Balancing the Me and the We

March 1, 2019 § Leave a comment

How do we celebrate our individualism without turning our backs on our community? How do we lift up those around us without sacrificing our sense of self? Teaching our children to walk this fine line as they grow into adults may be one of the most important things we as parents do.

Bonus if it involves a little sugar along the way.

Andrea Tsurumi strikes just the right chord between individualism and community in her new picture book, Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together (Ages 4-8)—claw’s down our favorite picture book of the year. (So far.) You may remember Tsurumi from her debut picture book, which I gushed about here last year. She also did the illustrations for another about-to-be-released gem, which I’ll give you a peek at on my Instagram later this weekend. But today’s post is all about Crab Cake, where Tsurumi once again sits in the seat of author-illustrator-cartoonist and delivers her signature whimsy and visual storytelling alongside the valuable message that each of us offers something unique AND we are stronger together.

When we are first introduced to Crab Cake’s coral reef—“under the sea, where sunlight touches sand”—we see an active, brightly-colored community, where creatures of all shapes and sizes exist harmoniously alongside one another, each one doing his own thing. These sea-faring critters may have adorable cartoon eyes (and will soon prove themselves capable of human speech), but their behaviors are largely rooted in science. Tsurumi’s own fascination in researching her oceanic subject matter shines through in these spreads. Scallop does “loop de loops”; Sea Turtle holds her breath; Dolphin “blows bubble rings”; Parrotfish “crunches coral and poops sand”; and so forth.

Crab is also doing his own thing, although his behavior is rooted less in science and more in Tsurumi’s inventive imagination. “Crab bakes cakes.” We’re not talking about the cuisine you dine on at seafood shacks; we’re talking about confectionary pleasures—as in, colorful, delectable, frosted cakes, dotted with treasures from the sea.

As many good bakers can testify, a passion for baking often extends to a passion for feeding others. Crab is no exception. He silently proffers the fruits of his labors on all his neighbors, both below and above the sea. He even presents one fish with a cake just as the latter is about to succumb to the food chain.

Crab asks for nothing from those he feeds. He only returns to his mixing bowl. He is busy and focused—although there’s an aura of loneliness around him. In fact, very few of the sea creatures interact with one another.

“Until one night, there’s a BIG SPLASH!” A massive pile of garbage is tossed off a ship and into the sea, settling over the coral reef and enshrouding everything in a putrid green-tinged blackness.

There’s nothing like a disaster to test the waters of a community. Immediately following the garbage dump, every living thing under the sea is paralyzed, “frozen” with disbelief and fear. Everyone except Crab. Crab keeps on keeping on. When his community desperately needs a leader, Crab does what he does best. He bakes. He fills the dark, dank, hopeless void around him with color and sweetness in the form of a giant cake. And, like moths to the light, the others approach Crab and ask for a bite.

Quietly, peacefully, but with his own individual flair, Crab mobilizes his community. Because as soon as the sea creatures gather to break bread, they can’t shut up. The color returns to their scales as they vent, commiserate, and ponder. As they give their regards to the chef. As they start to make a plan.

Here’s where Crab allows others to shine. A shrimp asks, “All right—anyone have any ideas?” A tentacle goes up from an octopus, who leads everyone to the garbage heap, where each creature assumes a job. “Lobster lifts. Snapper shoves. Clownfish rolls. Turtles tow. Dolphins drag. Clam encourages. Manta Rays move. Octopus inks.”

The result? Well, I’m normally not a fan of spoilers, but the spread which reveals the outcome is too perfect not to share. My kids’ faces absolutely lit up when we opened to this page.

Three cheers for the important ecological message whimsically rendered in these pages. (The excellent back matter notes online resources for ocean cleanup.) But I’d like to think this story also lays the groundwork for a broader conversation about our place in the world. Like Crab, we have a responsibility to ourselves—to find and embrace our passion, to unabashedly do our thing. And, like Crab, we also have a responsibility to see beyond ourselves—to use our gifts to connect to and inspire the communities around us.

If we’re ready and willing to do both, we can weather the stinkiest of storms.

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Review copy from 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!

Gift Guide 2018: My Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year

December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age.

My friends (occasionally readers of my blog, too) have heard me gush about how the eight weeks I spent every summer at an all-girls sleepaway camp in Vermont were some of my favorite—and most formative—parts of my childhood. But I miiiiiight gloss over the less-glamorous moments. Like the very first night, when I tried to ignore the pit of homesickness in my belly and climbed up into the top bunk, only to come nose to nose with a mouse perched on the rafter. Or the fact that I still have the scar from when, on the way back from a middle-of-the-night trip to the outhouse, I tripped on a rock trying to outrun a skunk I felt sure was chasing me. And those are just the animal stories. To say nothing of the times I fought with my best friend and thought I would die from loneliness.

But then there were days when I’d walk barefooted down to the pond, linking arms with other girls and singing at the top of our voices. And oh, did I mention the singing? There was the table-thumping mealtime singing (the louder the better), followed by the quiet campfire singing on the archery field at dusk. There was waking up each morning to the cool, crisp smell of pine needles and the prospect of choice: how would I spend today?

In Be Prepared, nine-year-old Vera is tired of not fitting in during the school year (“too poor,” “too Russian,” and “too different”). Her wealthy friends have sleepover birthday parties, which Vera’s own single mother can never replicate (it’s supposed to be a Carvel ice cream cake, not a charity handout from a woman at church!). Most maddening, these girls take every occasion to brag about the posh sleepaway camps they attend in the summer.

But then Vera gets wind of a church-sponsored Russian sleepaway camp near a lake in Connecticut (crafts! canoeing! singing! bonfires!) and convinces her mom to send her and her younger brother for what turns into four weeks. At last, she will do the things her rich friends do! She packs her bags weeks before departure, and she can hardly contain her excitement when her mom turns down the private dirt road to the camp. “It felt like entering another country.”

Only nothing about Camp ORRA (Organization of Russian Razvedchiki) matches any of Vera’s fantasies. For one, there’s no candy allowed. For two, there’s wood to chop, no running water, and an outhouse nicknamed Hollywood which would scare the poop out of anyone. For three, you’re supposed to speak in Russian…and sit through long church services…and attend daily classes on Russian history. Oh, and the horseflies are as big as birds, and there are mysterious heavy footsteps outside your tent when you’re trying to sleep.

And then there are Vera’s bunkmates: two camp veterans who are best friends and four years older than her (translation: they wear bras and use maxipads).

Still, Vera—proud, resilient, and a tad feisty—is determined, not simply to grin and bear it, but to “beat” it. She will win over her obnoxious, bossy, boy-obsessed bunkmates if it’s the last thing she does (even if it means breaking a camp rule). She will steal the flag from the boys’ camp and become a legend among the other girls. She will earn top badges for her wilderness knowledge. She will figure out how to poop in that outhouse.

Only somewhere along the way, Vera begins to realize she is focused on all the wrong things. There is a true friend—a slightly younger girl, who takes an interest in Vera’s prolific sketching—right under her nose, if she would just notice her. There is a chance to appreciate, even embrace, her Russian heritage. And there are the woods, with opportunities for freedom and mystery and wonder.

Vera’s summer isn’t anything like what she envisioned. But, like the best summers, it is ripe with self-discovery, growth, and an appreciation for modern plumbing.

 

Published by First Second. 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!

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Gift Guide 2018: Bedtime Procrastination

December 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

Kids know they’ve got a captive audience in us when bedtime nears, and they’ve been known to milk it well beyond that second glass of water. At least in me, they also have a sucker for a good bedtime story, or two.

This year has seen two spirited additions to the bedtime repertoire. While they do so in vastly different tones, Stop That Yawn! and Time for Bed, Miyuki bring fresh energy and racially-diverse characters to the theme of bedtime procrastination. Both celebrate a special grandparent-grandchild relationship. And both will have your children yawning—in a good way—by the final page.

In Stop That Yawn! (Ages 4-7), written by Caron Levis and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, our young protagonist takes her grandmother on a raucous, riotous romp to Never Sleeping City, in an effort to ward off sleepiness. (“Gabby Wild had had enough of bedtime. Yawn, curl, snuggle, snore—what a bore!”) The two don driving goggles and, with Gabby at the wheel of a flying bed (think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with wings and a propeller), they “jetted out,” determined not to stop “until they reached a place where beds are for bouncing, hushes are shushed, and it’s never too late for ice cream.”

Told in swiftly-moving comic panels, the strength of this book lies in Pham’s wildly energetic, wonderfully detailed illustrations. (I’ve always liked her art in The Princess in Black series, but she completely blows me away here.) Never Sleeping City is full of neon lights, carnival rides, and streets packed with marching bands and vaudeville performers. Study these pages for hours and you might not see everything.

By all appearances, Never Sleeping City should be Gabby Wild’s dream-come-true—only there’s one problem. Beginning with her grandmother on the coffee-cup ferris wheel, everyone here is fighting the urge to yawn. And Gabby knows all too well the dangerous domino effect of the yawn. The yawn takes no prisoners.

What commences is a kind of manic showdown (parents who have tried keeping a baby awake on a car ride home will relate all too well) between Gabby, her grandmother, and the residents of Never Sleeping City, as Gabby tries every trick in her book—“the tickliest feathers, wettest water, and funniest jokes”—to keep the yawns at bay. She rings bells from the highest towers, shines searchlights down on the street, and slams every door in city hall, all to find “someone, anyone, to stay up with.”

Eventually—after she has scolded even us readers for letting her down (guilty as charged)—Gabby herself gives in. As she climbs into Granny’s “cozy and quiet and peaceful” arms, we are reminded: if can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

If Stop That Yawn! leaves us dazzled and a bit dizzy, Time for Bed, Miyuki (Ages 4-7) immerses us in a Zen garden—albeit a slightly surreal one, with larger-than-life plants and animals ornamented in colorful patterns. The exquisite French team of Roxane Marie Galliez and Seng Soun Ratanavanh have cast a young girl every bit as precocious as Gabby Wild, “busy playing and trying to push back time,” while her grandfather tries to convince her to go to bed. “What do you have to do that cannot wait until tomorrow, Miyuki?”

What Miyuki has to do before settling in for the night is to create order and harmony in her natural surroundings. For one, the Dragonfly Queen is coming to visit tomorrow (“it’s a very big deal”), and a canopy must be made “to honor her, there, under the cherry tree.” Two, her garden of oversized radishes and carrots must be watered. Three, a family of snails must be led home. Four, a blanket must be knit for the cat. Grandfather patiently helps Miyuki with each of these tasks, braiding poppy stems and leading snail parades, before asking if she might finally be ready for bed.

But no, now there are bedtime rituals to be performed! “Oh, Grandfather, we must dance the last dance of the day, to thank the sun for shining so nicely.” There’s also bathing and brushing and brandishing of “best pajamas,” because “what will the stars say if I am not in my best pajamas when they visit me?” Again, Grandfather obliges with patience and tenderness.

If Gabby Wild had to reject her make-believe world of Never Sleeping City to find her peaceful sleep, Miyuki has only to sink deeper into hers. This is a world of Dragonfly Queens. A world where a girl sleeps in a red shoe under snowdrops, while a frog hangs from a tree in a bucket. A world where it’s not clear where reality ends and dreams begin.

Both Stop That Yawn! and Time for Bed, Miyuki entice their young readers with worlds to which they will yearn to return night after night. Especially if it means staying up just a little later.

 

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Princeton Architectural Press, 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!

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Gift Guide 2018: An Early Reader to Celebrate

December 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.)

Never underestimate the power of humor to captivate a budding reader. I credit Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series with kindling my older son’s desire to learn to read, but its seduction was largely lost on my daughter, who by the time it was her turn had been hearing those books read aloud (by her brother) for years. Thankfully, Willems went on to create an imprint of similarly-toned readers; and funny, offbeat stories by the likes of Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, and Dan Santat did bring a novel respite to my daughter’s gripes.

When I received a copy of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories (Ages 5-7) earlier this year, my daughter—now a mature and prolific reader—snatched it up and announced, “Where was this book when I was learning to read? Mommy, do you remember how I told you there were NO funny early readers?” Yes, honey. Yes, I do.

As an early reader masquerading as a picture book, Fox and Chick has just about everything going for it: three short stories are illustrated as comic strips with occasional double-page spreads; the text is delivered entirely through speech bubbles; the vocabulary is largely phonetic; there’s sufficient repetition; and, best of all, it’s ripe with dry humor. (I would recommend it for a child who has been learning to read for a little while, but isn’t ready to move into early chapter books.) It also stars a pair of anthropomorphized animals every bit as quirky and different from one another as some of children’s literature most memorable duos (after all, before there were Elephant and Piggie, there were Frog and Toad and George and Martha).

The first story, “The Party,” serves as a perfect introduction to Fox and Chick’s personalities, best showcased when played off one another. Fox—restrained, meticulous, and borderline cantankerous—is less than thrilled when his book reading is interrupted by Chick’s incessant knocking. Chick—exuberant, impulsive, and stater of the obvious (“How can you be reading that book if you are talking to me?”)—is merely asking if he can use the bathroom. “Of course you may.” “Thank you, Fox. Very kind of you.”

Fox attempts to lose himself in his reading once again, though he can’t help but notice the ticking of the clock: Chick has been in the bathroom for some time. “Chick, are you okay?…Chick, I am coming in!” Fox is horrified by the chaos he finds on the other side of the door. It turns out “May I use your bathroom?” meant “May I use your bathroom to have a party with my friends?” “In my bathroom?!” roars Fox. Chick responds, “Oh, I see…,” and he and his pals quickly exit stage left.

Though he may play the part of the party pooper, later stories reveal Fox has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. My favorite story has to be “Good Soup,” where Chick follows Fox around his garden as the latter collects vegetables for soup. Fox’s vegetarianism offends Chick’s world order. “Fox, foxes are supposed to eat field mice, not carrots!” To which Fox responds, “I don’t like to eat field mice.”

The more exotic the vegetable, the more adamant Chick’s protests become, until he walks himself straight into the trap which a clever reader will have been anticipating all along: “And they’re supposed to eat squirrels…lizards…and little birds.” “Little birds?” says Fox (is that a sly grin?). “Yes, Fox, little bir…Uh-oh.” Later, the two sit down to enjoy Fox’s soup. “I’m glad you don’t like to eat little birds, Fox.” To which Fox responds, “At least not today.”

If the success of series like Elephant and Piggie are any indication, there’s huge appeal in early reader texts that make use of conversational banter to tell their story. Kids like knowing that the hard-earned words coming out of their mouth have entertainment, even comedic, value. Now add in Ruzzier’s always charming, expressive illustrations, and I say, thank goodness Fox and Chick are only getting started.

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Neighborhood Superheroes

December 2, 2018 § 2 Comments

To say that Chad Sell’s graphic novel, The Cardboard Kingdom (Ages 7-10), has developed a cult following among my children and their friends might be an understatement. In the week we got it, each of my kids read it five times, conservatively. Then they introduced it to friends on a beach trip, where the book was passed back and forth among all five children every morning on our way to the beach and every afternoon on our way home. A few weeks after we left, my friend texted me a picture of her girls wearing handmade costumes. “They told me you would understand?” she wrote. I needed a little help from my daughter, who didn’t hesitate for a second: “Animal Queen and Big Banshee!”

The Cardboard Kingdom is actually ten overlapping stories, each written in conjunction with a different writer friend of Sell’s and centered around a different child. Together, they paint a picture of a group of neighborhood kids—a refreshingly diverse range of ages, races, and gender identities—who come together during the final week of summer break to explore their alter egos through imaginative play and a whole lot of cardboard. In the vibrant visuals, readers experience both the fantasy playing out in the children’s minds and the reality of what that actually looks like.

As I was thinking about how to sing the praises of this book, I realized I could prattle on about navigating social dynamics and challenging gender norms—or I could let you hear directly from two of the book’s biggest fans. So, I went ahead and interviewed each of my children and have compiled their answers below.

Q. How would you describe what this book is about?

Emily (age 8): It’s about kids in a neighborhood who get to be really good friends because of their imagination, and they go on all these fun and crazy adventures without ever actually leaving their street. Sometimes they fight against each other, like good against evil, but no one actually gets hurt, because it’s only pretend.

JP (age 11): All the different kids in the neighborhood take their personalities and put them into different characters and costumes that are unique to them and super powerful. It’s a story about having fun together and including everyone.


Q. Why do you think you have re-read this book so many times?

Emily: I like how every time you read it, you’re constantly finding parts you missed, especially in the adventures. Reading this book is kind of like what happens when you play with your neighbors: you can’t stop.


Q. What do you think about the pictures in the book?

Emily: They’re really good. They show what the kids are feeling without describing it.


Q. Can you think of any messages that come through in the book?

Emily: That you can always find good in people who are mean. There’s a chapter called “The Bully,” where a boy thinks the other kids are being stupid, so he tears up their creations to make them feel bad. But then when he leaves, he gets bullied by other kids, so he comes back to the [earlier] kids and joins forces with them, because now he knows what it feels like to be bullied.

JP: The book encourages you to use your imagination and to include everyone when you play.

Emily: No matter what problems are going on in your life, you can always find a way to have fun.


Q. In addition to including people, I might add that it’s also about learning to accept people for who they are—and encouraging them to accept themselves. Why is this a struggle for some of the kids?

JP: Some of the kids struggle to make friends. One of the kids is really loud and no one likes it, but when she puts that loudness into her character, it kind of works. Another kid is a boy who likes dressing up as a girl. His character is Sorceress. His parents don’t really like it; they don’t understand why he wants to be a girl. But the other kids don’t act like it’s a big deal, because he’s actually a really good sorceress.

[I have to add: I absolutely love the Sorceress storyline, especially when the boy’s mother finally sits him down to try to understand his interest. “Is it really just dress-up and make-believe?” she asks. “Who is the sorceress?” And the boy responds, “She’s what I want to be…magical and powerful and amazing.”]


Q. Why do you think parents should get this book for their children?

Emily: Because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of books. And because it will make them think about how other people are feeling, especially the other kids on your street, when you are all playing together.

JP: Because it’s about all different kinds of kids, and there’s no discrimination, and it sets a good example about being inclusive. Also, it’s really fun.


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

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Chapter Book of the Year

November 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

My gift guide is just warming up! This post will be followed, beginning tomorrow, with a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had the occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, feel free to take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly ask that you “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them. And now, without further ado…

On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.

The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered.

As quickly as it had begun, it ended. Even more aghast, I watched as the two students faced us, took a bow, and walked off. A teacher appeared and began distributing papers down the aisles. On each paper was a series of questions about what we had just witnessed. “Which party delivered the first blow?” “What was the exact sequence of events?” “What did he look like?” “What did she say?” We were also asked to rate the certainty of our answers.

If I had been shocked moments ago by the ruckus taking place thirty feet from me, I was even more shocked by my peers’ vastly different accounts of what had happened. This, of course, was the point of the exercise. There were wild discrepancies about what each subject had been wearing; there was even disagreement on race and accent. Almost no consensus could be reached on who had “started” the fight, who pushed whom first, or what the two were fighting about. And yet, the next day, when the teacher distributed the tabulated responses of our class, we learned that most people had rated their certainty above 70%.

The fallibility of historic reporting was something I had never stopped to considered. After this day, like one tends to do in adolescence, I began to question the truth of what I was seeing and hearing around me. I began to read history textbooks with the understanding that the way we transcribe our world is impossibly tangled up in the biases, prejudices, and preconceptions of both our individual past experiences and the cultures in which we live. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners.

But what happens when everyone loses? What can we discover about one another and ourselves? If we can’t tell what the world really looks like, where does that leave us?

These might be unusually weighty questions for a middle-grade novel to pose, but M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin have done just that in The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (Ages 11-15)—albeit so deftly, through such a fantastical setting, and with so much absurd comedy that many of their young readers might not realize they’ve just been schooled on the limitations, missed opportunities, and dangers that accompany bias. It’s an age-old problem and one as timely as ever.

I have not come across a contemporary work of children’s literature as wholly original as The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. At its most basic level, it reads like an epic fantasy, set against a Middle Earth-esque backdrop and starring an elf and a goblin: two historical academics brought together on a (misconstrued) mission to mend thousands of years of distrust between their two warring nations. But the story’s multitude of riches extend well beyond the surface. (Put another way: I don’t particularly care for fantasy, yet I chose this as my favorite book of the year.) In fact, the levels at which one can experience this book are so varied, I will defer to Anderson and Yelchin’s own competing descriptions of their story, which appear in the interview-style Author’s Note describing their collaborative process.

MTA: So Eugene and I created this book as a tribute to all of those brave writer-explorers in the ancient world who voyaged into unknown lands and tried to understand the cultures they found there: Marco Polo, Herodotus, Ibn Battuta[…]

EY: What are you talking about? This is a spy thriller. Murder! Chases! Double crosses! We got a bomb in there!

MTA: But, Eugene, at its heart, it’s really a tragic meditation on how societies that have been trained to hate each other for generations can actually come to see eye to eye. 

EY: A tragedy, my eye! A crazy story about two fools blinded by propaganda is not a tragedy. It’s a comedy.

MTA: Sure, Eugene, whatever. Basically, we just wondered why goblins get such a bad rap in fantasy noels like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

In full disclosure, when I first started reading this 526-page tome—told through alternating chapters of traditional narration, letters, and wordless illustration (almost as if Brian Selznick’s books got a darker makeover from Hieronymous Bosch)—I thought, wowzers, this book is strange. Marvelously strange, but strange. I can think of maybe one or two children who would enjoy it. Then, with each chapter, I found myself thinking up more and more children (and adults) who I thought would love it. By the end, unable to decide if my husband or son should read it first, I just threw it at my husband and yelled, YOUR TURN TO READ TO OUR SON! (Upon further consideration, I actually think this book is best suited as an independent read. Although it does beg discussion and would be absolutely perfect in a book club setting.)

Have a kid who likes Tolkein, mythical creatures, or epic battle scenes? No-brainer. Have a kid who likes odd and eccentric? Yup, it’s here in spades. Have a visually-oriented child who would welcome interspersed chapters devoted entirely to mysterious, pen-and-ink illustrations, the likes of which they’ve never seen before?  Oh YES. Dry humor and political satire? It abounds. How about the kid who would appreciate holding in their hands an exquisite product of bookmaking, whose jacketless cover with its embossed letters and stamped gold ink feels like you’re laying hands on something maybe not entirely ancient but also not quite of the modern world?

What about a child who enjoys complex, flawed protagonists, capable of delighting and disappointing faster than one can turn the page? Herein lie two of the most memorable, if misguided, literary characters. Brangwain Spurge, a cantankerous elf historian largely preoccupied by his chance at fame, journeys to the land of the goblins on an unprecedented peace-making mission to return an ancient relic—a Faberge-type egg concealing a gemstone with ancient pictorial carvings—believed to have been captured long ago from the goblin king. (What Spurge doesn’t know is that he’s a pawn in a larger scheme by the elfin powers that be: the egg actually contains a bomb intended to obliterate the goblin king and his government.) Werfel, naïve and obsequious, is a historic archivist and the goblin entrusted with hosting Spurge. His job is to introduce the fellow scholar to the finer points of his beloved goblin culture and (he hopes) learn about elfin ways in return, resulting in famed publications of his own.

Whatever your reason for gifting this story to a particular child, the real gift will be in what is carefully and calculatedly revealed through its telling. Ironically, in a story about two individuals who come together out of a passion for historical accounting, both are equally blind to the cultural experiences of the other. Spurge is blinded by elfin propaganda, which has long painted goblins as violent, grotesque, and barbaric; as creatures who spurn cultural refinement for beheadings and relish living in squalor and poverty. The “skins” Spurge discovers hanging in Werfel’s house only confirm his bias; he never even registers the pride and joy in Werfel’s explanation of the goblin practice of shedding skins in celebration of achieving personal growth.

Werfel initially seems like the more open-minded of the two, but we come to realize that his failure to register offense at Spurge’s derogatory remarks stems from his blind commitment to ambition and hospitality. (“Goblins had a strong code of hospitality. Once a goblin invited someone across the threshold into their home, it was their duty to serve and protect their guest, no matter what. Hospitality was holy.”) We watch, helpless, as the two speak to one another without either being heard.

We may be helpless observers of the mounting tensions between Spurge and Werfel, of their failed attempts to penetrate the cultural bias both parties have brought to the table, but we’re also not entirely innocent. Anderson and Yelchin intentionally prey upon our own inherent bias as readers—specifically, our easy trust in visual truth. It turns out there’s an underlying tension between the story’s narration and its pictures. All the narration (apart from the letters) is done in third-person, although from Werfel’s perspective, so it’s easy to spot subjectivity. The visual chapters, on the other hand, are billed as “top secret transmissions,” literal thought pictures which Spurge records over the course of the day and then sends back to elfin headquarters at night, while suspended off his bed in a kind of trance. We automatically accept these visuals—in many cases, our only window into the story’s action sequences—as truth, simply because children’s literature rarely, if ever, tells us otherwise. If Werfel is illustrated as a towering, formidable figure with a scowling mouth and claws for hands—well, we assume that’s what he looks like, even if it doesn’t match the soft, gentle words that come from his mouth.

Until we don’t. At some point, we become aware that the words and pictures are at war with one another. That our eyes are deceiving us. Spurge’s visual reporting is flawed because, in many respects, he has made up his mind about what he sees before he even sees it. The truth—if we can ever get to such a thing—likely likes somewhere in the middle.

Only in Spurge and Werfel’s eventual shared exile do the two men begin to forge a touching, eccentric, friendship, one which moves beyond personal and cultural bias. Only in the climactic collapse of the two kingdoms do we trust that Werfel’s words and Spurge’s images are approximating something closer to the truth. Werfel begins to insult Spurge—the sincerest form of goblin affection, it turns out—and Spurge begins to see that his fellow historian is a lot more similar to him than he initially thought (at least, similarly sized).

Don’t just gift The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge because it’s wildly entertaining and wholly original. Gift it because it just might change the way a child experiences the world. If we approach new cultures with an open heart and an open mind, we might still not see the world exactly as it is, but we may find two things infinitely more valuable: compassion and connection.

 

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

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

Humanizing Refugees

November 4, 2018 § 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which book” I asked, feigning innocence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Books published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Roaring Book Press, respectively. Illegal was originally published in Great Britain by Hodder Children’s Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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