December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age.
My friends (occasionally readers of my blog, too) have heard me gush about how the eight weeks I spent every summer at an all-girls sleepaway camp in Vermont were some of my favorite—and most formative—parts of my childhood. But I miiiiiight gloss over the less-glamorous moments. Like the very first night, when I tried to ignore the pit of homesickness in my belly and climbed up into the top bunk, only to come nose to nose with a mouse perched on the rafter. Or the fact that I still have the scar from when, on the way back from a middle-of-the-night trip to the outhouse, I tripped on a rock trying to outrun a skunk I felt sure was chasing me. And those are just the animal stories. To say nothing of the times I fought with my best friend and thought I would die from loneliness.
But then there were days when I’d walk barefooted down to the pond, linking arms with other girls and singing at the top of our voices. And oh, did I mention the singing? There was the table-thumping mealtime singing (the louder the better), followed by the quiet campfire singing on the archery field at dusk. There was waking up each morning to the cool, crisp smell of pine needles and the prospect of choice: how would I spend today?
In Be Prepared, nine-year-old Vera is tired of not fitting in during the school year (“too poor,” “too Russian,” and “too different”). Her wealthy friends have sleepover birthday parties, which Vera’s own single mother can never replicate (it’s supposed to be a Carvel ice cream cake, not a charity handout from a woman at church!). Most maddening, these girls take every occasion to brag about the posh sleepaway camps they attend in the summer.
But then Vera gets wind of a church-sponsored Russian sleepaway camp near a lake in Connecticut (crafts! canoeing! singing! bonfires!) and convinces her mom to send her and her younger brother for what turns into four weeks. At last, she will do the things her rich friends do! She packs her bags weeks before departure, and she can hardly contain her excitement when her mom turns down the private dirt road to the camp. “It felt like entering another country.”
Only nothing about Camp ORRA (Organization of Russian Razvedchiki) matches any of Vera’s fantasies. For one, there’s no candy allowed. For two, there’s wood to chop, no running water, and an outhouse nicknamed Hollywood which would scare the poop out of anyone. For three, you’re supposed to speak in Russian…and sit through long church services…and attend daily classes on Russian history. Oh, and the horseflies are as big as birds, and there are mysterious heavy footsteps outside your tent when you’re trying to sleep.
And then there are Vera’s bunkmates: two camp veterans who are best friends and four years older than her (translation: they wear bras and use maxipads).
Still, Vera—proud, resilient, and a tad feisty—is determined, not simply to grin and bear it, but to “beat” it. She will win over her obnoxious, bossy, boy-obsessed bunkmates if it’s the last thing she does (even if it means breaking a camp rule). She will steal the flag from the boys’ camp and become a legend among the other girls. She will earn top badges for her wilderness knowledge. She will figure out how to poop in that outhouse.
Only somewhere along the way, Vera begins to realize she is focused on all the wrong things. There is a true friend—a slightly younger girl, who takes an interest in Vera’s prolific sketching—right under her nose, if she would just notice her. There is a chance to appreciate, even embrace, her Russian heritage. And there are the woods, with opportunities for freedom and mystery and wonder.
Vera’s summer isn’t anything like what she envisioned. But, like the best summers, it is ripe with self-discovery, growth, and an appreciation for modern plumbing.
Published by First Second. 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!
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.
November 4, 2018 § 5 Comments
“Oh honey, that book is not for you.” I had just walked into our family room to find my eight year old stretched out on the sofa, reading Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s extraordinary but brutally gut-wrenching graphic novel, Illegal (Ages 10-14). I realized I had made a mistake leaving it in plain sight, atop a stack of books I had just finished for my next Capitol Choices meeting.
My daughter barely looked up. “But why? You know I love graphic novels.”
“I do know you love graphic novels. But this one is written for older kids. We can save it for when you’re older.”
“But I’m reading it right now. Plus, I’m understanding it.”
“It’s not that I don’t think you’d understand it,” I said, sitting down next to her and gently taking away the book. “It’s that there are some very upsetting things that happen in the book, and it would be hard for an eight year old to process those things.”
Of course, as any parent knows, if you don’t want your child to read a book, the least effective approach is to tell her it’s not appropriate. It didn’t help that my eleven year old walked into the room just then and said, “Mommy, that book is amazing. And really deep. Emily is much too young to read it.”
“I hate you all!” my daughter yelled. She stormed off to her room. Well, I thought, at least we dodged that bullet.
Not a chance. The next day, after school, Emily announced, “I have decided you can read the book to me. That way you can explain it to me.”
“Which book” I asked, feigning innocence.
“The book about the refugees. See, I know what it’s about.”
“We have other picture books about refugees,” I tried. “We can go back and reread those.”
But she was determined. The pleading went on for three more days. It even involved her bringing home a news article on the Rohingya refugees, which her class had discussed from Time for Kids.
I caved. I read Illegal to her. And she was riveted. She asked questions. She made me read certain scenes twice. At one point, she got especially quiet and still, and I realized she was holding back tears. I told her it was OK to cry, that crying didn’t mean she was too young for the story. And then I cried.
Illegal, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, tells the story of Ebo, a parentless, penniless, music-loving, twelve-year-old boy from Ghana, who runs away when he learns that his beloved older brother, Kwame, has left to make the hazardous crossing to Europe, following in the footsteps of their older sister from months ago. We know that Ebo eventually catches up to Kwame, because the book opens with the two of them floating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an inflatable rubber dinghy (“maximum safe load 6 people”), alongside thirteen others. The sky is blue-black; the water is darker; the boat has a leak; and the fuel tank is almost empty. No one knows how to swim.
The book begins and ends with this dramatic, hair-raising sea crossing—the very image that comes to mind when Westerners think about the refugee crisis—but it consistently breaks to jump back in time, revealing that getting into this rubber dinghy is the final step in what has already been an incredibly long and harrowing journey.
How many of our children—much less ourselves—have ever contemplated what it looks like for minors to travel alone for hundreds of miles; to live on the streets of busy cities; to vie for labor jobs to earn enough money for the next bus, the next truck; to risk their lives crossing the Sahara Dessert at the hands of armed criminals; all to arrive at the shores of the Mediterranean to face the riskiest, most insane, most desperate act of all? What must the life you left behind be like to choose this path?
And yet, the media, fueled by our own government, would demonize refugees like this. Would unilaterally cast them as shady, suspicious, ill-meaning characters who should turn around and go back from whence they came.
While I am not advocating sharing this book with children under ten or eleven, I can tell you this: Emily has gone on to read the book three more times on her own. I have learned from experience that, when children return to a book again and again, it is because they still have more to extract. More meaning, more understanding, more connection.
“What is it about Illegal that you like so much?” I asked her over breakfast last week.
She thought for a bit. “I guess I like that Ebo survives.”
There is death in this book: death of strangers, of friends, even of Ebo’s own brother, who dies saving Ebo in the story’s most devastating moment. There is violence and cruelty; both are depicted graphically. Still, at the heart of the book, there is beautiful, wide-eyed, caring Ebo, who touches the lives of everyone he meets and instills camaraderie in a group of boys to gives them strength in numbers. For young readers, even middle-grade readers, Ebo’s survival is critical. It softens the blow of the surrounding death and violence. It is the ultimate sign of hope: that someone, in this case a child, can beat every odd stacked against him. Can survive the unimaginable. A boy who runs into his sister’s arms in the final page and exclaims triumphantly, “I will hold her forever and never let her go.”
Our breakfast discussion included my eleven year old, who weighed in on what struck him about the book. “You don’t think about kids having to do stuff like that. You hear about it in the news, but you can’t really imagine it until you read this book.”
And yet, the refugee crisis is happening now. It is the world we live in. Might there be value in opening up our children’s eyes to it (albeit appropriately and sensitively)? In the words of Melissa Orth, a Maine teen librarian featured in this week’s article in the School Library Journal, titled “Can Diverse Books Save Us? In a Divided World, Librarians are on a Mission”:
As a teen librarian in the whitest state in the union, I feel it is my duty to not have the collection reflect my community, but rather to reflect the wider world…Books featuring characters with different cultural experiences from their own can educate teen readers and build empathy.
Max, the thirteen-year-old American protagonist of Katherine Marsh’s heartfelt and suspenseful new middle-grade novel, Nowhere Boy (Ages 10-14), has never given two seconds’ thought to the plight of refugees, until he finds one squatting in the basement of the townhouse his family is renting during their two-year sabbatical in Belgium. The boy in the basement is Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who believes himself to be orphaned; he watched his mother and sister die in bombs back in Syria and his father drown while attempting to paddle their dinghy across the Mediterranean.
Sound familiar? If Illegal concerns itself with the refugee’s geographic journey, culminating with Ebo reaching the safety of the European coast, Nowhere Boy begins upon arrival—when the equally daunting journey of making a new life in a foreign and often distrusting culture begins. When Paris is attacked by terrorists who are traced to Belgium, Ahmed knows he dare not show his face in public for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist. Alone and nearly starving, he implores Max to help him live secretly in his basement. Not even Max’s parents can know.
Max is facing his own challenges with cultural assimilation. Already a struggling student, he resents having to attend school in a foreign language. He especially dislikes spending after-school hours with a strict, elderly Belgian tutor, who at the same time that she attacks his French, also delivers racist comments about Europe’s Muslim population—remarks which Max finds untrue and offensive, especially since one is living in his basement and another is his only friend in school.
As the two boys connect over their “outsider” status (and a shared love of comics), they forge a dangerous but ultimately redemptive friendship. The story is told through the boys’ alternating points of view, in short chapters, which not only keeps pace for even the most reluctant readers, but poignantly highlights the difference in the boys’ cultural orientations. Indeed, it is this difference that makes their friendship so intriguing and remarkable.
If refugees themselves are often stigmatized in Western culture, so is the act of helping them. If Illegal is a story of hope, Nowhere Boy is a story of empowerment. Of standing up in the name of human decency and kindness. A story about a boy who looks another boy in the eyes and sees something of himself in him—despite their looking nothing alike, despite their foreign upbringings, despite those who would have him thrown out, turned in. Even when Ahmed’s secret becomes too complicated for Max to keep alone, he engages the help of both his Muslim school friend and, incredibly, the school “bully.” Together, they develop a plan to give Ahmed a chance at an ordinary childhood, a chance to go to school and ride bikes and play sports. The plan goes awry at nearly at every step, but the nail-biting resolution is a testament to the power of kids fighting for what they believe is right and good and true.
Citing parallels with the Holocaust and those who, at great personal risk, harbored Jews in their homes, Nowhere Boy asks us to see past labels, past the “other,” to the human being inside. It challenges us to move beyond being a passive presence and towards extending a hand. It rewards, in the words of the novel, “put[ting] yourself at risk for another person.” In a world where adults seem increasingly unable to do this, perhaps it is only fitting that this novel illuminates the possibilities when kids take matters into their own hands. I am reminded of the words spoken by the King at the conclusion of our October read aloud, A Tale Dark and Grimm (yup, it was every bit the hit I had hoped):
There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have. There is a time when a kingdom needs its children.
I had planned to give Nowhere Boy to my eleven year old to read on his own, but I’ve since decided to read it aloud to both him and my daughter. Her fascination for this topic seems boundless at the moment, and I don’t want that to go to waste. Sometimes our children know what they need better than we do. Sometimes they are ready before we think they are.
Sometimes we need to get out of their way and let them direct their love into the world.
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Books published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Roaring Book Press, respectively. Illegal was originally published in Great Britain by Hodder Children’s 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!
February 1, 2018 § 9 Comments
Compared to last week, this week’s book may a lighter pick, but it will do no less to make better parents out of us. In fact, it’s possible I needed this reality check more than my kids.
There are days when it feels like my children leave a trail of oopses in their wake. Days when my daughter—at seven, I tell you!—can’t seem to get a single forkful to her mouth without losing some of it down her shirt and onto the floor. When my son leaves his aircraft carrier outside his sister’s door and she steps on it with bare, now-bloodied feet. When just-poured glasses are knocked over by careless elbows; when Christmas ornaments become dislodged and shatter to pieces on the floor as running feet whiz by; when HOW ABOUT NO ONE MOVE BECAUSE THE HOUSE WAS JUST CLEANED AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!
Of course, I exaggerate. My children are calm, careful, tidy little people who are aware of how much space they take up. Just not all/most/much of the time.
Cartoonist Andrea Tsurumi’s new picture book, Accident! (Ages 5-8), explodes with hyperbole on every page, gently poking fun at the way we—children and parents alike—invoke unnecessary drama around the most common occurrences in life: oopses. By the time we are finish the story, Tsurumi has us wondering, what if we take the emphasis off the mistake itself and ask instead, how do we make it better? It is not an exaggeration to say that this book has become something of a rallying cry for our family in recent weeks.
In order to write a book illustrating how life doesn’t have to fall to pieces every time we unintentionally break, bump, or spill something, it is necessary to fill pages with breaks, bumps, and spills. Tsurumi accomplishes this with a chain-of-events storyline which begins small—cleverly, on the title page itself—and crescendos into complete chaos. A young, high-energy, anthropomorphized armadillo (named Lola) cartwheels across the floor and inadvertently knocks over a pitcher of orange liquid, which spills to cover nearly every inch of an upholstered white chair. Her reaction is one of sheer horror: “Oh No! I’ve ruined everything!”
Presumably fearing the wrath of her parent, the armadillo quickly decides she will run away to her public library (“they have books and bathrooms”) and “stay there until I’m a grownup.” As Lola races headfirst down the block, all she knows is that she’s running from her problem. What she doesn’t yet realize—but what our wise narrator informs us—is that she’s running “right into everyone else’s.”
Sure enough, everywhere Lola turns, there are cries of “Oh no!” A bear sits on a swing and breaks it. An anteater runs her grocery cart into a lamb, who flies up and lands in a freshly-baked cake being delivered by a blowfish. A giraffe slips while carrying a tray of hot cookies. A hairdresser momentarily looks away and ends up scissoring off the entirety of her (equine) client’s mane. Cars crash. Garden hoses get pointed in the wrong direction. Baseballs smash through windows. Both the absurd and the commonplace intersect in visual abundance.
I’ll admit I suffered from a case of visual overload when I first read this book. It took my daughter taking me back through the different pages, pointing out and chuckling over sub-plots too numerous to count, that sold me on the endless opportunities for creative engagement and repeated perusal. (Once again, I am reminded of what visual learners this generation is.)
The cries of dismay and outrage on all sides—victim and offender—become more extreme with every page: “We’re so unlucky!” “Ruined!” “Disaster!” “Big bad trouble!” “Mayhem!” “Fiasco!” “Calamity!” “Catastrophe!” (Talk about a fun lesson on synonyms.) Perhaps the expletive to ring the truest with our little ones—and, if you’re anything like me, may elicit a tiny twinge of guilt: “I AM THE WORST!”
As Lola races through the chaos erupting around her, she pauses three times to invite others facing similar retribution or retaliation to join her in escaping to the library. Soon, she and four others are storming the library doors.
Here, author-illustrator Tsurumi does something wittily unexpected. Conventional literature has taught us to see libraries as sanctuaries: indeed, that’s precisely why Lola has chosen to go to one. And yet—perhaps reminding us readers just how pervasive, how common, accidents are—Tsurumi extends the very chaos of the outside world into the library itself. Shelves tumble like dominoes, and books and office supplies soar into the air. (My favorite detail: the owl, meant to be stamping books, is instead stamping someone’s head.)
Lola again flees the scene, more frantic than ever. Until she comes face to face with a small reddish-orange bird—coincidentally (or not?) the same hue as the liquid spilled in the story’s opener. Repeated readings will reveal that the bird has been there all along, witnessing Lola’s oops and then trailing alongside her, like a quiet guardian. The bird lands on the armadillo’s tail and seems to call a kind of forced time out. In response to Lola’s insistence of “Disaster! Fiasco! Mayhem! Calamity! Cat-as-tro-phe!” the bird replies, simply, “Accident.”
Under the curious gaze of what has now become a crowd of onlookers, the bird gently nudges, “And now we make it better.” At once, brooms and mops are procured, helping hands are offered, and sincere apologies are delivered. Our children are given a road map for what to do following their inevitable oopses: what comes next? and how do you say it?
When Lola returns home, cleaning supplies in hand, she finds her mother has just provoked a minor catastrophe of her own: she is surrounded by scattered papers, an overturned coffee mug, and spilled doughnuts. This time, Lola is able to offer some perspective. “An accident,” she reassures her mother. And, as Lola removes a doughnut from her mother’s ear, the latter responds, “Exactly.”
I remember a particular dinner at our house. It took place years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Dinner preparation had run long, bedtime loomed, my husband was traveling, and all I wanted was to sit and enjoy the steaming plate of pasta I held in my hands. But, as I carried my plate and glass into the dining room, where my children already sat bent over their food, my socked foot slipped on the hardwood floor and my glass tumbled to the ground. The glass (because I have learned) was super-duper thick and didn’t break, but the water spilled everywhere. I think I must have looked like I was going to cry, because my son jumped up from the table and said without hesitating, “You sit down, Mommy. I will wipe it up.” Oh, how many times I have remembered this incident too late, after I have already barked at one of my children to “Be careful!” “Pay attention!” “Look where you’re going!”
When the pitcher overturns, when the ornament falls, when they mess up the world around them, our children don’t need fingers pointed at them. They don’t need eyes rolled, voices raised, or insults thrown. What they need is the opportunity to “make it better.” And sometimes they even need us to roll up our sleeves and get down in the trenches with them. After all, what goes around comes around, and goodness knows we all make mistakes.
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Book published 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!
February 2, 2017 § 1 Comment
Robert Frost wrote, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Given the headlines of the past two weeks, it’s getting increasingly difficult to laugh at ourselves. Thankfully, we can turn to literature and art to restore our sanity.
When it comes to choosing reading (or television) material, my husband is fond of reminding me that he “only wants a laugh.” Such proclivity doesn’t exist in me. True to form, I began January by losing myself in Adam Haslett’s devastating (if devastatingly beautiful) novel, Imagine Me Gone, where at one point a manic-depressive father sits across from his recently teenaged son and laments silently, “If I ever had the care of his soul, I don’t anymore.” I couldn’t look at my own (rapidly-aging) children for the rest of the day without crying—much less handle reading the news—so I traded in that book for Tina Fey’s performance of Bossypants, which I listened to for the next two weeks in the car. Doubling over the steering wheel in convulsive laughter feels like more appropriate self-care for the times.
Interjecting giggles into our family life came more easily with John Patrick Green’s Hippopotamister (Thank you, Betsy Bird, for rounding up your favorite 2016 graphic novels). An entrée into the graphic novel format for newly independent readers (Ages 5-10), Hippopotamister juxtaposes simple panels with full-page illustrations—each one executed with pitch-perfect timing, laugh-out-loud silliness, and heartfelt emotion. (There are even “how to” drawing instructions for the main characters at the end, should anyone wish to try his hands at comics creation.) We read it thirty two times last month.
The book stars two animals who live at a city zoo which has fallen on hard times. The ticket counter is covered in cobwebs; the office is a mountain of abandoned paperwork; the habitats are dilapidated; and the residents sport mangy manes, lackluster teeth, and dampened spirits.
Take-charge Red Panda is the first to jump ship: “I’ve decided to leave the zoo and live amongst the humans,” he announces, claw in air. As he returns with salivating tales of the “outside world,” he quickly wins over his loyal pal, Hippo, although Red Panda suggests he change his name to Hippopotamister, so he will be taken more seriously by the humans. (Try finding a name that’s more fun to read aloud.) The two set off to find fame and fortune—or, at least, to land a job.
Author-illustrator Green is a whiz at letting his pictures reveal gags which his text does not. Observant readers discover that, for each job the duo attempts—construction worker, hair stylist, chef, banker, dentist, fire fighter, paleontologist, and so on—the prideful Red Panda fails spectacularly, while the modest Hippopotamister succeeds brilliantly.
Which is funnier—the epic fails or the unlikely successes—is hard to say when your kids are giggling their pants off.
One salon client loves his hippo-styled coiffure; another is horrified by her sudden resemblance to a red-and-black striped panda.
At an upscale trattoria, the Hippopasta Primavera (complete with “sprinkling of parmesan over sautéed onions”) looks mouth-watering, while the Antipasto A La Red Panda is an absurd assortment of insects, pebbles, lint, Red Vine licorice, and car keys. In my kids’ favorite scene (OK, mine), the restaurant is promptly shut down by the Board of Health for “serving rocks” and the two friends are sent packing.
Even more absurd, the two friends appear oblivious to the stark contrast in their on-the-job performance. That is, neither friend overtly acknowledges what is obvious to us: Hippopotamister could make a career in any of these professions, while Red Panda doesn’t seem suited for any of them (with one hilarious exception, but I won’t ruin that for you). Following each trial or audition, the two simply pick up and move on without looking back. Is the former hopelessly clueless while the latter stubbornly self-absorbed?
Or is there something else at work?
Here’s where my kids and I venture to suggest that there’s more to Green’s story than surface silliness: Hippopotamister isn’t about to embrace a job that would leave his best pal out in the cold. “Don’t worry, Red Panda! I know you can find us an even better job!” is Hippopotamister’s refrain of solidarity after each failure, followed by the latter’s insistence, “This [next job] is going to be the best job ever!” The two are a team, determined to succeed together or not at all.
This teamwork culminates in the delightful feel-good ending, where Hippopotamister returns to the zoo and puts each of his new skills to work restoring it to its former glory (See, kids, no job is ever a waste of time!). With joyful pride, Hippopotamister balances the books, styles the lion’s mane, makes gourmet meals to perk up the monkeys, and builds sturdy enclosures.
Even better, for all his newfound abilities, Hippopotamister recognizes a shortcoming which only Red Panda can fill: that of entertainer. Red Panda has a quirkiness which adults find maddening, but which kids (as evidenced by the way they hang all over him at the daycare stint) find irresistible. A diligent zookeeper with a magnetic head of Customer Relations? Now that’s a winning duo.
Red Panda and Hippopotamister’s antics are a welcome comedic break from the stresses of the real world. But they also remind us that if we keep on laughing through every failure and piece of bad news, we might keep our sanity intact long enough to succeed. What success looks like may not be clear, but so long as we’re willing to don different hats and surround ourselves with loyal friends, we’re bound to find out.
Other Laugh-Out-Loud Favorites from the Past:
Penguin Problems, by Lane Smith
Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, by Bob Shea & Lane Smith
Goodnight, Already! by Jory John & Benji Davies
A Visitor for Bear, by Bonny Becker & Kady MacDonald Denton
Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins
Dory Fantasmagory series, by Abby Hanlon
Arnie the Doughnut series, by Laurie Keller
Mr. Pants series, by Scott McCormick & R.H. Lazzell
Battle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, by R.A. Spratt & Dan Santat
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Book published by First Second, an imprint of 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!
June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments
As a stay-at-home parent, I greet the arrival of summer with equal parts giddiness, relief, and dread. I know I will watch my children grow before my eyes more rapidly than during any other season. I know the front hall will be draped with wet towels, half-empty coolers, and bottles of sun block. I know we will picnic in beautiful places. I know my children’s boredom will give way to creative partnerships the likes of which I could never predict. I know there will be tears; there will be yelling; there will be hysterical laughter. I know the noise will drive me into the laundry room. I know there will be long sticky cuddles while reading together on the couch. I know there will be dance parties. I know my children will jump at every chance to stay up and catch fireflies. I know their eyes will close the second their heads hit the pillow—and that mine will follow close behind.
For any ambivalence I might have about summer’s arrival, my children have none. For them, summer is something to be greeted with unadulterated ecstasy—the skipping, jumping, eating ice cream, and wearing whatever they want kind. In this, they feel a kinship to a certain Greek god in Mordicai Gerstein’s wildly infectious new picture book, I am Pan! (Ages 5-10).
For any parent whose days of studying Greek mythology are buried under dust, allow me to give you a refresher. Pan—with his horns and hoofed feet—is the exuberant god of the wild. He is god of noise and confusion, of silliness and mischief. He is the originator of the word “panic,” speaker of exclamation marks, and lover of honey, fruit and flowers. In short, he is every child’s alter ego: the kid (well, kid at heart) who can get get away with anything, who can act up and out on every whim, and who somehow remains adorable through all of it. He is the Curious George of Mount Olympus.
Traditionally, Pan is associated with fertility and the season of spring, a connection briefly alluded to in the book’s final page. As far as my children are concerned, though, he should be the god of summer. He represents everything that summer break promises to them: the freedom to romp, frolic, and laze about to their hearts’ content.
As if the very notion of a god of noise wasn’t enticing enough, Mordicai Gerstein has given our children a visual and narrative rendition of Pan’s story that explodes and entertains at every turn. It’s not the serious treatment that Gerstein gave to his spectacular Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, but something closer in tone and style to his earlier summertime story, How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers. In I am Pan!, Gerstein outdoes himself: trading in typeset completely for hand lettering, presenting all dialogue in speech bubbles, and challenging the very boundaries of the picture book. Whether or not your kids already love comics and graphic novels; whether or not they already love (or even know anything about) Greek mythology: I guarantee that they are going to run to the highest hilltop and sing out their love for this book.
As Pan’s autobiography—yes, the entire book is narrated by the egocentric rascal—the book also serves as a fun and lighthearted introduction to Greek mythology. I mentioned a few posts ago that my eight year old is already well down the mythology path (he immediately hijacked this book until he had read it three times through); but most mythology texts are too dark or complex for my five year old. NOT THIS ONE. Gerstein reveals just the right amount of information about Pan’s fellow gods and goddesses, lends just the right amount of frivolity and hilarity to the family saga that is Mount Olympus. My daughter’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued. (As I’m typing this, she is home sick from school and literally wrangling the book away from me.)
In a jam packed, visually prolific 72 pages, Pan gives us eleven highlights of his life, beginning with his birth. Is it any surprise that, in lieu of a heartbeat, the midwife heard shouts, snickers, and giggles coming from his mother’s womb?
Hands down a favorite with both kids is the moment when Pan is introduced to Zeus, described on more than one occasion as exceedingly “grumpy.” Pan, still a baby (although it only takes him an hour and fifteen minutes to become fully grown), reaches out and bonks Zeus on the nose. To everyone’s surprise, Zeus is immediately smitten.
Eventually, though, Pan wears out his welcome with his extended family on Mount Olympus (“He delights my heart, but he’s a menace,” says Hera) and is sent to Arcadia to rule over grassy hills, idyllic waterfalls, and shepherds and nymphs.
In Arcadia, where Pan becomes master of his own domain, noisy drama and physical comedy reign. Pan plays a role in some of Greek mythology’s most entertaining stories, including serving as the catalyst for King Midas’ jackass ears, falling in love with an echo, and rescuing Zeus’ sinews from a monster even noisier than him. (I bet you never thought you could have so many bizarre conversations with your kids).
If myths were originally told to explain elements of our world, Pan’s stories are no exception: Pan crafts the first love song, is the inspiration behind the marathon, and—most famously—invents panic. For all his larger-than-life personality, Pan is a great lover of naps. When he initially arrives in Arcadia, he promises “laughing, singing, dancing, and all kinds of noise, celebration and gaiety”—but with one exception: nap time. When an ant interrupts Pan’s nap with a sneeze, Pan explodes, and the sound makes every living creature around him jump with panic. Pan quickly discovers that his ability to ignite panic is his greatest superpower—more effective than all the bows and arrows combined—and he later uses it to help the Greeks win against the Persians.
For all the trouble he stirs up, Pan is not a trouble maker at heart (the same may be said of Curious George). He is simply motivated by the egocentricity, jealousy, and desire that affect gods and humans alike. Ultimately, though, it’s his innocent and uninhibited gaiety that readers will remember long after the final page. Pan plays songs on his reed pipes that make “the birds dance with the clouds” and the “bunnies dance with the foxes.” He loves his family with a boisterous, almost suffocating kind of affection. He feels the joy of living in his bones and horns and hooves, and he simply cannot bear to keep it in.
Whether we’re ready or not, summer is nearly upon us. May your little Pans find endless channels for their own exuberance—and may you find moments of quiet in which to enjoy them.
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Review copy provided by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
My eight year old has been on a Greek mythology craze for the past six months. For years, he has been hearing references to mythology made in his mixed-ages classroom, has been seeing classmates walk in and out of school with related books tucked under their arms, has even been listening to one classmate proclaim the pomegranate seeds in her lunch to be the “fruit of the gods”—but he has never showed any genuine interest himself.
One night at bedtime, perusing his shelf for something his dad could read to him (I’m a bit territorial about letting my husband “butt in” on a chapter book that JP and I already have going), JP pulled out D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (Ages 7-12). At 192 oversized pages, this pencil-illustrated tome is still the ultimate foundation for children embarking on the endlessly fascinating myths created by the Ancient Greeks in their formation and understanding of Western civilization. Thence began for father and son a beautiful foray into the terrifically twisted realms of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, jealousy and betrayal, wars and loves, vanity and indifference. (Yes, I’m the one who has to butt out now.)
Then, for Easter, my husband gave JP the boxed set of George O’Connor’s astounding graphic novel series, Olympians (Ages 9-15), a deliciously dark, no-holds-barred approach to dramatizing the rises and falls of the different Greek gods. If you’ve harbored any doubts about the value of the rapidly-growing graphic novel genre, these books might singularly reform your thinking, as they did mine. They are not only tremendous visual feats, but they are wickedly smart. Still, my favorite thing about this series comes in the Afterwards to each book, where O’Connor explains his narrative choices and interpretations of the myths. Not only do our kids get a rare and compelling glimpse into the creative process, but they are themselves encouraged to ponder the complexity and ambiguity of the different myths.
Shhh, could that be the stirrings of literary criticism in our children?
As much as I want to safeguard this reading bond that my husband and son have created around mythology, I couldn’t resist a little one-off involvement of my own. Furthermore, with it still being National Poetry Month for another week, I wanted to let you and your own mythology lovers in on the latest picture book gem by Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse. Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths (Ages 7-12) is actually the third installment of “reverso poems” by this author-illustrator duo (the earlier Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow are centered on classic fairy tales), but it’s the first time that one of my kids has been old enough (or interested enough) to really sink his teeth into the delightful novelty of these poems.
What is a “reverso poem,” you ask? Something that only a poetic magician (or magical poet?) like Marilyn Singer could possibly construct. As Singer herself invented the form, it seems only fair to use her words to define it:
A reverso consists of two poems. You read the first poem top to bottom. Then, you read the poem again with the lines reversed, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and that second poem says something completely different.
Cool, huh? A poem that is designed to be read from top to bottom and bottom to top!
Since Echo Echo, Marilyn’s newest work, concerns itself with the Greek myths—and since most of these myths naturally pit two characters against one another (heroic Perseus slays the snake-headed Medusa; revengeful Athena turns the mortal Arachne into a spider)—each set of poems allows us to explore two different points of view. Sometimes the words of the poems are the words of the characters themselves; sometimes they come from a third party. But in every set of poems, we are reminded that there are two sides to every story.
The poem “Demeter and Persephone,” based on the heart-wrenching story of mother and daughter, originally devised by the Ancient Greeks to explain the four seasons, is one of the most poignant examples of the two opposing poetic voices at work. (While prior familiarity with the different myths featured in these pages will help the child reader get more out of the poems, Singer includes a brief synopsis of the relevant myth below each poem.) In this particular myth, Hades, god of the underworld (referred to as the “thief” below), kidnaps Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth’s bounty. In her despair, Demeter threatens to make all of the earth barren if her daughter is not returned to her. A deal is struck: Hades promises to return Persephone to Demeter for six months of the year (spring and summer representing her return), although Persephone must live among the dead with Hades for the other six months (fall and winter representing her descent).
We hear first from Demeter, beseeched with all the anger and resentment of a grieving mother determined to have her revenge. She addresses her only daughter:
I hate the thief.
Do not ask that
I forgive Hades.
will turn to
will leave this land cold and dark.
this mother’s lonely
I feel such
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
There will be
six months of grief
after so much joy and laughter.
Persephone, however, adopts more of a “glass is half full” attitude. She chooses to focuses on the happiness she will experience each spring when she is reunited with her mother.
So much joy and laughter
six months of grief.
There will be
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
I feel such
This mother’s lonely
will leave this land, cold and dark.
will turn to
I forgive Hades.
Do not ask that
I hate the thief.
With that second ending, is Persephone merely resigning herself to her fate, or is she opening the door to the possibility of loving Hades?
“Narcissus and Echo” is another favorite, based on the story of the vain young mortal, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in a pond (my kids think this is hysterical) and is turned by the gods into a flower—while Echo, the woman who loves him unrequitedly, is turned into a mournful echo. (Can we take a second to note how much great vocabulary comes out of reading Greek mythology?)
Here’s Narcissus, bent on being uninterrupted while basking in his own beauty:
I will forever be the
the most beautiful of youths—
a flower among men.
Then Echo, who plans to fight the good fight forever:
A flower among men!
The most beautiful of youths!
I will forever be the
All the poems in the book are enhanced by the Canadian artist Josée Masse’s seductive acrylic paintings, romantically infused with twilight blues and golden yellows. To be sure, Masse’s visual interpretation of the myths is much more whimsical (think “G-rated”) than George O’Connor’s, yet there is still plenty in these pages to mystify and transfix. In fact, my five-year-old daughter, who is too young for D’Aulaires Book (not to mention Olympians), has several times picked up Echo Echo on her own to page through the art. After she has looked at a picture for awhile, she’ll often ask me to read the synopsis of the myth below it—suggesting that this book might also serve as an introduction to Greek mythology for the younger set.
Masse’s art is rich with symbolism and plays with and subverts imagery in much the same way that the reverso poems themselves do. Each painting—furthering the idea of two points of view—is set up as two images, which either bleed into or oppose one another, always with a discernible divide down the middle. One of our favorites is the one that accompanies “Theseus and Ariadne,” a poem about Theseus’s attempt to navigate the Minos labyrinth and kill the half-bull-half-man Minotaur that lies within. The poem alludes to the ball of thread, which the king’s daughter, Ariadne, gives to Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze. On one side of Masse’s painting, the Minotaur’s dense, snorting body dominates the foreground; in the other, only the outline of the Minotaur remains, his head having dissolved into a labyrinth of thread, beside which Theseus stands armed. Visual poetry!
Or how about “Pandora and the Box,” the Greek’s version of Eve and the apple, where the first woman created by the gods opens a forbidden box and inadvertently releases evil into the world. Here, Meese has painted two figures of Pandora overlapping one another: one is bright and full of light and one is enveloped in a black shadow. And yet, interestingly, the box, which appears in both frames, is the inverse of the figures in whose hands it rests. Are we to consider that there is light to be found amidst evil and evil to be found in the most bucolic of scenes? For that matter, looking at the ghoulish green creations pouring from the box, what exactly is “evil”?
The Ancient Greeks developed their myths to make sense of the world unfolding around them. To make sense of why things are the way they are, why people are the way they are, and why it either matters much or matters not at all. Thousands of years later, we may not necessarily need these myths to help us navigate the seas and the stars—and yet, their characters and deeds continue to surface in literature, in art, in music, and in the language we speak. It’s not only exciting for our children to begin to make these connections, to identify a common thread throughout Western culture, but also to stand these myths on their heads and explore their every nuance. Only when we question the foundation below us, can we build something even stronger.
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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!