The Stories We Need to Ask For
April 8, 2021 § 1 Comment
Occasionally, a book comes along that is so extraordinary, I’m daunted at the prospect of reviewing it. I worry I could never do it justice. I wish I could just say, This is hands down the most moving picture book I’ve read so far this year, and I want you to get it without knowing anything about it. Maybe, if you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll do just that. But I will try and find something eloquent to say for the rest of you.
Years ago, my husband helped his grandparents—first generation Italian-Americans—pack up their house to move into a retirement community. In the crawlspace, he uncovered boxes of mementos, all of which his grandmother had at one point tied up using the elastics from her husband’s old underwear. This discovery became one the family would chuckle about for years (Who salvages underwear elastic?!). But it was also a window into the past, a resourcefulness triggered by the Great Depression sixty years earlier, a self-reliance that perhaps belied pain, worry, wanting, loss. Only now does my husband express regret at not probing for the stories underscoring something he accepted as mere frugality.
All of us grow up surrounded by family history, including the cultural heritage this history often represents. Yet, as children, we often take this history for granted. At best, we’re blinded by our own fixation on the present; at worst, we’re embarrassed by the quirks of our elders, by their old-fashioned ways, by their insistence in holding fast to ideas or customs from their past.
Especially where immigrants are concerned, this silencing is further accentuated by the systemic racism underlying American society. Asian Americans, for example, are expected to fulfill the Model Minority Myth, to work hard towards prosperity, while keeping quiet about their struggles, past or present. The recent media attention on the massive spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans—up 1,900% since the start of the pandemic—has begun to open our eyes to an experience far from new, one we should have been talking about ages ago.
In the spirit of lifting up voices of Asian descent—and because this poignant story is at its heart about the value of listening to stories of the past—I urge you to purchase Watercress (Ages 5-9), Andrea Wang’s powerful autobiographical picture book, evocatively illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Jason Chin, who studied traditional Chinese landscape painting to infuse the story with added authenticity. (If Jason Chin doesn’t get his long-overdue Caldecott Medal for this, you will hear me screaming.) Against a backdrop of 1970s rural Ohio, a girl and her brother help their parents, immigrants from China, pick watercress on the side of a ditch to be served that evening. The immediate humiliation of the act later transforms into an opportunity for the girl to connect with her mother’s past life in China—and the grief she still carries in her heart.« Read the rest of this entry »
Long Live the National Parks
April 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
Last summer, we vacationed in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our family’s first foray into one of the major National Parks, and we had gotten the idea six months earlier while watching National Parks Adventure, the astoundingly beautiful and nail-biting IMAX movie (can we talk about those mountain bikers?!), directed by Greg MacGillivray and narrated by Robert Redford. All four of us left the Smithsonian theater feeling like we were missing out. Our regular hikes around our local wetlands preserve—beloved as they are—suddenly didn’t feel like…enough. Turns out we were right. In Acadia, after days of hiking around sparkling lakes and in and out of deliciously fragrant pine forests, of scrambling over vast expanses of rocks flanked by crashing waves, my son exclaimed, “This is what we should do on every vacation! Which National Park should we visit next?”
Next week is our spring break, and we’ll be stay-cationing. But, while our feet will be traversing our neighborhood parks, our imaginations will be taking flight on the adventures in the mountain of spring releases that have recently landed on our doorstep. Of all the new spring titles, probably the one I’ve most anticipated is Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon (Ages 9-13), a staggering and richly informative window into the ecology, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon. « Read the rest of this entry »
Gift Guide 2016 (No. 6): For the Non-Fiction Lover
December 20, 2016 § 1 Comment
Call it Seasonal Affective Disorder; call it the anticipation of school closures (let’s just give up now); call it the fact that it now takes us seven times longer to get out of the house: whatever the reason, as soon as a cold snap hits every year, I want to hibernate. And yet, consider this, my fair-weathered friends: the polar bear—a creature who lives in the coldest corners of the Earth; who eats, walks and sleeps on ice; and who is surrounded by nothing but white and blue all day, every day—does not hibernate.
That someone can love the cold this much—and, in fact, depend on it for its very survival—is just one of the many things that endear us to the polar bear, as evidenced in Jenni Desmond’s extraordinary tribute, The Polar Bear (Ages 6-10), a factually accurate yet poetic picture book with some of the most stunning illustrations I have ever seen (seriously, I’m not sure I can bring myself to shelve this book, its cover is so gorgeous). « Read the rest of this entry »
Two New Blizzard-Worthy Picture Books
January 29, 2015 § 2 Comments
It’s around this time every year that I start noticing how under-exercised my children are. It’s not enough to spend two hours at the park on the occasional balmy weekend afternoon. It’s not even enough to combine that park excursion with regularly scheduled gymnastics and swimming. The pent-up energy, overfilling my children’s little limbs, begins to spill out all over the house. My son follows me through every room, talking at my back in a decibel destined to do physical harm, describing spaceships he intends to build out of LEGOs (please, go do it!) and “whirrrrr”ing and “powwww”ing to indicate how fast and destructive these ships will be. My daughter, normally content to serve her animals tea or push her dolls around in a stroller, is suddenly more interested in staging gymnastics competitions for said animals and dolls—which mostly involves hurling them across the room. It turns out our house is much too small and we need to move immediately.
And then, oh my blessed stars, it snows. Here in Virginia, this week’s Blizzard of 2015 turned out to be the Blizzard That Wasn’t; and yet, we did get a welcome half an inch of snow. Half an inch of snow is actually all it takes for my children to spend hours outside in the backyard: shoveling, piling up ice, making pictures with their footprints, and directing their incessant chatter towards a new audience of fallen sticks.
Still, I can only imagine how much more exercise many of your children have gotten in the past few days, hiking up snow drifts and pulling sleds through waist high snow. As it turns out, I’m not the only one romanticizing your plight. One has only to page through the billowy white tufts in John Rocco’s Blizzard (Ages 4-8) and Deirdre Gill’s Outside (Ages 3-6) to wish Juno had visited those of us in the South with a little more gusto. « Read the rest of this entry »
Learning Alongside Our Children
November 13, 2014 § 11 Comments
At a recent Parents Night, JP’s elementary teacher said something that I haven’t stopped thinking about. We were having a conversation about whether we as parents have a responsibility to teach our children, to reinforce what they are learning at school, to push them in subjects in which they might be struggling. No, she said. “The most important thing you can do for your children,” she said, “is to love life—and to let your children witness and share in that love.”
When we take our children to a museum, she continued, we should take them to the exhibits that we are dying to see; we should read to them from a plaque because we want to find out more information about that painting. If we take them on a nature walk, we should point out leaves or pontificate on seasons—not because we are trying to teach them—but because we want to share with them the very things that are amazing to us in that moment. In other words, we want to inspire our children to learn by letting them see how much fun we’re having doing it. « Read the rest of this entry »
Keeping Cool Under the Sea
July 26, 2013 Comments Off on Keeping Cool Under the Sea
I know, I know, I’ve left you high and dry without reading material for nearly a month (vacation will do that); plus, I neglected to give you a birthday pick for July’s parties. So, in order to make it up to you, I am not only going to recommend a fabulous, brand-spanking-new book that you can give to everyone celebrating a birthday this summer, but I’m going to end with an EXTRA-LONG LIST OF THEMATICALLY SIMILAR BOOKS for you to read to your own kids (heck, you could even bundle some for an extra-special gift, like I did for a friend earlier this month). Are you ready?
Much like reading about snow in the winter, one of my favorite things about summertime reading is the excuse to read books about the sea (it’s no coincidence that I featured an octopus story for last summer’s birthday pick as well). Whether you’re spending time on the beach or simply looking for a mental escape from the heat, summer is the perfect time to introduce children to underwater worlds: landscapes so different from ours that they have their own inhabitants and laws, their own colors and sounds, their own unique set of experiences and problems. And yet, much of the best sea-themed fiction immerses kids in these foreign worlds while at the same time drawing parallels between their own emotional lives and the lives of the fishy dwellers within.
Trust me, you will want to dive straight into the pages of Divya Srinivasan’s Octopus Alone (Ages 3-6), where a bright orange octopus is set against an enticing palette of turquoise, seafoam green, and bright pink. I first fell in love with Srinivasan’s unique stylized graphics in Little Owl’s Night (reviewed here). Now, in the much longer Octopus Alone, we are treated to a more involved plot alongside her vivid art. I can’t say that Srinivasan’s narrative voice is as strong or coherent as her illustrations; and yet, the story’s theme—venturing outside one’s comfort level and finding the reward of new friendships—resonated loudly with both my kids. Any child who has felt overwhelmed walking into a preschool classroom or has stood on the periphery watching older kids at the playground will see a little of herself in the bashful octopus, who is so uncomfortable around the outgoing seahorses that she initially retreats from the coral reef into the deeper, darker, lonelier waters. Any child who often stands silently amidst others (but doesn’t shut up at home) will see a little of herself in the octopus, who imitates the dancing moves of the seahorses in private before allowing herself to see how much fun it might be to dance with others.
Like any great sea-themed book, there are countless opportunities for underwater discovery in Octopus Alone. Our family’s favorite would have to be the indisputably charming endpapers, which label (in cursive!) each of the sea creatures that make an appearance in the book (my son is prone to the “puffer fish,” while my daughter’s finger goes straight to the “butterfly fish”). My kids giggle every time Octopus releases her ink to “hide her blushing” or to escape the hungry eel, a nice reminder of aquatic adaptation. The book even makes some (albeit subtle) references to the complex ecosystem of coral reefs, like cleaner shrimp eating algae off the back of a nurse shark or baby dominoes playing hide and seek in the “swaying anemones.” (Older kids can build on these with Jason Chin’s equally stunning and richly informative non-fiction picture book, Coral Reefs…sorry, couldn’t wait until the end to plug that one.)
Our oceans and lakes, our sandy tide pools and rocky bluffs, can be a source of endless fascination for our kids. We have the power to channel this fascination into imagination, education, and hopefully even conservation. So go ahead: dip their toes in the water and start reading.
Other Favorite Under-the-Sea Stories (from youngest to oldest ages):
Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef, by Marianne Berkes & Jeanette Canyon (Ages 1-3; board book)
I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean! by Kevin Sherry (Ages 1-4)
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6; ONE OF MY ALL TIME FAVS)
The Pout Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen & Daniel X. Hanna (Ages 3-6; best read in the style of the blues!)
Swimmy, by Leo Lionni (Ages 3-6)
Big Al, by Andrew Clements & Yoshi (Ages 4-7)
If You Want to See a Whale, by Julie Fogliano & Erin Stead (Ages 4-7; also brand new)
Kermit the Hermit, by Bill Peet (Ages 4-8)
Jangles: A Fish Story, by David Shannon (Ages 4-8)
Some Favorite Sea-Themed Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Voyage of Turtle Rex, by Kurt Cyrus (Ages 4-8)
Coral Reefs, by Jason Chin (Ages 5-10)
Island: A Story of the Galapagos, by Jason Chin (Ages 6-12)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, by Jennifer Berne (Ages 5-10)
Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas, by Molly Bang (Ages 6-12)