My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)

A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).

When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.

I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:

This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.

Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!

I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.

My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.

The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.

The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.

The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.

A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.

An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?

But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)

Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”

And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”

And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.

Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.

What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.

Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?

 

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

Tugging at the Heartstrings (A Mother’s Day Post)

May 5, 2016 § 1 Comment

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser“Mommy, I wish this day would last forever,” my daughter said into my eyes last Saturday, in our third hour of watching street performers under a brilliant blue sky in Washington Square Park. It was our annual trip to New York City, something I’m lucky enough to do every fall with my son and every spring with my daughter. We had just spent an action-filled few days looking at art, making art, dining in style and dining at street vendors—but there was something about these unstructured hours in the park, the sun finally making itself felt, where I watched my daughter become totally and completely entranced by her surroundings.

There was a woman with hot pink hair on one side of her; a woman with a brilliant purple head wrap on the other. Emily sat on the rounded edge of a fountain that wasn’t in use, watching shirtless men in baggy blue sweatpants flip backwards and spin on their heads where the water would normally flow. In the distance, she could still keep her eyes on the creepy but fascinating human sculpture—a bald man (woman?) adorned in chalky gold body paint, who stood frozen atop a slim pedestal, waiting for someone to drop a dollar into his bucket, at which point he would slowly come out of the pose and strike another.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself as well, but the moment might not have stayed with me if Emily hadn’t called it out, and I was grateful that she did. It has been a tough few months for me. I’ve been nursing a shoulder injury, and the near constant physical pain of my body has meant that all too often my children’s voices have reverberated like nails on a chalkboard in my ears. It took a few days in a different environment (and a welcome shot of cortisone) to bring me back to myself and to remind me that motherhood brings with it the greatest joys, both big and small.

Maybe it’s because Emily is my second child—and will be my last—that I am continually fixated on her age. This is my favorite age, I think. I long to hold onto the age before me with desperate fervor. And then, without fail, the next age comes along and it’s even better. I may mourn her soft baby curls, or the bullish way she once used her stubby legs to propel her scooter down the sidewalk, but these memories have given way to a myriad of others that are equally poignant. I only hope I will continue to feel this way.

Still, right now, Emily is five and a half and, THIS, I’m convinced, really IS the best age. It was her fourth time in New York, but it was as if she was seeing the buildings and the subways and the people with fresh eyes—through the lens of this sweet spot of five and a half, where innocence meets knowledge, where outside stimulation is eagerly embraced and picked apart and digested right there on the face and in the eyes and in the voice for the whole world to see.

But especially for me to see. Because “I wish this day would last forever” wasn’t just about the sun and the sights; it was also about the bond we had nurtured so beautifully over the past few days. It was that push-pull dance that our children do with us, that not mutually exclusive desire for independence and closeness.

A few years ago, on these very pages, I swore to you my disdain for overt, sentimentalized, pastel displays of maternal love, books that feel like they are cooked up by publishers to prey on the hormones and generally unbalanced states of us mothers. Well, this is where I eat my words. Because I need you to make an exception for a new picture book, titled You Made Me a Mother (Ages 1-6), written by Laurenne Sala and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (many of you will know her as the illustrator of the bestselling Fancy Nancy series). I need you to give this book to yourself and then to every mother of young children that you know. And then I need you to get your box of tissues ready. And, if you don’t believe me, you can watch this video, which was scripted by Sala for an ad campaign before she put down a version of it on paper—and before Glasser got involved and turned it into something lovely to share with young children.

My kids love hearing stories about themselves as babies. About where they were born, whether they cried, how long I held them and gazed into their eyes after they took their first breath. “Did you always know you would love me?” is a favorite question of my daughter. You Made Me a Mother facilitates these precious conversations. It also reminds us—as we sometimes need to hear—why we do what we do.

An homage to motherhood, the book reads as a mother’s monologue to her young child. It opens with a memory of the mother’s changing belly—“I felt you. You were a pea. Then a lemon. Then an eggplant.”—and goes on to mention some of the ways that the mother prepared for baby’s arrival, like eating spinach and reading books. “Can you tell I was nervous?” the mother asks. (“Yes!” my own daughter always responds at this part, basking in the revelation that grown-ups have vulnerabilities, too.)

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

And then there’s the baby’s birth—“Love. Big fat love.”—followed by sweet depictions of cuddling and rocking and, as the baby becomes a toddler, splashing and spinning.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

No homage to motherhood would feel genuine without mention of the bumps in the road. Nervousness continues to surface: the mom is pictured hovering over an upset child, who might be sick (my children’s guess) or might be tantrumming (my guess). We also register exasperation on the mother’s face, when another time the child wanders (I’m guessing not for the first time) into her room in the middle of the night. (Personally, I think a bit of time could have been devoted to the drudgery of dishes and laundry that also accompanies the territory of parenthood.)

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

But then, a new day dawns, the sun comes up, mother and child are at the park, and:

…you smile. And you say my name. You grab my hand with those little fingers. And I remember that everything is magic.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

PLEASE, Universe, don’t let my daughter ever stop holding my hand! Don’t let her deliciously soft skin develop even the tiniest roughness! Don’t let the light stop dancing in her eyes! Because these are the Band-aids that every mommy needs on her worn out body.

I’ve heard it said that having a child is like watching your heart run around outside your body. I might like this variation even better:

If I could, I would open my heart, and love would rain down all over you. And you would giggle. And I’d do it all over again.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

Despite our hearts swelling to bursting inside our bodies, we all know that we cannot stave off the day—even if they can’t fathom it now—when our little ones won’t be so little anymore, when they will detach from our hands and seize the world with their own. When they won’t share every discovery, mourn every disappointment, with us. And we would walk, hand in hand. Until you let go.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

I already see it in my eight and a half year old. The way he runs into school with scarcely a glance behind him. The way the other day, in response to my telling him that I loved him, he responded, “OK,” and glanced longingly at his friends. And yet, admittedly, this makes the moments when he does expose his vulnerability—when he seeks me out with his eyes or pours forth his emotions onto his dinner plate—even more special. Getting glimpses of the man he will someday become—and to think that I was there in the very beginning—is nothing short of astounding.

So maybe motherhood does get better with every age. Even when they let go. And maybe, by then, we’re better, too.

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Review copy provided by Harper Collins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

With Babies, It’s All in the Delivery

June 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

When you’re reading aloud to babies and toddlers, never discount the Performance Factor. I’ve always considered myself a fairly compelling read-aloud-er when it comes to young audiences (I’ve presided over my fair share of story times at my old store in Chicago), but I’ll admit to being humbled the first time I attended story time with my infant daughter at Hooray for Books!, our fabulous independent bookstore here in Alexandria, VA. These bookstore gals can really hold their own against a crowd of antsy toddlers—and they do so by throwing their own inhibitions to the wind, while invoking no shortage of funny voices, animated gestures, and ad lib phrases.

Before I became a regular at these events, I had never given much thought to Lucy Cousins’ Hooray For Fish! (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs), a board book about a Little Fish who meets and greets all kinds of crazy-looking fish before swimming back to his Mommy Fish. Sure, I’ve always appreciated Cousins’ child-accessible art style: her colorful, loosely-decorated fish, coarsely outlined in black, look as if they came from the hand of a child. But, if I’m honest, the subject of fish doesn’t rank terribly high on my excitement meter (give me a farm animal any day); and I can’t say my son ever cared much for Hooray for Fish! when I read it to him on a plane trip down to Florida when he was one.

But now, four years later, listening to it being read aloud by a bookseller who has obvious passion for made-up fish names like “gripy fish” and “ele-fish” and “twin fin-fin fish,” I realize that it’s all in the delivery. And, being the mindful student that I am, I’m proud to say that I have now adopted the necessary flair this book requires; lo and behold, it is now one of my daughter’s favorites. We both wave enthusiastically each time Little Fish says “Hello” to a new fish; we take our fingers and trace the spiral that is “shelly fish”; we make our scariest faces for “scary fish”; we cover our heads for “shy fish” and flap our fins like “fly fish.”

But the finale is where we break out all the stops: “Where’s the one I love the best, even more than all the rest? [turn page with exaggerated suspense] Hello, Mom. Hello, Little Fish. [more excited waving] Kiss, kiss, kiss, hooray for fish! [throw arms up in air and cover each other with kisses].” Hooray for books that make us adults remember that being silly is a sure way to get undivided attention from our little ones.

Other Favorites That Can Be Dramatically Read Aloud to Little Ones:
Cows in the Kitchen, by Arlie Anderson (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs)
Clip-Clop, by Nikola Smee (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
What Shall We Do with the Boo Hoo Baby?, by Cressida Cowell & Ingrid Godon (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
Barnyard Dance!, by Sandra Boynton (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, by Bob Shea (Ages 1-3)
Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle & Jill McElmurry (Ages 1-3)
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Helen Oxenbury (Ages 1-4)

The Lure of the Balloon

June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

At 20 months, my daughter is starting to move away from board books and into short, simple picture books; consequently, she (and I) have fallen in love with Emily’s Balloon (Ages 18 mos-3 yrs), by Japanese author-artist Komako Sakai. I know, I know, you’re thinking that we’re partial to this book because my daughter’s name also happens to be Emily. But before I even had kids, I used to sell gobs of this book when it first came out in 2006; customers would only have to page through the gorgeous charcoal-and-wash pages to fall in love.

Some of my favorite children’s books have been imported from Japan; their illustrative style so beautifully transports us back to the carefree days of our own youth, when making dandelion crowns for a balloon might easily occupy an afternoon. What is it with toddlers and balloons? Balloons have a buoyancy that seems fascinating in its unpredictability, yet non-threatening in its softness; but, most significantly, its perfect sphere-like shape is just the right size for little eyes to track.

No one understands this appeal more than Komako Sakai, who sets a bright yellow balloon against muted browns and grays on every page, giving it a tangibility that little fingers can’t help but point out. When our heroine Emily is first given the balloon from a street vendor, she immediately loses it into the sky. She continues to experiment with her second balloon, getting it stuck on the ceiling when she gets home (the lovely sparseness of the text means that this page gets a simple “Uh oh” which my Emily loves), until her mother cleverly ties the balloon around Emily’s spoon (“Look! It floats, but it doesn’t fly away!”).

Emily and her balloon spend the afternoon together, playing house and making said dandelion crowns. But a toddler is never far from disappointment, and just before dinnertime, a strong breeze sends the balloon high up into a tree. Here follows a sad mealtime, where Emily encounters and verbalizes regret (“We wanted to eat together.”); she wistfully imagines herself sitting at the dinner table with her balloon and, later, helping it into a night cap before bed. Modern parenting scholars would likely celebrate this book that validates a very real emotion from our toddlers; we can also herald the mother, who doesn’t turn the family’s schedule upside down to rescue the balloon right then and there but instead reassures her daughter: “Tomorrow, I’ll borrow a ladder and get it down.” “Really?” “Really.” “Really and truly?” “Really and truly.”

The book leaves us with Emily tucked snugly into bed but still thinking about the balloon. As she peeks out her darkened window, she sees her balloon in the tree, shining big and golden as the moon. As we’re reminded, life is filled with silver (and gold) linings.

 

Other Favorites Where Balloons Can Be Tracked On (Almost) Every Page:
Goodnight, Gorilla, by Peggy Rathmann (Ages 1-3)
A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead & Erin Stead (Ages 2-5)
The Red Balloon, by Albert Lamorisse (Ages 6-10)

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