The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

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!

Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Forth with Love

January 25, 2018 § 1 Comment

I heard a story shortly before the holidays which I haven’t been able to get out of my head. It was from an associate who serves with me on the Capitol Choices Committee. Normally, in our monthly meetings, we are all business: we get in, we debate that month’s new titles, and we get out. But, at the end of our December meeting, this librarian asked to deliver a few personal remarks. She told us how she had been in New York City the weekend prior (funny enough, so had I) and had been walking on Sunday evening to Penn Station for her train home. It was blustery, growing colder by the minute, and the streets were still dusted with the previous day’s snow. About half a block ahead of her was a man. She described him as middle-aged, well-dressed in a dark wool overcoat, and carrying a briefcase. Keeping pace behind him, she watched as the man suddenly took off his coat, draped it over a homeless man sitting in a doorway, and kept walking. All without missing a beat.

My associate broke into a jog, determined to catch up to the man and thank him. When she did, he simply responded, “He needed it more than I did.” And kept walking.

This story became the topic of our family dinner conversation that night and has continued to surface since then. In the wake of hearing about extraordinary selfless acts, there is often a natural course of response: we go from feeling deeply moved, perhaps gratified or hopeful that such compassion exists; to wondering, would we do the same if given the chance? Too often, we quickly re-immerse ourselves in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and forget all about it.

What does it mean to love the people around us?

It is by and through small acts that children measure the world. Growing up on the streets of New York, I remember my parents talking to me about the futility of dropping change into someone’s begging cup: it was better, they believed, to write a check to an organization whose mission serves the homeless than to give your money to a single individual whose motives might be suspect (the implication: he might waste it on The Drink). My parents were generous individuals, who meant no harm by this view and may have even been right; certainly, they had a point about scope of impact. But scope of impact doesn’t matter in a child’s small eyes.

Now, when we visit New York, my son will often carry his allowance in his pocket and delve it out into various open guitar cases and coffee cups throughout the city. When he runs out of money, I oblige him extra dollars. In the aftermath, his eyes sparkle. He has looked at someone else and made a choice to reach out. However small doesn’t matter to him.

Everyday acts of love abound in Matt de la Pena and Loren Long’s new and much-anticipated picture book, Love (Ages 6-12). It should be noted that everybody in the children’s book world is talking about this book. And yet, while I normally reserve these pages for books that might otherwise fall under your radar, this book deserves its praise sung by many.

Love was born out of Matt de la Pena’s (you’ll remember him from Last Stop on Market Street, another book that takes my breath away) personal despair over the “divisiveness of our country” and his desire to “write a comforting poem about love” for his daughter.

As it turns out, Love is the perfect book to usher in a more hopeful New Year—although not necessarily in the ways we might expect. It is the perfect book to remind ourselves and our children what it means to reach over the edge of fear, anger, uncertainty, sadness, and difference—and connect. And it is the perfect book to remind us that, whether in our happiest and darkest hours, love is present. We need only to open our eyes to it.

Written in the second person—at once, the narrator both intimately addresses the reader and refers to the global experience of childhood—the book opens with a fairly traditional, even expected proclamation of parental love: that of proud, adoring new parents keeping vigil beside their sleeping child.

Already we have a visual clue about the uncharted territory ahead: a brilliant display of racial, economic, cultural, and urban diversity, the likes of which have rarely been presented in a picture book that isn’t strictly about diversity. This is a book about life, about community. How refreshing that the pages actually look like the American towns and cities we dwell in.

As we turn the page, we begin to realize that this is not business as usual for a picture book tribute to love. In the second spread, de la Pena’s poetic text may be about a man playfully bouncing his toddler on his lap in the back of a taxi cab, but the foreground of the accompanying illustration tells a second story: that of a boy in a wheelchair presenting his hot dog to a homeless amputee on a park bench.

As we turn more pages, we are greeted with more manifestations of love, both the familiar and the unexpected. A father dances with his daughter on the sun-drenched roof of their trailer at sunset, while the mother, standing over the sink, carefully inspects a plate to ensure it’s clean. A police officer laughs while pulled in opposite directions by two squealing, gangly children, amidst the spray of the fire hydrant on a steamy summer afternoon.

De la Pena’s text marries with Long’s illustrations in ways that are sometimes indirect but always magical, creating an impression greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of the above sprinkler spread, the run-on words wash over us, helping us to imagine a scene even broader than what Long has painted. In fact, the words invite us to place ourselves in the picture.

In a crowded concrete park,
you toddle toward summer sprinklers
while older kids skip rope
and run up to the slide, and soon
you are running among them,
and the echo of your laughter is love.

But just wait.

In a deeply moving essay for Time magazine about the process of writing Love, de la Pena confesses that his first draft was so focused on reassurance and uplift, so focused on painting a rosy picture of the world for his daughter, that it rang false. “I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity,” he writes. His next draft is what we have in our hands today.

About a third of the way through, the book begins to move from joy-filled moments to those of confusion, loss, hurt, and sadness. It’s as if the book is asking, what happens in these darker moments, in the ones that don’t get talked about, in the ones children don’t entirely understand?

In the book’s first demonstration of adversity, an old woman turns a young girl away from the smoke engulfing her burning apartment building and directs her instead towards the stars in the night sky. (In all of his illustrations, Long showcases just enough detail to conjure emotion, while keeping more frightening images at bay.)

On the night the fire alarm blares,
you’re pulled from sleep and whisked
into the street, where a quiet old
lady is pointing to the sky.

“Stars shine long after they’ve flamed
out,” she tells you, “and the shine they
shine with is love.”

But while there’s a clear helper in that old woman (I’m reminded of the Mister Rogers quote: Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping), in the pages that follow, we are left with some ambiguity about when and if help will come. In the most unsettling illustration—one which de la Pena and Long bravely fought to keep against their publisher’s initial concerns—a child crouches in fear under a piano, while his parents rage at one another. Our only clues about what has happened come from an overturned chair in the corner, a mother burying her head in her hands, and a father storming out of the room, leaving behind an empty Old Fashioned glass with fresh ice cubes. …it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover. It’s summers, too. And friendships. And people. (Although note the dog by the child’s side.)

Sometimes, we are told, we have to recognize “a love overlooked.” This next scene is quietly poignant: a boy watches out the window as his father makes his way through the snow to the bus in the early morning and his sister hands him a glass of orange juice and a plate of toast. A love that wakes at dawn and rides to work on the bus. A slice of burned toast that tastes like love.

Like the great orchestral symphony of life—we rise, we fall, we rise again—de la Pena and Long bring us back to pages brimming with the delight and joy found in everyday connections. One boy fishes with his grandfather. Another listens to his uncles tell “made-up stories,” while throwing horseshoes with him in the backyard. A girl lies on her back in the grass and hears love “in the rustling leaves of gnarled trees lined behind flower fields.”

My favorite spread reveals the love our children can choose to see spread across their own faces when they look into the mirror.

In an homage to growing up and leaving home, which concludes the book, the child reader is told that, while he or she might hear platitudes of good luck in preparing to set out, it’s not really luck that’s needed at all.

Because you’ll have love. You’ll have love, love, love.

Love is at our backs, although not always in the ways we anticipate or even think we need. But love also radiates out from within us. It can influence and direct our actions in the world, assuming we choose to let it. Let us not hold back. Let us feel; let us give. Let us go boldly forth with love at once our greatest guide and our greatest witness.

 

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 2-4 times a month.

Review copy provided by Penguin Young Readers 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!

Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 1 Comment

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time…

Earlier this week, I came across a piece written by a ninth-grade English teacher, titled “4 Reasons to Start Class with a Poem Each Day.” Even though this teacher’s courses are centered on novels, he begins every lesson with a poem. Why? Well, to start with, poems are short. They’re also intense (BAM!) and thought-provoking. They connect back to other things, literary or not. And they’re inspiring.

I got to thinking: maybe I’m looking at this whole poetry-before-bed thing all wrong. Maybe poetry should have a place in our mornings!

I once talked to a mom who told me that she reads a chapter each morning to her children during breakfast, that this has become a lovely way to connect with her children and start their morning off on a high note. This vision has stuck with me all these years—it sounds lovely—but it also screams of impracticality for my life (do I stop reading every time I have to get up to get a napkin, or pour the milk, or ask my child why it appears his hair is never brushed?). No, I’m quite certain that reading at breakfast would just cause more chaos.

At the same time, considering that we’re talking about increasingly fleeting time with my kids, breakfast perhaps feels more transactional than it should. We have the same conversations over and over (“What do you think you’re going to do today?” “I don’t know.”). The refreshing exceptions tend to come when one of us remarks on something spotted through the window: a slew of fallen branches from the storm the night before; the neon green buds on the maple tree; the cardinal dancing in the dogwood. With our window frames as launch pads, time seems to stop for a brief spell. The rush is momentarily forgotten. I suddenly remember why I love these sweet, observant, uncoiffed little people on either side of me.

Then I got my hands on Julie Fogliano’s brand new poetry picture book, When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons (Ages 5-10), lovingly illustrated by Julie Morstad, and I thought: What if, during breakfast, I occasionally read aloud a poem that corresponded to what’s happening in the season we’re in? When Green Becomes Tomatoes features pithy nature poems, each titled for a specific day of the month (beginning and ending with March). Not every day of every month is represented (thank goodness, because I am not that disciplined): in April, for example, we have poems for April 3, 12, 23 and 27.

I don’t think Fogliano has any intention of us being strictly literal here—her spring poems can be read anytime in spring, her fall poems anytime in fall. One could even sit down and read the whole year through, feeling nostalgic about seasons gone by and hopeful about those to come.

The point is that there is potential to leave this chronologically-organized book within reach in the kitchen or dining room or wherever one breakfasts—and to pick it up once a week or so to illuminate what’s happening outside the window. In the most beautiful of ways.

Because, when I read these poems aloud to my kids, which we have been doing now for the past week, it is as if Fogliano is sitting around the breakfast table with us, looking out our same windows and describing in short, lyrical phrases exactly what we are seeing and thinking and feeling, only with greater precision and elegance. I suppose it is hardly surprising that I would fall fast for this book, seeing as I fell in love with Fogliano when her 2012 poem about winter giving way to spring was turned into the evocative picture book, And Then It’s Spring (and, coincidentally, my very first blog post!). In the spirit of that first poem comes these 50 new ones, each proving without a doubt that Fogliano has a delicate, graceful, ever-keen touch that transforms the everyday into the magical.

Just yesterday, when surprising frosty temperatures brought the kids to the breakfast table in sweaters over their spring uniforms, we read:

shivering and huddled close
the forever rushing daffodils
wished they had waited

Here’s another, which perfectly sums up the way we’re all feeling in this sluggish back turn towards winter.

april 3
today
the sky was too busy sulking to rain
and the sun was exhausted from trying
and everyone
it seemed
had decided
to wear their sadness
on the outside
and even the birds
and all their singing
sounded brokenhearted
inside of all that gray

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

Fogliano’s poems are immensely accessible. They flow stream-of-consciousness in an innocent, childlike way. Each line is comprised of just a few words. There’s little to no punctuation. The vocabulary is common. They would be great material for a developing reader. They would certainly inspire a child looking to try his or her hand at poetry. They’re equally perfect for a mother still waking up, just attempting to feed her children breakfast.

july 12
soon we will go to the beach
where we will swim
and eat plums and peanut butter sandwiches
and we will think to ourselves
as we eat
on our blanket in the sand
that nothing in the world
could possibly be more delicious
than those plums
and those peanut butter sandwiches
a little bit salty
and warm from the sun

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

YES PLEASE! (There’s no law that says you can’t skip ahead for a little breakfasting optimism.)

Some of the poems induce chuckles; others are followed by pregnant pauses. With some, the meaning is there to grab quickly; with others, it’s harder to pin down and open for debate. Taken together, these are everything poetry should be for the elementary child.

january 13
other than the cows
everyone has gone
either into or underneath
curled up and covered
but the cows just stand
black and blinking
not noticing that it is cold
and snowing
and everyone has gone

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

My son, sitting next to me as I’m typing this, has just paged through the book and discovered one for September, right around the time of his birthday. “Mommy, you should really type this one up and tell your readers to cut it out and give it to their kids on the first day of school, because this is exactly what school-starting time feels like.” (Even he sees the potential for these poems to start the day—or year—off right!)

september 25
i like it here
on this side of winter
where notebooks are new
apples are best
and freezing still feels far away
but near enough to notice

Morstad’s delightful, child-centric watercolors (there are no adults pictured) are at times playful and at other times serene, betraying her own interpretation of each poem. And yet, as in her earlier picture book, How To, Morstad never clutters her paintings. She takes liberties with empty space, often placing her (commendably) multiracial figures off to the side, giving the poems the room they need to breathe. In the absence of line and form and color, we can build our own meaning, take each poem and make it our own.

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

The result of just one week of reading aloud from this book (and leaving it lying around for bored hands to find) is that we’re once again building momentum around poetry inside our home. Over the weekend, Emily took down Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and had me read it to her; I followed that up by introducing her to Silverstein’s modern (equally laugh-out-loud) descendent, Jack Prelutsky. JP later got out Jon J. Muth’s gentle seasonal haikus, which reminded me that When Green Becomes Tomatoes is joining an already impressive lineup of year-round nature poetry. I’ve included a list below of my favorites, most of which I have discussed in past years.

Perhaps each morning, as we throw open the door and greet the day with full bellies, we will remember that we are stepping into the stuff of poetry. Take a look. It’s all around.

Other Favorite Poetry Picture Books About the Seasons:
Hi Koo!: A Year of Poems, by Jon J. Muth (Ages 3-8)
Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-12)
A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike (Ages 5-10)
Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold, by Joyce Sidman (Ages 6-12)
Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, by Joyce Sidman & Pamela Zagarenski (Ages 6-12)

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

Hibernating with Poetry (Joyce Sidman Style)

February 26, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick AllenNews flash: right now, under your very own backyard or front porch, there could be as many as 20,000 garter snakes huddled together, using the body warmth of one another to wait out these cold winter months. SAY WHAT? If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. And now you, too, can be reminded of said news flash by your seven year old every morning as you leave the house. All thanks to one of twelve poems in Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold (Ages 6-12), the latest lyrical and visual masterpiece by poet Joyce Sidman and printmaker Rick Allen.

Thankfully, Winter Bees IS a masterpiece, so you won’t mind reading about snakes, which may or may not be lurking in “hibernaculums” beneath the ground on which you tread (if you remember, our snake obsession started here). Thankfully, too, most of the poems in Winter Bees are more beautiful than creepy, inspiring awe for animals like tundra swans, moose, beavers, moles, and chickadees, as well as frosty events, like ice crystal formation.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

Joyce Sidman has long been one of my favorite poets for the elementary crowd (see her other books at the end of this post), crafting odes to the natural world that are packed with figurative language both compelling and accessible to a young audience. Unlike much of the poetry targeted at this age, Sidman’s poems are neither silly nor funny. Like the natural wonders that she describes, her poems soar, move, and transcend. And the best part? You’ll be astonished at how much your children’s minds absorb and expand while reading them. Take “Dream of the Tundra Swan,” the book’s opener about swans preparing for a migratory flight:

That night, we dreamed the journey:
ice-blue sky and the yodel of flight,
the sun’s pale wafer,
the crisp drink of clouds.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

My seven year old doesn’t tolerate my pausing for discussion after every poem, but I’m usually able to milk a few. “What do you think they mean by ‘sun’s pale wafer?’ I ask. “Because the sun is round like a cookie,” he responds. “And why would it be a ‘pale’ cookie?” I ask. “Because it’s not very bright that day? Because sun in the winter is kind of dull,” he offers. And then he adds, of his own accord: “I never thought that you could taste water if you flew through a cloud and you weren’t in an airplane—that’s cool!”

While us adults often shy away from poetry, children—if given the chance—often run towards it. Think about how non-literal and non-linear children’s minds are, how front and center their imagination is each time they take in the world. Is it any wonder that poetry has been called the language of childhood? Is there better proof of this connection than discussing Sidman’s poems with your children?

But Joyce Sidman has gone the extra mile here. She has not relied on poetry alone to teach children about the hidden secrets of the winter world. She has paired each poem with a fact-filled paragraph that enhances through juicy, relevant details. Honeybees, my children were shocked to learn (because when was the last time you saw a bee in the snow?), actually remain active throughout winter, eating their way through stored honey supplies and “shivering” on especially cold days to generate warmth inside the hive.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

No plug for this unique book would be complete without acknowledging the impact of Rick Allen’s stunning, take-your-breath-away illustrations: a winter wonderland like no other. Blending old and new art mediums, each image has been cut, inked, and printed from over 200 linoleum blocks;  colored by hand; and, finally, digitally scanned and layered on the computer. I’ve always been drawn to woodblock printing, but…wow. Just WOW. This is winter at its best. This is the winter of our dreams (NOT the winter that Boston has been having, nor the ubiquitous school delays and sub-zero wind chills.) It’s the perfect contrast of warm oranges and chestnut browns against the crisp white snow. It’s the twinkling, ethereal effect of snowflakes caught on a moose’s fur. It’s the bare white branches of trees against a purple sky-filled night. It’s OMG GORGEOUS.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

Read from start to finish, Winter Bees takes us on a journey from the beginning of winter to the first hints of spring (can we have a Halleluiah please?). As the days lengthen, the chickadee calls out announcing a new nesting season. Skunk cabbage “peeks up through the snow:/ the first flower in the wood./ Wreathed in an eerie purple glow,/ up through the slick of soggy snow,/ smelling of rotten buffalo.” Tiny flea-like creatures called springtails (with anti-freeze in their bodies!) burrow up through melting snow and somersault into the air, celebrating the change of season (“we have to move!/ we have to spring!”).

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

As much as I love wintery books like this (all the better to read to my children under the covers or with a hot mug of tea in my hand), I know I’ll feel akin to the springtails in a few weeks, more than ready to catapult my family into spring.

Other Favorite Poetry Picture Books by Joyce Sidman:
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, illus. Beth Krommes (Ages 4-8)
Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, illus. Pamela Zagarenski (Ages 5-10)
Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, illus. Rick Allen (Ages 6-12)
Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems, illus. Beckie Prange (Ages 6-12)
Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, illus. Beth Krommes (Ages 6-12)
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, illus. Beckie Prange (Ages 6-12)

Review copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!

Summer Birthday Pick

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetFor all the reading that we intend to do with our children in the summer, many of the days pass instead in a sweaty haze of shifting feet, slamming doors, and long afternoons at the pool. By the time our little ones are ready for bed, their eyelids (and mine, if I’m being honest) are too heavy to sustain more than a few pages.

For this Reading Deficit Disorder that hits right about July, I have just the prescription, which you will want to dish out to your own family, as well as wrap up for all those summer birthday parties. I’m talking about POETRY! Poems are the answer! Allow me to introduce the delightful and timely-titled anthology, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-11), with poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko and spectacular mixed-media illustrations by Melissa Sweet (yes, I’ll say it again: I adore everything that Sweet puts her hands on). This is not the first (or second) time I’ve celebrated seasonal poetry, although these poems are quite different from, say, Muth’s original haikus in Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons. These republished poems span the twentieth century and include many of the Greats, like William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Anne Porter. That’s right: these are not children’s poems. They are everyone poems. Most don’t rhyme; many take some puzzling to figure out; and all of them rely on just a few words to convey loaded meaning. The gift—the real gift here—is that by lending a visual interpretation to each one, Melissa Sweet has made these poems accessible and relatable to children. The other gift, of course, is that each one is just a few lines long, the perfect antidote for restless bums or closing eyes.

Take the poem “Sandpipers,” by April Halprin Wayland, where “Sandpipers run with/ their needle beaks digging—they’re/ hemming the ocean.” I just love Sweet’s collage with the fabric-swatched beach towels and the busy sandpipers up front, poking wavy lines of perfect little needle holes in the sand.

IMG_7363

One might easily pass right over Carl Sandburg’s three-lined poem, “Window,” about gazing out into the night from within a moving railroad car, if it weren’t for Sweet’s stunning double spread with snapshot views of imagined sights outside a train window (my kids love pointing out things they notice in each window).

IMG_7366

While we have been especially enjoying the summer selections, like J. Patrick Lewis’ “Firefly July” and Emily Dickinson’s “The Moon was but a Chin of Gold,” there’s something kind of awesome about recalling (or anticipating?) the damp fog of fall in James Stevenson’s “Screen Door,” or the chill of winter in Ted Kooser’s “Snow Fence.” At the moment, my kids’ favorite poem is Joyce Sidman’s “A Happy Meeting,” which describes what happens when rain meets dirt (first, “soft, cinnamon kisses,” then, “marriage: mud”).

IMG_7369

In all honesty, my daughter may be more drawn to the polkadotted tights and striped rain boots, both front and center thanks to another of Sweet’s brilliant plays with perspective; but at three and a half, Emily’s still a bit young for such abstract language. JP, however, is on the cusp of falling in love with poetry, and he’s especially intrigued by how non-threatening these shorter poems can be to read aloud (I talk more about poetry’s lure for early readers here). For him, the idea of something like rain kissing dirt is unpredictable and silly and, well, pure magic. Much like the fireflies that light up his summer evenings and occasionally take the place of a bedtime story.

——

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of this book free of charge from Candlewick. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

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