Putting One Book in Front of the Other

October 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

My children have heard a lot about the Supreme Court in recent weeks—mostly delivered via their parents and mostly accompanied by outcries of frustration and despair. Still, as much as I want them to understand my concerns with what today’s political actions reveal about the values of our leadership, I also don’t want my discourse to taint (at least, not permanently) the way they view our government’s enduring institutions.

In short, our family needed a pick-me-up. I needed both to remind myself and to teach my children about the Supreme Court Justices who, right now, are fighting for fairness under the law—and who arrived there with poise, valor, humanity, and moral clarity.

In this week’s op-ed in the New York Times, the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, cites recent statistics in which young girls are outnumbering boys in political participation and activism. Under the (awesome) title “Maybe Girls Will Save Us,” Saujani makes a case that this growing political interest in young girls may be related to the “plentiful, visible, diverse role models” that they are witnessing rising up around them (a record number of women are set to run for the House of Representatives this year, for instance).

One of these inspiring role models could easily be Sonia Sotomayor—our first Latina Supreme Court Justice—who speaks to her own journey to the Supreme Court in her new picture book, Turning Pages: My Life Story (Ages 7-10), illustrated by Lulu Delacre. (Another obvious choice would be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but our family has read Deborah Levy and Kathleen Krull’s picture book biographies of RBG so many times, we needed a fresh story to pull us out of our slump.) I knew little about Sotomayor’s story before reading this book; when I finished it, I realized that her path in so many ways personifies the American Dream.

While Turning Pages reveals biographic details about Sotomayor’s life—including her Puerto Rican ancestry, her upbringing in the Bronx, her struggle with diabetes, her studies at Princeton, and her pursuit of the law—it never reads like a traditional picture book biography. In fact, I don’t think my eight year old, normally reticent toward biographies, even realized I was reading her one. With an intimacy that feels marvelously accessible to her young readers, Sotomayor talks about her life, not as a list of struggles and accomplishments, but as it was continually and diversely influenced by the many books she devoured as a child and young adult.

More than simply a story of her life, Turning Pages is an ode to the written word, a love letter to the guiding power of reading in Sotomayor’s life. Each spread in the book, each path on which Sotomayor embarked, celebrates a different way in which what she read inspired her thoughtful and driven approach.

Sotomayor’s language is as invitingly poetic as the written words that first flavor her childhood. Even before Sotomayor learned to read, she experienced the poems her Abuelita would recite during family parties, poems which “sent a charge through the room and sparked memories of her faraway island home.” Here, Sotomayor tells us, she began to understand that writing could be “electrical currents that jolted feelings to life.”

Diagnosed at seven with diabetes, Sotomayor developed the courage to administer herself daily shots with the help of her beloved comic books, casting herself alongside favorite action heroes. “Books, it seemed, were magic potions that could fuel me with the bravery of superheroes.” (It goes without saying that this page was a bit hit with my kids.)

Books kept Sotomayor company on trips back to Puerto Rico, where she began to embrace her heritage, and they also helped her “escape” the sadness left behind by her father’s death, when she was just nine years old. Both my children were captivated by Delacre’s extraordinary art here, which juxtaposes the long, black-streaked faces of Sotomayor’s mourning family (“That really does look like sadness,” my son said) with Sotomayor’s bright escape down the library halls in a newspaper boat bearing herself and a library card. The library quite literally becomes a safe harbor.

Sotomayor devoured non-fiction and fiction alike, both serving to broaden her world view. She cites a particularly memorable day as one when a deliveryman dropped off a full set of encyclopedias, purchased for her and her brother by their mother. “I felt like a deep-sea diver exploring mysterious depths. Books were my snorkel and flippers, helping me get there.” Fiction, too, encouraged this desire to unearth every stone. I admit to a special fondness for the spread in which Sotomayor steals down the stairs like her favorite literary detective, Nancy Drew.

As Sotomayor grew, she also began to use reading as a way to uncover the less tangible “truths about the world around me.” She credits Lord of the Flies with the first time she understood the purpose of laws—and the danger of lawlessness. She also references the Bible at her Catholic high school, which cautioned that we “shouldn’t be so quick to judge people who do the wrong things.” Finally, she sings the importance of reading to develop empathy for different struggles and ways of living. She would choose texts stretching from the “farthest reaches of the planet” to “the little island closest to my heart: Puerto Rico.”

If books began to steer her moral compass and help her understand the individual’s place within a larger community, they also helped her persevere. While nothing about Princeton University matched her childhood in the Bronx, she studied relentlessly to “catch up,” even pouring over grammar books to hone her writing skills. (It was fun to tell my kids that I similarly spent many hours writing my thesis in a cubicle underneath Firestone Library, though I was also then forced to admit to myself that I have far less to show for it than Sotomayor.)

The final pages are devoted to law books—what Sotomayor calls, the “maps to guide us to justice”—which she, as a young lawyer, regularly referenced when convincing a judge of right and wrong, and as a judge, sourced to ensure fair treatment of all people. Now, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, she turns her attention to “the founding document of our government, the Constitution of the United States.”  Of course, in crafting her decisions and opinions, Sotomayor has made her own lasting contribution to the written word.

Sotomayor’s life undoubtedly comes through as impressive, but her telling also radiates humility. The numerous real-life snapshots, which grace the book’s front and back endpapers, make her feel even more approachable. To our children—our own inquisitive, voracious readers—Sotomayor’s path feels not only aspirational, but attainable. Like putting one foot in front of the other, she puts one book in front of the other.

Books are there when we need them, they deepen our world view, and they just might be the catalyst for our young readers to follow in the footsteps of other women change makers in this country’s leadership.

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

 

 

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!

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!

Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation.

Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (Ages 4-8) is told entirely though illustrated panels. (If you have doubts about the value of wordless books, read this.) I first fell in love with MacKay’s acclaimed cut-paper dioramas in Fall Leaves—but, wow, has she outdone herself here. Her art seems actually to dance off the page. It’s as if we were watching the ballet unfold from the same velvet seats as the story’s young heroine, who is attending the show for the first time with her grandmother. In fact, it’s precisely the experience of watching “The Nutcracker” to which McKay brings our attention.

The girl in the story is not as easily seduced as us readers by the prospect of going to the theater. In fact, she isn’t keen on leaving her house at all. Especially not to venture out into the rain and across town with her Gran, who surprises her with Nutcracker tickets. The girl looks stiff and miserable while getting her long hair brushed and her frilly dress on.

MacKay’s washes of browns and greys perfectly echo the dreariness of the cold, wet night. (I know we’re supposed to feel their contrast with the splendor of what’s to come, but there’s something just as beautiful for me about these pictures.)

Despite not getting the response from her granddaughter which she (likely) desires, Gran’s enthusiasm never wavers. She bounces along with a swing in her step and no umbrella.

When the pair enters the theater, it becomes clear the girl thinks her bad luck is only worsening. A boy around her age sticks out his tongue at her as she walks by. When they climb the stairs to the balcony, he turns out to have the seat next to her.

But then, the violinists begin, and the magic happens. Swirls of color sweep into view, and the dismal palette of the previous pages is juxtaposed by the vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and blues of the characters and sets on stage.

If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, those familiar with the ballet will have fun recognizing the different scenes as they flash by. Equally fun is identifying expressions on both the girl’s and boy’s faces, as they take in the performance for the first time. There’s anxiety at the nutcracker’s battle with the mouse king, for starters. And then relief—accompanied by a playful “I was never actually worried” glance at her neighbor—when Clara intercedes on stage to stop the mouse king.

What we begin to realize is that, much as we love seeing our favorite scenes from the ballet rendered so incredibly beautifully on paper, it’s actually just as much fun to watch the shifting relationship between the girl and boy in their seats. In their collective experiencing of the show, they become something more than strangers. Tentative at first, but with increasing warmth, they become playful, even a little flirty, with one another. It’s as if the magic on stage reaches out and holds them in its spell. Clearly, we are meant to draw parallels between the young children’s camaraderie and the relationship between Clara and the nutcracker prince. (McKay paints both the main characters and the dancers with refreshing racial diversity, adding another element of beauty to these relationships.)

Did I mention that by the time the show lets out, the rain has turned to snow?

 

Take away the stage lights, the lavish costumes, the festive sets, and the ethereal dancing, and there is still something magical about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which long ago inspired “The Nutcracker” ballet. It’s a story about handmade gifts that grow in size and come alive on Christmas Eve, when the night is ripe for the unexpected and the impossible seems possible.

T.E. McMorrow (a former stagehand himself) taps into the spirit behind this timeless Christmas Eve tale in The Nutcracker in Harlem (Ages 4-8), which stars a young African-American girl named Marie, living at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the artist-rich Sugar Hill neighborhood of New York City. If Waltz of the Snowflakes has us hearing the classical music in our heads, The Nutcracker in Harlem has us conjuring up the soulful sounds of jazz—voices accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, and women dancing in head scarves and feathered boas. Brilliantly illustrated by the accomplished James Ransome, the story stays true to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, right down to the sweet potato pie.

Our heroine, Marie, loves “the sound of Christmas,” but she doesn’t participate in it. Despite others’ encouragement to “let it out,” the shy, serious girl cannot bring herself to sing alongside her gregarious family and friends. In the pictures, she stands watchful and stiff on the sides. “She wished she could sing, but Marie was afraid she wasn’t any good.”

Like Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Marie gets a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Cab. It is carved, her uncle tells her, from “magical wood” and carries a drum around its neck. After everyone else has gone to bed, Marie sits in the dark beside the twinkling Christmas tree and rocks the nutcracker in her arms. In Ransome’s watercolor, we feel tenderness and affection, but we also identify a palpable sadness in Marie’s solitude.

When Marie awakens after briefly dozing off, the tree has doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size, and the glass ornaments have come to life. So, too, have the dolls and the wooden soldiers, the latter now an army led by the nutcracker himself. In sweeps a second, equally formidable army made up of enchanted mice and led by a mouse general, who charges ahead with cries of “Candy Cane!” and “Marzipan!”

The battle rages on, until it’s time for Marie, like Clara before her, to intercede before the mouse general destroys the nutcracker. But instead of kicking or throwing a shoe at him, Marie picks up the fallen nutcracker’s drum and begins to play. Marie’s power comes from within, but it comes in the form of music.

At once, the mice return to normal size and scamper away, and Marie is left with the nutcracker prince, with whom she dances beneath falling snowflakes. Marie does what we’ve been hoping she will do from the moment we meet her: she closes her eyes and sings. Her entire face softens, and her eyes sparkle.

When Marie wakes again, she is in her bed. It is Christmas morning, and she is surrounded by her smiling parents and her brother. Only an extra drum under the tree suggests that perhaps Marie wasn’t dreaming after all. That and the fact that later in the day, when the guests gather again in her house to sing, Marie joins in.

In McMorrow’s Author’s Note, he says about the story’s ending: “Just as the memory of The Nutcracker remained with Marie, so too did the memory of the Harlem Renaissance remain in the American soul.” Music and art have incredible power to transport and transform. Another reason why next year, you’ll find us in the audience of “The Nutcracker,” relishing once again the magic of the season.

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Review copy of Waltz of the Snowflakes provided by Running Press Kids. The Nutcracker in Harlem published by Harper Collins Children’s. 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!

A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime?

Tavares is best known for his historic, often sports-themed picture books (Crossing Niagra and Growing Up Pedro are favorites), so this sentimental story of two cardinals is a bit of a departure for him. As such, it took him five years to perfect it. But do not be fooled: in the end, his careful narrative and visual choices pay off, including several wordless panels which allow us to especially appreciate his exquisite, evocative paintings. It turns out Tavares was in part inspired to write this story by an experience similar to something we’ve witnessed in our own family, outside our own front door.

Years ago, when we moved from downtown Chicago to our Washington DC suburb, we immediately noticed the birds—particularly, a pair of cardinals, who seemed to enjoy hanging around outside the front of our house. The bright red male—Buddy, as we called him—was always the first spotted. As soon as we saw him, our eyes would quickly scan nearby branches for the more brownish-toned female. “There’s Buddy’s mate!” one of my kids would call out. The feminist in me suggested, more than once, that “Buddy’s mate” deserved a name of her own. But perhaps it’s not by chance that no name ever stuck. That cardinals mate for life is what makes them unique in the animal world. Even my children seemed to sense that this love story, playing out daily on our front lawn, was something special.

Red and Lulu tells the story of two cardinals, who live in a “mighty evergreen” in the front lawn of a small suburban house. As the narrator tells us, the tree was the perfect place to call home: “Its shade kept them cool on hot summer days. And its evergreen needles kept them cozy when autumn wind howled.” The birds’ favorite time of year is Christmas, when the family strings the branches of the tree with lights, then invites neighbors to join them in singing “O Christmas tree.” “Red and Lulu loved listening to the people sing about their tree. Sometimes they even sang along.”

Red and Lulu tells the fictional story of two cardinals, but it also relates the real-life story of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, a beloved New York City tradition dating back to 1931. The Afterward explains how, each year, the head gardener at Rockefeller Center searches “far and wide” for the perfect tree. Because the chosen tree is almost always a Norway spruce, not native to the United States, it is usually found and removed from someone’s yard. (Happy tidbit for those sad to see these great trees taken down: after the Christmas season, the lumber from the Rockefeller tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity. More about this in the lovely picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift.)

One day, while Red is out gathering breakfast and Lulu is home in the nest, a crane pulls up to the house, and workmen cut down the tree. Red returns home in time to hear Lulu’s singing coming from inside the tree, as it barrels down the street on the back of an enormous flatbed.

For miles, over New Jersey highways and across the George Washington bridge onto the island of Manhattan, Red follows his tree, occasionally chirping to reassure Lulu that he is close by. Eventually, in the chaos and enormity of the city, he loses sight of the truck.

As Red searches the streets of Manhattan for his love, we see Tavares’ artistry at his best. He contrasts the brilliant saturation of Red’s feathers—the very color of life and love—with the grey concrete and stone buildings of the city. He contrasts Red’s size—vulnerable and dwarfed—with the larger-than-life city, including the stone lions outside The New York Public Library. By the time the bird flies over the nighttime crowds and neon lights of Times Square, our hearts are aching for him.

In the end, it’s Red and Lulu’s love, not just for each other but for Christmas, which writes their happy ending. Red is drawn towards the sound of crowds of people singing “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree.”

Wait! He could hear the song they loved! Red flew toward the sound.
The voice grew louder and louder.
Then he turned the corner.

As he sees Lulu’s and his tree, magnificently illuminated at the front of the crowd under fat, falling snowflakes, he flies straight for “their favorite branch.” The lovebirds are reunited!

For the next weeks, until Christmas passes and the tree comes down, Red and Lulu remain in their nest in the tree. Then, instead of trying to find their way back to the suburban yard from whence they came, they make their home in Central Park, sharing new trees and birdbaths with the pigeons and other wildlife of the Big City. (One might say they’re city fowl now.)

This way, they’re not far away when the next Christmas comes, when the caroling again beckons them to the most beautiful of plazas, in the most spirited of traditions, with the brightest of trees.

Joy to the world.

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Review copies 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!

A Statue on the Move

November 9, 2017 § 3 Comments

“Did you know the Statue of Liberty is moving?”

My son and my mother were leaning out over the Hudson River, craning to see the iconic green statue, on our recent trip to New York City to visit Grandma.

My mom looked up, confused. “They’re relocating the Statue of Liberty?”

“No,” JP said. “The statue is supposed to look like it’s moving. Her right foot is lifted like she’s taking a step. Most people don’t know that.”

In fact, this is my son’s (also my) favorite new fact to drop on people. Perhaps not quite as shocking as relaying that if all the sharks died, the oceans would eventually dry up—but pretty darn close. Because who stops on his way to gaze up at Lady Liberty’s seven-pointed crown and her iconic raised torch to look down at her heels?

We can thank literary wunderkind Dave Eggers for shedding light on this fascinating detail—and for authoring a 108-page children’s picture book that reads so quickly, so fluidly, and so hilariously, that we hardly realize we’re learning about the enduring symbolism behind the largest sculpture “in all the land.” This is a whole new interpretation of narrative non-fiction, and I love it. I can’t remember the last time a non-fiction book showed up on our doorstep and both kids promptly read the entire thing, cover to cover, to themselves, in one sitting. (Although the book is such a read-aloud delight I couldn’t resist reading it to them a few more times.)

Her Right Foot (Ages 6-12) assumes a conversational approach meant to surprise as much as delight, and artist Shawn Harris’ bold and contemporary paper collages brushed with India Ink perfectly complement Eggers’ signature irreverence. The book assumes the reader comes with a basic familiarity of the Statue of Liberty, including perhaps some mistaken assumptions.

I’ll admit to being as astounded as my children. Did you know that the most recognized symbol of immigration in the world was herself an immigrant?  As the book explains in its opening pages, the Statue of Liberty was not only designed in France as a gift to the United States on its one hundredth anniversary, but it was originally assembled to completion in Paris.

But it’s so much more fun when Eggers tells it:

Did you know this? Ask your friends and even your teachers if they knew that before the Statue of Liberty was assembled in New York, she was first constructed in Paris. Your friends and teachers will be astounded. They will be impressed. They might think you are fibbing.

But you are not fibbing. This really happened. The Statue of Liberty stood there, high above Paris, for almost a year, in 1884.

After they assembled the statue in Paris, they took it apart.

But we just put it together! the workers said.

That is absurd, they said.

They said all this in French, the language of the French, a people who appreciate the absurd.

In other words, the Statue of Liberty once sailed across the sea to come to rest in America (in 214 crates, to be exact), much like the immigrants she welcomes every day.

Eggers goes on to discuss the Statue’s assembling on what was then Bedloe’s Island, across from New York’s bustling harbor. My kids were especially interested to discover that the statue originally looked brown. Or perhaps they were especially interested in how Eggers chooses to explain this to his young readers: You may have thought the illustrator of this book was not so good at his job, because we all know the Statue of Liberty to be a certain greenish-blue. But the Statue of Liberty was made of copper, and copper starts out brown. In fact, it stayed brown for 35 years.

More of the Statue’s symbolism is unpacked, from her seven-pointed crown (seven seas, seven continents) to the book she holds with the signing date of the Declaration of Independence. Readers might already know that the torch she carries “is a symbol of enlightenment, lighting the path to liberty and freedom,” but it’s unlikely any child knows that Thomas Edison once proposed to put a giant record player inside the Lady so she could speak. (In the end, though, this idea was considered a bit strange and was not pursued.) Or that a dinner party once took place inside the statue for a bunch of gourmand French writers.

All this spans the book’s first half and is a compelling build up to Eggers’ central and favorite revelation, something he noticed when visiting the Statue with his family a few years ago. The Statue of Liberty, as it turns out, is anything but statuesque. This 150-foot woman, weighing 450,000 pounds and sporting a 879 size shoe, is on the move. Her entire right leg is constructed mid-stride, her foot lifting out of bondage chains which lie broken at her feet. Why is this detail omitted in so many lessons and books about the Statue of Liberty? More importantly, Eggers asks, what does it mean?

Where is she going?

After some tongue-and-cheek responses which perhaps have more hipster than kid appeal (Is she going to the West Village for her vintage Nico records?), Eggers settles into a gentle but deeply moving 17-page meditation on what it means to honor the journey of immigrants and refugees. On what it means to welcome Italians, Polish, Norwegians, Glaswegians, Cambodians, Estonians, Somalis, Nepalis, Syrians, and Liberians.

On what it means to give promise to “the poor, the tired, the struggling to breathe free.”

Eggers wonders:

If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, if the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States, then how can she stand still?

Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of a statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest.

She is not content to wait.

She must meet them in the sea.

We don’t know for sure why the Statue’s foot is raised or what the artist intended. But Eggers’ theory hits all the right notes—and is as timely as ever. Our Lady Liberty is a mover, a shaker, and an empathizer.

In last night’s election results here in Virginia, a refreshing picture of inclusion emerged. Among other firsts for positions in our state government were an openly transgender female, an Asian-American woman, and two Latina delegates. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first-ever Sikh mayor. I am hopeful for the first time in many months that Americans are moving towards embracing a vision of patriotism based on the melting pot out of which our country’s greatness will emerge.

But, as Lady Liberty herself reminds us, there is always more to be done. More steps to take.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

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

A Love Letter to Florence

July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.

I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.

(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)

In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)

In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.

If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.

A bit of the magic had followed us home.

In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.

The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.

One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).

“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.

In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.

Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.

“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.

It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.

What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.

The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.

DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.

Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.

Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.

Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice

It was also a big plus that JP read Rick Riordan’s fiction series about the Greek and Roman gods prior to the trip. A little Old Testament review would also have been nice!


Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

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

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