The Little Kitten and a little surprise, just for you, or anyone else!

Thanks to the kind, lovely folks at Simon and Schuster, I’m getting to do something I don’t often manage: a review on book release day! This book comes with a little personal story. An absolutely charming lady at Simon and Schuster sent me a note to ask if I’d be interested in seeing a review copy of this book. I gave her my usual story about how I handle review copies from publishers, but I admit that I added, “Given that the title is The Little Kitten— I’m quite certain I’m into this.”

Well, my review copy arrived on the very day my poor girl had a nasty doctor’s appointment and got drenched in the rain on the way home. When we arrived home she swiftly pulled on dry pyjamas, I ripped open my package, and dropped this book on her lap. She was completely charmed, all was well in the world, and I’ve never been more grateful for a book in my life. (I can’t guarantee that your book will be as beautifully timed as mine was, but I have my suspicions about the spookily appropriate arrangements here?)

This book is: The Little Kitten by Nicola Killen, and it is gorgeous. For once I get a REALLY nice cover art image for you, too, because they sent me one!

Even a nice image doesn’t get across the gorgeous autumnal haze and coppery-pumpkiny-orange foil details, though…

Let me put it this way: I’ve already written to the parents of my little buddy who always get a new Hallowe’en book from me every year begging them NOT to buy this because “I NEED TO SEND IT TO HIM!” I sent a few images and the parents are charmed. They don’t realize how much more charmed they’re going to be when they experience the quality of paper, the die-cuts, and the metallic detailing in person. This is one of those books simultaneously written and designed for the child-audience (here, ages 4-8) and for the adult reader. NB: I worded that carefully; not all adult readers are reading aloud to a child, though in this case I highly suggest finding a suitable audience since it’s fun to read out loud!

The story is relatively simple. Ollie, our young protagonist, goes outside to play in the leaves one autumn morning, accompanied by her cat, Pumpkin. (Side-note: great name for a cat, don’t you think?) The leaves shiver, and out pops a kitten! The three play together, but eventually Ollie sees signs looking for the lost kitten in the woods, and she takes the kitten home on a winding path through the woods… (first die-cut!) and it takes them to the kitten’s house! But where is it? And where’s Pumpkin? Uh oh! But it’s OK, because Pumpkin is a most excellent cat and comes for Ollie, and brings her home (another die-cut). In the end, the next morning, Ollie opens her door to find a gift from… presumably the kitten, right? A beautiful pumpkin carved to look like a cat!

To me, the story is perfectly charming, combining a love of autumn with the special connections between kids and kitties (something I witness every day in my house). It’s got fun, it’s got the eensiest, weensiest bit of spooky tension (which you just know is going to be OK), and it feels right for any day when the golden light of autumn hits the leaves just so.

But what raises it to the next level is, of course, the art and design. This is hard to convey without showing you the physical book, so I do suggest you acquire your own copy quickly so you can see what I’m talking about. The paper quality is excellent, and those die-cut pages I keep mentioning are going to hold up well. But the real thing here is not simply the pretty die-cuts but the use of colour. The colour palette is limited and muted: the black is more charcoal than black, there are various shades of grey and tannish grey forming the forested background and tree trunks, the leaves are saturated with orange and red, but then dimmed by a touch of grey to feel rustier than many jewel-toned autumn leaf illustrations. But those rusty leaves, every so often enhanced by a surprising pop of pumpkin-coppery-orange foil, absolutely glow against the shades of grey and tan forming the regular foresty background of this autumn scene.

It is visually stunning at a level that will appeal to every reader’s senses, child or adult, while the two cats and Ollie are so cute they will pull at every kid’s heart.

Now, I had one question when I first heard of The Little Kitten, and I’m pleased to tell you it was resolved satisfactorily. Autumn books are nice, and Hallowe’en books are better, but for this age group, a good Hallowe’en book needs one element: a spooky but non-scary mystery twist. Would this book have one?

Yes, dear reader, it DOES!

You see, those little die-cuts? Where do they go? Just to the next page, is that it? Hmmm. Whose house is that, where the little black kitten lives? Why can’t Ollie find her way home until Pumpkin comes to guide her? And who leaves that lovely kitty-pumpkin on Ollie’s doorstep that night…?

Who left this badly-photographed image here? You should write to the editor to complain!

It pains me to tell you I’m not going to spoil any mysteries for you. You’ll just have to buy your own copy– or watch this space when Hallowe’en rolls around… You do know how I love a good giveaway, especially when someone is nice enough to give me a free book, right? So… hm. Maybe we’ll do something nice in October!

Here’s a link to my local book shop’s online portal for The Little Kitten by Nicola Killen! (If you live somewhere else and don’t know where to get your own copy, but do want to support an indie book shop? One of my less-well-known talents is locating indie book shops worldwide. Write to me.)

Now, a little surprise! A book-related offer for you all. It comes with a story, so read to the end:

Last week, I got very sulky about something so silly I can’t even remember what it was. Well, we all have our forms of retail therapy. All I remember is that when I was at the post office mailing a birthday gift to a friend, and the lovely fellow at the desk asked me if I needed any stamps, I blurted out, “Do you have any Snowy Day stamps, you know, the ones in tribute to Ezra Jack Keats?” (Please note, a quick Google tells me those were released in 2017. It is now 2020. A dear, lovely friend sent me some back when they were released, and I have 18 of that original sheet of 20 left. Ask me no more questions.) He stared at me, “I… I might. Let me go check.” I said a quick, “Thank you! I’m sorry, I’m just running out of them.” (Yes, I did just say I had 18 of them, and yes, I knew that while I was standing there, lying through my teeth.) He came back with four sheets, and said, “I have four sheets left here.” (4×20=80) “I thought it sounded like you enjoyed these, so you can have as many as you like. Do you want all four?” I said, a little too quickly, “Yes, thank you!”

The outcome is, I have (wait– 80+18) 98 (NINETY-EIGHT) Snowy Day stamps in my house. I feel compelled to admit that I use these only for book-related business: the Changeling’s fan-letters to authors she loves, or birthday cards to book-lovers, for example.

So: my offer!

Given that many book shops are still closed for Covid-19 (although you often can and should write to them or call them for help or to make purchases), I want to offer my services as a book-match-maker.

Write to me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com with the following:

a) Your literary interests

b) Your name

c) Your mailing address

I will write you a postcard or notecard (with a Snowy Day stamp!) recommending a few titles. If you need a suggestion of a local-to-you book shop or other indie book shop which will ship to you, I will happily recommend a good one! That’s it! Easy as that.

Julieta and the Diamond Enigma

PREPARE YOURSELVES! I am about to review a book! I know, I know it’s been a while.

But, look, we all know times have been hard. How do you find a book which gives you respite from the urgency of our times without minimizing real issues?

Well, I found one. I didn’t mean to. I’ll be honest: I read Julieta and the Diamond Enigma for one simple reason– the author, Luisana Duarte Armendáriz, is a book shop friend. (And if you are buying in Brookline, call The Children’s Book Shop to arrange pickup, and ask if they have any signed bookplates left! They’re adorable, and it was sweet of Luisana to send them to the shop.)

So, when I heard she had a book coming out, I was very keen to see what she wrote, and my buddies at the book shop kindly saved me a copy (WITH a signed bookplate, since Luisana couldn’t come back to sign for us, thanks to Covid) and I read it this past weekend.

It was one of those bizarre situations where someone wrote exactly what I needed now, but, of course, how could Luisana have anticipated this moment when she was writing?

I want to travel to Paris now. But I can’t. So she wrote a book about a girl’s first trip to Paris. I miss museums now. But they’re closed. Luisana wrote about museums. I’m thinking about issues of provenance and appropriation right now, but I honestly can’t cope with even one more serious, thoughtful article. Luisana shows her young protagonist, Julieta, encountering those issues in a quiet but nuanced way appropriate to a young kid. It’s exactly, spot-on right for this moment. And, additionally, it’s all couched in the story of a happy, loving family with an amazing relationship between parents and their daughter as they expect a new little one.

You’re probably patiently waiting for me to give you some sense of what goes on in the book? Julieta (it “sounds like the hooting of an owl. Like whoooo-lieta“) gets to go with her dad, who works for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to the Louvre in Paris to inspect and bring back objects for an exhibit to take place at the MFA. She’s excited to travel, and she loves museums and new experiences, but she’s also excited to get home in time for the birth of her new baby brother. Their carefully formulated plans are upset, however, when the Regent Diamond is stolen on her father’s watch– and he might have to take the blame. (Note: because this book is full of art pieces and history, the novel is followed by excellent, reader-friendly materials on every piece of art and every museum mentioned. It also includes a glossary at the back and a language guide at the beginning, to terms in both Spanish and French. This is a very carefully designed book.)

It’s a story of art theft and adventure, with a lovable, impulsive, cheerful character in Julieta. Reading through her eyes, I got the joy of visiting Paris for the first time again: the bustle and crowds, the food (Julieta decides to call her pain au chocolat a “chocolate-stuffed delight,” a feeling with which every child and many adults will sympathize!), and, of course, the museums. I felt a bit wistful that poor Julieta never got to my absolute, bar-none favourite museum in the whole world: Cluny. I’m sure she would have loved the tapestries! (Luisana, please see to it that on a future trip she gets there, OK?)

But I think, in everything, in the whirl of adventure and new ideas and thoughts, what I loved best was the rock-hard reliance on loving family. Julieta knows that her parents love her. Yes, she’s impulsive, yes, she worries about what they will feel when she thinks she’s let them down, but it’s all because she loves them so much– and she knows they love her, too. It’s a bit like Ramona, but a Ramona who’s obsessed with mythology and art, so I totally identify with Julieta. I found it deeply meaningful to find a book in quarantine that represented the kind of family relationship I strive for: where everyone is wholly their own person, but we can all lean on each other for support at every moment of the way through life.

I really, truly enjoyed sinking into this novel for a few hours on Shabbat. It was fun, it felt light and easy (a sure-fire sign that it must have taken a lot of work, in my experience), but at the same time it was replete with thought and nuance. The only bad bit was that it made me want to grab my own girl and hop on a plane to Paris right away! Instead, I think I’ll casually drop this book on her bed before she goes to bed at night… and just face the fact that in the morning she’ll still be reading. And then we’ll browse museum websites together and plan our journey!

Representation Matters

This is going to be another non-review post, but it’s been on my mind, so I’m afraid it’s what you get.

You see, I think that many of us (maybe like me up until recently) hear the words, “representation matters,” and get a little confused: well, of course it does, but… why do we even need to say that? So I’m going to tell you the truth: I didn’t really get it myself until fairly recently, but I think I get it better now, as a mother, and I want to tell you how and why.

This is a picture of the bottom of my beautiful ketubah (Jewish wedding contract). Here it is in the full context:

I feel terrible that my image quality is so bad, but I just snapped these from the wall. My husband and I designed this with our artist, Laya Crust, who perfectly understood our taste, and also the importance of music in our lives. Yes, the first image shows musical notation at the bottom: that’s the music of Salamone Rossi (sorry, that’s a wikipedia link, but if you have access you can find out more on the Grove), an Italian Jewish violinist and composer. He composed music to the psalms (tehilim, in Hebrew) and we chose a quote along with his music to put into our ketubah.

Why is this relevant? Well, this hangs prominently on the wall of our home. It’s one of the first things when you come in: a testament to our love of each other, of family– and of music and art. And my daughter has been growing up in a house where this is fundamentally what we care about. She knows music well. During quarantine, my husband has been teaching her to play the violin. The other day we put on La Fille du régiment and I mentioned that, “Hey, we’re watching an opera! It’s La Fille du régiment, by Donizetti!” She sighed in exasperation as only a nearly 7-year-old girl can and said, “I know that, Mummy!” She knows music, and we’re happy because we love music and want to share that with her.

The other day, in the car, we were listening to Classical New England and they put on some Aaron Copeland (I admit, not my favourite composer) and I was surprised to hear my Changeling chime in, delighted, “I love Aaron Copeland, he’s JEWISH!”

Folks– representation matters.

To me, I didn’t grow up with Aaron Copeland. Maybe, in fact, I don’t care for him since he wasn’t in my music books and we didn’t listen to him often. He was a later discovery, not part of my early music enjoyment. But Ludovic Halévy was. And I was very proud he was Jewish, though I can’t say I really thought about it as much as my daughter clearly has. So I started that conversation. When we got home I showed her the ketubah. I told her about Salamone Rossi. Then we cuddled and talked about all the music– so much music!– by composers of Jewish origins. I told her my sadness that so many converted.

Maybe you don’t know their names? Felix Mendelssohn was my first total shock as a young teenager, honestly. He was converted to Christianity at age (I think) six or seven. But he was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn and I remember my bitterness when I learned who he was and that he’d been converted.

But there were so many! Meyerbeer, who was an early champion of Wagner (yes, Wagner) was Jewish. I mentioned Halévy. But there was Jacques Offenbach, whose music you’ve heard even if you don’t know his name: the can-can from Orphée aux enfers is now heard everywhere. He was born Jewish, and though he converted (why is slightly obscure) his entire background was imbued in a Jewish world– his father was a cantor. What about Mahler? Poor Mahler, an unbelievable, terrible genius. I could go on, and when talking to my daughter I did go on, and the words poured into her.

Today we were out walking and to my absolute astonishment (I thought I’d bored her to bits) she brought it up to me again. She ran through the composers she knew, the ones she didn’t know, the names familiar and unfamiliar. “I think Offenbach is my favourite because his music is so much fun and I like the stories.” (I have a feeling my partiality to Offenbach might have influenced that statement, sorry.)

And I felt, again, bitter. Really, really bitter.

I love music, passionately. But I’m going to criticize the classical music world for a moment– with love, all love, but I do have to say this.

I think that the classical music world closes its eyes and listens. Pretends to be neutral: “Yes, Wagner was… problematic… but such genius!” Look, he was a terrible, horrible human being on every level. I just listened to Jessye Norman (oh, what a voice!) singing Sieglinde and I felt fire and fury the whole time. What did she think as she sang that bigot’s music, I wondered? What I felt, listening, was a desperate hope that Wagner’s soul was in torment at the knowledge she had taken his music and elevated it to such heights.

The classical music world is not confronting its history. To be clear: I seek out music I love– including Wagner’s, even though he would love for me never to have been born. I have zero objection to listening to Handel’s Messiah even though his notion of the Messiah and mine are undoubtedly different. My favourite Requiem is by Verdi.

I’m Jewish. A lot of my favourite music is white and Christian.

But I am absolutely sick of the lack of knowledge and thought that goes into our cultural history, literary and musical.

I see people online right now objecting to recommendations of old books to new, young kids: “New books, fresh books!” they call out. I agree, I disagree.

My home library is, I think it’s fair to say, eclectic. I have a huge variety of new, fresh books and I like them there. I also have a wide variety of old, weird books and I like them there. We read new bright ideas, classics of enormous beauty, and weird stuff that, well. I have and many others don’t. Out of print books. I think they all belong.

But with reflection, please. Because if you don’t think about what you’re reading and listening to and looking at– frankly, WHAT’S THE POINT?

So, what does representation mean, and why does it matter?

Representation means that kids (and older folks!) see themselves and it’s a lightbulb: “If it’s been done, it can be done.”

Music is not and never has been pure and neutral (translation: “actually it’s white and Christian, but I don’t want to say that, so we’ll just tell you to close your eyes and listen, OK?”). It is fighting and fire and suppression and revolution, and in all of that there’s EVERYONE. To my daughter that meant the discovery of Jewishness.

I want the world today to open up and discover Blackness in music, too. I want to point you to the work of Dr. Kira Thurman, for example, who has pointed to many musicians and composers including George Bridgetower, a Black violinist of enormous skill for whom Beethoven composed a sonata so difficult few others could play it. I want a children’s picture book about him. I want it yesterday.

While we insist that music and literature and the arts are pure and neutral– they remain static. We need to dig. We need to break it open. We need to release the passions of the past so that we can disturb the serenity of the present.

And for that? Let’s get more representation. It matters.

Black Lives Matter (reading and resources)

Hi, I’m angry, not pretending I’m not angry, and I warn you that this will be long and probably messy, especially if you’re white (and I’m talking primarily to my fellow white readers, here, and coming from a deep, uncomfortable acknowledgment that my view is limited and personal). It will have good resources for you, lots of reading lists, and you also might not like reading everything in here. Welcome to the club. I’ve done a lot of reading that hurt me, too.

It’s about ten years since I’ve moved to the USA. I came for my PhD program. I came as a US citizen, from Canada, where I’m a Canadian citizen. I’m lucky to have dual-citizenship, and I know it. Not a year of my life has passed without flitting back and forth across that easygoing border as though it didn’t exist to me. So it was easy for me to move to Cambridge, MA, a town I’ve always known and loved, from Toronto, right?

That’s what I thought. I thought it was going to be a breeze.

I was very, very wrong. And I was also very, very right.

I was right because I had everything on my side: citizenship, good fortune, a good PhD advisor and department, a wonderful roommate (WITH A CAT) (the cat’s name was Pandora and she was beautiful) and so on.

I also had the good fortune to have good healthcare!

“Wait, what?” I thought, when I was told that. “Of course I have healthcare.” That was my Canadian upbringing thinking. “Of course I have healthcare.” Wake up, Deborah, you’re in the USA now. I thought it was funny, at first.

Folks, I did not have easy access to healthcare throughout my entire PhD. I had a very specific number of years allocated for healthcare. But I had a baby and things dragged on– guess what? The USA does not have universal healthcare. (NB: This was not my department’s fault. I will NEVER say a nasty word about ANYONE at my department, especially my advisor who backed me up and helped me out and got me through everything.) But it was a nasty thing to wake up to with a child, no time, expensive childcare… and no universal healthcare.

What I had was a wonderful husband and a wonderful family and a wonderful background and I fervently and sincerely wonder, sick in my heart, what people without that high level of privilege did.

Because, yes, you might not like that word but: I AM PRIVILEGED. I WAS privileged, I always HAVE BEEN privileged.

And even with all my privilege? I came to the USA, as a citizen of the USA, from Canada– and people, I tell no lie, gave me hell for it. Not Canadians. Americans. Please read this remembering that I’m a white woman from Canada. Then try to think over to everyone in the USA who is not a white woman from Canada, because that’s where I’m headed. These are all pretty close to verbatim, I’m 99.9% sure, because they’re seared in my memory because hearing these things was painful. Some were said by friends of mine or friends of my husband.

“In a war between Canada and the USA, which side would you pick?”

“Are you really loyal to the USA?”

“You’re from Canada? Oh, I’m so sorry.”

My favourite: “A Canadian? Oh, a communist.” (After which he walked away.)

So I got the message early: You’re not one of us.

Then 2016 came along. (That’s right. All of that was BEFORE 2016, so… anyone thinking that America went bad after 2016? Sorry to break it to you: there have been problems here for a while.)

You might remember my posts after November 2016. There aren’t too many, but they highlighted Bryan Collier’s I, Too, Am America , for example. I was pretty upset.

That’s when I started to realize: they might be saying I’m not “one of us,” but… maybe this is my problem, too? I began to think: well, I am “one of us.” I got married in Maryland. To an American. I vote in the USA. I get to live here without fighting to be allowed to… maybe I really am American, and, if so, maybe I need to fight its battles, too. Maybe (this was uncomfortable) maybe I’m… not to blame, but nevertheless responsible for some of these deep, systemic problems.

My husband and I took our daughter to her first protest (against the Muslim ban, remember that…?) and I was proud to do so and bitterly upset that it felt necessary. I’m skipping a lot, but when my daughter was frightened about family separation at the border I sat with her, talked, and we donated to RAICES, wrote cards to welcome families to the border, and I helped her write a letter to our senator. We read The Wall.

There’s something missing. A big something. And I began to feel it, deep and uncomfortable, after COVID-19 struck and the killing of George Floyd ignited protests in all 50 states and beyond.

I did read a lot of books by Black creators, both by myself and with her. I read a lot of articles that challenged me. I did private thinking, and shared actions with her.

But I never said the word “racist” to my daughter. Ever.

As I said, then the protests started. At first I thought, cowardly, “It’s good we’re at home during this pandemic. My daughter won’t be scared!” Then I remembered something, or was reminded, or both: Martin Luther King stood up to including kids in protests. And I was seeing children on their parents’ shoulders in photos of peaceful protesters at these protests. I remember, vividly, closing a tab quickly when a police officer was pointing a weapon at a tall Black man with a girl on his shoulders who couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, I estimate. I don’t have the link to show you because, shamefully, I closed it and didn’t save it. You can disbelieve me if you like.

Personal reasons I don’t choose to share prevented me from going to any protest in Boston. But I was ashamed to think that I was too cowardly to shake my daughter’s worldview, to let her think, maybe, that Martin Luther King’s fight was over and he’d won?

So one day I sat down with her and started the conversation. (I want to thank the many friends who encouraged me to “just be direct”– I needed the encouragement, and I offer you the same encouragement.) I’m not going to go into what I said and how I said it– it worked, that’s all you need to know.

She wrote this on our wall. (If you’re really a white parent or educator looking to figure out how to talk to your kid about racism for the first time, read the resources below or email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com but I don’t want to derail this post here. Above all: DO NOT ask Black authors or educators to do that work for you when they’re already doing so much and facing so much right now. Bother me, read freely available resources, but do not bother them.)

She might only be 6 years old, but she was ready. I was proud of her, upset with myself for being too afraid to upset her. She has since restarted the conversation with me, or I’ve offered further stories. On Breonna Taylor’s birthday I told her a bit about Breonna Taylor’s life, and said I was going to sign a petition to demand justice. She knew what I was talking about.

I have not done enough. I have benefited, all my life, from privilege. That doesn’t mean I ever hated Black people, or knowingly oppressed anyone. But I have benefited and I didn’t even have the courage to tell my daughter that racism was a thing, what it meant, or that it was still prevalent, while Black neighbours were being killed? Yes, I might still spell “neighbours” with a “u” but– I’ve lived in Boston for ten years now. It was time to take ownership of my responsibility.

That was my journey, these past ten years. I’m not saying it’s the end of a journey, I’m saying it’s the beginning of hard conversations, bitterly painful ones, and trying to do better, a little bit at a time. I have books I should have reviewed (about Indigenous experiences in Canada, about refugees, by Asian authors about Asian experiences in the USA, as well as books by Black creators) but I didn’t because I was busy or overwhelmed. I need to get to them, and I will, though not today.

Today I want to present resources to you, as a white parent or educator facing the task of talking to kids about race, racism, and anti-racism. I want to share book lists with you, not just about Black pain, but about joy and culture. Some books aren’t on the wonderful lists I’ve found, so I’ll add more links. Here goes:

Christian Robinson, in the midst of the pain of launching his picture book You Matter during a global pandemic and in the middle of this upsurge of protests and the backlash against those protests– he still sat down and helped put together a beautiful, thoughtful piece about talking to kids about racism. So with that in mind, please read it: Talking to Kids about Racism

I also want to point you to Christian Robinson’s beautiful tutorial on handling anger with kids, very relevant as they face the pain of racism: Anger

Maybe your kid needs support in understanding racism and anti-racism? There’s a reading list (on Twitter) over here. Note that the books cover a wide range of ages.

Support that reading not just by reading about racism or fighting it, but also just by introducing works from a range of Black creators (yes, and many others, but let’s stay on topic, please): This list is of 100 Black creators and their work. Let that number sink in and know that it’s not exhaustive, and it is diverse and covers a range of ages. No excuses.

One of my favourite literary agencies made a thread of new Black work, too: Some out now, some to pre-order.

I may be mistaken, but I think a few books I love are missing from those lists so I want to highlight them here:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a wonderful, joyful, serious book on African-American inventors: What Color Is My World? This is a book my daughter loves so much that I frequently find it in her bed or… well, on the bathroom floor. All the best books end up read in every room of the house!

Rozane Orgill wrote a beautiful account of the contribution of Black voices to American culture in Jazz Day

In my view, this is a hopeful as well as a painful time. It’s a time for listening, reading, and learning as well as acting and protesting. And we have started to see real change on the horizon already. I intend to do my bit to support that change, starting here, starting now.

The word of the day for me is: RESPECT. Respect Black voices, Black anger, and Black time. And read, listen, think, process, and change.

If you have any questions, email me: deborah@childrensbookroom.com

The Children’s Book Shop: A story, an appeal

I’m going to say it directly for all of us– for you, for me, and for authors and editors and publishers and booksellers everywhere:

Right now it’s all awful.

And knowing that I’m lucky doesn’t make it easier to contemplate the misfortunes of others– especially when those others are the people I lean on. And I’m going to be explicit about this one:

My local book shop, The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, is facing tough times and has launched a GoFundMe campaign. This blog wouldn’t be here without that shop. So I’m going to ask for help. Why me, why here, why now? That’s all in the rest of this post, so I’m asking you– don’t scan or move on, please. Read.

You want to know what’s hardest right here, right now, writing this? Keeping it together. If I try to stick to the plot in my head and explain things rationally– it comes out rote and mechanical and rigid. If I let go? Well, I get messy, tearful, and I swear a lot. So bear with me: I’m trying.

Having said thus much, let’s have a flashback to normal times. This spring, my daughter is almost 7 years old. That means that a few months back, sevenish years ago, I started coming regularly to Brookline from Somerville, where I lived at the time. 

Why? Because that’s when I switched obstetricians from someone whose name I don’t even remember to one in Brookline, recommended by a dear, lovely friend. I was newly pregnant, very excited, and very nervous. I was totally overwhelmed by everything and my friend knew I was sort of scared of my obstetrician, so she gently suggested I see someone else. I headed to the doctor in Brookline, although I was still feeling awkward and vulnerable, and on the way I passed by a shop: The Children’s Book Shop. Well, I knew I was on the point of fleeing Brookline, so I swore that if I went through with the appointment and felt OK afterwards, I’d get to visit the shop. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried: the appointment was great, I loved my new doctor, and I basically floated into the shop.

This gives you a sense of who I was at the time: I was extraordinarily vulnerable and sensitive, and the prospect of “hurting my obstetrician’s feelings by switching to someone else” was agony. Finding a children’s book shop, which might be like my beloved Mabel’s Fables back in Toronto, was a sign of hope: it brought me back to my roots. Maybe I could find something nice for the new baby, I thought.

I still remember the first book I bought there: it was the book this blog is named after, The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon. I managed not to cry, but I’m reasonably certain I blurted out my feelings regarding Eleanor Farjeon (a childhood hero of mine), which probably took a while since I have quite a lot of those feelings. I also got a Moomin book, the first of them, which I’d never read before, and the thought that there was a place which dug into my childhood favourites and made more of them (“More Eleanor Farjeon and Moomin books!”) brought stars to my eyes.

Naturally, it became a ritual: I went to Brookline, had my appointment, and got a new book “for the baby.” (Please note: I didn’t get clothes or diapers. I did get books. I’m not saying it made sense, but it was very typical of me.) It wasn’t long before I felt at home there, certainly they knew my taste intuitively, and so, shyly at first, I’d chat, and they’d cheerfully show me new stuff, not just classics. I learned to love Yuyi Morales and Liz Wong as well as Arthur Rackham and Joseph Jacobs.

After the baby came, it was hard to think I had no further reasons to go to Brookline or to the shop. So, feeling slightly awkward about it but also feeling lonely, I went back anyway. “The baby still needs books,” I thought. And after I started the blog, “I need to do research.”

Then something wonderful happened: My daughter grew and we moved to Brookline. Look now, we did not move to Brookline to be closer to the book shop. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t walk that distance as soon as we moved in to prove that “I really am only a ten-minute walk from my favourite book shop!” And since then, I think barely a week’s gone by that I haven’t at least popped my head in.

Until, of course, Covid-19 and the shutdown, which brings us back to the present day.

Let’s be clear about this. Every shop is suffering. Every business is hard-hit. But for a small, independent book shop which caters specifically to kids’ books and has never had much of a web presence (although check out that new, revamped website with links to purchase a gift certificate or buy books through Bookshop!) this sort of closure is particularly terrible.

So here we are. Look, I’ve never been subtle about my feelings regarding independent book shops. I love them. I’ve always, always given full credit to the booksellers who’ve recommended books, and shops where I’ve found them. I love them, all of them, from the bottom of my heart. Nothing, ever, will replace the value of going into a community shop which judiciously selects new and classic books and lays them out for greedy eyes to scan and assess.

So when I got the news today that my lovely book shop was moving from “facing hard times” to “OK the time has come for a fundraiser” I, well. I’ll be honest with you: I wasn’t just sad, I was… motivated, shall we say, politely.

Right, normally, you know the drill, this is the moment when I have a pretty scheme laid out with giveaways and proudly declare “I’ll ship the prize anywhere!”

I can’t do that now. I’m not going to risk anyone’s health by making an extra trip to the post office to mail a book out. I didn’t even send my dad the birthday present waiting upstairs for him (sorry, Dad) because now is not the time for additional trips unless it’s more important than a birthday (SORRY, I know it’s important, but I also feel sure you can wait). Right? You get it, I get it, let’s not dwell on it.

So instead, I’m just going to appeal to you like this:

a) Check in on YOUR local shop. OK? Do you want to read your way through this crisis? Try to buy locally, please.

b) If you don’t have a local shop but you’re in the USA, please do consider buying from my shop’s Bookshop page. If you’re in Brookline and don’t know which book you want, but want the book shop to be there when you’re buying again? Please get a gift certificate.

c) If you love this blog, care about me, or just want more reviews of fine children’s lit in this corner of the internet in future: I am asking you to donate here.

I’m going to think of incentives for the future. There will be more reviews and more giveaways, I’m positive. But for now I’m just asking you to give, please. Hang onto your receipt, for sure– if I offer an incentive in future, it may be useful! But for now, I’m just telling my story and asking you, if you can, to help in one of the ways I’ve outlined above.

Do I sound a bit grim today? It’s a grim time, I’m sorry. I’ll try to be back with more books and better cheer. But today– yes, it’s hard.

Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao

Each of us has a method while we’re stuck inside, is what I’ve noticed: some knit or sew, some read, some exercise, some bake– and many of us just run after our kids all day.

Side note: I have enormous admiration for those of you who are able to successfully work AND look after kids! And I don’t believe anyone who tells me they’re working AND looking after kids AND STILL starting up new hobbies. Sorry, that’s just not fair.

OK, I admit, I’ve been struggling to find my footing, but a package in the mail saved me.

Do you remember Quackers and The Goose Egg? By Liz Wong? Well, once upon a time, I had an extra copy of Small in the City in the house and offered it up for free delivery to someone– Liz Wong wrote and said she’d love to see the book, but could she send me a copy of her next book in return?

Well, yes was the answer, given that I’m interested in anything she wrote and/or illustrated, ever. It was an honour.

So there I was yesterday, sitting around, admittedly in a bit of a funk, struggling even to read in between the Changeling’s online lessons, when a parcel arrived. Liz Wong sent me a book she’d illustrated, written by Helaine Becker (always lovely to see a book by a Torontonian!), called Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao, and it is stunning.

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Look at that cover. Fierce and beautiful and unrelenting– like the sea.

This is the startlingly unromantic story of a girl taken captive by pirates who, businesslike, agrees to marry the captain of the fleet only if she gets an equal share of the business. When her pirate husband dies (within six years), she takes sole command of the fleet, builds on her successes, and finally works and wins her way to wealthy freedom.

I’m not going to go into the details of the historicity or bother to retell Helaine Becker’s telling of the story– get the book for that. Her writing is clear, straightforward, and riveting. Meanwhile, the backmatter is very upfront about what the history is, and where she’s filled in the gaps with her best guesses to make a convincing narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and think it would make a great contribution to any school lesson on pirates: a true, eye-opening narrative.

What I’m going to do here is tell you that, for me, at least, this was the story I needed now, right now, during Covid-19 when everything is homebound and difficult.

You see, I’m like Bilbo Baggins (sorry, reading The Hobbit aloud to my daughter every night– it’s on the brain): I never thought I was adventurous and I always thought I wanted to be home with my family all the time. And, you know, I do love it! But I hate feeling confined. When I read this book, I realized I really wanted to go over The Water, as Bilbo would have it.

And Zheng Yi Sao is a new figure to me on the open sea of the imagination: she never did dream of the sea, but the sea took her, and she didn’t wail or slip into a funk. No. She lifted her chin and said, “If this is what’s to be, I’m going to make the best of it.” Helaine Becker’s text has her decide to write her own scroll, not be used up ink for the benefit of others. Liz Wong’s art (pencil on bristol board, coloured digitally) shows a face both sensitive and fierce, never backing down, but open to negotiation with fate. And she made her own way and looked out for the fortunes of those who worked beneath her. After finally facing a real storm in my own lifetime, good grief, do I respect that kind of resilience and strength!

We’re going through a storm now, and we’re huddling away from the raging waters. Reading this reminds me to look to my own resourcefulness and do what I can in these troubled times. I hope that you, too, will find a book to read that wakes you up as this one woke me.

I have a lot more books here in the house, including more from Nimbus!, to share with you, and I’m getting excited to do it. Let’s hope I’m back more often now.

Final note: the link I gave you above was to bookshop.org, through my local Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. It’s shut down now during Covid-19, and until it can open again, I’ll be linking to that bookshop.org page. It supports them during a difficult time. Please, please, please support your local book shops right now! This is a hard time for everyone– the best way you can contribute is to buy from book shops which do online ordering (many do!) or through bookshop.org.

Coronavirus Giveaway

Hi everyone! I really owe you a good, meaty review, but the fact is– our lives have all been turned upside-down, haven’t they? I won’t go into the news, except to say I hope you’re all staying safely at home.

The problem is, as I well know and you well know, that some of us have great libraries at home– and some don’t.

Well, let’s take a slight tangent: the lovely author-illustrator Steve Light (remember: Swap!) recently sent me a beautiful wombat he painted because the Changeling loves wombats and he’s the kindest man alive. When I asked what I could do in return (payment? a donation?) he said to share his books with those who need.

Well, I can do that! And what timing!

So I’ve made a commitment:

a) Teachers/librarians: if you have a class in need of reading (maybe storytime over Zoom?) I will send you a Steve Light book! (2 of you, first come, first served)

b) Parents and families: if you have a kid in need of reading I will send you a Steve Light book! (2 of you, first come, first served)

PLEASE EMAIL ME: deborah@childrensbookroom.com

I will be sending them through a local book shop (https://www.brooklinebooksmith-shop.com/) which is still doing online orders/delivery.

Any questions? Just email!

Goodnight, Rainbow Cats

It is very, very rare that I write about a book without having that book in front of me.

But.

This is a book I love and have given to over half-a-dozen kids so far. And since I keep giving it away, I don’t have it in front of me.

And last night I had a guest over and we were (rather, I was) talking about books for the potential small child expected in said guest’s life (I may have burbled excitedly for a while). I named many you’ve come to expect from me, but also a new one:

Goodnight, Rainbow Cats, by Bàrbara Castro Urío. (Link to the Brookline Booksmith because: a) it’s in stock there and not everywhere, and b) they’re my local book shop and I love them.)

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Just looking at that cover makes me want to buy it all over again.

This is a subtle book. It’s not a big, explosive story. It’s not a bubbling cauldron of emotions. It’s not LOUD.

That’s exactly what I love about it. And why I keep buying it for every baby and toddler I meet.

You see, I don’t know whether you know this about me, but I actually love quiet. (Hide your surprise.) I’m not a fan of crowds and conventions, exactly, unless I have approximately two people to talk to away from the action. And while I like books that bubble with emotions and plot and character and activity

I love books that accomplish the same thing in a subtle, quiet, maybe quirky and creative way.

This is that. It’s a book about cats going to bed. That’s it.

But as each little coloured cat comes up to the big white house, each bright hue popping, one at a time, against the white background… that’s a little, tiny pop of excitement. And the reader discovers in each little cat a little cat’s story. The Crimson Cat is yawning. Little Dark-Blue Cat is ready for bed. You turn the page, slowly, admiring each coloured kitty…. and discover where each cat goes to sleep! Then you turn the final page and, wow! There’s a page of ALL THE CATS sleeping in their little nooks!

The whole book is quietly animated by minute peek-holes to enchant little ones– and probably older readers, too, if we’re being honest.

Hear me now: Quiet does not have to mean boring. And this book proves it.

It is clever, it is beautiful, it is exciting, it is creative, it is enchanting. And I think it belongs in every child’s bedroom.

I really hope we get to see more work from Bàrbara Castro Urío.

Wild Honey from the Moon

Do you ever get cravings, readerly cravings? I do. Sometimes they’re easy to satisfy because they’re broad and general: humour, wistfulness, or whimsy. Sometimes they’re much, much harder: “I want the experience of reading Joan Aiken for the first time again.”

Dream on, girl.

Well, guess what I wanted? I wanted a fairy tale. But not just any fairy tale! A fairy tale that was truthful within its own world, felt old but was new and original, and had a perfect balance of serious need, magic, and practicality.

Whew, quite a laundry list! (And yes, doesn’t that sound awfully like A Necklace of Raindrops?)

But I satisfied my craving:

Wild Honey from the Moon

Courtesy of Kenneth Kraegel by way of Candlewick, Wild Honey from the Moon, a fairy tale for any age.

It’s an interesting book in that it’s long for a picture book, short for a chapter book, simple in diction but elevated in style. So who is the audience? (Apart from me, that is!) Candlewick says ages 4-8, preschool to Grade 3. I think that’s right, but that’s an interesting jump in ages, I want to encourage everyone to give it a go, especially for a family read in the evening.

The story is very family-oriented: a mother shrew worries about her sick son, Hugo. She consults her medical book and it calls for one teaspoon of wild honey from the moon. So she tells Hugo she has to go to the moon to get him what she needs, she grabs her umbrella and, defying all sorts of dangers, she goes to get wild honey from the moon. I won’t spoil all of her adventures for you, but you know as well as I do that a mother who loves her child will do what is necessary– and this mother shrew does.

The book is a true fairy tale: truthful within its own lore (to get wild honey from the moon, you have to, well, go to the moon!) and truthful to any reader (suffice it to say: owls hunt shrews). It is also practical: a mother in a hurry does what she needs to do and gets frustrated by any delay– OK, I may not personally have bitten an owl trying to hunt me when I was getting my child wild honey from the moon, but I have lost my cool once or twice, haven’t you?

What I love, however, is that this is, as I said, both a fairy tale and family-oriented. It is not alone in being a fairy tale with a quest for a life-saving medicine, as any reader of fairy tales knows! Nor is it alone in telling the story of a mother protecting a child. Both of these are common fairy tale motifs.

However, a child-oriented picture book demonstrating an urgent mother on a quest for a miraculous remedy for a mysterious ailment for her child in true fairy tale form is new to me, let alone one as beautifully illustrated in ink and watercolours as this is. Moreover, by taking it out of human form, rendering it all as an animal story, Kenneth Kraegel tells a fairy tale out of the usual cultural pigeonholes.

I have to admit that I picked it up on a whim, to satisfy my craving, from the Brookline Booksmith. I will also confess that I was completely judging a book by its cover. But, having read it, I want to encourage families everywhere to read it. Every mother with a sick child should read it before heading out to the pharmacy for another dose of Tylenol for the kidlet. Every child lying feverish in bed should read it and feel warmed by the maternal love.

And everyone, everywhere, who needs a new fairy tale quest story with a gutsy mama shrew saving her child’s life (isn’t that all of us?) needs to curl up, put a spoonful of honey in their tea, and read.

Anne of Green Gables: The Original Manuscript

Hi, everyone!

Today I am so very excited to share some great news with you. First, I have something new yet classic, old yet original to share with you. That’s exciting in and of itself.

Second, it’s quintessentially Canadian, which you know I love.

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Third, it’s a book the world has been needing for a while: a scholarly yet readable copy of the original Anne of Green Gables quite aptly titled: Anne of Green Gables: The Original Manuscript, edited by Carolyn Strom Collins. (Note: The lovely people at Nimbus sent it to me to review, which I happily undertook to do on condition they knew I’d only review it if I liked it. They agreed, I loved the book, so here we are.)

So, what is this book?

This is a transcription of the original manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, with marginal notes, additions and deletions, etc., all noted carefully and clearly. It presents, in short, the text as it sprang from L.M. Montgomery’s mind, before she even settled on Diana’s name! If you think that books came into being as they are found on bookshelf walls, this book will challenge you. It will make you rethink how books happen, and it will give you a fresh appreciation for the editorial process.

This is a book written for people like me: passionate lovers of Anne of Green Gables and Lucy Maud Montgomery, especially ones with a strong love of manuscript history. That said, while it shows rigorous academic work and is meticulously edited by Carolyn Strom Collins, it is also both beautiful and accessible. Let me count the ways:

First, the introduction gives a coherent narrative of the manuscript history, how Montgomery worked, and why we should care about the manuscript.

Second, there is a beautifully clear guide to how to use the text in your hands. The guide to the symbols and notes Collins uses is presented at the front (not hidden at the back) makes the whole book usable by both academic readers and the rest of us.

Third, even if you want to ignore the marginal notes, the text itself is laid out nicely and readably so you can just scan the main text, only glancing at the margins if you really are curious.

Granted: I have been an academic for years. So I didn’t trust myself to judge clarity. I therefore trotted myself over to my local book shop to gloat– sorry, to lend the book shop people this book (I may also have gloated a bit, sorry, it’s a really special book and I was just so glad to have it!) and see what they thought.

The report was exactly as I thought: it is a smart book, yes, but it’s also transparent. It’s usable on many levels. You can flip through to find your favourite scenes and see how they evolved, or you can read from the beginning and meticulously follow the careful scholarly work that’s gone into it.

I highly recommend it as a gift for any lover of Anne. It does have a more “grown up” feel to it, as the presentation is distinctly suitable for a nice mahogany book shelf, but I think it’s understandable by any smart reader of Anne’s life (think how Anne herself would feel knowing she was in such a “grown up” book– and now think about a smart 12-year-old getting a lovely book like this!). It would be a great companion to House of Dreamsor is a lovely gift on its own.

So here’s that link again: but note that online it says it’s coming out in the USA on January 28.