August 2, 2018 § Leave a comment
In my ongoing challenge to tempt my ten year old into inserting more literature into his self-chosen deluge of graphic novels, comics, and (understandably addictive) action-packed series by the likes of Dan Gutman, Stuart Gibbs, and Rick Riordan, I announced at the beginning of the summer that I would read Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, aloud to him. He seemed generally unenthused with this proclamation (“Is this going to be a slow book?” he asked over furrowed brows, after he gleaned from the inside flap that there would be no spies, time travel, or epic battle scenes); but I was undeterred. You see, I’m not just used to this reaction. I’m also used to how well my plan works.
We weren’t but four nights in when the predictable happened: “Mommy, sorry to tell you this, but I actually read ahead last night after you left. And it gets really good. I kinda want to just read it on my own now.” And then I got to watch, delighted, as he carried the book everywhere for the next few days, reading it with the same gusto normally reserved for mythological monsters.
The best stand-alone novels do what most plot-driven series don’t even attempt: they allow the characters themselves—in all their glorious, complex humanity—to take center stage. More and more studies are linking reading literature to developing empathy, precisely because these rich character studies allow our child readers to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. When we inhabit, however briefly, the life of someone who looks or sounds different than us, who has a different background or orientation or set of circumstances, then it is that much harder to sit in silent (or not-so-silent) judgment when we meet someone similar in real life.
Reading realistic fiction shows our children that there is often a great deal more to people than meets the eye.
Of course, no highfalutin discussions about empathy are going to convince my ten year old to read more novels—hence, why I sometimes resort to sneaky tactics. That said, these sneaky tactics would never stand a chance if it weren’t for novels like The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14) and Kelly Yang’s equally spectacular Front Desk (Ages 10-14), both of which put their protagonists in super stressful, downright near impossible predicaments, and then let us watch them problem-solve their way out. JP might be developing empathy around learning differences and mental health conditions (Lightning Girl) and immigrant experiences (Front Desk), but all he cares about it is that these protagonists are as fascinating as they are unfamiliar.
Lucy Callahan, the twelve-year-old protagonist of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14), has not been to traditional school since she was struck by lightning four years ago in a freak accident and developed acquired savant syndrome. She is now in possession of a “supercomputer brain,” capable of solving math operations instantaneously. And not only school math. Give her a date, and she’ll instantly rattle off what day of the week it falls on. Tell her your birthday, and she’ll instantly tell you your age, right down to the second. She also has synesthesia, meaning she sees numbers as different colors.
My son, being a math enthusiast, figured this was just about the coolest thing that could happen to a person…until he read on. Just because you can solve a math problem in a few seconds doesn’t mean the rest of middle school is as easily calculated. Still, Lucy’s grandmother, her sole caretaker, insists that Lucy give public middle school a try.
At the top of the list of problems whose solutions are not readily apparent to Lucy is her obsessive-compulsive disorder, a side effect of her lightning-damaged brain and the main reason she would prefer to pass her days in the germ-controlled, non-judgmental security of her bedroom, with a chat room of Internet math geeks as her only companions. How does a girl, suddenly forced to go to traditional school, explain to her classmates why she has to sit and stand exactly three times before settling into her desk at school? Or why she whips out Clorax wipes to sanitize her desk, her bus seat, and her classroom’s doorknobs?
Lucy may not be able to hide her OCD—for which she faces no shortage of teasing—but she decides she can hide the other thing that sets her apart: her genius brain. Fearful of being seen as any more of a “freak” than she already is, Lucy figures out exactly how many math problems she needs to get wrong on her weekly quizzes to fly just below the radar. She even begins to make friends. But what happens when we become liked or accepted for someone we aren’t? What are the trade-offs when we deny the very part of us that makes us special?
Ironically, Lucy gets closer to answering these weighty questions when she solves a more concrete problem, one she initially has little interest in solving at all. Paired with two classmates for a mandatory community service project, Lucy finds herself dragged into the pinnacle of germ-infested places—an animal shelter—where her peers are bent on helping more dogs find long-term homes before they are turned over to the city to be euthanized. Lucy, it turns out, is just the Lightning Girl to calculate the statistical probability for each dog’s adoption, before turning the results into social media campaigns to help the dogs that need an extra nudge. While applying her amazing brain power to the data, Lucy inadvertently stumbles upon one of life’s most gratifying conundrums: How does helping others to solve their problems actually serve to liberate our own?
Helping others becomes a self-affirming drive of ten-year-old Mia Tang as well, a girl with a seemingly endless list of problems to solve and the protagonist of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk (Ages 10-14). Mia’s family runs a motel in southern California, and Mia—when she’s not at school—gets to man the front desk. If having the run of an inn, which includes a pool and a tip jar, sounds like a pretty awesome gig for a pre-teen…read on. For one, Mia and her family are forbidden to use the pool. Or to have their own rooms (her parents sleep on the couch in the lobby). Or even to receive the full wages promised to them when they took the job.
Mia and her family are immigrants, based closely on Yang’s own family, who came to the United States from China in the 1980s as part of the most educated and skilled class of Chinese immigrants, only to find themselves reduced to menial jobs and a median yearly income of $8,000 (kudos to the fascinating Author’s Note at the book’s end). Why doesn’t Mia participate in gym class? She can’t risk injury, because her family doesn’t have health insurance. Why does she pocket her hamburger at school? To bring it back to her uncle, so he doesn’t have to dumpster-dive after his shift at the burger joint. As I witnessed Mia and her family trying to assimilate into American culture, while simultaneously making ends meet and harboring fellow immigrants, I could not stop thinking, My son has got to read this book. Everyone has got to read this book.
Fortunately, my son needed little coaxing on this one, owing to the novel’s fast pace and frequent brushes with police, loan sharks, and attempted assault. Still, Yang has done a commendable job of introducing young readers to an often grim reality through the eyes of a heroine who is anything but grim. Mia may not have the brain of a math genius, but she is exactly the energetic, resourceful, and kind problem-solver her family needs her to be. She not only looks for ways to improve the motel’s customer service, but she sets her sights on helping her community at large. Some of these challenges are easier than others. How do you wash hundreds of towels when the washing machine breaks? Throw ‘em in the bathtub, turn on the water, and start stomping. How do you help your family out of poverty? Enter an essay contest. How do you expose racial bias among the police force? Attempt to solve the whodunit yourself.
And yet, as with Lightning Girl, some problems confound even Mia, especially when they are influenced by layers of cultural bias. Why does it matter what brand of blue jeans she wears at school—or even that she wear blue jeans at all (instead of the pack-of-three floral pants that her mom sends her to school wearing)? Is the motel’s morally-bankrupt owner, the son of whom turns out to be Mia’s classmate, really as cruel as he seems? And when their relatives back in China report that they are all getting rich, why does Mia’s family refuse to leave America and go home?
If growing up is learning which problems you can solve, which are bigger than you, and which are better left unsolved, then The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and Front Desk aren’t just entertainment. They can be read as how-to manuals for navigating the messiness, the cruelty, and the injustices that life sometimes deals. These stories give us bold, intelligent, complex girls as companions on this journey, and they remind us to look beyond the surface when we meet someone who seems nothing like us.
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Books published by Random House and Scholastic, respectively. Review copies purchased by me! 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!
May 17, 2018 § 8 Comments
Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.
And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.
Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.
Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.
The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.
“I was homesick!”
Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.
When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?
There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.
Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.
Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”
We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”
Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”
Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”
“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)
“That’s it exactly!”
As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).
The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.
Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.
Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.
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Review copy provided by Dial Books for Young Readers. 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!
April 26, 2018 § 4 Comments
It’s true. I’ve waited four months into 2018 to tell you about my favorite book from 2017. Why didn’t I include this title in last year’s Holiday Gift Guide? Well, two reasons. First, Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Ages 5-9) is not really a “gift-y” book: its subdued cover doesn’t exactly scream READ ME, and its content is not high on the list of what kids think they want to read about. This is a quiet book. A gentle book. A tiny window into one immigrant family’s experience, and the kind of story where what’s not said is equally as important as what is. But oh…this book.
Which brings me to my second reason. This is a book that needs time to percolate with our children. As a parent, I loved it from the second I began it, and I also recognized how topical it was (Kirkus Reviews called it “a must-read for our times,” and it was just awarded a Caldecott Honor, so the Powers That Be clearly agree). I couldn’t wait to share it with my kids. And then, the experience was…anti-climactic. We read it once through, and my children liked it fine—they smiled, they nodded—but that was all. I put it back in our “new books” basket, where it sat untouched for months. I couldn’t in all fairness write about a story that didn’t have the same impact on my children as it had on me.
Herein lies the power of owning select books, of not having to return them to the library after a few weeks. Last week, five months after we first read A Different Pond together, I found my daughter on the couch with it. I watched from a distance. She read it to herself. Twice. I finally approached.
“How’s the book?” I asked.
“Can I read it to you?” she responded. For my daughter, there is no greater sign of engagement than when she volunteers information about a story she’s reading—or, better yet, reads it aloud to me.
I sat and listened. As an intimate read aloud, A Different Pond is perfection: Bao Phi writes clearly, yet poetically; and Thi Bui—her last book was a graphic novel—propels the story forward through visually striking panels which evoke a breadth of emotion. But the best part: along the way, my daughter stopped to point out things, especially things half-visible in the background. She asked me questions. She began to draw conclusions.
This, my fellow book-loving parents, is the magic of a quiet book.
A Different Pond tells the story of a single early-morning fishing trip undertaken by a boy and his father, an event both routine and yet rich in emotional subtext. The story, told in the boy’s voice, comes out of Bao Phi’s own childhood, growing up with Vietnamese parents who were forced to flee to Minnesota as refugees from the war in 1975, when Phi was just a baby. That the time and place specifics are not spelled out until the Afterward lends the story universality; but illustrator Thi Bui also does a brilliant job of giving us atmospheric hints along the way, from the calendar on the kitchen wall (which reads 1982), to the bell-bottom jeans, to the distinctly ‘70s palette of mustard yellows and muddy browns.
What feels distinctive about A Different Pond, amidst the growing number of children’s picture books attempting to capture the “immigrant experience,” is its very, very narrow focus. We spend only a few hours with this father and son, beginning with their departure before dawn for the bait store and ending with their return home at sun up. And yet, what we learn in these few hours is bountiful and deep, like the pond itself. We learn that the boy’s father, when he speaks English, sounds to some “like a thick, dirty river,” but to the boy sounds like “gentle rain.” We learn that this early-morning outing is even earlier than usual, as the father explains to the tack shop owner that he “got a second job” and needs to get to work by breakfast time.
In fact, as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that these fishing trip are not purely or even mostly recreational. They arise from the necessity to eat—and the stark reality that even working two jobs does not bring in enough money for this basic need (“Everything in America costs a lot of money,” the father tells his son). When the father and son climb, hand in hand, over the highway divider and through the dark brush to the edge of the pond, a careful observer will catch the sign visible in the corner of the page: NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT. “See that, Mommy?” my daughter whispered. “I think this is why they have to do it in the dark.”
There is nothing glamorous about fishing off the highway for necessity—and yet, the experience is ripe for connection. (Anyone else having flashbacks of our beloved Danny, Champion of the World?) These impressionable mornings are forming the boy’s view of the world, himself, and his familial roots. The boy tells us about the different people, also fishing, whom they sometimes meet: a “Hmong man…who speaks English like my dad and likes to tell funny jokes”; and a “black man…[who] shows me his colorful lure collection.” The boy connects to his body and to the natural world, rubbing his hands in the cold and looking up “to see faint stars like freckles.” Most significantly, the boy begins to piece together the puzzle that is his taciturn father, their bonding playing out in the smallest of moments. A reassuring squeeze from the father’s calloused hands. The gentle way the father prompts the boy to build a fire. The rising energy in the father’s demeanor, until he bursts out laughing at the “funny face” the boy makes trying to guide a freshly-caught fish into the bucket.
The boy is particularly curious about his father’s former life in Vietnam and the events which led him to move his family across the ocean. But he knows he must wait for an opening and choose his questions sparingly. While the two sit at the pond’s edge, waiting on fish and eating bologna sandwiches, the father offers up a golden nugget: “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam,” he tells his son. The boy asks if his father’s brother was there, too. We learn, gently, that the father lost his brother while fighting side by side in the War. A bite on the line interrupts this conversation, but the seed has been planted. Later, as the two make their way back to the car, the boy wonders “what the trees look like at that other pond, in the country my dad comes from.”
This may be a story about sacrifices, big and small, about one Vietnamese American refugee family who left behind one life to start a new one with next to nothing, but it is also a story about moving out of darkness and into light. What Thi Bui—herself a Vietnamese American immigrant—has done with her illustrations is extraordinary. I have never before seen light—in its multitude of forms—portrayed so tangibly in a single picture book. We have the progression of natural light, from the twilight cast by the stars and moon to the “blue and gray light” of early sun rise, notably stopping before the golden sunshine we expect. We have a range of artificial light: the bare bulb illuminating the linoleum floor of the family’s kitchen; the bold streetlight on the dark street outside the tack shop; the fluorescent light of the carpeted hallway outside the door to the family’s apartment. If not stark, these lights are also not warm, as poverty is often characterized by such unfiltered, unforgiving light.
There is no triumphant sunrise here, just as there is no conventionally happy ending. The story will continue to unfold long after we close the book, and we can guess there will be many more early-morning fishing trips. But, as the sun fills the boy’s apartment on his return home, the light becomes undeniably softer, yellower. As the boy anticipates his family gathering around the table to enjoy the fish that night for dinner (“Dad will nod and smile and eat with his eyes half closed.”), we also see more diffused light. Finally, as the boy falls asleep, dreaming “of fish in faraway ponds,” his sleeping face becomes the light source itself. It’s as if he is lit from within, comforted and warmed by the love he feels in the everyday actions of his family—particularly, in his bond with his father.
As we move from darkness into light in this story, I also wonder if we are meant to think about the optimism and hope represented by the next generation, by those children on whose behalf immigrant parents make these sacrifices. There is nothing that looks or sounds easy about the life this family is leading; and yet, they clearly lead with conviction, hard work, and love for one another. We alongside our child readers may feel humbled to realize that this quiet stoicism continues to unfold today in immigrant and refugee experiences around us.
That is the power of sitting with a book for awhile.
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Review copy provided by Capstone. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
December 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
These are some of the questions posed quietly but provocatively in Wishtree (Ages 7-12), the latest chapter book by Katherine Applegate, award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw (yes, you will cry in this new one, too). In today’s installment of my Gift Guide, I’m giving Wishtree its own due—deliberately not bundling it in my forthcoming post on middle-grade reads—because it lends itself so beautifully, so ardently, to sharing aloud. (Said differently: it’s not action-packed, so if your children are like mine, they may not pick it up on their own.) At just over 200 pages, with 51 short chapters, it’s not a long or difficult read. But its smaller-than-usual trim size gives it immediate intimacy, and the discussions it encourages—about what we want our community to look like and what we’re prepared to do about it—may just make change agents of us all.
Unconventionally, Wishtree is narrated by a tree. An enormous 216-year old red oak tree, who goes by the name Red. If you thought trees couldn’t talk, that’s because you haven’t been listening. (Trees have a rather complicated relationship with people, after all. One minute you’re hugging us. The next minute you’re turning us into tables and tongue depressors.) But it’s also because trees, like animals, abide by a central governing rule to talk out of human earshot (a frog once broke this rule and talked to a mail carrier, and it did not go well).
But don’t be fooled: trees see everything.
With age and size on her side, Red is perfectly situated to reflect on the changing community around her, not only the litany of animals that reside in her branches and hollows, but also the row of (human dwelling) townhouses she shelters. She is a self-proclaimed busy body (a “buttinski,” as her best friend, the mischievous crow Bongo, teases her); a lover of terrible puns; and, above all, an optimist. She is also a wishtree, which means that once a year, on May Day, people of all ages come from near and far to affix to her branches pieces of paper and scraps of fabric bearing single wishes (everything from “flying skateboards” to “I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes”). Wishtrees, incidentally, are not fictional: a dear friend has one on her vineyard in Sonoma, and my children long to visit and tie on their wishes.
Red presides over a community long populated with immigrant American families. Francesca, the owner of the plot on which Red herself sits, is the great-great-granddaughter of an Irish immigrant, whose cures for the sick meant people would leave small thank-you gifts for her in the oak’s hollows. Francesca has since rented out her townhouse—most recently, to a Muslim-American family with a school-aged daughter named Samar. It is presumably to this family that the anonymous, chilling, hand-carved message, which appears one morning on Red’s trunk, is directed: LEAVE.
People are under the impression that trees don’t mind being carved into, especially if hearts are involved.
For the record, we mind.
I’d never seen the boy before. He was big, maybe a high schooler. It’s hard to know with people. With a tree, I can sense to the month, sometimes to the day, its age.
I couldn’t tell what he was carving, of course. But I could tell from the determined way he moved that it was meant to hurt.
As is often the case, this single purposeful deed sets into motion a chain of events much wider than its intended recipient. For starters, Francesca, the property owner, who admits to “lack[ing] a sentimental bone in my body,” decides time is long overdue to take down Red. The oak’s roots are destroying the walkways, the clean-up every year following Wishing Day is immense, and now the tree appears to be Ground Zero for xenophobia. But would chain sawing Red to the ground erase the intention behind that single loaded word? Certainly, it would destroy one of the most beautiful slices of nature for miles. It would obliterate a centuries-old tradition designed to nurture hope among neighbors. Say nothing of the skunk, opossum, and raccoon families who have long managed—against all odds—to co-exist peacefully under Red’s matronly protection.
In light of her pending execution (via Timber Terminators corporation), Red decides to overstep her place in the natural order of things and try herself to grant one of the wishes on her tree. She wants to meddle, but only “to make a difference, just a little difference, before I left this lovely world.”
In the short time they have known one another, Red has taken a special interest in the quiet new resident Samar, whose own wish hanging on the tree reads “I wish for a friend.” The family living next door to Samar has a boy in Samar’s class, and Red has often caught him sneaking shy glances at his new neighbor, despite his parents making it clear that the two families will never fraternize. With the help of her animal friends, Red stages a plan—comically misguided at times, but admittedly well-intentioned—to kindle a friendship between Samar and Stephen. Along the way, new questions arise: what is friendship? How does it begin? How much power can one friendship have?
And then, as her plan threatens to fail, Red steps up her game. She speaks up. She SPEAKS.
Let me say it like this. Before I even got my hands on this book, my daughter was listening to it read aloud by her teachers, a few chapters every day. I was enjoying hearing her updates at dinner (always the sign of a winning book when she can’t stop talking about it). At pick-up one day, she jumped into the car with dramatic flourish; apparently, she wasn’t going to wait until dinner. “Mom, the tree TALKED. She BROKE THE RULE. The Don’t Talk to People RULE!” Her response was part horror, part fascination.
(Up to this point, my daughter’s favorite part of the story had been Applegate’s delightfully imagined rules governing the Natural World. There’s the trees-don’t-talk-to-humans rule. But there are plentiful others, including how trees and animals name themselves. All opossums, for example, adopt the names of things that frighten them, like Hairy Spiders and Flashlight. Skunks are named after pleasant smells (“I am not sure if this is because they’re a bit defensive about their reputation, or if they just have a sly sense of humor,” says Red); while raccoons—my son found this especially funny—are all named You, because it’s easier for their mothers to remember.)
So, yes, Red breaks what she calls, “the biggie.” She comes right out and addresses (a very shocked) Stephen and Samar, as they sit beneath her one night, and she tells them the story of the very first wish tied onto her branches. It’s a wish that came true, that set into motion a diverse, loving community, now threatened by closed doors, narrow mindedness, and even hate.
Red immediately regrets her transgression and chides herself for overstepping. But, like the hateful deed that started it all, this one too has repercussions which stretch far beyond. Only this time, to drastically different ends.
You thought I was going to tell you what happens? Bah. In the words of one wise tree:
After two hundred and sixteen rings, I thought I’d seen it all.
Turns out you’re never too old to be surprised.
Reading this story, your children might chuckle their way through the various animals’ names. They might wonder at the banter between a tree and a crow. They might relate to Samar and Stephen and take another look at a new student or neighbor in their own neck of the woods. They might think up wishes of their own. But, with any luck, they’ll also be internalizing what happens when someone isn’t afraid to speak up—and when their voice inspires a whole lot of other people to do the same.
This is how we wish the communities of our dreams into reality.
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Book published by Macmillan. 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!
November 9, 2017 § 3 Comments
My son and my mother were leaning out over the Hudson River, craning to see the iconic green statue, on our recent trip to New York City to visit Grandma.
My mom looked up, confused. “They’re relocating the Statue of Liberty?”
“No,” JP said. “The statue is supposed to look like it’s moving. Her right foot is lifted like she’s taking a step. Most people don’t know that.”
In fact, this is my son’s (also my) favorite new fact to drop on people. Perhaps not quite as shocking as relaying that if all the sharks died, the oceans would eventually dry up—but pretty darn close. Because who stops on his way to gaze up at Lady Liberty’s seven-pointed crown and her iconic raised torch to look down at her heels?
We can thank literary wunderkind Dave Eggers for shedding light on this fascinating detail—and for authoring a 108-page children’s picture book that reads so quickly, so fluidly, and so hilariously, that we hardly realize we’re learning about the enduring symbolism behind the largest sculpture “in all the land.” This is a whole new interpretation of narrative non-fiction, and I love it. I can’t remember the last time a non-fiction book showed up on our doorstep and both kids promptly read the entire thing, cover to cover, to themselves, in one sitting. (Although the book is such a read-aloud delight I couldn’t resist reading it to them a few more times.)
Her Right Foot (Ages 6-12) assumes a conversational approach meant to surprise as much as delight, and artist Shawn Harris’ bold and contemporary paper collages brushed with India Ink perfectly complement Eggers’ signature irreverence. The book assumes the reader comes with a basic familiarity of the Statue of Liberty, including perhaps some mistaken assumptions.
I’ll admit to being as astounded as my children. Did you know that the most recognized symbol of immigration in the world was herself an immigrant? As the book explains in its opening pages, the Statue of Liberty was not only designed in France as a gift to the United States on its one hundredth anniversary, but it was originally assembled to completion in Paris.
But it’s so much more fun when Eggers tells it:
Did you know this? Ask your friends and even your teachers if they knew that before the Statue of Liberty was assembled in New York, she was first constructed in Paris. Your friends and teachers will be astounded. They will be impressed. They might think you are fibbing.
But you are not fibbing. This really happened. The Statue of Liberty stood there, high above Paris, for almost a year, in 1884.
After they assembled the statue in Paris, they took it apart.
But we just put it together! the workers said.
That is absurd, they said.
They said all this in French, the language of the French, a people who appreciate the absurd.
In other words, the Statue of Liberty once sailed across the sea to come to rest in America (in 214 crates, to be exact), much like the immigrants she welcomes every day.
Eggers goes on to discuss the Statue’s assembling on what was then Bedloe’s Island, across from New York’s bustling harbor. My kids were especially interested to discover that the statue originally looked brown. Or perhaps they were especially interested in how Eggers chooses to explain this to his young readers: You may have thought the illustrator of this book was not so good at his job, because we all know the Statue of Liberty to be a certain greenish-blue. But the Statue of Liberty was made of copper, and copper starts out brown. In fact, it stayed brown for 35 years.
More of the Statue’s symbolism is unpacked, from her seven-pointed crown (seven seas, seven continents) to the book she holds with the signing date of the Declaration of Independence. Readers might already know that the torch she carries “is a symbol of enlightenment, lighting the path to liberty and freedom,” but it’s unlikely any child knows that Thomas Edison once proposed to put a giant record player inside the Lady so she could speak. (In the end, though, this idea was considered a bit strange and was not pursued.) Or that a dinner party once took place inside the statue for a bunch of gourmand French writers.
All this spans the book’s first half and is a compelling build up to Eggers’ central and favorite revelation, something he noticed when visiting the Statue with his family a few years ago. The Statue of Liberty, as it turns out, is anything but statuesque. This 150-foot woman, weighing 450,000 pounds and sporting a 879 size shoe, is on the move. Her entire right leg is constructed mid-stride, her foot lifting out of bondage chains which lie broken at her feet. Why is this detail omitted in so many lessons and books about the Statue of Liberty? More importantly, Eggers asks, what does it mean?
Where is she going?
After some tongue-and-cheek responses which perhaps have more hipster than kid appeal (Is she going to the West Village for her vintage Nico records?), Eggers settles into a gentle but deeply moving 17-page meditation on what it means to honor the journey of immigrants and refugees. On what it means to welcome Italians, Polish, Norwegians, Glaswegians, Cambodians, Estonians, Somalis, Nepalis, Syrians, and Liberians.
On what it means to give promise to “the poor, the tired, the struggling to breathe free.”
If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, if the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States, then how can she stand still?
Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of a statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest.
She is not content to wait.
She must meet them in the sea.
We don’t know for sure why the Statue’s foot is raised or what the artist intended. But Eggers’ theory hits all the right notes—and is as timely as ever. Our Lady Liberty is a mover, a shaker, and an empathizer.
In last night’s election results here in Virginia, a refreshing picture of inclusion emerged. Among other firsts for positions in our state government were an openly transgender female, an Asian-American woman, and two Latina delegates. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first-ever Sikh mayor. I am hopeful for the first time in many months that Americans are moving towards embracing a vision of patriotism based on the melting pot out of which our country’s greatness will emerge.
But, as Lady Liberty herself reminds us, there is always more to be done. More steps to take.
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Review copy provided 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!
July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.
I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.
(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)
In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)
In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.
If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.
A bit of the magic had followed us home.
In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.
The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.
One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).
“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.
In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.
Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.
“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.
It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.
What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.
The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.
DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.
Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.
Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.
Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice
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Review copy by Viking, PenguinYoungReaders Group. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!