Hello. I’m in the middle of a Very Heartfelt Post about something else, but then two books involving cats fell on me and I decided I need to write about them.
I really love cats. I have two cats: Penelope (Penny) the floofy elegant lady, and Telemachos (Telos) the Big Orange Doofus. I’m still deeply bitter I do not have twin stripey grey kittens named Castor and Pollux. They were in Indiana during quarantine but my husband said we couldn’t get them because I was due to give birth in the next five minutes and there wasn’t time. ANYWAY: sometimes people write really good books about cats– sometimes not. I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein, for example: VERY GOOD. There was also A Castle Full of Cats, many years ago. VERY GOOD. And just recently we got TWO really nicely done picture books about cats, showing two different, but very true, cat personalities– one involving a dog, too, which I consider a bonus.
Elisha Cooper, of Big Cat, little cat, wrote and illustrated yes & no, which tells the story of a very simple day in the life of a cat and a dog. I bought three copies of yes & no when I first saw it… And I’m sorry to tell you that the only reason I only bought three is because they only had three copies on display. It was not my finest moment. The story follows the very different reactions of a cat and a dog to a new day, and their different visions of the day (“YES!” says the enthusiastic dog, “no” says the prickly, indifferent cat), until suddenly they converge in a set of wordless pages of glorious silent mutual enjoyment… and the muted end of the day separates them, but in a lovely companionable disjunction (“no” says the tired dog, “yes,” says the gently helpful cat)… concluding with a very slightly mischievous twist.
I’ve seen some really great analyses of this book, but one review which I thankfully can’t pinpoint right now, offered a very earnest pointer that it’s really about how you can have different interests and personalities but still get along and this would teach kids that and…
I can’t disagree more. This is, fundamentally, a true portrait of a cat and a dog, each with a distinct personality. Every kid and every adult will understand and appreciate this, together, and, in that truth, will come the recognition of their own personalities. “I’m so the cat here!” I thought as I read one page, and turned it and laughed as I was the dog on the next page. These are the conversations you’ll end up having as you read. I guess you could say it teaches about personalities and getting along and… that makes me cringe, though.
One final note: the art… wow, it’s possibly Elisha Cooper’s finest yet, and if you’ve seen his other books… you’ll know that’s baffling to consider. Watch the facial expressions and the landscapes.
Now, Atticus Caticus by Sarah Maizes with art by Kara Kramer is a book that Candlewick did not send me (I found it at the Harvard Book Store and bought it in a heartbeat like a normal person, except that normal people don’t have that poor impulse control, I’m guessing), and I have read it aloud to the Spriggan several times already just because I enjoy reading it aloud.
This is a very different cat from Elisha Cooper’s stately, aloof feline. Atticus Caticus is less like my Penny (that would be the elegant cat in yes & no) and more like my Telos (The Big Orange Doofus), but I think Atticus is smarter? Telos never stalks our toes and is actually too stupid to watch birds, honestly. Atticus wants a “chat-a-ticus” with the birds out the window… that’s a Penny trait, that is.
Fundamentally, though, the glory of this book is that it’s a perfect read-aloud book… not just in that it sings right off of the page onto the tongue, which it absolutely does, but also in that the personality of the characters (both the little kid and the cat) and the art ring together with the silly fun rhythm in an ideal, rollicking merger of pure delight in each other.
Note: I am fanatically picky about rhyming books. I studied poetry at the graduate level. I read a poem every night to the Changeling and the Spriggan (he cares! I know he cares!) and I am just… picky. This is not a “rhyming picture book,” though. It’s more like Jamberry in that the rhyme is part and parcel of a narrative poem where the rhythm and the bounce and the dance is of far greater importance than the (nevertheless satisfyingly perfect) rhyme scheme.
Side rant: Lord only knows why we have to keep talking about rhyme in children’s books. Have you read Mother Goose? Half of them have rhymes all over the place. It’s about good poetry not rhyme. And metre and rhythm and beat can be ten times more important. (End of rant.)
So there you have it! Two new cat books (sorry, Elisha Cooper, the dog is also adorable but it’s a cat book in my head), and I think you should really get both of them. Buy indie, please, and let me know if I can help you find your indie book shop!
(This is all rushed Because Baby so you know I mean it, OK?)
Sometimes there’s a book you know you need before the deal is even made, much less the writing and art finished, much less printed and distributed, etc. For me, that’s… basically every Jon Klassen book ever written or illustrated, if we’re honest. Definitely it’s true of The Rock from the Sky. I knew I would need it, but I had no idea until it arrived and I read it how much joy it would give us all.
Hey, did I tell you I sent a copy of Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett with Jon Klassen illustrations to the South Pole? That’s the kinda fangirl I am. (Yeah, they sent the Changeling a beautiful thank you letter and NOAA gear. She’s planning our trip to visit them.) (Dear Family: You all are looking forward to the end of covid-times so we can get together again? See you at the South Pole!)
The point is, though, this is the first book where I actually wrote to a publisher requesting a review copy. I straight up told Candlewick, “I’ve pre-ordered this, actually. In fact, I’ve got two copies waiting at two local indie shops. But I do want to see it and review it ahead of time, so if you’ve got a spare copy…” Inexplicably, they sent it to me. (They were so nice: “Sure, happy to! Send us your review!” I’m like– I love you, Book People, but why do you care about me?)
But in this case it was so much more than simply wanting the book. (Even though, clearly, I wanted the book.) It was more, even, than wanting to slot it into my calendar. I wanted this book, even though I hadn’t seen it yet. I knew roughly what it was “about,” as it were. There would be, the title strongly suggested, a rock, and the rock would be coming from the sky; also I anticipated animals wearing hats. I was not disappointed. Thorough prior research of the Jon Klassen oeuvre suggested he tends toward the “deadpan,” with muted expressions, evasiveness, and animals playing it straight. I felt, rather strongly, that this would be a different experience from my recent reading in the arena of lyrical, gut-punching, earnest books.
It was. The reading was incredibly fun, with delightfully suspenseful page turns and absolutely gorgeous art.
And it’s very, very hard to write about. One reason (and this I know) is that today it’s hard to write about “fun.” The real is surreal today, and it’s bitter and bizarre and heartbreaking. The books about Real Life for adults are, almost without exception, heartbreaking if they let you have a heart to break. The books about reality for kids range from hauntingly wistful and beautiful to desperately peppy “sure it’s crap but you can change it, and sorry we let it get so bad!” books of activism.
It’s very, very hard to pull back from that to say, “Uh, here! This book is funny and will make you feel happy. Are… are we allowed to be happy…?”
And then, quite apart from giving permission to access joy and animals in hats, I was puzzled by what I might write about. I absolutely knew I had something to say… but what? My ever-so-kind husband decided to help out: “You should say…” he began, eagerly. I sputtered in utter fury: “I SHOULD SAY??? You start your own review, then!” So he did:
What first struck me about The Rock from the Sky was Klassen’s use of a sans serif font. Whereas the Hat trilogy is typeset in an easy-to-read serif font (New Century Schoolhouse), The Rock is set in a bleak Helvetica. One character’s lines are in black, the other’s in gray. In We Found A Hat, you know who is talking without the typographic cues. In The Rock, the typography is pointing to the disconnect between the characters. They stand far apart. They cannot hear each other, THEY NEED TO SHOUT. The Rock reminds me of Waiting for Godot, down to the bowler hats that the characters wear. (The hats in The Rock are simply there, they don’t have the same aura of spunk and individuality that they possess in the Hat trilogy). “What happened?” asks one character. “Nothing.” Later, “OK. What are you doing?” “We are not doing it anymore.” There is certainly a fun undercurrent throughout the book, but in the end I came away a little unsettled, thinking about closeness and intimacy, the meaning of life, and other existential questions.
“I should do guest reviews for you!” No, no you should not.
I needed real help, so I talked to the Changeling, who always has insights to share. She loved the book, had things to say, but hesitated a lot about how to say it (so I wasn’t alone). She found it “funny but not ‘hahah laughing out loud funny.'” Please note that all funnies appear on a spectrum from “bathroom humour funny” (which is a fine and legitimate form of humour, too, allow me to refer you to I HAVE TO GO! by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko) on the “hahah laughing out loud funny” side of the spectrum and the dry, the deadpan, and the “my father developed this sense of humour in both me and, by extension, the Changeling” humour which turns up in Pokko and the Drum, for example, on the other side. She noted that the friend who would like The Rock from the Sky best is the friend with whom she reads the heavier duty novels. Usually she wouldn’t think of him for picture books at all, so I was very intrigued that this one (labelled “4-8 years”) struck her as being suitable for her High Intellectual Buddy.
Here’s the thing: I don’t need to tell you what The Rock in the Sky is “about” because, as noted, it’s in the title. And that’s my favourite kind of book. I had a conversation with a buddy recently in which I enthused forever about James Branch Cabell, he asked me “what sort of things he wrote,” and I simply couldn’t figure out how to describe it. How to define that level of bizarre, different, new… even when the new is nearly a hundred years old? That indefinability is absolutely key to me in literature. If I can define it, it might be very good, but it’s unlikely to enter the “I need it before the book deal is made” zone.
I did far too much reading and advice-seeking, in fact. A short list:
Over at SLJ, Elizabeth Bird wrote a review distilling everything I think into a beautiful, fun-to-read review so why am I even bothering? (I shouldn’t admit in public how badly I want to be her when I grow up.)
At least no one else thought of James Branch Cabell. (“Deb, sweetie, nobody else knows about him or reads him today.” Neil Gaiman does, so there.)
What I think all of this misses is a very simple fact:
Jon Klassen is not writing for Hitchcock fans. Nor is he writing to replicate Beckett, Ionesco, and I wonder if he’s heard of James Branch Cabell? (Hey, Jon Klassen! You should read Cabell!) Let’s look at his art.
Look at the armadillo’s eyes, tilting up the rock face. The armadillo is slightly baffled, trying to process the sequence of events, piece things together. The turtle, in respectable denial, saving face, keeps those turtle eyes perfectly level, willing the armadillo to go quietly away. (Genders are not vouchsafed, and while I have my own private thoughts, I will not share them. Make your own canon. I mean, my daughter has decided that Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” are a gay, interspecies couple, so go for it.)
The colours are muted, as ever, but just look at the glowing, dangerously, gloriously louring sky! One rock has fallen already– what may come next? Turner could infuse no more breathless ideas into a sky than does Jon Klassen…
And we’re giggling at the turtle, hatless and yet not precisely hatless, precariously balanced on the ground, upside-down, while the armadillo puzzles out the past.
Parents may think of Ionesco, Turner, etc. but—
The glory of Klassen is that he does not write or draw for parents at one level, kids at another. Parents and kids will both bring ideas to the page, and laugh at the same pictures and ideas on the page.
The armadillo and snake are enjoying the sunset– and what a sunset! We, the readers, are breathless, watching the sun descend… and the poor, blundering turtle is breaking the peace, the beauty, with loud shouts, creeping closer against the glorious colours and the deepening intensity of the moment…
And the suspense present over the falling rock is precisely the same, inverted for “oh no the turtle’s going to block the sunset” from “oh no the rock will fall,” but we giggle away…
With parents who have probably wiped tears over an intense movie while the kid is saying “why are you crying I don’t get it” wondering how their kids found this artistic sensitivity.
Jon Klassen is quietly linking parents and kids with glorious storytelling and art.
I recently almost smashed my laptop out of anger over some dude sneering that he’d always thought of Dr Seuss as junk food for kids (but now they’ve decided to stop printing 6 old, desperately out-of-date titles Dr Seuss is sacrosanct to this dude, obviously) with the implication that children should be carefully trained to Appreciate Higher Things and so on.
Jon Klassen is a perfect answer to that kind of snobbery. Instead of saying kids have to be mini adults, he simply provides the same quality for everyone, kids and parents. Instead of “making art accessible” by carving it down to kid size, he takes the best of the kids’ world and joins with it the level of artistry that goes into art “for adults,” so we can all enjoy it together.
In case you, like me, have been worried you have to seek permission to access this joy? I grant it to you.
Get this book, read it with a kid, and maybe stick one in a Little Free Library or something.
We all need this. We need the joy, the art, the fun.
I got an email from someone at Candlewick about Zonia’s Rain Forest(available March 30, also available in a Spanish edition) by Juana Martinez-Neal back in February, when it was cold and damp and cold and distinctly grey and unwarm and did I mention cold and dingy? I don’t actually mean that complainingly– February is supposed to be all of those things. I feel unnerved on years (such as this year) when it warms too quickly (probably climate change at work). But let’s just say when this email hit my inbox, the idea of a rain forest seemed even more remote than usual. And kind of appealing in its remoteness? And a Candlewick email is always a good email!
I read about the book with interest. I love Juana Martinez-Neal‘s work, so I trusted her, but part of me was wondering, “What’s going to be new here?” Not that every book has to do something altogether new– sometimes you can quite simply write a fun book, which is totally fine! But for me to review it, I usually need a hook to something special, something distinctive, especially in a book that’s addressing issues of ecology, sustainability, or otherwise focusing on the damage the human race has been inflicting on our home planet. Given the number of picture books (whether nonfiction or fiction) I’ve been reading in that wide arena (the Changeling is deeply invested in endangered species, so I end up with lots of these), I was wondering what the new angle would be, and then two points jumped out at me from the email: the illustrations were “created on paper made from banana bark” and the story and back matter are set among and provide background on the Asháninka community which lives in the Amazon and is at risk from changes imposed by, frankly, the rest of us.
This told me all I needed to know! I was in and wrote to say I’d love to see the book. The art and story were going to be rooted in a new and important arena in picture books: the rain forest in this story wasn’t just somehow disembodied as “the lungs of the planet,” though certainly that’s true– it’s also home. A kids’ book on saving one’s home? That’s personal in a way that “home planet” can feel remote. By making that “remoteness” I mention in my first paragraph “home,” the entire notion of the dangers faced by the Amazonian communities and, by extension, the rest of the planet, become precious to us.
One of the lovely things about this picture book is that it’s layered– much like the art, which uses the nuanced textures of paper made from banana bark to create art that’s both cozy and homey and deeply serious, the story is textured. I scanned the blurbs and reviews out there, curious about what’s popped out to others: Shelf Awareness gleefully jumps to the “super-cute critters” Zonia greets on her way through the rain forest; School Library Journal (starred review) talks about Zonia’s “determination to save her home”; and Booklist (starred review) emphasizes the layers, noting “at its simplest level” the book is about a child who loves her home, but her uncomplicated view is shaken by the swathe of clear-cut forest she discovers.
All of these are true (even if I have to grumble a little at Shelf Awareness‘s squealing over cuteness in a book that touched me deeply– I mean, ok, they are super cute critters, yes), and there’s more there, too. The book begins simply as a family story. “Zonia lives with those she loves in the rain forest.” The illustration shows her with her mother and her baby brother, a blue morpho butterfly flying by. Will the story be about the three of them? Yes– and more: about the four, and more…
“Every morning, the rain forest calls to Zonia. Every morning, Zonia answers.”
And, following the blue morpho, Zonia goes into the rain forest. She meets old friends and new ones. These friends include sloths, jaguars, water lilies, and the Arrau turtle, among others. We get to know them through Zonia as neighbours, friends, almost family (all helpfully named at the back of the book if you find yourself curious to look up more about them). We watch them be playful, beautiful, curious, serene, and chatty. Like most of us, Zonia knows who to visit when she feels like one type of interaction over another: “Zonia knows just who to visit when she wants to be quiet and still.” And then she heads home, eager to see her human family again…
And is frightened to encounter a devastated swathe of the rain forest which we now know, with Zonia, is her home, a special home, perhaps, but as much hers as our homes are ours, whether in cities, towns, or the countryside. How would we feel if we were walking home and saw the path to our front door was crushed rubble in place of stone slabs, we think?
Then there’s a brief dialogue: Zonia shows her mother the dead, broken sticks in her hands, saying the forest needs help. Zonia’s mother turns it around: “It is speaking to you.” Zonia doesn’t hesitate: “Then I will answer,” and, after a page turn, you see Zonia gazing over the rain forest, the blue morpho leading forward, “We all must answer.”
The startling drama of the conclusion is extraordinary after the quiet intimacy of the rest of the book.
The most appealing aspect is Zonia’s quick and upright response to the trauma of her home being invaded and destroyed: she, herself, rooted in the forest, will take up the action here. The story leaves it in her hands, but invites us to help.
There is backmatter, naturally, to help us with this process– but before that, we get something else. The text of the story is translated into Asháninka by Arlynder Sett Gaspar Paulino, a firm recognition that this is her story, the Asháninka story. The backmatter goes on to tell us more about Zonia’s home and community, such as the use of red plant-based paint to “signal strength and determination,” as Zonia does at the very end of the story (and is represented on the cover). Finally, we are given a list of threats to the Amazon, such as illegal logging and mining, and resources to learn more.
While all of the backmatter is useful and great– the part that sticks with me, writing here, is that this is a book about it not being your story, the reader’s story. This is incredibly unusual in picture books. Picture books very often talk to the reader about how this is your story: the feelings, the responsibilities, etc.– these are yours.
In Zonia’s Rain Forest, it’s in the title: her rain forest, her community. Would we please stand aside. We may be beside her as she does the answering, but, honestly, the best thing we can do is get out of the way.
What a lesson. What an important lesson, especially, to the adult reader– I think kids get it earlier and better. “Knock on my door if you want to come into my room!” they tell us.
It’s an easy phrase, often repeated, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’d nod to that expression– you will echo the sentiment, and mean it when you say it. I’ve written about it myself, as regards the music world and writing about music. But what about when you’re a parent or a teacher or a librarian, say, and you don’t really know about a thing and maybe it’s published but it’s not your thing, precisely, and it’s out there but it’s not a thing you’re comfortable with and…
Look, I’ve never reviewed a book specifically dealing with a trans character here. I actually regret that, because I thought I “wasn’t qualified,” and after thinking it over this past few weeks… I might not be trans, but I’m a medievalist. I think I’ve got a better historical perspective on the range of LGBTQ+ issues and their prevalence globally than many a reviewer of kids’ books (look: if that puzzles you because you thought the Middle Ages were somehow sexually dry– there’s a story about a man and his nephew who get transformed into animals of different sexes so they can copulate, there’s the lovely and moving Roman de Silence which I’ll let you look up for yourself, and a fascinating story about a wife who dresses up as a knight to try to seduce her own husband to a homosexual encounter… there’s more, believe me), so, even though that’s not what this post is going to be about, I look at the past five years of reviews with humility and remorse: I should have said something, somewhere.
In fact, I’m going to own up to re-reading this post with a jaundiced eye today. Half the reason I remember buying It’s So Amazing is because I felt uncomfortable with the binary representation of “you can tell who’s a boy and who’s a girl solely by the equipment under the clothes.” Why didn’t I say that made me uncomfortable, like I was lying to my kid? Why didn’t I say I was asking around for a sex ed book for the Changeling that at least mentioned the existence of transgender people? I honestly can’t tell you. Maybe, back on (checks date of post) March 1, 2019 I felt concerned about who might read that? But if I don’t say directly “I want trans representation in books about sex written for kids” as a cis parent of a girl who’s apparently cis as well… it feeds directly to the advantage of bigots who consider the existence of transgender people problematic, and I see that with blistering clarity today.
Why? OK, here’s the thing: Kyle Lukoff is an author, once upon a time an elementary school librarian (I think he must have been great), and as a trans man and author, he channels his experience to represent transgender characters in kids’ lit. So, among other books, he’s written Call Me Max and When Aidan Became a Brother, among other books, both of which are narrative introductions to being trans or encountering transgender friends geared towards children. And what I’m wondering is– how many of us are just naturally picking them up for our own young kids? We wouldn’t exactly censor them, because representation matters! But are we buying and reading them? Yes, I’m talking to myself, too.
I admit that when I first encountered Aidan I thought, “Cute story, but in between the Changeling and the Spriggan– I’ll keep it in mind for down the line.” I didn’t consider reviewing it at the time. Apparently, the Changeling had other ideas. She pulled it off the shelf and read it without my noticing. We’ll come back to that.
Fast-forward a few months and it’s about mid-February 2021. I read this article about a Utah school district which is reviewing all literature in its “equity book bundles” program because– get this– a kid brought a copy of Call Me Max from home (it was not in the “equity book bundles” nor is it in any of the district’s libraries) just to make sure there’s nothing that, I guess, makes anyone upset. The issue rather exploded, and I was one of the many readers who was outraged. I imagine you are, too, hearing about this. The reporting was also notably problematic, to put it delicately. Take this tweet from Chelsea Clinton, for example:
Let’s move on. Another schoolroom, another problem. Kyle Lukoff finds himself once again defending Call Me Max, this time to the Eanes School District in Texas. I’ll let you read about that yourself, since he responded in his own words.
What I noticed, again, was in myself– I’m not here to rant (too much) about the sins of others, when you can perfectly well see that, again, I haven’t said much myself in the past. So, I was, indeed, ranting about all of this to my husband, when my daughter popped her head up: “Kyle who?” “Kyle Lukoff,” I said. “He’s an author– you may have seen…”
The Changeling interrupted: “HE WROTE When Aidan Became a Brother!” she squealed. “I love that book!”
I was shocked, since, you know, I didn’t buy it. “Where did you read it?”
“It’s really good,” she told us. “It’s about a boy whose parents are having a baby and he wants to make sure the baby feels comfortable and understood because when he was born they thought he was a girl and he didn’t feel comfortable and he wants to make sure the baby is happy and feels loved and–”
Very quickly, I understood something myself: the Changeling was identifying with Aidan in the story. The trans protagonist was excited to have a baby in the family– just as she was. She wanted to make sure our baby was loved, was comfortable, was happy. She wanted to cuddle our baby. Aidan wanted to be a good brother. Aidan was trans. The Changeling is not. But she identifies with the humanity of Aidan. Representation doesn’t just matter for trans kids seeing themselves. It matters for my daughter, too, seeing that trans kids exist.
Representation matters because for the rest of the Changeling’s life, she will have had the experience of seeing a trans protagonist as “different in some ways, but in many others, just like me” so that when someone calls trans people “they” in front of her, it will hopefully clash and she’ll maybe have the courage to say “we’re all human” in reply.
Before I move on from her role in this post, I have to fulfill a promise to her. “If you’re reviewing Aidan, can you put in pictures?” I told her I always make sure to include the cover of a book. “What about inside the book? There’s the last page, where Aidan is cuddling the baby. Can you put that in? Please?” She held it up. I saw what she saw: There’s an older sibling, just like her, holding a new baby, sitting in a chair because no grownup lets a kid hold a newborn without careful support from a chair and an army of adults to make sure that new little neck is supported. He seems to be feeling the soft baby fuzz against his chin and cheek and even though there’s fuss around him, his eyes are closed and he’s entirely focused on the baby. The Changeling saw, in a word, herself:
Look, I know. I remember when the Changeling was asking about sex and gender at age 3. I had so many conversations! Someone kindly reminded me “you don’t have to teach her everything all at once.” True, I guess, but I had books that were teaching her incorrect things as facts: the equipment under the clothes is not an infallible sign of gender. So that put me in an uncomfortable position– do I allow incorrect facts on gender, even though I won’t allow them in other books? Do I go through the books with a red pen? Do I hover in the background and explain everything myself? Do I print out articles for her? Or do we actually procure books with correct information and real representation by someone who has lived the experience and knows how to write about it for kids? I think I know which route I think makes the most sense.
“You don’t have to answer every question fully!” Honestly, I grinned and I told that line to my cousin who literally ROARED because she’s met my Changeling and she gets it. But even if you don’t have a feisty “answer my question fully or I will continue badgering you until the windows explode from the force of my questioning” child, why not? Why deflect? Honestly, what are we so afraid of? If we believe representation matters and trans rights are human rights– what’s wrong with telling kids that transgender people exist? I’ve just demonstrated the Changeling’s happiness in reading it. I promise– she’s fine! In fact, when I bought the book, she held it up and giggled, “When I Became a Sister!” I wasn’t going to tell you that because it’s so adorably on the nose you’ll think I made it up, but it’s actually true.
In my experience, the people who feel the discomfort and anxiety and confusion about transgender characters in books aren’t the kids… Only the adults feel that discomfort. And, naturally, if we’re uncomfortable we might convey that to the kids. “What’s upsetting my mother about this?” is a frequent child thought. But the Changeling read it on her own and skated right through: “ah, yes, transgender– that’s like the thing mentioned in It’s So Amazing, cool,” and she recalled that I told her about our trans friend. Her true, natural focus was on the bits she identified with.
In the article linked above (hang on, here it is again), Kyle explains very directly: “It’s only a problem if you think that being transgender is itself wrong,” Lukoff said. “And it’s not. That’s something the parent then has to work through.”
He’s right, and that’s why I feel bad that I haven’t written about this before. Whether I had anxiety or discomfort with speaking up because I didn’t want to be attacked for it (and, come on, I’d rather be called out for supporting trans rep than deal with a fraction of what trans folk deal with for the mere fact of being trans, so…) or whether I just didn’t notice the lack of rep on my own blog– it was wrong of me not to say anything.
So I want to tell other parents, teachers, librarians, other grownups in general: really, if you’re concerned about “talking about it” with your kids– it’s really ok. It’s more than ok, it’s great! Talking about gender is very different from talking about sex because with gender the worst they can ask you is “what gender are you?” rather than, mercy on me, “Can you and Daddy show me how sex works, though?” (Although that did lead to a useful and interesting conversation about intimacy and privacy, at least. It’s also very much the same. Kids are direct (see questions quoted above). They are also very matter-of-fact. “OK, so that’s what that is.” And they’re proponents of justice: “Well, I think the school district should just read those books, then! There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re cute! They should read them!”
If you’re afraid of introducing discussions of gender with your kid, maybe think about where that fear comes from. I’m not saying that as an indictment of you! When I asked myself why I had no trans rep on the blog I think the answer was fear of outside accusations: would a reader reproach me? And I thought, “So what if they did?” And then I wasn’t afraid any longer. So– think about the question for yourself. And, I would recommend, read some of those books yourself! Kyle’s books, as you can see from my daughter’s reaction, are warm, lovely, hugs of books, and I found them comforting, too. In When Aidan Became a Brother, the mother is asked about whether she’s having a boy or a girl. Lord, did I always hate that question! It was nice to see the mother smile and say, “I’m having a baby.” Cheers for Mom!
So, this is not to say we’re bad people. But let’s recall: trans kids exist, trans authors exist, and if cis kids like my daughter can identify with trans kids? Give them the chance to! I love that my daughter is experiencing a chance I simply didn’t have because Kyle Lukoff wasn’t writing these books when I was her age. So give your own kids that experience.
Representation matters. Trans representation matters, too.
As you can see from the title, this is a hefty post in three parts, so I’m giving you a breakdown and Table of Contents for ease of navigation: PART 1: To put it politely, I will discuss the great value of Canadian illustrators! To put it candidly, I will whine at length about how nobody knows my favourite, beloved illustrators, or if they do they don’t know they’re Canadian, and how it’s a raw deal because if you don’t know an illustrator and an illustrator isn’t widely distributed, you don’t find their stuff– oh no I’m off again. PART 2: Here I review a book by wonderful Canadian illustrator Lauren Soloy, who draws on wonderful Canadian artist (and author!) Emily Carr. PART 3: The fun! A Canadian-focused giveaway of Lauren’s book– signed and personalized yesss! She is currently around Halifax, better known as the location of the glorious Woozles children’s book shop, and offered to pop in and sign a book for us! (Bet you anything if you don’t win but you want one– you could contact them and her politely and she’d do one for you at the same time.) NB: This giveaway has a firm deadline of entering by March 8 at 5 pm so that Lauren Soloy can have time to go to the shop and personalize the prize book!
Addendum: I will be dropping MANY names and a whack of pictures in this post for a simple reason: I want you to click my links, be intrigued and search for more of their work, whether they’re still in print or not, so you can read and enjoy– and gaze at the art.
PART 1: I have something of a mild grumble to make, as a Canadian living in the USA, and it’s this: for whatever reason (and there are reasons, there’s a whole border between the countries) I sometimes feel that the books I love from Canada just… don’t cross. They’re hard to find, they’re unknown– they’re beautiful… and just not around. I grew up with Robert Munsch (generally associated with illustrator Michael Martchenko, although he was paired with others, too) being just as much a given in everyone’s house as Goodnight Moon, but around here you can only reliably find Love You Forever (and no one knows the tune) and The Paper Bag Princess. If you ask me, this is ridiculous because in New England you should at least be able to find: Thomas’s Snowsuit, I Have to Go!, and 50 Below Zero, and, I’m sorry, is there a parent on earth who doesn’t need Mortimer? (Hint: it’s about a cheeky kid who just won’t fall asleep… until everyone gets too upset arguing with each other to check on him, and he’s bored of waiting for them to check on him– so he conks out.)
But what’s been getting my hackles up lately is that folks in the USA are often completely unaware of Canadian illustrators outside of the really tightknit kids’ lit world. My point is very far from “Canadian illustrators are undervalued by publishers and don’t get work.” They do! That’s brilliant, it makes me happy! But my bigger point is: a) OK, not to harp on, but I will never not be sad that the Caldecott rules are so exclusive (this article is from 2013 and there’s one like it pretty much annually); b) I’m Canadian and pouty that other people don’t get all thrilled over Canadian brilliance because, I repeat: I’m petty like that (I conducted an informal poll about “your favourite Canadian illustrator” and— well, I won’t talk about it because my heart cracked a bit); c) more seriously: There are genuine distribution issues across the border that have precisely zero regard for artistic merit, meaning that no matter how popular and relevant a title may be in Canada, and it may be a title with equal relevance to the States, with equal likelihood of popularity– it may not get distributed, it may have no chance to be known. That’s not anyone’s fault except for the Top Secret Masterminds Behind Distribution (who handles that and do you have a phone number?), but it does make me sad and frustrated.
Let’s look at success: the author Mac Barnett is paired up with illustrator (and author in his own right) Jon Klassen (they’re good friends and a brilliant team) and while Klassen does live in Los Angeles at the moment, he’s originally from Winnipeg and grew up in Toronto. He’s known, he’s widely recognized, and he publishes with Candlewick as both author and illustrator. I have a mad crush on his wit and his art (turtles) (ho, seriously, if you love turtles and I love turtles you need to read Klassen) and I want his new book The Rock from the Sky now but it’s only being released in April (“Dear Jon Klassen: If you send me a review copy I will send you butter tarts. How many butter tarts can you find in LA? Outside of your own kitchen? Hmmm? Come on, send me the book, and I’ll send you homemade butter tarts, and you get to choose whether with or without raisins, and I won’t even judge. Sincerely, Deborah”). Because he lives in the USA and publishes in the USA, he is known in the USA.
There are certainly others who have had wonderful success here, even without crossing the border! Sydney Smith springs to mind: I don’t know anyone in the kids’ lit world who’s not kicking as sulkily at rocks as I am because he’s not eligible for the Caldecott. He gets face out displays at every indie book shop, and even people who don’t scrutinize displays and make multiple trips to multiple book shops per week (I’m totally not describing myself, shut up)may actually own a book illustrated by him. Are there others? Sure! Isabelle Arsenault, Qin Leng, Julie Morstad, Elly MacKay— these are illustrators who get good work and whose books I’m able to buy relatively easily. Most of them. Most of the time.
It shouldn’t matter to me that no one knows they’re Canadian (but it does: see point b above re: Deborah is a pouty pouty rock-kicking sulky puss), because, honestly, they’re succeeding in a tough field. The reason I justify my poutiness about something so utterly irrelevant is this: When something reaches us, and we fall in love, we look for more of it, and it’s nice to be able to get it… but if you don’t know it exists, you can’t. Consider:
When I was growing up, Martin Springett’s art for Mei Ming and the Dragon’s Daughter was so lovely I read the story over and over and I wanted more. I was starry-eyed over his work, and I’m pretty sure that in my heart it paved the way for Grace Lin‘s books (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, in particular) today. (You should get her books. They’re amazing.) When I grew older and saw the Fionavar Tapestry (then with the original covers), the style rang a bell, and I checked– it was Martin Springett’s art! It was the first time it occurred to me that Grown-Up Books Can Have Art, Too, and I can’t tell you how that link made me glow. To this day, I check good covers for the artist– and go out of my way to get special editions with covers by my favourite artists.
Nothing is as frustrating as falling in love with no hope of finding the object of your love without paying about $30 in shipping which I’ve certainly never done no never stop it (FINE I’ve done that, and ok yes I’ve paid even more than that, but not everyone is as willing as I am to say “it’s cheaper than a plane ticket, though!”) (It is cheaper than a plane ticket and during covid you can’t travel). However, the fact is that if you go to a book shop and think, “Well now, my kid loves books by Mac Barnett. I shall now find every Mac Barnett book here and buy as many as I can,” which is a lovely thing to do, it’s quite easy. You get to go and look on the shelves, search alphabetically by author’s last name, and you will find all of the available lovely books by Mac Barnett– some illustrated by Jon Klassen, others by Isabelle Arsenault or Christian Robinson.
However, unless you’re at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which is a wonderful idea, but not so easily achievable worldwide, and anyway it’s closed now because of covid (though the online shop is open, so patronize it, my friends), you don’t get to browse shelves by illustrator.
Further, I say, and yes I’m getting all wound up: classics, particularly illustrated classics, don’t have the staying power if you’re, for example, the abovementioned Martin Springett or, say, Frances Tyrrell, or Stéphane Poulin, or Phoebe Gilman, rather than Ezra Jack Keats or Maurice Sendak. Oh, and let’s not forget that Keats and Sendak were author-illustrators. Note that Margaret Wise Brown is far more of a household name than Clement Hurd, the skillful illustrator of Goodnight Moon. (Did you know Mac Barnett wrote a lovely book about Margaret Wise Brown? Illustrated by Sarah Jacoby.)
So I get rather fussy about my beloved Canadian illustrators, who don’t get quite the prominence unless attached to a good USA distributor, somehow, and whose names won’t be as recognized unless they’re capable of writing as well as drawing, and who won’t last as well… Example? I really wanted to give Marjorie Pickthall and Frances Tyrrell’s beautiful The Worker in Sandalwood to a friend for Christmas, but had to get it secondhand. Stéphane Poulin’s Joséphine books, even in translation, are hard to find. And so on and so forth. Oh yes, I’m fully aware that old books go out of print! Sure, the vast majority of books by the Lobels are hard to find, and I recently bought a hardback copy of In the Night Kitchen, classic of classics, simply because I FOUND IT SO IT’S MINE. Of course I already have one, don’t be silly. This is to give to the next person I hear lamenting that “they only have the paperback.” So, no, this is not exclusively a Canadian issue. It is difficult and expensive to keep every book ever produced in print in the editions everyone loves. But it is definitely harder for Canadian content than American. (And, I repeat, I’m being specifically pouty as a Canadian here: this is personal for me. I have also been known to spend exorbitant amounts of money getting books from the UK or from France. And Australia, once.)
But my issue is, very simply: how do we get more if we don’t hear about them in the first place and it’s hard to get them? I’m not an average buyer of books, but this is how an ordinary experience has gone for me: Neil Gaiman writes of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making: “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.” (100% accurate, by the way.) Now, I know and trust Neil Gaiman and that sounded like something I like, so I got it. I loved it, and got more of Cat Valente’s books, which have led me not only to more of her own excellent work, but also to the work of others (Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, and so much more). That’s how book-purchasing functions, normally. But let’s throw in a stumbling block: Cat decides to publish a story with an indie publisher in another country and they don’t distribute here. If we’re talking about a die-hard bibliophile and fan, this would cross the reader’s radar and maybe they’d go out of their way to get it. The average reader wouldn’t know. It wouldn’t pop up through an online algorithm because the book’s not available for purchase in the USA so a website serving the USA won’t pop up a notification “Oh, guess what? Why not get in touch with a store across the border and get this book?” If you are in a good store around the USA, a bookseller may mention it in the store, but only if you have a chatty bookseller who says: “Oh, hey, you like her? Wish we could get that new book, eh?” (Side note: Don’t worry, I know of no such book.)
Look, there’s no easy solution here. But I want to encourage you, dear readers, to think outside of the distribution bubble. When I travel (Remember travelling? I hear we might get to do it again one day!), I look for books at indie shops wherever I go (yes this is a problem when flying and the airlines make a fuss about weight limits), and I do my best to get local books– ones I know my Boston people can’t get me. In the UK, I have been known to reserve books in advance for purchase when I arrive. In Canada, I just pop in because I, um, know the booksellers and they know me. In Jerusalem, I have a local shop I love (Adraba, yes, they’re amazing). It’s worthwhile, I promise, and will enrich your library, and if it enriches your library it will enrich your mind, your heart, and your soul. And sink the foundations of your house, potentially.
PART 2: So, I’m going to show you work by a new-to-me illustrator (author-illustrator, too!), Lauren Soloy, from Canada: her earlier years in British Columbia gave her insights into the work of artist Emily Carr (how I love Emily Carr!), and she now lives on the other coast of Canada, in Nova Scotia, not far from where I grew up. She’s currently not far from the wonderful children’s book shop in Halifax, Woozles, and has offered to sign and personalize a book for ONE OF YOU, my dears, which I will pay to ship anywhere in Canada (yes, I want to focus on Canada, just this once– indulge my patriotism, I miss my home!). Rules to follow. Read on.
Her first author-illustrated book is When Emily Was Small, and it’s rooted in the story of Emily Carr as both writer and artist. I was so completely delighted that she wrote about Emily Carr just when I wanted to introduce the Changeling to Canadian art that this became personal to me.
Lauren Soloy did a wonderful job of making this story– and the art– both general and specific. Any child will be able to relate to Emily-as-Small’s feelings of repression and liberation, I think– and the story of the artist as well as the art is perfectly attuned to the historical context, too. The Canadian author-artist story goes back so far, both as far as and far preceding Emily Carr. One of the things to love about Emily Carr’s art, in fact, is that it represented a world of nature and art far beyond her own work. She was not a self-aggrandizing artist, though she knew her own worth, and you can see how steeped she was in the richness of her environment in so many ways. Lauren Soloy points to this one painting by Carr, “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky,” as a particular influence on When Emily Was Small, but “Totem Forest” shows her keen eye for the world around and the Indigenous art surrounding her yet more explicitly:
Now, if you want an example of how Emily Carr’s eye for narrative and nature in her art is reflected in the narrative art of Lauren Soloy? Look here, at a page which made me gasp aloud:
I chose to highlight this book for a few reasons: a) I love it and she so kindly agreed to sign a copy for one of you, b) it links art and narrative in Canada across time and culture, c) it tells the story of yearning to make art, to be seen, to be heard… to be bigger than yourself, yet, ultimately, to be yourself most fully. It makes the reader yearn to live in a broad, beautiful way in this broad, beautiful world, and it feels real to me. Real– and personal. (Did you know Lauren Soloy has a new book coming out soon? She does! Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem, May 18, 2021, and I’m very excited!)
PART 3: So: One of you Canadian readers! Remember that this time it’s for residents of Canada only, just this once. Please do my heart good! By Monday, March 8 at 5 pm either pop into the comments of this post and write about a Canadian illustrator you love– include the name of the picture book they illustrated, please! Or email me: email@example.com with the info– and attach a picture of the picture book you’re talking about if you’ve got it! I will choose a winner at random that night, email you immediately for name and address, and once I have the name for personalization and address for mailing, I will make the order from Woozles in Halifax to get to you ASAP!
Hey, remember that time I decided to hold a giveaway for a wonderful author’s wonderful books right before the end of 2020? I remember thinking it would be a chance to wind down 2020 gracefully. We’d think of a world beyond the immediate trauma, think about growing and changing! We’d give to charities to end the year! We’d think of creating a better future!
So, yeah, then… then… I don’t want to think about it all, but, well, between the tensions surrounding the election (note by delicate periphrasis, isn’t it nice?), many people’s depleted financial resources (so much with the delicate), and then, in January, the ACTUAL INSURRECTION AT THE CAPITOL (well, there goes my elegant periphrasis, sorry, it was nice while it lasted), I don’t think many people had what it took (either in dollars or neurons or anything else) to think about the future while the present was so precarious. Timing was off, let’s just say.
Now here we are, a few days from Valentine’s Day, and I want to try again. I know we’re not completely out of the hole, but I, for one, am feeling better about looking at the big picture. I’m feeling cautious optimism. I’m thinking… maybe we can think about Being Good Creatures again?
So let’s try again! The rules are the same: Donate at least $10 to the charity of your choice below, and be entered to win a great book! New deadline is DONATE BY FEBRUARY 19 and I will mail your book the followng week! I will, as always, ship worldwide. Full details:
The Changeling says: “Wombats have taught me to share a burrow with other animals who need one.” (During the horrific wildfires in Australia earlier this year, wombats escaped much of the danger due to their burrows, and they tolerated, as they frequently do, the presence of other animals in their burrows, thus allowing many of them to escape danger.)
Sy Montgomery has been working hands-on with the Turtle Rescue League to help out her turtle friends. She says they’re teaching her “at a time of terrible sickness and sorrow in our country, about the tremendous joy of taking a hand, no matter how small, in mending our broken world.”
Go for it! Look to the future, and win a brilliant book! Donate, then email me your receipt at firstname.lastname@example.org, mention the charity you chose, the book you want, and I’ll enter you to win!
Before my Spriggan was born, a lovely lady at Candlewick sent me a stack of books– including an F&G of one the Changeling has been anticipating ever since the first glimpses appeared online: Road Trip! A Whiskers Hollow Adventure, written and illustrated by Steve Light, one of her all-time favourites. Road Trip! will be released on February 9, and we couldn’t be more excited to get a real, hardcover copy from our local shop. We’ve been fans of Steve Light ever since Swap! (no one does endpapers like Steve Light) and this book is yet another example of Steve Light’s playful and apparently easygoing work, but always with his gorgeous linework and brilliant colours. (Seriously, in this one the endpapers alone are worth the price of admission, but I’m going to make you buy a copy to enjoy them. Probably.) And the timing of this book could not, in my eyes, be more perfect. (Read to the end for something fun, courtesy of Steve Light himself! UPDATE: the art is all spoken for! Thanks to everyone who got a copy and I hope you enjoy your books!)
You know, everyone has a road trip memory. For me, growing up in Remotest Small Canadian Town, with all of our friends and family scattered across the USA, road trips were so much a part of my childhood I never even thought of them as “road trips.” It was just… what you did. All the time. That’s how you got to see people. It didn’t feel dramatic, in other words.
But as I grew older, and especially now with my own kids, I think of a “road trip” as more of an event, and this has been highlighted by the pandemic. Isolated in Brookline, every time we get in the car to go to a nature preserve for a walk– it feels like A Really Big Deal! A Road Trip! Oh, wow! All the way to Concord??? You don’t say! I know we’re not alone: I see fellow cautious families writing captions to Instagram photos like this one (invented, but could be any of mine or my friends’): “I couldn’t take one more day in an apartment– we strapped on our masks, hopped in a car, and drove the half-hour to an empty wildlife refuge! Look at the birds!!!” Steve Light’s Road Trip! reflects this spontaneity, this joy in getting out and about, to a degree that startled me, since it was written pre-pandemic. Until I remembered… there have always been road trips; maybe I just didn’t see them with this clarity until now. But Steve Light did.
Steve Light knows that every good road trip has certain MUSTS: you need someone to look out for the snacks (don’t choose me, I get overwhelmed and pack or buy everything, just in case– ok, maybe choose me), you need someone with a steady head for directions (my husband), and you need someone who’s a planner (for us, that would be the Changeling) and remembers to bring the Band-Aids– just in case!
You also need an impetus: someone who sees a road trip opportunity, and grabs it with both paws: that would be Steve Light’s Bear. Bear is lovely, by the way. Bear is the one with the old truck. Bear has a minor accident, and has to get to Elephant’s Old Junk Tree for a new light. That could just be a chore, right? But not in Bear’s mind! Bear doesn’t grumble: Bear gets together a crew of good friends (Rabbit, who’s in charge of snacks, Mouse with a first-aid kit, and Donkey to provide directions: “Follow me, friends!”) and off they go, headed for adventure!
Let’s pause to look at a few things: First, did you notice the lack of pronouns? This will probably glide right over you as you read, since Steve Light skillfully weaves the text lightly along with gender-neutral characters (something I appreciate since I’ve encountered too much awkward and clumsy pronoun-free text; the effort to let it flow with fully defined characters who are just named and not pronoun-ed is decidedly appreciated, thank you), but readers will find themselves relating to the characters without worrying about gender. Bear is just Bear, right? This is as it should be between friends, and it will allow all children to focus on personality rather than preconceived notions of who you should identify with.
Second, the spontaneity. There’s a special joy to taking a setback and turning it into a pleasure– safely. It makes sense to bring companions on a car-repair journey! Why not make it fun, after all? That’s Bear’s special skill.
Third, Steve Light is just so good at showing, not telling, that you don’t even notice he’s doing it: You can have ten classes on “don’t waste!” or “reduce, reuse, recycle!” or “let’s talk about the importance of sustainability!” Steve Light just has his characters (who are quite simply of unnamed gender, without a lecture on it) take a potential setback and make it a safe pleasure (without preaching about making the best of a bad situation) and use old junk to fix up an old truck– and he does it without ever saying, “Because it’s just so important to save and behave in a sustainable fashion.” Kids will absorb this, feel happy, and enjoy the adventure. And the endpapers– which I refuse to show you. (They’re glorious.) (Should I show you a bit, just a teensy bit?)
I am here to tell you as a mother who has observed remote learning: Kids have had it up to here with “shoulds” by now. Just as you and I want a little light reading between articles on everything miserable, kids need escapism… but they need it to feel relevant. I have no idea how Steve Light knew this type of story was necessary (hey, if you had a line to the future, Steve, couldn’t you have given us a little warning about this past year?), but he managed to produce a fun, light read that’s on the nose.
Your kid, like mine, probably needs to dream of a road trip, a physical escape. Maybe they want a rescue mission, to take something broken and fix it? And maybe they long for companions who fit them like puzzle pieces: someone to be as careful as Mouse, but Mouse needs a nudge from loving Bear to head outside and face something new, while Rabbit takes care they have snacks and Donkey cheers them on to “Follow me, friends!” It’s escape– but such mild escape, such cozy escape! Escape that brings you home at the end of the day, after a lift from the possible blues to a spontaneous adventure.
And for some of us (sadly, not all), even under lockdown a road trip was the only achievable physical escape: over the summer, especially, we’d pack a picnic lunch, we’d pack art supplies so The Young Artist could pause to paint a landscape en plein air (I feel like Steve Light would approve!), and we’d put on good walking shoes. Off to a wildlife preserve, peering through binoculars at the skies! Would we see cool birds? Would we see that cute fawn again?
The long-distance road trips of my childhood had different pleasures: they were planned far ahead, we’d argue heatedly about which music to bring and how many times we could listen to The Magic Flute (and no, I will never forgive my parents for lying and saying it only played on the Trans-Canada Highway, sorry, don’t lie), and there was always a welcoming family member at the end of the trip, whether cousins or a whole variety of aunts and uncles. We can anticipate those vacations again, as we read, but for now– a tiny road trip is still a possibility, and a very real, very hopeful, very friendly escape from our own four walls.
And Steve Light lets us see… where could we go? (Oh, fine, here’s a glimpse of those endpapers– just the teensiest, tiniest taste!)
I was so grateful to Candlewick for sending me this review copy when I had admitted to them up front that “we all know this is one I’m going to buy anyway” that I reached out to Steve Light before writing this: would he be up for a little something to lighten a few kids’ boredom?
For three lucky readers out there, then, here’s the plan! The first three of you to email me at email@example.com with proof of purchase of Road Trip! by Steve Light (and, yes, pre-ordering counts, of course!) will get a little something in the mail– just wait for me to say you’ve won, and I’ll ask for your mailing address, anywhere in the world! Steve has sent me three absolutely beautiful 5×7 drawings (picture below) and I have three little doodle pads, the kind the Changeling likes to carry with her for spontaneous drawings. Send me your proof of purchase, and the first three of you will get a drawing and a doodle pad! I’ll let you know if you’ve won and will ask for your address, and I will update the post when all of these are won and in the mail. As usual– I will ship anywhere, worldwide. Do note that the mail is slow these days, but I promise you your package will reach you.
NB: You can make your purchase anywhere, of course: my link is, as always, to my local Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. I would ask you to consider buying local and independent– if you have trouble locating your local shop, I’d be happy to help! But any purchase will count for these goodies– so here we go. Buy a book, send me an email, and I’ll let you know when your drawing and doodle pad are on the way!
When I started this blog, it was just me and a stack of books I loved, happily typing away. It was nice, of course, if anyone read my reviews and thought, “That sounds like a book for me!” But I bought every book myself, without any expectation of anyone giving me free books! For crying out loud– free books??? Now, some lovely people do that, so I thought I should put this up here both as a guide to readers for the sake of transparency, and to book-makers-who-want-reviews as a clear statement up front.
So: This page is to be a guide to authors/illustrators and publishers about my stance on review copies. It also explains to readers where my books come from and how it has an effect on my reviews (tl;dr: it doesn’t change my reviews one bit).
Background: My rules for reviewing have always been the same, and I stand by every review. I do not review a book I don’t love. It’s not as fun to create a space of analysis rather than enthusiasm, honestly, and while there’s enormous value in critical analysis– I’m trained as an academic, I’ve done that for years, so I really do know that– I keep this as a space for joy and pleasure. I like to think people come here thinking, “What can I read to help me smile or grow or think?” and walk away with a list in hand. So, what I’m saying is that I’m incredibly picky! It might be a silly book or a serious book– but I write about a very, very small number of the books I read. Too small. I wish I had time for more!
For Readers: I will always note when a book comes to me as a free review copy. That said, as you’ll find if you read on, nine times out of ten the review copy comes to me by way of a publisher saying, “OK, tell me what you like then!” So I do the choosing, and then narrow down– just as I would in a book shop. In fact, the result is that this encourages me to step out of my comfort zone a little, or you get a review pre-publication. In short: better for you! More variety, more chance to stretch myself, but I’m still picky as all get out.
For Publishers: I’ve had a few publishers contact me, which is wonderful (I do love publishers– they work so hard on getting these books out– and I’m writing this during covid, at which point, good Lord, I bow to you all!), and to them I say the same thing you’re getting over and over on this page: a review copy does not guarantee a review. I’m just very picky, and also busy. Remarkably, some of you wonderful folks still offer to send me books! Here’s the deal about that: I’m super picky, and I prefer to be offered to choose my books, but review copies get considered first when I’m thinking about what to review. So, why do I pick and choose? Why not say to send what you like? This allows me to stretch! I may very well have pre-ordered a book by a favourite author, or be planning to. I don’t want you to waste a review copy if I’m already getting it– unless you think a pre-publication review would be nice, in which case, please do. But I really love to be challenged. Give me the chance at something a step out of my usual zone? Great! That would be a great review for you and a lovely chance for me to stretch my mind a bit. Long story short: I love to get review copies from publishers, love to choose or discuss them, and, further, since I feel an obligation to you, review copies automatically go to the top of my mental list when I think ahead to what I plan to review. If you wish to contact me, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Authors: While I really, really do love to hear from you and I appreciate you so very much— because of that, I do encourage you to put me in touch with your agent or publicist regarding reviews, just because I don’t want you or me to feel bad if I don’t write a review. Long version: I’ve had lovely authors write to my over the years offering review copies and I always caution them that while I’m very happy to get books, it’s not a guarantee of a review– partly because I may not love the book (see above re: very, very picky), but also because it’s only me here and I don’t like to write a review thoughtlessly. So if a review doesn’t go up, it may just be that I was busy or simply couldn’t think of something interesting to say beyond, “Nice book!” and that’s not what I do here. And I always feel bad if an author sends a book directly and I don’t wish to or don’t manage to get a review up: every author works hard on their book and it’s their baby! If I don’t review, I cringe a little– folks: I promise I appreciate your immense effort! It’s just I’m only one person. If you wish to contact me, please email: email@example.com.
It’s been a while since I’ve been properly immersed in the book world, sadly! Still, the ALA Youth Media Awards are always fun, and it seemed a nice time to sit with a sleepy baby (the Spriggan is a little over two months old now, and very good at talking over Caldecott-worthy picture books) and watch the awards. I wanted to see, properly– what had happened last year? Was it really only one year?
This year’s awards were bittersweet: sweet because there are so many lovely books of all kinds, but bitter because I missed so many. I’ve never been able to keep up fully with the intense joys of an industry churning out so much valuable literature, but during a pandemic, with doors shut everywhere, it just wasn’t possible. (I owe incredible thanks to my local shop, as ever, for keeping me and my whole community here as in the loop as possible.) It’s always fun to get guessing about the Caldecott, in particular. Flipping through a stack of gorgeous picture books is just the best kind of joy under any circumstances; doing so while thinking “is it Caldecott-worthy, though–what is the role of the illustrator in this book?” That’s a whole other level of fun, especially while doing so with a keen Changeling with opinions of her own.
She voted for The Bear and the Moon, by the way, though she agreed with my musings that The Blue House was a worthy choice. My husband mentioned I Am Every Good Thing.
This year, I was way off! There was precisely ZERO overlap between my thoughts and the Caldecott committee, and that means you get an extra list to browse! I encourage you to take a look at the YMA list, which includes many books I loved, and many which completely passed me by due to the aforementioned dumpster fire of the pandemic. Here are all the winners of this year’s awards. I encourage you to read it through and look to your local book shop to pick up anything that strikes your fancy– these are very fine books.
As for my Caldecott-worthy picks? Well, not all are eligible according to their rules, but I’m not so restrictive as they are, so here’s my list of books with absolutely extraordinary illustrations which deserve a careful read Links below lead to the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, where I found all of these, but maybe you have a great shop of your own!
November 2016 I reviewed Langston Hughes and Bryan Collier’s I, Too, Am Americaon the blog. I was sad, afraid, and angry.
Yesterday and today, I’ve been FURIOUS, sad, and a bit afraid– mostly for the future, really.
Langston Hughes first published that poem in 1926. There’s a recording of him reading it in 1955. (Listen here.) And now we’re asking, again: What is America? Who is America? Who speaks for us? Who represents us?
Good questions to ask, yes, but. But. Some of the loudest answers we’re getting are representative of the worst elements among us. Langston Hughes told us in 1926: I am America, as are you: We are all America. Yesterday, the insurgents in DC said: We, are, you’re not. We don’t care what you say. Mind your place, don’t be uppity, and don’t speak to your betters.
And the world asked: What is happening to democracy in America?
I was ashamed. I hope you are, too. But don’t say: “this isn’t who we are.” Because, sadly, it really is, and we have to own it, and we have to change that.
I Am America. So are you. Let’s make America better. If you want to get Langston Hughes’s heartrending poem with Bryan Collier’s heartmending illustrations, try it here, from my local book shop: I, Too, Am America