Taking Up Space (A Black History Month Post)

February 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

In her modern dance classes, my daughter cherishes above all the few minutes devoted to “sparkle jumps.” One by one, the dancers crisscross the studio at a run. As each one reaches the middle, she explodes into a leap, arms reaching up and out, head tall, like the points of a star. For one perfect moment, my daughter takes up as much space as her little body will allow.

“I love watching you take up space,” I tell her.

Taking up space is sometimes perceived in our society as a nuisance. Even the expression has soured in our language; we say it about someone whose obstinate presence doesn’t seem to be offering anything of value.

But taking up space is power. I’m here, and I have as much a right to be seen and heard as you do. It is also a privilege. A privilege which comes with freedom. A privilege denied to those in bondage. A privilege denied to those who may be free on paper, but who still live under the shadow of oppression.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom (Ages 7-10) is a portrait of a woman who devoted her life to the fight to take up space—and to make sure that space mattered. Lyrically presented by Gary D. Schmidt (who, coincidentally, wrote last week’s middle-grade book) and powerfully illustrated by Daniel Minter, the book is a provocative exploration, not only of Sojourner Truth’s self-emancipation from slavery and crusade to speak out about human rights, but also of the tenuous connection between self-dignity and physical presence.

I asked my eleven year old to pick a word to describe this book. “Intriguing,” he said. He is spot on. So Tall Within is a prime example of a picture book biography targeted at the older elementary child. A book with layers of meaning. A book well researched, offering occasional citations from some of Sojourner’s own writings and speeches. A book whose illustrations invite endless discussion. A book which should be allowed to take up space of its own.

The striking cover of this picture book biography casts Sojourner as an old woman—an erect and imposing figure, the luminous blue of her clothes and glasses contrasting the bronze of the fields behind her, like a clear water basin on a hot, dusty day. One hand wraps around her walking stick, a nod to the final third of the book, which addresses the thousands of miles Sojourner traversed on foot across fifteen years to speak out about the injustices of slavery and the importance of equal rights for African-Americans. The title reads So Tall Within, but it is clear that Sojourner’s inner strength extends to the way she is seen on the outside.

But Sojourner’s imposing presence was earned, not birthed. In fact, it’s fascinating to observe the subtle ways in which Sojourner’s body is painted throughout this story of her life.

Born a slave named Isabella, she “lived in a cellar where the windows never let the sun in and the floorboards never kept the water out.” Her body is small, almost collapsed upon itself, as she perches on a stool—and yet, a careful reader will note the broom in her hand, evocative of the walking stick she will adopt in her free years.

When she is eleven, Isabella is sold “for a hundred dollars—along with a flock of sheep” and never sees her mother again. Here, her body is painted with an almost ghost-like transparency against the brown, dusty background. And yet, her head is erect, her profile distinguished, as it is throughout much of the book—a nod to her mother, who encouraged Isabella to keep her gaze on the stars and the moon, under which her family would always be together. “Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters.”

Isabella has several masters over the years—her final a man named Mr. Dumont in New York State, “who bragged that Isabella could ‘do a good family’s washing in the night, and be ready in the morning to go to the field.’” The illustration accompanying the page where he orders Isabella to marry a slave named Thomas and birth five children is one of the few instances where Sojourner’s face is undistinguished, her features blurred. It is as if her corporeality is literally disappearing alongside her lack of agency. Even her children are mere shadows, like many other slaves pictured throughout the book.

Isabella takes her emancipation into her own hands after Mr. Dumont refuses to honor his promise to free her a year before all slaves in New York were required to be freed by law. “…[T]he summer came and the summer passed. ‘Oh,’ thought Isabella, ‘I have felt as if I could not live.’ So that fall, after the work of the harvest was done, she held baby Sophia close and seized Freedom with her own hands.” She takes refuge with a white couple, who protect her and pay Mr. Dumont for her release when he eventually tracks her down.

Isabella may be a free woman, but she doesn’t transform into the indomitable figure we know today until she begins to stand against the oppression of others. The turning point comes when she learns Mr. Dumont has illegally sold her five-year-old son, Peter, across state lines. “Isabelle traveled miles and miles across New York to Kingston to tell her story to the Grand Jury. They saw how tall within she was. They gave her a letter for the sheriff, demanding that Peter be brought home. She took the letter and walked miles and miles back.” There, in front of the jury and against the backdrop of the Constitution, our protagonist begins to take up more space.

A legal win won’t necessarily correct a human wrong. Isabella learns of the devastating abuse suffered by her son at the hands of his slave owner, wounds from which he will never fully recover. As the Author’s Note elaborates, mother and son will eventually become estranged. This spread is one of the most upsetting in the book—there is little to separate the embracing mother and child from a landscape splattered by what looks like blood-tinged mud—and a powerful visual for our children to witness. “‘What is this slavery,’ wondered Isabella, ‘that it can do such dreadful things?’”

From here emerges the Sojourner we know, who adopts her new name meaning “journey” and begins to “tell the truth about Slavery.” In one illustration after another, she begins to assert a new physical presence. She stands in front of a crowd of people and stretches out her arms. She stands opposite Abraham Lincoln, her erectness matching his. She thrusts out her hand at an oncoming streetcar, after it refuses to stop for her because of the color of her skin.

I haven’t even told you my favorite thing about this book. In So Tall Within, with each transition, almost like mini chapter headings, Schmidt shares a line of poetic text beginning “In Slavery Time” (and, eventually, “In Freedom Time”), which is accompanied by a vertical painting, distinct in feel from the illustrative style of the rest of the story. These vertical paintings are both arresting and stunning—and would alone be worth the price of this book. In his Artist’s Note, Minter describes these paintings as “loosely planted in the times of legal slavery but that parallel the feeling of struggle in today’s streets—the feeling that you may be buried, but you are surrounded by soil that nourishes you.”

Many of these paintings speak to a kind of elusive or budding corporeality, often with allusions to seeds, roots, and leaves. Sojourner Truth drew tremendous strength and courage from her ancestry and her descendants. She was a living reminder that those who grow strong roots beneath the soil can eventually stretch big and tall above ground.

Sojourner took up space by standing tall, by opening her arms, and by using her powerful, persuasive voice to bring awareness to the injustices of her people and of others. She spoke out about the rights of liberated slaves. About the rights of women. She spoke about making prisons more humane and abolishing capital punishment. She once warned that if anyone tried to stop her, she “would rock the United States like a cradle.” One of the most powerful of Minter’s vertical paintings shows a naked slave man’s back alight with horizontal scars, which look (my daughter was quick to point out) like cursive writing in blood. The image is accompanied by the phrase, “In Slavery Time, when Words seemed weaker than whips,” but it is offset by the picture on the opposite page, which shows a crowd captivated by one of Sojourner’s speeches. Words—especially those reaped from the experience of oppression—can become the most powerful of tools.

We must teach our children to look for the light inside each other. We must encourage our children to celebrate their own unique presence, and we must teach them to create room for those who might need more allowance to find their own light, to direct that light out into the world, and to assume their own powerful space.

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

Book 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!

Hello, Awards Time!

January 31, 2019 § 1 Comment

This past Monday, I watched and cheered at my computer as the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards were announced (more fun than the Oscars for #kidlit crazies like me). Most parents are familiar with the Caldecott and Newbery medals, but there are quite a few other awards distributed, many to recognize racial, cultural, and gender diversity. Overall, I was pleased to see many of my 2018 favorites come away with shiny gold and silver stickers. At the end of today’s post, I’ll include some of these titles, along with links to what I’ve written about them. (If you’ve been following me on Instagram—if not, I don’t know what you’re waiting for—I’ve been celebrating many of them all week.)

Today, I want to devote some space to Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse, which came away with the Randolph Caldecott Medal, for the “most distinguished American picture book for children.” (It’s actually the second Caldecott for Blackall, who won three years ago for this gem). Hello Lighthouse (Ages 6-9) is one of my very favorites from last year; and yet, I haven’t talked about it until now. Why is that? Perhaps because the art in this book is so endlessly fascinating, my observations continue to evolve with every read. I suppose I’ve been at a loss for words.

My children have returned to this book many times, too, although their initial reactions persist. My daughter loves the idea of living in a lighthouse, while my son thinks it sounds like a most terrifying pursuit (“Do you think the waves really get as big as that?” he says, every single time.) One can gleam quite a bit about their differing personalities from these reactions.

Growing up in Manhattan, one of my favorite pastimes was to walk four blocks uptown to the Museum of the City of New York, climb the marble staircase, and gaze inside the miniature rooms of historic dollhouses, decorated in various styles from the first half of the twentieth century (only the well-known Stettheimer Dollhouse still remains). It wasn’t just the old-fashioned décor—the ornate porcelain table settings with tiny silver forks; the canopied beds with imposing walnut posts—that captivated me. It was the romantic notion of seeing into another world—a perfectly ordered one at that—and imagining what it would be like to inhabit these rooms from a distant time.

This memory was the first thing that came to mind when I opened Hello Lighthouse. The story itself is an (equally romanticized) window into life inside a lighthouse, back when lighthouses were operated by human keepers, who lived out their days ascending and descending these narrow circular towers miles from civilization, before their job was rendered obsolete by automation. As Blackall reveals in her fascinating Afterward, she spent years researching and visiting historic North American lighthouses, from New York to Newfoundland. Her passion for the subject matter radiates from every spread in the spectacular end result we hold in our hands.

Beginning with its tall, narrow trim size, Hello Lighthouse is an homage to these beacons of light, there “sentinels” standing guard and guiding ships around dangerous rocks. But it is also an homage to the life of a lighthouse keeper. To the discipline, the danger, and the loneliness. To the magnificent, changeable beauty which comes from the sea and the sky. To the light which must always be kept burning.

In the book’s early pages, the (fictional) keeper lives alone. We watch how he passes his days, steadfast in his near-constant rituals of polishing the lens, refilling the oil, trimming the wick, winding the clockwork, logging the book. Idle time is spent giving the walls a fresh coat of paint (in the Afterward, Blackall mentions how frequently interior walls needed to be repainted, given the wear and tear of the salty air), embroidering, boiling water, or “fish[ing] for cod from the window.” For correspondence, he pens letters, folds them into bottles, and throws them into the water to traverse the seas.

The letters, as it turns out, are for his wife, who arrives one day by tender (along with the predictable shipment of oil, flour, pork, and beans) and is shimmied up the rocks to the base of the lighthouse by means of a cable and pulley. That night, when the keeper “tends the light and writes in the logbook,” he also “sets the table for two.”

These everyday moments might feel mundane to the lighthouse keeper, but they become positively enchanting when viewed—like the dollhouses of my childhood—through Blackall’s circular windows, which populate many of the exquisite spreads. But the real wonder of Hello Lighthouse is the way Blackall nudges us from the passive to the active, from peeker to participant. At every turn, she infuses her illustrations—Chinese ink and watercolor on hot-press paper—with an exuberance of movement. This movement on the page is so encompassing, so effective, that we as viewers cannot help but experience in our own bodies some of what it was like to inhabit a lighthouse. To face off against the elements. To reside all day and night in cramped, narrow, circular spaces.

To begin with, there’s the movement of the wind and waves, the external forces acting upon the lighthouse at different times of day, in different seasons. Even on calm days, Blackall’s brushwork makes the water ripple on the page. In the fiercest of storms, the waves toss shipwrecked bodies and remind us of the dangerous rescues a lighthouse keeper must sometimes perform.

Then there is the circular movement of the lighthouse’s interior, where circular rooms are populated by circular shapes like rugs, candles, and bowls. There is the movement of the spiral staircase, which takes its inhabitants from the bottom of the lighthouse to the top, then down again, all day long. In one of my kids’ favorite spreads—one that purposely produces in the reader an almost vertiginous effect—Blackall manages to show both the keeper, ill and bedridden in his bedroom of circles, and his wife, running up and down the spiral staircase to tend to her husband and the lighthouse “all at once.” (This spread is also an homage to the many women who served as lighthouse keepers, another point Blackall makes in the Afterward.)

In one of my favorite spreads—perhaps best appreciated by one who has herself been pregnant—the circle is invoked as a symbol of the wife’s labor, a labor which has her walking in seemingly endless circles, as her husband “boils water and helps her breathe in—and out” (and, of course, still “tends the light and writes in the logbook”).

Blackall occasionally startles us with an absence of movement, like when ice encapsulates the water around the lighthouse. This spread feels almost eerily still, sitting as it does in such contrast to the others. And yet, there is still movement to be discerned: the lamp continues to radiate its light out into the stillness.

Fittingly, Blackall also gives us a tiny window into what life would have been like for a child inside the lighthouse. The couple’s child, now two or so, sits perched on a circular rope rug, surrounded by a ring of model boats and her working parents. The child looks happy enough, but we know enough of the daily reality of this lighthouse to imagine it would be challenging growing up in such close quarters. The coast guard’s forthcoming arrival with a new automated motor for the lighthouse seems perfectly timed. It is the changing of the guard, only out with the human and in with the machine. The child will get to watch the lighthouse, not from within its circular rooms, but from her new home across the shore. (And I don’t dare ruin the final few spreads for you.)

Hello Lighthouse is escapism at its best, painting an unfamiliar world, then inviting us to step inside and get to know every corner as if it were our own.

Other 2019 YMA Award Winners That I’ve Loved AND Reviewed:

Picture Books:

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, by Grace Lin (Caldecott Honor)

 

Julian is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love (Stonewall Book Award, for an “English-language children’s book of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience”)

 

Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales (Pura Belpre Award, “honoring a Latinx writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience”); I haven’t reviewed it, but it’s ah-ma-zing.

 

Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories, by Sergio Ruzzier (Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor, for “most distinguished early reader book”)

 

Islandborn, by Junot Diaz, illus. Leo Espinosa (Pura Belpre Honor)

 

All-of-a-Kind-Family Hanukkah, by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O’Zelinsky (Sydney Taylor Book Award)

 

Chapter Books:

Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina (John Newbery Medal); link is to my Instagram review

 

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani (Newbery Honor)

 

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, by Ashley Herring Blake (Stonewall Book Honor)

 

 

The Season of Styx Malone, by Kekla Magoon (Coretta Scott King Honor, “recognizing an African-American author of outstanding books for children”); link is to my Instagram review

 

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier (Sydney Taylor Award, “presented to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience”)

 

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang (Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature)

 

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

Hello Lighthouse published by Little, Brown and Company. 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!

What Our Heart Needs, Today and Everyday

January 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I drove down to the river to watch the sun rise. I hadn’t been able to sleep, my heart bruised from the words of a loved one the night before. As an adult, I have found the holidays to be such an intermingling of joy and sadness: a time of excitement and celebration, but also a time when the losses in my life assert themselves and leave me vulnerable.

I stood alone in the brisk-but-not-intolerable air, at the same spot along the Potomac where my son had taken me this past summer. A place he had picnicked with his sailing camp. A place he told me, while we were walking there, had “a bench perfect for you to sit on.” I wanted a place where I would feel love.

I felt that memory of love, but I also felt new love in the here and now around me. I didn’t lay eyes on another soul, but I was aware of life all around me. There were headlights from cars driving across the bridge. I witnessed the pink illumination of the Ferris Wheel across the river in Maryland. I watched as plane after plane descended over the Potomac, and my heart swelled to think of the people who had been flying all night, just to be with their loved ones for the holidays. I stood alone at the edge of the water, and I watched the sky come to life in a beautiful and reflective rendering of orange and yellow and blue. It did so without making a sound, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and I felt like I was witnessing at once something uniquely personal and universally commonplace. I felt infinitely small in the most comforting of ways.

Since discovering this poem by the late Mary Oliver last week, I think it sums things up perfectly:

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

And so, I got back into my car and drove home to begin the 48 hours of Christmas Cheer.

Weeks later, after I read Corinna Luyken’s poetic new picture book, My Heart (Ages 5-10), I realized I had never told my children about my Christmas Eve sunrise. I had never spoken aloud the sadness I had felt. (Why should I? It had nothing to do with them.) How often do we edit our own thoughts or reactions so we can paint a brighter, sunnier picture for our children? This may be the greatest offering of My Heart: it presents an opportunity to talk with our children about the stormy greys, the lackluster greys, the muddy, murky greys.

Indeed, the book is a provocative dance of grey and yellow, of dark and light.

My Heart was born out of a poem Luyken wrote years ago. (Luyken has been quite the darling of my blog, beginning with her first book, The Book of Mistakes, and continuing with her illustrations for My Favorite Picture Book of 2018.) But while the poem’s words stayed more or less constant, the accompanying artwork bent and swayed and morphed over several years until it struck the right note. (If you like to geek out—that’s me!—on the process of picture book creation, read this fascinating interview with Luyken.) With its scratchy, smudgy look, the end result reminds me of the work of the late John Birmingham—a legend in the picture book world—who often evoked a similar “unfinished” look in his art, almost as if inviting us to insert our own selves and lives into his pictures. Luyken strikes a similarly intimate but universal tone here, while producing some of the most exquisite spreads I’ve encountered in a picture book.

My Heart is a musing on the way our heart feels at different times, “My heart is a window,/ my heart is a slide./ My heart can be closed/ or opened up wide.” Readers will be quick to notice the myriad of ways, much like in Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, that Luyken nestles heart-shaped silhouettes into her illustrations. Inspired by her own love of collecting heart-shaped objects in the natural world, like rocks and shells, Luyken not only draws our attention to the omnipresence of this particular shape in the everyday, but also to the constant, comforting presence our own heart exerts, even as we experience tumultuous feelings.

The next few spreads of My Heart dip into these messier moments. Still talking about our heart (and never reaching for the platitudes): “Some days it’s a puddle./ Some days it’s a stain./ Some days it is cloudy/ and heavy with rain.” The rainy spread is one of only three where Luyken doesn’t use yellow to complement the grey. These are times when the darkness threatens to engulf, to block out the light. And yet, Luyken reminds us, even when facing down the darkness, our heart is with us, glimpsed here in the overlapping shapes of the black clouds.

But, like the sunrise each morning, the darkness is eventually eclipsed by light. With the next spread, Luyken slowly brings back the yellow—at first just a tiny heart-shaped bud in the ground, over which a child is bent (the same image as the book’s cover). “Some days it is tiny,/ but tiny can grow…/and grow…/and grow.” Another page turn reveals heart-shaped bursts of yellow radiating from a tree.

This pattern repeats twice more, as Luyken calls our attention to times in which our heart feels, for example, like “a fence between me and the world,” versus the reaffirming times when we invite others to help mend our hearts, or when we embrace our heart as a source of “light” and “guid[ance].”

My Heart can and will be read by children on many levels. It will reward multiple readings with deeper insights. But, regardless of where children are in their own lives, I expect they will not miss the vulnerability in these pages, a topic not often addressed in children’s picture books. There’s a refreshing rawness here. A reassurance of hope, a nod to the cyclic nature of emotions, but one that doesn’t gloss over or undersell the dark spots. A book which, when taken as a whole, actually balances the greys and yellows fairly equally…even if the yellow-dominant pages are be the ones we want to take with us.

My Heart ends with the empowering message that we are each the bosses of our emotional life. We may not be able to anticipate or control the feelings that come, but we do get to decide whether we want to open our heart to these feelings. Whether we want, in turn, to open ourselves to the possibility of connection. If we choose openness—even at our most vulnerable, even when we think no one is listening—we will never truly be alone. Even in our saddest, messiest moments, we are surrounded by a vast universe of hearts. If we welcome this infinite love, we may well find the soothing we crave. We may even return, once more, to joy.

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

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

Gift Guide 2018: The Elephant in the Room

December 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

This is mixed-media artist Pamela Zagarenski’s third year appearing on my Gift Guide (previously for this and this) and for good reason: there is a jewel-box quality to her picture books, their pages adorned with surreal and scintillating spreads destined for endless discovery. Her newest, Zola’s Elephant (Ages 4-7), written by Randall de Seve (whom I fell for long ago, when I used to sell The Duchess of Whimsy at my store), is every bit the treasure we’ve come to expect: a story of two girls, their pathway to friendship, and the phantom elephant which bonds them.

Zola’s Elephant may culminate in a new friendship, but it’s more about how difficult friendships can be to initiate. Especially when one of you is shy. At the heart of the story is a wild fabrication—created by our unnamed, red-haired narrator to mask her shyness—about the new girl, Zola, who has just moved in next door. The girls’ mothers have decided the girls “should be friends.” Except that our narrator knows Zola already has a friend. This is because she saw a large box being moved into her house. A box which can only mean one thing. An elephant.

Our narrator, herself an imaginative elephant aficionado, doesn’t need to go over to Zola’s house to picture exactly what she’s doing. “I know Zola’s feeding her elephant right now because I smell toast. Lots of toast.”

Never mind that the next spread reveals to the reader the actual situation over at Zola’s house, a familiar sight to anyone who has temporarily lost their parents to a mass of moving boxes.

And so it goes: our narrator delivers impassioned excuses for why she “can’t go make friends with Zola now”—Zola and her elephant are frolicking in a bubble bath; they’re playing hide and seek; they’re building a circus-themed club house (“I know because I hear hammering”)—and then the page turns reveal the stark, bored, lonely reality.

Ironically, the more our narrator tries to imagine away her hesitancy, the more she falls under her own spell. “I like stories…and clubhouses and playing hide-and-seek and taking bubble baths with elephants.” (An observant reader will note she has a stuffed elephant in her hands at the book’s beginning.) Perhaps she should walk next door and take a peek.

The spreads that follow, revealing not only what happens when the two girls meet, but how they end up making use of what was actually in the big box (spoiler: not an elephant), are a testament to how two imaginations can be better than one.

(Sheesh, you didn’t think I was actually going to show you. Something has to be kept a surprise for Christmas morning.)

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Wondering What Was

December 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

And the award for the 2018 picture book that I will never tire of reading aloud goes to “A House That Once Was” (Ages 4-7), written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Lane Smith. This book is pure loveliness. As always, Fogliano’s contemplative, free-verse lyricism makes us feel at one with our subject—in this case, the mysteries of an abandoned house. As always, Smith’s inventive, breathtaking art transforms the everyday into the extraordinary. (These two brilliant creators have a special claim-to-fame in my blog, as this gem by Fogliano and this one by Smith were the very first books I ever wrote about.)

While walking in the woods, two siblings stumble upon “a house/ just a house/ that once was/ but now isn’t/ a home.” The path is overgrown; the house is listing to the side; the pale blue paint has mostly peeled off. The only signs of life are the wildflowers and a busy blue bird.

Where adults might see loss, decay, or even danger, the children see possibility. Their curiosity besting them, they climb through a window (“a window that once opened wide./ a window that now has no window at all./ a window that says climb inside.”). Inside, they find the remnants of a life once lived. Faded black-and-white photos. Empty glass bottles. Dust-covered books. Art supplies. There’s no one around, but the children whisper their wonderings, not daring to disturb the mystique of the space. “Who was this someone/ who ate beans for dinner/ who sat by this fire/ who looked in this mirror?…Who was this someone/ who walked down this hallway/ who cooked in this kitchen/ who napped in this chair?”

As the children’s imaginations begin to soar, conjuring up potential past inhabitants for the house, the art takes off on its own flight of fancy. Smith shifts from the grainy, impressionistic art of the earlier pages to sharper, stand-alone double spreads, each more spectacular than the last. “Was it a man with a big beard and glasses who would look out the window and dream of the sea? Or a woman who painted all day in the garden portraits of squirrels while sipping iced tea?” (It’s taking great restraint on my part not to include more of the spreads here…but, taking a card from my protagonists, I have to leave something to the imagination.)

After daydreaming about who once resided inside these walls, the question necessarily becomes, why did they leave? “Were they shipwrecked and now/ live on an island/ wearing coconut clothes with a pineapple tie?” Or are they simply “wandering lonely” in the woods, searching for their house keys?

The children will never know the answers to their questions. Of course, that’s all the fun. The speculations in A House That Once Was prove how much more interesting a simple walk in the woods becomes if we ask questions about the negative space around us and task our imaginations to fill it in. Especially if we, like the children at the end of the book, have our own “cozy and warm” house to return to at the end of the day.

 

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: An Early Reader to Celebrate

December 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.)

Never underestimate the power of humor to captivate a budding reader. I credit Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series with kindling my older son’s desire to learn to read, but its seduction was largely lost on my daughter, who by the time it was her turn had been hearing those books read aloud (by her brother) for years. Thankfully, Willems went on to create an imprint of similarly-toned readers; and funny, offbeat stories by the likes of Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, and Dan Santat did bring a novel respite to my daughter’s gripes.

When I received a copy of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories (Ages 5-7) earlier this year, my daughter—now a mature and prolific reader—snatched it up and announced, “Where was this book when I was learning to read? Mommy, do you remember how I told you there were NO funny early readers?” Yes, honey. Yes, I do.

As an early reader masquerading as a picture book, Fox and Chick has just about everything going for it: three short stories are illustrated as comic strips with occasional double-page spreads; the text is delivered entirely through speech bubbles; the vocabulary is largely phonetic; there’s sufficient repetition; and, best of all, it’s ripe with dry humor. (I would recommend it for a child who has been learning to read for a little while, but isn’t ready to move into early chapter books.) It also stars a pair of anthropomorphized animals every bit as quirky and different from one another as some of children’s literature most memorable duos (after all, before there were Elephant and Piggie, there were Frog and Toad and George and Martha).

The first story, “The Party,” serves as a perfect introduction to Fox and Chick’s personalities, best showcased when played off one another. Fox—restrained, meticulous, and borderline cantankerous—is less than thrilled when his book reading is interrupted by Chick’s incessant knocking. Chick—exuberant, impulsive, and stater of the obvious (“How can you be reading that book if you are talking to me?”)—is merely asking if he can use the bathroom. “Of course you may.” “Thank you, Fox. Very kind of you.”

Fox attempts to lose himself in his reading once again, though he can’t help but notice the ticking of the clock: Chick has been in the bathroom for some time. “Chick, are you okay?…Chick, I am coming in!” Fox is horrified by the chaos he finds on the other side of the door. It turns out “May I use your bathroom?” meant “May I use your bathroom to have a party with my friends?” “In my bathroom?!” roars Fox. Chick responds, “Oh, I see…,” and he and his pals quickly exit stage left.

Though he may play the part of the party pooper, later stories reveal Fox has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. My favorite story has to be “Good Soup,” where Chick follows Fox around his garden as the latter collects vegetables for soup. Fox’s vegetarianism offends Chick’s world order. “Fox, foxes are supposed to eat field mice, not carrots!” To which Fox responds, “I don’t like to eat field mice.”

The more exotic the vegetable, the more adamant Chick’s protests become, until he walks himself straight into the trap which a clever reader will have been anticipating all along: “And they’re supposed to eat squirrels…lizards…and little birds.” “Little birds?” says Fox (is that a sly grin?). “Yes, Fox, little bir…Uh-oh.” Later, the two sit down to enjoy Fox’s soup. “I’m glad you don’t like to eat little birds, Fox.” To which Fox responds, “At least not today.”

If the success of series like Elephant and Piggie are any indication, there’s huge appeal in early reader texts that make use of conversational banter to tell their story. Kids like knowing that the hard-earned words coming out of their mouth have entertainment, even comedic, value. Now add in Ruzzier’s always charming, expressive illustrations, and I say, thank goodness Fox and Chick are only getting started.

 

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

Gift Guide 2018: Behold the Magnificent Elephant

November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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