2017 Gift Guide (No. 5): For the Global Citizen

December 14, 2017 § 5 Comments

What if there was a children’s book which came with a budding world view? What if, in giving a book this holiday season, you helped a child feel a little more connected to the planet she or he calls home?

Last spring, we took a family trip to Italy, our first time overseas with our children. Some (ahem, elder) relatives of mine were not shy about questioning the wisdom of taking our six and nine year old on such a trip. More than once, I was asked, rhetorically: “Don’t you think you should hold off on spending all that money until your children are older and will actually remember the things they see?” (Occasionally, this was prefaced by, “I know I should hold my tongue, but…”)

I can’t pretend to believe my kids will retain the specifics of their two weeks spent in the small hill towns and big cities of Italy. But I like to think they will remember their unfettered enthusiasm, their adventurous spirit, and—best of all—their curiosity about the things that matched or didn’t match their ideas of life outside America’s borders. One afternoon, as we were walking through the medieval streets of Orvieto, my son locked eyes on a trio of elementary-aged boys, sporting backpacks and engaged in animated conversation. As they half-walked, half-jogged down the sidewalk, the boys passed a soccer ball back and forth. “Mommy, I think those kids just got out of school,” my son said to me. “They look like they are having fun.” He didn’t say anything more, but as he watched them until they were out of sight, I could see the wheels turning in his head: I wonder what their school is like. I like soccer, too. I wonder whether they’ll go straight home or stop somewhere to play. I wish I could understand them.

In his enticing new picture book, This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids From Around the World (Ages 5-10), Matt Lamothe speaks directly to children’s curiosity about other children, about what life is like in other corners of the world. The book reminds me of the popular DK title, Children Just Like Me: A New Celebration of Children Around the World, which received a lovely makeover last year. And yet, I think I like This Is How We Do It even more. In it, Lamothe approaches the same subject with a child-centric directness and a clean, contemporary design. (We would expect nothing less from Chronicle Books.) My kids absolutely adore it, especially my daughter, who frequently picks it up on her own.

This Is How We Do It follows seven real kids from around the world—Russia, Peru, Japan, India, Uganda, Italy, and Iran (note the United States is not one of them!)—as they tell us about their daily lives, both at home and in school. (Though the illustrations are digitally rendered in a soft, cohesive palette, Lamothe offers proof of the characters’ realness by presenting photographs of them with their families at the book’s end.)

As the children describe the different components of their lives, the layouts invite the reader to make cultural comparisons. In fact, therein lies the fun! Each spread presents the children’s responses on one of thirteen different topics, beginning with “This is where I live.” Side by side, we glimpse a “wood and mud” hut in a Ugandan village; a bright orange stucco-ed residence in an Italian vineyard; and a skinny brick house in the busy Tokyo metropolis.

Some of the most eye-catching differences occur across “This is how I go to school”—an immediate favorite with my clan. In India, Anu’s mother drives her and her friends through packed streets, where cows roam freely. Now, contrast that with Abwooli, the Ugandan girl, who walks to school for thirty minutes across dirt paths bordered by eucalyptus and banana trees.

When we read this book as a family, my kids will avidly debate which country seems like the most fun. Like the fickle spirits they are, their favorites vary from page to page. With all three meals of the day covered, there are many opportunities to discuss whether we’re glad we eat oatmeal each morning, or whether we’d prefer a Japanese breakfast of “rice with furikake, miso soup, grilled cod, and an orange wedge.” “Kids drink coffee in Peru?!” my son exclaims. Unfamiliar words like matoke (Ugandan banana) and kasha (Russian porridge) are explained in the book’s Glossary.

Personally, I love the spreads showcasing the different classrooms, as well as the subjects studied. In Iran, Kian wears a bright green uniform to an all-boys’ school to study the Quran, in addition to writing and math, whereas Meo’s Italian school promotes regular cultural and green-space field trips, and the kids get to wear whatever they want.

“This is how I spell my name” is perhaps the most strikingly, beautifully diverse spread.

More often than not—and this feels like Lamothe’s central message—we identify more similarities than differences, both when comparing our own American lives to the ones on the pages, as well as when contrasting the different countries. Readers will easily observe how all children have the same fundamental needs, not only for food, shelter, and education, but for familial love and peer companionship. The pages on playtime feel especially universal, with games like soccer, skipping rope, and freeze tag. And though the tools and settings might look different, the household chores depicted resemble what many American children do to help out their families, including hanging laundry or caring for a sibling.

The onus is on us parents to point out the impossibility that one child’s experience can encapsulate an entire culture. A child’s daily life in Tokyo would look quite different than one in rural Japan, say nothing of social or economic differences within a community. Still, This is How We Do It provides a lovely beginning to a conversation about broadening our children’s perspectives, about helping them see themselves against the larger, richer, more diverse tapestry which is their world.

Lamothe closes with a single picture of a night sky and the caption, “This is my night sky,” as if to remind our children that, at the end of the day, we all fall asleep under the same stars. In a world where technology, trade, and travel are collapsing more borders than ever before, education along these lines becomes the first step towards compassion, collaboration, and concord.

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).

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

 

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!

When the Question Becomes the Answer

September 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t trees ever talk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Book published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 4): For the Jet Setter

December 13, 2016 § 2 Comments

"The Airport Book" by Lisa BrownBefore my kids were in school full time, we used to spend the occasional rainy day at the airport (or, as my son would call it, the “airplane port”). We would drop the car in long-term parking, ride the shuttle bus to the terminal (itself an experience), and enjoy a picnic lunch while pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the runway. After a few hours, we’d toss our trash, head back to our car, and return home.

Before becoming a parent, I had always done my best to avoid air travel unless absolutely necessary. If you had told me that parenting would drive me willingly into the throes of a cavernous space with crowds of people and humming machines—plus two toddling kiddos in tow—I would have thought, thanks, but I’ll stick with raincoats and a quick jaunt around the block. But I discovered: take away the stress of travel and the cumbersome bags, and the airport is like a built-in babysitter.

For children, the multisensory experience of an airport is nothing short of enthralling. It’s not just the giant steel cylinders roaring down the runways before effortlessly lifting into the air. It’s also the conveyor belts that whisk bags into secret rooms behind rubber flaps; the moving walkways that shuttle people around like giant chess games; the horns from golf carts that fly by on glossy floors with collapsed wheelchairs in the back; and the fuel trucks and food trucks and baggage trains, which together descend on waiting air crafts outside the window.

"The Airport Book" by Lisa Brown

It’s not just the smell of coffee, which intermingles with re-warmed pizza, brake grease, and pink liquid soap. It’s also the sounds of loudspeakers and wailing babies and cell phone users, which intensify to a drumming buzz in the back of our heads. And it’s the dazzling rainbow of clothes and skin colors, the amalgamation of sizes and accents, which teaches our children about the diversity that inhabits their planet.

"The Airport Book" by Lisa Brown

Short of regularly taking your kids to the airport to get their fix, you can read them Lisa Brown’s The Airport Book (Ages 2-6), the newest—and, especially if you’re a parent, loveliest—picture book on the subject.  If visiting an airport in real life is an assault on one’s senses, then experiencing Brown’s book is anything but. Don’t get me wrong: my children used to beg me multiple times a day to read them Richard Scarry’s A Day at the Airport or Brian Biggs’ Everything Goes: In the Air (which I blogged about here); but while I would oblige, I secretly prayed for someone to write and illustrate something that wouldn’t make my head spin. It turns out what I really yearned for were Lisa Brown’s soft India ink and watercolors, her subtle humor, and her refreshing portrayal of contemporary jet setters.

"The Airport Book" by Lisa Brown

The Airport Book follows a mixed-race family of four on a day of travel to and from the airport, beginning in a taxi outside their city apartment and concluding on a tropical beach in their grandfather’s car. Despite the personal connection we feel to the family—when, say, the mother notices that her daughter’s beloved stuffed monkey is missing and glares daggers at the father, “Did you forget to pack Monkey?”—the narrative itself feels universal, designed as a kind of step-by-step introduction to air travel from the mouth of the girl’s knowing older brother.

"The Airport Book" by Lisa Brown

Targeted at the preschool and kindergarten crowd, the boy’s narrative is matter of fact, but it’s also oddly comforting, almost lyrical, in its ability to impose order on the surrounding chaos.

You drive on the highway to where the ground is really flat. There are lots of people saying lots of goodbyes. Sometimes they hug. Sometimes they cry. They have big bags on wheels and smaller bags on their shoulders and backs. Sometimes you can tell exactly what is packed inside the bags. Sometimes it is a mystery.

Despite its title, several pages of the book are spent inside the commercial airplane that’s bound for the family’s (unnamed) tropical destination. As with the airport scenes, Brown’s pictures are more than just a backdrop for the boy’s descriptions of safety announcements and turbulence: they provide countless opportunities (phew, since you’ll be reading the book countless times) to notice what’s happening with the different passengers, from dozing business travelers to squirming babies. Speech bubbles peppered throughout give further clues about these sub-plots.

"The Airport Book" by Lisa Brown

Many of the best picture books ask the child to do some work, and Brown’s readers will be rewarded for following the fate of the little sister’s stuffed monkey in a parallel plot. It turns out that the striped monkey is not forgotten (as the parents suppose) but packed in the checked baggage. In moments reminiscent of Mo Willems’ well-known Knuffle Bunny, only the toddler herself spies Monkey’s tail sticking out of the suitcase, as it is being sent down the conveyor belt and later loaded into the cargo hull; and yet, her refrain of “Monkey Monkey Monkey!” is mistaken for one of bereavement. Only the reader is privy to the monkey’s secret and the little girl’s delight.

"The Airport Book" by Lisa Brown

Whether your holiday travel takes you down a runway or not, here’s hoping that the unexpected delight of air travel follows your children all year long.

"The Airport Book" by Lisa Brown

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.

Book published by Roaring Book 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!

Winning Against All Odds

September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James BrownWe are still feeling the effects of Olympics Fever in our house. Before his weekly swim lesson, JP flaps his arms back and forth across his chest, a.k.a. Michael Phelps. Emily vaults off the arm of our leather chair and lands with her hands above her head, chest lifted. I’m still smiling at the charisma of Usain Bolt, who runs so fast it’s scarcely comprehensible. While we were watching the Olympics one Saturday afternoon, with footage of fencing and archery and discus throwing, JP exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were this many sports!” (We aren’t typically a sports-watching family, as I’ve mentioned before.)

For all the glory that my children witnessed unfolding on the television screen this past summer, I don’t think they really grasped the guts that were involved. The sacrifices made. The arduous, sometimes circuitous journeys of these athletes to Rio. What actually went on behind the scenes.

I started to feel like I was doing these athletes a disservice by not talking to my kids about how painfully difficult—how physically and mentally trying—these journeys to victory often are.

I announced to my nine year old one night in late August that I had the perfect book to keep the spirit of the Olympics alive in our house. The choice was partly selfish: I have long wanted to read the adult version of this story.

Daniel James Brown recently adapted his bestselling adult non-fiction book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for a young audience. The Young Readers Adaptation, similarly titled The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, is intended for ages 10-18.

Here’s the gist: Against a backdrop of the American Depression and the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Brown’s two books tell the story of nine rowers from the University of Washington—an unlikely bunch of loggers, fishermen, and farmers—whose incredible work ethic and fresh approach to the sport of crew took the entire world by surprise when they snatched gold in front of Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

At the center of The Boys in the Boat is one rower in particular—Joe Rantz—whose childhood would be considered heartbreaking by even the harshest skeptic. Painfully abandoned by his family as a young teenager, Joe was left to make his own way in the world, often resorting to grueling physical labor in the Pacific Northwest in an effort, not only to feed his almost always starving body, but to scrape together enough money to attend college and secure a place on a sports team that held the promise of belonging and acceptance. This guy, with the skills of a lumberjack, without two nickels to rub together, this guy is in the boat that wins an Olympic gold.

It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is a head-scratching, white-knuckling, jumping-on-the-bed story of unadulterated inspiration. It will rival the most exciting sporting event you’ve ever seen on TV.

Last night—after the climactic final chapter, where my son alternated between clutching my arm and burying his head under his pillow, even though we already knew the outcome of the race—JP told me this was the BEST BOOK OF HIS LIFE. (He may have inherited my fondness for hyperbole, but this is still saying something.)

I’ll admit, I was surprised by how quickly the story grabbed the two of us. JP had never heard of crew prior to this book. I myself knew almost nothing about the mechanics of the sport—nor did I have any appreciation for the physical stamina and technical prowess involved. (Despite attending a high school and university with prestigious rowing programs, I never attended a single race, a fact I now find rather devastating. At last, I am ready to stand in the cold spring rain and watch a regatta!)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And there is a lot of crew in this book. Nearly every race in the two years leading up to the Olympics is detailed across multiple pages. It may seem hard to believe, but JP and I were on the edge of our seat (well, pillow) every single time. Even the art of boat-making—the proper terminology is shell-making—is described with such romance that we could almost smell the freshly-sanded cedar from JP’s bedroom.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

Still, for as much rowing as fills the pages of this book, The Boys in the Boat is ultimately about something transcendent. It’s a familiar theme that runs through most great sports stories: triumph in the face of devastating odds. And it’s delivered by Brown in a way that spears our hearts and elevates our souls.

I asked JP at breakfast this morning what most struck him about the story. He didn’t even hesitate: “Joe’s life. Everything was so hard for him. Things were always going wrong. I didn’t know that someone like that could be an Olympic champion.”

I would argue that everything was often going wrong, not just for Joe, but for all the boys in Joe’s shell.

It has been said about real life: you can’t make this stuff up. But seriously: you could not make this stuff up. Because the odds are stacked against these young men nearly every step of the way.

Let’s start with Joe’s childhood. When Joe’s stepmother (his biological mother dies of cancer when he is four) convinces his father to pack up the car with Joe’s younger siblings and leave Joe behind at fifteen years of age, my son could not get over it. She is so mean! When Joe finds work in a mine, on a dam, as a janitor—when he chops wood all day instead of tossing a ball in the backyard with this dad—our hearts broke again. Is it any wonder Joe initially struggles to trust his fellow oarsmen, to embrace the spirit of teamwork?

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

The socioeconomic backdrop of the book is equally at odds. There’s the wasteland of the West during the Dust Bowl. There’s the juxtaposition between the working-class boys of the Washington crew team and the wealthy sons of bankers and doctors that make up the elite teams of the East Coast. When the Washington boys visit Poughkeepsie, New York each year for the national regatta, they squat in shell houses without warm showers or sealed windows, while teams like Princeton and Cornell get cushy digs complete with personal chefs. Indeed, when the Washington team discovers that they have to pay their way to Berlin—or risk forfeiting their spot—they rely on the charity of thousands of individuals and corporations during a radiothon back in Seattle.

Then there’s the relentless weather (and, as you know, ours is a house obsessed with weather). Rowing in Seattle means rowing in frost, in sleet, in snow. In hard-driving rain. It means rowing when you can’t feel your hands.

There are the Nazis. There is Hitler’s attempt to dress Berlin as a kind of pristine movie set for the Olympics, in an effort to disguise to the world the ethnic cleansing that has already begun. There’s the muddied intentions of the German Olympic Committee, who re-write the rules in real time to ensure that the Germans are in the fastest lanes and the Americans in the slowest. (The 1936 Olympics were also privy to the rise of African-American Jesse Owens on the track field, yet another slap in the face to Hitler’s assertion of the natural supremacy of the Aryan people.)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And then there’s what happens to one of Joe’s crewmates in the days and hours leading up the race of his life. I don’t dare spoil it for you—but suffice it to say that this obstacle would stop any mere mortal. The determination and loyalty that surface instead left me with goosebumps.

The answer to beating all these odds comes from something imparted to the author by Joe on their first very interview. Good rowing—winning rowing—is never about the individual; it’s “about the boat.” Joe is not talking about the physical shell (although the Husky Clipper has assumed iconic status in rowing history). He is talking about teamwork. Only when you give yourself over to your teammates does the boat become greater than the sum of its parts. Only then can you begin to touch greatness. Or, put more technically later in the book:

What they needed was to find something rowers call their “swing,” and they were not going to get there acting like individuals. Many crews never really find their swing. It only happens when all eight oarsmen row in such perfect unison that no single action by any one of them is out of sync with those of all the others. All at once, sixteen arms must begin to pull together, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold in unison, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must begin to bend and straighten. Each tiny action must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman.

Teamwork conquers all.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

JP’s and my success with this book is undoubtedly a tribute to Brown’s engaging and heartfelt writing. But it is also a tribute to the power of reading aloud. There is absolutely zilch chance that I could have convinced JP to read this book on his own, with its 220 oversized pages of minuscule print. There is also little chance that, without the astonishment and wonder of the very engaged nine year old beside me, I would have been quite so enthralled myself. In sharing this story with one another—our intimate team of two—we gave ourselves a gift.

But the greatest gift comes from the human spirit, which so soften surprises and surpasses expectation and understanding. These boys have become my son’s heroes. Names like Joe Rantz, Bobby Moch, Roger Morris, and Don Hume. Neither one of us will forget them quickly.

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.

Review copy provided by Penguin. 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!

In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Journey Trilogy by Aaron BeckerA few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).

But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor).

Wordless books can be a hard sell. They can be an especially hard sell for parents, because what exhausted parent wants the pressure of making up a narrative when the relief of bedtime is so near? How can I read a book with no words? Can’t my kid just look at that on his own?

Hear me out.

For starters, education researchers have long touted the value of wordless picture books as a tool for pre-literacy. When children are learning to read—when they’re caught in that delicate balance of needing to cherish small successes but not fully versed in phonograms and sight words—they can look to pictures for valuable clues about what the text might be saying. (He’s picking up a fork, so that word must be “fork”; there’s a grimace on his face as he’s eating, so that must mean the words are going to be about him not liking it).

When children are forced to extract a narrative from pictures alone, they become well versed at using visual clues to decode text.

I would argue that the value of wordless picture books extends well past the early-reading stage. Wordless books can help make close readers of our children, a vital skill for academic success at every grade level.

Especially in the hands of a visual wizard like Becker, the reader is rewarded for every extra second he or she takes to study the pictures. On nearly every spread in Journey, Quest, and Return, there is mystery, intrigue, wonder, and confusion. Repeated readings only deepen our experience, reveal things that our eyes—in our haste—missed the first time.

Let’s talk about that haste for a minute. (We are listening to Charlotte’s Web in the car these days, so I feel inspired to quote the wise Charlotte: “…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”)

When my nine year old tears through beloved series like The Hardy Boys, Hazardous Tales, and I Survived, I can’t help but wonder: how carefully does he read? Does he skip over passages when he doesn’t understand? Does he take time to notice the language, the details of a setting, or the way a character is described? Does he have an opinion about the book, other than “It was epic!”?

I try very hard not to scrutinize or judge (outwardly) my children’s reading habits. If my kids are reading, I want them to read—without my asking loaded questions about whether they’ve finished a book or what they are learning from the story or whether they will read aloud parts to me. I want them to read for the love of the thing. I want them to discover their own motivations for reading outside parental or adult pressure.

Instead, I try to model good books and good reading practices. I choose books to read aloud that showcase beautiful language, complex characters, and plots rich in shades of grey and murky emotions. I often share aloud my own feelings about the things we’re reading. I tell them which questions are giving me pause. Much of the time, they are quick to join me in conversation.

As it turns out, I don’t have to be reading books with words to accomplish that.

Weeks back, when that box showed up at our doorstep and my kids jumped up with Return in their hands, then ran through various rooms to locate the first two titles in the trilogy so that we could read all three books straight through, I was reminded that sharing wordless picture books with our children can be another immensely valuable way to teach them to slow down and cherish the intricacies of a story.

It’s a credit to Aaron Becker just how hard my children and I are willing to work to interpret his lantern-hung forests, his purple skies, and the rock-clad walls of his prophetic caves. (Interesting side note: in the author’s bio printed on the jacket cover of the newest book, we learn that the exotic kingdom depicted in the trilogy, with its lavish domes and flowing canals and frenetic kings and emperors, is inspired by Becker’s visit as a child to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—the same walled island we all grew to love in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See).

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

Here’s the gist of what my kids and I have surmised from the time we’ve spent with these books.

In Journey, a girl escapes boredom by drawing a doorway into a magical land and inadvertently finding herself in the center of an enslavement plot. Her creativity, along with the artistic aid of a like-minded boy, guides her safely home again, while at the same time giving her the companionship she has been seeking.

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

In Quest, Becker’s second book, the girl with the red crayon and her new friend with the purple crayon are drawn back into the mysterious world, where greater intrigue and suspense greet them. We learn that their crayons are part of a larger set of six that, in the right hands, can return color and freedom and prosperity to this grey and conflict-laden kingdom.

"Quest" by Aaron Becker

Now at last, in Return, we are given the final pieces of the puzzle. It was my son who came up with the idea that the bad guys aren’t simply after the crayons; they’re after art. Or, rather, they’re out to destroy the transformative power of making art. It was also my son who pointed out details that I initially missed: how the green emanating from the emperor’s boat is a sickly, unnatural green, a slime green, a green that somehow instinctively identifies him as evil.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

Our reading of these books is full of “Wait, look at that!” and “Oh, now I get it,” and “But what it THAT?” Three heads huddled over the same book. Three sets of fingers pointing. Three voices contributing to one shared understanding.

Perhaps there’s a third, even more powerful benefit that comes from sharing wordless picture books with our children—and that’s the opportunity to collaborate with them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as we make the difficult transition into the rigidity of fall routines: of rushing to school, of rushing home from school, of trying to get dinner on the table and everyone to bed at an early hour so that we can make some semblance of an attempt at doing it all over again the next day.

Too often, I parent from a place of authority rather than a place of collaboration. But how can I insist that my children develop flexibility unless I am willing to demonstrate It myself? Wordless picture book, like the Journey trilogy (and I’ve listed other favorites at the end of this post), present a rare gift for us parents to embrace the benefits of honoring our children as partners, rather than progeny.

Appropriately, this happens to be precisely how the trilogy concludes. If the first book casts a less-than-favorable light on the girl’s parents—her mother chatting on the phone while cooking, her father too busy on his computer to respond to the girl’s entreaties to play—the third book spins a more optimistic narrative.

Return begins when the father looks up from his work and, seeing his daughter’s kite dropped at his feet, goes in search of her.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

When he finds her red door, he ducks and enters—until he, too, is a character in the vivid magical world that has bewitched his daughter on so many occasions. As it turns out, and as the girl only recognizes once she has forgiven his indifference and welcomed him into her imagination, the father has a critical role to play in the unfolding drama. The two share an adventure which, not only brings them closer together, but reveals a secret about the father’s own history with art and imagination. A door once closed has opened again for him.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

We do not need words on a page to comprehend the sheer joy on the girl’s face at the realization that she has an accomplice in her beloved parent. (Hint: see if your child picks up on the subtle change in the endpapers from the beginning of Return to the end; my daughter had to show me, and I almost broke down sobbing, so close to home did it hit.)

In a few months—and at a time when we aren’t rushing—I plan to get out these books again and encourage my kids to look at them alongside me with fresh eyes. I imagine they won’t need convincing. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover and interpret and learn from these sensational pages.

Updated Nov 2017: The Journey trilogy BOX SET is now available: gorgeously packaged and including a never-before-released print!

Other Favorite Wordless Picture Books:
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 3-6)
Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd (Ages 3-6)
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (Ages 4-8; I challenge you to get through this story of connection without tearing up.)
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Ages 4-8)
Pool, by Jihyeon Lee (Ages 4-8, reviewed by me here)
The Girl and the Bicycle and The Boy and the Airplane, by Mark Prett (Ages 4-8)
Fox’s Garden, by Princesse Camcam (Ages 4-8)

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.

Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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!

Subterranean Thrills

May 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose StudioThere was a moment on the subway, during our recent trip to New York City, when my five-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Wait. Mommy. Are we actually underneath buildings and streets?” At first, I was a bit taken aback. Since birth, she has ridden on the subway, both in New York and at home in Washington DC. Why is she just grasping this now? And yet, the more I watched her absorb my affirmative answer, then spend the next several days kneeling on her seat, staring out the window into the blackness of the roaring tunnel, the more I realized that the whole concept of the subway is in itself quite astonishing.

Astonishment is exactly what the “distinguished citizens, reporters, and government officials” of New York City felt on February 26, 1870, when an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach led them into a 294-foot-long tunnel that he had helped build underneath the streets of New York, in order to showcase his fan-powered train that he believed would solve the city’s transportation problem. How this came about and what happened next—the largely forgotten story of New York’s unofficial first subway, which predated by 42 years the city’s plans to build an official subway system—is detailed in the fascinating new picture book, The Secret Subway (Ages 6-12), by Shana Corey and illustrated by Red Nose Studio.

Engineering, garbage, corruption, secrecy, and spectacle: it’s all here. Not to mention the arresting visuals that are Red Nose Studio’s three-dimensional illustrations, whose play of light against dark, gloss against grit, perfectly pit the lure of new technologies against the backroom politics of nineteenth-century urban life.

The book opens by asking the reader to imagine what the cobblestone streets of the “greatest city on earth” looked like in the 1860s, when pushcarts and open-air buggies bumped into one another and horses kicked up dust and garbage. “Something had to be done!” Ideas, many of them outlandish, were tossed around, from moving roads to railways on stilts.

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

Beach, the son of a publisher and a self-proclaimed inventor (he would grow up to become co-owner and co-editor of Scientific American magazine) had his own vision: What if he built a train powered by an enormous fan? he wondered. It would travel underground, where there was no traffic or trash or weather to worry about. People would get where they needed as if by magic! (In fact, if we look beyond the graffitied seats and the bodily exchanges and the braking screeches, riding the subway even today does feel a bit magical. Especially as seen through the eyes of our un-jaded children.)

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

In the long line of history-makers who had to break rules to overcome great obstacles, Beach was no exception. He knew he’d never get permission from the city to dig up the streets—especially not from “Boss” Tweed, the man who unofficially ran the city’s political scene. So Beach did something super sneaky. As my son would say, he lied, but just a little and for a really good reason. Beach asked permission to build a series of mail chutes under the city (pneumatic tubes were already in use in London) and Boss Tweed agreed. Beach then assembled a team of workers but, in addition to building tiny tunnels throughout the city for mail chutes, they also built IN SECRET and IN THE DARK OF NIGHT a much larger tunnel—eight feet wide and lined with brick and steel—that was big enough for a train. For 58 days, Beach’s men tunneled under cobblestones, sewers, and pipes with a hand built machine that allowed them only sixteen inches of progress per day. For 58 nights, wagons hauled away clandestine loads of rock and dirt—all while “Boss Tweed lay tucked in tight.”

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corety & Red Nose Studio

Talk about outside-the-box (outside-the-tunnel?) thinking!

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

A good sales person knows the value of theatrics in a pitch, and Beach was once again no exception. He not only mailed out calligraphic invitations in advance of his grand reveal (“You are respectfully invited to be present on Saturday, February 26, 1870, from 2-6 o’clock pm”), but he decorated his office, located in the basement of Devlin’s Clothing Store, with “glowing gaslights,” paintings, flowers, “a fountain that glittered with goldfish,” and a spread of cheeses and pastries. Beach then invited his distinguished guests down six more steps, where a single car waited on tracks that disappeared through a hole in the wall.

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

In time, Beach’s invention opened to the public. The next spread displays a kind of thrill and unreserve typically reserved for amusement parks, whereby men with top hats and women with pinafores are jerked one way and then another, as they experience their twenty-five cent ride aboard the fan-powered train. “Remarkable!” “The railroad of the future!” “The problem of tunneling Broadway has been solved!”

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

And yet, change is rarely seamless. Beach’s invention met with criticism from shopkeepers, who wanted to keep potential customers above ground, as well as from Boss Tweed himself, who had promised his own people a chance to plan a railroad. Eventually, the governor squashed Beach’s proposal to expand, and “the underground train was stopped in its tracks.” Over time, Beach’s tunnel was abandoned…and, for a while, completely forgotten.

That is, until February of 1912, sixteen years after Beach’s death, when a team of construction workers, building what would become New York City’s official subway system, ran into “a little railroad car rusting in its tracks, and a tunneling machine perched at the end.” Beach’s story was revealed, now poised for the day when someone like Shana Corey would write it into the records for our children.

As if Beach’s invention wasn’t inspiring enough, there’s a second creation story hidden in the The Secret Subway. And I mean quite literally hidden. Peel off the book’s dust jacket, turn it over, and there is the story of how the art in the book came about. Chris Sickels (a.k.a. Red Nose Studio) has detailed the process by which he researched images of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, sketched out the story, created color studies, formed characters’ bodies out of wire and foam, sculpted heads from polymer clay, built a railroad car from a cardboard tube, and painted backdrops for his photographs. My kids were obsessed. (My kids were so obsessed, we had to go out and purchase Red Nose Studio’s 2010 picture book, Here Comes the Garbage Barge, in order to see if its cover had the same artistic reveal. It does. Plus, the story, based on the true events of a garbage barge that traveled up and down the East Coast trying for 162 days to unload excess garbage from Long Island, is equally captivating.)
"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose Studio

A few days into our real live subway adventures below the streets of New York, my daughter spotted something on the N train. “Mommy, look! Doesn’t that look like the book we have about the subway?” Indeed, above the row of faces opposite us was an illustration of a man running down a subway platform, which looked stylistically similar to the art in The Secret Subway. When we got home, I researched it, and sure enough, Red Nose Studio was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design to create a “subway card” to display on certain contemporary subway cars. It seems that once you start tapping into the history of trains tunneling underground, the wonder never ceases.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.

All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Things That Go category at What to Read to Your Kids.

%d bloggers like this: