Celebrating Our Inner Mermaid

June 21, 2018 § 3 Comments

Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.

In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind.

I am Jazz is Jazz Jennings’ autobiographical picture book, co-written with Jessica Herthel, about what it was like to grow up with “a girl brain but a boy body.”  From the earliest ages, Jazz identified as a girl. More than simply dressing up as princesses and mermaids, Jazz would correct her parents when they would say, “You’re such a good boy,” responding, “No, Mama. Good GIRL!” In Jazz’s case, it was her pediatrician who identified her as transgender and encouraged her parents to stop cutting her hair and putting her in boy clothing. Eventually, her teachers at school allowed her to join the girls’ soccer team, and she found a group of friends who saw her, not as someone to be teased or feared, but as “one of the nicest girls at school.”

I could feel the intensity in the air as I read. My children bent so far over the pages that I had to ask them to sit back so I could see the words. “Have I just opened a can of worms?” I thought. “Are they even old enough to understand this?” These were actual questions that went through my head.

When I finished reading, I asked if they wanted to talk about the book. “Nope!” they chorused, pulling out the next title from the box. And so, I moved on. And I don’t just mean with the next book. Later that day, I tucked I am Jazz inside one of the cabinets in our office. Are you getting this? I hid the book. I justified my action: “This is a great book, but I’ll get it out in a few years when they’re older. When it’s more applicable to their life or to someone they know.” Yes. I actually thought these things.

The very next day, I walked into my four-year-old daughter’s room to find her paging through the book. How on earth she found it I will never know. She beamed at me: “Mommy, Jazz likes all the same things I do: dance, soccer, swimming, and the color pink!” “Yes,” I said. And then, a few days later, when I was tidying up her room, I hid the book. Again.

A few weeks later, we had friends over for dinner. Long after everyone had finished eating, the adults were still lingering at the table, when my son barged in carrying our children’s dictionary, trailed by his sister and friends. “We need to throw out this dictionary,” he pronounced, with his typical fondness for the dramatic. “It is missing words.”

“What word are you trying to look up?” one of the grown-ups asked.

“Transgender.”

Instantly, I knew that I am Jazz was circulating around our house again; and—based on the looks everyone was exchanging around the table—making for some pretty riveting conversations upstairs.

As they do more times than I could ever count, my children held a mirror in front of my face. They illuminated my shortcoming—in this case, a bias—which I wasn’t even aware I had. We shouldn’t save “issues books” for the moments the issues arise. Heck, we shouldn’t even label them as “issues books.” My children were intrigued by the idea of transgender, sure, but I have since realized that their interest in this book extends well beyond definitions. I am Jazz is just one more tale in a long line of tales about kids trying to make sense of who they are—a journey every child faces, at every age. Even more, I am Jazz celebrates that journey. Jazz is brave and animated and refreshing. She is who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. What child wouldn’t be fascinated by her?

It may have taken three tries, but I am Jazz finally got a prominent place on our bookshelves, and I’m proud to say that, years later, it still floats in and out of both children’s rooms regularly. My children talk about Jazz like they know her, like she’s their friend. “We read Jazz’s book in school today!” my ten year old announced with excitement earlier this year. “Can you believe there were some kids who had never heard of her?” He went on: “My teacher used to date someone who is transgender. That’s cool, don’t you think?” That my children think this is cool—and not weird or scary or confused—owes a great deal to reading I am Jazz when they did.

Published earlier this spring, Julián is a Mermaid also raises the subject of gender identity, though it does so with a subtlety and ambiguity that would likely not have been possible were it not for predecessors like I am Jazz. With mesmerizing illustrations, just 23 short sentences, and as much unspoken as spelled out, this picture book is visual storytelling at its best. Julián’s journey unfolds only over the span of a few hours; and yet, encapsulated in these hours is a multi-faceted glimpse into how high the stakes are when we risk being seen for who we really are.

When the story opens, Julián is riding the subway with his abuela and reading a book about a subject near and dear to his heart: mermaids. A moment later, as he looks up, three tall, svelte women dance into his car, sporting elaborate hair styles and identical aquamarine fishtail dresses. We don’t need text to tell us what Julián is thinking: mermaids in the flesh.

As Julián watches these women, he begins to picture himself as a mermaid, fantasizing silently about throwing off his clothes, growing a gold-tipped pink tail, and swimming alongside a school of brightly-patterned fish through water colored the same shade of aquamarine as the ladies’ dresses.

A large, intricately-designed indigo blue fish approaches him with a necklace offering. In these waters, Julián is not only joyful and uninhibited; he (she) is also adored.

As Julián and his abuela depart the train and walk home, Julián’s mind is still on the three ladies.

“Abuela, did you see the mermaids?”

“I saw them, mijo.”

“Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”

At this point, it’s impossible to decipher what the boy’s grandmother makes of all this. Her coiffed white hair and voluminous shape combine with pronounced, imposing facial features, mostly bent towards frowning. Her only response to Julian declaring himself a mermaid is to peer silently down at him—and then, on the next page, inform him that she is going to take a bath and that he should “be good” while she’s out of the room.

The three nearly wordless double spreads that follow—as Julián dramatically sheds his clothes, rigs up a headpiece from flowers and palm fronds, and tears down the white lace curtains to create a mermaid tail—are so ripe with expression, movement, and gorgeousness, we fall completely in love with this child (if we weren’t already). Heck, you don’t even have to like mermaids—my daughter reminded me that she doesn’t—to agree that this costume is nothing short of extraordinary. And, yes, there is make-up involved.

Cue dramatic tension, as the grandmother emerges from the bathroom, wrapped in her own white swathe, and stands staring at her grandson, who is now posing like a Greek goddess. As abuela turns silently and walks off the page, Julián’s big eyes stare after her intensely, worriedly. On the next page, his expression turns downcast. He lifts the end of his tail, as if seeing it for the curtain it is. He glimpses himself in the mirror, as if struggling to recognize himself. There is not a single word of text—and yet, our hearts are in our throat, watching this child question himself. (In an interview featured on the blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author-illustrator Jessica Love talks about the evolution of her art for this book, which she originally painted on a white background, until she realized that layering color atop of brown paper bags actually allowed her to infuse the facial features of her brown-skinned characters with greater emotion. The result is pitch perfect and absolutely stunning.)

But then, the grandmother returns—“Come here, mijo”—wearing a colorful headscarf and an indigo dress with a white pattern that will be familiar (to observant readers) from the earlier aquatic scene of Julián’s imagination. She holds out a pink beaded necklace, which Julian takes with a wide grin.

Once again, abuela leads him outside and down the street. She leads him straight into the heart of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a crowd of people wearing octopus tentacles and jellyfish headpieces, swishing and swaying in unapologetically bright fabrics and tall heels. “Mermaids,” whispers Julián.

At last, abuela’s face seems to soften into a smile, as she says the words Julián most needs to hear: “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.”

As Julián marches alongside these kindred spirits, alongside his accepting abuela, we glimpse in him the same joy and freedom from his private fantasy earlier in the day. We are reminded of the power of being seen, of being loved, for exactly who we are.

A postscript: This has been a gut-wrenching week of news, as we listen to reports of refugee children being separated—ripped apart—from their families at our border and by our government. Children who may never see their loved ones again. Julián is a Mermaid is not a political book. It is not a book with a shove-it-down-your-throat message. But it is a profoundly touching story about the power—the fundamental necessity—of unconditional familial love. About how, under the gentle tutelage of love and acceptance, children can bask in the joy of childhood, can grow into adults to be proud of. Every child deserves this treatment.

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

The Places We Carry With Us

May 17, 2018 § 8 Comments

Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.

And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.

Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.

Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.

The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.

“I was homesick!”

Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.

When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?

There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.

Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.

Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”

Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”

 

Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”

“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)

“That’s it exactly!”

As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).

The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.

Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.

Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.

 

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Review copy provided 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!

The Best Book I Haven’t Told You About

April 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

It’s true. I’ve waited four months into 2018 to tell you about my favorite book from 2017. Why didn’t I include this title in last year’s Holiday Gift Guide? Well, two reasons. First, Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Ages 5-9) is not really a “gift-y” book: its subdued cover doesn’t exactly scream READ ME, and its content is not high on the list of what kids think they want to read about. This is a quiet book. A gentle book. A tiny window into one immigrant family’s experience, and the kind of story where what’s not said is equally as important as what is. But oh…this book.

Which brings me to my second reason. This is a book that needs time to percolate with our children. As a parent, I loved it from the second I began it, and I also recognized how topical it was (Kirkus Reviews called it “a must-read for our times,” and it was just awarded a Caldecott Honor, so the Powers That Be clearly agree). I couldn’t wait to share it with my kids. And then, the experience was…anti-climactic. We read it once through, and my children liked it fine—they smiled, they nodded—but that was all. I put it back in our “new books” basket, where it sat untouched for months. I couldn’t in all fairness write about a story that didn’t have the same impact on my children as it had on me.

Herein lies the power of owning select books, of not having to return them to the library after a few weeks. Last week, five months after we first read A Different Pond together, I found my daughter on the couch with it. I watched from a distance. She read it to herself. Twice. I finally approached.

“How’s the book?” I asked.

“Can I read it to you?” she responded. For my daughter, there is no greater sign of engagement than when she volunteers information about a story she’s reading—or, better yet, reads it aloud to me.

I sat and listened. As an intimate read aloud, A Different Pond is perfection: Bao Phi writes clearly, yet poetically; and Thi Bui—her last book was a graphic novel—propels the story forward through visually striking panels which evoke a breadth of emotion. But the best part: along the way, my daughter stopped to point out things, especially things half-visible in the background. She asked me questions. She began to draw conclusions.

This, my fellow book-loving parents, is the magic of a quiet book.

A Different Pond tells the story of a single early-morning fishing trip undertaken by a boy and his father, an event both routine and yet rich in emotional subtext. The story, told in the boy’s voice, comes out of Bao Phi’s own childhood, growing up with Vietnamese parents who were forced to flee to Minnesota as refugees from the war in 1975, when Phi was just a baby. That the time and place specifics are not spelled out until the Afterward lends the story universality; but illustrator Thi Bui also does a brilliant job of giving us atmospheric hints along the way, from the calendar on the kitchen wall (which reads 1982), to the bell-bottom jeans, to the distinctly ‘70s palette of mustard yellows and muddy browns.

What feels distinctive about A Different Pond, amidst the growing number of children’s picture books attempting to capture the “immigrant experience,” is its very, very narrow focus. We spend only a few hours with this father and son, beginning with their departure before dawn for the bait store and ending with their return home at sun up. And yet, what we learn in these few hours is bountiful and deep, like the pond itself. We learn that the boy’s father, when he speaks English, sounds to some “like a thick, dirty river,” but to the boy sounds like “gentle rain.” We learn that this early-morning outing is even earlier than usual, as the father explains to the tack shop owner that he “got a second job” and needs to get to work by breakfast time.

In fact, as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that these fishing trip are not purely or even mostly recreational. They arise from the necessity to eat—and the stark reality that even working two jobs does not bring in enough money for this basic need (“Everything in America costs a lot of money,” the father tells his son). When the father and son climb, hand in hand, over the highway divider and through the dark brush to the edge of the pond, a careful observer will catch the sign visible in the corner of the page: NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT. “See that, Mommy?” my daughter whispered. “I think this is why they have to do it in the dark.”

There is nothing glamorous about fishing off the highway for necessity—and yet, the experience is ripe for connection. (Anyone else having flashbacks of our beloved Danny, Champion of the World?) These impressionable mornings are forming the boy’s view of the world, himself, and his familial roots. The boy tells us about the different people, also fishing, whom they sometimes meet: a “Hmong man…who speaks English like my dad and likes to tell funny jokes”; and a “black man…[who] shows me his colorful lure collection.” The boy connects to his body and to the natural world, rubbing his hands in the cold and looking up “to see faint stars like freckles.” Most significantly, the boy begins to piece together the puzzle that is his taciturn father, their bonding playing out in the smallest of moments. A reassuring squeeze from the father’s calloused hands. The gentle way the father prompts the boy to build a fire. The rising energy in the father’s demeanor, until he bursts out laughing at the “funny face” the boy makes trying to guide a freshly-caught fish into the bucket.

The boy is particularly curious about his father’s former life in Vietnam and the events which led him to move his family across the ocean. But he knows he must wait for an opening and choose his questions sparingly. While the two sit at the pond’s edge, waiting on fish and eating bologna sandwiches, the father offers up a golden nugget: “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam,” he tells his son. The boy asks if his father’s brother was there, too. We learn, gently, that the father lost his brother while fighting side by side in the War. A bite on the line interrupts this conversation, but the seed has been planted. Later, as the two make their way back to the car, the boy wonders “what the trees look like at that other pond, in the country my dad comes from.”

This may be a story about sacrifices, big and small, about one Vietnamese American refugee family who left behind one life to start a new one with next to nothing, but it is also a story about moving out of darkness and into light. What Thi Bui—herself a Vietnamese American immigrant—has done with her illustrations is extraordinary. I have never before seen light—in its multitude of forms—portrayed so tangibly in a single picture book. We have the progression of natural light, from the twilight cast by the stars and moon to the “blue and gray light” of early sun rise, notably stopping before the golden sunshine we expect. We have a range of artificial light: the bare bulb illuminating the linoleum floor of the family’s kitchen; the bold streetlight on the dark street outside the tack shop; the fluorescent light of the carpeted hallway outside the door to the family’s apartment. If not stark, these lights are also not warm, as poverty is often characterized by such unfiltered, unforgiving light.

There is no triumphant sunrise here, just as there is no conventionally happy ending.  The story will continue to unfold long after we close the book, and we can guess there will be many more early-morning fishing trips. But, as the sun fills the boy’s apartment on his return home, the light becomes undeniably softer, yellower. As the boy anticipates his family gathering around the table to enjoy the fish that night for dinner (“Dad will nod and smile and eat with his eyes half closed.”), we also see more diffused light. Finally, as the boy falls asleep, dreaming “of fish in faraway ponds,” his sleeping face becomes the light source itself. It’s as if he is lit from within, comforted and warmed by the love he feels in the everyday actions of his family—particularly, in his bond with his father.

As we move from darkness into light in this story, I also wonder if we are meant to think about the optimism and hope represented by the next generation, by those children on whose behalf immigrant parents make these sacrifices. There is nothing that looks or sounds easy about the life this family is leading; and yet, they clearly lead with conviction, hard work, and love for one another. We alongside our child readers may feel humbled to realize that this quiet stoicism continues to unfold today in immigrant and refugee experiences around us.

That is the power of sitting with a book for awhile.

 

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Review copy provided by Capstone. 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!

10 Reasons to Keep Reading to Children Long After They’re Reading Themselves

October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.

Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”

To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”

But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.

#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.

Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.

When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)

#9: Reading aloud expands our children’s vocabulary.

Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:

Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.

Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty).  Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).

#8: Reading aloud enhances the things we do with our children when we aren’t reading.

In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.

Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.

#7: Reading aloud can blow our children’s minds.

Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)

Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite revelation, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.

#6: Reading aloud convinces our children we can (occasionally) be funny.

Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.

If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.

#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.

As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can 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.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).

Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.

Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”

(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)

#4: Reading aloud gives us a chance to talk to our kids about the messy stuff.

For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.

I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.

It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.

#3: Reading aloud nurtures optimism.

When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.

Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.

#2: Reading aloud means bonding as a family.

I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).

Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.

And that brings me to my last point.

#1: Reading aloud slows down time.

How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.

And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.

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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!

When the Question Becomes the Answer

September 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet that have spent the last three months in and around a swimming pool, it occurs to me that my children are shedding their summer skin in more ways than one. (And not all of them are gross.) They are preparing for the great mental and emotional journey that a new school year demands. They’re working to put aside the comfortable, unhurried, joyful freedom of summer for stricter routines, increased expectations, and long days of scrutiny. As first and fourth graders, they know they will be doing real work, work that others will oversee and critique, work that might one moment feel exciting and the next feel tedious or overwhelming or downright scary. They know they will be navigating new social terrain, new faces among peers and teachers, perhaps even new behaviors from old friends.

They know, but they don’t know. They know that they don’t know.

At the beginning of each new day, our children have to screw their courage to the sticking-place of the Great Unknown. They get out of the car, get off their bikes, and they walk into this tentative, uncertain thing that is life, hoping to come back with a few more answers.

Perhaps because back-to-school season is itself such an intimidating journey, Dashka Slater’s new picture book, The Antlered Ship (Ages 5-9), strikes a poignant chord. Of course, it could also be the delicate color washes atop brazen graphite and pen by Terry and Eric Fan, who made their exquisite debut last year with The Night Gardener and have now outdone themselves. The book is absolutely gorgeous, right down to the cover, which is printed on such sumptuously thick and textured paper that it might have ruined all other picture books for me. Right off the bat, The Antlered Ship feels like the perfect gift to put into the hands of our young crusaders.

The story is about a young fox with questions. Not the insistent “whys” that my children used to pose as a response to everything I told them (“We need to leave the park now.” “Why?” “Because we have to make dinner.” “Why?” “So you can eat.” “Why?” “Because otherwise you’ll be hungry.” “Why?”). No, the fox’s questions are—like my children’s now—more loaded, hesitant, and thoughtful. They’re also questions which don’t always have an easy or straightforward answer. Or any answer at all.

On the drive home from school the other day, while her older brother was carpooling with another family, my newly seven year old seized this rare opportunity to hold court by asking a series of questions. Whether these questions had just popped into her mind or whether she had been mulling them over all day or all week was unclear. What is clear is that her mind is infinitely expanding—and not linearly. She asked:

How come we can still hear the other cars when we’re inside our own?

How do the moms’ bellies go back in after they push out the babies?

How come when people are shy they can’t just swallow their shyness?

The questions swirling inside the mind of Marco, the anthropomorphized fox in The Antlered Ship, are not dissimilar to my daughter’s, if arguably a bit more poetic. The fox wonders:

Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad?

Why don’t trees ever talk?

How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?

Marco’s problem is that he can’t find an audience for these questions. When he poses them to his fellow foxes, they look at him blankly and respond, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?”

So when a mysterious wooden ship—carrying seafaring deer and bearing a massive masthead carved in the shape of a stag’s antlers—docks in a harbor looking for a new crew to sail to a distant island, Marco volunteers. He hopes the ship’s destination might land him alongside some foxes who do know the answers to his many questions. Marco and the deer are joined as well by a band of adventure-seeking, checkers-playing pigeons.

Marco may have a clear destination and goal in mind, but he must venture into the Unknown to get there. Like any journey, things are not always smooth sailing—and they often give rise to even more questions. For starters, there are rough storms, with “waves crash[ing] over the sides of the deck.” “Why is water so wet? Marco wondered…”

The deer prove themselves useless at navigating, and the pigeons are full of complaints about the damp crackers. Marco is not immune to crankiness himself, but he decides they all need to “do the best we can.” He begins by throwing together a warm stew from a recipe book he finds and then moves the group towards consensus on navigation.

The fox’s good nature is contagious, and the animals begin to embrace adventure for adventure’s sake, navigating the Maze of Sharp Rocks as a team and later going head to head with a line-up of warring pirates.

At last, the group reaches their destination: an island replete with waving grasses, fruit trees, and plenty of animals willing to listen to the sea crew’s bombastic accounts of their voyage.

Marco, however, doesn’t share the others’ elation. To his despair, he can’t find a single fox. “I have failed,” he tells his shipmates. “No foxes. No one to answer my questions.” The corresponding spread reveals that even in the togetherness on the ship, the fox has been alone. For all his leadership, he has yet to make himself vulnerable, to invite anyone to share in his uncertainty.

And yet, Marco’s mates challenge him. “What questions?” the pigeon asks. And Marco at last screws his courage, takes a deep breath, and begins to ask questions. Including, “‘What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?”’

Then ensues a discussion, as each of the three offers up a thought on friendship. Maybe, Marco offers, “you make friends by asking them questions.” The trio goes on to ask each other more questions: Should they head home? Should they have more adventures? And my favorite:

“Is it better to know what’s going to happen?” wondered Marco. “Or better to be surprised?”

(You could have knocked me over with a feather when my nine year old son, who insists on us telling him in detail where we are going and what we are going to do there, answered without hesitation, “Surprised.”)

There is no end to life’s questioning. Even when we are lucky enough to uncover an answer, another question arises. What Marco hoped to find on the other side of the sea was actually on the ship with him the entire time: not the answers, but the companionship with which to weather the questioning.

This lovely story challenges our own children’s assumptions. Do we really need all the answers to feel better, to feel more secure in the uncertainty around us? Maybe what we need—what we really, really need—are people to whom we can ask our questions. People with whom we can sit, musing aloud, in the comfort of a car, or on a twirl across the playground, or as we are being tucked into the covers at night. These people don’t have to be related to us, they don’t even have to look like us or talk like us. They only need to listen—and, possibly, to offer up some questions of their own.

Don’t worry, my little crusaders. The world will be big and scary, but you don’t have to figure it out to be in good company.

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Book published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 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!

The Best Answer to Why We Should Conserve Water (An Earth Day Post)

April 20, 2017 § 2 Comments

“Don’t leave the water running!” shouted one of my Girl Scouts, as she waited in line behind her fellow Daisies to wash hands during one of our recent meetings. She turned to me. “That’s true, right? My mom says you shouldn’t waste water.” I told her I thought that was a commendable goal, and then another girl asked why. A third girl piped in: “Because otherwise there won’t be any water left in the oceans, and the fish will all die.”

This is not dissimilar to adages which I have used with my own children in the past. And I’ve heard plenty of other parents try out similar renditions. But I’ve also felt slightly disingenuous and awkward delivering them, because explanations like these are neither correct nor that simple. A child has only to visit the beach and stare out into the vast expanse of blue to feel some futility at the prospect of draining the oceans by leaving the tap running a few extra seconds. It simply doesn’t hold up, and what seems implausible doesn’t ultimately motivate behavior. Perhaps the real reason we end up saying shorthand things like this is that many of us don’t know the ins and outs of how our planet’s closed-water system sustains itself. (Guilty as charged.)

With Earth Day this Saturday, I was thrilled to discover that children’s author-illustrator Molly Bang and MIT ecology professor Penny Chisholm have once again teamed up to release the fourth installment in their critically acclaimed non-fiction “Sunlight Series.” Even better, their latest title is dedicated to the water cycle! If there’s anyone who can aid me in my quest to better understand the science around me—and then impart this science to my children—it’s Bang and Chisholm. In pairing highly detailed explanations about the sun’s sustaining role in our planet with rich, shimmering oil paintings, Bang and Chisholm seem to be on something of a crusade to bring our children into the fold of Mother Nature, igniting a life-long passion for conservation. And since these books benefit tenfold from being digested alongside a parent or teacher, we adults are in a position to learn just as much as our children. (You might remember how mind-blown I was by Bang and Chisholm’s previous title, Buried Sunlight, which reveals the slow and painstaking process behind the sun’s creation of fossil fuels, which we humans gobble up as if we were guaranteed an endless supply).

Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth (Ages 7-10) follows in the tradition of its predecessors, whereby a personified, off-screen sun directly addresses the reader: “I am your sun. My energy warms your days. I light up your world.” The sun, we quickly understand, is also the master puppeteer responsible for moving water around the earth. Right off the bat, the book debunks a common misconception: that our oceans are as rich in water as they appear. True, Earth is the “blue planet”—and yet, the oceans are “actually just a thin, thin film covering most of your planet.” Here follows a visual which I’ll admit made my mouth fall open, say nothing of my children.

If all of the Earth’s water were rolled into a ball, that ball would be only a fraction of the size of our planet. If you then extracted just the fresh water from this model—and then just the fresh water that’s readily accessible (i.e. not trapped in ice or deep below the ground)—the blue ball is nothing more than a tiny dot compared to the size of the earth.

How can this tiny speck of fresh water sustain “ALL life on Earth”? The answer is through endless permutations of recycling, each made possible directly or indirectly by the sun. Similar to how water flows in and out of our body and those of other living creatures, water is forever traversing our planet: evaporating into the sky from the salty oceans, moving across land in clouds, raining down on mountains and rivers, and seeping through sand and gravel into aquifers held deep underground. Some of this water is released back into the atmosphere when plants use the sun’s energy to photosynthesize, thereby riding clouds back to the oceans, while other water returns to the seas via the rivers that flow there.

Even the oceans themselves are constantly cycling water, in the form of giant currents like the Gulf Stream and the Ocean Conveyor Belt, which subsequently regulate Earth’s temperatures by dispersing the warmth generated at the equator (my weather-obsessed son was riveted) and ensuring that nutrients find their way into the mouths of sea creatures.

At every turn, Rivers of Sunlight resists the temptation to simplify. And yet, while it delves deeper into the water cycle than any picture book I’ve encountered for elementary children, the prose on each page remains lyrical and uncluttered (with much of the complex science reserved for the book’s extensive and exceptional twelve-part index). Water alone is not enough to sustain life on our planet. It’s the moving of water wherein the magic lies. The “rivers of sunlight,” which move through our bodies, through our oceans, and across our land tell more than just a narrative: they are the stuff of poetry.

The movement of water around Earth is hardly arbitrary, nor can it be to do its job. Time and again, our narrator emphasizes the delicate balance upon which each turn of the water cycle hangs: the precarious implications of delivering too much or too little water to one area, of draining aquifers faster than rain can replenish them, of rising sea levels, of dumping waste. The total amount of water on our planet is fixed. Despite an ever-increasing population, there will never be one drop more than what we have now. Reading this book, it is impossible not to come away with the conviction that we must manage this water carefully, even before our sunny narrator appeals to us on the final page to uphold our end of the bargain. “I, your sun, will do my part to keep Earth’s water clean and flowing. Will you do your part? Will you find ways to use water sparingly and keep it clean?”

My children were even more inspired by the last paragraph of the Appendix, a meatier and more vivid call to action.

The next time you drink a glass of water, remember this: All those water molecules have been constantly moving, through sea and sky, lakes and streams, through plants and worms, insects and elephants—giving them life. Where might those molecules go next as they leave your body and move on? What are ALL the ways those molecules sustain life on Earth and shape the very nature of our blue planet? TREASURE YOUR WATER: IT IS YOUR LIFE.

There’s your answer the next time your children ask why they should care about conserving water. Then send them outside so they can experience firsthand the beauty worth saving.

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Book published by Scholastic. 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!

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 6): For the Non-Fiction Lover

December 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni DesmondCall it Seasonal Affective Disorder; call it the anticipation of school closures (let’s just give up now); call it the fact that it now takes us seven times longer to get out of the house: whatever the reason, as soon as a cold snap hits every year, I want to hibernate. And yet, consider this, my fair-weathered friends: the polar bear—a creature who lives in the coldest corners of the Earth; who eats, walks and sleeps on ice; and who is surrounded by nothing but white and blue all day, every day—does not hibernate.

That someone can love the cold this much—and, in fact, depend on it for its very survival—is just one of the many things that endear us to the polar bear, as evidenced in Jenni Desmond’s extraordinary tribute, The Polar Bear (Ages 6-10), a factually accurate yet poetic picture book with some of the most stunning illustrations I have ever seen (seriously, I’m not sure I can bring myself to shelve this book, its cover is so gorgeous).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if non-fiction looked and sounded like this when I was a kid, I would know a lot more.

Desmond’s title is the second in a new series about threatened species (I raved about The Blue Whale in this guest post; and I am giddy that her third will feature elephants). She’s never preachy: on the contrary, the only mention of the plight facing the polar bear—global warming, which has led to less ice on which the polar bear can hunt—is in the Author’s Note, which prefaces a 38-page celebration of the physical and behavioral adaptations of this magnificent animal and its unforgiving habitat. And yet, one cannot read this book, in light of that Author’s Note, without feeling both awe for the polar bear’s present and fear for its future.

Invoking a kind of metaphysical book-within-a-book approach that seems to be catching on in children’s non-fiction (see also Jason Chin, whose Redwoods and Coral Reefs are nothing short of astounding), Desmond’s books explore their subjects through the eyes of a child who is reading about them. In the case of The Polar Bear, as a child pulls the same book off the shelf, the line begins to blur between reading and living, until the child herself becomes a kind of witness and companion to the very bear about whom she studies.

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She reads that the polar bear is also called a sea bear, and that this huge marine mammal spends most of its life on ice and snow of the frozen Arctic Ocean. In the spring and autumn, the flexible sea ice can bend and give way under the polar bear’s colossal weight. In the summer, there is virtually no ice to hunt across. In winter, the polar bear walks for miles over solid expanses of ice in search of food.

Desmond’s washes of white and grey are all the more striking when contrasted with the whimsy and detail in the girl’s attire—her red and white striped stockings, her red checked crown. A terrain never looked bleaker, yet never more beautiful. (Desmond explains that the polar bear’s coat is actually yellow or grey—and its skin black—but the effect is one of whiteness because of the bright, uninterrupted sunlight).

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

We are not strangers to books about polar bears in this house. Perhaps because he has always had a deep love of winter himself, my son has chosen to study polar bears more often than any other subject in school; and last winter I posted about Jeanette Winter’s Nanuk: The Ice Bear, a sparse but lovely introduction to the life cycle of the polar bear. Desmond’s book is much denser, aimed at the mind that wants more, more, more, yet the narrative is equally lyrical. A polar bear’s enormous paws, for example, not only “act like snowshoes, spreading out the bear’s weight as it moves across deep snow and fragile ice,” but they have tiny little bumps (like the surface of a basketball) to prevent the animal from sliding. All of these facts are synthesized in real time by the child in the book, as by us.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

My kids were fascinated to learn that you can count the rings inside a polar bear’s tooth to find out how long he has been alive. Ditto that polar bears can smell a seal from many miles away—even more so when they stand on their hind legs—and that one seal can satisfy a polar bear for 11 days. I can guarantee your child, like mine, will feel the need to trace each of these dotted lines to see which food source the polar bear is smelling in the book.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

We often hear how vicious polar bears are, so I was shocked to find out the polar bear successfully kills only one out of every twenty seals that it hunts, owing to the seal’s superior swimming ability. My respect for these resilient creatures only grows! My kids, on the other hand, were more impressed by the blood spattered across the bear’s mouth and paws after killing and eating a seal—a mess that the finicky polar bear is quick to scrub off once his meal is digested.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

More blood is spilled (although not pictured) during the “savage battles” between males at mating time, resulting in the impregnated females digging birthing dens well beneath mounds of frigid snow. Curled around her cubs, this is the closest the female polar bear comes to hibernating—and, indeed, we can certainly relate to the desire to snuggle our little ones close and warm.

Polar bears do not hibernate. They like to sleep though, and can sleep almost anywhere at any time. Like humans, polar bears sleep in different positions. On warm days, they might stretch out on their back with their feet up in the air or lie down on their stomachs. On cold, snowy days, they curl up with a paw over their snout for warmth, letting the snow cover them like a blanket.

It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

This is my last post of 2016. May 2017 dawn with a plethora of new books and a renewed passion for protecting our planet and the marvelous creatures who share it. In the meantime, I hope you and your loved ones sleep tight.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

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Book published by Enchanted Lion 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!

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