September 13, 2018 § 6 Comments
My eldest is a walking barometer: his mood reflects the very movement of the clouds, the atmospheric pressure, the veil of precipitation. Such a fine membrane seems to exist between the surface of his skin and the world beyond, that it’s often difficult to tell where he ends and the weather begins. A grey day brings with it fatigue at best and dejection at worst. The threat of storm clouds yields a heightened, agitated alertness. A clear blue sky produces bottomless joy, coupled with a wide-eyed innocence like he is seeing the world for the first time.
This sensitivity translates into an intellectual fascination with the weather: with weather books, with weather apps, with radar maps and a seemingly endless (read: maddening) ability to discuss weather forecasts. But as much as my son believes that arming himself with information will temper his sensitivity, it does little to soothe him in the face of severe weather.
At ten, with the help of ear plugs and a weighted blanket and an impressive mound of stuffed animals, JP has finally begun to sleep—or, at least, to remain in bed—during lightning flashes and thundering crashes. My heart leaps out of my body during these storms, fretting to be with him, yet knowing he will feel better, stronger, if he learns to weather them on his own. And he desperately wants to succeed. He yearns to separate his core self from the sounds and patterns and pictures outside. He wants to make his own weather.
If I could go back in time—to the early years, when I would try (and fail) to assuage JP’s weather anxiety with rational discussions about the probability of a tree falling on one’s house—I would take a certain picture book with me. Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry’s You’re Safe With Me (Ages 2-7), newly published by a UK imprint, is the book I was missing back then. A book that strikes just the right chord for that moment when the clouds threaten and the skies open up. A book to quiet the storm that’s inside, while letting the one that’s outside do its thing.
Both of my children are older than the intended audience of this book, but I bought it anyway—and not just for its calming tone. The metaphorical language attached to wind, thunder, lightning, and flooding is beautiful. And the geometrically intricate illustrations—inspired by folkloric Indian art—are positively stunning. An extraordinary reminder that we are never too old for picture books.
The book opens at bedtime. Four baby animals—monkey, loris, tiger, and pangolin—are huddled together, trying to sleep, but the “skies turned dark and the night grew stormy.” Now the wide-eyed animals begin to fret. Mama Elephant, here a kind of universal mother figure, pauses on her night walk to sit with the small animals, rocking them in her trunk and reassuring them, “You’re safe with me.”
Each time the animals begin to doze off, they are once again startled by the mounting storm. First, there is the wind, which moans aloud and tips the trees.
“Don’t worry about the wind,” whispered Mama Elephant. “He’s an old friend of the forest. He brings us seeds from faraway lands.”
“He’s loud,” said little monkey.
“That’s him huffing and puffing because he’s tired,” said Mama Elephant. “He is as gentle as a breeze when all the work is done.”
The baby animals closed their eyes. The wind didn’t worry them anymore.
Just as the animals are sleepy once again, “thunder clattered,” “clouds echoed,” and the “little animals sat up.” Once again, Mother Elephant personifies the storm element, eliciting empathy as she explains its valuable purpose in bringing life to the forest. The thunder, she tells her captive audience, helps to bring water from the sea, which the freshly-blown seeds need to grow. When the young loris points out that the thunder is too “noisy,” Mama Elephant explains: “She’s groaning from the weight of the rain…Soon she will turn as fluffy as flowers.”
The pattern continues with lightning, which “sparkles in the sky when clouds collide,” and then with the flooding river, whose rumbles concern little pangolin: “Is she angry?” No, Mama Elephant replies, the rushing water is simply gobbling up the shadows in the forest, on her way to return the water to the sea, thus allowing a new growth cycle to begin. This notion of life as cyclical is perfectly reinforced by the swirling art. Everything is temporary, the illustrations remind us: what is scary now will be beautiful later. We need only to wait (and, in the meantime, to sleep).
Like the animals hanging onto Mother Elephant’s every word, we as readers can’t help but pour over Mistry’s lush illustrations, perhaps wishing the miniature, densely-packed dots and geometric shapes would give way to more than just pictures of clouds, rivers, and elephant snuggles. But maybe we don’t need to look that hard. When our littles are fearful and looking to us for answers, maybe we don’t need to explain every little thing. We need to comfort. To soothe. Maybe throw in some poetic language and beautiful pictures for extra credit.
In time, my boy will learn to make his own weather, to not hitch himself to the highs and lows of the atmosphere. In the meantime, he’ll know he’s safe…with me close by in the next room.
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Books published by Lantana Publishing in the UK; distributed in the US by Lerner. 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 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color.
At the same time that my mom was smiling at these women’s parasols, I couldn’t stop thinking, These women all look miserable. Their faces looked contorted, if not bored to tears, as they sat with half-completed stitchery in their hands, or perched in the shadow of a towering top-hatted male figure. A few of these women looked directly out of the painting. I felt their eyes on me, a silent, desperate plea. Let me out of here!
No doubt I have been influenced by the rebellious heroine in the award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Ages 10-14), the first in a two-book series which I’ve been reading to my daughter (we are partway through the equally delicious second, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate). These novels, written by Jacqueline Kelly, embody everything I look for in a read-aloud book: they’re a (hefty) step above my daughter’s independent reading level; the exceptional writing is packed with challenging, expansive vocabulary; and they carry the potential to deepen my child’s own understanding of her place in the world—in this case, her place against the historical, complicated backdrop of girls coming of age in America.
Like the paintings at the Met exhibit, the books are set at the turn of the century, only instead of France, the backdrop is the Texas countryside. The star is a twelve-year-old only daughter of an aristocratic family, whose father runs the town’s cotton gin. Calpurnia Virginia Tate—or Callie Vee, as she’s affectionately known to family and friends—is rapidly approaching the age where she is expected to come out in society as a debutante; in preparation, her mother encourages her to practice diligently for piano recitals and perfect embroidery worthy of entry into county fairs. While she might be able to capture armadillos and wrestle in the dirt like her six (!) brothers for now, the clock is ticking. Her place will soon be in the home, her attention exclusively on crafting meal plans, raising babies, and managing servants.
But Calpurnia is a restless, inquisitive, sharp-witted soul, whose very purpose, it seems to her, is to question the expectations society has placed so squarely on her small shoulders. She’s okay at piano, but she’s downright terrible at handwork (…“the long striped scarf that I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit”); and her early attempts at making an apple pie had my daughter in stitches. The thought of a life filled exclusively with domestic pursuits feels to Callie like nothing less than a “life sentence”: “I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.”
And don’t get her started on the subject of romance. Callie cringes when three of her little brothers become smitten with her best friend, falling over themselves to carry her books on the walk to school; and she’s even more horrified when her eldest and favorite bother, Harry, begins to blush easily and bring potential (rather vapid) suitors home for dinner. Callie’s take on advances from the opposite sex? “…[I]f any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.”
What Calpurnia discovers she enjoys and excels at most—indeed, what she sneaks off to do at every chance—is something foreign, if not forbidden, to the female sex in her day. That is, investigative science. At the encouragement of her eccentric, reputably cantankerous grandfather, who since his days as a Confederate general has squirreled himself away in the family’s back shed, cataloging flora and fauna found in the nearby river and brush and fermenting pecans in an attempt to create whiskey, Calpurnia becomes an apprentice of natural science.
Armed with a net and a red leather pocket notebook, in which Grandfather encourages her to write her many observations and questions about the natural world, Calpurnia is empowered. She throws herself into the challenge of making sense of Grandfather’s copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book she initially tries and fails to find at her local library, coming of age at a time when the theory of evolution was largely dismissed in Southern culture. (Excerpts from On the Origin of Species and later from The Voyage of the Beagle open each chapter; older readers will enjoy deciphering why certain passages were picked for certain chapters). Indeed, the great suspense of the first book is whether the Smithsonian’s National History Museum in Washington, DC will accept her and Grandfather’s submission of a “vetch” cutting, a flowering plant found in the marshes near their house, and credit them with a newly-discovered species.
To be sure, Calpurnia’s “unladylike” adventures—dodging an angry badger, rescuing the Thanksgiving turkeys from certain doom, and convincing the local photographer to let a plant sit for a portrait—make for much more entertaining reading than a story about readying oneself for domestic pursuits. But our enjoyment of these books isn’t just about the dirt under Callie’s fingernails or the ways she chooses to occupy her time. We are given a window into the emotional world of a girl who is at once confused about why she doesn’t see models of professional, independent women around her (beyond her teachers and the new switchboard operator for the town’s only telephone) and ecstatic at being treated as a collaborative scientist—as an equal—by a grandfather who previously didn’t know her name. The author isn’t afraid to let us see Callie flounder, her confidence soar and then plummet, her questioning nature turn as much on herself as on her beloved flora and fauna. In Calpurnia, we have a crusader, a determined breaker of molds, but we also have an immensely vulnerable and relatable young soul.
“Calpurnia’s world is so interesting, don’t you think, Mommy?” my daughter said one Saturday morning, as she crawled into bed with me and opened the book for me to read. My Emily has long been fascinated by what she calls old-fashioned life, and she references series like Betsy-Tacy and Little House on the Prairie long after we finish them. Indeed, in Calpurnia’s world, there is much that feels foreign compared with modern day, from the skeptical discussions surrounding the first automobile in nearby Austin, to Calpurnia’s horror when her mother ties her ringlets in lumpy wet rags the night before a piano recital (“I smelled like brimstone and looked like a casualty from the War”). And just what exactly is in that bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for Women, which her mother drinks from each time she has a “nervous headache?”
But I think what fascinates Emily most about Calpurnia’s world is the narrow definition of a woman’s place, here an upper-class white Southern woman. It’s hard for our children to imagine this, growing up at a time when girls can become almost anything they want (even if, ahem, they still don’t get equal pay). This, of course, is why Calpurnia is such a compelling heroine. Callie’s magnetism stems from her defiance in the face of these limitations. She doesn’t set out to defy—indeed, her defiance causes her no shortage of discomfort and confusion. She inadvertently defies her parents and, in turn, society by the simple but rebellious act of indulging her own interests, of questioning and engaging with the world around her, instead of sitting idly by. Callie’s enthusiasm for the natural world is contagious. We want nothing more than to join her in the untamed wilderness.
Where Calpurnia’s journey will lead her by the end of the second book—what compromises she’ll undoubtedly have to make—I cannot yet say. But I know that Emily and I will be routing for her with every turn of the page. One thing is for sure: she doesn’t need us to rescue her from some Impressionist painting.
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Book published by Henry Holt & 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!
November 30, 2017 § 2 Comments
The holidays are rapidly approaching (how? why? help!), so it’s time for me to deliver a series of posts with my favorite books of 2017, none of which I’ve mentioned previously. That’s right, I’ve saved the best for last. Posts will come out every few days and will target a range of ages (including a meaty list of new middle-grade reads for your tweens).
We are going to start with Italian-born Beatrice Alemagna’s just-released picture book, On a Magical Do-Nothing Day (Ages 5-9), which might have the dual benefit of captivating your child and getting him or her out of the house. Every time I pick up this book, I want to shout, YES! Yes, yes, yes! In part, because it features some of the most gorgeous, evocative, and visually compelling art to grace children’s books this year. But also, because it gently nudges our children to put down the electronics and reawaken their senses in the wildness of the outdoors.
Thinking about my own children, now seven and ten, there was a time when the lure of the outdoors always beat out the distractions of indoor life. I remember when my (toddler) son would pound on the front door and chant, OUT! OUT! OUT! I remember when my daughter donned her rain boots every single day, on the chance there might be a puddle to jump in.
Get them out in the woods, out to the park, even out in the backyard, and my children are still happy as clams; the problem has become getting them to leave the house. “We’re going hiking today,” I announced at breakfast last Saturday, after a week of travel and eating had left me yearning to recharge. I read my kids the online description for my proposed state park, including bluffs and rocks and winding trails.
“That sound dangerous. That sounds way too hard.”
“I want to stay inside today! I want to read more Harry Potter and work on Christmas presents and lie around in my pajamas! Plus, I’m tired. I’m sooooo tired. Wait, I know, we could watch a movie!”
After much back and forth, resignation finally ensued, albeit through gritted teeth: “FINE. We can go. But let’s make it fast so we can come back home. Also, I’m not scaling any bluffs.” (This from the boy.)
We hadn’t been in the park ten minutes, when my son saw another family traversing an outcropping of rocks across the river and took off on his own down an incredibly steep descent to join them, pausing only to pick up interesting rocks and sticks and call back to us that we could follow “if we wanted.” His sister didn’t have to be asked twice.
We were there for the entire day, and it was pure magic.
In his insightful book for parents and teachers, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv makes a compelling case that what our kids need today, above all, is a giant kick out the door. “For [this] new generation,” he writes, “nature is more abstraction than reality…IT TAKES TIME—loose, unstructured dream time—to experience nature in a meaningful way.”
The hero or heroine of On a Magical Do-Nothing Day—one can make a case for either gender, such is the delightful ambiguity of Alemagna’s drawings—begins the story in the zombified clutches of an electronic gaming device. Bored by the relentlessness of the rain pelting against the window, and resentful that her mother has dragged her to a getaway cabin in the woods so she can write without interruption, our heroine (my daughter insists heroine) lies on the couch, “destroying Martians.” “Actually, I was just pressing the same button over and over.”
Sound familiar? If that doesn’t, then the mother’s response will.
“What about a break from your game?” Mom growled.
“Is this going to be another day of doing nothing?”
The illustrations mirror the way our heroine sees her circumstances: the mom looks disapprovingly over the neck of her fuzzy sweater, her nose a pointed pink line, ready to spring on her prey. Sure enough, she takes the device from the child and hides it. Sure enough, the child finds it and takes it with her outside, where “I held my game tightly. Maybe it would protect me from this boring, wet place.”
From the moment the child dons her neon orange coat (seriously, have you ever seen such enticing use of color?) and heads outside into the dark, drenched world, the Unexpected begins. For starters, the round rocks in the pond look remarkably like Martian heads, perfect for springing on and “crushing.”
The Unexpected also rears its big ugly head, when the girl accidentally drops her device into the icy pond (“This COULD NOT be happening to me!”)—an event which produced an audible gasp from the children in my daughter’s class, with whom I shared the story during a recent “Book in the Woods” block. Losing access to video games may be a first-world problem, but a tragedy for many a modern-day child nonetheless.
Of course, the adult reader knows exactly where this is all headed—and yet, watching our heroine give herself over completely to her surroundings, witnessing her root her mind in the present moment, is even more gratifying than we expect. In the art, the shift is as much literal as it is figurative. Note the way the child’s body begins to take on the lines of the bark as she sits against a tree, mourning the loss of her game.
Like a beacon of light, a parade of snails cross our heroine’s path, their antennae “as soft as Jell-O.” For the first time, she smiles. She parades around dozens of otherworldly mushrooms, red dotted with white. The school children were especially quick to point out that the girl’s orange coat takes on the bell-like shape of the mushrooms beneath it.
Our heroine isn’t just walking with purpose now: she’s also digging, plunging her fingers into the mud, where an “underground world” full of “seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, and berries” brush her fingers. (Can you spot the sinking Martians?)
Running leads to tripping leads to falling leads to lying spent beneath the clearing skies, looking up at the trees in a sort of upside-down world. “The whole world seemed brand-new, as if it had been created right in front of me.”
The skeptic has been won over.
When, at last, the girl returns home, “soaked to my bones,” she not only sees the outside world with new eyes, but she sees herself and her mother differently. Her mother’s face is now drawn with softness, including a more delicate, contoured nose. “I felt like giving her a big hug. I wanted to tell her what I had seen, felt, and tasted outside in the world.”
Instead—and perhaps rightly so, for a child should be able to safeguard her imaginative world—she just sits quietly with her mom in the kitchen, taking in one another across two steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
Someday soon, I hope my children will recommence seeking out adventures in nature without prodding, will hone their own intimate, magical relationship with the earth. The conservationist Rachel Caron once said, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Let’s keep kicking our kids out of the house, and let’s enjoy a cup of coca together when they return home once more.
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Review copy provided by Harper Collins Children’s 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!
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!
March 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
The car was loaded, the final bags stuffed into any available hole. The children were corralled, buckled into their car seats with containers of cold pancakes on their lap. The timers on the hallway lights were set, the locks on the doors checked one last time. My husband and I climbed into the car, and—35 minutes behind schedule (always 35 minutes behind schedule)—we backed out of the driveway to embark on ten hours of driving en route to Cape Cod.
And then JP shouted, “Wait! My harlequin beetles! I forgot them!” (On the list of things you never predicted your six year old would say.)
JP had just come off a week of farm camp, where he had become passionately proficient at picking off garden pests. His delight each night at rattling off facts about the life cycle of the kale-loving harlequin beetle was exceeded only by the discovery of said beetle in the vegetable boxes on our own back deck. As children are apt to do, JP quickly captured one and placed it in a mason jar. A few days later, when his shrieks sent us flying into the kitchen from all corners of the house, JP proudly showed us that the beetle had laid a number of tiny black-striped eggs on the underside of one of the jar’s leaves. No number of suggestions that perhaps these eggs would be better suited for our backyard would diminish JP’s insistence that it was now his job to care for them (especially as the mother harlequin appeared to be shriveled up and un-moving in the corner).
And so we turned the car around, reopened the house, and wedged the mason jar between JP and Emily’s mound of stuffed animals in the back seat.
From a very young age, even before they empathize with their fellow humans, many children seem to feel innately called to protect the animal world. As any parent knows who has phoned animal control to ask advice on saving an injured bird fallen from a nest, children are relentless in their insistence to do right by the feathered, furry, scaly, or shelled creatures that inhabit their everyday lives. Before they’re reading proficiently or tying their shoelaces tightly, they recognize one arena in which their small size is power enough.
JP’s brief stint as caretaker of harlequin beetle eggs has nothing on what a young Chinese girl accomplishes with an injured crane in Ji-li Jiang and Julie Downing’s stirring picture book, Lotus & Feather (Ages 5-8), published at the tail end of last year but, in my opinion, perfectly suited to these early spring weeks. Jiang and Downing beautifully capture the self-articulated responsibility exhibited by a child towards an animal in need. Even more powerfully, their story reveals that this bond between child and animal can be mutually beneficial.
The story of a girl who rescues a crane after it is shot is as steeped in symbolism as it is in drama, drawing us deep into the characters’ emotional lives. When Lotus witnesses the magnificent bird collapse to the ground, she is alone. She is accustomed to solitude, a winter illness having “taken her voice” and seemingly destined her to an isolated, friendless life. Lotus’ only companions are a hand-fashioned reed whistle, with which she makes music, and the caring grandfather with whom she lives in the village. (Other reviewers have pointed out that the red scarves worn by Lotus and her classmates presume the time period to be the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s/70s.)
The grey, bleak, and quiet lake at which Lotus crouches to collect reeds mirrors her inner pain as much as it introduces the environmental message of the story. Just the day before, Lotus’ grandfather told her, “This lake used to be so alive…But now…it has been ruined by greedy fishermen and hunters, and by ignorant people who took over land where animals once lived.”
The sudden appearance of the endangered and regal crane in the desolate landscape—its “long, curved neck…crowned with a red top like a dazzling ruby”—is at once identified as a sign of hope and beauty to the sorrowful little girl, although we do not yet know just how important this gift will be. What we do understand is that Lotus’ silent exterior belies a feisty spirit: when she hears the gunshot and watches a poacher descend upon the injured bird, she makes “a noise like thunder” by drumming on her metal pail with a reed cutter. The poacher flees, and Lotus gathers up the bleeding bird and carries her home to her grandfather. (With each reading, my children seem to linger longer over the picture of the crane’s tragically listless body draped over Lotus’ arm).
It turns out Lotus’ grandfather has a history of rescuing animals, and he teaches Lotus how to care for the crane, how to feed it rice soup and keep it warm in a nest of blankets. What he doesn’t need to teach her is how to stroke its head the way he does when Lotus is sick. For three days, Lotus barely leaves the bird’s side, even sleeping beside him.
As the crane—whom Lotus names Feather—begins his rehabilitation, there blooms a beautiful friendship, one marked by trust, companionship and music, as Feather learns to dance to the sound of Lotus’ reed whistle. The friendship sets into motion a chain reaction, as Lotus’ classmates begin to hang around Lotus, seeing playfulness and courage where once they saw only silence. Whether Lotus is saving Feather or Feather is saving Lotus becomes deliciously, perfectly blurred, as in the case of all the best friendships.
The transformative power of compassion—that a single act of love yields countless others—continues throughout the story, coming to a head in a scene inspired by true events. When a nearby earthquake causes flooding in Lotus’ village in the middle of the night, Feather is the first to realize the front steps are underwater. His insistent crowing not only alerts Lotus and her grandfather, but becomes a warning cry to the other villagers, as Lotus and her grandfather jump into their boat and row down the rapidly flooding roads. That night, “over three hundred villagers were saved. Feather was the hero.”
The warmly rendered watercolors pay homage to the passage of time on every page, as the barren land of late fall gives way to the powdery snow of winter gives way to the rebirth of spring, a time marked (among other things) by the appearance of migrant birds on their return journey north for summer. The cyclical journey seems also to echo Lotus’ decision to play hero once more to her friend—this time in encouraging Feather to join the migrating birds. “She didn’t want her friend to leave, but she knew she would never separate him from his home and family.”
Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment because I relish reading aloud books like The Lion and the Bird and A Letter for Leo, which have similar character-adopts-struggling-animal-and-later-releases-animal-back-into-the-wild plots and always, always make me cry. Or perhaps I want my children to be as intrigued as I am by what is left when the animal is gone. Lotus misses her friend terribly, but she is no longer the isolated girl she was before Feather came into her life. One of the final spreads shows Lotus playing her reed whistle among a small group of children, one of whom is leaning affectionately against her. Choosing and working to save Feather may have been adventurous, it may have felt right, but it accomplished something even greater: it cast Lotus in the center of her own story.
JP’s harlequin eggs ended up hatching in Cape Cod. It was admittedly astonishing to come down to breakfast and find a mason jar crawling with tiny black-and-red-and-yellow-decorated beetles. What happened to the creatures when JP released them into the lush gardens outside our rental house is something we’ll never know. Fortunately, Lotus’ story has a more gratifying ending. The following fall, Lotus opens the door to find a familiar face. And what’s more: the wetlands outside her village are beginning to return to their original splendor.
When we care for the living world around us, there is no end to the surprises, delights, and redemption we experience in return. And when we recognize our limits and let things go, we are left to see the beauty uncovered within us.
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Book published by Disney Hyperion. 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!
February 16, 2017 § 6 Comments
“Oh yeah? What was that?” we all asked.
Emily leaned in conspiratorially, as if getting ready to impart significant information. “I didn’t have a single sip of water all day. BUT I STILL SURVIVED! Can you believe it?”
It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing, not wanting to diminish her stone-sober revelation. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about her words since. Clearly, whether at school or from a book or in conversation, Emily had absorbed something about “what every living creature needs to survive.” But she had only internalized half the story. What must it be like to make sense of the world through bits and pieces, to rarely grasp the full picture, to live your life in a perpetual loop of uncertainty and astonishment (as if you could accidentally “off” yourself at any moment)?
This, I realized, is what it’s like to be a child.
In his first foray into chapter books, Peter Brown (already beloved in our house for this, this, and this) perfectly captures this same befuddlement, anxiety, and marveling with which young eyes view the world. Only, in the case of The Wild Robot (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), the innocent protagonist is not a child but an erect, talking robot named Roz, who is inadvertently activated on a wild, remote island by some curious sea otters, after they discover her crate washed up from a shipwrecked container ship. Roz—short for ROZZUM Unit 7134—has no understanding of anything prior to the moment she opens her eyes, nor whether she has a purpose. She knows only that she has been designed to “move, communicate, and learn” and that she has been programmed with Survival Instincts which “made her want to avoid danger and take care of herself so she could continue functioning properly.”
As our robot begins to navigate the diverse terrains of the island—rocky shore, craggy mountain peaks, pinecone-blanketed forest—she meets with a variety of physical upsets. But it is during her encounters with the wild inhabitants of the island—particularly the ferocious bears—that she begins to understand the magnitude of the challenge before her: in order to survive, she must adapt like the creatures around her. She must become wild. She must climb over rocks like the crab; she must seek out higher ground at the threat of rain like the deer; she must camouflage herself like the stick bug. Like a committed anthropologist, she must observe their behavior, and she must learn their language.
The Wild Robot has been recommended by many—owing to its short, staccato-like chapters, its frequent illustrations done by Brown himself, and its plethora of animal characters—as a book for young independent readers. But it would be a mistake to take this as proof that the story is simple, that it doesn’t pose some fascinating questions or offer some complicated—at times somber—answers.
If you are going to share this book with elementary children, I would argue that The Wild Robot works best, certainly most powerfully, as a read-aloud. I say this not just because robot voices are fun to do. Not just because there are a multitude of animals with their own personalities (read: more fun voices). Not just because of the elegance of the prose, the understated and surprising humor, or the way in which the story beautifully crescendos from a quiet beginning to a nail-biting conclusion.
I say this because, when all is said and done, the story delivers a profound message about what lies at the heart of survival. It’s a message that’s vitally important for the times in which we are living, and a message that can be strengthened when we choose to witness it alongside our children.
It’s a message of community.
As artificial intelligence, Roz is not designed to feel emotions: her initial drive to observe and befriend different animals stems, not from feelings of loneliness or empathy, but from a practical, learned understanding that she needs allies in order to survive. Her offers to help certain animals—even her adjustment to a more cheerful voice (she learns the art of performance from watching an opossum)—initially come from a place of selfishness: I’ll rub your back to increase the chances that you’ll rub mine. Roz removes a porcupine’s quills from a fox; the fox in turn helps spread the word that Roz is not a “monster.” Roz helps fell trees for the beavers; they, in turn, show her how to build a shelter.
It may be selfishly motivated, but what a wonderful lesson for our children: unsolicited helpfulness as the first step toward making friends.
Because Roz is programmed to learn, she quickly understands that individual alliances are only part of the larger puzzle to survival. She must cast herself at the center of an interdependent community. She builds a garden, not because she has any use for food, but because it attracts the squirrels and deer and birds to her front door each day. During the coldest, snowiest winter the island has ever seen, Roz builds forts with fireplaces to keep her friends from freezing (she insists they agree to a temporary predator-prey truce). Roz doesn’t simply coax the animals out of their fear of the shiny metallic newcomer; she secures their loyalty and protection—something which turns out to be even more important than anyone anticipates before the story ends.
And here’s where the magic happens. The more Roz seeks to understand the motivations of others, the more she begins to experience—dare we call it feel?—as much a responsibility to her fellow animals as they feel to her. Where one act of helpfulness ends and another begins becomes brilliantly, perfectly blurred. Roz has enfolded herself completely into the ecosystem to which she was once an outsider. In her straightforward wisdom:
‘…I used to be shiny, like the surface of the pond. I used to stand straighter than a tree trunk. I used to speak a different language. I have not grown bigger, but I have changed very much.’
Nowhere is Roz’s rising sense of responsibility to her fellow creatures more touchingly conveyed than in her care for a young gosling, whose family she inadvertently destroys when she causes a mudslide. Because Roz sees the world in terms of problems to be solved, she is determined to save the remaining egg by bringing it to another family of geese. And yet, the orphaned gosling has another idea in mind—that is, once he hatches from the egg and imprints on the robot. “You’ll have to act like his mother if you want him to survive,” Roz is advised by the leader of the geese. And yet, once again, what starts as an act—learning to build a fire to warm Brightbill’s feathers, rocking the gosling to sleep—is quickly replaced by a mutual fondness for one she calls “son.”
As is fitting for a story about the natural world, there is struggle, violence, and death alongside joy, beauty, and survival. As our narrator gently reminds us, “the wilderness really can be ugly sometimes.” And yet, when frozen corpses give way to springtime blossoms, we are reminded that we cannot have one without the other. Again, interdependence emerges as a central theme.
In an ending that is anything but simple—haunting, open-ended, and hopeful—Roz, too, must play her part in upholding the delicate balance of the island. I don’t dare give anything away, but I will relate this anecdote. When we were halfway through the book, my son started reading ahead after I left his room each night (always the sign of a Big Win). One night, he came down the stairs to find me in the living room. “I finished,” he announced. “And?” I asked. “It’s…really…interesting. It’s…really…amazing. You’ll see when we read it tomorrow.” And I did see. It’s an ending that might raise more questions than it answers, but it also leaves us with a certainty that we are stronger when we are looking out for one another.
It puts me in mind of something Mother Theresa said—and which a friend shared recently on her Facebook page in response to the unrest in our country right now: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”
If we wish to help our children someday understand what Mother Theresa meant, if we wish to raise them in a world that moves toward inclusiveness, we can start by reading them The Wild Robot.
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Book published by Little, Brown. 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!
December 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
Call 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!