What STEM Looked Like 100 Years Ago

April 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color.

At the same time that my mom was smiling at these women’s parasols, I couldn’t stop thinking, These women all look miserable. Their faces looked contorted, if not bored to tears, as they sat with half-completed stitchery in their hands, or perched in the shadow of a towering top-hatted male figure. A few of these women looked directly out of the painting. I felt their eyes on me, a silent, desperate plea. Let me out of here!

 

No doubt I have been influenced by the rebellious heroine in the award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Ages 10-14), the first in a two-book series which I’ve been reading to my daughter (we are partway through the equally delicious second, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate). These novels, written by Jacqueline Kelly, embody everything I look for in a read-aloud book: they’re a (hefty) step above my daughter’s independent reading level; the exceptional writing is packed with challenging, expansive vocabulary; and they carry the potential to deepen my child’s own understanding of her place in the world—in this case, her place against the historical, complicated backdrop of girls coming of age in America.

Like the paintings at the Met exhibit, the books are set at the turn of the century, only instead of France, the backdrop is the Texas countryside. The star is a twelve-year-old only daughter of an aristocratic family, whose father runs the town’s cotton gin. Calpurnia Virginia Tate—or Callie Vee, as she’s affectionately known to family and friends—is rapidly approaching the age where she is expected to come out in society as a debutante; in preparation, her mother encourages her to practice diligently for piano recitals and perfect embroidery worthy of entry into county fairs. While she might be able to capture armadillos and wrestle in the dirt like her six (!) brothers for now, the clock is ticking. Her place will soon be in the home, her attention exclusively on crafting meal plans, raising babies, and managing servants.

But Calpurnia is a restless, inquisitive, sharp-witted soul, whose very purpose, it seems to her, is to question the expectations society has placed so squarely on her small shoulders. She’s okay at piano, but she’s downright terrible at handwork (…“the long striped scarf that I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit”); and her early attempts at making an apple pie had my daughter in stitches. The thought of a life filled exclusively with domestic pursuits feels to Callie like nothing less than a “life sentence”: “I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.”

And don’t get her started on the subject of romance. Callie cringes when three of her little brothers become smitten with her best friend, falling over themselves to carry her books on the walk to school; and she’s even more horrified when her eldest and favorite bother, Harry, begins to blush easily and bring potential (rather vapid) suitors home for dinner. Callie’s take on advances from the opposite sex? “…[I]f any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.”

What Calpurnia discovers she enjoys and excels at most—indeed, what she sneaks off to do at every chance—is something foreign, if not forbidden, to the female sex in her day. That is, investigative science. At the encouragement of her eccentric, reputably cantankerous grandfather, who since his days as a Confederate general has squirreled himself away in the family’s back shed, cataloging flora and fauna found in the nearby river and brush and fermenting pecans in an attempt to create whiskey, Calpurnia becomes an apprentice of natural science.

Armed with a net and a red leather pocket notebook, in which Grandfather encourages her to write her many observations and questions about the natural world, Calpurnia is empowered. She throws herself into the challenge of making sense of Grandfather’s copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book she initially tries and fails to find at her local library, coming of age at a time when the theory of evolution was largely dismissed in Southern culture. (Excerpts from On the Origin of Species and later from The Voyage of the Beagle open each chapter; older readers will enjoy deciphering why certain passages were picked for certain chapters). Indeed, the great suspense of the first book is whether the Smithsonian’s National History Museum in Washington, DC will accept her and Grandfather’s submission of a “vetch” cutting, a flowering plant found in the marshes near their house, and credit them with a newly-discovered species.

To be sure, Calpurnia’s “unladylike” adventures—dodging an angry badger, rescuing the Thanksgiving turkeys from certain doom, and convincing the local photographer to let a plant sit for a portrait—make for much more entertaining reading than a story about readying oneself for domestic pursuits. But our enjoyment of these books isn’t just about the dirt under Callie’s fingernails or the ways she chooses to occupy her time. We are given a window into the emotional world of a girl who is at once confused about why she doesn’t see models of professional, independent women around her (beyond her teachers and the new switchboard operator for the town’s only telephone) and ecstatic at being treated as a collaborative scientist—as an equal—by a grandfather who previously didn’t know her name. The author isn’t afraid to let us see Callie flounder, her confidence soar and then plummet, her questioning nature turn as much on herself as on her beloved flora and fauna. In Calpurnia, we have a crusader, a determined breaker of molds, but we also have an immensely vulnerable and relatable young soul.

“Calpurnia’s world is so interesting, don’t you think, Mommy?” my daughter said one Saturday morning, as she crawled into bed with me and opened the book for me to read. My Emily has long been fascinated by what she calls old-fashioned life, and she references series like Betsy-Tacy and Little House on the Prairie long after we finish them. Indeed, in Calpurnia’s world, there is much that feels foreign compared with modern day, from the skeptical discussions surrounding the first automobile in nearby Austin, to Calpurnia’s horror when her mother ties her ringlets in lumpy wet rags the night before a piano recital (“I smelled like brimstone and looked like a casualty from the War”). And just what exactly is in that bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for Women, which her mother drinks from each time she has a “nervous headache?”

But I think what fascinates Emily most about Calpurnia’s world is the narrow definition of a woman’s place, here an upper-class white Southern woman. It’s hard for our children to imagine this, growing up at a time when girls can become almost anything they want (even if, ahem, they still don’t get equal pay). This, of course, is why Calpurnia is such a compelling heroine. Callie’s magnetism stems from her defiance in the face of these limitations. She doesn’t set out to defy—indeed, her defiance causes her no shortage of discomfort and confusion. She inadvertently defies her parents and, in turn, society by the simple but rebellious act of indulging her own interests, of questioning and engaging with the world around her, instead of sitting idly by. Callie’s enthusiasm for the natural world is contagious. We want nothing more than to join her in the untamed wilderness.

Where Calpurnia’s journey will lead her by the end of the second book—what compromises she’ll undoubtedly have to make—I cannot yet say. But I know that Emily and I will be routing for her with every turn of the page. One thing is for sure: she doesn’t need us to rescue her from some Impressionist painting.

 

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

A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime?

Tavares is best known for his historic, often sports-themed picture books (Crossing Niagra and Growing Up Pedro are favorites), so this sentimental story of two cardinals is a bit of a departure for him. As such, it took him five years to perfect it. But do not be fooled: in the end, his careful narrative and visual choices pay off, including several wordless panels which allow us to especially appreciate his exquisite, evocative paintings. It turns out Tavares was in part inspired to write this story by an experience similar to something we’ve witnessed in our own family, outside our own front door.

Years ago, when we moved from downtown Chicago to our Washington DC suburb, we immediately noticed the birds—particularly, a pair of cardinals, who seemed to enjoy hanging around outside the front of our house. The bright red male—Buddy, as we called him—was always the first spotted. As soon as we saw him, our eyes would quickly scan nearby branches for the more brownish-toned female. “There’s Buddy’s mate!” one of my kids would call out. The feminist in me suggested, more than once, that “Buddy’s mate” deserved a name of her own. But perhaps it’s not by chance that no name ever stuck. That cardinals mate for life is what makes them unique in the animal world. Even my children seemed to sense that this love story, playing out daily on our front lawn, was something special.

Red and Lulu tells the story of two cardinals, who live in a “mighty evergreen” in the front lawn of a small suburban house. As the narrator tells us, the tree was the perfect place to call home: “Its shade kept them cool on hot summer days. And its evergreen needles kept them cozy when autumn wind howled.” The birds’ favorite time of year is Christmas, when the family strings the branches of the tree with lights, then invites neighbors to join them in singing “O Christmas tree.” “Red and Lulu loved listening to the people sing about their tree. Sometimes they even sang along.”

Red and Lulu tells the fictional story of two cardinals, but it also relates the real-life story of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, a beloved New York City tradition dating back to 1931. The Afterward explains how, each year, the head gardener at Rockefeller Center searches “far and wide” for the perfect tree. Because the chosen tree is almost always a Norway spruce, not native to the United States, it is usually found and removed from someone’s yard. (Happy tidbit for those sad to see these great trees taken down: after the Christmas season, the lumber from the Rockefeller tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity. More about this in the lovely picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift.)

One day, while Red is out gathering breakfast and Lulu is home in the nest, a crane pulls up to the house, and workmen cut down the tree. Red returns home in time to hear Lulu’s singing coming from inside the tree, as it barrels down the street on the back of an enormous flatbed.

For miles, over New Jersey highways and across the George Washington bridge onto the island of Manhattan, Red follows his tree, occasionally chirping to reassure Lulu that he is close by. Eventually, in the chaos and enormity of the city, he loses sight of the truck.

As Red searches the streets of Manhattan for his love, we see Tavares’ artistry at his best. He contrasts the brilliant saturation of Red’s feathers—the very color of life and love—with the grey concrete and stone buildings of the city. He contrasts Red’s size—vulnerable and dwarfed—with the larger-than-life city, including the stone lions outside The New York Public Library. By the time the bird flies over the nighttime crowds and neon lights of Times Square, our hearts are aching for him.

In the end, it’s Red and Lulu’s love, not just for each other but for Christmas, which writes their happy ending. Red is drawn towards the sound of crowds of people singing “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree.”

Wait! He could hear the song they loved! Red flew toward the sound.
The voice grew louder and louder.
Then he turned the corner.

As he sees Lulu’s and his tree, magnificently illuminated at the front of the crowd under fat, falling snowflakes, he flies straight for “their favorite branch.” The lovebirds are reunited!

For the next weeks, until Christmas passes and the tree comes down, Red and Lulu remain in their nest in the tree. Then, instead of trying to find their way back to the suburban yard from whence they came, they make their home in Central Park, sharing new trees and birdbaths with the pigeons and other wildlife of the Big City. (One might say they’re city fowl now.)

This way, they’re not far away when the next Christmas comes, when the caroling again beckons them to the most beautiful of plazas, in the most spirited of traditions, with the brightest of trees.

Joy to the world.

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

Long Live the National Parks

April 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

Last summer, we vacationed in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our family’s first foray into one of the major National Parks, and we had gotten the idea six months earlier while watching National Parks Adventure, the astoundingly beautiful and nail-biting IMAX movie (can we talk about those mountain bikers?!), directed by Greg MacGillivray and narrated by Robert Redford. All four of us left the Smithsonian theater feeling like we were missing out. Our regular hikes around our local wetlands preserve—beloved as they are—suddenly didn’t feel like…enough. Turns out we were right. In Acadia, after days of hiking around sparkling lakes and in and out of deliciously fragrant pine forests, of scrambling over vast expanses of rocks flanked by crashing waves, my son exclaimed, “This is what we should do on every vacation! Which National Park should we visit next?”

Next week is our spring break, and we’ll be stay-cationing. But, while our feet will be traversing our neighborhood parks, our imaginations will be taking flight on the adventures in the mountain of spring releases that have recently landed on our doorstep. Of all the new spring titles, probably the one I’ve most anticipated is Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon (Ages 9-13), a staggering and richly informative window into the ecology, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon.

Jason Chin is one of my favorite contemporary writers and illustrators of non-fiction picture books for older children, in large part because of his unique narrative and artistic style of “dropping” us into the center of the action. If there was ever a case to be made for owning books, look no further. Each of Chin’s Coral Reefs, Redwoods, and Island: A Story of the Galapagos (the latter being an intro into evolution for kids) begs to be read over and over, with new eyes and ears for information missed the first several times. I am never more in awe of the natural world than when I read Jason Chin to my kids.

Truthfully, as a destination, the Grand Canyon has never been high on my list. For some reason, I pictured crowds, a few (awesome) photo opps, a nerve-wracking drop off, and a whole lot of rock. Still, I suspected that Jason Chin would change my mind. Because, well, he’s Jason Chin. And I was correct.

What I also knew is that my nine year old wouldn’t need any convincing to dive into Grand Canyon with me. An oversized book chock full of maps, scientific diagrams, and rocks? Have I mentioned that the floor of JP’s closet is piled high with shoe boxes overflowing with rocks? On any beautiful day, JP is as likely to be using his rock hammer in the backyard as anything else.

JP and I each had the same reaction upon opening Grand Canyon to the first endpaper, a pencil-shaded map of the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon, including areas both inside and outside Grand Canyon National Park. The sheer scale amazed us, with some parts of the Canyon as much as 18 miles wide! Why had I not realized this before?

It’s a daunting task, taking on a piece of land this vast and diversely complex, but Chin is up to the challenge, weaving a central narrative arc in the second person alongside considerable scientific detail, much of which will take time to digest fully (the extensive six-page Afterward provides even more information). As a father and daughter backpack through the Canyon, we are introduced to the five disparate ecological communities they encounter, from the Desert Scrub at the bottom of the Canyon to the Boreal Forest at the top.

Taken together, these ecosystems comprise literally thousands of different species, including twenty-nine that don’t live anywhere else on Earth and many, like the great California condor, that are close to extinction. Chin has diagrammed many of the native predators and prey around the borders of their respective pages. My daughter is the animal lover in the family, and these miniature sketches are her favorite part of the book (though she’s likely too young to grasp much of the geology that is interspersed).

While father and daughter are walking amidst these ecosystems of today, they are also diving—in Chin’s case, quite literally—into the past. Here is where JP and I were goggle-eyed. Because, as Chin demonstrates so powerfully, every piece of the physical Grand Canyon is an historical clue as to what North America looked like hundreds of millions of years ago. Thanks to the erosion provided over time by the Colorado River, we can see straight into the bottommost layer of rock on our continent, the so-called Vishnu Basement Rocks, formed 1.84 billion years ago. Where else can you stare down history quite so dramatically?

As the duo works their way up the Canyon, passing through a sequence of thirteen disparate rock layers, die-cut pages reveal fossilized clues as to how the Earth has changed over time. Here, science and imagination intersect, and Chin shines as magnificently as ever. On one page, our young protagonist spots a ripple mark preserved in stone; on the next—her imagination at play—she is 1.2 billion years back in time, when that same rock used to be tidal mud and “the only living things on Earth were microbes, such as algae and bacteria.”

As she moves up to the rock layer known as the Bright Angel Shale, she bends to examine a trilobite fossil; on the next page, she is whisked back 515 million years to when the place she stands was part of the ocean floor and that same trilobite—“the first known animal to have had eyes”—made tracks in the gritty sand.

On and on we travel, back to prehistoric times of giant dragonflies, early reptiles, and more complex sea creatures, all in existence long before there was a canyon through which to walk. Still, we never leave the present for long: the wild diversity of the modern-day Canyon occupies the bulk of the pages and transfixes our young explorer much the way the trails and forests and streams of Acadia captivated my children last summer. What the father and daughter do not see—the mountain lions, the wild turkeys, the woodrats—are there on the page for us as readers to marvel at, reminders that the wilderness is always far more extensive than our human eyes allow in the moment.

As I write this final paragraph, JP has come over and is sitting beside me. The book is open, and he is lending sound effects to the Colorado River, the central force behind the Canyon’s creation. He is tracing over the final endpaper, a cross-section of the canyon which integrates both the rock layers with the different ecological communities. I cannot help but smile as he tries to pronounce each label, interrupting to make guttural sounds to indicate erosion and landslides, an ever-humming backstory in his mind. I love this side of my son, his incessantly curious, animated, insistent self, filled with awe and admiration for the ever-changing natural world. I cannot help but want to surround him with books like this, books that will give deeper context to the next time he ventures out, whether into our backyard or into one of our country’s most precious resources, the National Parks.

Who’s coming with us to the Grand Canyon?

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

Rescue and Renewal

March 23, 2017 § 2 Comments

The car was loaded, the final bags stuffed into any available hole. The children were corralled, buckled into their car seats with containers of cold pancakes on their lap. The timers on the hallway lights were set, the locks on the doors checked one last time. My husband and I climbed into the car, and—35 minutes behind schedule (always 35 minutes behind schedule)—we backed out of the driveway to embark on ten hours of driving en route to Cape Cod.

And then JP shouted, “Wait! My harlequin beetles! I forgot them!” (On the list of things you never predicted your six year old would say.)

JP had just come off a week of farm camp, where he had become passionately proficient at picking off garden pests. His delight each night at rattling off facts about the life cycle of the kale-loving harlequin beetle was exceeded only by the discovery of said beetle in the vegetable boxes on our own back deck. As children are apt to do, JP quickly captured one and placed it in a mason jar. A few days later, when his shrieks sent us flying into the kitchen from all corners of the house, JP proudly showed us that the beetle had laid a number of tiny black-striped eggs on the underside of one of the jar’s leaves. No number of suggestions that perhaps these eggs would be better suited for our backyard would diminish JP’s insistence that it was now his job to care for them (especially as the mother harlequin appeared to be shriveled up and un-moving in the corner).

And so we turned the car around, reopened the house, and wedged the mason jar between JP and Emily’s mound of stuffed animals in the back seat.

From a very young age, even before they empathize with their fellow humans, many children seem to feel innately called to protect the animal world. As any parent knows who has phoned animal control to ask advice on saving an injured bird fallen from a nest, children are relentless in their insistence to do right by the feathered, furry, scaly, or shelled creatures that inhabit their everyday lives. Before they’re reading proficiently or tying their shoelaces tightly, they recognize one arena in which their small size is power enough.

JP’s brief stint as caretaker of harlequin beetle eggs has nothing on what a young Chinese girl accomplishes with an injured crane in Ji-li Jiang and Julie Downing’s stirring picture book, Lotus & Feather (Ages 5-8), published at the tail end of last year but, in my opinion, perfectly suited to these early spring weeks. Jiang and Downing beautifully capture the self-articulated responsibility exhibited by a child towards an animal in need. Even more powerfully, their story reveals that this bond between child and animal can be mutually beneficial.

The story of a girl who rescues a crane after it is shot is as steeped in symbolism as it is in drama, drawing us deep into the characters’ emotional lives. When Lotus witnesses the magnificent bird collapse to the ground, she is alone. She is accustomed to solitude, a winter illness having “taken her voice” and seemingly destined her to an isolated, friendless life. Lotus’ only companions are a hand-fashioned reed whistle, with which she makes music, and the caring grandfather with whom she lives in the village. (Other reviewers have pointed out that the red scarves worn by Lotus and her classmates presume the time period to be the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s/70s.)

The grey, bleak, and quiet lake at which Lotus crouches to collect reeds mirrors her inner pain as much as it introduces the environmental message of the story. Just the day before, Lotus’ grandfather told her, “This lake used to be so alive…But now…it has been ruined by greedy fishermen and hunters, and by ignorant people who took over land where animals once lived.”

The sudden appearance of the endangered and regal crane in the desolate landscape—its “long, curved neck…crowned with a red top like a dazzling ruby”—is at once identified as a sign of hope and beauty to the sorrowful little girl, although we do not yet know just how important this gift will be. What we do understand is that Lotus’ silent exterior belies a feisty spirit: when she hears the gunshot and watches a poacher descend upon the injured bird, she makes “a noise like thunder” by drumming on her metal pail with a reed cutter. The poacher flees, and Lotus gathers up the bleeding bird and carries her home to her grandfather. (With each reading, my children seem to linger longer over the picture of the crane’s tragically listless body draped over Lotus’ arm).

It turns out Lotus’ grandfather has a history of rescuing animals, and he teaches Lotus how to care for the crane, how to feed it rice soup and keep it warm in a nest of blankets. What he doesn’t need to teach her is how to stroke its head the way he does when Lotus is sick. For three days, Lotus barely leaves the bird’s side, even sleeping beside him.

As the crane—whom Lotus names Feather—begins his rehabilitation, there blooms a beautiful friendship, one marked by trust, companionship and music, as Feather learns to dance to the sound of Lotus’ reed whistle. The friendship sets into motion a chain reaction, as Lotus’ classmates begin to hang around Lotus, seeing playfulness and courage where once they saw only silence. Whether Lotus is saving Feather or Feather is saving Lotus becomes deliciously, perfectly blurred, as in the case of all the best friendships.

The transformative power of compassion—that a single act of love yields countless others—continues throughout the story, coming to a head in a scene inspired by true events. When a nearby earthquake causes flooding in Lotus’ village in the middle of the night, Feather is the first to realize the front steps are underwater. His insistent crowing not only alerts Lotus and her grandfather, but becomes a warning cry to the other villagers, as Lotus and her grandfather jump into their boat and row down the rapidly flooding roads. That night, “over three hundred villagers were saved. Feather was the hero.”

The warmly rendered watercolors pay homage to the passage of time on every page, as the barren land of late fall gives way to the powdery snow of winter gives way to the rebirth of spring, a time marked (among other things) by  the appearance of migrant birds on their return journey north for summer. The cyclical journey seems also to echo Lotus’ decision to play hero once more to her friend—this time in encouraging Feather to join the migrating birds. “She didn’t want her friend to leave, but she knew she would never separate him from his home and family.”

Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment because I relish reading aloud books like The Lion and the Bird and A Letter for Leo, which have similar character-adopts-struggling-animal-and-later-releases-animal-back-into-the-wild plots and always, always make me cry. Or perhaps I want my children to be as intrigued as I am by what is left when the animal is gone. Lotus misses her friend terribly, but she is no longer the isolated girl she was before Feather came into her life. One of the final spreads shows Lotus playing her reed whistle among a small group of children, one of whom is leaning affectionately against her. Choosing and working to save Feather may have been adventurous, it may have felt right, but it accomplished something even greater: it cast Lotus in the center of her own story.

JP’s harlequin eggs ended up hatching in Cape Cod. It was admittedly astonishing to come down to breakfast and find a mason jar crawling with tiny black-and-red-and-yellow-decorated beetles. What happened to the creatures when JP released them into the lush gardens outside our rental house is something we’ll never know. Fortunately,  Lotus’ story has a more gratifying ending. The following fall, Lotus opens the door to find a familiar face. And what’s more: the wetlands outside her village are beginning to return to their original splendor.

When we care for the living world around us, there is no end to the surprises, delights, and redemption we experience in return. And when we recognize our limits and let things go, we are left to see the beauty uncovered within us.

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Book published by Disney Hyperion. 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!

 

Survival Skills

February 16, 2017 § 6 Comments

"The Wild Robot" by Peter BrownWhen my daughter was five, we were sitting at the dinner table discussing our days. “I almost forgot,” Emily said. “The craziest thing happened to me today!”

“Oh yeah? What was that?” we all asked.

Emily leaned in conspiratorially, as if getting ready to impart significant information. “I didn’t have a single sip of water all day. BUT I STILL SURVIVED! Can you believe it?”

It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing, not wanting to diminish her stone-sober revelation. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about her words since. Clearly, whether at school or from a book or in conversation, Emily had absorbed something about “what every living creature needs to survive.” But she had only internalized half the story. What must it be like to make sense of the world through bits and pieces, to rarely grasp the full picture, to live your life in a perpetual loop of uncertainty and astonishment (as if you could accidentally “off” yourself at any moment)?

This, I realized, is what it’s like to be a child.

In his first foray into chapter books, Peter Brown (already beloved in our house for this, this, and this) perfectly captures this same befuddlement, anxiety, and marveling with which young eyes view the world. Only, in the case of The Wild Robot (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), the innocent protagonist is not a child but an erect, talking robot named Roz, who is inadvertently activated on a wild, remote island by some curious sea otters, after they discover her crate washed up from a shipwrecked container ship. Roz—short for ROZZUM Unit 7134—has no understanding of anything prior to the moment she opens her eyes, nor whether she has a purpose. She knows only that she has been designed to “move, communicate, and learn” and that she has been programmed with Survival Instincts which “made her want to avoid danger and take care of herself so she could continue functioning properly.”

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

As our robot begins to navigate the diverse terrains of the island—rocky shore, craggy mountain peaks, pinecone-blanketed forest—she meets with a variety of physical upsets. But it is during her encounters with the wild inhabitants of the island—particularly the ferocious bears—that she begins to understand the magnitude of the challenge before her: in order to survive, she must adapt like the creatures around her. She must become wild. She must climb over rocks like the crab; she must seek out higher ground at the threat of rain like the deer; she must camouflage herself like the stick bug. Like a committed anthropologist, she must observe their behavior, and she must learn their language.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

The Wild Robot has been recommended by many—owing to its short, staccato-like chapters, its frequent illustrations done by Brown himself, and its plethora of animal characters—as a book for young independent readers. But it would be a mistake to take this as proof that the story is simple, that it doesn’t pose some fascinating questions or offer some complicated—at times somber—answers.

If you are going to share this book with elementary children, I would argue that The Wild Robot works best, certainly most powerfully, as a read-aloud. I say this not just because robot voices are fun to do. Not just because there are a multitude of animals with their own personalities (read: more fun voices). Not just because of the elegance of the prose, the understated and surprising humor, or the way in which the story beautifully crescendos from a quiet beginning to a nail-biting conclusion.

I say this because, when all is said and done, the story delivers a profound message about what lies at the heart of survival. It’s a message that’s vitally important for the times in which we are living, and a message that can be strengthened when we choose to witness it alongside our children.

It’s a message of community.

As artificial intelligence, Roz is not designed to feel emotions: her initial drive to observe and befriend different animals stems, not from feelings of loneliness or empathy, but from a practical, learned understanding that she needs allies in order to survive. Her offers to help certain animals—even her adjustment to a more cheerful voice (she learns the art of performance from watching an opossum)—initially come from a place of selfishness: I’ll rub your back to increase the chances that you’ll rub mine. Roz removes a porcupine’s quills from a fox; the fox in turn helps spread the word that Roz is not a “monster.” Roz helps fell trees for the beavers; they, in turn, show her how to build a shelter.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

It may be selfishly motivated, but what a wonderful lesson for our children: unsolicited helpfulness as the first step toward making friends.

Because Roz is programmed to learn, she quickly understands that individual alliances are only part of the larger puzzle to survival. She must cast herself at the center of an interdependent community. She builds a garden, not because she has any use for food, but because it attracts the squirrels and deer and birds to her front door each day. During the coldest, snowiest winter the island has ever seen, Roz builds forts with fireplaces to keep her friends from freezing (she insists they agree to a temporary predator-prey truce). Roz doesn’t simply coax the animals out of their fear of the shiny metallic newcomer; she secures their loyalty and protection—something which turns out to be even more important than anyone anticipates before the story ends.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

And here’s where the magic happens. The more Roz seeks to understand the motivations of others, the more she begins to experience—dare we call it feel?—as much a responsibility to her fellow animals as they feel to her. Where one act of helpfulness ends and another begins becomes brilliantly, perfectly blurred. Roz has enfolded herself completely into the ecosystem to which she was once an outsider. In her straightforward wisdom:

‘…I used to be shiny, like the surface of the pond. I used to stand straighter than a tree trunk. I used to speak a different language. I have not grown bigger, but I have changed very much.’

Nowhere is Roz’s rising sense of responsibility to her fellow creatures more touchingly conveyed than in her care for a young gosling, whose family she inadvertently destroys when she causes a mudslide. Because Roz sees the world in terms of problems to be solved, she is determined to save the remaining egg by bringing it to another family of geese. And yet, the orphaned gosling has another idea in mind—that is, once he hatches from the egg and imprints on the robot. “You’ll have to act like his mother if you want him to survive,” Roz is advised by the leader of the geese. And yet, once again, what starts as an act—learning to build a fire to warm Brightbill’s feathers, rocking the gosling to sleep—is quickly replaced by a mutual fondness for one she calls “son.”

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

As is fitting for a story about the natural world, there is struggle, violence, and death alongside joy, beauty, and survival. As our narrator gently reminds us, “the wilderness really can be ugly sometimes.” And yet, when frozen corpses give way to springtime blossoms, we are reminded that we cannot have one without the other. Again, interdependence emerges as a central theme.

In an ending that is anything but simple—haunting, open-ended, and hopeful—Roz, too, must play her part in upholding the delicate balance of the island. I don’t dare give anything away, but I will relate this anecdote. When we were halfway through the book, my son started reading ahead after I left his room each night (always the sign of a Big Win). One night, he came down the stairs to find me in the living room. “I finished,” he announced. “And?” I asked. “It’s…really…interesting. It’s…really…amazing. You’ll see when we read it tomorrow.” And I did see. It’s an ending that might raise more questions than it answers, but it also leaves us with a certainty that we are stronger when we are looking out for one another.

It puts me in mind of something Mother Theresa said—and which a friend shared recently on her Facebook page in response to the unrest in our country right now: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

If we wish to help our children someday understand what Mother Theresa meant, if we wish to raise them in a world that moves toward inclusiveness, we can start by reading them The Wild Robot.

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

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

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton JonesLast year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.

But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.”

I’ve seen what my kids can do with a pile of stuffed animals and two sheets—heck, I’ve even watched them play Tic Tac Toe on the living room floor with masking tape and kitchen cutlery—so I should know that they can do this. Heck, I do know it. They can battle boredom. I’ve seen it time and time again. And yet, the mere thought of little hands hanging on me and little voices whining for another snack and little feet pattering on my heels as I try and straighten the house—all of these the predictable precursors to the creative process—make me want to get out my wallet and head to Target.

Stop the madness. Summer should be my children’s time to plug fully and uninterruptedly into their imaginations. I need to resist staging; I need to resist meddling; I need to turn them loose in the backyard and shut the door behind them.

Thankfully, we have books like Elizabeth Orton Jones’ Twig (Ages 7-9, or younger if read aloud) to remind us of what fun can be made out of what is already on hand—that is to say, out of almost nothing at all.

Originally published in 1942, re-released in 1970, and then updated with an introduction from the author in 2001, Twig has every ounce of the nostalgia, charm, and quirkiness that we would expect from a 70-year-old chapter book (although, arguably, it does romanticize poverty to a fault). Hilarious blog posts like this one aside, we should perhaps take a page out of the parenting books of our own childhood, when we tromped around the backyard with skinned knees and itchy bug bites and our parents seemed almost surprised to see us at the end of the day. Magic almost always happens in children’s stories when the parents turn their backs.

Parents of fairy lovers rejoice! I have a found you another chapter book, which—like our beloved The Night Fairy—is based in the natural world, is beautifully told, and stars characters every bit as innocent and genuine and likeable and funny. Take a look at Twig‘s Table of Contents and tell me you don’t want to start this story at bedtime tonight.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

The author never comes out and says it directly, but Twig, the little girl at the heart of the story, is clearly poor. She lives on the “fourth floor of a high sort of house in the city,” has safety pins for buttons, and wears a piece of grocery string around one of her shoes to keep it from falling apart. She doesn’t appear to have any siblings, nor any fellow children as neighbors. She also doesn’t appear to have a single toy.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

What she does have is a backyard, which she shares with two sparrows, a cat, an ice-wagon horse, a leaky drainpipe, and a single dandelion. It is out of these things—as well as discarded household objects—that Twig constructs and stars in the most fanciful and amusing of adventures.

The story begins with a fairy house. Not the fairy house of our children’s imaginations, with mossy rocks and grassy beds and twigs tied with twine. This is a strictly urban fairy house, made from an empty, overturned can of tomatoes with a slit down the front (“where somebody’s can opener had made a mistake”). Twig furnishes the house with a thimble (cooking pot), a bottletop (which makes a table when balanced on the thimble), a piece of shiny paper (mirror), and an old feather (a broom to sweep the floors). And then she waits for a fairy to move in.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

A fairy does move in, although not the “pretty little fairy” Twig was expecting. Elf is an eager, mischievous, cap-sporting boy fairy with a potato skin for clothing and a high-pitched voice (“like the tiny little squeak which was in Twig’s Papa’s Sunday shoes”). We later learn that he has escaped from the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and is eager to try his hand at magic in “real life.” As far as Twig is concerned, Elf exceeds expectations the moment he tries out a magic spell from his trusty red book and ends up miniaturizing her. Suddenly, the two are keeping house together inside the tomato can, and it isn’t long before they are bantering like an old married couple.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Seen through the eyes of Twig’s new miniaturized self, the backyard becomes a place of wonder and excitement. She swings from the leaves of the lone dandelion. She drinks tea out of old toothpaste tops. Along with Elf, she climbs up the ice-wagon horse’s tail and takes a siesta nestled inside the horse’s ears. (Of course, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary is not without its limits: Twig has to draw the line when Elf brings a cockroach into the tomato can and attempts to endear him to Twig as a pet named Chummie.)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

But my daughter’s favorite adventures come when, perched on the back of Mrs. Sparrow, Twig and Elf take trips up to the nest to help the mother-to-be sit on her eggs. For one, the four eggs end up hatching on their watch, and Twig and Elf are beside themselves trying to figure out how to hush the endless “squa-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-k” of the ravenous babies (many giggles here). Secondly, the page-long description of the nest is itself fascinating—a regular archaeology site of discarded treasures. In addition to straw and horse hair and old feathers, there is “a piece of silver tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree,” a burnt match, the first six inches of a tape measure, and “a little limp piece of rubber from an old balloon” (“Oh! Twig had never seen such a mess!”)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Anyone hoping for some conventional fairy lore will not be disappointed, as the last third of the story brings the arrival of the Fairy Queen, who descends from Fairyland “with a long pink dress on, and hair that was as yellow as Twig’s Papa’s taxi, and wings you could see right through—like cellophane.” She is followed shortly by the quirkiest character in the book: a white-haired, wizened fairy named Lord Buzzle Cobb-Webb, who arrives on the Royal Magical Cobb-Webb Kerchief, addresses Twig as “young whipper-snapper,” and prepares to escort the Fairy Queen, Elf, and Twig if she so desires back to Fairyland.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

So commences my favorite scene, as Twig wrestles with her understanding of what is real, what is pretend, and who is the true mastermind behind these events. Of course, the savvy reader has suspected the answer all along: the book’s story is Twig’s creation—and, as such, Twig has the power to tell it again, tell it differently, or tell a new one altogether.

It’s the Fairy Queen who reveals Twig’s power to her. When Twig complains that she can’t make the trip to Fairyland on account of her “ordinary old dress,” the Queen assures her that it’s not what lies on the outside that matters, but what lies within.

The Queen looked up at the little round bud at the top of the dandelion stalk. “Do you know what is inside of that plain ordinary little round bud?” she asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered Twig. “A beautiful flower.”
“There is something just as beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen.
“Something—beautiful! Inside of—me!” said Twig. “Honestly, Your Majesty! How could there be?”
“How could there be a beautiful little flower inside of the little round bud?” asked the Queen.
Twig lifted her shoulder several times. “I don’t know!” she said. “There just is, that’s all.”
“And there ‘just is’ something beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen. “It’s called imagination.”
“Is that so?” said Twig. “What can it do?”
“It can do magic,” said the Queen.
“Magic!” squeaked Twig. “What kind of magic?”
“Any kind of magic you wish,” said the Queen.
“Well, for goodness sakes!” said Twig.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Imagination—the most precious childhood companion—doesn’t cost a cent.

My children have built their fair share of fairy houses in our backyard over the years. Here’s hoping that this summer, they will go one step further and allow their imaginations to take up residence front and center, to see their surroundings with fresh eyes, and to create new stories that will be no one’s but their own. The next time my kids tell me what to buy this summer, I’m going to tell them to take out the recycling. That should be everything they need to get busy.

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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!

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 1 Comment

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time…

Earlier this week, I came across a piece written by a ninth-grade English teacher, titled “4 Reasons to Start Class with a Poem Each Day.” Even though this teacher’s courses are centered on novels, he begins every lesson with a poem. Why? Well, to start with, poems are short. They’re also intense (BAM!) and thought-provoking. They connect back to other things, literary or not. And they’re inspiring.

I got to thinking: maybe I’m looking at this whole poetry-before-bed thing all wrong. Maybe poetry should have a place in our mornings!

I once talked to a mom who told me that she reads a chapter each morning to her children during breakfast, that this has become a lovely way to connect with her children and start their morning off on a high note. This vision has stuck with me all these years—it sounds lovely—but it also screams of impracticality for my life (do I stop reading every time I have to get up to get a napkin, or pour the milk, or ask my child why it appears his hair is never brushed?). No, I’m quite certain that reading at breakfast would just cause more chaos.

At the same time, considering that we’re talking about increasingly fleeting time with my kids, breakfast perhaps feels more transactional than it should. We have the same conversations over and over (“What do you think you’re going to do today?” “I don’t know.”). The refreshing exceptions tend to come when one of us remarks on something spotted through the window: a slew of fallen branches from the storm the night before; the neon green buds on the maple tree; the cardinal dancing in the dogwood. With our window frames as launch pads, time seems to stop for a brief spell. The rush is momentarily forgotten. I suddenly remember why I love these sweet, observant, uncoiffed little people on either side of me.

Then I got my hands on Julie Fogliano’s brand new poetry picture book, When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons (Ages 5-10), lovingly illustrated by Julie Morstad, and I thought: What if, during breakfast, I occasionally read aloud a poem that corresponded to what’s happening in the season we’re in? When Green Becomes Tomatoes features pithy nature poems, each titled for a specific day of the month (beginning and ending with March). Not every day of every month is represented (thank goodness, because I am not that disciplined): in April, for example, we have poems for April 3, 12, 23 and 27.

I don’t think Fogliano has any intention of us being strictly literal here—her spring poems can be read anytime in spring, her fall poems anytime in fall. One could even sit down and read the whole year through, feeling nostalgic about seasons gone by and hopeful about those to come.

The point is that there is potential to leave this chronologically-organized book within reach in the kitchen or dining room or wherever one breakfasts—and to pick it up once a week or so to illuminate what’s happening outside the window. In the most beautiful of ways.

Because, when I read these poems aloud to my kids, which we have been doing now for the past week, it is as if Fogliano is sitting around the breakfast table with us, looking out our same windows and describing in short, lyrical phrases exactly what we are seeing and thinking and feeling, only with greater precision and elegance. I suppose it is hardly surprising that I would fall fast for this book, seeing as I fell in love with Fogliano when her 2012 poem about winter giving way to spring was turned into the evocative picture book, And Then It’s Spring (and, coincidentally, my very first blog post!). In the spirit of that first poem comes these 50 new ones, each proving without a doubt that Fogliano has a delicate, graceful, ever-keen touch that transforms the everyday into the magical.

Just yesterday, when surprising frosty temperatures brought the kids to the breakfast table in sweaters over their spring uniforms, we read:

shivering and huddled close
the forever rushing daffodils
wished they had waited

Here’s another, which perfectly sums up the way we’re all feeling in this sluggish back turn towards winter.

april 3
today
the sky was too busy sulking to rain
and the sun was exhausted from trying
and everyone
it seemed
had decided
to wear their sadness
on the outside
and even the birds
and all their singing
sounded brokenhearted
inside of all that gray

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

Fogliano’s poems are immensely accessible. They flow stream-of-consciousness in an innocent, childlike way. Each line is comprised of just a few words. There’s little to no punctuation. The vocabulary is common. They would be great material for a developing reader. They would certainly inspire a child looking to try his or her hand at poetry. They’re equally perfect for a mother still waking up, just attempting to feed her children breakfast.

july 12
soon we will go to the beach
where we will swim
and eat plums and peanut butter sandwiches
and we will think to ourselves
as we eat
on our blanket in the sand
that nothing in the world
could possibly be more delicious
than those plums
and those peanut butter sandwiches
a little bit salty
and warm from the sun

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

YES PLEASE! (There’s no law that says you can’t skip ahead for a little breakfasting optimism.)

Some of the poems induce chuckles; others are followed by pregnant pauses. With some, the meaning is there to grab quickly; with others, it’s harder to pin down and open for debate. Taken together, these are everything poetry should be for the elementary child.

january 13
other than the cows
everyone has gone
either into or underneath
curled up and covered
but the cows just stand
black and blinking
not noticing that it is cold
and snowing
and everyone has gone

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

My son, sitting next to me as I’m typing this, has just paged through the book and discovered one for September, right around the time of his birthday. “Mommy, you should really type this one up and tell your readers to cut it out and give it to their kids on the first day of school, because this is exactly what school-starting time feels like.” (Even he sees the potential for these poems to start the day—or year—off right!)

september 25
i like it here
on this side of winter
where notebooks are new
apples are best
and freezing still feels far away
but near enough to notice

Morstad’s delightful, child-centric watercolors (there are no adults pictured) are at times playful and at other times serene, betraying her own interpretation of each poem. And yet, as in her earlier picture book, How To, Morstad never clutters her paintings. She takes liberties with empty space, often placing her (commendably) multiracial figures off to the side, giving the poems the room they need to breathe. In the absence of line and form and color, we can build our own meaning, take each poem and make it our own.

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

The result of just one week of reading aloud from this book (and leaving it lying around for bored hands to find) is that we’re once again building momentum around poetry inside our home. Over the weekend, Emily took down Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and had me read it to her; I followed that up by introducing her to Silverstein’s modern (equally laugh-out-loud) descendent, Jack Prelutsky. JP later got out Jon J. Muth’s gentle seasonal haikus, which reminded me that When Green Becomes Tomatoes is joining an already impressive lineup of year-round nature poetry. I’ve included a list below of my favorites, most of which I have discussed in past years.

Perhaps each morning, as we throw open the door and greet the day with full bellies, we will remember that we are stepping into the stuff of poetry. Take a look. It’s all around.

Other Favorite Poetry Picture Books About the Seasons:
Hi Koo!: A Year of Poems, by Jon J. Muth (Ages 3-8)
Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-12)
A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike (Ages 5-10)
Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold, by Joyce Sidman (Ages 6-12)
Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, by Joyce Sidman & Pamela Zagarenski (Ages 6-12)

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