Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation.

Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (Ages 4-8) is told entirely though illustrated panels. (If you have doubts about the value of wordless books, read this.) I first fell in love with MacKay’s acclaimed cut-paper dioramas in Fall Leaves—but, wow, has she outdone herself here. Her art seems actually to dance off the page. It’s as if we were watching the ballet unfold from the same velvet seats as the story’s young heroine, who is attending the show for the first time with her grandmother. In fact, it’s precisely the experience of watching “The Nutcracker” to which McKay brings our attention.

The girl in the story is not as easily seduced as us readers by the prospect of going to the theater. In fact, she isn’t keen on leaving her house at all. Especially not to venture out into the rain and across town with her Gran, who surprises her with Nutcracker tickets. The girl looks stiff and miserable while getting her long hair brushed and her frilly dress on.

MacKay’s washes of browns and greys perfectly echo the dreariness of the cold, wet night. (I know we’re supposed to feel their contrast with the splendor of what’s to come, but there’s something just as beautiful for me about these pictures.)

Despite not getting the response from her granddaughter which she (likely) desires, Gran’s enthusiasm never wavers. She bounces along with a swing in her step and no umbrella.

When the pair enters the theater, it becomes clear the girl thinks her bad luck is only worsening. A boy around her age sticks out his tongue at her as she walks by. When they climb the stairs to the balcony, he turns out to have the seat next to her.

But then, the violinists begin, and the magic happens. Swirls of color sweep into view, and the dismal palette of the previous pages is juxtaposed by the vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and blues of the characters and sets on stage.

If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, those familiar with the ballet will have fun recognizing the different scenes as they flash by. Equally fun is identifying expressions on both the girl’s and boy’s faces, as they take in the performance for the first time. There’s anxiety at the nutcracker’s battle with the mouse king, for starters. And then relief—accompanied by a playful “I was never actually worried” glance at her neighbor—when Clara intercedes on stage to stop the mouse king.

What we begin to realize is that, much as we love seeing our favorite scenes from the ballet rendered so incredibly beautifully on paper, it’s actually just as much fun to watch the shifting relationship between the girl and boy in their seats. In their collective experiencing of the show, they become something more than strangers. Tentative at first, but with increasing warmth, they become playful, even a little flirty, with one another. It’s as if the magic on stage reaches out and holds them in its spell. Clearly, we are meant to draw parallels between the young children’s camaraderie and the relationship between Clara and the nutcracker prince. (McKay paints both the main characters and the dancers with refreshing racial diversity, adding another element of beauty to these relationships.)

Did I mention that by the time the show lets out, the rain has turned to snow?

 

Take away the stage lights, the lavish costumes, the festive sets, and the ethereal dancing, and there is still something magical about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which long ago inspired “The Nutcracker” ballet. It’s a story about handmade gifts that grow in size and come alive on Christmas Eve, when the night is ripe for the unexpected and the impossible seems possible.

T.E. McMorrow (a former stagehand himself) taps into the spirit behind this timeless Christmas Eve tale in The Nutcracker in Harlem (Ages 4-8), which stars a young African-American girl named Marie, living at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the artist-rich Sugar Hill neighborhood of New York City. If Waltz of the Snowflakes has us hearing the classical music in our heads, The Nutcracker in Harlem has us conjuring up the soulful sounds of jazz—voices accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, and women dancing in head scarves and feathered boas. Brilliantly illustrated by the accomplished James Ransome, the story stays true to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, right down to the sweet potato pie.

Our heroine, Marie, loves “the sound of Christmas,” but she doesn’t participate in it. Despite others’ encouragement to “let it out,” the shy, serious girl cannot bring herself to sing alongside her gregarious family and friends. In the pictures, she stands watchful and stiff on the sides. “She wished she could sing, but Marie was afraid she wasn’t any good.”

Like Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Marie gets a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Cab. It is carved, her uncle tells her, from “magical wood” and carries a drum around its neck. After everyone else has gone to bed, Marie sits in the dark beside the twinkling Christmas tree and rocks the nutcracker in her arms. In Ransome’s watercolor, we feel tenderness and affection, but we also identify a palpable sadness in Marie’s solitude.

When Marie awakens after briefly dozing off, the tree has doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size, and the glass ornaments have come to life. So, too, have the dolls and the wooden soldiers, the latter now an army led by the nutcracker himself. In sweeps a second, equally formidable army made up of enchanted mice and led by a mouse general, who charges ahead with cries of “Candy Cane!” and “Marzipan!”

The battle rages on, until it’s time for Marie, like Clara before her, to intercede before the mouse general destroys the nutcracker. But instead of kicking or throwing a shoe at him, Marie picks up the fallen nutcracker’s drum and begins to play. Marie’s power comes from within, but it comes in the form of music.

At once, the mice return to normal size and scamper away, and Marie is left with the nutcracker prince, with whom she dances beneath falling snowflakes. Marie does what we’ve been hoping she will do from the moment we meet her: she closes her eyes and sings. Her entire face softens, and her eyes sparkle.

When Marie wakes again, she is in her bed. It is Christmas morning, and she is surrounded by her smiling parents and her brother. Only an extra drum under the tree suggests that perhaps Marie wasn’t dreaming after all. That and the fact that later in the day, when the guests gather again in her house to sing, Marie joins in.

In McMorrow’s Author’s Note, he says about the story’s ending: “Just as the memory of The Nutcracker remained with Marie, so too did the memory of the Harlem Renaissance remain in the American soul.” Music and art have incredible power to transport and transform. Another reason why next year, you’ll find us in the audience of “The Nutcracker,” relishing once again the magic of the season.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (more during the holidays).

Review copy of Waltz of the Snowflakes provided by Running Press Kids. The Nutcracker in Harlem published by Harper Collins Children’s. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime?

Tavares is best known for his historic, often sports-themed picture books (Crossing Niagra and Growing Up Pedro are favorites), so this sentimental story of two cardinals is a bit of a departure for him. As such, it took him five years to perfect it. But do not be fooled: in the end, his careful narrative and visual choices pay off, including several wordless panels which allow us to especially appreciate his exquisite, evocative paintings. It turns out Tavares was in part inspired to write this story by an experience similar to something we’ve witnessed in our own family, outside our own front door.

Years ago, when we moved from downtown Chicago to our Washington DC suburb, we immediately noticed the birds—particularly, a pair of cardinals, who seemed to enjoy hanging around outside the front of our house. The bright red male—Buddy, as we called him—was always the first spotted. As soon as we saw him, our eyes would quickly scan nearby branches for the more brownish-toned female. “There’s Buddy’s mate!” one of my kids would call out. The feminist in me suggested, more than once, that “Buddy’s mate” deserved a name of her own. But perhaps it’s not by chance that no name ever stuck. That cardinals mate for life is what makes them unique in the animal world. Even my children seemed to sense that this love story, playing out daily on our front lawn, was something special.

Red and Lulu tells the story of two cardinals, who live in a “mighty evergreen” in the front lawn of a small suburban house. As the narrator tells us, the tree was the perfect place to call home: “Its shade kept them cool on hot summer days. And its evergreen needles kept them cozy when autumn wind howled.” The birds’ favorite time of year is Christmas, when the family strings the branches of the tree with lights, then invites neighbors to join them in singing “O Christmas tree.” “Red and Lulu loved listening to the people sing about their tree. Sometimes they even sang along.”

Red and Lulu tells the fictional story of two cardinals, but it also relates the real-life story of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, a beloved New York City tradition dating back to 1931. The Afterward explains how, each year, the head gardener at Rockefeller Center searches “far and wide” for the perfect tree. Because the chosen tree is almost always a Norway spruce, not native to the United States, it is usually found and removed from someone’s yard. (Happy tidbit for those sad to see these great trees taken down: after the Christmas season, the lumber from the Rockefeller tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity. More about this in the lovely picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift.)

One day, while Red is out gathering breakfast and Lulu is home in the nest, a crane pulls up to the house, and workmen cut down the tree. Red returns home in time to hear Lulu’s singing coming from inside the tree, as it barrels down the street on the back of an enormous flatbed.

For miles, over New Jersey highways and across the George Washington bridge onto the island of Manhattan, Red follows his tree, occasionally chirping to reassure Lulu that he is close by. Eventually, in the chaos and enormity of the city, he loses sight of the truck.

As Red searches the streets of Manhattan for his love, we see Tavares’ artistry at his best. He contrasts the brilliant saturation of Red’s feathers—the very color of life and love—with the grey concrete and stone buildings of the city. He contrasts Red’s size—vulnerable and dwarfed—with the larger-than-life city, including the stone lions outside The New York Public Library. By the time the bird flies over the nighttime crowds and neon lights of Times Square, our hearts are aching for him.

In the end, it’s Red and Lulu’s love, not just for each other but for Christmas, which writes their happy ending. Red is drawn towards the sound of crowds of people singing “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree.”

Wait! He could hear the song they loved! Red flew toward the sound.
The voice grew louder and louder.
Then he turned the corner.

As he sees Lulu’s and his tree, magnificently illuminated at the front of the crowd under fat, falling snowflakes, he flies straight for “their favorite branch.” The lovebirds are reunited!

For the next weeks, until Christmas passes and the tree comes down, Red and Lulu remain in their nest in the tree. Then, instead of trying to find their way back to the suburban yard from whence they came, they make their home in Central Park, sharing new trees and birdbaths with the pigeons and other wildlife of the Big City. (One might say they’re city fowl now.)

This way, they’re not far away when the next Christmas comes, when the caroling again beckons them to the most beautiful of plazas, in the most spirited of traditions, with the brightest of trees.

Joy to the world.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (well, even more right now during the holidays).

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

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 6): For the Non-Fiction Lover

December 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni DesmondCall it Seasonal Affective Disorder; call it the anticipation of school closures (let’s just give up now); call it the fact that it now takes us seven times longer to get out of the house: whatever the reason, as soon as a cold snap hits every year, I want to hibernate. And yet, consider this, my fair-weathered friends: the polar bear—a creature who lives in the coldest corners of the Earth; who eats, walks and sleeps on ice; and who is surrounded by nothing but white and blue all day, every day—does not hibernate.

That someone can love the cold this much—and, in fact, depend on it for its very survival—is just one of the many things that endear us to the polar bear, as evidenced in Jenni Desmond’s extraordinary tribute, The Polar Bear (Ages 6-10), a factually accurate yet poetic picture book with some of the most stunning illustrations I have ever seen (seriously, I’m not sure I can bring myself to shelve this book, its cover is so gorgeous).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if non-fiction looked and sounded like this when I was a kid, I would know a lot more.

Desmond’s title is the second in a new series about threatened species (I raved about The Blue Whale in this guest post; and I am giddy that her third will feature elephants). She’s never preachy: on the contrary, the only mention of the plight facing the polar bear—global warming, which has led to less ice on which the polar bear can hunt—is in the Author’s Note, which prefaces a 38-page celebration of the physical and behavioral adaptations of this magnificent animal and its unforgiving habitat. And yet, one cannot read this book, in light of that Author’s Note, without feeling both awe for the polar bear’s present and fear for its future.

Invoking a kind of metaphysical book-within-a-book approach that seems to be catching on in children’s non-fiction (see also Jason Chin, whose Redwoods and Coral Reefs are nothing short of astounding), Desmond’s books explore their subjects through the eyes of a child who is reading about them. In the case of The Polar Bear, as a child pulls the same book off the shelf, the line begins to blur between reading and living, until the child herself becomes a kind of witness and companion to the very bear about whom she studies.

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She reads that the polar bear is also called a sea bear, and that this huge marine mammal spends most of its life on ice and snow of the frozen Arctic Ocean. In the spring and autumn, the flexible sea ice can bend and give way under the polar bear’s colossal weight. In the summer, there is virtually no ice to hunt across. In winter, the polar bear walks for miles over solid expanses of ice in search of food.

Desmond’s washes of white and grey are all the more striking when contrasted with the whimsy and detail in the girl’s attire—her red and white striped stockings, her red checked crown. A terrain never looked bleaker, yet never more beautiful. (Desmond explains that the polar bear’s coat is actually yellow or grey—and its skin black—but the effect is one of whiteness because of the bright, uninterrupted sunlight).

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

We are not strangers to books about polar bears in this house. Perhaps because he has always had a deep love of winter himself, my son has chosen to study polar bears more often than any other subject in school; and last winter I posted about Jeanette Winter’s Nanuk: The Ice Bear, a sparse but lovely introduction to the life cycle of the polar bear. Desmond’s book is much denser, aimed at the mind that wants more, more, more, yet the narrative is equally lyrical. A polar bear’s enormous paws, for example, not only “act like snowshoes, spreading out the bear’s weight as it moves across deep snow and fragile ice,” but they have tiny little bumps (like the surface of a basketball) to prevent the animal from sliding. All of these facts are synthesized in real time by the child in the book, as by us.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

My kids were fascinated to learn that you can count the rings inside a polar bear’s tooth to find out how long he has been alive. Ditto that polar bears can smell a seal from many miles away—even more so when they stand on their hind legs—and that one seal can satisfy a polar bear for 11 days. I can guarantee your child, like mine, will feel the need to trace each of these dotted lines to see which food source the polar bear is smelling in the book.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

We often hear how vicious polar bears are, so I was shocked to find out the polar bear successfully kills only one out of every twenty seals that it hunts, owing to the seal’s superior swimming ability. My respect for these resilient creatures only grows! My kids, on the other hand, were more impressed by the blood spattered across the bear’s mouth and paws after killing and eating a seal—a mess that the finicky polar bear is quick to scrub off once his meal is digested.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

More blood is spilled (although not pictured) during the “savage battles” between males at mating time, resulting in the impregnated females digging birthing dens well beneath mounds of frigid snow. Curled around her cubs, this is the closest the female polar bear comes to hibernating—and, indeed, we can certainly relate to the desire to snuggle our little ones close and warm.

Polar bears do not hibernate. They like to sleep though, and can sleep almost anywhere at any time. Like humans, polar bears sleep in different positions. On warm days, they might stretch out on their back with their feet up in the air or lie down on their stomachs. On cold, snowy days, they curl up with a paw over their snout for warmth, letting the snow cover them like a blanket.

It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

This is my last post of 2016. May 2017 dawn with a plethora of new books and a renewed passion for protecting our planet and the marvelous creatures who share it. In the meantime, I hope you and your loved ones sleep tight.

"The Polar Bear" by Jenni Desmond

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

How I Read My Kids the Riot Act

October 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane SmithI’m not going to sugar coat it. The transition back to school has been rough for our family. I have never been so happy to see a month wrap up as I was when October dawned—and even then the grumpiness of September continued to encroach on us. Maybe it’s the sheer exhaustion of starting at a new school, of having to make new friends and navigate new expectations. Maybe it’s because we had a particularly lovely summer of togetherness. Maybe it’s because my kids are lazy little lie-abouts who, if left to their own devices, would probably never leave the house.

I’m not debating the legitimacy of their grumpiness.

All I know is that, for five weeks, my kids got into the car at 3:30pm, answered “Good!” when I asked them how their day was, and then proceeded to complain about absolutely everything. “The grapes in my lunch were mushy!” “The sleeves of this shirt are too long!” “My bug bites are killing me!” “It’s too hot in this car!” “It’s freezing in this car!” “You can’t make me go to the park. I hate the park!” And then they’d turn on each other, shoving and bickering and yelling until I started to wonder if the only way out of this nightmare was to drive off the road.

I had just had the previous seven hours to myself—seven glorious hours to put my life in order, to bask in a quiet house, to have adult conversations and maybe even get a leg up on dinner. By all accounts, I should have been well fortified.

But, as every parent in the pick-up line knows, re-entry into parenting can be brutal.

I tried empathy. I tried indifference. I tried losing my sh$%. Nothing helped. Three weeks in, I told a friend, “Our house is in a State of Crisis.”

No one could see the good in anyone or anything.

Desperate times call for desperate measures—or, at least, a loosening of the pocket book—and so the first thing I did was to join Audible and start purchasing reams of audio books. Now, when the kids get into the car, I give them a big smile, tell them how happy I am to see them, and then—before they have a chance to open their mouths—I hit play. Their bodies immediately relax. They stare quietly out the window. Occasionally, they cast conspiratorial looks at one another and erupt into giggles (I had forgotten how funny the canine narrator of the Bunnicula books can be). By the time we arrive at home or at tennis or at the playground, we are once again capable of calm, constructive conversation. Check.

The second game-changing strategy I employed was to land on a metaphor—this with the help of Jory John and Lane Smith, whose new picture book, Penguin Problems (Ages 4-8), is now officially our family’s Misanthropic Mascot.

Penguin Problems stars an Antarctic penguin who suffers from an affliction of general grumpiness. Absolutely nothing pleases him: not himself, not his habitat, not the other penguins.

It’s too early to get up. His beak is cold. All the other penguins are squawking in his ears. The sun’s too bright, the ocean’s too salty, and there is so. much. snow. “What is it with this place?”

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

He doesn’t like waddling. He looks silly when he waddles. Waddling is the worst.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

What’s even worse is that he looks the same as everyone else. And everyone else looks exactly like him.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

There are eye rolls. There is sarcasm. There is snarky banter that anyone familiar with Jory John will relish (grumpiness is, after all, a Jory John forte: remember Goodnight, Already!?).

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

Oh, you guys, it’s funny. It’s so funny. It’s funny, because—for one brief hallelujah moment—it’s NOT OUR KIDS TALKING LIKE THIS. Because our kids are snuggled up against us. Or, in our case, quietly eating oatmeal with their eyes fixed on the book (“I found a character whom you might relate to,” I began the other morning at breakfast, as I pulled out my new purchase and started reading.).

“I have so many problems!” yells the misanthropic penguin. “And nobody even cares!”

“Hahahaha,” my nine year old roared. “He sounds just like Emily and me!” Yup, I thought. Yup, that’s right. My plan is working.

Enter a wise walrus (the tortoise of the South Pole, if you will). This Dalai-walrus is a stranger, not initially a welcome sight to our penguin, but he goes on to deliver a full-page soliloquy to our friend on the merits of an Attitude Adjustment.

I sense that today has been difficult, but lo! Look around you, Penguin. Have you noticed the way the mountains are reflected in the ocean like a painting?…here me now, my new friend: I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, and I am quite sure you wouldn’t, either. I am certain that when you think about it, you’ll realize that you are exactly where you need to be.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

(Side question: can we all hold hands and agree to start using the word “lo” in our daily discourse?)

Though our black and white friend doesn’t recognize it at first, the walrus’ sentiment has just the right blend of empathy and butt-kicking to reset his outlook (“Maybe that walrus has a point. After all, I do love the mountains.”). May I also mention that it’s exactly the sort of speech that I need my kids to hear every so often? Much better coming from a walrus in a funny book than from me.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

It’s not just the text that draws us into this book. There’s something compelling (and crazy cute) about the art. The palette of the book is black and white and grey (think dirty snow), with touches of muted blue and yellow and orange. By all accounts, it is lackluster.

Or is it?

Because the wide eyes of Penguin exude the same sweet befuddlement that I sometimes catch in the eyes of my own children. The icy blue of the mountains looks almost sugary sweet. The snow seems powdery soft.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

In fact, the more we look at these pictures, the more we start to see beyond the grey and the grump. This is the power, not only of a rosier outlook, but also of the veteran Lane Smith, whose talent has always lain in infusing seemingly simple layouts with surprising textures and shapes and expressions that keep us coming back again and again (remember Grandpa Green?).

So now, when my children are stuck in a downward spiral, when they wake up on the wrong side of the bed and come into my room to announce that they are not getting dressed and they are not going to school and they are not interested in a hug so don’t even think about it, I say with a gleam in my eyes, “Do you have penguin problems?” They roll their eyes but they also chuckle. And then they walk away and open their dresser drawers.

And our day starts (or ends) just a little more peacefully.

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.

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!

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 1 Comment

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time…

Earlier this week, I came across a piece written by a ninth-grade English teacher, titled “4 Reasons to Start Class with a Poem Each Day.” Even though this teacher’s courses are centered on novels, he begins every lesson with a poem. Why? Well, to start with, poems are short. They’re also intense (BAM!) and thought-provoking. They connect back to other things, literary or not. And they’re inspiring.

I got to thinking: maybe I’m looking at this whole poetry-before-bed thing all wrong. Maybe poetry should have a place in our mornings!

I once talked to a mom who told me that she reads a chapter each morning to her children during breakfast, that this has become a lovely way to connect with her children and start their morning off on a high note. This vision has stuck with me all these years—it sounds lovely—but it also screams of impracticality for my life (do I stop reading every time I have to get up to get a napkin, or pour the milk, or ask my child why it appears his hair is never brushed?). No, I’m quite certain that reading at breakfast would just cause more chaos.

At the same time, considering that we’re talking about increasingly fleeting time with my kids, breakfast perhaps feels more transactional than it should. We have the same conversations over and over (“What do you think you’re going to do today?” “I don’t know.”). The refreshing exceptions tend to come when one of us remarks on something spotted through the window: a slew of fallen branches from the storm the night before; the neon green buds on the maple tree; the cardinal dancing in the dogwood. With our window frames as launch pads, time seems to stop for a brief spell. The rush is momentarily forgotten. I suddenly remember why I love these sweet, observant, uncoiffed little people on either side of me.

Then I got my hands on Julie Fogliano’s brand new poetry picture book, When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons (Ages 5-10), lovingly illustrated by Julie Morstad, and I thought: What if, during breakfast, I occasionally read aloud a poem that corresponded to what’s happening in the season we’re in? When Green Becomes Tomatoes features pithy nature poems, each titled for a specific day of the month (beginning and ending with March). Not every day of every month is represented (thank goodness, because I am not that disciplined): in April, for example, we have poems for April 3, 12, 23 and 27.

I don’t think Fogliano has any intention of us being strictly literal here—her spring poems can be read anytime in spring, her fall poems anytime in fall. One could even sit down and read the whole year through, feeling nostalgic about seasons gone by and hopeful about those to come.

The point is that there is potential to leave this chronologically-organized book within reach in the kitchen or dining room or wherever one breakfasts—and to pick it up once a week or so to illuminate what’s happening outside the window. In the most beautiful of ways.

Because, when I read these poems aloud to my kids, which we have been doing now for the past week, it is as if Fogliano is sitting around the breakfast table with us, looking out our same windows and describing in short, lyrical phrases exactly what we are seeing and thinking and feeling, only with greater precision and elegance. I suppose it is hardly surprising that I would fall fast for this book, seeing as I fell in love with Fogliano when her 2012 poem about winter giving way to spring was turned into the evocative picture book, And Then It’s Spring (and, coincidentally, my very first blog post!). In the spirit of that first poem comes these 50 new ones, each proving without a doubt that Fogliano has a delicate, graceful, ever-keen touch that transforms the everyday into the magical.

Just yesterday, when surprising frosty temperatures brought the kids to the breakfast table in sweaters over their spring uniforms, we read:

shivering and huddled close
the forever rushing daffodils
wished they had waited

Here’s another, which perfectly sums up the way we’re all feeling in this sluggish back turn towards winter.

april 3
today
the sky was too busy sulking to rain
and the sun was exhausted from trying
and everyone
it seemed
had decided
to wear their sadness
on the outside
and even the birds
and all their singing
sounded brokenhearted
inside of all that gray

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

Fogliano’s poems are immensely accessible. They flow stream-of-consciousness in an innocent, childlike way. Each line is comprised of just a few words. There’s little to no punctuation. The vocabulary is common. They would be great material for a developing reader. They would certainly inspire a child looking to try his or her hand at poetry. They’re equally perfect for a mother still waking up, just attempting to feed her children breakfast.

july 12
soon we will go to the beach
where we will swim
and eat plums and peanut butter sandwiches
and we will think to ourselves
as we eat
on our blanket in the sand
that nothing in the world
could possibly be more delicious
than those plums
and those peanut butter sandwiches
a little bit salty
and warm from the sun

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

YES PLEASE! (There’s no law that says you can’t skip ahead for a little breakfasting optimism.)

Some of the poems induce chuckles; others are followed by pregnant pauses. With some, the meaning is there to grab quickly; with others, it’s harder to pin down and open for debate. Taken together, these are everything poetry should be for the elementary child.

january 13
other than the cows
everyone has gone
either into or underneath
curled up and covered
but the cows just stand
black and blinking
not noticing that it is cold
and snowing
and everyone has gone

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

My son, sitting next to me as I’m typing this, has just paged through the book and discovered one for September, right around the time of his birthday. “Mommy, you should really type this one up and tell your readers to cut it out and give it to their kids on the first day of school, because this is exactly what school-starting time feels like.” (Even he sees the potential for these poems to start the day—or year—off right!)

september 25
i like it here
on this side of winter
where notebooks are new
apples are best
and freezing still feels far away
but near enough to notice

Morstad’s delightful, child-centric watercolors (there are no adults pictured) are at times playful and at other times serene, betraying her own interpretation of each poem. And yet, as in her earlier picture book, How To, Morstad never clutters her paintings. She takes liberties with empty space, often placing her (commendably) multiracial figures off to the side, giving the poems the room they need to breathe. In the absence of line and form and color, we can build our own meaning, take each poem and make it our own.

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

The result of just one week of reading aloud from this book (and leaving it lying around for bored hands to find) is that we’re once again building momentum around poetry inside our home. Over the weekend, Emily took down Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and had me read it to her; I followed that up by introducing her to Silverstein’s modern (equally laugh-out-loud) descendent, Jack Prelutsky. JP later got out Jon J. Muth’s gentle seasonal haikus, which reminded me that When Green Becomes Tomatoes is joining an already impressive lineup of year-round nature poetry. I’ve included a list below of my favorites, most of which I have discussed in past years.

Perhaps each morning, as we throw open the door and greet the day with full bellies, we will remember that we are stepping into the stuff of poetry. Take a look. It’s all around.

Other Favorite Poetry Picture Books About the Seasons:
Hi Koo!: A Year of Poems, by Jon J. Muth (Ages 3-8)
Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-12)
A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike (Ages 5-10)
Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold, by Joyce Sidman (Ages 6-12)
Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, by Joyce Sidman & Pamela Zagarenski (Ages 6-12)

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Long Live the Polar Bear

January 30, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette WinterIf there was ever a time to turn our children sympathetic to the plight of the endangered polar bear, it is on the heels of this recent Snowpocalypse, which dumped more than two feet of the white stuff on us (snow novices) here in Northern Virginia. As my kids and I gazed wide-eyed out our window, the snow fell for two days, swirling and collecting and mounting into perfect waves of whiteness, occasionally drifting into piles almost as high as the stop sign at the end of our block (the stop sign being my son’s unofficial measuring tool of a blizzard, ever since we read John Rocco’s Blizzard last winter). Long before the sun came out and the wind died down, my children were out shoveling trenches down the middle of the street and crawling into hand-dug snow tunnels.

But after just a few days, the sledding hills became slushy. The snow banks started to recede from the edges of our sidewalks, betraying the brownish-green grass beneath. Our once crisp white snow in the backyard has overnight become freckled with twigs and dirt and those (abhorrent) spiky balls from our sweet gum trees. The other morning at breakfast, JP buried his head in his hands and pronounced, “I can’t look. I just wanted it to stay the way it was.”

In Jeanette Winter’s sublime new picture book, the brilliant, uncluttered snowscapes of the Arctic Circle—crisp, clear, chill-inducing scenes of unblemished white against a shifting palette of teals and deep blues—will undoubtedly keep their beauty forever. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Winter’s subject: the polar bear. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the polar bear is the first vertebrate to be listed by the U.S. Endangered Species Act as threatened by extinction due to global warming—specifically to melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

In short, uncomplicated sentences beneath stunning visuals, Nanuk: The Ice Bear (Ages 4-8) not only introduces young children to the life cycle of the polar bear, but it extracts their deepest sympathies for the challenges that shrinking habitats and reduced access to prey present to this fierce, playful, and irresistibly adorable animal.

Author-illustrator Winter is a master of non-fiction for the young child, especially of picture book biographies (my favorites are listed at the end of this post). She can take the most complicated, even controversial subject, and distill it down to the most universal of emotions, in order to connect with the young child. Even her paintings have a seductive simplicity: as in Nanuk’s case, many are done as if seen through a keyhole or window. This is incredibly refreshing for a genre most commonly characterized by pages of compressed facts in tiny black print, broken up by dizzying photography. My eight year old, spurred by a self-chosen project on polar bears for his school two years ago, has no shortage of these fact-filled tomes lying around our house. My five-year-old daughter, however, has never picked up a one. Not until Nanuk, which has utterly captivated and stayed with her in the weeks since we first read it.

The story is simple yet powerful, the vocabulary is familiar yet evocative, the message is personal yet representative.

Winter begins her story “at the top of the world,” where snow falls around our (fictionalized) polar bear atop a mountain. Winter describes for her young reader the formation of the ice bear’s habitat, her “quiet white world.” Layers of snow freeze into icy glaciers that cover the bare mountains and slowly slide down to the sea. The top of the sea freezes too. The scenery looks vast, and the reader can see for herself how easily the polar bear can navigate her terrain, including hunting for fish and seals through small breathing holes in the ice.

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

In just a few pages, we watch as “great chunks of the glaciers break away,” leaving the polar bear hungry and stranded among disparate icebergs floating out to sea. Still, as Winter optimistically reminds us with the subsequent pink and purple-tinged frames, the survival instinct is strong, and Nanuk swims to find another bear with whom to mate and share hunting responsibilities. POLAR BEAR SNUGGLES!

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

Followed by: BABIES! As always, Winter communicates as much with her pictures as she does with her matter-of-fact sentences. The observant child will notice that Nanuk’s mate walks away just as she burrows deep down into the snow to birth her babies as a single mother.

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

My daughter was fascinated, not just by the babies being born in a snow cave, but also by the stark darkness of the Arctic winter—which the mother and her cubs must wait out. (Can you think of a better book to read while the snow swirls and the sky darkens outside our window, while we curl up with our little ones snug under a blanket?)

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

Once winter passes and sunlight returns, Nanuk occupies herself with teaching her cubs to survive in the relentless climate. “Cutey pies,” Emily remarks every time we get to these pages, in the same cooing voice that she reserves for carrying her baby dolls around the house.

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

And then (is that water in my son’s eyes?), Nanuk is once again left alone. After two or three summers have passed, the cubs are ready to go off on their own. Nanuk watches them leave. For the first time, we get a straight-on shot of Nanuk’s somber face. But, of course, this is run-of-the-mill stuff for polar bears, as well as for much of the animal world (we humans have to remind ourselves that it’s a blessing having our kiddos hang around as long as they do).

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

What’s not normal is what happens in the next few pages. The ice is melting. The sea is rising. Soon there will be no place to hunt.

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter
The words “global warming” or “climate change” are never used. Neither are the words “endangered” or “extinct.” There are no whys or criticisms or judgments. There doesn’t have to be.

For now, for the young child, the story serves to plant a seed of more science to come. For now, all my five year old needs to understand is what a polar bear requires for survival—solid footing for exploring, companionship and mating, fishing holes—and how, increasingly, these things are slipping away. All my daughter needs for now is a feeling of awe, tinged with a touch of sadness, concern, and hope. All she needs is to look at the final pictures of Nanuk, who is left to ”dream” of new snow that will fall and freeze and slide down the sea as before, and know that this is the hope, this is what needs to happen for Nanuk and her babies to live on.

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

This doesn’t mean that my son wasn’t quick to educate my daughter and I about “what’s really going on here.” (Lest you forget about this gem of a picture book, which goes into scientific detail for the elementary child about the correlation between burning fossil fuels and global warming). “You know, Mommy,”  JP said about Nanuk, “this reads like a story, but everything in it is actually TRUE.” And then he stared thoughtfully out the window for a moment.

It is also true that melting snow means that our children will finally—after six consecutive school closures—return to their regular routines and us to ours. We as parents look back at last week’s blizzard, smile at the memories, stare at the mounting piles of laundry, and then quickly look ahead to spring. For our children, it’s not quite as easy. Their love affair with the snow is coming to an end too quickly. There was still so much fun to be had in that soft, billowy whiteness.

Perhaps our children can carry their love of snow days into their future work as environmentalists or zoologists or scientists. And make sure that the ones who depend on this very snow and ice for survival get to keep it.

"Nanuk: The Ice Bear" by Jeanette Winter

Other Favorite Non-Fiction Picture Books by Jeanette Winter:
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life With the Chimps (Ages 5-8)
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (Ages 5-8)
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan (Ages 7-10)
Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia (Ages 5-8)
Henri’s Scissors (Ages 5-8)

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Toys as Neurotic as Us

January 20, 2016 § 2 Comments

"Toys Go Out" Series by Emily JenkinsIf my children are playing nicely together (sound the trumpets!), chances are high that they’re in the company of stuffed animals. Once a stuffed animal enters our house and is given a name, it assumes an infallible place in JP and Emily’s communal imagination, albeit in an ever-changing litany of roles, from pet to circus performer. My kids crochet leashes for their animals; they bury them in boxes of peanuts and push them around the house; they string them from ceiling fans. They emerge from their respective bedrooms on weekend mornings, eyes partly open, with half a dozen animals tucked under their arms, ready for action.

Two tigers (Hobbies and Hobbies Jr.), a giant panda in a bellman uniform (Cookie), two doughnuts (Sprinkles and Sprinkles 2), and a monogrammed pillow (named, for whatever nonsensical reason when JP was two, Bag of Worms) are just a few of the soft friends that make frequent appearances in my children’s play. Still, as JP and Emily are quick to remind me, the life of a stuffed animal doesn’t begin and end at the hands of a child. The more exciting question is: what shenanigans do these toys get up to when their children are asleep or away?

Toys coming alive (when no one is looking) is the premise of Emily Jenkins’ hilarious and heartfelt chapter-book trilogy (Ages 7-9, younger if reading aloud), which begins with Toys Go Out, continues with Toy Dance Party, and concludes with Toys Come Home. (The third title is more accurately a “prequel,” although I’d still recommend reading it last, because my kids had a blast hearing the backstory on characters they’d come to love so much.)

The stories are told through the perspective of a small cast of toys, who live with a little girl in a cozy two-story house. The girl, whom the toys affectionately refer to as Honey, plays with her beloved toys as much as she can. She also “knows”—in that instinctual way children do—that the toys move around when she’s at school or on vacation or sleeping. She suspects this is why she sometimes comes upon them in different positions (say, sticking out of a snowdrift) than when she left them.

This is reading aloud at its most seductive.

Case in point: I gave the complete series—in hardcover, because Paul O. Zelinsky’s black-and-white drawings deserve nothing less—to my five year old for Christmas. Emily has been insistently vocal about her jealousy of the time I spend reading with JP after she goes to bed each night. “I want a chapter book that only you and I read!” Jenkins’ series seemed like the perfect answer to this appeal. I assumed my eight year old wouldn’t have too much interest in books whose covers display a stuffed buffalo (named Lumphy), a plush stingray (named StingRay), and a red rubber ball (named—huh?—Plastic).

The most pathetic sight I’ve ever seen might be my eight year old crouching outside his sister’s bedroom door, or wriggling his way under her bed, straining to hear every word of these stories as I read them aloud. After a few days of this, Emily and I decided to put JP out of his misery. We started the series over again in our familiar stance: the five year old on one side of me, the eight year old on the other.

And no wonder. Jenkins’ writing is so delicate, her wit at times so refined, that her stories easily captivate the imagination of the older child as much as the younger one (especially those obsessed, as mine certainly are, with their stuffed toys).

But it’s more than that. These books display some of the best characterization I’ve ever come across in young children’s literature. Jenkins gives her characters such depth of feeling, such clear and multi-faceted personalities, that we feel like we know them as well as we know ourselves. These are characters who harbor the same hopes and fears and questions and neuroses that all of us (I mean, all of our children) do.

There’s Stingray, de facto leader of the group, who thinks she knows everything and pontificates straight out of her backside (“You’re not a grown-up until you’re at least eight…When you’re eight you can drive a limousine…and brush your teeth without being reminded…and you have lots of money to buy all the chocolate you want.”) Over time, we come to recognize that StingRay’s bossiness stems from a deep insecurity of falling out of favor with the little girl. Of becoming unloved.

"Toy Dance Party" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

There’s Lumphy: the innocent, sensitive, prone-to-motion-sickness bison, who prefers to think the best of people and wants only to be noticed in return. Who, again and again, surprises himself by his bravery at the most critical times.

"Toys Go Out" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

There’s bouncy Plastic who, when she’s not having an identity crisis about her name, is at once the most exuberant and levelheaded of the bunch. Her natural curiosity about life and self-taught ability to read makes her a fairly accurate reporter on animals, plants, and weather.

"Toys Go Out" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

Some of my kids’ favorite characters make up the supporting cast. There’s TukTuk the towel, an authority on all things hygiene. There’s Frank the Washing Machine, who lives in the creepy basement and finds a welcome audience for his serenades in the greasy buffalo who frequents his wash cycles. And then there’s the one-eared Sheep, a third generation stuffed animal, whose amassed wisdom about the way the world works often gets lost in his propensity to nod off every few minutes.

Taken as a whole, these three chapter books read like a mini primer on how to navigate relationships. On how to be a child trying to connect with the world. On what to do and what not to do and what to do when you get it wrong.

Have you ever felt jealous? Then you’ll understand why the toys stage a glitter-glue coup on the shiny new Barbies, whom they believe are getting too much of Honey’s attention.

Afraid of the New, the Strange, the Different? When a white rubber shark shows up among Honey’s birthday presents, the toys promptly stuff garbage down its throat in an effort to keep it from eating them (turns out she only wants to start a Paper Chewing Club).

"Toy Dance Party" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

Abandonment issues? Check. Especially when Honey leaves the toys at home during winter vacation, and a day feels like a week feels like a month feels like an eternity. (To add insult to injury, Honey has taken the Barbies with her on vacation—“Those Barbie dolls who say nothing at all!”)

Have you ever made someone feel bad about himself because you were feeling bad about yourself? Have you ever made up something because you were trying to impress someone? Have you ever acted like you didn’t care when deep down you cared so much? All this happens and with great frequency.

But there’s also ample forgiveness, both of each other and of themselves. The toys learn from one another. They constantly have each other’s backs (one chapter is titled “You Can Puke On Me”). And many of the most delightful scenes in the books come when the toys are working together towards a common goal: making a birthday present for Honey; evading a hellacious cat named Pumpkinfacehead; or rescuing StingRay, after she tries to prove that she’s a real fish and nearly drowns in the bathtub (StingRay is humiliated. She almost wishes they hadn’t found her, it is so embarrassing to be a soggy plush sinker fish. And yet, she is very glad they did.)

"Toy Dance Party" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

As Honey gets older, the time she spends with her toys will get shorter. And yet, when the trilogy ends, the toys are beginning to realize that their real loyalty lies to each other. Friendships have their ups and downs, but they also make life every bit worth fighting for. Lumphy, StingRay, and Plastic may still have zillions of questions about how the world works, but chances are they’ll be okay if they stick together.

I only hope my children’s stuffed toys find a similar happy ending someday.

But wait! If your kids aren’t old enough for this chapter book series—or even if they are—Emily Jenkins recently wrote a spin-off PICTURE BOOK, titled Toys Meet Snow. It’s every bit as wonderful as the others (albeit much sparser) and has the added benefit of showcasing Paul O. Zelinsky’s illustrations of these beloved characters in full color. After you read it, you’ll understand why my children have been talking about the “tiny ballerinas that are going to dance down from the sky” in this weekend’s approaching blizzard.

toysmeetsnow

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