Sharing a Love of Travel (A Father’s Day Post)

June 11, 2020 § 1 Comment

This Father’s Day, my own father will have been gone for twenty-six years.  Twenty-six years. One of the most devastating things about losing a parent when you’re eighteen is that you never get to know that parent through an adult lens. I knew my father intimately, from his scratchy mustache to his eye-rolling wisecracks to his endless patience as I described every painstaking detail of my day. But I knew him as a child knows a parent. How I wish I could have known him as an adult.

In times of great upheaval and unrest, I feel my father’s absence most keenly. Every seismic shift in our world puts that much more space between him and me. How would he be participating in this national conversation about race? Would he be marching with a Black Lives Matter sign? What candidate would he have supported in the last Democratic primary? How would social distancing have impacted his life in retirement—or would he still be practicing law? What kinds of things would he enjoy doing with his grandchildren?

I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, though I ask them quietly to myself all the time.

What I do know is that there are certain things which always bring him back to me. And one of them is travel. My father’s love of travel was legendary. When I was very young and he would travel internationally for work, he’d always bring me souvenirs—usually dolls—from places like Brazil, Mexico, and Germany. I loved gazing at the tiny porcelain faces or printed fabric clothes and imagining where they had been. Our house was full of black-and-white photographs from before my time: my father on a camel in the Sahara, my father on a motorcycle in Greece. When I decided to spend a gap year in Vietnam after high school, he jumped at the chance to accompany me across the ocean. When, weeks later, it came time for him to return to the States, his parting words were, “It looks like you’ve got the travel bug now, too.” I beamed with pride.

It seems fated that I would fall deeply in love with Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s new picture book, Papa Brings Me the World (Ages 3-7), in which a young girl describes her affection for a father who travels the world and brings pieces of it back to her. I’ve long been a fan of Kostecki-Shaw’s (my daughter still pulls out Luna & Me), but this book positively transported me. Maybe because it’s inspired by the author-illustrator’s own father; maybe it’s because the theme of found objects lends itself beautifully to mixed-media collage; or maybe it’s because the voice of the little girl reminds me of my young self, brimming with tenderness and curiosity and admiration and longing for my father’s stories of adventure.

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2015 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Lunar Lover

December 8, 2015 § 3 Comments

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" and "Thank You and Good Night"In my 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, I ran a post dedicated to parents desperate for a break from incessant nightly rounds of Goodnight, Gorilla. It strikes me that the two books that I’m discussing today (Ages 2-5) would line up beautifully alongside those others. They are perfect bedtime stories. They are perfect for reading every single night (because, trust me, that’s what you’ll be doing). They are quintessentially sweet, dear, and innocent. And if, after reading them, you want to clutch them to your own chest, I promise not to tell.

We begin with Ida Pearle’s stunning The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House (Ages 2-5). Shhhh, I know I’m not supposed to pick favorites, but if I were to call out the illustrations of only one book this year, it would be this. Brooklyn-based Ida Pearle has got to be one of the most evocative children’s artists today, using her talents in figurative drawing and cut-paper collage (her choice of papers, many of them Italian or Japanese-designed, is sheer eye candy) to produce something at once charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly modern. In my old store in Chicago, we used to display and sell Pearle’s wall prints. I’m positively giddy that her art is finding a more accessible expression now in picture books (Caldecott Committee, are you listening?).

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For the Child Who Will Re-Write the Rules (2015 Holiday Gift Guide Kicks Off!)

December 6, 2015 § 3 Comments

"The Whisper" by Pamela ZagarenskiI realize I’m late to the game with my Holiday Gift Guide, and I apologize. Lest you think I was taking a few weeks off from children’s books, I assure you that is rarely the case. Rather, I was drafting book lists for many of the parents in my children’s school, in preparation for our annual Book Fair (my favorite fundraising event of the year!). In other words, I’ve been reading even MORE than usual. And now, all of you will benefit! Over the next ten days, I will be posting several installments of my annual Gift Guide, with recommendations of picture books, chapter books, and non-fiction for all the young book lovers in your life. I’ve saved singing the praises of many of my 2015 favorites until now, because they have undeniable Gift Power. It has been hard to stay quiet all these weeks and months, when I’ve wanted to scream, GET YOUR CHILDREN’S HANDS ON THESE BOOKS RIGHT NOW!

I’m going to begin today by telling you about two of the most gorgeous picture books published this year. And I mean, Holy-Moley-Mind-Blowing Material. These are books whose pages invite endless study; books whose paintings draw us in so completely that we forget everything that’s happening around us. They are books that challenge the traditional relationship between author and reader, between artist and spectator. They invite us to participate fully in what we are seeing and to make our own meaning out of what we find.

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Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.

That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.

The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.

They are both a little bit Magic.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny BroomFor starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 2): Three Books for the Linguist (Ages 6-12)

November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.

Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.

"The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus" by Jen Bryant & Melissa SweetJen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Magic of Fall

October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

"Fall Leaves" by Loretta Holland & Elly MacKayThe other evening, after cleaning up from dinner, I walked into the living room to find JP sticking his nose out the mail slot of our front door. “Mommy, I can smell winter coming! I forgot how delicious it smells! I thought I wanted summer to stay, but now I want winter to come!”

Perhaps because of my children’s innate excitement around seasonal transformations, or perhaps because of wanting to sway my own ambivalence about the onset of winter towards something more positive—either way, I have always had a special place in my heart for stories about fall (remember Fletcher and the Falling Leaves?). This year, I have discovered my most favorite presentation to date. It’s not a story. There are no frantic animals preparing for hibernation (see Bear Has a Story to Tell), or children frolicking in pumpkin patches (although you should still read Otis and the Scarecrow). Rather, there is a simple phrase on each page, accompanied by a stunning picture, and the meaning lies in the intersection between the two.

Fall Leaves (Ages 4-8), by Loretta Holland, with illustrations by Elly MacKay, is one of those picture books that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its simplest, it reads as a kind of lyrical, free verse poem, with one line per page. But each phrase is also a kind of headline, with a smaller-print paragraph below, containing detailed and carefully chosen information about a unique aspect of fall, like the migration of birds, the hibernation of perennials, or the heavy downpours (am I the only one who is consistently blind-sided by these rainy days, assuming every morning is going to bring a bright cloudless sky against which to pick apples and pumpkins?). « Read the rest of this entry »

Feeling Witchy

October 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

"I Am A Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster“Mommy, you know how those witch hats got there?” my four year old casually ventured, as we walked through the Halloween section of our local variety store. Then, before I could answer, she stopped and turned towards me, her expression suddenly serious. “The witches dropped them,” she whispered.

I love October. Not for the costumes, or the weeks of planning that go into them (read: daily changing of minds). Not for the candy, which I can never get out of the house fast enough. I love it for its air of anticipation. That mysterious, slightly uneasy, could-it-might-it-be-real feeling that pokes at the back of our minds. As the evenings darken, the wind picks up, and the creaks on the roof grow louder, the lines between real and imaginary begin to get a little messy. You might say that for these few weeks, we get a taste of the way our kids feel all year long.

Indeed, many of my favorite “Halloween” stories to share with my kids are, in fact, not about Halloween at all—which means (hooray) that they can be enjoyed all 365 days. I’m referring to gems like Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina. This year’s newcomer is  I Am a Witch’s Cat (Ages 2-6), by Harriet Muncaster: a simple picture book narrated in the voice of a little girl, who loves to dress up like a little black cat, because she believes her mother to be a witch (“but I don’t mind, because she is a good witch”). « Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Hear it for the Birds

May 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Have You Heard the Nesting Bird" by Rita GrayWe’re all about birds this spring. Well, to be fair, I’m all about birds, but I’m filling my kids’ baskets with bird-related books, in hopes that they will catch on, too. I can’t help myself. There’s something about Spring Fever that drives me to obsess about some natural wonder alive and transforming outside my window (see past years’ obsessions with trees and worms). And what better way to drag my children along on this journey than through non-fiction picture books, which pair beautiful illustrations and poetic text with fascinating information?

I didn’t exactly choose birds as this year’s subject matter. They chose me. They chose me by waking me up at 4:30am with their frantic, high-pitched chirping. They chose me by making a nest between our roof and my bedroom ceiling, fast and furious work that sounded as if a much larger animal was ripping down sheets of metal. They chose me by distracting my children over breakfast, encouraging bowls of oatmeal to sit half-eaten, in favor of watching a pair of cardinals dancing in the dogwood outside our dining room window (my children are convinced that “Buddy” and “Lady Buddy” followed us two years ago when we moved up the hill to our current house). Let’s just say that the time seemed ripe to learn a thing or ten about the busy birds around us.

What I discovered was a treasure trove of non-fiction picture books starring birds, many published in recent years. I’ve shared my complete list of favorites at the end (with picks through age 10), but I had so much trouble choosing one to focus on here, that I have to expound on two. The first is Rita Gray’s Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Ages 3-6), illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is one of those deceptively simple picture books that educates as it delights. « Read the rest of this entry »

Groundhog Day (& Other Books About the Weather)

January 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Groundhog Weather SchoolMy six year old doesn’t understand why Groundhog Day isn’t a school holiday. I tried to explain that, with February 2 being a Sunday this year, it’s sort of a moot point. “But it’s not always on a weekend, Mommy.” So then I tried to explain that the government only picks a few of the most important people in our history (ahem, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.) to honor with a school holiday—and that contrary to what he might think with ALL THESE SNOW DAYS, kids are supposed to be IN SCHOOL, learning stuff that their parents don’t have the patience to teach them. “Well, Punxsutawney Phil IS very important because he can PREDICT THE WEATHER.” This is a fair, if debatable, point.

The children’s books on the subject of this Very Important Holiday tend to be either factually straightforward (Gail Gibbons’ Groundhog Day! is usually the teacher’s favorite) or purely fictional (read: silly and unhelpful). But this year, I stumbled upon a find that combines fact, fiction, and An All-Around Good Time: a book titled Groundhog Weather School: Fun Facts About Weather and Groundhogs (Ages 5-9), by Joan Holub, with illustrations by Kristin Sorra. This is precisely the type of book I knew JP would enjoy reading by himself (and, as parents of newly independent readers know, we’re always on the hunt for “that book”). « Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Candy in the Polar Vortex

January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Please Bring Balloons by Lindsay WardI’m a romantic when it comes to snow. Meaning that the idea of snow (fat, juicy snowflakes blanketing the world in white) is more appealing to me than the reality (school is closed AGAIN?!). The notion of snow days (flying down hills on sleds and decorating snowmen with friends) is always a bit different than the actuality (wait, it’s freezing out, and wait, did my daughter just pee through four layers of clothing and need to be changed on the side of this hill?). Don’t get me wrong: I love snow. It’s the very anticipation of snow that makes the dawning of winter bearable; that breaks up the monotony of short-lived, bare-branched days; that puts a glimmer of excitement in our children’s eyes when they think of what’s to come. But that’s why—more than anything—I love reading about snow. Because the snow in books is always billowy, soft, and pristine white. The snow in books is always perfect.

Last January, I wrote about my favorite snow books, each one conjuring up a romantic notion of snow. But this winter, in addition to having more snow on the ground, we’re living in a so-called Polar Vortex, a little thing that’s threatening the very core of our “we can handle winter” attitude (suddenly, our lives seem right out of the pages of Eileen Spinelli’s Cold Snap). Let’s say we could all use a dose of Eye Candy right now. I’m referring to Lindsay Ward’s Please Bring Balloons (Ages 2-5), which came out at the end of last year, and which I pulled out of my Secret Stash earlier this week (a secret stash which is rapidly dwindling in light of these snow days). Three of my daughter’s Favorite Things make an appearance in this book: carousels, balloons, and furry animals. Reminiscent of another 2013 favorite, Dream Friends, both books are about a make-believe adventure starring a girl and her four-legged friend. In Please Bring Balloons, this adventure is polar-bound. « Read the rest of this entry »

Digging for Mummies

January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

The 5,000-Year-Old PuzzleWhile my son and I were on the subject of excavating fossils, it seemed it might be logical to jump from paleontology to archaeology. It didn’t hurt that, over winter break, JP’s teacher had emailed me about tracking down some good books about Ancient Egypt (see list at the end). And so, one snowy night, JP and I sat down on the couch to read the Treasure Trove that is The 5,000-Year-Puzzle-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt (Ages 6-12), by Claudia Logan, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

An hour later, we were still reading it, my daughter and husband had joined us, and I almost couldn’t tear myself away to meet my girlfriends for a scheduled drink. Almost. I can’t think of a better introduction, not only to Ancient Egypt, but also to the painstaking role that archaeologists play in unearthing clues about ancient life. While the American boy and his father in the book are fictitious, they join an actual historic dig, led by a Harvard team of scientists, which occurred in 1924 at the Egyptian site of Giza 7000X, where a secret and unusually well-preserved tomb was discovered. Through a combination of actual historic records and the young boy’s first-person narrative, we learn about the team’s efforts to excavate this ancient site over the course of a year—including their continual revisions to hypotheses over whose tomb it was and why it was constructed in such a way. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Compelling Non-Fiction For the Animal Lover

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Steve Jenkins' The Animal BookLast year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12).

Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). « Read the rest of this entry »

The Human Body (Summer School Continues!)

June 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

You Are StardustSummer is naturally a time for children to sharpen their senses and take notice of their bodies. Running barefoot through the freshly cut grass; relishing the pure silence underwater at the pool; feeling the sweat beads on the back of their necks; hearing the crack of thunder that sends them tearing for the house; stretching out on the earth’s back to gaze at a sky full of stars: this is what summer looks, sounds, and feels like to our children. So why not turn these grass-stained knees into a chance to study the human body? And what if we take these bodily lessons further; what if we create an awareness in our children that their bodies aren’t just little planets unto themselves but are connected to the mysteries of the greater universe?

I have long been puzzled by the lack of children’s books that bridge the scientific and natural worlds, so I was thrilled to discover a little gem published last year, written by Elin Kelsey. You Are Stardust (Ages 4-8) is that rare blend of scientific fact and poetic wonder. Beginning with the premise that “every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born,” the book goes on to draw parallels between humans, animals, the earth, and the universe, from the salt water that flows through our tears like it flows through the ocean to the electricity that powers our thoughts like it powers the lightning in the sky. Every fact and connection is intended to shock and awe (and is backed up by scientific evidence). Did you know that the water we drink today is the same water that the dinosaurs drank? Or that “each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant?” (Both of these questions got an audible response from my son: “Is that seriously true?”)

One of my favorite things about sharing books with children is that you can never predict exactly what will rock their world. I would never have supposed that the fact which made the greatest impression upon JP was one having to do with continual renewal—specifically, that “you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten.” When he first heard this, JP threw back his head and roared, “I’m not a snake! Kids don’t shed their skin; that’s ridiculous!” “Not all in one piece like a snake, but in little bits at a time,” I told him, and we went on to discuss things like scrapes, sunburn, and dry skin. For the past week, he has now taken to brushing his hand across his arm 10 times a day, while declaring to his sister that “you can’t see it, but my skin is shedding RIGHT NOW!”

Prior to discovering You Are Stardust, my favorite “metaphysical” book for kids, although on a much simpler, toddler-targeted level, has been Molly Bang’s All of Me: A Book of Thanks (Ages 2-4). With loving, economical text, Bang pays tribute first to a child’s body (“thank you, hands, for gripping and throwing and patting and holding”); then to his senses (“my mouth tastes all my food before it slides down here, into my tummy”); then to his feelings (“today I felt curious, and excited, and angry, and brave…”); and, finally, to the way in which he is part of “this whole wide world…and this whole universe is inside…all of me!”).

What All of Me starts, You Are Stardust expands on for the older child, grounding wondrous observations about the body-universe connection with scientific data (the book’s afterward also cites a website for those who want to learn more about the science behind the book). Perhaps not just coincidentally, both Bang and Kelsey’s books are illustrated with collage, a fitting medium for a lesson on how we are greater than the sum of our parts. The collages in You Are Stardust, done by Soyeon Kim, are actually dioramas, combining rocks, dried flowers, painted leaves, string, tissue paper, and watercolor cut-outs to create a tactile, three-dimensional effect. The illustrations feel youthful and free-form, and I think my son immediately connected with them as something he could approximate with materials gathered from our backyard. I would love for my children (as the author similarly wishes in her afterward) to cart this book outside all summer long, to read it by flashlight in their tee-pee or while propped up on their elbows in the grass. I would like for them to look at the trees and the birds and the snails and the clouds—and to feel their own heartbeat answering back.

"You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature."

“You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature.”

Other Favorites for a More In-Depth Study of the Human Body (and with a more traditionally fact-based presentation):
The Skeleton Inside You; Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup and Yawn; A Drop of Blood; Hear Your Heart; My Five Senses, all part of the wonderful Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science Series (Ages 4-8)
See Inside Your Body, by Usborne Publishing (Ages 5-10)
First Human Body Encyclopedia, by DK Pubishing (Ages 6-12)
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work, by Steve Jenkins (Ages 6-12)
Picture This! Human Body, by Margaret Hynes (Ages 8-14)

Learning From History’s Many Heroes

May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Use Your Words” (MLK Jr. Style)

January 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

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

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

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