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.
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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.
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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!
December 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
If I had a dollar for every time my children tell me they are doing a science experiment, I would be a rich Mama. Most of these experiments involve putting water in a cup with some household item and sticking it in the freezer (spoiler alert: it freezes). Sometimes, usually with the help of birthday gifts, they might raise their game by building baking-soda volcanoes or citrus-powered clocks.
Our children’s natural curiosity about the inner-workings of the world has been given extra-special treatment in books this year. Today, I’ll be singing the praises of two novels for the 9-12 crowd, which seamlessly weave science into the drama of middle-school life (one stars a boy, the other a girl). For the younger elementary child, a picture book biography on Carl Sagan will prove the perfect entrée into the mysteries of the cosmos. Without further ado, let us begin.
[Warning: this book may cause your child to talk like a robot well beyond the last page.] Author Jon Scieszka, long-time advocate for the reluctant boy reader (see his inspiring tips here), embarks on the ultimate Science is Cool chapter book series, with Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud). Frank Einstein is a kid-genius inventor—with a special fondness for his Grampa Al, as well as for his Grampa Al’s Fix-It! Shop (“the greatest place in the world to test any invention you might think of”). Determined to win the Midville Science Prize and reap a large cash reward to pay off Grampa Al’s debts, Frank, his best-pal Watson, and two self-assembled artificial intelligence entities named Klink and Klank (my son’s new favorite literary characters), create a Fly Bike powered by an Antimatter Motor. Naturally, all this gets complicated by Frank’s arch-nemesis: the doomsday-plotting, idea-stealing, robot-napping T.Edison.
Besides talking robots and bikes that fly, this story boasts DroneBug spies, Universal-Strength Peanut Butter Bubble Gum, and an evil chimp who talks in sign language. But lest you think this is just another science fiction romp: nearly every page boasts real science. I’m talking actual neuroscience (how do robots’ brains work?); biophysics (what are the three states of matter, and how do they become antimatter?); chemical equations; and, above all, the power of “asking questions and finding your own answers,” despite trophies or prizes.
Much of this science appears in the form of black-and-white (and red) notebook sketches by popular illustrator Brian Biggs (remember the Everything Goes series?). In this way, Frank Einstein draws on the popularity of books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid—only it sneaks in a good deal more education and sophistication.
One thing we can always count on from Scieszka: he never underestimates the intelligence of his readers (remember Battle Bunny?). When I finished reading Frank Einstein to my seven year old (who, admittedly, is still too young to grasp much of the science), his response was: “Mommy, please leave the book next to my bed, because I want to read it a lot more.” Only, because we were only talking robot by then, it sounded more like, “LEAVE BOOK NEXT TO BED SO WE CAN READ AGAIN THANK YOU GOODNIGHT.”
If Scieszka’s book is in-your-face science, then Jennifer Holm’s warmly witty novel, The Fourteenth Goldfish (Ages 9-12), is through-the-back-door science. This is exactly the kind of chapter book I would have loved as a girl, especially a girl who didn’t think she was terribly fond of science and certainly wasn’t looking for a “science book” for fun.
Quiet, grounded, and skeptical sixth-grader Ellie is more peeved than astonished when the acne-dotted boy whom her mom brings home one afternoon turns out to be her grandfather. Sure, her scientist grandfather has discovered a way to reverse aging—only now, as a man turned minor, he can’t live on his own, drive a car, or operate his science lab. Suddenly, Ellie is stuck sharing a bathroom with her adolescent grandfather and helping him navigate the politics of her school cafeteria (all kids have to go to school, even ones with brains responsible for 19 scientific patents). To top it off, Ellie’s best friend is suddenly more interested in her new volleyball friends, and Ellie’s mother has her head in the clouds directing a high school production of Shakespeare.
In the spirit of If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, Ellie finds herself increasingly drawn into her grandfather’s scientific mind: listening to his pontifications on famous scientists (from Galileo to Jonas Salk), beginning to apply the Scientific Method to everyday life, and later leading the charge to break into her grandfather’s lab to recover the Turritopsis melvinus, the jellyfish species which, when ingested, turns out to be the secret to her grandfather’s age reversal. As Ellie begins to second guess her own assumptions about the aging process, she comes up against the moral implications of eternal youth. Like a modern-day Tuck Everlasting (which had a profound effect on me as a child), The Fourteenth Goldfish ultimately raises difficult and fascinating questions. Is immortality worth achieving? Or is their precious value in our own mortality?
Existential questions also lie at the heart of Stephanie Roth Sisson’s new picture book biography, Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos (Ages 5-8), a perfect choice for anyone not ready for the chapter books above. As a boy, Carl Sagan’s curiosity about the night sky—stars like “lightbulbs on long black wires”—leads him to the library, where his “heart beat faster with every page he turned” (a boy after my own heart!). His research into the sun and solar system parlays into his adult work, sending mechanical explorers to nearby planets, where he makes the famous discovery that “the very matter that makes us up was generated long ago and far away in red giant stars.” In other words, we are made of star stuff.
While our house has no shortage of fact-filled treasures about astronomy (see favorites here), I couldn’t resist adding Star Stuff to our collection, for its beautiful and virtually unparalleled simplicity (Jason Chin’s 2014 Gravity would be a close contender). With only a few choice sentences on each page, the economical text allows the scientific content to sink in, to penetrate our children’s minds and set up camp for a long time to come.
But the biggest draw is Sisson’s art, blending expanses of watercolor washes with bold black lines. I especially love the way in which she plays with perspective to show children how the sun appears as part of the milky way (a tiny speck); as part of a “neighborhood of stars” (not the biggest, but not the smallest); and, finally, as the center of our own solar system (an enormous fiery ball that dwarfs our own Earth).
There’s humanity present on every page, echoing Sagan’s own passion and approachability. Of particular note is the spread devoted to messages from Earth, which Sagan encapsulated in the Voyager spacecrafts before they were launched into interstellar space in hopes of encountering alien life. A reading of the index is critical to deciphering some of these messages, like the recording of Sagan’s lover’s heartbeat, or a message from his six-year-old son announcing, “Greetings from the children of planet Earth.” How cool to have a conversation with our children about what they would like to say to living creatures elsewhere in the universe? JP’s mind nearly exploded when we read that just last fall, Voyager 1 finally made it beyond our solar system and is now traveling towards distant galaxies!
Science can be robots. It can be inventions or experiments in a garage or a laboratory. It can cure things we didn’t know needed to be cured (and maybe shouldn’t be cured). And it can expand our concept of our place in the universe. But it all starts with curiosity, with asking questions, and with a relentless search for answers. Perhaps it can also start with putting the right book in our children’s hands.
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 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.
Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.
Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page.
The next time your child reports that his day was “fine,” give him a peek at this page:
Beginning when he was just a boy, Peter Roget kept a journal—only instead of filling it with stories or autobiographical entries, he made lists of words. He organized these lists by ideas, and every time he thought of another way to say something, he’d add it to a list. “Words, Peter learned, were powerful things. And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if all the world itself clicked into order.”
My seven year old loves lists. As a newly independent reader and writer, there is something inherently non-threatening about a list. Sweet has woven a multitude of word lists into and around Bryant’s narrative: some resemble the actual hand-printed classifications from Roget’s early notebooks, while others are imagined and brought to life with colorful, fanciful typography.
From the first time we read this book together, JP has been excited to read these peripheral lists to me, while I continue the main storyline. One of his favorites is the first in the book, which lists Roget’s life stages from birth to death (and is responsible for introducing a new favorite word in our house: “whippersnapper”).
In the spirit of Peter Roget, comes my new favorite heroine of 2014: the shy, intensely feeling, optimistic, and resilient Felicity Pickle, a sixth-grader with a special affinity for words. While you wouldn’t know it when she opens her mouth (usually tripping over her words, “standing there blinking, openmouthed, like the Queen of Dorkville”), the star of Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic (Ages 9-12) has an inner life that is the picture of eloquence. In the sad Tennessee town of Midnight Gulch, where the washed-up reality is tinged with the tiniest bit of magic and legend, Felicity has a unique power: she collects words. She literally pulls them out of the air—where she sees them hovering over people, or erupting out of a sound—and captures them in a notebook, eventually turning them into poetry to restore the hopes and dreams of a community she comes to love.
Even when she doesn’t realize it, Felicity’s attunement to language paves the way for her to connect with others. Embedded in the words that appear in the air when she meets people, are clues about their past, present, and future (their “word baggage,” if you will). When the uncle she’s never met before shows up on her doorstep with nothing but a guitar, Felicity sees the names of all the places he has traveled circling his head. When she passes a woman hunched over on the side of the street, Felicity might have passed right on by, if it weren’t for the strange and beautiful sequence of words silently emanating out of her: “Magnolia,” “Star root,” “Dragon,” “Luminous.” By the end of the novel, words like “Lonely” and “Clutzerdoodle,” which have followed Felicity around for as long as she can remember, are replaced with “Sunshine dress,” “Blooming,” and “Hearts fold.” If ever there was a book to seduce you into falling in love with language, this is it.
In Rain Reign (Ages 9-13), esteemed author Ann M. Martin gives her readers a new lens through which to view language, by allowing them to see the world through the narrative voice of a high-functioning autistic girl. Rose, we quickly learn, retreats from the pain of her home life and her social difficulties at school with a laser-sharp fixation on homonyms (words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings). Rose (homonym: rows) keeps lists of homonyms. She has rules for why one homonym makes it on her list and another one doesn’t. She identifies homonyms in (inn) nearly every exchange she has; and she has a difficult time listening to people without dissecting their sentences for possible new (gnu) homonyms.
Reading this acutely poignant book, I couldn’t help but think about the “letter” to parents going around Facebook right now: a teacher’s plea not to rush to judgment about “that kid” in school, the one who might regularly disrupt your more appropriately-behaved child; a plea to trust in the behind-the-scenes efforts of professionals to strengthen and support these “difficult” children. Rose is that kid. She sits in a mainstream classroom, but she sits beside an aid; she has to take frequent breaks in the hallway when she can’t control her outbursts; and her quirks—like her obsession with homonyms—more often than not estrange her from her classmates.
And yet, Rose wants so much to connect. To connect with her emotionally-distant father; and to connect with her classmates. One day, a hurricane threatens to take away what she loves most: her dog, Rain (homonym Reign). In the compelling adventure that ensues, as Rose searches for her missing dog and uncovers a mystery requiring even more bravery, we get a window into the purity, courage, and humanity that lies within “that kid.” I can’t think of a greater lesson in empathy for any child reader.
The wonderful Annie Dillard once wrote, “She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” Whether our children are conscious of it or not, each time they pick up a book to read, or a pen to write, they are poised with the opportunity to devour language. If they let it, if they really drink it in, then that language has the power to transform them—and, afterwards, to send them back into the world to enrich the lives of others.
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June 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
I don’t know how the rest of you are planning to get through a hot and steamy summer, but I am counting on a lot of time at the craft table. Especially good news for today’s parents is that we don’t have to live next door to an art museum to teach our kids about the great artists and artistic movements of the past. Last June, I kicked off a “summer school” series with a post about some of my favorite picture book biographies for elementary-aged children, a rich and growing subset of children’s literature. Nowhere is the picture book format better utilized than in biographies of famous artists. These aren’t the books of our past, which reproduce notable paintings aside dry critical analysis; rather, they are true and entertaining stories about formative artists who, beginning as children, overcame struggles, searched for inspiration, and broke down conventional barriers to define their unique artistic styles. As your child sits before a blank piece of paper, wouldn’t you love for him or her to channel the stories of Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Henri Rousseau, and Vasily Kandinsky? (See my list of favorite books at the end.)
The latest of these gems, Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Ages 6-12), strikes a particular chord with my family. At almost seven, JP loves to draw and paint, but while his peers are steering more and more towards realistic creations, JP still prefers abstraction. Some might call it scribbling, although to imply that it is rushed or without meaning would be misguided. JP (and now Emily, following in his footsteps) never stops talking—not for one second—while he draws. He narrates the action as it takes shape before him: comets blasting through the sky, submarines bursting into flames, houses pitched airborne towards a burning sun (the theme of explosion is strong with this one). I’m not exactly sure what he is working out on that paper—because there is clearly something cathartic going on—but when he is finished, his entire body is relaxed, his mind at peace.
Enter Vasily Kandinsky, Father of Abstract Art, creator of some of history’s most famous “scribbles.” Children will easily relate to the child Vasya in The Noisy Paint Box, who spent his Russian youth under constant pressure to be polite and disciplined: “He sat stiff and straight at dressed-up dinners while the grown-ups talked and talked, and talked.”
But everything changed the moment his aunt gave him his first paint box (a monumental moment in so many childhoods). Paint unleashed a peculiar sensation within Vasya: he imagined that he heard the colors hiss and sing, and, as he painted, he had the distinct feeling of putting music to canvas. For many years, his parents and teachers condemned his “scribbles,” enrolling him in classes to learn “to draw houses and flowers—just like everyone else.” But Vasya continued to believe that art was about making people—both the artist and the observer—feel things, and that this could take a more abstract form.
Rosenstock’s clear, beautifully worded story is every bit as wonderful as her previous picture books, most notably The Camping Trip That Changed America (another perfect historical selection for summer). In The Noisy Paint Box, though, it’s illustrator Mary Grandpre that truly celebrates the birth of Abstract Art, using acrylic paint and paper collage to contrast the formal world of Russian aristocracy in the 19th century with the freedom and movement of Kandinsky’s personal expression. Grandpre exquisitely blends the singing colors in Vasya’s head with his brushstrokes on canvas. Oftentimes, his “lines and blobs” (Kandinsky’s own words) jump and spill beyond the frame, reminding us that feelings are messy, misshapen things with no clear beginnings or endings. People paint to capture these feelings and to make others feel something, too. Now, if that isn’t poetic license to let your kids loose at the craft table this summer, then I don’t know what is!
Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies of Artists (while these are all great to read at home, they have also been some of my favorite acquisitions for our school’s library!):
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, by Michelle Markel & Amanda Hall (Ages 5-10)
Henri’s Scissors, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-9)
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse, by Marjorie Blain Parker & Holly Berry (Ages 5-10)
Through Georgia’s Eyes, by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez & Julie Paschkis (Ages 5-9)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant & Melissa Sweet (Ages 6-12)
Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, by Tanya Lee Stone & Boris Kulikov (Ages 6-12)
Action Jackson, by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, & Robert Andrew Parker (Ages 6-12)
Frida, by Jonah Winter (Ages 6-12)
Meeting Cezanne, by Michael Morpurgo & Francois Place (Ages 6-12)
February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment
My wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).
Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both). Like in Lincoln, one gets the impression that the narrator guiding us on this tour is a passionate and well-studied child: “What was he interested in? Everything. I mean it. Everything.” Happily, my favorite quirky detail of Jefferson’s personality (which I remember learning on a tour of Monticello) is included: that he slept sitting up, ready to spring into action. In fact, an entire double spread is dedicated to Jefferson’s twin-sized bed, strategically placed between two rooms so that he could exit the covers on one side into his study—“or he could get out of bed on the other side, jump into his boots and go outside.”
Not to worry: Kalman does eventually find her way into political milestones, including Jefferson’s place in relation to the Founding Fathers (great mention of George Washington’s teeth here), his authorship of the Declaration, his election as third President of the United States, his legacy in separating church and state, and the Louisiana Purchase and expedition of Lewis and Clark. Each subject is given only the briefest introduction (with more details provided in the book’s index); but the beautiful prose, combined with Kalman’s signature oil paintings—brilliant explosions of color and life at every turn (oh, to have any of these paintings on my own walls!)—make Kalman an absolute master at piquing the interest of young readers. I can’t think of a better author-illustrator when it comes to planting seeds for more in-depth, independent research in classrooms and homes. (Speaking of seeds, somewhere in my possession if I can ever find them, are four seeds from Jefferson’s own line of beans that he bred at Monticello, a gift from a friend when we moved to Virginia four years ago. The time is ripe…)
And yet, no discussion of the man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” (and said of slavery, “this abomination must end”) would be complete without an acknowledgment of the paradoxes in Jefferson’s personal life. Kalman handles this topic gently but poignantly, painting one of the sparse and cramped rooms in which Jefferson’s 150 slaves lived, along with the juxtaposition of a kitchen full of toiling slave women (“look, there’s a baby on the floor!” my kids quickly pointed out) beside a formal dining room set with the “best of everything,” including nine types of pudding! An excerpt from Jefferson’s farm book lists the names of his slaves; and Kalman calls specific attention to “the beautiful Sally Hemings,” a slave with which Jefferson allegedly had several children after his wife died. But what is unique here is Kalman’s mention of “racial passing,” a phenomenon that gets little attention in elementary history books, whereby light-skinned black people (here, the children of Jefferson and Hemings) would “hide the fact that [they] were partially black,” because “in such a prejudiced land” it was easier to have society believe you were white. “To hide your background is a very sad thing,” our young narrator writes, opening the way for further conversations on this fascinating and too-often-neglected part of our country’s history.
Jefferson’s gravestone, bearing the epitaph that Jefferson himself wrote before he died, oddly does not list President as among his achievements. “I wonder why,” our narrator ponders, just enough to get our own wheels turning. Perhaps Jefferson was all too aware of the discrepancies between his beliefs and his actions; perhaps he felt conflicted by his legacy as a Great Leader. But a formative leader he was, and his flaws are no reason not to share this exceptional book with your children—nor to take them to the “Museum of the Mind,” which Jefferson called home. For, in Kalman’s words:
If you want to understand
this country and its people
and what it means to be optimistic
and complex and tragic and wrong and
courageous, you need to go to Monticello.
Other Favorite Picture Books About Thomas Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, by Barb Rosenstock & John O’Brien (Ages 6-12)
Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud, by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain & Larry Day (Ages 6-12)