Osmo– now known! (+ Giveaway)

I’m going to tell a story first, but please read to the end, there’s a freebie book for one of you at that point!

I was feeling diffident about writing about this, possibly from a fear of Putting Myself Forward and Bragging, I have no idea. But I’m just going to rave delightedly instead, and share the joy. Yesterday was the release date of Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods and with my ill-fitting Librarian hat on (I think I prefer the title, developed by a friend, of Lexorcist, given that I’m in no way trained as a librarian) I arranged to have the wonderful author, Catherynne M. Valente, make a Zoom class visit to the Grade 3 class that comes to the school library where I work. (The Changeling is in that class, by the way, but I swear it wasn’t– just– preferential treatment, ok? They’re the oldest group that comes to the library and I thought the best-suited for Osmo.)

I was, in all honesty, a bit worried. These students had not, as a class, ever had an author visit. This was a NYT bestselling author who was being incredibly generous, and doing this visit on the very release date. Not to put too fine a point on it– I was sweating when I walked into the room and some of the kids were so overexcited we delayed admitting her on Zoom until the room calmed. I was convinced it would be a disaster and I’d be emailing Ms Valente a stilted and abject apology.

It was magical. First of all, and this is me speaking to any teachers or real librarians (the kind who aren’t swanning around with a hoity-toity yup I’m a librarian hat on, like me) out there, I can’t even tell you how great a class visit Cat Valente does. She gives a very brief chat so they know who she is, and then tells them her priority is for them to get to hear answers to any questions they have for her– that everyone should have their chance. And then she listens carefully, and she doesn’t talk down to the kids– she really, really listens to them and gives full answers that demonstrate she’s heard them.

For her, she told me when I thanked her, it was wonderful to get to end by reading them the opening of the book and hear them recite the oath (oh yeah, the book opens with an oath, get ready to raise your hand and make an oath when you read!) along with her. Which, I’m in full agreement, made me so happy– especially when the whole thing ended and I heard one student say to another: “OK, don’t forget you took an oath! You can’t forget!” But for me, the most special bit was earlier: when a student who’s not always the easiest (though I love the kid dearly) asked a question which blew me away, and got the reply, “That is a deeper question about writing craft than most adults ask! What I’d say is…” And, later to the group, “You’re asking incredibly impressive questions…” And I could only think, “I’m learning from these kids just how much there is to them from what I thought was a treat for them. This is more of a treat for me, seeing how great they are.” It was a wonderful conversation, and, after we said goodbye and ended the Zoom, a student, flushed with excitement, said that hearing the author give one of the answers had helped them figured out a story they wanted to write. “Show it to me when you’re ready, please bring it to the library!” I urged.

At dinner that night, the Changeling told me that the class had made a list for the order in which the students get to read the school copy of Osmo. And I thought to myself that if there’s one thing I got to do for the kids this year it was getting them one day when they’re really excited about a book with a cross skadgebat and mysterious forest and a brilliant collection of mushrooms… and about books, empathy, and telling stories. That’s more than I’d hoped for.

So, in thanks to Catherynne M. Valente for the enormous gift she gave me of seeing that bookish joy and inspiration in action– a giveaway of Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods! (That link is to bookshop.org though please always consider supporting your local independent book shop. Or win this giveaway.)

GIVEAWAY DIRECTIONS:

If you agree to take the oath seriously please email me: “I will take the oath seriously.” My email address is deborah.furchtgott@gmail.com and I will choose ONE winner, I will mail anywhere in the world (that’s a promise– I’ve sent mail to Australia and the South Pole, so believe me), and I will choose a winner at random on Monday, May 4 in the morning, so email before 8 am Eastern time. I will choose a random winner from those who email me, and I will reply by email. Did I mention that you should communicate by email? deborah.furchtgott@gmail.com again. I will not be able to keep track otherwise.

John’s Turn

I have a LOT of feelings about this book, educ was just released, hitting the shelves of you local book shop, so I’m just prefacing this review by saying: this is deeply personal to me. It is, and I’m not pretending otherwise.

It’s so personal that when I saw Mac Barnett announced he was writing a book called John’s Turn, art by Kate Berube and I saw the descriptions, I wrote to the people I’m in touch with at Candlewick and said, “Look, I want to see this. I have a baby boy, I need this book yesterday. Please.” (Confession time: I was so excited when the book arrived, I tore the jacket when I opened the package and almost cried. Sorry, Candlewick!)

The first thing I saw was that he’d dedicated the book to Rafe (his baby boy, a little younger than the Spriggan). And I knew this was the book I was looking for.

A few anecdotes and memories.

Years and years ago, I read Frank Augustyn’s autobiography, Dancing from the Heart. In it, he describes the frustration of conveying that it’s entirely possible for a man to to dance ballet because he finds it beautiful. It doesn’t have to be apologetically qualified by “and you have to be very strong to do it! Did you know, hockey players sometimes learn ballet to train their muscles?” Men can love beauty, too.

These days, I take the Spriggan around, and he’s a deliciously chubby chonk, tall and decidedly interested in such activities as climbing onto tables. And reaching up to counters. And pulling things off of counters. And– ok, he’s 16 months old, we have to be nimble around him.

So people see my Spriggan and tell me he’s ready to be a linebacker, or play hockey, or… you get it. No one told me that about my daughter, of course, though she was also consistently tall for her age. (She was less prone to climbing on tables, but I’ve yet to hear any correlation between toddlers climbing on tables and those who become professional athletes?)

My regular reply is to smile and say, “I’m expecting him to be the next Nijinsky, actually!”

This is actually antithetical to my parenting philosophy– insofar as I have a parenting philosophy? I tend to think parenting comes down to “love your kid for who they are, not who you want them to be.” That’s about it. Oh, also try not to let them get the bread knife. So my knee-jerk response of “No, he can dance ballet!” is not really intended as “AND HE WILL!” but more of a “stop it with pigeon-holing a typically squooshy little 16-month-old boyo as a future footballer, ok?” I can’t with that attitude, I can’t.

Now, I could be unfair. Perhaps the response is coming from those who really enjoy sports, and want to share that enjoyment. (Although then why didn’t they say this to my daughter, who was so remarkably graceful?) But I don’t think there’s any denying that books about boys who enjoy dancing because dancing ballet is beautiful is fairly rare. As in, I cannot think of a book for small children about ballet featuring a boy which is simply focused on being sensitive to the emotions and beauty. Older books tend to get into gender and sexuality, younger ones usually sidebar the beauty if ballet turns up at all. It’s just cute, you know? We laugh, indulgently.

So what of parents who want their boy-child to move in a world that’s not exclusively cars and trucks (what did boys enjoy before the invention of the internal combustion engine?), that doesn’t glorify war (I think of Tove Jansson, writing during WWII, and declaring she didn’t want to have children because if she had a boy it would be too hard to see him turned into canon fodder), and that involves animals that aren’t extinct (not just dinosaurs)? What if you want your child to see beauty and be allowed to enjoy that? What if you are a parent who loves music and art and theatre and ballet and want to share that with your children of all genders? At this point in parenting, I don’t see that recognized in my world, and my decision to simply not buy clothing representing anything involving an internal combustion engine or anything military has significantly reduced available items– and ratcheted up the price of his snazzy wardrobe. You have to pay a premium for not-vehicle-related clothing. That’s depressing. And it leads me to this book, which allows a young boy the chance to dance and enjoy dancing– although not untinctured by anxiety.

That’s the rant. Here’s the book.

Mac Barnett is simply a genius of the written word, and Candlewick (well, many publishers– What Is Love? was Chronicle, and they paired him with Carson Ellis!) consistently does him proud in their illustrator pairings and design and production. Here he’s working with Kate Berube, whose scenes showing John dancing really blew me away, though my personal favourite picture in the entire book is the one starting us off before the title page. You flip the vintage yellow endpaper (calling to my mind the colours of The Philharmonic Gets Dressed) and there’s John…

Oh my. Look at him. {Side note: when I watched Mac Barnett reading this aloud on his Instagram account, which I highly recommend since he reads aloud beautifully, I noticed he held this open for a beat before turning the page. Mac, you like this spot illustration, too, don’t you?}

Now, you expect to hear John’s thoughts, don’t you, after that? Mac Barnett is too smart for you. He lets Kate Berube communicate with you what John’s feeling, since he knows full well how good she is at communicating kids’ emotions in her art. Mac tells us everything from the perspective of the class “we.” Who’s the speaker? Could be a student, could be the collective personality of the class– honestly, that’s the wrong question, Deb, get with it! The point is that the story is in first person plural and that’s your grammar lesson for the day, class. So: on Fridays after Assembly and before class, if we’re good, someone gets to perform for the whole school, and, in typical School Curriculum Language ™ it’s called “Sharing Gifts,” which the narrator points out is a pretty awful name but a great idea. (I loved that touch. Isn’t that always the way? Now I’m working in a school library a bit, I understand why, too… who has time to come up with a good name? It’s a school! We barely have a book budget, and we sure don’t have a marketing budget, and there’s shelving to do. Sharing Gifts. Perfect.) There’s a two-page spread of performances past: tuba, magic tricks, jokes.

Today was John’s turn: “He was quiet at breakfast. We knew why. He was nervous.”

We readers? We remember that nervousness from before the title page. It’s already on our minds.

Hey, remember how I said Mac Barnett is a genius of the written word? One of the reasons I say this is that he never, despite anything I said up above, talks to parents on one level and down to kids at another. So parents and kids are on the same page here. We get a sense that John’s nervous because he’s going to dance ballet because we see him changing into dance clothes. Kids know that too. They may be wondering why that would make him nervous? (I’d love them to think that way, would be great.) But the kids in the story don’t know what John’s going to do, they ask. “He’s doing a dance,” is what Mr. Ross replies.

Page turn. John comes on. The kids know he’s positively palpitating with nerves. And Mr. Ross turns on the music. Strings. {NB: on the book club, Mac played a waltz from Coppélia as Mr. Ross turned it on. Playing music with it was an idea I’d considered, but wondered if it would be gimmicky, distracting? It worked extremely well.}

This is where the art takes over: the subtle nuances of John’s delight in the dance, the rhythm of his body moving to the music, and the glow of his joy in the grace and beauty arches across the spread– and back– and back again, to a page turn of delight… And then the narrator notes that it’s the school’s turn, and the spontaneous joy of their applause shows their genuine appreciation both of beauty and dance and of their classmate’s pleasure in performing ballet.

I was so impressed by the subtle truth of it all, the emotional honesty of everyone involved. The kids giggle before the dance. They wonder, when they hear the music, how you can dance to that kind of music? But these are kids, not obnoxious, hidebound adults, so they watch their friend and they learn. They enjoy the beauty and they find a new source of pleasure in life.

Yes, I confess that this is a book I’m emotionally invested in– for a reason! I was the kid in school who loved classical music and opera and ballet and was nervous and increasingly, as I grew, was mocked for it. Let’s not talk about Grade 6 and up, ok? But I really do think that if grownups shared books like this before Grade 6, it would make a difference. Today I played David Oistrakh performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in the library for a class of Grade 3 students and they got quiet and listened. The kids are open. It’s the adults who close the doors.

Mac Barnett and Kate Berube throw doors open here. They say, “You have room to love beauty, enjoy music and dance, wear your sheer delight in it on your face.” And I am so very grateful.

Otto: A Palindrama

I’m breaking my hitherto unbreakable rule. I NEVER write about a book I can’t wholeheartedly recommend, and would NEVER write about a book to recommend against it, certainly– but this book is a menace. You will never be free again should you buy it.

I mean, this is Jon Agee. He should know better, surely? After all, he is the author and illustrator of fine literature for young people, including quirky and mischievous The Wall in the Middle of the Book, humorous and exploratory Life on Mars, sweet and funny Lion Lessons, and the downright beautiful and bizarre masterpiece The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau! He knows what he’s doing!

So how could he do this to me? To parents of children everywhere with what my daughter assures me is “words-backwards-itis.” How could he write Otto: A Palindrama? It was bad enough when she was just writing me notes backwards and popping up beside me with “did you know I like to read skoob? Guess what that is? Do you know what skoob are? IT’S PLURAL!” And now… now… “Mummy, did you know this is a palindrome? Look: ‘No jazz. I prefer pizza, Jon.’ IT’S A PALINDROME!”

The whole book is written in palindromes. THE WHOLE THING. And, worse, this graphic novel is entirely, fully, sensible… for a given, Jon Agee, degree of sense, that is.

If you want to live a life free of giggling, delighted kids popping up with “DID YOU KNOW? Look at the crime novel in the window here… It’s a palindrome, too!” bury this post, black out the starred review in The Horn Book

Save your sanity. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK.

Shirley Hughes

I’ve written before, too often now, about grieving the deaths of authors and illustrators. And I hope no one takes the lack of a full post on any one death to mean I don’t care! When Ashley Bryan died so recently it was deeply saddening. (Please read the Publishers Weekly and New York Times obituaries– more importantly, however, please read his books.) I cried, and in the library where I now work I told the students a bit about him and read them some of the proverbs he collected. The kindergarten class did their own illustrations for some of them. I think he would have liked that.

When I heard Shirley Hughes had died, I couldn’t quite get there. Maybe it’s that it was too soon after Ashley Bryan — when Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert died so close together, I know that my mind was just too numb to handle them otherwise than in tandem. But I think this was just different.

I love Ashley Bryan and he did teach me a lot: his collected stories and songs are wonderful and his art is hanging by my front door, right beside Ezra Jack Keats, to welcome people with colourful joy. He speaks profoundly to my story-loving and storytelling mind.

Shirley Hughes taught me to be a child and, later, to understand accepting and raising my child as she is.

Every parent knows that when your kid turns about 3 or 4, everything goes in a new direction, except for your child, who’s going in several directions, usually not anywhere close to any direction you want. Possibly sprinting ahead of you through the door and locking themselves inside. Or they’ve put on their new boots and gone splashing in puddles while you’re with the littler one and it’s only later, taking off the boots, that you realize their boots were on the wrong feet the whole time. Or it’s your kid’s first time at a birthday party alone, without parents, and they’re nervous and decide to bring a special blanket or toy.

All of these are stories that aren’t really stories, as such, are they? They’re incidents in life, but each is a book by Shirley Hughes. And they’re only Shirley Hughes books because she decides where to start writing and where to end. They have more words, usually, than a regular picture book today, and yet I’ve never had a child get bored or wander off. They’re riveting, the way that when you’re putting a child to bed at age 3 or 4 and they want you to tell them the story of the day, they will listen to every bit of it, including when they had their snack and what they ate, and they’ll remind you that they had apple as well as Cheerios. But whereas you might bore yourself at bedtime, Shirley Hughes does not bore you.

Shirley Hughes had the knack of writing and drawing honestly, without pretension. It’s tempting to me to compare her to Maurice Sendak, given their beautiful art and stories, but Sendak was delving into the psychology and pulling it out to be seen. Shirley Hughes was telling the surface story with such a complete understanding of the layers that they were evident without being uncovered– rather like Hilary McKay in her novels. But they’re all beautifully, unflinchingly, honest. When you chuckle over a particularly cute picture or moment in Shirley Hughes, it’s with unperturbed affection, and it’s never patronizing, never manipulative, nor would she manipulate you, or, worse, a child. Alfie and Annie Rose, I was convinced as a child and I remain convinced today, are real.

That’s how she taught me to accept every bit of being 3 or 4 years old, living it and living with it. No, I’m not a perfect parent, and I sure wasn’t a perfect child. But I knew then, and I know now, that Shirley Hughes saw me and loved me for who I was, and loved me as a parent who loved and continues to love my child. She never gave me advice, she never suggested I look at such an such a parenting book, she never looked askance at how I dressed my kids, nor did she tell me what she did when she had kids, and she never even told me what her friends did with their kids. She simply put down a true, real story, throbbing with love and acceptance of the wonderful and tiring and difficult and lovely bits of childhood. And I would read them over and over without tiring of them, they resonated so deeply.

The books are startlingly diverse, especially when you think about the earlier publishing time and place. Alfie and Annie Rose are white, but their friends span a wide range of cultures. I was quietly grateful for that, as a parent who looks for diversity in her library but also remembered these books and loved them. It’s quite something to be able to pick up a book published long before it was even a question, and see how ahead of its time it was. And it sure gives another perspective on that entrenched excuse that something is “a product of its time.” Shirley Hughes wasn’t concerned with that nonsense; she was writing and drawing what she observed to be true, not what she or others wanted to see and hear.

I think that’s why, when I was first discussing her with the owner of my local Children’s Book Shop, and I was saying how I just couldn’t put my finger on what made her art so utterly perfect, Terri said, so simply, “She knows how to draw children.” It’s true. In art and in words, Shirley Hughes drew children. She didn’t tell them who they should be, she didn’t tell parents what we should do. She simply put us all down with tender and loving accuracy, and we feel seen and loved for ourselves.

When I got this news, I told my friends I felt that I’d lost chosen family. It’s silly, maybe. While I did once make sure I told her, via someone on Twitter, how much I loved her work, we never met, I don’t think she knew me at all, except that once someone told her that a woman over in Boston loved her books. I like to think it would have given her a minute of pleasure, hearing that. But I have always had a very strong feeling of closeness because of the intimate truth of her work. And I know I will miss her. But I am so grateful for her years of work and her relentless truthfulness.

Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

Sometimes I have an instinct, and it is not the most common feeling, but it’s one I pay attention to. “This book. This book. Hey, you listening, Deb? THIS IS THE BOOK.” At some point in some context, I don’t remember when and where, but I do remember the words, Catherynne M. Valente mentioned she was working on “a boy-Persephone novel.” My ears pricked up: “This book. This book! I’m listening…” So I started watching for updates. And when the book cover was released, I waited. My very kind contact at S&S mentioned an upcoming picture book which looked cute but not the kind I review, so I replied as politely and impressively as I could that I appreciated them thinking of me, but I’m actually looking for more MG content (Lord forgive me this mild lie, I’m always looking for simply books I adore, whatever the target age) and Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods looked like the sort of thing I’d be interested in. They kindly sent me a review copy and my instincts shrieked as I flipped it open: “THIS IS THE BOOK.” They won’t shut up even though I’ve finished reading and am running in circles waiting for it to be released April 26, 2022 and I want it so badly, so I’m telling you about it well before release day, even though I normally time things a bit more closely. I want to spread word in advance, and I’m telling you, now, to pre-order, because THIS IS THE BOOK. (The link I gave you is to her local book shop, so you can ask for it to be signed.)

I’ll give you the splashy blurb, first, and I’m gearing this towards teachers of kids in the Grade 4-8 range, more or less, though you can definitely find readers older and younger for this one. After that, we’ll get to the nitty-gritty. Blurby-splash: “This is the perfect book for the mythology-loving kid in your life or your class. Readers of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books will fall hard for Osmo and his journey, and any animal-loving reader of Kate DiCamillo’s books will be thrilled to head into the woods and meet Bonk the Cross and Never the Pangirlin.”

More, though, this is the book the teacher or the parent wants to read with the kids. I couldn’t put it down, and when the Spriggan, in his mischievous way, decided to wake up every time I thought, “I could read a chapter while he naps now,” much less touching the cover, I did an awful lot of reading-while-nursing (though he still grabbed the book) to get ahead. It’s smart, and it’s beautiful, and it’s fun, and it’s a real page-turner while grabbing your heart and brain.

Normally, these days, I don’t run books by the Changeling prior to reviewing. It would be too hard. She steals my books and doesn’t give them back. It’s very annoying, and when I ask for them (this happened with The Beatryce Prophecy— and “if your kid loves The Beatryce Prophecy they’ll definitely go for Osmo!”) she says in an injured tone: “But I let you read it first!” This one, I wanted to hear what she had to say. The first thing I noticed was her reading aloud. (You’ll understand when you get to page 3.) Then the giggles. Then quiet, rustling pages, giggles, and quiet again… Finally, when she finished and I got the book back, I saw her taking out a post-it page flag with a kitty on it, from page 123. “Well, I had to mark my favourite page,” she explained when I asked, “so I could go back and visit it. I liked knowing it was there.” (You’ll understand when you get to page 123. It was one of my favourite parts, too.)

The story begins with the love of the Forest and the Valley. And it continues, reaching people and animals, and it grows to the day that Osmo Unknown, who is very much not allowed to go to the Forest– no one is– has to go, and for less than pleasant reasons. Osmo goes not just to the Fourpenny Woods, but to the Eightpenny Woods, and he has to go on a quest to save his whole village. (“Describe Osmo! Why does he feel so familiar? Does Persephone feel familiar?” Teachers, I’m writing you so many companion questions here.)

This is the part where I’m giving any teachers reading this a REAL freebie question to explore with their classes. We all talk about heroes in mythology, right? What’s the heroic ideal, what’s the heroic quest, and so on. Maybe you talk about how modern retellings play with those ancient stories with ancient heroes! If that’s what you do, you could totally have a great unit about how it feels different to have an Osmo in place of a Persephone. But in modern fantasy books, kids get really interested in villains, we all know that and we talk about it a lot less– maybe we start to think about it when they get to university and read Milton, and we think about the Romantics and how they read Milton’s Satan, but we don’t talk about it in middle school even though they kinda sneakily like villains more than they like heroes.

So, think about this: ask your students who the villain is in Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods. Ask them to find a villain in mythology. What is a villain, and where do they even come from?

Do you see what I mean? This is a book for so many of us. I remember extremely well that when The Glass Town Game came out I thought, “Wow, this was for me, it was written exactly for me and I wish I could go back to Grade 7 and hand it to myself so I’d feel that sense of being recognized and loved.” I still feel that way, and I want someone to talk to about that, so go read Glass Town Game, too, please, and let’s have tea and cookies together.

But my feeling with Osmo was slightly different: I wanted to go back and give it to my friends. I wanted my teachers to put it on lists we could choose from for book reports so I could draw pictures of the characters. I wanted to dress up as Bonk and Never and Osmo for Hallowe’en with a group of friends– we could argue about who’d be who! (I would be Never, calling it. I’m the loner, I get to be Never.) I was listening to the Changeling try to figure out how to come up with a costume so the Spriggan could be Button and she could be Never and I was actually jealous and thinking about maybe I could get away with dressing up as a Quidnunk, even though I’m grown up?

And all of this excitement and absorption was intertwined with an awareness that at deepest level this book was thoughtful, beautifully written, and valuable. It’s a book with power, it pulses with it. It’s like Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s like Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books. It’s not smart despite being for young readers, it’s wise and delightful because it’s for them.

I’m telling you, get your pre-order in. Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods will be released April 26, 2022 and you want to have it on release day.

Valentine’s Day 2022, because this year we need that love!

One of the things I love best about my childhood, looking back, is the way my parents didn’t sweat the occasions for small celebrations– they just let us enjoy them, and helped us get there! Hallowe’en? Costumes all the way! Who will you be? Mother’s Day? Yes, of course, I really did want that poorly potted marigold you brought home from school, let’s plant it! Valentine’s Day? I never even heard of the angst I hear today about how painful it genuinely is to many adults from a romantic perspective, because I was under the impression that it’s a fun time to get chocolate and cinnamon hearts which I never even liked but was always excited about from my parents, and who doesn’t like a good story with hearts in it? I had a stuffy, Valentin (yes, pronounced in French, please), which was a crocheted heart. Today, thinking fondly of that much-loved-to-pieces yarny heart, I wonder what happened to him? (Yes, Valentin was a pink-and-red him of yarn, he was mine, I know these things.) I loved Valentin. And I loved Valentine’s Day, and even when, much much later, the guy I was seeing broke up with me the day before Valentine’s Day I loved the holiday because I had really, really nice memories from when I was a kid, and I was secretly (under the humiliation) glad that the jerk dude didn’t ruin the day for me by being romantic and THEN breaking up, that would’ve been awful…

These days, as a mother, I’m always excited to give my kids Valentine’s Day books and am still a bit baffled when people sigh and/or groan about romance, because I just don’t see it that way. And this year I’m feeling really strongly about enjoying the gloriously loving heart-and-hugs-and-chocolate day. Why let anyone ruin it? Grab it! But if you do have hesitations, I hereby present you with author Catherynne M. Valente’s history and philosophy of Valentine’s Day, why it’s such a great holiday, and why you shouldn’t let anyone take it away from you– with bonus birds (public Patreon post, and yes I subscribe to her Patreon, it’s awesome). YOUR definition of love, YOUR way, in YOUR life. Grab the joy!

And now? BOOKS! Fun, beautiful, love-filled books!

OK, this is a general list. Some were review copies, some were not, I’ll tell you what was what but, c’mon, you know me by now– I don’t review books I don’t love even if I get a review copy. And I will be linking to other books I’ve reviewed for Valentine’s Day in the past because they’re still good. That has not changed.

Candlewick kindly sent me two unbelievably beautiful board books, one very cute, one simply exquisite. The cute one is Peekaboo Love by Camilla Reid with art by Ingela P. Arrhenius, and is one of those gloriously sturdy Nosy Crow board books which somehow stand up to toddler love better than any other board books, and get tested more thoroughly because Nosy Crow does amazing board books, I’m always impressed. (Another Ingela P. Arrhenius book Where’s the Puffin? has been the Spriggan’s favourite non-music book since September, which is when I bought it, and it’s still intact. Incredible.)

And, yes, the sturdiness and cute art are just wonderful, in themselves. But I’m about to blow your minds here: the text is good. I know, I know, board books, with the exceptions of those written by Sandra Boynton and select others (I personally adore Whose Toes Are Those? and Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Asim and LeUyen Pham, if you’re searching) just don’t get good text. This one is written with care. Let me prove it:

Peekaboo rainbow, Peekaboo bugs / Peekaboo cactus, Peekaboo hugs.

What do you notice? If your answer is “it rhymes,” you’re my mortal enemy. Metre!!! Screw books that rhyme, seriously, rhyme is and almost always has been irrelevant. Metrics matter. I’ve mentioned this before with other books for wonderful read-alouds: Jamberry and Atticus Caticus are two that spring to mind. The beat in this book goes: dactyl, spondee; dactyl spondee catalectic (just means shortened to drop the unstressed beat) / dactyl, spondee; dactyl, spondaic catalectic. It is thoughtfully chosen to be a perfect bouncing rhythm. Yes, it rhymes. That’s a necessary and important secondary detail, which reinforces the easy-feeling bounceability of the read. The effect is: “PEEK (bounce!)- a-boo, RAIN (bounce!)- bow (and here you slide the slidey bits while the baby or toddler chuckles and squeals),” etc. The things that make your lovely, joyful reading experience with a toddler so very memorable are really worth recognizing and celebrating. So I bid you welcome to the joys of prosody! OK, fine, you don’t have to study prosody, I’ll do that bit. But, please, believe me when I tell you that rhyme is basically incidental to a good reading experience with your kiddo, while metre is profoundly important. I feel so strongly on the subject that I will prove it via the magic of Helen Oxenbury’s classic and perfect book, All Fall Down:

Singing all together, running round and round, bouncy, bouncy, on the bed, all fall down.

That’s the text. That’s it. I read it three times in a row to the Spriggan today and he’d have been happy to keep it up forever. Please note there is what my Changeling would tell me crossly is “ALMOST a rhyme, it’s ALMOST there, Mummy!” But the magic is not in that “well, c’mon, it’s ALMOST there,” it’s in the perfect affinity between the metrics and the text. You lose that, you lose everything.

I hope we now have a perfect understanding on this topic, and if you’re still awake and I haven’t killed the joys of Valentine’s Day for you, you can feel free to excerpt those paragraphs and share them with all authors, editors, publishers, etc., and once we’re having parties again you can read them aloud at parties and people will find you as charming as they find me! Next? OK. I know, I feel relieved, too.

I’m not going to tell you much about the exquisite pop-up book LOVE by Robert Sabuda (also sent to me by Candlewick, thanks folks!) because, honestly, there’s not much to say about it except that the experience of going gently through it is beautiful.

I frequently puzzle over the purpose of pop-up books. They’re often designed with very young children in mind, it seems to me: cute animals, cartoonish funny jokes, designed to elicit squeals of joy while you’re singing, for example, “The Wheels on the Bus” or something. Toddlers, however, do not often engage with pop-up books in a fashion designed to preserve their longevity. This one is not designed for toddlers. It’s the sort of book you open carefully with an older child, admiring the artistry and beauty and reading the tender descriptions of what love is to you, and musing over what it might be–

And, indeed, What Is Love? asked Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis.

Well, I want you to imagine, just now a package of the picture book by Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis and the above pop-up book by Robert Sabuda. Share it at the morning table as a family, and it would be sooo perfect and I need one of you readers to do that because I spoiled the whole thing by getting the books ahead of time, dangitall.

Finally, here’s a post with three other recommendations, all for picture books that are appropriate for readers ages about 3 and up, and they will all last for reading well beyond then!

And, parents? Don’t forget to read something lovely for yourselves on Valentine’s Day, too! Maybe go get yourself a blind date with a book at your local indie…

Urchin

There’s a special pleasure and a special anxiety in reviewing books from a small Canadian press. While certainly not inaccessible, there’s an impression that maybe they’re harder to get, they’re not Big Five (or whatever it is now that PRH is acquiring S&S?) so they’re somehow odd or have to prove themselves in a way that Books from Big Publishers Don’t– I don’t really know. What I do know is that Urchin by Kate Story (you can buy from that link in the USA) from Running the Goat (or you can buy direct from the press in Canada!) in Newfoundland could not have achieved what it did with the dexterity and rough beauty it did, the jaggedness and windiness it did, without the attention to atmosphere and the honest understanding of the Newfoundland history a publisher who lives right there could give, so I’m glad that it was done in Newfoundland by Newfoundlanders who know the history and the ground. And it’s beautiful.

Just look at that cover design. There, right there, you see the power of a publisher, editor, and designer who get it. That’s the book. When I saw the cover design, I knew I needed it, and I have never been so right. (Look at the crow. I love the crow.)

I’m going to say something that may sound like I’m overstating things, but I really don’t think I am: If there’s a novel that expresses the trapped dual-and-unreal feeling of living through this pandemic, this is that novel. Yes, it’s local, and yet the local focus has universal appeal. I think Kate Story’s book, written before but out now, is the closest I’ve come to the living-in-two-spaces feeling of the pandemic in a novel, though. (As I said in another post, Brian Selznick’s fractured and non-linear Kaleidoscope also has the feeling of time and space being fluid.)

One of the issues with encapsulating what makes this book so particularly special is that I want to tell the story, but I also want to convey the atmosphere. I want to pin down the protagonist, but also tell the history. Basically, I want to give you the full reading experience, which you can only get by reading the book (which I highly recommend). It’s very tricky! But I’m enjoying the process of revolving my mind around this beautifully readable and yet original and experimental book.

The book is told in the first person, which is decidedly never my preference for a novel, yet Kate Story makes it work. The limitations of this point of view get us into protagonist Dor’s mind, letting us see through Dor’s eyes, hear through Dor’s ears, and, most importantly, feel with Dor’s heart and body. It’s intimate, but it’s limited, which works to the book’s advantage. We start in the future: a pandemic is raging (hahah yeah don’t stop there, please, it’s worth it), we aren’t sure where, exactly. And Dor, at the bedside of someone sick and beloved, is being begged to write down the story they lived. So Dor does.

Back to Newfoundland. We see Dor as an uneasy girl. At that point Dor is seen exclusively as a young woman, but is already and increasingly uneasy in that skin. And here’s where that first person perspective so clearly comes through as the right way to do things: today, and hereafter, I’m going to use they/them as Dor’s pronouns, which is accurate– but the book is never in that position since Dor is doing the talking. That intimacy is exactly the lens that allows them to elide any need for a clumsy category. Dor, we slowly discover, is nonbinary, but I see in Dor’s story, which doesn’t use that term and doesn’t use those pronouns (though, to be clear, I will and we certainly should), something more intimate and deeper in our appreciation of them: not what they’re not (“Dor is not binary”) but what they are (Dor is Dor, and Dor is unique and beautiful and vivid and brave and sometimes timid). After learning from a number of friends how frustratingly limiting the standard vocabulary of gender can be, I found this plunge into perspective of a human, a person, a brain and a soul, frankly liberating. I felt Dor’s liberation in “boy’s clothes” and I likewise felt their humiliation and loathing in being called “young lady.”

You, the reader, feel this, but this is not the story. The story is Newfoundland. The story is, in banal terms, a historical fiction set when Guglielmo Marconi comes to Newfoundland and captures a transatlantic wireless transmission on Signal Hill near St. John’s. Well, you think, isn’t that nice! A cool moment in local history, for a local press. Don’t stop there, this is not the story either.

Dor’s family lives close by Signal Hill, and her ancestor actually moved the house to a hill to be far from the risk of St. John’s traumatic fires– but in doing so actually moved it to a fairy mound. Putting it right on their path was a dangerous thing to do, and the consequences resonate for generations, and so it all comes to a crux when Dor’s deeply depressed midwife mother disappears when called out one night– and Dor, not believing she’s dead, sets out to set things right, and, in the process, is right at the heart of Marconi’s work, discovering what he’s up to, as well.

With every breath of the story you feel the high winds, you see the crashing waves, you stumble on rocks, and you hear the Newfoundland voice (even the quick changes as Dor notes that someone switches to proper English when they want to be impressive). There’s the desire for escape to New York, as her friends, a journalist and a singer, set their sights on a greater future, and Dor wants to join them, but, simultaneously, a rootedness by the sea, a feeling all too familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on the Atlantic coast (oh hi, that’d be me).

And, through it all, is the personal whisper: “Who am I? What am I? Am I even ok? Please, someone just see me for me and still care about me.”

Kate Story, really, has created an original, interwoven story, present yet historic, realist yet fantastic, which feels so fractured and whole that it’s resonance with this fractured yet whole Covid-19 day and age will not disappear. This is not a book which will have only a year’s relevance. It feels so rooted in history and present in the soul that I think it has staying power. And I feel so grateful to have read it at a moment like this, when I needed someone to echo my own feelings: “What is this world? Where are we? Is my house talking around my ears?”

Oh! And, if you’re not already sold? There’s a crow. And if you stick with reading, you will hear the crow and even the crow’s name but I’m not telling you more. You’ve got to read it for that.

Red and Green and Blue and White; Nicky and Vera

I started this post so long ago that I started it, somewhat awkwardly, “I think this book could have gone in my holiday book post, in a way.” And, well, yes, it could have, and I bought it in December and even gave it to a very dear friend in December. And yet– while normally I feel very sheepish about a late post, this time I think I’m glad I sat with this book longer, and mulled it over seriously. That’s what this book feels like it’s for. Books dealing with anti-Semitism that are nevertheless appropriate for young kids are in decidedly short supply, and should be given attention, not rushed into glib reviews. I’m doubling up here to allow the two picture books I will recommend on the subject to talk to each other, and to you.

I have… how do I put this? I have a lot of thoughts about anti-Semitism, Jewish representation in children’s literature, and the shadow of the Holocaust. I think it’s very important to have these conversations, to have them openly, to be firm, open, polite, and direct about Jewishness in books. I also think it’s a really hard, really painful topic, and the enormity of the trauma of the Holocaust, which was so very recent and is still deeply felt, makes it harder to have these conversations. Anti-Semitism did not go away after that traumatic event, though we say “Never again” so often, and said it so recently, weeks after Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants were taken hostage in a totally unrelated act of anti-Semitism which nevertheless immediately clicks every brain to that moment in history. It’s automatic, because it was so big, so enormous and so traumatic, to relate every current act of anti-Semitism back to that black, gaping wound in our history.

Right after the hostage-taking, I got a text message: “How do you talk about anti-Semitism with kids? Are there books?” And then I got an email from another friend, and she asked me how to talk about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with children, are there books? (Yeah, I love that question: “Are there books? Can you recommend books?”)

And the first thing I thought was: “Well, good job Lee Wind and Paul O. Zelinsky did Red and Green and Blue and White,” and the next thing I thought was, “Careful with those conversations, friends. There’s still so much trauma and you do not want to hand it wholesale to the kids.” And the third thing I thought was: “Remember that the one person, the one friend, who reached out to check in with me after that hostage-taking in Texas was a Muslim woman, because she knew what it felt like. We have so many friends, and we should learn to talk about these problems openly and honestly and compassionately with them. We have so many friends.”

First, I’ll talk about Red and Green and Blue and White. Then I’ll talk about talking to kids about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, what not to do, why Nicky & Vera is so wonderful, and finally I’m going to urge you to do more than read this book; I’m going to urge you to do more talking about Jews, Judaism, Jewishness, and how to tell Jewish stories.

I love this beautiful book. It tells the story of Isaac and Teresa, a Jewish boy and a Christian girl, who are friends across the street from each other and share a love of both Christmas and Chanukah. That sounds kind of corny, but for me it rang so true! I have a deep and abiding resistance to stories where Jewish kids are jealous of Christmas, because I found so much joy in sharing my Christian friends’ holidays and sharing mine with them. (Usually I found it even more fun having them for Shabbat, it was simply more important to me than Chanukah and I loved sharing it.) They would invite me to help decorate their trees and I would admire how each friend had a different story to their trees, different types of ornaments with different histories. This book taps into that feeling, and it gave me a warm glow. And that glow was what made the shattering glass as a rock breaks the window in front of the Chanukah menorah feel all the more fractured. “Jews aren’t wanted, shouldn’t feel warm glows, shouldn’t feel safe,” is the hissing of the rock breaking the glass. And, indeed, Isaac’s family is scared, despite the immediate police response, but they decide that it’s impossible not to go on lighting their candles: that would be like hiding their Jewishness. And Teresa stands by her friend, putting a picture of a menorah in her own window, and inspiring the whole neighbourhood to do the same, in an act that feels instinctively evocative of the legend that King Christian of Denmark wore the yellow star to rally his citizens to do the same, standing by his Jewish citizens (except this story from Lee Wind is actually based in reality). See? You see how strong the shadow of the Holocaust is, popping up even in my response to this story?

It’s impossible and irresponsible to suppress that mental jump, but, I will warn you from personal experience, too much too quickly for a kid is also traumatic. So what do you do? I can’t tell you what you should do with your own children, but I can tell you my experiences, and my thoughts. I can tell you, also that this book is one of the only ones out there that, in my view, does a good, straightforward, honest job of confronting real-world anti-Semitism today, as well as making children feel reassured that they do have friends who can and will help.

I did not, however, pick up this book the morning after the hostage situation in Texas and run around reading it to kids. I felt shaken, my friends felt shaken, that was not the time. Instead, I went back to basics: I thought in myself, and I talked with my friends and the Changeling, about what discrimination is, anyway? Being religious, we could think about it in those terms, which I found helpful. If all humans are created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elokim, imago Dei, choose your language– I find that soothing, too), then what does that mean when we hurt someone? Is there a limit? Maybe, my daughter once suggested to me, it’s about what you can be, and how you get there, as a person. I liked that. It’s a spark of possibility, that image, but it’s no guarantee. But everyone does have it, whether they get there or not. So if we say that a given group is worse than we are, we’re breaking that rule: we’re saying that they don’t have that image, that it’s wrong. Well, that doesn’t work, so we can’t deny that image is there in everyone. Kids have a strong sense of logic, and I always find it helpful to try to get that logic in order. Adults may not want Jon Klassen’s bear to eat the rabbit in I Want My Hat Back, but every kid expects it to happen. It’s logical.

When you’ve got that sorted (and it may be more necessary to do it in your head than to walk through it with kids), it’s easier. You can get specific. You still don’t strictly need to go into the nitty gritty of anti-Semitism, though; they need a story to relate to, and sometimes a step removed is helpful. I read a Jewish Grade 3 class excerpts from Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Eric Velasquez. I paused when the teacher told young Arturo Schomburg that there was no one and nothing of value in Black history: “Imagine you had a teacher who said that about Jewish history!” There was an angry mutter and one more vocal girl exploded, “That would be horrible!” “Well, that’s how Schomburg felt.” “She shouldn’t have said that!” “You’re right. There are people who say that about Jews, and about Blacks, even today, but, as you’ll see, Schomburg didn’t back down…” And I read on. The story tells itself, the kids relate, you’re just there to highlight it. And I had kids follow up, too.

Depending on the age and the kid, eventually you can get to the Holocaust. It’s important not to hide it, because then it becomes a Big Unknown, and that’s scary. But too much too quickly is simply unnecessary and traumatic, but the balance depends on your kid. For example, at age 8 the Changeling knows there was the Shoah/the Holocaust, that it was a time of great fear and danger to the Jews, she knows about certain particular stories of WWII. What would 6 million mean in her head, though? I don’t know, I haven’t gone there. When we were at the Eric Carle Museum, I drew attention to the fact that Eric Carle’s teacher had secretly shown him “degenerate” art to open his mind, and that this was at great personal risk. What was that about, and who were the artists? Again, we listen to a lot of music in my family. Did you know that Wagner was allowed and encouraged and considered great, but Mahler was not? Why was that?

But I strongly discourage too much vivid historical fiction of the Holocaust until the kid walks there independently, and you’re there as support. I vividly remember lying in bed at night watching car lights go by followed by shadows and hearing dogs bark and expecting the Gestapo. You don’t want to put a kid through that! Historical fiction is vivid, it’s dramatic, it’s very effective, and it’s a terrible idea for young readers about the Holocaust.

My advice is to go small, not big, and focus on people. That’s why this is the one and only picture book to do with the Holocaust I can recommend: Nicky & Vera by Peter Sís (no, he’s not Jewish, and I think that remove may be part of what gave him the space to do this).

Peter Sís’s Nicky & Vera does not talk about the horrors of the Holocaust but also does not in the least minimize or erase them. He uses the story of Nicholas Winton who cancelled a ski vacation to go to Prague and rescue hundreds of children. And then, when he’d done what he could, he never bragged, but quietly lived a good life. And the way Peter Sís does it shows through Vera (a child Winton rescued) that every person is a whole person, a life, unique, truly imago Dei, and it gets at that pure level of logic: “Hey, if that person hadn’t been saved, that kid I see on the page who loved cats there in Prague would have died. And that kid, that whole person who went on the train to England and then lived and did all those things and had kids– that wouldn’t have happened. And that must be true for every kid he saved.” And later they’ll probably realize that there were many who were not saved, and every person who died was a world of potential killed, snuffed out, never allowed to develop, which, yes, is a hard leap. But it’s in the power of the individual that Peter Sís makes his mark there.

That’s what I like to emphasize, because that’s all a kid should be asked to stretch their mind to, honestly. If they can’t do that, they can’t think more broadly later. It has to start with understanding that an individual mattered. So, rationally and emotively, every person is an individual who matters– what a difficult, difficult concept! I have to work on it every day, as, I’m pretty sure, do you. Schomburg worked for my kids in the library because they could relate so clearly to a kid in a classroom being told he and his people didn’t matter. You need that moment to relate to. And if you don’t do that, if you only do the big, traumatic picture, you end up with: a) a story that can be denied or minimized later based on prodding at the big picture history, b) people who want to deny and minimize that story because it’s so horrible. If they can minimize it, they can get away.

I do not think there’s value in the horror just as horror. There’s only value if we can really push that Peter Sís side to it: The side that says we want to hear about each person, each valuable member of the human race, and grow in kindness and compassion and work for better. (The book for grownups that did that for me was Edmund de Waal’s Letters to Camondo.) That level of individuality and compassion is how you get people who reach out to you and say, “Are you OK? I know how scary it is. I feel it, and I know you must. I’m not here to bug you, but I’m here for you, beside you.” And then you feel less alone.

Why don’t we have so many good books representing Jews? Well, honestly I think it’s because we’re still so paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of what was lost that we can’t come around to representing the many beautiful and valuable Jews who have lived and continue to live, and figure out how to tell their stories. I wish that we had more of those. I wish we had stories that told what it’s like to be a kid eating a kosher lunch in the cafeteria at school, a boy in a kippah. I wish there were picture book biographies of Jascha Heifetz, ones that told how when he was a kid studying with Leopold Auer in St Petersburg, Auer registered his father as a student as well to get him a permit to live outside the Pale of Settlement so little Jascha wouldn’t have to live alone. I want a book about Vera Rubin for kids. I want all of this!

But first we need to do the same thing I say we should do with kids: don’t jump into the deep end of the trauma. Remind ourselves that every human being has a spark of the divine. Jews, too. We can relate to each other, and each other’s stories. And then, moving forward, we can look at these stories and, by thinking small, thinking about the individual, we will see the Isaac and Teresa, the Nicky and Vera, in every person, and stand by each other’s stories as we tell them, listening and enjoying, laughing and crying, and learning.

What Is Love?

I’m super nervous about this post. Sure, I haven’t been in Canada for two-ish years now (I refuse to look up the exact dates lest I cry) but that doesn’t mean I want my citizenship revoked and to be barred entry for the foreseeable future. And I’m worried that if I write this wrong, I’ll get a letter from Passports Canada politely requesting my passport be returned so they can KEEP ME OUT FOREVER. So, up front: Robert Munsch is a treasure and I love him and I’ve written about my love of him and he is just amazing. But here’s the thing– I think that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis’s new masterpiece (and there’s no other word for it, it’s a work of art) What Is Love? is like Love You Forever but for everyone not in Canada.

Allow me to explain, please! Don’t take my passport! I ABSOLUTELY want non-Canadians to see the glory that is Canadian literature. I think it doesn’t cross the border nearly enough and that’s one of the reasons I actively try to talk about it here! I talk about amazing Canadian illustrators, I talk about reading about war on Remembrance Day. But I also know that some books require a certain kind of experience, Robert Munsch started with storytelling, and if you’ve never heard him tell you (and it does feel like he’s talking just to you) Love You Forever, you haven’t gotten the full experience. I know Love You Forever is the book by Bob Munsch that really crossed that border to the USA, along with The Paper Bag Princess. But I also know American booksellers who can’t stand it. They think it’s corny and sentimental. They don’t love the art. I say, “Wow, really? Wait– have you heard him read it? Do you know the tune to the song?” No, and they don’t. Whereas I remember being in the car with my parents and my sister, and we put on the radio, and I’m a teenager mind you, and Bob Munsch starts reading Love You Forever, and next thing I know we’re chuckling along, sighing at the key bits, and then we’re all sobbing and my dad’s pulled over to the shoulder of the highway because he’s the kind of responsible driver who knows not to drive while tears are pouring down his face. It’s a story narrated with a chuckle here and a sigh there, a groan here and a lump in your throat there. You can’t get the full effect just by picking it up and reading, not without the voice. Every Canadian child knows the original Hockey Night in Canada theme music– and can sing you the song from Love You Forever. This is simply not the case in Brookline, MA, it’s just not, and that’s why I’m so, so, SO glad that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis came together to create a book that has the chuckles, the sighs, the occasional groan, but very much the lump in the throat, all in the book itself.

And the thing is? I don’t think Mac Barnett could have achieved this if he were not, also, the consummate storyteller, completely in the same line as Bob Munsch: everyone who’s listened to the sage of Grump Grumpus on his book club knows this. And Carson Ellis is a genius communicator with her art, conveying beauty, feeling, and humour. But: this book was not generated as an oral narrative, and while it’s beautiful to read aloud, it needs to be read with the book, the beautiful, physical, delicious book of gorgeous art. Any reader of any age will hear, see, and absorb this on their level, but the book itself is necessary. Now, I did have the absolute joy of hearing Mac Barnett read it aloud on his Instagram book club and then watching Carson Ellis draw some beautiful art of what love was to the children watching. It was a joyful experience, and I laughed and sighed and got choked up. But you, too, reading this with your kids, grandkids, or friends will have that experience, when you buy it and read it with them. Or to yourself.

(Side note to Passports Canada: I’m not saying that the national experience of being “in” on the true, essential meaning of Love You Forever isn’t special, though, ok? Honestly, I will cry if you take my passport.)

I’m trying to nail what makes this book so palpable an emotional experience, and I don’t think it’s just the skill of the writer and the skill of the artist, though, certainly, those are essential. I have seen plenty of books about love for kids. They can be very nice by skillful authors and illustrators. And they can be corny and sentimental, even when created by skillful authors and illustrators. But this is different, and the answer is in the collaboration.

First, the “I” in the book leaves home at the beginning, with the encouragement of his grandmother. He goes out to find out what love is. She sees him off and he goes. I do not find that an easy, sentimental moment to read. I think, “holy crap, kid on my lap, don’t leave me.” I am not, as a parent, as strong as the grandmother, who says, “If you go out into the world, you might find an answer.” Give me a few years. And a few more years than that, ok? The text leaves it at that– the art shows the grandmother watching, and waving, while the boy doesn’t look back. Oof.

More, the boy encounters a huge range of people (and animals) with a range of experiences of what love is. But as each explanation is offered, the boy knocks it down, and the carpenter, the actor, the poet and more reply, “You do not understand.”

Until the boy goes home. (Shit, I’m about to cry. I’ll leave that bit to you.)

So, yes, maybe that rupture, that pathos from the very first pages when you already feel a wrench– maybe that’s enough? But I think it’s more.

Enter Carson Ellis, enter the collaboration. Carson Ellis– wait, what? I was just about to say she was a Caldecott Award Winner, but apparently she “just” got a Caldecott Honor, which is obviously impressive enough, I never got a Caldecott Honor. But anyway– Carson Ellis, in my heart you’re a winner. Excuse my digression. (Wait, another digression: I need a word with the Caldecott folks, because did you know Barbara McClintock never won the Caldecott, either? CRAZY.) (Now I’m done.)

Look, Mac Barnett has collaborated with a wide range of great artists. Like many, I particularly adore Jon Klassen’s beautiful, funny, deadpan collaborations with Mac Barnett. But this is the first time he’s worked with Carson Ellis, though they’ve been friends for years, and she nailed it. No one else could have done the art for this book. It has the right level of detail, the right level of deliberate vagueness: take a look at the night behind the cat, or the poet’s chair with the the sunset over him. Look at the garden in morning and the garden at night. And yet, there’s a subtle washed feeling, a kind of beautiful nuanced blankness that lets you finish the images in your mind. Such as time period. When does this book take place, and where, for example? The boy’s clothing doesn’t tell you much, and the poet is timeless.

There’s also the question of tone, of atmosphere. The fluidity of Carson’s art doesn’t pin it down, but flows gently, deliberately, warmly, colourfully into every nuance of the tone of the text: the boy leaving feels natural and painful at the same time, the fish is both funny and beautiful, and the poet’s love of language feels exalted while the boy’s desire for a straightforward answer, dammit, is so easy to relate to! This would not be the case without Carson Ellis’s human and humane and beautiful art. (Cough, give the lady a Caldecott for this book, it’s insanely good art right here.)

And that’s the thing. She hears the words, working with a powerful focus on the text. Mac Barnett leaves a lot of room for the art to do more than half the work. That is friendship, collaboration– that is love.

Mac Barnett dedicated this book to his wife, Taylor, and Carson Ellis to her grandmas Helen, Claudia, and Ruth (doubtless thinking of the wonderful grandmother in the book), but I can’t help but feel the book is, in itself, a testimony to the loving collaboration of a perfect picture book team.

What Is Love?

This book. This book is a work of love, and I’ve already choked up more than once, reading it aloud to my kids, whom I love, and thinking about the book as the answer to the question of the book.

(Also: My kids themselves, for me. The Changeling and the Spriggan, looking out the window together as the fresh snow fell, that was love in a nutshell.)

(And, Passports Canada? There’s room in the world for multiple books about love, OK? We’re friends, right?)

Holiday Book List, or Best Reads of the Past Year

Apparently someone, and I name no names only because I’m honestly not sure who to blame for this one, decided Chanukah is beginning the evening of November 28 this year? Not to mention, somehow today is November 26, which I’m relatively sure is either not true or the result of some illegal bending of the space-time continuum. And since concerned mutterings about the “supply chain” is becoming as common as discussions of what constitutes “social distancing” and “remember that toilet paper thing, wasn’t it crazy?” I’m here to help with suggestions for books to buy as gifts because, hey, have you heard to get your books bought early because of those supply chain issues? (I knew I was smart to pre-order eight copies of Comfort Me with Apples!) (And then I went and bought more.) (I just realized I’m running low, though, remind me to ask the Brookline Booksmith to pretty please hold two more copies for me, and the Children’s Book Shop to hold more Kaleidoscope.)

First: a general reminder. You know I’m a fan of indie book shops over here. I always link to mine. We learned this last year, but I’m going to remind you again– DO NOT ASSUME LARGE ONLINE RETAILERS MAGICALLY MAKE BOOKS APPEAR RELIABLY OR EVEN FASTER. They really, really don’t. When the supply chain breaks down, no one will have it, and, in fact, oftentimes your indie will be likelier to have it and if you can’t get there in person, they’ll send it to you media mail (I’m talking to folks in the USA here, elsewhere you may not have media mail but you do have other great postal options). But the best thing about your indie? Well. Did you know that if a book is sold out and the reprints are on a boat and not in any shops– there are other books? Large online retailers have a search bar and you look at it thinking: “uhhh ok but, what do I look for…?” A good bookseller can say, “Such a shame about Naomi Novik’s latest being sold out! Katherine Arden often scratches the same itch for readers, though– do you want to see it?” And then you have another great option for a gift for your friend! (Yeah, that’s a real-life example: I got sold on a Katherine Arden book by three booksellers independently of each other, I think they were colluding with each other, and I’m hoping to read it this winter). Maybe, though, you’re having trouble finding an indie, or want a personal recommendation? Email me at deborah.furchtgott@gmail.com and I will gladly help! I will give recommendations, always, and I will also direct you to bookshop.org which is a wonderful resource both for finding and supporting indies. It also has fabulous lists.

But maybe you want my advice in your own list, and that’s why you’re here, and you’re getting impatient with my blather. Before I hop in (next paragraph) I want to add that you can assume that if I’ve reviewed it already, it’s a great book (which is why I sneakily linked to two reviews up there already, just to remind you to browse my archives for brilliant books). You should definitely consider those archives, honestly, there are really fabulous books in there. This year, I only have a few books which are specifically related to the holidays to add because Candlewick sent them to me and I really did love them. I’m also mentioning a few books that feel like great books to read on a vacation, or which are simply exceptional and you should get them.

Matt Tavares’s Dasher was the book I jumped at when offered to me, because I do love his art! It was as visually appealing as I’d expected, coming from him. What struck me with a little surprise was the gentle blend of bite, not meanness or cruelty, but the reality of real-world difficulties, into a sweet Christmas book. Of course, social commentary and more than a bit of pathos is not uncommon in Christmas literature, predating Dickens. (Delete, delete, delete. Sorry, got carried away with my historical commentary, you can email me if you want the whole narrative, as well as my critique of The Little Match Girl.) Tavares, though, turns up the volume and beautiful colour on both the ferocity of Dasher’s backstory as a maltreated captive reindeer and the gentle humour of her meeting with Santa and her new life and freedom. Best of all, Dasher’s genuine love for family and drive to rescue her entire family will be satisfying to children’s innate sense of justice. By amplifying both, we end up with a wonderfully exciting read, with a vivacity of narrative style that blends incredibly well with the warm and elegant feeling of tradition in the art. This would be my pick for a Christmas read aloud at a library program, family with cousins all crowded together, or maybe a community event. It just strikes every good note, but with originality.

If you want a truly traditional story, the other book I got from Candlewick was Clement C. Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas with incredibly lovely illustrations by P.J. Lynch. I don’t really know how Lynch accomplished it, if I’m entirely honest. We know I’m a fangirl for Lynch, but my love for this took me by surprise because– let’s be honest, folks, I’m hugely into poetry. My doctorate was reading poetry, and I reworked the whole idea I came into grad school waving around with a new plan because I thought “I don’t want to sit and read prose, I want to read poetry, how’s about I come up with a new idea, yeah?” I really love beautiful poetry. And, despite my enormous respect for Clement Moore’s achievement in writing a poem which I’m sure more people voluntarily read on an annual basis than any other, I cannot commend the poem for anything else, except, maybe, for its remarkable narrative clarity. To be blunt: it’s a pretty dull poem as a poem, isn’t it? It’s pedestrian, it’s obvious, it’s dull, it doesn’t do what I like a poem to do. I’ve seen lots of illustrated editions which, well, provide pictures which really match the poem, yep! (Hey, folks, if you want better poems to read on an annual basis, shoot me a note. I have ideas.) And then? This! Oh my goodness, which ABSOLUTE GENIUS thought to give it to P.J. Lynch? Not only is the art beautiful, I’d actually read this aloud with this edition (but no other, still, even Lynch’s art can’t retrospectively transform the words) because it’s beautifully, honestly, genuinely exciting and mysterious and I love the feeling of light glowing in the dusky darkness… It’s really, truly actually good! This is my pick for a gift book to your beloved family friend this year, if you’re looking for that.

Now, another wintry book. I have to tell you that last year I ordered a copy of Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell with truly special art by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. From the UK. Because look, it wasn’t out in the USA and this lovely UK shop, the Book Nook in Hove, had a huge number of fantastic books I wanted, including this one, so I ordered them, and they arrived and I did a happy dance when my box of UK books arrived in Brookline. And let me tell you, when the lovely Candlewick people wrote to me about their holiday list and I saw this on it, I actually didn’t feel anything but joy (and an enormous sense of virtue in being honest with them and not sneakily requesting a review copy even though I had one). I told them I was really excited to see they were bringing it out here and then I told all my bookseller friends I’d loaned the book to last year that it’s coming out here, too, and we were all happy. Then I told my librarians down the road while the Spriggan sang them his “I love the library” song. It’s a truly beautiful book, and was worth the cost of shipping from the UK, but now you can get it without paying shipping from the UK! (Well, if you’re reading this in the UK, that’s not an issue.)

The book is longer and more text-rich than many picture books today, but I never felt that it was text-heavy. It’s a real, deliciously meaty story rather than a slip of a book, and while one review says it has the feeling of a bedtime story, and I can visualize that, my recommendation is to keep it for one of the first snowy days when everyone’s super excited about the falling flakes and the blanketing of soft white fluff. The kids go and play, and when they come in after building statues of snow and throwing themselves into the snow to make snow angels– that’s when you make hot cocoa and wrap them in blankets and read this aloud. The art has a muted yet glowing feeling, radiant with winter blues, and the text is both truly original and somehow classic. I’m a fan of a well done story that bursts us out of 30-odd pages with not much more than 500 words or so, but still with the tight feeling of a concise narrative. (That said, simultaneously, one of my ideal picture books is still Donald Crews’s Freight Train– I’m a creature of contrasts!) So I welcome this to the ranks of picture books for the older range of the spectrum!

Ok but not every book has to be snowy on your gift list. And I’ve got a stack of books I never reviewed that I’m ABSOLUTELY positive you and the kids in your life need.

Top of that list is The Beatryce Prophecy by the kind of team you dream of, you wish for on a falling star, and then, when they come together, they blast your star into a comet of glory. I LOVED THIS BOOK, is what I’m saying here. This is a story from Kate DiCamillo with art by Sophie Blackall, my friends, and I’m pretty sure you’re already at your local indie book shop because that’s all you need to know, right? Kate DiCamillo. Sophie Blackall. Be still my beating heart. But I’ll tell you more anyway. This is a book that has everything you want for elementary school kids. It’s a perfect read aloud for, I’d say, grades 3 and 4, but you can certainly go both younger and older. Neither author not illustrator is the sort to talk down to kids; both trust them with difficult scenarios. This book takes place in a time of war, in a setting which has the feel of an undefined “older time” with a scriptorium and a king and an evil advisor, for example. It’s story-time, in a very Diana Wynne Jones way, but fewer mythological beasts. Kate DiCamillo is absolutely clear that if you’re in such a world, you will experience war and violence, but she articulates this such that it’s vivid but never traumatic. A soldier dies a brutal death. A boy witnesses murder. But at least as important are the vivid realities of friendship, kindness, and, ultimately, a truly extraordinary moment when a character chooses not to commit violence, and another where the choice to say no to power is articulated over and over with grace and joy. And, unbelievably, the feeling on the way out is of, again, that grace, beauty, and even humour. This is a perfect holiday gift to any child who’s able to read it, honestly. Is your child diffident and unsure? They will find confidence and friendship here. Is your child too clever by half, maybe a bit cocky as a reader? This will push them to slow down and absorb the beauty, not to mention think “how did she do that?” This may be the book that turns a dreamer into a writer.

At an older level is a great favourite: Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz with art by Julia Iredale. I’ve been reluctant to read a novel in verse, honestly, because I love poetry so very deeply. Look, sometimes you care too much, and lose opportunities for enjoyment in the process. I’m grateful to my favourite booksellers and, obviously, The Children’s Book Shop, for forcing me to read this, and to Laura Amy Schlitz herself for writing it. It’s one of the most beautifully constructed narratives I’ve read recently. Along with Kaleidoscope, I think it wins my prize for doing something new in a book for kids, with different voices and a challenge to how we relate to ancient, entrenched views of history. Laura Amy Schlitz gets a prize from me for consistently trusting kids to get complexity in her books. This is not to say she falls into “both sidesism,” so to speak. Slavery is bad, end of story, for example. But this book, set in the days of waning Athenian glory, towards the end of Socrates’s life (and we even see him die, that’s the level of intimacy we get in this book), really interrogates what is right, what is justified, and yet, bluntly and authentically, what is in one’s own interest– whether another way is “right and justified” or not. (I think, and hope, that kids who read this in high school will be ready to study with Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta in future.)

The book follows and gets into the minds of many figures, from Hermes to an enslaved boy whose name will shift, as the names of people seen as things do. And the voice of the narrative shifts with the perspective. There are different forms of verse (and she explains her poetic forms and choices at the back), and there is also prose, and also, interleaved within the story, there are artefacts, inscriptions, all explained with concision and, when necessary, honest ignorance. Perhaps what I loved most was the book’s insistence on its own imaginative interpretation of what we know and don’t know. Schlitz is clear, and I might paraphrase the feeling I got from reading it as so: “This is potentially plausible. It is also imaginary. But thought and imagination are valuable tools in relating to history, and we must use them freely and responsibly.” It was a profoundly exhilarating, saddening, enlightening read. Apply to your ego and feel it crumble with humility yet delight.

And then you always need a ghost story, don’t you? Yes, yes, I know this was supposed to be a Hallowe’en book! Well, it ended up being released in November (see above re: supply chain issues), and it’s traditional to read a ghost story at Christmas, even if you can’t find the ghost anywhere, as in Oliver Jeffers’s There’s a Ghost in This House. Slightly melancholic, infinitely mischievous and delightful. It has to be read aloud. Try to arrange for a range of ages of small children who enjoy bouncing and exclaiming, “but it’s right there!!!” while you read, ok?

Last of all, a very lovely, really enjoyable novel with really good illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, whose name on a cover will get me to buy anything (more on that in a future post): Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It may have been seeing that magical cover and the illustrator’s name that snagged me, but I loved reading this in a delicious gulp of fun. It’s a very smart book– a time-travel narrative that is sensory and rich but actually feels accurate in how it handles a collision of time and space. When, for example, our present-day girl, Bee, heads back to meet Federico in sixteenth-century Rome, his discovery that she has two mothers is baffling to him– on account of the distressing question of which would bring the dowry to the marriage? “Wow,” I thought, “yeah, that would do it, obviously.” Over and over again, Murdock nails her very tricky arrangements of travels through time and space, of art and clothing and cuisine, with deftness and accuracy, and without ever dropping the ball on an enormously fun and exciting narrative. I just loved it, and I think it’s the perfect vacation read for any kid, but my Changeling, now in Grade 3, had an absolute ball with it.

That’s all for now! But I have a stack of others, just waiting… And yes, more Paul O. Zelinsky art.