My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 3 Comments

(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)

A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).

When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.

I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:

This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.

Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!

I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.

My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.

The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.

The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.

The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.

A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.

An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?

But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)

Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”

And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”

And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.

Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.

What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.

Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?

 

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 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!

Gift Guide 2018: An Early Reader to Celebrate

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!

Gift Guide 2018: Neighborhood Superheroes

December 2, 2018 § 2 Comments

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.

To say that Chad Sell’s graphic novel, The Cardboard Kingdom (Ages 7-10), has developed a cult following among my children and their friends might be an understatement. In the week we got it, each of my kids read it five times, conservatively. Then they introduced it to friends on a beach trip, where the book was passed back and forth among all five children every morning on our way to the beach and every afternoon on our way home. A few weeks after we left, my friend texted me a picture of her girls wearing handmade costumes. “They told me you would understand?” she wrote. I needed a little help from my daughter, who didn’t hesitate for a second: “Animal Queen and Big Banshee!”

The Cardboard Kingdom is actually ten overlapping stories, each written in conjunction with a different writer friend of Sell’s and centered around a different child. Together, they paint a picture of a group of neighborhood kids—a refreshingly diverse range of ages, races, and gender identities—who come together during the final week of summer break to explore their alter egos through imaginative play and a whole lot of cardboard. In the vibrant visuals, readers experience both the fantasy playing out in the children’s minds and the reality of what that actually looks like.

As I was thinking about how to sing the praises of this book, I realized I could prattle on about navigating social dynamics and challenging gender norms—or I could let you hear directly from two of the book’s biggest fans. So, I went ahead and interviewed each of my children and have compiled their answers below.

Q. How would you describe what this book is about?

Emily (age 8): It’s about kids in a neighborhood who get to be really good friends because of their imagination, and they go on all these fun and crazy adventures without ever actually leaving their street. Sometimes they fight against each other, like good against evil, but no one actually gets hurt, because it’s only pretend.

JP (age 11): All the different kids in the neighborhood take their personalities and put them into different characters and costumes that are unique to them and super powerful. It’s a story about having fun together and including everyone.


Q. Why do you think you have re-read this book so many times?

Emily: I like how every time you read it, you’re constantly finding parts you missed, especially in the adventures. Reading this book is kind of like what happens when you play with your neighbors: you can’t stop.


Q. What do you think about the pictures in the book?

Emily: They’re really good. They show what the kids are feeling without describing it.


Q. Can you think of any messages that come through in the book?

Emily: That you can always find good in people who are mean. There’s a chapter called “The Bully,” where a boy thinks the other kids are being stupid, so he tears up their creations to make them feel bad. But then when he leaves, he gets bullied by other kids, so he comes back to the [earlier] kids and joins forces with them, because now he knows what it feels like to be bullied.

JP: The book encourages you to use your imagination and to include everyone when you play.

Emily: No matter what problems are going on in your life, you can always find a way to have fun.


Q. In addition to including people, I might add that it’s also about learning to accept people for who they are—and encouraging them to accept themselves. Why is this a struggle for some of the kids?

JP: Some of the kids struggle to make friends. One of the kids is really loud and no one likes it, but when she puts that loudness into her character, it kind of works. Another kid is a boy who likes dressing up as a girl. His character is Sorceress. His parents don’t really like it; they don’t understand why he wants to be a girl. But the other kids don’t act like it’s a big deal, because he’s actually a really good sorceress.

[I have to add: I absolutely love the Sorceress storyline, especially when the boy’s mother finally sits him down to try to understand his interest. “Is it really just dress-up and make-believe?” she asks. “Who is the sorceress?” And the boy responds, “She’s what I want to be…magical and powerful and amazing.”]


Q. Why do you think parents should get this book for their children?

Emily: Because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of books. And because it will make them think about how other people are feeling, especially the other kids on your street, when you are all playing together.

JP: Because it’s about all different kinds of kids, and there’s no discrimination, and it sets a good example about being inclusive. Also, it’s really fun.


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

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

November 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

A brief note before we get started. This post will be followed by My Favorite Chapter Book of the Year. Then, I’m going to do something a little different for this Holiday Gift Guide: a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had the occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, feel free to take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly ask that you “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them. And now, without further ado…

My daughter fibs. I realize that sounds harsh, like what kind of parent says that about her child? Shouldn’t I soften my words and say that she only pretends or exaggerates or bends the truth, because even though she’s only eight, she’s old enough to realize that sometimes the world looks better in our minds than it does in reality? Indeed, this is true. Still, she fibs.

“I give my allowance away to the poor every month,” Emily announced to a car full of older children on our way home from school. (Ummm, you’ve never done that.) Two years ago, when she was in Kindergarten, she started reporting nightly that her teachers were taking away recess time if even one child misbehaved; that she had not had a proper recess in weeks. Alarmed, I scheduled a meeting with her teachers, who looked at me oddly and said, no, they had never shortened or taken away anyone’s recess. (For the rest of that year, whenever Emily would report on “transgressions” done to her or others at school, she would preface them by saying, “Now don’t tell my teachers I told you this, but….”)

I can think of several reasons for Emily’s fibbing—attention, saving face, and my own proclivity for exaggeration jump to mind—but it’s entirely possible that there’s a less overt motivator at play, one which has everything to do with her older brother’s reaction. Because fibs like these drive him absolutely, positively insane. My son regards and remarks on the world with mathematical precision. He sees any casual statement by another as an opportunity for cross-examination.

“There is no way you swam a 400 butterfly in practice, Emily. It was a 200 tops, and even that is unlikely for a group of eight year olds.”

“No, JP, it was a 400.”

“OK, so how many laps is that then?”

“I know how many laps it is, but I don’t feel like saying it right now.”

Author Marcy Campbell and illustrator Corinna Luyken have brilliantly captured the intersection of one child’s penchant for imagination with another’s rigid black-and-white thinking in my favorite picture book of 2018, Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse (Ages 6-9). A quiet but powerful story of developing empathy for those who experience the world differently than us, it is narrated in the stubborn, righteous voice of Chloe, who finds herself increasingly annoyed by one of her classmates, a red-haired loner of a boy named Adrian, who “tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.”

Chloe tells anyone who will listen—her friends, her father, her mother—why Adrian is absolutely, positively fibbing. For one, she and Adrian live in a town (“and I know you have a can’t have a horse in a town”). For two, Chloe has on good authority from her friend Kelsey that horses are super expensive, and Adrian’s family is clearly poor (he gets free lunch at school and “his shoes have holes”). For three, horses require a lot of work, and Adrian can’t even keep his desk neat.

So why does Adrian spin tales of a “beautiful horse with its white coat and golden mane,” a horse with “the biggest, brownest eyes of any horse, anywhere?” And why does everyone but Chloe seem enchanted, even bewitched by this fiction; why do they refuse to see the cold, hard facts? The entire ordeal rattles Chloe to the core. It insults her mile-wide streak of justice. I know this, not only by the way she talks with her hands on her hips and her nose in the air, but because this is precisely how my son would regard such proclamations. He, too, might even stoop to what Chloe does next, vindictively exploding on the playground, “He’s lying! Adrian Simcox does NOT have a horse!” My son would think he was helping his victim, defending the Truth above all else, but he would also hopefully recognize the effect of his words.

Even though I was upside down,
I could see that made Adrian Simcox really sad.

Still, Chloe is unmoved in her righteousness. When she returns home that evening, telling her mom “how Adrian was lying about his horse again,” her mom takes a page out of the show-not-tell-book of parenting. “Chloe, it’s time to take Chompers for a walk,” she says. (Chompers being their dog. Chompers being “a perfectly normal pet to have in town.”) With Chloe and the dog following, her mom marches down the street to a part of town clearly not frequented by Chloe. “All the houses looked like they might fall down, and even though it wasn’t trash day, it looked like it was.”

The mom, of course, is taking Chloe to where Adrian Simcox lives. With his grandfather. “I could see the backyard. It was no place for a horse, of course.” And yet, the careful reader will begin to see (and will enjoy flipping back pages to confirm) what it takes Chloe a few more pages to understand. That for everyone in the book who believes in Adrian’s horse—and, especially, for Adrian himself—there is the hint of a horse if we focus our eyes just right. Call it a ghost, a mirage, a trick of the eye. It is Adrian’s horse, and it is as much a part of the landscape as it is in his mind’s eye.

Corinna Luyken’s illustrations (we first fell in love with A Book of Mistakes) are nothing short of extraordinary, as much for the way she organically weaves the horse’s silhouette into her landscapes, as for the way she uses the horse as a kind of window into Adrian’s soul: the seeking curve of the horse’s neck, the gentle sweep of its mane, the kindness in its eye. Adrian doesn’t just want people to see his horse; he wants people to see him. To see past the rotten hand he has been dealt in the house and clothes and food and school supplies department.

When the two children face off in Adrian’s yard, Chloe is ready to deliver an accusation similar to the one she yelled on the playground. But then she sees the same look on Adrian’s face, and her words catch in her throat. Adrian breaks the silence by tossing her a ball. For the first time, she notices his smile. For the first time, she asks him about his horse. For the first time, she understands: “Adrian Simcox had just about the best imagination of any kid in our whole school.”

Throughout the story, Luyken imbues each child with a specific color palette. Chloe is typically shown wearing or surrounded by rosy pinks and mauve, while Adrian is defined by his fiery orange hair, set off by deep golds. In the final page—when we at last can make out most of the horse’s body—the two palettes come together: blending, complementing, and producing something much more magnificent than the sum of its parts.

This is what connection looks like. This is what empathy looks like. My favorite picture book of the year.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy 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!

The Social Science Experiment That Is Our Children’s Classroom

September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

In our house, there is nothing like the last week of summer break to convince me that it’s time for my kids to go back to school. I enter into that final vacation week with a heavy heart, prematurely mourning our weeks of togetherness (my kids finally being at the ages where the balance is tipped more towards fun than exhausting).

And then—perhaps because we know our break-up is inevitable and we’re trying to make the case to ourselves—we turn on one another. We bark, we snap, we storm out of rooms. Neither child agrees to any game the other proposes (well, except Rat-a-Tat-Cat; thank goodness for Rat-a-Tat-Cat). Particularly telling: no one seems capable of losing themselves in a book anymore—chapters are abandoned before they are even a quarter completed. Suddenly, the lack of structure we previously relished seems precarious, foolhardy, even downright dangerous.

They need to go back.

Still, there is nothing easy about this month. We parents have to go through the Herculean effort of getting our bleary-eyed kids out the door, only to have them peak under someone else’s watch and then return home exhausted, cranky, and full of penguin problems. Meanwhile, our children face their own set of hurdles, like having to channel their pint-sized reserves of concentration for hours at a time.

But perhaps the greatest challenge for many children comes from the fact that they are about to be corralled into a room for seven hours a day with a dozen (or two) other children, many (or all) of whom are strangers. We take the set-up of modern schooling for granted, but when you get right down to it, it’s like a wayward science experiment: all these personalities hissing and popping, and no one wearing safety glasses.

Fortunately, there are two brilliant new back-to-school picture books to lend some empathy—or at least levity—to the subject of coming-togetherness. On the surface, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates and The Day You Begin couldn’t be more different; and yet, both cleverly tackle the daunting question of how we go about being ourselves in a classroom full of other selves.

Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates (Ages 3-9) will emit no shortage of chuckles, but it will also resonate universally, because if your child doesn’t struggle with impulse control himself, chances are he’s in a classroom with someone who does. Every fall, like clockwork, my daughter comes home from school bearing a list of daily grievances done by one of the new kids in her class. He won’t sit still, he hits, he won’t listen, he won’t clean up…and so on. My kneejerk reaction to her persistent negativity—I hope you are being kind to this child!—is exacerbated by my fear that this is precisely how some perceive her older brother, who has his own unique relationship with impulsivity in the classroom.

And yet, just as predictably, at some point during the year, Emily does a 180. She stops complaining about said child and begins defending him. He is getting better, he was helpful today, he said a nice thing in class meeting, you should see how hard he tries. Bless the teachers who have paired my daughter up with these children on more than one occasion, letting her glimpse below the surface.

In the silliest of ways, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates asks its reader to imagine how frustrating and lonely it can feel when you are a kid who must wage a war against your very nature to conform to the conventional expectations of a classroom. If you remember author-illustrator Higgins from the Mother Bruce series (so, so, so funny), you know how talented he is at creating adorably down-trodden heroines, who dramatically pit themselves against the world and then bemoan the consequences of it. Penelope Rex, the heroine of We Don’t Eat Our Classmates might look the part in pink overalls and a pony backpack, but she has the monumental challenge of being the only T.Rex in a classroom of human children.

(Kudos to Higgins for casting his impulsive protagonist as a girl and for featuring a diverse classroom, complete with a girl in a headscarf and a boy in a kippah.)

T.Rexes get very hungry, and the 300 tuna sandwiches Penelope’s dad packs in her lunch each day do little to squash her propensity for the taste of young humans. And so, even while she wants more than anything for the other children to like her—to invite her to join their games on the playground and sit next to her at lunch—she keeps blowing it. She. can’t. stop. eating. her. classmates. The fact that she spits them out when reprimanded by her teacher does little to reassure her victims.

Always, the fun of reading Higgins’ books lies in discovering the humor he hides in his illustrations, and Penelope’s attempts to fit in are no exception. “She finger-painted some of her best work”; and yet, a glance at the illustration reveals she has painted a picture of a smiling child disappearing into the teethy jaws of a young dinosaur. “She even saved Griffin Emery a seat at lunch,” only closer inspection reveals that she is pointing at an empty spot on her plate.

Back home, a dejected Penelope sheepishly admits to her father that it’s possible “none of the children wanted to play with me” because she ate them (“maybe sort of just a little bit”). To which her father offers some advice: “You see Penelope, children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.”

Things do not improve until Penelope has an unpleasant encounter with the classroom pet, a goldfish named Walter with a carnivorous desire to chomp fingers (my mother would call this, “getting a taste of your own medicine”). “Once Penelope found out what it was like to be someone’s snack, she lost her appetite for children.” (And, no, I am not spoiling that illustration for you.) With her impulsivity somewhat tamed, Penelope begins to showcase a personality worth knowing, sharing a fondness for cooperative building, hiding and seeking, and the ability to laugh at herself.

If We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is about a child who comes out of the gate too strong, Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin (Ages 5-10), illustrated by Rafael Lopez, is about the experience of holding back, of fearing the judgment of others. Written as an ode to the child who feels like an outsider—“There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you”—Woodson’s text was inspired by a poem from her award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, and its lyricism enfolds the reader in a warm cocoon: I hear you, it says, and you deserve to find a place wherever you go.

While the second-person narrative is intended to address anyone who feels set apart—due to physical appearance, heritage, religion, socio-economic background, or something less tangible—four racially-diverse children feature throughout the book and lend some specific examples. One is intimidated by her classmates’ tales about the exotic vacations they took during summer break, since she spent her days caring for her little sister in their hot city apartment (“what good is this/ when other students were flying/ and sailing and/ going somewhere”).

Another just immigrated from Venezuela and worries how his accent will be perceived by his American peers (“because they don’t understand, the classroom will fill with laughter until the teacher quiets everyone”). Still another child dreads the questions she’ll get about the lunch her mother packed, rice and meat and kimchi (“too unfamiliar for others/ to love as you do”). The abstract image of a ruler figures into some of these pictures, perhaps not only alluding to the work of school days, but to the way we relentlessly measure ourselves against those around us.

For the fourth child, painted as a Caucasian boy standing on the sidelines of a playground, we get a hint of the offhand dismissiveness common when a group of kids used to playing together encounter someone new (“I don’t want him on our team./ You can watch./ Maybe you can have a turn later.”) This particular image no doubt rings a chord with both of my children, who have been forthcoming about their own anxiety in deciphering the rules of engagement on the playground, of not wanting to jump in for fear of betraying ignorance or inadequacy.

As the book continues, we witness subtle but significant transformations in the four children, as they take tiny but emboldened steps to put themselves out there: to invite a peak at their lunch, to point out a commonality, to share a story. “My name is Angelina and/ I spent my whole summer with my little sister…reading books and telling stories and/ even though we were right on our block it was like/ we got to go EVERYWHERE.”

What I love is that the emphasis here is on making a start. Nothing more. “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin.” Furthermore, Woodson makes clear to her readers that the power to make this start, to connect, resides in everyone.

All that stands beside you is
your own brave self—
steady as steel and ready
even though you don’t yet know
what you’re ready for.

Can I get this spread made into a poster for my children’s bedroom walls? Please?

We walk into unfamiliar settings, where we might encounter any combination of invisibility and judgment, but we never walk in alone. We have within us, not only a personality worth knowing, but the power to use this personality to bridge that uncomfortable gulf. We need only to begin.

 

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Books published by Disney Hyperion and Nancy Paulsen Books (review copy from Penguin Young Readers), 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!

The Best Problem Solving of Our Summer

August 2, 2018 § 1 Comment

In my ongoing challenge to tempt my ten year old into inserting more literature into his self-chosen deluge of graphic novels, comics, and (understandably addictive) action-packed series by the likes of Dan Gutman, Stuart Gibbs, and Rick Riordan, I announced at the beginning of the summer that I would read Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, aloud to him. He seemed generally unenthused with this proclamation (“Is this going to be a slow book?” he asked over furrowed brows, after he gleaned from the inside flap that there would be no spies, time travel, or epic battle scenes); but I was undeterred. You see, I’m not just used to this reaction. I’m also used to how well my plan works.

We weren’t but four nights in when the predictable happened: “Mommy, sorry to tell you this, but I actually read ahead last night after you left. And it gets really good. I kinda want to just read it on my own now.” And then I got to watch, delighted, as he carried the book everywhere for the next few days, reading it with the same gusto normally reserved for mythological monsters.

The best stand-alone novels do what most plot-driven series don’t even attempt: they allow the characters themselves—in all their glorious, complex humanity—to take center stage. More and more studies are linking reading literature to developing empathy, precisely because these rich character studies allow our child readers to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. When we inhabit, however briefly, the life of someone who looks or sounds different than us, who has a different background or orientation or set of circumstances, then it is that much harder to sit in silent (or not-so-silent) judgment when we meet someone similar in real life.

Reading realistic fiction shows our children that there is often a great deal more to people than meets the eye.

Of course, no highfalutin discussions about empathy are going to convince my ten year old to read more novels—hence, why I sometimes resort to sneaky tactics. That said, these sneaky tactics would never stand a chance if it weren’t for novels like The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14) and Kelly Yang’s equally spectacular Front Desk (Ages 10-14), both of which put their protagonists in super stressful, downright near impossible predicaments, and then let us watch them problem-solve their way out. JP might be developing empathy around learning differences and mental health conditions (Lightning Girl) and immigrant experiences (Front Desk), but all he cares about it is that these protagonists are as fascinating as they are unfamiliar.

Lucy Callahan, the twelve-year-old protagonist of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14), has not been to traditional school since she was struck by lightning four years ago in a freak accident and developed acquired savant syndrome. She is now in possession of a “supercomputer brain,” capable of solving math operations instantaneously. And not only school math. Give her a date, and she’ll instantly rattle off what day of the week it falls on. Tell her your birthday, and she’ll instantly tell you your age, right down to the second. She also has synesthesia, meaning she sees numbers as different colors.

My son, being a math enthusiast, figured this was just about the coolest thing that could happen to a person…until he read on. Just because you can solve a math problem in a few seconds doesn’t mean the rest of middle school is as easily calculated. Still, Lucy’s grandmother, her sole caretaker, insists that Lucy give public middle school a try.

At the top of the list of problems whose solutions are not readily apparent to Lucy is her obsessive-compulsive disorder, a side effect of her lightning-damaged brain and the main reason she would prefer to pass her days in the germ-controlled, non-judgmental security of her bedroom, with a chat room of Internet math geeks as her only companions. How does a girl, suddenly forced to go to traditional school, explain to her classmates why she has to sit and stand exactly three times before settling into her desk at school? Or why she whips out Clorax wipes to sanitize her desk, her bus seat, and her classroom’s doorknobs?

Lucy may not be able to hide her OCD—for which she faces no shortage of teasing—but she decides she can hide the other thing that sets her apart: her genius brain. Fearful of being seen as any more of a “freak” than she already is, Lucy figures out exactly how many math problems she needs to get wrong on her weekly quizzes to fly just below the radar. She even begins to make friends. But what happens when we become liked or accepted for someone we aren’t? What are the trade-offs when we deny the very part of us that makes us special?

Ironically, Lucy gets closer to answering these weighty questions when she solves a more concrete problem, one she initially has little interest in solving at all. Paired with two classmates for a mandatory community service project, Lucy finds herself dragged into the pinnacle of germ-infested places—an animal shelter—where her peers are bent on helping more dogs find long-term homes before they are turned over to the city to be euthanized. Lucy, it turns out, is just the Lightning Girl to calculate the statistical probability for each dog’s adoption, before turning the results into social media campaigns to help the dogs that need an extra nudge. While applying her amazing brain power to the data, Lucy inadvertently stumbles upon one of life’s most gratifying conundrums: How does helping others to solve their problems actually serve to liberate our own?

Helping others becomes a self-affirming drive of ten-year-old Mia Tang as well, a girl with a seemingly endless list of problems to solve and the protagonist of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk (Ages 10-14). Mia’s family runs a motel in southern California, and Mia—when she’s not at school—gets to man the front desk. If having the run of an inn, which includes a pool and a tip jar, sounds like a pretty awesome gig for a pre-teen…read on. For one, Mia and her family are forbidden to use the pool. Or to have their own rooms (her parents sleep on the couch in the lobby). Or even to receive the full wages promised to them when they took the job.

Mia and her family are immigrants, based closely on Yang’s own family, who came to the United States from China in the 1980s as part of the most educated and skilled class of Chinese immigrants, only to find themselves reduced to menial jobs and a median yearly income of $8,000 (kudos to the fascinating Author’s Note at the book’s end). Why doesn’t Mia participate in gym class? She can’t risk injury, because her family doesn’t have health insurance. Why does she pocket her hamburger at school? To bring it back to her uncle, so he doesn’t have to dumpster-dive after his shift at the burger joint. As I witnessed Mia and her family trying to assimilate into American culture, while simultaneously making ends meet and harboring fellow immigrants, I could not stop thinking, My son has got to read this book. Everyone has got to read this book.

Fortunately, my son needed little coaxing on this one, owing to the novel’s fast pace and frequent brushes with police, loan sharks, and attempted assault. Still, Yang has done a commendable job of introducing young readers to an often grim reality through the eyes of a heroine who is anything but grim. Mia may not have the brain of a math genius, but she is exactly the energetic, resourceful, and kind problem-solver her family needs her to be. She not only looks for ways to improve the motel’s customer service, but she sets her sights on helping her community at large. Some of these challenges are easier than others. How do you wash hundreds of towels when the washing machine breaks? Throw ‘em in the bathtub, turn on the water, and start stomping. How do you help your family out of poverty? Enter an essay contest. How do you expose racial bias among the police force? Attempt to solve the whodunit yourself.

And yet, as with Lightning Girl, some problems confound even Mia, especially when they are influenced by layers of cultural bias. Why does it matter what brand of blue jeans she wears at school—or even that she wear blue jeans at all (instead of the pack-of-three floral pants that her mom sends her to school wearing)? Is the motel’s morally-bankrupt owner, the son of whom turns out to be Mia’s classmate, really as cruel as he seems? And when their relatives back in China report that they are all getting rich, why does Mia’s family refuse to leave America and go home?

If growing up is learning which problems you can solve, which are bigger than you, and which are better left unsolved, then The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and Front Desk aren’t just entertainment. They can be read as how-to manuals for navigating the messiness, the cruelty, and the injustices that life sometimes deals. These stories give us bold, intelligent, complex girls as companions on this journey, and they remind us to look beyond the surface when we meet someone who seems nothing like us.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.

Books published by Random House and Scholastic, respectively. Review copies purchased by me! 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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