Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

December 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.

Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.

Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.

While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.

There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.

And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.

Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”

I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.

Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.

I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.

 

AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

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

 

 

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: When We Can’t Go Home

December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

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.

When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, a novel set in the 1980s about four siblings abandoned by their mother in a mall parking lot. The book follows the children’s physical journey—sleeping in woods, stealing food, battling the elements—to track down their great-aunt and convince her to take them in. Of course, the book is as much about the children’s emotional journey, processing their mother’s betrayal and questioning words like “family” and “home.” To my pre-adolescent self, Voigt’s story seemed like a child’s worst nightmare. But, if watching it play out was terrifying to me, witnessing the children’s resourcefulness and resilience along the way was also deeply consoling. I couldn’t look away.

I was reminded of Dicey and her siblings—of their heartbreak and their fortitude—many times while reading Kate DiCamillo’s Louisiana’s Way Home (Ages 10-13), a middle-grade novel even a reluctant reader won’t be able to put down. While set in the 1970s (not a cell phone in sight), the story has a kind of timeless, floating feel. In its review, Booklist likens it to a fairy tale, with “heroes, helpers, villains, and one princess looking for home.” This “princess”—or anti-princess, as she might more accurately be called—also happens to be one of the most memorable, infectious narrators our children will ever meet.

Louisiana Elefante is abandoned by her grandmother, her only living relation, on an impromptu middle-of-the-night road trip across the Florida-Louisiana state line. Granny begins the trip muttering about “a date with destiny,” about finally breaking a curse she believes has been on their family for generations. “The day of reckoning is at hand,” she cryptically tells her granddaughter. (Louisiana first appeared as a supportive character in DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, although a child need not have read the earlier book to fall in love with this one.)

Louisiana is accustomed to Granny’s eccentricities—one might say affectionately so, which makes the later betrayal all the greater—so while she begrudges not getting clear answers and having to leave behind her friends and her cat, she does her best to stand by the only family she has ever known. When her grandmother succumbs to debilitating tooth pain, twelve-year-old Louisiana even takes the wheel (“you may be surprised to learn I had never driven a car before”), manages to locate a dentist’s office, and then talks her way into getting her grandmother emergency treatment. Louisiana is one calm, cool, and collected kiddo.

Despite Louisiana’s efforts, the road trip goes from bad to worse. After consecutive nights in the “Good Night, Sleep Night” motel, Granny suggests Louisiana find a local singing gig to pay their room and board. When she returns, Louisiana discovers her grandmother is gone, plaid suitcase and all. If that isn’t devastating enough, her grandmother has left a letter. (“Why would you write someone a letter when you were always and forever by their side? You wouldn’t. Unless, of course, you intended not to be by their side anymore.”) The letter not only confirms Granny isn’t coming back, but it reveals a shocking truth about Louisiana’s past. (Nope, I’m not saying any more than that.)

While Louisiana has had to play the adult too many times in her young life, she nevertheless approaches every minute of living with a childlike wonder. It is precisely this duality of personality—at once deeply wounded and unfailingly optimistic—that makes her such an enticing, beguiling character. Even while contemplating the gravity of her situation, Louisiana is distracted by the small wonders around her: a crow on a roof; the brightness of the stars; even the palm-tree curtains which seem out of place in a Georgia motel (“Why weren’t the curtains printed with peaches? That’s what I wanted to know.”). A vending machine is regarded as nothing short of miraculous.

Kate DiCamillo has said of writing this book that, no matter how hard she tried to tell the story in the third person, first person was “the only way the voice would come.” We, too, fall under Louisiana’s spell, continually surprised by the twists and turns in her story, yet always trusting we’re in the hands of a master. The book itself is Louisiana’s own reckoning, her insistence on claiming agency in a world bent on robbing her of it. “I’m going to write it all down, so what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer. They will know. This is what happened.”

What happens is that Louisiana uses her infectious personality, fondness for pineapple upside-down cake, and unparalleled singing voice to befriend a boy named Burke Allen, to enlist the help of a minister and his crotchety organist, and to begin to shape her own destiny, independent of her grandmother and her alleged family history. To find family in the unlikeliest of places. To make a home out of two states. And to begin to forgive those who may have wronged her, but who nevertheless set her on this unique and always-wondrous path.

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Chapter Book of the Year

November 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

My gift guide is just warming up! This post will be followed, beginning tomorrow, with 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…

On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.

The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered.

As quickly as it had begun, it ended. Even more aghast, I watched as the two students faced us, took a bow, and walked off. A teacher appeared and began distributing papers down the aisles. On each paper was a series of questions about what we had just witnessed. “Which party delivered the first blow?” “What was the exact sequence of events?” “What did he look like?” “What did she say?” We were also asked to rate the certainty of our answers.

If I had been shocked moments ago by the ruckus taking place thirty feet from me, I was even more shocked by my peers’ vastly different accounts of what had happened. This, of course, was the point of the exercise. There were wild discrepancies about what each subject had been wearing; there was even disagreement on race and accent. Almost no consensus could be reached on who had “started” the fight, who pushed whom first, or what the two were fighting about. And yet, the next day, when the teacher distributed the tabulated responses of our class, we learned that most people had rated their certainty above 70%.

The fallibility of historic reporting was something I had never stopped to considered. After this day, like one tends to do in adolescence, I began to question the truth of what I was seeing and hearing around me. I began to read history textbooks with the understanding that the way we transcribe our world is impossibly tangled up in the biases, prejudices, and preconceptions of both our individual past experiences and the cultures in which we live. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners.

But what happens when everyone loses? What can we discover about one another and ourselves? If we can’t tell what the world really looks like, where does that leave us?

These might be unusually weighty questions for a middle-grade novel to pose, but M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin have done just that in The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (Ages 11-15)—albeit so deftly, through such a fantastical setting, and with so much absurd comedy that many of their young readers might not realize they’ve just been schooled on the limitations, missed opportunities, and dangers that accompany bias. It’s an age-old problem and one as timely as ever.

I have not come across a contemporary work of children’s literature as wholly original as The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. At its most basic level, it reads like an epic fantasy, set against a Middle Earth-esque backdrop and starring an elf and a goblin: two historical academics brought together on a (misconstrued) mission to mend thousands of years of distrust between their two warring nations. But the story’s multitude of riches extend well beyond the surface. (Put another way: I don’t particularly care for fantasy, yet I chose this as my favorite book of the year.) In fact, the levels at which one can experience this book are so varied, I will defer to Anderson and Yelchin’s own competing descriptions of their story, which appear in the interview-style Author’s Note describing their collaborative process.

MTA: So Eugene and I created this book as a tribute to all of those brave writer-explorers in the ancient world who voyaged into unknown lands and tried to understand the cultures they found there: Marco Polo, Herodotus, Ibn Battuta[…]

EY: What are you talking about? This is a spy thriller. Murder! Chases! Double crosses! We got a bomb in there!

MTA: But, Eugene, at its heart, it’s really a tragic meditation on how societies that have been trained to hate each other for generations can actually come to see eye to eye. 

EY: A tragedy, my eye! A crazy story about two fools blinded by propaganda is not a tragedy. It’s a comedy.

MTA: Sure, Eugene, whatever. Basically, we just wondered why goblins get such a bad rap in fantasy noels like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

In full disclosure, when I first started reading this 526-page tome—told through alternating chapters of traditional narration, letters, and wordless illustration (almost as if Brian Selznick’s books got a darker makeover from Hieronymous Bosch)—I thought, wowzers, this book is strange. Marvelously strange, but strange. I can think of maybe one or two children who would enjoy it. Then, with each chapter, I found myself thinking up more and more children (and adults) who I thought would love it. By the end, unable to decide if my husband or son should read it first, I just threw it at my husband and yelled, YOUR TURN TO READ TO OUR SON! (Upon further consideration, I actually think this book is best suited as an independent read. Although it does beg discussion and would be absolutely perfect in a book club setting.)

Have a kid who likes Tolkein, mythical creatures, or epic battle scenes? No-brainer. Have a kid who likes odd and eccentric? Yup, it’s here in spades. Have a visually-oriented child who would welcome interspersed chapters devoted entirely to mysterious, pen-and-ink illustrations, the likes of which they’ve never seen before?  Oh YES. Dry humor and political satire? It abounds. How about the kid who would appreciate holding in their hands an exquisite product of bookmaking, whose jacketless cover with its embossed letters and stamped gold ink feels like you’re laying hands on something maybe not entirely ancient but also not quite of the modern world?

What about a child who enjoys complex, flawed protagonists, capable of delighting and disappointing faster than one can turn the page? Herein lie two of the most memorable, if misguided, literary characters. Brangwain Spurge, a cantankerous elf historian largely preoccupied by his chance at fame, journeys to the land of the goblins on an unprecedented peace-making mission to return an ancient relic—a Faberge-type egg concealing a gemstone with ancient pictorial carvings—believed to have been captured long ago from the goblin king. (What Spurge doesn’t know is that he’s a pawn in a larger scheme by the elfin powers that be: the egg actually contains a bomb intended to obliterate the goblin king and his government.) Werfel, naïve and obsequious, is a historic archivist and the goblin entrusted with hosting Spurge. His job is to introduce the fellow scholar to the finer points of his beloved goblin culture and (he hopes) learn about elfin ways in return, resulting in famed publications of his own.

Whatever your reason for gifting this story to a particular child, the real gift will be in what is carefully and calculatedly revealed through its telling. Ironically, in a story about two individuals who come together out of a passion for historical accounting, both are equally blind to the cultural experiences of the other. Spurge is blinded by elfin propaganda, which has long painted goblins as violent, grotesque, and barbaric; as creatures who spurn cultural refinement for beheadings and relish living in squalor and poverty. The “skins” Spurge discovers hanging in Werfel’s house only confirm his bias; he never even registers the pride and joy in Werfel’s explanation of the goblin practice of shedding skins in celebration of achieving personal growth.

Werfel initially seems like the more open-minded of the two, but we come to realize that his failure to register offense at Spurge’s derogatory remarks stems from his blind commitment to ambition and hospitality. (“Goblins had a strong code of hospitality. Once a goblin invited someone across the threshold into their home, it was their duty to serve and protect their guest, no matter what. Hospitality was holy.”) We watch, helpless, as the two speak to one another without either being heard.

We may be helpless observers of the mounting tensions between Spurge and Werfel, of their failed attempts to penetrate the cultural bias both parties have brought to the table, but we’re also not entirely innocent. Anderson and Yelchin intentionally prey upon our own inherent bias as readers—specifically, our easy trust in visual truth. It turns out there’s an underlying tension between the story’s narration and its pictures. All the narration (apart from the letters) is done in third-person, although from Werfel’s perspective, so it’s easy to spot subjectivity. The visual chapters, on the other hand, are billed as “top secret transmissions,” literal thought pictures which Spurge records over the course of the day and then sends back to elfin headquarters at night, while suspended off his bed in a kind of trance. We automatically accept these visuals—in many cases, our only window into the story’s action sequences—as truth, simply because children’s literature rarely, if ever, tells us otherwise. If Werfel is illustrated as a towering, formidable figure with a scowling mouth and claws for hands—well, we assume that’s what he looks like, even if it doesn’t match the soft, gentle words that come from his mouth.

Until we don’t. At some point, we become aware that the words and pictures are at war with one another. That our eyes are deceiving us. Spurge’s visual reporting is flawed because, in many respects, he has made up his mind about what he sees before he even sees it. The truth—if we can ever get to such a thing—likely likes somewhere in the middle.

Only in Spurge and Werfel’s eventual shared exile do the two men begin to forge a touching, eccentric, friendship, one which moves beyond personal and cultural bias. Only in the climactic collapse of the two kingdoms do we trust that Werfel’s words and Spurge’s images are approximating something closer to the truth. Werfel begins to insult Spurge—the sincerest form of goblin affection, it turns out—and Spurge begins to see that his fellow historian is a lot more similar to him than he initially thought (at least, similarly sized).

Don’t just gift The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge because it’s wildly entertaining and wholly original. Gift it because it just might change the way a child experiences the world. If we approach new cultures with an open heart and an open mind, we might still not see the world exactly as it is, but we may find two things infinitely more valuable: compassion and connection.

 

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

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.

 

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.

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!

How The Penderwicks Saw Us Through 24 Days of Rain

October 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

Last month, Northern Virginia saw twenty-four days of rain. Adding insult to injury, this deluge of wet, gloomy weather happened during the one month each year when our family barely holds it together in the first place. Where the ensuing chaos of back-to-school transitions is trumped only by the fact that both my children once upon a time insisted on entering the world within two weeks of one another (and have since insisted that their celebrations never overlap).

Fortunately, we are not strangers to the salvation of the right chapter book series for back-to-school season (see here). Still, I have never been as thankful for one particular set of literary characters as I was last month.

Exhibit A begins when my (almost) eleven year old came upon me at the kitchen counter, surveying a spread of Tupperware containers.

“Can you read Penderwicks to me and Emily?” he blurted out.

(Um, do I look like I am available for reading, you good-for-nothing…) “I have to make dinner.”

“Oh. Right. What are we having?”

“I’m going to turn these various leftover vegetables into quesadillas.”

“Wait, can I make the dinner instead? Then you could sit and read to us, and I could listen while I cook.”

You are going to WHAT?! (As much as I’d like to tell you I have kids who regularly help out with cooking, I do not have kids who regularly help out with cooking. Getting them to trim green beans can be a knock-down-drag-out fight.)

And yet, as I took my place on the couch next to my daughter, ours backs to the ensuing sounds of banging and clattering coming from the kitchen, the incredible happened. My son sautéed vegetables. He grated cheese. He filled tortillas and then flipped each one on a cast-iron skillet until it was perfectly browned. He used the pizza cutter to make equal wedge-like slices. All the time, I read from The Penderwicks in Spring. Together, we laughed and leaned in and pretended it wasn’t pouring rain outside for the umpteenth day in a row, pretended that spring was springing outside our window like it was outside the Penderwicks’ house.

The Penderwicks: a family so fun, so funny, so well-meaning, so deliciously and perfectly flawed, that they cannot fail to bring out the best in everyone who knows them.

“Are you ready for us?” I asked, turning to see three heaping plates on the counter.

“No, keep going,” JP replied. “I want to make the table look extra nice before we sit down.”

I give myself a tiny bit of credit for this. I always knew we would want to binge read The Penderwicks books (Ages 8-12), by award-winning Jeanne Birdsall, so I not only waited until the last one in the series came out (this past spring), I also waited until my kids were almost eight and eleven—the perfect ages for a series whose later books take on increasingly mature terrain, as the characters themselves age (romantic pitfalls and all).

We flew through The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street over the summer, then finished The Penderwicks at Point Mouette during the first week of school, yearning nostalgically for our own travels to Maine (Maine’s Point Mouette being the site of the Penderwicks’ two-week, unplugged summer vacation.). That left The Penderwicks in Spring and The Penderwicks at Last for September and October.

Who are these infectious creatures? While the Penderwicks family (spoiler alert) picks up some new additions as the series goes on, the spotlight initially focuses on four sisters and their affable, eccentric single father. Rosalind, the eldest, can be bossy, but she’s also fiercely protective of her younger siblings, having stepped up to care for them after their mother died of cancer (four years before the start of the first book).

Skye, next in line, may resemble her late mother’s conventionally beautifully features, but her tomboy personality, infuriating stubbornness, fondness for the soccer field, and astute mathematical mind sometimes make her feel like the “black sheep” of the family.

Then there’s hopelessly romantic Jane—the sibling who regularly elicits the most giggles from my brood—who, as an aspiring author, sees everything around her as potential fodder for her fictional series about a heroine named Sabrina Starr (although don’t count her out on the soccer field, either).

Finally, there’s Batty, just four years old when the series begins (but who stars as a fifth grader and college student in the final two books), and whose devotion to fairy wings, mishaps, and animals—including her beloved dog, Hound—wins over everyone she meets.

Who is our favorite? That answer changes faster than I can turn the page. Birdsall continuously develops her characters: they ebb and flow and keep us guessing, all the while taking up residence inside our hearts. The cast of supporting characters—most of them boys—is equally memorable.

If this is a book whose main characters are girls, does that mean it’s a girl book? YOU HUSH UP RIGHT NOW. True, my daughter now claims The Penderwicks as her second favorite series of all time, after Harry Potter. BUT ALSO, my son will tell you it is now his third favorite series, after HP and Percy Jackson. That my son’s enthusiasm matches his sister’s isn’t just high praise: it is proof positive that author Shannon Hale (a.k.a. Princess in Black) knows what she’s talking about when she says there is absolutely nothing about being a boy that predisposes you to enjoy only stories about boys—and that we as parents better stop pushing our own bias on our children.

Besides being filled with fleshed-out characters, what makes this realistic fiction so enticing, so worthy of sitting your mother down and cooking for her?! While The Penderwicks books are set in today’s time, largely in a fictional Boston suburb named Cameron, they have a charm—especially against a backdrop of increasingly “heavy” middle-grade fiction—which feels refreshingly old-fashioned. They feel like the timeless tales we remember from our own childhood, the ones which kept us warm during winter nights, which helped us pass lazy summer days on a porch swing.

Sure, the Penderwick siblings get into scrapes—but they are scrapes with bulls, or runaway rabbits, or with the prickly mother of their best friend (and “honorary sibling”) Jeffrey. These are girls who climb trees to sneak into the bedroom of a friend in need; who run off brooding to throw rocks into the ocean and almost drown trying to save a dog; who sneak into golf courses in the early dawn to spy on moose.

Sure, the Penderwick siblings are not perfect. They squander; they dig in their heels; they let misunderstandings brew and nearly swallow them up. Their relationships with one another change over time, alliances form and break apart. But they continue to abide by what they call Penderwick Family Honor. They continue to call MOPS (Meeting of the Penderwick Sisters) to formulate Great Plans, like how to keep their beloved father from marrying again, or how to stop a fellow sibling from running away. They continue to act with the conviction that they are stronger together.

Sure, their adventures are crafted, often hilariously so, to keep us breathless with excitement—but they are also adventures which feel alluringly like the simple, pure, pared-down essence of childhood. For our children reading these books, the Penderwicks are a harbinger of all that is good and true in this world: of curiosity, of kindness, of laughter, of resilience, of familial bonds which stand strong against the currents of time.

In short, they are exactly the thing to read when life—or twenty-four days of rain—has got you down.

 

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.

Books published by Alfred A. Knopf. 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!

Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.

As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)

What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:

…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.

Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.

As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)

I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.

All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.

But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.

Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.

…and Jenny’s head fell off.

I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.

I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.

The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.

The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.

While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?

Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)

A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.

This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.

We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.

With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:

Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.

Really.

So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.

You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.

And, of course, the most blood.

The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.

 

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 of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from Candlewick. 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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