Weathering the Oopses

February 1, 2018 § 8 Comments

Compared to last week, this week’s book may a lighter pick, but it will do no less to make better parents out of us. In fact, it’s possible I needed this reality check more than my kids.

There are days when it feels like my children leave a trail of oopses in their wake. Days when my daughter—at seven, I tell you!—can’t seem to get a single forkful to her mouth without losing some of it down her shirt and onto the floor. When my son leaves his aircraft carrier outside his sister’s door and she steps on it with bare, now-bloodied feet. When just-poured glasses are knocked over by careless elbows; when Christmas ornaments become dislodged and shatter to pieces on the floor as running feet whiz by; when HOW ABOUT NO ONE MOVE BECAUSE THE HOUSE WAS JUST CLEANED AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!

Of course, I exaggerate. My children are calm, careful, tidy little people who are aware of how much space they take up. Just not all/most/much of the time.

Cartoonist Andrea Tsurumi’s new picture book, Accident! (Ages 5-8), explodes with hyperbole on every page, gently poking fun at the way we—children and parents alike—invoke unnecessary drama around the most common occurrences in life: oopses. By the time we are finish the story, Tsurumi has us wondering, what if we take the emphasis off the mistake itself and ask instead, how do we make it better? It is not an exaggeration to say that this book has become something of a rallying cry for our family in recent weeks.

In order to write a book illustrating how life doesn’t have to fall to pieces every time we unintentionally break, bump, or spill something, it is necessary to fill pages with breaks, bumps, and spills. Tsurumi accomplishes this with a chain-of-events storyline which begins small—cleverly, on the title page itself—and crescendos into complete chaos. A young, high-energy, anthropomorphized armadillo (named Lola) cartwheels across the floor and inadvertently knocks over a pitcher of orange liquid, which spills to cover nearly every inch of an upholstered white chair. Her reaction is one of sheer horror: “Oh No! I’ve ruined everything!”

Presumably fearing the wrath of her parent, the armadillo quickly decides she will run away to her public library (“they have books and bathrooms”) and “stay there until I’m a grownup.” As Lola races headfirst down the block, all she knows is that she’s running from her problem. What she doesn’t yet realize—but what our wise narrator informs us—is that she’s running “right into everyone else’s.”

Sure enough, everywhere Lola turns, there are cries of “Oh no!” A bear sits on a swing and breaks it. An anteater runs her grocery cart into a lamb, who flies up and lands in a freshly-baked cake being delivered by a blowfish. A giraffe slips while carrying a tray of hot cookies. A hairdresser momentarily looks away and ends up scissoring off the entirety of her (equine) client’s mane. Cars crash. Garden hoses get pointed in the wrong direction. Baseballs smash through windows. Both the absurd and the commonplace intersect in visual abundance.

I’ll admit I suffered from a case of visual overload when I first read this book. It took my daughter taking me back through the different pages, pointing out and chuckling over sub-plots too numerous to count, that sold me on the endless opportunities for creative engagement and repeated perusal. (Once again, I am reminded of what visual learners this generation is.)

The cries of dismay and outrage on all sides—victim and offender—become more extreme with every page: “We’re so unlucky!” “Ruined!” “Disaster!” “Big bad trouble!” “Mayhem!” “Fiasco!” “Calamity!” “Catastrophe!” (Talk about a fun lesson on synonyms.) Perhaps the expletive to ring the truest with our little ones—and, if you’re anything like me, may elicit a tiny twinge of guilt: “I AM THE WORST!”

As Lola races through the chaos erupting around her, she pauses three times to invite others facing similar retribution or retaliation to join her in escaping to the library. Soon, she and four others are storming the library doors.

Here, author-illustrator Tsurumi does something wittily unexpected. Conventional literature has taught us to see libraries as sanctuaries: indeed, that’s precisely why Lola has chosen to go to one. And yet—perhaps reminding us readers just how pervasive, how common, accidents are—Tsurumi extends the very chaos of the outside world into the library itself. Shelves tumble like dominoes, and books and office supplies soar into the air. (My favorite detail: the owl, meant to be stamping books, is instead stamping someone’s head.)

Lola again flees the scene, more frantic than ever. Until she comes face to face with a small reddish-orange bird—coincidentally (or not?) the same hue as the liquid spilled in the story’s opener. Repeated readings will reveal that the bird has been there all along, witnessing Lola’s oops and then trailing alongside her, like a quiet guardian. The bird lands on the armadillo’s tail and seems to call a kind of forced time out. In response to Lola’s insistence of “Disaster! Fiasco! Mayhem! Calamity! Cat-as-tro-phe!” the bird replies, simply, “Accident.”

Under the curious gaze of what has now become a crowd of onlookers, the bird gently nudges, “And now we make it better.” At once, brooms and mops are procured, helping hands are offered, and sincere apologies are delivered. Our children are given a road map for what to do following their inevitable oopses: what comes next? and how do you say it?

When Lola returns home, cleaning supplies in hand, she finds her mother has just provoked a minor catastrophe of her own: she is surrounded by scattered papers, an overturned coffee mug, and spilled doughnuts. This time, Lola is able to offer some perspective. “An accident,” she reassures her mother. And, as Lola removes a doughnut from her mother’s ear, the latter responds, “Exactly.”

I remember a particular dinner at our house. It took place years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Dinner preparation had run long, bedtime loomed, my husband was traveling, and all I wanted was to sit and enjoy the steaming plate of pasta I held in my hands. But, as I carried my plate and glass into the dining room, where my children already sat bent over their food, my socked foot slipped on the hardwood floor and my glass tumbled to the ground. The glass (because I have learned) was super-duper thick and didn’t break, but the water spilled everywhere. I think I must have looked like I was going to cry, because my son jumped up from the table and said without hesitating, “You sit down, Mommy. I will wipe it up.” Oh, how many times I have remembered this incident too late, after I have already barked at one of my children to “Be careful!” “Pay attention!” “Look where you’re going!”

When the pitcher overturns, when the ornament falls, when they mess up the world around them, our children don’t need fingers pointed at them. They don’t need eyes rolled, voices raised, or insults thrown. What they need is the opportunity to “make it better.” And sometimes they even need us to roll up our sleeves and get down in the trenches with them. After all, what goes around comes around, and goodness knows we all make mistakes.

 

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Book published 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!

In Praise of One Exasperating Girl

November 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

How often do we climb inside our children’s heads and look around? How often do we push past the in-our-face behaviors to understand the nuances of feelings behind them?

Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it.

I was tempted to embark on the Clementine books two years ago after our enormous success with Ramona. (Suffice it to say that when we finished the Ramona books, we had to read all the Henry Huggins titles, simply because Ramona would make occasional appearances.) I was again tempted to start Clementine every time Emily begged me to read Dory Fantasmagory or one of its sequels (I credit the third, about Dory’s struggle to learn to read, with convincing Emily to put forth more effort on the subject herself). Or Lulu’s Mysterious Mission. Or the Cody books. But I bided my time, because I knew I was saving the best for last.

OHHHHHH YES.

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading aloud anything this much. I mean, quite literally, that reading aloud these books—narrated in Clementine’s insistently dramatic, alternately confident and bewildered voice—is beyond entertaining. Clementine is the kid who talks with such gumption, such purity of heart, that adults have to do all they can to keep from laughing (or maybe, if they’re related to her, bury their face in their hands).

“I’d better not go to school today,” I told my mom on Wednesday as soon as I woke her up. “I have cracked toes.” I put my foot right up on the pillow next to her face so she could see without getting up. This is called Being Thoughtful.
“Nope,” she said, without even opening her eyes to see if it was true.
“Well, that’s not all,” I said. “I also have the heartbreak of sore irises.”
“Nope,” she said again, and she still didn’t open her eyes.
“Actually, I think I have arthritis,” I said. “Mrs. Jacobi was breathing on me in the elevator the other day, and I must have caught it.”
“Oh, please,” she said, but this time she opened one eye. And then she made exactly the sound Polka Dottie used to make when she had a hairball.

There’s no question that Emily’s own tangible excitement (dare I say obsession?) also enhanced my enjoyment. She even created a secret Clementine signal. When she’d curve her fingers to make the letter “c” at me from across the dinner table, I knew she was thinking about Clementine. On weekend morning, when she’d climb into bed with me and make a “c” with her hands, I knew she was about to procure the book from underneath the covers. “Oh, Mommy, I think about her all day long,” she said one day after school. “I just can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.”

After all, these books are full of trouble. Of mistakes, of misunderstandings, of escapades that go terribly, often hilariously wrong. Only Clementine would overhear her parents discussing a surprise party—complete with a cake reading “Goodbye and Good Riddance!”—and assume they were plotting to get rid of her. (In fact, they’re celebrating Clementine’s clever solution for relocating the hordes of pigeons sprawled across the stoop of their apartment building.) Only Clementine, in an effort to ensure her favorite teacher won’t win a sabbatical in Egypt and leave her, would submit a letter to the judges filled with fabricated criminal accusations. Only Clementine would turn shoe shopping into such a prolonged calamity of indecision that her parents would begin bribing one another for the chance to avoid taking her shopping ever again.

There’s undeniable appeal in watching life play out from the safe confines of a book’s pages. But I’d argue that the appeal of Clementine goes deeper than simply watching a third grader navigate the shifting expectations of academic, social, and family life.

What author Sara Pennypacker does so brilliantly (and with more than a little help from Marla Frazee’s expressive pencil sketches) is to create a window into the inner-workings of the mind of a girl who is often judged prematurely or incorrectly or unfairly. When Clementine is sent to the principal’s office for not paying attention in class again, we know—because she’s our narrator, after all—that she was paying excellent attention, just not to what her teacher was saying. In fact, she never stops paying attention: to pointy things (which freak her out); to the fourth graders playing outside her class window (as a future fourth grader herself, it’s imperative she understands their “rules”); to devising a list of excuses to get out of performing at the school talent show.

I remember a friend telling me she abandoned the first book after Clementine chops off her friend’s hair, then her own, then colors both scalps with permanent marker. “I don’t need my daughter getting any ideas. That girl is a pain in the you know what!” she relayed to me in horror (only she didn’t say “you know what”). But if we don’t read on, we miss the chance—like most of the adults around Clementine—to understand why she did what she did: how she was trying to help her friend, who had accidentally gotten her hair caught in the scissors in art class. How when she saw that her own actions had made her friend feel even worse, she did the same to herself in solidarity. How she chose the permanent markers because they were the most special thing in her artist mother’s supply closet. Clementine doesn’t understand why the principal, not to mention the two mothers, can’t see this. Heck, she doesn’t understand why they aren’t impressed that she could sheer someone’s head with a pair of plastic scissors in the first place.

[Also] it is very hard to color hair with a marker, let me tell you. But I did it. I colored all of Margaret’s hair chunks Flaming Sunset, and then another really great idea popped into my head and I drew Flaming Sunset curls all over her forehead and the back of her neck so her hair would look more like mine. It looked beautiful, like a giant tattoo of tangled-up worms. When I am a grown-up, I will have hundreds of tattoos.

Here’s what we come to understand about Clementine: she may be the Curious George of chapter books, igniting chaos at every turn, but it’s only because she is trying her very best to put things right, to connect with others, to save the day. She wants so badly to be understood, to have people look at her with that awe-filled “I must be dreaming” expression, as she puts it.

Throughout the books, more and more adults come to see Clementine for the kind, passionate, perceptive soul she is. They take her most infuriating qualities—her impulsivity, her stubbornness, her inattention—and recognize the strengths they belie. She has an eye for things most people miss. She has conviction to take down life’s injustices. She is resourceful. She’s an artist, a writer, a pigeon tamer, a kitten rescuer, and a whiz with numbers. When people, like her beloved teacher Mr. DeMatz, give her a chance to rise to the occasion and put their confidence behind her, she rarely disappoints.

Hands down, my favorite non-Clementine character is her father. As facilities manager for the apartment building where the family lives in the basement, he’s usually around when Clementine returns from school. He takes his daughter’s mood swings or mis-steps and approaches them with calm and humor. You can feel the mutual affection and respect, even while Clementine reminds him that “fathers aren’t supposed to be comedians.” When she’s in a funk, he gives her the keys to the service elevator and lets her ride it up and down. When she pitches a fit upon discovering her parents are having a third baby, he stages Project Pentagon, and the two covertly build a five-sided kitchen table so no one will ever be squished.

Over the course of the six books, which span Clementine’s entire third grade year into summer, we witness significant emotional maturity in her, albeit in realistic fits and starts. She learns to “press her mouth together in a pencil line” rather than to say something inappropriate or hurtful. She learns to stand up to peer pressure; and to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. She realizes that, as much as she detests her name (and insists on calling her brother by different vegetable names, so he can experience what it’s like to have a “food name”), she’s like a clementine in one fundamental way: she is made up of different sections. Sometimes those sections are in harmony with one another and sometimes they are not. Because life—and people—are rarely that straightforward.

This is series writing at its best. The kind of writing where the characters seep into your consciousness, where just when you think you can predict what is going to happen, someone does something so unexpected, so vulnerable, so thrilling, it pulls the rug out from underneath you. Did I mention that every one of the book’s endings left my eyes more than just a little watery?

Ultimately, these pages are testimony that there are often complicated motivations and feelings at work behind outwardly “difficult” behaviors. Daydreamers have rich interior lives. Disruptors have important things to stew about. Indecisive children don’t want to miss out on anything. Impulsivity means someone hasn’t learned to control her passions. If we get rid of labels and try to see the whole of our child, we might begin looking at her or him the way Clementine’s parents do, as if she was “the winning ticket in the kid lottery.”

 

P.S. Sara Pennypacker is currently through book two of a new series titled Waylon, about a science-loving boy in Clementine’s class who may or may not have actual superhero powers. Obviously, we’ll be reading that…because it’s rumored that our favorite gal makes the occasional appearance.

Re-Imagining Mistakes

May 18, 2017 § 5 Comments

It is often with trepidation that I watch my daughter prepare to work on a picture or a card. She sets out her paper, her drawing instrument of choice, and animatedly explains her Vision to anyone in the vicinity. “I’m going to draw a bird for my teacher,” she says, “because she loves birds.” I smile, but I try not to look too eager…or too stressed…or too anything. I try to look neutral. I attempt to recede into the kitchen—or, better yet, disappear into the basement to throw in a load of laundry—because I know from experience what likely lies ahead.

There are several minutes of happy humming, her preferred background music while she works. Followed by a sudden, guttural, downright masculine “UHHHHHGGGGGGHHHHHHH!” Followed by the sounds of said drawing instrument being thrown across the room. Followed by great, gasping sobs. “It doesn’t look like a bird at all! Its beak is terrible! It’s THE WORST BEAK IN THE WORLD! I hate this bird! I hate it!” Followed by the sound of paper crumpling, fists slamming, and stomping feet coming to find me. “Why did you tell me to make a bird? Don’t you know I am the WORST DRAWER OF BIRDS?!” (Ummm, I never said…)

My six and a half year old is rarely ruffled. She goes with the flow, handles curve balls with ease, and loves trying new things.

But she cannot handle mistakes. Mistakes are her Sworn Enemy. Never mind that they often derive from some subjective and unrealistic notion of perfectionism. They feel paralyzing to her. They are a giant Road Block which she cannot see past.

Because I read the Internet, I know it is my job to help my daughter embrace mistakes. Mistakes mean you are learning! Mistakes mean you are taking chances! Mommy and Daddy make mistakes all the time! So I’m supposed to say. And I do say. And her teachers say. And even her brother says. But anyone can see Emily doesn’t buy these platitudes. Not for a second. Because she doesn’t know the answer to the question she’s too afraid to ask: What do I do when I make a mistake?

And then debut author-illustrator Corinna Luyken’s exquisite The Book of Mistakes (Ages 5-99) came into our lives. I cannot stress enough the poetic power of this book. Just two pages in, and I knew—I knew deep down in that primal mothering part of my being—that this was the answer my Emily had been waiting for. An answer that’s light on the telling, heavy on the showing, and even bigger on the interacting.

“Picture books are a primer for how to be a human.” So was the powerful opening statement of a panel which I recently attended at the formidable Politics & Prose bookshop in Washington DC. Among the diverse children’s authors and illustrators gathered to discuss the theme of “journeys” in their picture books was Corinna Luyken herself. Luyken followed up this intro to say that, in conceiving The Book of Mistakes, she wanted to encourage children to find their own voice, to stop caring so much about what others want them to be. “The biggest mistake we can make is trying to be anything other than ourselves,” she said.

If picture books are to teach us how to be a human, including how to discover and embrace our unique way of doing things, then they must show us that mistakes are a natural part of this process. Even better, that the messiest, ill-conceived mistakes can sometimes be transformed into the most surprising, heartening rewards. (Could the “incorrectness” of a bird’s beak on paper be the beginning of something beautifully unusual?)

What The Book of Mistakes does so convincingly is to demonstrate that mistakes need not always be the endings they appear to be. Rather, mistakes can be beginnings. They can be springboards. The world doesn’t have to grind to a halt, the pages don’t have to be torn up, each time we make a mistake. If we open ourselves to the possibility of re-imagining, mistakes might take us to places even better than where we thought we were heading.

Luyken’s book begins and ends with a tremendous amount of white space and very sparse text, a combination which begs the child reader to pay close attention to the black line drawings which build exquisitely from page to page. (Luyken explained during the panel that her art is inspired by the greats of Gorey, Lear, and Sendak.)

Opposite the story’s opening words, “It started,” is a partial line drawing of a face—much like a child herself would do. In this face, only one eye has so far been drawn. Turning the page reveals the second half of the sentence, “with one mistake,” as it does the addition of a second eye. What is the mistake? It didn’t take long for my children to point out that the second eye has been dawn larger than the first.

On the next page, things get more problematic, as often is the case when we try a hasty correction. “Making the other eye even bigger was another mistake.” The artist has presumably tried to match the size of the first eye to the second eye and ended up with two eyes even more grossly asymmetrical. My children were by now totally captivated: their adamant sense of symmetry making them as uncomfortable with the distorted eyes as the off-page artist herself appears to be.

When we turn the page a third time, we begin to witness the magic which happens when an artist takes back creative control. “But the glasses—they were a good idea.” The artist has added a pair of wide-rimmed, seafoam-colored glasses around the eyes, intentionally detracting from their oddness.

With each turn of the page, new mistakes give way to new ideas. An extra-long neck and anatomically-challenged elbows are obscured with an Elizabethean-style collar some elbow patches. The awkward space between the girl’s feet and the ground suddenly makes sense with the addition of roller skates. Ink smears become feathers. Stray pencil marks become strings for brilliant yellow balloons, which our roller skater suddenly holds up with great purpose. Bit by bit, a story line begins to unfold.

New characters emerge. My children’s favorite is a girl with one leg (mistakenly) drawn longer than the other. No cause for alarm. Perhaps this girl is born to climb trees, our narrator imagines. (“An extra-long leg would be a really helpful thing for climbing trees,” my daughter said. “Or maybe her leg only stretches when she climbs trees—like a kind of super power?” my son offered. They have totally drunk the Koolaid by now.)

Luyken plays with perspective from page to page, as if teasing us readers to guess at what the cumulative result will be. What happens when all of the artist’s mistakes come together in a single scene? It turns out there’s no predicting the magical realism which transpires—this, of course, is the whole point—and the climactic, nearly wordless spreads mean we can gaze for hours and still devise new interpretations.

Then there’s the ending, dramatically paced across three pages, as much a metaphor as it is a literal question. “Do you see/ how with each mistake/ she is becoming?” the book asks about our roller-skating, balloon-beckoning girl, who races to join a celebratory gathering of other imperfect beings under the canopy of a large tree. And, of course, I broke out in tears, because truer words have never been spoken about my own daughter. About all of our children. About all of us.

Thank you, Corinna Luyken, for giving me a new way to talk to my children about this crazy, messy, beautiful thing called life—and their uniquely crazy, mess, beautiful “becoming” in the midst of it?

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

Making A Mess of the Alphabet

March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

Z is for MooseI was wrong. Occasionally, this happens (my husband would probably debate the word “occasionally,” but this isn’t his blog and, besides, I am usually right when it comes to books). Shortly after Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose (Ages 4-8) was published last year, I hastily thumbed through it at a bookstore and thought, “Another alphabet book…rudimentary drawings…simplistic-seeming text…a Bullwinkle-style moose…I’ll pass.” Then, in January, right after the Caldecott winners were announced, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about this book: top children’s book critics were outraged that Zelinsky’s book got passed up for an award, and some went so far as to argue that it was the most revolutionary book published in 2012. “Huh?” I thought. So when I happened to come across the book a second time (this time at our local library), I picked it up, brought it home, and read it to my kids. I’ll say it again: I was wrong. In my haste to judge a book by its cover, I completely blew past its cleverness, its hilarity, and its brilliant way of turning conventional alphabet books on their head. This is not your run-of-the-mill alphabet book; it is not going to teach your child the alphabet. It’s a book best read to a child that knows his alphabet and is ready to play with it (the joke begins with the title: kids have to be able to recognize that “Moose” does not begin with “Z”). The basic premise is this: a zebra is trying to stage a very basic book (hence the rudimentary drawings) about the alphabet—only he’s constantly interrupted by a moose who’s eager for the letter “M” to have its turn and then furious when that turn arrives and the zebra chooses a “Mouse” to take the spotlight. No narrative explanation is present (we as readers are left to fill that in). Instead, the action itself tells the story, via the argumentative speech bubbles between Moose and the Zebra or the rebellious graffiti that the former inflicts across certain pages in protest. Repeated readings reveal delightfully subversive details at every turn: perfectly square borders around the pages get bent as Moose brazenly rushes past them; an “O” on the book’s cover is askew from Moose’s protruding antlers. Zelinsky has exploited the very idea of a picture book, calling children’s attention not only to how such works might be constructed but also to how that process could go terribly wrong.

But for all its artistic prowess, Z is for Moose’s tell-tale sign of success is the reader’s reaction: MY KIDS THINK THIS IS THE FUNNIEST BOOK THEY HAVE EVER READ (to be fair, my two year old daughter has no idea what she’s laughing at, but the fact that her five-year-old big brother tips his head back and roars loudly on most pages makes for equally good entertainment for her). What child cannot relate to an impatient, foot-stomping Moose who is denied the justice he feels he deserves? At the same time, what child cannot relate to Zebra’s mission to do things in a certain way without anyone messing them up? And then there’s the ending—every parent’s sigh of relief—when Zebra yields a little control, Moose adjusts his vision of success, and the two friends end up sharing the spotlight under the caption “Z is for Zebra’s Friend Moose.” After all, everyone makes mistakes. Thank goodness for second chances.

The first time that Moose makes an untimely appearance...

The first time that Moose makes an untimely appearance and is ushered off the page.

Other Favorite Alphabet Books (though of the more conventional kind):
ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, by Alison Jay (Ages 1-5)
The Sleepy Little Alphabet Book, by Judy Sierra & Melissa Sweet (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet City, by Stephen T. Johnson (Ages 3-6)
LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker (Ages 2-6)
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Marin Jr. (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet Adventure, by Audrey and Bruce Wood (Ages 3-7)

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