January 11, 2019 § 3 Comments
(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)
A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).
When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.
I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:
This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.
Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!
I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.
My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.
The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.
The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.
The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.
A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.
An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?
But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)
Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”
And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”
And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.
Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.
What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.
Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?
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Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 30, 2014 § 4 Comments
JP has decorated his summer journal and is ready to record our adventures (here’s hoping his motivation extends past the first week). Many of these adventures will take us into nature, where there are always metaphors to be discovered about life. Take, for example, our vegetable garden: each morning we wake to budding strawberries, and each evening we return to discover that they have been devoured by the squirrels and cardinals (how dare the latter betray me after I sung their praises right here?!). There’s a lesson somewhere in there about patience and not expecting to get things right the first time. And so we return to bed with renewed hope.
The Dandelion’s Tale (Ages 4-8), a new picture book by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey, offers us another metaphor, this one about the fleeting, cyclical nature of life. This gem of a book takes what can be a heavy subject and delivers it in such a subtle, eloquent, kind, and accessible way, that children won’t realize they’re being taught a Great Lesson. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it stars a dandelion. You’d be hard pressed to find a child that isn’t obsessed with dandelions. A yellow flower that I can pick with no adult getting mad (not to mention wind into chains, tuck behind my ear, or proudly proffer to whatever grown-up happens to be standing near)? A billowy white flower with such delicate seeds that the tiniest puff of breath sends them sailing across the grass? Yes, a child’s love for dandelions runs deep.
In The Dandelion’s Tale, we are privy to a special friendship between a young, vivacious sparrow and an anthropomorphized dandelion near the end of her life, with only ten remaining seedpods on her stem. When the two first meet, the dandelion is in tears: “A short while ago, I was so strong, and the brightest yellow you’ve ever seen. Now I’m white and fuzzy and I’ve lost most of my seedpods. If the wind starts to blow, I’ll lose them all and no one will ever know I was here.” After some trial and error, the pals decide on a course of action for fulfilling the dandelion’s wish to be remembered: the dandelion will dictate her life’s story to Sparrow, who will inscribe it in the mud for all to behold. (A creature after my own heart, Dandelion exclaims, “It would be just like a book!…I was so envious that people have something as marvelous as books.”) Thus follows the book’s loveliest pages, as the dandelion describes her affection for the smell of the meadow after the rain, the sound of laughing children playing, and her conversations with squirrels.
But, of course, life does not always go according to plan. A strong nighttime storm washes away, not only the dandelion’s story in the mud, but also Dandelion herself. Some of you are by now thinking, why would I want to share such a sad story with my child? And, I won’t lie: it was at this point, when the sparrow belts out a song of mourning, that I looked over and saw my son’s eyes fill with tears. And I panicked for a moment. But the story does not end here, and the sparrow soon discovers ten baby dandelions popping up around the very spot that their mother once grew. In the same way that the chapter book, Charlotte’s Web, concludes with Wilbur taking comfort in Charlotte’s children once his beloved spider is gone, so this picture book ends with Sparrow telling an eager audience of bright yellow dandelions the story of their mother (“because Sparrow had written and read the dandelion’s story, he discovered that he knew it by heart”).
As parents, many of us are afraid to talk to our children about loss, preferring to keep them nestled in a cocoon of naivety, believing that it is our principal job to shield them from sadness or worry. Only when tragedy strikes—the loss of a grandparent or a pet, perhaps—do we run to the library and ask for books about grieving. But if we can find ways of introducing the topic of life’s impermanence to our children at an early age, in moments of calm and contentment and with the reassuring gift of our presence, then we will give them the confidence, the understanding, and the peace to embrace life for what it is. The first time we finished this book, JP leaned his head on my shoulder. “That is both a very sad and a very happy story, Mommy, don’t you think?” Indeed, I do.
Another Favorite Nature Story About the Cycle of Life (and a subtle way of introducing loss):
City Dog, Country Frog, by Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth (Ages 4-8)
June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
At 20 months, my daughter is starting to move away from board books and into short, simple picture books; consequently, she (and I) have fallen in love with Emily’s Balloon (Ages 18 mos-3 yrs), by Japanese author-artist Komako Sakai. I know, I know, you’re thinking that we’re partial to this book because my daughter’s name also happens to be Emily. But before I even had kids, I used to sell gobs of this book when it first came out in 2006; customers would only have to page through the gorgeous charcoal-and-wash pages to fall in love.
Some of my favorite children’s books have been imported from Japan; their illustrative style so beautifully transports us back to the carefree days of our own youth, when making dandelion crowns for a balloon might easily occupy an afternoon. What is it with toddlers and balloons? Balloons have a buoyancy that seems fascinating in its unpredictability, yet non-threatening in its softness; but, most significantly, its perfect sphere-like shape is just the right size for little eyes to track.
No one understands this appeal more than Komako Sakai, who sets a bright yellow balloon against muted browns and grays on every page, giving it a tangibility that little fingers can’t help but point out. When our heroine Emily is first given the balloon from a street vendor, she immediately loses it into the sky. She continues to experiment with her second balloon, getting it stuck on the ceiling when she gets home (the lovely sparseness of the text means that this page gets a simple “Uh oh” which my Emily loves), until her mother cleverly ties the balloon around Emily’s spoon (“Look! It floats, but it doesn’t fly away!”).
Emily and her balloon spend the afternoon together, playing house and making said dandelion crowns. But a toddler is never far from disappointment, and just before dinnertime, a strong breeze sends the balloon high up into a tree. Here follows a sad mealtime, where Emily encounters and verbalizes regret (“We wanted to eat together.”); she wistfully imagines herself sitting at the dinner table with her balloon and, later, helping it into a night cap before bed. Modern parenting scholars would likely celebrate this book that validates a very real emotion from our toddlers; we can also herald the mother, who doesn’t turn the family’s schedule upside down to rescue the balloon right then and there but instead reassures her daughter: “Tomorrow, I’ll borrow a ladder and get it down.” “Really?” “Really.” “Really and truly?” “Really and truly.”
The book leaves us with Emily tucked snugly into bed but still thinking about the balloon. As she peeks out her darkened window, she sees her balloon in the tree, shining big and golden as the moon. As we’re reminded, life is filled with silver (and gold) linings.
Other Favorites Where Balloons Can Be Tracked On (Almost) Every Page:
Goodnight, Gorilla, by Peggy Rathmann (Ages 1-3)
A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead & Erin Stead (Ages 2-5)
The Red Balloon, by Albert Lamorisse (Ages 6-10)