December 9, 2018 § 1 Comment
I wasn’t initially going to include Alyssa Hollingsworth’s immensely moving debut novel, The Eleventh Trade (Ages 11-14), in my Gift Guide, because it has some preeeeettttyyyy heavy flashback scenes. In other words, it’s not all Ho Ho Ho. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop recommending it to my son and to some of his friends during carpool (a few who have just devoured Nowhere Boy, which tackles a similar subject). And then it hit me: this story is actually very much in the spirit of the holidays. It is about giving. It is about going to great lengths, making great sacrifices, in order to give someone you love something he desperately misses. And it is about what happens when you pour yourself into the act of giving. How the act itself becomes a gift—for both of you.
Sami and his grandfather are new to America, having arrived in Boston after years spent in refugee camps in Iran, Greece and Turkey, where they landed after fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s attack on their family. All they have left of their family and their life in Afghanistan—a place with “beautiful mountains and blue skies and more stars than you can see anywhere on this side of the world”—is a traditional Afghan instrument called a rebab. The instrument, part of the guitar family, is the only household item the two were able to salvage in the aftermath of the bombing, an instrument which the grandfather had used to make a famed and prosperous living in Afghanistan. Once in Boston, Sami begins middle school, while his grandfather plays the rebab in the subway station, scraping together the coins and dollars people throw his way to start a new life for his grandson.
And then, in the early pages of the book, the rebab is stolen. Swiped by a teenager who pawns it. Sami’s grandfather is defeated—his only choice now is to take a job in the kitchen of a restaurant—but it’s Sami who feels his grandfather’s pain most acutely. “We lost so much when we fled Afghanistan. Sometimes I think the only thing that kept us from breaking was the rebab. It was our heart and our past, but it was also a promise. It was our hope.” Watching his grandfather “waste his hands on dirty dishes,” especially knowing it was his own carelessness that led to the stealing, propels Sami into action. He needs to get the rebab back.
With help from a classmate, who in return convinces Sami to join his soccer team, Sami traces the rebab to a local music store, where it’s on sale for a staggering $700. Sami doesn’t have a penny to his name: he and his grandfather sleep on mattresses on the floor in a single-room apartment, and it’s rare that they can afford a soda. The only possession Sami can call his own is a Manchester United key chain, which his grandfather once gifted him. When another kid at school remarks on the key chain, Sami gets an idea.
What if he can trade his beloved key chain for something else? And what if he can trade that something for something else? Could he get to $700 on trading alone? So begins a wild goose chase, one which pushes Sami outside his comfort zone, challenging his English and forcing him into contact with people he might otherwise never have the gumption to approach. Along the way, Sami inadvertently begins to build a support network in America. He begins to put words to the horrors of his past, releasing himself for this first time from his memories’ strangulation. He begins to play soccer with wild abandon and reap the effects of true friendship. All the time, he never takes his eyes off his goal of returning the rebab to its rightful owner. All the time, he keeps his actions a secret from his grandfather, hoping the ends justify the means.
If The Eleventh Trade is about giving, about turning nothing into something, it’s also about what the act of giving does to ourselves. How it changes us; how it makes us see power within ourselves. How it connects us to our loved ones and to our community in vital ways. How, in many ways, the act itself becomes more meaningful than the gift.
Published by 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!
December 3, 2018 § 2 Comments
Elementary children may know that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. But do they know that Lincoln was almost assassinated by angry secessionists four years earlier, on his way to his own inauguration? That, if successful, the attack would have prevented Lincoln from becoming president and uniting the country? How about that he was saved by Allan Pinkerton, a self-made private detective who went on to inspire the creation of the Secret Service?
Um, I sure didn’t.
The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln (Ages 7-10) is as cinematic as picture books get. It keeps us on the edge of our seats, thanks to Marissa Moss’ suspenseful narration, and invites us to hone our own detective eye, thanks to Jeremy Holmes’ striking scratchboard art, dramatically rendered in deep pinks and purples against a jet-black sky. Both of my kids went nuts over this book.
To help us fully appreciate what Pinkerton pulled off, the first several spreads of this impressive 47-page story are devoted to his quirky background. Allan Pinkerton got into the detective business entirely by accident. He was born into abject poverty in Scotland and became so outspoken about social justice that he landed on one of Britain’s “most wanted” lists and ended up fleeing (inside a barrel aboard a ship) to America.
Once in Chicago, Pinkerton (clearly going with the do-what-you-know advice) started a successful barrel business, until one day his search for lumber took him to a tiny uninhabited island, where he got side-tracked by suspicious signs of illegal counterfeiting behavior. After spying on the island for multiple nights, Pinkerton reported a band of counterfeiters to the authorities. The Chicago police were so impressed, they hired him as a full-time detective. Eventually, Pinkerton founded his own private eye agency.
Pinkerton published a manual on how to be a detective, and many of these tenets—from disguises and diversions to coded messages and disguised packages—came into play when he first identified and then thwarted the assassination attempt on Lincoln. Of course, half the fun of the book is spotting all of this sleuthing, especially the ones gleaned only from the beguiling art.
Much of The Eye That Never Sleeps takes place on or around trains, which only heightens the close quarters and time sensitivity under which Pinkerton had to work. For starters, Pinkerton learned of the ambush plot on Lincoln while on an assignment to protect the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad from sabotage by secessionists. Secondly, the eight men who were plotting to take collective shots at the President-elect were planning to do so when Lincoln had to change train stations in Baltimore during his inaugural procession. Thirdly, in order to inform Lincoln of the plot on his life and convince him to take it seriously, Pinkerton (previously unknown to Lincoln) had to sneak into Lincoln’s train car to get an audience with him.
Finally, in an attempt to throw off the public, Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to take to a different, more circuitous route to his inauguration than his staff. His trademark stovepipe hat went with the latter group.
As readers, we get a front row to the 30 pages of history that follow, to the fascinating twists and turns, near misses, and breathless escapes. That our own heart rate goes up seems especially impressive, given that we already know the favorable outcome.
It’s difficult to say which is more astounding: the complex sleuthing by which Pinkerton saved our president, or the fact that most of us have never heard this story. But one thing’s for sure: all the credit goes to a man (ahem, immigrant) who honed his powers of observation into an amazing act of patriotism. Which begs the question, what will our own little sleuths do someday?
Book published by Abrams. 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 1, 2018 § 6 Comments
Our family doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, and I’m by no means an authority on Jewish children’s literature (I recommend this excellent source). That said, I could be considered something of an authority on Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, published in the 1950s and featuring a Jewish immigrant family with five daughters living in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. As a child, I could not get enough of these books. As a parent, I listened to all of them in the car with my kids and…yup, just as wonderful.
If you heard a squeal echoing across the universe over Thanksgiving break, it was because I wandered into Books of Wonder in New York and discovered there is a now a picture book based on Taylor’s classic chapter books. Written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (both of whom will forever have my heart because of these), All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah (Ages 3-7) does the seemingly impossible: it perfectly channels the old-fashioned warmth of the original books, then adds visuals so fitting, they may well have been there all along. It’s like going to see the movie of a favorite book and having it match exactly what’s in your head.
The five sisters—Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie—range in age from twelve to four; and no finer example of sibling affection will you find. But, because reading about perfect children is supremely dull, the gift of Taylor’s original books has always lain in the not-so-perfect moments, the times when the girls grow grumpy and irritable and don’t want to be models of helpfulness and patience. All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah is filled with just such moments, from Henny giving Gertie the side eye on the cover, to Gertie’s full-fledged temper tantrum halfway through the story.
It’s the first night of Hanukkah, and Gertie is tired of her older sisters prattling on about all the things that will happen when Papa gets home: lighting the menorah, saying the blessings in Hebrew, etc. As if she doesn’t know! She may be the youngest, but she knows about latkes, thank you very much (she just doesn’t remember how they taste). Even more, Gertie is tired of her sisters and mother keeping her from helping prepare holiday feasts. Why must the potato peeler always be too sharp for her?
We can hardly blame Gertie for feeling left out of such collaboration and festivity. Plus, the taste and smells evoked are every bit as mouth-watering as they are in the original books, from the “salty” chicken to the “sweet” applesauce to the “crispy” potatoes.
When Gertie explodes, her mother takes her by the hand lovingly but firmly and leads her upstairs for a time out. Gertie (I swear, I’ve no idea what kind of girl would do this) decides she will hide under a bed. She’ll show them. “They will miss her when they can’t find her./ Mama will be sorry she didn’t let Gertie help.” To heck with the singing and laughing going on downstairs. She is going to stay. under. the. bed. forever. (I swear, I have no idea what kind of girl would do this.)
Fans of Sydney Taylor know that, while Mama plays the disciplinarian, Papa has just the touch to mend the hurt. It’s Papa who finally entices Gertie out from under the bed with a handkerchief of gingersnaps. Papa who finds for Gertie, not just any job, but the most important job of all: “Tell me. Are you old enough to light the menorah this year?”
For those who celebrate Hanukkah, this is an easy purchase. And for those who don’t (our family especially appreciated the thorough Afterward, complete with index and the story of Hanukkah), this is still a resonant story about a family whose love for one another outshines any bumps along the way.
Book published by Schwartz & Wade. 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 4, 2018 § 5 Comments
“Oh honey, that book is not for you.” I had just walked into our family room to find my eight year old stretched out on the sofa, reading Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s extraordinary but brutally gut-wrenching graphic novel, Illegal (Ages 10-14). I realized I had made a mistake leaving it in plain sight, atop a stack of books I had just finished for my next Capitol Choices meeting.
My daughter barely looked up. “But why? You know I love graphic novels.”
“I do know you love graphic novels. But this one is written for older kids. We can save it for when you’re older.”
“But I’m reading it right now. Plus, I’m understanding it.”
“It’s not that I don’t think you’d understand it,” I said, sitting down next to her and gently taking away the book. “It’s that there are some very upsetting things that happen in the book, and it would be hard for an eight year old to process those things.”
Of course, as any parent knows, if you don’t want your child to read a book, the least effective approach is to tell her it’s not appropriate. It didn’t help that my eleven year old walked into the room just then and said, “Mommy, that book is amazing. And really deep. Emily is much too young to read it.”
“I hate you all!” my daughter yelled. She stormed off to her room. Well, I thought, at least we dodged that bullet.
Not a chance. The next day, after school, Emily announced, “I have decided you can read the book to me. That way you can explain it to me.”
“Which book” I asked, feigning innocence.
“The book about the refugees. See, I know what it’s about.”
“We have other picture books about refugees,” I tried. “We can go back and reread those.”
But she was determined. The pleading went on for three more days. It even involved her bringing home a news article on the Rohingya refugees, which her class had discussed from Time for Kids.
I caved. I read Illegal to her. And she was riveted. She asked questions. She made me read certain scenes twice. At one point, she got especially quiet and still, and I realized she was holding back tears. I told her it was OK to cry, that crying didn’t mean she was too young for the story. And then I cried.
Illegal, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, tells the story of Ebo, a parentless, penniless, music-loving, twelve-year-old boy from Ghana, who runs away when he learns that his beloved older brother, Kwame, has left to make the hazardous crossing to Europe, following in the footsteps of their older sister from months ago. We know that Ebo eventually catches up to Kwame, because the book opens with the two of them floating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an inflatable rubber dinghy (“maximum safe load 6 people”), alongside thirteen others. The sky is blue-black; the water is darker; the boat has a leak; and the fuel tank is almost empty. No one knows how to swim.
The book begins and ends with this dramatic, hair-raising sea crossing—the very image that comes to mind when Westerners think about the refugee crisis—but it consistently breaks to jump back in time, revealing that getting into this rubber dinghy is the final step in what has already been an incredibly long and harrowing journey.
How many of our children—much less ourselves—have ever contemplated what it looks like for minors to travel alone for hundreds of miles; to live on the streets of busy cities; to vie for labor jobs to earn enough money for the next bus, the next truck; to risk their lives crossing the Sahara Dessert at the hands of armed criminals; all to arrive at the shores of the Mediterranean to face the riskiest, most insane, most desperate act of all? What must the life you left behind be like to choose this path?
And yet, the media, fueled by our own government, would demonize refugees like this. Would unilaterally cast them as shady, suspicious, ill-meaning characters who should turn around and go back from whence they came.
While I am not advocating sharing this book with children under ten or eleven, I can tell you this: Emily has gone on to read the book three more times on her own. I have learned from experience that, when children return to a book again and again, it is because they still have more to extract. More meaning, more understanding, more connection.
“What is it about Illegal that you like so much?” I asked her over breakfast last week.
She thought for a bit. “I guess I like that Ebo survives.”
There is death in this book: death of strangers, of friends, even of Ebo’s own brother, who dies saving Ebo in the story’s most devastating moment. There is violence and cruelty; both are depicted graphically. Still, at the heart of the book, there is beautiful, wide-eyed, caring Ebo, who touches the lives of everyone he meets and instills camaraderie in a group of boys to gives them strength in numbers. For young readers, even middle-grade readers, Ebo’s survival is critical. It softens the blow of the surrounding death and violence. It is the ultimate sign of hope: that someone, in this case a child, can beat every odd stacked against him. Can survive the unimaginable. A boy who runs into his sister’s arms in the final page and exclaims triumphantly, “I will hold her forever and never let her go.”
Our breakfast discussion included my eleven year old, who weighed in on what struck him about the book. “You don’t think about kids having to do stuff like that. You hear about it in the news, but you can’t really imagine it until you read this book.”
And yet, the refugee crisis is happening now. It is the world we live in. Might there be value in opening up our children’s eyes to it (albeit appropriately and sensitively)? In the words of Melissa Orth, a Maine teen librarian featured in this week’s article in the School Library Journal, titled “Can Diverse Books Save Us? In a Divided World, Librarians are on a Mission”:
As a teen librarian in the whitest state in the union, I feel it is my duty to not have the collection reflect my community, but rather to reflect the wider world…Books featuring characters with different cultural experiences from their own can educate teen readers and build empathy.
Max, the thirteen-year-old American protagonist of Katherine Marsh’s heartfelt and suspenseful new middle-grade novel, Nowhere Boy (Ages 10-14), has never given two seconds’ thought to the plight of refugees, until he finds one squatting in the basement of the townhouse his family is renting during their two-year sabbatical in Belgium. The boy in the basement is Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who believes himself to be orphaned; he watched his mother and sister die in bombs back in Syria and his father drown while attempting to paddle their dinghy across the Mediterranean.
Sound familiar? If Illegal concerns itself with the refugee’s geographic journey, culminating with Ebo reaching the safety of the European coast, Nowhere Boy begins upon arrival—when the equally daunting journey of making a new life in a foreign and often distrusting culture begins. When Paris is attacked by terrorists who are traced to Belgium, Ahmed knows he dare not show his face in public for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist. Alone and nearly starving, he implores Max to help him live secretly in his basement. Not even Max’s parents can know.
Max is facing his own challenges with cultural assimilation. Already a struggling student, he resents having to attend school in a foreign language. He especially dislikes spending after-school hours with a strict, elderly Belgian tutor, who at the same time that she attacks his French, also delivers racist comments about Europe’s Muslim population—remarks which Max finds untrue and offensive, especially since one is living in his basement and another is his only friend in school.
As the two boys connect over their “outsider” status (and a shared love of comics), they forge a dangerous but ultimately redemptive friendship. The story is told through the boys’ alternating points of view, in short chapters, which not only keeps pace for even the most reluctant readers, but poignantly highlights the difference in the boys’ cultural orientations. Indeed, it is this difference that makes their friendship so intriguing and remarkable.
If refugees themselves are often stigmatized in Western culture, so is the act of helping them. If Illegal is a story of hope, Nowhere Boy is a story of empowerment. Of standing up in the name of human decency and kindness. A story about a boy who looks another boy in the eyes and sees something of himself in him—despite their looking nothing alike, despite their foreign upbringings, despite those who would have him thrown out, turned in. Even when Ahmed’s secret becomes too complicated for Max to keep alone, he engages the help of both his Muslim school friend and, incredibly, the school “bully.” Together, they develop a plan to give Ahmed a chance at an ordinary childhood, a chance to go to school and ride bikes and play sports. The plan goes awry at nearly at every step, but the nail-biting resolution is a testament to the power of kids fighting for what they believe is right and good and true.
Citing parallels with the Holocaust and those who, at great personal risk, harbored Jews in their homes, Nowhere Boy asks us to see past labels, past the “other,” to the human being inside. It challenges us to move beyond being a passive presence and towards extending a hand. It rewards, in the words of the novel, “put[ting] yourself at risk for another person.” In a world where adults seem increasingly unable to do this, perhaps it is only fitting that this novel illuminates the possibilities when kids take matters into their own hands. I am reminded of the words spoken by the King at the conclusion of our October read aloud, A Tale Dark and Grimm (yup, it was every bit the hit I had hoped):
There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have. There is a time when a kingdom needs its children.
I had planned to give Nowhere Boy to my eleven year old to read on his own, but I’ve since decided to read it aloud to both him and my daughter. Her fascination for this topic seems boundless at the moment, and I don’t want that to go to waste. Sometimes our children know what they need better than we do. Sometimes they are ready before we think they are.
Sometimes we need to get out of their way and let them direct their love into the world.
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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!
September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
In our house, there is nothing like the last week of summer break to convince me that it’s time for my kids to go back to school. I enter into that final vacation week with a heavy heart, prematurely mourning our weeks of togetherness (my kids finally being at the ages where the balance is tipped more towards fun than exhausting).
And then—perhaps because we know our break-up is inevitable and we’re trying to make the case to ourselves—we turn on one another. We bark, we snap, we storm out of rooms. Neither child agrees to any game the other proposes (well, except Rat-a-Tat-Cat; thank goodness for Rat-a-Tat-Cat). Particularly telling: no one seems capable of losing themselves in a book anymore—chapters are abandoned before they are even a quarter completed. Suddenly, the lack of structure we previously relished seems precarious, foolhardy, even downright dangerous.
They need to go back.
Still, there is nothing easy about this month. We parents have to go through the Herculean effort of getting our bleary-eyed kids out the door, only to have them peak under someone else’s watch and then return home exhausted, cranky, and full of penguin problems. Meanwhile, our children face their own set of hurdles, like having to channel their pint-sized reserves of concentration for hours at a time.
But perhaps the greatest challenge for many children comes from the fact that they are about to be corralled into a room for seven hours a day with a dozen (or two) other children, many (or all) of whom are strangers. We take the set-up of modern schooling for granted, but when you get right down to it, it’s like a wayward science experiment: all these personalities hissing and popping, and no one wearing safety glasses.
Fortunately, there are two brilliant new back-to-school picture books to lend some empathy—or at least levity—to the subject of coming-togetherness. On the surface, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates and The Day You Begin couldn’t be more different; and yet, both cleverly tackle the daunting question of how we go about being ourselves in a classroom full of other selves.
Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates (Ages 3-9) will emit no shortage of chuckles, but it will also resonate universally, because if your child doesn’t struggle with impulse control himself, chances are he’s in a classroom with someone who does. Every fall, like clockwork, my daughter comes home from school bearing a list of daily grievances done by one of the new kids in her class. He won’t sit still, he hits, he won’t listen, he won’t clean up…and so on. My kneejerk reaction to her persistent negativity—I hope you are being kind to this child!—is exacerbated by my fear that this is precisely how some perceive her older brother, who has his own unique relationship with impulsivity in the classroom.
And yet, just as predictably, at some point during the year, Emily does a 180. She stops complaining about said child and begins defending him. He is getting better, he was helpful today, he said a nice thing in class meeting, you should see how hard he tries. Bless the teachers who have paired my daughter up with these children on more than one occasion, letting her glimpse below the surface.
In the silliest of ways, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates asks its reader to imagine how frustrating and lonely it can feel when you are a kid who must wage a war against your very nature to conform to the conventional expectations of a classroom. If you remember author-illustrator Higgins from the Mother Bruce series (so, so, so funny), you know how talented he is at creating adorably down-trodden heroines, who dramatically pit themselves against the world and then bemoan the consequences of it. Penelope Rex, the heroine of We Don’t Eat Our Classmates might look the part in pink overalls and a pony backpack, but she has the monumental challenge of being the only T.Rex in a classroom of human children.
(Kudos to Higgins for casting his impulsive protagonist as a girl and for featuring a diverse classroom, complete with a girl in a headscarf and a boy in a kippah.)
T.Rexes get very hungry, and the 300 tuna sandwiches Penelope’s dad packs in her lunch each day do little to squash her propensity for the taste of young humans. And so, even while she wants more than anything for the other children to like her—to invite her to join their games on the playground and sit next to her at lunch—she keeps blowing it. She. can’t. stop. eating. her. classmates. The fact that she spits them out when reprimanded by her teacher does little to reassure her victims.
Always, the fun of reading Higgins’ books lies in discovering the humor he hides in his illustrations, and Penelope’s attempts to fit in are no exception. “She finger-painted some of her best work”; and yet, a glance at the illustration reveals she has painted a picture of a smiling child disappearing into the teethy jaws of a young dinosaur. “She even saved Griffin Emery a seat at lunch,” only closer inspection reveals that she is pointing at an empty spot on her plate.
Back home, a dejected Penelope sheepishly admits to her father that it’s possible “none of the children wanted to play with me” because she ate them (“maybe sort of just a little bit”). To which her father offers some advice: “You see Penelope, children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.”
Things do not improve until Penelope has an unpleasant encounter with the classroom pet, a goldfish named Walter with a carnivorous desire to chomp fingers (my mother would call this, “getting a taste of your own medicine”). “Once Penelope found out what it was like to be someone’s snack, she lost her appetite for children.” (And, no, I am not spoiling that illustration for you.) With her impulsivity somewhat tamed, Penelope begins to showcase a personality worth knowing, sharing a fondness for cooperative building, hiding and seeking, and the ability to laugh at herself.
If We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is about a child who comes out of the gate too strong, Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin (Ages 5-10), illustrated by Rafael Lopez, is about the experience of holding back, of fearing the judgment of others. Written as an ode to the child who feels like an outsider—“There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you”—Woodson’s text was inspired by a poem from her award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, and its lyricism enfolds the reader in a warm cocoon: I hear you, it says, and you deserve to find a place wherever you go.
While the second-person narrative is intended to address anyone who feels set apart—due to physical appearance, heritage, religion, socio-economic background, or something less tangible—four racially-diverse children feature throughout the book and lend some specific examples. One is intimidated by her classmates’ tales about the exotic vacations they took during summer break, since she spent her days caring for her little sister in their hot city apartment (“what good is this/ when other students were flying/ and sailing and/ going somewhere”).
Another just immigrated from Venezuela and worries how his accent will be perceived by his American peers (“because they don’t understand, the classroom will fill with laughter until the teacher quiets everyone”). Still another child dreads the questions she’ll get about the lunch her mother packed, rice and meat and kimchi (“too unfamiliar for others/ to love as you do”). The abstract image of a ruler figures into some of these pictures, perhaps not only alluding to the work of school days, but to the way we relentlessly measure ourselves against those around us.
For the fourth child, painted as a Caucasian boy standing on the sidelines of a playground, we get a hint of the offhand dismissiveness common when a group of kids used to playing together encounter someone new (“I don’t want him on our team./ You can watch./ Maybe you can have a turn later.”) This particular image no doubt rings a chord with both of my children, who have been forthcoming about their own anxiety in deciphering the rules of engagement on the playground, of not wanting to jump in for fear of betraying ignorance or inadequacy.
As the book continues, we witness subtle but significant transformations in the four children, as they take tiny but emboldened steps to put themselves out there: to invite a peak at their lunch, to point out a commonality, to share a story. “My name is Angelina and/ I spent my whole summer with my little sister…reading books and telling stories and/ even though we were right on our block it was like/ we got to go EVERYWHERE.”
What I love is that the emphasis here is on making a start. Nothing more. “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin.” Furthermore, Woodson makes clear to her readers that the power to make this start, to connect, resides in everyone.
All that stands beside you is
your own brave self—
steady as steel and ready
even though you don’t yet know
what you’re ready for.
Can I get this spread made into a poster for my children’s bedroom walls? Please?
We walk into unfamiliar settings, where we might encounter any combination of invisibility and judgment, but we never walk in alone. We have within us, not only a personality worth knowing, but the power to use this personality to bridge that uncomfortable gulf. We need only to begin.
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Books published by Disney Hyperion and Nancy Paulsen Books (review copy from Penguin Young Readers), respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
August 2, 2018 § 2 Comments
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 § 9 Comments
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.
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.
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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!