December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.
Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.
Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.
While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.
There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.
And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.
Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”
I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.
Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.
I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.
AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).
Review copy by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. 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 7, 2018 § 3 Comments
While I mostly discuss books that lend themselves to sharing aloud with children, I make exceptions around holidays and summer break to offer shorter write ups of middle-grade chapter books—ones you’ll want to put into the hands of your older readers and then get out of the way. (You’ll find past favorites here, here, and here.) Sitting on the Capitol Choices reviewing committee affords me ample opportunities to keep up with what’s current. Fortunately, for all of us with tweens, the well is especially deep right now.
Some (ahem, grown-ups) believe summer reading should be exclusively light and fluffy. I beg to disagree. Away from academic pressures and structured sports can be the perfect time for our children to embark on uncharted territory: to push outside their comfort zones; to dabble in different writing styles; to experience characters who look and sound nothing like them; and to contemplate—from the security of the page—some of the heavier lifting they might someday be called upon to do.
Once a tween reader myself, there was nothing more alluring than a plot synopsis promising a solid dosage of strife. Not because I was a particularly somber or morbidly-minded child (a flair for the dramatic, maybe), but because it was equally fascinating and reassuring to witness young characters dealing with really crappy situations—and emerging stronger, braver, and more compassionate. Author Kate DiCammillo once said her favorite thing about writing for young children is that you are morally bound to end your story with hope. When we read stories about the messiness of life, we are able to play out our own fears and insecurities, our own worst-case scenarios, with proof of resilience. And hope.
The novels discussed below (all brand new, with one exception) have at their center familial strife. Even on a good day, the family unit is a particularly fraught arena for tweens, caught as they are between still relying on their parents for everything and yet beginning to set apart their own identity. These are stories where, whether from loss or tragedy or poverty or cultural betrayal, the main character is forced to re-evaluate his or her place in the family. And to ask the sometimes devastating, if illuminating, questions that arise as part of that struggle.
What if you can’t rely on your family?
Just Like Jackie, by Lindsey Stoddard (Ages 9-13)
This eleven year old defies gender stereotypes at every turn—she’s fierce at baseball, can fix cars, and is unapologetically angry a lot—but that’s just part of the reason why both girls and boys (if my son’s enthusiasm is any indication) will spark to her. Robinson, named after the baseball legend, has never questioned the life she leads with her adoring grandfather on a maple sugar farm in Vermont, until she is assigned a family tree project at school. Robbie’s curiosity about what happened to her mother peaks at the same time her grandfather begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s, leaving Robbie to wonder whether his reluctance to talk about the past is intentional or not. Robbie struggles to conceal the disorder of her home life from the outside world, including from her best friend and school counselor, who must go the extra mile to convince Robbie that she is not alone. (How refreshing to have a successful school therapist in middle-grade fiction!)
What if your family has to come together to survive?
The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani (Ages 10-15)
This gripping, stay-up-all-night story might be set during a period of history most American children know nothing about—the 1947 Partition of India, whereby India became independent of British rule and was abruptly split into two countries on the basis of opposing religions—but its theme of divisiveness feels eerily relevant given the current culture wars on our homeland. Twelve-year-old Nisha, whose late mother was Muslim but whose father is Hindu, is forced to flee her beloved home—formerly India, now Pakistan—to seek a new home across the border. In the soul-bearing diary entries she addresses to a mother she never knew, we learn about Nisha’s harrowing journey by foot and train alongside her brother, father, and grandmother, as well as the unanswered questions Nisha has about her parents and their past—secrets which, if not revealed, could compromise the family’s ability to bond together for survival. Alongside this unforgettable heroine, whose writing becomes an antidote to her paralyzing shyness, is a sensory-filled portrayal of Indian culture, with dishes described so tantalizingly, they’ll have your child begging to go out for Indian food (once they are assured of the family’s safe passage).
What if your family suddenly feels off kilter?
Rebound, by Kwame Alexander (Ages 10-15)
Kwame Alexander is unquestionably one of the greatest contemporary writers of rich male characters, and his trademark style of writing in free, fast-moving verse means that his stories are equally accessible to “reluctant readers,” as they are to those looking for nuance and depth. A prequel to Alexander’s Newberry-winning The Crossover (although equally powerful on its own), Rebound stars African-American Chuck “Da Man” Bell, back when he was just Charlie, a boy reeling from the death of his father and inexplicably angry towards his mother. When the mother decides to send Charlie to his father’s parents outside Washington, DC for the summer, he doesn’t know which is worse: leaving his pals Skinny and love-interest C.J. to read comics and eat Now or Laters without him, or having to live under his exacting grandfather’s thumb (“Hustle and grind, peace of mind…that’s my motto. You do what I say this summer, everything’s gonna be fine.”) And yet, during his days at the Boys and Girls Club, where his grandfather works, Charlie discovers a talent and love for basketball. As the rhythmic language mimics the bounce of the ball, Charlie gets his shot at a well-deserved rebound, courageously arcing between vulnerability and healing.
What if you feel invisible inside your family?
Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, by Ashley Herring Blake (Ages 10-15)
Twelve-year-old Ivy was already feeling uncomfortably sandwiched between the demands of her infant twin brothers and the aloofness of her teenage sister, when a tornado tears through her hometown and destroys her house and all its possessions, right down to her prized set of dual-tipped brush pens which she relies on to fill her visual journals. Displaced for the next year with her five family members in a tiny hotel room, all of whom seem too preoccupied by their own stress to notice hers, Ivy struggles to make sense of her own sexuality amidst the social landscape of middle school—mainly, that while her friends are suddenly boy-crazy, she thinks only about the mysterious new girl. Ivy finds a role model in the lesbian inn manager, who assures her that she needn’t rush to pin a label on herself, that life is one long journey towards understanding and embracing our complex individualism.
What if you lose the only family you know?
Hope in the Holler, by Lisa Lewis Tyre (Ages 10-14)
Wavie and her mother may have lived in a trailer park, but their life was rich in love. When the latter dies of cancer at the novel’s opening, Wavie steels herself to the assumption that she’ll never be happy again. Even worse, she is whisked away to her mother’s “backwards” Appalachian hometown by an aunt she never knew she had—and who, it becomes eminently clear, is only interested in Wavie for her late mother’s social security checks. Outside the aunt’s front door, however, Wavie finds a community of diverse, witty, big-hearted people, who belie the poverty that surrounds them and raise the question of whether family can exist where blood ties do not. Even more, Wavie’s charmingly compulsive drive to spread beauty wherever she goes, with her penchant for gardening, inadvertently lands her straight at the center of the town’s oldest mystery—which turns out to hold the key to her salvation.
What if your family betrays you?
Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed (Ages 10-15)
Twelve-year-old Amal’s parents may love her, but their love is powerless in the face of deep-rooted gender bias in rural Pakistan, where girls are treated as currency. When her parents rack up debts with their village’s corrupt landlord, they are forced to repay him by turning over Amal as an indentured servant, now forced to live a prisoner inside his gated mansion. With her position of servitude, Amal doesn’t just lose the company of her cherished family; she loses her chance at continuing her education and fulfilling her dream of becoming a teacher. Inspired in part by Nobel-Peace-Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai’s true-life fight for women’s education in Pakistan, Amal’s story becomes one of resistance, as she devises a daring plan for reclaiming the agency that has been taken from her and from those around her. You have to celebrate a story where the oppressed female protagonist professes in the closing pages, “I knew now that one person could hold many different dreams and see them all come true.”
What if you go looking for your family, the one you think you should have?
Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, by Kate Beasley (Ages 9-12)
This book isn’t new—you can read my post from December 2016—although it is just out in paperback. It also fits perfectly with the theme of familial strife. Gertie, our plucky fifth-grade heroine, is a girl of action in every sense of the word (she resuscitates a bullfrog with a turkey baster in the opening chapter). Unfortunately, her enthusiasm for solving the world’s problems also extends towards the mother who abandoned her when Gertie was just an infant—and whom Gertie is convinced she can “win back,” despite her living in a different city with another family. Suddenly, this isn’t just a fun and funny story about a quirky girl; it’s also a subtle primer for how to handle rejection from those who are supposed to love us—and how this rejection might even lead us to appreciate what has been right in front of our eyes the whole time.
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Review copies provided by Harper Collins (Just Like Jackie), Penguin (The Night Diary, Amal Unbound, Hope in the Holler), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Rebound) and FSG (Gertie’s Leap to Greatness). Ivy Aberdeen published by Little, Brown. 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!
January 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, JP was less interested in listening to me read than he was in reading his own book (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, the sequel to Tim Federle’s fabulous Better Nate Than Ever, which I can at least take credit for introducing to him last fall, on our trip to New York City to catch his first Broadway musical). Emily, however, was game to join me each day on the couch and insisted we read Emily Winfield Martin’s newly-published and ohhhh-so-lovely Snow and Rose (Ages 8-12, slightly younger if reading aloud).
When the winter doldrums threaten to take over, we fantasize about escape. But who needs a tropical beach vacation when you have the mysterious, enchanted, dangerous woods of our imagination? (Um, still me. But that’s a different post.)
It doesn’t happen often that my kids get to a book before I do. But when I opened the box from Random House to reveal Snow and Rose’s stunning black cover, with its raised gold lettering and cloaked girls—one in pale blue and one in red—Emily exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the book we just finished in school!” Say what? (After my shock wore off, I delighted that her teachers have their pulse on contemporary children’s literature.) At once, Emily decided this would be our winter break read. “Are you sure you don’t want to hear something new?” I asked.
“Actually, Mommy, I think this is one of those books that feels even more magical the second time you read it. Plus, I’ll be able to spot all the clues, because I know what’s going to happen.” (She didn’t need to add, And you don’t.)
Across nineteen exquisite chapters and gorgeous full-color illustrations normally reserved for the likes of picture books, Snow and Rose concerns itself with re-telling The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red”: the story of two impoverished, fatherless girls, who live with their mother in a cottage at the edge of an enchanted woods—and whose chance encounters with a giant bear and an unsettling dwarf set their destinies into motion.
In the academic study of children’s literature, much has been made about why fairy tales—dark, twisted, fantastical stories of long ago—get retold and reread with such frequency (apart from the electrifying shivers they send down our spines). One of the best explanations comes from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, which proffers, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”
That is to say, while the settings and dramatic action of fairy tales might be (sometimes ridiculously) far-fetched, the world view they offer our children is not. Rather, these stories put forth a reassuringly familiar account of what it feels like to be young, helpless, even afflicted in a world presided over by adult authority figures, whose motivations are often neither evident nor well-meaning. Remember Hansel and Gretel’s father, manipulated by his new wife to leave his children in the woods to die? Remember the witch, disguised by the sugary treats of her gingerbread house?
And yet, these fairy tales also offer hope: what their young protagonists lack in power, they more than make up for in wit, creativity, kindness, and loyalty. In fact, often through a combination of these qualities, these characters figure out how to step outside the adult shadows, how to tease out light from dark, and how to reverse their own fortunes into a kind of Happy Ending. Bettelheim explains:
The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.
In Snow and Rose, Martin puts the “inner processes” of her heroines on full display, exploring and building on an emotional awareness and growth in the two sisters only hinted at in the original fairy tale. Snow, named for her white hair, is spirited, wild, and impulsive. Rose, with “hair like threads of black silk and cheeks like two red petals,” is rational, determined, and fiercely loyal. And yet, Martin resists setting these personalities in stone. The girls’ temperaments evolve, even bend, at different opportunities, particularly when the other needs her most.
If there is one thing we can count on in fairy tales, it’s that things are rarely as they seem. Martin has expanded on this premise with a story that also resists labels and boxes, which seems to exist in the very grey shadows of the trees through which the girls traverse, seeking answers to questions life has so unwittingly hurled at them.
When we first meet the sisters, they are mourning the life they once knew. Most significantly, they are facing the loss of their beloved father, who wandered into the woods one day and never returned. Because we’re in the language of fairy tales, he did not “die;” he “was taken.” In fact, people have been mysteriously disappearing in these woods for years.
The wondering burned inside [Snow and Rose] but took different shapes because of what they believed: Rose wanted to know why their father had been taken, and Snow wanted to know how to get him back. Their wondering touched the edges of things they could never know, about this place that had changed their fortunes once and would change them again.
If our children ever needed inspiration to confront their fears head on, they need look no further. In order to find answers to their “burning” questions, Snow and Rose venture boldly into the very woods whose mysteries have been their family’s greatest downfall.
Fortunately (by now you might need some reassurance that all is not dark, dreary, and bone-chilling in these 205 pages), Martin populates these enchanted woods with just as many wonderful, wondrous things—many of them unique to her version of the story—as she does the bandits, the howling wolves, the knife-teethed fish, and the trees with watching eyes. Of all the beauty to be found, not the least of which are the seasonal transformations: the woods a silent “palace of ice” after a snowstorm, a “carpet of violets” in the spring.
There’s the “mushroom boy,” Ivo, who lives with his family in an underground house, accessible only by a long chute beneath the roots of a tree, and who becomes a treasured companion to the sisters.
There is the mysterious Library: a small house in a clearing flanked by white flowers, on whose shelves rest, not books, but thousands of boxed and jarred objects, all of them found in the woods and all of them with stories waiting to impart to their borrower, though not in any predictable way.
And there is the larger-than-life bear, a creature feared and suspected by many as the culprit behind the humans’ disappearances—but whom the sisters believe innocent. The girls free the beast’s leg from a huntsman trap, shelter him from winter’s fury in front of their fireplace, and later reap the benefits of their kindness in spades.
While the girls may be right about the bear, they are wrong about the Little Man: the white-bearded, red-pointy-hat-clad fellow, who speaks in riddles and proves immune to the sisters’ kindness. In Little Man lies the story’s duplicitous villain, a cruel and calculating creature, but even here Martin seems to tug at the universality of fairy tales. When asked to identify himself, the Little Man mischievously taunts the girls:
“Sometimes I’m the Dwarf and sometimes I’m the Tomten…Or sometimes the Brownie or Boggart or Gnome…And to some very rude people, I’ve been the Goblin…But these are just names… Many names have I, child. But none have guessed what I am.”
Exactly “what” the Little Man personifies can be debated at length. Evil? Greed? Loneliness? Misunderstanding? Older children might even pick up on how the sisters actually share red and white attributes with the Little Man. Perhaps Martin wishes to suggest that, in the making of our own fate and fortune, we must begin by confronting our own demons.
If I was impressed with how Martin remodels the interior of her fairy tale, I was slayed by her ending, a deeply gratifying departure from the original. In the Brothers Grimm’s telling, the fairy tale ends when the bear turns into a prince and marries one of the sisters. In Martin’s version, there is a different transformation altogether, one much more suited to the hearts’ desire of our heroines. No spoilers here but, ultimately, the story ends with a celebration of familial bonds—particularly those of sisterhood—and the reassuring reminder that our own courage and wit and will to survive in the wild woods are made stronger by the love we have at our backs.
Always, when we return from the woods, we are changed in the best of ways.
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Review copy provided 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!
June 30, 2014 § 4 Comments
JP has decorated his summer journal and is ready to record our adventures (here’s hoping his motivation extends past the first week). Many of these adventures will take us into nature, where there are always metaphors to be discovered about life. Take, for example, our vegetable garden: each morning we wake to budding strawberries, and each evening we return to discover that they have been devoured by the squirrels and cardinals (how dare the latter betray me after I sung their praises right here?!). There’s a lesson somewhere in there about patience and not expecting to get things right the first time. And so we return to bed with renewed hope.
The Dandelion’s Tale (Ages 4-8), a new picture book by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey, offers us another metaphor, this one about the fleeting, cyclical nature of life. This gem of a book takes what can be a heavy subject and delivers it in such a subtle, eloquent, kind, and accessible way, that children won’t realize they’re being taught a Great Lesson. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it stars a dandelion. You’d be hard pressed to find a child that isn’t obsessed with dandelions. A yellow flower that I can pick with no adult getting mad (not to mention wind into chains, tuck behind my ear, or proudly proffer to whatever grown-up happens to be standing near)? A billowy white flower with such delicate seeds that the tiniest puff of breath sends them sailing across the grass? Yes, a child’s love for dandelions runs deep.
In The Dandelion’s Tale, we are privy to a special friendship between a young, vivacious sparrow and an anthropomorphized dandelion near the end of her life, with only ten remaining seedpods on her stem. When the two first meet, the dandelion is in tears: “A short while ago, I was so strong, and the brightest yellow you’ve ever seen. Now I’m white and fuzzy and I’ve lost most of my seedpods. If the wind starts to blow, I’ll lose them all and no one will ever know I was here.” After some trial and error, the pals decide on a course of action for fulfilling the dandelion’s wish to be remembered: the dandelion will dictate her life’s story to Sparrow, who will inscribe it in the mud for all to behold. (A creature after my own heart, Dandelion exclaims, “It would be just like a book!…I was so envious that people have something as marvelous as books.”) Thus follows the book’s loveliest pages, as the dandelion describes her affection for the smell of the meadow after the rain, the sound of laughing children playing, and her conversations with squirrels.
But, of course, life does not always go according to plan. A strong nighttime storm washes away, not only the dandelion’s story in the mud, but also Dandelion herself. Some of you are by now thinking, why would I want to share such a sad story with my child? And, I won’t lie: it was at this point, when the sparrow belts out a song of mourning, that I looked over and saw my son’s eyes fill with tears. And I panicked for a moment. But the story does not end here, and the sparrow soon discovers ten baby dandelions popping up around the very spot that their mother once grew. In the same way that the chapter book, Charlotte’s Web, concludes with Wilbur taking comfort in Charlotte’s children once his beloved spider is gone, so this picture book ends with Sparrow telling an eager audience of bright yellow dandelions the story of their mother (“because Sparrow had written and read the dandelion’s story, he discovered that he knew it by heart”).
As parents, many of us are afraid to talk to our children about loss, preferring to keep them nestled in a cocoon of naivety, believing that it is our principal job to shield them from sadness or worry. Only when tragedy strikes—the loss of a grandparent or a pet, perhaps—do we run to the library and ask for books about grieving. But if we can find ways of introducing the topic of life’s impermanence to our children at an early age, in moments of calm and contentment and with the reassuring gift of our presence, then we will give them the confidence, the understanding, and the peace to embrace life for what it is. The first time we finished this book, JP leaned his head on my shoulder. “That is both a very sad and a very happy story, Mommy, don’t you think?” Indeed, I do.
Another Favorite Nature Story About the Cycle of Life (and a subtle way of introducing loss):
City Dog, Country Frog, by Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth (Ages 4-8)