December 20, 2018 § Leave a 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!
April 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color.
At the same time that my mom was smiling at these women’s parasols, I couldn’t stop thinking, These women all look miserable. Their faces looked contorted, if not bored to tears, as they sat with half-completed stitchery in their hands, or perched in the shadow of a towering top-hatted male figure. A few of these women looked directly out of the painting. I felt their eyes on me, a silent, desperate plea. Let me out of here!
No doubt I have been influenced by the rebellious heroine in the award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Ages 10-14), the first in a two-book series which I’ve been reading to my daughter (we are partway through the equally delicious second, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate). These novels, written by Jacqueline Kelly, embody everything I look for in a read-aloud book: they’re a (hefty) step above my daughter’s independent reading level; the exceptional writing is packed with challenging, expansive vocabulary; and they carry the potential to deepen my child’s own understanding of her place in the world—in this case, her place against the historical, complicated backdrop of girls coming of age in America.
Like the paintings at the Met exhibit, the books are set at the turn of the century, only instead of France, the backdrop is the Texas countryside. The star is a twelve-year-old only daughter of an aristocratic family, whose father runs the town’s cotton gin. Calpurnia Virginia Tate—or Callie Vee, as she’s affectionately known to family and friends—is rapidly approaching the age where she is expected to come out in society as a debutante; in preparation, her mother encourages her to practice diligently for piano recitals and perfect embroidery worthy of entry into county fairs. While she might be able to capture armadillos and wrestle in the dirt like her six (!) brothers for now, the clock is ticking. Her place will soon be in the home, her attention exclusively on crafting meal plans, raising babies, and managing servants.
But Calpurnia is a restless, inquisitive, sharp-witted soul, whose very purpose, it seems to her, is to question the expectations society has placed so squarely on her small shoulders. She’s okay at piano, but she’s downright terrible at handwork (…“the long striped scarf that I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit”); and her early attempts at making an apple pie had my daughter in stitches. The thought of a life filled exclusively with domestic pursuits feels to Callie like nothing less than a “life sentence”: “I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.”
And don’t get her started on the subject of romance. Callie cringes when three of her little brothers become smitten with her best friend, falling over themselves to carry her books on the walk to school; and she’s even more horrified when her eldest and favorite bother, Harry, begins to blush easily and bring potential (rather vapid) suitors home for dinner. Callie’s take on advances from the opposite sex? “…[I]f any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.”
What Calpurnia discovers she enjoys and excels at most—indeed, what she sneaks off to do at every chance—is something foreign, if not forbidden, to the female sex in her day. That is, investigative science. At the encouragement of her eccentric, reputably cantankerous grandfather, who since his days as a Confederate general has squirreled himself away in the family’s back shed, cataloging flora and fauna found in the nearby river and brush and fermenting pecans in an attempt to create whiskey, Calpurnia becomes an apprentice of natural science.
Armed with a net and a red leather pocket notebook, in which Grandfather encourages her to write her many observations and questions about the natural world, Calpurnia is empowered. She throws herself into the challenge of making sense of Grandfather’s copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book she initially tries and fails to find at her local library, coming of age at a time when the theory of evolution was largely dismissed in Southern culture. (Excerpts from On the Origin of Species and later from The Voyage of the Beagle open each chapter; older readers will enjoy deciphering why certain passages were picked for certain chapters). Indeed, the great suspense of the first book is whether the Smithsonian’s National History Museum in Washington, DC will accept her and Grandfather’s submission of a “vetch” cutting, a flowering plant found in the marshes near their house, and credit them with a newly-discovered species.
To be sure, Calpurnia’s “unladylike” adventures—dodging an angry badger, rescuing the Thanksgiving turkeys from certain doom, and convincing the local photographer to let a plant sit for a portrait—make for much more entertaining reading than a story about readying oneself for domestic pursuits. But our enjoyment of these books isn’t just about the dirt under Callie’s fingernails or the ways she chooses to occupy her time. We are given a window into the emotional world of a girl who is at once confused about why she doesn’t see models of professional, independent women around her (beyond her teachers and the new switchboard operator for the town’s only telephone) and ecstatic at being treated as a collaborative scientist—as an equal—by a grandfather who previously didn’t know her name. The author isn’t afraid to let us see Callie flounder, her confidence soar and then plummet, her questioning nature turn as much on herself as on her beloved flora and fauna. In Calpurnia, we have a crusader, a determined breaker of molds, but we also have an immensely vulnerable and relatable young soul.
“Calpurnia’s world is so interesting, don’t you think, Mommy?” my daughter said one Saturday morning, as she crawled into bed with me and opened the book for me to read. My Emily has long been fascinated by what she calls old-fashioned life, and she references series like Betsy-Tacy and Little House on the Prairie long after we finish them. Indeed, in Calpurnia’s world, there is much that feels foreign compared with modern day, from the skeptical discussions surrounding the first automobile in nearby Austin, to Calpurnia’s horror when her mother ties her ringlets in lumpy wet rags the night before a piano recital (“I smelled like brimstone and looked like a casualty from the War”). And just what exactly is in that bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for Women, which her mother drinks from each time she has a “nervous headache?”
But I think what fascinates Emily most about Calpurnia’s world is the narrow definition of a woman’s place, here an upper-class white Southern woman. It’s hard for our children to imagine this, growing up at a time when girls can become almost anything they want (even if, ahem, they still don’t get equal pay). This, of course, is why Calpurnia is such a compelling heroine. Callie’s magnetism stems from her defiance in the face of these limitations. She doesn’t set out to defy—indeed, her defiance causes her no shortage of discomfort and confusion. She inadvertently defies her parents and, in turn, society by the simple but rebellious act of indulging her own interests, of questioning and engaging with the world around her, instead of sitting idly by. Callie’s enthusiasm for the natural world is contagious. We want nothing more than to join her in the untamed wilderness.
Where Calpurnia’s journey will lead her by the end of the second book—what compromises she’ll undoubtedly have to make—I cannot yet say. But I know that Emily and I will be routing for her with every turn of the page. One thing is for sure: she doesn’t need us to rescue her from some Impressionist painting.
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Book published by Henry Holt & Company. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments
Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”
To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”
But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.
#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.
Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.
When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)
Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:
Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.
Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty). Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).
In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.
Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.
Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)
Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite revelation, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.
Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.
If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.
#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.
As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).
Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.
Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”
(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)
For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.
I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.
It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.
When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.
Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).
Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.
And that brings me to my last point.
#1: Reading aloud slows down time.
How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.
And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.
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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 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
I don’t know how the rest of you are planning to get through a hot and steamy summer, but I am counting on a lot of time at the craft table. Especially good news for today’s parents is that we don’t have to live next door to an art museum to teach our kids about the great artists and artistic movements of the past. Last June, I kicked off a “summer school” series with a post about some of my favorite picture book biographies for elementary-aged children, a rich and growing subset of children’s literature. Nowhere is the picture book format better utilized than in biographies of famous artists. These aren’t the books of our past, which reproduce notable paintings aside dry critical analysis; rather, they are true and entertaining stories about formative artists who, beginning as children, overcame struggles, searched for inspiration, and broke down conventional barriers to define their unique artistic styles. As your child sits before a blank piece of paper, wouldn’t you love for him or her to channel the stories of Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Henri Rousseau, and Vasily Kandinsky? (See my list of favorite books at the end.)
The latest of these gems, Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Ages 6-12), strikes a particular chord with my family. At almost seven, JP loves to draw and paint, but while his peers are steering more and more towards realistic creations, JP still prefers abstraction. Some might call it scribbling, although to imply that it is rushed or without meaning would be misguided. JP (and now Emily, following in his footsteps) never stops talking—not for one second—while he draws. He narrates the action as it takes shape before him: comets blasting through the sky, submarines bursting into flames, houses pitched airborne towards a burning sun (the theme of explosion is strong with this one). I’m not exactly sure what he is working out on that paper—because there is clearly something cathartic going on—but when he is finished, his entire body is relaxed, his mind at peace.
Enter Vasily Kandinsky, Father of Abstract Art, creator of some of history’s most famous “scribbles.” Children will easily relate to the child Vasya in The Noisy Paint Box, who spent his Russian youth under constant pressure to be polite and disciplined: “He sat stiff and straight at dressed-up dinners while the grown-ups talked and talked, and talked.”
But everything changed the moment his aunt gave him his first paint box (a monumental moment in so many childhoods). Paint unleashed a peculiar sensation within Vasya: he imagined that he heard the colors hiss and sing, and, as he painted, he had the distinct feeling of putting music to canvas. For many years, his parents and teachers condemned his “scribbles,” enrolling him in classes to learn “to draw houses and flowers—just like everyone else.” But Vasya continued to believe that art was about making people—both the artist and the observer—feel things, and that this could take a more abstract form.
Rosenstock’s clear, beautifully worded story is every bit as wonderful as her previous picture books, most notably The Camping Trip That Changed America (another perfect historical selection for summer). In The Noisy Paint Box, though, it’s illustrator Mary Grandpre that truly celebrates the birth of Abstract Art, using acrylic paint and paper collage to contrast the formal world of Russian aristocracy in the 19th century with the freedom and movement of Kandinsky’s personal expression. Grandpre exquisitely blends the singing colors in Vasya’s head with his brushstrokes on canvas. Oftentimes, his “lines and blobs” (Kandinsky’s own words) jump and spill beyond the frame, reminding us that feelings are messy, misshapen things with no clear beginnings or endings. People paint to capture these feelings and to make others feel something, too. Now, if that isn’t poetic license to let your kids loose at the craft table this summer, then I don’t know what is!
Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies of Artists (while these are all great to read at home, they have also been some of my favorite acquisitions for our school’s library!):
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, by Michelle Markel & Amanda Hall (Ages 5-10)
Henri’s Scissors, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-9)
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse, by Marjorie Blain Parker & Holly Berry (Ages 5-10)
Through Georgia’s Eyes, by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez & Julie Paschkis (Ages 5-9)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant & Melissa Sweet (Ages 6-12)
Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, by Tanya Lee Stone & Boris Kulikov (Ages 6-12)
Action Jackson, by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, & Robert Andrew Parker (Ages 6-12)
Frida, by Jonah Winter (Ages 6-12)
Meeting Cezanne, by Michael Morpurgo & Francois Place (Ages 6-12)
June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)
I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).
I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.
Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”
I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)
Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.
Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)
May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
Just because the school year ends shortly doesn’t mean that our children’s minds have to shrivel up like apples left out too long in the sun. Last week, I gave some ideas for great read-aloud novels to share with your kids. Now, I’m going to encourage you to add some non-fiction into the mix—specifically, historical biographies posing as picture books. In previous posts about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve hailed the rise of today’s picture book biographies, which (unlike the static, black-and-white books of our school days) read like interesting, action-packed stories accompanied by vibrant paintings and intriguing designs. But I’m not merely talking about the Most Obvious Historical Figures; there are lesser known but equally captivating true stories of ordinary boys and girls, men and women, who shaped the world with extraordinary acts of courage, defiance, or creativity.
Where picture book biographies are concerned, contemporary illustrator Melissa Sweet has been on a roll, creating the art for several of my favorite non-fiction books in recent years. Although these biographies are written by different authors, they are unified by Sweet’s signature style—at once instantly recognizable but also entirely unexpected for the historical genre. In place of photographic-like paintings in somber tones, Sweet uses fun colors, whimsical patterns, and collage elements specific to the person whose story she is bringing to life. In Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Ages 7-12), Sweet peppers her background collages with excerpts from Williams’ poems, opening up kids’ eyes to these words and thoughts as an art form unto itself. In Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Ages 5-8), an account of the first person to capture a wild panda in China and bring it to an American zoo for study, Sweet creates frames for her watercolors out of authentic Chinese decorative papers, lending an other-wordly, almost mystical charm to this already fascinating story.
One of Sweet’s most recent triumphs is even more captivating for its portrayal not of an adult but of a young girl. Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Ages 6-10) tells the mind-boggling story of a Jewish immigrant girl, forced to endure long hours, harsh treatment, and poor pay, while sewing alongside hundreds of other girls in factories (her family’s only hope of putting food on the table.) Clara Lemlich’s “got grit,” and she “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong”; ultimately, she leads the largest walkout of women workers in American history, inspiring thousands of male and female workers across the country to strike for better working conditions and the right to organize unions.
Brave Girl, like most picture book biographies, demands to be discussed with your child—and it’s in these memorable discussions that the real learning begins. For starters, there are words that need to be defined, words like “walkout,” “union,” “garment,” and “shatterproof” (referring to Clara’s spirit). Then there’s Clara’s day-to-day life, which sent my almost six year old into a complete tailspin. “Wait, are you sure this is a real story?” he kept repeating, as I showed him the bird’s eye illustration of row-upon-row of hundreds of ant-sized heads bent over sewing machines; or read to him about the “two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share”; or got to the part about how an exhausted Clara would spend her nights in the library instead of sleeping because “she wants to read, she wants to learn!” (I don’t think JP had ever considered a scenario where a child would not be allowed to go to school.)
JP and his Montessori classmates are big into sewing right now, so he was especially intrigued once I pointed out that the bright paintings are often set against bolts of solid fabrics, frayed pieces of cloth, and decorative ribbons—some sewn with tight perfect stitches and others with uneven zig-zagging lines. In fact, after we finished the story, JP proceeded to go back through the entire book, running his finger along every line of stitches (“And is that REAL BLOOD?” he exclaimed, where two dots of red light up a piece of blue cloth next to some text that explains the repercussions for sewers who accidentally pricked their fingers).
But the best part of discussing picture book biographies with your kids (apart from feeling like you are pretty much the most inspiring parent ever) is getting at the emotional undercurrents of the story—in the case of Brave Girl, themes of justice, leadership, sacrifice, and bravery. As JP gets older, he and I will have more evolved conversations about these first three things; at the present, he was mainly fixated on the concept of bravery. Children tend to associate bravery with physical risks and triumphs, like learning to swim or taking off training wheels; and by this definition, JP knows he is a pretty tentative kid (totally unaffected by the four year olds riding their two-wheelers in circles around him). So, I welcome the opportunity to talk about courage in a different light. The book ends: “…warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.” When I finished reading, JP asked me, “How do you think Clara got so brave?”
“I think everyone has bravery inside of them and it’s just a question of letting it out,” I ventured.
“I guess I’m saving it up,” he replied.
“Actually,” I told him, “I watch you do brave things every day, like how you walked up to those older kids today and started talking to them. And you know what else? I think that every time someone uses up some of their bravery, some new bravery immediately comes in to fill that space—so you never run out.”
There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, “I’d like to look at those stitches again.”
Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies Illustrated by Melissa Sweet:
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written & illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, by Alicia Potter, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jen Bryant (Ages 7-12)
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 8-14)—OK, not really a biography but a great work of non-fiction nonetheless!