Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids.

When my husband and I, long finished with our own plates, start staring holes into the heads of our children, whose food only seems to multiply the longer we sit at the table, I start fantasizing about bedtime. And then I think, Be Present!, and decide, enough with the small talk which is going nowhere, and throw out, “Let’s talk about gender stereotypes!” At which point, both children shoot me a look which plainly says, Please go back to yelling at us about our manners.

And so, this is what I have decided. My kids are getting on in years (even if you can’t tell by their table manners), and it’s getting harder to find a daily time when they are both available for me to read to them. So why not make dinner time our read aloud time?

That’s right. We have cast our conversation skills to the wind, and now, the second I put down my fork, I pick up whatever book we’re reading, and we get to it. This is how we came to fall in love with Gary D. Schmidt’s new middle-grade novel, Pay Attention, Carter Jones (Ages 10-14). Not only is it tears-in-the-eyes funny and tears-in-the-eyes moving, it’s the very best distraction from the drudgery of dinnertime you could ask for.

Also, it permits me to do a British accent. Truly, any day can be improved by donning a British accent.

When an English butler shows up without warning one morning at the door of the Jones’ American house—a “portly” Mary Poppins character, minus the magic but with the umbrella—he is hardly met with a warm welcome, at least from Carter Jones, who is trying to steel himself for the first day of sixth grade. Allow me to share the story’s opening paragraph, so splendidly does it establish Carter’s narrative voice, with its infectious flair for the dramatic, its hefty dose of teenage skepticism bordering on disdain, and its fabulous dry wit.

If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm—and I’ve been in one, so I know what’s like—and if the last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.

Carter doesn’t know how his mother can be sure the Butler isn’t a serial killer, even after he explains that his services are paid for by a generous endowment left in the will of Carter’s recently-deceased grandfather, for whom the Butler has worked all his life.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean my grandfather, like, left you to us in his will?”

“Crudely articulated, but true in the most generous sense.”

“Like, we own you?”

The guy carefully tied shut the folds of his umbrella. “Young Master Jones, indentured servanthood having been abolished even in your own country, no. You do not, like, own me.”

Come on. This book just begs to be read aloud.

Even though “you never know what a serial killer might do to throw you off guard,” Carter’s mother allows the Butler to enter the morning chaos of their household, to help the girls with their unruly hair and their missing socks, to pack school lunches, and to load all four children into his giant eggplant-colored Bentley (steering wheel on the right) and drop them at their first day of school.

As it turns out, the Jones family—Carter, his three younger sisters, their mother, and their prone-to-puking dachshund, Ned—needs saving from more than the drudgery of daily life. Though we don’t discover this until midway through the story, the family is still raw from the tragic loss of Carter’s young brother, Currier, who died from a rare illness a little over a year ago. Carter misses his brother terribly, but he misses his father even more—a deployed Captain in the Army, from whom the only correspondence during the story is a heart-wrenching letter to Carter’s mother, announcing that he is leaving the family for another woman in Germany. Coming to terms with the fickleness of death is one thing; coming to terms with the fickleness of human behavior, especially from someone you have always idolized, someone you have always trusted, seems nearly impossible.

The Butler, whose full name is August Paul Bowles-Fitzpatrick, is careful not to step into the shoes abandoned by Carter’s father—and yet, he becomes every bit the observant, compassionate, supportive, consistent, present adult figure Carter needs him to be. Even while extolling the superior virtues of British culture. Even while dispensing unwelcome mugs of tea with milk and sugar. Even while being, as Carter chides him, a “pain in the glutes.” The Butler may not be able to perform magic, but he seems somehow to be everywhere at once, offering the right—if enigmatic—words at the right time, always two steps ahead of those he is sworn to serve.

The Butler is also an ardent fan of both the metaphor and the sport of cricket, and these two converge in some of the most entertaining and poignant scenes in the book. Much like the Butler aims to do with Carter and his classmates at the Longfellow Middle School, this book will make a cricket fan out of every one of its readers. (Not to worry if you don’t know the first thing about the sport: every chapter begins with a different rule.) The hilarity of the Butler descending on the Minutemen’s Football Field, sporting his cricket whites and carrying a set of stumps and bails, is matched only by the way he successfully woos Carter, his neighbor, and the entire cross-county team into joining him. (“Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, what are you supposed to be?” said Annie. The Butler rummaged around in the long case again and took out two huge gloves—white again—and he handed them to Billy…“Miss Anne, I am not supposed to be anything. I am a cricketer.”)

Cricket instills focus (“Pay attention, Master Jones!”) and hand-eye coordination, but it also imparts invaluable life skills, like teamwork, patience, resilience, and communication. It is a “gentleman’s” sport, marked by dignity and respect. Most critically for our young protagonist, it offers a space for self-discovery; for belonging; even for healing. In the metaphorical sense, cricket teaches us to “keep the bails up,” even during the roughest, most disorienting times in our lives.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones celebrates family. Maybe not the one Carter thought he had, maybe not even the one he wanted, but the one he’s building for himself, each time he sits through a ballet performance for his sister, or walks the dog for his mom, or give voice to his deepest, darkest fears without the risk of judgment. Each time he invites this quirky, old-fashioned British cricketer into his heart.

There’s nothing that brings a family together more than sharing a laugh or a heartwarming story. Here at our dinner table, we were lucky to have found both.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy from Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!

There’s A New Pippi in Town

February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one.

I have fond memories of reading Astrid Lindgren’s The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking to my kids four years ago, all three of us laughing ourselves silly. Free-spirited Pippi, committed to living life with wild abandon, is one of those characters who cuts straight to the heart. She calls things as they are. She takes up space. She isn’t afraid of living or loving too largely. It’s downright refreshing. Some days, it seems there aren’t enough Pippis.

Well, good news! Pippi’s spirit is alive and well in Maria Parr’s delightful Norwegian novel (perhaps named for Pippi’s creator?), Astrid the Unstoppable (Ages 7-10), about a plucky, red-headed nine year old living in a Scandinavian mountain village. Originally published in 2009 and later translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey, the book arrived on our American shores this past November…and not a moment too soon. Nicknamed “the little thunderbolt of Glimmerdal,” Astrid is Exactly What This Winter Needs.

The parallels to Pippi abound, well beyond the red hair and boisterous personality. In lieu of a pet monkey, Astrid bestows  affections on one Snorri the Seagull, who shares her home and perches atop her helmet on bicycle rides. Astrid doesn’t live entirely alone as Pippi does—she has her quiet but attentive father—but she does mourn the absence of her scientist mother, who is on an extended excursion to Greenland to study rising water levels, akin to Pippi’s legendary father off captaining the seas. Like Pippi, Astrid is left mainly on her own, with large stretches of time in which to entertain herself. As her father tells people, “I let her out every morning and hope she’ll come back in the evening.”

It is what Astrid does with her open-ended days that makes reading about her so much fun. In the two months leading up to her tenth birthday, which happens to fall on Easter, Astrid is determined to make the most of every minute in her teeny, tiny remote mountain village, whose snowy peaks and frozen rivers, sheep farms and “enchanted forests,” are Astrid’s playgrounds. She attempts to somersault on skis while singing to herself. She makes a giant gingerbread castle for Snorri. She charms her way on and off the ferry without every paying a fare. She faces off with an angry ram. Always, she uses her innocent frankness and contagious wit to talk herself out of the messes she inadvertently creates. (During most of the story, Astrid’s school in the neighboring village is off for “February half term.”)

Until now, Astrid—much like Pippi—has spent little playtime with children her own age. She is the only child in her village, and visiting children are forbidden by the unimaginative Mr. Hagen, who runs the Wellness Retreat at the base of the mountain (and is the only adult whom Astrid seems incapable of winning over, despite her best efforts).

Astrid’s best friend is her seventy-four-year-old godfather, a strikingly large sheep farmer rich in contradictions. Gunnvald is part cantankerous “troll” (as Astrid affectionately calls him) and part lively fiddle player. He is at once hardened from a bruised past and possessed with a soft spot for Astrid (“She was sharp as a starling, Gunnvald thought…”). When the story begins, Gunnvald’s favorite pastime is rigging up prototype sledges for Astrid to race down the mountain. (One can tell something about how these sledge runs go by chapter titles like, “In which Sledge Test No. 1 is launched, and Astrid is threatened with a call to the police.”)

For as much as Pippi’s spirit may infuse these colorful scenes, Astrid the Unstoppable also packs a substantial emotional punch, the likes of which we do not see in Astrid Lindgren’s classic. This Astrid’s is a true coming-of-age story. The novel spans mere weeks, but a series of dramatic happenings firmly alters the way Astrid sees herself, her loved ones, and the larger world.

Most significantly, Astrid begins to sense the presence of looming secrets in the lives of her grownups. Secrets which suggest life is inherently more complicated than skiing somersaults. Secrets which reveal failings in the people she idolizes. Secrets which inspire Astrid to think less about her own entertainment and more about helping others—perhaps a fitting progression for someone on the verge of double digits.

The most significant of these secrets involves Gunnvald. When Astrid discovers Gunnvald has an estranged daughter, one whom Gunnvald lovingly raised for several years before letting her leave with her mother and never come back, Astrid is flabbergasted that such a truth was kept from her. Now an acclaimed violinist with a monstrously huge dog, Heidi (the reference to another literary classic is purposeful) abruptly returns home after receiving a desperate letter from Gunnvald, who mistakenly believes he is on death’s door after taking a spill over a coffee pot and landing in the hospital. It turns out Gunnvald is a long way from dying—he happens to be as prone to the dramatic as Astrid—and now must confront the pain of his past head on.

Astrid’s role in her best friend’s saga is wildly entertaining and touchingly genuine, as she attempts to do what children do and presume all questions have straightforward answers. Grown ups, Astrid comes to realize, are capable of making terribly stupid and hurtful mistakes. Sometimes it takes the voice of a child to call things as they are. To remind people of the presence of today, the power of music, and the possibilities in forgiveness.

Astrid the Unstoppable is the best distraction we could ask for in these final weeks of winter, bringing a welcome smile to our faces, at the same time that it leaves a tiny little thunderbolt on our hearts.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Published by Walker Books. 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!

What Our Heart Needs, Today and Everyday

January 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I drove down to the river to watch the sun rise. I hadn’t been able to sleep, my heart bruised from the words of a loved one the night before. As an adult, I have found the holidays to be such an intermingling of joy and sadness: a time of excitement and celebration, but also a time when the losses in my life assert themselves and leave me vulnerable.

I stood alone in the brisk-but-not-intolerable air, at the same spot along the Potomac where my son had taken me this past summer. A place he had picnicked with his sailing camp. A place he told me, while we were walking there, had “a bench perfect for you to sit on.” I wanted a place where I would feel love.

I felt that memory of love, but I also felt new love in the here and now around me. I didn’t lay eyes on another soul, but I was aware of life all around me. There were headlights from cars driving across the bridge. I witnessed the pink illumination of the Ferris Wheel across the river in Maryland. I watched as plane after plane descended over the Potomac, and my heart swelled to think of the people who had been flying all night, just to be with their loved ones for the holidays. I stood alone at the edge of the water, and I watched the sky come to life in a beautiful and reflective rendering of orange and yellow and blue. It did so without making a sound, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and I felt like I was witnessing at once something uniquely personal and universally commonplace. I felt infinitely small in the most comforting of ways.

Since discovering this poem by the late Mary Oliver last week, I think it sums things up perfectly:

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

And so, I got back into my car and drove home to begin the 48 hours of Christmas Cheer.

Weeks later, after I read Corinna Luyken’s poetic new picture book, My Heart (Ages 5-10), I realized I had never told my children about my Christmas Eve sunrise. I had never spoken aloud the sadness I had felt. (Why should I? It had nothing to do with them.) How often do we edit our own thoughts or reactions so we can paint a brighter, sunnier picture for our children? This may be the greatest offering of My Heart: it presents an opportunity to talk with our children about the stormy greys, the lackluster greys, the muddy, murky greys.

Indeed, the book is a provocative dance of grey and yellow, of dark and light.

My Heart was born out of a poem Luyken wrote years ago. (Luyken has been quite the darling of my blog, beginning with her first book, The Book of Mistakes, and continuing with her illustrations for My Favorite Picture Book of 2018.) But while the poem’s words stayed more or less constant, the accompanying artwork bent and swayed and morphed over several years until it struck the right note. (If you like to geek out—that’s me!—on the process of picture book creation, read this fascinating interview with Luyken.) With its scratchy, smudgy look, the end result reminds me of the work of the late John Birmingham—a legend in the picture book world—who often evoked a similar “unfinished” look in his art, almost as if inviting us to insert our own selves and lives into his pictures. Luyken strikes a similarly intimate but universal tone here, while producing some of the most exquisite spreads I’ve encountered in a picture book.

My Heart is a musing on the way our heart feels at different times, “My heart is a window,/ my heart is a slide./ My heart can be closed/ or opened up wide.” Readers will be quick to notice the myriad of ways, much like in Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, that Luyken nestles heart-shaped silhouettes into her illustrations. Inspired by her own love of collecting heart-shaped objects in the natural world, like rocks and shells, Luyken not only draws our attention to the omnipresence of this particular shape in the everyday, but also to the constant, comforting presence our own heart exerts, even as we experience tumultuous feelings.

The next few spreads of My Heart dip into these messier moments. Still talking about our heart (and never reaching for the platitudes): “Some days it’s a puddle./ Some days it’s a stain./ Some days it is cloudy/ and heavy with rain.” The rainy spread is one of only three where Luyken doesn’t use yellow to complement the grey. These are times when the darkness threatens to engulf, to block out the light. And yet, Luyken reminds us, even when facing down the darkness, our heart is with us, glimpsed here in the overlapping shapes of the black clouds.

But, like the sunrise each morning, the darkness is eventually eclipsed by light. With the next spread, Luyken slowly brings back the yellow—at first just a tiny heart-shaped bud in the ground, over which a child is bent (the same image as the book’s cover). “Some days it is tiny,/ but tiny can grow…/and grow…/and grow.” Another page turn reveals heart-shaped bursts of yellow radiating from a tree.

This pattern repeats twice more, as Luyken calls our attention to times in which our heart feels, for example, like “a fence between me and the world,” versus the reaffirming times when we invite others to help mend our hearts, or when we embrace our heart as a source of “light” and “guid[ance].”

My Heart can and will be read by children on many levels. It will reward multiple readings with deeper insights. But, regardless of where children are in their own lives, I expect they will not miss the vulnerability in these pages, a topic not often addressed in children’s picture books. There’s a refreshing rawness here. A reassurance of hope, a nod to the cyclic nature of emotions, but one that doesn’t gloss over or undersell the dark spots. A book which, when taken as a whole, actually balances the greys and yellows fairly equally…even if the yellow-dominant pages are be the ones we want to take with us.

My Heart ends with the empowering message that we are each the bosses of our emotional life. We may not be able to anticipate or control the feelings that come, but we do get to decide whether we want to open our heart to these feelings. Whether we want, in turn, to open ourselves to the possibility of connection. If we choose openness—even at our most vulnerable, even when we think no one is listening—we will never truly be alone. Even in our saddest, messiest moments, we are surrounded by a vast universe of hearts. If we welcome this infinite love, we may well find the soothing we crave. We may even return, once more, to joy.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.

Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.

Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.

While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.

There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.

And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.

Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”

I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.

Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.

I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.

 

AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Review copy by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

 

 

Gift Guide 2018: My Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year

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.

Gift Guide 2018: To Believe…or Not

December 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

To believe or not to believe. That’s a question many elementary children struggle with—at least, if mine are any indication—especially around this time of year. Which is why Marc Tyler Nobleman’s Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real (Ages 7-10), charmingly illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, is astutely targeted toward these ages. My eight year old, having mostly outgrown her belief in, if not her affection for, fairies, hung on every word of this book the first time we read it together. She has since gone back and re-read it on her own and even asked that I purchase a copy for her classroom. It’s a book which tests your belief in magic on nearly every page. Just when you decide nope, I know this can’t be true, it introduces doubt all over again.

Fairy Spell tells the true story of an ingenious hoax (or was it?) orchestrated by nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her sixteen-year-old cousin Elsie, during a summer the two spent together in Cottingley, England, in 1917. Sunny days were spent playing and picnicking down by the “beck,” or stream. One afternoon, after Frances fell into the beck and ruined her expensive shoes, the adults in the house were furious. They were even more furious when she told them she and Elsie had been playing with fairies.

The girls intended to hoax their parents, as payback for belittling their belief in fairies, only it ended up going viral—nearly a hundred years before social media—and transfixing the entire world. Of course, the beauty of Nobleman’s telling is that, especially if you haven’t heard the story before (which, presumably, our kids have not), he is careful not to reveal that it actually was a hoax until the end. Even still, he leaves the door slightly ajar as to the possibility that it wasn’t.

To prove their beloved fairies were real, the girls borrowed Frances’s uncle’s camera and took one, then another, black-and-white photographs of themselves down by the beck. When Uncle Arthur developed the pictures, tiny winged creatures could be seen frolicking around the humans. At first, he assumed it was a joke, although he could not figure out how two novices had “faked” such a photograph. Still, if fairies lived on his property, he would have seen them. The girls’ response: “The fairies would not come out for you in a hundred years.” When the girls would not let up, Arthur became downright annoyed and forbid them from using his camera again.

The girls’ mothers, however, “begun to feel that, somehow, the girls were telling the truth.” Two years later, the mothers attended a public lecture on fairies, where they shared the girls’ photographs. After that, news of the photographs began to spread, igniting the interests of academics, photographers, and even Arthur Conan Doyle, “the author who created the world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes.” Nearly everyone had a theory, but many pointed to evidence that the photos had not been doctored. Doyle eventually approached the girls’ families and asked for permission to publish the photographs, albeit under different names to protect the girls’ identities.

The girls returned to Cottingley and took even more photographs, all of which were eventually published in the newspaper, always selling out entire issues in a matter of days. “Everyone was aflutter about the photos.” In the book, the pages of critical analysis that follow—people had ideas, for example, to justify why the waterfall in the background would be blurry when the moving fairies in the foreground were not—are absolutely fascinating and read like one of Doyle’s detective novels. To believe or not to believe.

The truth did not come out until the cousins were near the end of their life, Frances seventy-five and Elsie eighty-one. What the book reveals in its concluding pages about what really went on down at the beck is both astounding and marvelous: astounding because the girls exhibited cleverness well beyond their years, and marvelous because they kept it a secret for so long. (Talk about empowering the child!)

What the story also goes on to illuminate is the real reason the girls protected their secret. They never expected the adults in their lives to fall under their “fairy spell.” When they did, the cousins realized that even adults are hard pressed to give up on the idea of magic…for good.

 

Review copy from Clarion Books of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2018: When We Can’t Go Home

December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, a novel set in the 1980s about four siblings abandoned by their mother in a mall parking lot. The book follows the children’s physical journey—sleeping in woods, stealing food, battling the elements—to track down their great-aunt and convince her to take them in. Of course, the book is as much about the children’s emotional journey, processing their mother’s betrayal and questioning words like “family” and “home.” To my pre-adolescent self, Voigt’s story seemed like a child’s worst nightmare. But, if watching it play out was terrifying to me, witnessing the children’s resourcefulness and resilience along the way was also deeply consoling. I couldn’t look away.

I was reminded of Dicey and her siblings—of their heartbreak and their fortitude—many times while reading Kate DiCamillo’s Louisiana’s Way Home (Ages 10-13), a middle-grade novel even a reluctant reader won’t be able to put down. While set in the 1970s (not a cell phone in sight), the story has a kind of timeless, floating feel. In its review, Booklist likens it to a fairy tale, with “heroes, helpers, villains, and one princess looking for home.” This “princess”—or anti-princess, as she might more accurately be called—also happens to be one of the most memorable, infectious narrators our children will ever meet.

Louisiana Elefante is abandoned by her grandmother, her only living relation, on an impromptu middle-of-the-night road trip across the Florida-Louisiana state line. Granny begins the trip muttering about “a date with destiny,” about finally breaking a curse she believes has been on their family for generations. “The day of reckoning is at hand,” she cryptically tells her granddaughter. (Louisiana first appeared as a supportive character in DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, although a child need not have read the earlier book to fall in love with this one.)

Louisiana is accustomed to Granny’s eccentricities—one might say affectionately so, which makes the later betrayal all the greater—so while she begrudges not getting clear answers and having to leave behind her friends and her cat, she does her best to stand by the only family she has ever known. When her grandmother succumbs to debilitating tooth pain, twelve-year-old Louisiana even takes the wheel (“you may be surprised to learn I had never driven a car before”), manages to locate a dentist’s office, and then talks her way into getting her grandmother emergency treatment. Louisiana is one calm, cool, and collected kiddo.

Despite Louisiana’s efforts, the road trip goes from bad to worse. After consecutive nights in the “Good Night, Sleep Night” motel, Granny suggests Louisiana find a local singing gig to pay their room and board. When she returns, Louisiana discovers her grandmother is gone, plaid suitcase and all. If that isn’t devastating enough, her grandmother has left a letter. (“Why would you write someone a letter when you were always and forever by their side? You wouldn’t. Unless, of course, you intended not to be by their side anymore.”) The letter not only confirms Granny isn’t coming back, but it reveals a shocking truth about Louisiana’s past. (Nope, I’m not saying any more than that.)

While Louisiana has had to play the adult too many times in her young life, she nevertheless approaches every minute of living with a childlike wonder. It is precisely this duality of personality—at once deeply wounded and unfailingly optimistic—that makes her such an enticing, beguiling character. Even while contemplating the gravity of her situation, Louisiana is distracted by the small wonders around her: a crow on a roof; the brightness of the stars; even the palm-tree curtains which seem out of place in a Georgia motel (“Why weren’t the curtains printed with peaches? That’s what I wanted to know.”). A vending machine is regarded as nothing short of miraculous.

Kate DiCamillo has said of writing this book that, no matter how hard she tried to tell the story in the third person, first person was “the only way the voice would come.” We, too, fall under Louisiana’s spell, continually surprised by the twists and turns in her story, yet always trusting we’re in the hands of a master. The book itself is Louisiana’s own reckoning, her insistence on claiming agency in a world bent on robbing her of it. “I’m going to write it all down, so what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer. They will know. This is what happened.”

What happens is that Louisiana uses her infectious personality, fondness for pineapple upside-down cake, and unparalleled singing voice to befriend a boy named Burke Allen, to enlist the help of a minister and his crotchety organist, and to begin to shape her own destiny, independent of her grandmother and her alleged family history. To find family in the unlikeliest of places. To make a home out of two states. And to begin to forgive those who may have wronged her, but who nevertheless set her on this unique and always-wondrous path.

 

Review copy by Candlewick Press. 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!

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