June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”
“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”
Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”
There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.
“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.”
Cue eye roll from big brother, and a big smile from me. You see, while my youngest has always been a free spirit (“Your daughter lives in a world of her own,” my own mother is fond of saying), she has never had much patience for magic wands or fairy godmothers, for Tinker Bell or Cinderella’s mice. “I do not like fairies,” she is fond of telling me, though I am equally fond of reminding her that, while she may always trade in fairy wings for dinosaur costumes, she has also loved listening to me read The Night Fairy, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, and Snow and Rose. Her fondness for Disneyworld’s rides aside, Emily seems to object to a gendered, princess-y, commercialized depiction of magic. What she actually loves is the idea that—upon close, quiet, intimate examination—the natural world might be found to be tinged with the supernatural.
In his final line of his final children’s book, The Minpins, Roald Dahl wrote:
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
Our job as parents might be to teach our children to brush their own teeth and pack their own *$%! lunches, but it is also to nurture the believer in them. If we accomplish nothing but that our children choose to see magic in the world, I think we can rightfully throw ourselves a party.
It is likely no coincidence that this backseat exchange between my kids took place on the heels of finishing two chapter books with my daughter. Perhaps if her older brother had been on the receiving end of Granted (Ages 8-11), by John David Anderson, and Bob (Ages 7-10), co-written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, he would not have been surprised by Emily’s newly-pronounced world view. The two storylines couldn’t be more different; and yet, in overlaying a touch of the fantastical onto real, everyday life, the books beg their readers to look more closely at the world around them, to question whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.
Granted opens with a question—“The last time you blew out your birthday candles, what did you wish for?”—and then, across 322 spell-binding pages, proceeds to give us a “backstage pass” as to what actually happens when we humans offer up a silent wish into the universe, be it by birthday candle or fallen eyelash or shooting star. If our wish subsequently comes true, it could be coincidence. Or it could be the daring, painstaking, high-stakes work of a fairy—work so essential, the feydom’s very existence depends on it.
Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy, with hair “as cobalt blue as the flower she was born from.” She lives, as all North American Fairies do, in the Haven, a mostly secreted place teeming with tree-top houses and bowing to its own complex set of laws, orders, and ceremonies. From their earliest age, fairies are assigned a guild to which they dedicate their lives. In Ophelia’s case—owing to her speed, her meticulousness, and her generally type A personality—she has the most coveted job: she’s a certified field agent, otherwise known as a Granter, which means she will be called upon to move surreptitiously among humans on a mission to grant a particular wish. Each day, a lottery in the Haven decides which of the millions of human wishes from the past 24 hours will be granted. Unfortunately, the Haven’s supply of magic has been rapidly dwindling over the years, owing to fewer and fewer human believers.
On the morning the story opens, there is only enough magic to grant a shocking twelve wishes. The good news is that Ophelia is assigned to one of the wishes, a chance to put her training into action at last. The wish is for a new bicycle, made by an Ohio girl named Kasarah Quinn, whose previous bike was stolen.
Protocol requires that, in order for a wish to come true, the Grantor has to retrieve the wished-upon object—in this case, a nickel tossed into a fountain—before she (or he, because male fairies are just as prevalent, including Ophelia’s pink-haired BFF) sprinkles on the precious 100% pure fairy dust and utters the magic words. Ophelia has twelve hours (“tocks,” in fey speak) to complete her mission and get back to the Haven. She is not, under any circumstance, to become distracted by anything she sees or hears (beyond the supersonic ringing of the wished-upon object), or emotionally invested in any of the creatures she encounters.
When you are a pint-sized creature with delicate fairy wings, journeying hundreds of miles without being seen or crushed can present unlimited challenges (planes! trucks! automatic sliding doors!)—even when armed with a thermal flight suit, camouflage spray, and various miniaturized weapons cooked up by a team of Builders, Makers, and Alchemists. Even more, attempting to chase down a coin, which seems to change hands more quickly than we can say Ophelia’s full name, means that Ophelia becomes an unwitting pawn in several humans’ lives (and one adorably hapless dog’s). As Ophelia quickly discovers, the wealth of printed information about the human world, which she has poured over for years in the Haven’s Archives, doesn’t scratch the surface. As it turns out, humans (and dogs) have a unique knack for getting others to care for them. And where there is caring, there are complications.
Granted proved the perfect antidote for my fairy-skeptical daughter. In nearly every chapter, author Anderson manages to build up to a breathless cliff-hanger specific to Ophelia’s mission, while simultaneously disclosing fascinating new details about the inner-workings of the feyworld at large. Much like J.K. Rowling’s richly textured Hogwarts, it seems there is nothing that Anderson hasn’t considered. Several times while I was reading the book, I thought, “But wait…,” only to have this suspected hole filled by a subsequent chapter. (The book addresses, for example, what happens if someone were to wish for world peace…or for something criminal.)
Ironically, it is precisely her perfectly-ordered world that Ophelia begins to rebel against. By decree of fairy law, wish fulfillment must be arbitrary; and yet, aren’t some wishes more important than others? What are the consequences for valuing one person’s life over another? What should the role of magic be? And what if we’ve been doing something the same way for so long that we’ve forgotten how to question it? Ironically, it’s Ophelia’s passionate rebellion that might just be the key to rekindling the believer in all of us.
In Bob, a chapter book my daughter and I finished in two days (being both short and deliciously addictive), there may not be any wish-granting fairies, but there is a mysterious green creature wearing a clumsily-fashioned chicken suit, whose destiny turns out to be directly linked to the wish of an entire community. When ten-year-old Livy finds this creature, who calls himself Bob, in her bedroom closet at her Australian grandmother’s farmhouse, she doesn’t remember him from the last time she visited that distant continent, five years earlier. In fact, she doesn’t remember many specifics about her last visit. Bob, however, has spent the past five years shut up in a closet thinking of little else but Livy, wondering when she was going return and doing his best to stay entertained with only a LEGO pirate ship and a dictionary. (Pause. I always thought it was just me who found the name Bob amusing to pronounce when I was a child—the way it kind of blurts out of the mouth—until I caught my daughter giggling and repeating it the first few times I read it. Or maybe it’s genetic? No offense to any Bobs out there reading this.)
Who and what is this adorably eccentric Bob creature? Where did he come from, and where if not the closet is he supposed to be? Bob and Livy are equally puzzled. Bob initially worries he might be a zombie, but Livy quickly puts an end to that with the help of the dictionary. When Livy determines that no one else seems able to see or hear Bob, she questions whether he might be an imaginary friend from her younger years; and yet, how can an imaginary friend eat actual potato chips? Through chapters that alternate between Livy’s and Bob’s perspective, we begin to piece together a picture, not only of the individual backgrounds and personalities, but why their friendship was once so important to both of them—and why it still is.
Livy is a quiet, perceptive child, caught in that sticky gap between little kid and big kid. She’s too old to play with dolls—or is she? She’s too old to be nervous about her mother leaving her for two weeks with her grandmother—or is she? She’s too old to remember how Bob first came to live in her closet—or is she? Even the format of the book echoes this duality, with short chapters and the occasional sepia-toned illustration (beautifully rendered by Nicholas Gannon), exactly halfway between an early chapter book and a middle-grade novel.
Certainly, Livy is old enough to sense the sadness, worry, and helplessness in the adults around her, all of whom are struggling to support farms in the midst of a severe years-long drought. She feels equally powerless to help—that is, until the neighbor’s son goes missing. When Livy and Bob journey deep into the woods to search for the boy, they not only find him, they also discover that Bob is a clue to the drought plaguing the land. It’s a journey that no adult would understand or believe, but it’s a journey that reminds us readers that the natural world is rich with intrigue, with hidden currents, with a tinge of the supernatural. Whether Bob is real or a figment of Livy’s imagination may always be open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: occasionally, in life, there may not be a logical explanation for the amazing things we witness.
This summer, I invite you: choose a world with magic for your children. Grant some wishes. And maybe not just for them. I know a lot of adults who could use a little bit of magic right about now.
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Books published by Walden Pond Press (Harper Collins) and Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
January 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, JP was less interested in listening to me read than he was in reading his own book (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, the sequel to Tim Federle’s fabulous Better Nate Than Ever, which I can at least take credit for introducing to him last fall, on our trip to New York City to catch his first Broadway musical). Emily, however, was game to join me each day on the couch and insisted we read Emily Winfield Martin’s newly-published and ohhhh-so-lovely Snow and Rose (Ages 8-12, slightly younger if reading aloud).
When the winter doldrums threaten to take over, we fantasize about escape. But who needs a tropical beach vacation when you have the mysterious, enchanted, dangerous woods of our imagination? (Um, still me. But that’s a different post.)
It doesn’t happen often that my kids get to a book before I do. But when I opened the box from Random House to reveal Snow and Rose’s stunning black cover, with its raised gold lettering and cloaked girls—one in pale blue and one in red—Emily exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the book we just finished in school!” Say what? (After my shock wore off, I delighted that her teachers have their pulse on contemporary children’s literature.) At once, Emily decided this would be our winter break read. “Are you sure you don’t want to hear something new?” I asked.
“Actually, Mommy, I think this is one of those books that feels even more magical the second time you read it. Plus, I’ll be able to spot all the clues, because I know what’s going to happen.” (She didn’t need to add, And you don’t.)
Across nineteen exquisite chapters and gorgeous full-color illustrations normally reserved for the likes of picture books, Snow and Rose concerns itself with re-telling The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red”: the story of two impoverished, fatherless girls, who live with their mother in a cottage at the edge of an enchanted woods—and whose chance encounters with a giant bear and an unsettling dwarf set their destinies into motion.
In the academic study of children’s literature, much has been made about why fairy tales—dark, twisted, fantastical stories of long ago—get retold and reread with such frequency (apart from the electrifying shivers they send down our spines). One of the best explanations comes from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, which proffers, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”
That is to say, while the settings and dramatic action of fairy tales might be (sometimes ridiculously) far-fetched, the world view they offer our children is not. Rather, these stories put forth a reassuringly familiar account of what it feels like to be young, helpless, even afflicted in a world presided over by adult authority figures, whose motivations are often neither evident nor well-meaning. Remember Hansel and Gretel’s father, manipulated by his new wife to leave his children in the woods to die? Remember the witch, disguised by the sugary treats of her gingerbread house?
And yet, these fairy tales also offer hope: what their young protagonists lack in power, they more than make up for in wit, creativity, kindness, and loyalty. In fact, often through a combination of these qualities, these characters figure out how to step outside the adult shadows, how to tease out light from dark, and how to reverse their own fortunes into a kind of Happy Ending. Bettelheim explains:
The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.
In Snow and Rose, Martin puts the “inner processes” of her heroines on full display, exploring and building on an emotional awareness and growth in the two sisters only hinted at in the original fairy tale. Snow, named for her white hair, is spirited, wild, and impulsive. Rose, with “hair like threads of black silk and cheeks like two red petals,” is rational, determined, and fiercely loyal. And yet, Martin resists setting these personalities in stone. The girls’ temperaments evolve, even bend, at different opportunities, particularly when the other needs her most.
If there is one thing we can count on in fairy tales, it’s that things are rarely as they seem. Martin has expanded on this premise with a story that also resists labels and boxes, which seems to exist in the very grey shadows of the trees through which the girls traverse, seeking answers to questions life has so unwittingly hurled at them.
When we first meet the sisters, they are mourning the life they once knew. Most significantly, they are facing the loss of their beloved father, who wandered into the woods one day and never returned. Because we’re in the language of fairy tales, he did not “die;” he “was taken.” In fact, people have been mysteriously disappearing in these woods for years.
The wondering burned inside [Snow and Rose] but took different shapes because of what they believed: Rose wanted to know why their father had been taken, and Snow wanted to know how to get him back. Their wondering touched the edges of things they could never know, about this place that had changed their fortunes once and would change them again.
If our children ever needed inspiration to confront their fears head on, they need look no further. In order to find answers to their “burning” questions, Snow and Rose venture boldly into the very woods whose mysteries have been their family’s greatest downfall.
Fortunately (by now you might need some reassurance that all is not dark, dreary, and bone-chilling in these 205 pages), Martin populates these enchanted woods with just as many wonderful, wondrous things—many of them unique to her version of the story—as she does the bandits, the howling wolves, the knife-teethed fish, and the trees with watching eyes. Of all the beauty to be found, not the least of which are the seasonal transformations: the woods a silent “palace of ice” after a snowstorm, a “carpet of violets” in the spring.
There’s the “mushroom boy,” Ivo, who lives with his family in an underground house, accessible only by a long chute beneath the roots of a tree, and who becomes a treasured companion to the sisters.
There is the mysterious Library: a small house in a clearing flanked by white flowers, on whose shelves rest, not books, but thousands of boxed and jarred objects, all of them found in the woods and all of them with stories waiting to impart to their borrower, though not in any predictable way.
And there is the larger-than-life bear, a creature feared and suspected by many as the culprit behind the humans’ disappearances—but whom the sisters believe innocent. The girls free the beast’s leg from a huntsman trap, shelter him from winter’s fury in front of their fireplace, and later reap the benefits of their kindness in spades.
While the girls may be right about the bear, they are wrong about the Little Man: the white-bearded, red-pointy-hat-clad fellow, who speaks in riddles and proves immune to the sisters’ kindness. In Little Man lies the story’s duplicitous villain, a cruel and calculating creature, but even here Martin seems to tug at the universality of fairy tales. When asked to identify himself, the Little Man mischievously taunts the girls:
“Sometimes I’m the Dwarf and sometimes I’m the Tomten…Or sometimes the Brownie or Boggart or Gnome…And to some very rude people, I’ve been the Goblin…But these are just names… Many names have I, child. But none have guessed what I am.”
Exactly “what” the Little Man personifies can be debated at length. Evil? Greed? Loneliness? Misunderstanding? Older children might even pick up on how the sisters actually share red and white attributes with the Little Man. Perhaps Martin wishes to suggest that, in the making of our own fate and fortune, we must begin by confronting our own demons.
If I was impressed with how Martin remodels the interior of her fairy tale, I was slayed by her ending, a deeply gratifying departure from the original. In the Brothers Grimm’s telling, the fairy tale ends when the bear turns into a prince and marries one of the sisters. In Martin’s version, there is a different transformation altogether, one much more suited to the hearts’ desire of our heroines. No spoilers here but, ultimately, the story ends with a celebration of familial bonds—particularly those of sisterhood—and the reassuring reminder that our own courage and wit and will to survive in the wild woods are made stronger by the love we have at our backs.
Always, when we return from the woods, we are changed in the best of ways.
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Review copy provided by Random House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments
Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”
To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”
But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.
#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.
Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.
When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)
Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:
Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.
Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty). Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).
In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.
Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.
Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)
Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite revelation, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.
Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.
If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.
#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.
As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).
Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.
Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”
(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)
For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.
I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.
It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.
When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.
Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).
Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.
And that brings me to my last point.
#1: Reading aloud slows down time.
How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.
And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet that have spent the last three months in and around a swimming pool, it occurs to me that my children are shedding their summer skin in more ways than one. (And not all of them are gross.) They are preparing for the great mental and emotional journey that a new school year demands. They’re working to put aside the comfortable, unhurried, joyful freedom of summer for stricter routines, increased expectations, and long days of scrutiny. As first and fourth graders, they know they will be doing real work, work that others will oversee and critique, work that might one moment feel exciting and the next feel tedious or overwhelming or downright scary. They know they will be navigating new social terrain, new faces among peers and teachers, perhaps even new behaviors from old friends.
They know, but they don’t know. They know that they don’t know.
At the beginning of each new day, our children have to screw their courage to the sticking-place of the Great Unknown. They get out of the car, get off their bikes, and they walk into this tentative, uncertain thing that is life, hoping to come back with a few more answers.
Perhaps because back-to-school season is itself such an intimidating journey, Dashka Slater’s new picture book, The Antlered Ship (Ages 5-9), strikes a poignant chord. Of course, it could also be the delicate color washes atop brazen graphite and pen by Terry and Eric Fan, who made their exquisite debut last year with The Night Gardener and have now outdone themselves. The book is absolutely gorgeous, right down to the cover, which is printed on such sumptuously thick and textured paper that it might have ruined all other picture books for me. Right off the bat, The Antlered Ship feels like the perfect gift to put into the hands of our young crusaders.
The story is about a young fox with questions. Not the insistent “whys” that my children used to pose as a response to everything I told them (“We need to leave the park now.” “Why?” “Because we have to make dinner.” “Why?” “So you can eat.” “Why?” “Because otherwise you’ll be hungry.” “Why?”). No, the fox’s questions are—like my children’s now—more loaded, hesitant, and thoughtful. They’re also questions which don’t always have an easy or straightforward answer. Or any answer at all.
On the drive home from school the other day, while her older brother was carpooling with another family, my newly seven year old seized this rare opportunity to hold court by asking a series of questions. Whether these questions had just popped into her mind or whether she had been mulling them over all day or all week was unclear. What is clear is that her mind is infinitely expanding—and not linearly. She asked:
How come we can still hear the other cars when we’re inside our own?
How do the moms’ bellies go back in after they push out the babies?
How come when people are shy they can’t just swallow their shyness?
The questions swirling inside the mind of Marco, the anthropomorphized fox in The Antlered Ship, are not dissimilar to my daughter’s, if arguably a bit more poetic. The fox wonders:
Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad?
Why don’t trees ever talk?
How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?
Marco’s problem is that he can’t find an audience for these questions. When he poses them to his fellow foxes, they look at him blankly and respond, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?”
So when a mysterious wooden ship—carrying seafaring deer and bearing a massive masthead carved in the shape of a stag’s antlers—docks in a harbor looking for a new crew to sail to a distant island, Marco volunteers. He hopes the ship’s destination might land him alongside some foxes who do know the answers to his many questions. Marco and the deer are joined as well by a band of adventure-seeking, checkers-playing pigeons.
Marco may have a clear destination and goal in mind, but he must venture into the Unknown to get there. Like any journey, things are not always smooth sailing—and they often give rise to even more questions. For starters, there are rough storms, with “waves crash[ing] over the sides of the deck.” “Why is water so wet? Marco wondered…”
The deer prove themselves useless at navigating, and the pigeons are full of complaints about the damp crackers. Marco is not immune to crankiness himself, but he decides they all need to “do the best we can.” He begins by throwing together a warm stew from a recipe book he finds and then moves the group towards consensus on navigation.
The fox’s good nature is contagious, and the animals begin to embrace adventure for adventure’s sake, navigating the Maze of Sharp Rocks as a team and later going head to head with a line-up of warring pirates.
At last, the group reaches their destination: an island replete with waving grasses, fruit trees, and plenty of animals willing to listen to the sea crew’s bombastic accounts of their voyage.
Marco, however, doesn’t share the others’ elation. To his despair, he can’t find a single fox. “I have failed,” he tells his shipmates. “No foxes. No one to answer my questions.” The corresponding spread reveals that even in the togetherness on the ship, the fox has been alone. For all his leadership, he has yet to make himself vulnerable, to invite anyone to share in his uncertainty.
And yet, Marco’s mates challenge him. “What questions?” the pigeon asks. And Marco at last screws his courage, takes a deep breath, and begins to ask questions. Including, “‘What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?”’
Then ensues a discussion, as each of the three offers up a thought on friendship. Maybe, Marco offers, “you make friends by asking them questions.” The trio goes on to ask each other more questions: Should they head home? Should they have more adventures? And my favorite:
“Is it better to know what’s going to happen?” wondered Marco. “Or better to be surprised?”
(You could have knocked me over with a feather when my nine year old son, who insists on us telling him in detail where we are going and what we are going to do there, answered without hesitation, “Surprised.”)
There is no end to life’s questioning. Even when we are lucky enough to uncover an answer, another question arises. What Marco hoped to find on the other side of the sea was actually on the ship with him the entire time: not the answers, but the companionship with which to weather the questioning.
This lovely story challenges our own children’s assumptions. Do we really need all the answers to feel better, to feel more secure in the uncertainty around us? Maybe what we need—what we really, really need—are people to whom we can ask our questions. People with whom we can sit, musing aloud, in the comfort of a car, or on a twirl across the playground, or as we are being tucked into the covers at night. These people don’t have to be related to us, they don’t even have to look like us or talk like us. They only need to listen—and, possibly, to offer up some questions of their own.
Don’t worry, my little crusaders. The world will be big and scary, but you don’t have to figure it out to be in good company.
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Book published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment
I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).
Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year.
Secondly, my husband and I started taking our kids to the Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater in DC, a deliciously accessible performance for young children, where twinkling lights and perfect tutus send shivers of excitement down our dressed-up spines (and whose creative liberties involving a Mouse King cast in a Revolutionary War battle scene ensures my son is every bit as enchanted as his sister).
Now that we are Nutcracker enthusiasts—and now that Tchaikovsky’s music officially marks for us the start of the holiday season—I decided that this year we were ready to explore the darker, more mysterious intonations of the ballet.
And, just like that, the Thailand-born British illustrator Niroot Puttapipat launched the most breathtaking children’s edition of The Nutcracker that I have ever seen. Inspired by the sets from Marius Petipa’s original production in Saint Petersburg on December 18, 1892, the sophisticated adaptation not only hearkens back to the origins of the story, but it nudges at our dreamy subconscious in the same way that, say, Grimm fairy tales do. Puttapipat’s book isn’t scary, but it has an element of mystery and magic that feels just the tiniest bit unsettling—and leaves us wanting more.
If Alison Jay’s book is sugary and sweet and makes us want to twirl across the living room, Puttapipat’s keeps us squarely transfixed on the page. My kids and I cannot stop looking at this book. Some of you may already know Puttapipat’s unique artistic style from his previous Jingle Bells and The Night Before Christmas (clearly, I’m late to jump on this bandwagon).
In The Nutcracker, delicate black silhouetted figures—almost haunting in their absence of detail and expression—are set against sumptuous swaths of color. Expanses of black set pieces are juxtaposed with meticulous fine-point detailing, like the embroidery on the Nutcracker Prince’s coat or the ornaments on the Christmas tree.
Think of these like the landscapes of our dreams, where certain things take shape but others are shrouded in darkness.
It’s not just the unexpectedness of these visuals that entices; it’s also the emotion that radiates from every page. There’s no expression on young Clara’s face, yet we feel her heartbreak as she crouches beside her broken nutcracker.
We feel Clara’s worry as she watches the battle between the come-to-life nutcracker and the evil Mouse King (before she chucks her slipper at him to end things once and for all).
The text, which runs along sidebars on each spread, is adapted by Kate Davies and closely based on the original texts by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas. Yet, rather than feeling stiff or outdated, it too soars with drama and lyricism, aiding and embedding Clara’s magical journey alongside the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets.
They traveled by swan over gold-flecked oceans and silver-edged cities. Clara held her breath, her eyes wide. As she gazed at the twinkling lights far below, snowflakes pirouetted past. The prince caught one and gave it to Clara. “Try it,” he said.
Clara let the snowflake dissolve on her tongue. “Mmm. Rosebuds and raspberries!” she said.
“Mine is peppermint and honey,” said her prince. “Every snowflake tastes unique.”
The Land of Sweets does not disappoint. While the text describes lemonade flowing from fountains and lollipops growing in flower beds, Puttapipat’s magical picture (it might be my favorite) delivers us a castle whose dark spires stand bold against a shimmering night sky; a moss-draped walking bridge that’s fit for starry romance; and a Sugar Plum Fairy whose wings look like they have been cast in sugary ice. It is enough to make Believers out of the most hardened of us.
Oh, but there’s more. As Clara and the Prince prepare to enter the castle, the page turns to reveal a pop-up spread of cut-paper art that might be one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. This is a castle that delivers: a castle at once light and dark, at once festive and mysterious. The silhouetted figures that flank the scene are nods to the different styles of international dance that follow in the actual ballet.
What happens inside the castle is largely left to the imagination (until we go to the ballet, that is). The book—somewhat abruptly—concludes on the next page, with Clara waking up back home with the wooden nutcracker in her arms. “What a wonderful dream, she thought. But she could still taste lime and mint…”
And then something happens that is not in the Alison Jay version and which elicited an audible shudder from my daughter (“Ooooh, Mommy, that’s so mysterious!”). I’ll let your children discover that surprise on their own.
Traditions have the best chance of standing the test of time if fresh life can occasionally be breathed into them. Niroot Puttapipat reminds us that our family has only scratched the surface of enjoying this 125-year-old ballet.
Review copy provided by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments
A few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).
But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor).
Wordless books can be a hard sell. They can be an especially hard sell for parents, because what exhausted parent wants the pressure of making up a narrative when the relief of bedtime is so near? How can I read a book with no words? Can’t my kid just look at that on his own?
Hear me out.
For starters, education researchers have long touted the value of wordless picture books as a tool for pre-literacy. When children are learning to read—when they’re caught in that delicate balance of needing to cherish small successes but not fully versed in phonograms and sight words—they can look to pictures for valuable clues about what the text might be saying. (He’s picking up a fork, so that word must be “fork”; there’s a grimace on his face as he’s eating, so that must mean the words are going to be about him not liking it).
When children are forced to extract a narrative from pictures alone, they become well versed at using visual clues to decode text.
I would argue that the value of wordless picture books extends well past the early-reading stage. Wordless books can help make close readers of our children, a vital skill for academic success at every grade level.
Especially in the hands of a visual wizard like Becker, the reader is rewarded for every extra second he or she takes to study the pictures. On nearly every spread in Journey, Quest, and Return, there is mystery, intrigue, wonder, and confusion. Repeated readings only deepen our experience, reveal things that our eyes—in our haste—missed the first time.
Let’s talk about that haste for a minute. (We are listening to Charlotte’s Web in the car these days, so I feel inspired to quote the wise Charlotte: “…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”)
When my nine year old tears through beloved series like The Hardy Boys, Hazardous Tales, and I Survived, I can’t help but wonder: how carefully does he read? Does he skip over passages when he doesn’t understand? Does he take time to notice the language, the details of a setting, or the way a character is described? Does he have an opinion about the book, other than “It was epic!”?
I try very hard not to scrutinize or judge (outwardly) my children’s reading habits. If my kids are reading, I want them to read—without my asking loaded questions about whether they’ve finished a book or what they are learning from the story or whether they will read aloud parts to me. I want them to read for the love of the thing. I want them to discover their own motivations for reading outside parental or adult pressure.
Instead, I try to model good books and good reading practices. I choose books to read aloud that showcase beautiful language, complex characters, and plots rich in shades of grey and murky emotions. I often share aloud my own feelings about the things we’re reading. I tell them which questions are giving me pause. Much of the time, they are quick to join me in conversation.
As it turns out, I don’t have to be reading books with words to accomplish that.
Weeks back, when that box showed up at our doorstep and my kids jumped up with Return in their hands, then ran through various rooms to locate the first two titles in the trilogy so that we could read all three books straight through, I was reminded that sharing wordless picture books with our children can be another immensely valuable way to teach them to slow down and cherish the intricacies of a story.
It’s a credit to Aaron Becker just how hard my children and I are willing to work to interpret his lantern-hung forests, his purple skies, and the rock-clad walls of his prophetic caves. (Interesting side note: in the author’s bio printed on the jacket cover of the newest book, we learn that the exotic kingdom depicted in the trilogy, with its lavish domes and flowing canals and frenetic kings and emperors, is inspired by Becker’s visit as a child to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—the same walled island we all grew to love in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See).
Here’s the gist of what my kids and I have surmised from the time we’ve spent with these books.
In Journey, a girl escapes boredom by drawing a doorway into a magical land and inadvertently finding herself in the center of an enslavement plot. Her creativity, along with the artistic aid of a like-minded boy, guides her safely home again, while at the same time giving her the companionship she has been seeking.
In Quest, Becker’s second book, the girl with the red crayon and her new friend with the purple crayon are drawn back into the mysterious world, where greater intrigue and suspense greet them. We learn that their crayons are part of a larger set of six that, in the right hands, can return color and freedom and prosperity to this grey and conflict-laden kingdom.
Now at last, in Return, we are given the final pieces of the puzzle. It was my son who came up with the idea that the bad guys aren’t simply after the crayons; they’re after art. Or, rather, they’re out to destroy the transformative power of making art. It was also my son who pointed out details that I initially missed: how the green emanating from the emperor’s boat is a sickly, unnatural green, a slime green, a green that somehow instinctively identifies him as evil.
Our reading of these books is full of “Wait, look at that!” and “Oh, now I get it,” and “But what it THAT?” Three heads huddled over the same book. Three sets of fingers pointing. Three voices contributing to one shared understanding.
Perhaps there’s a third, even more powerful benefit that comes from sharing wordless picture books with our children—and that’s the opportunity to collaborate with them.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as we make the difficult transition into the rigidity of fall routines: of rushing to school, of rushing home from school, of trying to get dinner on the table and everyone to bed at an early hour so that we can make some semblance of an attempt at doing it all over again the next day.
Too often, I parent from a place of authority rather than a place of collaboration. But how can I insist that my children develop flexibility unless I am willing to demonstrate It myself? Wordless picture book, like the Journey trilogy (and I’ve listed other favorites at the end of this post), present a rare gift for us parents to embrace the benefits of honoring our children as partners, rather than progeny.
Appropriately, this happens to be precisely how the trilogy concludes. If the first book casts a less-than-favorable light on the girl’s parents—her mother chatting on the phone while cooking, her father too busy on his computer to respond to the girl’s entreaties to play—the third book spins a more optimistic narrative.
Return begins when the father looks up from his work and, seeing his daughter’s kite dropped at his feet, goes in search of her.
When he finds her red door, he ducks and enters—until he, too, is a character in the vivid magical world that has bewitched his daughter on so many occasions. As it turns out, and as the girl only recognizes once she has forgiven his indifference and welcomed him into her imagination, the father has a critical role to play in the unfolding drama. The two share an adventure which, not only brings them closer together, but reveals a secret about the father’s own history with art and imagination. A door once closed has opened again for him.
We do not need words on a page to comprehend the sheer joy on the girl’s face at the realization that she has an accomplice in her beloved parent. (Hint: see if your child picks up on the subtle change in the endpapers from the beginning of Return to the end; my daughter had to show me, and I almost broke down sobbing, so close to home did it hit.)
In a few months—and at a time when we aren’t rushing—I plan to get out these books again and encourage my kids to look at them alongside me with fresh eyes. I imagine they won’t need convincing. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover and interpret and learn from these sensational pages.
Updated Nov 2017: The Journey trilogy BOX SET is now available: gorgeously packaged and including a never-before-released print!
Other Favorite Wordless Picture Books:
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 3-6)
Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd (Ages 3-6)
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (Ages 4-8; I challenge you to get through this story of connection without tearing up.)
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Ages 4-8)
Pool, by Jihyeon Lee (Ages 4-8, reviewed by me here)
The Girl and the Bicycle and The Boy and the Airplane, by Mark Prett (Ages 4-8)
Fox’s Garden, by Princesse Camcam (Ages 4-8)
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!