October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.
Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.
As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)
What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:
…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.
Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.
As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)
I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.
All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.
But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.
Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.
Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.
Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.
…and Jenny’s head fell off.
I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.
I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.
The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.
The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.
While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?
Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)
A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.
This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.
We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.
With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:
Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.
So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.
You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.
And, of course, the most blood.
The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.
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Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from 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!
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!
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!
September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
In our house, there is nothing like the last week of summer break to convince me that it’s time for my kids to go back to school. I enter into that final vacation week with a heavy heart, prematurely mourning our weeks of togetherness (my kids finally being at the ages where the balance is tipped more towards fun than exhausting).
And then—perhaps because we know our break-up is inevitable and we’re trying to make the case to ourselves—we turn on one another. We bark, we snap, we storm out of rooms. Neither child agrees to any game the other proposes (well, except Rat-a-Tat-Cat; thank goodness for Rat-a-Tat-Cat). Particularly telling: no one seems capable of losing themselves in a book anymore—chapters are abandoned before they are even a quarter completed. Suddenly, the lack of structure we previously relished seems precarious, foolhardy, even downright dangerous.
They need to go back.
Still, there is nothing easy about this month. We parents have to go through the Herculean effort of getting our bleary-eyed kids out the door, only to have them peak under someone else’s watch and then return home exhausted, cranky, and full of penguin problems. Meanwhile, our children face their own set of hurdles, like having to channel their pint-sized reserves of concentration for hours at a time.
But perhaps the greatest challenge for many children comes from the fact that they are about to be corralled into a room for seven hours a day with a dozen (or two) other children, many (or all) of whom are strangers. We take the set-up of modern schooling for granted, but when you get right down to it, it’s like a wayward science experiment: all these personalities hissing and popping, and no one wearing safety glasses.
Fortunately, there are two brilliant new back-to-school picture books to lend some empathy—or at least levity—to the subject of coming-togetherness. On the surface, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates and The Day You Begin couldn’t be more different; and yet, both cleverly tackle the daunting question of how we go about being ourselves in a classroom full of other selves.
Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates (Ages 3-9) will emit no shortage of chuckles, but it will also resonate universally, because if your child doesn’t struggle with impulse control himself, chances are he’s in a classroom with someone who does. Every fall, like clockwork, my daughter comes home from school bearing a list of daily grievances done by one of the new kids in her class. He won’t sit still, he hits, he won’t listen, he won’t clean up…and so on. My kneejerk reaction to her persistent negativity—I hope you are being kind to this child!—is exacerbated by my fear that this is precisely how some perceive her older brother, who has his own unique relationship with impulsivity in the classroom.
And yet, just as predictably, at some point during the year, Emily does a 180. She stops complaining about said child and begins defending him. He is getting better, he was helpful today, he said a nice thing in class meeting, you should see how hard he tries. Bless the teachers who have paired my daughter up with these children on more than one occasion, letting her glimpse below the surface.
In the silliest of ways, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates asks its reader to imagine how frustrating and lonely it can feel when you are a kid who must wage a war against your very nature to conform to the conventional expectations of a classroom. If you remember author-illustrator Higgins from the Mother Bruce series (so, so, so funny), you know how talented he is at creating adorably down-trodden heroines, who dramatically pit themselves against the world and then bemoan the consequences of it. Penelope Rex, the heroine of We Don’t Eat Our Classmates might look the part in pink overalls and a pony backpack, but she has the monumental challenge of being the only T.Rex in a classroom of human children.
(Kudos to Higgins for casting his impulsive protagonist as a girl and for featuring a diverse classroom, complete with a girl in a headscarf and a boy in a kippah.)
T.Rexes get very hungry, and the 300 tuna sandwiches Penelope’s dad packs in her lunch each day do little to squash her propensity for the taste of young humans. And so, even while she wants more than anything for the other children to like her—to invite her to join their games on the playground and sit next to her at lunch—she keeps blowing it. She. can’t. stop. eating. her. classmates. The fact that she spits them out when reprimanded by her teacher does little to reassure her victims.
Always, the fun of reading Higgins’ books lies in discovering the humor he hides in his illustrations, and Penelope’s attempts to fit in are no exception. “She finger-painted some of her best work”; and yet, a glance at the illustration reveals she has painted a picture of a smiling child disappearing into the teethy jaws of a young dinosaur. “She even saved Griffin Emery a seat at lunch,” only closer inspection reveals that she is pointing at an empty spot on her plate.
Back home, a dejected Penelope sheepishly admits to her father that it’s possible “none of the children wanted to play with me” because she ate them (“maybe sort of just a little bit”). To which her father offers some advice: “You see Penelope, children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.”
Things do not improve until Penelope has an unpleasant encounter with the classroom pet, a goldfish named Walter with a carnivorous desire to chomp fingers (my mother would call this, “getting a taste of your own medicine”). “Once Penelope found out what it was like to be someone’s snack, she lost her appetite for children.” (And, no, I am not spoiling that illustration for you.) With her impulsivity somewhat tamed, Penelope begins to showcase a personality worth knowing, sharing a fondness for cooperative building, hiding and seeking, and the ability to laugh at herself.
If We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is about a child who comes out of the gate too strong, Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin (Ages 5-10), illustrated by Rafael Lopez, is about the experience of holding back, of fearing the judgment of others. Written as an ode to the child who feels like an outsider—“There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you”—Woodson’s text was inspired by a poem from her award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, and its lyricism enfolds the reader in a warm cocoon: I hear you, it says, and you deserve to find a place wherever you go.
While the second-person narrative is intended to address anyone who feels set apart—due to physical appearance, heritage, religion, socio-economic background, or something less tangible—four racially-diverse children feature throughout the book and lend some specific examples. One is intimidated by her classmates’ tales about the exotic vacations they took during summer break, since she spent her days caring for her little sister in their hot city apartment (“what good is this/ when other students were flying/ and sailing and/ going somewhere”).
Another just immigrated from Venezuela and worries how his accent will be perceived by his American peers (“because they don’t understand, the classroom will fill with laughter until the teacher quiets everyone”). Still another child dreads the questions she’ll get about the lunch her mother packed, rice and meat and kimchi (“too unfamiliar for others/ to love as you do”). The abstract image of a ruler figures into some of these pictures, perhaps not only alluding to the work of school days, but to the way we relentlessly measure ourselves against those around us.
For the fourth child, painted as a Caucasian boy standing on the sidelines of a playground, we get a hint of the offhand dismissiveness common when a group of kids used to playing together encounter someone new (“I don’t want him on our team./ You can watch./ Maybe you can have a turn later.”) This particular image no doubt rings a chord with both of my children, who have been forthcoming about their own anxiety in deciphering the rules of engagement on the playground, of not wanting to jump in for fear of betraying ignorance or inadequacy.
As the book continues, we witness subtle but significant transformations in the four children, as they take tiny but emboldened steps to put themselves out there: to invite a peak at their lunch, to point out a commonality, to share a story. “My name is Angelina and/ I spent my whole summer with my little sister…reading books and telling stories and/ even though we were right on our block it was like/ we got to go EVERYWHERE.”
What I love is that the emphasis here is on making a start. Nothing more. “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin.” Furthermore, Woodson makes clear to her readers that the power to make this start, to connect, resides in everyone.
All that stands beside you is
your own brave self—
steady as steel and ready
even though you don’t yet know
what you’re ready for.
Can I get this spread made into a poster for my children’s bedroom walls? Please?
We walk into unfamiliar settings, where we might encounter any combination of invisibility and judgment, but we never walk in alone. We have within us, not only a personality worth knowing, but the power to use this personality to bridge that uncomfortable gulf. We need only to begin.
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Books published by Disney Hyperion and Nancy Paulsen Books (review copy from Penguin Young Readers), 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!
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.
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.
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!