December 5, 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.
“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.)
Never underestimate the power of humor to captivate a budding reader. I credit Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series with kindling my older son’s desire to learn to read, but its seduction was largely lost on my daughter, who by the time it was her turn had been hearing those books read aloud (by her brother) for years. Thankfully, Willems went on to create an imprint of similarly-toned readers; and funny, offbeat stories by the likes of Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, and Dan Santat did bring a novel respite to my daughter’s gripes.
When I received a copy of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories (Ages 5-7) earlier this year, my daughter—now a mature and prolific reader—snatched it up and announced, “Where was this book when I was learning to read? Mommy, do you remember how I told you there were NO funny early readers?” Yes, honey. Yes, I do.
As an early reader masquerading as a picture book, Fox and Chick has just about everything going for it: three short stories are illustrated as comic strips with occasional double-page spreads; the text is delivered entirely through speech bubbles; the vocabulary is largely phonetic; there’s sufficient repetition; and, best of all, it’s ripe with dry humor. (I would recommend it for a child who has been learning to read for a little while, but isn’t ready to move into early chapter books.) It also stars a pair of anthropomorphized animals every bit as quirky and different from one another as some of children’s literature most memorable duos (after all, before there were Elephant and Piggie, there were Frog and Toad and George and Martha).
The first story, “The Party,” serves as a perfect introduction to Fox and Chick’s personalities, best showcased when played off one another. Fox—restrained, meticulous, and borderline cantankerous—is less than thrilled when his book reading is interrupted by Chick’s incessant knocking. Chick—exuberant, impulsive, and stater of the obvious (“How can you be reading that book if you are talking to me?”)—is merely asking if he can use the bathroom. “Of course you may.” “Thank you, Fox. Very kind of you.”
Fox attempts to lose himself in his reading once again, though he can’t help but notice the ticking of the clock: Chick has been in the bathroom for some time. “Chick, are you okay?…Chick, I am coming in!” Fox is horrified by the chaos he finds on the other side of the door. It turns out “May I use your bathroom?” meant “May I use your bathroom to have a party with my friends?” “In my bathroom?!” roars Fox. Chick responds, “Oh, I see…,” and he and his pals quickly exit stage left.
Though he may play the part of the party pooper, later stories reveal Fox has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. My favorite story has to be “Good Soup,” where Chick follows Fox around his garden as the latter collects vegetables for soup. Fox’s vegetarianism offends Chick’s world order. “Fox, foxes are supposed to eat field mice, not carrots!” To which Fox responds, “I don’t like to eat field mice.”
The more exotic the vegetable, the more adamant Chick’s protests become, until he walks himself straight into the trap which a clever reader will have been anticipating all along: “And they’re supposed to eat squirrels…lizards…and little birds.” “Little birds?” says Fox (is that a sly grin?). “Yes, Fox, little bir…Uh-oh.” Later, the two sit down to enjoy Fox’s soup. “I’m glad you don’t like to eat little birds, Fox.” To which Fox responds, “At least not today.”
If the success of series like Elephant and Piggie are any indication, there’s huge appeal in early reader texts that make use of conversational banter to tell their story. Kids like knowing that the hard-earned words coming out of their mouth have entertainment, even comedic, value. Now add in Ruzzier’s always charming, expressive illustrations, and I say, thank goodness Fox and Chick are only getting started.
Review copy by Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
My children have heard a lot about the Supreme Court in recent weeks—mostly delivered via their parents and mostly accompanied by outcries of frustration and despair. Still, as much as I want them to understand my concerns with what today’s political actions reveal about the values of our leadership, I also don’t want my discourse to taint (at least, not permanently) the way they view our government’s enduring institutions.
In short, our family needed a pick-me-up. I needed both to remind myself and to teach my children about the Supreme Court Justices who, right now, are fighting for fairness under the law—and who arrived there with poise, valor, humanity, and moral clarity.
In this week’s op-ed in the New York Times, the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, cites recent statistics in which young girls are outnumbering boys in political participation and activism. Under the (awesome) title “Maybe Girls Will Save Us,” Saujani makes a case that this growing political interest in young girls may be related to the “plentiful, visible, diverse role models” that they are witnessing rising up around them (a record number of women are set to run for the House of Representatives this year, for instance).
One of these inspiring role models could easily be Sonia Sotomayor—our first Latina Supreme Court Justice—who speaks to her own journey to the Supreme Court in her new picture book, Turning Pages: My Life Story (Ages 7-10), illustrated by Lulu Delacre. (Another obvious choice would be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but our family has read Deborah Levy and Kathleen Krull’s picture book biographies of RBG so many times, we needed a fresh story to pull us out of our slump.) I knew little about Sotomayor’s story before reading this book; when I finished it, I realized that her path in so many ways personifies the American Dream.
While Turning Pages reveals biographic details about Sotomayor’s life—including her Puerto Rican ancestry, her upbringing in the Bronx, her struggle with diabetes, her studies at Princeton, and her pursuit of the law—it never reads like a traditional picture book biography. In fact, I don’t think my eight year old, normally reticent toward biographies, even realized I was reading her one. With an intimacy that feels marvelously accessible to her young readers, Sotomayor talks about her life, not as a list of struggles and accomplishments, but as it was continually and diversely influenced by the many books she devoured as a child and young adult.
More than simply a story of her life, Turning Pages is an ode to the written word, a love letter to the guiding power of reading in Sotomayor’s life. Each spread in the book, each path on which Sotomayor embarked, celebrates a different way in which what she read inspired her thoughtful and driven approach.
Sotomayor’s language is as invitingly poetic as the written words that first flavor her childhood. Even before Sotomayor learned to read, she experienced the poems her Abuelita would recite during family parties, poems which “sent a charge through the room and sparked memories of her faraway island home.” Here, Sotomayor tells us, she began to understand that writing could be “electrical currents that jolted feelings to life.”
Diagnosed at seven with diabetes, Sotomayor developed the courage to administer herself daily shots with the help of her beloved comic books, casting herself alongside favorite action heroes. “Books, it seemed, were magic potions that could fuel me with the bravery of superheroes.” (It goes without saying that this page was a bit hit with my kids.)
Books kept Sotomayor company on trips back to Puerto Rico, where she began to embrace her heritage, and they also helped her “escape” the sadness left behind by her father’s death, when she was just nine years old. Both my children were captivated by Delacre’s extraordinary art here, which juxtaposes the long, black-streaked faces of Sotomayor’s mourning family (“That really does look like sadness,” my son said) with Sotomayor’s bright escape down the library halls in a newspaper boat bearing herself and a library card. The library quite literally becomes a safe harbor.
Sotomayor devoured non-fiction and fiction alike, both serving to broaden her world view. She cites a particularly memorable day as one when a deliveryman dropped off a full set of encyclopedias, purchased for her and her brother by their mother. “I felt like a deep-sea diver exploring mysterious depths. Books were my snorkel and flippers, helping me get there.” Fiction, too, encouraged this desire to unearth every stone. I admit to a special fondness for the spread in which Sotomayor steals down the stairs like her favorite literary detective, Nancy Drew.
As Sotomayor grew, she also began to use reading as a way to uncover the less tangible “truths about the world around me.” She credits Lord of the Flies with the first time she understood the purpose of laws—and the danger of lawlessness. She also references the Bible at her Catholic high school, which cautioned that we “shouldn’t be so quick to judge people who do the wrong things.” Finally, she sings the importance of reading to develop empathy for different struggles and ways of living. She would choose texts stretching from the “farthest reaches of the planet” to “the little island closest to my heart: Puerto Rico.”
If books began to steer her moral compass and help her understand the individual’s place within a larger community, they also helped her persevere. While nothing about Princeton University matched her childhood in the Bronx, she studied relentlessly to “catch up,” even pouring over grammar books to hone her writing skills. (It was fun to tell my kids that I similarly spent many hours writing my thesis in a cubicle underneath Firestone Library, though I was also then forced to admit to myself that I have far less to show for it than Sotomayor.)
The final pages are devoted to law books—what Sotomayor calls, the “maps to guide us to justice”—which she, as a young lawyer, regularly referenced when convincing a judge of right and wrong, and as a judge, sourced to ensure fair treatment of all people. Now, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, she turns her attention to “the founding document of our government, the Constitution of the United States.” Of course, in crafting her decisions and opinions, Sotomayor has made her own lasting contribution to the written word.
Sotomayor’s life undoubtedly comes through as impressive, but her telling also radiates humility. The numerous real-life snapshots, which grace the book’s front and back endpapers, make her feel even more approachable. To our children—our own inquisitive, voracious readers—Sotomayor’s path feels not only aspirational, but attainable. Like putting one foot in front of the other, she puts one book in front of the other.
Books are there when we need them, they deepen our world view, and they just might be the catalyst for our young readers to follow in the footsteps of other women change makers in this country’s leadership.
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Review copy from Penguin 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!
October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments
Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”
To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”
But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.
#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.
Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.
When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)
Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:
Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.
Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty). Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).
In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.
Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.
Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)
Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite revelation, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.
Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.
If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.
#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.
As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).
Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.
Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”
(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)
For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.
I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.
It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.
When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.
Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).
Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.
And that brings me to my last point.
#1: Reading aloud slows down time.
How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.
And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.
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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!
January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment
If the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.
Let me back up.
Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.
Enter Adam Gidwitz, formerly known for his deliciously dark (and darkly humorous) retelling of traditional fairy tales in his bestselling middle-grade trilogy A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12). Ever since I first read his essay “In Defense of Real Fairy Tales,” I have known Gidwitz to be someone dedicated to giving kids, not only what their hearts desire, but what their psyches need.
Now, Gidwitz has taken his unique talent for combining blood and gore with the deeply personal and morally inquisitive and turned it on the Middle Ages in The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog) (Ages 11-16).
Let me just say that THIS IS THE MOST DARING WORK OF CHILDREN’S FICTION I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Never mind that Gidwitz fashions his story in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where oral narratives are delivered over pints of ale by an innkeeper, a chronicler, a librarian, a troubadour, a jongleur, a nun and, ultimately, the Inquisitor himself—each picking up where the other leaves off. Never mind that the book is gorgeously illustrated in the style of an illuminated manuscript by the Egyptian-born Hatem Aly. Those things are just icing on the cake. It’s what Gidwitz does inside the story that’s utterly mind-blowing.
The Inquisitor’s Tale reveals so many twists and turns, takes so many thematic and narrative risks, that it would feel like whiplash if it wasn’t so riveting. Did a young monk just yank off his donkey’s leg, use it to club to death a band of murderous bandits, and then magically reattach it? Did three children just watch their guardian throw himself in protest onto a pyre of Jewish books being burned on the whim of a Christian king? Did a boy just cure a lactose-intolerant dragon of his deadly farts by feeding him rotted sheep flesh so he would puke up a “long, goopy train of yellow liquid”?
Are three children and a troubadour actually sitting around in a children’s book debating the question, “Why would God make bad things happen?” And actually coming up with answers both profound and humorous?
Cut to my JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.
Gidwitz’s book may be a suspenseful, swashbuckling tale of epic proportions, but it is also an intimate window into the souls of the three French children who star in it. Given the clashes in class and religion which permeate every aspect of thirteenth-century society, these children should by all accounts have no reason even to meet, much less form an alliance.
Jeanne is a lowly peasant girl, desperate to hide her prophetic fits lest she be accused of sorcery and burned at the stake. She is trailed by her loyal white greyhound, Gwenforte, who has died and come back to life (yup). Jacob is a Jewish boy, possessed with magical healing powers from the night he narrowly escapes his village after it is set on fire by Christian peasant boys. William is an orphaned and oddly large oblate (monk-in-training), recently expelled from the monastery where he grew up ridiculed for his supernatural strength and his part-African-Muslim heritage.
Where their class and religion should divide them, the children instead come together over something they have in common: they are all outcasts. Their births would put them in one place, but their abilities prevent them from staying there. A great debate runs through the story: Are the children saints? Should they martyr themselves? And what do these two things even mean?
Ironically, more than their powers, it is the children’s vulnerability which shapes them. As they share their pasts and discuss their belief systems with one another, as they watch strangers react differently to each of them, they begin to question the entrenched divisions of their society. They begin to analyze and critique their own faiths, to ask some of the most difficult and universal of questions about the meaning of life and our role in it. What does doing the right thing look like? And is it worth the expense?
Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.
By luck or by fate, the three children come up against the central conflict of the story: the planned burning at the order of King Louis IX of all the Talmuds in France, the sacred Hebrew text at the heart of Judaism. During the high Middle Ages, these reproductions were vehemently guarded by Jewish leaders—book printing a painstaking labor of love whereby each page is hand copied—and there were many documented attempts by Christian rulers to obtain and destroy them for the threat to Christianity they believed they possessed. (Never mind that the children discover the central message of the Talmud—“What you would hate to have done to you—do not do to other people”—ironically aligns with the Golden Rule of Christianity—“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Go think on that, kids and grown people.)
With the help of “a mountain of flesh, with red hair and bristling whiskers and reddish eyes” named Michelangelo di Bologna, the children stage a plot to save the Talmuds and preserve the Jewish teachings. In doing so, they end up in a climactic showdown with royalty and knights on a battleground of quicksand, against the backdrop of the reverent Mont-Saint-Michel on the outskirts of Paris.
Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.
Had I been exposed as a child to anything approximating Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, would I have grown up with a different appreciation for the Middle Ages? HECK YES! I might have even gone on to study religion and philosophy with fervid passion.
As Gidwitz explains in his equally fascinating fourteen-page Author’s Note, his story is meticulously researched, the product of a year spent in Europe with his wife, herself a professor of the Middle Ages. Many of the figures and events in the book are real (King Louis IX; Talmuds burning in Paris; even Gwenforte is based on a real Holy Greyhound, to my son’s delight), and many others are based on legends of the Middle Ages. All of these parallels are so enticingly explained that I actually exclaimed, “God’s wounds! If only I could go back to school and study this!” (We’re well-versed in medieval swearing now—I highly recommend it.) To which JP replied: “No, Mommy, we need you here. But, don’t worry, I’ll learn it and tell you everything.” Looks like I’ll have to make do with the extensive annotated bibliography at the book’s end.
Again and again, Gidwitz shows us that things are not what they seem, that people cannot be dismissed by the circumstances of their birth, and that actions speak louder than words. (Also: “A hug from a child! Perhaps God’s greatest invention!”) At the book’s conclusion, the children broach the subject of martyrdom with their mentor, Michelangelo, worried that he foresees sacrificial death in their future. Instead, Michelangelo asks William for the Latin definition of “martyr.” The boy replies, “witness,” and Michelangelo responds:
Correct. And have you not already witnessed on behalf of goodness and beauty and justice and God? To Louis and Blanche and dozens of others? Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness—against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world. Yes, children, you will be martyrs. Just as you have always been.
Children may save us all in the end.
In fact, it has always been children—their innocence, their purity, their innate goodness—who offer the most hope, who possess the greatest power to reach across the divides, to stop the destructive cycle of prejudice and persecution, and to open their hearts to love and acceptance.
I only hope we adults will start watching them a little more closely.
GREAT NEWS: Blessedly, The Inquisitor’s Tale will be with us for the long haul, as earlier this week it was awarded the prestigious Newberry Honor by the American Library Association! The other award recipients are similarly mature and daring, with the Newberry Medal going to Kelly Barnhill’s spellbinding dark fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and another Honor going to Lauren Wolk’s haunting and deeply resonant Wolf Hollow (my favorite book of 2016—read my post from last summer here). Do our children have any idea how lucky they are to be growing up at a time when children’s authors are taking off the handcuffs, expanding the literary landscape, and breaking rules all over the place? (Probably not, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
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Book published by Dutton Children’s Books. Review copy provided by Penguin. 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 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
I am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”
So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters.
Before this biography landed in our hands, my family was already engaged in a love affair with E.B. White. Or, should I say, with his voice. Last summer, on a road trip from Virginia to Maine, we listened to E.B. White’s recording of The Trumpet of the Swan, his third and final novel for children, about a boy named Sam Beaver and a trumpeter swan named Louis, “who has a speech defect—along with other problems, including a money problem” (this was White’s description, upon submitting the manuscript to his editor, Ursula Nordstrom). Then, this fall, we listened to White read Charlotte’s Web, by many accounts his “magnum opus,” a story of the redemptive friendship between Wilbur the pig and the grey barn spider Charlotte (Nordstrom suggested he change only one word before publishing it). Both The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web were already familiar to us—my kids had heard them in school and at home. And yet, listening to White read them in the car, it was as if we had on fresh ears.
White’s voice, like the man behind it, is unassuming yet commanding. Gravelly yet gentle, even but never boring, his voice is like that of an old family friend, who sits back in his chair after dinner to weave a story—and to whom you find yourself drawing closer and closer. White doesn’t employ fancy inflections for the characters: in the spirit of his New England accent, he speaks as a matter of fact. We are left with the nakedness of his words—and perhaps just a hint of underlying amusement about the events they relate—and these words themselves awaken in us awe, startle us to laughter, and move us to tears. (My son was consoled to learn he was not alone in his tears: in recording Charlotte’s Web, it took White seventeen takes to get through the chapter in which Charlotte dies.)
In listening to White read his stories, we marveled at the new details we noticed, like the juxtaposition between the dramatic pontifications of Louis’ cob father and the economical practicality of his mother; or the diverse cataloging of Wilbur’s slop meals. Then, in reading Some Writer! (its title an allusion to Charlotte’s praise of Wilbur in her web), we developed a greater appreciation for these observations. It turns out that Louis’ father was modeled after White’s own father (“Father…didn’t hesitate to say in twenty words what could be said in six.”). Similarly, the detailed descriptions of Wilbur’s life stemmed, not only from White’s intimate familiarity with farm chores, but from heartbreak after his own pig died from disease. When White was giving input into the movie adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, he cautioned the director that “the film should be a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung.”
While certainly my children’s favorite part, the attention to Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little (White’s first children’s book), comprises only three of thirteen chapters in Sweet’s book. Taken as a whole, the book reads like a traditional biography, beginning with White’s birth in 1899 outside New York City (born Elwyn Brooks White, he went by Andy all his life, and Sweet invokes his first name throughout the book in a fitting nod to his modesty) and ending eighty-six years later on White’s beloved farm in Maine.
My son—on the heels of his own summer vacation in Maine—took a keen interest in White’s first encounter with Maine, during his childhood summers spent at Belgrade Lakes, initially undertaken on a doctor’s order for White’s hay fever. It was on these chilly shores that White, in the spirit of Sam Beaver, began the observations of the natural world that would later infuse his children’s stories.
With his wife (fellow writer Katharine Sergeant Angell, for whom White composed love poems) and his young son, White settled in Maine, raising animals for food. Writing may have come easily to White, but money never did, especially in the years his beloved wife was ill. Most of what Write wrote—he was a freelance writer for The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as a prolific letter writer—was not for children, and came out of both his need to make a living and a commitment to presenting life in its grit and glory. White’s innate ruggedness and scrappiness, which we first glimpse in his post-collegiate road trip across the country, comes through beautifully in Sweet’s pages: he never opted for the easy path, but he always acted true to his passions.
White was insistent that, upon death, his farm be sold: he did not want it turned into a museum. Sweet explains that White shunned the notion of author as celebrity, believing that an author’s duty was “to transmit, as best as he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world.” He wrote of his own work: “All that I can say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around.” Anyone who has read White’s books knows you don’t have to dig at all before you’re marveling at the craftsmanship of a spider’s egg sac, or the stillness of a pond underneath a blanket of ice. It seems to me that, for White, his most meaningful legacy would be for our children to share in this love.
Every Tuesday, my son joins his class on a trail hike through the forest preserve that begins steps from his classroom. This week, the hike took place in the pouring rain. When JP got into the car at pick up, he was bursting with excitement, gesturing wildly from the backseat as he described the scene: “Mom, you would not believe the creek today: it was like rapids! If you tried to walk across it, you would be swept away! We had to hold onto the tree branches because the wind was whipping against our faces, and one kid slipped in the mud on the way back up so we had to stage a Rescue Mission, and the whole time the water was making this crashing sound, and it was seriously the Best. Day. Ever.” If White had been next to me in the car, I believe he would have been smiling.
While on the subject of weather, I have to close with one final citation from Sweet’s book, because White’s words seem almost prophetic, given the political, social, and environmental landscape in which we find ourselves, on the heels of this past election. At the same time, his words remind us of the cyclical nature of life, something central to the themes of his children’s classics. This excerpt is from a letter White wrote in 1973:
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time, waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Ever the optimist: in his essays and letters and poems and novels, White reminds us that one only has to take a canoe out on a lake at sunrise to experience the good that exists around us.
And this book reminds us that words can sometimes be the greatest gift of all.
(Well…that wasn’t exactly brief. But you didn’t really think I could pull that off, right?)
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Review copy courtesy of 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!
December 1, 2016 § 10 Comments
In the past, I’ve kicked off my holiday gift guide with my favorite book of the year. This is hard enough on a normal year, but by all accounts, 2016 has been an exceptional year for children’s literature. I have a wealth of extraordinary books—picture books that will take your breath away, chapter books with heroes and heroines for the ages—to tell you about over the next few weeks, in hopes of satisfying everyone on your shopping list. Trust me when I say that this year’s books will make you the gift-giving hero you’ve always dreamed of being.
But, in light of these past few tumultuous months and the uncertainty that lies ahead, I need to put at the very top of my favorites a book that reminds all of us—young and old—that it is possible to find some quiet amidst the noise.
On the day before Thanksgiving, in the late afternoon, my daughter and I took a walk to a small nature reserve near our house. In anticipation of our extended family’s impending arrival and the holiday weekend before us, our hearts were full. We held hands, belted out “This Land is Your Land,” and skipped our feet. I tried to push aside the inevitable pangs of nostalgia, since it is never lost on me that it won’t be long until my little girl grows past the age of holding hands and singing in public with her mother.
There we were, making a racket and coming upon the entrance to the park, when Emily suddenly stopped and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Shhhh, Mommy, listen.” She paused. “It’s completely still.” I stopped mid-verse and joined her in listening to what indeed seemed like a total absence of sound. For a moment, it felt like we were the only living things in the world. Under a colorless sky, the light was dim, the fallen leaves had lost their luster, and the landscape around us seemed to be holding its breath.
But then we listened harder and we heard them: the sound of a squirrel tunneling through a pile of dried leaves; the sound of a leaf blower in the distance; two children shouting at each other down by the stream. Once again, the noise of the world commenced around us–only I felt different now, and I could tell that Emily did, too. That moment of stillness had wrapped itself around us, bonding us to its warm embrace. It seemed to mark the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Emily ran ahead down the dirt path to join the children at the stream. And I hung back, marveling at the few trees that still held onto their leaves, as if for dear life.
“Without silence, sound would be meaningless.” So insisted the contemporary Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, who it turns out is the inspiration behind Katrina Goldsaito’s sublime new children’s picture book, The Sound of Silence (Ages 5-10). The book’s afterward tells us that Takemitsu was a neighbor to Goldsaito’s father in Tokyo, and that once the musician had claimed his favorite sound was “the sound of silence.”
How can silence have a sound, and how does one go about finding it? These are the questions that lie at the heart of The Sound of Silence, a story about a Japanese boy exploring and observing his beloved Tokyo.
As he walks to and from school, young Yoshio is fascinated by the “symphony hall” of sounds surrounding him. There’s the “zaa-zaa” of the rain on his umbrella, the “kiiii” of the breaking cars, and his own escalating giggles at the sound his boots make “squishing and squashing through the puddles.”
On this particular day, one sound stands out above the rest. “High and then low, squeaky and vibrating,” it’s the sound of a koto player tuning her instrument.
“Sensei,” Yoshio said,
“do you have a favorite sound?”
“The most beautiful sound,”
the koto player said,
“is the sound of ma, of silence.”
“Silence?” Yoshio asked.
But the koto player just smiled a
mysterious smile and went back to her playing.
What follows is a series of attempts by the boy to pinpoint this elusive “sound of silence” in his daily life. During recess, for instance, he escapes to the bamboo grove at the edge of the playground. Instead of silence, he hears only the “takeh-takeh-takeh” as the wind “banged [the] stalks together.”
Later, he looks for it at home. “It wasn’t in the dining room, where there was always the sound of chopsticks and slurping and chewing and swallowing.” (Don’t I know it.)
“Silence wasn’t in the bath, where even his toes made noise and the little droplets of water kept dripping off his nose.”
Each of these attempts combines to create a mesmerizing portrait of the city of Tokyo, with its array of vivid colors and an at once dizzying yet ordered backdrop of black-haired figures, flashing billboards, high-speed trains, exotic food stands, tatami floor mats, arbor-lined boulevards, bicycling school girls, stray dogs, and sharp-cornered buildings.
(My daughter was ecstatic to catch the reference to the Anime figure, Totoro, on a wall calendar in the boy’s classroom, a nod to her favorite children’s movie right now—and another must for your holiday list.)
Illustrator Julia Kuo achieves all this with digitally-colored pen drawings—inspired by her own memories of growing up in Taipei and visiting Tokyo—and the result is absolutely stunning. The pictures have a saturated flatness that feels fresh, modern, and almost tactile. It strikes me how infrequently we see Asian life depicted in our American children’s books. If this book doesn’t spark an interest in traveling to East Asia (or collecting contemporary Japanese art) I don’t know what will. Start saving your pennies.
Kuo’s illustrations may be realistic, but there is also something sacred at work here. It’s as if the grit and grime of everyday life is lifted, leaving behind purely beauty and marvel. One might also say that the pictures themselves transcend the very sounds that they showcase, much like young Yoshio is attempting to do.
Our protagonist continues to strike out in his quest to identify the sound of silence. At bedtime he falls asleep while straining to hear the quiet, and he wakes in the morning to the sound of barking dogs. He decides to arrive early at school and sit in his empty classroom. And it is there that he finally hears the ma. Only he doesn’t hear it in the emptiness of the room, as we might be expecting. He hears it in the book that he’s reading, in the middle of a page, at a part that he loves so much, it makes him momentarily forget his surroundings.
No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath.
Everything felt still inside him.
Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed.
Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.
Be still my heart! Are you getting this? He hears the silence IN A BOOK. The epiphany comes WHILE HE IS READING. (Now you see why I had to pick this book as my favorite.) What a powerful message for our children to hear: a correlation between reading and inner peace, between reading and mindfulness. Losing ourselves in a book allows us to transcend the scuffle of everyday life at the same time that it brings us squarely back to ourselves. It is no wonder that, for me, reading aloud to my children has always been the surest way to tune out everything else and embrace what matters.
Yet, for all its accolades on the subject of reading, The Sound of Silence is ultimately concerned with a broader message. In the moment that follows Yoshio’s mid-page pause, he realizes with astonishment that the sound of silence “had been there all along,” in each one of the encounters leading to this one.
It had been there between the thumps of his boots when he ran; when the wind stopped for just a moment in the bamboo grove; at the end of his family’s meal, when everyone was happy and full; after the water finished draining from his bath; before the koto player’s music began—and hovering in the air, right after it ended.
It was between and underneath every sound.
And it had been there all along.
(Notice how, as soon as the boy stops engaging with the chaos around him, all the colors except those on Yoshio fade into muted greys and browns, an artistic choice which is echoed on the extraordinary wrap-around cover illustration as well.)
Yesterday, I finally shared this book with Emily. I had purchased it weeks ago, but somehow it hadn’t seemed like the right time. After we finished it, I asked her if she remembered how, just a few days earlier, she has hushed me on our walk so that I could listen to the stillness with her. “Do you think we were hearing the sound of silence, before our ears started picking up all those other sounds?” I asked.
My six year old—as six year olds are prone to do—amazed me with her response.
“I think if you’re quiet all the time, you don’t notice the sound of silence. But If you’re loud and you pause, then you hear it.”
Yes, we must heed the pauses.
Our family is anything but quiet. My son seems only to speak at a decibel reserved for Shakespearean actors. My daughter sings aloud her inner dialogue as she moves from one activity to the next. Our old house creaks and moans so much at night, I wonder how it can still be standing.
And yet, I have recently begun listening for the sound of silence that lies “between and underneath” this cacophony that is my life. I am starting to see that this is an effort worth undertaking.
During this holiday season—and in the year that follows—my wish for all of us is that we occasionally hear the silence at the top of our inhalations. That we heed the pause between the verses of carolers and the shouts of protesters, the stillness between the crunch of leaves and the scrape of the snow shovel. And that, when we’re lucky enough to hear it, that we relish this ma—before moving on to embrace the symphony around us.
Book published by Little, Brown and Company. 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!
January 14, 2016 § 4 Comments
In preparation for taking my kids to the Kennedy Center last week to see the national tour of Matilda the Musical, I spent the final day of winter break reading Roald Dahl’s beloved novel to them. That’s right. Seven and a half hours of reading out loud (with a break to bike to lunch and back). It was my maternal Swan Song, a last hurrah before depositing my kids at the front door of their school the next morning and returning home to a (blissfully) quiet house.
It was actually their second time listening to Matilda—the first time was during a car trip last summer—and I almost didn’t opt for a second round. But, in the end, I wanted it to be fresh in all of our minds before we took our seats in the theater (plus, it made for one of the best family dinners later that night, picking apart the differences between the book and the play). But, really, who would pass up a chance to re-read one of the greatest children’s books ever written?
I’m here to tell you that the musical was magical. The sets were spectacular; the music was catchy; the rainbow-colored confetti rained down on us in twinkling slow-motion. We laughed, we cheered, we cried (well, I cried). Several times, I was tempted to jump up on the stage and take the darling little girl with the big eyes who played Matilda into my arms.
But I’m also here to tell you: the book is better.
The pages of Matilda (Ages 9-12, younger if reading out loud) explode with a theatrical intensity all of their own. I’m talking descriptive passages that invoke the cleverest turns of phrases, the most unusual figures of speech. I’m talking dialogue that’s at times so spirited and outrageous that even the most static of readers (which, ahem, I am not) cannot help but be elevated to the status of actor.
Last year, I proclaimed that Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might be my favorite read-aloud book of all time. I think I may amend that to say that Charlie is my favorite read-aloud for the 5-7 year old set, but Matilda trumps it for the slightly older elementary child. (Don’t get me wrong, my five year old was riveted both times; it’s just that my eight year old internalized it on a much deeper level). Despite Matilda’s young age in the book, this is a story about what it means for a child to confront that which is dark and nonsensical and unjust in the adult world—and to forge a path that is instead light, true, and kind. In Matilda, as in all Dahl’s books, the child triumphs.
From the earliest pages, Matilda is a child who calls us to love her (how can we fail to love a child whose favorite pastime is to lose herself in Great Literature, letting the words “wash around [her], like music”?). And yet, Matilda is entirely unloved. Her idiotic, egocentric parents are too busy staring at the “telly” to notice her (Dahl never fails to disappoint with his digs about screen time). In the few occasions that her parents do notice their daughter, they insult her interest in books and diminish her extraordinary intelligence. By five years of age, Matilda has not only taught herself to read and spell, but she can do complex arithmetic problems in her head almost instantly.
Dahl’s specialty is cooking up children who come from the least auspicious beginnings—be it poverty (Charlie), neglect (Matilda), tragedy (The Witches), or straight up abuse (hello, James and the Giant Peach). And yet, all of his young heroes and heroines manage to find their way to the sweetest and most hopeful of endings. It is as if Dahl is saying to any child who needs to hear it, Hey, you may have been dealt a really bad hand, but you get to re-write your story, starting NOW.
When Matilda reaches kindergarten age and is allowed to escape her toxic home environment for a few hours each day, she hopes to find sanctuary in school. And it is true that Matilda finds her most important ally (and future benefactor) in the lovely teacher Miss Honey, who reads like a breath of fresh, lavender-scented air (despite her having a dark secret of her own). But the tutelage of Miss Honey comes at a price.
Matilda features one of the most infamous villains in children’s literature: the cold, cruel, calculating Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of the school (and former Olympic hammer thrower). Upon hearing that her Christmas present was tickets to see Matilda the Musical, my five year old’s very first response was: “I wonder what Miss Trunchbull will look like!” It’s a name one doesn’t easily forget.
Miss Trunchbull’s scenes in the book (and play) can feel terrifying, even demented. I don’t think it’s going too far to call Trunchbull a sociopath. She picks up children by the ears, she spins them around by their pigtails, and she punishes the most assertive of them by locking them in a tiny closet she calls “The Chokey.” She also reigns down the most monstrous insults: “You ignorant little slug!…You witless weed! You empty-headed hamster! You stupid glob of glue!” (Admittedly, these are lots of fun to read.)
If scenes and verbiage like these are hard for us (American) parents to stomach, let me reassure you on two levels. Firstly, Dahl never underestimates the intelligence of the child reader. The more we’re exposed to The Trunchbull, the more she reveals herself as utterly ridiculous and insanely idiotic. Dahl has a gift for the hyperbolic, and this is Theater of the Absurd. Even her pupils can’t resist poking holes in her tirades. One of my children’s favorite passages:
The children’s eyes were riveted on the Headmistress. “I don’t like small people,” she was saying. “Small people should never be seen by anybody. The should be kept out of sight in boxes like hairpins and buttons. I cannot for the life of me see why children have to take so long to grow up. I think they do it on purpose.”
Another extremely brave little boy in the front spoke up and said, “But surely you were a small person once, Miss Trunchbull, weren’t you?”
“I was never a small person,” she snapped. “I have been large all my life and I don’t see why others can’t be the same way.”
What reader in their right mind can fail to fall in love with hating this woman?
Still, idiocy and irrationality in the hands of power can nevertheless be terrifying and deadly. Here I come to my second reassurance. It would seem that The Trunchbull’s darkness is a big part of the story’s draw for our children. The Atlantic ran a fascinating piece last week about the critical role that fantasy plays in childhood development and the superiority of British (versus American) writing for children in this respect. The article cites “scary villains” as one of the most compelling aspects of fairy tales and fantasy; the mere presence of these monstrous, larger-than-life creatures allows our children to project themselves into the role of the hero or heroine who ultimately confronts and defeats them.
And defeat The Trunchbull is precisely what our heroine does—using a touch of the supernatural. Dahl endows the modest, down-to-earth Matilda with telekinetic powers: she can move things with her mind. The power is short-lived, but Matilda masterfully uses it to pull of The Prank to End All Pranks—a performance which not only sends The Trunchbull running for the hills, but also corrects the injustice in Miss Honey’s past, thereby securing a place for Matilda in Miss Honey’s future.
Last evening before dinner, JP was silently re-reading Matilda to himself for his school’s Book Club. Emily brought me over our duplicate copy and asked me to read it aloud to her. “But honey, we just read the whole book last week. Don’t you want to listen to something else?”
“It’s okay, Mommy, just open to any page and read a little bit. I don’t care what part. Well, maybe something with Miss Trunchbull in it.”
So I did. I opened to a random page and began reading. I figured I’d stop after a few pages (dinner doesn’t make itself). But I couldn’t. I can’t get enough of the way Dahl’s language rolls off the tongue. I get to say things that are wickedly taboo. I get to pretend to be the most outlandish of characters before falling flat on my face. I get to unleash my inner Trunchbull, because—let’s call a spade a spade here—all of us parents have tapped into that irrational rage at one time or another.
But I also get to read the lines of a little girl—a girl so well versed in Great Literature that she can envision a better life for herself—who stands up to injustice and unleashes a full head of brainpower on clearing the way for a new destiny. A girl who, regardless of how fun it might be to channel your energy into hating, ultimately chooses love.
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