and ride on his back (apparently, zoos are not what they used to be).
But what about Harry? Cole asks his mother, returning our focus at the end to Winnie’s first family. Mattick explains how Harry returned safely to Canada after the war and started a family of his own, of which Cole is now a part. My children like to trace their fingers over the Family Tree, a visual which makes it all the clearer the role that the different characters in the book indirectly play in Pooh’s story.
The book’s final four pages are made to look like excerpts from Maddick’s own family album, including actual black-and-white photographs of Harry and Winnie, an excerpt from Harry’s journal on the day he adopted Winnie, and the original Animal Record Card that shows the day Winnie was checked into the London Zoo. All proof, my son was quick to point out, that this story actually happened.
What is left to pure speculation is why A.A. Milne changed the sex of the real bear when making up stories about the pretend bear. Perhaps that secret will forever rest between him and his son (a fourth love story of sorts). Still, I don’t mind not knowing. I’ve often thought that the discussions my children and I have while reading together are as interesting as the books themselves.
But I must run. My kids and I have a date with one Pooh bear and a water-stained hardback that has been passed along for generations.
Review copy provided by Little Brown. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
July 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
One of the Great Surprises of my life came on a hot, clear summer day last August. My sister in law was visiting, and she and I decided to take the kids over to National Harbor in Maryland. “You know, Mommy, I heard they built a Ferris wheel there. I think we should ride it,” offers my eldest.
SAY WHAT? Now, I’ve read the parenting books, and I know we’re not supposed to label our children. So, in lieu of describing my seven year old as cautious, I’ll just say that he prefers to apply the road sign, PROCEED WITH CAUTION, to as much of his life as possible. If JP determines something to be of physical risk, he’ll likely avoid it all together—or spend weeks (ahem, years) ruminating on it, observing others doing it, until he’s absolutely sure he can proceed safely and confidently and without anyone’s assistance (see: bike riding). Heck, there are slides in our neighborhood that he still deems too tall to slide down.
So, I’m suddenly supposed to believe that my son is going to leave the safety of the ground aboard a giant rotating wheel that he has never actually laid eyes on? Don’t get me wrong, I was positively giddy at the prospect (wait, do you think we can start going to theme parks and rock walls?!), although I was careful to do my best nonchalant impersonation when I answered him, “Yeah, sure, we can do that, maybe, whatevs.” No need to jinx things with my shock and excitement.
On the ferry ride over, as we caught first sight of the Metal Monstrosity, hanging precariously out over the pier, I once again thought, NOT A CHANCE. And I once again was floored. “Wow, it’s a lot bigger than I thought, Mommy. But we are definitely riding it.”
As we got in line and paid a mere fortune (honestly, I would have forked over any amount to reward this burst of spontaneity), I watched with trepidation as the color began to drain from JP’s face. I realized he was listening to the attendant, who was loading people into what turned out to be giant glass-enclosed cars and then pointing out the large red “panic” buttons located in each interior. “Why do they need those buttons?” JP asked me.
“Um, in case someone feels sick and they want to come down and get out. I’m sure they hardly ever get used,” I quickly responded. Although I was beginning to wonder the same thing.
And then we were bolted in, quickly rising higher and higher, until we were suspended over the water on one side and the itty bitty figures of people waiting in line on the other. And then—as is the custom with every Ferris wheel I’ve ever been on—we were paused, dangling, SWAYING, for what seemed like an eternity, as a new round of people boarded at the bottom. And we still had four more laps to go.
I looked at JP. “How are you feeling, buddy?”
He shot me a look like, don’t you dare talk to me right now or I’m going to start screaming like a banshee. Or maybe I’m just projecting how I was feeling. That panic button was calling to me. My sister in law looked equally frozen. (My three year old, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed.)
But we did it. All of us. All five laps. We oooed and we ahhhed, and then we ventured that we might, we might, do it again someday. As we stepped off, I turned and asked the attendant (out of earshot of JP), “How often do people use that panic button?” She rolled her eyes. “You have no idea,” she said. But I did.
Weeks later, I asked JP what made him decide to ride the Ferris wheel. He started rambling about metal and motors and making grand gestures with his hands—and, suddenly, it dawned on me that it was sheer engineering that had seduced him. Even before he saw it in real life—when it was just something he had seen in pictures—the lure was magnificently romantic.
As if right on cue, Kathryn Gibbs Davis’ Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (Ages 5-10), a fascinating picture book biography of the man who invented the Ferris wheel, was soon published and quickly became a favorite in our house (along with the other engineering-themed picture books listed at the end of this post).
Once again, as with the best non-fiction children’s books, I was learning alongside my children.
Like many of history’s greatest inventions, the Ferris wheel was born out of competition. It was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in an attempt, not only to “impress the world,” but to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, which had debuted ten months earlier. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., an American mechanical engineer, was already famous for designing some of our country’s biggest bridges, tunnels and roads. As he watched the earliest skyscrapers rise in front of his eyes on “elegant steel frames” (modeled after birdcages, as we learn in one of the fascinating asides in the book), he began to ask himself, what if I take the skyscraper concept and have it “dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower?”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t plenty of speed bumps along the way. After initially flat-out rejecting George’s proposal as “so flimsy it would collapse,” the Fair committee later reluctantly awarded him the bid, on the contingency that George secure his own funding (which he did by depleting his personal savings, so fervently did he believe in his dream).
Next, there was the stress of time: Ferris had only FOUR MONTHS to source materials, hire a crew, construct a perfect, enormous circle (“834 feet in circumference, rising 265 feet above the ground”), and then make it spin with the “precision of a small watch.” Oh, and did I mention that the passenger cars were the size of living rooms, with enormous picture windows and velvet seats to boot?
The next time your child tells you something is impossible, have them think on that.
Still, if those challenges aren’t enough to rivet your child’s attention, let me tell you about my son’s favorite page (can we say dynamite?). When George and his crew first began work on the foundation, in the middle of one of Chicago’s coldest winters, they not only had to blast through layers of ice, but they had to battle 35 feet of quicksand (yes, that’s right, the Fair’s site turned out to be atop QUICKSAND).
All these happenings are narrated seamlessly and compellingly by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, appealing to a wide range of ages. Some of the more technical information is presented in optional asides (not optional for us, of course), but even the engineering specifics feel accessible.
Still, not being an engineer myself, I have to say that, for me, the greatest appeal of this book lies in Gilbert Ford’s exquisite mixed-media watercolors, which twinkle and soar and PERFECTLY ROMANTICIZE the dream, the ambition, the teamwork, the national pride, the engineering prowess, the magic, and the fun surrounding the Chicago World Fair. The fantastical color palette of turquoise, hot pink, deep purple, and midnight blue makes the experience of reading the story even more magical.
I get goosebumps just thinking about how the Ferris wheel must have looked to the people who stood before it, especially when it was lit up at night. At that time, houses were still predominantly lit with candles, so this was most people’s first chance to see electricity in action. Farmers and executives alike came to see the 3,000 electric light bulbs in action. Why, it must have seemed like the work of fairies. At least, that’s how it is painted.
Of course, Davis’ story reminds us that the wheel was, in reality, four months of incredibly hard, back-breaking labor, nearly all of it performed by human hands. Not to mention exacting conceptualizing, measuring, and overseeing by human brains, most notably those of George and his engineering partner, William Gronau.
During the nineteen weeks the wheel was in operation, 1.5 million passengers rode it. It revolved more than 10,000 times, withstood gale-force winds and storms, and did not need one repair.
Perhaps, no matter how cautious we might consider ourselves (or our children), we are powerless to resist the seduction of the Ferris wheel. Untethered from the ground, given over to pure engineering beauty, we feel the awe-inspiring magnitude of the human spirit.
But it does feel good to be back on firm ground when it’s done.
Other Favorite Engineering-Themed Picture Books:
Building Our House, by Jonathan Bean (Ages 4-8)
Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts (Ages 4-8; reviewed here!)
Violet the Pilot, by Steve Breen (Ages 4-8)
Pop’s Bridge, by Eve Bunting & C.F. Payne (Ages 6-12)
Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building, by Deborah Hopkinson & James E. Ransome (Ages 6-12)
The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness (Ages 7-14)
AND get this: there is ANOTHER picture book bio about George Ferris coming out this fall, titled The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris, by Betsy Harvey Craft. As far as I can tell, it details the same story but with more text and information, so it could potentially be great for an older child. It also looks beautifully illustrated (by Steven Salemo)—in a completely different way than Gilbert Ford’s.
Review copy provided by 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!
July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
Remember how last summer I waited until August to tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture books of 2014? Well, this summer, you’re in luck, because I’ve only waited until July (you’d think by now I would have a clue as to how impossibly little a parent can accomplish when school is not in session).
Anyway, in case you missed the Facebook posts, I recently did three 2015 summer reading guest posts for the wonderful local blog DIY Del Ray. The first (read it here) was about my favorite new beach-y Picture Books: Sea Rex, Pool, Ice Cream Summer, and The Blue Whale.
The second post (read it here) was focused on new titles in Early Chapter Series, guaranteed to keep those newly-independent readers from losing momentum over the summer: Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny, The Case of the Weird Blue Chicken, Pop Goes the Circus, and Dory and the Real True Friend (this last one hit bookstores just this week— WHOOOP WHOOOP—we have mad love for the first Dory book in our house, if you recall).
The third post (read it here) starred middle-grade novels for the 9-14 year old crowd, especially those who love escaping into rich, meaty stories—in this case, those tinged with everyday magic (after all, nothing beats summer for magical escapades): Circus Mirandus, Echo, A Snicker of Magic, and (my favorite YR novel of last year, now in paperback) The Night Gardener.
Want more? I was feeling nostalgic (lazy?) and dug up some old posts from my archives, books that are still read frequently around our house, especially in these hot, sticky, lazy days of summer. Remember last year’s ode to Reading Deficit Disorder and this poetic cure? If the poems in Firefly July are too long, you can’t get any shorter than seasonal haikus (with some zen meditation thrown in for good measure).
There’s no time like summer for instilling a love for the natural world. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for books about trees, titles like Picture a Tree and The Tree Lady. Oh, and never forget how The Lorax can make stage-worthy readers of us all. Then there’s Miss Maple’s Seeds, which I could pretty much read every day to my children, so lovely is this message of care taking and growing up.
If you, like me, are desperately trying to recruit your children to help pull up the mountains of weeds that seem to erupt in the backyard after every downpour, then you might have luck piquing their interest with books about worms. Or dandelions. Or bugs. Or birds (seriously, these bird books are amazing).
And please, if you haven’t spent a few glorious firefly-studded evenings reading The Night Fairy, then tarry no longer. While we’re on the subject of chapter books that pay homage to the natural world, need I also remind you about the sequels to The Cricket in Times Square, where the scrappy Manhattanites become seduced by the charms of the Connecticut countryside?
Occasionally, I wake up in summer and decide we’re all going to learn something. And off we go to a museum, after which I have to spend a few days lying about basking in the glow of my parental ambition and warning my children not to talk to me. If I’m really feeling fancy, I pair these museum or zoo outings with books about art history or books about astronomy or books about archaeology or books about zoology. Sometimes, I just can’t bear the thought of another packed picnic lunch, and so we make do with staying put and reading about Famous People and the Really Important Stuff They Did.
If you live in my house, you are privy to 70 daily discussions about the weather, 90% of which are generated by my seven year old. And that was last year, when the weather was relatively uneventful. This summer, the daily discussions have risen to 700, almost as frequent as the hourly changes to the weather forecast. Boy, Were We Wrong About the Weather! is my son’s new obsession—that is, when he isn’t lecturing me about the devastating effects of global warming, as evidenced in this other favorite.
And last but not least, don’t forget about our finny friends, the ones lucky enough to spend their whole year plunging beneath the clear, cool water. Many of my favorites are listed in this post from a few years ago (Jangles!), which incidentally concludes with my longest and most diverse reading list to date. Of course, we must add this year’s magnificent non-fiction picture book, The Blue Whale, and now we’re right back where we started.
Happy summer, happy reading.
December 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
I have been waiting all year to tell you about this book. Then, last week, terrorists stormed a school in Pakistan and savagely butchered innocent children. My heart broke as I watched the news coverage; and suddenly, I didn’t want to wait a second longer to discuss this special book. Let’s all hold hands and agree to share this book with our children early and often. Please.
Amidst its powerful message of familial relationships and responsibilities, set against the historical backdrop of one of the greatest leaders our world has ever seen, Grandfather Gandhi (Ages 6-12) is also about the very real, very universal feeling of anger. What the book reminds us is that, however inevitable our anger may be, we always, always have a choice in how we express it.
But let me back up. Let me start by saying that Grandfather Gandhi is not a traditional biography of Mahatma Gandhi (in fact, the book assumes the reader has some basic biographical knowledge—a feat easily accomplished by a parent elaborating as he or she shares this book aloud).
Rather, this picture book is a deeply personal account of Gandhi as an old man—as seen through the eyes of his adolescent grandson. A collaborative effort between American author Bethany Hegedus and Mahatma Gandhi’s fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi, Grandfather Gandhi was first conceived a month after 9/11, when Hegedus attended one of Arun’s speeches in New York City. She listened to him speak about the two years he spent as a boy living with his grandfather at Sevagram, the ashram where Gandhi lived towards the end of his life. From age twelve to fourteen, Arun not only got to know his grandfather, about whom he had only ever heard stories, but he learned one of the greatest lessons of his life.
Grandfather Gandhi does a masterful job of gently inviting the reader into this difficult time of transition for Arun. For the young boy, coming from his home in South Africa (where his favorite pastime was watching John Wayne movies on TV), life on the dusty ashram could not have felt more foreign. The mushy pumpkin porridge, the 4am call to prayer, the communal labor (from weeding the garden to changing toilet buckets), and the strict daily tutoring in the language of Gujarati all threaten to overwhelm and frustrate him. Arun wants to impress his grandfather, his Bapu, who smells of peanut oil and takes him on walks around the ashram; and yet, Arun finds himself coming up against his own perceived inadequacies (he can’t sit still during meditation; he can’t form proper letters with the tiny pencil stub he has to use). Bapu tells his grandson to have faith and be patient, but his advice initially falls on deaf ears.
One of Grandfather Gandhi’s greatest strengths is the way in which first-time illustrator Evan Turk allows the reader to experience something as abstract as Arun’s simmering anger. Undoubtedly, an enormous part of this book’s appeal for children—why they will want to listen to this story again and again—lies in Turk’s rich, compelling collages, which combine paint with paper cut-outs and three-dimensional materials chosen to highlight aspects of life on the ashram (like tin foil to represent the tin bowls in which all food was eaten, and plain white cotton gauze for Gandhi’s clothes).
One of the materials Turk invokes throughout the story is yarn, a reference to Gandhi’s passion for his spinning wheel, which he used as a way to quiet and focus his mind. Oftentimes, though, the yarn in Turk’s illustrations is black, tangled, and wiry, spreading out around young Arun’s head as a way to signal his confusion and frustration.
We’ve had no shortage of anger in our house this year. It never fails to stun me how my son can be smiling and calm one minute, then exploding with rage the very next: the injustice or shame or hurt spilling messily forth from his clenched fists, his leaky eyes, his accosting voice. These outbursts, however normal or age-appropriate they may be, never fail to push every button inside me, until my own anger and helplessness threaten to consume me as well—and, worse, threaten to wedge resentment into our relationship. It has been a tremendous year of growth for both of us, and we have made great strides. And in many, many instances, I have found myself coming back to this book—and to the climactic moment in which Arun’s own seething anger drives him straight to his grandfather’s hut.
Already anxious and upset by his perceived failure in the eyes of his grandfather at adjusting to life on the ashram, Arun is finally pushed to the breaking point while playing a game of soccer with some of the other children. One of the cousins shoves Arun and steals the ball, inadvertently sending Arun face down into the dirt, blood trickling from his lips. Arun stands up and snatches a rock, screaming, “You did that on purpose!” His cousin tells him to calm down. “But I didn’t want to calm down. I wanted to throw the rock, to hit Suman, like he hit me.”
There is not a living being who cannot relate to this desire for retaliation.
Arun is convinced that his angry reaction in the soccer game only confirms that he doesn’t fit with the peaceful values of his family and the ashram. How could he, a Gandhi, be so easy to anger? Arun drops the rock and runs to find his grandfather, the great Teacher of Peace.
“Do not be ashamed, we all feel anger.”
But that wasn’t possible. Suman and Kanu, maybe, but not Grandfather.
“Even you?” I asked.
“Even me,” said Grandfather.
Gandhi then introduces the boy to the spinning wheel, and as their fingers go to work, Gandhi tells him that anger is like electricity: “Anger can strike, like lightning, and split a living tree in two.”
“Or it can be channeled, transformed. A switch can be flipped, and it can shed light like a lamp…Then anger can illuminate. It can turn the darkness into light…Arun, we can all work to use our anger, instead of letting it use us.”
Gandhi doesn’t shame his grandson. He doesn’t judge him. He does what we as parents are told to do in today’s parenting books: he validates Arun’s emotions; he helps him understand that what he is feeling is part of being human. But Gandhi also invites the boy to choose—then and forever—between lightning and light, each time he feels the anger rising inside of him.
I was so moved by the way in which Grandfather Gandhi, not only humanizes for our children a great historic leader, but also presents a rich metaphor for how we might handle our own experiences of anger—that I was ecstatic when our local bookstore (Hooray for Books!) offered to bring the book’s co-author, Bethany Hegedus, to my son’s Montessori classroom. (Through this exercise, I’ve learned that Maria Montessori and Gandhi were good buds, which explains why my son is given knitting and crocheting to do in school, whenever he needs a break.)
As we prepare to wind down the year, to welcome the holidays surrounded by loved ones, to stare up at the clear, star-filled night sky and pray for a more peaceful future at home and on the other side of the world, I want to leave you with this picture of my son and his classmates listening, transfixed, as Ms. Hegedus reads from her book. These boys and girls—along with their peers around the world—hold great power in their hands, as do the adults who model for them. We can let our anger consume us, inviting more violence, more tragic crimes against humanity; or we can channel kindness and tolerance and forgiveness. We can choose light. We can choose peace. We can choose a future together.
I wish you all a blessed holiday and a peaceful 2015.
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!