My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 3 Comments

(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)

A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).

When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.

I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:

This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.

Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!

I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.

My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.

The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.

The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.

The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.

A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.

An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?

But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)

Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”

And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”

And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.

Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.

What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.

Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. 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 2018: Getting Something Out of Nothing

December 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

I wasn’t initially going to include Alyssa Hollingsworth’s immensely moving debut novel, The Eleventh Trade (Ages 11-14), in my Gift Guide, because it has some preeeeettttyyyy heavy flashback scenes. In other words, it’s not all Ho Ho Ho. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop recommending it to my son and to some of his friends during carpool (a few who have just devoured Nowhere Boy, which tackles a similar subject). And then it hit me: this story is actually very much in the spirit of the holidays. It is about giving. It is about going to great lengths, making great sacrifices, in order to give someone you love something he desperately misses. And it is about what happens when you pour yourself into the act of giving. How the act itself becomes a gift—for both of you.

Sami and his grandfather are new to America, having arrived in Boston after years spent in refugee camps in Iran, Greece and Turkey, where they landed after fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s attack on their family. All they have left of their family and their life in Afghanistan—a place with “beautiful mountains and blue skies and more stars than you can see anywhere on this side of the world”—is a traditional Afghan instrument called a rebab. The instrument, part of the guitar family, is the only household item the two were able to salvage in the aftermath of the bombing, an instrument which the grandfather had used to make a famed and prosperous living in Afghanistan. Once in Boston, Sami begins middle school, while his grandfather plays the rebab in the subway station, scraping together the coins and dollars people throw his way to start a new life for his grandson.

And then, in the early pages of the book, the rebab is stolen. Swiped by a teenager who pawns it. Sami’s grandfather is defeated—his only choice now is to take a job in the kitchen of a restaurant—but it’s Sami who feels his grandfather’s pain most acutely. “We lost so much when we fled Afghanistan. Sometimes I think the only thing that kept us from breaking was the rebab. It was our heart and our past, but it was also a promise. It was our hope.” Watching his grandfather “waste his hands on dirty dishes,” especially knowing it was his own carelessness that led to the stealing, propels Sami into action. He needs to get the rebab back.

With help from a classmate, who in return convinces Sami to join his soccer team, Sami traces the rebab to a local music store, where it’s on sale for a staggering $700. Sami doesn’t have a penny to his name: he and his grandfather sleep on mattresses on the floor in a single-room apartment, and it’s rare that they can afford a soda. The only possession Sami can call his own is a Manchester United key chain, which his grandfather once gifted him. When another kid at school remarks on the key chain, Sami gets an idea.

What if he can trade his beloved key chain for something else? And what if he can trade that something for something else? Could he get to $700 on trading alone? So begins a wild goose chase, one which pushes Sami outside his comfort zone, challenging his English and forcing him into contact with people he might otherwise never have the gumption to approach. Along the way, Sami inadvertently begins to build a support network in America. He begins to put words to the horrors of his past, releasing himself for this first time from his memories’ strangulation. He begins to play soccer with wild abandon and reap the effects of true friendship. All the time, he never takes his eyes off his goal of returning the rebab to its rightful owner. All the time, he keeps his actions a secret from his grandfather, hoping the ends justify the means.

If The Eleventh Trade is about giving, about turning nothing into something, it’s also about what the act of giving does to ourselves. How it changes us; how it makes us see power within ourselves. How it connects us to our loved ones and to our community in vital ways. How, in many ways, the act itself becomes more meaningful than the gift.

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Aspiring Sleuths Take Note

December 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

For the next few weeks (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Elementary children may know that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. But do they know that Lincoln was almost assassinated by angry secessionists four years earlier, on his way to his own inauguration? That, if successful, the attack would have prevented Lincoln from becoming president and uniting the country? How about that he was saved by Allan Pinkerton, a self-made private detective who went on to inspire the creation of the Secret Service?

Um, I sure didn’t.

The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln (Ages 7-10) is as cinematic as picture books get. It keeps us on the edge of our seats, thanks to Marissa Moss’ suspenseful narration, and invites us to hone our own detective eye, thanks to Jeremy Holmes’ striking scratchboard art, dramatically rendered in deep pinks and purples against a jet-black sky. Both of my kids went nuts over this book.

To help us fully appreciate what Pinkerton pulled off, the first several spreads of this impressive 47-page story are devoted to his quirky background. Allan Pinkerton got into the detective business entirely by accident. He was born into abject poverty in Scotland and became so outspoken about social justice that he landed on one of Britain’s “most wanted” lists and ended up fleeing (inside a barrel aboard a ship) to America.

Once in Chicago, Pinkerton (clearly going with the do-what-you-know advice) started a successful barrel business, until one day his search for lumber took him to a tiny uninhabited island, where he got side-tracked by suspicious signs of illegal counterfeiting behavior. After spying on the island for multiple nights, Pinkerton reported a band of counterfeiters to the authorities. The Chicago police were so impressed, they hired him as a full-time detective. Eventually, Pinkerton founded his own private eye agency.

Pinkerton published a manual on how to be a detective, and many of these tenets—from disguises and diversions to coded messages and disguised packages—came into play when he first identified and then thwarted the assassination attempt on Lincoln. Of course, half the fun of the book is spotting all of this sleuthing, especially the ones gleaned only from the beguiling art.

Much of The Eye That Never Sleeps takes place on or around trains, which only heightens the close quarters and time sensitivity under which Pinkerton had to work. For starters, Pinkerton learned of the ambush plot on Lincoln while on an assignment to protect the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad from sabotage by secessionists. Secondly, the eight men who were plotting to take collective shots at the President-elect were planning to do so when Lincoln had to change train stations in Baltimore during his inaugural procession. Thirdly, in order to inform Lincoln of the plot on his life and convince him to take it seriously, Pinkerton (previously unknown to Lincoln) had to sneak into Lincoln’s train car to get an audience with him.

Finally, in an attempt to throw off the public, Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to take to a different, more circuitous route to his inauguration than his staff. His trademark stovepipe hat went with the latter group.

As readers, we get a front row to the 30 pages of history that follow, to the fascinating twists and turns, near misses, and breathless escapes. That our own heart rate goes up seems especially impressive, given that we already know the favorable outcome.

It’s difficult to say which is more astounding: the complex sleuthing by which Pinkerton saved our president, or the fact that most of us have never heard this story. But one thing’s for sure: all the credit goes to a man (ahem, immigrant) who honed his powers of observation into an amazing act of patriotism. Which begs the question, what will our own little sleuths do someday?

 

Book published by 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!

Gift Guide 2018: Behold the Magnificent Elephant

November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

Between now and Christmas (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Ever since I hailed the stunning achievement of British author-illustrator Jenni Desmond’s The Polar Bear in my 2016 Gift Guide, I have eagerly anticipated the third installment in her narrative non-fiction series starring endangered animals. It has been well worth the two-year wait, because The Elephant (Ages 6-9), a tribute to the world’s largest living land mammal, is magnificent.

Accessible and beautifully-phrased paragraphs are packed with fascinating details about this mighty and graceful animal, which originated 55 million years: its territory, anatomy, diet, and behavior, as well as the differences between the Asian and African species. As in the other books in the series, a red-crowned child helps to  showcase the elephant’s unique qualities, while also providing a touch of whimsy to the otherwise remarkably realistic art.

Did you know that an old African savanna bull’s tusk can weigh 100 pounds and be as long as two seven-year-old children stretched toe-to-toe? Imagine carrying that weight around! Would now be a good time to tell you that elephants have to bear all this weight on their tip-toes? “From the outside, their feet look flat, but inside, the skeleton reveals that the heel is higher than the toes, like a human foot in high heels.” That’s why they walk so softly for how heavy they are.

My daughter was particularly impressed with the elephant’s daily diet, showcased as a giant pyramid of food with a child perched at the top (she already knew about the insane amount of pooping—12-15 times a day—from our local zoo’s exhibit). “A large male could eat 700 pounds of plant matter a day, the equivalent of 100 apples, 90 lemons, 80 peaches, 70 pears, 60 oranges, 50 mangoes, 40 bananas, 30 coconuts, 20 pineapples, and 10 watermelons.” Imagine how long it would take to pack that lunch box every day.

But the heart of this book lies in its poignant exploration of the elephant’s social and emotional intelligence. While the males live and hunt alone, the females and their babies spend all their time in groups of extended family, organized around a matriarch. When one of their herd dies, the family engages in intense mourning and burial rituals, devoting weeks to standing vigil over the bodies and even returning to the burial site years later. “Oh, Mommy,” my daughter said, reverently.

The child in the book, reading his own book about this wondrous animal, is a reminder of what Desmond explains in the Prologue: that the elephant’s precarious existence is intricately tied to the behavior of humans in the past and present. Elephants aren’t just wonders to behold: their migration patterns, even their colossal dung piles, pave way for the survival of other plants and animals. Perhaps marveling over every exquisite page in The Elephant is a step towards ensuring this magnificent creature survives another 55 million years.

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

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

November 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

A brief note before we get started. This post will be followed by My Favorite Chapter Book of the Year. Then, I’m going to do something a little different for this Holiday Gift Guide: a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had the occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, feel free to take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly ask that you “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them. And now, without further ado…

My daughter fibs. I realize that sounds harsh, like what kind of parent says that about her child? Shouldn’t I soften my words and say that she only pretends or exaggerates or bends the truth, because even though she’s only eight, she’s old enough to realize that sometimes the world looks better in our minds than it does in reality? Indeed, this is true. Still, she fibs.

“I give my allowance away to the poor every month,” Emily announced to a car full of older children on our way home from school. (Ummm, you’ve never done that.) Two years ago, when she was in Kindergarten, she started reporting nightly that her teachers were taking away recess time if even one child misbehaved; that she had not had a proper recess in weeks. Alarmed, I scheduled a meeting with her teachers, who looked at me oddly and said, no, they had never shortened or taken away anyone’s recess. (For the rest of that year, whenever Emily would report on “transgressions” done to her or others at school, she would preface them by saying, “Now don’t tell my teachers I told you this, but….”)

I can think of several reasons for Emily’s fibbing—attention, saving face, and my own proclivity for exaggeration jump to mind—but it’s entirely possible that there’s a less overt motivator at play, one which has everything to do with her older brother’s reaction. Because fibs like these drive him absolutely, positively insane. My son regards and remarks on the world with mathematical precision. He sees any casual statement by another as an opportunity for cross-examination.

“There is no way you swam a 400 butterfly in practice, Emily. It was a 200 tops, and even that is unlikely for a group of eight year olds.”

“No, JP, it was a 400.”

“OK, so how many laps is that then?”

“I know how many laps it is, but I don’t feel like saying it right now.”

Author Marcy Campbell and illustrator Corinna Luyken have brilliantly captured the intersection of one child’s penchant for imagination with another’s rigid black-and-white thinking in my favorite picture book of 2018, Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse (Ages 6-9). A quiet but powerful story of developing empathy for those who experience the world differently than us, it is narrated in the stubborn, righteous voice of Chloe, who finds herself increasingly annoyed by one of her classmates, a red-haired loner of a boy named Adrian, who “tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.”

Chloe tells anyone who will listen—her friends, her father, her mother—why Adrian is absolutely, positively fibbing. For one, she and Adrian live in a town (“and I know you have a can’t have a horse in a town”). For two, Chloe has on good authority from her friend Kelsey that horses are super expensive, and Adrian’s family is clearly poor (he gets free lunch at school and “his shoes have holes”). For three, horses require a lot of work, and Adrian can’t even keep his desk neat.

So why does Adrian spin tales of a “beautiful horse with its white coat and golden mane,” a horse with “the biggest, brownest eyes of any horse, anywhere?” And why does everyone but Chloe seem enchanted, even bewitched by this fiction; why do they refuse to see the cold, hard facts? The entire ordeal rattles Chloe to the core. It insults her mile-wide streak of justice. I know this, not only by the way she talks with her hands on her hips and her nose in the air, but because this is precisely how my son would regard such proclamations. He, too, might even stoop to what Chloe does next, vindictively exploding on the playground, “He’s lying! Adrian Simcox does NOT have a horse!” My son would think he was helping his victim, defending the Truth above all else, but he would also hopefully recognize the effect of his words.

Even though I was upside down,
I could see that made Adrian Simcox really sad.

Still, Chloe is unmoved in her righteousness. When she returns home that evening, telling her mom “how Adrian was lying about his horse again,” her mom takes a page out of the show-not-tell-book of parenting. “Chloe, it’s time to take Chompers for a walk,” she says. (Chompers being their dog. Chompers being “a perfectly normal pet to have in town.”) With Chloe and the dog following, her mom marches down the street to a part of town clearly not frequented by Chloe. “All the houses looked like they might fall down, and even though it wasn’t trash day, it looked like it was.”

The mom, of course, is taking Chloe to where Adrian Simcox lives. With his grandfather. “I could see the backyard. It was no place for a horse, of course.” And yet, the careful reader will begin to see (and will enjoy flipping back pages to confirm) what it takes Chloe a few more pages to understand. That for everyone in the book who believes in Adrian’s horse—and, especially, for Adrian himself—there is the hint of a horse if we focus our eyes just right. Call it a ghost, a mirage, a trick of the eye. It is Adrian’s horse, and it is as much a part of the landscape as it is in his mind’s eye.

Corinna Luyken’s illustrations (we first fell in love with A Book of Mistakes) are nothing short of extraordinary, as much for the way she organically weaves the horse’s silhouette into her landscapes, as for the way she uses the horse as a kind of window into Adrian’s soul: the seeking curve of the horse’s neck, the gentle sweep of its mane, the kindness in its eye. Adrian doesn’t just want people to see his horse; he wants people to see him. To see past the rotten hand he has been dealt in the house and clothes and food and school supplies department.

When the two children face off in Adrian’s yard, Chloe is ready to deliver an accusation similar to the one she yelled on the playground. But then she sees the same look on Adrian’s face, and her words catch in her throat. Adrian breaks the silence by tossing her a ball. For the first time, she notices his smile. For the first time, she asks him about his horse. For the first time, she understands: “Adrian Simcox had just about the best imagination of any kid in our whole school.”

Throughout the story, Luyken imbues each child with a specific color palette. Chloe is typically shown wearing or surrounded by rosy pinks and mauve, while Adrian is defined by his fiery orange hair, set off by deep golds. In the final page—when we at last can make out most of the horse’s body—the two palettes come together: blending, complementing, and producing something much more magnificent than the sum of its parts.

This is what connection looks like. This is what empathy looks like. My favorite picture book of the year.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. 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!

Humanizing Refugees

November 4, 2018 § 5 Comments

“Oh honey, that book is not for you.” I had just walked into our family room to find my eight year old stretched out on the sofa, reading Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s extraordinary but brutally gut-wrenching graphic novel, Illegal (Ages 10-14). I realized I had made a mistake leaving it in plain sight, atop a stack of books I had just finished for my next Capitol Choices meeting.

My daughter barely looked up. “But why? You know I love graphic novels.”

“I do know you love graphic novels. But this one is written for older kids. We can save it for when you’re older.”

“But I’m reading it right now. Plus, I’m understanding it.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you’d understand it,” I said, sitting down next to her and gently taking away the book. “It’s that there are some very upsetting things that happen in the book, and it would be hard for an eight year old to process those things.”

Of course, as any parent knows, if you don’t want your child to read a book, the least effective approach is to tell her it’s not appropriate. It didn’t help that my eleven year old walked into the room just then and said, “Mommy, that book is amazing. And really deep. Emily is much too young to read it.”

“I hate you all!” my daughter yelled. She stormed off to her room. Well, I thought, at least we dodged that bullet.

Not a chance. The next day, after school, Emily announced, “I have decided you can read the book to me. That way you can explain it to me.”

“Which book” I asked, feigning innocence.

“The book about the refugees. See, I know what it’s about.”

“We have other picture books about refugees,” I tried. “We can go back and reread those.”

But she was determined. The pleading went on for three more days. It even involved her bringing home a news article on the Rohingya refugees, which her class had discussed from Time for Kids.

I caved. I read Illegal to her. And she was riveted. She asked questions. She made me read certain scenes twice. At one point, she got especially quiet and still, and I realized she was holding back tears. I told her it was OK to cry, that crying didn’t mean she was too young for the story. And then I cried.

Illegal, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, tells the story of Ebo, a parentless, penniless, music-loving, twelve-year-old boy from Ghana, who runs away when he learns that his beloved older brother, Kwame, has left to make the hazardous crossing to Europe, following in the footsteps of their older sister from months ago. We know that Ebo eventually catches up to Kwame, because the book opens with the two of them floating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an inflatable rubber dinghy (“maximum safe load 6 people”), alongside thirteen others. The sky is blue-black; the water is darker; the boat has a leak; and the fuel tank is almost empty. No one knows how to swim.

The book begins and ends with this dramatic, hair-raising sea crossing—the very image that comes to mind when Westerners think about the refugee crisis—but it consistently breaks to jump back in time, revealing that getting into this rubber dinghy is the final step in what has already been an incredibly long and harrowing journey.

How many of our children—much less ourselves—have ever contemplated what it looks like for minors to travel alone for hundreds of miles; to live on the streets of busy cities; to vie for labor jobs to earn enough money for the next bus, the next truck; to risk their lives crossing the Sahara Dessert at the hands of armed criminals; all to arrive at the shores of the Mediterranean to face the riskiest, most insane, most desperate act of all? What must the life you left behind be like to choose this path?

And yet, the media, fueled by our own government, would demonize refugees like this. Would unilaterally cast them as shady, suspicious, ill-meaning characters who should turn around and go back from whence they came.

While I am not advocating sharing this book with children under ten or eleven, I can tell you this: Emily has gone on to read the book three more times on her own. I have learned from experience that, when children return to a book again and again, it is because they still have more to extract. More meaning, more understanding, more connection.

“What is it about Illegal that you like so much?” I asked her over breakfast last week.

She thought for a bit. “I guess I like that Ebo survives.”

There is death in this book: death of strangers, of friends, even of Ebo’s own brother, who dies saving Ebo in the story’s most devastating moment. There is violence and cruelty; both are depicted graphically. Still, at the heart of the book, there is beautiful, wide-eyed, caring Ebo, who touches the lives of everyone he meets and instills camaraderie in a group of boys to gives them strength in numbers. For young readers, even middle-grade readers, Ebo’s survival is critical. It softens the blow of the surrounding death and violence. It is the ultimate sign of hope: that someone, in this case a child, can beat every odd stacked against him. Can survive the unimaginable. A boy who runs into his sister’s arms in the final page and exclaims triumphantly, “I will hold her forever and never let her go.”

Our breakfast discussion included my eleven year old, who weighed in on what struck him about the book. “You don’t think about kids having to do stuff like that. You hear about it in the news, but you can’t really imagine it until you read this book.”

And yet, the refugee crisis is happening now. It is the world we live in. Might there be value in opening up our children’s eyes to it (albeit appropriately and sensitively)? In the words of Melissa Orth, a Maine teen librarian featured in this week’s article in the School Library Journal, titled “Can Diverse Books Save Us? In a Divided World, Librarians are on a Mission”:

As a teen librarian in the whitest state in the union, I feel it is my duty to not have the collection reflect my community, but rather to reflect the wider world…Books featuring characters with different cultural experiences from their own can educate teen readers and build empathy.

Max, the thirteen-year-old American protagonist of Katherine Marsh’s heartfelt and suspenseful new middle-grade novel, Nowhere Boy (Ages 10-14), has never given two seconds’ thought to the plight of refugees, until he finds one squatting in the basement of the townhouse his family is renting during their two-year sabbatical in Belgium. The boy in the basement is Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who believes himself to be orphaned; he watched his mother and sister die in bombs back in Syria and his father drown while attempting to paddle their dinghy across the Mediterranean.

Sound familiar? If Illegal concerns itself with the refugee’s geographic journey, culminating with Ebo reaching the safety of the European coast, Nowhere Boy begins upon arrival—when the equally daunting journey of making a new life in a foreign and often distrusting culture begins. When Paris is attacked by terrorists who are traced to Belgium, Ahmed knows he dare not show his face in public for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist. Alone and nearly starving, he implores Max to help him live secretly in his basement. Not even Max’s parents can know.

Max is facing his own challenges with cultural assimilation. Already a struggling student, he resents having to attend school in a foreign language. He especially dislikes spending after-school hours with a strict, elderly Belgian tutor, who at the same time that she attacks his French, also delivers racist comments about Europe’s Muslim population—remarks which Max finds untrue and offensive, especially since one is living in his basement and another is his only friend in school.

As the two boys connect over their “outsider” status (and a shared love of comics), they forge a dangerous but ultimately redemptive friendship. The story is told through the boys’ alternating points of view, in short chapters, which not only keeps pace for even the most reluctant readers, but poignantly highlights the difference in the boys’ cultural orientations. Indeed, it is this difference that makes their friendship so intriguing and remarkable.

If refugees themselves are often stigmatized in Western culture, so is the act of helping them. If Illegal is a story of hope, Nowhere Boy is a story of empowerment. Of standing up in the name of human decency and kindness. A story about a boy who looks another boy in the eyes and sees something of himself in him—despite their looking nothing alike, despite their foreign upbringings, despite those who would have him thrown out, turned in. Even when Ahmed’s secret becomes too complicated for Max to keep alone, he engages the help of both his Muslim school friend and, incredibly, the school “bully.” Together, they develop a plan to give Ahmed a chance at an ordinary childhood, a chance to go to school and ride bikes and play sports. The plan goes awry at nearly at every step, but the nail-biting resolution is a testament to the power of kids fighting for what they believe is right and good and true.

Citing parallels with the Holocaust and those who, at great personal risk, harbored Jews in their homes, Nowhere Boy asks us to see past labels, past the “other,” to the human being inside. It challenges us to move beyond being a passive presence and towards extending a hand. It rewards, in the words of the novel, “put[ting] yourself at risk for another person.” In a world where adults seem increasingly unable to do this, perhaps it is only fitting that this novel illuminates the possibilities when kids take matters into their own hands. I am reminded of the words spoken by the King at the conclusion of our October read aloud, A Tale Dark and Grimm (yup, it was every bit the hit I had hoped):

There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have. There is a time when a kingdom needs its children.

I had planned to give Nowhere Boy to my eleven year old to read on his own, but I’ve since decided to read it aloud to both him and my daughter. Her fascination for this topic seems boundless at the moment, and I don’t want that to go to waste. Sometimes our children know what they need better than we do. Sometimes they are ready before we think they are.

Sometimes we need to get out of their way and let them direct their love into the world.

 

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Books published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Roaring Book Press, respectively. Illegal was originally published in Great Britain by Hodder Children’s Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

In our house, there is nothing like the last week of summer break to convince me that it’s time for my kids to go back to school. I enter into that final vacation week with a heavy heart, prematurely mourning our weeks of togetherness (my kids finally being at the ages where the balance is tipped more towards fun than exhausting).

And then—perhaps because we know our break-up is inevitable and we’re trying to make the case to ourselves—we turn on one another. We bark, we snap, we storm out of rooms. Neither child agrees to any game the other proposes (well, except Rat-a-Tat-Cat; thank goodness for Rat-a-Tat-Cat). Particularly telling: no one seems capable of losing themselves in a book anymore—chapters are abandoned before they are even a quarter completed. Suddenly, the lack of structure we previously relished seems precarious, foolhardy, even downright dangerous.

They need to go back.

Still, there is nothing easy about this month. We parents have to go through the Herculean effort of getting our bleary-eyed kids out the door, only to have them peak under someone else’s watch and then return home exhausted, cranky, and full of penguin problems. Meanwhile, our children face their own set of hurdles, like having to channel their pint-sized reserves of concentration for hours at a time.

But perhaps the greatest challenge for many children comes from the fact that they are about to be corralled into a room for seven hours a day with a dozen (or two) other children, many (or all) of whom are strangers. We take the set-up of modern schooling for granted, but when you get right down to it, it’s like a wayward science experiment: all these personalities hissing and popping, and no one wearing safety glasses.

Fortunately, there are two brilliant new back-to-school picture books to lend some empathy—or at least levity—to the subject of coming-togetherness. On the surface, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates and The Day You Begin couldn’t be more different; and yet, both cleverly tackle the daunting question of how we go about being ourselves in a classroom full of other selves.

Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates (Ages 3-9) will emit no shortage of chuckles, but it will also resonate universally, because if your child doesn’t struggle with impulse control himself, chances are he’s in a classroom with someone who does. Every fall, like clockwork, my daughter comes home from school bearing a list of daily grievances done by one of the new kids in her class. He won’t sit still, he hits, he won’t listen, he won’t clean up…and so on. My kneejerk reaction to her persistent negativity—I hope you are being kind to this child!—is exacerbated by my fear that this is precisely how some perceive her older brother, who has his own unique relationship with impulsivity in the classroom.

And yet, just as predictably, at some point during the year, Emily does a 180. She stops complaining about said child and begins defending him. He is getting better, he was helpful today, he said a nice thing in class meeting, you should see how hard he tries. Bless the teachers who have paired my daughter up with these children on more than one occasion, letting her glimpse below the surface.

In the silliest of ways, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates asks its reader to imagine how frustrating and lonely it can feel when you are a kid who must wage a war against your very nature to conform to the conventional expectations of a classroom. If you remember author-illustrator Higgins from the Mother Bruce series (so, so, so funny), you know how talented he is at creating adorably down-trodden heroines, who dramatically pit themselves against the world and then bemoan the consequences of it. Penelope Rex, the heroine of We Don’t Eat Our Classmates might look the part in pink overalls and a pony backpack, but she has the monumental challenge of being the only T.Rex in a classroom of human children.

(Kudos to Higgins for casting his impulsive protagonist as a girl and for featuring a diverse classroom, complete with a girl in a headscarf and a boy in a kippah.)

T.Rexes get very hungry, and the 300 tuna sandwiches Penelope’s dad packs in her lunch each day do little to squash her propensity for the taste of young humans. And so, even while she wants more than anything for the other children to like her—to invite her to join their games on the playground and sit next to her at lunch—she keeps blowing it. She. can’t. stop. eating. her. classmates. The fact that she spits them out when reprimanded by her teacher does little to reassure her victims.

Always, the fun of reading Higgins’ books lies in discovering the humor he hides in his illustrations, and Penelope’s attempts to fit in are no exception. “She finger-painted some of her best work”; and yet, a glance at the illustration reveals she has painted a picture of a smiling child disappearing into the teethy jaws of a young dinosaur. “She even saved Griffin Emery a seat at lunch,” only closer inspection reveals that she is pointing at an empty spot on her plate.

Back home, a dejected Penelope sheepishly admits to her father that it’s possible “none of the children wanted to play with me” because she ate them (“maybe sort of just a little bit”). To which her father offers some advice: “You see Penelope, children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.”

Things do not improve until Penelope has an unpleasant encounter with the classroom pet, a goldfish named Walter with a carnivorous desire to chomp fingers (my mother would call this, “getting a taste of your own medicine”). “Once Penelope found out what it was like to be someone’s snack, she lost her appetite for children.” (And, no, I am not spoiling that illustration for you.) With her impulsivity somewhat tamed, Penelope begins to showcase a personality worth knowing, sharing a fondness for cooperative building, hiding and seeking, and the ability to laugh at herself.

If We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is about a child who comes out of the gate too strong, Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin (Ages 5-10), illustrated by Rafael Lopez, is about the experience of holding back, of fearing the judgment of others. Written as an ode to the child who feels like an outsider—“There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you”—Woodson’s text was inspired by a poem from her award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, and its lyricism enfolds the reader in a warm cocoon: I hear you, it says, and you deserve to find a place wherever you go.

While the second-person narrative is intended to address anyone who feels set apart—due to physical appearance, heritage, religion, socio-economic background, or something less tangible—four racially-diverse children feature throughout the book and lend some specific examples. One is intimidated by her classmates’ tales about the exotic vacations they took during summer break, since she spent her days caring for her little sister in their hot city apartment (“what good is this/ when other students were flying/ and sailing and/ going somewhere”).

Another just immigrated from Venezuela and worries how his accent will be perceived by his American peers (“because they don’t understand, the classroom will fill with laughter until the teacher quiets everyone”). Still another child dreads the questions she’ll get about the lunch her mother packed, rice and meat and kimchi (“too unfamiliar for others/ to love as you do”). The abstract image of a ruler figures into some of these pictures, perhaps not only alluding to the work of school days, but to the way we relentlessly measure ourselves against those around us.

For the fourth child, painted as a Caucasian boy standing on the sidelines of a playground, we get a hint of the offhand dismissiveness common when a group of kids used to playing together encounter someone new (“I don’t want him on our team./ You can watch./ Maybe you can have a turn later.”) This particular image no doubt rings a chord with both of my children, who have been forthcoming about their own anxiety in deciphering the rules of engagement on the playground, of not wanting to jump in for fear of betraying ignorance or inadequacy.

As the book continues, we witness subtle but significant transformations in the four children, as they take tiny but emboldened steps to put themselves out there: to invite a peak at their lunch, to point out a commonality, to share a story. “My name is Angelina and/ I spent my whole summer with my little sister…reading books and telling stories and/ even though we were right on our block it was like/ we got to go EVERYWHERE.”

What I love is that the emphasis here is on making a start. Nothing more. “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin.” Furthermore, Woodson makes clear to her readers that the power to make this start, to connect, resides in everyone.

All that stands beside you is
your own brave self—
steady as steel and ready
even though you don’t yet know
what you’re ready for.

Can I get this spread made into a poster for my children’s bedroom walls? Please?

We walk into unfamiliar settings, where we might encounter any combination of invisibility and judgment, but we never walk in alone. We have within us, not only a personality worth knowing, but the power to use this personality to bridge that uncomfortable gulf. We need only to begin.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.

Books published by Disney Hyperion and Nancy Paulsen Books (review copy from Penguin Young Readers), respectively. 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!

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