November 4, 2018 § 2 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.
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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!
February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments
Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. About slavery, for example, he explains:
I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it. I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.
We can outlaw slavery, Stevenson argues, or sentence lynchers, or desegregate schools, or pass the Voting Rights Act—but only when we begin talking honestly in our schools, homes, and communities about the complicated, nuanced history of growing up African-American at different times in our country, can we understand the tremendous rise in incarceration rates among black Americans, or the “menacing of communities of color and poor communities,” or the defense of Confederacy symbols. “We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.” Not long after reading Stevenson’s piece, I came across an unsettling article in The Atlantic titled “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery.” It cites a new study revealing how grossly misinformed American children are about the history of slavery in our country, largely due to uninformed, “sentimentalized,” or “sanitized” teaching—or even the absence of teaching on the subject all together.
Personalizing the history of enslaved people—for example, encouraging the reading of individual narratives—is an important first step, Stevenson argues, towards internalizing the truth about our country’s history, so that we can begin rewriting the present. As a child, I was fascinated by the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman—specifically, by her involvement with the Underground Railroad. After all, what child isn’t intrigued by a so-called underground railroad that has neither anything to do with trains nor is actually underground? The Underground Railroad was, of course, a secret network of people, some black and some white, who were committed to providing safe harbor, often at great personal risk, to runaway slaves attempting to make their way on foot to freedom in the North. The struggle and heroism displayed on both sides—from the runaways to the helpers—is positively staggering. As such, it has always seemed to me a compelling but still hopeful lens through which to introduce young children to slavery.
I decided to dedicate this past month to sharing books with my kids about Harriet Tubman, especially given that—in part thanks to the media attention garnered last year by our own President’s exhibited ignorance about the American icon—a flurry of new children’s books on the subject have recently been published. (My son tried to convince me he already knew all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5: The Underground Abductor, which admittedly is an awesome book, but I convinced him to humor me.)
If the best of American history is filled with people changing their destinies, turning misfortune into opportunity, and standing up to fight for themselves and, in turn, for those who cannot, then Harriet Tubman personifies the American Ideal. The two books I’ve chosen to discuss today could not be more different; but they work beautifully in tandem: the first bringing new texture to the most commonly known aspects of Tubman’s life, and the second expanding our awareness of her involvement and accomplishments beyond the Underground Railroad.
I am Harriet Tubman (Ages 6-10) is the fourteenth installment in Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’s hugely popular “Ordinary People Change the World” graphic biography series, many of which—as I discussed in the wake of the 2016 election—have become especially near and dear to my daughter’s heart. (When Emily’s school had Biography Day a few weeks ago, there was never any doubt she would go as Helen Keller—because I am Helen Keller.)
One of the biggest draws of this series for young children is its focus on the subject’s childhood. I am Harriet Tubman is no exception. Here, Meltzer and Eliopoulos do an especially adept job of presenting the inhumanity of slavery through the eyes of young Harriet. For children, slavery meant no birthday celebrations (in most cases, children had no idea when their birthdays were). Children had to wear “sacks.” They were forbidden by law to read and write. They were beaten if they didn’t do what their masters demanded. And their families could be split and sold off with no warning, which meant one day you or your loved one might be forced to leave, in many cases never to reunite with family again.
Even when describing horrific events, Harriet’s voice (through Meltzer) emerges emboldened, keeping the subject matter from becoming too overwhelming for her audience: “I know it’s scary. But by hearing my story, I hope you’ll find strength you never knew you had. That’s what happened when I was around seven years old.” At age seven, Harriet explains, in order to escape a beating, she hid in a pigpen for five days, “fighting the pigs for potato peelings.” When she eventually came out of hiding, near starvation, she was still beaten—and yet, the experience changed the way she (and those around her) saw herself: she was not afraid to protect herself. As years went on, she continued to endure abuse and injury at the hands of her owners. Still, each time she didn’t die, she drew faith that God was watching out for her. She began to allow herself to dream of freedom, of letting the North Star show her the way.
At 22 years of age, Harriet narrowly escaped to Philadelphia. Even more harrowing were her thirteen trips back to Maryland to escort 70 others, including strangers and family members, along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Both my children were riveted by these panels: Harriet disguising men as old ladies so they wouldn’t be recognized; hiding with runaways in hidden passages; wading through icy waters by dark; and creating diversions to get slave hunters off her back. “It’s sort of confusing,” my daughter pointed out, “but all the terrible work Harriet had to do when she was a slave, chopping wood and stuff, actually made her strong enough to get through the wilderness like that.” Indeed, the tables had been tuned, one of the many nuanced ironies of oppression.
At its conclusion, I am Harriet Tubman raises the idea that freedom alone is only part of the equation: it’s what we do with our freedom that determines our character. In the case of Harriet Tubman, she dedicated her new life to helping others, believing (her words) “the measure of success isn’t what you achieve for yourself, it’s what you do for others.”
In my life, I was told I couldn’t make my own choices.
Told I would never escape.
But I did.
I fought for my independence.
And once I had breathed the air of freedom,
I knew I needed to help others breathe it too.
For more about what the adult Tubman achieved on behalf of others, we turn to our second book. If I am Harriet Tubman begins with its subject as a child, this second tribute to the American icon begins at the end of her life. The lyrical and intimate Before She Was Harriet (Ages 7-12), written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome, actually begins with Harriet’s wrinkles: “Here she sits/ an old woman/ tired and worn/ her legs stiff/ her back achy.”
The title a nod to her birth under a different name, Before She Was Harriet takes readers on a poetic journey backwards through Tubman’s life, from an old woman to the young slave who learned to read by starlight. Each turn of the page peels back another layer, revealing the incredible breath of roles she played in her life, well beyond that of “Moses,” the Underground Railroad conductor for which she is most well known.
For example, before she “was an old woman,” Harriet was a “loud and angry” suffragist, fighting on behalf of women’s rights:
a voice for women
who had none
in voting booths
before her voice became
soft and raspy
it was loud
rising above injustice
Before she was a suffragist, she was an abolitionist, serving in the Civil War by ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom: General Tubman/ rising out of the fog/ armed with courage/ strong in the face of rebels/ and planters and overseers/ as they watched/ fields burn. Before she was General Tubman, she was a Union Spy, carrying secrets/ across battlefields/ to soldiers/ fighting in the Civil War/ for President Lincoln/ to end slavery.
As the pages continue, they reveal a younger and younger Tubman. Only great restraint on my part is holding me back from citing each one of the evocative, economical poems which deliver these momentous roles and deeds to us. And yet, even as Harriet Tubman emerges a fiery feminist, a fierce warrior, and (let’s be honest) a total Bad Ass, the soft watercolor illustrations allude all the time to her grace, her humility, and her quiet stoicism. She looks, well, human. She looks relatable.
At the end of his interview about the state of race in our country, Stevenson is asked whether he feels hopeful going forward, particularly for the youngest generations. His response gives me chills:
I don’t think we’re allowed, frankly, to get hopeless and beat down, and I think that’s the upside to understanding this history. The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—because my grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved, and her father was in her ear every day of her life talking about slavery, and she was in my ear, I feel the force of their strength. I really do.
Harriet Tubman underscores this power. The power to stand up, to push back, and to fight. The even greater power to help others do the same. These two pictorial accounts of Harriet, of “Moses,” are just a few of the many illuminating narratives children’s literature gives us to help bring our children into the larger narrative of race, racial history, and the move toward racial justice in our country.
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Books published by Dial Books for Young Readers and Holiday House respectively. Review copy provided by Dial. 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!
December 7, 2017 § 3 Comments
As promised, here is a roundup of my favorite middle-grade fiction of 2017, a mix of graphic and traditional novels, targeted at tweens or older. Not included are titles I blogged about earlier in the year—gems like The Inquisitor’s Tale, The Wild Robot, and See You in the Cosmos, which would make excellent additions to this list. Also not included are books I haven’t read yet—particularly Amina’s Voice, Nevermoor, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and Scar Island (by the same author as the riveting Some Kind of Courage)—which would likely be on this list if I had. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I adore, has a sequel out this year which I’m dying to read. And I should also mention that if my son were making this list, he would undoubtedly note that it has been a stand-out year for new installments in his favorite series, including this, this, this, this, and this.
Now, without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into these richly textured and meaty stories, filled with angst and adventure, secrets and self-discovery.
For the Girl Trying to Make Sense of Middle School
If Victoria Jamieson’s new graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School (Ages 10-13), and Shannon Hale’s equally fabulous, Real Friends (Ages 10-13), don’t take you straight back to your own days in middle school, then your middle school experience must have looked a lot different than mine (I think I experienced PTSD reading these books). And yet, perhaps things would have been different if I had gotten my hands on stories like these, if I had been introduced to female protagonists who had shown me I was not alone. Jamieson and Hale navigate the awkwardness, pettiness, and—yes—cruelty of middle school girls, at the same time delving into what it means to be on the outside looking in, craving acceptance, even at great expense.
Real Friends, which is actually Hale’s memoir of her own middle school years, addresses the mean-girls culture head on; the questions which arise, about why girls treat one another the way they do, continue through the story’s powerful Afterward. All’s Faire in Middle School (Jamieson’s previous was the Newberry Honor Book, Roller Girl) puts forth an especially clever construct to explore similar themes. Formerly home schooled, eleven-year-old Imogene is fumbling to gain acceptance into the social scene of her new public middle school, while at the same time balancing a close-knit family life revolving around her parents’ unconventional work at the local Renaissance Faire. Trying to be cool, while simultaneously “coming out” as a kid who dresses up in period costumes and holds Knight-in-Training classes on the weekends, comes with monumental challenges. Imogene makes realistic, even devastating, mistakes on the path to ultimately finding a way to stay true to herself. She also reminds us that if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll never survive middle school.
For the Geocacher
In The Exact Location of Home (Ages 9-12), Kate Messner does something sneaky. She has readers think they’re merely reading about a boy’s adventures with geocaching, while at the same time gently lifting the stigma of child homelessness. Messner tells us in the book’s front matter that more than two million children in America each year are homeless for a period of time. Most of these kids have to keep on with their life: doing homework, making friends, eating and sleeping in communal shelters, and—oftentimes—going to great lengths to keep their situation secreted.
Twelve-year-old Zig becomes, overnight, one of these kids. His parents are divorced; his dad has gone MIA and stopped paying child support (Zig is convinced he can use geocaching to find him); and his mother’s job waiting tables to support nursing school can’t cover the rent. After exhausting their options, Zig and his mother move into a shelter and share living space with the very likes of people Zig has always looked down upon. Zig is a whip-smart, incredibly earnest boy, whose complicated reactions to his predicament—spanning rage, resentment, and reconciliation—make us feel for him at every turn. His two best friends, both girls, are excellent additions to the story (there’s even a spot of romance), making this an engaging choice for boys and girls alike.
When it feels like middle-grade literature is increasingly pulling subject matter from the young-adult world, it’s refreshing to recommend a read that is light, fun, and promises pure escapism. Even better when that story conjures up mouth-watering descriptions of chocolate. I just finished reading Stephanie Burgis’ The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Ages 8-12) to my daughter, and we both agreed that an ornery, impatient, fire-breathing dragon trapped inside a human’s body is an apt metaphor for what it sometimes feels like to be female.
When the story begins, a young dragon named Aventurine runs away from her family’s cave, not content to bide her time indoors for thirty-plus more years until she reaches maturity. Almost immediately, she is lured by the smell of hot, bubbling chocolate, and a mischievous mage magicks her into a human. Without wings, claws, or fire—and unable to convince her family who she is—Aventurine must adapt to civilized life in the nearby town, including landing a job as an apprentice to one of the most talented, if hot-headed, chocolatiers in the area. Proving that feel-good stories need not be (marshmellowy) fluff, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart beautifully illustrates what it means to follow your passion. It also reassures us that, even in our budding independence, we never completely leave our family behind.
If the dazzling cover doesn’t immediately entice readers, or the fact that Tumble and Blue (Ages 10-14) is by the same author as the esteemed Circus Mirandus, consider this: a deep-South story stoked in legends, curses, and a vengeful alligator. There’s no shortage of bizarre happenings and delicious humor in Cassie Beasley’s coming-of-age story, starring both a boy and girl protagonist; but what may resonate above all with readers is the theme of what it means to live under the weight of a label—and the lengths we’ll go to get out from underneath the weight of how others perceive us.
Soon after Blue Montgomery gets dropped on his grandmother’s doorstop in the aptly-named town of Murky Branch, Georgia (population 339) by his neglectful father, he sets out to challenge what he has always been told: that he is incapable of winning at anything, be it sports or school. His encouragement comes in the unlikely form of Tumble Wilson, a meddlesome girl his same age, who moves in next door. That Tumble suffers from a hero complex—an indefatigable belief that she can save people—is over time revealed as an attempt to over-correct for a painful secret in her past. The spit-fire dialogue between Tumble and Blue is as fun as it is dear; and whether or not we buy into the swamp’s ancient legend, we’re as taken by surprise as our hero and heroine are when they confront their destinies head on.
In Holly Goldberg Sloan’s delightful Short (Ages 9-12), middle-schooler Julia’s witty, astute, and occasionally self-deprecating stream-of-consciousness narration grabs us right out of the gate; we couldn’t find a better companion with whom to spend the next 296 pages. Julia has long been conflicted about her size, which borders on dwarfism. But it also means she is a natural choice for munchkin and flying monkey parts in her community’s summer theater production of The Wizard of Oz, for which her mother signs her up before she can protest.
What begins as a giant exercise in mortification transforms into something else, as Julia is indoctrinated into the self-expressive world of theater, where life is more nuanced than appearances suggest. An especially rich cast of supportive characters—including a charming, if arrogant, director; three professional adult actors, who are themselves dwarfs and fiercely protective of Julia; and an eccentric elderly woman who lives next door to Julia and becomes the unlikeliest of costume designers—makes this a robust read, whose pages remind children that we all deserve to be seen for who we are on the inside.
Thinking back to when I loved nothing more than losing my tween self in a book, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea (Ages 10-14) would have had me swooning: an orphaned girl named Crow, a remote New England island, and dark intrigue surrounding the girl’s unknown origins. Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was my favorite middle-grade novel of 2016, though admittedly a difficult story to stomach (with the cruelest of bullies). Beyond the Bright Sea is softer and quieter, but no less powerful—and wow, does Wolk know her way around a sentence.
Twelve-year-old Crow was once discovered abandoned on a floating skiff, just hours after her birth. While she adores the reclusive painter who took her in and raised her like his own—and while she appreciates her island life of fresh air, fishing, and combing through wreckage from washed-up ships—she longs to understand the story of her birth. What begin as nagging questions in the back of her mind transform into a burning desire—much like the mysterious fire she spies on “the [nearby] island where no one ever went”—to risk everything she knows, everything safe, for the chance to fit the pieces of herself together. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, Wolk’s writing reveals and strips away, leaving us as breathlessly wanting answers as Crow herself.
Hands down, the best thing I did last month was to read The War That Saved My Life to my ten year old. (I grew impatient waiting for him to pick it up on his own—it has been laying around since I tagged it for my 2015 Gift Guide—so I decided to take matters into my own hands. Lo and behold: the skeptic loved every minute of it—and not just the air raids and rescue missions.) Now, we are halfway through Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s just-published sequel, The War I Finally Won (Ages 10-14), which opens just days after the previous book ends—and is so far every bit as magnificent.
Eleven-year-old Ada has long allowed her deformed foot and her abusive mother to inform the way she sees herself. Now that she has undergone corrective surgery and been officially adopted by the nurturing, if nontraditional, Susan, Ada dares to begin asking what she might want from and do for the world. Of course, life in England is exceedingly fraught, as Hitler’s army presses closer, as air raids become more devastating, and as the list of dead whom Ada knows grows longer. That Ada learns, not just to survive, but to thrive under such stress and sorrow is an inspiring message for our own children, who crave assurance that even in the most trying to times, there is always hope and kindness and community to be found.
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Review copies provided by Dial (All is Faire in Middle School, Tumble and Blue, Short, and The War I Finally Won) and Dutton (Beyond the Bright Sea). Other books published by First Second (Real Friends) and Bloomsbury (The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart). 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!
February 2, 2017 § 1 Comment
Robert Frost wrote, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Given the headlines of the past two weeks, it’s getting increasingly difficult to laugh at ourselves. Thankfully, we can turn to literature and art to restore our sanity.
When it comes to choosing reading (or television) material, my husband is fond of reminding me that he “only wants a laugh.” Such proclivity doesn’t exist in me. True to form, I began January by losing myself in Adam Haslett’s devastating (if devastatingly beautiful) novel, Imagine Me Gone, where at one point a manic-depressive father sits across from his recently teenaged son and laments silently, “If I ever had the care of his soul, I don’t anymore.” I couldn’t look at my own (rapidly-aging) children for the rest of the day without crying—much less handle reading the news—so I traded in that book for Tina Fey’s performance of Bossypants, which I listened to for the next two weeks in the car. Doubling over the steering wheel in convulsive laughter feels like more appropriate self-care for the times.
Interjecting giggles into our family life came more easily with John Patrick Green’s Hippopotamister (Thank you, Betsy Bird, for rounding up your favorite 2016 graphic novels). An entrée into the graphic novel format for newly independent readers (Ages 5-10), Hippopotamister juxtaposes simple panels with full-page illustrations—each one executed with pitch-perfect timing, laugh-out-loud silliness, and heartfelt emotion. (There are even “how to” drawing instructions for the main characters at the end, should anyone wish to try his hands at comics creation.) We read it thirty two times last month.
The book stars two animals who live at a city zoo which has fallen on hard times. The ticket counter is covered in cobwebs; the office is a mountain of abandoned paperwork; the habitats are dilapidated; and the residents sport mangy manes, lackluster teeth, and dampened spirits.
Take-charge Red Panda is the first to jump ship: “I’ve decided to leave the zoo and live amongst the humans,” he announces, claw in air. As he returns with salivating tales of the “outside world,” he quickly wins over his loyal pal, Hippo, although Red Panda suggests he change his name to Hippopotamister, so he will be taken more seriously by the humans. (Try finding a name that’s more fun to read aloud.) The two set off to find fame and fortune—or, at least, to land a job.
Author-illustrator Green is a whiz at letting his pictures reveal gags which his text does not. Observant readers discover that, for each job the duo attempts—construction worker, hair stylist, chef, banker, dentist, fire fighter, paleontologist, and so on—the prideful Red Panda fails spectacularly, while the modest Hippopotamister succeeds brilliantly.
Which is funnier—the epic fails or the unlikely successes—is hard to say when your kids are giggling their pants off.
One salon client loves his hippo-styled coiffure; another is horrified by her sudden resemblance to a red-and-black striped panda.
At an upscale trattoria, the Hippopasta Primavera (complete with “sprinkling of parmesan over sautéed onions”) looks mouth-watering, while the Antipasto A La Red Panda is an absurd assortment of insects, pebbles, lint, Red Vine licorice, and car keys. In my kids’ favorite scene (OK, mine), the restaurant is promptly shut down by the Board of Health for “serving rocks” and the two friends are sent packing.
Even more absurd, the two friends appear oblivious to the stark contrast in their on-the-job performance. That is, neither friend overtly acknowledges what is obvious to us: Hippopotamister could make a career in any of these professions, while Red Panda doesn’t seem suited for any of them (with one hilarious exception, but I won’t ruin that for you). Following each trial or audition, the two simply pick up and move on without looking back. Is the former hopelessly clueless while the latter stubbornly self-absorbed?
Or is there something else at work?
Here’s where my kids and I venture to suggest that there’s more to Green’s story than surface silliness: Hippopotamister isn’t about to embrace a job that would leave his best pal out in the cold. “Don’t worry, Red Panda! I know you can find us an even better job!” is Hippopotamister’s refrain of solidarity after each failure, followed by the latter’s insistence, “This [next job] is going to be the best job ever!” The two are a team, determined to succeed together or not at all.
This teamwork culminates in the delightful feel-good ending, where Hippopotamister returns to the zoo and puts each of his new skills to work restoring it to its former glory (See, kids, no job is ever a waste of time!). With joyful pride, Hippopotamister balances the books, styles the lion’s mane, makes gourmet meals to perk up the monkeys, and builds sturdy enclosures.
Even better, for all his newfound abilities, Hippopotamister recognizes a shortcoming which only Red Panda can fill: that of entertainer. Red Panda has a quirkiness which adults find maddening, but which kids (as evidenced by the way they hang all over him at the daycare stint) find irresistible. A diligent zookeeper with a magnetic head of Customer Relations? Now that’s a winning duo.
Red Panda and Hippopotamister’s antics are a welcome comedic break from the stresses of the real world. But they also remind us that if we keep on laughing through every failure and piece of bad news, we might keep our sanity intact long enough to succeed. What success looks like may not be clear, but so long as we’re willing to don different hats and surround ourselves with loyal friends, we’re bound to find out.
Other Laugh-Out-Loud Favorites from the Past:
Penguin Problems, by Lane Smith
Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, by Bob Shea & Lane Smith
Goodnight, Already! by Jory John & Benji Davies
A Visitor for Bear, by Bonny Becker & Kady MacDonald Denton
Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins
Dory Fantasmagory series, by Abby Hanlon
Arnie the Doughnut series, by Laurie Keller
Mr. Pants series, by Scott McCormick & R.H. Lazzell
Battle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, by R.A. Spratt & Dan Santat
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Book published by First Second, an imprint of Roaring Book 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!
September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
Tonight’s forecast includes freakishly strong winds, wild fluctuations in temperature, and all forms of precipitation. Power outages possible. Lightning probable. Children begging to hear one more bedtime story guaranteed.
What do you get when you cross real science with monsters?
Easily the most fun educational book about the weather.
There are few books I will purchase before opening them. Mathew McElligott’s Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster (Ages 6-9) was one. For starters, the kids and I became fans of this new series when the first book, Mad Scientist Academy: The Dinosaur Disaster, came out two summers ago (again, easily the most fun we’ve had learning about dinosaurs—and, in fact, the only fact-based dinosaur book that has ever captured my daughter’s attention).
Secondly, my eldest has long been weather obsessed, so those who live with him have no choice but to eat, sleep, and breathe weather factoids. In the presence of dark clouds, it is statistically impossible to have any other conversation with him.
Lastly, there is the subjective truth that nobody does monsters for young kids better than McElligott (one of his earliest books, Even Monsters Need Haircuts, continues to be read on a regular basis in our house, because we never get tired of one of the best surprise endings EVER). In McElligott’s pencil-clad hand, the Frankensteins, vampires, and werewolves of our collective conscience emerge, not as monstrous, but as gentle, funny, clever comrades. Albeit eccentric and occasionally sandwich-obsessed.
Here’s what you need to know about the Mad Scientist series: the overzealous green-faced scientist, Dr. Cosmic, runs a school for young monsters called Mad Scientist Academy, where he showcases his latest technological inventions designed to bring science—quite literally—to life. Before Dr. Cosmic’s creations are rolled out, the students get a crash course in the subject at hand, knowledge that proves valuable when disaster inevitably strikes.
McElligott hits on a sweet spot for today’s audience with both the content and format of this series. Not only does he pick scientific subjects for which his readers already have an enthusiastic interest, but he never talks down to his audience. He packs a surprisingly large amount of factual information into concise and engaging comics (I’m talking a gazillion times more aesthetically pleasing and less long-winded than The Magic School Bus series). The text and illustrations are brimming with levity and gags, whooshes and KABOOMS.
Perfect for reading aloud, yes, but also a reluctant reader’s paradise.
In The Weather Disaster, Dr. Cosmic arrives on the scene in his custom-designed Wearable Weather Balloon, which boasts, among other features (see blueprints on the book’s end papers): atmospheric data collection sensors, solar charging panels, and a pressure regulator valve.
Through Dr. Cosmic’s flight demonstration, the students are provided not only with the definition of words like meteorologist, atmosphere, and hygrometer, but also with the basics of how clouds and wind are formed. (My husband was overheard exclaiming in the other room, “Oh, so that’s how lightning is created!”)
The Sky Suit isn’t the only thing Dr. Cosmic is eager to show off to his students. He has been hard at work building something that he (prophetically) calls CHAOS, a Cooling/Heating Air Flow Operating System, which uses solar and turbine power to create the “perfect” temperature inside the school (gone are the days of sweaty locker rooms and drafty classrooms).
And yet, Dr. Cosmic steps away just as things are going awry. Vents in the same room are blowing different temperatures, the greenhouse is flooding, the swimming pool is buried under snow, and there are increasingly black clouds looming in the control room.
With Dr. Cosmic suddenly MIA, our young students are left to fend for themselves: to don their detective hats and make sense of what is happening, relying in large part on their recently acquired scientific knowledge.
As it turns out (Spoiler Alert!), the only viable solution is for the mad apprentices to create the perfect storm: to set the stage for a tornado that will blow the top off the building and provide for them a means of escape.
Did I not tell you we’d be in for some monstrous weather this evening?
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June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments
As a stay-at-home parent, I greet the arrival of summer with equal parts giddiness, relief, and dread. I know I will watch my children grow before my eyes more rapidly than during any other season. I know the front hall will be draped with wet towels, half-empty coolers, and bottles of sun block. I know we will picnic in beautiful places. I know my children’s boredom will give way to creative partnerships the likes of which I could never predict. I know there will be tears; there will be yelling; there will be hysterical laughter. I know the noise will drive me into the laundry room. I know there will be long sticky cuddles while reading together on the couch. I know there will be dance parties. I know my children will jump at every chance to stay up and catch fireflies. I know their eyes will close the second their heads hit the pillow—and that mine will follow close behind.
For any ambivalence I might have about summer’s arrival, my children have none. For them, summer is something to be greeted with unadulterated ecstasy—the skipping, jumping, eating ice cream, and wearing whatever they want kind. In this, they feel a kinship to a certain Greek god in Mordicai Gerstein’s wildly infectious new picture book, I am Pan! (Ages 5-10).
For any parent whose days of studying Greek mythology are buried under dust, allow me to give you a refresher. Pan—with his horns and hoofed feet—is the exuberant god of the wild. He is god of noise and confusion, of silliness and mischief. He is the originator of the word “panic,” speaker of exclamation marks, and lover of honey, fruit and flowers. In short, he is every child’s alter ego: the kid (well, kid at heart) who can get get away with anything, who can act up and out on every whim, and who somehow remains adorable through all of it. He is the Curious George of Mount Olympus.
Traditionally, Pan is associated with fertility and the season of spring, a connection briefly alluded to in the book’s final page. As far as my children are concerned, though, he should be the god of summer. He represents everything that summer break promises to them: the freedom to romp, frolic, and laze about to their hearts’ content.
As if the very notion of a god of noise wasn’t enticing enough, Mordicai Gerstein has given our children a visual and narrative rendition of Pan’s story that explodes and entertains at every turn. It’s not the serious treatment that Gerstein gave to his spectacular Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, but something closer in tone and style to his earlier summertime story, How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers. In I am Pan!, Gerstein outdoes himself: trading in typeset completely for hand lettering, presenting all dialogue in speech bubbles, and challenging the very boundaries of the picture book. Whether or not your kids already love comics and graphic novels; whether or not they already love (or even know anything about) Greek mythology: I guarantee that they are going to run to the highest hilltop and sing out their love for this book.
As Pan’s autobiography—yes, the entire book is narrated by the egocentric rascal—the book also serves as a fun and lighthearted introduction to Greek mythology. I mentioned a few posts ago that my eight year old is already well down the mythology path (he immediately hijacked this book until he had read it three times through); but most mythology texts are too dark or complex for my five year old. NOT THIS ONE. Gerstein reveals just the right amount of information about Pan’s fellow gods and goddesses, lends just the right amount of frivolity and hilarity to the family saga that is Mount Olympus. My daughter’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued. (As I’m typing this, she is home sick from school and literally wrangling the book away from me.)
In a jam packed, visually prolific 72 pages, Pan gives us eleven highlights of his life, beginning with his birth. Is it any surprise that, in lieu of a heartbeat, the midwife heard shouts, snickers, and giggles coming from his mother’s womb?
Hands down a favorite with both kids is the moment when Pan is introduced to Zeus, described on more than one occasion as exceedingly “grumpy.” Pan, still a baby (although it only takes him an hour and fifteen minutes to become fully grown), reaches out and bonks Zeus on the nose. To everyone’s surprise, Zeus is immediately smitten.
Eventually, though, Pan wears out his welcome with his extended family on Mount Olympus (“He delights my heart, but he’s a menace,” says Hera) and is sent to Arcadia to rule over grassy hills, idyllic waterfalls, and shepherds and nymphs.
In Arcadia, where Pan becomes master of his own domain, noisy drama and physical comedy reign. Pan plays a role in some of Greek mythology’s most entertaining stories, including serving as the catalyst for King Midas’ jackass ears, falling in love with an echo, and rescuing Zeus’ sinews from a monster even noisier than him. (I bet you never thought you could have so many bizarre conversations with your kids).
If myths were originally told to explain elements of our world, Pan’s stories are no exception: Pan crafts the first love song, is the inspiration behind the marathon, and—most famously—invents panic. For all his larger-than-life personality, Pan is a great lover of naps. When he initially arrives in Arcadia, he promises “laughing, singing, dancing, and all kinds of noise, celebration and gaiety”—but with one exception: nap time. When an ant interrupts Pan’s nap with a sneeze, Pan explodes, and the sound makes every living creature around him jump with panic. Pan quickly discovers that his ability to ignite panic is his greatest superpower—more effective than all the bows and arrows combined—and he later uses it to help the Greeks win against the Persians.
For all the trouble he stirs up, Pan is not a trouble maker at heart (the same may be said of Curious George). He is simply motivated by the egocentricity, jealousy, and desire that affect gods and humans alike. Ultimately, though, it’s his innocent and uninhibited gaiety that readers will remember long after the final page. Pan plays songs on his reed pipes that make “the birds dance with the clouds” and the “bunnies dance with the foxes.” He loves his family with a boisterous, almost suffocating kind of affection. He feels the joy of living in his bones and horns and hooves, and he simply cannot bear to keep it in.
Whether we’re ready or not, summer is nearly upon us. May your little Pans find endless channels for their own exuberance—and may you find moments of quiet in which to enjoy them.
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Review copy provided by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
My eight year old has been on a Greek mythology craze for the past six months. For years, he has been hearing references to mythology made in his mixed-ages classroom, has been seeing classmates walk in and out of school with related books tucked under their arms, has even been listening to one classmate proclaim the pomegranate seeds in her lunch to be the “fruit of the gods”—but he has never showed any genuine interest himself.
One night at bedtime, perusing his shelf for something his dad could read to him (I’m a bit territorial about letting my husband “butt in” on a chapter book that JP and I already have going), JP pulled out D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (Ages 7-12). At 192 oversized pages, this pencil-illustrated tome is still the ultimate foundation for children embarking on the endlessly fascinating myths created by the Ancient Greeks in their formation and understanding of Western civilization. Thence began for father and son a beautiful foray into the terrifically twisted realms of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, jealousy and betrayal, wars and loves, vanity and indifference. (Yes, I’m the one who has to butt out now.)
Then, for Easter, my husband gave JP the boxed set of George O’Connor’s astounding graphic novel series, Olympians (Ages 9-15), a deliciously dark, no-holds-barred approach to dramatizing the rises and falls of the different Greek gods. If you’ve harbored any doubts about the value of the rapidly-growing graphic novel genre, these books might singularly reform your thinking, as they did mine. They are not only tremendous visual feats, but they are wickedly smart. Still, my favorite thing about this series comes in the Afterwards to each book, where O’Connor explains his narrative choices and interpretations of the myths. Not only do our kids get a rare and compelling glimpse into the creative process, but they are themselves encouraged to ponder the complexity and ambiguity of the different myths.
Shhh, could that be the stirrings of literary criticism in our children?
As much as I want to safeguard this reading bond that my husband and son have created around mythology, I couldn’t resist a little one-off involvement of my own. Furthermore, with it still being National Poetry Month for another week, I wanted to let you and your own mythology lovers in on the latest picture book gem by Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse. Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths (Ages 7-12) is actually the third installment of “reverso poems” by this author-illustrator duo (the earlier Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow are centered on classic fairy tales), but it’s the first time that one of my kids has been old enough (or interested enough) to really sink his teeth into the delightful novelty of these poems.
What is a “reverso poem,” you ask? Something that only a poetic magician (or magical poet?) like Marilyn Singer could possibly construct. As Singer herself invented the form, it seems only fair to use her words to define it:
A reverso consists of two poems. You read the first poem top to bottom. Then, you read the poem again with the lines reversed, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and that second poem says something completely different.
Cool, huh? A poem that is designed to be read from top to bottom and bottom to top!
Since Echo Echo, Marilyn’s newest work, concerns itself with the Greek myths—and since most of these myths naturally pit two characters against one another (heroic Perseus slays the snake-headed Medusa; revengeful Athena turns the mortal Arachne into a spider)—each set of poems allows us to explore two different points of view. Sometimes the words of the poems are the words of the characters themselves; sometimes they come from a third party. But in every set of poems, we are reminded that there are two sides to every story.
The poem “Demeter and Persephone,” based on the heart-wrenching story of mother and daughter, originally devised by the Ancient Greeks to explain the four seasons, is one of the most poignant examples of the two opposing poetic voices at work. (While prior familiarity with the different myths featured in these pages will help the child reader get more out of the poems, Singer includes a brief synopsis of the relevant myth below each poem.) In this particular myth, Hades, god of the underworld (referred to as the “thief” below), kidnaps Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth’s bounty. In her despair, Demeter threatens to make all of the earth barren if her daughter is not returned to her. A deal is struck: Hades promises to return Persephone to Demeter for six months of the year (spring and summer representing her return), although Persephone must live among the dead with Hades for the other six months (fall and winter representing her descent).
We hear first from Demeter, beseeched with all the anger and resentment of a grieving mother determined to have her revenge. She addresses her only daughter:
I hate the thief.
Do not ask that
I forgive Hades.
will turn to
will leave this land cold and dark.
this mother’s lonely
I feel such
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
There will be
six months of grief
after so much joy and laughter.
Persephone, however, adopts more of a “glass is half full” attitude. She chooses to focuses on the happiness she will experience each spring when she is reunited with her mother.
So much joy and laughter
six months of grief.
There will be
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
I feel such
This mother’s lonely
will leave this land, cold and dark.
will turn to
I forgive Hades.
Do not ask that
I hate the thief.
With that second ending, is Persephone merely resigning herself to her fate, or is she opening the door to the possibility of loving Hades?
“Narcissus and Echo” is another favorite, based on the story of the vain young mortal, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in a pond (my kids think this is hysterical) and is turned by the gods into a flower—while Echo, the woman who loves him unrequitedly, is turned into a mournful echo. (Can we take a second to note how much great vocabulary comes out of reading Greek mythology?)
Here’s Narcissus, bent on being uninterrupted while basking in his own beauty:
I will forever be the
the most beautiful of youths—
a flower among men.
Then Echo, who plans to fight the good fight forever:
A flower among men!
The most beautiful of youths!
I will forever be the
All the poems in the book are enhanced by the Canadian artist Josée Masse’s seductive acrylic paintings, romantically infused with twilight blues and golden yellows. To be sure, Masse’s visual interpretation of the myths is much more whimsical (think “G-rated”) than George O’Connor’s, yet there is still plenty in these pages to mystify and transfix. In fact, my five-year-old daughter, who is too young for D’Aulaires Book (not to mention Olympians), has several times picked up Echo Echo on her own to page through the art. After she has looked at a picture for awhile, she’ll often ask me to read the synopsis of the myth below it—suggesting that this book might also serve as an introduction to Greek mythology for the younger set.
Masse’s art is rich with symbolism and plays with and subverts imagery in much the same way that the reverso poems themselves do. Each painting—furthering the idea of two points of view—is set up as two images, which either bleed into or oppose one another, always with a discernible divide down the middle. One of our favorites is the one that accompanies “Theseus and Ariadne,” a poem about Theseus’s attempt to navigate the Minos labyrinth and kill the half-bull-half-man Minotaur that lies within. The poem alludes to the ball of thread, which the king’s daughter, Ariadne, gives to Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze. On one side of Masse’s painting, the Minotaur’s dense, snorting body dominates the foreground; in the other, only the outline of the Minotaur remains, his head having dissolved into a labyrinth of thread, beside which Theseus stands armed. Visual poetry!
Or how about “Pandora and the Box,” the Greek’s version of Eve and the apple, where the first woman created by the gods opens a forbidden box and inadvertently releases evil into the world. Here, Meese has painted two figures of Pandora overlapping one another: one is bright and full of light and one is enveloped in a black shadow. And yet, interestingly, the box, which appears in both frames, is the inverse of the figures in whose hands it rests. Are we to consider that there is light to be found amidst evil and evil to be found in the most bucolic of scenes? For that matter, looking at the ghoulish green creations pouring from the box, what exactly is “evil”?
The Ancient Greeks developed their myths to make sense of the world unfolding around them. To make sense of why things are the way they are, why people are the way they are, and why it either matters much or matters not at all. Thousands of years later, we may not necessarily need these myths to help us navigate the seas and the stars—and yet, their characters and deeds continue to surface in literature, in art, in music, and in the language we speak. It’s not only exciting for our children to begin to make these connections, to identify a common thread throughout Western culture, but also to stand these myths on their heads and explore their every nuance. Only when we question the foundation below us, can we build something even stronger.
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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!