November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments
In light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.
What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened?
In the first 48 hours following the shocking results, I was unable to turn away from the news, inhaling every editorial or opinion piece that I could find—as if, taken together, all those words could fill the chasm that I felt breaking open inside me. Two common refrains did provide some element of sense-making—at the very least, something I could echo to my children: one, that many of the people who voted for our president-elect do not support his hateful rhetoric but did so because they or their communities are hurting in very real ways; and two, that with a country so vehemently divided, we have to start listening to one another if we are going to find a productive and peaceful way forward.
Eventually, though, the news just made my head hurt more. (I then went through a period of emotional eating, but we’ll leave that out…plus, it hasn’t completely ended and, come to think of it, I think I’m getting low on peanut butter ice cream…)
Ultimately, though—as has been true so many times in my life—it is books that are serving as my therapy, books that are giving me hope. In my alone time in the car, I am listening to Sissy Spacek’s beautiful recording of To Kill a Mockingbird and taking heart in everything that comes out of the mouth of Atticus Finch. Immediately following the election, I read to the kids Debbie Levy’s new picture book biography, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, mostly so I could reassure myself that there are still people in power fighting for decency and justice. Then, over the weekend, the kids and I cozied up and rejoiced in Ratpunzel, the latest in the deliciously feminist “Hamster Princess” series, because, well, escapist therapy feels pretty great right now.
But the most fortuitous book-related turn of events came when the kids and I stumbled upon a collection of books about the very heroes from our past who can inspire us to stand up in our future. These are true stories that address many of the very prejudices and injustices that I believed were mired in our country’s past, but which I am now painfully aware were not all that deeply buried after all.
As kismet would have it, last week’s election was immediately followed by the arrival of our Scholastic mail-order books, which my kids have been eagerly anticipating ever since they turned in their orders at school a few weeks ago (the newsprint circulars from Scholastic are another thing that has not changed in this country).
I had been pleasantly surprised when my six year old originally picked out a “starter set” of five titles in Brad Meltzer’s “Ordinary People Change the World” series, seeing as she has shown zero interest in biographies to date (or, if I’m being honest, in most non-fiction). Of course, she’s exactly the reader that Meltzer intended to target when he decided to introduce historical figures through conversation, cartoons, and a child-centric view of the world, in such titles as I am Abraham Lincoln, I am Rosa Parks, I am Albert Einstein, I am Jackie Robinson, and I am Amelia Earhart. (In less than a week, we have since added I am Jane Goodall, I am Martin Luther King Jr., I am George Washington, and I am Helen Keller to our collection. And I am Lucille Ball and I am Jim Henson are on our list.)
If I was originally surprised by my daughter’s selection, I am even more surprised that, in the days following our initial reading of the first five books, my daughter has carried them everywhere. She reads them in the bathroom. She reads them at night by flashlight. And, since she can’t actually read, she asks me to read them aloud to her again and again.
I am even more surprised that my third grader has stopped what he’s doing—every single time—to look over our shoulders as we read them. As if he too can’t get enough. He even took three to bed with him last night.
I am even more surprised by how animated and excited I become while reading these books, as if optimism—and not outrage or heartbreak—is raining down upon us for a few precious minutes.
I am even more surprised that I’m saying this about these particular books. Because I have, admittedly, been slow to get on the bandwagon of Brad Meltzer’s popular series, which launched almost three years ago. There’s much about Christopher Eliopoulus’ illustrations—the oversized heads, the gaping black mouths, the blunt backgrounds—that I initially mistook for crude (the adult-in-a-kid’s-body still kind of freaks me out). I preferred reading about Einstein through the sublime art of On a Beam of Light, or Lincoln through the abstract palette of Looking for Lincoln. But, of course, my six year old doesn’t.
So, while I’ve recommended the “Ordinary People Change the World” series to schools, even brought them into my kids’ classrooms from the library, I never really saw them as worthy to own. Of course, I hadn’t ever sat down and read one cover to cover. Until now.
Now, I get it. Because Meltzer’s writing is utterly captivating. The choice to write in the first person is unique (“It’s like I’m hearing their real voices, Mommy!”), and the choice to directly address the child reader makes it impossible to look away.
Each book is a living and breathing example of what it looks like to stand up for what you believe, to stand up for what you love, to stand up for what is right. Each book showcases obstacles that had to be overcome, nay-sayers that had to be denied, and courage that had to be summoned. Each book demonstrates the way in which determination, combined with hard work, a hefty dose of creativity, and serious guts, fuels ordinary people to make the extraordinary happen.
It turns out that Eliopoulus’ blend of cartoons and comics perfectly complements the tone of the narrative, heightening the indignance of the voices, the unfairness of the situations, and the celebration of expectations overturned. As a bonus, his pictures lend humor to many of the pages (and if there’s one thing that will get my youngest interested in history, it’s humor).
When Rosa Parks talks about how she used to wonder if rainbows would come out of the “colored” drinking fountains—the ones that were outside and around the building from the “white only” fountains—we want to reach through the page and hold her little hand.
When the character of Jackie Robinson confides to the child reader about bravery, we lean in to listen. Jackie was not by most definitions a brave kid: “In fact, as a kid, I didn’t like sleeping alone. I used to sleep in my mom’s bed. Even when she tried to bribe me, I wouldn’t leave.” And yet, years later, his passion for baseball—and for winning at baseball—led him to persevere against all odds, despite pitchers throwing fastballs at his head and catchers spitting on his shoes and letters that threatened to hurt his family.
These books are much more sophisticated than I presumed at first glance—scintillating for a kindergartener, yet still plenty meaty at 30-40 pages for a third and fourth grader. Neither do they shy away from hard truths. In I am Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln watches as a boat sails down the Ohio river carrying slaves chained to one another (“I didn’t do anything that day, but for years, the memory of those people…it haunted me.”).
In I am Martin Luther King Jr., many of the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement—and the violent reactions they sometimes spurred—are vividly brought to life, including the Children’s Crusade (“The chief of police told the firemen to spray the children with water hoses and attack them with dogs.”).
Defiance comes in many forms. Both my kids were fascinated to learn that General George Washington used invisible ink and code names to draw up plans that the British couldn’t read (“How’d we win? We were smarter. We were sneakier. We were fighting for a cause. For freedom!”).
Helen Keller, mocked for her “dumbness” and initially told she couldn’t attend college—even after she had taught herself to speak—went on to fight for the access of public universities for all people, regardless of disabilities. Because activism breeds activism, she also went on to become a suffragist, an early advocate for free speech, and a fighter for equal rights for black Americans. And she did so by making sure that she met with every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson (“But let’s be honest. They met her.”)
Jane Goodall’s love for the planet and the animals with whom we share that planet feels especially poignant right now; and the undeniable cuteness of the chimps in I am Jane Goodall doesn’t hurt. (“Listen to the feelings in your heart. We are responsible for the animals around us. We must take care of them. When one of us is in trouble—be it human, creature, or nature itself—we must reach out and help.”)
It’s hard to say how much my daughter understands about this presidential election and its ramifications. Probably not a whole lot. In the 48 hours that followed, while her older brother was busy listing off organizations that we should give money to and describing signs he wants to make for the yard (Peace for All), Emily just kept asking, “Can’t they have a do-over?”
But I wonder if, perhaps on some subconscious level, she was drawn to these books because they carry with them a note of hope in a time that feels dangerously close to listing toward hopelessness. Children don’t have to understand the particulars about our government to pick up on the uncertainty and uneasiness that exists in the air right now. These books reassure us of the greatness in our country and across the world, of the resiliency of mankind, and of the potential for one person to make a difference.
Each of Meltzer’s biographies closes with a call to action, an encouragement to stand up in the name of human dignity. One of the most fitting passages, given our current social climate, comes out of the mouth of Rosa Parks (via Brad Meltzer).
In my life, people tried to knock me down.
Tried to make me feel less than I was. They teased
me for being small. Being black. Being different.
Let me be clear: No one should be able to do that.
But if they try, you must stand strong.
Stand for what’s right.
Stand up for yourself (even if it means sitting down).
Brad Meltzer needs to write a whole lot more of these books—and FAST. I hope to see an even greater diversity of races, religions, and sexual orientations represented in the people he decides to profile. I promise you, we are going to read every single one. Multiple times.
If I can encourage my children to bear witness to these acts of dismissal, hate, and bigotry on paper, then hopefully they will spot them in real life, too. If the language for talking about these acts already exists in their lexicon, then hopefully they will not shy away from speaking out, not only when the time is right, but every time it’s right.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
With these small books, our children (and us) have an opportunity to climb inside different slices of history, to witness how activism can take a multitude of brave and peaceful forms, and to perhaps even feel some of the bewilderment, outrage, thoughtfulness, and determination of ordinary people who spoke up and acted out to change the world.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments
We are still feeling the effects of Olympics Fever in our house. Before his weekly swim lesson, JP flaps his arms back and forth across his chest, a.k.a. Michael Phelps. Emily vaults off the arm of our leather chair and lands with her hands above her head, chest lifted. I’m still smiling at the charisma of Usain Bolt, who runs so fast it’s scarcely comprehensible. While we were watching the Olympics one Saturday afternoon, with footage of fencing and archery and discus throwing, JP exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were this many sports!” (We aren’t typically a sports-watching family, as I’ve mentioned before.)
For all the glory that my children witnessed unfolding on the television screen this past summer, I don’t think they really grasped the guts that were involved. The sacrifices made. The arduous, sometimes circuitous journeys of these athletes to Rio. What actually went on behind the scenes.
I started to feel like I was doing these athletes a disservice by not talking to my kids about how painfully difficult—how physically and mentally trying—these journeys to victory often are.
I announced to my nine year old one night in late August that I had the perfect book to keep the spirit of the Olympics alive in our house. The choice was partly selfish: I have long wanted to read the adult version of this story.
Daniel James Brown recently adapted his bestselling adult non-fiction book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for a young audience. The Young Readers Adaptation, similarly titled The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, is intended for ages 10-18.
Here’s the gist: Against a backdrop of the American Depression and the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Brown’s two books tell the story of nine rowers from the University of Washington—an unlikely bunch of loggers, fishermen, and farmers—whose incredible work ethic and fresh approach to the sport of crew took the entire world by surprise when they snatched gold in front of Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
At the center of The Boys in the Boat is one rower in particular—Joe Rantz—whose childhood would be considered heartbreaking by even the harshest skeptic. Painfully abandoned by his family as a young teenager, Joe was left to make his own way in the world, often resorting to grueling physical labor in the Pacific Northwest in an effort, not only to feed his almost always starving body, but to scrape together enough money to attend college and secure a place on a sports team that held the promise of belonging and acceptance. This guy, with the skills of a lumberjack, without two nickels to rub together, this guy is in the boat that wins an Olympic gold.
It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is a head-scratching, white-knuckling, jumping-on-the-bed story of unadulterated inspiration. It will rival the most exciting sporting event you’ve ever seen on TV.
Last night—after the climactic final chapter, where my son alternated between clutching my arm and burying his head under his pillow, even though we already knew the outcome of the race—JP told me this was the BEST BOOK OF HIS LIFE. (He may have inherited my fondness for hyperbole, but this is still saying something.)
I’ll admit, I was surprised by how quickly the story grabbed the two of us. JP had never heard of crew prior to this book. I myself knew almost nothing about the mechanics of the sport—nor did I have any appreciation for the physical stamina and technical prowess involved. (Despite attending a high school and university with prestigious rowing programs, I never attended a single race, a fact I now find rather devastating. At last, I am ready to stand in the cold spring rain and watch a regatta!)
And there is a lot of crew in this book. Nearly every race in the two years leading up to the Olympics is detailed across multiple pages. It may seem hard to believe, but JP and I were on the edge of our seat (well, pillow) every single time. Even the art of boat-making—the proper terminology is shell-making—is described with such romance that we could almost smell the freshly-sanded cedar from JP’s bedroom.
Still, for as much rowing as fills the pages of this book, The Boys in the Boat is ultimately about something transcendent. It’s a familiar theme that runs through most great sports stories: triumph in the face of devastating odds. And it’s delivered by Brown in a way that spears our hearts and elevates our souls.
I asked JP at breakfast this morning what most struck him about the story. He didn’t even hesitate: “Joe’s life. Everything was so hard for him. Things were always going wrong. I didn’t know that someone like that could be an Olympic champion.”
I would argue that everything was often going wrong, not just for Joe, but for all the boys in Joe’s shell.
It has been said about real life: you can’t make this stuff up. But seriously: you could not make this stuff up. Because the odds are stacked against these young men nearly every step of the way.
Let’s start with Joe’s childhood. When Joe’s stepmother (his biological mother dies of cancer when he is four) convinces his father to pack up the car with Joe’s younger siblings and leave Joe behind at fifteen years of age, my son could not get over it. She is so mean! When Joe finds work in a mine, on a dam, as a janitor—when he chops wood all day instead of tossing a ball in the backyard with this dad—our hearts broke again. Is it any wonder Joe initially struggles to trust his fellow oarsmen, to embrace the spirit of teamwork?
The socioeconomic backdrop of the book is equally at odds. There’s the wasteland of the West during the Dust Bowl. There’s the juxtaposition between the working-class boys of the Washington crew team and the wealthy sons of bankers and doctors that make up the elite teams of the East Coast. When the Washington boys visit Poughkeepsie, New York each year for the national regatta, they squat in shell houses without warm showers or sealed windows, while teams like Princeton and Cornell get cushy digs complete with personal chefs. Indeed, when the Washington team discovers that they have to pay their way to Berlin—or risk forfeiting their spot—they rely on the charity of thousands of individuals and corporations during a radiothon back in Seattle.
Then there’s the relentless weather (and, as you know, ours is a house obsessed with weather). Rowing in Seattle means rowing in frost, in sleet, in snow. In hard-driving rain. It means rowing when you can’t feel your hands.
There are the Nazis. There is Hitler’s attempt to dress Berlin as a kind of pristine movie set for the Olympics, in an effort to disguise to the world the ethnic cleansing that has already begun. There’s the muddied intentions of the German Olympic Committee, who re-write the rules in real time to ensure that the Germans are in the fastest lanes and the Americans in the slowest. (The 1936 Olympics were also privy to the rise of African-American Jesse Owens on the track field, yet another slap in the face to Hitler’s assertion of the natural supremacy of the Aryan people.)
And then there’s what happens to one of Joe’s crewmates in the days and hours leading up the race of his life. I don’t dare spoil it for you—but suffice it to say that this obstacle would stop any mere mortal. The determination and loyalty that surface instead left me with goosebumps.
The answer to beating all these odds comes from something imparted to the author by Joe on their first very interview. Good rowing—winning rowing—is never about the individual; it’s “about the boat.” Joe is not talking about the physical shell (although the Husky Clipper has assumed iconic status in rowing history). He is talking about teamwork. Only when you give yourself over to your teammates does the boat become greater than the sum of its parts. Only then can you begin to touch greatness. Or, put more technically later in the book:
What they needed was to find something rowers call their “swing,” and they were not going to get there acting like individuals. Many crews never really find their swing. It only happens when all eight oarsmen row in such perfect unison that no single action by any one of them is out of sync with those of all the others. All at once, sixteen arms must begin to pull together, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold in unison, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must begin to bend and straighten. Each tiny action must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman.
Teamwork conquers all.
JP’s and my success with this book is undoubtedly a tribute to Brown’s engaging and heartfelt writing. But it is also a tribute to the power of reading aloud. There is absolutely zilch chance that I could have convinced JP to read this book on his own, with its 220 oversized pages of minuscule print. There is also little chance that, without the astonishment and wonder of the very engaged nine year old beside me, I would have been quite so enthralled myself. In sharing this story with one another—our intimate team of two—we gave ourselves a gift.
But the greatest gift comes from the human spirit, which so soften surprises and surpasses expectation and understanding. These boys have become my son’s heroes. Names like Joe Rantz, Bobby Moch, Roger Morris, and Don Hume. Neither one of us will forget them quickly.
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Review copy provided by Penguin. 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!
March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment
Earlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).
What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt.
There’s just one problem. While Team Hale is working on cranking out these titles—originally developed to fill a void in the early chapter book market—our kids are getting older. I’m not suggesting that we as parents need to replace the PIB (never!); I’m merely announcing that if your child (my son would like me to point out that these books are not “just for girls”) is ready for meatier stuff, there’s a longer, more sophisticated series waiting in the wings. A series every bit as charming. Every bit as deliciously unsubtle with its feminist message. But also one that trades some of the full-color cuteness for a hefty dose of caustic wit.
Princess in Black, meet Harriet Hamsterbone: the clever, fearless, fractions-obsessed, never-take-no-for-an-answer star of Ursula Vernon’s “Hamster Princess” series (of which the second was just released, and the third will follow this October). When she’s not fighting cat-ogres or diving off cliffs, Harriet is working on breaking curses placed by wicked witches (or fairy god mice)—curses which her male contemporaries, ahem, have not been able to crack.
Yes, this is a rodent whom we can all get behind. A gal breaking down traditional barriers and exploding gender stereotypes wherever she rides (on the back of her trusty quail, Mumphrey).
I need to come clean about something before we go any further. The “Hamster Princess” series (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud) follows in the wake of Ursula Vernon’s popular “Dragonbreath” series, which shares with it the same novel-that’s-heavy-on-graphics format frequently marketed towards “reluctant readers.” I’m not sure whether it’s this marketing, or the prolific speech bubbles and blunt-tipped monochromatic illustrations, but I have always lumped “Dragonbreath” in the category of Literary Dribble. Without so much as reading a word. I know, this is terrible. I have secretly rolled my eyes at kids reading the “Dragonbreath” books, and the only reason I decided to pick up the first “Hamster Princess” title was because I had heard rumblings about its blatant feminism—and the world can always use more of that.
SHAME ON ME. Because Ursula Vernon’s writing is smart, sharp, and sarcastic. Not to mention wildly absurd in ALL THE BEST WAYS. I loved every minute of my reading Harriet the Invincible and Of Mice and Magic to my five and eight year old. We blew past bedtimes because we were laughing ourselves silly (sometimes I was laughing alone, as there’s no shortage of humor geared towards the older reader). After we finished, I immediately went out and bought Dragonbreath for my son to read on his own.
Because the “Hamster Princess” series is aimed at an older audience and can take on more complex plots than the PIB stories, it’s not just the princess persona that gets exploited—although Harriet was once grounded for a month after shoving a book into the mouth of her deportment teacher, who was attempting to improve her posture by having her walk in circles with said book on her head.
The “Hamster Princess” books also twist around fairy tales themselves (proving, once again, that the best reason to read the original fairy tales is so that we can appreciate the fractured versions!). In Harriet the Invincible, Harriet is supposed to be the victim of the Sleeping Beauty curse, only she knocks the evil sorceress into the poisoned spindle (well, hamster wheel) and inadvertently unleashes eternal sleep onto everyone in the castle except herself. (“Oh, Man…Dad is gonna kill me.”) Forced to embark on a quest to find a prince who can bestow some cure-all kisses on the slumbering victims, Harriet ends up finding one that needs rescuing of his own—from a five-headed hydra and an impoverished kingdom.
The second book, Of Mice and Magic, takes on The Brothers Grimm’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses, only here the twelve princesses are mice, each named after a different month of the year by their OCD father (who, I might add, has also color coded his entire castle). Harriet, never one to resist an adventure, is called to the scene to succeed where for seven years the more obvious (male) contenders have failed. The mouse princesses are under a curse which has them mysteriously escaping the locked castle every night and dancing their way through the soles of their silk shoes. Unlike the princesses in the original story, these mouse princesses are not dancing of their own accord (that all girls should be expected to love dancing is pure “tyranny,” according to Harriet). Nor are the tuxedo-clad moles, the princesses’ dance partners, keen on this forced matchmaking: they’re only doing the bidding of their witch mother and hoping to get out of doing dishes. Are you keeping up? Because this, my friends, is only the beginning of the mayhem.
For a princess, Harriet is—as one crone admirably calls her—“a singularly bloody-minded little thug.” Still, swords and threats, spells of invincibility and a Poncho of Invisibility, can get you only so far. In all her adventures, Harriet’s greatest triumphs come, not from her physical prowess, but from her intellect, her compassion, and sometimes even her patience. Time and again, to avoid certain peril (or, at the very least, gender type casting), she is forced to think on her feet—and what she comes up with is consistent: the best way to beat the nay-sayers is to beat them at their own game. This hamster never misses a beat. She finds a way to turn every insult, every promise, every opportunity to her advantage.
Tonight, as I was putting the kids to bed, the subject of this blog post came up. “You know, Mommy,” my eight year old son began, “if someone forced me into a conversation about princesses, I would have to say that Harriet Hamsterbone is my favorite.” (He has learned to run the other way screaming when his sister and her friends start donning Disney princess costumes.)
“Oh yeah? And why is that?” I asked.
“Well, even though she’s a princess, she’s a princess who breaks a lot of rules. And she’s never helpless. And she goes on exciting adventures that are fun to read about.”
“Yeah,” JP’s five-year-old sister piped in. “She doesn’t sit around waiting for someone to write a story about her. She just begins her own story!”
Wow. Perhaps it’s time I turned over the authorship of this blog to my kids. Thank you, Shannon & Dean Hale and Ursula Vernon, for giving us spunky opportunists who are helping remake our children’s ideas of Happily Ever After.
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Review copies provided by Candlewick and Penguin, respectively. 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!
March 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
Easter quickly approaches, and the race to fill Easter baskets is on. Chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs line the grocery checkout aisles. Toy stores have Easter displays with irresistibly soft plush chicks, some of which even peep when you drop them. Bunnies and chicks, chicks and bunnies: this is what the commercial side of Easter preaches.
If we are talking books—which every Easter basket needs—the perfect bunny-themed choice is, without question, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, which I wrote about here (and which—sound the trumpets—happens to be available in a petite basket-fitting edition that comes with its own golden CHARM).
As for covering the chick quota—well, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you to scrap the chicks this year in favor of the gosling. Specifically, the incredibly cute and insufferably stubborn goslings of Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce (Ages 3-8), a modern-day spoof on the age-old nursery rhyme. True, the book is going to be too big to shove into an Easter basket, but there’s no reason why you can’t prop it up beside said basket (Use your imagination, people!). Published last fall, Higgins’ picture book is one of the funniest I have come across in a long time, and it was an instant hit with my five and eight year old. I’m only sorry I’ve waited a few extra months to tell you about it.
The story begins with a mood commonly depicted in children’s picture books: grumpiness. Grumpiness is that universal emotion that is a hundred times funnier when you see it acted out than when you witness it in your own life. (Shout out to Jeremy Tankard’s Grumpy Bird, my all-time favorite depiction of grumpiness—until now.) Before I had kids, I thought grumpiness was losing an hour of sleep to Daylight Savings, or having a boss who made you do something all over again when you thought it was perfectly fine the first time (legitimate annoyances). Once I had kids, I learned that grumpiness can also be exhibited over such flagrant violations as being served applesauce in an orange bowl instead of a green bowl, or having to put your backpack on the floor in the car to make room for your little sister. Yes, my children and I know a little something about grumpiness.
When it comes to grumpiness in picture books, the bear gets a particularly bad rap (its name doesn’t help). You never meet a happy-go-lucky bear in children’s literature. More often than not, you get a curmudgeonly, inhospitable, antisocial sort, like the bears in Jory John’s Goodnight Already! and Bonny Becker’s Bear and Mouse series (but again, so much fun to read aloud).
In Mother Bruce, we are introduced to another bear in this long line of grumps. “He did NOT like sunny days. He did NOT like rain. He did NOT like cute little animals.” This new protagonist-bear has a delightfully modern twist: he’s a foodie. An organic choosing, recipe surfing, free-range connoisseuring foodie. (Who prefers to dine alone, of course.) And his favorite food is eggs, procured fresh from every part of the forest where he lives.
On this particular day, Bruce’s Internet surfing has brought up an especially gourmet temptation—“hard-boiled goose eggs drizzled with honey-salmon sauce”—and he sets out to track down the ingredients. Many of the delightful surprises in the story come from the clever ways that author-illustrator Higgins merges an animal behavior (the bear catches his salmon in a stream) with a human behavior (he does so with a grocery cart).
With the goose eggs at home in a frying pan, Bruce finds he needs to step out to retrieve some firewood. When he returns, he quickly realizes he has become a “victim of mistaken identity.” In a case of imprinting gone wrong, the eggs have unexpectedly hatched, and the baby goslings have assumed that Bruce—the first living being whom they laid eyes on—must be their mother. (I remember as a child being fascinated by the idea of imprinting, with its possibility for the unexpected.)
When your dinner starts smiling back at you through a mass of seriously cute fluff, it is natural to lose your appetite. When you try to return said dinner to its biological mother, only to find that she has flown south for the winter (what kind of a “Return Policy” is that?), it’s not surprising that something amounting to panic begins to set in.
For a bonafide grump like Bruce, this is a Living Nightmare, and the remainder of the story is taken up with the desperate antics that Bruce employs in an attempt to cast off his eager new offspring. He talks sternly; when that doesn’t work, he roars. He runs; when that doesn’t work, he climbs up a tree.
All the time, the “pesky” little things are right beside him, grinning and peeping their “Mama” refrain.
Whether he likes it or not, “Mama” Bruce begins to settle into his role as goose parent. Between art projects gone awry and picky eating, Bruce’s life begins to look awfully familiar to us readers.
Bruce’s big ‘ol grumpy heart begins, eventually, to soften. At times, he even “tried to make the best of it.” (My kids told me I had to include this one.)
Still, when the goslings move from “annoying baby geese” to “stubborn teenage geese” to “boring adult geese,” Bruce seizes his opportunity to teach his prodigy the act of migration. Only it doesn’t go so well.
The geese have become more bear than goose in their laziness, their propensity to keep their webbed feet planted squarely on the ground, and their fondness for Mr. Grump himself. Eventually, Bruce packs all of their bags, ushers everyone onto an express bus heading south, and—well, let’s just say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Beneath its physical comedy, Mother Bruce is a gentle reminder that sometimes the things you don’t go looking for turn out to be the very things you needed all along. Spring is a time of newness, of rebirth for us all. Let’s embrace these possibilities and see where the excitement and chaos takes us.
Let’s start with a handful of chocolate eggs, shall we?
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March 3, 2016 § 4 Comments
When I was eighteen, I spent a few months abroad, living with a Vietnamese family in the beautiful coastal city of Nha Trang. I hadn’t known the family before arriving at their front door, and I knew exactly two words of Vietnamese. The father spoke a bit of English; the other members of the family spoke none. In my first moments in the house, nothing prepared me for the blow that I felt: the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins in the weeks leading up to my trip suddenly emptied, pooling beneath my feet, as I took my first inhalation of the unabated loneliness that would become a frequent companion in the days ahead.
The father was a carpenter and gone for much of the day, leaving me surrounded by smiling women, who chatted incessantly with one another but largely averted their eyes from me; and boisterous, inquisitive toddlers, who liked to peek around doorways, explode into giggles, and dash away. That first full day was painfully void of activity. I was there to teach English to the children in the neighborhood, but I had not received permission to enter the schools, so I had to wait until the children could come to me. Sure, I had things I could do on my own. I had novels to read. I had my Walkman. Eventually, I would procure a bike and spend my days touring the city, mingling in coffee shops with men and women who wished to learn English, and taking in the breathtaking views along the coastline.
But that first day, I had no idea where to begin, no one with whom to converse. I was miles away from the only pay phone with which to contact my parents, and I felt at once displaced from the bustling activity around me and foolish in my utter uselessness. I stared at the wavy line of ants making their way across the wall of my bedroom, a room that had been vacated for my exclusive use and whose previous occupants would sleep on reed floor mats in the other bedroom for the duration of my stay.
And then something happened. The grandmother of the family came into the room and placed on the floor in front of me a bowl of rambutans (or chom choms, as the Vietnamese affectionately call them). I had never seen or heard of this small round fruit—the size of a ping pong ball—whose translucent flesh is encased in a tough skin covered with long, coarse, brown hairs. The old woman had a face that was at once soft with wrinkles, severe with dark, piercing eyes, and sly with the hint of a smile. I never saw her without her fine grey-black hair pulled immaculately back into a tight bun. Now, she nodded—once at the bowl on the floor, and then a second time to acknowledge my “thank you,” which I hoped was uttered with enough enthusiasm to mask the confusion and hesitancy that I felt. She then began to leave.
When she reached the doorway, she looked back. She said something that I imagined was, Go on. Eat. I crouched down and tentatively picked up one of the hair-covered balls. The grandmother let out a low guttural sound—whether in exasperation or in an attempt to conceal a laugh, I’ll never know. But then she did something that I will never forget. She walked back and sat down on the floor beside me. She put her hand on mine. With heartbreaking gentleness, she took the fruit from me, showed me how to squeeze it in just the right place so that the skin popped open, then how to peal off the thin paper membrane inside and pop the grape-like ball into my mouth. I followed her example, once, twice, three times, until at last she smiled and nodded her approval.
But still she didn’t leave. Instead, she began to eat beside me. We didn’t talk, but for every chom chom that I ate, she ate one. In the distance, I could hear the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen; I could hear the barking of dogs and the cackle of laughter from the nail salon across the street. But my corner of the world—where I sat, sharing a bowl of fruit with a stooped stranger sixty years my senior—was quiet. I can’t explain it exactly, but that silence felt like the biggest hug in the world.
Generosity. That’s the word that came to mind in that moment with the chom choms—and still comes to mind every time I reflect on that memory. It’s also the word that comes to mind each time I read Mango, Abuela, and Me (Ages 5-10), a new picture book by Meg Medina, with illustrations by Angela Dominguez, in which a young American girl seeks to bridge the language divide between her and her Spanish-speaking grandmother, after the latter comes to live with her.
I’m talking about a generosity that goes beyond sharing. That goes beyond opening your home or sharing your bedroom (which the girl in the story must do with this near stranger—something I’m guessing my own children would not embrace nearly so readily).
I’m talking about a generosity that comes from taking time—really taking the time—to connect with someone, to make that person feel in a single moment that she is seen and heard and understood. It’s a generosity that is extended when we open up our hearts. And it’s a generosity that I fervently want my own children to understand, to experience, and to deliver—again and again—in their lives.
Mango, Abuela, and Me begins with disconnection. Young Mia is initially reserved around her “far away” grandmother: she knows little about the older woman’s past, including the sunny tropical (unnamed) country where she has spent her entire life; and Mia’s limited Spanish means she can’t tell this woman much about her own life. In the hours between school and the time her parents come home from work, Mia and her grandmother sit side by side in their respective loneliness.
My español is not good enough to tell her the things an abuela should know. Like how I am the very best in art and how I can run as fast as the boys…And her English is too poquito to tell me all the stories I want to know about Abuelo and the rivers that ran right outside their door.
But Mia is both perceptive and determined; and although she vents privately to her Mami (“Abuela and I can’t understand each other”), she begins to brainstorm ways to unlock the silence between them. She channels her favorite teacher and points out English words as she goes about her chores (Abuela in turn answers with the Spanish translations). Mia even tapes homemade labels to household items.
And yet, even as Abuela begins to pick up more and more English, there’s a sadness that hovers over her—and which Mia can’t penetrate.
“In as much as language has the power to connect, it can also be an obstacle,” author Meg Medina recently said, during the December meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC, which I was fortunate to attend. The vivacious Medina titled her talk, “Writing the American Family,” and she spoke passionately about the disparity between the 54 million self-identified Latinos living in the United States—seventeen percent of our population—and the mere 3.5% of books published in 2013 that were by or about Latinos. “The American family needs to be everybody,” she said, “not just the white Anglo-Saxon family.” Specifically, Medina sees herself as writing for the English-dominated Latino children: those who identify strongly as Americans and who are more likely to welcome and experience Latino culture if it’s presented in the language in which they are most comfortable (English).
Mango, Abuela, and Me is semi-autobiographical, inspired by Medina’s own grandmother, who came from Cuba to live with Medina’s family in Queens, New York. Despite Medina’s fairly proficient Spanish as a child, she remembers coming up against numerous aspects of her American life (like Girl Scouts), which she couldn’t adequately convey to her grandmother. And vice versa.
While Mia’s dilemma will rightfully appeal to Latino children privy to similar struggles with cross-cultural clashes, it would be a mistake to assume that Medina’s story is intended solely for a Latino audience. Both my (Anglo-Saxon) children have requested this story many times. They are drawn to the inter-generational relationship, to the instinctual, human yearning for connection on both sides. “We read like we eat,” Medina also told us, a lovely notion that we read different books to get different things. Sometimes, it seems to me, we read books because the people in them look like us and and lead lives like ours (all the more reason why publishers need to heed the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign). But we also need to read things about people who look different from us and lead lives different from ours—but who feel many of the same things we do. This is how we connect with our society and with the world.
Mia eventually recognizes Abuela’s loneliness for the homesickness that it is. With all the innocence and optimism indicative of childhood, Mia reaches across the language divide and touches Abuela’s heart. On a routine errand to the pet store with Mami to pick up food for Mia’s hamster, the girl catches sight of a large golden-green parrot; she suddenly remembers the red feather that Abuela unpacked from her suitcase the day she arrived. Mia implores her mother to buy the parrot. “For Abuela. Like the parrot that lived in her mango trees! He can keep her company when I’m at school.”
The loquacious parrot, which Mia and Abuela name Mango, not only brings with it much needed frivolity (Abuela teaches him how to give beaky kisses and to bob his head when she sings “Los Pollitos” to him), but it serves as the basis for a new, more intimate kind of language between the two of them. (The un loro is also autobiographical, only Medina points out that her parrot never uttered a single word in its THIRTY years of life.) Each time Mia and Abuela teach the parrot an English or Spanish word, something bigger occurs: exchanges arise about memories of the past and hopes for the future.
…now when Abuela and I are lying next to each other in our beds, our mouths are full of things to say. I can tell her about my buen dia and show her my best pintura of Mango.
Abuela reads my favorite book with only a little help, and she tells me new stories about Abuelo, who could dive for river stones with a single breath and weave a roof out of palms. I draw pictures for her. She still misses their old house, she says, but now only a little bit.
I regret that I didn’t stay long enough in Vietnam to grasp more of the language. And yet, I feel an undeniable connection to the people I met there, one that goes beyond many of the relationships I’ve had here in the States. Perhaps it is not coincidental that, when we lay aside the hangups of syntax and pronunciation, we begin to notice the language of humanity: the smiles, the laughs, the nods, the frowns, the tears. Never did more than a few hours go by on any given day when I—and whomever I was talking to—didn’t resort to waving our hands or scrunching up our faces or otherwise looking like two dancing monkeys trying to get our point across. And we would laugh—oh, how we would laugh—at the surprising revelation that, stripped down, we are all so much the same.
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Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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!
February 25, 2016 § 2 Comments
As much as I try not to influence my children with my own prejudices (yes, my angel, what a beautiful spider you have crawling on your arm), I have always drawn the line at vermin. Especially possums. (I realize that possums are technically marsupials, but can we agree that in urban settings they are non-technically classified as vermin?) My exuberance one spring, upon trapping the possum that insisted on carrying her babies up and down the side of our house every night, could have been heard five blocks away. Ditto to the blood-curdling scream that erupted out of my mouth one evening, when one of those naked-looking creatures with the pink hairless tails scurried in front of my car.
Now, author Holly Goldberg Sloan has come along, and—with the help of Gary A. Rosen’s surprisingly adorable pencil sketches—given the world Appleblossom the Possum, a fictional chapter book (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud) that might forever change the way my kids and I view this nocturnal species. This is certainly not the first time that children’s literature has elicited empathy by having us imagine what the world looks like through an animal’s eyes (The Cricket in Times Square, Little Dog, Lost, and Masterpiece are three beloved read alouds that immediately jump to mind). Indeed, one of my children’s favorite parts of Appleblossom the Possum occurs early on, when Mother Possum is lecturing her brood about the three “monsters” that “rule the world”:
The first kind of monster is made of metal. They have wheels and bright eyes when they are out after dark. These eyes are blinding…They can flatten an animal in an instant if one gets in the way.
Long before the mother reveals these monsters to be “cars and trucks,” the child reader will recognize them as such. The same is true of the second monster, described initially as one who “wakes up the first monster,” walks on two feet, “smells like dead flowers, salt and grease,” and is scared of everything. “She’s talking about humans!” my kids exclaimed.
Now, the people don’t like to share. That is their biggest problem. So they set traps, and they use weapons and poison. They are sneaky and mean…The people are awake for part of the night, but they go into their houses and stare at boxes there…The boxes have light and sound, and the people watch these contraptions for hours.
(There’s a little food for thought, huh?) And just wait until Mother Possum gets to the third monster, the “sworn enemy of all possums, big and small, young and old, weak and strong.” Otherwise known as “the hairies”:
Dogs are covered in fur… They move on four feet and they have sharp teeth and they use them. And unlike people, these monsters are not filled with fear. Dogs are highly unpredictable and they can appear in the daytime or at night. In a single lunge a dog can rip off your head. That’s what kind of a threat they are.
A grim but accurate look at Mother Nature. Yet, as terrifying as these various monsters are, don’t think for one minute that Appleblossom and her family have anything but the deepest pride for being possums. Not only are they the only nocturnal animal to spend its early months buried inside a mother’s pouch with its eyes closed (Possums are born into darkness and they stay that way), but possums grow up to become adventurous nomads and the neighborhood’s greatest “cleanup crews.” And that’s not even the best part.
In Sloan’s lively, generous telling, what most distinguishes the possum from other animals—its unique adaptation in a night crawling with predators—is its propensity to become an actor skilled at improvisation on the Stage of Life. As soon as the young possum is old enough to choose his or her own name (in the case of Appleblossom and her siblings, names must begin with the letter “A,” to signal their lineage as the first set of babies born to their mother), the child learns and practices the craft of acting. From impersonations to Shakespearean scenes (thespian references abound), all of Mother Possum’s lessons culminate in the most important one: how to play dead.
Dogs, Mother Possum explains, will always be bigger and stronger and faster than possums; but they will also always prefer living things to dead. When faced with an attacking predator, the possum’s best defense strategy is to play dead.
So now you see why I ask you over and over again to learn to act. This is how we trick them. We act dead. But we aren’t really dead. It’s an art form. It must look real.
My children were fascinated: rather than make a run for it, an animal might be better suited to stand its ground and fake its death?! They were even more fascinated (as was I) to learn that biology assists: not only does fear produce in possums a kind of soporific effect (Our lungs slow down. Our arms and legs go limp and then they turn stiff), but it elicits the release of a “gland gas,” a foul stink which emanates that of dead things. Holy cool science!
So you see, my beautiful babies, we are the true performers of the animal kingdom. We are the stars!
Armed with acting lessons (as well as tactics for crossing streets, since playing dead doesn’t work for cars), Appleblossom and her siblings are cut loose by their mother—the troupe disbanded, if you will—to forage for their own food and sleeping arrangements. Appleblossom is the shyest and most unsure of her bothers and sisters—your typical “late bloomer,” which makes for so many of literature’s most alluring young heroines—and her hesitancy to assume a solo act unwittingly leads her straight into the hands of the enemy. Appleblossom falls down a chimney of a house that is inhabited, not only by two human adults and their young daughter, but by a large, loud, unruly dog, who loves nothing more than to chase things.
Appleblossom decides there is only one thing to do when she’s afraid to perform: She has to always move forward, even if she feels small and alone in the world and not much of an actor. She has to find a role to play.
Appleblossom’s search for her Swan Song takes her on a wild and hilarious adventure involving cheese plates, laundry hampers, shampoo bottles, and a stint first as a stuffed animal and then as the little girl’s fondled “pet.” But it’s when our young heroine enacts a brilliantly convincing rendition of playing dead before man and dog, that we understand she possesses the will to survive.
Just because solo acts abound in life doesn’t mean there aren’t backup actors waiting in the wings. Sloan’s novel is rich with familial love and loyalty. Two of Appleblossom’s brothers, Antonio and Amlet (yes, that’s Hamlet without the “H”), who initially witness her fall down the chimney, realize that their sister can only stave off her human and canine tormentors for so long. Along with the help of their mother and father (the latter a larger-than-life, slow-to-the-scene character who more than makes up for his tardiness with comic relief), the siblings devise an elaborate plan to extract their fellow troupe member.
This loveliest of stories reminds us that, at the end of the day, it is the ensemble that may be the strongest and most critical player of all. We each must take center stage at one point or another, but it’s the love of those at our backs that makes us shine when it counts the most.
A few weeks after sharing this book with my kids, the oddest thing happened. The three of us walked into a toy store and found ourselves oohing and ahhing over the cuteness of a stuffed possum. Granted, we didn’t end up buying it. In the end, the kids opted to use their money on a white tiger and a chestnut horse. But they thought about it. Heck, I thought about it.
It turns out there’s a lot to like about possums.
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!