Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

If you had told me ten years ago, after my first child was born, that three years later I would quit my job, move across the country, and stay home with by then two young children, I would not have believed a word of it. Not in the least because I loved my job, loved the social outlet of going to work every day, loved having others validate my successes, loved a paycheck, and loved having the childcare that allowed me to do all that and still relish quality time with my little one. Sure, I had days when I felt pulled in way too many directions and fantasized about going off the grid. But I never really expected I’d feel fulfilled any other way. I was, after all, a self-identified feminist. I had minored in women’s studies in college. I always intended to model for my children what it meant to be have a successful, robust career outside the home.

And then, for a host of reasons I never saw coming, I made the choice to stay home. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 3): For the Aspiring Writer

December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa SweetI am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”

So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 2): Three Books for the Linguist (Ages 6-12)

November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.

Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.

"The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus" by Jen Bryant & Melissa SweetJen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page. « Read the rest of this entry »

What This July Needs

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetFor all the reading that we intend to do with our children in the summer, many of the days pass instead in a sweaty haze of shifting feet, slamming doors, and long afternoons at the pool. By the time our little ones are ready for bed, their eyelids (and mine, if I’m being honest) are too heavy to sustain more than a few pages.

For this Reading Deficit Disorder that hits right about July, I have just the prescription, which you will want to dish out to your own family, as well as wrap up for all those summer birthday parties. I’m talking about POETRY! Poems are the answer! Allow me to introduce the delightful and timely-titled anthology, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-11), with poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko and spectacular mixed-media illustrations by Melissa Sweet (yes, I’ll say it again: I adore everything that Sweet puts her hands on). « Read the rest of this entry »

A Master Class in Art History (Without Leaving Your House)

June 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

"The Noisy Paint Box" by Barb Rosenstock & Mary GrandpreI don’t know how the rest of you are planning to get through a hot and steamy summer, but I am counting on a lot of time at the craft table. Especially good news for today’s parents is that we don’t have to live next door to an art museum to teach our kids about the great artists and artistic movements of the past. Last June, I kicked off a “summer school” series with a post about some of my favorite picture book biographies for elementary-aged children, a rich and growing subset of children’s literature. Nowhere is the picture book format better utilized than in biographies of famous artists. These aren’t the books of our past, which reproduce notable paintings aside dry critical analysis; rather, they are true and entertaining stories about formative artists who, beginning as children, overcame struggles, searched for inspiration, and broke down conventional barriers to define their unique artistic styles. As your child sits before a blank piece of paper, wouldn’t you love for him or her to channel the stories of Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Henri Rousseau, and Vasily Kandinsky? (See my list of favorite books at the end.)

The latest of these gems, Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Ages 6-12), strikes a particular chord with my family. At almost seven, JP loves to draw and paint, but while his peers are steering more and more towards realistic creations, JP still prefers abstraction. Some might call it scribbling, although to imply that it is rushed or without meaning would be misguided. JP (and now Emily, following in his footsteps) never stops talking—not for one second—while he draws. He narrates the action as it takes shape before him: comets blasting through the sky, submarines bursting into flames, houses pitched airborne towards a burning sun (the theme of explosion is strong with this one). I’m not exactly sure what he is working out on that paper—because there is clearly something cathartic going on—but when he is finished, his entire body is relaxed, his mind at peace. « Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Hear it for the Birds

May 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Have You Heard the Nesting Bird" by Rita GrayWe’re all about birds this spring. Well, to be fair, I’m all about birds, but I’m filling my kids’ baskets with bird-related books, in hopes that they will catch on, too. I can’t help myself. There’s something about Spring Fever that drives me to obsess about some natural wonder alive and transforming outside my window (see past years’ obsessions with trees and worms). And what better way to drag my children along on this journey than through non-fiction picture books, which pair beautiful illustrations and poetic text with fascinating information?

I didn’t exactly choose birds as this year’s subject matter. They chose me. They chose me by waking me up at 4:30am with their frantic, high-pitched chirping. They chose me by making a nest between our roof and my bedroom ceiling, fast and furious work that sounded as if a much larger animal was ripping down sheets of metal. They chose me by distracting my children over breakfast, encouraging bowls of oatmeal to sit half-eaten, in favor of watching a pair of cardinals dancing in the dogwood outside our dining room window (my children are convinced that “Buddy” and “Lady Buddy” followed us two years ago when we moved up the hill to our current house). Let’s just say that the time seemed ripe to learn a thing or ten about the busy birds around us.

What I discovered was a treasure trove of non-fiction picture books starring birds, many published in recent years. I’ve shared my complete list of favorites at the end (with picks through age 10), but I had so much trouble choosing one to focus on here, that I have to expound on two. The first is Rita Gray’s Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Ages 3-6), illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is one of those deceptively simple picture books that educates as it delights. « Read the rest of this entry »

Digging for Mummies

January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

The 5,000-Year-Old PuzzleWhile my son and I were on the subject of excavating fossils, it seemed it might be logical to jump from paleontology to archaeology. It didn’t hurt that, over winter break, JP’s teacher had emailed me about tracking down some good books about Ancient Egypt (see list at the end). And so, one snowy night, JP and I sat down on the couch to read the Treasure Trove that is The 5,000-Year-Puzzle-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt (Ages 6-12), by Claudia Logan, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

An hour later, we were still reading it, my daughter and husband had joined us, and I almost couldn’t tear myself away to meet my girlfriends for a scheduled drink. Almost. I can’t think of a better introduction, not only to Ancient Egypt, but also to the painstaking role that archaeologists play in unearthing clues about ancient life. While the American boy and his father in the book are fictitious, they join an actual historic dig, led by a Harvard team of scientists, which occurred in 1924 at the Egyptian site of Giza 7000X, where a secret and unusually well-preserved tomb was discovered. Through a combination of actual historic records and the young boy’s first-person narrative, we learn about the team’s efforts to excavate this ancient site over the course of a year—including their continual revisions to hypotheses over whose tomb it was and why it was constructed in such a way. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Other-Worldly Encounters For the Young Artist

December 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

JourneyWhen I was young, one of my favorite picture books was Harold and the Purple Crayon, where a little boy makes his own adventures with the help of a single purple crayon. As a child, I loved to draw, but I think the greater appeal for me lay in Harold’s vivid imagination—an imagination that empowers him with an inner resourcefulness, that entertains him when he can’t fall asleep, that gets him out of any sticky situation (drowning? simply draw a boat).

This same spirit echoes across Aaron Becker’s Journey (Ages 4-8), easily the most stunning picture book of 2013 and an inspiration for young artists and adventure-seekers alike. Unlike Harold, a simple visual presentation of purple and white, Journey makes use of a broad palette, although weighted emphasis is given to red, the color of the crayon with which a girl begins her escape by drawing a door (after all, what else can you do when your mom is cooking, your dad is working, and your big sister is too busy?). « Read the rest of this entry »

Would Your Life Story Fit In a Box? What We Learn From Our Ancestors

October 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Matchbox DiaryOur month of Birthday Mania was bound to have some fall out. Last night, after a particularly exhausting day for my kids (school followed by swim lessons followed by dinner out with friends), I finished putting Emily down and walked into JP’s room to begin his story time. I found my newly-turned six year old curled up in a ball on his bed, sobbing into the deflated husk of his bright green birthday balloon, a remnant from last weekend’s party. “My buh-buh-buh-buh-llllooooon!” he convulsed. “It’s all I have left from my bestest day evvvvvvv-errrrrrrr!” And then he looked at me with lion eyes: “I want a new balloon RIGHT NOW!”

As parents, we’ve all been here. Missed that window to leave the park, to leave the restaurant, to get into bed. So. Far. Gone. I tried the parenting-with-empathy approach: “It’s hard when something so fun comes to an end, huh?” But the wailing continued, accompanied now by a strange rocking of the shriveled green mass. I need to get this poor kid in bed. “Wait! I know!” I offered. “We can save it and put it in your memory box!” JP eyed me suspiciously. “Not that box that you keep, Mommy. I’m going to start my own memory box and make a special pillow in it for my balloon stub.”

Just a few weeks earlier, JP and I had been discussing the concept of “memory boxes,” after reading Paul Fleischman’s extraordinary and deeply moving new picture book, The Matchbox Diary (Ages 6-10). The book chronicles the life story of an Italian-American boy, who sailed with his family to Ellis Island in search of a better life. « Read the rest of this entry »

Growing Pains

September 10, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little MouseMy youngest turns three today. Lately, everywhere I turn, I am reminded of how fast she is growing. “Mommy, Mommy, my toes are sticking out of my sandals!” she cried jubilantly one morning a few weeks ago; “I growed into a big girl!”

It’s no wonder, then, that she immediately fell in love with Alison Murray’s precious new picture book, Little Mouse (Ages 18 mos-4 yrs), where a little girl proclaims that she is no longer her Mommy’s “little mouse”;  on the contrary, she is tall (like a giraffe), strong (like a bull), hungry (like a horse), and brave (in the face of a lion). On top of that, she can make her voice and her body do amazing things, from trumpeting (like an elephant) to pumping high on the big girl swing (like a bird). « Read the rest of this entry »

Learning From History’s Many Heroes

May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Brave GirlJust because the school year ends shortly doesn’t mean that our children’s minds have to shrivel up like apples left out too long in the sun. Last week, I gave some ideas for great read-aloud novels to share with your kids. Now, I’m going to encourage you to add some non-fiction into the mix—specifically, historical biographies posing as picture books. In previous posts about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve hailed the rise of today’s picture book biographies, which (unlike the static, black-and-white books of our school days) read like interesting, action-packed stories accompanied by vibrant paintings and intriguing designs. But I’m not merely talking about the Most Obvious Historical Figures; there are lesser known but equally captivating true stories of ordinary boys and girls, men and women, who shaped the world with extraordinary acts of courage, defiance, or creativity.

Where picture book biographies are concerned, contemporary illustrator Melissa Sweet has been on a roll, creating the art for several of my favorite non-fiction books in recent years. Although these biographies are written by different authors, they are unified by Sweet’s signature style—at once instantly recognizable but also entirely unexpected for the historical genre. In place of photographic-like paintings in somber tones, Sweet uses fun colors, whimsical patterns, and collage elements specific to the person whose story she is bringing to life. In Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Ages 7-12), Sweet peppers her background collages with excerpts from Williams’ poems, opening up kids’ eyes to these words and thoughts as an art form unto itself. In Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Ages 5-8), an account of the first person to capture a wild panda in China and bring it to an American zoo for study, Sweet creates frames for her watercolors out of authentic Chinese decorative papers, lending an other-wordly, almost mystical charm to this already fascinating story.

One of Sweet’s most recent triumphs is even more captivating for its portrayal not of an adult but of a young girl. Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Ages 6-10) tells the mind-boggling story of a Jewish immigrant girl, forced to endure long hours, harsh treatment, and poor pay, while sewing alongside hundreds of other girls in factories (her family’s only hope of putting food on the table.) Clara Lemlich’s “got grit,” and she “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong”; ultimately, she leads the largest walkout of women workers in American history, inspiring thousands of male and female workers across the country to strike for better working conditions and the right to organize unions.

Brave Girl, like most picture book biographies, demands to be discussed with your child—and it’s in these memorable discussions that the real learning begins. For starters, there are words that need to be defined, words like “walkout,” “union,” “garment,” and “shatterproof” (referring to Clara’s spirit). Then there’s Clara’s day-to-day life, which sent my almost six year old into a complete tailspin. “Wait, are you sure this is a real story?” he kept repeating, as I showed him the bird’s eye illustration of row-upon-row of hundreds of ant-sized heads bent over sewing machines; or read to him about the “two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share”; or got to the part about how an exhausted Clara would spend her nights in the library instead of sleeping because “she wants to read, she wants to learn!” (I don’t think JP had ever considered a scenario where a child would not be allowed to go to school.)

JP and his Montessori classmates are big into sewing right now, so he was especially intrigued once I pointed out that the bright paintings are often set against bolts of solid fabrics, frayed pieces of cloth, and decorative ribbons—some sewn with tight perfect stitches and others with uneven zig-zagging lines. In fact, after we finished the story, JP proceeded to go back through the entire book, running his finger along every line of stitches (“And is that REAL BLOOD?” he exclaimed, where two dots of red light up a piece of blue cloth next to some text that explains the repercussions for sewers who accidentally pricked their fingers).

But the best part of discussing picture book biographies with your kids (apart from feeling like you are pretty much the most inspiring parent ever) is getting at the emotional undercurrents of the story—in the case of Brave Girl, themes of justice, leadership, sacrifice, and bravery. As JP gets older, he and I will have more evolved conversations about these first three things; at the present, he was mainly fixated on the concept of bravery. Children tend to associate bravery with physical risks and triumphs, like learning to swim or taking off training wheels; and by this definition, JP knows he is a pretty tentative kid (totally unaffected by the four year olds riding their two-wheelers in circles around him). So, I welcome the opportunity to talk about courage in a different light. The book ends: “…warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.” When I finished reading, JP asked me, “How do you think Clara got so brave?”

“I think everyone has bravery inside of them and it’s just a question of letting it out,” I ventured.

“I guess I’m saving it up,” he replied.

“Actually,” I told him, “I watch you do brave things every day, like how you walked up to those older kids today and started talking to them. And you know what else? I think that every time someone uses up some of their bravery, some new bravery immediately comes in to fill that space—so you never run out.”

There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, “I’d like to look at those stitches again.”

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

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

Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies Illustrated by Melissa Sweet:
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written & illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, by Alicia Potter, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jen Bryant (Ages 7-12)
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 8-14)—OK, not really a biography but a great work of non-fiction nonetheless!

Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 4): Books For the Hero Within

December 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Boy Who Harnessed the WindBenjamin Franklin once penned: “If you would not be forgotten/ As soon as you are dead and rotten,/ Either write things worth reading,/ Or do things worth the writing.” OK, that might not be a quote we need to read aloud to our young children, but its sentiment can and should inform the books we choose to share with them.

The genre of biographies written for children is taking off like never before; it seems not only are parents and educators seizing the chance to inspire our young ones with tales of historical figures, but kids themselves are embracing these literary opportunities to inform their own choices, to pave their own paths worth living. And it’s no accident that many of this past year’s biographies are picture books: against a backdrop of beautiful art and poetic text, stories about scientists, writers, inventors, artists, and peacemakers become that much more gripping. The books listed at the end of this post are treasures worth giving and owning; their artistic caliber alone makes them a far cry from the dry, fact-filled paperbacks that we once suffered through for school reports.

« Read the rest of this entry »

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