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!
March 1, 2019 § Leave a comment
How do we celebrate our individualism without turning our backs on our community? How do we lift up those around us without sacrificing our sense of self? Teaching our children to walk this fine line as they grow into adults may be one of the most important things we as parents do.
Bonus if it involves a little sugar along the way.
Andrea Tsurumi strikes just the right chord between individualism and community in her new picture book, Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together (Ages 4-8)—claw’s down our favorite picture book of the year. (So far.) You may remember Tsurumi from her debut picture book, which I gushed about here last year. She also did the illustrations for another about-to-be-released gem, which I’ll give you a peek at on my Instagram later this weekend. But today’s post is all about Crab Cake, where Tsurumi once again sits in the seat of author-illustrator-cartoonist and delivers her signature whimsy and visual storytelling alongside the valuable message that each of us offers something unique AND we are stronger together.
When we are first introduced to Crab Cake’s coral reef—“under the sea, where sunlight touches sand”—we see an active, brightly-colored community, where creatures of all shapes and sizes exist harmoniously alongside one another, each one doing his own thing. These sea-faring critters may have adorable cartoon eyes (and will soon prove themselves capable of human speech), but their behaviors are largely rooted in science. Tsurumi’s own fascination in researching her oceanic subject matter shines through in these spreads. Scallop does “loop de loops”; Sea Turtle holds her breath; Dolphin “blows bubble rings”; Parrotfish “crunches coral and poops sand”; and so forth.
Crab is also doing his own thing, although his behavior is rooted less in science and more in Tsurumi’s inventive imagination. “Crab bakes cakes.” We’re not talking about the cuisine you dine on at seafood shacks; we’re talking about confectionary pleasures—as in, colorful, delectable, frosted cakes, dotted with treasures from the sea.
As many good bakers can testify, a passion for baking often extends to a passion for feeding others. Crab is no exception. He silently proffers the fruits of his labors on all his neighbors, both below and above the sea. He even presents one fish with a cake just as the latter is about to succumb to the food chain.
Crab asks for nothing from those he feeds. He only returns to his mixing bowl. He is busy and focused—although there’s an aura of loneliness around him. In fact, very few of the sea creatures interact with one another.
“Until one night, there’s a BIG SPLASH!” A massive pile of garbage is tossed off a ship and into the sea, settling over the coral reef and enshrouding everything in a putrid green-tinged blackness.
There’s nothing like a disaster to test the waters of a community. Immediately following the garbage dump, every living thing under the sea is paralyzed, “frozen” with disbelief and fear. Everyone except Crab. Crab keeps on keeping on. When his community desperately needs a leader, Crab does what he does best. He bakes. He fills the dark, dank, hopeless void around him with color and sweetness in the form of a giant cake. And, like moths to the light, the others approach Crab and ask for a bite.
Quietly, peacefully, but with his own individual flair, Crab mobilizes his community. Because as soon as the sea creatures gather to break bread, they can’t shut up. The color returns to their scales as they vent, commiserate, and ponder. As they give their regards to the chef. As they start to make a plan.
Here’s where Crab allows others to shine. A shrimp asks, “All right—anyone have any ideas?” A tentacle goes up from an octopus, who leads everyone to the garbage heap, where each creature assumes a job. “Lobster lifts. Snapper shoves. Clownfish rolls. Turtles tow. Dolphins drag. Clam encourages. Manta Rays move. Octopus inks.”
The result? Well, I’m normally not a fan of spoilers, but the spread which reveals the outcome is too perfect not to share. My kids’ faces absolutely lit up when we opened to this page.
Three cheers for the important ecological message whimsically rendered in these pages. (The excellent back matter notes online resources for ocean cleanup.) But I’d like to think this story also lays the groundwork for a broader conversation about our place in the world. Like Crab, we have a responsibility to ourselves—to find and embrace our passion, to unabashedly do our thing. And, like Crab, we also have a responsibility to see beyond ourselves—to use our gifts to connect to and inspire the communities around us.
If we’re ready and willing to do both, we can weather the stinkiest of storms.
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 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!
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:
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)
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!
June 21, 2018 § 4 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.
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 who take pride in themselves. Every child deserves this.
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 2-4 times a month.
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!
May 17, 2018 § 9 Comments
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.
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.
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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!
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!
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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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