March 16, 2019 § 2 Comments
My daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road.
Recently, The New Yorker ran a piece by Jess Row, titled “How to Grant Your Child an Inner Life,” in which Row proposes that anxious parenting, coupled with the ease of tracking technologies and the transparency of social media, has “commoditized” our children’s inner lives. Reflecting on his own childhood in the eighties and early nineties—when “get good grades and don’t act like a delinquent…and you can do what you want the rest of the time”—he asks: “What does it mean for a child today to be alone, to have an independent inner life?” Perhaps because I myself was a Rilke disciple in high school, I especially connected with this next passage:
When I was eighteen, I read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” with a sense of relief—here, finally, was someone not shy about giving direct advice on how to live![…] His message is quite simple, and universally applicable: You matter. Your feelings matter, even if (in fact, because) they’re not visible to others. Your inner life is real and important. Don’t be afraid to be alone[…]There aren’t many places where children and teenagers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access.
In many ways, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle is a celebration of the inner life to which Row alludes—one harnessed, in this case, on long, lonely stretches of quiet roads, away from the benevolent hovering of parents or guardians.
Bicycle, the story’s protagonist, is named for the toddler t-shirt she is wearing the day she is discovered, penniless and parentless, on the front steps of the Mostly Silent Monastery. Bicycle is taken in, raised, and homeschooled by the formidable Sister Wanda Magdalena, whose bark is bigger than her bite, and who comes to love Bicycle as her own.
A curious, quick-witted soul, Bicycle is also unusually quiet for a girl approaching adolescence, owing largely to the fact that her only companions have been the Mostly Silent Monks. The monks might model for Bicycle the valuable art of listening, but their conversational skills are limited to the Sacred Eight Words: “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “help,” “now,” “later,” “sleep,” and “sandwich.” While Bicycle is so attuned to the nuances of human expression that she can read any number of meanings into the word “sandwich,” depending on how it is delivered, she is less versed at initiating friendships with children her own age. At least, in Sister Wanda’s estimation.
When Brother Otto helps Bicycle purchase her namesake—a “glaringly, screamingly, almost unbearably orange” second-hand bicycle, which Bicycle affectionately names Clunk—Sister Wanda is optimistic that Bicycle’s newfound independence will encourage assimilation into the surrounding neighborhood, with its bounty of happily-playing children. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the girl needs to make friends.”
Instead, while Bicycle is on her two-wheeler, she rarely engages with other children. Even when children attempt to talk to her, even when Sister Wanda sets up formal playdates, Bicycle “started pedaling hard and left them in her dust.” Bicycle seems always to prefer the entertainment of her own mind, and this only perturbs Sister Wanda further.
As parents, how often do our protective instincts hijack us, such that we begin to see our job as warding off imaginary dangers in our children’s futures? How tempting is it to scrutinize our children, locking eyes on some atypical attribute or behavior, and then fly the plane into the trees? What begins as vigilance turns into well-disposed worrying, turns into obsessive meddling, until we can no longer see the child in front of us.
Sister Wanda informs Bicycle she is enrolling her in The Friendship Factory, a sleep-away camp outside D.C., which promises to teach children social skills (“Three Guaranteed Friendships or Your Money Back!”). To Bicycle, the premise sounds like “a guaranteed nightmare.” After repeatedly trying (and failing) to plead her case, arguing that she be allowed to make friendships in her own way, Bicycle decides drastic times call for drastic measures. When the camp bus bound for The Friendship Factory makes a pit-stop, Bicycle unhitches Clunk and rides west as fast as she can, armed with a stack of paper maps.
What results is nearly 300 pages of adventure and challenge, of thrill and despair, of risk and reward, as Bicycle makes her way from D.C. to California, with the goal of arriving in San Francisco by July 8 to see her hero, competitive Polish cyclist “Zbig,” host the “Blessing of the Bicycles.” Bicycle has received fan mail from her biking idol—signed “Your Friend, Zbig”—so she hopes that, when the two meet in person, the world will recognize that she has what it takes to make and keep a friend. At regular turns, Bicycle mails postcards of her progress back to the Monastery.
Of course, as with any lofty goal, the real payoff lies in the journey itself. Against such vivid, memorable backdrops—from the sunflowers of Kansas to the purple mountains of Colorado to the unrelenting desert of Nevada—Bicycle meets a cast of eccentric characters, human and not-so-human. Many of these characters are hinted at on the book’s cover, and my daughter derived great satisfaction from checking off the backstory of each one. There’s Chef Marie Petitchou, who fears her French restaurant chain will lose out to the Americans’ pastime for fast food. There’s an uppity racehorse named The Cannibal, a favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, if only he can battle his homesickness for the French countryside of his youth. There’s a man in a chicken suit, a parade of pigs, a Cookie Lady, a sponge salesman, two feuding business owners, and a Bike Thief.
And there’s my daughter’s favorite: a ghost named Griffin, who has been haunting a Civil War battleground in Virginia for hundreds of years and longs for someone to lead him back to his Missouri hometown, famous for its fried pies. (Oh, I could write an entire blog post about the descriptions of food in this story!)
Long before Bicycle herself realizes it, we readers become keen witnesses of her power to touch the hearts and lives of those whose paths she crosses. She sets out to make a single friendship, but she ends up with friendships in every one of the nine states she traverses. She even, on occasion, comes to prefer the presence of another—even a ghost singing Civil War ballads on repeat—to the company of her own mind. These friends may not resemble the ones Sister Wanda had in mind for Bicycle, but they become critical to Bicycle’s well-being—and she to theirs.
None of these friendships would happen under the watchful eye of Sister Wanda. Neither would the brushes with starvation, physical exhaustion, and loneliness—which often drive Bicycle to venture outside her comfort zone and engage these folks in the first place. Still, it isn’t just Bicycle’s physical distance from the Monastery which enables her growth: it is the freedom she has on the open road in which to turn inward. To ponder. To reflect. To dig deep. To sort out the type of human she wants to be.
Our own tweens aren’t likely to get away with bicycling 4,000 miles largely unsupervised, but this book will nonetheless tempt them with the possibilities for self-discovery inherent in any amount of time spent outside the home, away from technology, social media, and parental watchfulness. If we read it aloud to our children, we might find ourselves nostalgic for the liberties we took in the 1970s and 1980s, often on our bicycles and in our own private worlds.
At the same time it celebrates the power of an inner life, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle also affirms the role of the parent or guardian. As even Sister Wanda comes to see by the end of the story, in a series of delightful surprises, it may be our children’s job to sort out the type of human they want to be, but it’s our equally important job to validate them, to support them, and to help them get there.
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Review copy from Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House. 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!
December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age.
My friends (occasionally readers of my blog, too) have heard me gush about how the eight weeks I spent every summer at an all-girls sleepaway camp in Vermont were some of my favorite—and most formative—parts of my childhood. But I miiiiiight gloss over the less-glamorous moments. Like the very first night, when I tried to ignore the pit of homesickness in my belly and climbed up into the top bunk, only to come nose to nose with a mouse perched on the rafter. Or the fact that I still have the scar from when, on the way back from a middle-of-the-night trip to the outhouse, I tripped on a rock trying to outrun a skunk I felt sure was chasing me. And those are just the animal stories. To say nothing of the times I fought with my best friend and thought I would die from loneliness.
But then there were days when I’d walk barefooted down to the pond, linking arms with other girls and singing at the top of our voices. And oh, did I mention the singing? There was the table-thumping mealtime singing (the louder the better), followed by the quiet campfire singing on the archery field at dusk. There was waking up each morning to the cool, crisp smell of pine needles and the prospect of choice: how would I spend today?
In Be Prepared, nine-year-old Vera is tired of not fitting in during the school year (“too poor,” “too Russian,” and “too different”). Her wealthy friends have sleepover birthday parties, which Vera’s own single mother can never replicate (it’s supposed to be a Carvel ice cream cake, not a charity handout from a woman at church!). Most maddening, these girls take every occasion to brag about the posh sleepaway camps they attend in the summer.
But then Vera gets wind of a church-sponsored Russian sleepaway camp near a lake in Connecticut (crafts! canoeing! singing! bonfires!) and convinces her mom to send her and her younger brother for what turns into four weeks. At last, she will do the things her rich friends do! She packs her bags weeks before departure, and she can hardly contain her excitement when her mom turns down the private dirt road to the camp. “It felt like entering another country.”
Only nothing about Camp ORRA (Organization of Russian Razvedchiki) matches any of Vera’s fantasies. For one, there’s no candy allowed. For two, there’s wood to chop, no running water, and an outhouse nicknamed Hollywood which would scare the poop out of anyone. For three, you’re supposed to speak in Russian…and sit through long church services…and attend daily classes on Russian history. Oh, and the horseflies are as big as birds, and there are mysterious heavy footsteps outside your tent when you’re trying to sleep.
And then there are Vera’s bunkmates: two camp veterans who are best friends and four years older than her (translation: they wear bras and use maxipads).
Still, Vera—proud, resilient, and a tad feisty—is determined, not simply to grin and bear it, but to “beat” it. She will win over her obnoxious, bossy, boy-obsessed bunkmates if it’s the last thing she does (even if it means breaking a camp rule). She will steal the flag from the boys’ camp and become a legend among the other girls. She will earn top badges for her wilderness knowledge. She will figure out how to poop in that outhouse.
Only somewhere along the way, Vera begins to realize she is focused on all the wrong things. There is a true friend—a slightly younger girl, who takes an interest in Vera’s prolific sketching—right under her nose, if she would just notice her. There is a chance to appreciate, even embrace, her Russian heritage. And there are the woods, with opportunities for freedom and mystery and wonder.
Vera’s summer isn’t anything like what she envisioned. But, like the best summers, it is ripe with self-discovery, growth, and an appreciation for modern plumbing.
Published by First Second. 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!
This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.
June 21, 2018 § 4 Comments
Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.
In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind.
I am Jazz is Jazz Jennings’ autobiographical picture book, co-written with Jessica Herthel, about what it was like to grow up with “a girl brain but a boy body.” From the earliest ages, Jazz identified as a girl. More than simply dressing up as princesses and mermaids, Jazz would correct her parents when they would say, “You’re such a good boy,” responding, “No, Mama. Good GIRL!” In Jazz’s case, it was her pediatrician who identified her as transgender and encouraged her parents to stop cutting her hair and putting her in boy clothing. Eventually, her teachers at school allowed her to join the girls’ soccer team, and she found a group of friends who saw her, not as someone to be teased or feared, but as “one of the nicest girls at school.”
I could feel the intensity in the air as I read. My children bent so far over the pages that I had to ask them to sit back so I could see the words. “Have I just opened a can of worms?” I thought. “Are they even old enough to understand this?” These were actual questions that went through my head.
When I finished reading, I asked if they wanted to talk about the book. “Nope!” they chorused, pulling out the next title from the box. And so, I moved on. And I don’t just mean with the next book. Later that day, I tucked I am Jazz inside one of the cabinets in our office. Are you getting this? I hid the book. I justified my action: “This is a great book, but I’ll get it out in a few years when they’re older. When it’s more applicable to their life or to someone they know.” Yes. I actually thought these things.
The very next day, I walked into my four-year-old daughter’s room to find her paging through the book. How on earth she found it I will never know. She beamed at me: “Mommy, Jazz likes all the same things I do: dance, soccer, swimming, and the color pink!” “Yes,” I said. And then, a few days later, when I was tidying up her room, I hid the book. Again.
A few weeks later, we had friends over for dinner. Long after everyone had finished eating, the adults were still lingering at the table, when my son barged in carrying our children’s dictionary, trailed by his sister and friends. “We need to throw out this dictionary,” he pronounced, with his typical fondness for the dramatic. “It is missing words.”
“What word are you trying to look up?” one of the grown-ups asked.
Instantly, I knew that I am Jazz was circulating around our house again; and—based on the looks everyone was exchanging around the table—making for some pretty riveting conversations upstairs.
As they do more times than I could ever count, my children held a mirror in front of my face. They illuminated my shortcoming—in this case, a bias—which I wasn’t even aware I had. We shouldn’t save “issues books” for the moments the issues arise. Heck, we shouldn’t even label them as “issues books.” My children were intrigued by the idea of transgender, sure, but I have since realized that their interest in this book extends well beyond definitions. I am Jazz is just one more tale in a long line of tales about kids trying to make sense of who they are—a journey every child faces, at every age. Even more, I am Jazz celebrates that journey. Jazz is brave and animated and refreshing. She is who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. What child wouldn’t be fascinated by her?
It may have taken three tries, but I am Jazz finally got a prominent place on our bookshelves, and I’m proud to say that, years later, it still floats in and out of both children’s rooms regularly. My children talk about Jazz like they know her, like she’s their friend. “We read Jazz’s book in school today!” my ten year old announced with excitement earlier this year. “Can you believe there were some kids who had never heard of her?” He went on: “My teacher used to date someone who is transgender. That’s cool, don’t you think?” That my children think this is cool—and not weird or scary or confused—owes a great deal to reading I am Jazz when they did.
Published earlier this spring, Julián is a Mermaid also raises the subject of gender identity, though it does so with a subtlety and ambiguity that would likely not have been possible were it not for predecessors like I am Jazz. With mesmerizing illustrations, just 23 short sentences, and as much unspoken as spelled out, this picture book is visual storytelling at its best. Julián’s journey unfolds only over the span of a few hours; and yet, encapsulated in these hours is a multi-faceted glimpse into how high the stakes are when we risk being seen for who we really are.
When the story opens, Julián is riding the subway with his abuela and reading a book about a subject near and dear to his heart: mermaids. A moment later, as he looks up, three tall, svelte women dance into his car, sporting elaborate hair styles and identical aquamarine fishtail dresses. We don’t need text to tell us what Julián is thinking: mermaids in the flesh.
As Julián watches these women, he begins to picture himself as a mermaid, fantasizing silently about throwing off his clothes, growing a gold-tipped pink tail, and swimming alongside a school of brightly-patterned fish through water colored the same shade of aquamarine as the ladies’ dresses.
A large, intricately-designed indigo blue fish approaches him with a necklace offering. In these waters, Julián is not only joyful and uninhibited; he (she) is also adored.
As Julián and his abuela depart the train and walk home, Julián’s mind is still on the three ladies.
“Abuela, did you see the mermaids?”
“I saw them, mijo.”
“Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”
At this point, it’s impossible to decipher what the boy’s grandmother makes of all this. Her coiffed white hair and voluminous shape combine with pronounced, imposing facial features, mostly bent towards frowning. Her only response to Julian declaring himself a mermaid is to peer silently down at him—and then, on the next page, inform him that she is going to take a bath and that he should “be good” while she’s out of the room.
The three nearly wordless double spreads that follow—as Julián dramatically sheds his clothes, rigs up a headpiece from flowers and palm fronds, and tears down the white lace curtains to create a mermaid tail—are so ripe with expression, movement, and gorgeousness, we fall completely in love with this child (if we weren’t already). Heck, you don’t even have to like mermaids—my daughter reminded me that she doesn’t—to agree that this costume is nothing short of extraordinary. And, yes, there is make-up involved.
Cue dramatic tension, as the grandmother emerges from the bathroom, wrapped in her own white swathe, and stands staring at her grandson, who is now posing like a Greek goddess. As abuela turns silently and walks off the page, Julián’s big eyes stare after her intensely, worriedly. On the next page, his expression turns downcast. He lifts the end of his tail, as if seeing it for the curtain it is. He glimpses himself in the mirror, as if struggling to recognize himself. There is not a single word of text—and yet, our hearts are in our throat, watching this child question himself. (In an interview featured on the blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author-illustrator Jessica Love talks about the evolution of her art for this book, which she originally painted on a white background, until she realized that layering color atop of brown paper bags actually allowed her to infuse the facial features of her brown-skinned characters with greater emotion. The result is pitch perfect and absolutely stunning.)
But then, the grandmother returns—“Come here, mijo”—wearing a colorful headscarf and an indigo dress with a white pattern that will be familiar (to observant readers) from the earlier aquatic scene of Julián’s imagination. She holds out a pink beaded necklace, which Julian takes with a wide grin.
Once again, abuela leads him outside and down the street. She leads him straight into the heart of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a crowd of people wearing octopus tentacles and jellyfish headpieces, swishing and swaying in unapologetically bright fabrics and tall heels. “Mermaids,” whispers Julián.
At last, abuela’s face seems to soften into a smile, as she says the words Julián most needs to hear: “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.”
As Julián marches alongside these kindred spirits, alongside his accepting abuela, we glimpse in him the same joy and freedom from his private fantasy earlier in the day. We are reminded of the power of being seen, of being loved, for exactly who we are.
A postscript: This has been a gut-wrenching week of news, as we listen to reports of refugee children being separated—ripped apart—from their families at our border and by our government. Children who may never see their loved ones again. Julián is a Mermaid is not a political book. It is not a book with a shove-it-down-your-throat message. But it is a profoundly touching story about the power—the fundamental necessity—of unconditional familial love. About how, under the gentle tutelage of love and acceptance, children can bask in the joy of childhood, can grow into adults who take pride in themselves. Every child deserves this.
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Review copies by Penguin and Candlewick, respectively. 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!
October 29, 2015 § 2 Comments
In preparation for our recent trip to New York City, I wanted to select a chapter book to read to my eight year old that would inspire our itinerary. Last year, you might remember that we read two fantastic books which took us straight to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was amazing to watch JP anticipate what he would find in the museum, based on what he had read—and then to leave a few hours later with a skip in his step and an entirely different experience from what he had expected. This is the power of art: to transform, to surprise, to delight.
I was secretly hoping that I could convince JP to go back to The Met this fall, so I scrounged up another novel set in and around the museum. Beginning a few days before we left and concluding on the train ride home (where the woman sitting behind us remarked, as we were getting off, “Thank you for that delightful story!”), I read aloud Elise Broach’s moving and riveting Masterpiece (Ages 9-12), which features a boy, a beetle, and an art heist staged around a masterpiece on loan to The Met.
The art heist is fictional—as is the stolen drawing—but the artist at hand, German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer, is well represented in The Met’s permanent collection (to JP’s delight). Additionally, the novel is geeked out for art history lovers, packed with information about the most notorious art heists in history, as well as rich in discussion of what makes art worthy of our attention.
Does your child have to be interested in art to enjoy this novel? HECK, NO! Not only is the story about much more than art (mystery! adventure! defiance of authority!), it stars an eleven-year-old boy whose only experience with art is that his father is an artist—and who initially feels only disappointment when his father gifts him a pen-and-ink set for his birthday.
What our protagonist James does care about—what he yearns for—is connection. Connection to his divorced parents, who don’t see him for who he is, and connection to a true friend, whom he has never had. Elise Broach (who also authored the Superstition Mountain series, which I read to JP earlier this year) has a wonderful ability to showcase the inner emotional life of her young characters, by revealing how they interact with their surroundings. In this case, what we learn about this gentle, watchful, sensitive soul named James derives largely from his unexpected friendship with a cockroach.
A COCKROACH?! Well, OK, Marvin is technically a ground beetle, who lives with his family in a damp corner of the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink of James’ Manhattan apartment. But anyone who has ever lived in New York City can vouch that he might as well be a cockroach. No doubt Broach is anticipating our reaction and using this to underline how remarkable this friendship is between boy and bug.
Masterpiece deserves to be on a shelf with the best of them. Think Charlotte’s Web, or The Cricket in Times Square, but for a slightly older audience. Broach writes the relationship between child and animal with the same tenderness that E.B. White and George Selden brought to their respective classics. She envisions a “miniature” world (a world where beetles bum rides off their human’s vacuum cleaner) with much the same detail and fascination as fellow contemporary Richard Peck did in The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail.
Only Broach offers up more at stake. In Masterpiece, James’ chance for happiness, or at least self-acceptance, hinges on what happens as a result of his relationship with the animal world.
Early on in the story, Marvin (the beetle) stumbles upon the pen-and-ink set, lying abandoned on James’ desk. By dragging two feet through the little bit of ink left in the unscrewed top, he discovers that he can create a realistic rendition of the nighttime view outside James’ window. A drawing, as it turns out, with an uncanny likeness to the renowned sketches by Albrecht Durer.
When James awakens, he spots the beetle hiding beside the not-yet-dry picture. A friendship—“like a great work of art”—is quickly born, and James is determined to learn more about Marvin’s world.
But James is equally determined that no one should know Marvin’s secret but him. Herein lies the haunting ethical question posed subtly but frequently by the novel (and a big reason why this story lends itself to sharing aloud): Is James right to take credit for Marvin’s drawing, which creates an impressive stir as soon as it is discovered the next day by the adults? While James genuinely wishes to protect Marvin from his fellow humans (because he’s a cockroach)—and he knows no one would believe the truth—there’s no doubt that he benefits from the spotlight suddenly afforded to him by his father, who whisks him off to the The Met to show the drawing to his colleagues, thereby unwittingly casting both James and Marvin in a page-turning plot of art forgery, fueled by the FBI’s desire to catch a famous art thief.
At first, James’ inadvertent “lie”—that he is capable of such art—seems innocent enough; but as the story goes on, we begin to observe the devastating effect that it has, not only on James’ moral compass, but on his relationships with the adults in his life. Our heart breaks for him time and time again. “But he has no choice!” my JP kept lamenting, equally torn. Or does he? It takes the duration of the book for James to figure out how to free himself from this suffocating secret, while still remaining loyal to his six-legged friend.
Marvin may be the overt artistic hero of the book, but James is the one who inspires us to broaden our definition of heroism. Through his friendship with Marvin, James begins to discover and embrace his own, less visible gifts. He notices Marvin when no one else does—and this same power of observation also leads James to track down the art thief and rescue the stolen art. Most importantly, James’ watchful eye sees past the fronts, whether beautiful or ugly, that people and animals present to the world, the defenses we construct around us.
Marvin looked up at James, filled with a warm tide of something he’d never felt before. More than affection or gratitude. It was something deeper. It was the sense of being seen and loved exactly for who he was.
We weren’t halfway through the book when JP requested that we once again visit The Met on our weekend in New York (success!). We went straight to the Durer paintings, although JP felt that they paled in comparison with the sketches described in the book. We moved on to the twentieth century wing where, after looking around for awhile, JP asked if he could sit and sketch. “But I don’t want to draw any of these paintings. I want to do my own.”
As I watched my son change out color after color to form a bizarre geometric maze with his pencils, I started thinking about James, whose drawings would never measure up to Marvin’s. And yet, success is not always about making masterpieces, the book seems to reassure us in the end. It’s about the way that art brings people together—and the way that it inspires us to learn things about ourselves. When we liberate ourselves from the pressure to be something we aren’t, life gets a whole lot more enjoyable.
Other Favorite Chapter Books About Art Heists:
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (Ages 9-12)
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett (Ages 9-12)
Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (Ages 10-14)
AND, if you child isn’t ready for the complexity of Masterpiece—or has listened to Masterpiece but wants something easier to read on his own—Elise Broach has recently launched a spinoff early-chapter book series, targeted at emerging readers and inspired by the everyday adventures of James and Marvin. The Miniature World of Marvin and James and James to the Rescue are charming quick reads.
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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!
April 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
There was a point earlier this year, when I was recovering from the flu and still not up and about, that I found myself lying in bed, reading aloud to my kids—both of whom, instead of tucked in beside me, were at the foot of the bed, running in place on my foam roller. If you’ve ever tried running in place on a foam roller, you’ll know that it is not possible. Hence, as I was lying there reading, little heads kept disappearing from sight and then popping back up again. Normally, as a reader, this would have driven me insane. Except that this particular shenanigan seemed perfectly fitting for the reading material at hand.
It is downright impossible to sit demurely while listening to The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (Ages 5-8 if reading aloud, older if reading independently). This beautifully bound anthology combines three of Astrid Lindgren’s unabridged 1950s chapter books (Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes on Board, and Pippi in the South Seas) with the ebullient, contemporary pen-and-ink illustrations of Michael Chesworth.
You see, there’s just something about Pippi—one of children’s literature’s most infamous, compelling, and downright hilarious young heroines—that invites physical participation from her audience.
For starters, Pippi herself is in constant motion. At any given moment, she’s climbing down a ladder inside the hollowed-out oak in her backyard; she’s mounting a bucking bull; she’s tying a scrubbing brush to the bottom of each foot and skating around her kitchen floor; or she’s glaring into the eyes of a hungry shark before flinging him out to sea where he’ll never bother her friends again.
Then there’s the implicit hilarity in everything she does—humor made all the more entertaining because it’s entirely unintentional on Pippi’s part. My children have never thrown back their heads and laughed harder. “Keep reading! Keep reading!” they’d chant, when I would (horrors!) come to the end of a chapter. When Pippi heads home after an outing, she walks backwards, because it saves her the hassle of turning around. She insists on calling multiplication “plutification” and having nothing to do with it. And she cooks with pure abandon: throwing eggs up against the ceiling to crack them and rolling out cookie dough across the entire kitchen floor. Tears. My kids would laugh so hard they’d get tears.
Ultimately, the biggest reason no one can sit still around Pippi is that she defies conventions at every turn. She’s the polar opposite of ladylike, with her sticky-out braids, a patched dress she made herself, two different color stockings, and black shoes twice as large as her feet. (This last feature became a constant topic of conversation in our house: how does she pull off all those crazy stunts wearing shoes two sizes too big?).
But she doesn’t just fly in the face of gender stereotypes. She flies in the face of what it means to be a child, especially one in a society ripe with scrutiny and expectation. She’s wild. She’s fearless. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her. She gets into fights with policemen. She tells so many ridiculous tall tales that it’s nearly impossible to tell her lies from the truth. She’s not a superhero, but she has super-human strength, making her stronger than any grown woman or man or animal in the world.
And here’s the biggest kicker. What makes Pippi so magnetic to her young audience is that she has TOTAL FREEDOM. She lives by herself (her father is a traveling sea captain, and her mother has died)—and she absolutely loves it. In her house called Villa Villekulla, Pippi may have the company of a monkey named Mr. Nilsson, but she has no one telling her what to do, when to go to bed, or why she should go to school. She is the ultimate free spirit: a gal who wakes up, feels which way the wind is blowing, and maps out her adventure. If she wants to ride into town on her horse and buy candy for all the children, she does. If she wants to pick up and become a pirate for a few months, she does that, too.
Astrid Lindren is quite brilliant with this girl-who’s-in-charge-of-herself premise. Certainly, the child reader knows that the idea is absurd (not to mention illegal)—and yet, there’s just enough about the situation that makes us entertain its plausibility. We don’t have to worry about Pippi’s safety, because her super-human strength means she can protect herself. And we don’t have to worry about her becoming impoverished, because she’s in possession of a treasure chest filled with gold.
So it could happen that she lives by herself, my children like to point out. “I think Pippi was a real girl, who lived a long time ago, and the story just kind of exaggerates what she was really like,” my seven-year-old concluded one day. “I mean, I bet she was really, really strong—but not as strong as she is in the book.”
“Do you think she lived by herself?” I asked.
After a long pause, “Yes, I think she did. I think she was allowed to, because her father would come back and check on her sometimes.”
For all her absurdity, Pippi is not all physical comedy. Her feelings are like that of any child. She is curious; she is hot-tempered; she cries over the unlikeliest of things. She heartily enjoys the companionship of the next-door children, Tommy and Annika (the very picture of convention), and she is incredibly kind and generous towards them. In fact, when seen through the eyes of her adoring friends, there’s a hint of vulnerability, of loneliness, in our heroine—the feeling that perhaps the fantasy of living on her own isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the book’s final chapter, as Tommy and Annika get ready for bed in their own house, they catch a glimpse through the window of Pippi sitting alone in hers, staring dreamily at a flickering candle, before blowing it out and succumbing to total darkness.
Perhaps the most lovable thing about Pippi is her genuineness. What you see is what you get. She is exactly who she proclaims to be.
On our recent Spring Break trip to Florida, the kids and I were walking down a private road to catch the sunset on the beach. My son was a few steps ahead, when I saw him suddenly stop, his mouth moving silently like he was sounding something out. And then he exclaimed:
“Villa Villekulla! It’s Villa Villekulla!”
And so it was. Or, rather, as the kids were quick to point out, someone had named their beach house after that of the spirited heroine. Naturally, there was no horse on the front porch; no tall attic harboring ancient pirate loot. But it made us smile to realize that Pippi is a character that stays with people long after they close the book. She’s someone you might not necessarily want to be (at least, not all the time); but she’s definitely someone who makes you see the fun—and the funny—in life.
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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!
February 26, 2014 § 6 Comments
The lovely new picture book, ExtraOrdinary Jane (Ages 3-100), by first time author-illustrator Hannah E. Harrison, has me all fired up—but in a good way. Jane, a fluffy little white circus dog, “was ordinary, in a world that was extraordinary.” She isn’t “mighty” like her elephant-lifting father, or “graceful” like her ballerina mother. She isn’t “daring” enough to be shot out of a cannon like her six canine brothers. Try as she does to “find her special talent,” she encounters either mediocrity (her paintings lack “pizzazz”) or failure (her musical renditions send others running).
While the book may be set in a circus, its poignant, carefully worded message is clearly intended to transcend the Big Top. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be ordinary in our increasingly supercharged, achievement-obsessed society. Bringing up kids today means confronting talent at seemingly every turn: the athlete that tears down the soccer field; the six year old who is already in her third year of violin; the kid who reads at three grade levels above her peers. It’s not enough for children to be good at something; they are expected to be the best. When I was growing up, it wasn’t until I was applying to college that I was asked to think about the concept of “expertise.” Today, the question is on preschool applications: “What special skills/talents does your child have?”
As parents, it can mess with our heads; even worse, it can bring out our own insecurities and prompt us to scrutinize everything our children do. We might lie in bed and wonder, will my child ever be the best at something? And what if he or she is not? More significantly, when will these thought patterns begin to rub off on them? If we continue to judge our children on the basis of outward achievement, when will the pressure become too much for them? When will they stop discovering for themselves and start performing for others?
In this light, words like “ordinary” and “average” have become almost taboo. Calling your child “ordinary” (horrors!) is like saying you don’t believe in him; that you don’t think he has anything unique to offer the world. But have we forgotten that “extraordinary,” by definition, can only exist by comparison to others? Because the thing is, I do believe that my children are ordinary. And I also believe that they, like all children, ordinary or extraordinary, have unlimited gifts to offer the world. My children are incredibly special to me and to the people who love them; we marvel at everything they say and do. But, if I’m being honest, they’re not any more or less extraordinary than most kids. In the short time that they’ve been alive, they don’t seem to have any particular talents that rise to the top and set them apart. My son’s interests lie all over the place, and they’re unpredictable from day to day. He is as generous as he is bossy, as much a leader as he is a follower. Sometimes he tries really hard at stuff, and sometimes he gives up quickly. He reads no better or worse than most six year olds. And watching him on the soccer field is akin to watching a tortoise (albeit a smiling one) sunning himself on a rock. When did all of that become not good enough?
I love that ordinariness gets a makeover in ExtraOrdinary Jane, where our protagonist is celebrated alongside her extraordinary peers. Every one of Jane’s initial attempts to emulate the talents around her is brought to life in stunning acrylic paintings: visual explosions of color, texture, and movement that are nothing short of extraordinary themselves—as if even the illustrations themselves are bent on showing up our little Jane. (With their rich polishing and almost old-fashioned sensibility, the circus animals recall Chris Van Dusen’s equally extraordinary The Circus Ship.) And yet, there is warmth and humor in every one of Harrison’s pictures, just as there is in the good-natured and undefeated Jane. Following a disastrous collision of animals, resulting from Jane’s loss of balance on a gigantic ball, comes a wordless, double-page spread showing all the animals lined up on a bench outside the hospital, each sporting various bandages, braces, and compresses. Jane sits slightly apart from the group, sporting an expression of bemusement, as if to say, “ah, shucks, guys, I guess that didn’t work out so well.”
In the end, it is the exquisite illustrations that carry home the book’s powerful message. Across the final pages, the only text we are given is that “Jane…was just…Jane.” No further explanation is needed, save for pictures of the little dog enjoying an ice cream cone with a bear, helpfully polishing the cannons, and curling up inside the ringmaster’s arms. What we get is an opportunity to look at these pictures—of Jane being Jane—and embrace her for just that. Not for who we would like her to be. But for who she is. Sweet, hard-working, curious, kind. Happy. Ordinary. Loved.
And that’s enough.
Other Favorite Pictures Books About Celebrating Who You Are:
For Just One Day, by Laura Leuck & Marc Boutavant (Ages 2-4)
I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont & David Catrow (Ages 3-8)
Leo the Late Bloomer, by Robert Kraus & Jose Aruego (Ages 4-8)