Gift Guide 2018: When We Can’t Go Home

December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

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

When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, a novel set in the 1980s about four siblings abandoned by their mother in a mall parking lot. The book follows the children’s physical journey—sleeping in woods, stealing food, battling the elements—to track down their great-aunt and convince her to take them in. Of course, the book is as much about the children’s emotional journey, processing their mother’s betrayal and questioning words like “family” and “home.” To my pre-adolescent self, Voigt’s story seemed like a child’s worst nightmare. But, if watching it play out was terrifying to me, witnessing the children’s resourcefulness and resilience along the way was also deeply consoling. I couldn’t look away.

I was reminded of Dicey and her siblings—of their heartbreak and their fortitude—many times while reading Kate DiCamillo’s Louisiana’s Way Home (Ages 10-13), a middle-grade novel even a reluctant reader won’t be able to put down. While set in the 1970s (not a cell phone in sight), the story has a kind of timeless, floating feel. In its review, Booklist likens it to a fairy tale, with “heroes, helpers, villains, and one princess looking for home.” This “princess”—or anti-princess, as she might more accurately be called—also happens to be one of the most memorable, infectious narrators our children will ever meet.

Louisiana Elefante is abandoned by her grandmother, her only living relation, on an impromptu middle-of-the-night road trip across the Florida-Louisiana state line. Granny begins the trip muttering about “a date with destiny,” about finally breaking a curse she believes has been on their family for generations. “The day of reckoning is at hand,” she cryptically tells her granddaughter. (Louisiana first appeared as a supportive character in DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, although a child need not have read the earlier book to fall in love with this one.)

Louisiana is accustomed to Granny’s eccentricities—one might say affectionately so, which makes the later betrayal all the greater—so while she begrudges not getting clear answers and having to leave behind her friends and her cat, she does her best to stand by the only family she has ever known. When her grandmother succumbs to debilitating tooth pain, twelve-year-old Louisiana even takes the wheel (“you may be surprised to learn I had never driven a car before”), manages to locate a dentist’s office, and then talks her way into getting her grandmother emergency treatment. Louisiana is one calm, cool, and collected kiddo.

Despite Louisiana’s efforts, the road trip goes from bad to worse. After consecutive nights in the “Good Night, Sleep Night” motel, Granny suggests Louisiana find a local singing gig to pay their room and board. When she returns, Louisiana discovers her grandmother is gone, plaid suitcase and all. If that isn’t devastating enough, her grandmother has left a letter. (“Why would you write someone a letter when you were always and forever by their side? You wouldn’t. Unless, of course, you intended not to be by their side anymore.”) The letter not only confirms Granny isn’t coming back, but it reveals a shocking truth about Louisiana’s past. (Nope, I’m not saying any more than that.)

While Louisiana has had to play the adult too many times in her young life, she nevertheless approaches every minute of living with a childlike wonder. It is precisely this duality of personality—at once deeply wounded and unfailingly optimistic—that makes her such an enticing, beguiling character. Even while contemplating the gravity of her situation, Louisiana is distracted by the small wonders around her: a crow on a roof; the brightness of the stars; even the palm-tree curtains which seem out of place in a Georgia motel (“Why weren’t the curtains printed with peaches? That’s what I wanted to know.”). A vending machine is regarded as nothing short of miraculous.

Kate DiCamillo has said of writing this book that, no matter how hard she tried to tell the story in the third person, first person was “the only way the voice would come.” We, too, fall under Louisiana’s spell, continually surprised by the twists and turns in her story, yet always trusting we’re in the hands of a master. The book itself is Louisiana’s own reckoning, her insistence on claiming agency in a world bent on robbing her of it. “I’m going to write it all down, so what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer. They will know. This is what happened.”

What happens is that Louisiana uses her infectious personality, fondness for pineapple upside-down cake, and unparalleled singing voice to befriend a boy named Burke Allen, to enlist the help of a minister and his crotchety organist, and to begin to shape her own destiny, independent of her grandmother and her alleged family history. To find family in the unlikeliest of places. To make a home out of two states. And to begin to forgive those who may have wronged her, but who nevertheless set her on this unique and always-wondrous path.

 

Review copy 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!

Gift Guide 2018: Aspiring Sleuths Take Note

December 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

Elementary children may know that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. But do they know that Lincoln was almost assassinated by angry secessionists four years earlier, on his way to his own inauguration? That, if successful, the attack would have prevented Lincoln from becoming president and uniting the country? How about that he was saved by Allan Pinkerton, a self-made private detective who went on to inspire the creation of the Secret Service?

Um, I sure didn’t.

The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln (Ages 7-10) is as cinematic as picture books get. It keeps us on the edge of our seats, thanks to Marissa Moss’ suspenseful narration, and invites us to hone our own detective eye, thanks to Jeremy Holmes’ striking scratchboard art, dramatically rendered in deep pinks and purples against a jet-black sky. Both of my kids went nuts over this book.

To help us fully appreciate what Pinkerton pulled off, the first several spreads of this impressive 47-page story are devoted to his quirky background. Allan Pinkerton got into the detective business entirely by accident. He was born into abject poverty in Scotland and became so outspoken about social justice that he landed on one of Britain’s “most wanted” lists and ended up fleeing (inside a barrel aboard a ship) to America.

Once in Chicago, Pinkerton (clearly going with the do-what-you-know advice) started a successful barrel business, until one day his search for lumber took him to a tiny uninhabited island, where he got side-tracked by suspicious signs of illegal counterfeiting behavior. After spying on the island for multiple nights, Pinkerton reported a band of counterfeiters to the authorities. The Chicago police were so impressed, they hired him as a full-time detective. Eventually, Pinkerton founded his own private eye agency.

Pinkerton published a manual on how to be a detective, and many of these tenets—from disguises and diversions to coded messages and disguised packages—came into play when he first identified and then thwarted the assassination attempt on Lincoln. Of course, half the fun of the book is spotting all of this sleuthing, especially the ones gleaned only from the beguiling art.

Much of The Eye That Never Sleeps takes place on or around trains, which only heightens the close quarters and time sensitivity under which Pinkerton had to work. For starters, Pinkerton learned of the ambush plot on Lincoln while on an assignment to protect the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad from sabotage by secessionists. Secondly, the eight men who were plotting to take collective shots at the President-elect were planning to do so when Lincoln had to change train stations in Baltimore during his inaugural procession. Thirdly, in order to inform Lincoln of the plot on his life and convince him to take it seriously, Pinkerton (previously unknown to Lincoln) had to sneak into Lincoln’s train car to get an audience with him.

Finally, in an attempt to throw off the public, Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to take to a different, more circuitous route to his inauguration than his staff. His trademark stovepipe hat went with the latter group.

As readers, we get a front row to the 30 pages of history that follow, to the fascinating twists and turns, near misses, and breathless escapes. That our own heart rate goes up seems especially impressive, given that we already know the favorable outcome.

It’s difficult to say which is more astounding: the complex sleuthing by which Pinkerton saved our president, or the fact that most of us have never heard this story. But one thing’s for sure: all the credit goes to a man (ahem, immigrant) who honed his powers of observation into an amazing act of patriotism. Which begs the question, what will our own little sleuths do someday?

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Chapter Book of the Year

November 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

My gift guide is just warming up! This post will be followed, beginning tomorrow, with a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had the occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, feel free to take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly ask that you “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them. And now, without further ado…

On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.

The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered.

As quickly as it had begun, it ended. Even more aghast, I watched as the two students faced us, took a bow, and walked off. A teacher appeared and began distributing papers down the aisles. On each paper was a series of questions about what we had just witnessed. “Which party delivered the first blow?” “What was the exact sequence of events?” “What did he look like?” “What did she say?” We were also asked to rate the certainty of our answers.

If I had been shocked moments ago by the ruckus taking place thirty feet from me, I was even more shocked by my peers’ vastly different accounts of what had happened. This, of course, was the point of the exercise. There were wild discrepancies about what each subject had been wearing; there was even disagreement on race and accent. Almost no consensus could be reached on who had “started” the fight, who pushed whom first, or what the two were fighting about. And yet, the next day, when the teacher distributed the tabulated responses of our class, we learned that most people had rated their certainty above 70%.

The fallibility of historic reporting was something I had never stopped to considered. After this day, like one tends to do in adolescence, I began to question the truth of what I was seeing and hearing around me. I began to read history textbooks with the understanding that the way we transcribe our world is impossibly tangled up in the biases, prejudices, and preconceptions of both our individual past experiences and the cultures in which we live. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners.

But what happens when everyone loses? What can we discover about one another and ourselves? If we can’t tell what the world really looks like, where does that leave us?

These might be unusually weighty questions for a middle-grade novel to pose, but M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin have done just that in The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (Ages 11-15)—albeit so deftly, through such a fantastical setting, and with so much absurd comedy that many of their young readers might not realize they’ve just been schooled on the limitations, missed opportunities, and dangers that accompany bias. It’s an age-old problem and one as timely as ever.

I have not come across a contemporary work of children’s literature as wholly original as The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. At its most basic level, it reads like an epic fantasy, set against a Middle Earth-esque backdrop and starring an elf and a goblin: two historical academics brought together on a (misconstrued) mission to mend thousands of years of distrust between their two warring nations. But the story’s multitude of riches extend well beyond the surface. (Put another way: I don’t particularly care for fantasy, yet I chose this as my favorite book of the year.) In fact, the levels at which one can experience this book are so varied, I will defer to Anderson and Yelchin’s own competing descriptions of their story, which appear in the interview-style Author’s Note describing their collaborative process.

MTA: So Eugene and I created this book as a tribute to all of those brave writer-explorers in the ancient world who voyaged into unknown lands and tried to understand the cultures they found there: Marco Polo, Herodotus, Ibn Battuta[…]

EY: What are you talking about? This is a spy thriller. Murder! Chases! Double crosses! We got a bomb in there!

MTA: But, Eugene, at its heart, it’s really a tragic meditation on how societies that have been trained to hate each other for generations can actually come to see eye to eye. 

EY: A tragedy, my eye! A crazy story about two fools blinded by propaganda is not a tragedy. It’s a comedy.

MTA: Sure, Eugene, whatever. Basically, we just wondered why goblins get such a bad rap in fantasy noels like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

In full disclosure, when I first started reading this 526-page tome—told through alternating chapters of traditional narration, letters, and wordless illustration (almost as if Brian Selznick’s books got a darker makeover from Hieronymous Bosch)—I thought, wowzers, this book is strange. Marvelously strange, but strange. I can think of maybe one or two children who would enjoy it. Then, with each chapter, I found myself thinking up more and more children (and adults) who I thought would love it. By the end, unable to decide if my husband or son should read it first, I just threw it at my husband and yelled, YOUR TURN TO READ TO OUR SON! (Upon further consideration, I actually think this book is best suited as an independent read. Although it does beg discussion and would be absolutely perfect in a book club setting.)

Have a kid who likes Tolkein, mythical creatures, or epic battle scenes? No-brainer. Have a kid who likes odd and eccentric? Yup, it’s here in spades. Have a visually-oriented child who would welcome interspersed chapters devoted entirely to mysterious, pen-and-ink illustrations, the likes of which they’ve never seen before?  Oh YES. Dry humor and political satire? It abounds. How about the kid who would appreciate holding in their hands an exquisite product of bookmaking, whose jacketless cover with its embossed letters and stamped gold ink feels like you’re laying hands on something maybe not entirely ancient but also not quite of the modern world?

What about a child who enjoys complex, flawed protagonists, capable of delighting and disappointing faster than one can turn the page? Herein lie two of the most memorable, if misguided, literary characters. Brangwain Spurge, a cantankerous elf historian largely preoccupied by his chance at fame, journeys to the land of the goblins on an unprecedented peace-making mission to return an ancient relic—a Faberge-type egg concealing a gemstone with ancient pictorial carvings—believed to have been captured long ago from the goblin king. (What Spurge doesn’t know is that he’s a pawn in a larger scheme by the elfin powers that be: the egg actually contains a bomb intended to obliterate the goblin king and his government.) Werfel, naïve and obsequious, is a historic archivist and the goblin entrusted with hosting Spurge. His job is to introduce the fellow scholar to the finer points of his beloved goblin culture and (he hopes) learn about elfin ways in return, resulting in famed publications of his own.

Whatever your reason for gifting this story to a particular child, the real gift will be in what is carefully and calculatedly revealed through its telling. Ironically, in a story about two individuals who come together out of a passion for historical accounting, both are equally blind to the cultural experiences of the other. Spurge is blinded by elfin propaganda, which has long painted goblins as violent, grotesque, and barbaric; as creatures who spurn cultural refinement for beheadings and relish living in squalor and poverty. The “skins” Spurge discovers hanging in Werfel’s house only confirm his bias; he never even registers the pride and joy in Werfel’s explanation of the goblin practice of shedding skins in celebration of achieving personal growth.

Werfel initially seems like the more open-minded of the two, but we come to realize that his failure to register offense at Spurge’s derogatory remarks stems from his blind commitment to ambition and hospitality. (“Goblins had a strong code of hospitality. Once a goblin invited someone across the threshold into their home, it was their duty to serve and protect their guest, no matter what. Hospitality was holy.”) We watch, helpless, as the two speak to one another without either being heard.

We may be helpless observers of the mounting tensions between Spurge and Werfel, of their failed attempts to penetrate the cultural bias both parties have brought to the table, but we’re also not entirely innocent. Anderson and Yelchin intentionally prey upon our own inherent bias as readers—specifically, our easy trust in visual truth. It turns out there’s an underlying tension between the story’s narration and its pictures. All the narration (apart from the letters) is done in third-person, although from Werfel’s perspective, so it’s easy to spot subjectivity. The visual chapters, on the other hand, are billed as “top secret transmissions,” literal thought pictures which Spurge records over the course of the day and then sends back to elfin headquarters at night, while suspended off his bed in a kind of trance. We automatically accept these visuals—in many cases, our only window into the story’s action sequences—as truth, simply because children’s literature rarely, if ever, tells us otherwise. If Werfel is illustrated as a towering, formidable figure with a scowling mouth and claws for hands—well, we assume that’s what he looks like, even if it doesn’t match the soft, gentle words that come from his mouth.

Until we don’t. At some point, we become aware that the words and pictures are at war with one another. That our eyes are deceiving us. Spurge’s visual reporting is flawed because, in many respects, he has made up his mind about what he sees before he even sees it. The truth—if we can ever get to such a thing—likely likes somewhere in the middle.

Only in Spurge and Werfel’s eventual shared exile do the two men begin to forge a touching, eccentric, friendship, one which moves beyond personal and cultural bias. Only in the climactic collapse of the two kingdoms do we trust that Werfel’s words and Spurge’s images are approximating something closer to the truth. Werfel begins to insult Spurge—the sincerest form of goblin affection, it turns out—and Spurge begins to see that his fellow historian is a lot more similar to him than he initially thought (at least, similarly sized).

Don’t just gift The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge because it’s wildly entertaining and wholly original. Gift it because it just might change the way a child experiences the world. If we approach new cultures with an open heart and an open mind, we might still not see the world exactly as it is, but we may find two things infinitely more valuable: compassion and connection.

 

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 be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy 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!

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.

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 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.

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!

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