Emily Dickinson: Perfect Reading for a Pandemic?

September 24, 2020 § 2 Comments

Not many people know this, but my daughter is named after Emily Dickinson. (Well, and the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon.) I didn’t fall for Emily Dickinson’s poetry until I got to college, when I fell hard and fast and ended up featuring her poems in no fewer than seven essays, including my Senior Thesis. I had never been a big poetry lover, but there was something about the compactness of her poems which fascinated me. So much meaning was packed into such few words. And even then, the meaning was like an ever-shifting target, evolving with every reading.

To read Emily Dickinson is to contemplate universal truths.

Apart from reading Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s 1992 picture book, Emily, I hadn’t had much occasion talk to my own Emily about her namesake. But that changed last spring, when my Emily started writing poetry of her own. Nothing about virtual learning was working for her, until her teachers started leading her and her classmates in poetry writing. Suddenly, my daughter couldn’t jot down poems fast enough, filling loose sheets of paper before designating an orange journal for the occasion. She wrote poems for school, for fun, and for birthday cards. It didn’t matter that they weren’t going to win awards for originality; what mattered was that she had found a means of self-expression during a stressful, beguiling time.

Jennifer Berne’s On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson (Ages 7-10), stunningly illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, could not have entered the world at a more perfect time. It opens a dialogue, not only about Dickinson’s unconventional life, but about her poems themselves. At a time when a pandemic has prompted many of us and our children to turn inward, this picture book is less a traditional biography than an homage to the rich interior life developed by this extraordinary poet and showcased in her poetry.

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Moving the Classroom to the Woods

March 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

(Friends, these are rough times. I feel you all. And I promise to keep showing up for you with book ideas for all ages. In addition to these weekly posts, I have (almost) daily recommendations on Instagram, so follow me there. We’ll get through this pandemic with the help of fictional worlds and gripping history and funny comics. Worst comes to worst, we can always use the pages to wipe our bottoms.)

It was only the second morning of #pandemicparenting, and the kids and I were already on the verge of strangling one another. My husband needed a quiet house for conference calls, so I threw out our daily schedule (just one day old) and drove the kids to the woods…where we stayed for four hours. It was cold and drizzly when we arrived, and I found myself willing it to be over. We walked and walked, saw no one, walked some more, and eventually settled into our own rhythms. My daughter ran off trail to climb on logs and rocks. My son stopped talking about his stress level and moved through the world quietly. We got lost, had to scramble up rocky ledges to find the trail again, discovered deserted outcroppings of beaches. The sun came out. I sat and listened to the water, while the kids skipped stones. Later, my son threw his arms around a tree, and I laughed out loud.

We’ve had our fair share of highs and lows these first two weeks of social distancing, but I am endlessly grateful that the trees still welcome our closeness. If there are silver linings amidst this collective heartbreak, one is an opportunity to return our children to nature. I never wanted to homeschool my kids; I knew I’d be rubbish at it. (I knew my kids would be equally rubbish at it.) Thankfully, they still have their wonderful teachers, even if they can only see them on a screen right now. I figure, for as long as we’re packed in together like sardines, I can give my kids two blessings: I can read them books; and I can gently push them towards the trees.

You know what social distancing is good for? Secret gardens. If your children need convincing to let nature step in as teacher, read them the extraordinary new picture book biography, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver (Ages 7-10). My kids were riveted. Evocatively written by Gene Barretta and accented with richly expressive oil paintings by Frank Morrison, the story demonstrates how young George Washington Carver’s intimate relationship with nature as a child grew into a passionate career as a botanist, inventor, and activist.

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Never Too Old to Learn

January 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Last week, I flew to Boston to see my 101-year-old grandmother for what will likely be the last time. Her lucidity came and went throughout our few hours together, and at times she seemed to look at me and see a much younger version of her granddaughter. “What are your studying in school?” she asked.

“I’m not in school anymore,” I answered. “I’m all grown up! I have kids in school now.”

“That’s no excuse!” she exclaimed, in a playful but insistent tone I recognized all too well.

Perhaps she was simply covering up her mistake. But perhaps not. My paternal grandmother may have attended college for only two years, but she spent much of her adult and geriatric life chasing down knowledge wherever she could. She read biographies voraciously. She traveled the world. She referred to herself as a “news junkie” when you came upon her studying a newspaper. When she moved into her retirement home at 88, she signed up for every class they offered, from Buddhism to World War Two. “I’m taking a fascinating class about the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” she reported on the phone one day. “It has me quite disturbed, actually.”

On another call: “I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s new book. He’s an absolutely brilliant biologist. I’m not sure I’m understanding a word of it, but I suppose some of it might be sneaking in!”

Learning as something to be seized and cherished is a value I will always credit to my grandmother. Still, learning is a luxury not afforded to all, and nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the stories of American slaves. Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s new picture book biography, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Ages 6-10), movingly illustrated by collage artist Oge Mora, tells the incredible true story of a former slave who achieved her lifelong dream of learning to read at the astounding age of 116.

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2019 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels to Rock Their World (Ages 8-16)

December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

It’s what I hear most often from parents: “I can’t get my kid to read anything but graphic novels.” The assumption is one of concern: perhaps said kiddo is dabbling in literature less worthy than the meaty prose novels many of us devoured in our own childhoods. The question of whether to purchase graphic novels also stumps parents: is it worth buying books our kids will tear through so quickly? After all, a graphic novel that takes an entire year to create can often be finished by an avid young reader in a single sitting.

AND YET. I would argue that graphic novels are some of the greatest (material) gifts we can bestow on our children. Today’s kids are growing up in a more visual culture than we ever did. Couple that with the exploding innovation coming out of the comics market right now, and is it any wonder these books are so alluring to young readers? I’ve watched my own children fall in love with reading through these books. I’ve watched them return to favorite comics in times of stress or change. I’ve watched them bend over graphic novels in the backseat during carpool, with friends on either side leaning in.

Good graphic novels are clever and layered and poignant and often shockingly beautiful. Their vocabulary is rich. To read them is never a passive experience; rather, kids need to work to extract the complete narrative, to find the innuendos and deeper meanings hidden in the cross-section between picture and text. Herein lies the best case for owning graphic novels: the reason your kids return to them again and again isn’t just because they enjoy them; it’s because they get more out of every reading.

Best of all, today’s graphic novels are tackling a range of subjects and genres, including science, history, biography, and immensely valuable socio-emotional learning. 2019 was a banner year for graphic novels. Below are some of the stand-outs (including what my own kids are getting for the holidays!).

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Putting One Book in Front of the Other

October 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

My children have heard a lot about the Supreme Court in recent weeks—mostly delivered via their parents and mostly accompanied by outcries of frustration and despair. Still, as much as I want them to understand my concerns with what today’s political actions reveal about the values of our leadership, I also don’t want my discourse to taint (at least, not permanently) the way they view our government’s enduring institutions.

In short, our family needed a pick-me-up. I needed both to remind myself and to teach my children about the Supreme Court Justices who, right now, are fighting for fairness under the law—and who arrived there with poise, valor, humanity, and moral clarity. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Surprising Backstory Behind The Monopoly (Wo)man

September 27, 2018 Comments Off on The Surprising Backstory Behind The Monopoly (Wo)man

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

If you had told me ten years ago, after my first child was born, that three years later I would quit my job, move across the country, and stay home with by then two young children, I would not have believed a word of it. Not in the least because I loved my job, loved the social outlet of going to work every day, loved having others validate my successes, loved a paycheck, and loved having the childcare that allowed me to do all that and still relish quality time with my little one. Sure, I had days when I felt pulled in way too many directions and fantasized about going off the grid. But I never really expected I’d feel fulfilled any other way. I was, after all, a self-identified feminist. I had minored in women’s studies in college. I always intended to model for my children what it meant to be have a successful, robust career outside the home.

And then, for a host of reasons I never saw coming, I made the choice to stay home. « Read the rest of this entry »

Our Kids Need to Know Harriet Tubman

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

2017 Gift Guide (No. 3): For the Underdog…well, Horse

December 5, 2017 § 2 Comments

These days, it’s rare that my son and daughter will gravitate towards the same picture book. Not because they don’t still enjoy picture books. Even though they read chapter books on their own—even though we’re always reading a chapter book (or two or three) together—both of my kids still adore picture books. I hope to nurture this love by leaving ever-changing baskets of picture books around the house. Long after children are reading chapter books, there is still so much to be gained from picture books, not the least of which is an introduction to a range of subjects alongside gorgeously vibrant, innovative art.

But as much as they love a good picture book, my kids are not often enamored with the same book. Which might be why the exceptions especially thrill me. This is partly why I’ve saved Patrick McCormick and Iacopo Bruno’s Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero (Ages 6-12) for my Gift Guide. If you’re looking for a book that hits both ends of the spectrum, this is it. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 3): For the Aspiring Writer

December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa SweetI am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”

So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters. « Read the rest of this entry »

Introducing Activism to Children

November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments

Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer & Christopher EliopoulosIn 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? « Read the rest of this entry »

Seduced by Engineering

July 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert FordOne of the Great Surprises of my life came on a hot, clear summer day last August. My sister in law was visiting, and she and I decided to take the kids over to National Harbor in Maryland. “You know, Mommy, I heard they built a Ferris wheel there. I think we should ride it,” offers my eldest.

SAY WHAT? Now, I’ve read the parenting books, and I know we’re not supposed to label our children. So, in lieu of describing my seven year old as cautious, I’ll just say that he prefers to apply the road sign, PROCEED WITH CAUTION, to as much of his life as possible. If JP determines something to be of physical risk, he’ll likely avoid it all together—or spend weeks (ahem, years) ruminating on it, observing others doing it, until he’s absolutely sure he can proceed safely and confidently and without anyone’s assistance (see: bike riding). Heck, there are slides in our neighborhood that he still deems too tall to slide down.

So, I’m suddenly supposed to believe that my son is going to leave the safety of the ground aboard a giant rotating wheel that he has never actually laid eyes on? Don’t get me wrong, I was positively giddy at the prospect (wait, do you think we can start going to theme parks and rock walls?!), although I was careful to do my best nonchalant impersonation when I answered him, “Yeah, sure, we can do that, maybe, whatevs.” No need to jinx things with my shock and excitement.

On the ferry ride over, as we caught first sight of the Metal Monstrosity, hanging precariously out over the pier, I once again thought, NOT A CHANCE. And I once again was floored. “Wow, it’s a lot bigger than I thought, Mommy. But we are definitely riding it.”

As we got in line and paid a mere fortune (honestly, I would have forked over any amount to reward this burst of spontaneity), I watched with trepidation as the color began to drain from JP’s face. I realized he was listening to the attendant, who was loading people into what turned out to be giant glass-enclosed cars and then pointing out the large red “panic” buttons located in each interior. “Why do they need those buttons?” JP asked me.

“Um, in case someone feels sick and they want to come down and get out. I’m sure they hardly ever get used,” I quickly responded. Although I was beginning to wonder the same thing.

And then we were bolted in, quickly rising higher and higher, until we were suspended over the water on one side and the itty bitty figures of people waiting in line on the other. And then—as is the custom with every Ferris wheel I’ve ever been on—we were paused, dangling, SWAYING, for what seemed like an eternity, as a new round of people boarded at the bottom. And we still had four more laps to go.

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I looked at JP. “How are you feeling, buddy?”

He shot me a look like, don’t you dare talk to me right now or I’m going to start screaming like a banshee. Or maybe I’m just projecting how I was feeling. That panic button was calling to me. My sister in law looked equally frozen. (My three year old, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed.)

But we did it. All of us. All five laps. We oooed and we ahhhed, and then we ventured that we might, we might, do it again someday. As we stepped off, I turned and asked the attendant (out of earshot of JP), “How often do people use that panic button?” She rolled her eyes. “You have no idea,” she said. But I did.

Weeks later, I asked JP what made him decide to ride the Ferris wheel. He started rambling about metal and motors and making grand gestures with his hands—and, suddenly, it dawned on me that it was sheer engineering that had seduced him. Even before he saw it in real life—when it was just something he had seen in pictures—the lure was magnificently romantic.

As if right on cue, Kathryn Gibbs Davis’ Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (Ages 5-10), a fascinating picture book biography of the man who invented the Ferris wheel, was soon published and quickly became a favorite in our house (along with the other engineering-themed picture books listed at the end of this post).

Once again, as with the best non-fiction children’s books, I was learning alongside my children.

Like many of history’s greatest inventions, the Ferris wheel was born out of competition. It was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in an attempt, not only to “impress the world,” but to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, which had debuted ten months earlier. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., an American mechanical engineer, was already famous for designing some of our country’s biggest bridges, tunnels and roads. As he watched the earliest skyscrapers rise in front of his eyes on “elegant steel frames” (modeled after birdcages, as we learn in one of the fascinating asides in the book), he began to ask himself, what if I take the skyscraper concept and have it “dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower?”

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Of course, it wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t plenty of speed bumps along the way. After initially flat-out rejecting George’s proposal as “so flimsy it would collapse,” the Fair committee later reluctantly awarded him the bid, on the contingency that George secure his own funding (which he did by depleting his personal savings, so fervently did he believe in his dream).

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Next, there was the stress of time: Ferris had only FOUR MONTHS to source materials, hire a crew, construct a perfect, enormous circle (“834 feet in circumference, rising 265 feet above the ground”), and then make it spin with the “precision of a small watch.” Oh, and did I mention that the passenger cars were the size of living rooms, with enormous picture windows and velvet seats to boot?

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The next time your child tells you something is impossible, have them think on that.

Still, if those challenges aren’t enough to rivet your child’s attention, let me tell you about my son’s favorite page (can we say dynamite?). When George and his crew first began work on the foundation, in the middle of one of Chicago’s coldest winters, they not only had to blast through layers of ice, but they had to battle 35 feet of quicksand (yes, that’s right, the Fair’s site turned out to be atop QUICKSAND).

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

All these happenings are narrated seamlessly and compellingly by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, appealing to a wide range of ages. Some of the more technical information is presented in optional asides (not optional for us, of course), but even the engineering specifics feel accessible.

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Still, not being an engineer myself, I have to say that, for me, the greatest appeal of this book lies in Gilbert Ford’s exquisite mixed-media watercolors, which twinkle and soar and PERFECTLY ROMANTICIZE the dream, the ambition, the teamwork, the national pride, the engineering prowess, the magic, and the fun surrounding the Chicago World Fair. The fantastical color palette of turquoise, hot pink, deep purple, and midnight blue makes the experience of reading the story even more magical.

I get goosebumps just thinking about how the Ferris wheel must have looked to the people who stood before it, especially when it was lit up at night. At that time, houses were still predominantly lit with candles, so this was most people’s first chance to see electricity in action. Farmers and executives alike came to see the 3,000 electric light bulbs in action. Why, it must have seemed like the work of fairies. At least, that’s how it is painted.

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Of course, Davis’ story reminds us that the wheel was, in reality, four months of incredibly hard, back-breaking labor, nearly all of it performed by human hands. Not to mention exacting conceptualizing, measuring, and overseeing by human brains, most notably those of George and his engineering partner, William Gronau.

During the nineteen weeks the wheel was in operation, 1.5 million passengers rode it. It revolved more than 10,000 times, withstood gale-force winds and storms, and did not need one repair.

Perhaps, no matter how cautious we might consider ourselves (or our children), we are powerless to resist the seduction of the Ferris wheel. Untethered from the ground, given over to pure engineering beauty, we feel the awe-inspiring magnitude of the human spirit.

But it does feel good to be back on firm ground when it’s done.

Other Favorite Engineering-Themed Picture Books:
Building Our House, by Jonathan Bean (Ages 4-8)
Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts (Ages 4-8; reviewed here!)
Violet the Pilot, by Steve Breen (Ages 4-8)
Pop’s Bridge, by Eve Bunting & C.F. Payne (Ages 6-12)
Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building, by Deborah Hopkinson & James E. Ransome (Ages 6-12)
The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness (Ages 7-14)

AND get this: there is ANOTHER picture book bio about George Ferris coming out this fall, titled The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris, by Betsy Harvey Craft. As far as I can tell, it details the same story but with more text and information, so it could potentially be great for an older child. It also looks beautifully illustrated (by Steven Salemo)—in a completely different way than Gilbert Ford’s.

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Review copy provided 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!

 

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 4): Three Books for the Scientist (Ages 5-12)

December 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

If I had a dollar for every time my children tell me they are doing a science experiment, I would be a rich Mama. Most of these experiments involve putting water in a cup with some household item and sticking it in the freezer (spoiler alert: it freezes). Sometimes, usually with the help of birthday gifts, they might raise their game by building baking-soda volcanoes or citrus-powered clocks.

Our children’s natural curiosity about the inner-workings of the world has been given extra-special treatment in books this year. Today, I’ll be singing the praises of two novels for the 9-12 crowd, which seamlessly weave science into the drama of middle-school life (one stars a boy, the other a girl). For the younger elementary child, a picture book biography on Carl Sagan will prove the perfect entrée into the mysteries of the cosmos. Without further ado, let us begin.

"Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor" by Jon Scieszka[Warning: this book may cause your child to talk like a robot well beyond the last page.] Author Jon Scieszka, long-time advocate for the reluctant boy reader (see his inspiring tips here), embarks on the ultimate Science is Cool chapter book series, with Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud). Frank Einstein is a kid-genius inventor—with a special fondness for his Grampa Al, as well as for his Grampa Al’s Fix-It! Shop (“the greatest place in the world to test any invention you might think of”). Determined to win the Midville Science Prize and reap a large cash reward to pay off Grampa Al’s debts, Frank, his best-pal Watson, and two self-assembled artificial intelligence entities named Klink and Klank (my son’s new favorite literary characters), create a Fly Bike powered by an Antimatter Motor. Naturally, all this gets complicated by Frank’s arch-nemesis: the doomsday-plotting, idea-stealing, robot-napping T.Edison. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Thomas Jefferson by Maira KalmanMy wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).

Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both). « Read the rest of this entry »

Learning from the Big Thinkers (Summer School Continues!)

June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

On a Beam of LightAlbert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)

I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).

I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.

Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”

I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)

Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'" In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots ("Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'” In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots (“Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)

Learning From History’s Many Heroes

May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Brave GirlJust because the school year ends shortly doesn’t mean that our children’s minds have to shrivel up like apples left out too long in the sun. Last week, I gave some ideas for great read-aloud novels to share with your kids. Now, I’m going to encourage you to add some non-fiction into the mix—specifically, historical biographies posing as picture books. In previous posts about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve hailed the rise of today’s picture book biographies, which (unlike the static, black-and-white books of our school days) read like interesting, action-packed stories accompanied by vibrant paintings and intriguing designs. But I’m not merely talking about the Most Obvious Historical Figures; there are lesser known but equally captivating true stories of ordinary boys and girls, men and women, who shaped the world with extraordinary acts of courage, defiance, or creativity.

Where picture book biographies are concerned, contemporary illustrator Melissa Sweet has been on a roll, creating the art for several of my favorite non-fiction books in recent years. Although these biographies are written by different authors, they are unified by Sweet’s signature style—at once instantly recognizable but also entirely unexpected for the historical genre. In place of photographic-like paintings in somber tones, Sweet uses fun colors, whimsical patterns, and collage elements specific to the person whose story she is bringing to life. In Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Ages 7-12), Sweet peppers her background collages with excerpts from Williams’ poems, opening up kids’ eyes to these words and thoughts as an art form unto itself. In Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Ages 5-8), an account of the first person to capture a wild panda in China and bring it to an American zoo for study, Sweet creates frames for her watercolors out of authentic Chinese decorative papers, lending an other-wordly, almost mystical charm to this already fascinating story.

One of Sweet’s most recent triumphs is even more captivating for its portrayal not of an adult but of a young girl. Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Ages 6-10) tells the mind-boggling story of a Jewish immigrant girl, forced to endure long hours, harsh treatment, and poor pay, while sewing alongside hundreds of other girls in factories (her family’s only hope of putting food on the table.) Clara Lemlich’s “got grit,” and she “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong”; ultimately, she leads the largest walkout of women workers in American history, inspiring thousands of male and female workers across the country to strike for better working conditions and the right to organize unions.

Brave Girl, like most picture book biographies, demands to be discussed with your child—and it’s in these memorable discussions that the real learning begins. For starters, there are words that need to be defined, words like “walkout,” “union,” “garment,” and “shatterproof” (referring to Clara’s spirit). Then there’s Clara’s day-to-day life, which sent my almost six year old into a complete tailspin. “Wait, are you sure this is a real story?” he kept repeating, as I showed him the bird’s eye illustration of row-upon-row of hundreds of ant-sized heads bent over sewing machines; or read to him about the “two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share”; or got to the part about how an exhausted Clara would spend her nights in the library instead of sleeping because “she wants to read, she wants to learn!” (I don’t think JP had ever considered a scenario where a child would not be allowed to go to school.)

JP and his Montessori classmates are big into sewing right now, so he was especially intrigued once I pointed out that the bright paintings are often set against bolts of solid fabrics, frayed pieces of cloth, and decorative ribbons—some sewn with tight perfect stitches and others with uneven zig-zagging lines. In fact, after we finished the story, JP proceeded to go back through the entire book, running his finger along every line of stitches (“And is that REAL BLOOD?” he exclaimed, where two dots of red light up a piece of blue cloth next to some text that explains the repercussions for sewers who accidentally pricked their fingers).

But the best part of discussing picture book biographies with your kids (apart from feeling like you are pretty much the most inspiring parent ever) is getting at the emotional undercurrents of the story—in the case of Brave Girl, themes of justice, leadership, sacrifice, and bravery. As JP gets older, he and I will have more evolved conversations about these first three things; at the present, he was mainly fixated on the concept of bravery. Children tend to associate bravery with physical risks and triumphs, like learning to swim or taking off training wheels; and by this definition, JP knows he is a pretty tentative kid (totally unaffected by the four year olds riding their two-wheelers in circles around him). So, I welcome the opportunity to talk about courage in a different light. The book ends: “…warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.” When I finished reading, JP asked me, “How do you think Clara got so brave?”

“I think everyone has bravery inside of them and it’s just a question of letting it out,” I ventured.

“I guess I’m saving it up,” he replied.

“Actually,” I told him, “I watch you do brave things every day, like how you walked up to those older kids today and started talking to them. And you know what else? I think that every time someone uses up some of their bravery, some new bravery immediately comes in to fill that space—so you never run out.”

There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, “I’d like to look at those stitches again.”

Look closely and you'll see stitches around the painting of Clara giving her famous speech in Yiddish that started the largest walkout of women workers (many of them just girls!) in US history.

Look closely and you’ll see the stitches around the painting of Clara giving her famous speech in Yiddish, a speech which started the largest walkout of women workers (many of them just girls!) in US history.

Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies Illustrated by Melissa Sweet:
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written & illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, by Alicia Potter, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jen Bryant (Ages 7-12)
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 8-14)—OK, not really a biography but a great work of non-fiction nonetheless!

Eyes on Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2013 Comments Off on Eyes on Abraham Lincoln

Looking at LincolnYou might expect that my children, living so close to Washington DC, have many opportunities to learn about our nation’s history. But mere proximity does not a future scholar make. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, is consistently celebrated by my five year old as “the place where we picnic in the summer!” If you ask him the name of the president that sits in stone behind him during said picnics, he is likely to throw you a disinterested look and recommence staring out the car window, pointing out other landmarks whose names he boasts correctly but whose significance he understands not. Which begs the question: How do we get our kids to care about the past presidents that have shaped our country?

The biographies we read as kids were filled with dry facts and black-and-white photographs that made their content feel all too disconnected from our daily lives; too often we were encouraged to memorize names and dates for tests, only to forget them a week later. Thankfully, our own kids have access to a whole new generation of fresh reading material, including picture books that breathe colorful new life into historic periods and events.

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“Use Your Words” (MLK Jr. Style)

January 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.In a few days, our country will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and a presidential inauguration. Whatever our political views, whatever our race or gender or religion or socioeconomic background, we can do our children a great service by talking to them about Dr. King’s vision of justice and peace, his commitment to respecting the dignity of every human being.

I’ve found that parents, especially us white Americans, are reluctant to broach the subject of race relations with preschoolers or even young elementary students. Ashamed of our country’s past afflictions, it’s as if we can pretend they never existed if we don’t talk about them. But child development specialists and sociologists (like Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of NurtureShock) have pointed out that children naturally notice differences in appearances, and that if we don’t have these conversations with them from an early age, they will begin to draw their own conclusions—and, even worse, begin to view the subject as taboo—which does nothing to advance our nation’s long and still arduous progression toward equality. And, let’s be honest, have you ever met a five or seven or ten year old that isn’t obsessed with the notion of fairness? For that matter, how many times a day do we as parents plead with our children, “Use your words!” (say, when said children yank something out of their sibling’s hands or push a peer on the school playground)?

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Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 4): Books For the Hero Within

December 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Boy Who Harnessed the WindBenjamin Franklin once penned: “If you would not be forgotten/ As soon as you are dead and rotten,/ Either write things worth reading,/ Or do things worth the writing.” OK, that might not be a quote we need to read aloud to our young children, but its sentiment can and should inform the books we choose to share with them.

The genre of biographies written for children is taking off like never before; it seems not only are parents and educators seizing the chance to inspire our young ones with tales of historical figures, but kids themselves are embracing these literary opportunities to inform their own choices, to pave their own paths worth living. And it’s no accident that many of this past year’s biographies are picture books: against a backdrop of beautiful art and poetic text, stories about scientists, writers, inventors, artists, and peacemakers become that much more gripping. The books listed at the end of this post are treasures worth giving and owning; their artistic caliber alone makes them a far cry from the dry, fact-filled paperbacks that we once suffered through for school reports.

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