Taking the Plunge

May 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

With Memorial Weekend upon us, swimming season officially kicks off. For the littles in our lives, the return to outdoor pools may be greeted by equal parts excitement and trepidation, for as much fun as splashing in water can be, it brings with it frequent demands for bravery. Whether it’s learning to swim across the pool without the comfort of floaties, jumping off the side, or navigating crowds of bigger, louder, more confidently swimming kids, the opportunities for intimidation are everywhere. And that’s just what our kids are feeling! We as parents are expected to walk that delicate line of encouraging but not pushing our hesitant children, of keeping up the pretense of patience even when it feels like we have been at this forever. All the time parading our post-childbearing selves around in a bathing suit.

Jabari Jumps (Ages 4-7), by first-time author-illustrator Gaia Cornwall, is a book I could have used a few years ago, as much for its young protagonist’s struggle to launch himself off the diving board, as for the beautiful example of parenting it holds up.

The story of how each of my children finally went off the diving board—in both cases, years after they were solidly swimming in deep water—is as much a testament to the evolution of my own parenting as it is to their different personalities. With my eldest child, there were months of discussion, deliberation, and negotiation. Should I do it? Should I not do it? What will you give me if I do it? (The answer: nothing.) There were countless false attempts: him perched at the end of the board, scrutinizing me beseechingly for encouragement, only to turn and climb back down, declaring he would “definitely” do it the next day. In the end, because our pool has two side-by-side diving boards, and because I was clearly going through a helicopter-parenting phase, we jumped together. (It turns out my over-mothering wasn’t the most embarrassing part. The impact of the water brought down the top of my bathing suit. I haven’t been able to look our lifeguards in the eye since.)

With my daughter, her hang-up was with her goggles—specifically, that our pool forbids the use of them off the diving board. No amount of rational argument could explain away her fear of water touching her exposed eyeballs. Clearly worn out from the first child, I took a backseat to this one. And so, for two summers, she watched her friends jump, always content to stay on the other side of the lane line, which separated the diving well from the regular deep end. And then, last summer, on our very last day at the pool, she pattered over to me after the lifeguards had blown the whistle for break. My nose was buried in a book (because this, my fellow parents, is the real payoff of years of swim lessons).

“Mommy, do you have any snacks?” she began. And then, not missing a beat: “I went off the diving board. Five times. You can watch later when I do it again.” On her own terms, with no warning, and away from prying eyes, she had taken the plunge.

In Jabari Jumps, the title character’s experience facing down the diving board is, in many ways, a perfect amalgamation of my two children’s. Moments before walking into the pool area with his dad and toddler sister, Jabari is bubbling over with confidence. “I’m jumping off the diving board today,” he triumphantly informs his dad. As far as Jabari is concerned, nothing is standing in his way: he has passed his swim test; he is fluent in deep water; and, besides, “I’m a great jumper…so I’m not scared at all.” (As much as I commend Caldwell for casting an African-American boy in a story that has nothing to do with race, I doubly commend her for choosing to herald a father, alone with his two children at the pool. Too often, dads get the shaft in picture books.)

Against soft, muted backgrounds, lovingly executed in pencil, watercolor, and collage, Caldwell effectively plays with perspective, reminding the reader just how big and intimidating things can appear through a child’s eyes. As Jabari catches sight of the giant rectangular pool—in particular, the tiny “bug-like” children on the edge of the diving board, springing “up up up” and then “down down down”—we sense a small shift inside Jabari, despite his continuing to talk the big talk (“Looks easy.”). His dad says nothing, but he does something infinitely more powerful: he squeezes his son’s hand. For as much dialogue as there is in the story, there is just as much loveliness in what remains unspoken in this parent-child relationship.

Predictably—at least, for those of us on the parenting side—Jabari begins stalling. He stands at the base of the tall ladder, staring up at it. He lets the other kids go in front of him, all the time keeping up his easy-breezy facade. “I need to think about what kind of special jump I’m going to do.”

When Jabari begins climbing the ladder, he can think of nothing but how endlessly tall it is. Time seems to freeze. Insert dad from the sidelines, who gently asks his son if he might like to take a “tiny rest” first. Jabari is quick to consent. “A tiny rest sounded like a good idea.” The dad might have shouted encouraging words at his son; or he might have thrown up his hands and called his bluff right then and there. But no. Because this is a parent who knows what he’s doing.

And then, a full crisis of confidence erupts. “I think tomorrow might be a better day for jumping,” Jabari says. Again, his dad neither agrees with him, nor attempts to talk him out of quitting. He simply crouches down and says, “It’s okay to feel a little scared…Sometimes, if I feel a little scared, I take a deep breath and tell myself that I am ready. And you know what? Sometimes it stops feeling scary and feels a little like a surprise.” In one concise paragraph, this parent validates emotion, then gently re-frames the situation. A master at his craft.

Over the next few pages, we see a new side of Jabari—thoughtful, careful, curious, courageous—as he fills his lungs with air, mounts the board, stands up straight, and walks carefully to the edge. With “his toes curled around the rough edge,” Cornwall renders an illustration that has our own breath catching in our throat, as we wait in mutual anticipation of the moment of letting go.

As Jabari takes flight, his jubilation is evident, from his wide smile to his splayed arms. But, look closer, and you’ll see my favorite part. Jabari’s eyes are closed, and his face is turned away from the direction of his father and little sister, who wave excitedly from the water below. Jabari is momentarily oblivious to his cheering squad, and that’s exactly how it should be. This is Jabari’s plunge.

Summer is almost upon us. Let us rejoice mightily when our littles at last flap their arms and jump. But let us also rejoice in the dance—even the two steps forward, one step backwards dance—to get there.

 

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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!

The Best Book I Haven’t Told You About

April 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

It’s true. I’ve waited four months into 2018 to tell you about my favorite book from 2017. Why didn’t I include this title in last year’s Holiday Gift Guide? Well, two reasons. First, Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Ages 5-9) is not really a “gift-y” book: its subdued cover doesn’t exactly scream READ ME, and its content is not high on the list of what kids think they want to read about. This is a quiet book. A gentle book. A tiny window into one immigrant family’s experience, and the kind of story where what’s not said is equally as important as what is. But oh…this book.

Which brings me to my second reason. This is a book that needs time to percolate with our children. As a parent, I loved it from the second I began it, and I also recognized how topical it was (Kirkus Reviews called it “a must-read for our times,” and it was just awarded a Caldecott Honor, so the Powers That Be clearly agree). I couldn’t wait to share it with my kids. And then, the experience was…anti-climactic. We read it once through, and my children liked it fine—they smiled, they nodded—but that was all. I put it back in our “new books” basket, where it sat untouched for months. I couldn’t in all fairness write about a story that didn’t have the same impact on my children as it had on me.

Herein lies the power of owning select books, of not having to return them to the library after a few weeks. Last week, five months after we first read A Different Pond together, I found my daughter on the couch with it. I watched from a distance. She read it to herself. Twice. I finally approached.

“How’s the book?” I asked.

“Can I read it to you?” she responded. For my daughter, there is no greater sign of engagement than when she volunteers information about a story she’s reading—or, better yet, reads it aloud to me.

I sat and listened. As an intimate read aloud, A Different Pond is perfection: Bao Phi writes clearly, yet poetically; and Thi Bui—her last book was a graphic novel—propels the story forward through visually striking panels which evoke a breadth of emotion. But the best part: along the way, my daughter stopped to point out things, especially things half-visible in the background. She asked me questions. She began to draw conclusions.

This, my fellow book-loving parents, is the magic of a quiet book.

A Different Pond tells the story of a single early-morning fishing trip undertaken by a boy and his father, an event both routine and yet rich in emotional subtext. The story, told in the boy’s voice, comes out of Bao Phi’s own childhood, growing up with Vietnamese parents who were forced to flee to Minnesota as refugees from the war in 1975, when Phi was just a baby. That the time and place specifics are not spelled out until the Afterward lends the story universality; but illustrator Thi Bui also does a brilliant job of giving us atmospheric hints along the way, from the calendar on the kitchen wall (which reads 1982), to the bell-bottom jeans, to the distinctly ‘70s palette of mustard yellows and muddy browns.

What feels distinctive about A Different Pond, amidst the growing number of children’s picture books attempting to capture the “immigrant experience,” is its very, very narrow focus. We spend only a few hours with this father and son, beginning with their departure before dawn for the bait store and ending with their return home at sun up. And yet, what we learn in these few hours is bountiful and deep, like the pond itself. We learn that the boy’s father, when he speaks English, sounds to some “like a thick, dirty river,” but to the boy sounds like “gentle rain.” We learn that this early-morning outing is even earlier than usual, as the father explains to the tack shop owner that he “got a second job” and needs to get to work by breakfast time.

In fact, as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that these fishing trip are not purely or even mostly recreational. They arise from the necessity to eat—and the stark reality that even working two jobs does not bring in enough money for this basic need (“Everything in America costs a lot of money,” the father tells his son). When the father and son climb, hand in hand, over the highway divider and through the dark brush to the edge of the pond, a careful observer will catch the sign visible in the corner of the page: NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT. “See that, Mommy?” my daughter whispered. “I think this is why they have to do it in the dark.”

There is nothing glamorous about fishing off the highway for necessity—and yet, the experience is ripe for connection. (Anyone else having flashbacks of our beloved Danny, Champion of the World?) These impressionable mornings are forming the boy’s view of the world, himself, and his familial roots. The boy tells us about the different people, also fishing, whom they sometimes meet: a “Hmong man…who speaks English like my dad and likes to tell funny jokes”; and a “black man…[who] shows me his colorful lure collection.” The boy connects to his body and to the natural world, rubbing his hands in the cold and looking up “to see faint stars like freckles.” Most significantly, the boy begins to piece together the puzzle that is his taciturn father, their bonding playing out in the smallest of moments. A reassuring squeeze from the father’s calloused hands. The gentle way the father prompts the boy to build a fire. The rising energy in the father’s demeanor, until he bursts out laughing at the “funny face” the boy makes trying to guide a freshly-caught fish into the bucket.

The boy is particularly curious about his father’s former life in Vietnam and the events which led him to move his family across the ocean. But he knows he must wait for an opening and choose his questions sparingly. While the two sit at the pond’s edge, waiting on fish and eating bologna sandwiches, the father offers up a golden nugget: “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam,” he tells his son. The boy asks if his father’s brother was there, too. We learn, gently, that the father lost his brother while fighting side by side in the War. A bite on the line interrupts this conversation, but the seed has been planted. Later, as the two make their way back to the car, the boy wonders “what the trees look like at that other pond, in the country my dad comes from.”

This may be a story about sacrifices, big and small, about one Vietnamese American refugee family who left behind one life to start a new one with next to nothing, but it is also a story about moving out of darkness and into light. What Thi Bui—herself a Vietnamese American immigrant—has done with her illustrations is extraordinary. I have never before seen light—in its multitude of forms—portrayed so tangibly in a single picture book. We have the progression of natural light, from the twilight cast by the stars and moon to the “blue and gray light” of early sun rise, notably stopping before the golden sunshine we expect. We have a range of artificial light: the bare bulb illuminating the linoleum floor of the family’s kitchen; the bold streetlight on the dark street outside the tack shop; the fluorescent light of the carpeted hallway outside the door to the family’s apartment. If not stark, these lights are also not warm, as poverty is often characterized by such unfiltered, unforgiving light.

There is no triumphant sunrise here, just as there is no conventionally happy ending.  The story will continue to unfold long after we close the book, and we can guess there will be many more early-morning fishing trips. But, as the sun fills the boy’s apartment on his return home, the light becomes undeniably softer, yellower. As the boy anticipates his family gathering around the table to enjoy the fish that night for dinner (“Dad will nod and smile and eat with his eyes half closed.”), we also see more diffused light. Finally, as the boy falls asleep, dreaming “of fish in faraway ponds,” his sleeping face becomes the light source itself. It’s as if he is lit from within, comforted and warmed by the love he feels in the everyday actions of his family—particularly, in his bond with his father.

As we move from darkness into light in this story, I also wonder if we are meant to think about the optimism and hope represented by the next generation, by those children on whose behalf immigrant parents make these sacrifices. There is nothing that looks or sounds easy about the life this family is leading; and yet, they clearly lead with conviction, hard work, and love for one another. We alongside our child readers may feel humbled to realize that this quiet stoicism continues to unfold today in immigrant and refugee experiences around us.

That is the power of sitting with a book for awhile.

 

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Review copy provided by Capstone. 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!

A Love Letter to Florence

July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.

I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.

(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)

In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)

In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.

If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.

A bit of the magic had followed us home.

In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.

The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.

One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).

“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.

In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.

Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.

“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.

It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.

What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.

The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.

DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.

Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.

Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.

Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice

It was also a big plus that JP read Rick Riordan’s fiction series about the Greek and Roman gods prior to the trip. A little Old Testament review would also have been nice!


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Review copy by Viking, PenguinYoungReaders 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!

A Father Worth His Weight (in Pheasants)

June 18, 2017 § 2 Comments

When I was around the same age my children are now, my father used to play Kick the Can with my sister and me in the backyard after dinner on summer nights. Sweaty and exhausted—and probably owing to the giant glass of milk my mother insisted we drink with dinner—the time would predictably come when I would have to go to the bathroom. I would be crouched in my hiding position behind a bush, trying to keep quiet, but mostly trying not to pee. I could easily have run inside, used the bathroom, and come out again. But I didn’t dare. I would rather have hopped about, wincing with every step, risking an accident (and there were some)—all because I never wanted these moments to end. I never wanted to break the spell. The only thing better than the anticipation of my father coming home was the joy of being with him.

I lost my father when I was eighteen—much too young, by all accounts. And yet, the experience of being with my dad still feels as tangible to me as if it took place yesterday. As a parent now myself—one more tired and distracted and grumpy than I sometimes care to admit—what impresses most upon me is how my father seemed when he was with us. He was not merely present when we were together. He delighted in our presence.

My father’s eyes would twinkle as he’d sit across from us over grilled cheeses at the pavilion in the park, and they would widen when we brought him handfuls of chestnuts. His head would lean in as I described every detail of my day and roll back only for a conspiratorial chuckle. He genuinely seemed as excited to read aloud each night as I was to listen (to this day, I cannot read the Little House on the Prairie series with my children without thinking of him). Though I knew sometimes his work would take him overseas or far into the night, I never questioned for a second that he would rather be with us.

Of course, such is the bias of a child who loves her father and thinks he can do no wrong.

“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.” So begins the second chapter of Danny the Champion of the World (Ages 8-12), a story by Roald Dahl starring quite possibly the sweetest and most unusual father-son relationship in children’s literature. (Am I really still talking about Roald Dahl? YES. Yes, I am. And that is because, while at first our favorite was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then it was Matilda, and then it was James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and The Witches, the thing about Roald Dahl is that every one becomes the new favorite. Plus, I’m frantic to think you might not know about Danny the Champion of the World—because I didn’t. And it is FABULOUS. And outlandish. And hysterical. And heartwarming beyond words.)

The first few chapters of Danny the Champion of the World read as an incredibly touching tribute to a single father—something rarely dwelt on in children’s literature—as seen through the eyes of his adoring son. The two share an intimate world, both physically and emotionally. They live in a single-roomed, 150-year-old gypsy caravan, parked behind the filling station which serves as the family business (Danny’s mother died when he was just four months old). Rather than complain of his scanty, isolated accommodations, Danny relishes the closeness his house brings him to his “smiling-eyes” father—and to the wildly entertaining stories which his father spins for him each night (including one your kids will be quick to recognize from a previous Roald Dahl book).

It is impossible to tell you how much I loved my father. When he was sitting close to me on my bunk, I would reach out and slide my hand into his, and then he would fold his long fingers around my fist, holding it tight.

Danny’s father isn’t just a comforting presence and a keen storyteller: he’s also an eccentric, unpredictable, and endlessly fascinating plotter—and it is this quality which endears him as fervently to us readers as it does to our young hero. Who wouldn’t like to imagine himself the son of this quirky, fun-loving man? “It was impossible to be bored in my father’s company…plots and plans and new ideas came flying off him like sparks from a grindstone.” Danny’s father trains Danny “from birth” to be a mechanic, to take apart engines and put them back together. They make and fly kites which soar miles above the ground and “fire balloons” which levitate like lanterns in the dark night. With only the materials around them, they make tree houses and stilts and boomerangs and even a giant soapbox car with a real working engine. And all this before Danny turns nine and our real story begins.

While they may be narrated through Danny’s adoring eyes, these scenes create the unmistakable impression that Danny’s father enjoys being with his son every bit as much as his son enjoys being with him. He delights in tinkering, inventing, playing, and laughing alongside him. This is what makes him so special as a father.

This is also what makes him decide to let Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life”—and here is where a seemingly simple story about a father and son takes a wild and wacky turn (lest you forget this is a Roald Dahl book). The father, as it turns out, has a long history with—and a very heated passion for—the sublegal sport of pheasant poaching. What the what, you say? Pheasant poaching (which, I might add, is a real thing in Britain, even to this day) involves sneaking onto the property of wealthy, stuffy landowners, who stock their backyard trees with expensive pheasants for fancy-pants shooting parties, and stealthily making off with said pheasants in the dead of night. (Roald Dahl never misses an opportunity to subvert the Upperclass.)

“You mean stealing them?” I said, aghast.
“We don’t look at it that way,” my father said. “Poaching is an art. A great poacher is a great artist.”
…I was shocked. My own father a thief! This gentle, lovely man! I couldn’t believe he would go creeping into the woods at night to poach valuable birds belonging to somebody else.

Danny is even more horrified to discover this sport is also highly dangerous, bringing with it the risk of “poacher’s bottom” from the armed “keepers” hired to guard the pheasants. (Again, only in a Roald Dahl book.)

…”You’ve missed the point, Danny boy! You’ve missed the whole point! Poaching is such a fabulous and exciting sport that once you start doing it, it gets into your blood and you can’t give it up.”

In subsequent chapters, as Danny’s father invokes his storytelling prowess to describe the “secret methods” used by him and his own father over the years to catch pheasants—one called “The Horsehair Stopper,” involving soaked raisins strung on single strands of horsehair, another aimed at getting a pheasant to stick its beak into a sticky paper hat—we understand all too well why Danny begins to soften to the idea. Heck, we are softening. My kids are looking at me out of the corner of their eyes like, Mom, are you really reading this to us? Is this even OK? And PLEASE GO ON.

(Don’t worry: no pheasants suffer in the telling of this book. I’m not saying they don’t end up as dinner.)

Ultimately, though, Danny becomes determined to join the fun when he discovers the target of his father’s next pheasant poaching plot. The wealthy landowner Mr. Victor Hazell is not only a “roaring snob,” but he has a history of making nasty, disparaging comments to Danny and his father when bringing his Rolls-Royce to the filling station for a tune up. What’s worse, Mr. Hazell has been plotting to drive Danny and his father out of town for years, desperate to get his hands on their tiny piece of land to complete his massive estate.

Oh, so he’s a bad guy. That’s why it’s OK to steal his pheasants. Heck, it’s better than OK. Let’s get on with it! (This is classic Roald Dahl logic. We can’t help it. We’re all in.)

The last 150 pages—three fourths of the novel—are equal parts hilarious and hair-raising, as father and son cook up and attempt to carry out the most elaborate, unlikely, and daring (nonviolent) plot to poach Mr. Hazell’s 120 pheasants and share them with their working-class neighbors. I would never dare spoil the spoils for you and your children. All I will say is: you will never see it coming.

But amidst pheasants swaddled in baby carriages and our own Danny high tailing an “Austin 7” in a police chase, it remains the relationship between Danny and his father which steals the show: this beautiful, joyful dance between two people who love each other unconditionally, who would journey to the moon and back if it meant being together.

Pheasant poaching might seem a hard act to follow, but Danny wants us to know it’s just one of many wondrous things comprising daily life with his dad (it just happens to make a particularly great story). As the two come down from the high of their mission, dangling their feet off the front step of their cozy caravan (which, by the way, my kids haven’t stopped talking about wanting to live in), they dream about catching trout in a nearby stream and buying an electric oven and making sandwiches for lunch.

And after that?
There would be something else after that.
And after that?
Ah yes, and something else again.
Because what I am trying to tell you…
What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without a doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.

When our parent delights in us as much as we delight in him (or her)—well, we feel for a moment like the Champion of the World. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who share their craftiness, their playfulness, their goofiness, and their mischief-making with their children. And to my own dad, I’ll never forget how much fun we had.

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Book published by 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!

Quality Time with Dad

June 18, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Ask Me" by Bernard WaberLast June, on the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, I wrote a post about a picture book titled Following Papa’s Song, a beautiful metaphor for the delicate dance that we perform with our children, of when and how to let go (and pull back, and let go again), so that our children might grow up to be their own persons. This year, I was all set to write about David Ezra Stein’s Tad and Dad, which brings a more rambunctious and funny treatment to a similar discussion of boundaries: a toddler frog is so enamored with his Dad—the very best swimmer and hopper and burpper in THE WORLD—that, naturally, he wants to sleep in the same bed as said Dad every night.

Then yesterday, when I arrived home, I found on my doorstep Ask Me (Ages 3-6), an upcoming new picture book by the late Bernard Waber (sadly, not coming out until next month, so think of it as an all-year-round read and not as a Father’s Day gift, per se). Everything changed when I read that book. There was no going back. It’s not just because I grew up with and adore Waber’s classics (in fact, our Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile treasury happens to be my son’s go-to reading material when he’s trying to distract himself during a thunderstorm). It’s not just because the pencil illustrations are by the amazing Suzy Lee, who blends her South Korean sensibility with English training (and we know how I swoon over British and Asian illustrators). And it’s not just that the cover features a little girl skipping alongside her father, her hand clasped firmly in his, a smile on both of their faces, as if there is no other place they’d rather be.

What really hit home about this simple, poetic, and stunning picture book is that it speaks to the greatest gift my Dad gave me when he was alive. He listened. He listened to everything I told him—and I told him A LOT. As a child, I would save up everything that happened to me during the day (including the plot of whatever book I was reading); and then, when Dad got home, I would relay it all to him, including every single mind-numbing detail (I add the “mind-numbing” part all these years later, since as a parent myself, I have SEEN THE LIGHT). I would sit on the window ledge on our second floor landing, overlooking the driveway, and strain to see his car lights. All the while, the words would be collecting in my mouth, burning on my tongue, jittery with excitement at the prospect of spilling out.

(It is perhaps the greatest testament to his character that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I even considered whether he was as fascinated by these largely one-way conversations as he always seemed at the time.)

As a child, if I had a thought, I thought only of sharing it with my Dad. As if any thought wasn’t entirely real until I spoke it aloud—until it had been listened to with the greatest patience, the softest expression, the keenest interest.

Much like the father and daughter in the book, we walked. And walked. And walked. On the weekends, we’d stroll down the street, stopping to pick up chestnuts, stopping for ice cream at the pavilion in the middle of the park, stopping to study the cloud shapes in the sky. Me always talking. He always listening.

The entire text of Ask Me consists of a dialogue between a girl and her father, over the course of a single (presumably) weekend day together. There are no quotation marks. What the girl says—inquisitive, insistent, vulnerable—is in black; and how the father responds—deliberate, bemused, attentive—is in blue. (Do I have to tell you that the instances of black far out number the blue?)

"Ask Me" by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

It is impossible not to hear my own children’s voices in the girl’s almost stream-of-consciousness chattering. No clean or predictable transition from one subject to the next. Saying whatever thought pops into their heads. Asking questions and then going straight on to give the answers themselves. Struggling to choose the right words: qualifying, changing their minds, emphasizing.

Ask me what else I like.

What else do you like?

I like horses. No, I like riding horses.

You rode a horse?

On the merry-go-round. Remember? You remember.

I remember.

"Ask Me" by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

The father and daughter spend most of the book walking around their neighborhood, exploring playgrounds, fountains, and forests. (Incidentally, this is all thanks to illustrator Suzy Lee’s unique interpretation of Waber’s purposely vague text, which could take place just about anywhere—or even, for that matter, between a girl (or boy) and her (his) mother.) The season is fall, and there is natural beauty to behold everywhere. And yet, the girl is as much in her own imagination as she is in the present. I like sand. I like digging in the sand. I really, really do like digging in the sand. Deep, deep, down, down, down in the sand. And I like seashells. Remember when we collected seashells?

"Ask Me," by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

Then, there are times when the girl pauses. When she wants to be the one to listen. When she desires, longs, needs to hear certain things. How come birds build nests? she asks. And her father, accustomed to this game, at first echoes, How come birds build nests? Only this time, the girl breaks her customary pattern. You tell it, she says. And so her father does:

So they will have a safe place to lay their eggs.

I knew that.

Why did you ask?

Because I like to hear you tell it.

"Ask Me" by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

Later, as the girl and her father get ready for bed, brushing their teeth side by side, the girl asks her father if he remembers the significance of next Thursday. His responds:

How could I ever forget?

You wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t what?

Forget my birthday.

Not in a million years would I forget your birthday.

How about a billion years?

Not even in a billion years.

That’s better.

"Ask Me," by Bernard Waber

As children, especially during one-on-one time with the people we love, we have a brief opportunity to feel like Masters of the Universe. We stroll confidently through a carpet of leaves, we twirl beneath the rain, and we feel like the words we say must unquestionably be the Most Important Words Ever.

But only because someone is listening.

As we grow up, we no longer speak our every thought aloud (at least, not to our parents). But, if we are lucky, we still have a parent to call with the most exciting words, or the most disappointing words, or the words that we just can’t get right in our heads. Listening is a gift we give our children. And it’s a gift they never stop needing, even when they’re no longer so little.

"Ask Me," by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

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

What’s Old is New Again

January 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintockIn what increasingly feels like the Age of Excess, one of my greatest parenting rushes has become the Art of Purging. Quick, toss the stacks of paint-splotched easel paper while the kids are still at school! Drag missing-pieced toys to the curb as the garbage truck rounds the corner! Bag up old PJs, hats, and shoes for Goodwill! I look around my newly streamlined rooms and closets and feel a brief, momentary thrill. In a matter of weeks, it will feel like I need to purge again.

While we’re busy tossing out, our children are busy holding on. “Wait! I want to save my (broken) balance bike for my own children!” my son laments. “Can we put my old dresses in my memory box?” asks my daughter.

It recently dawned on me that, if left to their own devices, children make marvelous recyclers. This past fall, on a Sunday morning, while my husband was overseas for work (read: far, far away), I lay in bed burning up with a fever and cursing the Murphy’s Law of Motherhood, whereby moms only fall prey to The Plague when we’re on our own with no one around to help. I drifted in and out of sleep and didn’t realize until it was approaching lunchtime that my children had been awake and downstairs for hours. My son poked his head in: “Hi, Mommy. It’s OK, you don’t need to come down. I just wanted to let you know that we have been playing with the recycling.”

At some point, I made my way downstairs and discovered these two Cardboard Box Robots, made exclusively from the overflowing contents of our recycling bin:

Cardboard Box Robots

These creations, of my children’s own doing, had bewitched them into an entire morning of collaborative work and play. Maybe it was the fever talking; maybe not. All I know is that I was witnessing a RECYCLING MIRACLE. (Remember this post about the magic of cardboard boxes?)

It got me thinking about how much my children love Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock’s My Grandfather’s Coat (Ages 3-7), which was published last year, but which is loosely based on the age-old Yiddish folksong, “I Had a Little Overcoat.” This reworked tale, about a young Eastern European immigrant, who arrives on Ellis Island with “little more than nothing at all” (literally, the contents of two small bags), couldn’t feel further removed from my children’s own reality. And yet, the story’s underlying message of reuse—of turning the old into the new—rings true to something innate, something universal inside them.

Aylesworth, with his love of a catchy refrain, and McClintock, with her signature pen-and-ink, deliciously old-fashioned watercolors, have collaborated on many fairytales and folktales over the years. One might say that they are experts at breathing new life into old treasures (see my lengthy list of favorites at the end). My Grandfather’s Coat, which is narrated by the main character’s adult granddaughter, as she reads to her own son, spans the major milestones in her grandfather’s life, including coming to America, finding work as a tailor, getting married, having a child, opening his own shop, and welcoming his grandchild (i.e. her).

The unifying thread is a handsome navy blue coat, which, in preparation for his wedding day, the grandfather “snipped, and he clipped, and he stitched, and he sewed.”

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

My grandfather loved the coat, and he wore it, and he wore it.
And little bit by little bit,
he frayed it, and he tore it,
until at last…
…he wore it out!

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

So did “my grandfather” toss it in a box for Goodwill and move on? Of course not! He put his tailoring skills to use, and out of the “still-good cloth,” fashioned a “smart jacket”…then later a “snazzy vest”…a “stylish tie” (which he wears to walk his daughter down the aisle)…and, finally, a little stuffed mouse for his great-grandson.

While the text is concerned almost exclusively with the transformation of the grandfather’s coat, McClintock’s illustrations paint a much richer portrait of the man himself. From the pictures, we learn as much about the grandfather’s day-to-day life (feeding chickens, playing baseball, celebrating Hanukkah, holding his granddaughter’s hands as she takes tentative steps), as we do about his major milestones. On every page, we catch glimpses of his playfulness, his mindfulness, his work ethic, and his tenderness—as well as his evident pride in the life he has created for himself and his family.

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

Trust me. This is a man you want to know. (Much like another inspiring immigrant story that I discussed here.)

Not many children’s books star grown-ups as main characters; nor do many boast story lines about the adult aging process. At first glance, some might assume this book wouldn’t hold appeal for young children. But you’d have only to drop by our house, during one of the many times I’m asked to read this book, to understand otherwise. My children’s pointer fingers are constantly employed as we read. They show me: “See how his hair is getting greyer? See how long her hair is now? See how the curtains are much fancier here?” They may know the story inside and out; and yet, each time we read it, they relish new discoveries.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to squash our children’s natural resourcefulness with our own zeal for purging. Perhaps, as my New Year’s Resolution, I will take a second (or a third or a fourth) look at what’s old and consider how it might be made new again. At the very least, let us never toss aside our memories: the stories of our past and the past of the generations that have paved the way for us.

(But did I mention that the Box Robots are now sitting in our basement blocking my path to the washing machine?)

Other Favorites Illustrated (in some cases also written) by the Lovely Barbara McClintock:
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, by Jim Aylesworth, illus. Barbara McClintock (Ages 3-7)
The Mitten, by Jim Aylesworth, illus. Barbara McClintock (Ages 3-7)
Where’s Mommy? by Beverly Donofrio, illus. Barbara McClintock
Adele and Simon, by Barbara McClintock (Ages 4-8)
Adele and Simon in America, by Barbara McClintock (Ages 4-8)
Animal Fables from Aesop, adapted & illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Out of print but SO worth getting if you can: The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle, The Tale of Tricky Fox, Dahlia, Molly and the Magic Wishbone…we read my beloved copies ALL THE TIME. So good.

Review copy provided by Scholastic. 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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