Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

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!

 

 

Gift Guide 2018: Hanukkah in Good Company

December 1, 2018 § 5 Comments

For the next few weeks (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Our family doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, and I’m by no means an authority on Jewish children’s literature (I recommend this excellent source). That said, I could be considered something of an authority on Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, published in the 1950s and featuring a Jewish immigrant family with five daughters living in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. As a child, I could not get enough of these books. As a parent, I listened to all of them in the car with my kids and…yup, just as wonderful.

If you heard a squeal echoing across the universe over Thanksgiving break, it was because I wandered into Books of Wonder in New York and discovered there is a now a picture book based on Taylor’s classic chapter books. Written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (both of whom will forever have my heart because of these), All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah (Ages 3-7) does the seemingly impossible: it perfectly channels the old-fashioned warmth of the original books, then adds visuals so fitting, they may well have been there all along. It’s like going to see the movie of a favorite book and having it match exactly what’s in your head.

The five sisters—Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie—range in age from twelve to four; and no finer example of sibling affection will you find. But, because reading about perfect children is supremely dull, the gift of Taylor’s original books has always lain in the not-so-perfect moments, the times when the girls grow grumpy and irritable and don’t want to be models of helpfulness and patience. All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah is filled with just such moments, from Henny giving Gertie the side eye on the cover, to Gertie’s full-fledged temper tantrum halfway through the story.

It’s the first night of Hanukkah, and Gertie is tired of her older sisters prattling on about all the things that will happen when Papa gets home: lighting the menorah, saying the blessings in Hebrew, etc. As if she doesn’t know! She may be the youngest, but she knows about latkes, thank you very much (she just doesn’t remember how they taste). Even more, Gertie is tired of her sisters and mother keeping her from helping prepare holiday feasts. Why must the potato peeler always be too sharp for her?

We can hardly blame Gertie for feeling left out of such collaboration and festivity. Plus, the taste and smells evoked are every bit as mouth-watering as they are in the original books, from the “salty” chicken to the “sweet” applesauce to the “crispy” potatoes.

When Gertie explodes, her mother takes her by the hand lovingly but firmly and leads her upstairs for a time out. Gertie (I swear, I’ve no idea what kind of girl would do this) decides she will hide under a bed. She’ll show them. “They will miss her when they can’t find her./ Mama will be sorry she didn’t let Gertie help.” To heck with the singing and laughing going on downstairs. She is going to stay. under. the. bed. forever. (I swear, I have no idea what kind of girl would do this.)

Fans of Sydney Taylor know that, while Mama plays the disciplinarian, Papa has just the touch to mend the hurt. It’s Papa who finally entices Gertie out from under the bed with a handkerchief of gingersnaps. Papa who finds for Gertie, not just any job, but the most important job of all: “Tell me. Are you old enough to light the menorah this year?”

For those who celebrate Hanukkah, this is an easy purchase. And for those who don’t (our family especially appreciated the thorough Afterward, complete with index and the story of Hanukkah), this is still a resonant story about a family whose love for one another outshines any bumps along the way.

 

Book published by Schwartz & Wade. 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!

What to Listen to With Your Kids (Audio Book Roundup)

September 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.

So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.

Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes.

For those yet to expose their kids to audio books, let me offer a thought. Oftentimes, what my children enjoy most—and what tends to be easiest for them to follow (after all, the road can be distracting)—is listening to books they have already read (or have listened to me read). Speaking from personal experience, kids forget much of what they’ve heard in the past, and they listen with the fresh ears of whichever emotional milestone they’re encountering right now. In other words, great books are great each and every time they’re read.

One last thing before we begin: it so happens that this list is almost exclusively classics—or, at least, most are published over forty years ago. Trust me when I say that we listened to plenty of contemporary selections this past year. It’s just that the ones below rose to the top, both in content and in performance, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. There’s something about these books that, even the first time we hear them, feels like old friends.

Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery, Howliday Inn, The Celery Strikes at Midnight, Nighty Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, and Bunnicula Strikes Again! written by James Howe, read by Victor Garber (Ages 8-12)

Vampire bunnies, mysterious night happenings, and haunted hotels—all with a healthy dose of misunderstanding and mayhem? A better series for October you won’t find. The only reason we didn’t keep going with the series after the first six (!) books is because Broadway actor Victor Garber stopped reading them. At that point, we were so invested, so enamored, so used to laughing our heads off at the banter—there’s Harold, the pragmatic middle-aged canine narrator; Chester, the hyper-paranoid cat (Woody Allen’s “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after me” comes to mind); and Howie, the gullible sidekick puppy—that the new reader’s voices felt ALL WRONG, and we all three started yelling, “Turn it off! Turn it off!”

All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, and More All-of-a-Kind Family, written by Sydney Taylor, read by Suzanne Toren (Ages 6-12)

At one point last year, my son turned to me and said, “Mommy, you are getting really good at making food that I like.” I realize this was (probably?) intended as a compliment and not a backhanded nod at my servitude, but I still thought my children might benefit from listening to stories about families for whom everyday life is about making ends meet, sharing workloads, and prioritizing family togetherness. There is perhaps no sweeter cure for entitlement than Sydney Taylor’s classic about a Jewish-American immigrant family (think five daughters with another on the way), living in turn-of-the-century New York City. These are stories about penny-pinching, but they’re also stories about growing up in a time when being tall enough to reach the letterbox was a thrill worth savoring, when a single lost library book could lead to weeks of hard work and sisterly collaboration. As a bonus, my kids got a primer on Jewish traditions and holidays, and Toren’s rendition of the father’s Yiddish accent is pretty awesome.

Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones (Ages 6-12)

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s loosely autobiographical stories have inspired some of the best hours I’ve spent with my children this year—and not just listening to them, but discussing them. I had read the first five books to my children years ago and they loved them then, but what we lose in Garth Williams’ warm pencil sketches is more than made up for with the addition of real fiddle music, which opens and closes chapters and which Pa delights in sharing with his girls. Cherry Jones is a masterful reader, quiet and understated, conjuring up young Laura’s wide eyes as much as Pa’s seasoned chuckling ones, and enfolding us in her storytelling like we were all snuggled up under a warm quilt. We are now seven books in and gearing up to finish with Laura’s “grown-up” years in These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years.

HOLD UP, people. I need to say two things to the nay-sayers (among them, my husband, who playfully teases us, “So what happened in the book today? Did they paint the house and sit around for four hours watching it dry?”). For those who think the Little House books are boringly old-fashioned or (horror) just for girls, I offer up my nine year son as proof: no one gets in the car faster to listen to the next installment than him—not even his younger sister, who talks about Laura, Mary, and Carrie as if they were her own siblings. Pioneer life is fraught with hardship and ruin at every turn, be it blizzards or bears or fire or swarming grasshoppers. It’s the very essence of grit.

For those who think the Little House books are racist: you’re right. The treatment of Native Americans, while realistic for the period in which the stories are set, is grossly stereotypical, often uncomfortable, and certainly—as with many classics—demanding of discussion and supplemental reading (I strongly suggest the historically accurate Kaya series by American Girl, about a Nez Perce girl living in the 1700s).

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, performed by Anne Hathaway (Ages 6-12)

This recording alone might be enough to justify an Audible subscription (Audible likes to put out exclusive recordings by Hollywood celebs). Before listening to Anne Hathaway perform L. Frank Baum’s original text—more lighthearted, humorous, and fabulously weird than the Judy Garland movie, with a vast and ever-changing cast of characters—I would not have thought it possible for one person to create so many unique voices. How Hathaway manages to do just that, then seamlessly bounce back and forth between them all, I’ll never know, but I guess that’s why she gets paid the Big Bucks. Here’s another case where we had read the book together as a family a few years ago, but it was like falling in love all over again.

The Witches, written by Roald Dahl, performed by Miranda Richardson (Ages 8-12)

While we’re on the subject of witches (and celebrities), let’s talk about my favorite Roald Dahl book from when I was a child (yup, here I go, telling you once again to share Roald Dahl with your children). True, this one is not for the faint of heart, being about real witches lurking under the disguise of regular-looking people, but the breathless terror with which I turned its pages as a child no doubt contributed to my love of reading today. How then could I resist a performance by Miranda Richardson, whose voice for the Grand High Witch will come dangerously close to blowing out your car speakers, at the same time that her soft, matter-of-fact delivery of the protagonist’s Grandmamma will make you wish you had a Norwegian grandmother of your own? As with all Dahl’s stories, the cleverness of a hapless young child outsmarts the lot of them.

(Whatever you do, don’t let your kids listen to Roald Dahl’s The Twits. It’s a liability. I simply cannot endorse it. I mean, you would be setting a bad example—your children might laugh at such disgusting, despicable behavior. Heck, they might even start making up their own stories about beards that never get washed or gluing furniture to the ceiling. Ok, fine, I can see some of you are going to do it anyway. Just don’t say you did it on my advice.)

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien, read by Barbara Caruso (Ages 8-12)

Of all the stories listed here, this is the most complex: a fantastical tale of a group of escaped, highly intelligent lab rats, who build a high-tech civilization under a stretch of farmland, and an ordinary field mouse, who discovers their secret on her quest to save her children. But it might also be the most intellectually rewarding. It won the Newberry Medal in 1971, and it was another favorite of mine as a child (I remember thinking Mrs. Frisby was the bravest mother in the world). What I didn’t remember are the fascinating ethical questions raised by the novel. What is intelligence? What if every species could learn to read? What is community? How should we treat one another—and at what expense?

Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan, written AND read by E.B. White (Ages 5-12)

I’ve already alluded to the joy of listening to these stories in a previous post, so I’ll just leave it at this: if you ever have the chance to listen to E.B. White read his own prose, seize it with open ears.

Boredom can be good, certainly it is necessary, but it doesn’t have to happen in the car. I promise my next list will include more contemporary reads, but in the meantime, happy back-to-school season and happy listening.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com (Audible) 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!

What’s Old is New Again

January 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintockIn what increasingly feels like the Age of Excess, one of my greatest parenting rushes has become the Art of Purging. Quick, toss the stacks of paint-splotched easel paper while the kids are still at school! Drag missing-pieced toys to the curb as the garbage truck rounds the corner! Bag up old PJs, hats, and shoes for Goodwill! I look around my newly streamlined rooms and closets and feel a brief, momentary thrill. In a matter of weeks, it will feel like I need to purge again.

While we’re busy tossing out, our children are busy holding on. “Wait! I want to save my (broken) balance bike for my own children!” my son laments. “Can we put my old dresses in my memory box?” asks my daughter.

It recently dawned on me that, if left to their own devices, children make marvelous recyclers. This past fall, on a Sunday morning, while my husband was overseas for work (read: far, far away), I lay in bed burning up with a fever and cursing the Murphy’s Law of Motherhood, whereby moms only fall prey to The Plague when we’re on our own with no one around to help. I drifted in and out of sleep and didn’t realize until it was approaching lunchtime that my children had been awake and downstairs for hours. My son poked his head in: “Hi, Mommy. It’s OK, you don’t need to come down. I just wanted to let you know that we have been playing with the recycling.”

At some point, I made my way downstairs and discovered these two Cardboard Box Robots, made exclusively from the overflowing contents of our recycling bin:

Cardboard Box Robots

These creations, of my children’s own doing, had bewitched them into an entire morning of collaborative work and play. Maybe it was the fever talking; maybe not. All I know is that I was witnessing a RECYCLING MIRACLE. (Remember this post about the magic of cardboard boxes?)

It got me thinking about how much my children love Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock’s My Grandfather’s Coat (Ages 3-7), which was published last year, but which is loosely based on the age-old Yiddish folksong, “I Had a Little Overcoat.” This reworked tale, about a young Eastern European immigrant, who arrives on Ellis Island with “little more than nothing at all” (literally, the contents of two small bags), couldn’t feel further removed from my children’s own reality. And yet, the story’s underlying message of reuse—of turning the old into the new—rings true to something innate, something universal inside them.

Aylesworth, with his love of a catchy refrain, and McClintock, with her signature pen-and-ink, deliciously old-fashioned watercolors, have collaborated on many fairytales and folktales over the years. One might say that they are experts at breathing new life into old treasures (see my lengthy list of favorites at the end). My Grandfather’s Coat, which is narrated by the main character’s adult granddaughter, as she reads to her own son, spans the major milestones in her grandfather’s life, including coming to America, finding work as a tailor, getting married, having a child, opening his own shop, and welcoming his grandchild (i.e. her).

The unifying thread is a handsome navy blue coat, which, in preparation for his wedding day, the grandfather “snipped, and he clipped, and he stitched, and he sewed.”

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

My grandfather loved the coat, and he wore it, and he wore it.
And little bit by little bit,
he frayed it, and he tore it,
until at last…
…he wore it out!

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

So did “my grandfather” toss it in a box for Goodwill and move on? Of course not! He put his tailoring skills to use, and out of the “still-good cloth,” fashioned a “smart jacket”…then later a “snazzy vest”…a “stylish tie” (which he wears to walk his daughter down the aisle)…and, finally, a little stuffed mouse for his great-grandson.

While the text is concerned almost exclusively with the transformation of the grandfather’s coat, McClintock’s illustrations paint a much richer portrait of the man himself. From the pictures, we learn as much about the grandfather’s day-to-day life (feeding chickens, playing baseball, celebrating Hanukkah, holding his granddaughter’s hands as she takes tentative steps), as we do about his major milestones. On every page, we catch glimpses of his playfulness, his mindfulness, his work ethic, and his tenderness—as well as his evident pride in the life he has created for himself and his family.

"My Grandfather's Coat" by Jim Aylesworth & Barbara McClintock

Trust me. This is a man you want to know. (Much like another inspiring immigrant story that I discussed here.)

Not many children’s books star grown-ups as main characters; nor do many boast story lines about the adult aging process. At first glance, some might assume this book wouldn’t hold appeal for young children. But you’d have only to drop by our house, during one of the many times I’m asked to read this book, to understand otherwise. My children’s pointer fingers are constantly employed as we read. They show me: “See how his hair is getting greyer? See how long her hair is now? See how the curtains are much fancier here?” They may know the story inside and out; and yet, each time we read it, they relish new discoveries.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to squash our children’s natural resourcefulness with our own zeal for purging. Perhaps, as my New Year’s Resolution, I will take a second (or a third or a fourth) look at what’s old and consider how it might be made new again. At the very least, let us never toss aside our memories: the stories of our past and the past of the generations that have paved the way for us.

(But did I mention that the Box Robots are now sitting in our basement blocking my path to the washing machine?)

Other Favorites Illustrated (in some cases also written) by the Lovely Barbara McClintock:
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, by Jim Aylesworth, illus. Barbara McClintock (Ages 3-7)
The Mitten, by Jim Aylesworth, illus. Barbara McClintock (Ages 3-7)
Where’s Mommy? by Beverly Donofrio, illus. Barbara McClintock
Adele and Simon, by Barbara McClintock (Ages 4-8)
Adele and Simon in America, by Barbara McClintock (Ages 4-8)
Animal Fables from Aesop, adapted & illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Out of print but SO worth getting if you can: The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle, The Tale of Tricky Fox, Dahlia, Molly and the Magic Wishbone…we read my beloved copies ALL THE TIME. So good.

Review copy provided by Scholastic. 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!

Learning From History’s Many Heroes (Summer School Starts Now!)

May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Brave GirlJust 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.”

Look closely and you'll see stitches around the painting of Clara giving her famous speech in Yiddish that started the largest walkout of women workers (many of them just girls!) in US history.

Look closely and you’ll see the stitches around the painting of Clara giving her famous speech in Yiddish, a speech which started the largest walkout of women workers (many of them just girls!) in US history.

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!

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