Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 6 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids.

When my husband and I, long finished with our own plates, start staring holes into the heads of our children, whose food only seems to multiply the longer we sit at the table, I start fantasizing about bedtime. And then I think, Be Present!, and decide, enough with the small talk which is going nowhere, and throw out, “Let’s talk about gender stereotypes!” At which point, both children shoot me a look which plainly says, Please go back to yelling at us about our manners.

And so, this is what I have decided. My kids are getting on in years (even if you can’t tell by their table manners), and it’s getting harder to find a daily time when they are both available for me to read to them. So why not make dinner time our read aloud time?

That’s right. We have cast our conversation skills to the wind, and now, the second I put down my fork, I pick up whatever book we’re reading, and we get to it. This is how we came to fall in love with Gary D. Schmidt’s new middle-grade novel, Pay Attention, Carter Jones (Ages 10-14). Not only is it tears-in-the-eyes funny and tears-in-the-eyes moving, it’s the very best distraction from the drudgery of dinnertime you could ask for.

Also, it permits me to do a British accent. Truly, any day can be improved by donning a British accent.

When an English butler shows up without warning one morning at the door of the Jones’ American house—a “portly” Mary Poppins character, minus the magic but with the umbrella—he is hardly met with a warm welcome, at least from Carter Jones, who is trying to steel himself for the first day of sixth grade. Allow me to share the story’s opening paragraph, so splendidly does it establish Carter’s narrative voice, with its infectious flair for the dramatic, its hefty dose of teenage skepticism bordering on disdain, and its fabulous dry wit.

If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm—and I’ve been in one, so I know what’s like—and if the last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.

Carter doesn’t know how his mother can be sure the Butler isn’t a serial killer, even after he explains that his services are paid for by a generous endowment left in the will of Carter’s recently-deceased grandfather, for whom the Butler has worked all his life.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean my grandfather, like, left you to us in his will?”

“Crudely articulated, but true in the most generous sense.”

“Like, we own you?”

The guy carefully tied shut the folds of his umbrella. “Young Master Jones, indentured servanthood having been abolished even in your own country, no. You do not, like, own me.”

Come on. This book just begs to be read aloud.

Even though “you never know what a serial killer might do to throw you off guard,” Carter’s mother allows the Butler to enter the morning chaos of their household, to help the girls with their unruly hair and their missing socks, to pack school lunches, and to load all four children into his giant eggplant-colored Bentley (steering wheel on the right) and drop them at their first day of school.

As it turns out, the Jones family—Carter, his three younger sisters, their mother, and their prone-to-puking dachshund, Ned—needs saving from more than the drudgery of daily life. Though we don’t discover this until midway through the story, the family is still raw from the tragic loss of Carter’s young brother, Currier, who died from a rare illness a little over a year ago. Carter misses his brother terribly, but he misses his father even more—a deployed Captain in the Army, from whom the only correspondence during the story is a heart-wrenching letter to Carter’s mother, announcing that he is leaving the family for another woman in Germany. Coming to terms with the fickleness of death is one thing; coming to terms with the fickleness of human behavior, especially from someone you have always idolized, someone you have always trusted, seems nearly impossible.

The Butler, whose full name is August Paul Bowles-Fitzpatrick, is careful not to step into the shoes abandoned by Carter’s father—and yet, he becomes every bit the observant, compassionate, supportive, consistent, present adult figure Carter needs him to be. Even while extolling the superior virtues of British culture. Even while dispensing unwelcome mugs of tea with milk and sugar. Even while being, as Carter chides him, a “pain in the glutes.” The Butler may not be able to perform magic, but he seems somehow to be everywhere at once, offering the right—if enigmatic—words at the right time, always two steps ahead of those he is sworn to serve.

The Butler is also an ardent fan of both the metaphor and the sport of cricket, and these two converge in some of the most entertaining and poignant scenes in the book. Much like the Butler aims to do with Carter and his classmates at the Longfellow Middle School, this book will make a cricket fan out of every one of its readers. (Not to worry if you don’t know the first thing about the sport: every chapter begins with a different rule.) The hilarity of the Butler descending on the Minutemen’s Football Field, sporting his cricket whites and carrying a set of stumps and bails, is matched only by the way he successfully woos Carter, his neighbor, and the entire cross-county team into joining him. (“Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, what are you supposed to be?” said Annie. The Butler rummaged around in the long case again and took out two huge gloves—white again—and he handed them to Billy…“Miss Anne, I am not supposed to be anything. I am a cricketer.”)

Cricket instills focus (“Pay attention, Master Jones!”) and hand-eye coordination, but it also imparts invaluable life skills, like teamwork, patience, resilience, and communication. It is a “gentleman’s” sport, marked by dignity and respect. Most critically for our young protagonist, it offers a space for self-discovery; for belonging; even for healing. In the metaphorical sense, cricket teaches us to “keep the bails up,” even during the roughest, most disorienting times in our lives.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones celebrates family. Maybe not the one Carter thought he had, maybe not even the one he wanted, but the one he’s building for himself, each time he sits through a ballet performance for his sister, or walks the dog for his mom, or give voice to his deepest, darkest fears without the risk of judgment. Each time he invites this quirky, old-fashioned British cricketer into his heart.

There’s nothing that brings a family together more than sharing a laugh or a heartwarming story. Here at our dinner table, we were lucky to have found both.

 

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

What Our Heart Needs, Today and Everyday

January 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I drove down to the river to watch the sun rise. I hadn’t been able to sleep, my heart bruised from the words of a loved one the night before. As an adult, I have found the holidays to be such an intermingling of joy and sadness: a time of excitement and celebration, but also a time when the losses in my life assert themselves and leave me vulnerable.

I stood alone in the brisk-but-not-intolerable air, at the same spot along the Potomac where my son had taken me this past summer. A place he had picnicked with his sailing camp. A place he told me, while we were walking there, had “a bench perfect for you to sit on.” I wanted a place where I would feel love.

I felt that memory of love, but I also felt new love in the here and now around me. I didn’t lay eyes on another soul, but I was aware of life all around me. There were headlights from cars driving across the bridge. I witnessed the pink illumination of the Ferris Wheel across the river in Maryland. I watched as plane after plane descended over the Potomac, and my heart swelled to think of the people who had been flying all night, just to be with their loved ones for the holidays. I stood alone at the edge of the water, and I watched the sky come to life in a beautiful and reflective rendering of orange and yellow and blue. It did so without making a sound, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and I felt like I was witnessing at once something uniquely personal and universally commonplace. I felt infinitely small in the most comforting of ways.

Since discovering this poem by the late Mary Oliver last week, I think it sums things up perfectly:

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

And so, I got back into my car and drove home to begin the 48 hours of Christmas Cheer.

Weeks later, after I read Corinna Luyken’s poetic new picture book, My Heart (Ages 5-10), I realized I had never told my children about my Christmas Eve sunrise. I had never spoken aloud the sadness I had felt. (Why should I? It had nothing to do with them.) How often do we edit our own thoughts or reactions so we can paint a brighter, sunnier picture for our children? This may be the greatest offering of My Heart: it presents an opportunity to talk with our children about the stormy greys, the lackluster greys, the muddy, murky greys.

Indeed, the book is a provocative dance of grey and yellow, of dark and light.

My Heart was born out of a poem Luyken wrote years ago. (Luyken has been quite the darling of my blog, beginning with her first book, The Book of Mistakes, and continuing with her illustrations for My Favorite Picture Book of 2018.) But while the poem’s words stayed more or less constant, the accompanying artwork bent and swayed and morphed over several years until it struck the right note. (If you like to geek out—that’s me!—on the process of picture book creation, read this fascinating interview with Luyken.) With its scratchy, smudgy look, the end result reminds me of the work of the late John Birmingham—a legend in the picture book world—who often evoked a similar “unfinished” look in his art, almost as if inviting us to insert our own selves and lives into his pictures. Luyken strikes a similarly intimate but universal tone here, while producing some of the most exquisite spreads I’ve encountered in a picture book.

My Heart is a musing on the way our heart feels at different times, “My heart is a window,/ my heart is a slide./ My heart can be closed/ or opened up wide.” Readers will be quick to notice the myriad of ways, much like in Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, that Luyken nestles heart-shaped silhouettes into her illustrations. Inspired by her own love of collecting heart-shaped objects in the natural world, like rocks and shells, Luyken not only draws our attention to the omnipresence of this particular shape in the everyday, but also to the constant, comforting presence our own heart exerts, even as we experience tumultuous feelings.

The next few spreads of My Heart dip into these messier moments. Still talking about our heart (and never reaching for the platitudes): “Some days it’s a puddle./ Some days it’s a stain./ Some days it is cloudy/ and heavy with rain.” The rainy spread is one of only three where Luyken doesn’t use yellow to complement the grey. These are times when the darkness threatens to engulf, to block out the light. And yet, Luyken reminds us, even when facing down the darkness, our heart is with us, glimpsed here in the overlapping shapes of the black clouds.

But, like the sunrise each morning, the darkness is eventually eclipsed by light. With the next spread, Luyken slowly brings back the yellow—at first just a tiny heart-shaped bud in the ground, over which a child is bent (the same image as the book’s cover). “Some days it is tiny,/ but tiny can grow…/and grow…/and grow.” Another page turn reveals heart-shaped bursts of yellow radiating from a tree.

This pattern repeats twice more, as Luyken calls our attention to times in which our heart feels, for example, like “a fence between me and the world,” versus the reaffirming times when we invite others to help mend our hearts, or when we embrace our heart as a source of “light” and “guid[ance].”

My Heart can and will be read by children on many levels. It will reward multiple readings with deeper insights. But, regardless of where children are in their own lives, I expect they will not miss the vulnerability in these pages, a topic not often addressed in children’s picture books. There’s a refreshing rawness here. A reassurance of hope, a nod to the cyclic nature of emotions, but one that doesn’t gloss over or undersell the dark spots. A book which, when taken as a whole, actually balances the greys and yellows fairly equally…even if the yellow-dominant pages are be the ones we want to take with us.

My Heart ends with the empowering message that we are each the bosses of our emotional life. We may not be able to anticipate or control the feelings that come, but we do get to decide whether we want to open our heart to these feelings. Whether we want, in turn, to open ourselves to the possibility of connection. If we choose openness—even at our most vulnerable, even when we think no one is listening—we will never truly be alone. Even in our saddest, messiest moments, we are surrounded by a vast universe of hearts. If we welcome this infinite love, we may well find the soothing we crave. We may even return, once more, to joy.

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!

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