As I said when I posted yesterday, I think this is a great year for some good, spooky reads. Take a dark, cozy, spooky day and tell some stories, read some stories, maybe choose a good eerie novel, even! But this list is mostly for picture books I’ve either reviewed in the past or have recently come out and I haven’t had a chance to review this year. It will be a list, not a Big Chonky Review, so have your indie book shop’s website or phone number handy, and get ready to impulse buy!
I’m going to start with a brief list of new books to try (I will note those I’ve read and those I haven’t yet had the chance to– sob!)
Gustavo, the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago (I have NOT read this, but doesn’t it look great? Sold out at my shops already by the time I went to check!!!)
The Little Kitten, Nicola Killen (picture book, enchantingly lovely and cute with just a hint of spookiness in a final twist– ages 2+)
How to Make Friends with a Ghost by Rebecca Green (a real family favourite, year-round. Ages 4+ picture book. So much heart and truth with leavenings of humour and macabre which never, EVER take from the love.)
Ten Timid Ghosts, by Jennifer O’Connell (young picture book; a simple counting book with a Hallowe’eny twist!)
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Sheffler (a truly classic book, available in many formats, toddler and up)
I Am a Witch’s Cat by Harriet Muncaster (more of a story-type picture book, ages 4 or 5+, a seemingly straightforward book of Hallowe’en imagination… until the end…)
Honestly, if you haven’t found something good in here? You’re picky, indeed! But hop to it– Hallowe’en is ELEVEN DAYS AWAY SO RUN TO YOUR SHOP! Or write to me in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org for help finding your indie book shop!
So, I’m honestly appalled that it’s OCTOBER 19 and I haven’t posted my usual Hallowe’en reviews. (You have twelve days left, just in case you lost count.) In past years I do feel like I’ve done more, and I did, in fairness, review The Little Kitten for you in July? But, excuses excuses! I’ve had this post in my back pocket for a while now, and haven’t written it, in essence, because covid has taken its toll on us all, and figuring Hallowe’en out is a complicated thing this year.
But, on reflection, this is a perfect Covid-19 time Hallowe’en book: Screech!: Ghost Stories from Old Newfoundland by Charis Cotter, with illustrations by Genevieve Simms. Nimbus sent this to me, very kindly and very quickly, so I got to read it before Hallowe’en, and I’m going to beg you– if you’re Canadian and want a copy, would you consider buying it from my old hometown book shop, Tidewater Books, in Sackville, New Brunswick? (If you’re in the USA, you may not want to pay international shipping, so I’ll let you buy it at your local shop or mine, here!)
Here’s the thing: I’m not a girl for scary stories or scary movies and I still haven’t forgiven my dad for the day I was watching Disney’s Fantasia and ran away in terror from The Rite of Spring scene with the viciously murdery dinosaurs and he pretended to be a dinosaur and I fled sobbing upstairs. But: I love Hallowe’en. It’s not about scary for me… it’s about playing with identity through costumes, and it’s about the spooky, the unknown just around the corner… the unknowable, perhaps, as much as the unknown. That’s why you need this book this year. Allow me to emphasize: IF YOU HAVE HALLOWE’EN PLANS OR NEED TO MAKE HALLOWE’EN PLANS THIS YEAR, PLEASE BUY THIS BOOK, THANK YOU. LINKS ABOVE.
Let me explain my expertise: I had a childhood of Hallowe’ens in Sackville, New Brunswick. I’m not saying we did the most innovative and creative costumes every year (though the Three-Headed Monster costume was GENIUS, and I have yet to hear of a better idea from anyone ever), but the playfulness was there, and so was a bit of nice anarchy to accompany the homier traditions. We kids rambled and ran through leaves, probably making enormous messes that grown-ups had to rake up after us with a sigh. We had the perfect balance of tradition (my mother ALWAYS made us beans with hotdogs in them Hallowe’en night) and innovation (costume planning fun, slight alterations in route: “can we turn here?”, new pumpkin ideas) every year. The move to Toronto from Sackville, from a Hallowe’en perspective, was a severe disappointment. You couldn’t ramble, people drove around for trick-or-treating, which I consider, to this day, sacrilegious, and it was over way too soon. Too much candy, insufficient costuming. OBVIOUSLY no one baked, because the very IDEA of giving a stranger a homemade cookie is simply terrifying! I dunno, Hallowe’en in the Maritimes is a special thing, and I don’t think you city-dwellers have the right of it, sorry.
Now, what does this have to do with books, you’re asking? And would I please be so kind as to tell you about this book of ghost stories? Patience, readers.
This year is, you may have noticed, different. I don’t know about you, but my family’s decided against trick-or-treating this year (I’m sure this depends on location, but here in Massachusetts we’re being extra careful so that we don’t have to close schools again, basically). My Changeling will be changing costumes (probably three times, she has several ideas) at home, not rambling from house to house with her cousin. And I thought: “We have to do something special. We have to bring out the spooky playfulness of Hallowe’en at home.” We’re going to decorate. We’re going to have a backyard scavenger hunt to get a bit of candy in there, fine, but we’re also doing spooky candles (she thought we should put them in pairs to look like glowing eyes, isn’t that a great idea?), and I’ll make our traditional Hallowe’en supper (we don’t do beans with hotdogs, we do mac and cheese, and she can help me cut out cookies) and I have LOTS of stories she doesn’t know about yet.
Why emphasize stories, apart from the mere fact of “Deborah likes Hallowe’en stories”? Look, if you want spooky, what do you do? You sit by a flickering candle and read spooky stories, of course! Think of the background to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example! (Which is told in a great picture book, by the way.) But, more to the point of this post– think of the traditional ghost story: in the fall and winter, as the nights close in, you need entertainment… and the delightfully chilling and warming of a spooky story as you sit round the flames together, passing the hours with a yarn and a good apple and a drink… but then the winds batter the windows and somewhere a door slams and everyone jumps…! Now, that’s Hallowe’en.
In grad school, my supervisor had the right of it: every Samhain she read us a spooky story, usually translated from Old Irish, sometimes Middle Welsh, and we’d sit, rapt, listening to her. (Yes, my supervisor was the best.)
Now: if you want to experience that as a family, this book is for you.
OK, let’s circle back to my sentence where I said: “I’m not a girl for scary stories or scary movies.” That’s true. I actually read this book carefully and slowly and with trepidation. I’m such a wimp that I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula during bright daylight hours, laughing at the overdone descriptions and chuckling at the obviousness of it all… then couldn’t sleep all night and checked on my daughter about six times to make sure no one was hovering, bloodthirsty, over her bed. I’m a wimp.
And I read Screech! with zero problems sleeping at night thereafter, but with many a spooky shiver in the process of going through each delightfully told story as darkness closed around the house. There’s a difference between a horror story and a ghost story, and this collection nails it. Screech! is a beautiful book, and I can’t let this review go without nodding to Genevieve Simms’s evocative illustrations which enhance rather than spoil each story. It’s also a toolkit, rather than a horror novel. It tells of the mysterious, the unknown, the uncanny, the unheimlich, and the fabulous. Some stories breathe an air of potential danger– some of sorrow, loss, or desperation– but some are, instead, shadows of old joys, lingering on at the end of autumn with a wistful passing sigh… The idea is of ghostliness, not simply scariness, and I love the spooky, uncanny telling of a joyful ghost story as much as of a screechy, scary, cackling ghost story.
The images that flicker through each story still resonate in my mind, just as a good ghost story should: an eerie light in the darkness, fog over water, a shadowy dancer, a bell in the night, a blue shawl over a field…
But what I love best in this collection is this: as I said, it’s a toolkit, with instructions at the back to guide you through telling a scary story (or not-so-scary, but still spooky, story!), so you can share these stories with your kids and families. The book is introduced by information about where these stories came from, so that you can feel as firmly embedded in the hominess of the uncanniness as any Newfoundlander, and each story is followed by precise details about the gathering of each tale.
This is a brilliant book, and I felt nostalgic in the reading of it– I felt crisp air and crisp leaves, I started to panic about “oh no, what if it snows on Hallowe’en?” (that doesn’t happen here, but did back home occasionally), and I felt a yearning to make cookies. (I should really make cookies.) But I have the funniest feeling…
I feel like, even if you’re not from Atlantic Canada? I think you’ll still feel a creepy nostalgia in the reading of this book. I think it’s that sort of book, that takes you back home, that reaches foggy fingers into the “spooky” bit of your brain, and that you just revel in forever afterwards.
Please, consider getting this quickly before Hallowe’en! You have twelve more days! And then make cookies and hot chocolate, or mull some cider, get in costume, turn out the lights… light a candle (maybe pairs of candles, like glowing eyes in the darkness)…
And tell a ghost story.
(For Hallowe’en picture books: please search “Hallowe’en” on the blog and you’ll turn up lots! I may do a follow-up post with a link to all picture books for Hallowe’en here, but haven’t time right now.)
This isn’t exactly a review of any sort whatsoever. Call it more of a confessional.
See, if you don’t know me very well– I love poetry. A lot. My PhD was in 14th century Welsh and French poetry, but also, more generally, a love letter to how poetry sounds, how it evokes feelings and thoughts, and it was a personal attempt to puzzle out how I could talk about poetry with love but still say something sensible and useful.
I. Love. Poetry.
I also don’t know much about poetry as it is written today, and when the American poet Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” I was quite genuinely thrilled. I looked around eagerly for more information, read a number of her poems, and was pleased to discover someone writing in the 21st century who has a sensitivity to the lyric and yet works in a concise and direct style. In all, she seems like a worthy choice, and between her this year and Alice Munro in 2013, that’s two strong choices I can really celebrate.
I don’t have a “but.” I do have an “additionally,” though, hanging at the end of that paragraph.
Look, this blog is called “The Children’s Bookroom.” Well, I think many kids, or at least young adults, can read Alice Munro and Louise Glück and get a lot out of them! I also think there’s not a literate adult living (although, sadly, there are many children out there who don’t grow up with the benefit of literacy, and we should never forget that) who didn’t benefit from stories and poetry as a child, and I do wonder why we don’t celebrate the authors of genuine worth who form those earliest impressions of literacy, beauty, humanity, and the worth of the world.
So much is at stake, when you think about children’s literature! As I hinted in the above paragraph, childhood literacy is a critical topic. No adult can sit with a volume of Louise Glück poetry, admiring her austere beauty and lyricism, without first having the beautiful, necessary opportunity to learn from Goodnight, Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I certainly don’t begrudge a brilliant poet today her prize– I laud it! But I have here beside me The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley, illustrated by Peter Sís. An extraordinary book! And on the back cover there’s a nice blurb from Mario Vargas Llosa: “Borges is the most important Spanish-language writer since Cervantes…. To have denied him the Nobel Prize is as bad as the case of Joyce, Proust, and Kafka.”
If he can lament the awfulness of exclusions, I can, too. So I just want to think a bit about the contributors to our earliest senses of literacy and literary beauty. Who would be on my list? Who’s as bad an omission as Proust? (My husband reveres Proust, so I consider him the Highest of the High, lest I be cast out of the house.) Well, I want to think about those who I feel have been overlooked in the area of kids’ lit, and maybe you want to think about it, too.
Joan Aiken: creator of an alternate historical timelines in the Wolves chronicles, but also, quite simply, a creator of characters at least as fine as any in Dickens.
Diana Wynne Jones: for versatility of voice and style from mischievous humour to philosophical gravity, from the fairy tale to the cosmic significance.
Eleanor Farjeon: unmatchable in her ability to convince me that there must be a historical source or basis– wait, that’s really original? Unbelievably, it always is.
Ezra Jack Keats: for the honesty and truth with which he represented what and who were always there, exploding our ideas of what we thought was reality, with gentle kindness.
Maurice Sendak: has anyone matched his ability to speak to children on their own level, without ceding ground to interfering adults?
Margaret Wise Brown: like Julian of Norwich, she is often read today as almost kindly and banal, but, like Julian, there is a depth and nuance there– one which every child feels when read to at night, even if we forget the subtleties as we age.
Arnold Lobel: the raw, deep truths of love and friendship have never been better represented, for child or adult, than in the stories of Frog and Toad.
What if we were in an alternate reality where I was casting the deciding vote for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and I were to award the prize to someone in children’s literature in 2020– a sort of “lifetime achievement award”? Who would it be, what would be my reason?
The award, I think, would go to:
Eric Carle, “for his clarity, gentle truths, and directness in writing to the youngest of us, and his kindness in mentoring all those following him.”
Let’s have some fun now, shall we? A wonderful woman at Candlewick who apparently knows my taste through and through sent me a note before Rosh Hashanah asking if I knew about The Clockwork Crow, by Catherine Fisher, which was released on September 8. I had not seen it, but she compared it to Joan Aiken and Eva Ibbotson and you all know my feelings about Joan Aiken and also did I mention it’s set in Victorian Wales?
I don’t know how to sum up this book better than to say it was incredibly fun to read and I was gleeful to find out that it’s the first in a trilogy, because the thought of more made me clap my hands, and no I’m not exaggerating. I read it in what felt like five minutes over Rosh Hashanah, but I’m sure was about two hours. The time zoomed happily by as I took the train to Plas-y Fran in Wales with poor orphaned Seren Rhys who so longed for a home and happiness after her time at the orphanage. Then the tall, dark stranger hands her a newspaper bundle… and he disappears. When she arrives at the lonely, dark mansion house (not the lovely, illuminated home she’d been expecting and hoping for), she opens the bundle, connects the pieces– and finds she’s made a clockwork crow who is much more than he seems. Can Seren discover the secrets and mysteries behind the emptiness of the mansion house, the disappearance of young Tomos, the son of the house, and, perhaps, even of the cranky mechanical crow himself? (SPOILER ALERT: It turns out fine.)
With a tall, remote housekeeper who may or may not be friendly and a healthy dose of magic into the mix, this book might honestly have been written with me in mind, so I took the precaution of checking with the owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, where it had a face-out display, if she thought it was as enchanting to read as I’d found it? “It was just so much fun!” she exclaimed. “It might as well have been written for me. And the comparison to Joan Aiken was so apt, really.” So, you know, endorsed not just by me, but also by an actual expert who’s apparently been waiting for a really fun mystery and fantasy novel rooted in Wales as much as I have.
The goal, I always feel, is for a perfectly natural reading experience. If you’re jolted by a feeling of “was that right, would that have happened?” the experience is destroyed and the book is ruined. Well, Seren Rhys is the ideal protagonist: she’s smart and wary and clever. She reads all the right books for the time period, and she explores the twisty, turny house just enough to get your heart beating but not so much that you think she must be stupid. As for the writing, Catherine Fisher’s prose is smooth and readable by any middle grade child today (they recommend for ages 9-12, but I suspect you could stretch a bit in either direction) but without either sounding unduly “modern” or, worse, fatally aiming towards a “Victorian style” which is utterly unachievable and rings a false note.
In short: this did not jolt me out of the motion of the plot and character, and it was a truly delightful read. I can’t wait for the next books in the series, and I have a strong suspicion you and your kids will feel exactly the same way. I’m going to make you a suggestion, though:
This is a time for innovation in reading groups, and I had so much fun chatting about this book at the book shop, I think your kids would like to chat about it, too. I want to recommend that if you have a kid the right age and with the right interests? Set up a reading group with a friend or two. My Changeling asked me to set up a “book club” for her and a friend, and I thought it was a brilliant idea! I’ve written to the other kid’s parents with a short list of suggested titles (you’d better believe this is on the list, along with Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon— how have I never reviewed that?– and a few others). They’ll meet to talk on Zoom and maybe for a few socially distanced outdoors celebrations when they finish a book.
And if you need suggestions for your book club, or just for your kid’s reading? Don’t forget my offer in my Three Little Kittens post!
Write to me at email@example.com with the following:
a) Your literary interests
b) Your name
c) Your mailing address
I will write you a recommendation on a Three Little Kittens card, with a Snowy Day stamp! That’s it! Easy as that.
This is a book I’ve been waiting for, ever since I first saw the first sketches Sydney Smith posted online. Some books you see and say “I’ve been waiting for that story,” or “I know that author and trust anything they write, ever” (yes I’m talking about Hilary McKay and Cat Valente– who are your authors?). In this case, I just knew that any book Sydney Smith said he’d illustrate must be worthwhile. I mean, I was right, but I had no idea how right I was. To be blunt: this is one of the most incredible books to be published in 2020. Possibly the best picture book, end of story.
I Talk Like a River is a poem-story by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith. I regret that I’ve never read anything else by Jordan Scott; his wordsmithing is incredible and I intend to read more.
When I first read I Talk Like a River, I worried about one thing and one thing only: Would its reach be limited by its subject matter? How would it be shelved? Would reviewers and parents and teachers “get it”? Then I read this review in School Library Journal by Elizabeth Bird and felt enormously relieved. She’s direct and straightforward and right on every point: “Deft poetic language pairs with the resonant watercolors of Sydney Smith to create a book that is more than a memoir and more than conveying a message. This is pain, turned into art, and written for young children.”
Yes, she is correct. More than that, it is art that doesn’t talk down to young children. It takes their ability to understand and engage for granted, and speaks with wisdom and nuance. That being the case, our young children will engage, and, as with a Maurice Sendak or Lobel book, I think they’ll be the ones explaining the book to us old folks.
Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a few too many books which took the idea of “how to have representation in literature for children” a bit too literally. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. It can be a stage to go through in order to achieve the desired outcome: actual honest representation of real lived truths. But it does get a bit wearing to have books which talk down to kids about how Johnny has a stutter and we have to be nice to him and the kids at the school learn to do so (which often comes across as condescension, in all honesty) and there’s a cake at the end.
Jordan Scott doesn’t bother with a cake at the end. He actually has the lived experience, as he discusses in a very honest, personal note at the back, “How I Speak,” and he knows for sure that not every kid is going to go through schools where an earnest teacher gets the students to “be nice to” the kid with a stutter and then there’s a damned cake. The point of this book is different and he comes to a different sort of resolution. Neither Jordan Scott nor Sydney Smith fusses with a classroom scene at the end; the boy at the end doesn’t end up with a resolution with his classmates at all. Rather, he concludes: “And I talk like a river.”
Note the beautiful, vague emptiness and isolation of the scene. My heart snapped and swelled and healed.
I know that feeling. Maybe you do, too?
I mean, look: no, I didn’t stutter at school, and I’m definitely not claiming lived experience. But I suffered, I was isolated, I was bullied and looked down on. They called me “the giraffe” (apparently my neck is long, who knew?) and sneered at me for weird clothes (probably legit, but still mean) and bad hair and bad skin– I sort of forget what else, but I’m sure there was more. I carried a few notebooks to school to scribble in, so a murmur went around that I was “using them to write nasty stories about people at school.” I distinctly remember that, at the time that rumour went around, I was writing a story about cloud fairies. I recently looked to see if I still had that story. I don’t, but I can promise you it was dreadful because everything I wrote in Grade 7 and 8 was earnest and breathless and terrible. I had no sense of humour or style. I just wanted to be taken seriously, you know? Probably a reflection of the isolation I felt.
Anyway, no. I was not in the group. I was isolated, I was alone, I was vulnerable and scared and hurt and sorry for myself– and I look at that page I ruthlessly photographed for you there and I think: “I know that kid’s feeling, and being in that river is liberating.” Not because of some kind of amazing acceptance with cake which frankly doesn’t happen that often. It’s liberating because you get to a point where you say: “I talk like a river,” or “I write about cloud fairies,” or “I listen to classical music.” (Again: NOT claiming I lived the experience of a stutter, but the feeling of the book called to my experience, too.)
You get to the point where you accept yourself and then, maybe, you can even smile in class. (Maybe.)
I don’t usually cite others’ reviews in my own reviews. But I want to go back to Elizabeth Bird’s review. She concludes with a plea to educators sharing this book with students:
“If a teacher or librarian has a child in their class who stutters, I pray that they do not read this book by preceding it with a statement like, ‘Now THIS book is about stuttering, just like Josh over there. Josh, you’re going to LOVE this!’ It’s going to happen. There’s no avoiding it. But hopefully in most cases the teacher/librarian will ease it into the reading without making a big show about it. Because taken in the right vein, at the right time, for the right reasons, I Talk Like a River could make a significant difference in a kid’s life. Or an adult’s. Or pretty much anyone’s. It’s just that good.”
She’s so right, and on more than one level. Not only would this book help a kid who exactly meets the description in this story. As I said, this is a book by a poet, and the art meets the poetry. Sydney Smith, as ever, adjusted and grew and developed his craft to match the book in incredible ways I can’t define. It looks and feels different from the other books I know and have reviewed and loved– Town Is by the Sea, The White Cat and the Monk, and Small in the City. This is new. And one of the ways it’s new, and very like the text, is the nuance and blur of the line. At exactly the same time as it uses specificity of story and experience (drawn from the genuine pain Jordan Scott endured), it speaks, as poetry and art do, to a wide swathe of people.
It’s not sentimental. It’s not pat, not finished, not resolved. It doesn’t end with cake and smug camaraderie. But it teaches us to think and feel about others’ isolated feelings in a whole new way. Maybe– just maybe– that kid who was so cruel to you also experienced raw pain in isolation and will feel heard and understand and grow…? Or not. But maybe you’ll feel heard and understood and be able to move forward better, yourself, which is always worth something, isn’t it?
This book was healing for me, even though I’ve never experienced precisely what Jordan Scott has. My hope is that people will listen to his experience, draw in the artistry of his words and Sydney Smith’s illustrations, and also, I hope, listen to Elizabeth Bird’s very direct advice. Because this book will help many people, if we pay attention.
I rarely feel bad about sitting on a review for a while. They come when they come. This post I do feel a bit bad about leaving on a burner for two reasons: a) I think it’s very topical right now and has been for a while, b) Nimbus sent me these books some months ago, and I intended to review them quickly.
However, I’m done apologizing for one very important reason: This was not a post to rush. These are books regarding which I am far from expert, and I am the student here, not the teacher. To do them justice, I needed time to think and digest, and I needed time to read sensitively. My approach here is as a parent-reader and a lover of poetry and art. I can claim to have some authority when it comes to a reading of The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, rooted in the literature of medieval Wales. I am not, nor have I ever been, an expert in Mi’kmaw history or literature, and I respond to these two books humbly, not authoritatively.
The books they sent are two companion books, so I’m reviewing them together:I Lost My Talkby Rita Joe, illustrated by Pauline Young and I’m Finding My Talkby Rebecca Thomas, illustrated by Pauline Young. (Those link to Nimbus: if you’re in the USA, here are links to buy from the Children’s Book Shop’s online portal: I Lost My Talk and I’m Finding My Talk.)
First: Note the beauty of those two covers side by side. Nimbus deserves kudos, in my view, for the close attention to detail in their design process. These books were designed to work together, and they really, really do. It is, and it should be, impossible to get one without the other. Other notes: the design is lovely but a bit deliberately “rough” in the sense of “durable, useful.” They’re jacketless, the covers are matte rather than glossy, and the colours are a bit dusty and muted. There’s nothing gentle and ethereal here: the beauty is nuanced, evoking both pain and durability from the get-go. The Nimbus team deserves absolute respect for getting how to present these books from first meeting of book and reader.
Now, if you aren’t Canadian, the name “Rita Joe” might mean nothing to you. Sadly, even if you are Canadian, the name might be unfamiliar. That’s on us, I’m going to say, bluntly, for not respecting the authority and voice of one of our most extraordinary poets– and she was extraordinary, as you’ll find in the first of these books. I’m giving you this brief biography, but of course there’s always more. Relevant here is that Rita was taken to the Shubenacadie Residential School after she was orphaned at age 10. She was there for six years, enduring physical and mental abuse, forbidden to speak her own language.
How do you transform a story of so much pain into something that can be shared with children? Separation, isolation, trauma, abuse? Well, Rita Joe fought, grew, survived, and turned trauma into poetry. She’s direct in her poetry: “You snatched it away,” she says bluntly, and “I speak like you, I think like you” (your heart breaks at that, or it should), but she ultimately asks, “Let me find my talk so I can teach you about me,” and a child can, well-taught, understand that request.
The art to accompany this poem is hauntingly perfect: the drab muddy sameness of the residential school feels like a sepia toned photograph dropped in a puddle of grief. The emerging clarity towards the end merges nature and an urban environment on the other side of the school, as the poet comes forward to find her talk and share her story.
I want to talk about the backmatter to that volume, but first let’s talk about I’m Finding My Talk, by Rebecca Thomas, also illustrated by Mi’kmaw artist, Pauline Young.
This poem delicately continues the story in the first book, without overtaking it. The poet is still straightforward, but perhaps more vulnerable, uprooted: she’s looking for the talk the schools took away before she was even born, stolen from her father. “One word at a time,” she looks, citing words: “Kwe, Wela’lin, Nmultes.” She speaks to family and makes new friends, looking for that talk all the time: she seeks through her feet and stitches and beads, through ritual and community, through people young and old, and through her relationship with her father, “But I’m learning to speak in a language that’s mine.”
It’s that final line, the claim that it’s hers, that choked me up as a reader. That’s the story that resonated with me in Wales, as locals learned their historic language. Too many of us laugh at that: “Who needs that language? English has won.” Well, that’s an old story, isn’t it? I want to say to Rebecca Thomas: I hear you, that’s your talk, that’s your language. I’m glad she’s claiming it, and sharing her fight to do so.
The art in this book is, apart from the opening page reference back to her father’s residential school experience, brighter and more vibrant than in Rita Joe’s I Lost My Talk, which makes perfect sense and rounds out the journey from grimness to nuanced optimism. It has a dreamlike, aspirational quality: We’re not there yet, it says, but we’re working on it.
I promised a note on the backmatter. I Lost My Talk includes, at the end, backmatter on the history of residential schools. This is where I’m talking to parents, directly. If your kid is an avid reader, and young, you want to read this first and be very well prepared. It is, like the poem, straightforward, but being prose history, it’s going to be hard for a younger kid to handle (I know my 7-year-old couldn’t deal with it on her own): the backmatter references not only the forced assimilation and brutality but the deaths by disease, illness, and suicide. It hides nothing. It points out, accurately, the abuse and that those who emerged were not graduates, they were survivors, pushed out into the world with no support, no community, no family, no money– nothing but trauma and misery. I do not offer this as critique: this is history, and we need to face this. But you, as parent or teacher, have to figure out how to communicate this with honesty and age-appropriateness to your children and students, and I strongly suggest reading the backmatter carefully.
This is the time for these books. Well, no: it’s past time. I wish I’d seen them as a student, myself, but I’m glad they’re out there now, at a time Canadians are reckoning with our past and present– and choosing future directions. It’s time Rita Joe was allowed to speak directly to us, children and adults alike, and that Rebecca Thomas was given the chance to bring her sequel to us, too. I thank Nimbus for sending me these books. I encourage you, all of you, to get your own copies, examine them, read them, and think about what we’re being told.
I felt bad, going into Rosh Hashanah with no posts on books for the high holidays. But, I thought, it’s an unusual year. Taking a little time to reflect isn’t a bad thing. And, indeed, I went into the evening of the Jewish new year rather calmly. We didn’t have to fuss about guests or travel, so we decided to worry about other things: our house is an unqualified disaster tonight, just as it was on Friday night, but we spent Friday morning writing to friends and family and going apple picking.
Eventually we did cook. We had plenty of food, it was fine. And we knew our apples were fresh and we had something like three or four different honeys, I don’t even remember. (My husband is rather passionate about honeys. And even the Changeling tried honey this year! At age 7! Finally!) I put apples in some of our loaves of challah. It was good.
After we lit candles, we talked quietly and cheerfully about last year and next year. We talked about hopes and dreams. We talked a lot. That’s when my Changeling discovered she liked honey, so that was an enduring subject. Then on Saturday morning, Shabbat and the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we did something we haven’t done in six months: All three of us went to services together.
This, by the way, is what I thought I’d be posting about tonight. The experience, after extreme cautiousness, of going to services together for the first time in half a year. So much has been written in so many places about various religious groups being overly ambitious in reopening doors, I wanted to write a piece about how incredibly grateful I am to my congregation for their, slow, thoughtful, methodical process in reopening services. I wanted to write about how, even as cautious as I am, I felt safe there. I wanted to tell you about how privileged I feel to be a member of a small congregation with a lot of space so that they could make indoor AND outdoor services available, both to reduce crowding and make options available. The indoor services were shorter (to reduce the amount of time a group spent together in one space, even spread out carefully), and the outdoors services were a bit longer, but in the open air with only a tent overhead. I wanted to tell you about how impressed I was by the very generous approach to the 6 feet of space they took (biggest 6 feet I’ve ever seen) and how, in the outdoor section (which is where I was) they thoughtfully labelled every seat clearly so there would be no confusion about who was seated where, and no one was permitted to shift their seats– and I was unsurprised but reassured that they ensured that those who were less mobile (the elderly and those with disabilities) had the best seats and were on the smoothest, most accessible ground. It was very well done, and I felt that nothing had been overlooked.
I went in this morning cheerfully for the second day of services. The morning services went smoothly. I’m trying to think what I was thinking about– I remember thinking of how much I enjoyed praying outside under a big tent with fresh air instead of stuffiness, but that might have been earlier. Then I felt, with that instinct you get when your kid is with your spouse, that I was being looked at earnestly, so I glanced over. Sure enough, my husband was flicking his eyes to a convenient spot. I walked over, asked about my daughter. “She’s fine,” he said, “I wanted to tell you she’s fine, but also…” I froze, and not because it was cold (I’m Canadian, it was about 60 F, so 16 C, meaning everyone else was at services in puffy coats and I was in a wool sweater wondering what the fuss was about). I just had a feeling something was happening, because my husband doesn’t bring “but also” to the table if something hasn’t happened.
“Someone died.” He looked at me. “It’s not going to be good.” I managed, “Who was it?” He said, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
I have a fairly good memory in general, I never am at a loss for words, and I’m not the sort to blank out on details. But even now I’m not entirely clear on what happened next. I know I felt a blackness in my head, so maybe my vision went funny for a second. I don’t remember whether I was silent? Maybe I swore? I sort of hope I didn’t swear at services, but I could have. I know that when my head came together I said, “Baruch dayan haemet.” Then, “That’s not going to be good.” My husband nodded. He said, “Just keep it in mind as you daven.” I nodded. I walked away and sat down in my chair. I prayed.
My daughter came up to me, strangely, just as we were beginning the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. If you don’t know it, the themes, while complex, are of judgment and the little power we humans have over our own fates, though we can alter the outcome by tefilah (prayer), tshuvah (repentance), and tzedakah (charity). It seemed important, so although I could see she was ready to go, I told her I’d take her home at the end of the prayer. Then we walked home together. We read quietly until my husband came home. Then I pulled out the one book I had in the house that included anything about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This brand new book by Sophie Blackall, If You Come to Earth, is lovely and inspiring. I just bought it last week, on Thursday. Rosh Hashanah was Friday. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday night. And it is the only kids’ book in my house with one, tiny picture of her.
Thank heavens for Sophie Blackall. It’s a beautiful portrait, and captures her fierce intellect and dedication to her work. I pointed to the picture and told my girl about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her career, her ferocious mind and will, and the devastating loss. I told her it was going to be a messy few months, having lost someone of her stature. I said if she was interested in learning more about her, I’d be happy to get one of the many beautiful books available for kids about her life and work.
“Of course we need one! But why don’t we have one already?”
I didn’t have a great answer. I thought of Unetaneh Tokef. I sighed. “I guess I just… didn’t really believe that she could leave right now,” I thought, maybe I also said, “but human mortality doesn’t work that way.” I’m not sure what I said. I’m not sure about much. I’m not really sure how I was so unprepared, in myself, as a parent, or as a citizen.
This isn’t going to have a tidy ending. I’m not even going to give you a reading list. The books are out there– they’re easy to find, you know where to look, and I’m going to do my own research before I recommend any to you.
I’m just going to ask you: Do some thinking and reflecting, but do it with an eye towards action, please. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, whatever else she was, active. She was fierce, and determined, and active. Think about what you can do for the sake of truth and justice– and I will think about what I can do, too.
Well, I figured, after a long silence like that (sorry– I had a deadline to meet at the same time as I was looking after the Changeling during this fascinating time, but I met my deadline, so here I am again) everyone deserves a treat. Don’t you think that’s right? So here’s a trip to my childhood– and maybe yours– with an extra-special treat on offer at the end! (I won’t blame you if you skip to the end and then go up to check the review, the words aren’t going anywhere while you scan around.)
One of the books that came out during the most miserable point in the pandemic (which is to say, the point during which I couldn’t visit inside book shops or even get curbside pickup– and I was glad not to do so since I wanted to help keep everyone safe, but it was miserable, no denying it) was Three Little Kittens by Barbara McClintock.
Now, this appealed to me for two deeply personal reasons in addition to the obvious “that sounds cute!” reason: a) I remember hearing my mother sing me the Three Little Kittens on an extremely regular basis all my childhood– my mother, who is allergic to cats, singing to me, the cat-obsessed child she never should have had to put up with but has dealt with anyway (I have two cats now, sorry about that); b) Barbara McClintock, the author and illustrator, is deservedly well-known for all of her incredible work, but to me she will always be the illustrator of Twelve Kinds of Iceby Ellen Bryan Obed, a favourite poet of mine since childhood. That link between nursery song and beloved illustrator and lovely poetry right there struck me, right in the part of me that wanted “something new” but also “something comforting.” Sort of like wanting mac and cheese, but maybe with fresh garden thyme to give it a bit of a still-comforting twist.
Well, as I said, I couldn’t go into a book shop in April, and therefore the lovely new book, released in April, fell victim to that situation where I would run across a mention online that a book had been released and think “I should get that!” But then because I wasn’t in a book shop the next day, it would slip my mind. Incredibly frustrating. (Don’t worry: since my local book shops have reopened, I seem to be making up for lost time!) But I got the loveliest reminder when Barbara McClintock posted a quick picture of these cute Three Little Kittens cards online.
Well, I enthused, and mentioned I’d love to buy some. Then I got a lovely note from her saying that she could help me get some through her. So I rapidly formulated a plan. (The plan comes up later in the post, don’t worry.) I got a copy of the book very quickly (it does help to have incentive– not to mention an open book shop), and Barbara McClintock arranged for the cards (I have 50) equally quickly.
I’m going to tell you first about the book—then about the cards. (That might have to do with the treat, but I don’t like to spoil surprises, so who knows, right?)
Is the book cute? Yes, but you knew that already. You know the song, saw the cover, and trust the illustrator as much as I could do, we all know that. But, since I know you know the song as well as I do, and PROBABLY you sing it with your own kids, and if you don’t, I’d like to know why you don’t, because YOU SHOULD—well. You also know that there are fun ways to play with the song and build the story. How many verses do you sing? (Only the first??? What kind of slacker are you?) What’s the backstory? Are the kittens messy kittens? How and why do they soil their mittens, then? Are they playful? Does each kitten have a different personality, or are they a Little Greek Chorus of Like-Minded Kittens?
Well, you see, after you’ve, perhaps, heard this song every evening of your childhood and then go on to sing it on a regular basis as a parent– hypothetically speaking– you might start to muse on these questions and more. And then you get a book proving that Barbara McClintock does, too, so you feel less alone…
The book begins in prose with playful kittens smelling a delectable scent wafting through the window… and become a chorus of kitties. At this point, our kittens do seem to be rather Greek Chorus-like. But wait!
When the pie proves to be hot, the kittens might diversify in their views, even if they still unite in action. The song becomes the BIG BOLD TEXT while the kittens debate in balloons under the rhyme. We even get to the previously unheard-of (but deeply appropriate to the cat-personality) line: “Told you so!” (Note to my parents: Yes, I know you don’t think cats say “Told you so!” because you say that cats can’t talk, and I shouldn’t anthropomorphize my cats– well, ask any cat owner. Ask Barbara McClintock, all right? Cats convey their thoughts and sentiments without the limitations of mere words. If you can accept Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words? Believe me, cats talk without words.)
Well, the good news is, these kittens learn from their mistakes, resolve the problems they’ve caused, and take responsibility for their actions– and are rewarded with… [SPOILER ALERT!!!] hey, is that a mouse close by…? Oh, good, the little mouse is another friend to share some pie! Which, this time, they eat with their forks!
As you can tell, this is a narrative stage beyond the song itself. This is the story you read after you’ve sung this song to your kid, and with your kid. This is the book that captures your kid and shows just what you can do when you think into and beyond the lyrics of a song. Personally, I think if you have a little 3- or 4-year-old who loves music and stories, this is a great one for taking it one tiny notch up, an easy step to manage without overwhelming the kid.
Real talk to real parents: if you, for example, are looking for something to do to use time in a constructive way during, as it might be, a global pandemic…? Think about it! You sing the song, read the book, discuss the story and pictures with play-acting and lots of giggles, and then set your kid up with crayons and paper to make their OWN Three Little Kittens story! You might… you might even get to SIT DOWN for 5 minutes? Not guaranteed, but I’m dreaming here– what about… what about having a cup of tea or coffee while it’s still warm???
I offered at the time to match you with a book recommendation and mail it to you with a Snowy Day stamp, and I will also, happily, research good indie book shops which are local to you and/or will ship to you at the same time. The offer stands, and– while supplies of cards last, you’ll get it on one of these awesome Three Little Kittens cards!
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following:
a) Your literary interests
b) Your name
c) Your mailing address
I will write you a recommendation on a Three Little Kittens card, with a Snowy Day stamp! That’s it! Easy as that.
Enjoy your books, enjoy your reading, and enjoy the art!
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?)
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…?
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 email@example.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.
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!