December 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.
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!
December 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
For the holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.
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!
December 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
For the next few weeks (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.
“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!
November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
Between now and Christmas (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.
Ever since I hailed the stunning achievement of British author-illustrator Jenni Desmond’s The Polar Bear in my 2016 Gift Guide, I have eagerly anticipated the third installment in her narrative non-fiction series starring endangered animals. It has been well worth the two-year wait, because The Elephant (Ages 6-9), a tribute to the world’s largest living land mammal, is magnificent.
Accessible and beautifully-phrased paragraphs are packed with fascinating details about this mighty and graceful animal, which originated 55 million years: its territory, anatomy, diet, and behavior, as well as the differences between the Asian and African species. As in the other books in the series, a red-crowned child helps to showcase the elephant’s unique qualities, while also providing a touch of whimsy to the otherwise remarkably realistic art.
Did you know that an old African savanna bull’s tusk can weigh 100 pounds and be as long as two seven-year-old children stretched toe-to-toe? Imagine carrying that weight around! Would now be a good time to tell you that elephants have to bear all this weight on their tip-toes? “From the outside, their feet look flat, but inside, the skeleton reveals that the heel is higher than the toes, like a human foot in high heels.” That’s why they walk so softly for how heavy they are.
My daughter was particularly impressed with the elephant’s daily diet, showcased as a giant pyramid of food with a child perched at the top (she already knew about the insane amount of pooping—12-15 times a day—from our local zoo’s exhibit). “A large male could eat 700 pounds of plant matter a day, the equivalent of 100 apples, 90 lemons, 80 peaches, 70 pears, 60 oranges, 50 mangoes, 40 bananas, 30 coconuts, 20 pineapples, and 10 watermelons.” Imagine how long it would take to pack that lunch box every day.
But the heart of this book lies in its poignant exploration of the elephant’s social and emotional intelligence. While the males live and hunt alone, the females and their babies spend all their time in groups of extended family, organized around a matriarch. When one of their herd dies, the family engages in intense mourning and burial rituals, devoting weeks to standing vigil over the bodies and even returning to the burial site years later. “Oh, Mommy,” my daughter said, reverently.
The child in the book, reading his own book about this wondrous animal, is a reminder of what Desmond explains in the Prologue: that the elephant’s precarious existence is intricately tied to the behavior of humans in the past and present. Elephants aren’t just wonders to behold: their migration patterns, even their colossal dung piles, pave way for the survival of other plants and animals. Perhaps marveling over every exquisite page in The Elephant is a step towards ensuring this magnificent creature survives another 55 million years.
Review copy provided by Enchanted Lion Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 21, 2018 § 3 Comments
Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.
In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind.
I am Jazz is Jazz Jennings’ autobiographical picture book, co-written with Jessica Herthel, about what it was like to grow up with “a girl brain but a boy body.” From the earliest ages, Jazz identified as a girl. More than simply dressing up as princesses and mermaids, Jazz would correct her parents when they would say, “You’re such a good boy,” responding, “No, Mama. Good GIRL!” In Jazz’s case, it was her pediatrician who identified her as transgender and encouraged her parents to stop cutting her hair and putting her in boy clothing. Eventually, her teachers at school allowed her to join the girls’ soccer team, and she found a group of friends who saw her, not as someone to be teased or feared, but as “one of the nicest girls at school.”
I could feel the intensity in the air as I read. My children bent so far over the pages that I had to ask them to sit back so I could see the words. “Have I just opened a can of worms?” I thought. “Are they even old enough to understand this?” These were actual questions that went through my head.
When I finished reading, I asked if they wanted to talk about the book. “Nope!” they chorused, pulling out the next title from the box. And so, I moved on. And I don’t just mean with the next book. Later that day, I tucked I am Jazz inside one of the cabinets in our office. Are you getting this? I hid the book. I justified my action: “This is a great book, but I’ll get it out in a few years when they’re older. When it’s more applicable to their life or to someone they know.” Yes. I actually thought these things.
The very next day, I walked into my four-year-old daughter’s room to find her paging through the book. How on earth she found it I will never know. She beamed at me: “Mommy, Jazz likes all the same things I do: dance, soccer, swimming, and the color pink!” “Yes,” I said. And then, a few days later, when I was tidying up her room, I hid the book. Again.
A few weeks later, we had friends over for dinner. Long after everyone had finished eating, the adults were still lingering at the table, when my son barged in carrying our children’s dictionary, trailed by his sister and friends. “We need to throw out this dictionary,” he pronounced, with his typical fondness for the dramatic. “It is missing words.”
“What word are you trying to look up?” one of the grown-ups asked.
Instantly, I knew that I am Jazz was circulating around our house again; and—based on the looks everyone was exchanging around the table—making for some pretty riveting conversations upstairs.
As they do more times than I could ever count, my children held a mirror in front of my face. They illuminated my shortcoming—in this case, a bias—which I wasn’t even aware I had. We shouldn’t save “issues books” for the moments the issues arise. Heck, we shouldn’t even label them as “issues books.” My children were intrigued by the idea of transgender, sure, but I have since realized that their interest in this book extends well beyond definitions. I am Jazz is just one more tale in a long line of tales about kids trying to make sense of who they are—a journey every child faces, at every age. Even more, I am Jazz celebrates that journey. Jazz is brave and animated and refreshing. She is who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. What child wouldn’t be fascinated by her?
It may have taken three tries, but I am Jazz finally got a prominent place on our bookshelves, and I’m proud to say that, years later, it still floats in and out of both children’s rooms regularly. My children talk about Jazz like they know her, like she’s their friend. “We read Jazz’s book in school today!” my ten year old announced with excitement earlier this year. “Can you believe there were some kids who had never heard of her?” He went on: “My teacher used to date someone who is transgender. That’s cool, don’t you think?” That my children think this is cool—and not weird or scary or confused—owes a great deal to reading I am Jazz when they did.
Published earlier this spring, Julián is a Mermaid also raises the subject of gender identity, though it does so with a subtlety and ambiguity that would likely not have been possible were it not for predecessors like I am Jazz. With mesmerizing illustrations, just 23 short sentences, and as much unspoken as spelled out, this picture book is visual storytelling at its best. Julián’s journey unfolds only over the span of a few hours; and yet, encapsulated in these hours is a multi-faceted glimpse into how high the stakes are when we risk being seen for who we really are.
When the story opens, Julián is riding the subway with his abuela and reading a book about a subject near and dear to his heart: mermaids. A moment later, as he looks up, three tall, svelte women dance into his car, sporting elaborate hair styles and identical aquamarine fishtail dresses. We don’t need text to tell us what Julián is thinking: mermaids in the flesh.
As Julián watches these women, he begins to picture himself as a mermaid, fantasizing silently about throwing off his clothes, growing a gold-tipped pink tail, and swimming alongside a school of brightly-patterned fish through water colored the same shade of aquamarine as the ladies’ dresses.
A large, intricately-designed indigo blue fish approaches him with a necklace offering. In these waters, Julián is not only joyful and uninhibited; he (she) is also adored.
As Julián and his abuela depart the train and walk home, Julián’s mind is still on the three ladies.
“Abuela, did you see the mermaids?”
“I saw them, mijo.”
“Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”
At this point, it’s impossible to decipher what the boy’s grandmother makes of all this. Her coiffed white hair and voluminous shape combine with pronounced, imposing facial features, mostly bent towards frowning. Her only response to Julian declaring himself a mermaid is to peer silently down at him—and then, on the next page, inform him that she is going to take a bath and that he should “be good” while she’s out of the room.
The three nearly wordless double spreads that follow—as Julián dramatically sheds his clothes, rigs up a headpiece from flowers and palm fronds, and tears down the white lace curtains to create a mermaid tail—are so ripe with expression, movement, and gorgeousness, we fall completely in love with this child (if we weren’t already). Heck, you don’t even have to like mermaids—my daughter reminded me that she doesn’t—to agree that this costume is nothing short of extraordinary. And, yes, there is make-up involved.
Cue dramatic tension, as the grandmother emerges from the bathroom, wrapped in her own white swathe, and stands staring at her grandson, who is now posing like a Greek goddess. As abuela turns silently and walks off the page, Julián’s big eyes stare after her intensely, worriedly. On the next page, his expression turns downcast. He lifts the end of his tail, as if seeing it for the curtain it is. He glimpses himself in the mirror, as if struggling to recognize himself. There is not a single word of text—and yet, our hearts are in our throat, watching this child question himself. (In an interview featured on the blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author-illustrator Jessica Love talks about the evolution of her art for this book, which she originally painted on a white background, until she realized that layering color atop of brown paper bags actually allowed her to infuse the facial features of her brown-skinned characters with greater emotion. The result is pitch perfect and absolutely stunning.)
But then, the grandmother returns—“Come here, mijo”—wearing a colorful headscarf and an indigo dress with a white pattern that will be familiar (to observant readers) from the earlier aquatic scene of Julián’s imagination. She holds out a pink beaded necklace, which Julian takes with a wide grin.
Once again, abuela leads him outside and down the street. She leads him straight into the heart of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a crowd of people wearing octopus tentacles and jellyfish headpieces, swishing and swaying in unapologetically bright fabrics and tall heels. “Mermaids,” whispers Julián.
At last, abuela’s face seems to soften into a smile, as she says the words Julián most needs to hear: “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.”
As Julián marches alongside these kindred spirits, alongside his accepting abuela, we glimpse in him the same joy and freedom from his private fantasy earlier in the day. We are reminded of the power of being seen, of being loved, for exactly who we are.
A postscript: This has been a gut-wrenching week of news, as we listen to reports of refugee children being separated—ripped apart—from their families at our border and by our government. Children who may never see their loved ones again. Julián is a Mermaid is not a political book. It is not a book with a shove-it-down-your-throat message. But it is a profoundly touching story about the power—the fundamental necessity—of unconditional familial love. About how, under the gentle tutelage of love and acceptance, children can bask in the joy of childhood, can grow into adults to be proud of. Every child deserves this treatment.
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Review copies by Penguin and Candlewick, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
May 17, 2018 § 8 Comments
Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.
And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.
Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.
Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.
The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.
“I was homesick!”
Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.
When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?
There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.
Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.
Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”
We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”
Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”
Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”
“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)
“That’s it exactly!”
As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).
The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.
Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.
Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.
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Review copy provided 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!