December 20, 2018 § Leave a comment
Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.
Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.
Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.
While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.
There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.
And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.
Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”
I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.
Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.
I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.
AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).
Review copy by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
Children are never fools when it comes to laying claim to our attention. They know exactly what they’re doing when they pull out a wordless book for us to “read,” quickly sabotaging our hope of a quick bedtime. Similarly, when our children walk into the room with Monopoly under their arms, they know they’ve turned our innocent consent to a family game into a lost Sunday afternoon. Show me a child who loves Monopoly, and I’ll argue that the appeal is more than the sum of dealing money, lining up those little green houses, and the rush of saying to one’s parents, “You owe me $2000!” (that’s Boardwalk, with a hotel). Because I was once a child, who enjoyed nothing more than racing my dad to see who could lay claim to Boardwalk and Park Place, I know that the Very Best Part of Playing Monopoly is that it takes for-freakin’-ever.
The story of how Monopoly came to be may not be as long-winded as the game itself, but it did span decades. When author Tanya Lee Stone was assigned by her editor to write a book about “how Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman during the Great Depression, went on to become a millionaire by inventing Monopoly” she was slightly disappointed. After all, her sweet spot is writing picture book biographies of historic women who pushed boundaries (ones we’ve loved as a family include Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, and Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace).
Imagine Stone’s delight—and our surprise—when her research into the backstory of Monopoly revealed that it was not, in fact, Charles Darrow who came up with the game in the first place. It was a woman named Lizzie Magie. She even filed a patent for her invention. Twice.
Say what?! A woman invented and patented the game, but a man reaped millions for it? (If your children are shocked by this turn of events, there may be hope for us yet.)
In Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented (Ages 7-12), Stone unearths the fascinating details behind the creation and branding of a game that children (and adults) have been enthusiastically (or reluctantly) playing since the late 1800s. Stone’s conversational tone engages from the start—“What kind of Monopoly player are YOU?…Do you buy up all the properties you can? Do you always want to be the banker?”—before she commences with her history lesson. Similarly, illustrator Steven Salerno does such a bang-up job of drawing in the same oversized, cartoonish style as the game box itself—including weaving in familiar elements like the Monopoly man and the black steam engine—that I’ll be damned if my kids, upon finishing the book, didn’t immediately drag out our own dog-eared box and begin to set up the game. (Consider yourself warned.)
Lizzie Magie (1866-1948) was a clever, comedic woman with a penchant for activism. Specifically, she was concerned with the intersection of wealth and poverty in the late 1800s, when greedy landowners continually escalated the rents of their city tenants simply because of the monopoly they held on the land they owned. The resulting situation—“in which the landlords could become wealthier while renters, or tenants, stayed poor”—was one Lizzie decided to expose with the design of a game she patented and titled the Landlord’s Game in 1903.
Half the fun of this book for my kids was tracing the evolution of the game that eventually became known as Monopoly, beginning with identifying similarities in Lizzie’s initial design. In fact, there is lots about the early game that will sound familiar to our kids, including a square board, two different kinds of cards to draw, twenty-two properties with purchase prices and rent values, a “Go to Jail” corner square, and four railroads.
Over the next six years, not only did Lizzie make various revisions to her game, but the people to whom she handmade and distributed the game added their own ideas—including the students in a business class at the University of Pennsylvania, who were responsible for changing the name to Monopoly. In 1909, Lizzie attempted to sell an updated design to the Parker Brothers game company. The Brothers turned it down, on the basis of it being “too challenging and educational” (there’s a thought for ya). Still, Lizzie grew more determined, updating her patent in 1924 with a design that included creating houses and hotels for players to purchase for their properties.
The popularity of the game continued to spread, as did people wanting to put their own enduring stamp on the design. A Quaker teacher in 1930, for example, renamed the properties after different streets and neighborhoods in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Funnily enough, on a road trip through New Jersey about a month before we discovered this book, my son read out this fact from his trusty Atlas.) Eventually, the game piqued the interest of Charles Darrow, a salesman down on his luck during the Great Depression. After a dinner guest showed it to him, Darrow became so enamored with the game that he decided to clean up the design—including adding some of the iconic visual elements we recognize today—and to craft a number of stenciled boards to sell to friends.
Darrow soon approached Parker Brothers and convinced them to purchase Monopoly. Before the deal was finalized, however, Lizzie Magie’s patent was discovered, and George Parker found himself on her doorstep, begging to her to release the patent to him for a mere $500. Lizzie agreed, content to have her game reach a mass audience, although perhaps unaware that her initial agenda—to reveal the disparity of wealth when one person assumes sole control of a property—was in the end her personal demise. Charles Darrow went on to make a million dollars from the sale; the Parker Brothers even more. Today, Darrow is still credited on the box itself with the game’s invention.
Before the book concludes with a wealth of back matter, including updates on more recent changes to the game—Did you know that in 2017, thanks to a Facebook survey, the boot, thimble, and wheelbarrow pieces were replaced by a penguin, rubber ducky, and T.Rex?!—author Stone encourages her reader to discuss and debate the fairness of Monopoly’s sale. Did the right person get the money? Who ultimately deserves the credit for Monopoly’s success?
Playing Monopoly may be an education in landowning, renting, and taxation, but its origin story is an even more complicated lesson in business—particularly, in the gender politics that have long informed business in this country. My kids will inevitably con me into playing this game for hours and hours, but I intend not to let them forget its fascinating backstory with a feminist twist.
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Book published by Henry Holt and Company. 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!
February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments
Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. About slavery, for example, he explains:
I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it. I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.
We can outlaw slavery, Stevenson argues, or sentence lynchers, or desegregate schools, or pass the Voting Rights Act—but only when we begin talking honestly in our schools, homes, and communities about the complicated, nuanced history of growing up African-American at different times in our country, can we understand the tremendous rise in incarceration rates among black Americans, or the “menacing of communities of color and poor communities,” or the defense of Confederacy symbols. “We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.” Not long after reading Stevenson’s piece, I came across an unsettling article in The Atlantic titled “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery.” It cites a new study revealing how grossly misinformed American children are about the history of slavery in our country, largely due to uninformed, “sentimentalized,” or “sanitized” teaching—or even the absence of teaching on the subject all together.
Personalizing the history of enslaved people—for example, encouraging the reading of individual narratives—is an important first step, Stevenson argues, towards internalizing the truth about our country’s history, so that we can begin rewriting the present. As a child, I was fascinated by the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman—specifically, by her involvement with the Underground Railroad. After all, what child isn’t intrigued by a so-called underground railroad that has neither anything to do with trains nor is actually underground? The Underground Railroad was, of course, a secret network of people, some black and some white, who were committed to providing safe harbor, often at great personal risk, to runaway slaves attempting to make their way on foot to freedom in the North. The struggle and heroism displayed on both sides—from the runaways to the helpers—is positively staggering. As such, it has always seemed to me a compelling but still hopeful lens through which to introduce young children to slavery.
I decided to dedicate this past month to sharing books with my kids about Harriet Tubman, especially given that—in part thanks to the media attention garnered last year by our own President’s exhibited ignorance about the American icon—a flurry of new children’s books on the subject have recently been published. (My son tried to convince me he already knew all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5: The Underground Abductor, which admittedly is an awesome book, but I convinced him to humor me.)
If the best of American history is filled with people changing their destinies, turning misfortune into opportunity, and standing up to fight for themselves and, in turn, for those who cannot, then Harriet Tubman personifies the American Ideal. The two books I’ve chosen to discuss today could not be more different; but they work beautifully in tandem: the first bringing new texture to the most commonly known aspects of Tubman’s life, and the second expanding our awareness of her involvement and accomplishments beyond the Underground Railroad.
I am Harriet Tubman (Ages 6-10) is the fourteenth installment in Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’s hugely popular “Ordinary People Change the World” graphic biography series, many of which—as I discussed in the wake of the 2016 election—have become especially near and dear to my daughter’s heart. (When Emily’s school had Biography Day a few weeks ago, there was never any doubt she would go as Helen Keller—because I am Helen Keller.)
One of the biggest draws of this series for young children is its focus on the subject’s childhood. I am Harriet Tubman is no exception. Here, Meltzer and Eliopoulos do an especially adept job of presenting the inhumanity of slavery through the eyes of young Harriet. For children, slavery meant no birthday celebrations (in most cases, children had no idea when their birthdays were). Children had to wear “sacks.” They were forbidden by law to read and write. They were beaten if they didn’t do what their masters demanded. And their families could be split and sold off with no warning, which meant one day you or your loved one might be forced to leave, in many cases never to reunite with family again.
Even when describing horrific events, Harriet’s voice (through Meltzer) emerges emboldened, keeping the subject matter from becoming too overwhelming for her audience: “I know it’s scary. But by hearing my story, I hope you’ll find strength you never knew you had. That’s what happened when I was around seven years old.” At age seven, Harriet explains, in order to escape a beating, she hid in a pigpen for five days, “fighting the pigs for potato peelings.” When she eventually came out of hiding, near starvation, she was still beaten—and yet, the experience changed the way she (and those around her) saw herself: she was not afraid to protect herself. As years went on, she continued to endure abuse and injury at the hands of her owners. Still, each time she didn’t die, she drew faith that God was watching out for her. She began to allow herself to dream of freedom, of letting the North Star show her the way.
At 22 years of age, Harriet narrowly escaped to Philadelphia. Even more harrowing were her thirteen trips back to Maryland to escort 70 others, including strangers and family members, along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Both my children were riveted by these panels: Harriet disguising men as old ladies so they wouldn’t be recognized; hiding with runaways in hidden passages; wading through icy waters by dark; and creating diversions to get slave hunters off her back. “It’s sort of confusing,” my daughter pointed out, “but all the terrible work Harriet had to do when she was a slave, chopping wood and stuff, actually made her strong enough to get through the wilderness like that.” Indeed, the tables had been tuned, one of the many nuanced ironies of oppression.
At its conclusion, I am Harriet Tubman raises the idea that freedom alone is only part of the equation: it’s what we do with our freedom that determines our character. In the case of Harriet Tubman, she dedicated her new life to helping others, believing (her words) “the measure of success isn’t what you achieve for yourself, it’s what you do for others.”
In my life, I was told I couldn’t make my own choices.
Told I would never escape.
But I did.
I fought for my independence.
And once I had breathed the air of freedom,
I knew I needed to help others breathe it too.
For more about what the adult Tubman achieved on behalf of others, we turn to our second book. If I am Harriet Tubman begins with its subject as a child, this second tribute to the American icon begins at the end of her life. The lyrical and intimate Before She Was Harriet (Ages 7-12), written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome, actually begins with Harriet’s wrinkles: “Here she sits/ an old woman/ tired and worn/ her legs stiff/ her back achy.”
The title a nod to her birth under a different name, Before She Was Harriet takes readers on a poetic journey backwards through Tubman’s life, from an old woman to the young slave who learned to read by starlight. Each turn of the page peels back another layer, revealing the incredible breath of roles she played in her life, well beyond that of “Moses,” the Underground Railroad conductor for which she is most well known.
For example, before she “was an old woman,” Harriet was a “loud and angry” suffragist, fighting on behalf of women’s rights:
a voice for women
who had none
in voting booths
before her voice became
soft and raspy
it was loud
rising above injustice
Before she was a suffragist, she was an abolitionist, serving in the Civil War by ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom: General Tubman/ rising out of the fog/ armed with courage/ strong in the face of rebels/ and planters and overseers/ as they watched/ fields burn. Before she was General Tubman, she was a Union Spy, carrying secrets/ across battlefields/ to soldiers/ fighting in the Civil War/ for President Lincoln/ to end slavery.
As the pages continue, they reveal a younger and younger Tubman. Only great restraint on my part is holding me back from citing each one of the evocative, economical poems which deliver these momentous roles and deeds to us. And yet, even as Harriet Tubman emerges a fiery feminist, a fierce warrior, and (let’s be honest) a total Bad Ass, the soft watercolor illustrations allude all the time to her grace, her humility, and her quiet stoicism. She looks, well, human. She looks relatable.
At the end of his interview about the state of race in our country, Stevenson is asked whether he feels hopeful going forward, particularly for the youngest generations. His response gives me chills:
I don’t think we’re allowed, frankly, to get hopeless and beat down, and I think that’s the upside to understanding this history. The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—because my grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved, and her father was in her ear every day of her life talking about slavery, and she was in my ear, I feel the force of their strength. I really do.
Harriet Tubman underscores this power. The power to stand up, to push back, and to fight. The even greater power to help others do the same. These two pictorial accounts of Harriet, of “Moses,” are just a few of the many illuminating narratives children’s literature gives us to help bring our children into the larger narrative of race, racial history, and the move toward racial justice in our country.
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Books published by Dial Books for Young Readers and Holiday House respectively. Review copy provided by Dial. 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!
April 20, 2017 § 2 Comments
“Don’t leave the water running!” shouted one of my Girl Scouts, as she waited in line behind her fellow Daisies to wash hands during one of our recent meetings. She turned to me. “That’s true, right? My mom says you shouldn’t waste water.” I told her I thought that was a commendable goal, and then another girl asked why. A third girl piped in: “Because otherwise there won’t be any water left in the oceans, and the fish will all die.”
This is not dissimilar to adages which I have used with my own children in the past. And I’ve heard plenty of other parents try out similar renditions. But I’ve also felt slightly disingenuous and awkward delivering them, because explanations like these are neither correct nor that simple. A child has only to visit the beach and stare out into the vast expanse of blue to feel some futility at the prospect of draining the oceans by leaving the tap running a few extra seconds. It simply doesn’t hold up, and what seems implausible doesn’t ultimately motivate behavior. Perhaps the real reason we end up saying shorthand things like this is that many of us don’t know the ins and outs of how our planet’s closed-water system sustains itself. (Guilty as charged.)
With Earth Day this Saturday, I was thrilled to discover that children’s author-illustrator Molly Bang and MIT ecology professor Penny Chisholm have once again teamed up to release the fourth installment in their critically acclaimed non-fiction “Sunlight Series.” Even better, their latest title is dedicated to the water cycle! If there’s anyone who can aid me in my quest to better understand the science around me—and then impart this science to my children—it’s Bang and Chisholm. In pairing highly detailed explanations about the sun’s sustaining role in our planet with rich, shimmering oil paintings, Bang and Chisholm seem to be on something of a crusade to bring our children into the fold of Mother Nature, igniting a life-long passion for conservation. And since these books benefit tenfold from being digested alongside a parent or teacher, we adults are in a position to learn just as much as our children. (You might remember how mind-blown I was by Bang and Chisholm’s previous title, Buried Sunlight, which reveals the slow and painstaking process behind the sun’s creation of fossil fuels, which we humans gobble up as if we were guaranteed an endless supply).
Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth (Ages 7-10) follows in the tradition of its predecessors, whereby a personified, off-screen sun directly addresses the reader: “I am your sun. My energy warms your days. I light up your world.” The sun, we quickly understand, is also the master puppeteer responsible for moving water around the earth. Right off the bat, the book debunks a common misconception: that our oceans are as rich in water as they appear. True, Earth is the “blue planet”—and yet, the oceans are “actually just a thin, thin film covering most of your planet.” Here follows a visual which I’ll admit made my mouth fall open, say nothing of my children.
If all of the Earth’s water were rolled into a ball, that ball would be only a fraction of the size of our planet. If you then extracted just the fresh water from this model—and then just the fresh water that’s readily accessible (i.e. not trapped in ice or deep below the ground)—the blue ball is nothing more than a tiny dot compared to the size of the earth.
How can this tiny speck of fresh water sustain “ALL life on Earth”? The answer is through endless permutations of recycling, each made possible directly or indirectly by the sun. Similar to how water flows in and out of our body and those of other living creatures, water is forever traversing our planet: evaporating into the sky from the salty oceans, moving across land in clouds, raining down on mountains and rivers, and seeping through sand and gravel into aquifers held deep underground. Some of this water is released back into the atmosphere when plants use the sun’s energy to photosynthesize, thereby riding clouds back to the oceans, while other water returns to the seas via the rivers that flow there.
Even the oceans themselves are constantly cycling water, in the form of giant currents like the Gulf Stream and the Ocean Conveyor Belt, which subsequently regulate Earth’s temperatures by dispersing the warmth generated at the equator (my weather-obsessed son was riveted) and ensuring that nutrients find their way into the mouths of sea creatures.
At every turn, Rivers of Sunlight resists the temptation to simplify. And yet, while it delves deeper into the water cycle than any picture book I’ve encountered for elementary children, the prose on each page remains lyrical and uncluttered (with much of the complex science reserved for the book’s extensive and exceptional twelve-part index). Water alone is not enough to sustain life on our planet. It’s the moving of water wherein the magic lies. The “rivers of sunlight,” which move through our bodies, through our oceans, and across our land tell more than just a narrative: they are the stuff of poetry.
The movement of water around Earth is hardly arbitrary, nor can it be to do its job. Time and again, our narrator emphasizes the delicate balance upon which each turn of the water cycle hangs: the precarious implications of delivering too much or too little water to one area, of draining aquifers faster than rain can replenish them, of rising sea levels, of dumping waste. The total amount of water on our planet is fixed. Despite an ever-increasing population, there will never be one drop more than what we have now. Reading this book, it is impossible not to come away with the conviction that we must manage this water carefully, even before our sunny narrator appeals to us on the final page to uphold our end of the bargain. “I, your sun, will do my part to keep Earth’s water clean and flowing. Will you do your part? Will you find ways to use water sparingly and keep it clean?”
My children were even more inspired by the last paragraph of the Appendix, a meatier and more vivid call to action.
The next time you drink a glass of water, remember this: All those water molecules have been constantly moving, through sea and sky, lakes and streams, through plants and worms, insects and elephants—giving them life. Where might those molecules go next as they leave your body and move on? What are ALL the ways those molecules sustain life on Earth and shape the very nature of our blue planet? TREASURE YOUR WATER: IT IS YOUR LIFE.
There’s your answer the next time your children ask why they should care about conserving water. Then send them outside so they can experience firsthand the beauty worth saving.
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Book published by Scholastic. 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!
March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
“We read to practice at life.” So proclaims award-winning children’s author, Linda Sue Park, in her must-watch Ted Talk, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?” Speaking from a childhood spent in and around libraries, Park argues that stories offer children a unique “superpower”: the chance to “practice facing life’s unfairness with hope, with righteous anger, and with determination.” Great works of literature do more than shape us: they become part of who we are.
Hope, anger and determination were present in spades over the past two months, as my son and his third-grade classmates gathered for “literature circle,” a book club of sorts which I’m lucky enough to lead at their school each Wednesday. Selecting A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park’s short but tremendously powerful 2010 middle-grade novel set in and around Africa’s South Sudan, was hardly unique. Part refugee story, part war story, and part exposé on contemporary life in one of the poorest corners of the world, A Long Walk to Water (ages 10-16) has long been hailed as a story which begs to be discussed in the classroom, not only for the meaningful context which teachers (or parents!) can provide to Park’s intentionally sparse writing, but also for way this particular story inspires children to want to learn—and do—more.
Park’s story takes something children (perhaps even most adults) know nothing about, something which happened—is still happening—on the other side of the globe, and transforms it into something tangible, personal, and unforgettable.
Last month, The Atlantic ran an article—“Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present”—which discussed the impact historical fiction can have when read in classroom settings. Historical fiction not only offers an invaluable opportunity for eliciting empathy among readers for the suffering of different ethnic or political groups, but it also encourages the development of critical-thinking skills, which can help children connect these events to things happening closer to home. The article goes on:
Psychology studies show that children develop a strong sense of fairness at an early age and understand when they are receiving less than others. Kids in some countries, including the U.S., have been shown to have “advantageous-inequity aversion,” meaning that they’re bothered when they receive more than others…[T]eachers can build on students’ strong sense of justice to connect discussions of historical events to contemporary civics and issues, guided by the question “what can we do to help the world function better for everyone?”
I witnessed firsthand this transformation among JP and his classmates: over the course of their two months reading A Long Walk to Water, the globe shrank, others people’s problems became human problems, and the kids were left with one of the greatest gifts a book can bestow—wondering how to help. Activism is born in these very pages.
A Long Walk to Water recounts the largely true story of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who at eleven is forced to flee his country on foot, when his village is targeted in 1985 as part of the Sudanese Civil War. When the story opens, Salva is just an ordinary boy, daydreaming at his desk at school, anticipating the pleasure of getting home to his mother’s snack. Suddenly, he is caught up in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, escaping gunfire by running from his classroom into the wild bush outside.
Separated from his parents and siblings, whom he believes are dead, Salva embarks on a long and perilous journey on foot across South Sudan, eventually spending ten years in refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, before being adopted by an American family in Rochester, New York.
In only 115 pages, Park manages to pack a lifetime of drama, much of which is as compelling as it is horrifying, including prolonged periods of starvation, animal attacks, and—most distressing for Salva—the point-blank assassination of his uncle, his only remaining family member.
I called my grandmother one day after our meeting and happened to mention the plot of the book we were discussing. She was taken aback: “Is that even appropriate for children? Won’t it upset them? We didn’t read anything like this when we were kids!” If I’m being honest, these same questions had occurred to me more than a few times, especially when one of the girls complained of nightmares. (Later, she told me this was one of her favorite books.)
But then I thought about the palpable excitement during our discussions, how children were checking out books on Africa from the library, bringing in photos of lions crouched in the Sudanese bush, of refugee camps with sleeping bodies inhumanely crammed against one another. How one of the children, who had been too shy to read aloud from our previous book in the fall, was suddenly volunteering to read passages to the group to make his point. How I could hardly get the children back to their classroom after an hour because they wanted to keep talking.
How these kids wanted to understand, wanted to see the world through Salva’s eyes, to appreciate his remarkable, impossible-seeming journey.
I believe two things help children absorb the blows in this story. First, Park’s prose is as lyrical as it is dramatic, deliberately sparse in gory details, and filled with as much beauty as suffering. Salva savoring a mouthful of honeycomb after coming across a beehive following days without food. Salva smiling at the memory of his father bringing home a cherished mango from market, lodged in the spokes of his bicycle wheels. Salva convincing an Irish aid worker in the refugee camp to teach him English—and the game of volleyball.
Secondly, Salva’s story is one of survival—and, ultimately, one of hope. Salva survives the unlikeliest of circumstances because of his grit, because of his perseverance, because—as the real Salva repeats several times in his Ted Talk, which the kids were fascinated to watch after finishing the book, their favorite character amazingly transformed into flesh and blood—“I just kept on walking.” Time and again, the Salva in the story asks himself, How can I go on? And time and again, he finds a way, not just to survive, but to help others do the same.
“Why do you think Salva is able to go on after all these terrible things happen to him?” I asked my group during our final discussion.
“Because he is brave,” one boy answered quickly.
“But was he always brave?” I asked.
“No, not really.”
“So how did he find his bravery?” I continued.
There was a pause, and then one girl raised her hand. “I think he realized he could stand up to his sadness. That he could sort of turn his sadness into power.”
If I had had my doubts earlier, these words cinched a new certainty: these children got it. If there is a better story for children to hear, I can’t think of it.
As it turns out, Salva’s is not the only story in the book. At the beginning of each chapter—set aside in a different type face—is a dual, albeit much shorter, narrative set 23 years after Salva’s story begins. Nya is a ten-year-old girl living in contemporary South Sudan, old enough to go to school but forced instead to spend eight hours of every day walking to the closest pond to retrieve a single jug of muddy, bacteria-infested water on which her family survives. Nya is without shoes to protect her feet from the blisteringly hot and aggressively thorny path on which she treads, and at times she must drag along her tiny, five-year-old sister. (“But this happened a really long time ago,” one of my students said, “right?” I showed him the date at the top above each of Nya’s chapters: 2008, 2009.)
The relevance of Nya’s story—why it’s there and how, if at all, it relates to Salva’s—is not initially apparent. In fact, many of the children in my group admitted to “skipping” Nya’s installments to jump ahead to Salva’s nail-biting adventures, and we often used our discussion time to go back and read these poetic passages together. During one week’s meeting, I brought in a glass of water, set it in the middle of the table, and tasked the children with thinking about how they would allocate 20 daily cups of water if they were heading up a family of five. How much water would go to drinking, cooking, bathing, washing dishes, watering gardens, and so forth? There was much scratching of heads and scribbling on paper and, by the end, one child couldn’t contain himself: “It would be so much easier if they had running water!” Yes. Yes, it would.
Eventually, most of the group felt invested in Nya’s plight, which made the ending all the more gratifying. Where Salva ultimately finds security in immigrating to America, Nya witnesses the drilling of a well in her village, a turn of events which not only offers an assurance of cleaner water and better health for her family, but a wealth of educational and economic opportunities. The novel’s surprising final page—where Salva and Nya’s stories finally intersect, where Salva (now an adult) makes possible this happy ending of sorts for Nya—created a flurry of excitement and more than a few misty eyes from the children (and me).
A Long Walk to Water concludes with two Afterwards: the first an inspiring “can do” message from the real Salva Dut, and the second an Author’s Note discussing Salva’s non-profit organization, Water for South Sudan, which to date has drilled 282 wells. Immediately—before I could even pose the question—the children began brainstorming ways they could support Salva’s efforts. But what struck me was how quickly the conversation broadened: Should they organize a fundraiser to drill more wells in South Sudan, or should they help fund wells in other countries, or should they help contemporary refugees escaping similar violence and poverty? (One child was especially insistent we find a way to bring Wallmarts to Africa.) For nearly an hour, I didn’t do much more than listen to them hash out well-argued cases, using vocabulary I’m quite sure none of them possessed two months ago.
Whatever plan these children decide on—and I do hope we will get something off the ground this spring (I’ll keep you posted)—one thing is for sure: their world view is expanding; they are beginning to glimpse the multitude of complexities and injustices afloat at home and abroad; and they are not going to sit idly by.
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Book published by 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!
January 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
This Saturday, following Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States of America, possibly a million or more women will participate in organized marches all over the country, a vehement and vocal response to the objectifying, demeaning, and hostile rhetoric towards women (as well as minority populations) that the president elect boastfully carries with him into office. It will be our way of ensuring that these sentiments are not normalized, that they are not translated into policy, and that they will not turn back the clock to a past that, just a handful of months ago, felt to many (myself included) blessedly out of date.
This past weekend, as I shared with my children Doreen Rappaport’s new picture book, Elizabeth Started All the Trouble (Ages 6-10)—a highly engaging introduction to the 75-year-long suffrage movement started by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848—I was reminded of the legacy of women that stand at our backs, a legacy that suddenly feels hauntingly close. If history is doomed to repeat itself, then we are taking to the streets in 2017 to ensure, in the very best of ways, that it does. Because, as Rappaport reminds us, women who stand up and speak out and do so again and again will force fissures on the most stubbornly patriarchal, racist, and xenophobic obstacles. And it would appear our work is far from finished.
My own children, captivated by Matt Faulkner’s illustrations of the various signs held up by generations of protesting women—“Vote for Equality,” “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” “Respect Your Mother Earth,” “Failure is Impossible,” and “No H8”—were surprisingly quick to point out, “Mommy, people could make those same signs for the March next weekend. They’re still true, aren’t they?” It seems our children are already privy to a living, breathing resistance movement, the likes of which many of us previously glimpsed only in history books.
What I perhaps enjoy most about Elizabeth Started All the Trouble is that, contrary to what its title suggests, it is less concerned with one player in history and more concerned with the diversity of trailblazers and game changers. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott may have formalized a document demanding women’s rights at the historic convention at Seneca Falls, NY on July 13, 1848, but our author suggests that the fight for women’s equality began with our country’s founding mothers. Rappaport’s book opens with a prescient warning delivered over 235 years ago by Abigail Adams to her husband, John, during his work drafting laws for an America that had just declared independence from Britain.
Abigail was ecstatic. She wanted independence as much as John did. But she was worried: Would women be included in the new laws? She warned John that if women were not remembered, they would start their own revolution.
John laughed at her.
It took much longer than Abigail wanted for that revolution to begin. But if finally started, seventy-two years later.
While this eventual “revolution” would most dramatically center on a woman’s right to vote—a pursuit immortalized by Stanton and Mott and adopted by Susan B. Anthony—it was also about fighting against “all the unfair laws against women written by men.”
In that spirit, the book incorporates many of the “firsts” that took place alongside the suffrage movement: Amelia Bloomer, who advocated women trading in their fourteen-pound petticoats for less cumbersome clothing; Mary Lyon, who founded Mount Holyoke College, where women could study the same subjects as men; Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, who opened the first medical school to women; and Lucy Stone, who refused to say the word “obey” in her marriage vows and kept her name in the spirit of “equal partnership.” Young readers may well come away from this book with plans for additional research subjects.
Author Rappaport doesn’t shy away from exposing the hypocrisies embedded in this part of American history either, particularly where the rights of women and African Americans intersected. Stanton and Mott were initially involved in abolitionism—and yet, even as they were allowed in the same room as delegates debating the issue of slavery, they were forced as women to sit behind a curtain so they could not be seen. “How could men who were against slavery deny women their rights just because they were women?” the book asks.
In another example, the freed slave Sojourner Truth “caused quite a stir” at a suffragist meeting by pointing out the gross differences between the treatment of white women versus black women: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best places everywhere…Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”
The right to vote remains the greatest and most opposed struggle of the women’s rights movement, and author Rappaport (with her dramatic pacing) and illustrator Faulkner (with his distortions of perspective) do a stellar job of eliciting awe for the fight it was. What strikes me most in these pages is just how long the suffrage movement endured—how many speeches and marches took place (in snow, rain, hail, and blizzards); how many times people faced name calling, physical attacks, and even imprisonment. This Saturday’s march is daunting enough—but what’s more daunting is that it’s less than a fraction of what our predecessors did!
In the end—and if their struggle wasn’t tortuous enough—most of the longest fighting suffragists did not live to see August 26, 1920, the date in which women were lawfully granted the right to vote with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment (although, as Jonah Winter’s powerful Lillian’s Right to Vote reveals, that was not the final word for African-American women).
Recently in the car, I was listening to an interview on Ted Radio Hour with Krista Tippett, host of the public-radio show “On Being,” She was discussing her Ted Talk on the subject of compassion, and she spoke about what she believes is a frequent misunderstanding of the word. “Compassion is not necessarily about agreeing with someone else,” she says. “It’s not necessarily even about liking them. It is about making a choice to honor their humanity.”
It strikes me that this Saturday’s march—and the future demonstrations which are certain to follow—are, at their core, about just that: about reminding our government, our fellow citizens, and everyone around the world that the simple fact of being human demands that we begin from a place of respect and decency. The United States of America was founded on the promise of freedom and equality. We may have needed frequent reminders of this promise over our 241 years as a country—we are seeing now that we cannot grow complacent—but we will never let our humanity be eclipsed.
Books like Elizabeth Started All the Trouble invite our children into the rich tapestry of activism which continues to shape the way we—both men and women—should be able to live.
Other Favorites About the Women’s Rights Movement:
Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, by Tanya Lee Stone & Rebecca Gibbon
Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles, by Mara Rockliff
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by Jonah Winter (my post here)
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers Strike of 1909, by Michelle Markel & Melissa Sweet (my post here)
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, by Tanya Lee Stone & Marjorie Priceman
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy & Elizabeth Braddeley
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Book published by Disney Hyperion. 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!
November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments
In light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.
What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened?
In the first 48 hours following the shocking results, I was unable to turn away from the news, inhaling every editorial or opinion piece that I could find—as if, taken together, all those words could fill the chasm that I felt breaking open inside me. Two common refrains did provide some element of sense-making—at the very least, something I could echo to my children: one, that many of the people who voted for our president-elect do not support his hateful rhetoric but did so because they or their communities are hurting in very real ways; and two, that with a country so vehemently divided, we have to start listening to one another if we are going to find a productive and peaceful way forward.
Eventually, though, the news just made my head hurt more. (I then went through a period of emotional eating, but we’ll leave that out…plus, it hasn’t completely ended and, come to think of it, I think I’m getting low on peanut butter ice cream…)
Ultimately, though—as has been true so many times in my life—it is books that are serving as my therapy, books that are giving me hope. In my alone time in the car, I am listening to Sissy Spacek’s beautiful recording of To Kill a Mockingbird and taking heart in everything that comes out of the mouth of Atticus Finch. Immediately following the election, I read to the kids Debbie Levy’s new picture book biography, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, mostly so I could reassure myself that there are still people in power fighting for decency and justice. Then, over the weekend, the kids and I cozied up and rejoiced in Ratpunzel, the latest in the deliciously feminist “Hamster Princess” series, because, well, escapist therapy feels pretty great right now.
But the most fortuitous book-related turn of events came when the kids and I stumbled upon a collection of books about the very heroes from our past who can inspire us to stand up in our future. These are true stories that address many of the very prejudices and injustices that I believed were mired in our country’s past, but which I am now painfully aware were not all that deeply buried after all.
As kismet would have it, last week’s election was immediately followed by the arrival of our Scholastic mail-order books, which my kids have been eagerly anticipating ever since they turned in their orders at school a few weeks ago (the newsprint circulars from Scholastic are another thing that has not changed in this country).
I had been pleasantly surprised when my six year old originally picked out a “starter set” of five titles in Brad Meltzer’s “Ordinary People Change the World” series, seeing as she has shown zero interest in biographies to date (or, if I’m being honest, in most non-fiction). Of course, she’s exactly the reader that Meltzer intended to target when he decided to introduce historical figures through conversation, cartoons, and a child-centric view of the world, in such titles as I am Abraham Lincoln, I am Rosa Parks, I am Albert Einstein, I am Jackie Robinson, and I am Amelia Earhart. (In less than a week, we have since added I am Jane Goodall, I am Martin Luther King Jr., I am George Washington, and I am Helen Keller to our collection. And I am Lucille Ball and I am Jim Henson are on our list.)
If I was originally surprised by my daughter’s selection, I am even more surprised that, in the days following our initial reading of the first five books, my daughter has carried them everywhere. She reads them in the bathroom. She reads them at night by flashlight. And, since she can’t actually read, she asks me to read them aloud to her again and again.
I am even more surprised that my third grader has stopped what he’s doing—every single time—to look over our shoulders as we read them. As if he too can’t get enough. He even took three to bed with him last night.
I am even more surprised by how animated and excited I become while reading these books, as if optimism—and not outrage or heartbreak—is raining down upon us for a few precious minutes.
I am even more surprised that I’m saying this about these particular books. Because I have, admittedly, been slow to get on the bandwagon of Brad Meltzer’s popular series, which launched almost three years ago. There’s much about Christopher Eliopoulus’ illustrations—the oversized heads, the gaping black mouths, the blunt backgrounds—that I initially mistook for crude (the adult-in-a-kid’s-body still kind of freaks me out). I preferred reading about Einstein through the sublime art of On a Beam of Light, or Lincoln through the abstract palette of Looking for Lincoln. But, of course, my six year old doesn’t.
So, while I’ve recommended the “Ordinary People Change the World” series to schools, even brought them into my kids’ classrooms from the library, I never really saw them as worthy to own. Of course, I hadn’t ever sat down and read one cover to cover. Until now.
Now, I get it. Because Meltzer’s writing is utterly captivating. The choice to write in the first person is unique (“It’s like I’m hearing their real voices, Mommy!”), and the choice to directly address the child reader makes it impossible to look away.
Each book is a living and breathing example of what it looks like to stand up for what you believe, to stand up for what you love, to stand up for what is right. Each book showcases obstacles that had to be overcome, nay-sayers that had to be denied, and courage that had to be summoned. Each book demonstrates the way in which determination, combined with hard work, a hefty dose of creativity, and serious guts, fuels ordinary people to make the extraordinary happen.
It turns out that Eliopoulus’ blend of cartoons and comics perfectly complements the tone of the narrative, heightening the indignance of the voices, the unfairness of the situations, and the celebration of expectations overturned. As a bonus, his pictures lend humor to many of the pages (and if there’s one thing that will get my youngest interested in history, it’s humor).
When Rosa Parks talks about how she used to wonder if rainbows would come out of the “colored” drinking fountains—the ones that were outside and around the building from the “white only” fountains—we want to reach through the page and hold her little hand.
When the character of Jackie Robinson confides to the child reader about bravery, we lean in to listen. Jackie was not by most definitions a brave kid: “In fact, as a kid, I didn’t like sleeping alone. I used to sleep in my mom’s bed. Even when she tried to bribe me, I wouldn’t leave.” And yet, years later, his passion for baseball—and for winning at baseball—led him to persevere against all odds, despite pitchers throwing fastballs at his head and catchers spitting on his shoes and letters that threatened to hurt his family.
These books are much more sophisticated than I presumed at first glance—scintillating for a kindergartener, yet still plenty meaty at 30-40 pages for a third and fourth grader. Neither do they shy away from hard truths. In I am Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln watches as a boat sails down the Ohio river carrying slaves chained to one another (“I didn’t do anything that day, but for years, the memory of those people…it haunted me.”).
In I am Martin Luther King Jr., many of the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement—and the violent reactions they sometimes spurred—are vividly brought to life, including the Children’s Crusade (“The chief of police told the firemen to spray the children with water hoses and attack them with dogs.”).
Defiance comes in many forms. Both my kids were fascinated to learn that General George Washington used invisible ink and code names to draw up plans that the British couldn’t read (“How’d we win? We were smarter. We were sneakier. We were fighting for a cause. For freedom!”).
Helen Keller, mocked for her “dumbness” and initially told she couldn’t attend college—even after she had taught herself to speak—went on to fight for the access of public universities for all people, regardless of disabilities. Because activism breeds activism, she also went on to become a suffragist, an early advocate for free speech, and a fighter for equal rights for black Americans. And she did so by making sure that she met with every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson (“But let’s be honest. They met her.”)
Jane Goodall’s love for the planet and the animals with whom we share that planet feels especially poignant right now; and the undeniable cuteness of the chimps in I am Jane Goodall doesn’t hurt. (“Listen to the feelings in your heart. We are responsible for the animals around us. We must take care of them. When one of us is in trouble—be it human, creature, or nature itself—we must reach out and help.”)
It’s hard to say how much my daughter understands about this presidential election and its ramifications. Probably not a whole lot. In the 48 hours that followed, while her older brother was busy listing off organizations that we should give money to and describing signs he wants to make for the yard (Peace for All), Emily just kept asking, “Can’t they have a do-over?”
But I wonder if, perhaps on some subconscious level, she was drawn to these books because they carry with them a note of hope in a time that feels dangerously close to listing toward hopelessness. Children don’t have to understand the particulars about our government to pick up on the uncertainty and uneasiness that exists in the air right now. These books reassure us of the greatness in our country and across the world, of the resiliency of mankind, and of the potential for one person to make a difference.
Each of Meltzer’s biographies closes with a call to action, an encouragement to stand up in the name of human dignity. One of the most fitting passages, given our current social climate, comes out of the mouth of Rosa Parks (via Brad Meltzer).
In my life, people tried to knock me down.
Tried to make me feel less than I was. They teased
me for being small. Being black. Being different.
Let me be clear: No one should be able to do that.
But if they try, you must stand strong.
Stand for what’s right.
Stand up for yourself (even if it means sitting down).
Brad Meltzer needs to write a whole lot more of these books—and FAST. I hope to see an even greater diversity of races, religions, and sexual orientations represented in the people he decides to profile. I promise you, we are going to read every single one. Multiple times.
If I can encourage my children to bear witness to these acts of dismissal, hate, and bigotry on paper, then hopefully they will spot them in real life, too. If the language for talking about these acts already exists in their lexicon, then hopefully they will not shy away from speaking out, not only when the time is right, but every time it’s right.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
With these small books, our children (and us) have an opportunity to climb inside different slices of history, to witness how activism can take a multitude of brave and peaceful forms, and to perhaps even feel some of the bewilderment, outrage, thoughtfulness, and determination of ordinary people who spoke up and acted out to change the world.
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!