Gift Guide 2018: To Believe…or Not

December 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

To believe or not to believe. That’s a question many elementary children struggle with—at least, if mine are any indication—especially around this time of year. Which is why Marc Tyler Nobleman’s Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real (Ages 7-10), charmingly illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, is astutely targeted toward these ages. My eight year old, having mostly outgrown her belief in, if not her affection for, fairies, hung on every word of this book the first time we read it together. She has since gone back and re-read it on her own and even asked that I purchase a copy for her classroom. It’s a book which tests your belief in magic on nearly every page. Just when you decide nope, I know this can’t be true, it introduces doubt all over again.

Fairy Spell tells the true story of an ingenious hoax (or was it?) orchestrated by nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her sixteen-year-old cousin Elsie, during a summer the two spent together in Cottingley, England, in 1917. Sunny days were spent playing and picnicking down by the “beck,” or stream. One afternoon, after Frances fell into the beck and ruined her expensive shoes, the adults in the house were furious. They were even more furious when she told them she and Elsie had been playing with fairies.

The girls intended to hoax their parents, as payback for belittling their belief in fairies, only it ended up going viral—nearly a hundred years before social media—and transfixing the entire world. Of course, the beauty of Nobleman’s telling is that, especially if you haven’t heard the story before (which, presumably, our kids have not), he is careful not to reveal that it actually was a hoax until the end. Even still, he leaves the door slightly ajar as to the possibility that it wasn’t.

To prove their beloved fairies were real, the girls borrowed Frances’s uncle’s camera and took one, then another, black-and-white photographs of themselves down by the beck. When Uncle Arthur developed the pictures, tiny winged creatures could be seen frolicking around the humans. At first, he assumed it was a joke, although he could not figure out how two novices had “faked” such a photograph. Still, if fairies lived on his property, he would have seen them. The girls’ response: “The fairies would not come out for you in a hundred years.” When the girls would not let up, Arthur became downright annoyed and forbid them from using his camera again.

The girls’ mothers, however, “begun to feel that, somehow, the girls were telling the truth.” Two years later, the mothers attended a public lecture on fairies, where they shared the girls’ photographs. After that, news of the photographs began to spread, igniting the interests of academics, photographers, and even Arthur Conan Doyle, “the author who created the world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes.” Nearly everyone had a theory, but many pointed to evidence that the photos had not been doctored. Doyle eventually approached the girls’ families and asked for permission to publish the photographs, albeit under different names to protect the girls’ identities.

The girls returned to Cottingley and took even more photographs, all of which were eventually published in the newspaper, always selling out entire issues in a matter of days. “Everyone was aflutter about the photos.” In the book, the pages of critical analysis that follow—people had ideas, for example, to justify why the waterfall in the background would be blurry when the moving fairies in the foreground were not—are absolutely fascinating and read like one of Doyle’s detective novels. To believe or not to believe.

The truth did not come out until the cousins were near the end of their life, Frances seventy-five and Elsie eighty-one. What the book reveals in its concluding pages about what really went on down at the beck is both astounding and marvelous: astounding because the girls exhibited cleverness well beyond their years, and marvelous because they kept it a secret for so long. (Talk about empowering the child!)

What the story also goes on to illuminate is the real reason the girls protected their secret. They never expected the adults in their lives to fall under their “fairy spell.” When they did, the cousins realized that even adults are hard pressed to give up on the idea of magic…for good.

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Behold the Magnificent Elephant

November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

Between now and Christmas (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Ever since I hailed the stunning achievement of British author-illustrator Jenni Desmond’s The Polar Bear in my 2016 Gift Guide, I have eagerly anticipated the third installment in her narrative non-fiction series starring endangered animals. It has been well worth the two-year wait, because The Elephant (Ages 6-9), a tribute to the world’s largest living land mammal, is magnificent.

Accessible and beautifully-phrased paragraphs are packed with fascinating details about this mighty and graceful animal, which originated 55 million years: its territory, anatomy, diet, and behavior, as well as the differences between the Asian and African species. As in the other books in the series, a red-crowned child helps to  showcase the elephant’s unique qualities, while also providing a touch of whimsy to the otherwise remarkably realistic art.

Did you know that an old African savanna bull’s tusk can weigh 100 pounds and be as long as two seven-year-old children stretched toe-to-toe? Imagine carrying that weight around! Would now be a good time to tell you that elephants have to bear all this weight on their tip-toes? “From the outside, their feet look flat, but inside, the skeleton reveals that the heel is higher than the toes, like a human foot in high heels.” That’s why they walk so softly for how heavy they are.

My daughter was particularly impressed with the elephant’s daily diet, showcased as a giant pyramid of food with a child perched at the top (she already knew about the insane amount of pooping—12-15 times a day—from our local zoo’s exhibit). “A large male could eat 700 pounds of plant matter a day, the equivalent of 100 apples, 90 lemons, 80 peaches, 70 pears, 60 oranges, 50 mangoes, 40 bananas, 30 coconuts, 20 pineapples, and 10 watermelons.” Imagine how long it would take to pack that lunch box every day.

But the heart of this book lies in its poignant exploration of the elephant’s social and emotional intelligence. While the males live and hunt alone, the females and their babies spend all their time in groups of extended family, organized around a matriarch. When one of their herd dies, the family engages in intense mourning and burial rituals, devoting weeks to standing vigil over the bodies and even returning to the burial site years later. “Oh, Mommy,” my daughter said, reverently.

The child in the book, reading his own book about this wondrous animal, is a reminder of what Desmond explains in the Prologue: that the elephant’s precarious existence is intricately tied to the behavior of humans in the past and present. Elephants aren’t just wonders to behold: their migration patterns, even their colossal dung piles, pave way for the survival of other plants and animals. Perhaps marveling over every exquisite page in The Elephant is a step towards ensuring this magnificent creature survives another 55 million years.

Review copy provided 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!

Gift Guide 2018: Give a Year of Poetry

November 29, 2018 § 2 Comments

Between now and Christmas (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Raise your hand if you’re still reading poetry to your kids over breakfast. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read this.) We had a good run of it, but like most of my inspired parenting ideas, I eventually forgot about it. Turns out, I have just the book to resurrect this ritual. (Goodness knows we could use a return to Zen in our mornings.)

Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year (Ages 6-12) is a gorgeous and hefty anthology, perfectly designed for Poetry Breakfasts (or the daily mindfulness of your choice). Each of the 365 poems has been astutely selected by Fiona Waters for a different day of the year, then evocatively illustrated in watery brush strokes and mixed media by Frann Preston-Gannon.

We can start our mornings with the likes of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Jack Prelutsky, Ogden Nash, William Shakespeare, Kanoko Okamoto, and dozens of others (don’t forget the elusive Anonymous). An impressive array of poetic forms and styles are represented. Like the sun that’s out one day and gone the next, the tones shift between silly and stilled, provocative and peaceful. There are plenty we already know and have long wanted to introduce to our children (Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” makes an early appearance on January 6) and many more waiting for us to discover together with our children (I heart the beginning of N.M. Bodecker’s “Snowman Sniffles”: “At winter’s end/ a snowman grows/ a snowdrop/ on his carrot nose[…]”).

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If the winter blues get us down, we can just page ahead to spring and remind ourselves of what’s to come (“Now children may/ go out of doors/ without their coats/ to candy stores”).

Personally, I’m optimistic that these poems may ground us in the here and now, gently nudge us to cherish the season at hand, in all its poetic glory. I’ll leave you with November 30, titled “White Sound”: “When rain/ whispers/ it is snow.”

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

The 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.

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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!

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