Celebrating Our Inner Mermaid

June 21, 2018 § 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Transgender.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Abuela, did you see the mermaids?”

“I saw them, mijo.”

“Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Familial Strife: Summer Reading Recs for Tweens

June 7, 2018 § 2 Comments

While I mostly discuss books that lend themselves to sharing aloud with children, I make exceptions around holidays and summer break to offer shorter write ups of middle-grade chapter books—ones you’ll want to put into the hands of your older readers and then get out of the way. (You’ll find past favorites here, here, and here.)  Sitting on the Capitol Choices reviewing committee affords me ample opportunities to keep up with what’s current. Fortunately, for all of us with tweens, the well is especially deep right now.

Some (ahem, grown-ups) believe summer reading should be exclusively light and fluffy. I beg to disagree. Away from academic pressures and structured sports can be the perfect time for our children to embark on uncharted territory: to push outside their comfort zones; to dabble in different writing styles; to experience characters who look and sound nothing like them; and to contemplate—from the security of the page—some of the heavier lifting they might someday be called upon to do.

Once a tween reader myself, there was nothing more alluring than a plot synopsis promising a solid dosage of strife. Not because I was a particularly somber or morbidly-minded child (a flair for the dramatic, maybe), but because it was equally fascinating and reassuring to witness young characters dealing with really crappy situations—and emerging stronger, braver, and more compassionate. Author Kate DiCammillo once said her favorite thing about writing for young children is that you are morally bound to end your story with hope. When we read stories about the messiness of life, we are able to play out our own fears and insecurities, our own worst-case scenarios, with proof of resilience. And hope.

The novels discussed below (all brand new, with one exception) have at their center familial strife. Even on a good day, the family unit is a particularly fraught arena for tweens, caught as they are between still relying on their parents for everything and yet beginning to set apart their own identity. These are stories where, whether from loss or tragedy or poverty or cultural betrayal, the main character is forced to re-evaluate his or her place in the family. And to ask the sometimes devastating, if illuminating, questions that arise as part of that struggle.

What if you can’t rely on your family?

Just Like Jackie, by Lindsey Stoddard (Ages 9-13)

This eleven year old defies gender stereotypes at every turn—she’s fierce at baseball, can fix cars, and is unapologetically angry a lot—but that’s just part of the reason why both girls and boys (if my son’s enthusiasm is any indication) will spark to her. Robinson, named after the baseball legend, has never questioned the life she leads with her adoring grandfather on a maple sugar farm in Vermont, until she is assigned a family tree project at school. Robbie’s curiosity about what happened to her mother peaks at the same time her grandfather begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s, leaving Robbie to wonder whether his reluctance to talk about the past is intentional or not. Robbie struggles to conceal the disorder of her home life from the outside world, including from her best friend and school counselor, who must go the extra mile to convince Robbie that she is not alone. (How refreshing to have a successful school therapist in middle-grade fiction!)

What if your family has to come together to survive?

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani (Ages 10-15)

This gripping, stay-up-all-night story might be set during a period of history most American children know nothing about—the 1947 Partition of India, whereby India became independent of British rule and was abruptly split into two countries on the basis of opposing religions—but its theme of divisiveness feels eerily relevant given the current culture wars on our homeland. Twelve-year-old Nisha, whose late mother was Muslim but whose father is Hindu, is forced to flee her beloved home—formerly India, now Pakistan—to seek a new home across the border. In the soul-bearing diary entries she addresses to a mother she never knew, we learn about Nisha’s harrowing journey by foot and train alongside her brother, father, and grandmother, as well as the unanswered questions Nisha has about her parents and their past—secrets which, if not revealed, could compromise the family’s ability to bond together for survival. Alongside this unforgettable heroine, whose writing becomes an antidote to her paralyzing shyness, is a sensory-filled portrayal of Indian culture, with dishes described so tantalizingly, they’ll have your child begging to go out for Indian food (once they are assured of the family’s safe passage).

What if your family suddenly feels off kilter?

Rebound, by Kwame Alexander (Ages 10-15)

Kwame Alexander is unquestionably one of the greatest contemporary writers of rich male characters, and his trademark style of writing in free, fast-moving verse means that his stories are equally accessible to “reluctant readers,” as they are to those looking for nuance and depth. A prequel to Alexander’s Newberry-winning The Crossover (although equally powerful on its own), Rebound stars African-American Chuck “Da Man” Bell, back when he was just Charlie, a boy reeling from the death of his father and inexplicably angry towards his mother. When the mother decides to send Charlie to his father’s parents outside Washington, DC for the summer, he doesn’t know which is worse: leaving his pals Skinny and love-interest C.J. to read comics and eat Now or Laters without him, or having to live under his exacting grandfather’s thumb (“Hustle and grind, peace of mind…that’s my motto. You do what I say this summer, everything’s gonna be fine.”) And yet, during his days at the Boys and Girls Club, where his grandfather works, Charlie discovers a talent and love for basketball. As the rhythmic language mimics the bounce of the ball, Charlie gets his shot at a well-deserved rebound, courageously arcing between vulnerability and healing.

What if you feel invisible inside your family?

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, by Ashley Herring Blake (Ages 10-15)

Twelve-year-old Ivy was already feeling uncomfortably sandwiched between the demands of her infant twin brothers and the aloofness of her teenage sister, when a tornado tears through her hometown and destroys her house and all its possessions, right down to her prized set of dual-tipped brush pens which she relies on to fill her visual journals. Displaced for the next year with her five family members in a tiny hotel room, all of whom seem too preoccupied by their own stress to notice hers, Ivy struggles to make sense of her own sexuality amidst the social landscape of middle school—mainly, that while her friends are suddenly boy-crazy, she thinks only about the mysterious new girl. Ivy finds a role model in the lesbian inn manager, who assures her that she needn’t rush to pin a label on herself, that life is one long journey towards understanding and embracing our complex individualism.

What if you lose the only family you know?

Hope in the Holler, by Lisa Lewis Tyre (Ages 10-14)

Wavie and her mother may have lived in a trailer park, but their life was rich in love. When the latter dies of cancer at the novel’s opening, Wavie steels herself to the assumption that she’ll never be happy again. Even worse, she is whisked away to her mother’s “backwards” Appalachian hometown by an aunt she never knew she had—and who, it becomes eminently clear, is only interested in Wavie for her late mother’s social security checks. Outside the aunt’s front door, however, Wavie finds a community of diverse, witty, big-hearted people, who belie the poverty that surrounds them and raise the question of whether family can exist where blood ties do not. Even more, Wavie’s charmingly compulsive drive to spread beauty wherever she goes, with her penchant for gardening, inadvertently lands her straight at the center of the town’s oldest mystery—which turns out to hold the key to her salvation.

What if your family betrays you?

Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed (Ages 10-15)

Twelve-year-old Amal’s parents may love her, but their love is powerless in the face of deep-rooted gender bias in rural Pakistan, where girls are treated as currency. When her parents rack up debts with their village’s corrupt landlord, they are forced to repay him by turning over Amal as an indentured servant, now forced to live a prisoner inside his gated mansion. With her position of servitude, Amal doesn’t just lose the company of her cherished family; she loses her chance at continuing her education and fulfilling her dream of becoming a teacher. Inspired in part by Nobel-Peace-Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai’s true-life fight for women’s education in Pakistan, Amal’s story becomes one of resistance, as she devises a daring plan for reclaiming the agency that has been taken from her and from those around her. You have to celebrate a story where the oppressed female protagonist professes in the closing pages, “I knew now that one person could hold many different dreams and see them all come true.”

What if you go looking for your family, the one you think you should have?

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, by Kate Beasley (Ages 9-12)

This book isn’t new—you can read my post from December 2016—although it is just out in paperback. It also fits perfectly with the theme of familial strife. Gertie, our plucky fifth-grade heroine, is a girl of action in every sense of the word (she resuscitates a bullfrog with a turkey baster in the opening chapter). Unfortunately, her enthusiasm for solving the world’s problems also extends towards the mother who abandoned her when Gertie was just an infant—and whom Gertie is convinced she can “win back,” despite her living in a different city with another family. Suddenly, this isn’t just a fun and funny story about a quirky girl; it’s also a subtle primer for how to handle rejection from those who are supposed to love us—and how this rejection might even lead us to appreciate what has been right in front of our eyes the whole time.

 

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Review copies provided by Harper Collins (Just Like Jackie), Penguin (The Night Diary, Amal Unbound, Hope in the Holler), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Rebound) and FSG (Gertie’s Leap to Greatness). Ivy Aberdeen published by Little, Brown. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Taking the Plunge

May 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

With Memorial Weekend upon us, swimming season officially kicks off. For the littles in our lives, the return to outdoor pools may be greeted by equal parts excitement and trepidation, for as much fun as splashing in water can be, it brings with it frequent demands for bravery. Whether it’s learning to swim across the pool without the comfort of floaties, jumping off the side, or navigating crowds of bigger, louder, more confidently swimming kids, the opportunities for intimidation are everywhere. And that’s just what our kids are feeling! We as parents are expected to walk that delicate line of encouraging but not pushing our hesitant children, of keeping up the pretense of patience even when it feels like we have been at this forever. All the time parading our post-childbearing selves around in a bathing suit.

Jabari Jumps (Ages 4-7), by first-time author-illustrator Gaia Cornwall, is a book I could have used a few years ago, as much for its young protagonist’s struggle to launch himself off the diving board, as for the beautiful example of parenting it holds up.

The story of how each of my children finally went off the diving board—in both cases, years after they were solidly swimming in deep water—is as much a testament to the evolution of my own parenting as it is to their different personalities. With my eldest child, there were months of discussion, deliberation, and negotiation. Should I do it? Should I not do it? What will you give me if I do it? (The answer: nothing.) There were countless false attempts: him perched at the end of the board, scrutinizing me beseechingly for encouragement, only to turn and climb back down, declaring he would “definitely” do it the next day. In the end, because our pool has two side-by-side diving boards, and because I was clearly going through a helicopter-parenting phase, we jumped together. (It turns out my over-mothering wasn’t the most embarrassing part. The impact of the water brought down the top of my bathing suit. I haven’t been able to look our lifeguards in the eye since.)

With my daughter, her hang-up was with her goggles—specifically, that our pool forbids the use of them off the diving board. No amount of rational argument could explain away her fear of water touching her exposed eyeballs. Clearly worn out from the first child, I took a backseat to this one. And so, for two summers, she watched her friends jump, always content to stay on the other side of the lane line, which separated the diving well from the regular deep end. And then, last summer, on our very last day at the pool, she pattered over to me after the lifeguards had blown the whistle for break. My nose was buried in a book (because this, my fellow parents, is the real payoff of years of swim lessons).

“Mommy, do you have any snacks?” she began. And then, not missing a beat: “I went off the diving board. Five times. You can watch later when I do it again.” On her own terms, with no warning, and away from prying eyes, she had taken the plunge.

In Jabari Jumps, the title character’s experience facing down the diving board is, in many ways, a perfect amalgamation of my two children’s. Moments before walking into the pool area with his dad and toddler sister, Jabari is bubbling over with confidence. “I’m jumping off the diving board today,” he triumphantly informs his dad. As far as Jabari is concerned, nothing is standing in his way: he has passed his swim test; he is fluent in deep water; and, besides, “I’m a great jumper…so I’m not scared at all.” (As much as I commend Caldwell for casting an African-American boy in a story that has nothing to do with race, I doubly commend her for choosing to herald a father, alone with his two children at the pool. Too often, dads get the shaft in picture books.)

Against soft, muted backgrounds, lovingly executed in pencil, watercolor, and collage, Caldwell effectively plays with perspective, reminding the reader just how big and intimidating things can appear through a child’s eyes. As Jabari catches sight of the giant rectangular pool—in particular, the tiny “bug-like” children on the edge of the diving board, springing “up up up” and then “down down down”—we sense a small shift inside Jabari, despite his continuing to talk the big talk (“Looks easy.”). His dad says nothing, but he does something infinitely more powerful: he squeezes his son’s hand. For as much dialogue as there is in the story, there is just as much loveliness in what remains unspoken in this parent-child relationship.

Predictably—at least, for those of us on the parenting side—Jabari begins stalling. He stands at the base of the tall ladder, staring up at it. He lets the other kids go in front of him, all the time keeping up his easy-breezy facade. “I need to think about what kind of special jump I’m going to do.”

When Jabari begins climbing the ladder, he can think of nothing but how endlessly tall it is. Time seems to freeze. Insert dad from the sidelines, who gently asks his son if he might like to take a “tiny rest” first. Jabari is quick to consent. “A tiny rest sounded like a good idea.” The dad might have shouted encouraging words at his son; or he might have thrown up his hands and called his bluff right then and there. But no. Because this is a parent who knows what he’s doing.

And then, a full crisis of confidence erupts. “I think tomorrow might be a better day for jumping,” Jabari says. Again, his dad neither agrees with him, nor attempts to talk him out of quitting. He simply crouches down and says, “It’s okay to feel a little scared…Sometimes, if I feel a little scared, I take a deep breath and tell myself that I am ready. And you know what? Sometimes it stops feeling scary and feels a little like a surprise.” In one concise paragraph, this parent validates emotion, then gently re-frames the situation. A master at his craft.

Over the next few pages, we see a new side of Jabari—thoughtful, careful, curious, courageous—as he fills his lungs with air, mounts the board, stands up straight, and walks carefully to the edge. With “his toes curled around the rough edge,” Cornwall renders an illustration that has our own breath catching in our throat, as we wait in mutual anticipation of the moment of letting go.

As Jabari takes flight, his jubilation is evident, from his wide smile to his splayed arms. But, look closer, and you’ll see my favorite part. Jabari’s eyes are closed, and his face is turned away from the direction of his father and little sister, who wave excitedly from the water below. Jabari is momentarily oblivious to his cheering squad, and that’s exactly how it should be. This is Jabari’s plunge.

Summer is almost upon us. Let us rejoice mightily when our littles at last flap their arms and jump. But let us also rejoice in the dance—even the two steps forward, one step backwards dance—to get there.

 

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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!

The Places We Carry With Us

May 17, 2018 § 8 Comments

Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.

And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.

Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.

Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.

The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.

“I was homesick!”

Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.

When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?

There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.

Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.

Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”

Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”

 

Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”

“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)

“That’s it exactly!”

As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).

The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.

Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.

Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.

 

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

The Best Book I Haven’t Told You About

April 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

It’s true. I’ve waited four months into 2018 to tell you about my favorite book from 2017. Why didn’t I include this title in last year’s Holiday Gift Guide? Well, two reasons. First, Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Ages 5-9) is not really a “gift-y” book: its subdued cover doesn’t exactly scream READ ME, and its content is not high on the list of what kids think they want to read about. This is a quiet book. A gentle book. A tiny window into one immigrant family’s experience, and the kind of story where what’s not said is equally as important as what is. But oh…this book.

Which brings me to my second reason. This is a book that needs time to percolate with our children. As a parent, I loved it from the second I began it, and I also recognized how topical it was (Kirkus Reviews called it “a must-read for our times,” and it was just awarded a Caldecott Honor, so the Powers That Be clearly agree). I couldn’t wait to share it with my kids. And then, the experience was…anti-climactic. We read it once through, and my children liked it fine—they smiled, they nodded—but that was all. I put it back in our “new books” basket, where it sat untouched for months. I couldn’t in all fairness write about a story that didn’t have the same impact on my children as it had on me.

Herein lies the power of owning select books, of not having to return them to the library after a few weeks. Last week, five months after we first read A Different Pond together, I found my daughter on the couch with it. I watched from a distance. She read it to herself. Twice. I finally approached.

“How’s the book?” I asked.

“Can I read it to you?” she responded. For my daughter, there is no greater sign of engagement than when she volunteers information about a story she’s reading—or, better yet, reads it aloud to me.

I sat and listened. As an intimate read aloud, A Different Pond is perfection: Bao Phi writes clearly, yet poetically; and Thi Bui—her last book was a graphic novel—propels the story forward through visually striking panels which evoke a breadth of emotion. But the best part: along the way, my daughter stopped to point out things, especially things half-visible in the background. She asked me questions. She began to draw conclusions.

This, my fellow book-loving parents, is the magic of a quiet book.

A Different Pond tells the story of a single early-morning fishing trip undertaken by a boy and his father, an event both routine and yet rich in emotional subtext. The story, told in the boy’s voice, comes out of Bao Phi’s own childhood, growing up with Vietnamese parents who were forced to flee to Minnesota as refugees from the war in 1975, when Phi was just a baby. That the time and place specifics are not spelled out until the Afterward lends the story universality; but illustrator Thi Bui also does a brilliant job of giving us atmospheric hints along the way, from the calendar on the kitchen wall (which reads 1982), to the bell-bottom jeans, to the distinctly ‘70s palette of mustard yellows and muddy browns.

What feels distinctive about A Different Pond, amidst the growing number of children’s picture books attempting to capture the “immigrant experience,” is its very, very narrow focus. We spend only a few hours with this father and son, beginning with their departure before dawn for the bait store and ending with their return home at sun up. And yet, what we learn in these few hours is bountiful and deep, like the pond itself. We learn that the boy’s father, when he speaks English, sounds to some “like a thick, dirty river,” but to the boy sounds like “gentle rain.” We learn that this early-morning outing is even earlier than usual, as the father explains to the tack shop owner that he “got a second job” and needs to get to work by breakfast time.

In fact, as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that these fishing trip are not purely or even mostly recreational. They arise from the necessity to eat—and the stark reality that even working two jobs does not bring in enough money for this basic need (“Everything in America costs a lot of money,” the father tells his son). When the father and son climb, hand in hand, over the highway divider and through the dark brush to the edge of the pond, a careful observer will catch the sign visible in the corner of the page: NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT. “See that, Mommy?” my daughter whispered. “I think this is why they have to do it in the dark.”

There is nothing glamorous about fishing off the highway for necessity—and yet, the experience is ripe for connection. (Anyone else having flashbacks of our beloved Danny, Champion of the World?) These impressionable mornings are forming the boy’s view of the world, himself, and his familial roots. The boy tells us about the different people, also fishing, whom they sometimes meet: a “Hmong man…who speaks English like my dad and likes to tell funny jokes”; and a “black man…[who] shows me his colorful lure collection.” The boy connects to his body and to the natural world, rubbing his hands in the cold and looking up “to see faint stars like freckles.” Most significantly, the boy begins to piece together the puzzle that is his taciturn father, their bonding playing out in the smallest of moments. A reassuring squeeze from the father’s calloused hands. The gentle way the father prompts the boy to build a fire. The rising energy in the father’s demeanor, until he bursts out laughing at the “funny face” the boy makes trying to guide a freshly-caught fish into the bucket.

The boy is particularly curious about his father’s former life in Vietnam and the events which led him to move his family across the ocean. But he knows he must wait for an opening and choose his questions sparingly. While the two sit at the pond’s edge, waiting on fish and eating bologna sandwiches, the father offers up a golden nugget: “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam,” he tells his son. The boy asks if his father’s brother was there, too. We learn, gently, that the father lost his brother while fighting side by side in the War. A bite on the line interrupts this conversation, but the seed has been planted. Later, as the two make their way back to the car, the boy wonders “what the trees look like at that other pond, in the country my dad comes from.”

This may be a story about sacrifices, big and small, about one Vietnamese American refugee family who left behind one life to start a new one with next to nothing, but it is also a story about moving out of darkness and into light. What Thi Bui—herself a Vietnamese American immigrant—has done with her illustrations is extraordinary. I have never before seen light—in its multitude of forms—portrayed so tangibly in a single picture book. We have the progression of natural light, from the twilight cast by the stars and moon to the “blue and gray light” of early sun rise, notably stopping before the golden sunshine we expect. We have a range of artificial light: the bare bulb illuminating the linoleum floor of the family’s kitchen; the bold streetlight on the dark street outside the tack shop; the fluorescent light of the carpeted hallway outside the door to the family’s apartment. If not stark, these lights are also not warm, as poverty is often characterized by such unfiltered, unforgiving light.

There is no triumphant sunrise here, just as there is no conventionally happy ending.  The story will continue to unfold long after we close the book, and we can guess there will be many more early-morning fishing trips. But, as the sun fills the boy’s apartment on his return home, the light becomes undeniably softer, yellower. As the boy anticipates his family gathering around the table to enjoy the fish that night for dinner (“Dad will nod and smile and eat with his eyes half closed.”), we also see more diffused light. Finally, as the boy falls asleep, dreaming “of fish in faraway ponds,” his sleeping face becomes the light source itself. It’s as if he is lit from within, comforted and warmed by the love he feels in the everyday actions of his family—particularly, in his bond with his father.

As we move from darkness into light in this story, I also wonder if we are meant to think about the optimism and hope represented by the next generation, by those children on whose behalf immigrant parents make these sacrifices. There is nothing that looks or sounds easy about the life this family is leading; and yet, they clearly lead with conviction, hard work, and love for one another. We alongside our child readers may feel humbled to realize that this quiet stoicism continues to unfold today in immigrant and refugee experiences around us.

That is the power of sitting with a book for awhile.

 

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

Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

If you had told me ten years ago, after my first child was born, that three years later I would quit my job, move across the country, and stay home with by then two young children, I would not have believed a word of it. Not in the least because I loved my job, loved the social outlet of going to work every day, loved having others validate my successes, loved a paycheck, and loved having the childcare that allowed me to do all that and still relish quality time with my little one. Sure, I had days when I felt pulled in way too many directions and fantasized about going off the grid. But I never really expected I’d feel fulfilled any other way. I was, after all, a self-identified feminist. I had minored in women’s studies in college. I always intended to model for my children what it meant to be have a successful, robust career outside the home.

And then, for a host of reasons I never saw coming, I made the choice to stay home. And it felt right for our family. It still feels right. My privilege is not lost on me: I know many people would love to make that choice but, for various reasons, will never have the chance. Still, not a day goes by when I don’t question my choice, or feel judged for it, or feel guilty. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and wonder if I’ve come untethered from my feminism, if I’ve limited my daughter’s proximity to female power and influence. Perhaps this uncertainty is what it means to be a woman in today’s world: to question, to obsess, to wonder, to chastise ourselves and our fellow women, even when we don’t intend to, even when we don’t want to.

And yet, it also occurs to me that this very questioning is itself a tremendous gift.  That there are so many ways today to be a woman—so many permutations of working or not working or volunteering (or blogging), so many ways to create a family, so many ways to model success and fulfillment—is owing in large part to the women who came before us. To the women who shook things up, who proved to the world that we were never meant to thrive beneath a single label.

My daughter was highly intrigued when Susan Hood’s Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World (Ages 6-10) showed up at our front door, especially because she instantly recognized six-year-old Ruby Bridges on the cover, icon of the Civil Rights Movement, marching bravely up the steps of an all-white New Orleans school with her lunchbox in hand. Further examination of the book revealed others whom Emily has learned about recently either in school or at home, including Frida Kahlo, whose expansive portraiture began during her months in a full-body cast, and Mary Anning, who became the youngest paleontologist in the 19th century when she unearthed an ichthyosaur on the English coast at just thirteen years of age (Stone Girl, Bone Girl is a favorite in our house, and our family just saw a play featuring Mary Anning’s ghost!).

Shaking Things Up is a fascinating trip spanning 250 years of world history, as seen through the eyes of some of its youngest female rebels. It begins in 1780 with Molly Williams, first known female firefighter in the United States, and ends in 2014 with Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, fierce advocate for girls’ education in the developing world and the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Household names are included, like the daredevil journalist Nellie Bly, but some of the young women will be new to children and (likely) their parents, including anti-hunger activist, Frances Moore Lappe, and cancer researcher, Angela Zhang. All of these women are united by their fierce determination to do what they love or what they believe will make a difference, often staring down stereotypes and battling adversity in the process. Whether consciously or not, they’re blazing a trail for those who follow. “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations,” African-American astronaut Mae Jemison is quoted as saying in the book.

Tantalizing content aside, what makes this book stand apart in an increasingly popular genre of biography anthologies is its unconventional format, perfectly suited to its unconventional heroines. Susan Hood profiles the fourteen young women, not through traditional prose, but with playful and lyrical poems. She even chooses different poetic forms to represent the distinct personalities she seeks to bring to life. For Mary Anning, Hood creates a concrete poem in the shape of the ichthyosaur fossil, Anning’s signature discovery. Pura Belpre, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library, appropriately gets an acrostic poem, where the first letter of each line creates the full alphabet.

For 19th century athlete Annette Kellerman, who took to swimming to strengthen her legs after wearing braces as a young child, then went on to invent the modern swimsuit, a limerick-style poem begins:

There once was a mermaid queen,
lovely and lithesome and lean,
who swam afternoons
without pantaloons—
her swimsuit was deemed obscene!
 
The lady was quickly arrested.
Unafraid, she calmly protested:
Who can swim fifty laps
wearing corset and caps?
Her statement could not be contested.

Some of the poems tell the linear stories of their subjects, while others are more abstract, speaking to the spark of adventure underlying the accomplishments. The free-verse poem, “Lift-Off,” written about astronaut Mae Jemison, strikes a universal chord:

An African proverb says, “No one shows a child the sky.”
No need.
Head back, it’s there in her eyes;
Glittering stars, swirling galaxies
fill her, thrill her…

But wait, there’s more! As you’ve undoubtedly noticed by now, each of the thirteen poems (one poem covers two women) is accompanied by a portrait of the subject created by a different well-known children’s illustrator, including favorites like Melissa Sweet, Julie Morstad, LeUyen Pham, and Emily Winfield Martin. In a book celebrating a range of possibilities for women, we are also privy to a diversity of female artistic styles and expression, rendered in paint, crayon, pencil, and mixed-media collage. Take, for example, Erin K. Robinson’s vibrant palette surrounding the stoic face of Frida Kahlo (“I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”):

Now contrast that with Sophie Blackall’s grey-scale, highly realistic rendering of British operative Jacqueline Nearne, who parachuted down into Nazi-occupied territories to deliver secret messages during World War II:

At times, the synergies between pictures and text are breathtaking. Julie Morstad’s illustration perfectly conveys the message behind “A New Vision,” a poem about Asian-American architect Maya Lin, who at just twenty-one years of age won a competition to design the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Rather than stealing any kind of spotlight, Lin’s stance in Morstad’s portrait embodies the very ideal she sought to represent with her art: she is turned almost inside herself, hand resting on the reflective surface of the memorial as snow falls gently around her.

Maya Lin knew that,
polished to a high shine,
black granite is a mirror
for those who have come to reflect,
those present
who gaze into the past.

Whether Shaking Things Up encourages our children to seek out additional information about the women in its pages (book lists are provided at the end); whether it lends more emotional texture to figures already introduced; or whether it makes them want to draw or paint in a million new ways, our girls (and boys) are all the better because of the way these young women lived their lives. Our young ones may, as they get older, feel overwhelmed by the different paths opening up before them, but they will ultimately be grateful that such abundant choices exist. Celebrating these choices is itself a triumphant expression of feminism.

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Review copy provided by HarperCollins. 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!

Our Kids Need to Know Harriet Tubman

February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. About slavery, for example, he explains:

I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it. I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.

We can outlaw slavery, Stevenson argues, or sentence lynchers, or desegregate schools, or pass the Voting Rights Act—but only when we begin talking honestly in our schools, homes, and communities about the complicated, nuanced history of growing up African-American at different times in our country, can we understand the tremendous rise in incarceration rates among black Americans, or the “menacing of communities of color and poor communities,” or the defense of Confederacy symbols. “We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.” Not long after reading Stevenson’s piece, I came across an unsettling article in The Atlantic titled “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery.” It cites a new study revealing how grossly misinformed American children are about the history of slavery in our country, largely due to uninformed, “sentimentalized,” or “sanitized” teaching—or even the absence of teaching on the subject all together.

Personalizing the history of enslaved people—for example, encouraging the reading of individual narratives—is an important first step, Stevenson argues, towards internalizing the truth about our country’s history, so that we can begin rewriting the present. As a child, I was fascinated by the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman—specifically, by her involvement with the Underground Railroad. After all, what child isn’t intrigued by a so-called underground railroad that has neither anything to do with trains nor is actually underground? The Underground Railroad was, of course, a secret network of people, some black and some white, who were committed to providing safe harbor, often at great personal risk, to runaway slaves attempting to make their way on foot to freedom in the North. The struggle and heroism displayed on both sides—from the runaways to the helpers—is positively staggering. As such, it has always seemed to me a compelling but still hopeful lens through which to introduce young children to slavery.

I decided to dedicate this past month to sharing books with my kids about Harriet Tubman, especially given that—in part thanks to the media attention garnered last year by our own President’s exhibited ignorance about the American icon—a flurry of new children’s books on the subject have recently been published. (My son tried to convince me he already knew all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5: The Underground Abductor, which admittedly is an awesome book, but I convinced him to humor me.)

If the best of American history is filled with people changing their destinies, turning misfortune into opportunity, and standing up to fight for themselves and, in turn, for those who cannot, then Harriet Tubman personifies the American Ideal. The two books I’ve chosen to discuss today could not be more different; but they work beautifully in tandem: the first bringing new texture to the most commonly known aspects of Tubman’s life, and the second expanding our awareness of her involvement and accomplishments beyond the Underground Railroad.

I am Harriet Tubman (Ages 6-10) is the fourteenth installment in Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’s hugely popular “Ordinary People Change the World” graphic biography series, many of which—as I discussed in the wake of the 2016 election—have become especially near and dear to my daughter’s heart. (When Emily’s school had Biography Day a few weeks ago, there was never any doubt she would go as Helen Keller—because I am Helen Keller.)

One of the biggest draws of this series for young children is its focus on the subject’s childhood. I am Harriet Tubman is no exception. Here, Meltzer and Eliopoulos do an especially adept job of presenting the inhumanity of slavery through the eyes of young Harriet. For children, slavery meant no birthday celebrations (in most cases, children had no idea when their birthdays were). Children had to wear “sacks.” They were forbidden by law to read and write. They were beaten if they didn’t do what their masters demanded. And their families could be split and sold off with no warning, which meant one day you or your loved one might be forced to leave, in many cases never to reunite with family again.

Even when describing horrific events, Harriet’s voice (through Meltzer) emerges emboldened, keeping the subject matter from becoming too overwhelming for her audience: “I know it’s scary. But by hearing my story, I hope you’ll find strength you never knew you had. That’s what happened when I was around seven years old.” At age seven, Harriet explains, in order to escape a beating, she hid in a pigpen for five days, “fighting the pigs for potato peelings.” When she eventually came out of hiding, near starvation, she was still beaten—and yet, the experience changed the way she (and those around her) saw herself: she was not afraid to protect herself. As years went on, she continued to endure abuse and injury at the hands of her owners. Still, each time she didn’t die, she drew faith that God was watching out for her. She began to allow herself to dream of freedom, of letting the North Star show her the way.

At 22 years of age, Harriet narrowly escaped to Philadelphia. Even more harrowing were her thirteen trips back to Maryland to escort 70 others, including strangers and family members, along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Both my children were riveted by these panels: Harriet disguising men as old ladies so they wouldn’t be recognized; hiding with runaways in hidden passages; wading through icy waters by dark; and creating diversions to get slave hunters off her back. “It’s sort of confusing,” my daughter pointed out, “but all the terrible work Harriet had to do when she was a slave, chopping wood and stuff, actually made her strong enough to get through the wilderness like that.” Indeed, the tables had been tuned, one of the many nuanced ironies of oppression.

At its conclusion, I am Harriet Tubman raises the idea that freedom alone is only part of the equation: it’s what we do with our freedom that determines our character. In the case of Harriet Tubman, she dedicated her new life to helping others, believing (her words) “the measure of success isn’t what you achieve for yourself, it’s what you do for others.”

In my life, I was told I couldn’t make my own choices.
Told I would never escape.
But I did.
I fought for my independence.
And once I had breathed the air of freedom,
I knew I needed to help others breathe it too.

 

For more about what the adult Tubman achieved on behalf of others, we turn to our second book. If I am Harriet Tubman begins with its subject as a child, this second tribute to the American icon begins at the end of her life. The lyrical and intimate Before She Was Harriet (Ages 7-12), written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome, actually begins with Harriet’s wrinkles: “Here she sits/ an old woman/ tired and worn/ her legs stiff/ her back achy.”

The title a nod to her birth under a different name, Before She Was Harriet takes readers on a poetic journey backwards through Tubman’s life, from an old woman to the young slave who learned to read by starlight. Each turn of the page peels back another layer, revealing the incredible breath of roles she played in her life, well beyond that of “Moses,” the Underground Railroad conductor for which she is most well known.

For example, before she “was an old woman,” Harriet was a “loud and angry” suffragist, fighting on behalf of women’s rights:

a voice for women
who had none
in marriages
in courts
in voting booths
before her voice became
soft and raspy
it was loud
and angry
rising above injustice

Before she was a suffragist, she was an abolitionist, serving in the Civil War by ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom: General Tubman/ rising out of the fog/ armed with courage/ strong in the face of rebels/ and planters and overseers/ as they watched/ fields burn. Before she was General Tubman, she was a Union Spy, carrying secrets/ across battlefields/ to soldiers/ fighting in the Civil War/ for President Lincoln/ to end slavery.

As the pages continue, they reveal a younger and younger Tubman. Only great restraint on my part is holding me back from citing each one of the evocative, economical poems which deliver these momentous roles and deeds to us. And yet, even as Harriet Tubman emerges a fiery feminist, a fierce warrior, and (let’s be honest) a total Bad Ass, the soft watercolor illustrations allude all the time to her grace, her humility, and her quiet stoicism. She looks, well, human. She looks relatable.

At the end of his interview about the state of race in our country, Stevenson is asked whether he feels hopeful going forward, particularly for the youngest generations. His response gives me chills:

I don’t think we’re allowed, frankly, to get hopeless and beat down, and I think that’s the upside to understanding this history. The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—because my grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved, and her father was in her ear every day of her life talking about slavery, and she was in my ear, I feel the force of their strength. I really do.

Harriet Tubman underscores this power. The power to stand up, to push back, and to fight. The even greater power to help others do the same. These two pictorial accounts of Harriet, of “Moses,” are just a few of the many illuminating narratives children’s literature gives us to help bring our children into the larger narrative of race, racial history, and the move toward racial justice in our country.

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Books published by Dial Books for Young Readers and Holiday House respectively. Review copy provided by Dial. 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!

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