Going Forth with Love

January 25, 2018 § 1 Comment

I heard a story shortly before the holidays which I haven’t been able to get out of my head. It was from an associate who serves with me on the Capitol Choices Committee. Normally, in our monthly meetings, we are all business: we get in, we debate that month’s new titles, and we get out. But, at the end of our December meeting, this librarian asked to deliver a few personal remarks. She told us how she had been in New York City the weekend prior (funny enough, so had I) and had been walking on Sunday evening to Penn Station for her train home. It was blustery, growing colder by the minute, and the streets were still dusted with the previous day’s snow. About half a block ahead of her was a man. She described him as middle-aged, well-dressed in a dark wool overcoat, and carrying a briefcase. Keeping pace behind him, she watched as the man suddenly took off his coat, draped it over a homeless man sitting in a doorway, and kept walking. All without missing a beat.

My associate broke into a jog, determined to catch up to the man and thank him. When she did, he simply responded, “He needed it more than I did.” And kept walking.

This story became the topic of our family dinner conversation that night and has continued to surface since then. In the wake of hearing about extraordinary selfless acts, there is often a natural course of response: we go from feeling deeply moved, perhaps gratified or hopeful that such compassion exists; to wondering, would we do the same if given the chance? Too often, we quickly re-immerse ourselves in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and forget all about it.

What does it mean to love the people around us?

It is by and through small acts that children measure the world. Growing up on the streets of New York, I remember my parents talking to me about the futility of dropping change into someone’s begging cup: it was better, they believed, to write a check to an organization whose mission serves the homeless than to give your money to a single individual whose motives might be suspect (the implication: he might waste it on The Drink). My parents were generous individuals, who meant no harm by this view and may have even been right; certainly, they had a point about scope of impact. But scope of impact doesn’t matter in a child’s small eyes.

Now, when we visit New York, my son will often carry his allowance in his pocket and delve it out into various open guitar cases and coffee cups throughout the city. When he runs out of money, I oblige him extra dollars. In the aftermath, his eyes sparkle. He has looked at someone else and made a choice to reach out. However small doesn’t matter to him.

Everyday acts of love abound in Matt de la Pena and Loren Long’s new and much-anticipated picture book, Love (Ages 6-12). It should be noted that everybody in the children’s book world is talking about this book. And yet, while I normally reserve these pages for books that might otherwise fall under your radar, this book deserves its praise sung by many.

Love was born out of Matt de la Pena’s (you’ll remember him from Last Stop on Market Street, another book that takes my breath away) personal despair over the “divisiveness of our country” and his desire to “write a comforting poem about love” for his daughter.

As it turns out, Love is the perfect book to usher in a more hopeful New Year—although not necessarily in the ways we might expect. It is the perfect book to remind ourselves and our children what it means to reach over the edge of fear, anger, uncertainty, sadness, and difference—and connect. And it is the perfect book to remind us that, whether in our happiest and darkest hours, love is present. We need only to open our eyes to it.

Written in the second person—at once, the narrator both intimately addresses the reader and refers to the global experience of childhood—the book opens with a fairly traditional, even expected proclamation of parental love: that of proud, adoring new parents keeping vigil beside their sleeping child.

Already we have a visual clue about the uncharted territory ahead: a brilliant display of racial, economic, cultural, and urban diversity, the likes of which have rarely been presented in a picture book that isn’t strictly about diversity. This is a book about life, about community. How refreshing that the pages actually look like the American towns and cities we dwell in.

As we turn the page, we begin to realize that this is not business as usual for a picture book tribute to love. In the second spread, de la Pena’s poetic text may be about a man playfully bouncing his toddler on his lap in the back of a taxi cab, but the foreground of the accompanying illustration tells a second story: that of a boy in a wheelchair presenting his hot dog to a homeless amputee on a park bench.

As we turn more pages, we are greeted with more manifestations of love, both the familiar and the unexpected. A father dances with his daughter on the sun-drenched roof of their trailer at sunset, while the mother, standing over the sink, carefully inspects a plate to ensure it’s clean. A police officer laughs while pulled in opposite directions by two squealing, gangly children, amidst the spray of the fire hydrant on a steamy summer afternoon.

De la Pena’s text marries with Long’s illustrations in ways that are sometimes indirect but always magical, creating an impression greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of the above sprinkler spread, the run-on words wash over us, helping us to imagine a scene even broader than what Long has painted. In fact, the words invite us to place ourselves in the picture.

In a crowded concrete park,
you toddle toward summer sprinklers
while older kids skip rope
and run up to the slide, and soon
you are running among them,
and the echo of your laughter is love.

But just wait.

In a deeply moving essay for Time magazine about the process of writing Love, de la Pena confesses that his first draft was so focused on reassurance and uplift, so focused on painting a rosy picture of the world for his daughter, that it rang false. “I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity,” he writes. His next draft is what we have in our hands today.

About a third of the way through, the book begins to move from joy-filled moments to those of confusion, loss, hurt, and sadness. It’s as if the book is asking, what happens in these darker moments, in the ones that don’t get talked about, in the ones children don’t entirely understand?

In the book’s first demonstration of adversity, an old woman turns a young girl away from the smoke engulfing her burning apartment building and directs her instead towards the stars in the night sky. (In all of his illustrations, Long showcases just enough detail to conjure emotion, while keeping more frightening images at bay.)

On the night the fire alarm blares,
you’re pulled from sleep and whisked
into the street, where a quiet old
lady is pointing to the sky.

“Stars shine long after they’ve flamed
out,” she tells you, “and the shine they
shine with is love.”

But while there’s a clear helper in that old woman (I’m reminded of the Mister Rogers quote: Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping), in the pages that follow, we are left with some ambiguity about when and if help will come. In the most unsettling illustration—one which de la Pena and Long bravely fought to keep against their publisher’s initial concerns—a child crouches in fear under a piano, while his parents rage at one another. Our only clues about what has happened come from an overturned chair in the corner, a mother burying her head in her hands, and a father storming out of the room, leaving behind an empty Old Fashioned glass with fresh ice cubes. …it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover. It’s summers, too. And friendships. And people. (Although note the dog by the child’s side.)

Sometimes, we are told, we have to recognize “a love overlooked.” This next scene is quietly poignant: a boy watches out the window as his father makes his way through the snow to the bus in the early morning and his sister hands him a glass of orange juice and a plate of toast. A love that wakes at dawn and rides to work on the bus. A slice of burned toast that tastes like love.

Like the great orchestral symphony of life—we rise, we fall, we rise again—de la Pena and Long bring us back to pages brimming with the delight and joy found in everyday connections. One boy fishes with his grandfather. Another listens to his uncles tell “made-up stories,” while throwing horseshoes with him in the backyard. A girl lies on her back in the grass and hears love “in the rustling leaves of gnarled trees lined behind flower fields.”

My favorite spread reveals the love our children can choose to see spread across their own faces when they look into the mirror.

In an homage to growing up and leaving home, which concludes the book, the child reader is told that, while he or she might hear platitudes of good luck in preparing to set out, it’s not really luck that’s needed at all.

Because you’ll have love. You’ll have love, love, love.

Love is at our backs, although not always in the ways we anticipate or even think we need. But love also radiates out from within us. It can influence and direct our actions in the world, assuming we choose to let it. Let us not hold back. Let us feel; let us give. Let us go boldly forth with love at once our greatest guide and our greatest witness.


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Review copy provided by Penguin Young Readers 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!

For Girls & Their Besties (A Valentine’s Day Post)

February 9, 2017 § 10 Comments

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart LovelaceIn keeping with my tradition of recommending friendship-themed stories for Valentine’s Day (see past posts here and here and here, last year’s exception aside), I am hearkening back to a cherished series from my own childhood. If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, it’s as resonant as ever.

When I was six years old—a quiet girl with mouse-brown hair held neatly between two plastic barrettes—I rode a school bus to my first day at public school in the inner-city of Milwaukee. I remember nothing about the bus ride, nothing about what was on the aluminum lunch box and Thermos which I remember being proud to have in my backpack, and nothing about the inside of my classroom.

What I remember is the playground: a vast sea of grey concrete and black asphalt, populated by masses of children who towered over me, whose games of kickball and double-dutch and hopscotch seemed enshrined in the shouts and shrieks of a coded language. I stood trembling along the edge. Large red rubber balls whizzed by the side of my face.

Probably I wouldn’t remember those details—they would have faded like the colorful posters that probably adorned my classroom walls—would it not have been for what happened next. A girl of roughly my same size—a girl with similar brown hair and softly dimpled cheeks—approached me. I don’t remember the exact words she used when she asked me to be her friend, but I do remember the tenacity, the directness of her voice. I remember thinking she was doing something I would never have been brave enough to do.

And then she put her hand in mine, and I wanted to die of happiness. I wanted to hold that hand forever, to savor the touch of someone who wasn’t family, but whom I knew immediately and with certainty would make leaving my family each day tolerable, even delightful. Our first real true friend is a lifeline to our future, a taste of the joy that intimacy holds for us when we are lucky enough to find it.

My daughter has been lucky to have such a friend since she was one year old. I marvel at the bond between these two girls: one sturdy boned, the other spritelike, the two bonded by their own fanciful imaginations, pressed together in incessant, giggly chatter since before either of them said much to anyone (“Is it possible they are having actual conversations?” I used to wonder. “About what?”). Last spring, on the sorrowful occasion of Emily’s friend moving, I made each girl a photo book with five years of memories. It wasn’t until I laid out the photos that I realized the girls were touching in almost every single one. When they weren’t deliberately holding hands, they were leaning into one another, resting a hand casually, maybe unaware, on the other’s arm.

It is this frequent, gentle touch that so often distinguishes young female friendships. And it threatens every time to bring me to my knees when I consider, as a parent who was once a young friend herself, the sweetness of it.

It is this sweetness that shines through every delicious page of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved series, published in the 1940s and set in turn-of-the-century Mankato, Minneapolis, where two five-year-old girls living across the street from one another strike up a lifelong friendship. This friendship renders them, not Betsy, not Tacy, but Betsy-Tacy, a collective entity greater than the sum of its parts. Together, these girls embark upon daily adventures, both real and imaginative, which not only shape their personalities but which challenge them to be better than they could be on their own. Oh, and did I mention they are almost always holding hands?

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

The only thing more gratifying than sharing with my six year old a favorite series from my own childhood was watching her fall madly in love with it. And I mean madly. Her mounting adoration (getting out of bed each morning, she would cry, “I can’t wait for you to read more Betsy Tacy tonight!”) surpassed even my most ardent expectations. I’ve noticed something about my Emily: for all the animal characters and fantasy themes we enjoy together, it is the stories with reality-based girl characters—those who engage in the same kind of daily activities she does—which rise to the top (Ramona Cleary, Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, Dory Fantasmagory, Nancy and Plum). Add to that a friendship between two girls with big imaginations and even bigger hearts (three, once the girls befriend newcomer Tib), who spend their days huddled together making up stories about what it would be like to live in the clouds, establishing secret clubs, and performing plays about flying girls in the circus—and I should have known we were destined for a Big Win.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Admittedly, I almost didn’t read the Betsy-Tacy books aloud to Emily. Because I really do credit them with sparking my own independent love affair with reading, I initially thought Emily should wait to read them on her own. And yet, I’ve noticed that children today are often reluctant to pick up the classics we loved as kids. The pacing and the character development can be slower than much contemporary literature for young readers, which seems written with a “grab-‘em-out-of-the-gate” mandate. And then there is the enigma of old-fashioned settings: would my daughter know what a hitching post was? Or why the girls return home for “dinner” in the middle of the day?

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Call me a control freak (you would not be the first), but I simply couldn’t risk my daughter missing out on these books. And so I read them to her. And I swear to you: she has never pressed her little body into mine so fervently, as if willing herself into the stories, or at least into the bond we were building around them. “Tell me again, Mommy, about how these were your favorite books when you were my age?” she would ask. (But seriously, with everything going on in our country right now, is it really so terrible to want to escape to a time when little girls spent their days picnicking under giant oak trees, when their biggest mistakes were lopping off each other’s braids to wear in pillboxes around their necks?)

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Reading the books aloud meant I could justify purchasing The Betsy-Tacy Treasury, which contains the first four books in the series (with Lois Lenski’s original black-and-white illustrations), beginning when the girls are five and continuing through their tenth year: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. The anthology also boasts forwards by Ann M. Martin, Judy Blume, and Johanna Hurwitz, all of whom gush about the bond they felt as children with Betsy and Tacy. (Anna Quindlen goes so far as to put Maud Hart Lovelace on the same pedestal as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, so clearly I am not alone in my affection.) And the anthology contains a fascinating Afterward, which points out which events and characters in the books were derived from Lovelace’s own childhood, with the inventive young Betsy—who pens her own stories while perched in a tree—a stand in for Lovelace herself.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy and Tacy are largely what one would consider “good girls”: joyful in their approach to life, models of inclusion in their play, regular participants in family chores, and eager to listen, comfort, share with, and praise one another. But lest you think the Betsy-Tacy stories are mere sugar and spice and all things nice, I assure you there is a healthy dose of mischief, mistakes, and drama, which grows in complexity as the books advance. (After the first four, the series continues with six more books in three subsequent treasuries, spanning high school, college, marriage, and Betsy’s writing career, though I told Emily we should probably wait until she’s a wee bit older to read those.)

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

When they are six, the girls take advantage of being alone in Betsy’s house by cooking (and then forcing themselves to eat) “Everything Pudding,” using all the ingredients they can reach in the kitchen. When they are only slightly older, to the later horror of their mothers, they pretend to be poor beggars at a stranger’s house, simply because they run out of snacks on a walk. And when they are ten years old, they sink to insincere tactics to convince a classmate to take them with her to the Opera House, an undergoing that comes at a price and with a good old fashioned lesson on how we treat others.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

How we treat others is perhaps the most enduring theme throughout Betsy, Tacy, and Tib’s friendship. And it’s one that feels especially topical today. The girls aren’t only developing their appreciation for one another’s differences, they are also opening their eyes to the differences of others. On several occasions, Lovelace reminds us that children are often the first to see past the stereotypes of race and class. Betsy and Tacy’s zeal to earn signatures on a contest sheet might be what initially lures them into the small immigrant settlement on the other side of the hill, known to their mistrusting neighbors as “Little Syria”; but it’s their ability to connect with the wide-eyed, giggly Syrian girl whom they find there that begins to bridge the two communities (how’s that for topical?). Later, in the fourth book, Betsy inadvertently brings about a reunion between her mother and her estranged uncle, all because of her kindness towards a wealthy old widow whom Betsy alone recognizes as lonely.

"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury" by Maud Hart Lovelace

Long before there were television, video games, and giant trampoline parks, there were backyard sheds and grassy knolls and trees to climb. To be sure, the Betsy-Tacy stories are a specific portrayal of white middle-class suburban America in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Tib is the first in her town to ride in a “horseless carriage”!). And yet, Lovelace’s transcendent themes of friendship and adventure, resourcefulness and optimism, will find a warm place in the hearts of many of our daughters today. At least, they did in my daughter.

Happy Valentine’s Day to the girls who are lucky enough to have someone to hold their hands; to the girls brave enough to initiate these special friendships; and to the girls who have them to look forward to.

(P.S. My nine-year-old son would like me to add that he stole the book several times while Emily and I were reading it and that he found the stories “very good,” especially the third and fourth books.)

(P.P.S. If you still aren’t buying the friendship-book-for-Valentine’s-Day gift, go ahead and check out this romantic beauty. That may or may not be what Emily is getting this year, seeing as we’ve already read the above recommendation. Or I may cave and get her this.)

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Book published by Harper Perennial. 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!

For the Romantic (A Valentine’s Post)

February 4, 2016 § 5 Comments

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian FrenchIf you’ve been following my blog for awhile now (thank you!), it’s no secret that I like non-traditional recommendations for Valentine’s Day. In past years, I’ve typically favored off-beat stories about friendship bonds, as opposed to the saccharine hearts and hugs that publishers seem to push this time of year. I’m referring to gems such as this and these and this; and if I was going to continue my friendship trend this year, I would be singing the praises of Salina Yoon’s new lovely and understated Be a Friend.

Instead, I’ve decided that this February calls for a bit of high romance, inspired by a fairy tale that has been exquisitely re-imagined by Angela Barrett and Vivian French. I had initially intended to feature The Most Wonderful Thing in the World (Ages 5-10) in my December holiday gift guide, but I never found the right spot for it. Now, it occurs to me that I was subconsciously waiting until the Holiday of Love to tell you about a story that sings of universal love at its most transcendent.

The Most Wonderful Thing in the World belongs to a class of picture books that I think of as more appropriately suited for the elementary child, as opposed to the preschool ages typically associated with picture books. I’m always saddened when parents tell me that their household has “moved beyond” picture books. As if mellifluous language and spellbinding art were something one would ever hope to graduate from (not to mention the ornate vocabulary and abstract ideas in many of these mature picture books)! Please, I beg of you, no matter how much your children begin to sink their teeth into the expansive world of chapter books, don’t leave behind picture books entirely. The best teachers know their importance and use them in elementary, middle, and—in an increasing trend—even high schools. Their spines may be thin, but they are worth their weight in gold.

British illustrator Angela Barrett originally approached Scottish author Vivian French about collaborating on a contemporary retelling of one of Barrett’s favorite tales as a child. The premise of The Most Wonderful Thing in the World is as old as the hills (one could call it a more refined riff on Jolly Roger Bradfield’s outlandishly entertaining Pickle-Chiffon Pie, which has always been something of an obsession in our house). A king and queen stage a contest to find their daughter a husband. Advised by “wise Old Angelo,” the royal parents decree that they will marry the princess to the suitor who shows them “the most wonderful thing in the world.” The expectation being that only the richest, most powerful suitor will triumph.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Before you get all “please tell me we aren’t still writing about girls as pawns in the hands of oppressive traditions,” let me tell you about Princess Lucia. The curious and clever princess, whom her genuinely loving but prohibitively overprotective parents have never escorted outside the walls of the palace, takes advantage of her parents’ preoccupation with the contest to gain permission to explore the kingdom that she will someday rule. She beseeches the help of a common man, whom she encounters playing with a tabby cat beside the canal. “I am Salvatore, pretty lady, and I am entirely at your service. Today, tomorrow, and the next day, until you have seen all that you want.” He may not be a prince or a duke or an earl, but he knows every inch of the sidewalks and canals of the city, including the ”hidden heart,” where “the grand never thought to go.” Lucia, we quickly understand, intends to be a Queen of the People.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Angela Barrett—the same artist who did the enchanting watercolors for The Night Fairy (I mean, I thought I was obsessed then…)—has set this fairy tale in a magnificently adorned Edwardian Venice, with winding canals and gilded architecture at every turn.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Barrett’s intricate art is mesmerizing in its own right, but it’s when we combine it with the lyrical prose of Vivian French—the same author who wrote, among others, this clever book—that the real magic happens. How we envy Lucia the chance to explore every nook and cranny, every light and shadow, of this island!

They walked through bustling markets where
golden oranges were heaped in piles, and under grand
marble arches; they gazed at velvet-curtained mansions
and balconies festooned with flowers; and they counted
the tall towers of the city cathedral.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Of equal interest—or perhaps more, if my children’s reactions are any indication—is what is happening back at the royal palace, while Lucia is off exploring the city. Potential suitors are carting through the doors one splendor after another, hoping to pass off one as “the most wonderful thing in the world.” The parade begins with “a hundred roses” and “a snow-white horse” and becomes progressively more obscure, with “acrobats and airships, pyramids and performing dogs, mysterious magical beasts, and a piece of frozen sky.” Pouring over these double-page spreads, we discover countless additional treasures not even named (my kids were especially taken by the Tin Mn, having just finished The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

What constitutes beauty and wonder? How do we compare one splendor to another? These are deliciously enticing questions for our children to ponder. (By the way, French’s wry humor comes through more than once and lends a touch of modern sensibility to the tale. When the last suitor departs with his “weapons of mass destruction,” the queen asks, “How can anyone believe weapons are the most wonderful thing in the world?”)

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Our two story lines ultimately intersect along “heavy hearts.” The stumped king and queen are reluctant to deem anything they’ve seen “the most wonderful thing in the world,” and so they are without a worthy suitor for their cherished daughter. Salvatore and Lucia are equally distraught, having no more excuses to spend time together now that they have finished exploring the city. Salvatore rows home to his own tiny island and laments to his grandfather, who happens to be Old Angelo, that he loves a girl he can never marry.

Old Angelo took off his spectacles, rubbed them clean and
put them on again. “It seems to me that the answer is easy.
You must show the king and queen the most wonderful thing
in the world, and then Princess Lucia will be yours.”

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

The next day, when Salvatore witnesses the warm embrace with which her parents greet Lucia, it hits him. Lucia is the most wonderful thing in the world. Or, more precisely, the love that her parents (and now Salvatore) feels for her.  Taking his love by the hand, Salvatore—who “doesn’t look anything like the others,” the queen notices—professes to the royal family, “Here is the most wonderful thing in the world.” The queen’s tickled response couldn’t be more genuine: “Oh!Oh! Oh, of course she is!”

Lucia took Salvatore’s other hand.
“Thank you,” she said, and she kissed him.

"The Most Wonderful Thing in the World" by Vivian French & Angela Barrett

Sound the wedding bells! Get out the tissues! Let’s all go straight to Italy! Yes, love can sometimes blind us (the king and queen initially failed to see that their daughter would make her own best choice), but it is also the Great Equalizer. It can transcend differences and deliver us into joy and peace and understanding beyond our wildest dreams. Love—between a parent and a child, between two lovers, between a ruler and her people, or in any of its other numerous forms—is the most wonderful thing in the world.

Now that’s the kind of Valentine’s Day I’d like my kids to celebrate.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Full Mailbox, Full Heart: A Valentine’s Day Post

February 10, 2015 § 13 Comments

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio RuzzierOur weekend was a flurry of Valentine-making, as my children colored, traced, and cut out hearts for the kids in their classes. While my four year old has to make 20 Valentines, one for each person in her class, my seven year old’s class is doing “Secret Valentine,” where each child draws a name at random and then makes and does things for that person over the course of two weeks. Both kids are giddy with pride in their work and excitement over the upcoming celebrations. (It turns out that my daughter cuts at the speed at which she chews, which is to say that next year we need to start this project three months earlier.)

For the past two years, in honor of V-Day, I’ve given you gift suggestions of friendship books: sweet, beautifully illustrated stories, like Lovabye Dragon, Paul Meets Bernadette, and Brimsby’s Hats, where loneliness dissolves in unexpected arrivals and generous acts. This year, I was going to break with this tradition. I was going to suggest a book that’s literally bursting with hearts: red and pink and lots and lots of them. I was going to tell you to wrap up Jo Witek’s In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, not only because delightful rainbow-scribbled hearts explode off every page, but also because it’s the most effective presentation of feelings for children that I’ve EVER read. Alas, this new book has been so popular that the publisher has had to re-print it—and it won’t be available again until after Valentine’s Day (although you should still get it).

"In My Heart: A Book of Feelings" by Jo Witek

So then I thought I’d tell you about A Crankenstein Valentine, which is Samantha Berger and newly-crowned Caldecott winner Dan Santat’s clever and grouchy twist on Valentine’s Day (I’m sure you don’t know anyone who can relate). And which, if you’re intent on a book specific to Valentine’s Day, you should definitely get.

"A Crankenstein Valentine" by Samantha Berger

In the end, though, as I watched my children work for hours on their Valentines, my son scheming about how he was going to sneak his notes into the backpack of his Secret Valentine without being noticed, I came back to the realization that, for children, Valentine’s Day IS about friendship. It’s about celebrating their friends, about making the people around them feel a little more special than usual. It’s about putting in that extra bit of effort. And reaping boundless rewards in return.

So, I’m sorry to say that you’re not getting a break from my tradition of recommending timeless friendship stories this Valentine’s Day. I’m going to suggest a book that came out last fall: a friendship story about a weasel and a bird. A story that makes my heart swell so big when I’m reading it to my kids, that I cannot help but clutch it to my chest when I’m finished. A story that reminds me how the simplest acts of caring can sometimes be the most powerful.

A Letter for Leo (Ages 2-7) is written and illustrated by the Italian-born artist Sergio Ruzzier. Ruzzier has long been one of my favorites, with his endearing knack of blending a kind of quaint old-fashionedness, with contemporary color schemes and unexpected quirkiness. Leo the weasel (or ferret?) is a mailman “of a little old town,” who takes pride in delivering letters and packages to his fellow animals.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

Cheerful, good-natured Leo reminds me of my grandfather who, once retired, used to drive around on Sunday mornings delivering The New York Times to the other American families who neighbored his summer cottage in rural Ontario. My family used to joke that, like Leo, who is invited to take frequent breaks from his route to “play a game of bocce with his friends” or “sit down for a moment to rest and chat,” my grandfather was treated to six different breakfasts over the course of a single morning.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

But there’s a quiet sadness at the heart of this book, as much for what is spoken as what is not. Despite his casual acquaintances, Leo is lonely. All the years that Leo has been delivering mail, he himself has never received a letter.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

One morning, Leo is startled by a little blue bird, who jumps out of a red mailbox. “Who are you?” Leo asks. “Cheep!” the bird responds. “Where do you come from, Cheep?” “Cheep!” the bird responds again. Leo figures the young bird must have gotten separated from his migrating flock. After giving it some thought, he sets the bird atop his hat and carries him home.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

Leo is not a stickler for conversation, so he and the bird settle into a harmonious, if rather silent, coexistence. I too find that there are few words to describe the delight my daughter feels, as she points out the little bed that Leo crafts for the bird, or the difference in size of the bowls and forks with which the two of them eat. “Leo and Cheep are now a little family,” and we all know how good that feels.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

We as readers know where this is going, as the seasons pass and spring brings flocks of birds flying overhead. Leo knows Cheep is strong enough to rejoin his family on their return north, although our heart aches alongside him as he lets his friend go. The fact that we feel so much in such a short, sparsely-worded book is a profound testament to Ruzzier’s immense talent.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

Leo falls back into the routines of his mail route, but there’s no question that his life has been changed for the better. Sure enough, a few days later, who receives his very first letter, addressed to him and bearing the word “cheep” nine times over?

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

The hearts that my children are cutting up and writing their name across—they aren’t just scraps of paper. They’re tangible proof of friendship and sometimes also of love. They say: you aren’t alone. I care. I remembered. I did this for you.

May your Valentine’s celebrations be full of buoyant scribbles, jagged corners, and crackly paste.


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

Friends Make Everything Better (Two Picks for Valentine’s Day)

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Paul Meets BernadetteMy family spent this past weekend holed up in the snowy hills of West Virginia with three other families. Once we adults began to block out the chatter and squeals of nine (mostly) happy children running circles around us, we were able to entertain some blissful grown-up time. And as I watched my children mature and transform across three full days of kid-on-kid time, I found myself feeling immensely grateful for friendships of both the tall and short kind. In this winter that has gone on too long, it is our friends that have put smiles on our faces, ideas in our head, and glasses of wine in our (adult) hands.

With Valentine’s Day shortly upon us, I’ve once again chosen a bit of a non-traditional path for my children’s gifts (and, gasp, I’ve even cheated and given the gifts early!). These two new picture books—both by first time author-illustrators—rise above the saccharine-sweet-mushy-gushy-dime-a-dozen stories out there by celebrating friendship in unique, quirky, and unforgettable ways. In Rosy Lamb’s Paul Meets Bernadette (Ages 4-7), we are reminded of how good friends can change the way we see the world. Paul is a goldfish in a round glass bowl. His life literally consists of “going around in circles. He made big circles and little circles. He circled from left to right. And from right to left.” But his worldview forever changes when “one day, Bernadette dropped in” and challenges Paul: “Haven’t you ever noticed that there’s a whole world out there?” With the flamboyant new goldfish as his guide, Paul begins to take notice of objects outside his bowl: a banana (which Bernadette announces is a boat), a green alarm clock (“a cactus!”), and a pair of speckled reading glasses (“a lunetta butterfly!”). “‘How lovely she is,’ thinks Paul.”

"Do you see the forest with trees of every color?"  "Yes, I do," said Paul. "How enchanting!"

“Do you see the forest with trees of every color?”
“Yes, I do,” said Paul. “How enchanting!”

Paul is not the only one who starts seeing things differently: as readers, our children’s own perspective is challenged here as well. Lamb’s artwork is rendered entirely in oil paint, the three-dimensional brush strokes visible at every turn. Bound in a distinctive 7” by 7” format, the book presents like a mini art gallery, its impressionistic paintings begging to be interpreted. My kids go nuts for books about “mistaken identities,” things that are obviously one thing but get misconstrued as something else (see my post on Peter Brown’s art of deception in Creepy Carrots). In Lamb’s book, we might expect her to paint the objects outside the bowl as they are seen (and misconstrued) in the eyes of the goldfish—and indeed, this is the case for the first one, the banana boat. But the rest of the time, the scenes are drawn from outside the tank, in their true forms, so that our children must use their imagination to see how, for example, a blue-and-white ceramic tea pot could look like an elephant. This technique spurred no shortage of giggles and banter from my kids, not unlike the back-and-forth between the two fish themselves. My children: “The spout is like the elephant’s trunk!” “No, the handle looks like the trunk!” “No, the handle is the elephant’s ear!” The fish: “‘Is she a dangerous elephant?’ asks Paul. ‘She is not too dangerous,’ Bernadette tells Paul. ‘But you must not disturb her when she is feeding her babies.’”

brimsbyshatsThose of us who are not as fortunate as Paul to have a new friend “drop in” must seek out the joy of companionship—and this can take both courage and ingenuity. In Andrew Prahin’s Brimsby’s Hats (Ages 4-8), Brimsby, a hat maker by trade, already knows what it is like to have a best friend: someone with whom he shares his creations over tea, and “together, they have the most wonderful conversations.” But when the friend follows his dream to become a sea captain and sails away, Brimsby is left to pass the months away alone in his quiet cottage in the country, without so much as a single visitor. Then one day, while out in a blizzard, he come across a tree full of birds. In an attempt to make the birds’ acquaintance, Brimsby’s initial “Hello” is ignored: the birds are too busy shoveling snow out of their nests and “keeping the cold wind from blowing out their fires” (yes, these are chimney-sporting nests). Never one to give up and confident in himself as friend-worthy, our hat maker returns to his cottage, where he diligently works to turns hats into Perfect Little Bird Houses, complete with doors that close up tight and cut-outs for chimneys. Free of their toils, the birds turn their attention to Brimsby, striking up conversations about hats, shovels, and “whether lemon cookies taste better than worms”—and a new friendship is born.

Brimsby stands back to admire his work--and "the birds weren't busy anymore."

Brimsby stands back to admire his work–and “the birds weren’t busy anymore.”

If Rosy Lamb’s book looks like something you’d find in the National Gallery of Art, then Prahin’s equally stunning digitally-rendered artwork will have you feeling like you just stumbled upon some ultra-hip animation studio in London. The unusual color scheme of olive green, pink, teal, and slate grey brilliantly contrasts Prahin’s pervasive use of white for the snow (once again, we behold the perfection of picture book snow). Prahin’s deceptively simple illustrations speak volumes: the passage of time, for example, is communicated by a progressively melting candle in one place and by the seasonal transformations outside the window in another. My children’s favorite spread is one in which we get a kind of x-ray look into the interiors of the birds’ new hat-houses, each one complete with its own special wallpaper and each one home to a most snug and contented little bird. Friendship leaves none of us unchanged. And thank goodness for that. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Thinking Outside the Box This Valentine’s Day

February 5, 2013 § 4 Comments

Lovabye DragonIs there a better way to shower our children with love this Valentine’s Day than by snuggling under a blanket with them and sharing a new story? And yet, I’m never thrilled with the list of books that the media typically puts forth as gift ideas for V-Day. Chances are you already have your fair share of books about parental affection (the Guess How Much I love You? sort). If I’m being totally honest, I feel a tad exploited by these lovey-dovey books about hugging and kissing and eternal love; too often they’re lacking in imagination and art and feel instead like a cheap move by publishers to go after our vulnerability as parents (I’ll get off my soapbox now). There are some wonderful classics, like Judith Viorst’s Rosie and Michael and Sandal Stoddard Warbug’s I Like You, but their content is arguably more appropriate for grown-ups to give one another.  Finally, there are plenty of stories about Valentine’s Day, but their reading life is limited (and, really, what are the chances I’m going to remember to pull out that book next February?).

So when it comes to Valentine’s Day, I like to think outside the box. In the past, I’ve given my son the glorious Red Sings from the Treetops (hey, there’s red in the title) and The Jolly Postman (Valentines are like letters, right?). But this year, I have an especially good one pegged for my two-year-old daughter; I’ve been hiding it under my bed since it came out last fall and biding my time to spring it on her. The title is Lovabye Dragon (Ages 2-5), by Barbara Joosse, with pictures by Randy Cecil. There is no red or pink in sight; the color palette is subdued with muted purples, greys, and gold. There is no talk of Valentine’s Day or overt declarations of love. Instead, there’s a subtle, sweet, sing-song-y story about an  all-alone girl/ in her own little bed/ in her own little room/ in her own little castle/ who didn’t have a dragon for a friend and an all-alone dragon/ in his big dragon nest/ in his big dragon cave/ in his big dragon mountain/ who dreamed of a girl for a friend.

Joosse’s prose is a delight to read aloud, filled with poetic cadence, and she’s careful to establish equality between the two friends. Even though the dragon searches out the girl, he does so by following the tracks of her tears, which the girl implies was part of her plan all along: “I am here!” roared Dragon./ “You’re a dear!” whispered Girl./ “I found you!” roared Dragon./ “As I wished,” whispered Girl. The two venture outside the castle walls, getting to know one another by singing, laughing, and keeping each other safe in the night. Again, each brings something to the relationship: Now she sings little songs/ little lovabye songs/ and he wraps his tail around her/ so gently, all around her. Randy Cecil’s unique angular drawing style (Brontorina is another stand-out) lends both anonymity and mystery to the characters, the perfect excuse for my Emily to imagine herself into the story.

After all, a girl needs to know her dreams can come true this Valentine’s Day—and every day.

Other Favorites With Quirky Expressions of Love and Friendship (that could double as unique Valentine’s gifts):
Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers (Ages 3-6)
Moon Rabbit, by Natalie Russell (Ages 3-6)
Henry in Love, by Peter McCarty (Ages 4-8)
Infinity and Me, by Kate Hosford & Gabi Swiatkowska (Ages 4-8)

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