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!
May 7, 2015 § 4 Comments
In this age, where our self-worth seems increasingly defined by how busy we are, I find that one of my greatest challenges as a mother is quieting the “to do” list in my head when I am around my children. I’m not talking about simply spending time with them. I’m talking about being in the moment with them. I might be on the floor playing Candy Land, but I’m secretly fretting over when I should start dinner. I might be throwing a ball in the backyard, but I’m all the while thinking about the mountain of weeding that needs to get done.
My children know I love them. But how often do they feel the gift of my time?
This winter, I fell in love with a picture book by the lovely Scottish author-illustrator, Debi Gliori, titled Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg (Ages 4-8). It’s about dragons, yes, but it’s also about penguins and a landscape of ice and snow, so by all accounts, I should have shared it with you in the height of snow days and sub-zero temperatures. Except that it’s also one of the most beautiful portraits of motherhood that I’ve ever come across in a children’s book (it’s right up there with this one). So, I’ve been saving telling you about it until Mother’s Day, a time for celebrating those who are trying so hard every day to do right by the little ones we love.
Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg is, if we’re being literal, a multi-generational adoption story. But get it out of your head right now that just because my or your child wasn’t adopted, that this story won’t resonate through every inch of their being. More than anything, Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg is about the power of maternal love to transcend differences, to transcend convention, to transcend the occasional ugliness of life.
The story begins with a dragon who finds herself the only one of her kind without a spotted, striped, or bumpy egg of her own; a heartbroken dragon who “went off to be alone for a while” and in the process stumbles across a small, abandoned egg on a sheet of ice. “Yes, that egg needed a mommy. And that dragon needed an egg. It was a perfect fit.”
When the egg hatches to reveal “Little One,” a black, fuzzy, round baby who looks nothing like the other dragon children, we as readers immediately recognize her as a penguin chick (although, in perfect keeping with the story’s message, she is never labeled as such). For each way that Little One is different from the other children, her dragon mother makes sure that she has exactly what she needs.
All the other eggs grew big and strong.
They grew long necks and wide wings
and hard scales all over.
But Little One, being small and fluffy,
grew courage instead.
All the other eggs were given endless gifts:
fast toys; vast toys; flashing,
clattering things that made a noise.
But Little One was given
love and time, the greatest gifts of all.
“Love and time, the greatest gifts of all.” (Can you hear my sobbing? Is this not the most beautiful thing ever? OK, OK, let me continue.)
As Little One grows up with the dragons, who live “on top of a mountain with a fire in its heart,” she is often picked on by the others for her inferior size, her inability to breathe fire, her failure to fly. Her feathers may keep her warm, she quickly learns, but “they can’t keep cold words out.” However, a real dragon’s skin is “too scaly to feel the heat,” and it’s Little One who perceives the volcano roaring to life beneath her and sounds the warning for the other dragons to fly away and save themselves.
In possession of courage and the will to survive, which her dragon mommy has so lovingly bestowed on her, Little One discovers that she can fly on her own to escape the flames—that is, on her belly down the snowy mountain.
At the bottom of the mountain, Little One—like her mother before her—finds an egg that’s in need of someone to love it.
Beyond the soft, warmhearted illustrations; beyond the beautiful blending of two species to create an enduring familial bond; beyond the impressive aerodynamics of the dragons and the grounded sweetness of the roly poly penguins—is something even better: a narrative twist that’s hinted at in the story’s beginning, but gets a big, surprising reveal at the end. As it turns out, the story I’ve just told you is a story within a story, a story that happened three generations ago. In the present, Little One is now grown up, her egg now a rambunctious young penguin named Pip. Pip is requesting his favorite bedtime story, the story about his grandmother—a dragon—who took a chance on an abandoned egg and gave it all the love and time she could. In the warm, secure embrace of his mother, a son is reminded of what matters most.
I recently took a yoga class where the teacher ended by sharing a personal story about attending an outdoor concert with her husband and children. She admitted that, even with the electrifying music, even with the beautiful sky above them, her thoughts kept returning to the work waiting for her back home. Then, one of her children needed to go to the bathroom—and afterwards, on the way back to their seats, she and the child discovered that they were locked out of the concert. For the next hour, the two sat together on a fence, listening to the distant music and laughing about the unexpected turn of events. Throughout that hour, she felt completely grounded in the present and acutely aware of the palpable love between her and her son.
As I listened to that story, it hit me that this is precisely why I choose to read aloud to my children so often. When I read to my kids, my heart and my mind are equally focused on what’s directly in front of me. Thanks to how picky I am about what we read and to how exceptional today’s offerings are, I’m usually just as enthralled in the story or pictures as my children are. I can ignore my beeping phone; I can forgo the distraction of Facebook; I can quiet the “to do”s.
When I’m reading to my children, every one of my senses is engaged. I feel their soft limbs pressing against me. I inhale the musty smell of a library book or the inky crispness of newly-purchased pages. I discover things I might otherwise miss, when little fingers point something out on a page. I’m astonished and proud and moved by what they say or ask when we finish a final chapter. Reading to my children is one of the few times (I’d have to add impromptu dance parties and family bike rides) when I can shut out everything else and just be with them.
When I can give my children, not only my love, but also my time.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommies out there—getting up each day to do what we do—and may we all clear more mental space for ourselves and for our loved ones in the days and years ahead.
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