The Book to Soothe the Storm

September 13, 2018 § 6 Comments

My eldest is a walking barometer: his mood reflects the very movement of the clouds, the atmospheric pressure, the veil of precipitation. Such a fine membrane seems to exist between the surface of his skin and the world beyond, that it’s often difficult to tell where he ends and the weather begins. A grey day brings with it fatigue at best and dejection at worst. The threat of storm clouds yields a heightened, agitated alertness. A clear blue sky produces bottomless joy, coupled with a wide-eyed innocence like he is seeing the world for the first time.

This sensitivity translates into an intellectual fascination with the weather: with weather books, with weather apps, with radar maps and a seemingly endless (read: maddening) ability to discuss weather forecasts. But as much as my son believes that arming himself with information will temper his sensitivity, it does little to soothe him in the face of severe weather.

At ten, with the help of ear plugs and a weighted blanket and an impressive mound of stuffed animals, JP has finally begun to sleep—or, at least, to remain in bed—during lightning flashes and thundering crashes. My heart leaps out of my body during these storms, fretting to be with him, yet knowing he will feel better, stronger, if he learns to weather them on his own. And he desperately wants to succeed. He yearns to separate his core self from the sounds and patterns and pictures outside. He wants to make his own weather.

If I could go back in time—to the early years, when I would try (and fail) to assuage JP’s weather anxiety with rational discussions about the probability of a tree falling on one’s house—I would take a certain picture book with me. Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry’s You’re Safe With Me (Ages 2-7), newly published by a UK imprint, is the book I was missing back then. A book that strikes just the right chord for that moment when the clouds threaten and the skies open up. A book to quiet the storm that’s inside, while letting the one that’s outside do its thing.

Both of my children are older than the intended audience of this book, but I bought it anyway—and not just for its calming tone. The metaphorical language attached to wind, thunder, lightning, and flooding is beautiful. And the geometrically intricate illustrations—inspired by folkloric Indian art—are positively stunning. An extraordinary reminder that we are never too old for picture books.

The book opens at bedtime. Four baby animals—monkey, loris, tiger, and pangolin—are huddled together, trying to sleep, but the “skies turned dark and the night grew stormy.” Now the wide-eyed animals begin to fret. Mama Elephant, here a kind of universal mother figure, pauses on her night walk to sit with the small animals, rocking them in her trunk and reassuring them, “You’re safe with me.”

Each time the animals begin to doze off, they are once again startled by the mounting storm. First, there is the wind, which moans aloud and tips the trees.

“Don’t worry about the wind,” whispered Mama Elephant. “He’s an old friend of the forest. He brings us seeds from faraway lands.”
“He’s loud,” said little monkey.
“That’s him huffing and puffing because he’s tired,” said Mama Elephant. “He is as gentle as a breeze when all the work is done.”
The baby animals closed their eyes. The wind didn’t worry them anymore.

Just as the animals are sleepy once again, “thunder clattered,” “clouds echoed,” and the “little animals sat up.” Once again, Mother Elephant personifies the storm element, eliciting empathy as she explains its valuable purpose in bringing life to the forest. The thunder, she tells her captive audience, helps to bring water from the sea, which the freshly-blown seeds need to grow. When the young loris points out that the thunder is too “noisy,” Mama Elephant explains: “She’s groaning from the weight of the rain…Soon she will turn as fluffy as flowers.”

The pattern continues with lightning, which “sparkles in the sky when clouds collide,” and then with the flooding river, whose rumbles concern little pangolin: “Is she angry?” No, Mama Elephant replies, the rushing water is simply gobbling up the shadows in the forest, on her way to return the water to the sea, thus allowing a new growth cycle to begin. This notion of life as cyclical is perfectly reinforced by the swirling art. Everything is temporary, the illustrations remind us: what is scary now will be beautiful later. We need only to wait (and, in the meantime, to sleep).

Like the animals hanging onto Mother Elephant’s every word, we as readers can’t help but pour over Mistry’s lush illustrations, perhaps wishing the miniature, densely-packed dots and geometric shapes would give way to more than just pictures of clouds, rivers, and elephant snuggles. But maybe we don’t need to look that hard. When our littles are fearful and looking to us for answers, maybe we don’t need to explain every little thing. We need to comfort. To soothe. Maybe throw in some poetic language and beautiful pictures for extra credit.

In time, my boy will learn to make his own weather, to not hitch himself to the highs and lows of the atmosphere. In the meantime, he’ll know he’s safe…with me close by in the next room.

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Books published by Lantana Publishing in the UK; distributed in the US by Lerner. 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!

 

God of Summer

June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai GersteinAs a stay-at-home parent, I greet the arrival of summer with equal parts giddiness, relief, and dread. I know I will watch my children grow before my eyes more rapidly than during any other season. I know the front hall will be draped with wet towels, half-empty coolers, and bottles of sun block. I know we will picnic in beautiful places. I know my children’s boredom will give way to creative partnerships the likes of which I could never predict. I know there will be tears; there will be yelling; there will be hysterical laughter. I know the noise will drive me into the laundry room. I know there will be long sticky cuddles while reading together on the couch. I know there will be dance parties. I know my children will jump at every chance to stay up and catch fireflies. I know their eyes will close the second their heads hit the pillow—and that mine will follow close behind.

For any ambivalence I might have about summer’s arrival, my children have none. For them, summer is something to be greeted with unadulterated ecstasy—the skipping, jumping, eating ice cream, and wearing whatever they want kind. In this, they feel a kinship to a certain Greek god in Mordicai Gerstein’s wildly infectious new picture book, I am Pan! (Ages 5-10).

For any parent whose days of studying Greek mythology are buried under dust, allow me to give you a refresher. Pan—with his horns and hoofed feet—is the exuberant god of the wild. He is god of noise and confusion, of silliness and mischief. He is the originator of the word “panic,” speaker of exclamation marks, and lover of honey, fruit and flowers. In short, he is every child’s alter ego: the kid (well, kid at heart) who can get get away with anything, who can act up and out on every whim, and who somehow remains adorable through all of it. He is the Curious George of Mount Olympus.

Traditionally, Pan is associated with fertility and the season of spring, a connection briefly alluded to in the book’s final page. As far as my children are concerned, though, he should be the god of summer. He represents everything that summer break promises to them: the freedom to romp, frolic, and laze about to their hearts’ content.

As if the very notion of a god of noise wasn’t enticing enough, Mordicai Gerstein has given our children a visual and narrative rendition of Pan’s story that explodes and entertains at every turn. It’s not the serious treatment that Gerstein gave to his spectacular Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, but something closer in tone and style to his earlier summertime story, How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers. In I am Pan!, Gerstein outdoes himself: trading in typeset completely for hand lettering, presenting all dialogue in speech bubbles, and challenging the very boundaries of the picture book. Whether or not your kids already love comics and graphic novels; whether or not they already love (or even know anything about) Greek mythology: I guarantee that they are going to run to the highest hilltop and sing out their love for this book.

As Pan’s autobiography—yes, the entire book is narrated by the egocentric rascal—the book also serves as a fun and lighthearted introduction to Greek mythology. I mentioned a few posts ago that my eight year old is already well down the mythology path (he immediately hijacked this book until he had read it three times through); but most mythology texts are too dark or complex for my five year old. NOT THIS ONE. Gerstein reveals just the right amount of information about Pan’s fellow gods and goddesses, lends just the right amount of frivolity and hilarity to the family saga that is Mount Olympus. My daughter’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued. (As I’m typing this, she is home sick from school and literally wrangling the book away from me.)

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In a jam packed, visually prolific 72 pages, Pan gives us eleven highlights of his life, beginning with his birth. Is it any surprise that, in lieu of a heartbeat, the midwife heard shouts, snickers, and giggles coming from his mother’s womb?

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Hands down a favorite with both kids is the moment when Pan is introduced to Zeus, described on more than one occasion as exceedingly “grumpy.” Pan, still a baby (although it only takes him an hour and fifteen minutes to become fully grown), reaches out and bonks Zeus on the nose. To everyone’s surprise, Zeus is immediately smitten.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Eventually, though, Pan wears out his welcome with his extended family on Mount Olympus (“He delights my heart, but he’s a menace,” says Hera) and is sent to Arcadia to rule over grassy hills, idyllic waterfalls, and shepherds and nymphs.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In Arcadia, where Pan becomes master of his own domain, noisy drama and physical comedy reign. Pan plays a role in some of Greek mythology’s most entertaining stories, including serving as the catalyst for King Midas’ jackass ears, falling in love with an echo, and rescuing Zeus’ sinews from a monster even noisier than him. (I bet you never thought you could have so many bizarre conversations with your kids).

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

If myths were originally told to explain elements of our world, Pan’s stories are no exception: Pan crafts the first love song, is the inspiration behind the marathon, and—most famously—invents panic. For all his larger-than-life personality, Pan is a great lover of naps. When he initially arrives in Arcadia, he promises “laughing, singing, dancing, and all kinds of noise, celebration and gaiety”—but with one exception: nap time. When an ant interrupts Pan’s nap with a sneeze, Pan explodes, and the sound makes every living creature around him jump with panic. Pan quickly discovers that his ability to ignite panic is his greatest superpower—more effective than all the bows and arrows combined—and he later uses it to help the Greeks win against the Persians.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

For all the trouble he stirs up, Pan is not a trouble maker at heart (the same may be said of Curious George). He is simply motivated by the egocentricity, jealousy, and desire that affect gods and humans alike. Ultimately, though, it’s his innocent and uninhibited gaiety that readers will remember long after the final page. Pan plays songs on his reed pipes that make “the birds dance with the clouds” and the “bunnies dance with the foxes.” He loves his family with a boisterous, almost suffocating kind of affection. He feels the joy of living in his bones and horns and hooves, and he simply cannot bear to keep it in.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Whether we’re ready or not, summer is nearly upon us. May your little Pans find endless channels for their own exuberance—and may you find moments of quiet in which to enjoy them.

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Review copy provided by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee MasseMy eight year old has been on a Greek mythology craze for the past six months. For years, he has been hearing references to mythology made in his mixed-ages classroom, has been seeing classmates walk in and out of school with related books tucked under their arms, has even been listening to one classmate proclaim the pomegranate seeds in her lunch to be the “fruit of the gods”—but he has never showed any genuine interest himself.

Until now.

One night at bedtime, perusing his shelf for something his dad could read to him (I’m a bit territorial about letting my husband “butt in” on a chapter book that JP and I already have going), JP pulled out D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (Ages 7-12). At 192 oversized pages, this pencil-illustrated tome is still the ultimate foundation for children embarking on the endlessly fascinating myths created by the Ancient Greeks in their formation and understanding of Western civilization. Thence began for father and son a beautiful foray into the terrifically twisted realms of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, jealousy and betrayal, wars and loves, vanity and indifference. (Yes, I’m the one who has to butt out now.)

Then, for Easter, my husband gave JP the boxed set of George O’Connor’s astounding graphic novel series, Olympians (Ages 9-15), a deliciously dark, no-holds-barred approach to dramatizing the rises and falls of the different Greek gods. If you’ve harbored any doubts about the value of the rapidly-growing graphic novel genre, these books might singularly reform your thinking, as they did mine. They are not only tremendous visual feats, but they are wickedly smart. Still, my favorite thing about this series comes in the Afterwards to each book, where O’Connor explains his narrative choices and interpretations of the myths. Not only do our kids get a rare and compelling glimpse into the creative process, but they are themselves encouraged to ponder the complexity and ambiguity of the different myths.

Shhh, could that be the stirrings of literary criticism in our children?

As much as I want to safeguard this reading bond that my husband and son have created around mythology, I couldn’t resist a little one-off involvement of my own. Furthermore, with it still being National Poetry Month for another week, I wanted to let you and your own mythology lovers in on the latest picture book gem by Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse. Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths (Ages 7-12) is actually the third installment of “reverso poems” by this author-illustrator duo (the earlier Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow are centered on classic fairy tales), but it’s the first time that one of my kids has been old enough (or interested enough) to really sink his teeth into the delightful novelty of these poems.

What is a “reverso poem,” you ask? Something that only a poetic magician (or magical poet?) like Marilyn Singer could possibly construct. As Singer herself invented the form, it seems only fair to use her words to define it:

A reverso consists of two poems. You read the first poem top to bottom. Then, you read the poem again with the lines reversed, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and that second poem says something completely different.

Cool, huh? A poem that is designed to be read from top to bottom and bottom to top!

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

Since Echo Echo, Marilyn’s newest work, concerns itself with the Greek myths—and since most of these myths naturally pit two characters against one another (heroic Perseus slays the snake-headed Medusa; revengeful Athena turns the mortal Arachne into a spider)—each set of poems allows us to explore two different points of view. Sometimes the words of the poems are the words of the characters themselves; sometimes they come from a third party. But in every set of poems, we are reminded that there are two sides to every story.

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

The poem “Demeter and Persephone,” based on the heart-wrenching story of mother and daughter, originally devised by the Ancient Greeks to explain the four seasons, is one of the most poignant examples of the two opposing poetic voices at work. (While prior familiarity with the different myths featured in these pages will help the child reader get more out of the poems, Singer includes a brief synopsis of the relevant myth below each poem.) In this particular myth, Hades, god of the underworld (referred to as the “thief” below), kidnaps Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth’s bounty. In her despair, Demeter threatens to make all of the earth barren if her daughter is not returned to her. A deal is struck: Hades promises to return Persephone to Demeter for six months of the year (spring and summer representing her return), although Persephone must live among the dead with Hades for the other six months (fall and winter representing her descent).

We hear first from Demeter, beseeched with all the anger and resentment of a grieving mother determined to have her revenge. She addresses her only daughter:

I hate the thief.
Do not ask that
I forgive Hades.
Spring
will turn to
winter,
will leave this land cold and dark.
Daughter,
this mother’s lonely
tears
shed no
relief.
I feel such
despair.
No more
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
There will be
six months of grief
after so much joy and laughter.

Persephone, however, adopts more of a “glass is half full” attitude. She chooses to focuses on the happiness she will experience each spring when she is reunited with her mother.

So much joy and laughter
after
six months of grief.
There will be
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
No more
despair.
I feel such
relief.
Shed no
tears.
This mother’s lonely
daughter
will leave this land, cold and dark.
Winter
will turn to
spring.
I forgive Hades.
Do not ask that
I hate the thief.

With that second ending, is Persephone merely resigning herself to her fate, or is she opening the door to the possibility of loving Hades?

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

“Narcissus and Echo” is another favorite, based on the story of the vain young mortal, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in a pond (my kids think this is hysterical) and is turned by the gods into a flower—while Echo, the woman who loves him unrequitedly, is turned into a mournful echo. (Can we take a second to note how much great vocabulary comes out of reading Greek mythology?)

Here’s Narcissus, bent on being uninterrupted while basking in his own beauty:

“Here,
here…”
Was
that
a nymph?
Was
that
an echo?
Leave me,
foolish pursuer!
I will forever be the
only
one
that
I desire—
the most beautiful of youths—
a flower among men.

Then Echo, who plans to fight the good fight forever:

A flower among men!
The most beautiful of youths!
I desire
that
one
only.
I will forever be the
foolish pursuer.
Leave me,
an echo
that
was
a nymph,
that
was
here.
“Here…”

All the poems in the book are enhanced by the Canadian artist Josée Masse’s seductive acrylic paintings, romantically infused with twilight blues and golden yellows. To be sure, Masse’s visual interpretation of the myths is much more whimsical (think “G-rated”) than George O’Connor’s, yet there is still plenty in these pages to mystify and transfix. In fact, my five-year-old daughter, who is too young for D’Aulaires Book (not to mention Olympians), has several times picked up Echo Echo on her own to page through the art. After she has looked at a picture for awhile, she’ll often ask me to read the synopsis of the myth below it—suggesting that this book might also serve as an introduction to Greek mythology for the younger set.

Masse’s art is rich with symbolism and plays with and subverts imagery in much the same way that the reverso poems themselves do. Each painting—furthering the idea of two points of view—is set up as two images, which either bleed into or oppose one another, always with a discernible divide down the middle. One of our favorites is the one that accompanies “Theseus and Ariadne,” a poem about Theseus’s attempt to navigate the Minos labyrinth and kill the half-bull-half-man Minotaur that lies within. The poem alludes to the ball of thread, which the king’s daughter, Ariadne, gives to Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze. On one side of Masse’s painting, the Minotaur’s dense, snorting body dominates the foreground; in the other, only the outline of the Minotaur remains, his head having dissolved into a labyrinth of thread, beside which Theseus stands armed. Visual poetry!

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse"

Or how about “Pandora and the Box,” the Greek’s version of Eve and the apple, where the first woman created by the gods opens a forbidden box and inadvertently releases evil into the world. Here, Meese has painted two figures of Pandora overlapping one another: one is bright and full of light and one is enveloped in a black shadow. And yet, interestingly, the box, which appears in both frames, is the inverse of the figures in whose hands it rests. Are we to consider that there is light to be found amidst evil and evil to be found in the most bucolic of scenes? For that matter, looking at the ghoulish green creations pouring from the box, what exactly is “evil”?

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

The Ancient Greeks developed their myths to make sense of the world unfolding around them. To make sense of why things are the way they are, why people are the way they are, and why it either matters much or matters not at all. Thousands of years later, we may not necessarily need these myths to help us navigate the seas and the stars—and yet, their characters and deeds continue to surface in literature, in art, in music, and in the language we speak. It’s not only exciting for our children to begin to make these connections, to identify a common thread throughout Western culture, but also to stand these myths on their heads and explore their every nuance. Only when we question the foundation below us, can we build something even stronger.

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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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