All in a Good Day’s Bicycling

March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments

adventuresofagirlcalledbicycle-e1552680598146.jpgMy daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road.

Recently, The New Yorker ran a piece by Jess Row, titled “How to Grant Your Child an Inner Life,” in which Row proposes that anxious parenting, coupled with the ease of tracking technologies and the transparency of social media, has “commoditized” our children’s inner lives. Reflecting on his own childhood in the eighties and early nineties—when “get good grades and don’t act like a delinquent…and you can do what you want the rest of the time”—he asks: “What does it mean for a child today to be alone, to have an independent inner life?” Perhaps because I myself was a Rilke disciple in high school, I especially connected with this next passage:

When I was eighteen, I read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” with a sense of relief—here, finally, was someone not shy about giving direct advice on how to live![…] His message is quite simple, and universally applicable: You matter. Your feelings matter, even if (in fact, because) they’re not visible to others. Your inner life is real and important. Don’t be afraid to be alone[…]There aren’t many places where children and teenagers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access.

 

In many ways, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle is a celebration of the inner life to which Row alludes—one harnessed, in this case, on long, lonely stretches of quiet roads, away from the benevolent hovering of parents or guardians.

Bicycle, the story’s protagonist, is named for the toddler t-shirt she is wearing the day she is discovered, penniless and parentless, on the front steps of the Mostly Silent Monastery. Bicycle is taken in, raised, and homeschooled by the formidable Sister Wanda Magdalena, whose bark is bigger than her bite, and who comes to love Bicycle as her own.

A curious, quick-witted soul, Bicycle is also unusually quiet for a girl approaching adolescence, owing largely to the fact that her only companions have been the Mostly Silent Monks. The monks might model for Bicycle the valuable art of listening, but their conversational skills are limited to the Sacred Eight Words: “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “help,” “now,” “later,” “sleep,” and “sandwich.” While Bicycle is so attuned to the nuances of human expression that she can read any number of meanings into the word “sandwich,” depending on how it is delivered, she is less versed at initiating friendships with children her own age. At least, in Sister Wanda’s estimation.

When Brother Otto helps Bicycle purchase her namesake—a “glaringly, screamingly, almost unbearably orange” second-hand bicycle, which Bicycle affectionately names Clunk—Sister Wanda is optimistic that Bicycle’s newfound independence will encourage assimilation into the surrounding neighborhood, with its bounty of happily-playing children. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the girl needs to make friends.”

Instead, while Bicycle is on her two-wheeler, she rarely engages with other children. Even when children attempt to talk to her, even when Sister Wanda sets up formal playdates, Bicycle “started pedaling hard and left them in her dust.” Bicycle seems always to prefer the entertainment of her own mind, and this only perturbs Sister Wanda further.

As parents, how often do our protective instincts hijack us, such that we begin to see our job as warding off imaginary dangers in our children’s futures? How tempting is it to scrutinize our children, locking eyes on some atypical attribute or behavior, and then fly the plane into the trees? What begins as vigilance turns into well-disposed worrying, turns into obsessive meddling, until we can no longer see the child in front of us.

Sister Wanda informs Bicycle she is enrolling her in The Friendship Factory, a sleep-away camp outside D.C., which promises to teach children social skills (“Three Guaranteed Friendships or Your Money Back!”). To Bicycle, the premise sounds like “a guaranteed nightmare.” After repeatedly trying (and failing) to plead her case, arguing that she be allowed to make friendships in her own way, Bicycle decides drastic times call for drastic measures. When the camp bus bound for The Friendship Factory makes a pit-stop, Bicycle unhitches Clunk and rides west as fast as she can, armed with a stack of paper maps.

What results is nearly 300 pages of adventure and challenge, of thrill and despair, of risk and reward, as Bicycle makes her way from D.C. to California, with the goal of arriving in San Francisco by July 8 to see her hero, competitive Polish cyclist “Zbig,” host the “Blessing of the Bicycles.” Bicycle has received fan mail from her biking idol—signed “Your Friend, Zbig”—so she hopes that, when the two meet in person, the world will recognize that she has what it takes to make and keep a friend. At regular turns, Bicycle mails postcards of her progress back to the Monastery.

Of course, as with any lofty goal, the real payoff lies in the journey itself. Against such vivid, memorable backdrops—from the sunflowers of Kansas to the purple mountains of Colorado to the unrelenting desert of Nevada—Bicycle meets a cast of eccentric characters, human and not-so-human. Many of these characters are hinted at on the book’s cover, and my daughter derived great satisfaction from checking off the backstory of each one. There’s Chef Marie Petitchou, who fears her French restaurant chain will lose out to the Americans’ pastime for fast food. There’s an uppity racehorse named The Cannibal, a favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, if only he can battle his homesickness for the French countryside of his youth. There’s a man in a chicken suit, a parade of pigs, a Cookie Lady, a sponge salesman, two feuding business owners, and a Bike Thief.

And there’s my daughter’s favorite: a ghost named Griffin, who has been haunting a Civil War battleground in Virginia for hundreds of years and longs for someone to lead him back to his Missouri hometown, famous for its fried pies. (Oh, I could write an entire blog post about the descriptions of food in this story!)

Long before Bicycle herself realizes it, we readers become keen witnesses of her power to touch the hearts and lives of those whose paths she crosses. She sets out to make a single friendship, but she ends up with friendships in every one of the nine states she traverses. She even, on occasion, comes to prefer the presence of another—even a ghost singing Civil War ballads on repeat—to the company of her own mind. These friends may not resemble the ones Sister Wanda had in mind for Bicycle, but they become critical to Bicycle’s well-being—and she to theirs.

None of these friendships would happen under the watchful eye of Sister Wanda. Neither would the brushes with starvation, physical exhaustion, and loneliness—which often drive Bicycle to venture outside her comfort zone and engage these folks in the first place. Still, it isn’t just Bicycle’s physical distance from the Monastery which enables her growth: it is the freedom she has on the open road in which to turn inward. To ponder. To reflect. To dig deep. To sort out the type of human she wants to be.

Our own tweens aren’t likely to get away with bicycling 4,000 miles largely unsupervised, but this book will nonetheless tempt them with the possibilities for self-discovery inherent in any amount of time spent outside the home, away from technology, social media, and parental watchfulness. If we read it aloud to our children, we might find ourselves nostalgic for the liberties we took in the 1970s and 1980s, often on our bicycles and in our own private worlds.

At the same time it celebrates the power of an inner life, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle also affirms the role of the parent or guardian. As even Sister Wanda comes to see by the end of the story, in a series of delightful surprises, it may be our children’s job to sort out the type of human they want to be, but it’s our equally important job to validate them, to support them, and to help them get there.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

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

Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids.

When my husband and I, long finished with our own plates, start staring holes into the heads of our children, whose food only seems to multiply the longer we sit at the table, I start fantasizing about bedtime. And then I think, Be Present!, and decide, enough with the small talk which is going nowhere, and throw out, “Let’s talk about gender stereotypes!” At which point, both children shoot me a look which plainly says, Please go back to yelling at us about our manners.

And so, this is what I have decided. My kids are getting on in years (even if you can’t tell by their table manners), and it’s getting harder to find a daily time when they are both available for me to read to them. So why not make dinner time our read aloud time?

That’s right. We have cast our conversation skills to the wind, and now, the second I put down my fork, I pick up whatever book we’re reading, and we get to it. This is how we came to fall in love with Gary D. Schmidt’s new middle-grade novel, Pay Attention, Carter Jones (Ages 10-14). Not only is it tears-in-the-eyes funny and tears-in-the-eyes moving, it’s the very best distraction from the drudgery of dinnertime you could ask for.

Also, it permits me to do a British accent. Truly, any day can be improved by donning a British accent.

When an English butler shows up without warning one morning at the door of the Jones’ American house—a “portly” Mary Poppins character, minus the magic but with the umbrella—he is hardly met with a warm welcome, at least from Carter Jones, who is trying to steel himself for the first day of sixth grade. Allow me to share the story’s opening paragraph, so splendidly does it establish Carter’s narrative voice, with its infectious flair for the dramatic, its hefty dose of teenage skepticism bordering on disdain, and its fabulous dry wit.

If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm—and I’ve been in one, so I know what’s like—and if the last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.

Carter doesn’t know how his mother can be sure the Butler isn’t a serial killer, even after he explains that his services are paid for by a generous endowment left in the will of Carter’s recently-deceased grandfather, for whom the Butler has worked all his life.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean my grandfather, like, left you to us in his will?”

“Crudely articulated, but true in the most generous sense.”

“Like, we own you?”

The guy carefully tied shut the folds of his umbrella. “Young Master Jones, indentured servanthood having been abolished even in your own country, no. You do not, like, own me.”

Come on. This book just begs to be read aloud.

Even though “you never know what a serial killer might do to throw you off guard,” Carter’s mother allows the Butler to enter the morning chaos of their household, to help the girls with their unruly hair and their missing socks, to pack school lunches, and to load all four children into his giant eggplant-colored Bentley (steering wheel on the right) and drop them at their first day of school.

As it turns out, the Jones family—Carter, his three younger sisters, their mother, and their prone-to-puking dachshund, Ned—needs saving from more than the drudgery of daily life. Though we don’t discover this until midway through the story, the family is still raw from the tragic loss of Carter’s young brother, Currier, who died from a rare illness a little over a year ago. Carter misses his brother terribly, but he misses his father even more—a deployed Captain in the Army, from whom the only correspondence during the story is a heart-wrenching letter to Carter’s mother, announcing that he is leaving the family for another woman in Germany. Coming to terms with the fickleness of death is one thing; coming to terms with the fickleness of human behavior, especially from someone you have always idolized, someone you have always trusted, seems nearly impossible.

The Butler, whose full name is August Paul Bowles-Fitzpatrick, is careful not to step into the shoes abandoned by Carter’s father—and yet, he becomes every bit the observant, compassionate, supportive, consistent, present adult figure Carter needs him to be. Even while extolling the superior virtues of British culture. Even while dispensing unwelcome mugs of tea with milk and sugar. Even while being, as Carter chides him, a “pain in the glutes.” The Butler may not be able to perform magic, but he seems somehow to be everywhere at once, offering the right—if enigmatic—words at the right time, always two steps ahead of those he is sworn to serve.

The Butler is also an ardent fan of both the metaphor and the sport of cricket, and these two converge in some of the most entertaining and poignant scenes in the book. Much like the Butler aims to do with Carter and his classmates at the Longfellow Middle School, this book will make a cricket fan out of every one of its readers. (Not to worry if you don’t know the first thing about the sport: every chapter begins with a different rule.) The hilarity of the Butler descending on the Minutemen’s Football Field, sporting his cricket whites and carrying a set of stumps and bails, is matched only by the way he successfully woos Carter, his neighbor, and the entire cross-county team into joining him. (“Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, what are you supposed to be?” said Annie. The Butler rummaged around in the long case again and took out two huge gloves—white again—and he handed them to Billy…“Miss Anne, I am not supposed to be anything. I am a cricketer.”)

Cricket instills focus (“Pay attention, Master Jones!”) and hand-eye coordination, but it also imparts invaluable life skills, like teamwork, patience, resilience, and communication. It is a “gentleman’s” sport, marked by dignity and respect. Most critically for our young protagonist, it offers a space for self-discovery; for belonging; even for healing. In the metaphorical sense, cricket teaches us to “keep the bails up,” even during the roughest, most disorienting times in our lives.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones celebrates family. Maybe not the one Carter thought he had, maybe not even the one he wanted, but the one he’s building for himself, each time he sits through a ballet performance for his sister, or walks the dog for his mom, or give voice to his deepest, darkest fears without the risk of judgment. Each time he invites this quirky, old-fashioned British cricketer into his heart.

There’s nothing that brings a family together more than sharing a laugh or a heartwarming story. Here at our dinner table, we were lucky to have found both.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

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

There’s A New Pippi in Town

February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one.

I have fond memories of reading Astrid Lindgren’s The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking to my kids four years ago, all three of us laughing ourselves silly. Free-spirited Pippi, committed to living life with wild abandon, is one of those characters who cuts straight to the heart. She calls things as they are. She takes up space. She isn’t afraid of living or loving too largely. It’s downright refreshing. Some days, it seems there aren’t enough Pippis.

Well, good news! Pippi’s spirit is alive and well in Maria Parr’s delightful Norwegian novel (perhaps named for Pippi’s creator?), Astrid the Unstoppable (Ages 7-10), about a plucky, red-headed nine year old living in a Scandinavian mountain village. Originally published in 2009 and later translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey, the book arrived on our American shores this past November…and not a moment too soon. Nicknamed “the little thunderbolt of Glimmerdal,” Astrid is Exactly What This Winter Needs.

The parallels to Pippi abound, well beyond the red hair and boisterous personality. In lieu of a pet monkey, Astrid bestows  affections on one Snorri the Seagull, who shares her home and perches atop her helmet on bicycle rides. Astrid doesn’t live entirely alone as Pippi does—she has her quiet but attentive father—but she does mourn the absence of her scientist mother, who is on an extended excursion to Greenland to study rising water levels, akin to Pippi’s legendary father off captaining the seas. Like Pippi, Astrid is left mainly on her own, with large stretches of time in which to entertain herself. As her father tells people, “I let her out every morning and hope she’ll come back in the evening.”

It is what Astrid does with her open-ended days that makes reading about her so much fun. In the two months leading up to her tenth birthday, which happens to fall on Easter, Astrid is determined to make the most of every minute in her teeny, tiny remote mountain village, whose snowy peaks and frozen rivers, sheep farms and “enchanted forests,” are Astrid’s playgrounds. She attempts to somersault on skis while singing to herself. She makes a giant gingerbread castle for Snorri. She charms her way on and off the ferry without every paying a fare. She faces off with an angry ram. Always, she uses her innocent frankness and contagious wit to talk herself out of the messes she inadvertently creates. (During most of the story, Astrid’s school in the neighboring village is off for “February half term.”)

Until now, Astrid—much like Pippi—has spent little playtime with children her own age. She is the only child in her village, and visiting children are forbidden by the unimaginative Mr. Hagen, who runs the Wellness Retreat at the base of the mountain (and is the only adult whom Astrid seems incapable of winning over, despite her best efforts).

Astrid’s best friend is her seventy-four-year-old godfather, a strikingly large sheep farmer rich in contradictions. Gunnvald is part cantankerous “troll” (as Astrid affectionately calls him) and part lively fiddle player. He is at once hardened from a bruised past and possessed with a soft spot for Astrid (“She was sharp as a starling, Gunnvald thought…”). When the story begins, Gunnvald’s favorite pastime is rigging up prototype sledges for Astrid to race down the mountain. (One can tell something about how these sledge runs go by chapter titles like, “In which Sledge Test No. 1 is launched, and Astrid is threatened with a call to the police.”)

For as much as Pippi’s spirit may infuse these colorful scenes, Astrid the Unstoppable also packs a substantial emotional punch, the likes of which we do not see in Astrid Lindgren’s classic. This Astrid’s is a true coming-of-age story. The novel spans mere weeks, but a series of dramatic happenings firmly alters the way Astrid sees herself, her loved ones, and the larger world.

Most significantly, Astrid begins to sense the presence of looming secrets in the lives of her grownups. Secrets which suggest life is inherently more complicated than skiing somersaults. Secrets which reveal failings in the people she idolizes. Secrets which inspire Astrid to think less about her own entertainment and more about helping others—perhaps a fitting progression for someone on the verge of double digits.

The most significant of these secrets involves Gunnvald. When Astrid discovers Gunnvald has an estranged daughter, one whom Gunnvald lovingly raised for several years before letting her leave with her mother and never come back, Astrid is flabbergasted that such a truth was kept from her. Now an acclaimed violinist with a monstrously huge dog, Heidi (the reference to another literary classic is purposeful) abruptly returns home after receiving a desperate letter from Gunnvald, who mistakenly believes he is on death’s door after taking a spill over a coffee pot and landing in the hospital. It turns out Gunnvald is a long way from dying—he happens to be as prone to the dramatic as Astrid—and now must confront the pain of his past head on.

Astrid’s role in her best friend’s saga is wildly entertaining and touchingly genuine, as she attempts to do what children do and presume all questions have straightforward answers. Grown ups, Astrid comes to realize, are capable of making terribly stupid and hurtful mistakes. Sometimes it takes the voice of a child to call things as they are. To remind people of the presence of today, the power of music, and the possibilities in forgiveness.

Astrid the Unstoppable is the best distraction we could ask for in these final weeks of winter, bringing a welcome smile to our faces, at the same time that it leaves a tiny little thunderbolt on our hearts.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Published by Walker Books. 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!

Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.

Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.

Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.

While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.

There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.

And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.

Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”

I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.

Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.

I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.

 

AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

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

 

 

Gift Guide 2018: When We Can’t Go Home

December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, a novel set in the 1980s about four siblings abandoned by their mother in a mall parking lot. The book follows the children’s physical journey—sleeping in woods, stealing food, battling the elements—to track down their great-aunt and convince her to take them in. Of course, the book is as much about the children’s emotional journey, processing their mother’s betrayal and questioning words like “family” and “home.” To my pre-adolescent self, Voigt’s story seemed like a child’s worst nightmare. But, if watching it play out was terrifying to me, witnessing the children’s resourcefulness and resilience along the way was also deeply consoling. I couldn’t look away.

I was reminded of Dicey and her siblings—of their heartbreak and their fortitude—many times while reading Kate DiCamillo’s Louisiana’s Way Home (Ages 10-13), a middle-grade novel even a reluctant reader won’t be able to put down. While set in the 1970s (not a cell phone in sight), the story has a kind of timeless, floating feel. In its review, Booklist likens it to a fairy tale, with “heroes, helpers, villains, and one princess looking for home.” This “princess”—or anti-princess, as she might more accurately be called—also happens to be one of the most memorable, infectious narrators our children will ever meet.

Louisiana Elefante is abandoned by her grandmother, her only living relation, on an impromptu middle-of-the-night road trip across the Florida-Louisiana state line. Granny begins the trip muttering about “a date with destiny,” about finally breaking a curse she believes has been on their family for generations. “The day of reckoning is at hand,” she cryptically tells her granddaughter. (Louisiana first appeared as a supportive character in DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, although a child need not have read the earlier book to fall in love with this one.)

Louisiana is accustomed to Granny’s eccentricities—one might say affectionately so, which makes the later betrayal all the greater—so while she begrudges not getting clear answers and having to leave behind her friends and her cat, she does her best to stand by the only family she has ever known. When her grandmother succumbs to debilitating tooth pain, twelve-year-old Louisiana even takes the wheel (“you may be surprised to learn I had never driven a car before”), manages to locate a dentist’s office, and then talks her way into getting her grandmother emergency treatment. Louisiana is one calm, cool, and collected kiddo.

Despite Louisiana’s efforts, the road trip goes from bad to worse. After consecutive nights in the “Good Night, Sleep Night” motel, Granny suggests Louisiana find a local singing gig to pay their room and board. When she returns, Louisiana discovers her grandmother is gone, plaid suitcase and all. If that isn’t devastating enough, her grandmother has left a letter. (“Why would you write someone a letter when you were always and forever by their side? You wouldn’t. Unless, of course, you intended not to be by their side anymore.”) The letter not only confirms Granny isn’t coming back, but it reveals a shocking truth about Louisiana’s past. (Nope, I’m not saying any more than that.)

While Louisiana has had to play the adult too many times in her young life, she nevertheless approaches every minute of living with a childlike wonder. It is precisely this duality of personality—at once deeply wounded and unfailingly optimistic—that makes her such an enticing, beguiling character. Even while contemplating the gravity of her situation, Louisiana is distracted by the small wonders around her: a crow on a roof; the brightness of the stars; even the palm-tree curtains which seem out of place in a Georgia motel (“Why weren’t the curtains printed with peaches? That’s what I wanted to know.”). A vending machine is regarded as nothing short of miraculous.

Kate DiCamillo has said of writing this book that, no matter how hard she tried to tell the story in the third person, first person was “the only way the voice would come.” We, too, fall under Louisiana’s spell, continually surprised by the twists and turns in her story, yet always trusting we’re in the hands of a master. The book itself is Louisiana’s own reckoning, her insistence on claiming agency in a world bent on robbing her of it. “I’m going to write it all down, so what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer. They will know. This is what happened.”

What happens is that Louisiana uses her infectious personality, fondness for pineapple upside-down cake, and unparalleled singing voice to befriend a boy named Burke Allen, to enlist the help of a minister and his crotchety organist, and to begin to shape her own destiny, independent of her grandmother and her alleged family history. To find family in the unlikeliest of places. To make a home out of two states. And to begin to forgive those who may have wronged her, but who nevertheless set her on this unique and always-wondrous path.

 

Review copy 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!

Humanizing Refugees

November 4, 2018 § 5 Comments

“Oh honey, that book is not for you.” I had just walked into our family room to find my eight year old stretched out on the sofa, reading Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s extraordinary but brutally gut-wrenching graphic novel, Illegal (Ages 10-14). I realized I had made a mistake leaving it in plain sight, atop a stack of books I had just finished for my next Capitol Choices meeting.

My daughter barely looked up. “But why? You know I love graphic novels.”

“I do know you love graphic novels. But this one is written for older kids. We can save it for when you’re older.”

“But I’m reading it right now. Plus, I’m understanding it.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you’d understand it,” I said, sitting down next to her and gently taking away the book. “It’s that there are some very upsetting things that happen in the book, and it would be hard for an eight year old to process those things.”

Of course, as any parent knows, if you don’t want your child to read a book, the least effective approach is to tell her it’s not appropriate. It didn’t help that my eleven year old walked into the room just then and said, “Mommy, that book is amazing. And really deep. Emily is much too young to read it.”

“I hate you all!” my daughter yelled. She stormed off to her room. Well, I thought, at least we dodged that bullet.

Not a chance. The next day, after school, Emily announced, “I have decided you can read the book to me. That way you can explain it to me.”

“Which book” I asked, feigning innocence.

“The book about the refugees. See, I know what it’s about.”

“We have other picture books about refugees,” I tried. “We can go back and reread those.”

But she was determined. The pleading went on for three more days. It even involved her bringing home a news article on the Rohingya refugees, which her class had discussed from Time for Kids.

I caved. I read Illegal to her. And she was riveted. She asked questions. She made me read certain scenes twice. At one point, she got especially quiet and still, and I realized she was holding back tears. I told her it was OK to cry, that crying didn’t mean she was too young for the story. And then I cried.

Illegal, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, tells the story of Ebo, a parentless, penniless, music-loving, twelve-year-old boy from Ghana, who runs away when he learns that his beloved older brother, Kwame, has left to make the hazardous crossing to Europe, following in the footsteps of their older sister from months ago. We know that Ebo eventually catches up to Kwame, because the book opens with the two of them floating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an inflatable rubber dinghy (“maximum safe load 6 people”), alongside thirteen others. The sky is blue-black; the water is darker; the boat has a leak; and the fuel tank is almost empty. No one knows how to swim.

The book begins and ends with this dramatic, hair-raising sea crossing—the very image that comes to mind when Westerners think about the refugee crisis—but it consistently breaks to jump back in time, revealing that getting into this rubber dinghy is the final step in what has already been an incredibly long and harrowing journey.

How many of our children—much less ourselves—have ever contemplated what it looks like for minors to travel alone for hundreds of miles; to live on the streets of busy cities; to vie for labor jobs to earn enough money for the next bus, the next truck; to risk their lives crossing the Sahara Dessert at the hands of armed criminals; all to arrive at the shores of the Mediterranean to face the riskiest, most insane, most desperate act of all? What must the life you left behind be like to choose this path?

And yet, the media, fueled by our own government, would demonize refugees like this. Would unilaterally cast them as shady, suspicious, ill-meaning characters who should turn around and go back from whence they came.

While I am not advocating sharing this book with children under ten or eleven, I can tell you this: Emily has gone on to read the book three more times on her own. I have learned from experience that, when children return to a book again and again, it is because they still have more to extract. More meaning, more understanding, more connection.

“What is it about Illegal that you like so much?” I asked her over breakfast last week.

She thought for a bit. “I guess I like that Ebo survives.”

There is death in this book: death of strangers, of friends, even of Ebo’s own brother, who dies saving Ebo in the story’s most devastating moment. There is violence and cruelty; both are depicted graphically. Still, at the heart of the book, there is beautiful, wide-eyed, caring Ebo, who touches the lives of everyone he meets and instills camaraderie in a group of boys to gives them strength in numbers. For young readers, even middle-grade readers, Ebo’s survival is critical. It softens the blow of the surrounding death and violence. It is the ultimate sign of hope: that someone, in this case a child, can beat every odd stacked against him. Can survive the unimaginable. A boy who runs into his sister’s arms in the final page and exclaims triumphantly, “I will hold her forever and never let her go.”

Our breakfast discussion included my eleven year old, who weighed in on what struck him about the book. “You don’t think about kids having to do stuff like that. You hear about it in the news, but you can’t really imagine it until you read this book.”

And yet, the refugee crisis is happening now. It is the world we live in. Might there be value in opening up our children’s eyes to it (albeit appropriately and sensitively)? In the words of Melissa Orth, a Maine teen librarian featured in this week’s article in the School Library Journal, titled “Can Diverse Books Save Us? In a Divided World, Librarians are on a Mission”:

As a teen librarian in the whitest state in the union, I feel it is my duty to not have the collection reflect my community, but rather to reflect the wider world…Books featuring characters with different cultural experiences from their own can educate teen readers and build empathy.

Max, the thirteen-year-old American protagonist of Katherine Marsh’s heartfelt and suspenseful new middle-grade novel, Nowhere Boy (Ages 10-14), has never given two seconds’ thought to the plight of refugees, until he finds one squatting in the basement of the townhouse his family is renting during their two-year sabbatical in Belgium. The boy in the basement is Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who believes himself to be orphaned; he watched his mother and sister die in bombs back in Syria and his father drown while attempting to paddle their dinghy across the Mediterranean.

Sound familiar? If Illegal concerns itself with the refugee’s geographic journey, culminating with Ebo reaching the safety of the European coast, Nowhere Boy begins upon arrival—when the equally daunting journey of making a new life in a foreign and often distrusting culture begins. When Paris is attacked by terrorists who are traced to Belgium, Ahmed knows he dare not show his face in public for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist. Alone and nearly starving, he implores Max to help him live secretly in his basement. Not even Max’s parents can know.

Max is facing his own challenges with cultural assimilation. Already a struggling student, he resents having to attend school in a foreign language. He especially dislikes spending after-school hours with a strict, elderly Belgian tutor, who at the same time that she attacks his French, also delivers racist comments about Europe’s Muslim population—remarks which Max finds untrue and offensive, especially since one is living in his basement and another is his only friend in school.

As the two boys connect over their “outsider” status (and a shared love of comics), they forge a dangerous but ultimately redemptive friendship. The story is told through the boys’ alternating points of view, in short chapters, which not only keeps pace for even the most reluctant readers, but poignantly highlights the difference in the boys’ cultural orientations. Indeed, it is this difference that makes their friendship so intriguing and remarkable.

If refugees themselves are often stigmatized in Western culture, so is the act of helping them. If Illegal is a story of hope, Nowhere Boy is a story of empowerment. Of standing up in the name of human decency and kindness. A story about a boy who looks another boy in the eyes and sees something of himself in him—despite their looking nothing alike, despite their foreign upbringings, despite those who would have him thrown out, turned in. Even when Ahmed’s secret becomes too complicated for Max to keep alone, he engages the help of both his Muslim school friend and, incredibly, the school “bully.” Together, they develop a plan to give Ahmed a chance at an ordinary childhood, a chance to go to school and ride bikes and play sports. The plan goes awry at nearly at every step, but the nail-biting resolution is a testament to the power of kids fighting for what they believe is right and good and true.

Citing parallels with the Holocaust and those who, at great personal risk, harbored Jews in their homes, Nowhere Boy asks us to see past labels, past the “other,” to the human being inside. It challenges us to move beyond being a passive presence and towards extending a hand. It rewards, in the words of the novel, “put[ting] yourself at risk for another person.” In a world where adults seem increasingly unable to do this, perhaps it is only fitting that this novel illuminates the possibilities when kids take matters into their own hands. I am reminded of the words spoken by the King at the conclusion of our October read aloud, A Tale Dark and Grimm (yup, it was every bit the hit I had hoped):

There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have. There is a time when a kingdom needs its children.

I had planned to give Nowhere Boy to my eleven year old to read on his own, but I’ve since decided to read it aloud to both him and my daughter. Her fascination for this topic seems boundless at the moment, and I don’t want that to go to waste. Sometimes our children know what they need better than we do. Sometimes they are ready before we think they are.

Sometimes we need to get out of their way and let them direct their love into the world.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Books published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Roaring Book Press, respectively. Illegal was originally published in Great Britain by Hodder Children’s Books. 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!

How The Penderwicks Saw Us Through 24 Days of Rain

October 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

Last month, Northern Virginia saw twenty-four days of rain. Adding insult to injury, this deluge of wet, gloomy weather happened during the one month each year when our family barely holds it together in the first place. Where the ensuing chaos of back-to-school transitions is trumped only by the fact that both my children once upon a time insisted on entering the world within two weeks of one another (and have since insisted that their celebrations never overlap).

Fortunately, we are not strangers to the salvation of the right chapter book series for back-to-school season (see here). Still, I have never been as thankful for one particular set of literary characters as I was last month.

Exhibit A begins when my (almost) eleven year old came upon me at the kitchen counter, surveying a spread of Tupperware containers.

“Can you read Penderwicks to me and Emily?” he blurted out.

(Um, do I look like I am available for reading, you good-for-nothing…) “I have to make dinner.”

“Oh. Right. What are we having?”

“I’m going to turn these various leftover vegetables into quesadillas.”

“Wait, can I make the dinner instead? Then you could sit and read to us, and I could listen while I cook.”

You are going to WHAT?! (As much as I’d like to tell you I have kids who regularly help out with cooking, I do not have kids who regularly help out with cooking. Getting them to trim green beans can be a knock-down-drag-out fight.)

And yet, as I took my place on the couch next to my daughter, ours backs to the ensuing sounds of banging and clattering coming from the kitchen, the incredible happened. My son sautéed vegetables. He grated cheese. He filled tortillas and then flipped each one on a cast-iron skillet until it was perfectly browned. He used the pizza cutter to make equal wedge-like slices. All the time, I read from The Penderwicks in Spring. Together, we laughed and leaned in and pretended it wasn’t pouring rain outside for the umpteenth day in a row, pretended that spring was springing outside our window like it was outside the Penderwicks’ house.

The Penderwicks: a family so fun, so funny, so well-meaning, so deliciously and perfectly flawed, that they cannot fail to bring out the best in everyone who knows them.

“Are you ready for us?” I asked, turning to see three heaping plates on the counter.

“No, keep going,” JP replied. “I want to make the table look extra nice before we sit down.”

I give myself a tiny bit of credit for this. I always knew we would want to binge read The Penderwicks books (Ages 8-12), by award-winning Jeanne Birdsall, so I not only waited until the last one in the series came out (this past spring), I also waited until my kids were almost eight and eleven—the perfect ages for a series whose later books take on increasingly mature terrain, as the characters themselves age (romantic pitfalls and all).

We flew through The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street over the summer, then finished The Penderwicks at Point Mouette during the first week of school, yearning nostalgically for our own travels to Maine (Maine’s Point Mouette being the site of the Penderwicks’ two-week, unplugged summer vacation.). That left The Penderwicks in Spring and The Penderwicks at Last for September and October.

Who are these infectious creatures? While the Penderwicks family (spoiler alert) picks up some new additions as the series goes on, the spotlight initially focuses on four sisters and their affable, eccentric single father. Rosalind, the eldest, can be bossy, but she’s also fiercely protective of her younger siblings, having stepped up to care for them after their mother died of cancer (four years before the start of the first book).

Skye, next in line, may resemble her late mother’s conventionally beautifully features, but her tomboy personality, infuriating stubbornness, fondness for the soccer field, and astute mathematical mind sometimes make her feel like the “black sheep” of the family.

Then there’s hopelessly romantic Jane—the sibling who regularly elicits the most giggles from my brood—who, as an aspiring author, sees everything around her as potential fodder for her fictional series about a heroine named Sabrina Starr (although don’t count her out on the soccer field, either).

Finally, there’s Batty, just four years old when the series begins (but who stars as a fifth grader and college student in the final two books), and whose devotion to fairy wings, mishaps, and animals—including her beloved dog, Hound—wins over everyone she meets.

Who is our favorite? That answer changes faster than I can turn the page. Birdsall continuously develops her characters: they ebb and flow and keep us guessing, all the while taking up residence inside our hearts. The cast of supporting characters—most of them boys—is equally memorable.

If this is a book whose main characters are girls, does that mean it’s a girl book? YOU HUSH UP RIGHT NOW. True, my daughter now claims The Penderwicks as her second favorite series of all time, after Harry Potter. BUT ALSO, my son will tell you it is now his third favorite series, after HP and Percy Jackson. That my son’s enthusiasm matches his sister’s isn’t just high praise: it is proof positive that author Shannon Hale (a.k.a. Princess in Black) knows what she’s talking about when she says there is absolutely nothing about being a boy that predisposes you to enjoy only stories about boys—and that we as parents better stop pushing our own bias on our children.

Besides being filled with fleshed-out characters, what makes this realistic fiction so enticing, so worthy of sitting your mother down and cooking for her?! While The Penderwicks books are set in today’s time, largely in a fictional Boston suburb named Cameron, they have a charm—especially against a backdrop of increasingly “heavy” middle-grade fiction—which feels refreshingly old-fashioned. They feel like the timeless tales we remember from our own childhood, the ones which kept us warm during winter nights, which helped us pass lazy summer days on a porch swing.

Sure, the Penderwick siblings get into scrapes—but they are scrapes with bulls, or runaway rabbits, or with the prickly mother of their best friend (and “honorary sibling”) Jeffrey. These are girls who climb trees to sneak into the bedroom of a friend in need; who run off brooding to throw rocks into the ocean and almost drown trying to save a dog; who sneak into golf courses in the early dawn to spy on moose.

Sure, the Penderwick siblings are not perfect. They squander; they dig in their heels; they let misunderstandings brew and nearly swallow them up. Their relationships with one another change over time, alliances form and break apart. But they continue to abide by what they call Penderwick Family Honor. They continue to call MOPS (Meeting of the Penderwick Sisters) to formulate Great Plans, like how to keep their beloved father from marrying again, or how to stop a fellow sibling from running away. They continue to act with the conviction that they are stronger together.

Sure, their adventures are crafted, often hilariously so, to keep us breathless with excitement—but they are also adventures which feel alluringly like the simple, pure, pared-down essence of childhood. For our children reading these books, the Penderwicks are a harbinger of all that is good and true in this world: of curiosity, of kindness, of laughter, of resilience, of familial bonds which stand strong against the currents of time.

In short, they are exactly the thing to read when life—or twenty-four days of rain—has got you down.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

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

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