September 3, 2020 § 2 Comments
My son’s favorite sport is swimming, but it wasn’t always this way. For five years after he was born, he refused to put his head under water. He was delighted to be held in water, or to float with a floatie, but none of us—not me, not his dad, not his grandfather, not his aunt—could convince him to submerge his face.
Eventually, I got the name of a private swim instructor who was supposed to have a magic touch. I phoned her but she was fully booked. A few weeks later, she phoned back. She had a cancellation on an upcoming Thursday at 7pm. JP’s bedtime was 7pm, so this seemed like poor parenting at best, but I was a mother on a mission, with a zeal often reserved for firstborns. I told her we’d see her Thursday.
What happened next is a story our family loves to tell. While I watched from deck, the instructor, clad in a black wet suit, took JP’s hand and led him down the ramp of the zero-entry pool. When the water hit JP’s waist, she stopped. “So, JP,” she said, “do you go under water?”
“No,” my son replied.
“Would you like to try?” she asked.
Barely a pause. “OK,” he said. And then, right before my eyes, this child with a stubbornness to match mine, threw himself face down into the water.
He threw himself face down into the water. Part of me was overjoyed. And part of me had to keep from screaming, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!
My husbands like to joke that this was when we realized that our son has no interest in learning from his family. Our teaching is inherently suspect, probably flawed, because what do we know? This instructor—who went on to teach him very fine strokes for the next five years—was an expert in his eyes, and so he instantly trusted her. (We consider it a major triumph that we did not have to hire a professional to teach him to ride a bicycle.)
Still, I don’t think the swim teacher’s trust was won just because JP regarded her as an expert (whereas we were just flailing novices). Truth be told, she exuded calm. You had only to spend ten seconds with her to understand that she was more at home in the water than out of it. She loved the water, she trusted herself in the water, and when she directed her full attention onto my son, he felt like he’d come home, too.
“The ocean is calling me today,” says the grandmother at the beginning of Tina Cho’s new picture book, The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Ages 5-9), one of the most fascinating and exquisite examples of a symbiotic relationship with water that I have ever seen. Set on the shores of Jeju Island in South Korea and luminously illustrated in jewel tones by Jess X. Snow, the story is about the relationship between a girl, struggling with her fear of the ocean, and her grandmother, a haenyeo mermaid, who holds her breath for two minutes at a time and dives up to thirty meters to bring back armfuls of shellfish for eating and selling. Here’s the coolest thing: the haenyeo tradition is real! It goes back centuries among indigenous Pacific islanders, remains alive today, and plays a vital role in ocean ecology.
August 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
When our kids return to school this fall, whether in person with a mask or at home over a computer, there will be unusual circumstances to navigate. But for many children, pandemic or not, the start of school is already fraught with potential landmines. Will I make a friend? Will I like my teacher? Will I understand the rules?
Will my name be mispronounced?
Those of us with Anglo-Saxon names may have never considered this last question, but those with African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names know how commonly, if unintentionally, their names are mispronounced. What does it feel like to be on the receiving end of a teacher or classmate stumbling through your name? What does it feel like to be expressly teased for your name? What does it feel like to be asked to shorten or alter your name to make it easier for classmates to say?
For many, personal names play a central role in cultural identity and identification. If we don’t put in the work to pronounce a name correctly, we’re not allowing that person—in this case, that young child—to be seen. At best, we are belittling them; at worst, we are erasing them.
One of my daughter’s dearest school friends has a name whose South Asian pronunciation is different than English phonetics would suggest. The difference is subtle, but my daughter will correct anyone—especially me—who doesn’t say it with the right cadence. I’ve been touched by this gesture of loyalty over the years, and I know it’s owing to the care the girls’ teachers have taken to create a space where students are actively working to understand and appreciate one another.
What I’ve also frequently noted is how musical my daughter’s voice sounds when she speaks her friend’s name. The idea that all names can be celebrated for their musicality is the inspiration behind Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s new picture book, Your Name is a Song (Ages 4-8), a fast favorite with my daughter. Tenderly illustrated by Luisa Uribe, the story centers a Black American Muslim girl, who leaves her first day of school dejected and angry because “No one could say my name.” As her mother works to rebuild the girl’s confidence, she creatively and thoughtfully debunks many of the negative stereotypes associated with non-Anglo names, especially those with African or Middle Eastern origins: they’re hard to pronounce; they’re cacophonous; they signal danger; they’re made-up nonsense.
June 11, 2020 § 1 Comment
This Father’s Day, my own father will have been gone for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years. One of the most devastating things about losing a parent when you’re eighteen is that you never get to know that parent through an adult lens. I knew my father intimately, from his scratchy mustache to his eye-rolling wisecracks to his endless patience as I described every painstaking detail of my day. But I knew him as a child knows a parent. How I wish I could have known him as an adult.
In times of great upheaval and unrest, I feel my father’s absence most keenly. Every seismic shift in our world puts that much more space between him and me. How would he be participating in this national conversation about race? Would he be marching with a Black Lives Matter sign? What candidate would he have supported in the last Democratic primary? How would social distancing have impacted his life in retirement—or would he still be practicing law? What kinds of things would he enjoy doing with his grandchildren?
I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, though I ask them quietly to myself all the time.
What I do know is that there are certain things which always bring him back to me. And one of them is travel. My father’s love of travel was legendary. When I was very young and he would travel internationally for work, he’d always bring me souvenirs—usually dolls—from places like Brazil, Mexico, and Germany. I loved gazing at the tiny porcelain faces or printed fabric clothes and imagining where they had been. Our house was full of black-and-white photographs from before my time: my father on a camel in the Sahara, my father on a motorcycle in Greece. When I decided to spend a gap year in Vietnam after high school, he jumped at the chance to accompany me across the ocean. When, weeks later, it came time for him to return to the States, his parting words were, “It looks like you’ve got the travel bug now, too.” I beamed with pride.
It seems fated that I would fall deeply in love with Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s new picture book, Papa Brings Me the World (Ages 3-7), in which a young girl describes her affection for a father who travels the world and brings pieces of it back to her. I’ve long been a fan of Kostecki-Shaw’s (my daughter still pulls out Luna & Me), but this book positively transported me. Maybe because it’s inspired by the author-illustrator’s own father; maybe it’s because the theme of found objects lends itself beautifully to mixed-media collage; or maybe it’s because the voice of the little girl reminds me of my young self, brimming with tenderness and curiosity and admiration and longing for my father’s stories of adventure.
July 12, 2019 Comments Off on “The Bravest Thing a Person Can Do”: Three Immigrant Stories
These provocative words hail from Jasmine Warga’s Other Words from Home, one of three new books with a unique, powerful presentation of the immigrant experience for a different age group. Whether set in the past or present, these stories have never been more relevant to share with our children. If our kids are someday to have a hand in the creation of fair, just, compassionate policy, they should spend some time in the shoes of the very people whose lives these policies aim to impact.
What does it mean to arrive in this country with hope in your heart? What does it mean to walk away from family, from the familiar, from foods you’ve eaten all your life, and step into the Unknown? Each of the below books explores these questions, while posing another of its own.« Read the rest of this entry »
May 24, 2019 Comments Off on Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)
As I’m limping over the finish line that is May, I’m dreaming of summer. Of days at the pool, nights in the backyard, and lots of opportunities for lazing around with our noses in a book. Should you (or your children) be itching for a distraction from making lunches or dressing for another concert, let me help you plot a summer reading list, beginning with my favorite middle-grade reads of late. (Link to my last round up is here; or go back and check out this and this.) First up is a book which should go straight to the top of your list: it’s fresh, funny, and eerily timely.« Read the rest of this entry »
December 14, 2017 § 5 Comments
What if there was a children’s book which came with a budding world view? What if, in giving a book this holiday season, you helped a child feel a little more connected to the planet she or he calls home?
Last spring, we took a family trip to Italy, our first time overseas with our children. Some (ahem, elder) relatives of mine were not shy about questioning the wisdom of taking our six and nine year old on such a trip. More than once, I was asked, rhetorically: “Don’t you think you should hold off on spending all that money until your children are older and will actually remember the things they see?” (Occasionally, this was prefaced by, “I know I should hold my tongue, but…”) « Read the rest of this entry »
October 15, 2015 § 3 Comments
My son and I just returned from one of our beloved fall traditions: a long weekend in New York City. I take sublime pleasure in watching JP fall deeper in love with the city of my childhood at every visit: soaking up the street sounds (“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep without the horns and sirens,” he told me in all seriousness on the night we got home); quickening his walking pace to keep up with the most seasoned striders; and taking an active roll in navigating us through the city streets, both above and below ground.
This last point is in large part owing to two things: first, JP’s recent discovery of the NYC subway map; and secondly, his fondness for the Empire State Building, which we summitted on our previous trip to the city. When he is not rattling off the list of upcoming stops on an uptown train ride, he is looking around him on the street for the landmark against which to measure all landmarks.
We discovered this past weekend (thank you, Books of Wonder) that there is a new children’s book that marries JP’s love of the subway with the Empire State Building. I’m declaring it required reading for natives and tourists alike. Because get this: it is now MY FAVORITE NEW YORK BOOK OF ALL TIME.
March 26, 2015 § 3 Comments
Growing up in New York City, my preferred mode of transportation was always the bus. It didn’t matter whether I was going twenty blocks or a hundred blocks. I loved the noises: the lurch as we pulled over every two blocks to stop; the hiss as the bus lowered down to let people off. I loved the creeping pace, which allowed me to stare up at the buildings towering above, or down at the crowds of shoppers swarming the sidewalks. Most of all, I was transfixed by the cross-section of people squeezed in around me, some conversing with their neighbors, others plugged into headphones. Each person had a story that I could only guess at. And each bus displayed an unpredictable amalgamation of skin colors, clothing, smells, sizes, and languages.
Ride a New York City bus for long enough, and there’s nothing you don’t see. It’s like having your finger on the pulse of life. I would feel at once safely nestled into my community and distinctly vulnerable to the uncertainty of what might happen next.
You can imagine my dismay when I discovered, on a weekend trip to NYC with my son, that he does not innately share my enthusiasm for bus travel. En route from 96th to 12th street, it didn’t take long (in his defense, our bus did seem to be stalling more than moving) before JP looked at me with exasperation—and, frankly, puzzlement.
“This is taking forever! Why aren’t we taking the subway?” « Read the rest of this entry »
March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
A rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?
As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
Last year’s post, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, continues to be one of my most read and shared posts. I don’t think there’s any way to top Kadir Nelson’s moving picture book biography of King, so I thought I’d talk this year, not about the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but about his followers—the ones who marched, the ones who stood up for what they believed, the ones who sang. I was giddy with excitement to discover Debbie Levy’s new picture book, We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (Ages 5-10)—one, because I have always loved that song (it crops up at surprising times, like when I’m hiding in the bathroom in an attempt to keep from screaming at my children); and two, because music has recently taken our house by a storm. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
Last Friday, after a long week of 90 degree days, the kids and I were driving around struggling to fill the few hours between school and dinner. I suddenly remembered that earlier that day, I’d picked up a stack of just-published books at the store, and so I proposed that we head home to read in the AC. “Reading Party! Reading Party!” my son immediately began chanting, a phrase left over from when his sister was a baby and I would coax him into lying down with me while she took her morning nap in the other room, under the pretense that he could load up the bed with books and we’d have a “Reading Party” (true, my motivation was entirely selfish—must lay head down—but I’m also a big believer that, as parents, our excitement around reading rubs off on our kids).
So, as we sat down to read last Friday, I thought I’d use my kids’ reactions to decide which title to make my birthday pick for the month. I had all my money on Mini Grey’s new Toys in Space, because it’s hard to go wrong with a story involving a fleet of misplaced toys, a spaceship, a conflicted alien, a Wonderdoll blessed with storytelling prowess, and Grey’s hilarious (if occasionally crass) speech bubbles. (Incidentally, I chose another Mini Grey book for last July’s birthday pick, so there must be something about warm temperatures that puts me in the mind of Toys Coming Alive). As expected, Toys in Space captivated my kids and elicited no shortage of laughs. But when all was said and done, it was the final book in our pile that they asked to read a second and a third time—and which they both chose as their favorite.
Emily Jenkins and Stephanie Graegin’s Water in the Park: A Book About Water & the Times of the Day is a quiet, unassuming, lyrical portrait of the transformations that take place in a city park over the course of a typical hot summer day, from the early-morning canine visitors to the tottering babies putting their hands in sprinklers to the adults taking their lunch breaks on shady benches to the evening strollers that get caught in the cooling rain. Of course, there are lots of obvious reasons why my kids (and your kids) would like this book, most especially because it fits entirely into their frame of reference (dogs! swings! parents! nannies! boo-boos! containers of apple slices! tears over leaving the park!). In a season where the heat can make being outside feel oppressive, it’s nice to celebrate that water can be poured into sandboxes to make moats or drizzled down scorching metal slides; that a stray cat can enjoy a sip in a lingering puddle; and that a timid dog might finally decide to wade into the pond. One also can’t ignore the widespread and very natural representation of diversity among the children and adults at the park (Jenkins took her inspiration from weeks spent observing Prospect Park in Brooklyn).
But I think the biggest reason why my kids love this book (and why you shouldn’t hesitate to give it for your next birthday gift) is the sheer comfort that comes from reading a story that’s grounded in the natural progression of a day, whose very text echoes a predictable rhythm of dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, and night. Very early on, children develop a fascination for time, but it’s not for many years that they truly grasp the meaning of “ten o’clock” or “noon,” that they recognize patterns not only in their own day but in the strangers and animals around them (gasp: the park has a life even when I’m not there?!). There’s a wonderful calm that comes from reading a story that helps to make sense of the order of things. And when the rainstorm descends to cool us all off, there’s comfort in knowing that the sun will shine again.
January 24, 2013 Comments Off on Snow Days
Last night, as I was falling asleep, I wished for snow. Not for the parent in me (who dreads school closures); not for the adult in me (who has never been terribly coordinated at navigating icy pathways); but for my children. In the two and a half years since our family moved to Virginia from the Midwest (land of bountiful blizzards), snow has been something that my kids talk about, dream about, but rarely, if ever, experience. I must admit I find it a bit alarming that my son, so nostalgic for the snow of his earliest years, has taken to listing shoveling among his top five favorite activities. It just doesn’t seem fair that my kids have to go through the daily chore of putting on puffy coats and woolen hats and fleece mittens—without the reward of some billowy white stuff to play in.
So last night, oddly without even realizing snow was in the forecast, I wished for it. And when I woke up this morning, the quiet hush outside (where was the garbage truck?) and a flurry of school emails on my phone sent me flying to my window, where I could hardly wait to broadcast my discovery.
As Cynthia Rylant’s beautiful and celebratory Snow (ages 3-8) begins, “The best snow is the snow that comes softly in the night, like a shy friend, afraid to knock, so she thinks she’ll just wait in the yard until you see her.”
June 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
Let’s face it: there are times when you can’t submit to the chants of “Read to me! Read to me!” Perhaps you’ve just had a second baby and you’re looking for something to occupy the first. Maybe you’ve got a preschooler who is starting to give up her nap, but you’re still (desperately) hoping to institute Quiet Time. Or maybe your child is not quite reading but wants to feel like he is.
Whatever your motive, there is hope: it is possible to get your non-reader to engage in quiet, independent time with books. Of course, there are some books that are more likely to succeed than others. And, as a bonus, these also tend to be the books that bore you to tears if you do have to read them aloud. You know the type: books whose illustrations are jam-packed with detail; books whose pages your child wants to pour over at such length that it seems like you’ll be stuck in his room reading to him forever. Take yourself out of the equation, and these books become—not your worst enemy—but your greatest asset.