Finding Hope on the Ocean Floor

March 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

With no tropical destination in my near future, I am making do with reminiscing about our spectacular trip to Belize for last year’s Spring Break. I also find myself thinking about a book which was perfectly timed with our return home. Whether you are heading to or coming home from a trip to the bottom of the sea, I hope you will join me in singing the praises of this illuminating and inspiring book about saving our coral reefs.

But first, allow me a moment of nostalgia. On one of our early days in Belize—specifically, during our time in Placencia, a skinny peninsula on the southeastern end of the country—we spent a choppy hour and a half by motor boat (thank you, Dramamine) to arrive at a miniature, picture-perfect island. Surrounded by calm, clear turquoise waters, the island boasted exactly two palm trees (one upright and one leaning perilously close to the water), one outhouse, two picnic tables, a charcoal grill, and the passengers from half a dozen small boats, who had decided like us to spend the day on and around its shores.

For the next five hours, with a break only to enjoy a delicious picnic of BBQ chicken, my husband, kids, and I kicked behind a guide as we snorkeled over the immense stretches of coral reefs surrounding this marine reserve. I had not been snorkeling since I was a child, and it was my children’s first time, so we all marveled at the eerie quiet beneath the water, the buoyancy of our bodies, a heightened awareness of our inhalations and exhalations, and the multitude of colorful patterned fish surrounding us, busy and purposeful and seemingly unaware of our intrusion into their lives. It was magical, and each of us later recalled a moment when we had wished it would last forever.

But there was something else. The color of the coral reefs was like nothing I had imagined. And I don’t mean in a good way. Granted, I had been filling my brain for years with the lush paintings in Jason Chin’s Coral Reefs, a book beloved in our family but, as it turns out, more akin to reefs in the Pacific. Still, even adjusting for our Atlantic setting, I knew I was witnessing something troubled. Compared to the fish swimming among them, the reef structures looked faded, dull, lackluster. In the back of my mind, I recalled a phrase I had heard spoken by a friend: coral bleaching.

On a pause with our heads above water, our guide confirmed my suspicion. Although Belize has been spared from many of the extreme effects of coral bleaching—due to its waters facing less fluctuations in temperatures than those of its neighbors—its reefs are nonetheless showing increasing signs of bleaching and dying. Scientists are not entirely sure what is causing this devastating phenomenon, though they suspect a combination of changing ocean temperatures, disease, boating, and overfishing.

When it comes to our planet, bad news seems to wash over us every time we peruse the news. And yet, here is a picture book which gives us a bit of hope, offering a powerful reminder that individuals can and are making a positive difference in protecting our natural resources. In The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs (Ages 7-10), by Kate Messner, gorgeously illustrated by Matthew Forsythe, we are introduced to the living legacy of Ken Nedimeyer, a pioneer who has dedicated his life to coral restoration. It’s a true story of passion, curiosity, investigation, collaboration, and success. It’s a story of hammers and chisels and glue—tools not normally associated with the ocean. It’s a story of possibility.

The Brilliant Deep begins by teaching us a bit about coral spawning, which happens on the night following a full moon. (Did you know that coral spawns? I did not.) On this night, millions of tiny lives are released into the water—“swirl[ing] like a snow globe”—and, while few will survive hungry fish and strong currents, it only takes one nestling into the perfect spot on the shallow ocean floor to grow into an entire coral reef.

Ken Nedimyer came of age during the idealistic era of space travel, when his father worked as a NASA engineer and when anything seemed possible. And yet, Ken was drawn, not to the galaxies above, but to the mysterious world below. He watched TV shows about Jacques Cousteau, learned to scuba dive among the reefs of the Florida Keys, and lined his bedroom with aquariums.

Ken especially wondered about the coral.

They painted the ocean floor fire red and murky gold. How could the reefs grow so large? What made all the different colors and shapes? How could such tiny creatures build such elaborate homes of rock?

But then, as he got older, Ken began witnessing what we did last year in Belize: the corals were losing their color. The fish were decreasing. “Ken watched his favorite place in the world fade away. The reefs were dying, and it seemed like there was nothing he could do to save them.”

As an adult, Ken began operating a rock farm—raising rocks covered with algae, mollusks, and other invertebrates which could be used to filter saltwater aquariums—when it dawned on him that these rocks might be used on the ocean floor to attract staghorn coral spawn. If a coral grew on one of his rocks, he was legally entitled to manipulate it. Enlisting the help of his daughter, Ken began a lifelong project of siphoning off pieces of coral from his rocks, affixing them to other rocks, and creating “coral colonies” which could then be used to rejuvenate dying reefs throughout the ocean.

In the luminous pages which follow, we watch this fascinating, painstaking work unfold, tentatively at first, then later backed by “an army of volunteers,” as part of the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Eventually, the rock farms transformed into underwater nurseries built from metal structures adorned with coral fragments. Ken’s group went on to plant tens of thousands of coral colonies on reefs in the Florida Keys, and the book explains that he is now working to empower other countries with this knowledge. My children were quick to point out that we had seen nurseries like these when we were snorkeling—and they were right. Towards the end of our time snorkeling, our guide had swum us over what looked like miniature coral farms. My only regret is that we hadn’t yet read this book, so we never got to ask if this work was indeed inspired by the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Time and again, The Brilliant Deep returns to the power of one, as witnessed in both nature and human life: one spawning, one colony, one dedicated individual. It takes just one to grow something new. It takes just one to set in motion a chain of events. It takes just one to make a difference. Kate Messner’s excellent backmatter directs young readers to specific ways they can follow in Ken’s footsteps and make an impact on coral rejuvenation; but the takeaway is also broader than that. We only get one shot at this planet. Best to harness Ken’s example and direct our passion and creativity into ensuring the beauty is never allowed to die.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

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

All in a Good Day’s Bicycling

March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments

adventuresofagirlcalledbicycle-e1552680598146.jpgMy daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road.

Recently, The New Yorker ran a piece by Jess Row, titled “How to Grant Your Child an Inner Life,” in which Row proposes that anxious parenting, coupled with the ease of tracking technologies and the transparency of social media, has “commoditized” our children’s inner lives. Reflecting on his own childhood in the eighties and early nineties—when “get good grades and don’t act like a delinquent…and you can do what you want the rest of the time”—he asks: “What does it mean for a child today to be alone, to have an independent inner life?” Perhaps because I myself was a Rilke disciple in high school, I especially connected with this next passage:

When I was eighteen, I read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” with a sense of relief—here, finally, was someone not shy about giving direct advice on how to live![…] His message is quite simple, and universally applicable: You matter. Your feelings matter, even if (in fact, because) they’re not visible to others. Your inner life is real and important. Don’t be afraid to be alone[…]There aren’t many places where children and teenagers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access.

 

In many ways, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle is a celebration of the inner life to which Row alludes—one harnessed, in this case, on long, lonely stretches of quiet roads, away from the benevolent hovering of parents or guardians.

Bicycle, the story’s protagonist, is named for the toddler t-shirt she is wearing the day she is discovered, penniless and parentless, on the front steps of the Mostly Silent Monastery. Bicycle is taken in, raised, and homeschooled by the formidable Sister Wanda Magdalena, whose bark is bigger than her bite, and who comes to love Bicycle as her own.

A curious, quick-witted soul, Bicycle is also unusually quiet for a girl approaching adolescence, owing largely to the fact that her only companions have been the Mostly Silent Monks. The monks might model for Bicycle the valuable art of listening, but their conversational skills are limited to the Sacred Eight Words: “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “help,” “now,” “later,” “sleep,” and “sandwich.” While Bicycle is so attuned to the nuances of human expression that she can read any number of meanings into the word “sandwich,” depending on how it is delivered, she is less versed at initiating friendships with children her own age. At least, in Sister Wanda’s estimation.

When Brother Otto helps Bicycle purchase her namesake—a “glaringly, screamingly, almost unbearably orange” second-hand bicycle, which Bicycle affectionately names Clunk—Sister Wanda is optimistic that Bicycle’s newfound independence will encourage assimilation into the surrounding neighborhood, with its bounty of happily-playing children. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the girl needs to make friends.”

Instead, while Bicycle is on her two-wheeler, she rarely engages with other children. Even when children attempt to talk to her, even when Sister Wanda sets up formal playdates, Bicycle “started pedaling hard and left them in her dust.” Bicycle seems always to prefer the entertainment of her own mind, and this only perturbs Sister Wanda further.

As parents, how often do our protective instincts hijack us, such that we begin to see our job as warding off imaginary dangers in our children’s futures? How tempting is it to scrutinize our children, locking eyes on some atypical attribute or behavior, and then fly the plane into the trees? What begins as vigilance turns into well-disposed worrying, turns into obsessive meddling, until we can no longer see the child in front of us.

Sister Wanda informs Bicycle she is enrolling her in The Friendship Factory, a sleep-away camp outside D.C., which promises to teach children social skills (“Three Guaranteed Friendships or Your Money Back!”). To Bicycle, the premise sounds like “a guaranteed nightmare.” After repeatedly trying (and failing) to plead her case, arguing that she be allowed to make friendships in her own way, Bicycle decides drastic times call for drastic measures. When the camp bus bound for The Friendship Factory makes a pit-stop, Bicycle unhitches Clunk and rides west as fast as she can, armed with a stack of paper maps.

What results is nearly 300 pages of adventure and challenge, of thrill and despair, of risk and reward, as Bicycle makes her way from D.C. to California, with the goal of arriving in San Francisco by July 8 to see her hero, competitive Polish cyclist “Zbig,” host the “Blessing of the Bicycles.” Bicycle has received fan mail from her biking idol—signed “Your Friend, Zbig”—so she hopes that, when the two meet in person, the world will recognize that she has what it takes to make and keep a friend. At regular turns, Bicycle mails postcards of her progress back to the Monastery.

Of course, as with any lofty goal, the real payoff lies in the journey itself. Against such vivid, memorable backdrops—from the sunflowers of Kansas to the purple mountains of Colorado to the unrelenting desert of Nevada—Bicycle meets a cast of eccentric characters, human and not-so-human. Many of these characters are hinted at on the book’s cover, and my daughter derived great satisfaction from checking off the backstory of each one. There’s Chef Marie Petitchou, who fears her French restaurant chain will lose out to the Americans’ pastime for fast food. There’s an uppity racehorse named The Cannibal, a favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, if only he can battle his homesickness for the French countryside of his youth. There’s a man in a chicken suit, a parade of pigs, a Cookie Lady, a sponge salesman, two feuding business owners, and a Bike Thief.

And there’s my daughter’s favorite: a ghost named Griffin, who has been haunting a Civil War battleground in Virginia for hundreds of years and longs for someone to lead him back to his Missouri hometown, famous for its fried pies. (Oh, I could write an entire blog post about the descriptions of food in this story!)

Long before Bicycle herself realizes it, we readers become keen witnesses of her power to touch the hearts and lives of those whose paths she crosses. She sets out to make a single friendship, but she ends up with friendships in every one of the nine states she traverses. She even, on occasion, comes to prefer the presence of another—even a ghost singing Civil War ballads on repeat—to the company of her own mind. These friends may not resemble the ones Sister Wanda had in mind for Bicycle, but they become critical to Bicycle’s well-being—and she to theirs.

None of these friendships would happen under the watchful eye of Sister Wanda. Neither would the brushes with starvation, physical exhaustion, and loneliness—which often drive Bicycle to venture outside her comfort zone and engage these folks in the first place. Still, it isn’t just Bicycle’s physical distance from the Monastery which enables her growth: it is the freedom she has on the open road in which to turn inward. To ponder. To reflect. To dig deep. To sort out the type of human she wants to be.

Our own tweens aren’t likely to get away with bicycling 4,000 miles largely unsupervised, but this book will nonetheless tempt them with the possibilities for self-discovery inherent in any amount of time spent outside the home, away from technology, social media, and parental watchfulness. If we read it aloud to our children, we might find ourselves nostalgic for the liberties we took in the 1970s and 1980s, often on our bicycles and in our own private worlds.

At the same time it celebrates the power of an inner life, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle also affirms the role of the parent or guardian. As even Sister Wanda comes to see by the end of the story, in a series of delightful surprises, it may be our children’s job to sort out the type of human they want to be, but it’s our equally important job to validate them, to support them, and to help them get there.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy from Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House. 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!

Taking Up Space (A Black History Month Post)

February 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

In her modern dance classes, my daughter cherishes above all the few minutes devoted to “sparkle jumps.” One by one, the dancers crisscross the studio at a run. As each one reaches the middle, she explodes into a leap, arms reaching up and out, head tall, like the points of a star. For one perfect moment, my daughter takes up as much space as her little body will allow.

“I love watching you take up space,” I tell her.

Taking up space is sometimes perceived in our society as a nuisance. Even the expression has soured in our language; we say it about someone whose obstinate presence doesn’t seem to be offering anything of value.

But taking up space is power. I’m here, and I have as much a right to be seen and heard as you do. It is also a privilege. A privilege which comes with freedom. A privilege denied to those in bondage. A privilege denied to those who may be free on paper, but who still live under the shadow of oppression.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom (Ages 7-10) is a portrait of a woman who devoted her life to the fight to take up space—and to make sure that space mattered. Lyrically presented by Gary D. Schmidt (who, coincidentally, wrote last week’s middle-grade book) and powerfully illustrated by Daniel Minter, the book is a provocative exploration, not only of Sojourner Truth’s self-emancipation from slavery and crusade to speak out about human rights, but also of the tenuous connection between self-dignity and physical presence.

I asked my eleven year old to pick a word to describe this book. “Intriguing,” he said. He is spot on. So Tall Within is a prime example of a picture book biography targeted at the older elementary child. A book with layers of meaning. A book well researched, offering occasional citations from some of Sojourner’s own writings and speeches. A book whose illustrations invite endless discussion. A book which should be allowed to take up space of its own.

The striking cover of this picture book biography casts Sojourner as an old woman—an erect and imposing figure, the luminous blue of her clothes and glasses contrasting the bronze of the fields behind her, like a clear water basin on a hot, dusty day. One hand wraps around her walking stick, a nod to the final third of the book, which addresses the thousands of miles Sojourner traversed on foot across fifteen years to speak out about the injustices of slavery and the importance of equal rights for African-Americans. The title reads So Tall Within, but it is clear that Sojourner’s inner strength extends to the way she is seen on the outside.

But Sojourner’s imposing presence was earned, not birthed. In fact, it’s fascinating to observe the subtle ways in which Sojourner’s body is painted throughout this story of her life.

Born a slave named Isabella, she “lived in a cellar where the windows never let the sun in and the floorboards never kept the water out.” Her body is small, almost collapsed upon itself, as she perches on a stool—and yet, a careful reader will note the broom in her hand, evocative of the walking stick she will adopt in her free years.

When she is eleven, Isabella is sold “for a hundred dollars—along with a flock of sheep” and never sees her mother again. Here, her body is painted with an almost ghost-like transparency against the brown, dusty background. And yet, her head is erect, her profile distinguished, as it is throughout much of the book—a nod to her mother, who encouraged Isabella to keep her gaze on the stars and the moon, under which her family would always be together. “Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters.”

Isabella has several masters over the years—her final a man named Mr. Dumont in New York State, “who bragged that Isabella could ‘do a good family’s washing in the night, and be ready in the morning to go to the field.’” The illustration accompanying the page where he orders Isabella to marry a slave named Thomas and birth five children is one of the few instances where Sojourner’s face is undistinguished, her features blurred. It is as if her corporeality is literally disappearing alongside her lack of agency. Even her children are mere shadows, like many other slaves pictured throughout the book.

Isabella takes her emancipation into her own hands after Mr. Dumont refuses to honor his promise to free her a year before all slaves in New York were required to be freed by law. “…[T]he summer came and the summer passed. ‘Oh,’ thought Isabella, ‘I have felt as if I could not live.’ So that fall, after the work of the harvest was done, she held baby Sophia close and seized Freedom with her own hands.” She takes refuge with a white couple, who protect her and pay Mr. Dumont for her release when he eventually tracks her down.

Isabella may be a free woman, but she doesn’t transform into the indomitable figure we know today until she begins to stand against the oppression of others. The turning point comes when she learns Mr. Dumont has illegally sold her five-year-old son, Peter, across state lines. “Isabelle traveled miles and miles across New York to Kingston to tell her story to the Grand Jury. They saw how tall within she was. They gave her a letter for the sheriff, demanding that Peter be brought home. She took the letter and walked miles and miles back.” There, in front of the jury and against the backdrop of the Constitution, our protagonist begins to take up more space.

A legal win won’t necessarily correct a human wrong. Isabella learns of the devastating abuse suffered by her son at the hands of his slave owner, wounds from which he will never fully recover. As the Author’s Note elaborates, mother and son will eventually become estranged. This spread is one of the most upsetting in the book—there is little to separate the embracing mother and child from a landscape splattered by what looks like blood-tinged mud—and a powerful visual for our children to witness. “‘What is this slavery,’ wondered Isabella, ‘that it can do such dreadful things?’”

From here emerges the Sojourner we know, who adopts her new name meaning “journey” and begins to “tell the truth about Slavery.” In one illustration after another, she begins to assert a new physical presence. She stands in front of a crowd of people and stretches out her arms. She stands opposite Abraham Lincoln, her erectness matching his. She thrusts out her hand at an oncoming streetcar, after it refuses to stop for her because of the color of her skin.

I haven’t even told you my favorite thing about this book. In So Tall Within, with each transition, almost like mini chapter headings, Schmidt shares a line of poetic text beginning “In Slavery Time” (and, eventually, “In Freedom Time”), which is accompanied by a vertical painting, distinct in feel from the illustrative style of the rest of the story. These vertical paintings are both arresting and stunning—and would alone be worth the price of this book. In his Artist’s Note, Minter describes these paintings as “loosely planted in the times of legal slavery but that parallel the feeling of struggle in today’s streets—the feeling that you may be buried, but you are surrounded by soil that nourishes you.”

Many of these paintings speak to a kind of elusive or budding corporeality, often with allusions to seeds, roots, and leaves. Sojourner Truth drew tremendous strength and courage from her ancestry and her descendants. She was a living reminder that those who grow strong roots beneath the soil can eventually stretch big and tall above ground.

Sojourner took up space by standing tall, by opening her arms, and by using her powerful, persuasive voice to bring awareness to the injustices of her people and of others. She spoke out about the rights of liberated slaves. About the rights of women. She spoke about making prisons more humane and abolishing capital punishment. She once warned that if anyone tried to stop her, she “would rock the United States like a cradle.” One of the most powerful of Minter’s vertical paintings shows a naked slave man’s back alight with horizontal scars, which look (my daughter was quick to point out) like cursive writing in blood. The image is accompanied by the phrase, “In Slavery Time, when Words seemed weaker than whips,” but it is offset by the picture on the opposite page, which shows a crowd captivated by one of Sojourner’s speeches. Words—especially those reaped from the experience of oppression—can become the most powerful of tools.

We must teach our children to look for the light inside each other. We must encourage our children to celebrate their own unique presence, and we must teach them to create room for those who might need more allowance to find their own light, to direct that light out into the world, and to assume their own powerful space.

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 be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

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

There’s A New Pippi in Town

February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one.

I have fond memories of reading Astrid Lindgren’s The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking to my kids four years ago, all three of us laughing ourselves silly. Free-spirited Pippi, committed to living life with wild abandon, is one of those characters who cuts straight to the heart. She calls things as they are. She takes up space. She isn’t afraid of living or loving too largely. It’s downright refreshing. Some days, it seems there aren’t enough Pippis.

Well, good news! Pippi’s spirit is alive and well in Maria Parr’s delightful Norwegian novel (perhaps named for Pippi’s creator?), Astrid the Unstoppable (Ages 7-10), about a plucky, red-headed nine year old living in a Scandinavian mountain village. Originally published in 2009 and later translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey, the book arrived on our American shores this past November…and not a moment too soon. Nicknamed “the little thunderbolt of Glimmerdal,” Astrid is Exactly What This Winter Needs.

The parallels to Pippi abound, well beyond the red hair and boisterous personality. In lieu of a pet monkey, Astrid bestows  affections on one Snorri the Seagull, who shares her home and perches atop her helmet on bicycle rides. Astrid doesn’t live entirely alone as Pippi does—she has her quiet but attentive father—but she does mourn the absence of her scientist mother, who is on an extended excursion to Greenland to study rising water levels, akin to Pippi’s legendary father off captaining the seas. Like Pippi, Astrid is left mainly on her own, with large stretches of time in which to entertain herself. As her father tells people, “I let her out every morning and hope she’ll come back in the evening.”

It is what Astrid does with her open-ended days that makes reading about her so much fun. In the two months leading up to her tenth birthday, which happens to fall on Easter, Astrid is determined to make the most of every minute in her teeny, tiny remote mountain village, whose snowy peaks and frozen rivers, sheep farms and “enchanted forests,” are Astrid’s playgrounds. She attempts to somersault on skis while singing to herself. She makes a giant gingerbread castle for Snorri. She charms her way on and off the ferry without every paying a fare. She faces off with an angry ram. Always, she uses her innocent frankness and contagious wit to talk herself out of the messes she inadvertently creates. (During most of the story, Astrid’s school in the neighboring village is off for “February half term.”)

Until now, Astrid—much like Pippi—has spent little playtime with children her own age. She is the only child in her village, and visiting children are forbidden by the unimaginative Mr. Hagen, who runs the Wellness Retreat at the base of the mountain (and is the only adult whom Astrid seems incapable of winning over, despite her best efforts).

Astrid’s best friend is her seventy-four-year-old godfather, a strikingly large sheep farmer rich in contradictions. Gunnvald is part cantankerous “troll” (as Astrid affectionately calls him) and part lively fiddle player. He is at once hardened from a bruised past and possessed with a soft spot for Astrid (“She was sharp as a starling, Gunnvald thought…”). When the story begins, Gunnvald’s favorite pastime is rigging up prototype sledges for Astrid to race down the mountain. (One can tell something about how these sledge runs go by chapter titles like, “In which Sledge Test No. 1 is launched, and Astrid is threatened with a call to the police.”)

For as much as Pippi’s spirit may infuse these colorful scenes, Astrid the Unstoppable also packs a substantial emotional punch, the likes of which we do not see in Astrid Lindgren’s classic. This Astrid’s is a true coming-of-age story. The novel spans mere weeks, but a series of dramatic happenings firmly alters the way Astrid sees herself, her loved ones, and the larger world.

Most significantly, Astrid begins to sense the presence of looming secrets in the lives of her grownups. Secrets which suggest life is inherently more complicated than skiing somersaults. Secrets which reveal failings in the people she idolizes. Secrets which inspire Astrid to think less about her own entertainment and more about helping others—perhaps a fitting progression for someone on the verge of double digits.

The most significant of these secrets involves Gunnvald. When Astrid discovers Gunnvald has an estranged daughter, one whom Gunnvald lovingly raised for several years before letting her leave with her mother and never come back, Astrid is flabbergasted that such a truth was kept from her. Now an acclaimed violinist with a monstrously huge dog, Heidi (the reference to another literary classic is purposeful) abruptly returns home after receiving a desperate letter from Gunnvald, who mistakenly believes he is on death’s door after taking a spill over a coffee pot and landing in the hospital. It turns out Gunnvald is a long way from dying—he happens to be as prone to the dramatic as Astrid—and now must confront the pain of his past head on.

Astrid’s role in her best friend’s saga is wildly entertaining and touchingly genuine, as she attempts to do what children do and presume all questions have straightforward answers. Grown ups, Astrid comes to realize, are capable of making terribly stupid and hurtful mistakes. Sometimes it takes the voice of a child to call things as they are. To remind people of the presence of today, the power of music, and the possibilities in forgiveness.

Astrid the Unstoppable is the best distraction we could ask for in these final weeks of winter, bringing a welcome smile to our faces, at the same time that it leaves a tiny little thunderbolt on our hearts.

 

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 be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

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

Hello, Awards Time!

January 31, 2019 § 1 Comment

This past Monday, I watched and cheered at my computer as the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards were announced (more fun than the Oscars for #kidlit crazies like me). Most parents are familiar with the Caldecott and Newbery medals, but there are quite a few other awards distributed, many to recognize racial, cultural, and gender diversity. Overall, I was pleased to see many of my 2018 favorites come away with shiny gold and silver stickers. At the end of today’s post, I’ll include some of these titles, along with links to what I’ve written about them. (If you’ve been following me on Instagram—if not, I don’t know what you’re waiting for—I’ve been celebrating many of them all week.)

Today, I want to devote some space to Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse, which came away with the Randolph Caldecott Medal, for the “most distinguished American picture book for children.” (It’s actually the second Caldecott for Blackall, who won three years ago for this gem). Hello Lighthouse (Ages 6-9) is one of my very favorites from last year; and yet, I haven’t talked about it until now. Why is that? Perhaps because the art in this book is so endlessly fascinating, my observations continue to evolve with every read. I suppose I’ve been at a loss for words.

My children have returned to this book many times, too, although their initial reactions persist. My daughter loves the idea of living in a lighthouse, while my son thinks it sounds like a most terrifying pursuit (“Do you think the waves really get as big as that?” he says, every single time.) One can gleam quite a bit about their differing personalities from these reactions.

Growing up in Manhattan, one of my favorite pastimes was to walk four blocks uptown to the Museum of the City of New York, climb the marble staircase, and gaze inside the miniature rooms of historic dollhouses, decorated in various styles from the first half of the twentieth century (only the well-known Stettheimer Dollhouse still remains). It wasn’t just the old-fashioned décor—the ornate porcelain table settings with tiny silver forks; the canopied beds with imposing walnut posts—that captivated me. It was the romantic notion of seeing into another world—a perfectly ordered one at that—and imagining what it would be like to inhabit these rooms from a distant time.

This memory was the first thing that came to mind when I opened Hello Lighthouse. The story itself is an (equally romanticized) window into life inside a lighthouse, back when lighthouses were operated by human keepers, who lived out their days ascending and descending these narrow circular towers miles from civilization, before their job was rendered obsolete by automation. As Blackall reveals in her fascinating Afterward, she spent years researching and visiting historic North American lighthouses, from New York to Newfoundland. Her passion for the subject matter radiates from every spread in the spectacular end result we hold in our hands.

Beginning with its tall, narrow trim size, Hello Lighthouse is an homage to these beacons of light, there “sentinels” standing guard and guiding ships around dangerous rocks. But it is also an homage to the life of a lighthouse keeper. To the discipline, the danger, and the loneliness. To the magnificent, changeable beauty which comes from the sea and the sky. To the light which must always be kept burning.

In the book’s early pages, the (fictional) keeper lives alone. We watch how he passes his days, steadfast in his near-constant rituals of polishing the lens, refilling the oil, trimming the wick, winding the clockwork, logging the book. Idle time is spent giving the walls a fresh coat of paint (in the Afterward, Blackall mentions how frequently interior walls needed to be repainted, given the wear and tear of the salty air), embroidering, boiling water, or “fish[ing] for cod from the window.” For correspondence, he pens letters, folds them into bottles, and throws them into the water to traverse the seas.

The letters, as it turns out, are for his wife, who arrives one day by tender (along with the predictable shipment of oil, flour, pork, and beans) and is shimmied up the rocks to the base of the lighthouse by means of a cable and pulley. That night, when the keeper “tends the light and writes in the logbook,” he also “sets the table for two.”

These everyday moments might feel mundane to the lighthouse keeper, but they become positively enchanting when viewed—like the dollhouses of my childhood—through Blackall’s circular windows, which populate many of the exquisite spreads. But the real wonder of Hello Lighthouse is the way Blackall nudges us from the passive to the active, from peeker to participant. At every turn, she infuses her illustrations—Chinese ink and watercolor on hot-press paper—with an exuberance of movement. This movement on the page is so encompassing, so effective, that we as viewers cannot help but experience in our own bodies some of what it was like to inhabit a lighthouse. To face off against the elements. To reside all day and night in cramped, narrow, circular spaces.

To begin with, there’s the movement of the wind and waves, the external forces acting upon the lighthouse at different times of day, in different seasons. Even on calm days, Blackall’s brushwork makes the water ripple on the page. In the fiercest of storms, the waves toss shipwrecked bodies and remind us of the dangerous rescues a lighthouse keeper must sometimes perform.

Then there is the circular movement of the lighthouse’s interior, where circular rooms are populated by circular shapes like rugs, candles, and bowls. There is the movement of the spiral staircase, which takes its inhabitants from the bottom of the lighthouse to the top, then down again, all day long. In one of my kids’ favorite spreads—one that purposely produces in the reader an almost vertiginous effect—Blackall manages to show both the keeper, ill and bedridden in his bedroom of circles, and his wife, running up and down the spiral staircase to tend to her husband and the lighthouse “all at once.” (This spread is also an homage to the many women who served as lighthouse keepers, another point Blackall makes in the Afterward.)

In one of my favorite spreads—perhaps best appreciated by one who has herself been pregnant—the circle is invoked as a symbol of the wife’s labor, a labor which has her walking in seemingly endless circles, as her husband “boils water and helps her breathe in—and out” (and, of course, still “tends the light and writes in the logbook”).

Blackall occasionally startles us with an absence of movement, like when ice encapsulates the water around the lighthouse. This spread feels almost eerily still, sitting as it does in such contrast to the others. And yet, there is still movement to be discerned: the lamp continues to radiate its light out into the stillness.

Fittingly, Blackall also gives us a tiny window into what life would have been like for a child inside the lighthouse. The couple’s child, now two or so, sits perched on a circular rope rug, surrounded by a ring of model boats and her working parents. The child looks happy enough, but we know enough of the daily reality of this lighthouse to imagine it would be challenging growing up in such close quarters. The coast guard’s forthcoming arrival with a new automated motor for the lighthouse seems perfectly timed. It is the changing of the guard, only out with the human and in with the machine. The child will get to watch the lighthouse, not from within its circular rooms, but from her new home across the shore. (And I don’t dare ruin the final few spreads for you.)

Hello Lighthouse is escapism at its best, painting an unfamiliar world, then inviting us to step inside and get to know every corner as if it were our own.

Other 2019 YMA Award Winners That I’ve Loved AND Reviewed:

Picture Books:

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, by Grace Lin (Caldecott Honor)

 

Julian is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love (Stonewall Book Award, for an “English-language children’s book of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience”)

 

Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales (Pura Belpre Award, “honoring a Latinx writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience”); I haven’t reviewed it, but it’s ah-ma-zing.

 

Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories, by Sergio Ruzzier (Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor, for “most distinguished early reader book”)

 

Islandborn, by Junot Diaz, illus. Leo Espinosa (Pura Belpre Honor)

 

All-of-a-Kind-Family Hanukkah, by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O’Zelinsky (Sydney Taylor Book Award)

 

Chapter Books:

Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina (John Newbery Medal); link is to my Instagram review

 

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani (Newbery Honor)

 

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, by Ashley Herring Blake (Stonewall Book Honor)

 

 

The Season of Styx Malone, by Kekla Magoon (Coretta Scott King Honor, “recognizing an African-American author of outstanding books for children”); link is to my Instagram review

 

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier (Sydney Taylor Award, “presented to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience”)

 

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang (Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature)

 

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 be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Hello Lighthouse published by Little, Brown and Company. 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!

My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)

A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).

When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.

I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:

This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.

Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!

I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.

My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.

The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.

The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.

The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.

A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.

An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?

But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)

Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”

And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”

And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.

Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.

What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.

Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?

 

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 be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

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

Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.

Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.

Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.

While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.

There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.

And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.

Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”

I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.

Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.

I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.

 

AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

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

 

 

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