December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.
Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.
Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.
While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.
There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.
And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.
Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”
I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.
Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.
I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.
AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).
Review copy by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”
“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”
Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”
There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.
“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.”
Cue eye roll from big brother, and a big smile from me. You see, while my youngest has always been a free spirit (“Your daughter lives in a world of her own,” my own mother is fond of saying), she has never had much patience for magic wands or fairy godmothers, for Tinker Bell or Cinderella’s mice. “I do not like fairies,” she is fond of telling me, though I am equally fond of reminding her that, while she may always trade in fairy wings for dinosaur costumes, she has also loved listening to me read The Night Fairy, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, and Snow and Rose. Her fondness for Disneyworld’s rides aside, Emily seems to object to a gendered, princess-y, commercialized depiction of magic. What she actually loves is the idea that—upon close, quiet, intimate examination—the natural world might be found to be tinged with the supernatural.
In his final line of his final children’s book, The Minpins, Roald Dahl wrote:
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
Our job as parents might be to teach our children to brush their own teeth and pack their own *$%! lunches, but it is also to nurture the believer in them. If we accomplish nothing but that our children choose to see magic in the world, I think we can rightfully throw ourselves a party.
It is likely no coincidence that this backseat exchange between my kids took place on the heels of finishing two chapter books with my daughter. Perhaps if her older brother had been on the receiving end of Granted (Ages 8-11), by John David Anderson, and Bob (Ages 7-10), co-written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, he would not have been surprised by Emily’s newly-pronounced world view. The two storylines couldn’t be more different; and yet, in overlaying a touch of the fantastical onto real, everyday life, the books beg their readers to look more closely at the world around them, to question whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.
Granted opens with a question—“The last time you blew out your birthday candles, what did you wish for?”—and then, across 322 spell-binding pages, proceeds to give us a “backstage pass” as to what actually happens when we humans offer up a silent wish into the universe, be it by birthday candle or fallen eyelash or shooting star. If our wish subsequently comes true, it could be coincidence. Or it could be the daring, painstaking, high-stakes work of a fairy—work so essential, the feydom’s very existence depends on it.
Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy, with hair “as cobalt blue as the flower she was born from.” She lives, as all North American Fairies do, in the Haven, a mostly secreted place teeming with tree-top houses and bowing to its own complex set of laws, orders, and ceremonies. From their earliest age, fairies are assigned a guild to which they dedicate their lives. In Ophelia’s case—owing to her speed, her meticulousness, and her generally type A personality—she has the most coveted job: she’s a certified field agent, otherwise known as a Granter, which means she will be called upon to move surreptitiously among humans on a mission to grant a particular wish. Each day, a lottery in the Haven decides which of the millions of human wishes from the past 24 hours will be granted. Unfortunately, the Haven’s supply of magic has been rapidly dwindling over the years, owing to fewer and fewer human believers.
On the morning the story opens, there is only enough magic to grant a shocking twelve wishes. The good news is that Ophelia is assigned to one of the wishes, a chance to put her training into action at last. The wish is for a new bicycle, made by an Ohio girl named Kasarah Quinn, whose previous bike was stolen.
Protocol requires that, in order for a wish to come true, the Grantor has to retrieve the wished-upon object—in this case, a nickel tossed into a fountain—before she (or he, because male fairies are just as prevalent, including Ophelia’s pink-haired BFF) sprinkles on the precious 100% pure fairy dust and utters the magic words. Ophelia has twelve hours (“tocks,” in fey speak) to complete her mission and get back to the Haven. She is not, under any circumstance, to become distracted by anything she sees or hears (beyond the supersonic ringing of the wished-upon object), or emotionally invested in any of the creatures she encounters.
When you are a pint-sized creature with delicate fairy wings, journeying hundreds of miles without being seen or crushed can present unlimited challenges (planes! trucks! automatic sliding doors!)—even when armed with a thermal flight suit, camouflage spray, and various miniaturized weapons cooked up by a team of Builders, Makers, and Alchemists. Even more, attempting to chase down a coin, which seems to change hands more quickly than we can say Ophelia’s full name, means that Ophelia becomes an unwitting pawn in several humans’ lives (and one adorably hapless dog’s). As Ophelia quickly discovers, the wealth of printed information about the human world, which she has poured over for years in the Haven’s Archives, doesn’t scratch the surface. As it turns out, humans (and dogs) have a unique knack for getting others to care for them. And where there is caring, there are complications.
Granted proved the perfect antidote for my fairy-skeptical daughter. In nearly every chapter, author Anderson manages to build up to a breathless cliff-hanger specific to Ophelia’s mission, while simultaneously disclosing fascinating new details about the inner-workings of the feyworld at large. Much like J.K. Rowling’s richly textured Hogwarts, it seems there is nothing that Anderson hasn’t considered. Several times while I was reading the book, I thought, “But wait…,” only to have this suspected hole filled by a subsequent chapter. (The book addresses, for example, what happens if someone were to wish for world peace…or for something criminal.)
Ironically, it is precisely her perfectly-ordered world that Ophelia begins to rebel against. By decree of fairy law, wish fulfillment must be arbitrary; and yet, aren’t some wishes more important than others? What are the consequences for valuing one person’s life over another? What should the role of magic be? And what if we’ve been doing something the same way for so long that we’ve forgotten how to question it? Ironically, it’s Ophelia’s passionate rebellion that might just be the key to rekindling the believer in all of us.
In Bob, a chapter book my daughter and I finished in two days (being both short and deliciously addictive), there may not be any wish-granting fairies, but there is a mysterious green creature wearing a clumsily-fashioned chicken suit, whose destiny turns out to be directly linked to the wish of an entire community. When ten-year-old Livy finds this creature, who calls himself Bob, in her bedroom closet at her Australian grandmother’s farmhouse, she doesn’t remember him from the last time she visited that distant continent, five years earlier. In fact, she doesn’t remember many specifics about her last visit. Bob, however, has spent the past five years shut up in a closet thinking of little else but Livy, wondering when she was going return and doing his best to stay entertained with only a LEGO pirate ship and a dictionary. (Pause. I always thought it was just me who found the name Bob amusing to pronounce when I was a child—the way it kind of blurts out of the mouth—until I caught my daughter giggling and repeating it the first few times I read it. Or maybe it’s genetic? No offense to any Bobs out there reading this.)
Who and what is this adorably eccentric Bob creature? Where did he come from, and where if not the closet is he supposed to be? Bob and Livy are equally puzzled. Bob initially worries he might be a zombie, but Livy quickly puts an end to that with the help of the dictionary. When Livy determines that no one else seems able to see or hear Bob, she questions whether he might be an imaginary friend from her younger years; and yet, how can an imaginary friend eat actual potato chips? Through chapters that alternate between Livy’s and Bob’s perspective, we begin to piece together a picture, not only of the individual backgrounds and personalities, but why their friendship was once so important to both of them—and why it still is.
Livy is a quiet, perceptive child, caught in that sticky gap between little kid and big kid. She’s too old to play with dolls—or is she? She’s too old to be nervous about her mother leaving her for two weeks with her grandmother—or is she? She’s too old to remember how Bob first came to live in her closet—or is she? Even the format of the book echoes this duality, with short chapters and the occasional sepia-toned illustration (beautifully rendered by Nicholas Gannon), exactly halfway between an early chapter book and a middle-grade novel.
Certainly, Livy is old enough to sense the sadness, worry, and helplessness in the adults around her, all of whom are struggling to support farms in the midst of a severe years-long drought. She feels equally powerless to help—that is, until the neighbor’s son goes missing. When Livy and Bob journey deep into the woods to search for the boy, they not only find him, they also discover that Bob is a clue to the drought plaguing the land. It’s a journey that no adult would understand or believe, but it’s a journey that reminds us readers that the natural world is rich with intrigue, with hidden currents, with a tinge of the supernatural. Whether Bob is real or a figment of Livy’s imagination may always be open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: occasionally, in life, there may not be a logical explanation for the amazing things we witness.
This summer, I invite you: choose a world with magic for your children. Grant some wishes. And maybe not just for them. I know a lot of adults who could use a little bit of magic right about now.
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Books published by Walden Pond Press (Harper Collins) and Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), respectively. Review copies purchased by me! 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!
July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.
I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.
(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)
In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)
In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.
If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.
A bit of the magic had followed us home.
In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.
The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.
One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).
“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.
In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.
Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.
“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.
It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.
What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.
The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.
DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.
Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.
Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.
Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice
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Review copy by Viking, PenguinYoungReaders Group. 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!
May 18, 2017 § 6 Comments
It is often with trepidation that I watch my daughter prepare to work on a picture or a card. She sets out her paper, her drawing instrument of choice, and animatedly explains her Vision to anyone in the vicinity. “I’m going to draw a bird for my teacher,” she says, “because she loves birds.” I smile, but I try not to look too eager…or too stressed…or too anything. I try to look neutral. I attempt to recede into the kitchen—or, better yet, disappear into the basement to throw in a load of laundry—because I know from experience what likely lies ahead.
There are several minutes of happy humming, her preferred background music while she works. Followed by a sudden, guttural, downright masculine “UHHHHHGGGGGGHHHHHHH!” Followed by the sounds of said drawing instrument being thrown across the room. Followed by great, gasping sobs. “It doesn’t look like a bird at all! Its beak is terrible! It’s THE WORST BEAK IN THE WORLD! I hate this bird! I hate it!” Followed by the sound of paper crumpling, fists slamming, and stomping feet coming to find me. “Why did you tell me to make a bird? Don’t you know I am the WORST DRAWER OF BIRDS?!” (Ummm, I never said…)
My six and a half year old is rarely ruffled. She goes with the flow, handles curve balls with ease, and loves trying new things.
But she cannot handle mistakes. Mistakes are her Sworn Enemy. Never mind that they often derive from some subjective and unrealistic notion of perfectionism. They feel paralyzing to her. They are a giant Road Block which she cannot see past.
Because I read the Internet, I know it is my job to help my daughter embrace mistakes. Mistakes mean you are learning! Mistakes mean you are taking chances! Mommy and Daddy make mistakes all the time! So I’m supposed to say. And I do say. And her teachers say. And even her brother says. But anyone can see Emily doesn’t buy these platitudes. Not for a second. Because she doesn’t know the answer to the question she’s too afraid to ask: What do I do when I make a mistake?
And then debut author-illustrator Corinna Luyken’s exquisite The Book of Mistakes (Ages 5-99) came into our lives. I cannot stress enough the poetic power of this book. Just two pages in, and I knew—I knew deep down in that primal mothering part of my being—that this was the answer my Emily had been waiting for. An answer that’s light on the telling, heavy on the showing, and even bigger on the interacting.
“Picture books are a primer for how to be a human.” So was the powerful opening statement of a panel which I recently attended at the formidable Politics & Prose bookshop in Washington DC. Among the diverse children’s authors and illustrators gathered to discuss the theme of “journeys” in their picture books was Corinna Luyken herself. Luyken followed up this intro to say that, in conceiving The Book of Mistakes, she wanted to encourage children to find their own voice, to stop caring so much about what others want them to be. “The biggest mistake we can make is trying to be anything other than ourselves,” she said.
If picture books are to teach us how to be a human, including how to discover and embrace our unique way of doing things, then they must show us that mistakes are a natural part of this process. Even better, that the messiest, ill-conceived mistakes can sometimes be transformed into the most surprising, heartening rewards. (Could the “incorrectness” of a bird’s beak on paper be the beginning of something beautifully unusual?)
What The Book of Mistakes does so convincingly is to demonstrate that mistakes need not always be the endings they appear to be. Rather, mistakes can be beginnings. They can be springboards. The world doesn’t have to grind to a halt, the pages don’t have to be torn up, each time we make a mistake. If we open ourselves to the possibility of re-imagining, mistakes might take us to places even better than where we thought we were heading.
Luyken’s book begins and ends with a tremendous amount of white space and very sparse text, a combination which begs the child reader to pay close attention to the black line drawings which build exquisitely from page to page. (Luyken explained during the panel that her art is inspired by the greats of Gorey, Lear, and Sendak.)
Opposite the story’s opening words, “It started,” is a partial line drawing of a face—much like a child herself would do. In this face, only one eye has so far been drawn. Turning the page reveals the second half of the sentence, “with one mistake,” as it does the addition of a second eye. What is the mistake? It didn’t take long for my children to point out that the second eye has been dawn larger than the first.
On the next page, things get more problematic, as often is the case when we try a hasty correction. “Making the other eye even bigger was another mistake.” The artist has presumably tried to match the size of the first eye to the second eye and ended up with two eyes even more grossly asymmetrical. My children were by now totally captivated: their adamant sense of symmetry making them as uncomfortable with the distorted eyes as the off-page artist herself appears to be.
When we turn the page a third time, we begin to witness the magic which happens when an artist takes back creative control. “But the glasses—they were a good idea.” The artist has added a pair of wide-rimmed, seafoam-colored glasses around the eyes, intentionally detracting from their oddness.
With each turn of the page, new mistakes give way to new ideas. An extra-long neck and anatomically-challenged elbows are obscured with an Elizabethean-style collar some elbow patches. The awkward space between the girl’s feet and the ground suddenly makes sense with the addition of roller skates. Ink smears become feathers. Stray pencil marks become strings for brilliant yellow balloons, which our roller skater suddenly holds up with great purpose. Bit by bit, a story line begins to unfold.
New characters emerge. My children’s favorite is a girl with one leg (mistakenly) drawn longer than the other. No cause for alarm. Perhaps this girl is born to climb trees, our narrator imagines. (“An extra-long leg would be a really helpful thing for climbing trees,” my daughter said. “Or maybe her leg only stretches when she climbs trees—like a kind of super power?” my son offered. They have totally drunk the Koolaid by now.)
Luyken plays with perspective from page to page, as if teasing us readers to guess at what the cumulative result will be. What happens when all of the artist’s mistakes come together in a single scene? It turns out there’s no predicting the magical realism which transpires—this, of course, is the whole point—and the climactic, nearly wordless spreads mean we can gaze for hours and still devise new interpretations.
Then there’s the ending, dramatically paced across three pages, as much a metaphor as it is a literal question. “Do you see/ how with each mistake/ she is becoming?” the book asks about our roller-skating, balloon-beckoning girl, who races to join a celebratory gathering of other imperfect beings under the canopy of a large tree. And, of course, I broke out in tears, because truer words have never been spoken about my own daughter. About all of our children. About all of us.
Thank you, Corinna Luyken, for giving me a new way to talk to my children about this crazy, messy, beautiful thing called life—and their uniquely crazy, mess, beautiful “becoming” in the midst of it?
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Book published by Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
January 12, 2017 § 4 Comments
Back when my children were nearing three and six years old, I started a family tradition which might be considered creatively brilliant or utterly insane. You can be the judge. This was during a time when my daughter liked to pretend she was a dog during mealtimes, bowing her chin to her food and licking her plate. I can’t remember what my son was doing across the table, because I’ve evidently blocked it out. What I do know is that no pontification on the importance of table manners seemed to make a speck of difference.
And so, one evening, I announced to my children (and my skeptical husband) that, once per season, we were going to have Bad Manners Dinner, whereupon everyone at the table could eat with wild abandon.
The only catch was that, during all the other days of the year, they had to show appropriate table manners.
From that day forward, every transgression at the table was met with “Save that for Bad Manners Dinner!” or “I think that belongs at Bad Manners Dinner!” IT WAS LIKE YIELDING A MAGIC WAND: the respective horror would disappear as quickly as it had surfaced. The children even began policing themselves, in anticipation of what quickly became a beloved, hilarious, and admittedly bizarre family ritual. Four times a year, during Bad Manners Dinner, we would slurp, burp, and gurgle; we would eat with our feet on the table; we would get up and dance around just because we could. We would drum our forks and knives; we would pretend to snore with our head on our arm; we would whine and complain and insult every morsel on our plate.
Over the years, perhaps as the novelty has worn off and laziness has set in—or maybe because my kids’ manners are now mostly passable, at least by American standards—we remember less frequently to plan Bad Manners Dinner. Today, we are going on almost a year without it. (This may or may not be owing to my husband tearing off his shirt and beating his chest during the last one; there are certain things we cannot un-see—and this also goes for the woman who was walking her dog by our dining room window that day.)
But it occurs to me that this deviation from Standard Parenting Procedure was exactly what our family needed at the time—and probably what it needs a whole lot more often than I can muster up the creativity. It is perhaps the closest I have come to dishing up a “cure” in the likes of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Betty MacDonald’s literary heroine from the 1950s, who dotes lovingly on the children in her small town, while simultaneously administering magical solutions to their bad habits and ill-manners. Your child has a chronic case of Bath Avoidance? Not to worry: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle will give you a packet of radish seeds which, when sprinkled on your child’s dirt-encrusted skin at night, will begin sprouting plants in the morning. In a matter of days, regular bath time will be welcomed with open arms.
A few years ago on a road trip, we listened to every single one of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, read by Karen White. I was perfectly content to stop after the first one (the episodic chapters quickly feel derivative, say nothing of the 1950s gender stereotypes, where Dad puffs cigars while reading the evening paper and Mom frantically preps dinner while placing desperate phone calls to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle). But I was passionately out-voted. The kids were obsessed. They’d strain forward in their seats to hear every word and then throw their heads back in laughter. It turns out they were as charmed by this magical woman—who lives in an Upside-Down House with her eccentric pets and a backyard of buried treasure—as were the children who swallowed her potions and befell the most outlandish (but always effective) consequences.
So I knew we were going to hit gold when I heard that children’s author Ann M. Martin (yup, the same Ann M. Martin I just wrote about) had teamed up with Annie Parnell, MacDonald’s great-granddaughter, to launch a modern-day series starring Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s youthful great niece, Missy Piggle-Wiggle. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the chapter series is illustrated by comics-master Ben Hatke, who can do no wrong in our family’s eyes—and who has endowed his sketches of Missy with much of the same effervescent generosity as Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.
Missy is, like her great aunt, versed in magic formulas. She is also happy to take up temporary residence in the Upside-Down House, after receiving a beseeching letter from Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who has mysteriously departed to search for her missing pirate husband. Missy’s mission is two-fold: she must care for Wag the dog, Lightfoot the cat, Lester the (exceedingly polite) pig, Penelope the parrot, and the temperamental house (which has a mind of its own)—while also answering stressed-out calls from parents who are losing battles with entitlement, sibling rivalry, junk food, talking back, or dinners that never end.
The first book in the new series, Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), was indeed a raging success in our household when I debuted it during Winter Break. (We haven’t laughed that hard since Nanny Piggins, and we’re all very disappointed that we have to wait until next fall for Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Won’t-Walk-the-Dog Cure.)
Contrary to what the title suggests, the first book is ripe with many different behavioral malaises and their cures. After an admittedly somewhat slow start, the new book also maintains the episodic chapter format—each chapter focusing on one child—only this time with refreshing connectivity among the characters, including a budding love interest between Missy and the town’s bachelor bibliophile. (My only wish is that the authors had spun more diversity into this predominantly white small town.)
At the center of Missy’s challenges in the first book is the Freeforall family (you’re going to love the names in this book), including nine-year-old Petulance (who suffers from greediness), her twin sister Honoriah (a premier Know It All), their younger brother Frankfort (whose default response is “Whatever”), and their workaholic parents, Mr. and Mrs. Freeforall, who seem more interested in their lap tops than their children.
But there is also little Melody, who moves in just down the street from the Upside-Down House and suffers from extreme shyness. There’s Heavenly Earwig (seriously, you can’t beat these names), a dear sweet child who is, alas, late to everything. And there’s the previously-health-conscious Linden Pettigrew, whose grating new habit of smacking his giant wads of bubblegum can be heard across town. And that’s just a start.
To Missy’s credit—and I might do well to take a page from her book—she is rarely alarmed by such behaviors, nor does she allow them to cloud her vision of the goodness she believes lies at the heart of every child. Missy’s willingness to bake cookies for any child that shows up at her doorstep makes her a friend and accomplice to all.
Naturally, the reader’s plainest delights come from witnessing Missy’s most fantastical cures. Missy bestows on Heavenly a watch that emits a piercing alarm which only she can hear—the cacophonous compilation of every smoke detector, church gong, and iphone ring in the world–each time she is about to utter “just one more minute” to her waiting parents and teachers.
After Missy slips a powder into Petulance’s glass of milk, whatever object she grabs at or attempts to hoard immediately shrinks to the size of a pea.
Hands down my kids’ favorite antidote: the giant globe-like gum ball that Missy gives Linden, which goes from tasting of apple cinnamon and raspberry one moment to anchovy and dirty sponge the next. (We had some serious family conversations about what “dirty sponge” would taste like. Bleh.)
The quieter delights of the book come from the least outlandish cures—indeed, those involving no magic at all. Missy’s play dates in her backyard, where children bond over digging holes in search of pirate treasure, become the impetus that shy Melody needs to start speaking to others.
And my personal favorite? Well, let’s just say there was not a dry eye in the house during the scene where Missy facilitates a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Freeforall and their children, after the parents overhear the kids say to Missy, “I don’t think they care about us. We aren’t as important as their work.” (As Missy proclaims earlier to her great aunt’s pig, “If only grown-ups were as easy to cure as children.”) All is well that ends well, but sob, that may have hit a little too close to home.
As the New Year begins, my kids may still be hooting over Frankfort, who winds up temporarily trapped in a giant floating bubble after saying “whatever” one too many times, but I am resolving to take inspiration from Missy Piggle-Wiggle. I am resolving to suppress the urge to lecture or threaten or yell (or escape into Facebook) and instead to bring some much-needed levity back into my parenting. I am resolving to listen with compassion, to try the unexpected, and to laugh at ourselves, even if it means standing on our heads while eating spaghetti with our fingers at our next Bad Manners Dinner (is this even possible?). Join me if you dare.
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Book published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 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!
March 12, 2015 § 6 Comments
“Mommy, I like you during the day. But I really love you at night when you read to me.” My son, six years old at the time and still feeling the high of the previous evening’s story time, uttered these words last summer at breakfast. (Yes, it was the Best Breakfast Ever; and no, our mealtimes are not normally this sweet).
JP’s comment came at a time when we were halfway through devouring George Selden’s seven chapter books about a cricket named Chester and his friends, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. For years, I had been singing the praises to parents of the 1960 novel, The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud), as a perfect read-aloud chapter book for those eager to follow longer, more complex stories—but not yet in possession of the reading ability to get there themselves. It can be tricky among contemporary literature to find poignant, beautifully written stories that don’t come at the expense of innocent, age-appropriate content. For this age group, The Cricket in Time’s Square stands alongside other wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web (let’s face it: Charlotte’s death—that of a spider at the end of her life—is about as heavy as many people want when reading to their six or seven year old.).
But for all the times I’ve heralded The Cricket in Times Square, it wasn’t until JP read the back of our hardback copy that I realized Selden had written SIX FOLLOW-UP BOOKS. And it wasn’t until I got my hands on the rest of the series, that I discovered his writing gets even better, his stories get even more captivating, and his cast of characters gets even more endearing. I implore you: PLEASE DO NOT SPEND ANOTHER MOMENT WITHOUT THESE BOOKS IN YOUR CHILDREN’S LIVES. I can’t wait to start all over again in two years, when Emily is six and JP will benefit from hearing the stories a second time, even more attuned to the nuances of plot, the sophisticated vocabulary, and the timeless themes. These are books that will make your children fall in love with reading (and also, apparently, with you).
Among the fast-paced adventures, science fiction, and snarky school-based humor, which dominate the literary offerings for this age, George Selden’s books are comparatively quiet. They are about the everyday happenings, some ordinary and some extraordinary, in the lives of a handful of animals. They are stories that are packed with heart, that beg to be read with different voices, and that are filled with some of the most beautiful descriptive passages ever to grace young people’s literature.
The first—the original Cricket in Times Square—introduces us to this cast of lovable characters. By a fluke accident, Chester the cricket is uprooted from his pastoral life in Connecticut and taken in by an unlikely duo: a scrappy cat and a trash-hoarding mouse, who live together in the opening of an abandoned drain pipe in the Times Square subway station of New York City. As much fun as Chester has in the Big Apple—adventures spanning China Town, an education in Opera, and a home-cooked scheme to help a human family who has fallen on hard times—Chester eventually returns to his beloved Connecticut, thereby setting the stage for the story’s sequel.
In Tucker’s Countryside, Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat pay a visit to Chester and are called upon to save Chester’s idyllic meadow—where he lives alongside an entertaining cast of eccentric animals—from the intrusion of urbanization. And save the meadow they do, drawing on ingenuity and grit in equal measure. The books that follow (listed in order at the end of this post) alternate between Chester’s life in the country (not without drama: Chester’s stump collapses and leaves him to bunk in with a snake, a turtle, and a flock of birds, before finally finding a place of his own); and Tucker and Harry’s life back in the hustle and bustle of New York City (where they attempt, among other things, to raise a rapidly-growing stray puppy in their underground drainpipe).
The subject of home—of what makes a home and of the lengths to which one will and should go to protect one’s home—is at the crux of every one of these books. As your child snuggles under the cover listening to you read aloud, he or she is no doubt relishing firsthand the comfort of a home that’s safe, secure, and filled with love. Selden draws upon our children’s strong sense of home and invites them to empathize with those lost and found. In one of Selden’s countless descriptive passages, which so brilliantly showcase for our children the sublime power of language (this from Chester Cricket’s New Home):
You always will know it. It may be a mansion on a grand avenue. Or a little bit of shivering nest, where a hummingbird can relax at last. A two-family house—or a two-owl barn. An apartment above a busy street. Or a niche for an insect—just a cell in the bark, and so tiny the tree doesn’t know it has guests—but oh, how it overlooks life, teeming there in the grass! Whatever the nook, niche, or hole may be, the creature that lives there—owl, mouse, or man—will instantly know it: like your fur or your feathers or your own close skin, a home feels only like itself.
The Cricket books fall into that captivating genre of magical realism. They portray animals who talk and argue and feel human-like emotions—but are heard and understood only by other animals. At least in a child’s mind, these animals aren’t necessarily doing anything beyond the realm of possibility (just because we humans can’t understand what two animals are saying doesn’t mean they aren’t having a philosophical debate, right?). Case in point: JP has asked several times if we can stop by Times Square during our next trip to NYC to see if we can spot the drainpipe where Tucker Mouse lives with his “Life Savings” of coins and buttons and other scraps dropped by humans and rescued by mouse.
Similarly, when JP learned that his Dad was going on a business trip to Connecticut, he nearly stopped dead in his tracks. “Can you keep your eyes open for the Meadow—you know, to see if it’s real? It has a collapsed stump and a pond and lots of trees.” And when my husband later reported that he took the train past not one but many meadows, JP’s response was that of any believer: “You see, Mommy, it could be real, it really could be!”
Our children’s naiveté may fade with age, but their memory of what it feels like to be nestled beside us, in the presence of such great literature, will not.
The Complete List of the Cricket Chapter Books (in the order they were written), by George Selden, illustrated in black and white by Garth Williams:
The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)
Tucker’s Countryside (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)
Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud; sadly out of print so you’ll have to check your library or look for a used copy, as I did!)
Chester Cricket’s New Home (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud; also out of print—see above)
The Old Meadow (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud; also out of print—see above)
Chester Cricket’s Pigeon Ride* (Ages 8-10; younger if reading aloud)
Harry Kitten and Tucker Mouse* (Ages 8-10; younger if reading aloud)
*These two don’t follow the time sequence of the others and can be read independently or at any time in the series.
There are also two spin-off “early readers” by Thea Feldman, illustrated in color, which are a great accompaniment to this reading experience, targeted as they are to the reading level of a 5-7 year old. Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse: Starring Harry, Beetle Band, and Harry to the Rescue!.
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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!