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 § 3 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 to be proud of. Every child deserves this treatment.
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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!
December 7, 2017 § 3 Comments
As promised, here is a roundup of my favorite middle-grade fiction of 2017, a mix of graphic and traditional novels, targeted at tweens or older. Not included are titles I blogged about earlier in the year—gems like The Inquisitor’s Tale, The Wild Robot, and See You in the Cosmos, which would make excellent additions to this list. Also not included are books I haven’t read yet—particularly Amina’s Voice, Nevermoor, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and Scar Island (by the same author as the riveting Some Kind of Courage)—which would likely be on this list if I had. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I adore, has a sequel out this year which I’m dying to read. And I should also mention that if my son were making this list, he would undoubtedly note that it has been a stand-out year for new installments in his favorite series, including this, this, this, this, and this.
Now, without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into these richly textured and meaty stories, filled with angst and adventure, secrets and self-discovery.
For the Girl Trying to Make Sense of Middle School
If Victoria Jamieson’s new graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School (Ages 10-13), and Shannon Hale’s equally fabulous, Real Friends (Ages 10-13), don’t take you straight back to your own days in middle school, then your middle school experience must have looked a lot different than mine (I think I experienced PTSD reading these books). And yet, perhaps things would have been different if I had gotten my hands on stories like these, if I had been introduced to female protagonists who had shown me I was not alone. Jamieson and Hale navigate the awkwardness, pettiness, and—yes—cruelty of middle school girls, at the same time delving into what it means to be on the outside looking in, craving acceptance, even at great expense.
Real Friends, which is actually Hale’s memoir of her own middle school years, addresses the mean-girls culture head on; the questions which arise, about why girls treat one another the way they do, continue through the story’s powerful Afterward. All’s Faire in Middle School (Jamieson’s previous was the Newberry Honor Book, Roller Girl) puts forth an especially clever construct to explore similar themes. Formerly home schooled, eleven-year-old Imogene is fumbling to gain acceptance into the social scene of her new public middle school, while at the same time balancing a close-knit family life revolving around her parents’ unconventional work at the local Renaissance Faire. Trying to be cool, while simultaneously “coming out” as a kid who dresses up in period costumes and holds Knight-in-Training classes on the weekends, comes with monumental challenges. Imogene makes realistic, even devastating, mistakes on the path to ultimately finding a way to stay true to herself. She also reminds us that if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll never survive middle school.
For the Geocacher
In The Exact Location of Home (Ages 9-12), Kate Messner does something sneaky. She has readers think they’re merely reading about a boy’s adventures with geocaching, while at the same time gently lifting the stigma of child homelessness. Messner tells us in the book’s front matter that more than two million children in America each year are homeless for a period of time. Most of these kids have to keep on with their life: doing homework, making friends, eating and sleeping in communal shelters, and—oftentimes—going to great lengths to keep their situation secreted.
Twelve-year-old Zig becomes, overnight, one of these kids. His parents are divorced; his dad has gone MIA and stopped paying child support (Zig is convinced he can use geocaching to find him); and his mother’s job waiting tables to support nursing school can’t cover the rent. After exhausting their options, Zig and his mother move into a shelter and share living space with the very likes of people Zig has always looked down upon. Zig is a whip-smart, incredibly earnest boy, whose complicated reactions to his predicament—spanning rage, resentment, and reconciliation—make us feel for him at every turn. His two best friends, both girls, are excellent additions to the story (there’s even a spot of romance), making this an engaging choice for boys and girls alike.
When it feels like middle-grade literature is increasingly pulling subject matter from the young-adult world, it’s refreshing to recommend a read that is light, fun, and promises pure escapism. Even better when that story conjures up mouth-watering descriptions of chocolate. I just finished reading Stephanie Burgis’ The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Ages 8-12) to my daughter, and we both agreed that an ornery, impatient, fire-breathing dragon trapped inside a human’s body is an apt metaphor for what it sometimes feels like to be female.
When the story begins, a young dragon named Aventurine runs away from her family’s cave, not content to bide her time indoors for thirty-plus more years until she reaches maturity. Almost immediately, she is lured by the smell of hot, bubbling chocolate, and a mischievous mage magicks her into a human. Without wings, claws, or fire—and unable to convince her family who she is—Aventurine must adapt to civilized life in the nearby town, including landing a job as an apprentice to one of the most talented, if hot-headed, chocolatiers in the area. Proving that feel-good stories need not be (marshmellowy) fluff, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart beautifully illustrates what it means to follow your passion. It also reassures us that, even in our budding independence, we never completely leave our family behind.
If the dazzling cover doesn’t immediately entice readers, or the fact that Tumble and Blue (Ages 10-14) is by the same author as the esteemed Circus Mirandus, consider this: a deep-South story stoked in legends, curses, and a vengeful alligator. There’s no shortage of bizarre happenings and delicious humor in Cassie Beasley’s coming-of-age story, starring both a boy and girl protagonist; but what may resonate above all with readers is the theme of what it means to live under the weight of a label—and the lengths we’ll go to get out from underneath the weight of how others perceive us.
Soon after Blue Montgomery gets dropped on his grandmother’s doorstop in the aptly-named town of Murky Branch, Georgia (population 339) by his neglectful father, he sets out to challenge what he has always been told: that he is incapable of winning at anything, be it sports or school. His encouragement comes in the unlikely form of Tumble Wilson, a meddlesome girl his same age, who moves in next door. That Tumble suffers from a hero complex—an indefatigable belief that she can save people—is over time revealed as an attempt to over-correct for a painful secret in her past. The spit-fire dialogue between Tumble and Blue is as fun as it is dear; and whether or not we buy into the swamp’s ancient legend, we’re as taken by surprise as our hero and heroine are when they confront their destinies head on.
In Holly Goldberg Sloan’s delightful Short (Ages 9-12), middle-schooler Julia’s witty, astute, and occasionally self-deprecating stream-of-consciousness narration grabs us right out of the gate; we couldn’t find a better companion with whom to spend the next 296 pages. Julia has long been conflicted about her size, which borders on dwarfism. But it also means she is a natural choice for munchkin and flying monkey parts in her community’s summer theater production of The Wizard of Oz, for which her mother signs her up before she can protest.
What begins as a giant exercise in mortification transforms into something else, as Julia is indoctrinated into the self-expressive world of theater, where life is more nuanced than appearances suggest. An especially rich cast of supportive characters—including a charming, if arrogant, director; three professional adult actors, who are themselves dwarfs and fiercely protective of Julia; and an eccentric elderly woman who lives next door to Julia and becomes the unlikeliest of costume designers—makes this a robust read, whose pages remind children that we all deserve to be seen for who we are on the inside.
Thinking back to when I loved nothing more than losing my tween self in a book, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea (Ages 10-14) would have had me swooning: an orphaned girl named Crow, a remote New England island, and dark intrigue surrounding the girl’s unknown origins. Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was my favorite middle-grade novel of 2016, though admittedly a difficult story to stomach (with the cruelest of bullies). Beyond the Bright Sea is softer and quieter, but no less powerful—and wow, does Wolk know her way around a sentence.
Twelve-year-old Crow was once discovered abandoned on a floating skiff, just hours after her birth. While she adores the reclusive painter who took her in and raised her like his own—and while she appreciates her island life of fresh air, fishing, and combing through wreckage from washed-up ships—she longs to understand the story of her birth. What begin as nagging questions in the back of her mind transform into a burning desire—much like the mysterious fire she spies on “the [nearby] island where no one ever went”—to risk everything she knows, everything safe, for the chance to fit the pieces of herself together. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, Wolk’s writing reveals and strips away, leaving us as breathlessly wanting answers as Crow herself.
Hands down, the best thing I did last month was to read The War That Saved My Life to my ten year old. (I grew impatient waiting for him to pick it up on his own—it has been laying around since I tagged it for my 2015 Gift Guide—so I decided to take matters into my own hands. Lo and behold: the skeptic loved every minute of it—and not just the air raids and rescue missions.) Now, we are halfway through Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s just-published sequel, The War I Finally Won (Ages 10-14), which opens just days after the previous book ends—and is so far every bit as magnificent.
Eleven-year-old Ada has long allowed her deformed foot and her abusive mother to inform the way she sees herself. Now that she has undergone corrective surgery and been officially adopted by the nurturing, if nontraditional, Susan, Ada dares to begin asking what she might want from and do for the world. Of course, life in England is exceedingly fraught, as Hitler’s army presses closer, as air raids become more devastating, and as the list of dead whom Ada knows grows longer. That Ada learns, not just to survive, but to thrive under such stress and sorrow is an inspiring message for our own children, who crave assurance that even in the most trying to times, there is always hope and kindness and community to be found.
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Review copies provided by Dial (All is Faire in Middle School, Tumble and Blue, Short, and The War I Finally Won) and Dutton (Beyond the Bright Sea). Other books published by First Second (Real Friends) and Bloomsbury (The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart). 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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June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments
This was how I discovered that my seven year old had been spending his recess time, alongside several of his classmates, building fairy houses out of twigs, stones, moss, leaves, and mud; filling them with wild onion stems; and then returning the next day to discover with delight that things were not exactly as they’d left them. This obsession with fairy houses would later move into our own backyard (with the addition of miniature serving plates fashioned from the caps of milk bottles), and the momentum seems only to be building.
I don’t live under a rock, so I’m aware that fairies are EXTREMELY POPULAR. I was just a bit surprised that my skeptical and scientifically-minded son, the same being who reminds me that there is no such thing as witches, wizards, monsters, and dragons; who loves to do a magic trick and then immediately reveal the technique behind it; who appears (with the exception of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) to have his two feet squarely rooted in reality—that this person would suddenly talk about fairies as if they were as ordinary an occurrence as the postal workers walking through our neighborhood. “I don’t have to see a fairy to know they’re real,” he told me. “Just look outside—there are signs everywhere.”
Don’t get me wrong. JP’s belief in fairy magic, in the idea of miniature people living miniature lives amidst the trees and leaves and grass, makes me bubble over with happiness. (Yes! Let’s believe in what we cannot see! Yes! Let’s find more reasons to play in the dirt!). But the best part? My son’s new-found interest presented the perfect excuse to purchase a book that I (shame on me) had been saving for when my daughter got a little bit older.
I’m frequently asked by parents for recommendations of fairy-themed chapter books. This isn’t just because fairy lore is undergoing a kind of comeback (or maybe it never left?). It’s also because, despite the high demand, there is a surprising dearth of quality literary offerings. Yes, I know your daughter is obsessed with the Rainbow Fairies series, for its colorful covers and overtly girly content, but have you tried reading one of those awkwardly-constructed, downright-insipid books aloud? Bleh. Let her read those on her own if she must. In the meantime, do both of you a favor and get your hands on Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy, which is EVERYTHING A FAIRY BOOK SHOULD BE. This is reading aloud at its best.
Since it came out in 2010, The Night Fairy (Ages 5-10, if reading aloud) has become one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Hold the 117-page hardcover in your hands, and you know you are dealing with something special. It’s petite (as a book about a fairy should be); its pages are thick and glossy; and it features exquisite watercolor plates by British illustrator Angela Barrett. But here’s the clincher: the writing is absolutely exquisite. The descriptive passages soar. The action is tight. The multidimensional characters tug at our heartstrings. And—drum roll please—the story is steeped in the natural world, in the world right outside our front door.
What The Night Fairy does so refreshingly is to yank the subject of fairies out of the realm of fantastical kingdoms and magic wands and froofy dresses—and return it to its humble, delicate origins. When you strip the glitter off the fairies, you end up with a hint of darkness, a touch of danger and mystery and intrigue. Fairies, we learn, might be magical, but—like all living creatures—they are not invulnerable to the threats around them.
There are those who say that fairies have no troubles, but this is not true. Fairies are magical creatures, but they can be hurt—even killed—when they are young and their magic is not strong. Young fairies have no one to take care of them, because fairies make bad parents. Babies bore them. A fairy godmother is an excellent thing, but a fairy mother is a disaster.
Tell me you are not hooked! Alright, you need more? The book’s central character, Flory, is a so-called “night fairy,” meaning that she was born “a little before midnight when the moon was full.” Night fairies, we learn, perform their strongest magic at night, and Flory is further assisted by a pair of sheer, green wings with feathers on the end—“sensing feathers,” which are intended to alert her to approaching danger.
That’s all well and good, but Flory’s story begins with tragedy. When she is but three months old and smaller than an acorn, a bat mistakes Flory for a luna moth and crunches down on her wings. Flory’s instinct for survival is strong—she may be small, but she has the fight of a lion—and she decides to try life as a daytime creature, seeking solace in the sunshine, as she waits for her wings to grow back.
The story is packed with Flory’s subsequent adventures, each one born out of the necessity for shelter, food, and protection, and all set in the garden of a bird-loving human (or “giantess,” as the animals call her). Flory weaves rope bridges out of discarded spider webs, wields a thorn as a dagger in the face of an attacking preying mantis, and over time perfects a “stinging spell” to ward off pesky predators.
On every page, we are treated to the interconnectedness of the natural world: the harmony that comes from each creature playing its part. Flory’s greatest stride in self-preservation comes from a partnership she forges with a hungry squirrel named Skuggle, who agrees to let Flory ride on his back in exchange for her cleverness at releasing seeds from the garden’s many bird feeders.
Exciting adventures aside, what made the biggest impression on both of my children (hooray, another book that my children enjoyed together!) was Flory’s emotional development across the book. During the first half, Flory is brusque, rude, and bossy in her dealings with others (the narrator gently reminds us that she has no parent to guide her). Her actions are entirely self-serving. And yet, as she begins to appreciate the diversity of her surroundings, her heart begins to soften in empathy for the other creatures in the garden. She learns to forgive. She learns to listen. She even learns to apologize—and to mean it (“She shut her eyes and tried to imagine being sorry. It was hard work, almost like casting a spell.”)
When Flory puts the needs of others before her own, she opens herself up to the possibility of becoming a hero. And, in the book’s nail-biting climax, Flory becomes just that, successfully rescuing a mommy-to-be hummingbird from the entrapment of a spider’s web and keeping the hummingbird’s eggs warm until the return of their mother. Without even realizing it, Flory simultaneously finds her way back to the rightful realm of a night fairy, to the unique beauty of a moonlit night at the stroke of midnight. She can go back to sleeping during the day.
When we were about halfway through The Night Fairy, I came across JP slipping the book into his backpack one morning. He had mentioned the previous night that he wanted to “read ahead” at school, but that he would bring back the book at the end of the day. So, I wasn’t surprised when I saw him. I was, however, surprised by the exchange that followed:
“I know that I am going to get a lot of comments when I take this book out at school,” he said.
“What do you mean? What kind of comments?” (Admittedly, I was feigning some ignorance.)
“You know, from kids who think fairies are only for girls.”
“Oh yeah? And what do you think” I asked him.
“I think that there is no such thing as girl stuff and boy stuff. Just lots of really fun stuff.”
“Me too,” I responded, smiling and walking away in my best impersonation of parental breeziness. Only on the inside, I was leaping with joy. Please, oh please, let him always feel this way!
Other Favorite Chapter Books About Fairies:
No Flying in the House, by Betty Brock & Wallace Tripp (Ages 6-12)
Twig, by Elizabeth Orton Jones (Ages 6-12)
Not specifically about fairies, but if you have a Lover of Little Things, I highly recommend the series, The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin. I cannot WAIT to do these with my kids!
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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!
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 us 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.
It is worth noting one exception. In today’s bookstores, racial diversity is most evident in picture books that are concerned, not with a story about an individual, but with a broad, sweeping depiction of urban life. Books like Water in the Park (discussed here) and In the Town All Year Round (discussed here) do a fine job of representing people of different skin colors “as an integral and valued part of the mosaic” (to borrow Myers’ words), in which kids are growing up today. But, let’s be honest: from the standpoint of the publishers and the booksellers, this is a safe route to take; these harmonious covers show white children alongside those of color. In other words, they are still seen by white buyers as relatable.
Which leads me to my own question. I wonder if we as parents play a larger role than we realize in the scant publication of books starring individuals of color. Are we unknowingly standing in the way of our children seeing and identifying with the communities around them? When I read Myers’ piece last week, I immediately thought of my initial reaction to the uplifting new picture book, A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper (Ages 4-10). The story is about a poor black girl, living in mid-twentieth century Harlem, who longs to be a ballerina. Dempsey and Cooper have loosely based their book on those, like our young, wide-eyed heroine, who had the opportunity to watch Janet Collins’ debut as the first African-American ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951.
When I first paged through the book at my local bookshop, I got goose bumps from the sheer lyricism of the language. Certainly, a story-told-in-poems format seems perfectly matched to subject matter about dance and transcendence; but what really struck me is how this beautiful, buoyant language contrasts the daily struggle of the girl and her single mother—a mother who works days and nights as a laundress and seamstress, but a mother who doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice a new sewing machine in order to give her daughter a glimpse of what her promising future might hold. The moments leading up to the performance are breathlessly described through the daughter’s eyes:
for the bus,
my feet won’t stop
But then I fell directly into the trap. I thought, “I have to bring this book into JP’s school!” I immediately categorized it as “a book with a lesson” (race! poverty! history!). I didn’t buy the book, but instead took a picture of its cover and requested it from the library, as I do the other books I bring into my son’s elementary classroom. Once I classified it as such, it never occurred to me to share it with my three-and-a-half year old daughter, who loves dancing as much as she loves snuggles and pizza and playing with her brother.
And yet, who ended up going through my pile of books by the door and picking out this one for story time? “Mommy, look! This one is about a ballerina!” I started to say that this story was intended for older kids, but I stopped myself when I saw her sheer delight upon flipping through the subdued, grainy paintings, in hues of browns and pinks, each one filled with longing and sadness and wonder and joy. And so I read it. And then I read it again. And again. And I saw that I had been grossly mistaken. Yes, this is a book with a powerful and important message about breaking down racial barriers. But it is also about a little girl with a passion; about a mother who loves her; about the awe that we all feel in the presence of art. It is also about something that every single child, regardless of race or class or background, feels at one point or another—and that’s the inner stirrings of hope. Or, in our narrator’s words:
puffs up my chest
just a bit.
As Walter Dean Myers fervently reminds us, books starring children of color or children of lower economic classes are critical to the identity formation of those individuals (not to mention their interest in reading). Equally important, however, is that these stories, especially the ones about everyday triumphs and failures, find their way into the hands of the broader population as well. Our children are not nearly as literal as we often assume them to be. They aren’t born seeing the world in black and white. They are born with a natural ability to connect as human beings. And books are a great place to nurture these connections. But we need to make them accessible to our children. And we need to spend money on them—in order that there will be more published every year.