The Book to Soothe the Storm

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!

 

Summertime Magic

June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”

“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”

Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”

There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.

“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.”

Cue eye roll from big brother, and a big smile from me. You see, while my youngest has always been a free spirit (“Your daughter lives in a world of her own,” my own mother is fond of saying), she has never had much patience for magic wands or fairy godmothers, for Tinker Bell or Cinderella’s mice. “I do not like fairies,” she is fond of telling me, though I am equally fond of reminding her that, while she may always trade in fairy wings for dinosaur costumes, she has also loved listening to me read The Night Fairy, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, and Snow and Rose. Her fondness for Disneyworld’s rides aside, Emily seems to object to a gendered, princess-y, commercialized depiction of magic. What she actually loves is the idea that—upon close, quiet, intimate examination—the natural world might be found to be tinged with the supernatural.

In his final line of his final children’s book, The Minpins, Roald Dahl wrote:

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

Our job as parents might be to teach our children to brush their own teeth and pack their own *$%! lunches, but it is also to nurture the believer in them. If we accomplish nothing but that our children choose to see magic in the world, I think we can rightfully throw ourselves a party.

It is likely no coincidence that this backseat exchange between my kids took place on the heels of finishing two chapter books with my daughter. Perhaps if her older brother had been on the receiving end of Granted (Ages 8-11), by John David Anderson, and Bob (Ages 7-10), co-written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, he would not have been surprised by Emily’s newly-pronounced world view. The two storylines couldn’t be more different; and yet, in overlaying a touch of the fantastical onto real, everyday life, the books beg their readers to look more closely at the world around them, to question whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.

Granted opens with a question—“The last time you blew out your birthday candles, what did you wish for?”—and then, across 322 spell-binding pages, proceeds to give us a “backstage pass” as to what actually happens when we humans offer up a silent wish into the universe, be it by birthday candle or fallen eyelash or shooting star. If our wish subsequently comes true, it could be coincidence. Or it could be the daring, painstaking, high-stakes work of a fairy—work so essential, the feydom’s very existence depends on it.

Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy, with hair “as cobalt blue as the flower she was born from.” She lives, as all North American Fairies do, in the Haven, a mostly secreted place teeming with tree-top houses and bowing to its own complex set of laws, orders, and ceremonies. From their earliest age, fairies are assigned a guild to which they dedicate their lives. In Ophelia’s case—owing to her speed, her meticulousness, and her generally type A personality—she has the most coveted job: she’s a certified field agent, otherwise known as a Granter, which means she will be called upon to move surreptitiously among humans on a mission to grant a particular wish. Each day, a lottery in the Haven decides which of the millions of human wishes from the past 24 hours will be granted. Unfortunately, the Haven’s supply of magic has been rapidly dwindling over the years, owing to fewer and fewer human believers.

On the morning the story opens, there is only enough magic to grant a shocking twelve wishes. The good news is that Ophelia is assigned to one of the wishes, a chance to put her training into action at last. The wish is for a new bicycle, made by an Ohio girl named Kasarah Quinn, whose previous bike was stolen.

Protocol requires that, in order for a wish to come true, the Grantor has to retrieve the wished-upon object—in this case, a nickel tossed into a fountain—before she (or he, because male fairies are just as prevalent, including Ophelia’s pink-haired BFF) sprinkles on the precious 100% pure fairy dust and utters the magic words. Ophelia has twelve hours (“tocks,” in fey speak) to complete her mission and get back to the Haven. She is not, under any circumstance, to become distracted by anything she sees or hears (beyond the supersonic ringing of the wished-upon object), or emotionally invested in any of the creatures she encounters.

When you are a pint-sized creature with delicate fairy wings, journeying hundreds of miles without being seen or crushed can present unlimited challenges (planes! trucks! automatic sliding doors!)—even when armed with a thermal flight suit, camouflage spray, and various miniaturized weapons cooked up by a team of Builders, Makers, and Alchemists. Even more, attempting to chase down a coin, which seems to change hands more quickly than we can say Ophelia’s full name, means that Ophelia becomes an unwitting pawn in several humans’ lives (and one adorably hapless dog’s). As Ophelia quickly discovers, the wealth of printed information about the human world, which she has poured over for years in the Haven’s Archives, doesn’t scratch the surface. As it turns out, humans (and dogs) have a unique knack for getting others to care for them. And where there is caring, there are complications.

Granted proved the perfect antidote for my fairy-skeptical daughter. In nearly every chapter, author Anderson manages to build up to a breathless cliff-hanger specific to Ophelia’s mission, while simultaneously disclosing fascinating new details about the inner-workings of the feyworld at large. Much like J.K. Rowling’s richly textured Hogwarts, it seems there is nothing that Anderson hasn’t considered. Several times while I was reading the book, I thought, “But wait…,” only to have this suspected hole filled by a subsequent chapter. (The book addresses, for example, what happens if someone were to wish for world peace…or for something criminal.)

Ironically, it is precisely her perfectly-ordered world that Ophelia begins to rebel against. By decree of fairy law, wish fulfillment must be arbitrary; and yet, aren’t some wishes more important than others? What are the consequences for valuing one person’s life over another? What should the role of magic be? And what if we’ve been doing something the same way for so long that we’ve forgotten how to question it? Ironically, it’s Ophelia’s passionate rebellion that might just be the key to rekindling the believer in all of us.

In Bob, a chapter book my daughter and I finished in two days (being both short and deliciously addictive), there may not be any wish-granting fairies, but there is a mysterious green creature wearing a clumsily-fashioned chicken suit, whose destiny turns out to be directly linked to the wish of an entire community. When ten-year-old Livy finds this creature, who calls himself Bob, in her bedroom closet at her Australian grandmother’s farmhouse, she doesn’t remember him from the last time she visited that distant continent, five years earlier. In fact, she doesn’t remember many specifics about her last visit. Bob, however, has spent the past five years shut up in a closet thinking of little else but Livy, wondering when she was going return and doing his best to stay entertained with only a LEGO pirate ship and a dictionary. (Pause. I always thought it was just me who found the name Bob amusing to pronounce when I was a child—the way it kind of blurts out of the mouth—until I caught my daughter giggling and repeating it the first few times I read it. Or maybe it’s genetic? No offense to any Bobs out there reading this.)

Who and what is this adorably eccentric Bob creature? Where did he come from, and where if not the closet is he supposed to be? Bob and Livy are equally puzzled. Bob initially worries he might be a zombie, but Livy quickly puts an end to that with the help of the dictionary. When Livy determines that no one else seems able to see or hear Bob, she questions whether he might be an imaginary friend from her younger years; and yet, how can an imaginary friend eat actual potato chips? Through chapters that alternate between Livy’s and Bob’s perspective, we begin to piece together a picture, not only of the individual backgrounds and personalities, but why their friendship was once so important to both of them—and why it still is.

Livy is a quiet, perceptive child, caught in that sticky gap between little kid and big kid. She’s too old to play with dolls—or is she? She’s too old to be nervous about her mother leaving her for two weeks with her grandmother—or is she? She’s too old to remember how Bob first came to live in her closet—or is she? Even the format of the book echoes this duality, with short chapters and the occasional sepia-toned illustration (beautifully rendered by Nicholas Gannon), exactly halfway between an early chapter book and a middle-grade novel.

Certainly, Livy is old enough to sense the sadness, worry, and helplessness in the adults around her, all of whom are struggling to support farms in the midst of a severe years-long drought. She feels equally powerless to help—that is, until the neighbor’s son goes missing. When Livy and Bob journey deep into the woods to search for the boy, they not only find him,  they also discover that Bob is a clue to the drought plaguing the land. It’s a journey that no adult would understand or believe, but it’s a journey that reminds us readers that the natural world is rich with intrigue, with hidden currents, with a tinge of the supernatural. Whether Bob is real or a figment of Livy’s imagination may always be open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: occasionally, in life, there may not be a logical explanation for the amazing things we witness.

This summer, I invite you: choose a world with magic for your children. Grant some wishes. And maybe not just for them. I know a lot of adults who could use a little bit of magic right about now.

 

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Books published by Walden Pond Press (Harper Collins) and Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

What STEM Looked Like 100 Years Ago

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!

Into the Woods

January 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

After the holiday dishes were done, after the last of our guests flew home, our family did what we do best on winter breaks: we hunkered down and read.

In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, JP was less interested in listening to me read than he was in reading his own book (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, the sequel to Tim Federle’s fabulous Better Nate Than Ever, which I can at least take credit for introducing to him last fall, on our trip to New York City to catch his first Broadway musical). Emily, however, was game to join me each day on the couch and insisted we read Emily Winfield Martin’s newly-published and ohhhh-so-lovely Snow and Rose (Ages 8-12, slightly younger if reading aloud).

When the winter doldrums threaten to take over, we fantasize about escape. But who needs a tropical beach vacation when you have the mysterious, enchanted, dangerous woods of our imagination? (Um, still me. But that’s a different post.)

It doesn’t happen often that my kids get to a book before I do. But when I opened the box from Random House to reveal Snow and Rose’s stunning black cover, with its raised gold lettering and cloaked girls—one in pale blue and one in red—Emily exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the book we just finished in school!” Say what? (After my shock wore off, I delighted that her teachers have their pulse on contemporary children’s literature.) At once, Emily decided this would be our winter break read. “Are you sure you don’t want to hear something new?” I asked.

“Actually, Mommy, I think this is one of those books that feels even more magical the second time you read it. Plus, I’ll be able to spot all the clues, because I know what’s going to happen.” (She didn’t need to add, And you don’t.)

Across nineteen exquisite chapters and gorgeous full-color illustrations normally reserved for the likes of picture books, Snow and Rose concerns itself with re-telling The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red”: the story of two impoverished, fatherless girls, who live with their mother in a cottage at the edge of an enchanted woods—and whose chance encounters with a giant bear and an unsettling dwarf set their destinies into motion.

In the academic study of children’s literature, much has been made about why fairy tales—dark, twisted, fantastical stories of long ago—get retold and reread with such frequency (apart from the electrifying shivers they send down our spines). One of the best explanations comes from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, which proffers, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”

That is to say, while the settings and dramatic action of fairy tales might be (sometimes ridiculously) far-fetched, the world view they offer our children is not. Rather, these stories put forth a reassuringly familiar account of what it feels like to be young, helpless, even afflicted in a world presided over by adult authority figures, whose motivations are often neither evident nor well-meaning. Remember Hansel and Gretel’s father, manipulated by his new wife to leave his children in the woods to die? Remember the witch, disguised by the sugary treats of her gingerbread house?

And yet, these fairy tales also offer hope: what their young protagonists lack in power, they more than make up for in wit, creativity, kindness, and loyalty. In fact, often through a combination of these qualities, these characters figure out how to step outside the adult shadows, how to tease out light from dark, and how to reverse their own fortunes into a kind of Happy Ending. Bettelheim explains:

The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.

In Snow and Rose, Martin puts the “inner processes” of her heroines on full display, exploring and building on an emotional awareness and growth in the two sisters only hinted at in the original fairy tale. Snow, named for her white hair, is spirited, wild, and impulsive. Rose, with “hair like threads of black silk and cheeks like two red petals,” is rational, determined, and fiercely loyal. And yet, Martin resists setting these personalities in stone. The girls’ temperaments evolve, even bend, at different opportunities, particularly when the other needs her most.

If there is one thing we can count on in fairy tales, it’s that things are rarely as they seem. Martin has expanded on this premise with a story that also resists labels and boxes, which seems to exist in the very grey shadows of the trees through which the girls traverse, seeking answers to questions life has so unwittingly hurled at them.

When we first meet the sisters, they are mourning the life they once knew. Most significantly, they are facing the loss of their beloved father, who wandered into the woods one day and never returned. Because we’re in the language of fairy tales, he did not “die;” he “was taken.” In fact, people have been mysteriously disappearing in these woods for years.

The wondering burned inside [Snow and Rose] but took different shapes because of what they believed: Rose wanted to know why their father had been taken, and Snow wanted to know how to get him back. Their wondering touched the edges of things they could never know, about this place that had changed their fortunes once and would change them again.

If our children ever needed inspiration to confront their fears head on, they need look no further. In order to find answers to their “burning” questions, Snow and Rose venture boldly into the very woods whose mysteries have been their family’s greatest downfall.

Fortunately (by now you might need some reassurance that all is not dark, dreary, and bone-chilling in these 205 pages), Martin populates these enchanted woods with just as many wonderful, wondrous things—many of them unique to her version of the story—as she does the bandits, the howling wolves, the knife-teethed fish, and the trees with watching eyes. Of all the beauty to be found, not the least of which are the seasonal transformations: the woods a silent “palace of ice” after a snowstorm, a “carpet of violets” in the spring.

There’s the “mushroom boy,” Ivo, who lives with his family in an underground house, accessible only by a long chute beneath the roots of a tree, and who becomes a treasured companion to the sisters.

There is the mysterious Library: a small house in a clearing flanked by white flowers, on whose shelves rest, not books, but thousands of boxed and jarred objects, all of them found in the woods and all of them with stories waiting to impart to their borrower, though not in any predictable way.

And there is the larger-than-life bear, a creature feared and suspected by many as the culprit behind the humans’ disappearances—but whom the sisters believe innocent. The girls free the beast’s leg from a huntsman trap, shelter him from winter’s fury in front of their fireplace, and later reap the benefits of their kindness in spades.

While the girls may be right about the bear, they are wrong about the Little Man: the white-bearded, red-pointy-hat-clad fellow, who speaks in riddles and proves immune to the sisters’ kindness. In Little Man lies the story’s duplicitous villain, a cruel and calculating creature, but even here Martin seems to tug at the universality of fairy tales. When asked to identify himself, the Little Man mischievously taunts the girls:

“Sometimes I’m the Dwarf and sometimes I’m the Tomten…Or sometimes the Brownie or Boggart or Gnome…And to some very rude people, I’ve been the Goblin…But these are just names… Many names have I, child. But none have guessed what I am.”

Exactly “what” the Little Man personifies can be debated at length. Evil? Greed? Loneliness? Misunderstanding? Older children might even pick up on how the sisters actually share red and white attributes with the Little Man. Perhaps Martin wishes to suggest that, in the making of our own fate and fortune, we must begin by confronting our own demons.

If I was impressed with how Martin remodels the interior of her fairy tale, I was slayed by her ending, a deeply gratifying departure from the original. In the Brothers Grimm’s telling, the fairy tale ends when the bear turns into a prince and marries one of the sisters. In Martin’s version, there is a different transformation altogether, one much more suited to the hearts’ desire of our heroines. No spoilers here but, ultimately, the story ends with a celebration of familial bonds—particularly those of sisterhood—and the reassuring reminder that our own courage and wit and will to survive in the wild woods are made stronger by the love we have at our backs.

Always, when we return from the woods, we are changed in the best of ways.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week (more during the holidays).

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

A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime?

Tavares is best known for his historic, often sports-themed picture books (Crossing Niagra and Growing Up Pedro are favorites), so this sentimental story of two cardinals is a bit of a departure for him. As such, it took him five years to perfect it. But do not be fooled: in the end, his careful narrative and visual choices pay off, including several wordless panels which allow us to especially appreciate his exquisite, evocative paintings. It turns out Tavares was in part inspired to write this story by an experience similar to something we’ve witnessed in our own family, outside our own front door.

Years ago, when we moved from downtown Chicago to our Washington DC suburb, we immediately noticed the birds—particularly, a pair of cardinals, who seemed to enjoy hanging around outside the front of our house. The bright red male—Buddy, as we called him—was always the first spotted. As soon as we saw him, our eyes would quickly scan nearby branches for the more brownish-toned female. “There’s Buddy’s mate!” one of my kids would call out. The feminist in me suggested, more than once, that “Buddy’s mate” deserved a name of her own. But perhaps it’s not by chance that no name ever stuck. That cardinals mate for life is what makes them unique in the animal world. Even my children seemed to sense that this love story, playing out daily on our front lawn, was something special.

Red and Lulu tells the story of two cardinals, who live in a “mighty evergreen” in the front lawn of a small suburban house. As the narrator tells us, the tree was the perfect place to call home: “Its shade kept them cool on hot summer days. And its evergreen needles kept them cozy when autumn wind howled.” The birds’ favorite time of year is Christmas, when the family strings the branches of the tree with lights, then invites neighbors to join them in singing “O Christmas tree.” “Red and Lulu loved listening to the people sing about their tree. Sometimes they even sang along.”

Red and Lulu tells the fictional story of two cardinals, but it also relates the real-life story of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, a beloved New York City tradition dating back to 1931. The Afterward explains how, each year, the head gardener at Rockefeller Center searches “far and wide” for the perfect tree. Because the chosen tree is almost always a Norway spruce, not native to the United States, it is usually found and removed from someone’s yard. (Happy tidbit for those sad to see these great trees taken down: after the Christmas season, the lumber from the Rockefeller tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity. More about this in the lovely picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift.)

One day, while Red is out gathering breakfast and Lulu is home in the nest, a crane pulls up to the house, and workmen cut down the tree. Red returns home in time to hear Lulu’s singing coming from inside the tree, as it barrels down the street on the back of an enormous flatbed.

For miles, over New Jersey highways and across the George Washington bridge onto the island of Manhattan, Red follows his tree, occasionally chirping to reassure Lulu that he is close by. Eventually, in the chaos and enormity of the city, he loses sight of the truck.

As Red searches the streets of Manhattan for his love, we see Tavares’ artistry at his best. He contrasts the brilliant saturation of Red’s feathers—the very color of life and love—with the grey concrete and stone buildings of the city. He contrasts Red’s size—vulnerable and dwarfed—with the larger-than-life city, including the stone lions outside The New York Public Library. By the time the bird flies over the nighttime crowds and neon lights of Times Square, our hearts are aching for him.

In the end, it’s Red and Lulu’s love, not just for each other but for Christmas, which writes their happy ending. Red is drawn towards the sound of crowds of people singing “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree.”

Wait! He could hear the song they loved! Red flew toward the sound.
The voice grew louder and louder.
Then he turned the corner.

As he sees Lulu’s and his tree, magnificently illuminated at the front of the crowd under fat, falling snowflakes, he flies straight for “their favorite branch.” The lovebirds are reunited!

For the next weeks, until Christmas passes and the tree comes down, Red and Lulu remain in their nest in the tree. Then, instead of trying to find their way back to the suburban yard from whence they came, they make their home in Central Park, sharing new trees and birdbaths with the pigeons and other wildlife of the Big City. (One might say they’re city fowl now.)

This way, they’re not far away when the next Christmas comes, when the caroling again beckons them to the most beautiful of plazas, in the most spirited of traditions, with the brightest of trees.

Joy to the world.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

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

2017 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Change Agent

December 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

How do we right a wrong? When do we speak out? At what cost to us?

These are some of the questions posed quietly but provocatively in Wishtree (Ages 7-12), the latest chapter book by Katherine Applegate, award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw (yes, you will cry in this new one, too). In today’s installment of my Gift Guide, I’m giving Wishtree its own due—deliberately not bundling it in my forthcoming post on middle-grade reads—because it lends itself so beautifully, so ardently, to sharing aloud. (Said differently: it’s not action-packed, so if your children are like mine, they may not pick it up on their own.) At just over 200 pages, with 51 short chapters, it’s not a long or difficult read. But its smaller-than-usual trim size gives it immediate intimacy, and the discussions it encourages—about what we want our community to look like and what we’re prepared to do about it—may just make change agents of us all.

Unconventionally, Wishtree is narrated by a tree. An enormous 216-year old red oak tree, who goes by the name Red. If you thought trees couldn’t talk, that’s because you haven’t been listening. (Trees have a rather complicated relationship with people, after all. One minute you’re hugging us. The next minute you’re turning us into tables and tongue depressors.) But it’s also because trees, like animals, abide by a central governing rule to talk out of human earshot (a frog once broke this rule and talked to a mail carrier, and it did not go well).

But don’t be fooled: trees see everything.

With age and size on her side, Red is perfectly situated to reflect on the changing community around her, not only the litany of animals that reside in her branches and hollows, but also the row of (human dwelling) townhouses she shelters. She is a self-proclaimed busy body (a “buttinski,” as her best friend, the mischievous crow Bongo, teases her); a lover of terrible puns; and, above all, an optimist. She is also a wishtree, which means that once a year, on May Day, people of all ages come from near and far to affix to her branches pieces of paper and scraps of fabric bearing single wishes (everything from “flying skateboards” to “I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes”). Wishtrees, incidentally, are not fictional: a dear friend has one on her vineyard in Sonoma, and my children long to visit and tie on their wishes.

Red presides over a community long populated with immigrant American families. Francesca, the owner of the plot on which Red herself sits, is the great-great-granddaughter of an Irish immigrant, whose cures for the sick meant people would leave small thank-you gifts for her in the oak’s hollows. Francesca has since rented out her townhouse—most recently, to a Muslim-American family with a school-aged daughter named Samar. It is presumably to this family that the anonymous, chilling, hand-carved message, which appears one morning on Red’s trunk, is directed: LEAVE.

People are under the impression that trees don’t mind being carved into, especially if hearts are involved.
For the record, we mind.
I’d never seen the boy before. He was big, maybe a high schooler. It’s hard to know with people. With a tree, I can sense to the month, sometimes to the day, its age.
I couldn’t tell what he was carving, of course. But I could tell from the determined way he moved that it was meant to hurt.

As is often the case, this single purposeful deed sets into motion a chain of events much wider than its intended recipient. For starters, Francesca, the property owner, who admits to “lack[ing] a sentimental bone in my body,” decides time is long overdue to take down Red. The oak’s roots are destroying the walkways, the clean-up every year following Wishing Day is immense, and now the tree appears to be Ground Zero for xenophobia. But would chain sawing Red to the ground erase the intention behind that single loaded word? Certainly, it would destroy one of the most beautiful slices of nature for miles. It would obliterate a centuries-old tradition designed to nurture hope among neighbors. Say nothing of the skunk, opossum, and raccoon families who have long managed—against all odds—to co-exist peacefully under Red’s matronly protection.

In light of her pending execution (via Timber Terminators corporation), Red decides to overstep her place in the natural order of things and try herself to grant one of the wishes on her tree. She wants to meddle, but only “to make a difference, just a little difference, before I left this lovely world.”

In the short time they have known one another, Red has taken a special interest in the quiet new resident Samar, whose own wish hanging on the tree reads “I wish for a friend.” The family living next door to Samar has a boy in Samar’s class, and Red has often caught him sneaking shy glances at his new neighbor, despite his parents making it clear that the two families will never fraternize. With the help of her animal friends, Red stages a plan—comically misguided at times, but admittedly well-intentioned—to kindle a friendship between Samar and Stephen. Along the way, new questions arise: what is friendship? How does it begin? How much power can one friendship have?

And then, as her plan threatens to fail, Red steps up her game. She speaks up. She SPEAKS.

Let me say it like this. Before I even got my hands on this book, my daughter was listening to it read aloud by her teachers, a few chapters every day. I was enjoying hearing her updates at dinner (always the sign of a winning book when she can’t stop talking about it). At pick-up one day, she jumped into the car with dramatic flourish; apparently, she wasn’t going to wait until dinner. “Mom, the tree TALKED. She BROKE THE RULE. The Don’t Talk to People RULE!” Her response was part horror, part fascination.

(Up to this point, my daughter’s favorite part of the story had been Applegate’s delightfully imagined rules governing the Natural World. There’s the trees-don’t-talk-to-humans rule. But there are plentiful others, including how trees and animals name themselves. All opossums, for example, adopt the names of things that frighten them, like Hairy Spiders and Flashlight.  Skunks are named after pleasant smells (“I am not sure if this is because they’re a bit defensive about their reputation, or if they just have a sly sense of humor,” says Red); while raccoons—my son found this especially funny—are all named You, because it’s easier for their mothers to remember.)

So, yes, Red breaks what she calls, “the biggie.” She comes right out and addresses (a very shocked) Stephen and Samar, as they sit beneath her one night, and she tells them the story of the very first wish tied onto her branches. It’s a wish that came true, that set into motion a diverse, loving community, now threatened by closed doors, narrow mindedness, and even hate.

Red immediately regrets her transgression and chides herself for overstepping. But, like the hateful deed that started it all, this one too has repercussions which stretch far beyond. Only this time, to drastically different ends.

You thought I was going to tell you what happens? Bah. In the words of one wise tree:

After two hundred and sixteen rings, I thought I’d seen it all.
Turns out you’re never too old to be surprised.

Reading this story, your children might chuckle their way through the various animals’ names. They might wonder at the banter between a tree and a crow. They might relate to Samar and Stephen and take another look at a new student or neighbor in their own neck of the woods. They might think up wishes of their own. But, with any luck, they’ll also be internalizing what happens when someone isn’t afraid to speak up—and when their voice inspires a whole lot of other people to do the same.

This is how we wish the communities of our dreams into reality.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

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

Gift Guide 2017 (No.1): For the Skeptic

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.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

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!

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