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!

 

 

Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation.

Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (Ages 4-8) is told entirely though illustrated panels. (If you have doubts about the value of wordless books, read this.) I first fell in love with MacKay’s acclaimed cut-paper dioramas in Fall Leaves—but, wow, has she outdone herself here. Her art seems actually to dance off the page. It’s as if we were watching the ballet unfold from the same velvet seats as the story’s young heroine, who is attending the show for the first time with her grandmother. In fact, it’s precisely the experience of watching “The Nutcracker” to which McKay brings our attention.

The girl in the story is not as easily seduced as us readers by the prospect of going to the theater. In fact, she isn’t keen on leaving her house at all. Especially not to venture out into the rain and across town with her Gran, who surprises her with Nutcracker tickets. The girl looks stiff and miserable while getting her long hair brushed and her frilly dress on.

MacKay’s washes of browns and greys perfectly echo the dreariness of the cold, wet night. (I know we’re supposed to feel their contrast with the splendor of what’s to come, but there’s something just as beautiful for me about these pictures.)

Despite not getting the response from her granddaughter which she (likely) desires, Gran’s enthusiasm never wavers. She bounces along with a swing in her step and no umbrella.

When the pair enters the theater, it becomes clear the girl thinks her bad luck is only worsening. A boy around her age sticks out his tongue at her as she walks by. When they climb the stairs to the balcony, he turns out to have the seat next to her.

But then, the violinists begin, and the magic happens. Swirls of color sweep into view, and the dismal palette of the previous pages is juxtaposed by the vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and blues of the characters and sets on stage.

If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, those familiar with the ballet will have fun recognizing the different scenes as they flash by. Equally fun is identifying expressions on both the girl’s and boy’s faces, as they take in the performance for the first time. There’s anxiety at the nutcracker’s battle with the mouse king, for starters. And then relief—accompanied by a playful “I was never actually worried” glance at her neighbor—when Clara intercedes on stage to stop the mouse king.

What we begin to realize is that, much as we love seeing our favorite scenes from the ballet rendered so incredibly beautifully on paper, it’s actually just as much fun to watch the shifting relationship between the girl and boy in their seats. In their collective experiencing of the show, they become something more than strangers. Tentative at first, but with increasing warmth, they become playful, even a little flirty, with one another. It’s as if the magic on stage reaches out and holds them in its spell. Clearly, we are meant to draw parallels between the young children’s camaraderie and the relationship between Clara and the nutcracker prince. (McKay paints both the main characters and the dancers with refreshing racial diversity, adding another element of beauty to these relationships.)

Did I mention that by the time the show lets out, the rain has turned to snow?

 

Take away the stage lights, the lavish costumes, the festive sets, and the ethereal dancing, and there is still something magical about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which long ago inspired “The Nutcracker” ballet. It’s a story about handmade gifts that grow in size and come alive on Christmas Eve, when the night is ripe for the unexpected and the impossible seems possible.

T.E. McMorrow (a former stagehand himself) taps into the spirit behind this timeless Christmas Eve tale in The Nutcracker in Harlem (Ages 4-8), which stars a young African-American girl named Marie, living at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the artist-rich Sugar Hill neighborhood of New York City. If Waltz of the Snowflakes has us hearing the classical music in our heads, The Nutcracker in Harlem has us conjuring up the soulful sounds of jazz—voices accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, and women dancing in head scarves and feathered boas. Brilliantly illustrated by the accomplished James Ransome, the story stays true to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, right down to the sweet potato pie.

Our heroine, Marie, loves “the sound of Christmas,” but she doesn’t participate in it. Despite others’ encouragement to “let it out,” the shy, serious girl cannot bring herself to sing alongside her gregarious family and friends. In the pictures, she stands watchful and stiff on the sides. “She wished she could sing, but Marie was afraid she wasn’t any good.”

Like Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Marie gets a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Cab. It is carved, her uncle tells her, from “magical wood” and carries a drum around its neck. After everyone else has gone to bed, Marie sits in the dark beside the twinkling Christmas tree and rocks the nutcracker in her arms. In Ransome’s watercolor, we feel tenderness and affection, but we also identify a palpable sadness in Marie’s solitude.

When Marie awakens after briefly dozing off, the tree has doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size, and the glass ornaments have come to life. So, too, have the dolls and the wooden soldiers, the latter now an army led by the nutcracker himself. In sweeps a second, equally formidable army made up of enchanted mice and led by a mouse general, who charges ahead with cries of “Candy Cane!” and “Marzipan!”

The battle rages on, until it’s time for Marie, like Clara before her, to intercede before the mouse general destroys the nutcracker. But instead of kicking or throwing a shoe at him, Marie picks up the fallen nutcracker’s drum and begins to play. Marie’s power comes from within, but it comes in the form of music.

At once, the mice return to normal size and scamper away, and Marie is left with the nutcracker prince, with whom she dances beneath falling snowflakes. Marie does what we’ve been hoping she will do from the moment we meet her: she closes her eyes and sings. Her entire face softens, and her eyes sparkle.

When Marie wakes again, she is in her bed. It is Christmas morning, and she is surrounded by her smiling parents and her brother. Only an extra drum under the tree suggests that perhaps Marie wasn’t dreaming after all. That and the fact that later in the day, when the guests gather again in her house to sing, Marie joins in.

In McMorrow’s Author’s Note, he says about the story’s ending: “Just as the memory of The Nutcracker remained with Marie, so too did the memory of the Harlem Renaissance remain in the American soul.” Music and art have incredible power to transport and transform. Another reason why next year, you’ll find us in the audience of “The Nutcracker,” relishing once again the magic of the season.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week (more during the holidays).

Review copy of Waltz of the Snowflakes provided by Running Press Kids. The Nutcracker in Harlem published by Harper Collins Children’s. 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.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

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!

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 2): For the Doll Lover

December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura GodwinOne of the joys that comes from sharing a special series with your child is that, over the months that it takes you to finish, you come to feel like these beloved fictional characters have in some meaningful way become your friends, are part of your collective consciousness. Not only that, but you start noticing ways in which these stories have altered the way you—or your child—sees the world.

Since this summer, Emily and I have been making our way through all four books of “The Doll People” chapter series (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud), by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin. Now that the fourth book is finally available in paperback (plus a new Christmas picture book to boot), I can’t think of a better bundle of books to gift the doll lover in your life. It’s that rare combination of old-fashioned charm and contemporary relevance. Furthermore, the books are so intricately and delightfully illustrated—the first three by Brian Selznick and the fourth (plus the Christmas special) by Brett Helquist—that they are almost too special not to own.

Based on the always popular premise of toys-that-come-to-life-when-no-one-is-looking, Martin and Godwin’s series, set in the present day, stars a family of antique porcelain dollhouse dolls, each hand painted in England over one hundred years ago, who currently resides in the bedroom of an American girl named Kate. In the hands of Kate (or, more dramatically, her rambunctious toddler sister, Nora), the dolls are kept busy enough; but the real draw of the stories are the daring, unpredictable, and at times even outlandish adventures that the dolls have when their humans are out of the house or asleep (not unlike this other favorite series).

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin

The majority of these edge-of-your-seat adventures are undertaken by Annabelle Doll, the eldest child of the porcelain family, in cahoots with a modern plastic bendy doll named Tiffany Funcraft, who midway through the first book comes to live in Nora’s room with the rest of her family in the (mass-produced) Dream House Model 110. At first glance, the two girls couldn’t be more different—and illustrator Brain Selznick does a fantastic job of juxtaposing Annabelle’s old-fashioned elegance with Tiffany’s blunt, oversized features—but, as we as readers quickly discover: in these books, things are rarely as they seem.

'The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin

Woven through every page is a richly imagined doll culture, at the heart of which likes “The Doll Code of Honor,” an oath taken by all “living dolls” to ensure that the human world will never learn of their lives beyond the last place their humans left them. Keeping quiet when you’re dying to relate something to your best friend (but your human is around); remembering to return to the exact spot you were left (before your human catches you absent); not doing anything about your green paint-smeared hair or the itchy sweater your human attempted to knit you (because you might raise suspicion): these are no easy tasks, though failing to heed them carries with it the dangerous consequence of so-called “Doll State” (or, even worse, “Permanent Doll State”), by which a living doll is immediately transformed into an ordinary, boring, non-living doll.

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

“The thing I keep wondering, Mommy,” my daughter pronounced one night at bedtime about two weeks after we had started the series, “is whether my dolls come alive when I’m not around. I just can’t decide about this.” More than once, I’ve seen Emily slowly peering around the toy room door, as if hoping to catch her dolls in action. It’s funny: I can remember doing this same thing growing up, sneaking sideways looks at the row of stuffed animals that lined a wicker sofa in my bedroom, wondering if I could detect just the slightest movement.

You might wonder how such a premise could sustain originality for four long, meaty chapter books. But if you think Martin and Godwin wrote over 1,000 collective pages rehashing the same squabbles or near misses (there are only so many times you can narrowly avoid falling into the jaws of a pet cat, or wrestle yourself up a human-sized staircase in time to be back in your miniature bed by morning), you’d be wrong. While the first book, The Doll People, is largely concerned with Annabelle and Tiffany’s adventures at large in their humans’ house—specifically with their quest to find Annabelle’s Auntie Sarah, who mysteriously disappeared from the dollhouse back in 1955 and whom the girls suspect to be trapped in the spider-infested attic—the other books find innovative excuses to get the dolls out into the greater world, with the understanding that they must always return to their rightful home in the end.

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

In The Meanest Doll in the World, the second (and darkest) in the series, Annabelle and Tiffany explore Kate’s backpack one night and inadvertently end up accompanying Kate to school the next morning. Because their curiosity always, always gets the better of them, they climb out of the backpack and discreetly explore Kate’s classroom during the day—and yet, when the time comes for them to climb back into the backpack, they mistake Kate’s for another and end up going home with the wrong girl. Even worse, the dolls in this new child’s bedroom are engaged in an ongoing turf battle to fend off Mean Mimi, a loud, aggressive, arguably deranged doll whose small size belies a dangerous threat to Dollkind. I won’t lie: Mean Mimi will send a few shivers up and down your child’s spine, at the same time potentially unleashing some productive conversations about bullying in your house, before the story comes to a most satisfying end.

"The Meanest Doll in the World" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

In The Runaway Dolls, my daughter’s personal favorite of the bunch, Annabelle convinces Tiffany to run away from their families, an idea which sounds better in theory (doesn’t it always?). When the girls regret their decision and try to wind their way home through the suburban boulevards, they—along with their brothers, who end up coming after them—end up lost inside a dark stretch of forest. When they again reach civilization, they must spend several days with an eccentric cast of toys in a department store—adventures that include a tense run-in with a Doll Hospital—before ultimately finding their way home again.

"The Runaway Dolls" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

In The Doll People Set Sail, the two doll families find themselves in the greatest pickle to date. (Even I had trouble figuring out how they were going to get themselves out of this one.) When Nora and Kate are asked to pack up their bedrooms for a home renovation project, they mistakenly put the box holding both sets of dolls in the donation pile, rather than with the boxes to be stored in the attic. Before the dolls know it, they are aboard a speeding transatlantic cargo ship bound for the UK. If that wasn’t bad enough, a hole in the box proves to be the demise of three family members, who tumble out during the loading process—and whose whereabouts on the ship (assuming they haven’t fallen overboard!) remains unknown. Annabelle and Tiffany must organize a reconnaissance and rescue mission, but even if they can recover their doll family members, how will they get back to the States and home to their beloved humans? (Three cheers for a series about girls and dolls that frequently defies stereotypes of passivity: there is no sitting around waiting for something to happen in these pages!)

"The Doll People Set Sail" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brett Helquist

While adventure and drama abound in these stories, the greatest pleasure in sharing this series with a child comes from witnessing Annabelle’s emotional growth. Annabelle is keenly aware of the limits of her physical being: she is, by definition, fragile. In contrast to Tiffany’s Flexi-Bendy (trademarked) body, Annabelle cannot afford to take the careless physical risks that come so easily to her friend. And yet, Annabelle begins to understand that our appearances need not define our character. Time and time again, Annabelle surprises herself by being the bravest of the brunch: her curiosity about the world (including a fondness for natural science—spiders won’t stop her!), her love of reading, her cleverness, and her fierce loyalty to her family and friends transform her into the kind of quiet but persuasive leader that I would be proud to admire someday in my own daughter.

"The Runaway Dolls" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

Annabelle also learns more than a thing or two about friendship (this is, after all, the Ann M. Martin of The Babysitters Club that we’re talking about). She and Tiffany may strike up an unlikely friendship, but the ups and downs that their friendship takes is anything but unlikely. Learning to listen to one another, to allow for compromise, to quarrel and make up, and to help a friend recognize her best qualities: all of this is in these stories in spades, and I would venture to say that we could all benefit from such thoughtful and thorough musings on friendship.

"The Doll People Set Sail" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brett Helquist

The more time we spend with these dolls, the more we see them as living, breathing characters—people who share the same hopes and worries, confidences and insecurities as we do. There’s little in these wild adventures that can be tossed up to luck: every success is won through a combination of determination, resourcefulness, teamwork, and love. We invite these characters into our hearts and hope that they leave a little piece of themselves there.

On a walk recently, Emily stopped in front of a tree with an especially large knot hole. “Yup,” she said, “that’s what I thought.” She explained that this was the secret gathering place for a few of her stuffed animals during the day, while she was off at school. “Oh yeah? What do they do there?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, plan skydiving trips. Have parties. Use really stinky bathrooms.”

After all, life is a lot more exciting when you start imagining what might be happening under your very eyes.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Books 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!

A Fresh Take on a Holiday Tradition

November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

After last week’s "The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipatsomber posts, I am shifting tones to herald one of the most spellbinding picture books of the year, inspired by one of our family’s favorite holiday traditions.

I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).

Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year.

Secondly, my husband and I started taking our kids to the Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater in DC, a deliciously accessible performance for young children, where twinkling lights and perfect tutus send shivers of excitement down our dressed-up spines (and whose creative liberties involving a Mouse King cast in a Revolutionary War battle scene ensures my son is every bit as enchanted as his sister).

Now that we are Nutcracker enthusiasts—and now that Tchaikovsky’s music officially marks for us the start of the holiday season—I decided that this year we were ready to explore the darker, more mysterious intonations of the ballet.

And, just like that, the Thailand-born British illustrator Niroot Puttapipat launched the most breathtaking children’s edition of The Nutcracker that I have ever seen. Inspired by the sets from Marius Petipa’s original production in Saint Petersburg on December 18, 1892, the sophisticated adaptation not only hearkens back to the origins of the story, but it nudges at our dreamy subconscious in the same way that, say, Grimm fairy tales do. Puttapipat’s book isn’t scary, but it has an element of mystery and magic that feels just the tiniest bit unsettling—and leaves us wanting more.

If Alison Jay’s book is sugary and sweet and makes us want to twirl across the living room, Puttapipat’s keeps us squarely transfixed on the page. My kids and I cannot stop looking at this book. Some of you may already know Puttapipat’s unique artistic style from his previous Jingle Bells and The Night Before Christmas (clearly, I’m late to jump on this bandwagon).

In The Nutcracker, delicate black silhouetted figures—almost haunting in their absence of detail and expression—are set against sumptuous swaths of color. Expanses of black set pieces are juxtaposed with meticulous fine-point detailing, like the embroidery on the Nutcracker Prince’s coat or the ornaments on the Christmas tree.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Think of these like the landscapes of our dreams, where certain things take shape but others are shrouded in darkness.

It’s not just the unexpectedness of these visuals that entices; it’s also the emotion that radiates from every page. There’s no expression on young Clara’s face, yet we feel her heartbreak as she crouches beside her broken nutcracker.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

We feel Clara’s worry as she watches the battle between the come-to-life nutcracker and the evil Mouse King (before she chucks her slipper at him to end things once and for all).

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The text, which runs along sidebars on each spread, is adapted by Kate Davies and closely based on the original texts by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas. Yet, rather than feeling stiff or outdated, it too soars with drama and lyricism, aiding and embedding Clara’s magical journey alongside the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets.

They traveled by swan over gold-flecked oceans and silver-edged cities. Clara held her breath, her eyes wide. As she gazed at the twinkling lights far below, snowflakes pirouetted past. The prince caught one and gave it to Clara. “Try it,” he said.

Clara let the snowflake dissolve on her tongue. “Mmm. Rosebuds and raspberries!” she said.

“Mine is peppermint and honey,” said her prince. “Every snowflake tastes unique.”

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The Land of Sweets does not disappoint. While the text describes lemonade flowing from fountains and lollipops growing in flower beds, Puttapipat’s magical picture (it might be my favorite) delivers us a castle whose dark spires stand bold against a shimmering night sky; a moss-draped walking bridge that’s fit for starry romance; and a Sugar Plum Fairy whose wings look like they have been cast in sugary ice. It is enough to make Believers out of the most hardened of us.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Oh, but there’s more. As Clara and the Prince prepare to enter the castle, the page turns to reveal a pop-up spread of cut-paper art that might be one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen in a children’s book.  This is a castle that delivers: a castle at once light and dark, at once festive and mysterious. The silhouetted figures that flank the scene are nods to the different styles of international dance that follow in the actual ballet.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

What happens inside the castle is largely left to the imagination (until we go to the ballet, that is). The book—somewhat abruptly—concludes on the next page, with Clara waking up back home with the wooden nutcracker in her arms. “What a wonderful dream, she thought. But she could still taste lime and mint…”

And then something happens that is not in the Alison Jay version and which elicited an audible shudder from my daughter (“Ooooh, Mommy, that’s so mysterious!”). I’ll let your children discover that surprise on their own.

Traditions have the best chance of standing the test of time if fresh life can occasionally be breathed into them. Niroot Puttapipat reminds us that our family has only scratched the surface of enjoying this 125-year-old ballet.

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Review copy 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!

Finding the Christmas Spirit (in a 1952 Classic)

December 17, 2015 § 4 Comments

"Nancy and Plum," by Betty MacDonaldOne of my favorite memories of last December (read my post here) was reading Winterfrost to my children. Amidst the hustle and bustle and never-ending to-dos of the holiday season, the three of us set aside time each night to savor the enchanting story of a child kidnapped by a nisse (Danish “house gnome”) on Christmas night and the sister who goes off to rescue her.

This December, I wanted to re-create that holiday magic with my children. I wanted something that called us away from the overt materialism of the holiday season, that tapped into feelings of love and togetherness, of gratitude for what we have and generosity of spirit.

I took a stab in the dark and grabbed Betty MacDonald’s 1952 novel, Nancy and Plum (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), off the shelf at the library.

Holy holiday wonderfulness. A BETTER BOOK I COULD NOT HAVE CHOSEN.

Nancy and Plum is not a Christmas story per se, but it begins and ends with the soft snowfall of Christmas Eve. Flanked by two Christmases, the story traverses a year in the life of an eleven and eight year old girl: two poor, orphaned sisters, who reside at a bleak boarding house in the English countryside, under the care of the cruel and calculating Mrs. Monday. Believing themselves worthy of more, the sisters pour every ounce of energy into trying to reverse their fate.

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

As some of you have undoubtedly already recognized, Betty MacDonald is the same author behind the popular Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, about a Mary Poppins-type figure, who lives in an Upside Down House and provides parents with remedies (part magical, part common sense) for their children’s mis-behaviors. My children went nuts over these books, dying laughing as we listened to them in the car last summer. (For those who missed my recent Facebook announcement, a NEW Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series is in the works for next fall, written by MacDonald’s great-granddaugher in conjunction with award-winning author Ann M. Martin, and with interior art by the illustrious Ben Hatke. OMG YES!)

Nancy and Plum feels more akin to oldies like All-of-a-Kind Family than it does to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. After all, there is no magic. There are no silly, absurd antics or gross exaggerations. And yet, the same inherent respect for the childhood experience runs through all of these works. The quiet, understated, lyrical narrative of Nancy and Plum tugs at our heartstrings. It has us cursing the injustice of children not getting the care and respect they deserve. It celebrates the power of imagination to find hope and joy in everyday blessings. Above all, it reminds us what it means to love and be loved.

When we meet the sisters in the book’s opening chapter, they are locked outside the boarding house and forced to spend a cold, snowy Christmas Eve alongside the animals in the barn. We quickly discover that the girls’ greatest assets are their feisty, unbreakable spirits. They find humor and adventure in each of their woes. When all else fails, they use their imagination to tell each other splendid, richly detailed stories about the family they wish they had, the meals they wish they were eating, the velvet and silk and dolls and toys they wish they owned. (Lest you think these themes are too girly for your boys, I assure you that my son listened to descriptions about doll clothing with rapt attention—and was later rewarded with plenty of physical comedy, like when Plum tries to recruit a chicken to serve as a courier for a letter she wants to mail. A good reminder not to choose read-aloud books along gender lines.)

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

The girls find intermittent escape from the toils of the boarding house on schooldays, under the benevolent tutelage of Miss Waverly and the warm local librarian, Miss Appleby. Books, too, play an important role in feeding the girls’ spirit (especially Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (referred to by its old title, Sara Crewe), which my children have requested to read next).

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

In the end, however, neither Nancy’s beautiful singing voice nor Plum’s exceptional spelling skills, neither the occasional Sunday School picnic nor the girls’ hilarious fantasies to get even with Mrs. Monday’s horrid tattletale niece—are enough to rise above the menial labor and verbal abuse that they face on a daily basis under Mrs. Monday. In the hopes of tracking down an uncle whom they believe might help them, the sisters escape through an open window one night and run away. (Incidentally, Mary Grand Pre, illustrator of the Harry Potter books, did these fabulous black and white illustrations for the 2010 reprint of this book.)

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

The sisters’ happy ending—indeed, one of the most joy-filled, feel-good endings I’ve ever encountered (there was great clapping and cheering in our house when I closed the book)—comes, not from their uncle, but from the hospitality of a childless farmer and his wife, who find the girls sleeping in their haystack and are immediately smitten with them. At last, we get to watch the sisters be on the receiving end of kind words and gentle touches, of homemade chicken pot pies and velvety party dresses. Of their very first Christmas tree. Right alongside our heroines, our own hearts literally swell to the point of bursting. (Or, as my son kept exclaiming, “The food in this book is making me so hungry!”)

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

For every blessing that Nancy and Plum receive from the loving Campbells, material or not, they display only the sincerest awe and gratitude, a message I hope my children picked up on (!). Not only that, but the girls pay the generosity forward, making sure that those left behind at the boarding house will receive special things on their wish lists, as well as a promise for better treatment in the future.

MacDonald’s writing is as romantic as it is transcendent. At the story’s close—when the snow turns low bushes into “big fat cupcakes” and the “runners of the sleigh hissed” with Nancy and Plum tucked between the Campbells on their way to their holiday pageant—my kids and I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic for a time we never knew. Still, we have been touched by Nancy and Plum’s beautiful and true spirit. I’m hopeful that we will carry some of this in our hearts in the week ahead, remembering that if we have love, we have everything.

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The Book That Saved December

December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments

"Winterfrost" by Michelle HoutsReading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.

What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.

I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out.

And then, one afternoon, I was talking to a friend. She was lamenting her frustration at not knowing what to do with her son while his little sister took a 45-minute dance class. Lately, the son had been unleashing a litany of complaints about having to be dragged along. The mom enlightened me: he has already had a snack, his homework is done, he’s exhausted, and all the toys in the waiting area of the studio are for younger kids.

“What if you brought along a book for you to read to him?” I offered. “You could pick a chapter book—or an anthology of stories—and that could become the special thing you share with him each week while his sister is in class.” I then added, only half-jokingly, “It’s my personal parenting mantra that few problems cannot be solved with a great children’s book.”

And then it hit me. I could solve my December problems with a great children’s book. We had only gotten through half the Christmas books brought down from our attic, normally one of our favorite traditions. Even still, I could feel my seven year old beginning to age out of these holiday picture books. Or maybe I was projecting my own boredom. I needed something fresh. Something juicy. Something that would lift the kids and me out of our holiday funk.

And then I came across a list of Christmas-themed chapter books, from the blog “What Do We Do all Day?” I went straight to the library and came home with the newly-published Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud).

This book is pure deliciousness.

Let me start by saying that Winterfrost is much more of a winter story than a Christmas one (so, no, you haven’t missed the window in which to read it). It just happens to open on Christmas Eve—and actually, given the surprising turn of events, no Christmas celebration follows. Which means that if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you and your children won’t feel at all out of place here. It’s a timeless story—one I could easily imagine taking out year after year—and its innocent, transcendent handling makes it appropriate for a wide variety of ages.

The story takes place on a remote farm in Denmark, where twelve-year-old Bettina has been left to care for her almost one-year-old sister, while their parents are called away for a few days on an emergency. Practical, level-headed Bettina feels more than confident in her ability to balance the farm chores with keeping her sister’s nap schedule intact. And then, one morning, Bettina awakens to find the world shimmering and twinkling and quiet under the spell of a rare winterfrost. Soon after, her not-yet-walking baby sister disappears.

Bettina’s grandfather used to tell her that “the most mysterious events occur during winterfrost.” He also encouraged her to believe in what her eyes can’t always see—specifically, in the tiny gnome-like characters known in Danish legends as nisse. These benevolent, mischief-loving creatures secretly watch over a human family all year long, requiring only that a bowl of rice pudding be left out for them on Christmas Eve. (Do I need to tell you that, in the unusual circumstances of this particular Christmas, the bowl of pudding is overlooked by Bettina and her family? Not good. Not good at all.)

As Bettina embarks on a quest through the strange and enchanting nisse world, in order to negotiate the safe return of her sister before her parents discover what has happened, the story offers something for everyone. Have a daughter who is fairy-obsessed? She’ll love the miniature, three-hundred-year-old gnomes, with their tall red hats and their elaborate tree houses with acorn-sized furniture. Have a son who is hankering for suspense? Nearly every one of the 36 short chapters will leave him on the edge of his seat (or, in my son’s case, with the covers over his head, exclaiming, “Keep going! Don’t stop! It’s so intense!”). In a winterfrost, nothing is as it seems, and Bettina must unravel the complicated relationship between the nisse world and the human world.

Throughout Winterfrost, perspectives shift, determination is fierce, new friendships are forged, sibling love prevails—and all of this is cloaked in the wonderment of the natural world. Houts’ lyrical prose soars; it gives chills; it makes you want to snuggle your children close. Like any great book, it holds you tightly in the moment.

This book was such a hit with both of my children that, on several December evenings, I moved up dinner to give us an extra hour of reading time before bed. I got no complaints. The kids and I could not have been more excited to throw on our PJs, brush our teeth, and curl up to immerse ourselves in a magical wintery world. These were the best hours of my December. They grounded me; they returned me to myself; they made me temporarily forget the to dos and then remember why the to dos existed in the first place. Because the world is magical for those who believe. And for those who take the time to pay attention.

“It is the seer, after all, who must slow down enough to take note of the world around her.”

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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!

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