Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

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!

 

 

Severe Weather Alert

September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligottWe interrupt this program for a Special Weather Statement.

Tonight’s forecast includes freakishly strong winds, wild fluctuations in temperature, and all forms of precipitation. Power outages possible. Lightning probable. Children begging to hear one more bedtime story guaranteed.

What do you get when you cross real science with monsters?

Easily the most fun educational book about the weather.

There are few books I will purchase before opening them. Mathew McElligott’s Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster (Ages 6-9) was one. For starters, the kids and I became fans of this new series when the first book, Mad Scientist Academy: The Dinosaur Disaster, came out two summers ago (again, easily the most fun we’ve had learning about dinosaurs—and, in fact, the only fact-based dinosaur book that has ever captured my daughter’s attention).

madsciencedinosaur

Secondly, my eldest has long been weather obsessed, so those who live with him have no choice but to eat, sleep, and breathe weather factoids. In the presence of dark clouds, it is statistically impossible to have any other conversation with him.

Lastly, there is the subjective truth that nobody does monsters for young kids better than McElligott (one of his earliest books, Even Monsters Need Haircuts, continues to be read on a regular basis in our house, because we never get tired of one of the best surprise endings EVER). In McElligott’s pencil-clad hand, the Frankensteins, vampires, and werewolves of our collective conscience emerge, not as monstrous, but as gentle, funny, clever comrades. Albeit eccentric and occasionally sandwich-obsessed.

Here’s what you need to know about the Mad Scientist series: the overzealous green-faced scientist, Dr. Cosmic, runs a school for young monsters called Mad Scientist Academy, where he showcases his latest technological inventions designed to bring science—quite literally—to life. Before Dr. Cosmic’s creations are rolled out, the students get a crash course in the subject at hand, knowledge that proves valuable when disaster inevitably strikes.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

McElligott hits on a sweet spot for today’s audience with both the content and format of this series. Not only does he pick scientific subjects for which his readers already have an enthusiastic interest, but he never talks down to his audience. He packs a surprisingly large amount of factual information into concise and engaging comics (I’m talking a gazillion times more aesthetically pleasing and less long-winded than The Magic School Bus series). The text and illustrations are brimming with levity and gags, whooshes and KABOOMS.

Perfect for reading aloud, yes, but also a reluctant reader’s paradise.

In The Weather Disaster, Dr. Cosmic arrives on the scene in his custom-designed Wearable Weather Balloon, which boasts, among other features (see blueprints on the book’s end papers): atmospheric data collection sensors, solar charging panels, and a pressure regulator valve.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

Through Dr. Cosmic’s flight demonstration, the students are provided not only with the definition of words like meteorologist, atmosphere, and hygrometer, but also with the basics of how clouds and wind are formed. (My husband was overheard exclaiming in the other room, “Oh, so that’s how lightning is created!”)

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

The Sky Suit isn’t the only thing Dr. Cosmic is eager to show off to his students. He has been hard at work building something that he (prophetically) calls CHAOS, a Cooling/Heating Air Flow Operating System, which uses solar and turbine power to create the “perfect” temperature inside the school (gone are the days of sweaty locker rooms and drafty classrooms).

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

And yet, Dr. Cosmic steps away just as things are going awry. Vents in the same room are blowing different temperatures, the greenhouse is flooding, the swimming pool is buried under snow, and there are increasingly black clouds looming in the control room.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

With Dr. Cosmic suddenly MIA, our young students are left to fend for themselves: to don their detective hats and make sense of what is happening, relying in large part on their recently acquired scientific knowledge.

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

As it turns out (Spoiler Alert!), the only viable solution is for the mad apprentices to create the perfect storm: to set the stage for a tornado that will blow the top off the building and provide for them a means of escape.

Did I not tell you we’d be in for some monstrous weather this evening?

"Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster" by Matthew McElligott

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.

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!

Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee MasseMy eight year old has been on a Greek mythology craze for the past six months. For years, he has been hearing references to mythology made in his mixed-ages classroom, has been seeing classmates walk in and out of school with related books tucked under their arms, has even been listening to one classmate proclaim the pomegranate seeds in her lunch to be the “fruit of the gods”—but he has never showed any genuine interest himself.

Until now.

One night at bedtime, perusing his shelf for something his dad could read to him (I’m a bit territorial about letting my husband “butt in” on a chapter book that JP and I already have going), JP pulled out D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (Ages 7-12). At 192 oversized pages, this pencil-illustrated tome is still the ultimate foundation for children embarking on the endlessly fascinating myths created by the Ancient Greeks in their formation and understanding of Western civilization. Thence began for father and son a beautiful foray into the terrifically twisted realms of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, jealousy and betrayal, wars and loves, vanity and indifference. (Yes, I’m the one who has to butt out now.)

Then, for Easter, my husband gave JP the boxed set of George O’Connor’s astounding graphic novel series, Olympians (Ages 9-15), a deliciously dark, no-holds-barred approach to dramatizing the rises and falls of the different Greek gods. If you’ve harbored any doubts about the value of the rapidly-growing graphic novel genre, these books might singularly reform your thinking, as they did mine. They are not only tremendous visual feats, but they are wickedly smart. Still, my favorite thing about this series comes in the Afterwards to each book, where O’Connor explains his narrative choices and interpretations of the myths. Not only do our kids get a rare and compelling glimpse into the creative process, but they are themselves encouraged to ponder the complexity and ambiguity of the different myths.

Shhh, could that be the stirrings of literary criticism in our children?

As much as I want to safeguard this reading bond that my husband and son have created around mythology, I couldn’t resist a little one-off involvement of my own. Furthermore, with it still being National Poetry Month for another week, I wanted to let you and your own mythology lovers in on the latest picture book gem by Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse. Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths (Ages 7-12) is actually the third installment of “reverso poems” by this author-illustrator duo (the earlier Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow are centered on classic fairy tales), but it’s the first time that one of my kids has been old enough (or interested enough) to really sink his teeth into the delightful novelty of these poems.

What is a “reverso poem,” you ask? Something that only a poetic magician (or magical poet?) like Marilyn Singer could possibly construct. As Singer herself invented the form, it seems only fair to use her words to define it:

A reverso consists of two poems. You read the first poem top to bottom. Then, you read the poem again with the lines reversed, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and that second poem says something completely different.

Cool, huh? A poem that is designed to be read from top to bottom and bottom to top!

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

Since Echo Echo, Marilyn’s newest work, concerns itself with the Greek myths—and since most of these myths naturally pit two characters against one another (heroic Perseus slays the snake-headed Medusa; revengeful Athena turns the mortal Arachne into a spider)—each set of poems allows us to explore two different points of view. Sometimes the words of the poems are the words of the characters themselves; sometimes they come from a third party. But in every set of poems, we are reminded that there are two sides to every story.

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

The poem “Demeter and Persephone,” based on the heart-wrenching story of mother and daughter, originally devised by the Ancient Greeks to explain the four seasons, is one of the most poignant examples of the two opposing poetic voices at work. (While prior familiarity with the different myths featured in these pages will help the child reader get more out of the poems, Singer includes a brief synopsis of the relevant myth below each poem.) In this particular myth, Hades, god of the underworld (referred to as the “thief” below), kidnaps Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth’s bounty. In her despair, Demeter threatens to make all of the earth barren if her daughter is not returned to her. A deal is struck: Hades promises to return Persephone to Demeter for six months of the year (spring and summer representing her return), although Persephone must live among the dead with Hades for the other six months (fall and winter representing her descent).

We hear first from Demeter, beseeched with all the anger and resentment of a grieving mother determined to have her revenge. She addresses her only daughter:

I hate the thief.
Do not ask that
I forgive Hades.
Spring
will turn to
winter,
will leave this land cold and dark.
Daughter,
this mother’s lonely
tears
shed no
relief.
I feel such
despair.
No more
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
There will be
six months of grief
after so much joy and laughter.

Persephone, however, adopts more of a “glass is half full” attitude. She chooses to focuses on the happiness she will experience each spring when she is reunited with her mother.

So much joy and laughter
after
six months of grief.
There will be
flowers blooming, trees in leaf.
No more
despair.
I feel such
relief.
Shed no
tears.
This mother’s lonely
daughter
will leave this land, cold and dark.
Winter
will turn to
spring.
I forgive Hades.
Do not ask that
I hate the thief.

With that second ending, is Persephone merely resigning herself to her fate, or is she opening the door to the possibility of loving Hades?

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

“Narcissus and Echo” is another favorite, based on the story of the vain young mortal, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in a pond (my kids think this is hysterical) and is turned by the gods into a flower—while Echo, the woman who loves him unrequitedly, is turned into a mournful echo. (Can we take a second to note how much great vocabulary comes out of reading Greek mythology?)

Here’s Narcissus, bent on being uninterrupted while basking in his own beauty:

“Here,
here…”
Was
that
a nymph?
Was
that
an echo?
Leave me,
foolish pursuer!
I will forever be the
only
one
that
I desire—
the most beautiful of youths—
a flower among men.

Then Echo, who plans to fight the good fight forever:

A flower among men!
The most beautiful of youths!
I desire
that
one
only.
I will forever be the
foolish pursuer.
Leave me,
an echo
that
was
a nymph,
that
was
here.
“Here…”

All the poems in the book are enhanced by the Canadian artist Josée Masse’s seductive acrylic paintings, romantically infused with twilight blues and golden yellows. To be sure, Masse’s visual interpretation of the myths is much more whimsical (think “G-rated”) than George O’Connor’s, yet there is still plenty in these pages to mystify and transfix. In fact, my five-year-old daughter, who is too young for D’Aulaires Book (not to mention Olympians), has several times picked up Echo Echo on her own to page through the art. After she has looked at a picture for awhile, she’ll often ask me to read the synopsis of the myth below it—suggesting that this book might also serve as an introduction to Greek mythology for the younger set.

Masse’s art is rich with symbolism and plays with and subverts imagery in much the same way that the reverso poems themselves do. Each painting—furthering the idea of two points of view—is set up as two images, which either bleed into or oppose one another, always with a discernible divide down the middle. One of our favorites is the one that accompanies “Theseus and Ariadne,” a poem about Theseus’s attempt to navigate the Minos labyrinth and kill the half-bull-half-man Minotaur that lies within. The poem alludes to the ball of thread, which the king’s daughter, Ariadne, gives to Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze. On one side of Masse’s painting, the Minotaur’s dense, snorting body dominates the foreground; in the other, only the outline of the Minotaur remains, his head having dissolved into a labyrinth of thread, beside which Theseus stands armed. Visual poetry!

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse"

Or how about “Pandora and the Box,” the Greek’s version of Eve and the apple, where the first woman created by the gods opens a forbidden box and inadvertently releases evil into the world. Here, Meese has painted two figures of Pandora overlapping one another: one is bright and full of light and one is enveloped in a black shadow. And yet, interestingly, the box, which appears in both frames, is the inverse of the figures in whose hands it rests. Are we to consider that there is light to be found amidst evil and evil to be found in the most bucolic of scenes? For that matter, looking at the ghoulish green creations pouring from the box, what exactly is “evil”?

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee Masse

The Ancient Greeks developed their myths to make sense of the world unfolding around them. To make sense of why things are the way they are, why people are the way they are, and why it either matters much or matters not at all. Thousands of years later, we may not necessarily need these myths to help us navigate the seas and the stars—and yet, their characters and deeds continue to surface in literature, in art, in music, and in the language we speak. It’s not only exciting for our children to begin to make these connections, to identify a common thread throughout Western culture, but also to stand these myths on their heads and explore their every nuance. Only when we question the foundation below us, can we build something even stronger.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.

Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Talking Out the Scary

October 22, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily JenkinsMy daughter loves to tell us that she isn’t afraid of anything (Me thinks thou doth protest too much!). While JP is cowering under a pile of stuffed animals during a thunderstorm, Emily will announce, “I’m not a bit scared of thunder.” Last Halloween, when JP screamed bloody murder as a suspended bloody hand lunged towards him in a haunted house, Emily was quick to point out, “That’s not even real.”

But ask her to go upstairs to get something in the evening, when the lights haven’t been turned on yet, and she will rattle off every excuse in the book as to why she can’t. “I’m super busy helping my baby use the potty right now.” Not surprisingly, JP can’t resist taunting her: “Are you scared of the dark, Emily?” “I’m not scared, JP. I just don’t like it. Also, sometimes you jump out at me.”

In case you missed my list of favorite Halloweeny-but-not-Halloween-specific books, which was featured last week on local blog DIY Del Ray, you can find it here. But before we wrap up one of the best holidays for reading aloud, I want to tell you about one other new picture book. It features ghosts and witches, but it also introduces a broader conversation about what children find scary—and how talking can sometimes be the best cure for what lurks in the dark.

Written by Emily Jenkins (who has yet to write a book I haven’t loved) and charmingly illustrated by Hyewon Yum, The Fun Book of Scary Stuff (Ages 5-8) is told almost entirely through dialogue, via speech bubbles (this is becoming quite the theme lately) between a little boy and his two (talking) dogs. Our protagonist has made a list of “everything that frightens” him, and as he runs down the list in front of his pets, the dogs expose different flaws in his logic. Witches might “put spells on you,” the larger of the two dogs concedes, but “what are they cooking in that cauldron?” (Food trumps fear if you’re a bull terrier.)

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Trolls are on the list, because, according to the boy, “they’re just gross. All bubbly and warty.”

When did you see trolls? [asks the dog.]

What?

When did you see trolls?

Um. Never.

You keep being scared of stuff that probably doesn’t exist.

So?

I’m just saying.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

The banter between child and canines is equal parts hilarious and endearing. Because it turns out that even macho dogs have their limits. Halfway through, the story moves from monsters and trolls to real-life occurrences, like sharks, or the cousin who once put ice cubes down the boy’s pants (“two times!”). Or the “bossy” crossing guard by the school. “I’m scared of her, too,” confesses the pug, “She smalls like gasoline.”

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Bit by bit, the dogs begin to betray some of their own vulnerability, culminating in the book’s highly entertaining conclusion, where the boy drags the dogs into a closet with him and closes the door, attempting to illustrate his greatest fear: the dark (“Nameless Evil could be lurking!”). The dogs start freaking out and howling and freaking out about who is howling and the whole thing is downright hysterical to my children who, of course, are listening to the story in a brightly lit room tucked around me on our comfy sofa.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

And yet, who saves the day by calmly reminding everyone that you can turn on the light? That’s right: it’s our young human hero who answers the distress calls of his four-legged friends. In the process, he realizes that he might be braver than he thinks. Sometimes.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Somewhere between humor and heart, the book subtly delivers an empowering message to its reader: It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to be afraid of things both imagined and real. It’s OK for us to poke fun at our neuroses, and it’s equally OK to curl up in a ball and howl.

But when the lights go out, before we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the worst, we might try to look deep within us to see if we can remember how to turn on the light.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, but don’t give up reading spooky-themed stories when November 1 arrives. Reading and talking about the dark throughout the year makes it a little sillier, a little more transparent, and a little easier to navigate.

Other Favorite Picture Books About the Dark:
Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night, by Jon Davis (Ages 4-8)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)
The Dark, by Lemony Snicker and Jon Klassen (Ages 5-10)

Did you enjoy this post? Don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (and absolutely no spam).

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

Weird and Wonderful Hospitality (Courtesy of Ben Hatke)

May 21, 2015 § 8 Comments

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben HatkeI’d like to be the kind of mom who has the house where all the kids want to hang out. I’d like to be the kind of mom who throws back her head and exclaims breezily, “The more the merrier!” Who pulls out a sheet of warm chocolate chip cookies from the oven and, after grubby little fists have snatched them up, goes on to say, “You know, why don’t you all stay for dinner? I have something delicious bubbling away in the crock pot!”  I’d like to be the kind of mom who turns the other cheek at dirty footprints, blots of ink, trails of sand, and piles of crumbs; who sighs and thinks, “All that matters is that they are here and they are happy.”

I am not that kind of mom. Two years ago, I participated in a Spring Break Swap with a group of close friends, where we each took turns at our respective houses watching nine kids for a day. My kids have lovely friends. Kind, intelligent, creative friends. But that did little to quell the feeling that I was UNDER SIEGE. So many little mouths telling me they were hungry! So many eager eyes imploring me to admire their drawings! So many children running up and down stairs, squealing and shouting and scrabbling!

Nope, I am not that kind of mom. It turns out that becoming a parent didn’t transform my Type A personality. I’m often still as inflexible as my daughter is when she’s presiding over her tea parties. Still, the idea of having an open-door policy, of creating a space where everyone feels welcomed and accepted, holds great romantic appeal. On paper.

This promise of hospitality is just one of the many reasons that I continue to be taken with Ben Hatke’s 2014 picture book, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (Ages 3-6). The only reason I didn’t write sooner about one of my favorite books of last year is that it was initially such a runaway hit, the Indie publisher couldn’t print them fast enough!

Allow me to touch on some of the gems in this story. To begin with, there’s Julia, our young Type A heroine with a handkerchief in her hair and gold in her heart; who dreams of making her large, rambling Victorian house a refuge for “Lost Creatures.” (Incidentally, Julia’s compassion towards “misfits” reminds me of the equally enchanting Miss Maple’s Seeds.)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

But WAIT. My children would go absolutely bananas if I wrote another word without mentioning their favorite detail: that the book opens with Julia’s life-sized house arriving at the seaside on the back of a turtle. That’s right, some people go where the wind blows them; others follow the whim of a giant, purposeful turtle.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

Then there are the Lost Creatures themselves: an energetic hodgepodge of trolls, mermaids, ghosts, dragons, fairies, folletti, and other unidentifiable but irresistibly appealing creatures—some sad, some hungry, some lonely, and some just plain curious. (Here, we get reminders of another favorite, The Monster’s Monster.)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

There is the predictably unpredictable chaos that ensues when all the creatures suddenly find themselves under one roof—and the effect that this has on poor Julia, who would really like to be a lot breezier than she is. Even if she can get past the mountain of dirty dishes, the footprints on the walls, and the loud music, a folletti toasting a marshmellow over a small bonfire on her roof is just one step too far.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Bob Hatke

There’s Julia’s stroke of genius—a chore chart!—which ultimately allows everyone to co-habitate in peace and harmony. (Of course! Give everyone jobs! Why didn’t I think of that?)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

Finally, there is author-illustrator Ben Hatke’s unique treatment of the subject matter. Those with kids who have been bitten by the Graphic Novel Bug (which may not be a new phenomenon, but which is gaining momentum like never before) may already know Hatke from his acclaimed Sci-Fi series, Zita the Spacegirl (Ages 8-14). Even I—not by nature a comics lover—have fallen in love with this sophisticated graphic novel trilogy for its spunky heroine, other-worldly setting, deeply cadenced narrative, and all-around cool factor.

With Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, Hatke’s first foray into the picture book world (and the beginning of more to come!), he blends both traditional picture book elements with comic-strip attributes. Playing to his strengths as a graphic artist, Hatke is able to advance Julia’s story as much through the visual spreads and frames as he does through the carefully-chosen sentences. The resulting hybrid feels almost like a new literary category, and both of my children Can’t. Get. Enough.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

When I learned that Ben Hatke would be leaving his rural Virginia home (nestled in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife, four young daughters, and an eccentric cast of cats and chickens) to visit Hooray for Books here in Alexandria, you can bet we were going to be there. Hatke is exactly the kind of literary artist that I would like my children to know: approachable, vastly talented, and bursting with pleasure to be doing exactly what he is doing. His enthusiasm for book making—specifically for experimenting with the comic format—is positively contagious.

Ben Hatke at Hooray for Books

My seven year old, fueled by what I am not sure is a healthy obsession with Calvin and Hobbes (if you hear the rustling of pages in his room at 6am, you can bet that he’s reading one of the ten Calvin books stacked next to his bed like a second nightstand), has spent much of this last year attempting to write and illustrate comic stories of his own. When Hatke told JP that each of his book projects originates in a designated notebook, and that most of his ideas arise from free-form sketching in said notebook, I saw JP’s eyes light up. I was not surprised when, the next day, he brought his wallet to the grocery store to purchase a notebook for his “next project.”

Ben Hatke Event

Speaking of projects, here is a glimpse of Hatke’s next picture book, starring a misunderstood goblin and his skeleton friend, destined to live in that same compelling cross-section of fantasy and realism that is very quickly becoming Hatke’s claim to fame.

Ben Hatke

And even before the goblin book comes out, as early as this September, we’re going to get an early-reader graphic novel, somewhere between the levels of Julia and Zita, titled Little Robot. That’s right, people, this guy is on a roll.

"Little Robot" by Ben Hatke

Perhaps someday I’ll get up the courage to invite Hatke and his family and his four-legged and feathered pets to my house for a play date. Heck, maybe I’ll invite all of you to bring your kids, too. I’ll sit back, watch the kids overturn paint cups and spray each other with our garden hose, and I’ll smile and think, “The more the merrier.”

Or perhaps I’ll leave the hosting to local bookstores.

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.

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!

April’s Birthday Pick (No More Sitting Pretty)

April 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt PhelanAfter spring break ate up my last two weeks, I’ve found my way back to writing, and I’m especially glad to be back, because I have a very special new book to tell you about. It’s a book that can be enjoyed simply for the fun, quirky, heartwarming story that it is. Or, it’s a book that can be read as a metaphor for one of the most important examples we can provide our children: that when life doesn’t give us what we want, we possess the power to stand up and change it.

It’s a book that boys and girls will enjoy equally, as my two already do. But, it’s also a book that must be shared with our girls. In fact, Marilyn has quickly become one of my favorite picture book heroines OF ALL TIME.

If that hasn’t piqued your interest, consider this: Marilyn’s Monster (Ages 4-8) is written by Michelle Knudsen, the same author who gave us Library Lion (need I say more?!). Marilyn’s Monster showcases the same beautiful fluidity of narration, the same perfectly orchestrated dramatic arc, and engenders the same depth of empathy for its central character.

Like Library Lion, where a lion listens to stories alongside children at the local library, Marilyn’s Monster is similarly grounded in real, everyday life—with one large, fantastical exception.

You see, in Marilyn’s elementary school, every child has a monster. That’s right, a monster. A friendly, playful, benevolent monster. A monster that’s unique to each child in color, attribute, and personality. These monsters aren’t exactly pets (because they don’t require basic care); they’re not exactly imaginary friends (because they’re visible to everyone); and, while similar in personality to their children, they’re not exactly personified extensions of the children themselves.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

These monsters fill a different void for each child. Maybe the child needs a homework buddy; or someone forever available to clap when they perform tricks on the playground. Maybe they need a monster of enormous proportions to scare off bullies. Maybe, as in the case of Marilyn’s dour, know-it-all older brother, they need a gooey glob of green slime perched under a baseball cap.

While the text gives us bits of insight into some of these monster-child matches, the real joy comes in pouring over Matt Phelan’s whimsical illustrations: watercolor and pencil drawings, which have so captivated my children’s imaginations, that they cannot help but cast themselves in this bizarre world. “Mommy, I can see your monster’s claws when you bend down,” they say about my tortoiseshell hair clip. “JP, your monster is definitely green,” Emily says to her adamantly-green-loving brother, “and mine is just a teeny tiny baby who hasn’t grown any ears yet.”

But here’s the catch. In Marilyn’s world, “Your monster had to find you. That’s just the way it worked.” You never know when the timing will strike. You could be sitting in class one day and, boom, your monster chooses you.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

Not only does your monster find you, under no circumstances are you to find your monster. No sir! No ma’am! This is simply not done. So, when Marilyn finds herself in the devastating predicament of being the only child without a monster, she is given only one option: she has to sit pretty and wait.

She made sure she brushed her hair very carefully every morning and wore pretty clothes and smiled a lot and tried to look very friendly and interesting and smart and fun to be around. She tried to be the kind of girl no monster could resist.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

But no monster. Even when Marilyn tries to look for her monster without appearing like she’s looking for it—mailing a letter simply for the excuse to look deep into the mailbox—she comes up empty.

So what’s a girl to do when social conventions aren’t panning out for her? Well, for starters, she gets mad. She “stopped trying to seem pretty and nice and friendly and fun all the time…Where was her monster? What was taking him so long?”

“That’s it,” Marilyn said one morning. “I’m going to find my monster.”

“You can’t,” said her brother. “That’s not the way it works.”

“Maybe,” said Marilyn. “But you don’t really know. Maybe my monster is different.”

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

With her good walking shoes and a packed lunch, Marilyn sets off on a solo crusade. Mind you, at no point does she compromise her core values. She doesn’t turn mean or sassy; she doesn’t whine or demand her monster to come out. As she overturns every stone and looks behind every tree, she carries herself with grace and composure. And yet, when she finally reaches her breaking point, she isn’t afraid to speak up for what she wants. She “took a deep, deep breath and shouted in her loudest, loudest voice”:

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

And that’s when she hears the small, quiet answer of her monster. He hasn’t been hiding from her. Rather, he’s lost and scared and his two delicate golden wings are tangled in the branches of a tree. It turns out Marilyn doesn’t need saving. But her monster does!

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Mattt Phelan

But my favorite part of this story—the part that makes my heart swell with every reading—is Marilyn’s quiet confidence when she returns home victorious, flown in the arms of her (COOLEST EVER) monster. Haters will hate, and her brother is quick to criticize.

“It’s not supposed to work that way,” her brother said.

Marilyn just looked at him. She didn’t think he was right about that. She thought there were a lot of different ways that things could work.

No more complacency. No more blind acceptance of the Status Quo. No more sitting pretty and waiting for friends or adventure or work or opportunity to come. Daughter of mine, children of the world: here’s hoping that Marilyn will serve as one small example that, sometimes, you have to take life by its monstrous horns and go get ‘em.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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. 3): For the Rebel Princess (Ages 5-8)

December 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen PhamFive years ago, when I learned I was having a girl, I self-righteously vowed that I would bar the door from tiaras and princess costumes and those scary high-heeled plastic dress-up shoes with the sequins on the toes. My daughter won’t equate beauty with Disney-fied princesses! My daughter will read books about trains and science and daring adventures! My daughter won’t be held back by stereotypes of femininity!

Of course, ultimatums rarely work out in parenting—nor are they usually for the best. Those of you with girls already know that The Princess Obsession eventually finds its way into the house—slipping through the gap beneath the front door, if need be. Before my kids watched Frozen, my daughter already knew the words to every song, just from listening to her classmates. Before my son pointed to a hot pink skirt with 20 layers of tulle at Target and said (in the sweetest voice, so how could I resist?), “Oh, Mommy, Emily would just love something like that”—before that, Emily was already coming home from play dates in borrowed glitter-encrusted frocks.

What I failed to anticipate as a new parent, is that there are complex dichotomies at work in the princess fantasies of my daughter and her friends. When playing, Emily is just as likely to wear her tulle skirt on her head than around her waist. She likes to pair her purple metallic slippers with a red superhero cape and an astronaut helmet.

“I’ve decided to ask Santa for a real Queen Elsa dress,” she announced the other night. “Oh yeah?” I said (trying not to wince too obviously). “And what will you do with an Elsa dress?”

“I will sing and dance around. Also, I will fight bad guys.”

Ok then.

For a long time, rebel princesses have popped up in children’s picture books (Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess is the most well known, although there are fun new additions, like Dangerously Ever After). Additionally, the teen market is ripe with re-imagined fairytale heroines (Robin McKinley’s Beauty tops my list). Now, at long last, it would appear that these princess rebels are making their way into early-reader literature, a category which as a whole is getting a much-needed makeover in quality and sophistication (you haven’t forgotten Dory Fantasmagory, have you?).

Authors Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black (Ages 5-8), a short chapter book for newly independent readers (and an equally terrific read-aloud), will be hard for any child (or parent) to resist. It’s everything a princess-and-superhero-loving girl could want: tulle and cape; dainty tea parties and wild romps in the forest; royalty and monsters. And the best part? Every single one of the 90 pages features a full-color illustration (this never happens in chapter books!) by the energetic LeUyen Pham. Oh, and did I mention that the book’s cover sports metallic ink?

When we first meet Princess Magnolia, she is decked out in a pink gown and glass slippers, perfectly upholding civility, while hosting the nosy, big-haired Duchess Wigtower over hot chocolate and scones.

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

But, we quickly learn, Princess Magnolia has a secret identity. For starters, she has a Monster Alarm embedded in the gemstone of her ring, designed to go off when monster mayhem is afloat. As we watch, Princess Magnolia politely excuses herself from the unsuspecting duchess, ducks into a broom closet, and trades her frilly pink ensemble for a black suit, black tights, and black cape (the tiara stays). Here comes my daughter’s favorite part: the Princess in Black then slides out of the castle through a secret chute and high jumps over the castle wall.

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

Once atop her unicorn-turned-masked-black stallion, PIB gallops off to fight crime (or “bad guys,” as my Emily would say).

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

When asking nicely doesn’t do the trick, the Princess in Black unleashes the perfect combination of “sparkle slams,” “princess pounces,” and “twinkle twinkle little smashes” to stop a hungry blue monster from devouring a trio of goats. We’re talking princess-style ninjitsu!

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

The Princess in Black blends action, grace, and humor. And the best news? There are hints about possible sequels! Duff the Goat Boy, thus far an innocent bystander, is the only one to suspect an uncanny likeness between the Princess in Black and Princess Magnolia. Do we hear rumblings of a future sidekick for the PIB?

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

I still worry about the too-skinny, high-heel-wearing princesses (rebels or not) that grace contemporary movie screens and literature. But I also enjoy watching how comfortably my daughter seems to reside in the space between dichotomies of “female” and “male,” “princess” and “rebel.” This generation of girls will forge their own path in the world—and we had better get out of their way.

—-

All opinions are my own. Review copy provided by Candlewick publishing. 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!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with monsters at What to Read to Your Kids.

%d bloggers like this: