The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

In our house, there is nothing like the last week of summer break to convince me that it’s time for my kids to go back to school. I enter into that final vacation week with a heavy heart, prematurely mourning our weeks of togetherness (my kids finally being at the ages where the balance is tipped more towards fun than exhausting).

And then—perhaps because we know our break-up is inevitable and we’re trying to make the case to ourselves—we turn on one another. We bark, we snap, we storm out of rooms. Neither child agrees to any game the other proposes (well, except Rat-a-Tat-Cat; thank goodness for Rat-a-Tat-Cat). Particularly telling: no one seems capable of losing themselves in a book anymore—chapters are abandoned before they are even a quarter completed. Suddenly, the lack of structure we previously relished seems precarious, foolhardy, even downright dangerous.

They need to go back.

Still, there is nothing easy about this month. We parents have to go through the Herculean effort of getting our bleary-eyed kids out the door, only to have them peak under someone else’s watch and then return home exhausted, cranky, and full of penguin problems. Meanwhile, our children face their own set of hurdles, like having to channel their pint-sized reserves of concentration for hours at a time.

But perhaps the greatest challenge for many children comes from the fact that they are about to be corralled into a room for seven hours a day with a dozen (or two) other children, many (or all) of whom are strangers. We take the set-up of modern schooling for granted, but when you get right down to it, it’s like a wayward science experiment: all these personalities hissing and popping, and no one wearing safety glasses.

Fortunately, there are two brilliant new back-to-school picture books to lend some empathy—or at least levity—to the subject of coming-togetherness. On the surface, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates and The Day You Begin couldn’t be more different; and yet, both cleverly tackle the daunting question of how we go about being ourselves in a classroom full of other selves.

Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates (Ages 3-9) will emit no shortage of chuckles, but it will also resonate universally, because if your child doesn’t struggle with impulse control himself, chances are he’s in a classroom with someone who does. Every fall, like clockwork, my daughter comes home from school bearing a list of daily grievances done by one of the new kids in her class. He won’t sit still, he hits, he won’t listen, he won’t clean up…and so on. My kneejerk reaction to her persistent negativity—I hope you are being kind to this child!—is exacerbated by my fear that this is precisely how some perceive her older brother, who has his own unique relationship with impulsivity in the classroom.

And yet, just as predictably, at some point during the year, Emily does a 180. She stops complaining about said child and begins defending him. He is getting better, he was helpful today, he said a nice thing in class meeting, you should see how hard he tries. Bless the teachers who have paired my daughter up with these children on more than one occasion, letting her glimpse below the surface.

In the silliest of ways, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates asks its reader to imagine how frustrating and lonely it can feel when you are a kid who must wage a war against your very nature to conform to the conventional expectations of a classroom. If you remember author-illustrator Higgins from the Mother Bruce series (so, so, so funny), you know how talented he is at creating adorably down-trodden heroines, who dramatically pit themselves against the world and then bemoan the consequences of it. Penelope Rex, the heroine of We Don’t Eat Our Classmates might look the part in pink overalls and a pony backpack, but she has the monumental challenge of being the only T.Rex in a classroom of human children.

(Kudos to Higgins for casting his impulsive protagonist as a girl and for featuring a diverse classroom, complete with a girl in a headscarf and a boy in a kippah.)

T.Rexes get very hungry, and the 300 tuna sandwiches Penelope’s dad packs in her lunch each day do little to squash her propensity for the taste of young humans. And so, even while she wants more than anything for the other children to like her—to invite her to join their games on the playground and sit next to her at lunch—she keeps blowing it. She. can’t. stop. eating. her. classmates. The fact that she spits them out when reprimanded by her teacher does little to reassure her victims.

Always, the fun of reading Higgins’ books lies in discovering the humor he hides in his illustrations, and Penelope’s attempts to fit in are no exception. “She finger-painted some of her best work”; and yet, a glance at the illustration reveals she has painted a picture of a smiling child disappearing into the teethy jaws of a young dinosaur. “She even saved Griffin Emery a seat at lunch,” only closer inspection reveals that she is pointing at an empty spot on her plate.

Back home, a dejected Penelope sheepishly admits to her father that it’s possible “none of the children wanted to play with me” because she ate them (“maybe sort of just a little bit”). To which her father offers some advice: “You see Penelope, children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.”

Things do not improve until Penelope has an unpleasant encounter with the classroom pet, a goldfish named Walter with a carnivorous desire to chomp fingers (my mother would call this, “getting a taste of your own medicine”). “Once Penelope found out what it was like to be someone’s snack, she lost her appetite for children.” (And, no, I am not spoiling that illustration for you.) With her impulsivity somewhat tamed, Penelope begins to showcase a personality worth knowing, sharing a fondness for cooperative building, hiding and seeking, and the ability to laugh at herself.

If We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is about a child who comes out of the gate too strong, Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin (Ages 5-10), illustrated by Rafael Lopez, is about the experience of holding back, of fearing the judgment of others. Written as an ode to the child who feels like an outsider—“There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you”—Woodson’s text was inspired by a poem from her award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, and its lyricism enfolds the reader in a warm cocoon: I hear you, it says, and you deserve to find a place wherever you go.

While the second-person narrative is intended to address anyone who feels set apart—due to physical appearance, heritage, religion, socio-economic background, or something less tangible—four racially-diverse children feature throughout the book and lend some specific examples. One is intimidated by her classmates’ tales about the exotic vacations they took during summer break, since she spent her days caring for her little sister in their hot city apartment (“what good is this/ when other students were flying/ and sailing and/ going somewhere”).

Another just immigrated from Venezuela and worries how his accent will be perceived by his American peers (“because they don’t understand, the classroom will fill with laughter until the teacher quiets everyone”). Still another child dreads the questions she’ll get about the lunch her mother packed, rice and meat and kimchi (“too unfamiliar for others/ to love as you do”). The abstract image of a ruler figures into some of these pictures, perhaps not only alluding to the work of school days, but to the way we relentlessly measure ourselves against those around us.

For the fourth child, painted as a Caucasian boy standing on the sidelines of a playground, we get a hint of the offhand dismissiveness common when a group of kids used to playing together encounter someone new (“I don’t want him on our team./ You can watch./ Maybe you can have a turn later.”) This particular image no doubt rings a chord with both of my children, who have been forthcoming about their own anxiety in deciphering the rules of engagement on the playground, of not wanting to jump in for fear of betraying ignorance or inadequacy.

As the book continues, we witness subtle but significant transformations in the four children, as they take tiny but emboldened steps to put themselves out there: to invite a peak at their lunch, to point out a commonality, to share a story. “My name is Angelina and/ I spent my whole summer with my little sister…reading books and telling stories and/ even though we were right on our block it was like/ we got to go EVERYWHERE.”

What I love is that the emphasis here is on making a start. Nothing more. “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin.” Furthermore, Woodson makes clear to her readers that the power to make this start, to connect, resides in everyone.

All that stands beside you is
your own brave self—
steady as steel and ready
even though you don’t yet know
what you’re ready for.

Can I get this spread made into a poster for my children’s bedroom walls? Please?

We walk into unfamiliar settings, where we might encounter any combination of invisibility and judgment, but we never walk in alone. We have within us, not only a personality worth knowing, but the power to use this personality to bridge that uncomfortable gulf. We need only to begin.

 

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Books published by Disney Hyperion and Nancy Paulsen Books (review copy from Penguin Young Readers), respectively. 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!

Understanding Bravery

November 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

I heard the sobs before I saw him. It was a Monday evening, two weeks ago. My daughter and I were sitting in the living room, reading the fifth book in the Clementine series (more on that another time, because OBSESSED) and waiting for my son to ride his bike home from soccer practice. In between paragraphs, I kept sneaking glances at the open front door. I had expected JP at seven, and it was now twenty minutes past. Darkness had fallen. He has his bike light, I kept telling myself. He’ll be fine.

And then, from outside, I heard heaving gasps of air. I flew through the door, just in time to witness my ten year old throw himself off his bike and collapse onto the pavement in a fit of tears. “What on earth has happened?” I cried, all manner of horrors racing through my mind.

“I CAN’T FIND MY WATCH!” he wailed. “I took it off during practice and I thought I put it in my bag but I must have put it next to the bag and I didn’t remember until I was halfway home and then I rode back to the field and tried to use my bike light to find it but it was too dark and I was feeling around on the grass where I thought it was and…and…and…”

My first reaction, which I did my best to conceal, was one of immense relief (Lord, child, I thought you had been chased by a masked man with a chain saw!). But then I realized who was standing—actually, lying—before me.

Some kids have a lovey. Some kids have a threadbare monkey or a favorite fidget or a magic feather.

My son has a watch.

From an early age—long before he could tie his own shoes or read a sentence—JP taught himself to tell time. It was as if he took one look at the great big world outside our front door and thought, There is no way I’m going out there unless I can track every second. He asked for a watch that Christmas, and he has almost never left the house without it. I have never attended a teacher conference where the teacher hasn’t said, “JP really likes to keep the class on schedule!”

My son’s watch is the compass by which he charts daily life.

So, I understood that, for JP, losing his watch was something worth falling to pieces over (the same cannot be said for other occasions of hysteria in our house). I also recognized—and my heart swelled—that he had shown great courage in the minutes between leaving practice and arriving home. As he re-enacted every moment for me, I pictured him laying out the contents of his bag on the sidewalk after he had suddenly remembered to check for his watch while riding home. I pictured him deliberating, then turning back to the park, now shrouded in darkness, trying in vain to make his bike light shine down on the patch of grass he wanted to search. I pictured him alone. My sweet, sensitive boy, out there in the pitch black on his hands and knees, trying to find a $23 watch that had years ago transformed into a kind of talisman for living.

I didn’t hesitate. Despite dinner in the oven, despite a traveling husband and an overtired younger child, despite the chilly, starless night, I said to JP, “Go get the big flashlight and I’ll drive you back.” The three of us piled into the car, drove the six blocks, and Emily and I watched as the little spot of light that was JP traversed the small stretch of field where he believed he had lost the watch. After a few tense minutes, the light began bobbing quickly towards us, with JP cheering victoriously, “I found it!”

“Mommy,” my daughter whispered just before JP opened the car door, “it’s just like Dad and the Dinosaur.” And she was right. The scene was straight out of Gennifer Choldenko and Dan Santat’s new picture book, Dad and the Dinosaur (Ages 4-8), which I first read to my daughter at the end of the summer and which she has often been seen reading to herself this fall.

In the story, a boy named Nicholas—another soccer player—has a secret. People, especially his parents, are always raving about how “brave” he is. Yet, Nicholas himself feels anything but brave. This outward display of bravery, Nicholas believes, comes not from within himself, but from the tiny dinosaur figurine he secretly carries with him everywhere, tucked into a pocket or pushed down into his soccer sock or tied into the lining of his swim trunks.

In Nicholas’ mind, it’s the dinosaur that’s brave—and that bravery extends to Nicholas by proximity. The toy dinosaur in his pocket may be little, but Nicholas feels its great boldness when he tackles a climbing wall. He personifies the dinosaur’s ferocity when he tears down the soccer field to score. Caldecott-winning illustrator Dan Santat outdoes himself in these pages, seamlessly weaving the fantastical, large-scale dinosaur of Nicholas’ imagination with the dwarfed reality of the mini figure.

Nicholas even sleeps with the dinosaur underneath his pillow. “Dinosaurs like the dark, bugs are nothing to them, and they eat manhole covers for lunch and everything under them for dinner.”

Then one evening, after winning his soccer game, Nicholas realizes his dinosaur is missing. As the sun sets, Nicholas crisscrosses the field on his hands and knees searching for it. When his mom asks him what he’s doing, he replies, “Nothing.” He has never told anyone about the dinosaur, about what it does for him.

Without his trusty talisman, the world suddenly looks a lot scarier. Shadows creep up from underneath manhole covers on the drive home and tap him on the shoulder as he lies in bed with his eyes pressed shut.

Later, when his dad comes in to check on him and finds him still awake, Nicholas decides to come clean. “I lost my dinosaur. He’s the brave one. Not me.”

The dad doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t ask loaded questions, doesn’t brush away Nicholas’ feelings by telling him to “man up” and assuring him no silly dinosaur has the power to make someone brave. He simply says, “Let’s go find him, then.” In the middle of the night, the two drive across town and search the “spongy grass” by flashlight until they find what they’re looking for. And when they get home, Dad even helps Nicholas give the dinosaur a bath before sliding him gently under the pillow.

To be sure, Nicholas falls asleep comforted by the return of his beloved dinosaur. And yet, we as readers come away with the impression that, for Nicholas, an even greater reassurance lies in the strengthened bond with his father. By inviting his father into his emotional life, by letting him glimpse the vulnerability beneath the “strong,” Nicholas has perhaps shown more courage than ever before.

As I tucked my own son into bed on the night of The Great Watch Rescue, he gave me one of the longest, tightest hugs in recent memory. “Thank you, Mommy, for taking me back to the park tonight.” I like to think that what he was really saying was, Thank you for seeing me.

Parenting wins are rare, at least in our house. So I’ll take it. I went to bed feeling lighter and happier than I had in a long time. And I also wondered if, without realizing it, I had been influenced back in August when I first read Dad and the Dinosaur, that I had carried a little bit of the dad with me all this time.

I like to think books come into our lives for a reason.

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Review copy provided by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. 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!

Morality, Martyrdom, & Murderous Marauders (Yup, for Kids)

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam GidwitzIf the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.

Let me back up.

Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.

Until now.

Enter Adam Gidwitz, formerly known for his deliciously dark (and darkly humorous) retelling of traditional fairy tales in his bestselling middle-grade trilogy A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12). Ever since I first read his essay “In Defense of Real Fairy Tales,” I have known Gidwitz to be someone dedicated to giving kids, not only what their hearts desire, but what their psyches need.

Now, Gidwitz has taken his unique talent for combining blood and gore with the deeply personal and morally inquisitive and turned it on the Middle Ages in The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog) (Ages 11-16).

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Let me just say that THIS IS THE MOST DARING WORK OF CHILDREN’S FICTION I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Never mind that Gidwitz fashions his story in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where oral narratives are delivered over pints of ale by an innkeeper, a chronicler, a librarian, a troubadour, a jongleur, a nun and, ultimately, the Inquisitor himself—each picking up where the other leaves off. Never mind that the book is gorgeously illustrated in the style of an illuminated manuscript by the Egyptian-born Hatem Aly. Those things are just icing on the cake. It’s what Gidwitz does inside the story that’s utterly mind-blowing.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

The Inquisitor’s Tale reveals so many twists and turns, takes so many thematic and narrative risks, that it would feel like whiplash if it wasn’t so riveting. Did a young monk just yank off his donkey’s leg, use it to club to death a band of murderous bandits, and then magically reattach it? Did three children just watch their guardian throw himself in protest onto a pyre of Jewish books being burned on the whim of a Christian king? Did a boy just cure a lactose-intolerant dragon of his deadly farts by feeding him rotted sheep flesh so he would puke up a “long, goopy train of yellow liquid”?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Are three children and a troubadour actually sitting around in a children’s book debating the question, “Why would God make bad things happen?” And actually coming up with answers both profound and humorous?

Cut to my JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

Gidwitz’s book may be a suspenseful, swashbuckling tale of epic proportions, but it is also an intimate window into the souls of the three French children who star in it. Given the clashes in class and religion which permeate every aspect of thirteenth-century society, these children should by all accounts have no reason even to meet, much less form an alliance."The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Jeanne is a lowly peasant girl, desperate to hide her prophetic fits lest she be accused of sorcery and burned at the stake. She is trailed by her loyal white greyhound, Gwenforte, who has died and come back to life (yup). Jacob is a Jewish boy, possessed with magical healing powers from the night he narrowly escapes his village after it is set on fire by Christian peasant boys. William is an orphaned and oddly large oblate (monk-in-training), recently expelled from the monastery where he grew up ridiculed for his supernatural strength and his part-African-Muslim heritage.

Where their class and religion should divide them, the children instead come together over something they have in common: they are all outcasts. Their births would put them in one place, but their abilities prevent them from staying there. A great debate runs through the story: Are the children saints? Should they martyr themselves? And what do these two things even mean?

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Ironically, more than their powers, it is the children’s vulnerability which shapes them. As they share their pasts and discuss their belief systems with one another, as they watch strangers react differently to each of them, they begin to question the entrenched divisions of their society. They begin to analyze and critique their own faiths, to ask some of the most difficult and universal of questions about the meaning of life and our role in it. What does doing the right thing look like? And is it worth the expense?

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

By luck or by fate, the three children come up against the central conflict of the story: the planned burning at the order of King Louis IX of all the Talmuds in France, the sacred Hebrew text at the heart of Judaism. During the high Middle Ages, these reproductions were vehemently guarded by Jewish leaders—book printing a painstaking labor of love whereby each page is hand copied—and there were many documented attempts by Christian rulers to obtain and destroy them for the threat to Christianity they believed they possessed. (Never mind that the children discover the central message of the Talmud—“What you would hate to have done to you—do not do to other people”—ironically aligns with the Golden Rule of Christianity—“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Go think on that, kids and grown people.)

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

With the help of “a mountain of flesh, with red hair and bristling whiskers and reddish eyes” named Michelangelo di Bologna, the children stage a plot to save the Talmuds and preserve the Jewish teachings. In doing so, they end up in a climactic showdown with royalty and knights on a battleground of quicksand, against the backdrop of the reverent Mont-Saint-Michel on the outskirts of Paris.

Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Had I been exposed as a child to anything approximating Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, would I have grown up with a different appreciation for the Middle Ages? HECK YES! I might have even gone on to study religion and philosophy with fervid passion.

As Gidwitz explains in his equally fascinating fourteen-page Author’s Note, his story is meticulously researched, the product of a year spent in Europe with his wife, herself a professor of the Middle Ages. Many of the figures and events in the book are real (King Louis IX; Talmuds burning in Paris; even Gwenforte is based on a real Holy Greyhound, to my son’s delight), and many others are based on legends of the Middle Ages. All of these parallels are so enticingly explained that I actually exclaimed, “God’s wounds! If only I could go back to school and study this!” (We’re well-versed in medieval swearing now—I highly recommend it.) To which JP replied: “No, Mommy, we need you here. But, don’t worry, I’ll learn it and tell you everything.” Looks like I’ll have to make do with the extensive annotated bibliography at the book’s end.

"The Inquisitor's Tale" by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

Again and again, Gidwitz shows us that things are not what they seem, that people cannot be dismissed by the circumstances of their birth, and that actions speak louder than words. (Also: “A hug from a child! Perhaps God’s greatest invention!”) At the book’s conclusion, the children broach the subject of martyrdom with their mentor, Michelangelo, worried that he foresees sacrificial death in their future. Instead, Michelangelo asks William for the Latin definition of “martyr.” The boy replies, “witness,” and Michelangelo responds:

Correct. And have you not already witnessed on behalf of goodness and beauty and justice and God? To Louis and Blanche and dozens of others? Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness—against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world. Yes, children, you will be martyrs. Just as you have always been.

Children may save us all in the end.

In fact, it has always been children—their innocence, their purity, their innate goodness—who offer the most hope, who possess the greatest power to reach across the divides, to stop the destructive cycle of prejudice and persecution, and to open their hearts to love and acceptance.

I only hope we adults will start watching them a little more closely.

GREAT NEWS: Blessedly, The Inquisitor’s Tale will be with us for the long haul, as earlier this week it was awarded the prestigious Newberry Honor by the American Library Association! The other award recipients are similarly mature and daring, with the Newberry Medal going to Kelly Barnhill’s spellbinding dark fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and another Honor going to Lauren Wolk’s haunting and deeply resonant Wolf Hollow (my favorite book of 2016—read my post from last summer here). Do our children have any idea how lucky they are to be growing up at a time when children’s authors are taking off the handcuffs, expanding the literary landscape, and breaking rules all over the place? (Probably not, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

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Book published by Dutton Children’s Books. Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Severe Weather Alert

September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligottWe interrupt this program for a Special Weather Statement.

Tonight’s forecast includes freakishly strong winds, wild fluctuations in temperature, and all forms of precipitation. Power outages possible. Lightning probable. Children begging to hear one more bedtime story guaranteed.

What do you get when you cross real science with monsters?

Easily the most fun educational book about the weather.

There are few books I will purchase before opening them. Mathew McElligott’s Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster (Ages 6-9) was one. For starters, the kids and I became fans of this new series when the first book, Mad Scientist Academy: The Dinosaur Disaster, came out two summers ago (again, easily the most fun we’ve had learning about dinosaurs—and, in fact, the only fact-based dinosaur book that has ever captured my daughter’s attention).

madsciencedinosaur

Secondly, my eldest has long been weather obsessed, so those who live with him have no choice but to eat, sleep, and breathe weather factoids. In the presence of dark clouds, it is statistically impossible to have any other conversation with him.

Lastly, there is the subjective truth that nobody does monsters for young kids better than McElligott (one of his earliest books, Even Monsters Need Haircuts, continues to be read on a regular basis in our house, because we never get tired of one of the best surprise endings EVER). In McElligott’s pencil-clad hand, the Frankensteins, vampires, and werewolves of our collective conscience emerge, not as monstrous, but as gentle, funny, clever comrades. Albeit eccentric and occasionally sandwich-obsessed.

Here’s what you need to know about the Mad Scientist series: the overzealous green-faced scientist, Dr. Cosmic, runs a school for young monsters called Mad Scientist Academy, where he showcases his latest technological inventions designed to bring science—quite literally—to life. Before Dr. Cosmic’s creations are rolled out, the students get a crash course in the subject at hand, knowledge that proves valuable when disaster inevitably strikes.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

McElligott hits on a sweet spot for today’s audience with both the content and format of this series. Not only does he pick scientific subjects for which his readers already have an enthusiastic interest, but he never talks down to his audience. He packs a surprisingly large amount of factual information into concise and engaging comics (I’m talking a gazillion times more aesthetically pleasing and less long-winded than The Magic School Bus series). The text and illustrations are brimming with levity and gags, whooshes and KABOOMS.

Perfect for reading aloud, yes, but also a reluctant reader’s paradise.

In The Weather Disaster, Dr. Cosmic arrives on the scene in his custom-designed Wearable Weather Balloon, which boasts, among other features (see blueprints on the book’s end papers): atmospheric data collection sensors, solar charging panels, and a pressure regulator valve.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

Through Dr. Cosmic’s flight demonstration, the students are provided not only with the definition of words like meteorologist, atmosphere, and hygrometer, but also with the basics of how clouds and wind are formed. (My husband was overheard exclaiming in the other room, “Oh, so that’s how lightning is created!”)

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

The Sky Suit isn’t the only thing Dr. Cosmic is eager to show off to his students. He has been hard at work building something that he (prophetically) calls CHAOS, a Cooling/Heating Air Flow Operating System, which uses solar and turbine power to create the “perfect” temperature inside the school (gone are the days of sweaty locker rooms and drafty classrooms).

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

And yet, Dr. Cosmic steps away just as things are going awry. Vents in the same room are blowing different temperatures, the greenhouse is flooding, the swimming pool is buried under snow, and there are increasingly black clouds looming in the control room.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

With Dr. Cosmic suddenly MIA, our young students are left to fend for themselves: to don their detective hats and make sense of what is happening, relying in large part on their recently acquired scientific knowledge.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

As it turns out (Spoiler Alert!), the only viable solution is for the mad apprentices to create the perfect storm: to set the stage for a tornado that will blow the top off the building and provide for them a means of escape.

Did I not tell you we’d be in for some monstrous weather this evening?

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

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.

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!

Sequel Roundup: From Rebels to Robots

November 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

"The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party" by Shannon & Dale HaleIs there anything sweeter than watching your child’s face light up like the Fourth of July when he or she discovers a sequel to a beloved book? I don’t typically devote much space on this blog to reviewing sequels, but the past weeks have delivered so many much-anticipated sequels (that is, much-anticipated in our house!), that I found myself lying awake the other night, worrying that perhaps you didn’t know about them. We need to change that.

Last month—cue high-pitched hysteria—saw the release of the sequel to Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and LeUyen Pham’s wildly popular The Princess in Black. If I had a penny for every message I’ve received asking me to recommend an early chapter book as captivating as The Princess in Black, I would be a rich Book Mommy. Sadly, little comes close. PIB seems to have revolutionized the early chapter book market overnight (wait, an early reader can be this engrossing, this humorous, and this exquisitely illustrated?). I’m not ashamed to admit that I waited in line for hours to get an advance copy of the sequel last May.

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In The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party (Ages 5-9), our rebel princess—prim and pink one minute and bad-ass superhero the next—is trying to enjoy her lavishly festive birthday party at the castle. Except that her monster alarm (via a glitter-stone ring) keeps going off, sending Princess Magnolia into a flurry of secret wardrobe changes and monster battles out in goat pastures, with the help of her unicorn-turned-stallion, Blackie. Fans of the first book will be delighted by the array of new monsters, as well as by the princess’s new moves (“Scepter Spank!” “Pasture Dash!” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Smash!”).

But the real draw here will be the introduction to Magnolia’s friends: a dazzling display of fellow princesses from around the world, each dressed in traditional clothing and riding on the backs of dragons, elephants, tigers, and the like. Can Princess Magnolia keep her friends entertained while successfully concealing her secret identity? More than one close encounter has us biting our nails.

"Arnie the Doughbut & The Spinny Icky Showdown" by Laurie KellerFrequent challenges also abound for our favorite talking doughnut—although that doesn’t stop him from putting his best (sprinkle-clad) foot forward. We may have had to wait almost two years for the publication of the third book in the pun-tastic, speech-bubble-bursting chapter series, Arnie the Doughnut, but there was never any doubt that Laurie Keller would deliver.

Following his (mis)adventures in the bowling alley and in outer space, our lovable heroic Arnie now tries his luck on the TV game show, The Spinny Icky Showdown (Ages 6-11), alongside his slice-of-pepperoni-pizza-BFF, Peezo. It’s not the giant obstacle course (modeled after Wipeout) that initially has the doughy duo nervous:  it’s their muscly fellow contestant and trash talker, Nick Pumpernickel (or, as he likes to refer to himself, the Pumperlicious Pumpernator). Through alliterative challenges, like the Pesky Pickle Pogo Stick, which positively beg to be read aloud, Arnie and Peezo ultimately realize that it takes more than sheer strength to come out on top. Not only that, but winning isn’t everything if it can’t be done with integrity.

"Frank Einstein and the Brain Turbo" by Jon Scieszka & Brian BiggsSpeaking of arch-nemeses, Jon Scieszka’s kid scientist Frank Einstein is back for the win against resident bully T. Edison, in not one but two sequels: Frank Einstein and the Electro-Finger and Frank Einstein and the Brain Turbo (Ages 10-14). As in the first installment, much of the science here continues to be over my head, but that didn’t stop my husband and son from having some serious bonding while reading these two newest titles aloud. In the words of the hubs: “it’s the perennial struggle between the Makers and the Takers, only in this case it’s a kid who’s trying to use science to make the world a better place, versus corporate greed that’s out for world domination.” (It’s possible this hits a little too close to home for him).

Of course, the two robots—self-assembled artificial intelligence entities Klink and Klank—in all their helpful unhelpfulness, don’t hurt the entertainment factor. It’s hard not to smile when reading the dialogue of robots. Electro-magnetism and neuroscience have never been more fun.

"Dory and the Real True Friend" by Abby HanonFinally, speaking of SHEER FUN, I feel like I need to point out ONE MORE TIME that the sequel to Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory came out this past summer. What, you’re tired of my talking about Dory and the Real True Friend (Ages 5-8)? You think you’ve heard enough about children’s literature’s most imaginative, spirited, and endearing kindergartener to date? Well, I haven’t. My children haven’t. We’re still laughing ourselves silly over here.

After all, worthy sequels make us feel like there’s more joy just around the corner. And that’s what reading is all about.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick, Macmillan, Abrams, and Penguin, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Hiding and Seeking

November 5, 2015 § 7 Comments

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy CecilIt is possible to chart my daughter’s growing up against the backdrop of our games of hide and seek. Not but two years ago, whenever we played hide and seek, I would look up after slowly counting to ten and discover Emily standing but a stone’s throw away, beside a giant bush (beside, not behind, the bush). At which point, I’d do the thing that all parents do at one time or another: I’d turn my back to the bush and speak loudly into the air, I wonder where Emily is hiding. Where, oh where, could she be? To which she’d inevitably blurt out, I’m right HERE, Mommy!

Fast forward to last spring, when my daughter and I were playing hide and seek outside her school after dismissal one afternoon. You have to pick a really good hiding spot, she instructed me, before covering her eyes and commencing her counting. I ran across the lawn, turned down a little garden path, and squatted behind a bench. Moments later, I heard her exclaim, Ready or not here I come! And I waited. I waited some more. I waited so long that my quads started shaking and I thought I might die of boredom, and so I snuck a peek back in her direction. And there she was: climbing a tree at the other end of the lawn, singing gleefully with her friends, our game completely abandoned.

Finally, there was last month, when Emily walked over to where I was seated on the sidelines of the playground and pleaded with me to play with her. I’ll hide first, she proclaimed. And so I covered my eyes and counted to twenty. Ready or not here I come! I started at one end of the playground and methodically worked my way towards the other, bending down to peer under picnic tables and around garden plots. Nothing. I peeked inside the tunnel slide. Nada. I swear to you, it felt like hours had passed, and still I could find no sign of her. I began to run, zig-zagging across stretches of blacktop and grass, my heart pounding, flashes of child kidnappers tearing through my mind (oh God, did I ever warn her about men who approach with promises of puppies?), shouting to my friends and her friends, Where’s Emily? Where is Emily? Have you seen Emily?

It was my son who finally located her: she’s behind that tree. And sure enough, I could see her navy school uniform sticking out from behind a maple at the farthest end of the remotest part of the park. I raced over to her, expecting her to be as frantic as me.

She looked up and beamed. That was a really good hiding spot, don’t you think, Mommy?

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: she had grown up so much. My daughter had transformed into this brave, confident, fiercely independent little girl standing before me. I couldn’t stop the tears from leaking out, as I pulled her close and muttered into her hair, You got me good, little bird. You got me good.

Hide and seek—with its endless opportunities for experimenting with independence and togetherness—just so happens to be the theme of Barbara Joosse and Randy Cecil’s Evermore Dragon (Ages 3-6), a follow-up to their original picture book, Lovabye Dragon, which I fell in love with three years ago. It is rare for me to declare a sequel every bit as good as the original; it is even rarer for me to deem a sequel better than the original. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this companion book is every bit as enchanting as the first—and possibly even a smidgen better.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

With the same sing-songy narration as Lovabye Dragon—not quite prose and not quite poetry, sometimes playful and sometimes solemn, a princess story without being a princess story—Evermore Dragon presents “a very little girl” and “a very biggle dragon,” two best friends who originally discovered each other when Girl’s lonely tears led the equally lonely Dragon straight to her castle doors. In Evermore Dragon, the friendship is now in full swing. At the wake of derry-day/ the friends decided what to play. Yup, you guessed it: hide and seek.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

It’s a bit of a lost cause for a dragon to conceal wings, tail, long spiky neck, and great big bulging eyes amidst your typical park scenery. But our Girl has a touch of parental compassion about her and pretends not to notice “his Drag-enormo self” sticking out from behind the rock upon which she stands.

And she stood upon a rock
such a very little rock
and she sighed a little sigh
such a very little sigh. Oh, my.

“Dragon’s so good at hiding,
I’m not sure I can find him.
What to do?”

When Dragon suddenly pops up behind her, Girl wraps her arms around his neck and assures him, Oh, Dragon, you’re so clever./  You’re the smartest dragon ever.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

Now it’s Girl’s turn to hide, and she has Big Plans. She races through the forest and across the bog and over a tall bridge and climbs inside the hollow of a tree. And then she waits.

And then everything goes to pot.

Our hearts go out to the Dragon (been there, done that), who earnestly overturns every stone, peers beneath every ridge, searching and searching for his friend. Until at last, the panic welding up inside him, he bellows into the darkening sky, ARE YOU LOST?

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

Our hearts go out to Girl (And she was), who finally climbs out from her tree and wanders frantically through the pitch black forest, amidst “cricking and cracking,” “flipping and flapping,” “moaning and groaning.” (Are there monsters in the night?)

Oh, she tried not to cry!
But she cried silver tears
worry worry tears
and her heart thumped a sound
a trem-below sound
that only Dragon friends,
very very special friends, can hear.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

It is a testament, not only to Joose’s meticulous word choice and lyrical delivery, but also to the range of emotion that Cecil captures in the bodies of girl and beast, that my Emily clutches my arm and buries her head in my armpit every time we get to this part.

“Girl!” thundered Dragon.
“I hear you!” thundered Dragon.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

The worry, the anticipation, the relief finally at this cry for help being heard: it feels utterly palpable to us parents and children. Only once Dragon swoops down from the sky and “wraps his wings around her/ so everly around her,” can we breathe again.

“I am here,” rumbled Dragon.
“You’re a dear,” whispered Girl.

Dragon held her and he sang,
“Evermore, evermore, I am here.”

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

There’s a time for hiding. There’s a time for seeking. There might even be a time for growing out of hiding and seeking. I know that all too soon the day will come when Emily doesn’t want to play with me anymore. But I’d like to ask whomever she chooses as her playmates in this game of Life: will you hear the cry she makes when she has strayed a little too far off course? Will you care enough to help her find her way back? Will you take her in your arms and hold her close?

Because we’re never too old to want to be found.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Talking Out the Scary

October 22, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily JenkinsMy daughter loves to tell us that she isn’t afraid of anything (Me thinks thou doth protest too much!). While JP is cowering under a pile of stuffed animals during a thunderstorm, Emily will announce, “I’m not a bit scared of thunder.” Last Halloween, when JP screamed bloody murder as a suspended bloody hand lunged towards him in a haunted house, Emily was quick to point out, “That’s not even real.”

But ask her to go upstairs to get something in the evening, when the lights haven’t been turned on yet, and she will rattle off every excuse in the book as to why she can’t. “I’m super busy helping my baby use the potty right now.” Not surprisingly, JP can’t resist taunting her: “Are you scared of the dark, Emily?” “I’m not scared, JP. I just don’t like it. Also, sometimes you jump out at me.”

In case you missed my list of favorite Halloweeny-but-not-Halloween-specific books, which was featured last week on local blog DIY Del Ray, you can find it here. But before we wrap up one of the best holidays for reading aloud, I want to tell you about one other new picture book. It features ghosts and witches, but it also introduces a broader conversation about what children find scary—and how talking can sometimes be the best cure for what lurks in the dark.

Written by Emily Jenkins (who has yet to write a book I haven’t loved) and charmingly illustrated by Hyewon Yum, The Fun Book of Scary Stuff (Ages 5-8) is told almost entirely through dialogue, via speech bubbles (this is becoming quite the theme lately) between a little boy and his two (talking) dogs. Our protagonist has made a list of “everything that frightens” him, and as he runs down the list in front of his pets, the dogs expose different flaws in his logic. Witches might “put spells on you,” the larger of the two dogs concedes, but “what are they cooking in that cauldron?” (Food trumps fear if you’re a bull terrier.)

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Trolls are on the list, because, according to the boy, “they’re just gross. All bubbly and warty.”

When did you see trolls? [asks the dog.]

What?

When did you see trolls?

Um. Never.

You keep being scared of stuff that probably doesn’t exist.

So?

I’m just saying.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

The banter between child and canines is equal parts hilarious and endearing. Because it turns out that even macho dogs have their limits. Halfway through, the story moves from monsters and trolls to real-life occurrences, like sharks, or the cousin who once put ice cubes down the boy’s pants (“two times!”). Or the “bossy” crossing guard by the school. “I’m scared of her, too,” confesses the pug, “She smalls like gasoline.”

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Bit by bit, the dogs begin to betray some of their own vulnerability, culminating in the book’s highly entertaining conclusion, where the boy drags the dogs into a closet with him and closes the door, attempting to illustrate his greatest fear: the dark (“Nameless Evil could be lurking!”). The dogs start freaking out and howling and freaking out about who is howling and the whole thing is downright hysterical to my children who, of course, are listening to the story in a brightly lit room tucked around me on our comfy sofa.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

And yet, who saves the day by calmly reminding everyone that you can turn on the light? That’s right: it’s our young human hero who answers the distress calls of his four-legged friends. In the process, he realizes that he might be braver than he thinks. Sometimes.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Somewhere between humor and heart, the book subtly delivers an empowering message to its reader: It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to be afraid of things both imagined and real. It’s OK for us to poke fun at our neuroses, and it’s equally OK to curl up in a ball and howl.

But when the lights go out, before we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the worst, we might try to look deep within us to see if we can remember how to turn on the light.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, but don’t give up reading spooky-themed stories when November 1 arrives. Reading and talking about the dark throughout the year makes it a little sillier, a little more transparent, and a little easier to navigate.

Other Favorite Picture Books About the Dark:
Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night, by Jon Davis (Ages 4-8)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)
The Dark, by Lemony Snicker and Jon Klassen (Ages 5-10)

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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