The Places We Carry With Us

May 17, 2018 § 8 Comments

Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.

And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.

Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.

Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.

The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.

“I was homesick!”

Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.

When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?

There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.

Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.

Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”

Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”

 

Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”

“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)

“That’s it exactly!”

As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).

The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.

Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.

Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.

 

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

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.

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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 Statue on the Move

November 9, 2017 § 3 Comments

“Did you know the Statue of Liberty is moving?”

My son and my mother were leaning out over the Hudson River, craning to see the iconic green statue, on our recent trip to New York City to visit Grandma.

My mom looked up, confused. “They’re relocating the Statue of Liberty?”

“No,” JP said. “The statue is supposed to look like it’s moving. Her right foot is lifted like she’s taking a step. Most people don’t know that.”

In fact, this is my son’s (also my) favorite new fact to drop on people. Perhaps not quite as shocking as relaying that if all the sharks died, the oceans would eventually dry up—but pretty darn close. Because who stops on his way to gaze up at Lady Liberty’s seven-pointed crown and her iconic raised torch to look down at her heels?

We can thank literary wunderkind Dave Eggers for shedding light on this fascinating detail—and for authoring a 108-page children’s picture book that reads so quickly, so fluidly, and so hilariously, that we hardly realize we’re learning about the enduring symbolism behind the largest sculpture “in all the land.” This is a whole new interpretation of narrative non-fiction, and I love it. I can’t remember the last time a non-fiction book showed up on our doorstep and both kids promptly read the entire thing, cover to cover, to themselves, in one sitting. (Although the book is such a read-aloud delight I couldn’t resist reading it to them a few more times.)

Her Right Foot (Ages 6-12) assumes a conversational approach meant to surprise as much as delight, and artist Shawn Harris’ bold and contemporary paper collages brushed with India Ink perfectly complement Eggers’ signature irreverence. The book assumes the reader comes with a basic familiarity of the Statue of Liberty, including perhaps some mistaken assumptions.

I’ll admit to being as astounded as my children. Did you know that the most recognized symbol of immigration in the world was herself an immigrant?  As the book explains in its opening pages, the Statue of Liberty was not only designed in France as a gift to the United States on its one hundredth anniversary, but it was originally assembled to completion in Paris.

But it’s so much more fun when Eggers tells it:

Did you know this? Ask your friends and even your teachers if they knew that before the Statue of Liberty was assembled in New York, she was first constructed in Paris. Your friends and teachers will be astounded. They will be impressed. They might think you are fibbing.

But you are not fibbing. This really happened. The Statue of Liberty stood there, high above Paris, for almost a year, in 1884.

After they assembled the statue in Paris, they took it apart.

But we just put it together! the workers said.

That is absurd, they said.

They said all this in French, the language of the French, a people who appreciate the absurd.

In other words, the Statue of Liberty once sailed across the sea to come to rest in America (in 214 crates, to be exact), much like the immigrants she welcomes every day.

Eggers goes on to discuss the Statue’s assembling on what was then Bedloe’s Island, across from New York’s bustling harbor. My kids were especially interested to discover that the statue originally looked brown. Or perhaps they were especially interested in how Eggers chooses to explain this to his young readers: You may have thought the illustrator of this book was not so good at his job, because we all know the Statue of Liberty to be a certain greenish-blue. But the Statue of Liberty was made of copper, and copper starts out brown. In fact, it stayed brown for 35 years.

More of the Statue’s symbolism is unpacked, from her seven-pointed crown (seven seas, seven continents) to the book she holds with the signing date of the Declaration of Independence. Readers might already know that the torch she carries “is a symbol of enlightenment, lighting the path to liberty and freedom,” but it’s unlikely any child knows that Thomas Edison once proposed to put a giant record player inside the Lady so she could speak. (In the end, though, this idea was considered a bit strange and was not pursued.) Or that a dinner party once took place inside the statue for a bunch of gourmand French writers.

All this spans the book’s first half and is a compelling build up to Eggers’ central and favorite revelation, something he noticed when visiting the Statue with his family a few years ago. The Statue of Liberty, as it turns out, is anything but statuesque. This 150-foot woman, weighing 450,000 pounds and sporting a 879 size shoe, is on the move. Her entire right leg is constructed mid-stride, her foot lifting out of bondage chains which lie broken at her feet. Why is this detail omitted in so many lessons and books about the Statue of Liberty? More importantly, Eggers asks, what does it mean?

Where is she going?

After some tongue-and-cheek responses which perhaps have more hipster than kid appeal (Is she going to the West Village for her vintage Nico records?), Eggers settles into a gentle but deeply moving 17-page meditation on what it means to honor the journey of immigrants and refugees. On what it means to welcome Italians, Polish, Norwegians, Glaswegians, Cambodians, Estonians, Somalis, Nepalis, Syrians, and Liberians.

On what it means to give promise to “the poor, the tired, the struggling to breathe free.”

Eggers wonders:

If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, if the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States, then how can she stand still?

Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of a statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest.

She is not content to wait.

She must meet them in the sea.

We don’t know for sure why the Statue’s foot is raised or what the artist intended. But Eggers’ theory hits all the right notes—and is as timely as ever. Our Lady Liberty is a mover, a shaker, and an empathizer.

In last night’s election results here in Virginia, a refreshing picture of inclusion emerged. Among other firsts for positions in our state government were an openly transgender female, an Asian-American woman, and two Latina delegates. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first-ever Sikh mayor. I am hopeful for the first time in many months that Americans are moving towards embracing a vision of patriotism based on the melting pot out of which our country’s greatness will emerge.

But, as Lady Liberty herself reminds us, there is always more to be done. More steps to take.

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Review copy provided 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!

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.

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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!

A Love Letter to Florence

July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.

I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.

(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)

In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)

In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.

If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.

A bit of the magic had followed us home.

In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.

The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.

One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).

“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.

In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.

Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.

“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.

It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.

What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.

The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.

DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.

Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.

Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.

Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice

It was also a big plus that JP read Rick Riordan’s fiction series about the Greek and Roman gods prior to the trip. A little Old Testament review would also have been nice!


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Review copy by Viking, PenguinYoungReaders Group. 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!

Reading Without Walls (Summer Reading Challenge)

June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

You never know what’s going to get through to a child.

Earlier this year, when I was leading a book club with my son’s class on Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, the subject of refugee camps came up. Salva, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and the main character in the book, flees from South Sudan during the war and spends several years in refugee camps across Ethiopia and Kenya. Because his perilous journey on foot through violence and wild animals before reaching the camps is so graphic, the camps at first seem like a welcome respite—at least they did to my readers—despite the narrator’s insistence on their overcrowding and the loneliness Salva felt as an orphan there.

“I mean, at least they were safe there,” one of my students remarked. “Plus, a lot of them are wearing clothes without holes, so that’s good,” said another, when I brought in photos of refugee camps to help them visualize what they were reading. “Yeah, and they teach the kids stuff and let them play sports,” said another. They looked at me and shrugged. As if to say, This doesn’t seem too bad.

I was taken aback by their cavalier attitudes. Have even our youngest become desensitized to the horrors of this world?

But then we came upon a brief and somewhat vague mention in Park’s novel about the rampant sickness in the camps. “Wait, what kinds of sickness?” one of the children asked. “WAIT!” another interjected, reaching for a book about Kenya which he had been reading earlier. He opened to a picture of hundreds of sleeping bodies huddled together on the floor. “Remember when Salva couldn’t stretch out his legs because there were so many people sleeping next to him? What do you think would happen if someone threw up? Would the puke just fall onto another sleeping person? That would be SO GROSS! That would be the worst thing ever!”

I would never have predicted that vomit would be the key to unlocking these children’s empathy about the refugee experience. But, judging by the lengthy and animated conversation which followed, it did. And I’ll take it. Because, after that, these kids dove into asking questions and researching and brainstorming ways to help like it was their job.

It reminded me that it is our responsibility as parents and educators to throw as much (age-appropriate) content at our children as we can—because you never know what will stick.

Gene Luen Yang, this year’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (and author of the Secret Coders series, a favorite of my nine year old), has issued a summer reading challenge titled Reading Without Walls. Enthusiastically adopted by schools, libraries, and bookstores (local Alexandria folks, check out Hooray for Books’ “Reading Without Walls” Bingo Cards), the challenge asks children to choose books this summer which fall outside their comfort zone. Specifically, books featuring characters “who don’t look or live like you” or “topics you don’t know much about.”

I challenge us parents to do the same when reading to our children this summer. And I have just the book (actually, series) to start you off. The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World (Ages 6-12), by Katie Smith Milway, stunningly illustrated by Shane W. Evans, is the latest in the CitizenKid series. Intended to “inform children about the world and inspire them to be better global citizens,” the CitizenKid books are meaty, non-fiction picture books for the older elementary child—many of them with supplemental and actionable Afterwards—with stories about ordinary people making a difference, often in neglected corners of the world. For our children, these books are the closest thing to traveling around the world and experiencing firsthand that what they see here in America is not necessarily the reality elsewhere. (One favorite, The Red Bicycle­, which traces a bicycle from America, where a young boy has grown out of it, to West Africa, where a young woman re-purposes it to carry sick people to hospitals, inspired my children last year to donate their old bikes to a local bike shop which participates in a similar program sending discarded bicycles overseas.)

Maybe it’s the timely theme of refugee camps, maybe it’s the fact that both my kids are giddy about soccer right now, or maybe it’s the dramatic, pulsating illustrations by the great Shane W. Evans (you’ll remember how much we loved Lilian’s Right to Vote), but The Banana-Leaf Ball is a particularly special addition to the CitizenKid lineup. Based on a 1993 true story similar to Salva’s, the book tells of ten-year-old Deo, who is forced to flee his East African home in the middle of the night when war breaks out. Deo becomes separated from his family, nearly starves to death, and eventually ends up in a refugee camp in Tanzania. And that’s all in the first two pages.

The rest of the book takes place in the camp, where shy, reserved Deo initially keeps to himself, anxious to avoid the explosive squabbles which frequently break out when resources are scarce. “He especially avoids Remy, a gang leader who picks fights and bullies other students into giving him whatever they have—food, pencils, paper, spoons.”

One of the hardest things, I think, for children (even adults) to appreciate is that many refugees have led full lives before they were forced from their homes with only what they could carry on their backs. They had gardens with food and chests with family heirlooms. They lived among family and friends and laughed and felt jealous of their older siblings and jumped up and down when their parent came home from the market with treats. They played sports.

We get a glimpse into what Deo’s life once looked like through his determination to salvage one particular piece of it: his love of soccer. Forced to leave behind his cherished soccer ball—handmade from carefully wrapped banana leaves and twine—Deo sets his sights on weaving a new one. When Remy steals the banana leaves out from underneath him, Deo only becomes more determined, working in secret and later hiding the finished product.

But Deo soon realizes it’s what the ball represents that is truly worth saving. At the camp’s school, a coach organizes a soccer game, choosing Deo as captain of the Shirts Team after the coach throws him the ball and Deo instinctively “catches it on one knee and bounces it knee to knee, foot to foot and down to the ground.” To Deo’s dismay, the bully Remy is also assigned to Deo’s team and immediately begins threatening Deo under his breath.

And yet, when the game begins, all differences are set aside under the common objective of scoring. The boys not only quickly discover each other’s strengths (Deo is skilled, but Remy is fast), but they capitalize on them to win. Deo kicks high to Remy, who heads the ball into the goal.

The boys’ teamwork on the field begins to extend into daily life. Remy asks Deo to teach him his soccer “tricks” outside school hours. When Deo’s ball breaks, Remy pulls the elastic band out of his own pants so Deo can repair it. Deo in turn offers comfort when Remy confides about his grief at losing his parents in the war.

Eventually, the two begin to teach other children in the camp how to make banana-leaf soccer balls.

Ball by ball, practice by practice, children who were once afraid of one another laugh together. There are still problems in the camp, but no one feels alone anymore. They are like a team, and their hope for ejo, tomorrow, is becoming hope for ubu, now.

As the story ends, we learn that Deo eventually reunites with his family and returns home when peace comes. But the camps have altered the course of his life in one critical way. Having experienced firsthand the power of play to unite and heal, a now grown-up Deo decides to coach sports in his village. In the powerful Afterward, we not only learn more about the real Deo’s story, but we see a photo of him coaching next to a close-up shot of  banana-leaf balls, which still today he teaches local children how to make.

On a personal note, while I had planned to write this post several weeks ago, it now seems all the more poignant in the aftermath of the recent shooting at the Congressional baseball practice, which took place in my own community, adjoining the very fields where my daughter played soccer this past spring. At a time when our politics feel painfully divisive, the Congressional baseball game is a shining example of the transcendent possibilities of play. May we teach our children never to run from their instinct to play, simply for the love of it, simply for the love of sharing that love with others. At our core, we are more alike than we are different.

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Book published by Kids Can 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! I myself purchased this book–and had it signed–at a fantastic diversity panel hosted by Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC.

Long Live the National Parks

April 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

Last summer, we vacationed in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our family’s first foray into one of the major National Parks, and we had gotten the idea six months earlier while watching National Parks Adventure, the astoundingly beautiful and nail-biting IMAX movie (can we talk about those mountain bikers?!), directed by Greg MacGillivray and narrated by Robert Redford. All four of us left the Smithsonian theater feeling like we were missing out. Our regular hikes around our local wetlands preserve—beloved as they are—suddenly didn’t feel like…enough. Turns out we were right. In Acadia, after days of hiking around sparkling lakes and in and out of deliciously fragrant pine forests, of scrambling over vast expanses of rocks flanked by crashing waves, my son exclaimed, “This is what we should do on every vacation! Which National Park should we visit next?”

Next week is our spring break, and we’ll be stay-cationing. But, while our feet will be traversing our neighborhood parks, our imaginations will be taking flight on the adventures in the mountain of spring releases that have recently landed on our doorstep. Of all the new spring titles, probably the one I’ve most anticipated is Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon (Ages 9-13), a staggering and richly informative window into the ecology, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon.

Jason Chin is one of my favorite contemporary writers and illustrators of non-fiction picture books for older children, in large part because of his unique narrative and artistic style of “dropping” us into the center of the action. If there was ever a case to be made for owning books, look no further. Each of Chin’s Coral Reefs, Redwoods, and Island: A Story of the Galapagos (the latter being an intro into evolution for kids) begs to be read over and over, with new eyes and ears for information missed the first several times. I am never more in awe of the natural world than when I read Jason Chin to my kids.

Truthfully, as a destination, the Grand Canyon has never been high on my list. For some reason, I pictured crowds, a few (awesome) photo opps, a nerve-wracking drop off, and a whole lot of rock. Still, I suspected that Jason Chin would change my mind. Because, well, he’s Jason Chin. And I was correct.

What I also knew is that my nine year old wouldn’t need any convincing to dive into Grand Canyon with me. An oversized book chock full of maps, scientific diagrams, and rocks? Have I mentioned that the floor of JP’s closet is piled high with shoe boxes overflowing with rocks? On any beautiful day, JP is as likely to be using his rock hammer in the backyard as anything else.

JP and I each had the same reaction upon opening Grand Canyon to the first endpaper, a pencil-shaded map of the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon, including areas both inside and outside Grand Canyon National Park. The sheer scale amazed us, with some parts of the Canyon as much as 18 miles wide! Why had I not realized this before?

It’s a daunting task, taking on a piece of land this vast and diversely complex, but Chin is up to the challenge, weaving a central narrative arc in the second person alongside considerable scientific detail, much of which will take time to digest fully (the extensive six-page Afterward provides even more information). As a father and daughter backpack through the Canyon, we are introduced to the five disparate ecological communities they encounter, from the Desert Scrub at the bottom of the Canyon to the Boreal Forest at the top.

Taken together, these ecosystems comprise literally thousands of different species, including twenty-nine that don’t live anywhere else on Earth and many, like the great California condor, that are close to extinction. Chin has diagrammed many of the native predators and prey around the borders of their respective pages. My daughter is the animal lover in the family, and these miniature sketches are her favorite part of the book (though she’s likely too young to grasp much of the geology that is interspersed).

While father and daughter are walking amidst these ecosystems of today, they are also diving—in Chin’s case, quite literally—into the past. Here is where JP and I were goggle-eyed. Because, as Chin demonstrates so powerfully, every piece of the physical Grand Canyon is an historical clue as to what North America looked like hundreds of millions of years ago. Thanks to the erosion provided over time by the Colorado River, we can see straight into the bottommost layer of rock on our continent, the so-called Vishnu Basement Rocks, formed 1.84 billion years ago. Where else can you stare down history quite so dramatically?

As the duo works their way up the Canyon, passing through a sequence of thirteen disparate rock layers, die-cut pages reveal fossilized clues as to how the Earth has changed over time. Here, science and imagination intersect, and Chin shines as magnificently as ever. On one page, our young protagonist spots a ripple mark preserved in stone; on the next—her imagination at play—she is 1.2 billion years back in time, when that same rock used to be tidal mud and “the only living things on Earth were microbes, such as algae and bacteria.”

As she moves up to the rock layer known as the Bright Angel Shale, she bends to examine a trilobite fossil; on the next page, she is whisked back 515 million years to when the place she stands was part of the ocean floor and that same trilobite—“the first known animal to have had eyes”—made tracks in the gritty sand.

On and on we travel, back to prehistoric times of giant dragonflies, early reptiles, and more complex sea creatures, all in existence long before there was a canyon through which to walk. Still, we never leave the present for long: the wild diversity of the modern-day Canyon occupies the bulk of the pages and transfixes our young explorer much the way the trails and forests and streams of Acadia captivated my children last summer. What the father and daughter do not see—the mountain lions, the wild turkeys, the woodrats—are there on the page for us as readers to marvel at, reminders that the wilderness is always far more extensive than our human eyes allow in the moment.

As I write this final paragraph, JP has come over and is sitting beside me. The book is open, and he is lending sound effects to the Colorado River, the central force behind the Canyon’s creation. He is tracing over the final endpaper, a cross-section of the canyon which integrates both the rock layers with the different ecological communities. I cannot help but smile as he tries to pronounce each label, interrupting to make guttural sounds to indicate erosion and landslides, an ever-humming backstory in his mind. I love this side of my son, his incessantly curious, animated, insistent self, filled with awe and admiration for the ever-changing natural world. I cannot help but want to surround him with books like this, books that will give deeper context to the next time he ventures out, whether into our backyard or into one of our country’s most precious resources, the National Parks.

Who’s coming with us to the Grand Canyon?

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Book published by Roaring Brook 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!

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