What Our Heart Needs, Today and Everyday

January 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I drove down to the river to watch the sun rise. I hadn’t been able to sleep, my heart bruised from the words of a loved one the night before. As an adult, I have found the holidays to be such an intermingling of joy and sadness: a time of excitement and celebration, but also a time when the losses in my life assert themselves and leave me vulnerable.

I stood alone in the brisk-but-not-intolerable air, at the same spot along the Potomac where my son had taken me this past summer. A place he had picnicked with his sailing camp. A place he told me, while we were walking there, had “a bench perfect for you to sit on.” I wanted a place where I would feel love.

I felt that memory of love, but I also felt new love in the here and now around me. I didn’t lay eyes on another soul, but I was aware of life all around me. There were headlights from cars driving across the bridge. I witnessed the pink illumination of the Ferris Wheel across the river in Maryland. I watched as plane after plane descended over the Potomac, and my heart swelled to think of the people who had been flying all night, just to be with their loved ones for the holidays. I stood alone at the edge of the water, and I watched the sky come to life in a beautiful and reflective rendering of orange and yellow and blue. It did so without making a sound, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and I felt like I was witnessing at once something uniquely personal and universally commonplace. I felt infinitely small in the most comforting of ways.

Since discovering this poem by the late Mary Oliver last week, I think it sums things up perfectly:

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

And so, I got back into my car and drove home to begin the 48 hours of Christmas Cheer.

Weeks later, after I read Corinna Luyken’s poetic new picture book, My Heart (Ages 5-10), I realized I had never told my children about my Christmas Eve sunrise. I had never spoken aloud the sadness I had felt. (Why should I? It had nothing to do with them.) How often do we edit our own thoughts or reactions so we can paint a brighter, sunnier picture for our children? This may be the greatest offering of My Heart: it presents an opportunity to talk with our children about the stormy greys, the lackluster greys, the muddy, murky greys.

Indeed, the book is a provocative dance of grey and yellow, of dark and light.

My Heart was born out of a poem Luyken wrote years ago. (Luyken has been quite the darling of my blog, beginning with her first book, The Book of Mistakes, and continuing with her illustrations for My Favorite Picture Book of 2018.) But while the poem’s words stayed more or less constant, the accompanying artwork bent and swayed and morphed over several years until it struck the right note. (If you like to geek out—that’s me!—on the process of picture book creation, read this fascinating interview with Luyken.) With its scratchy, smudgy look, the end result reminds me of the work of the late John Birmingham—a legend in the picture book world—who often evoked a similar “unfinished” look in his art, almost as if inviting us to insert our own selves and lives into his pictures. Luyken strikes a similarly intimate but universal tone here, while producing some of the most exquisite spreads I’ve encountered in a picture book.

My Heart is a musing on the way our heart feels at different times, “My heart is a window,/ my heart is a slide./ My heart can be closed/ or opened up wide.” Readers will be quick to notice the myriad of ways, much like in Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, that Luyken nestles heart-shaped silhouettes into her illustrations. Inspired by her own love of collecting heart-shaped objects in the natural world, like rocks and shells, Luyken not only draws our attention to the omnipresence of this particular shape in the everyday, but also to the constant, comforting presence our own heart exerts, even as we experience tumultuous feelings.

The next few spreads of My Heart dip into these messier moments. Still talking about our heart (and never reaching for the platitudes): “Some days it’s a puddle./ Some days it’s a stain./ Some days it is cloudy/ and heavy with rain.” The rainy spread is one of only three where Luyken doesn’t use yellow to complement the grey. These are times when the darkness threatens to engulf, to block out the light. And yet, Luyken reminds us, even when facing down the darkness, our heart is with us, glimpsed here in the overlapping shapes of the black clouds.

But, like the sunrise each morning, the darkness is eventually eclipsed by light. With the next spread, Luyken slowly brings back the yellow—at first just a tiny heart-shaped bud in the ground, over which a child is bent (the same image as the book’s cover). “Some days it is tiny,/ but tiny can grow…/and grow…/and grow.” Another page turn reveals heart-shaped bursts of yellow radiating from a tree.

This pattern repeats twice more, as Luyken calls our attention to times in which our heart feels, for example, like “a fence between me and the world,” versus the reaffirming times when we invite others to help mend our hearts, or when we embrace our heart as a source of “light” and “guid[ance].”

My Heart can and will be read by children on many levels. It will reward multiple readings with deeper insights. But, regardless of where children are in their own lives, I expect they will not miss the vulnerability in these pages, a topic not often addressed in children’s picture books. There’s a refreshing rawness here. A reassurance of hope, a nod to the cyclic nature of emotions, but one that doesn’t gloss over or undersell the dark spots. A book which, when taken as a whole, actually balances the greys and yellows fairly equally…even if the yellow-dominant pages are be the ones we want to take with us.

My Heart ends with the empowering message that we are each the bosses of our emotional life. We may not be able to anticipate or control the feelings that come, but we do get to decide whether we want to open our heart to these feelings. Whether we want, in turn, to open ourselves to the possibility of connection. If we choose openness—even at our most vulnerable, even when we think no one is listening—we will never truly be alone. Even in our saddest, messiest moments, we are surrounded by a vast universe of hearts. If we welcome this infinite love, we may well find the soothing we crave. We may even return, once more, to joy.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. 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!

My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)

A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).

When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.

I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:

This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.

Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!

I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.

My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.

The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.

The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.

The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.

A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.

An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?

But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)

Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”

And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”

And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.

Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.

What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.

Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. 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!

Toys as Neurotic as Us

January 20, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Toys Go Out" Series by Emily JenkinsIf my children are playing nicely together (sound the trumpets!), chances are high that they’re in the company of stuffed animals. Once a stuffed animal enters our house and is given a name, it assumes an infallible place in JP and Emily’s communal imagination, albeit in an ever-changing litany of roles, from pet to circus performer. My kids crochet leashes for their animals; they bury them in boxes of peanuts and push them around the house; they string them from ceiling fans. They emerge from their respective bedrooms on weekend mornings, eyes partly open, with half a dozen animals tucked under their arms, ready for action.

Two tigers (Hobbies and Hobbies Jr.), a giant panda in a bellman uniform (Cookie), two doughnuts (Sprinkles and Sprinkles 2), and a monogrammed pillow (named, for whatever nonsensical reason when JP was two, Bag of Worms) are just a few of the soft friends that make frequent appearances in my children’s play. Still, as JP and Emily are quick to remind me, the life of a stuffed animal doesn’t begin and end at the hands of a child. The more exciting question is: what shenanigans do these toys get up to when their children are asleep or away?

Toys coming alive (when no one is looking) is the premise of Emily Jenkins’ hilarious and heartfelt chapter-book trilogy (Ages 7-9, younger if reading aloud), which begins with Toys Go Out, continues with Toy Dance Party, and concludes with Toys Come Home. (The third title is more accurately a “prequel,” although I’d still recommend reading it last, because my kids had a blast hearing the backstory on characters they’d come to love so much.)

The stories are told through the perspective of a small cast of toys, who live with a little girl in a cozy two-story house. The girl, whom the toys affectionately refer to as Honey, plays with her beloved toys as much as she can. She also “knows”—in that instinctual way children do—that the toys move around when she’s at school or on vacation or sleeping. She suspects this is why she sometimes comes upon them in different positions (say, sticking out of a snowdrift) than when she left them.

This is reading aloud at its most seductive.

Case in point: I gave the complete series—in hardcover, because Paul O. Zelinsky’s black-and-white drawings deserve nothing less—to my five year old for Christmas. Emily has been insistently vocal about her jealousy of the time I spend reading with JP after she goes to bed each night. “I want a chapter book that only you and I read!” Jenkins’ series seemed like the perfect answer to this appeal. I assumed my eight year old wouldn’t have too much interest in books whose covers display a stuffed buffalo (named Lumphy), a plush stingray (named StingRay), and a red rubber ball (named—huh?—Plastic).

The most pathetic sight I’ve ever seen might be my eight year old crouching outside his sister’s bedroom door, or wriggling his way under her bed, straining to hear every word of these stories as I read them aloud. After a few days of this, Emily and I decided to put JP out of his misery. We started the series over again in our familiar stance: the five year old on one side of me, the eight year old on the other.

And no wonder. Jenkins’ writing is so delicate, her wit at times so refined, that her stories easily captivate the imagination of the older child as much as the younger one (especially those obsessed, as mine certainly are, with their stuffed toys).

But it’s more than that. These books display some of the best characterization I’ve ever come across in young children’s literature. Jenkins gives her characters such depth of feeling, such clear and multi-faceted personalities, that we feel like we know them as well as we know ourselves. These are characters who harbor the same hopes and fears and questions and neuroses that all of us (I mean, all of our children) do.

There’s Stingray, de facto leader of the group, who thinks she knows everything and pontificates straight out of her backside (“You’re not a grown-up until you’re at least eight…When you’re eight you can drive a limousine…and brush your teeth without being reminded…and you have lots of money to buy all the chocolate you want.”) Over time, we come to recognize that StingRay’s bossiness stems from a deep insecurity of falling out of favor with the little girl. Of becoming unloved.

"Toy Dance Party" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

There’s Lumphy: the innocent, sensitive, prone-to-motion-sickness bison, who prefers to think the best of people and wants only to be noticed in return. Who, again and again, surprises himself by his bravery at the most critical times.

"Toys Go Out" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

There’s bouncy Plastic who, when she’s not having an identity crisis about her name, is at once the most exuberant and levelheaded of the bunch. Her natural curiosity about life and self-taught ability to read makes her a fairly accurate reporter on animals, plants, and weather.

"Toys Go Out" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

Some of my kids’ favorite characters make up the supporting cast. There’s TukTuk the towel, an authority on all things hygiene. There’s Frank the Washing Machine, who lives in the creepy basement and finds a welcome audience for his serenades in the greasy buffalo who frequents his wash cycles. And then there’s the one-eared Sheep, a third generation stuffed animal, whose amassed wisdom about the way the world works often gets lost in his propensity to nod off every few minutes.

Taken as a whole, these three chapter books read like a mini primer on how to navigate relationships. On how to be a child trying to connect with the world. On what to do and what not to do and what to do when you get it wrong.

Have you ever felt jealous? Then you’ll understand why the toys stage a glitter-glue coup on the shiny new Barbies, whom they believe are getting too much of Honey’s attention.

Afraid of the New, the Strange, the Different? When a white rubber shark shows up among Honey’s birthday presents, the toys promptly stuff garbage down its throat in an effort to keep it from eating them (turns out she only wants to start a Paper Chewing Club).

"Toy Dance Party" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

Abandonment issues? Check. Especially when Honey leaves the toys at home during winter vacation, and a day feels like a week feels like a month feels like an eternity. (To add insult to injury, Honey has taken the Barbies with her on vacation—“Those Barbie dolls who say nothing at all!”)

Have you ever made someone feel bad about himself because you were feeling bad about yourself? Have you ever made up something because you were trying to impress someone? Have you ever acted like you didn’t care when deep down you cared so much? All this happens and with great frequency.

But there’s also ample forgiveness, both of each other and of themselves. The toys learn from one another. They constantly have each other’s backs (one chapter is titled “You Can Puke On Me”). And many of the most delightful scenes in the books come when the toys are working together towards a common goal: making a birthday present for Honey; evading a hellacious cat named Pumpkinfacehead; or rescuing StingRay, after she tries to prove that she’s a real fish and nearly drowns in the bathtub (StingRay is humiliated. She almost wishes they hadn’t found her, it is so embarrassing to be a soggy plush sinker fish. And yet, she is very glad they did.)

"Toy Dance Party" by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky

As Honey gets older, the time she spends with her toys will get shorter. And yet, when the trilogy ends, the toys are beginning to realize that their real loyalty lies to each other. Friendships have their ups and downs, but they also make life every bit worth fighting for. Lumphy, StingRay, and Plastic may still have zillions of questions about how the world works, but chances are they’ll be okay if they stick together.

I only hope my children’s stuffed toys find a similar happy ending someday.

But wait! If your kids aren’t old enough for this chapter book series—or even if they are—Emily Jenkins recently wrote a spin-off PICTURE BOOK, titled Toys Meet Snow. It’s every bit as wonderful as the others (albeit much sparser) and has the added benefit of showcasing Paul O. Zelinsky’s illustrations of these beloved characters in full color. After you read it, you’ll understand why my children have been talking about the “tiny ballerinas that are going to dance down from the sky” in this weekend’s approaching blizzard.

toysmeetsnow

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Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Full Mailbox, Full Heart: A Valentine’s Day Post

February 10, 2015 § 13 Comments

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio RuzzierOur weekend was a flurry of Valentine-making, as my children colored, traced, and cut out hearts for the kids in their classes. While my four year old has to make 20 Valentines, one for each person in her class, my seven year old’s class is doing “Secret Valentine,” where each child draws a name at random and then makes and does things for that person over the course of two weeks. Both kids are giddy with pride in their work and excitement over the upcoming celebrations. (It turns out that my daughter cuts at the speed at which she chews, which is to say that next year we need to start this project three months earlier.)

For the past two years, in honor of V-Day, I’ve given you gift suggestions of friendship books: sweet, beautifully illustrated stories, like Lovabye Dragon, Paul Meets Bernadette, and Brimsby’s Hats, where loneliness dissolves in unexpected arrivals and generous acts. This year, I was going to break with this tradition. I was going to suggest a book that’s literally bursting with hearts: red and pink and lots and lots of them. I was going to tell you to wrap up Jo Witek’s In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, not only because delightful rainbow-scribbled hearts explode off every page, but also because it’s the most effective presentation of feelings for children that I’ve EVER read. Alas, this new book has been so popular that the publisher has had to re-print it—and it won’t be available again until after Valentine’s Day (although you should still get it).

"In My Heart: A Book of Feelings" by Jo Witek

So then I thought I’d tell you about A Crankenstein Valentine, which is Samantha Berger and newly-crowned Caldecott winner Dan Santat’s clever and grouchy twist on Valentine’s Day (I’m sure you don’t know anyone who can relate). And which, if you’re intent on a book specific to Valentine’s Day, you should definitely get.

"A Crankenstein Valentine" by Samantha Berger

In the end, though, as I watched my children work for hours on their Valentines, my son scheming about how he was going to sneak his notes into the backpack of his Secret Valentine without being noticed, I came back to the realization that, for children, Valentine’s Day IS about friendship. It’s about celebrating their friends, about making the people around them feel a little more special than usual. It’s about putting in that extra bit of effort. And reaping boundless rewards in return.

So, I’m sorry to say that you’re not getting a break from my tradition of recommending timeless friendship stories this Valentine’s Day. I’m going to suggest a book that came out last fall: a friendship story about a weasel and a bird. A story that makes my heart swell so big when I’m reading it to my kids, that I cannot help but clutch it to my chest when I’m finished. A story that reminds me how the simplest acts of caring can sometimes be the most powerful.

A Letter for Leo (Ages 2-7) is written and illustrated by the Italian-born artist Sergio Ruzzier. Ruzzier has long been one of my favorites, with his endearing knack of blending a kind of quaint old-fashionedness, with contemporary color schemes and unexpected quirkiness. Leo the weasel (or ferret?) is a mailman “of a little old town,” who takes pride in delivering letters and packages to his fellow animals.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

Cheerful, good-natured Leo reminds me of my grandfather who, once retired, used to drive around on Sunday mornings delivering The New York Times to the other American families who neighbored his summer cottage in rural Ontario. My family used to joke that, like Leo, who is invited to take frequent breaks from his route to “play a game of bocce with his friends” or “sit down for a moment to rest and chat,” my grandfather was treated to six different breakfasts over the course of a single morning.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

But there’s a quiet sadness at the heart of this book, as much for what is spoken as what is not. Despite his casual acquaintances, Leo is lonely. All the years that Leo has been delivering mail, he himself has never received a letter.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

One morning, Leo is startled by a little blue bird, who jumps out of a red mailbox. “Who are you?” Leo asks. “Cheep!” the bird responds. “Where do you come from, Cheep?” “Cheep!” the bird responds again. Leo figures the young bird must have gotten separated from his migrating flock. After giving it some thought, he sets the bird atop his hat and carries him home.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

Leo is not a stickler for conversation, so he and the bird settle into a harmonious, if rather silent, coexistence. I too find that there are few words to describe the delight my daughter feels, as she points out the little bed that Leo crafts for the bird, or the difference in size of the bowls and forks with which the two of them eat. “Leo and Cheep are now a little family,” and we all know how good that feels.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

We as readers know where this is going, as the seasons pass and spring brings flocks of birds flying overhead. Leo knows Cheep is strong enough to rejoin his family on their return north, although our heart aches alongside him as he lets his friend go. The fact that we feel so much in such a short, sparsely-worded book is a profound testament to Ruzzier’s immense talent.

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

Leo falls back into the routines of his mail route, but there’s no question that his life has been changed for the better. Sure enough, a few days later, who receives his very first letter, addressed to him and bearing the word “cheep” nine times over?

"A Letter for Leo" by Sergio Ruzzier

The hearts that my children are cutting up and writing their name across—they aren’t just scraps of paper. They’re tangible proof of friendship and sometimes also of love. They say: you aren’t alone. I care. I remembered. I did this for you.

May your Valentine’s celebrations be full of buoyant scribbles, jagged corners, and crackly paste.

—-

Review copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 6): For the Future World Leader

December 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Bethany Hegedus & Arun Gandhi & Evan TurkI have been waiting all year to tell you about this book. Then, last week, terrorists stormed a school in Pakistan and savagely butchered innocent children. My heart broke as I watched the news coverage; and suddenly, I didn’t want to wait a second longer to discuss this special book. Let’s all hold hands and agree to share this book with our children early and often. Please.

Amidst its powerful message of familial relationships and responsibilities, set against the historical backdrop of one of the greatest leaders our world has ever seen, Grandfather Gandhi (Ages 6-12) is also about the very real, very universal feeling of anger. What the book reminds us is that, however inevitable our anger may be, we always, always have a choice in how we express it.

But let me back up. Let me start by saying that Grandfather Gandhi is not a traditional biography of Mahatma Gandhi (in fact, the book assumes the reader has some basic biographical knowledge—a feat easily accomplished by a parent elaborating as he or she shares this book aloud).

Rather, this picture book is a deeply personal account of Gandhi as an old man—as seen through the eyes of his adolescent grandson. A collaborative effort between American author Bethany Hegedus and Mahatma Gandhi’s fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi, Grandfather Gandhi was first conceived a month after 9/11, when Hegedus attended one of Arun’s speeches in New York City. She listened to him speak about the two years he spent as a boy living with his grandfather at Sevagram, the ashram where Gandhi lived towards the end of his life. From age twelve to fourteen, Arun not only got to know his grandfather, about whom he had only ever heard stories, but he learned one of the greatest lessons of his life.

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus & Evan Turk

Grandfather Gandhi does a masterful job of gently inviting the reader into this difficult time of transition for Arun. For the young boy, coming from his home in South Africa (where his favorite pastime was watching John Wayne movies on TV), life on the dusty ashram could not have felt more foreign. The mushy pumpkin porridge, the 4am call to prayer, the communal labor (from weeding the garden to changing toilet buckets), and the strict daily tutoring in the language of Gujarati all threaten to overwhelm and frustrate him. Arun wants to impress his grandfather, his Bapu, who smells of peanut oil and takes him on walks around the ashram; and yet, Arun finds himself coming up against his own perceived inadequacies (he can’t sit still during meditation; he can’t form proper letters with the tiny pencil stub he has to use). Bapu tells his grandson to have faith and be patient, but his advice initially falls on deaf ears.

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus & Evan Turk

One of Grandfather Gandhi’s greatest strengths is the way in which first-time illustrator Evan Turk allows the reader to experience something as abstract as Arun’s simmering anger. Undoubtedly, an enormous part of this book’s appeal for children—why they will want to listen to this story again and again—lies in Turk’s rich, compelling collages, which combine paint with paper cut-outs and three-dimensional materials chosen to highlight aspects of life on the ashram (like tin foil to represent the tin bowls in which all food was eaten, and plain white cotton gauze for Gandhi’s clothes).

One of the materials Turk invokes throughout the story is yarn, a reference to Gandhi’s passion for his spinning wheel, which he used as a way to quiet and focus his mind. Oftentimes, though, the yarn in Turk’s illustrations is black, tangled, and wiry, spreading out around young Arun’s head as a way to signal his confusion and frustration.

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus & Evan Turk

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus & Evan Turk

We’ve had no shortage of anger in our house this year. It never fails to stun me how my son can be smiling and calm one minute, then exploding with rage the very next: the injustice or shame or hurt spilling messily forth from his clenched fists, his leaky eyes, his accosting voice. These outbursts, however normal or age-appropriate they may be, never fail to push every button inside me, until my own anger and helplessness threaten to consume me as well—and, worse, threaten to wedge resentment into our relationship. It has been a tremendous year of growth for both of us, and we have made great strides. And in many, many instances, I have found myself coming back to this book—and to the climactic moment in which Arun’s own seething anger drives him straight to his grandfather’s hut.

Already anxious and upset by his perceived failure in the eyes of his grandfather at adjusting to life on the ashram, Arun is finally pushed to the breaking point while playing a game of soccer with some of the other children. One of the cousins shoves Arun and steals the ball, inadvertently sending Arun face down into the dirt, blood trickling from his lips. Arun stands up and snatches a rock, screaming, “You did that on purpose!” His cousin tells him to calm down. “But I didn’t want to calm down. I wanted to throw the rock, to hit Suman, like he hit me.”

There is not a living being who cannot relate to this desire for retaliation.

Arun is convinced that his angry reaction in the soccer game only confirms that he doesn’t fit with the peaceful values of his family and the ashram. How could he, a Gandhi, be so easy to anger? Arun drops the rock and runs to find his grandfather, the great Teacher of Peace.

“Do not be ashamed, we all feel anger.”
But that wasn’t possible. Suman and Kanu, maybe, but not Grandfather.
“Even you?” I asked.
“Even me,” said Grandfather.

Gandhi then introduces the boy to the spinning wheel, and as their fingers go to work, Gandhi tells him that anger is like electricity: “Anger can strike, like lightning, and split a living tree in two.”

“Or it can be channeled, transformed. A switch can be flipped, and it can shed light like a lamp…Then anger can illuminate. It can turn the darkness into light…Arun, we can all work to use our anger, instead of letting it use us.”

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus & Evan Turk

Gandhi doesn’t shame his grandson. He doesn’t judge him. He does what we as parents are told to do in today’s parenting books: he validates Arun’s emotions; he helps him understand that what he is feeling is part of being human. But Gandhi also invites the boy to choose—then and forever—between lightning and light, each time he feels the anger rising inside of him.

I was so moved by the way in which Grandfather Gandhi, not only humanizes for our children a great historic leader, but also presents a rich metaphor for how we might handle our own experiences of anger—that I was ecstatic when our local bookstore (Hooray for Books!) offered to bring the book’s co-author, Bethany Hegedus, to my son’s Montessori classroom. (Through this exercise, I’ve learned that Maria Montessori and Gandhi were good buds, which explains why my son is given knitting and crocheting to do in school, whenever he needs a break.)

As we prepare to wind down the year, to welcome the holidays surrounded by loved ones, to stare up at the clear, star-filled night sky and pray for a more peaceful future at home and on the other side of the world, I want to leave you with this picture of my son and his classmates listening, transfixed, as Ms. Hegedus reads from her book. These boys and girls—along with their peers around the world—hold great power in their hands, as do the adults who model for them. We can let our anger consume us, inviting more violence, more tragic crimes against humanity; or we can channel kindness and tolerance and forgiveness. We can choose light. We can choose peace. We can choose a future together.

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Bethany Hegedus

I wish you all a blessed holiday and a peaceful 2015.

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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!

The Human Body (Summer School Continues!)

June 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

You Are StardustSummer is naturally a time for children to sharpen their senses and take notice of their bodies. Running barefoot through the freshly cut grass; relishing the pure silence underwater at the pool; feeling the sweat beads on the back of their necks; hearing the crack of thunder that sends them tearing for the house; stretching out on the earth’s back to gaze at a sky full of stars: this is what summer looks, sounds, and feels like to our children. So why not turn these grass-stained knees into a chance to study the human body? And what if we take these bodily lessons further; what if we create an awareness in our children that their bodies aren’t just little planets unto themselves but are connected to the mysteries of the greater universe?

I have long been puzzled by the lack of children’s books that bridge the scientific and natural worlds, so I was thrilled to discover a little gem published last year, written by Elin Kelsey. You Are Stardust (Ages 4-8) is that rare blend of scientific fact and poetic wonder. Beginning with the premise that “every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born,” the book goes on to draw parallels between humans, animals, the earth, and the universe, from the salt water that flows through our tears like it flows through the ocean to the electricity that powers our thoughts like it powers the lightning in the sky. Every fact and connection is intended to shock and awe (and is backed up by scientific evidence). Did you know that the water we drink today is the same water that the dinosaurs drank? Or that “each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant?” (Both of these questions got an audible response from my son: “Is that seriously true?”) One of my favorite things about sharing books with children is that you can never predict exactly what will rock their world. I would never have supposed that the fact which made the greatest impression upon JP was one having to do with continual renewal—specifically, that “you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten.” When he first heard this, JP threw back his head and roared, “I’m not a snake! Kids don’t shed their skin; that’s ridiculous!” “Not all in one piece like a snake, but in little bits at a time,” I told him, and we went on to discuss things like scrapes, sunburn, and dry skin. For the past week, he has now taken to brushing his hand across his arm 10 times a day, while declaring to his sister that “you can’t see it, but my skin is shedding RIGHT NOW!”

Prior to discovering You Are Stardust, my favorite “metaphysical” book for kids, although on a much simpler, toddler-targeted level, has been Molly Bang’s All of Me: A Book of Thanks (Ages 2-4). With loving, economical text, Bang pays tribute first to a child’s body (“thank you, hands, for gripping and throwing and patting and holding”); then to his senses (“my mouth tastes all my food before it slides down here, into my tummy”); then to his feelings (“today I felt curious, and excited, and angry, and brave…”); and, finally, to the way in which he is part of “this whole wide world…and this whole universe is inside…all of me!”). In a sense, what All of Me starts, You Are Stardust expands on for the older child, grounding wondrous observations about the body-universe connection with scientific data (the book’s afterward also cites a website for those who want to learn more about the science behind the book). Perhaps not just coincidentally, both Bang and Kelsey’s books are illustrated with collage, a fitting medium for a lesson on how we are greater than the sum of our parts. The collages in You Are Stardust, done by Soyeon Kim, are actually dioramas, combining rocks, dried flowers, painted leaves, string, tissue paper, and watercolor cut-outs to create a tactile, three-dimensional effect. The illustrations feel youthful and free-form, and I think my son immediately connected with them as something he could approximate with materials gathered from our backyard. I would love for my children (as the author similarly wishes in her afterward) to cart this book outside all summer long, to read it by flashlight in their tee-pee or while propped up on their elbows in the grass. I would like for them to look at the trees and the birds and the snails and the clouds—and to feel their own heartbeat answering back.

"You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature."

“You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature.”

Other Favorites for a More In-Depth Study of the Human Body (and with a more traditionally fact-based presentation):
The Skeleton Inside You; Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup and Yawn; A Drop of Blood; Hear Your Heart; My Five Senses, all part of the wonderful Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science Series (Ages 4-8)
See Inside Your Body, by Usborne Publishing (Ages 5-10)
First Human Body Encyclopedia, by DK Pubishing (Ages 6-12)
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work, by Steve Jenkins (Ages 6-12)
Picture This! Human Body, by Margaret Hynes (Ages 8-14)

The Best Chapter Books Talk to the Heart

May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little Dog, LostI’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.

But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.

Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.

Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)

*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.

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