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?
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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!
January 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, JP was less interested in listening to me read than he was in reading his own book (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, the sequel to Tim Federle’s fabulous Better Nate Than Ever, which I can at least take credit for introducing to him last fall, on our trip to New York City to catch his first Broadway musical). Emily, however, was game to join me each day on the couch and insisted we read Emily Winfield Martin’s newly-published and ohhhh-so-lovely Snow and Rose (Ages 8-12, slightly younger if reading aloud).
When the winter doldrums threaten to take over, we fantasize about escape. But who needs a tropical beach vacation when you have the mysterious, enchanted, dangerous woods of our imagination? (Um, still me. But that’s a different post.)
It doesn’t happen often that my kids get to a book before I do. But when I opened the box from Random House to reveal Snow and Rose’s stunning black cover, with its raised gold lettering and cloaked girls—one in pale blue and one in red—Emily exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the book we just finished in school!” Say what? (After my shock wore off, I delighted that her teachers have their pulse on contemporary children’s literature.) At once, Emily decided this would be our winter break read. “Are you sure you don’t want to hear something new?” I asked.
“Actually, Mommy, I think this is one of those books that feels even more magical the second time you read it. Plus, I’ll be able to spot all the clues, because I know what’s going to happen.” (She didn’t need to add, And you don’t.)
Across nineteen exquisite chapters and gorgeous full-color illustrations normally reserved for the likes of picture books, Snow and Rose concerns itself with re-telling The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red”: the story of two impoverished, fatherless girls, who live with their mother in a cottage at the edge of an enchanted woods—and whose chance encounters with a giant bear and an unsettling dwarf set their destinies into motion.
In the academic study of children’s literature, much has been made about why fairy tales—dark, twisted, fantastical stories of long ago—get retold and reread with such frequency (apart from the electrifying shivers they send down our spines). One of the best explanations comes from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, which proffers, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”
That is to say, while the settings and dramatic action of fairy tales might be (sometimes ridiculously) far-fetched, the world view they offer our children is not. Rather, these stories put forth a reassuringly familiar account of what it feels like to be young, helpless, even afflicted in a world presided over by adult authority figures, whose motivations are often neither evident nor well-meaning. Remember Hansel and Gretel’s father, manipulated by his new wife to leave his children in the woods to die? Remember the witch, disguised by the sugary treats of her gingerbread house?
And yet, these fairy tales also offer hope: what their young protagonists lack in power, they more than make up for in wit, creativity, kindness, and loyalty. In fact, often through a combination of these qualities, these characters figure out how to step outside the adult shadows, how to tease out light from dark, and how to reverse their own fortunes into a kind of Happy Ending. Bettelheim explains:
The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.
In Snow and Rose, Martin puts the “inner processes” of her heroines on full display, exploring and building on an emotional awareness and growth in the two sisters only hinted at in the original fairy tale. Snow, named for her white hair, is spirited, wild, and impulsive. Rose, with “hair like threads of black silk and cheeks like two red petals,” is rational, determined, and fiercely loyal. And yet, Martin resists setting these personalities in stone. The girls’ temperaments evolve, even bend, at different opportunities, particularly when the other needs her most.
If there is one thing we can count on in fairy tales, it’s that things are rarely as they seem. Martin has expanded on this premise with a story that also resists labels and boxes, which seems to exist in the very grey shadows of the trees through which the girls traverse, seeking answers to questions life has so unwittingly hurled at them.
When we first meet the sisters, they are mourning the life they once knew. Most significantly, they are facing the loss of their beloved father, who wandered into the woods one day and never returned. Because we’re in the language of fairy tales, he did not “die;” he “was taken.” In fact, people have been mysteriously disappearing in these woods for years.
The wondering burned inside [Snow and Rose] but took different shapes because of what they believed: Rose wanted to know why their father had been taken, and Snow wanted to know how to get him back. Their wondering touched the edges of things they could never know, about this place that had changed their fortunes once and would change them again.
If our children ever needed inspiration to confront their fears head on, they need look no further. In order to find answers to their “burning” questions, Snow and Rose venture boldly into the very woods whose mysteries have been their family’s greatest downfall.
Fortunately (by now you might need some reassurance that all is not dark, dreary, and bone-chilling in these 205 pages), Martin populates these enchanted woods with just as many wonderful, wondrous things—many of them unique to her version of the story—as she does the bandits, the howling wolves, the knife-teethed fish, and the trees with watching eyes. Of all the beauty to be found, not the least of which are the seasonal transformations: the woods a silent “palace of ice” after a snowstorm, a “carpet of violets” in the spring.
There’s the “mushroom boy,” Ivo, who lives with his family in an underground house, accessible only by a long chute beneath the roots of a tree, and who becomes a treasured companion to the sisters.
There is the mysterious Library: a small house in a clearing flanked by white flowers, on whose shelves rest, not books, but thousands of boxed and jarred objects, all of them found in the woods and all of them with stories waiting to impart to their borrower, though not in any predictable way.
And there is the larger-than-life bear, a creature feared and suspected by many as the culprit behind the humans’ disappearances—but whom the sisters believe innocent. The girls free the beast’s leg from a huntsman trap, shelter him from winter’s fury in front of their fireplace, and later reap the benefits of their kindness in spades.
While the girls may be right about the bear, they are wrong about the Little Man: the white-bearded, red-pointy-hat-clad fellow, who speaks in riddles and proves immune to the sisters’ kindness. In Little Man lies the story’s duplicitous villain, a cruel and calculating creature, but even here Martin seems to tug at the universality of fairy tales. When asked to identify himself, the Little Man mischievously taunts the girls:
“Sometimes I’m the Dwarf and sometimes I’m the Tomten…Or sometimes the Brownie or Boggart or Gnome…And to some very rude people, I’ve been the Goblin…But these are just names… Many names have I, child. But none have guessed what I am.”
Exactly “what” the Little Man personifies can be debated at length. Evil? Greed? Loneliness? Misunderstanding? Older children might even pick up on how the sisters actually share red and white attributes with the Little Man. Perhaps Martin wishes to suggest that, in the making of our own fate and fortune, we must begin by confronting our own demons.
If I was impressed with how Martin remodels the interior of her fairy tale, I was slayed by her ending, a deeply gratifying departure from the original. In the Brothers Grimm’s telling, the fairy tale ends when the bear turns into a prince and marries one of the sisters. In Martin’s version, there is a different transformation altogether, one much more suited to the hearts’ desire of our heroines. No spoilers here but, ultimately, the story ends with a celebration of familial bonds—particularly those of sisterhood—and the reassuring reminder that our own courage and wit and will to survive in the wild woods are made stronger by the love we have at our backs.
Always, when we return from the woods, we are changed in the best of ways.
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Review copy provided by Random House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
February 16, 2017 § 6 Comments
“Oh yeah? What was that?” we all asked.
Emily leaned in conspiratorially, as if getting ready to impart significant information. “I didn’t have a single sip of water all day. BUT I STILL SURVIVED! Can you believe it?”
It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing, not wanting to diminish her stone-sober revelation. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about her words since. Clearly, whether at school or from a book or in conversation, Emily had absorbed something about “what every living creature needs to survive.” But she had only internalized half the story. What must it be like to make sense of the world through bits and pieces, to rarely grasp the full picture, to live your life in a perpetual loop of uncertainty and astonishment (as if you could accidentally “off” yourself at any moment)?
This, I realized, is what it’s like to be a child.
In his first foray into chapter books, Peter Brown (already beloved in our house for this, this, and this) perfectly captures this same befuddlement, anxiety, and marveling with which young eyes view the world. Only, in the case of The Wild Robot (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), the innocent protagonist is not a child but an erect, talking robot named Roz, who is inadvertently activated on a wild, remote island by some curious sea otters, after they discover her crate washed up from a shipwrecked container ship. Roz—short for ROZZUM Unit 7134—has no understanding of anything prior to the moment she opens her eyes, nor whether she has a purpose. She knows only that she has been designed to “move, communicate, and learn” and that she has been programmed with Survival Instincts which “made her want to avoid danger and take care of herself so she could continue functioning properly.”
As our robot begins to navigate the diverse terrains of the island—rocky shore, craggy mountain peaks, pinecone-blanketed forest—she meets with a variety of physical upsets. But it is during her encounters with the wild inhabitants of the island—particularly the ferocious bears—that she begins to understand the magnitude of the challenge before her: in order to survive, she must adapt like the creatures around her. She must become wild. She must climb over rocks like the crab; she must seek out higher ground at the threat of rain like the deer; she must camouflage herself like the stick bug. Like a committed anthropologist, she must observe their behavior, and she must learn their language.
The Wild Robot has been recommended by many—owing to its short, staccato-like chapters, its frequent illustrations done by Brown himself, and its plethora of animal characters—as a book for young independent readers. But it would be a mistake to take this as proof that the story is simple, that it doesn’t pose some fascinating questions or offer some complicated—at times somber—answers.
If you are going to share this book with elementary children, I would argue that The Wild Robot works best, certainly most powerfully, as a read-aloud. I say this not just because robot voices are fun to do. Not just because there are a multitude of animals with their own personalities (read: more fun voices). Not just because of the elegance of the prose, the understated and surprising humor, or the way in which the story beautifully crescendos from a quiet beginning to a nail-biting conclusion.
I say this because, when all is said and done, the story delivers a profound message about what lies at the heart of survival. It’s a message that’s vitally important for the times in which we are living, and a message that can be strengthened when we choose to witness it alongside our children.
It’s a message of community.
As artificial intelligence, Roz is not designed to feel emotions: her initial drive to observe and befriend different animals stems, not from feelings of loneliness or empathy, but from a practical, learned understanding that she needs allies in order to survive. Her offers to help certain animals—even her adjustment to a more cheerful voice (she learns the art of performance from watching an opossum)—initially come from a place of selfishness: I’ll rub your back to increase the chances that you’ll rub mine. Roz removes a porcupine’s quills from a fox; the fox in turn helps spread the word that Roz is not a “monster.” Roz helps fell trees for the beavers; they, in turn, show her how to build a shelter.
It may be selfishly motivated, but what a wonderful lesson for our children: unsolicited helpfulness as the first step toward making friends.
Because Roz is programmed to learn, she quickly understands that individual alliances are only part of the larger puzzle to survival. She must cast herself at the center of an interdependent community. She builds a garden, not because she has any use for food, but because it attracts the squirrels and deer and birds to her front door each day. During the coldest, snowiest winter the island has ever seen, Roz builds forts with fireplaces to keep her friends from freezing (she insists they agree to a temporary predator-prey truce). Roz doesn’t simply coax the animals out of their fear of the shiny metallic newcomer; she secures their loyalty and protection—something which turns out to be even more important than anyone anticipates before the story ends.
And here’s where the magic happens. The more Roz seeks to understand the motivations of others, the more she begins to experience—dare we call it feel?—as much a responsibility to her fellow animals as they feel to her. Where one act of helpfulness ends and another begins becomes brilliantly, perfectly blurred. Roz has enfolded herself completely into the ecosystem to which she was once an outsider. In her straightforward wisdom:
‘…I used to be shiny, like the surface of the pond. I used to stand straighter than a tree trunk. I used to speak a different language. I have not grown bigger, but I have changed very much.’
Nowhere is Roz’s rising sense of responsibility to her fellow creatures more touchingly conveyed than in her care for a young gosling, whose family she inadvertently destroys when she causes a mudslide. Because Roz sees the world in terms of problems to be solved, she is determined to save the remaining egg by bringing it to another family of geese. And yet, the orphaned gosling has another idea in mind—that is, once he hatches from the egg and imprints on the robot. “You’ll have to act like his mother if you want him to survive,” Roz is advised by the leader of the geese. And yet, once again, what starts as an act—learning to build a fire to warm Brightbill’s feathers, rocking the gosling to sleep—is quickly replaced by a mutual fondness for one she calls “son.”
As is fitting for a story about the natural world, there is struggle, violence, and death alongside joy, beauty, and survival. As our narrator gently reminds us, “the wilderness really can be ugly sometimes.” And yet, when frozen corpses give way to springtime blossoms, we are reminded that we cannot have one without the other. Again, interdependence emerges as a central theme.
In an ending that is anything but simple—haunting, open-ended, and hopeful—Roz, too, must play her part in upholding the delicate balance of the island. I don’t dare give anything away, but I will relate this anecdote. When we were halfway through the book, my son started reading ahead after I left his room each night (always the sign of a Big Win). One night, he came down the stairs to find me in the living room. “I finished,” he announced. “And?” I asked. “It’s…really…interesting. It’s…really…amazing. You’ll see when we read it tomorrow.” And I did see. It’s an ending that might raise more questions than it answers, but it also leaves us with a certainty that we are stronger when we are looking out for one another.
It puts me in mind of something Mother Theresa said—and which a friend shared recently on her Facebook page in response to the unrest in our country right now: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”
If we wish to help our children someday understand what Mother Theresa meant, if we wish to raise them in a world that moves toward inclusiveness, we can start by reading them The Wild Robot.
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Book published by Little, Brown. 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!
December 20, 2016 § 1 Comment
Call it Seasonal Affective Disorder; call it the anticipation of school closures (let’s just give up now); call it the fact that it now takes us seven times longer to get out of the house: whatever the reason, as soon as a cold snap hits every year, I want to hibernate. And yet, consider this, my fair-weathered friends: the polar bear—a creature who lives in the coldest corners of the Earth; who eats, walks and sleeps on ice; and who is surrounded by nothing but white and blue all day, every day—does not hibernate.
That someone can love the cold this much—and, in fact, depend on it for its very survival—is just one of the many things that endear us to the polar bear, as evidenced in Jenni Desmond’s extraordinary tribute, The Polar Bear (Ages 6-10), a factually accurate yet poetic picture book with some of the most stunning illustrations I have ever seen (seriously, I’m not sure I can bring myself to shelve this book, its cover is so gorgeous).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if non-fiction looked and sounded like this when I was a kid, I would know a lot more.
Desmond’s title is the second in a new series about threatened species (I raved about The Blue Whale in this guest post; and I am giddy that her third will feature elephants). She’s never preachy: on the contrary, the only mention of the plight facing the polar bear—global warming, which has led to less ice on which the polar bear can hunt—is in the Author’s Note, which prefaces a 38-page celebration of the physical and behavioral adaptations of this magnificent animal and its unforgiving habitat. And yet, one cannot read this book, in light of that Author’s Note, without feeling both awe for the polar bear’s present and fear for its future.
Invoking a kind of metaphysical book-within-a-book approach that seems to be catching on in children’s non-fiction (see also Jason Chin, whose Redwoods and Coral Reefs are nothing short of astounding), Desmond’s books explore their subjects through the eyes of a child who is reading about them. In the case of The Polar Bear, as a child pulls the same book off the shelf, the line begins to blur between reading and living, until the child herself becomes a kind of witness and companion to the very bear about whom she studies.
She reads that the polar bear is also called a sea bear, and that this huge marine mammal spends most of its life on ice and snow of the frozen Arctic Ocean. In the spring and autumn, the flexible sea ice can bend and give way under the polar bear’s colossal weight. In the summer, there is virtually no ice to hunt across. In winter, the polar bear walks for miles over solid expanses of ice in search of food.
Desmond’s washes of white and grey are all the more striking when contrasted with the whimsy and detail in the girl’s attire—her red and white striped stockings, her red checked crown. A terrain never looked bleaker, yet never more beautiful. (Desmond explains that the polar bear’s coat is actually yellow or grey—and its skin black—but the effect is one of whiteness because of the bright, uninterrupted sunlight).
We are not strangers to books about polar bears in this house. Perhaps because he has always had a deep love of winter himself, my son has chosen to study polar bears more often than any other subject in school; and last winter I posted about Jeanette Winter’s Nanuk: The Ice Bear, a sparse but lovely introduction to the life cycle of the polar bear. Desmond’s book is much denser, aimed at the mind that wants more, more, more, yet the narrative is equally lyrical. A polar bear’s enormous paws, for example, not only “act like snowshoes, spreading out the bear’s weight as it moves across deep snow and fragile ice,” but they have tiny little bumps (like the surface of a basketball) to prevent the animal from sliding. All of these facts are synthesized in real time by the child in the book, as by us.
My kids were fascinated to learn that you can count the rings inside a polar bear’s tooth to find out how long he has been alive. Ditto that polar bears can smell a seal from many miles away—even more so when they stand on their hind legs—and that one seal can satisfy a polar bear for 11 days. I can guarantee your child, like mine, will feel the need to trace each of these dotted lines to see which food source the polar bear is smelling in the book.
We often hear how vicious polar bears are, so I was shocked to find out the polar bear successfully kills only one out of every twenty seals that it hunts, owing to the seal’s superior swimming ability. My respect for these resilient creatures only grows! My kids, on the other hand, were more impressed by the blood spattered across the bear’s mouth and paws after killing and eating a seal—a mess that the finicky polar bear is quick to scrub off once his meal is digested.
More blood is spilled (although not pictured) during the “savage battles” between males at mating time, resulting in the impregnated females digging birthing dens well beneath mounds of frigid snow. Curled around her cubs, this is the closest the female polar bear comes to hibernating—and, indeed, we can certainly relate to the desire to snuggle our little ones close and warm.
Polar bears do not hibernate. They like to sleep though, and can sleep almost anywhere at any time. Like humans, polar bears sleep in different positions. On warm days, they might stretch out on their back with their feet up in the air or lie down on their stomachs. On cold, snowy days, they curl up with a paw over their snout for warmth, letting the snow cover them like a blanket.
It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
This is my last post of 2016. May 2017 dawn with a plethora of new books and a renewed passion for protecting our planet and the marvelous creatures who share it. In the meantime, I hope you and your loved ones sleep tight.
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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.
Book published 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!
March 17, 2016 § 3 Comments
Easter quickly approaches, and the race to fill Easter baskets is on. Chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs line the grocery checkout aisles. Toy stores have Easter displays with irresistibly soft plush chicks, some of which even peep when you drop them. Bunnies and chicks, chicks and bunnies: this is what the commercial side of Easter preaches.
If we are talking books—which every Easter basket needs—the perfect bunny-themed choice is, without question, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, which I wrote about here (and which—sound the trumpets—happens to be available in a petite basket-fitting edition that comes with its own golden CHARM).
As for covering the chick quota—well, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you to scrap the chicks this year in favor of the gosling. Specifically, the incredibly cute and insufferably stubborn goslings of Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce (Ages 3-8), a modern-day spoof on the age-old nursery rhyme. True, the book is going to be too big to shove into an Easter basket, but there’s no reason why you can’t prop it up beside said basket (Use your imagination, people!). Published last fall, Higgins’ picture book is one of the funniest I have come across in a long time, and it was an instant hit with my five and eight year old. I’m only sorry I’ve waited a few extra months to tell you about it.
The story begins with a mood commonly depicted in children’s picture books: grumpiness. Grumpiness is that universal emotion that is a hundred times funnier when you see it acted out than when you witness it in your own life. (Shout out to Jeremy Tankard’s Grumpy Bird, my all-time favorite depiction of grumpiness—until now.) Before I had kids, I thought grumpiness was losing an hour of sleep to Daylight Savings, or having a boss who made you do something all over again when you thought it was perfectly fine the first time (legitimate annoyances). Once I had kids, I learned that grumpiness can also be exhibited over such flagrant violations as being served applesauce in an orange bowl instead of a green bowl, or having to put your backpack on the floor in the car to make room for your little sister. Yes, my children and I know a little something about grumpiness.
When it comes to grumpiness in picture books, the bear gets a particularly bad rap (its name doesn’t help). You never meet a happy-go-lucky bear in children’s literature. More often than not, you get a curmudgeonly, inhospitable, antisocial sort, like the bears in Jory John’s Goodnight Already! and Bonny Becker’s Bear and Mouse series (but again, so much fun to read aloud).
In Mother Bruce, we are introduced to another bear in this long line of grumps. “He did NOT like sunny days. He did NOT like rain. He did NOT like cute little animals.” This new protagonist-bear has a delightfully modern twist: he’s a foodie. An organic choosing, recipe surfing, free-range connoisseuring foodie. (Who prefers to dine alone, of course.) And his favorite food is eggs, procured fresh from every part of the forest where he lives.
On this particular day, Bruce’s Internet surfing has brought up an especially gourmet temptation—“hard-boiled goose eggs drizzled with honey-salmon sauce”—and he sets out to track down the ingredients. Many of the delightful surprises in the story come from the clever ways that author-illustrator Higgins merges an animal behavior (the bear catches his salmon in a stream) with a human behavior (he does so with a grocery cart).
With the goose eggs at home in a frying pan, Bruce finds he needs to step out to retrieve some firewood. When he returns, he quickly realizes he has become a “victim of mistaken identity.” In a case of imprinting gone wrong, the eggs have unexpectedly hatched, and the baby goslings have assumed that Bruce—the first living being whom they laid eyes on—must be their mother. (I remember as a child being fascinated by the idea of imprinting, with its possibility for the unexpected.)
When your dinner starts smiling back at you through a mass of seriously cute fluff, it is natural to lose your appetite. When you try to return said dinner to its biological mother, only to find that she has flown south for the winter (what kind of a “Return Policy” is that?), it’s not surprising that something amounting to panic begins to set in.
For a bonafide grump like Bruce, this is a Living Nightmare, and the remainder of the story is taken up with the desperate antics that Bruce employs in an attempt to cast off his eager new offspring. He talks sternly; when that doesn’t work, he roars. He runs; when that doesn’t work, he climbs up a tree.
All the time, the “pesky” little things are right beside him, grinning and peeping their “Mama” refrain.
Whether he likes it or not, “Mama” Bruce begins to settle into his role as goose parent. Between art projects gone awry and picky eating, Bruce’s life begins to look awfully familiar to us readers.
Bruce’s big ‘ol grumpy heart begins, eventually, to soften. At times, he even “tried to make the best of it.” (My kids told me I had to include this one.)
Still, when the goslings move from “annoying baby geese” to “stubborn teenage geese” to “boring adult geese,” Bruce seizes his opportunity to teach his prodigy the act of migration. Only it doesn’t go so well.
The geese have become more bear than goose in their laziness, their propensity to keep their webbed feet planted squarely on the ground, and their fondness for Mr. Grump himself. Eventually, Bruce packs all of their bags, ushers everyone onto an express bus heading south, and—well, let’s just say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Beneath its physical comedy, Mother Bruce is a gentle reminder that sometimes the things you don’t go looking for turn out to be the very things you needed all along. Spring is a time of newness, of rebirth for us all. Let’s embrace these possibilities and see where the excitement and chaos takes us.
Let’s start with a handful of chocolate eggs, shall we?
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January 30, 2016 § 1 Comment
If there was ever a time to turn our children sympathetic to the plight of the endangered polar bear, it is on the heels of this recent Snowpocalypse, which dumped more than two feet of the white stuff on us (snow novices) here in Northern Virginia. As my kids and I gazed wide-eyed out our window, the snow fell for two days, swirling and collecting and mounting into perfect waves of whiteness, occasionally drifting into piles almost as high as the stop sign at the end of our block (the stop sign being my son’s unofficial measuring tool of a blizzard, ever since we read John Rocco’s Blizzard last winter). Long before the sun came out and the wind died down, my children were out shoveling trenches down the middle of the street and crawling into hand-dug snow tunnels.
But after just a few days, the sledding hills became slushy. The snow banks started to recede from the edges of our sidewalks, betraying the brownish-green grass beneath. Our once crisp white snow in the backyard has overnight become freckled with twigs and dirt and those (abhorrent) spiky balls from our sweet gum trees. The other morning at breakfast, JP buried his head in his hands and pronounced, “I can’t look. I just wanted it to stay the way it was.”
In Jeanette Winter’s sublime new picture book, the brilliant, uncluttered snowscapes of the Arctic Circle—crisp, clear, chill-inducing scenes of unblemished white against a shifting palette of teals and deep blues—will undoubtedly keep their beauty forever. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Winter’s subject: the polar bear. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the polar bear is the first vertebrate to be listed by the U.S. Endangered Species Act as threatened by extinction due to global warming—specifically to melting ice caps and rising sea levels.
In short, uncomplicated sentences beneath stunning visuals, Nanuk: The Ice Bear (Ages 4-8) not only introduces young children to the life cycle of the polar bear, but it extracts their deepest sympathies for the challenges that shrinking habitats and reduced access to prey present to this fierce, playful, and irresistibly adorable animal.
Author-illustrator Winter is a master of non-fiction for the young child, especially of picture book biographies (my favorites are listed at the end of this post). She can take the most complicated, even controversial subject, and distill it down to the most universal of emotions, in order to connect with the young child. Even her paintings have a seductive simplicity: as in Nanuk’s case, many are done as if seen through a keyhole or window. This is incredibly refreshing for a genre most commonly characterized by pages of compressed facts in tiny black print, broken up by dizzying photography. My eight year old, spurred by a self-chosen project on polar bears for his school two years ago, has no shortage of these fact-filled tomes lying around our house. My five-year-old daughter, however, has never picked up a one. Not until Nanuk, which has utterly captivated and stayed with her in the weeks since we first read it.
The story is simple yet powerful, the vocabulary is familiar yet evocative, the message is personal yet representative.
Winter begins her story “at the top of the world,” where snow falls around our (fictionalized) polar bear atop a mountain. Winter describes for her young reader the formation of the ice bear’s habitat, her “quiet white world.” Layers of snow freeze into icy glaciers that cover the bare mountains and slowly slide down to the sea. The top of the sea freezes too. The scenery looks vast, and the reader can see for herself how easily the polar bear can navigate her terrain, including hunting for fish and seals through small breathing holes in the ice.
In just a few pages, we watch as “great chunks of the glaciers break away,” leaving the polar bear hungry and stranded among disparate icebergs floating out to sea. Still, as Winter optimistically reminds us with the subsequent pink and purple-tinged frames, the survival instinct is strong, and Nanuk swims to find another bear with whom to mate and share hunting responsibilities. POLAR BEAR SNUGGLES!
Followed by: BABIES! As always, Winter communicates as much with her pictures as she does with her matter-of-fact sentences. The observant child will notice that Nanuk’s mate walks away just as she burrows deep down into the snow to birth her babies as a single mother.
My daughter was fascinated, not just by the babies being born in a snow cave, but also by the stark darkness of the Arctic winter—which the mother and her cubs must wait out. (Can you think of a better book to read while the snow swirls and the sky darkens outside our window, while we curl up with our little ones snug under a blanket?)
Once winter passes and sunlight returns, Nanuk occupies herself with teaching her cubs to survive in the relentless climate. “Cutey pies,” Emily remarks every time we get to these pages, in the same cooing voice that she reserves for carrying her baby dolls around the house.
And then (is that water in my son’s eyes?), Nanuk is once again left alone. After two or three summers have passed, the cubs are ready to go off on their own. Nanuk watches them leave. For the first time, we get a straight-on shot of Nanuk’s somber face. But, of course, this is run-of-the-mill stuff for polar bears, as well as for much of the animal world (we humans have to remind ourselves that it’s a blessing having our kiddos hang around as long as they do).
What’s not normal is what happens in the next few pages. The ice is melting. The sea is rising. Soon there will be no place to hunt.
For now, for the young child, the story serves to plant a seed of more science to come. For now, all my five year old needs to understand is what a polar bear requires for survival—solid footing for exploring, companionship and mating, fishing holes—and how, increasingly, these things are slipping away. All my daughter needs for now is a feeling of awe, tinged with a touch of sadness, concern, and hope. All she needs is to look at the final pictures of Nanuk, who is left to ”dream” of new snow that will fall and freeze and slide down the sea as before, and know that this is the hope, this is what needs to happen for Nanuk and her babies to live on.
This doesn’t mean that my son wasn’t quick to educate my daughter and I about “what’s really going on here.” (Lest you forget about this gem of a picture book, which goes into scientific detail for the elementary child about the correlation between burning fossil fuels and global warming). “You know, Mommy,” JP said about Nanuk, “this reads like a story, but everything in it is actually TRUE.” And then he stared thoughtfully out the window for a moment.
It is also true that melting snow means that our children will finally—after six consecutive school closures—return to their regular routines and us to ours. We as parents look back at last week’s blizzard, smile at the memories, stare at the mounting piles of laundry, and then quickly look ahead to spring. For our children, it’s not quite as easy. Their love affair with the snow is coming to an end too quickly. There was still so much fun to be had in that soft, billowy whiteness.
Perhaps our children can carry their love of snow days into their future work as environmentalists or zoologists or scientists. And make sure that the ones who depend on this very snow and ice for survival get to keep it.
Other Favorite Non-Fiction Picture Books by Jeanette Winter:
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life With the Chimps (Ages 5-8)
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (Ages 5-8)
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan (Ages 7-10)
Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia (Ages 5-8)
Henri’s Scissors (Ages 5-8)
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November 19, 2015 § 7 Comments
A. A. Milne’s iconic classic, Winnie the Pooh, the collected tales of a stuffed-bear-come-to-life and his friends, was one of those books I was most excited as a new parent to read to my children. I still have the copy that once belonged to my own mother and her brothers: a water-stained hardback with their own handwritten improvisations along the way.
While I vaguely recollect reading and enjoying this classic as a child myself, I’ll admit that my more prominent memories are of decorating friends’ yearbooks with A.A. Milne quotations (“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” said Piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered.) Pooh and his friends, it seems, have an enduring resonance.
When it came to cracking the spine on this treasure for my firstborn, I didn’t anticipate how surprisingly sophisticated A.A. Milne’s writing is. I first tried to read Winnie the Pooh to JP when he was only three and a half. Big mistake. The dry humor was over his head (it’s hard to find Owl’s misspellings funny when you don’t know how to spell yourself); and the sudden jumps in narration were jarring (one minute we’re in the 100 Acre Wood, the next we’re in Christopher Robin’s bedroom hearing about the 100 Acre Wood). I would be erupting in giggles, while JP would be eyeing me as if to say, This is funny why?
We tried again when JP was six, with much greater success, although I think the beauty of Pooh (in the vein of other classics, like The Little Prince) is that it can be re-read at almost every age from here on out for different gain. The 100 Acre Wood is like a microcosm for the world. In it, we encounter the same personalities that we do on the outside. Look at bossy pants over there, hopping around like ‘ol Rabbit. Cool it with the Kanga-like cheerleading, kay? I need a lunch date with my Piglet.
One might argue that, at the heart of this microcosm, is Pooh bear himself, the lens through which the child reader sees the world. Pooh is the very embodiment of childhood innocence. He spends his days moving through states of befuddlement, hunger, distraction, anxiety, and discovery. He’s Every Child. As much as we observe and chuckle over what Pooh’s friends are doing, we feel what Pooh feels.
Today, 89 years after A.A. Milne published his classic, we are being treated to a new picture book that will likely be as mind blowing for your children as it is for mine. WINNIE THE POOH WAS REAL. That is, there was once a real live bear named Winnie. A bear who was adopted by a World War One veterinarian and named after the soldier’s Canadian hometown, Winnipeg. A bear who became the Mascot of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade and kept the soldiers’ spirits high in training camp. A bear who, when the soldiers were shipped out to France, eventually came to reside in the London Zoo. A bear who was visited every day in the zoo by a little boy named Christopher Robin—along with his father, the aspiring writer A.A. Milne.
A bear who was—drumroll, please—a female.
That’s right: as Lindsay Mattick chronicles in her irresistibly charming new picture book, the inspiration for Milne’s Pooh was, in fact, a female Canadian-British bear named Winnie, whom Milne’s son adored and played with at the London Zoo for many years (and for whom he named his own stuffed toy bear).
It’s the backstory of how Winnie came to the zoo that takes center stage in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. Author Mattick has a personal connection to this story: she is the great-granddaughter of Captain Harry Colebourn, the veterinarian-soldier who initially befriends Winnie outside a Canadian train station on his way to care for the horses in the Army’s training camp. The book is actually framed as a bedtime story, which Mattick herself is delivering to her own eager son, so that he might learn about his great-great grandfather.
You might say Finding Winnie is three love stories wrapped into one. A solider and his bear. A boy and his bear. A mother and her son.
Captain Harry’s relationship with Winnie is love at first sight. He parts with twenty dollars (a lot in those days, Mattick explains to her son) to purchase the Bear from a trapper at the train station. At first, the Captain’s entire regiment is horrified: “We are on a journey of thousands of miles, heading into the thick of battle, and you propose to bring this Most Dangerous Creature?” But Henry’s heart makes up his mind for him: “There is something special about that Bear,” he professes to himself.
My children go mind-blown-crazy for true stories, although it’s rare that I can find one that’s as interesting to my eight year old as it is to my five year old. My oldest is obsessed with trying to understand what war looks like; my youngest just wants sweet stories about animals. This book manages a bit of both: it gives behind-the-scenes glimpses of World War One, alongside humorous anecdotes of the pet Bear’s insatiable appetite, playful antics, and avid curiosity.
Finding Winnie’s broad appeal is in no small part owing to Sophie Blackall’s soft yet stirring ink-and-watercolor illustrations. Have I mentioned my obsession with Blackall? Her art is at once feminine and masculine; at once nostalgic and fresh. Her play of color and light infuses emotion into every single detail. In short, her touch is pure magic (heck, she got me to love a story about wrestling back in 2013!). She could illustrate the Dictionary and I’d probably walk around hugging it to my chest.
“There is something you must always remember,” Harry said. “It’s the most important thing, really. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my Bear.”
But where one love story ends—Mattick reassures her son—another begins. The book goes on to explore the playful relationship between Winnie and Christopher Robin in the early 1900s. It’s not long before Christopher Robin is granted permission to enter Winnie’s enclosure and ride on his back (apparently, zoos are not what they used to be).
But what about Harry? Cole asks his mother, returning our focus at the end to Winnie’s first family. Mattick explains how Harry returned safely to Canada after the war and started a family of his own, of which Cole is now a part. My children like to trace their fingers over the Family Tree, a visual which makes it all the clearer the role that the different characters in the book indirectly play in Pooh’s story.
The book’s final four pages are made to look like excerpts from Maddick’s own family album, including actual black-and-white photographs of Harry and Winnie, an excerpt from Harry’s journal on the day he adopted Winnie, and the original Animal Record Card that shows the day Winnie was checked into the London Zoo. All proof, my son was quick to point out, that this story actually happened.
What is left to pure speculation is why A.A. Milne changed the sex of the real bear when making up stories about the pretend bear. Perhaps that secret will forever rest between him and his son (a fourth love story of sorts). Still, I don’t mind not knowing. I’ve often thought that the discussions my children and I have while reading together are as interesting as the books themselves.
But I must run. My kids and I have a date with one Pooh bear and a water-stained hardback that has been passed along for generations.
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Review copy provided by Little Brown. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!