Gift Guide 2018: Bedtime Procrastination

December 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Princeton Architectural Press, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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

Gift Guide 2018: The Elephant in the Room

December 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

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

This is mixed-media artist Pamela Zagarenski’s third year appearing on my Gift Guide (previously for this and this) and for good reason: there is a jewel-box quality to her picture books, their pages adorned with surreal and scintillating spreads destined for endless discovery. Her newest, Zola’s Elephant (Ages 4-7), written by Randall de Seve (whom I fell for long ago, when I used to sell The Duchess of Whimsy at my store), is every bit the treasure we’ve come to expect: a story of two girls, their pathway to friendship, and the phantom elephant which bonds them.

Zola’s Elephant may culminate in a new friendship, but it’s more about how difficult friendships can be to initiate. Especially when one of you is shy. At the heart of the story is a wild fabrication—created by our unnamed, red-haired narrator to mask her shyness—about the new girl, Zola, who has just moved in next door. The girls’ mothers have decided the girls “should be friends.” Except that our narrator knows Zola already has a friend. This is because she saw a large box being moved into her house. A box which can only mean one thing. An elephant.

Our narrator, herself an imaginative elephant aficionado, doesn’t need to go over to Zola’s house to picture exactly what she’s doing. “I know Zola’s feeding her elephant right now because I smell toast. Lots of toast.”

Never mind that the next spread reveals to the reader the actual situation over at Zola’s house, a familiar sight to anyone who has temporarily lost their parents to a mass of moving boxes.

And so it goes: our narrator delivers impassioned excuses for why she “can’t go make friends with Zola now”—Zola and her elephant are frolicking in a bubble bath; they’re playing hide and seek; they’re building a circus-themed club house (“I know because I hear hammering”)—and then the page turns reveal the stark, bored, lonely reality.

Ironically, the more our narrator tries to imagine away her hesitancy, the more she falls under her own spell. “I like stories…and clubhouses and playing hide-and-seek and taking bubble baths with elephants.” (An observant reader will note she has a stuffed elephant in her hands at the book’s beginning.) Perhaps she should walk next door and take a peek.

The spreads that follow, revealing not only what happens when the two girls meet, but how they end up making use of what was actually in the big box (spoiler: not an elephant), are a testament to how two imaginations can be better than one.

(Sheesh, you didn’t think I was actually going to show you. Something has to be kept a surprise for Christmas morning.)

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Wondering What Was

December 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

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

And the award for the 2018 picture book that I will never tire of reading aloud goes to “A House That Once Was” (Ages 4-7), written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Lane Smith. This book is pure loveliness. As always, Fogliano’s contemplative, free-verse lyricism makes us feel at one with our subject—in this case, the mysteries of an abandoned house. As always, Smith’s inventive, breathtaking art transforms the everyday into the extraordinary. (These two brilliant creators have a special claim-to-fame in my blog, as this gem by Fogliano and this one by Smith were the very first books I ever wrote about.)

While walking in the woods, two siblings stumble upon “a house/ just a house/ that once was/ but now isn’t/ a home.” The path is overgrown; the house is listing to the side; the pale blue paint has mostly peeled off. The only signs of life are the wildflowers and a busy blue bird.

Where adults might see loss, decay, or even danger, the children see possibility. Their curiosity besting them, they climb through a window (“a window that once opened wide./ a window that now has no window at all./ a window that says climb inside.”). Inside, they find the remnants of a life once lived. Faded black-and-white photos. Empty glass bottles. Dust-covered books. Art supplies. There’s no one around, but the children whisper their wonderings, not daring to disturb the mystique of the space. “Who was this someone/ who ate beans for dinner/ who sat by this fire/ who looked in this mirror?…Who was this someone/ who walked down this hallway/ who cooked in this kitchen/ who napped in this chair?”

As the children’s imaginations begin to soar, conjuring up potential past inhabitants for the house, the art takes off on its own flight of fancy. Smith shifts from the grainy, impressionistic art of the earlier pages to sharper, stand-alone double spreads, each more spectacular than the last. “Was it a man with a big beard and glasses who would look out the window and dream of the sea? Or a woman who painted all day in the garden portraits of squirrels while sipping iced tea?” (It’s taking great restraint on my part not to include more of the spreads here…but, taking a card from my protagonists, I have to leave something to the imagination.)

After daydreaming about who once resided inside these walls, the question necessarily becomes, why did they leave? “Were they shipwrecked and now/ live on an island/ wearing coconut clothes with a pineapple tie?” Or are they simply “wandering lonely” in the woods, searching for their house keys?

The children will never know the answers to their questions. Of course, that’s all the fun. The speculations in A House That Once Was prove how much more interesting a simple walk in the woods becomes if we ask questions about the negative space around us and task our imaginations to fill it in. Especially if we, like the children at the end of the book, have our own “cozy and warm” house to return to at the end of the day.

 

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!

Gift Guide: Moon Nibbles

December 4, 2018 § Leave a comment

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

On the list of books published this year which make me wish my children were little(r), Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake for Little Star (Ages 2-5) is at the top. How I used to love reading stories about the moon to my kids (like this, this, and this). For our littlest ones, the world outside their windows is big and new and constantly changing. When they tuck inside the crooks of our arms and listen to us read, they’re seeking reassurance as much as understanding. In that vain, perhaps it’s not surprising that the ever-shifting moon is such a popular subject for children’s book creators, representing as it does the mystery, vastness, and allurement of the universe.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star is a captivating juxtaposition of warm and cold, of the intimacy of a mother and child’s bond and the starkness of the universe. Told in remarkably few words, the story begins without any words at all, on the book’s endpapers, where a mama and her daughter are baking a Giant Mooncake. The mama sneaks a peek at her daughter, who perches on a chair, proudly sprinkling sugar (or is it stardust?) into the bowl. (An Author’s Note explains that the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the time when these Chinese pastries are traditionally baked and enjoyed, was Lin’s favorite Asian holiday as a child.)

While Mama takes the flat, golden mooncake out of the oven and “laid [it] onto the night sky to cool,” she asks her daughter for something that’s typically in short supply in our little ones: patience. “Now, Little Star…your Mooncake took us a long time to bake, so let’s see if you can make it last awhile. Can you remember not to touch this Big Mooncake until I tell you to?” Little Star has every intention of honoring her mother’s wishes, as she gets ready for bed and falls asleep. But when she awakens in the night, the glint of mischief in her eye can only mean one thing.

For the next several nights, Little Star, with her stuffed bunny as companion, softly pitter-patters out of her bedroom and up to the Big Mooncake, which perches warm and luminous against the jet black sky. “Would her mama notice if she took a tiny nibble?” She takes a bite, “so sweet and tasty.” “Would her mother notice if she took another tiny nibble?”

Then, each night, Little Star flies—crumbs flying off her face like moon dust—back to the warmth of her bed.

Of course, for our little listeners, Little Star’s nighttime snacking is meant to correlate with the phases of the moon. On the last night of the story, Mama goes to look for the Mooncake and all that is left is a “trail of twinkling crumbs.”

What Mama does find is Little Star’s plush bunny, dropped and forgotten during her final nighttime escapade, a sign of Little Star’s blossoming confidence. But just because our young children may flirt with independence, doesn’t mean they’re entirely ready for its consequences. At the story’s conclusion, Mama offers Little Star both her bunny and her forgiveness, and the two share an affectionate moment of reassurance. “Little Star looked up, her grin reflecting her mama’s smile…‘Now let’s go make another one!’”

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

Gift Guide 2018: Neighborhood Superheroes

December 2, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

November 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

A brief note before we get started. This post will be followed by My Favorite Chapter Book of the Year. Then, I’m going to do something a little different for this Holiday Gift Guide: a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had the occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, feel free to take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly ask that you “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them. And now, without further ado…

My daughter fibs. I realize that sounds harsh, like what kind of parent says that about her child? Shouldn’t I soften my words and say that she only pretends or exaggerates or bends the truth, because even though she’s only eight, she’s old enough to realize that sometimes the world looks better in our minds than it does in reality? Indeed, this is true. Still, she fibs.

“I give my allowance away to the poor every month,” Emily announced to a car full of older children on our way home from school. (Ummm, you’ve never done that.) Two years ago, when she was in Kindergarten, she started reporting nightly that her teachers were taking away recess time if even one child misbehaved; that she had not had a proper recess in weeks. Alarmed, I scheduled a meeting with her teachers, who looked at me oddly and said, no, they had never shortened or taken away anyone’s recess. (For the rest of that year, whenever Emily would report on “transgressions” done to her or others at school, she would preface them by saying, “Now don’t tell my teachers I told you this, but….”)

I can think of several reasons for Emily’s fibbing—attention, saving face, and my own proclivity for exaggeration jump to mind—but it’s entirely possible that there’s a less overt motivator at play, one which has everything to do with her older brother’s reaction. Because fibs like these drive him absolutely, positively insane. My son regards and remarks on the world with mathematical precision. He sees any casual statement by another as an opportunity for cross-examination.

“There is no way you swam a 400 butterfly in practice, Emily. It was a 200 tops, and even that is unlikely for a group of eight year olds.”

“No, JP, it was a 400.”

“OK, so how many laps is that then?”

“I know how many laps it is, but I don’t feel like saying it right now.”

Author Marcy Campbell and illustrator Corinna Luyken have brilliantly captured the intersection of one child’s penchant for imagination with another’s rigid black-and-white thinking in my favorite picture book of 2018, Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse (Ages 6-9). A quiet but powerful story of developing empathy for those who experience the world differently than us, it is narrated in the stubborn, righteous voice of Chloe, who finds herself increasingly annoyed by one of her classmates, a red-haired loner of a boy named Adrian, who “tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.”

Chloe tells anyone who will listen—her friends, her father, her mother—why Adrian is absolutely, positively fibbing. For one, she and Adrian live in a town (“and I know you have a can’t have a horse in a town”). For two, Chloe has on good authority from her friend Kelsey that horses are super expensive, and Adrian’s family is clearly poor (he gets free lunch at school and “his shoes have holes”). For three, horses require a lot of work, and Adrian can’t even keep his desk neat.

So why does Adrian spin tales of a “beautiful horse with its white coat and golden mane,” a horse with “the biggest, brownest eyes of any horse, anywhere?” And why does everyone but Chloe seem enchanted, even bewitched by this fiction; why do they refuse to see the cold, hard facts? The entire ordeal rattles Chloe to the core. It insults her mile-wide streak of justice. I know this, not only by the way she talks with her hands on her hips and her nose in the air, but because this is precisely how my son would regard such proclamations. He, too, might even stoop to what Chloe does next, vindictively exploding on the playground, “He’s lying! Adrian Simcox does NOT have a horse!” My son would think he was helping his victim, defending the Truth above all else, but he would also hopefully recognize the effect of his words.

Even though I was upside down,
I could see that made Adrian Simcox really sad.

Still, Chloe is unmoved in her righteousness. When she returns home that evening, telling her mom “how Adrian was lying about his horse again,” her mom takes a page out of the show-not-tell-book of parenting. “Chloe, it’s time to take Chompers for a walk,” she says. (Chompers being their dog. Chompers being “a perfectly normal pet to have in town.”) With Chloe and the dog following, her mom marches down the street to a part of town clearly not frequented by Chloe. “All the houses looked like they might fall down, and even though it wasn’t trash day, it looked like it was.”

The mom, of course, is taking Chloe to where Adrian Simcox lives. With his grandfather. “I could see the backyard. It was no place for a horse, of course.” And yet, the careful reader will begin to see (and will enjoy flipping back pages to confirm) what it takes Chloe a few more pages to understand. That for everyone in the book who believes in Adrian’s horse—and, especially, for Adrian himself—there is the hint of a horse if we focus our eyes just right. Call it a ghost, a mirage, a trick of the eye. It is Adrian’s horse, and it is as much a part of the landscape as it is in his mind’s eye.

Corinna Luyken’s illustrations (we first fell in love with A Book of Mistakes) are nothing short of extraordinary, as much for the way she organically weaves the horse’s silhouette into her landscapes, as for the way she uses the horse as a kind of window into Adrian’s soul: the seeking curve of the horse’s neck, the gentle sweep of its mane, the kindness in its eye. Adrian doesn’t just want people to see his horse; he wants people to see him. To see past the rotten hand he has been dealt in the house and clothes and food and school supplies department.

When the two children face off in Adrian’s yard, Chloe is ready to deliver an accusation similar to the one she yelled on the playground. But then she sees the same look on Adrian’s face, and her words catch in her throat. Adrian breaks the silence by tossing her a ball. For the first time, she notices his smile. For the first time, she asks him about his horse. For the first time, she understands: “Adrian Simcox had just about the best imagination of any kid in our whole school.”

Throughout the story, Luyken imbues each child with a specific color palette. Chloe is typically shown wearing or surrounded by rosy pinks and mauve, while Adrian is defined by his fiery orange hair, set off by deep golds. In the final page—when we at last can make out most of the horse’s body—the two palettes come together: blending, complementing, and producing something much more magnificent than the sum of its parts.

This is what connection looks like. This is what empathy looks like. My favorite picture book of the year.

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

Review copy by 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!

Celebrating Our Inner Mermaid

June 21, 2018 § 3 Comments

Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.

In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind.

I am Jazz is Jazz Jennings’ autobiographical picture book, co-written with Jessica Herthel, about what it was like to grow up with “a girl brain but a boy body.”  From the earliest ages, Jazz identified as a girl. More than simply dressing up as princesses and mermaids, Jazz would correct her parents when they would say, “You’re such a good boy,” responding, “No, Mama. Good GIRL!” In Jazz’s case, it was her pediatrician who identified her as transgender and encouraged her parents to stop cutting her hair and putting her in boy clothing. Eventually, her teachers at school allowed her to join the girls’ soccer team, and she found a group of friends who saw her, not as someone to be teased or feared, but as “one of the nicest girls at school.”

I could feel the intensity in the air as I read. My children bent so far over the pages that I had to ask them to sit back so I could see the words. “Have I just opened a can of worms?” I thought. “Are they even old enough to understand this?” These were actual questions that went through my head.

When I finished reading, I asked if they wanted to talk about the book. “Nope!” they chorused, pulling out the next title from the box. And so, I moved on. And I don’t just mean with the next book. Later that day, I tucked I am Jazz inside one of the cabinets in our office. Are you getting this? I hid the book. I justified my action: “This is a great book, but I’ll get it out in a few years when they’re older. When it’s more applicable to their life or to someone they know.” Yes. I actually thought these things.

The very next day, I walked into my four-year-old daughter’s room to find her paging through the book. How on earth she found it I will never know. She beamed at me: “Mommy, Jazz likes all the same things I do: dance, soccer, swimming, and the color pink!” “Yes,” I said. And then, a few days later, when I was tidying up her room, I hid the book. Again.

A few weeks later, we had friends over for dinner. Long after everyone had finished eating, the adults were still lingering at the table, when my son barged in carrying our children’s dictionary, trailed by his sister and friends. “We need to throw out this dictionary,” he pronounced, with his typical fondness for the dramatic. “It is missing words.”

“What word are you trying to look up?” one of the grown-ups asked.

“Transgender.”

Instantly, I knew that I am Jazz was circulating around our house again; and—based on the looks everyone was exchanging around the table—making for some pretty riveting conversations upstairs.

As they do more times than I could ever count, my children held a mirror in front of my face. They illuminated my shortcoming—in this case, a bias—which I wasn’t even aware I had. We shouldn’t save “issues books” for the moments the issues arise. Heck, we shouldn’t even label them as “issues books.” My children were intrigued by the idea of transgender, sure, but I have since realized that their interest in this book extends well beyond definitions. I am Jazz is just one more tale in a long line of tales about kids trying to make sense of who they are—a journey every child faces, at every age. Even more, I am Jazz celebrates that journey. Jazz is brave and animated and refreshing. She is who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. What child wouldn’t be fascinated by her?

It may have taken three tries, but I am Jazz finally got a prominent place on our bookshelves, and I’m proud to say that, years later, it still floats in and out of both children’s rooms regularly. My children talk about Jazz like they know her, like she’s their friend. “We read Jazz’s book in school today!” my ten year old announced with excitement earlier this year. “Can you believe there were some kids who had never heard of her?” He went on: “My teacher used to date someone who is transgender. That’s cool, don’t you think?” That my children think this is cool—and not weird or scary or confused—owes a great deal to reading I am Jazz when they did.

Published earlier this spring, Julián is a Mermaid also raises the subject of gender identity, though it does so with a subtlety and ambiguity that would likely not have been possible were it not for predecessors like I am Jazz. With mesmerizing illustrations, just 23 short sentences, and as much unspoken as spelled out, this picture book is visual storytelling at its best. Julián’s journey unfolds only over the span of a few hours; and yet, encapsulated in these hours is a multi-faceted glimpse into how high the stakes are when we risk being seen for who we really are.

When the story opens, Julián is riding the subway with his abuela and reading a book about a subject near and dear to his heart: mermaids. A moment later, as he looks up, three tall, svelte women dance into his car, sporting elaborate hair styles and identical aquamarine fishtail dresses. We don’t need text to tell us what Julián is thinking: mermaids in the flesh.

As Julián watches these women, he begins to picture himself as a mermaid, fantasizing silently about throwing off his clothes, growing a gold-tipped pink tail, and swimming alongside a school of brightly-patterned fish through water colored the same shade of aquamarine as the ladies’ dresses.

A large, intricately-designed indigo blue fish approaches him with a necklace offering. In these waters, Julián is not only joyful and uninhibited; he (she) is also adored.

As Julián and his abuela depart the train and walk home, Julián’s mind is still on the three ladies.

“Abuela, did you see the mermaids?”

“I saw them, mijo.”

“Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”

At this point, it’s impossible to decipher what the boy’s grandmother makes of all this. Her coiffed white hair and voluminous shape combine with pronounced, imposing facial features, mostly bent towards frowning. Her only response to Julian declaring himself a mermaid is to peer silently down at him—and then, on the next page, inform him that she is going to take a bath and that he should “be good” while she’s out of the room.

The three nearly wordless double spreads that follow—as Julián dramatically sheds his clothes, rigs up a headpiece from flowers and palm fronds, and tears down the white lace curtains to create a mermaid tail—are so ripe with expression, movement, and gorgeousness, we fall completely in love with this child (if we weren’t already). Heck, you don’t even have to like mermaids—my daughter reminded me that she doesn’t—to agree that this costume is nothing short of extraordinary. And, yes, there is make-up involved.

Cue dramatic tension, as the grandmother emerges from the bathroom, wrapped in her own white swathe, and stands staring at her grandson, who is now posing like a Greek goddess. As abuela turns silently and walks off the page, Julián’s big eyes stare after her intensely, worriedly. On the next page, his expression turns downcast. He lifts the end of his tail, as if seeing it for the curtain it is. He glimpses himself in the mirror, as if struggling to recognize himself. There is not a single word of text—and yet, our hearts are in our throat, watching this child question himself. (In an interview featured on the blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author-illustrator Jessica Love talks about the evolution of her art for this book, which she originally painted on a white background, until she realized that layering color atop of brown paper bags actually allowed her to infuse the facial features of her brown-skinned characters with greater emotion. The result is pitch perfect and absolutely stunning.)

But then, the grandmother returns—“Come here, mijo”—wearing a colorful headscarf and an indigo dress with a white pattern that will be familiar (to observant readers) from the earlier aquatic scene of Julián’s imagination. She holds out a pink beaded necklace, which Julian takes with a wide grin.

Once again, abuela leads him outside and down the street. She leads him straight into the heart of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a crowd of people wearing octopus tentacles and jellyfish headpieces, swishing and swaying in unapologetically bright fabrics and tall heels. “Mermaids,” whispers Julián.

At last, abuela’s face seems to soften into a smile, as she says the words Julián most needs to hear: “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.”

As Julián marches alongside these kindred spirits, alongside his accepting abuela, we glimpse in him the same joy and freedom from his private fantasy earlier in the day. We are reminded of the power of being seen, of being loved, for exactly who we are.

A postscript: This has been a gut-wrenching week of news, as we listen to reports of refugee children being separated—ripped apart—from their families at our border and by our government. Children who may never see their loved ones again. Julián is a Mermaid is not a political book. It is not a book with a shove-it-down-your-throat message. But it is a profoundly touching story about the power—the fundamental necessity—of unconditional familial love. About how, under the gentle tutelage of love and acceptance, children can bask in the joy of childhood, can grow into adults to be proud of. Every child deserves this treatment.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.

Review copies by Penguin and Candlewick, 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!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Let’s Pretend category at What to Read to Your Kids.

%d bloggers like this: