I, Too, Am America

I was at the Harvard Book Store on Sunday.  All right, being honest, I was there on Thursday, but completely lost my mind and forgot the presents I needed to get while I was there.  So I had to go back today and get the presents (two copies of Instructions for two little girls I’ll be seeing over Thanksgiving).  And here’s the thing: while I was there, I noticed they had a beautiful display of books by minority groups out there, including quite an extraordinary illustrated edition of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” And I am here to tell you that I, Too, Am America, poem by Langston Hughes, illustrations by Bryan Collier, is heart-wrenching and inspirational.

I, Too, Am America.jpg

I hesitated a lot over this post, because what can I tell you about Langston Hughes or his poetry?  Being perfectly frank here, does the world really need another earnest post by a rather privileged white person about a distinctly, famously black poem?  I’m too Canadian, too white, too Jewish, and too privileged to analyze Langston Hughes for you, so if you have any curiosity about him, then I’m just going to point you to this excellent, nuanced, and fascinating article and that should give you plenty to think about.  For myself, I’m not going to pretend I can tell you much about Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance, or the black experience in America.

What I do know something about, though, is the world of kids’ books; I know a good book when I see one, and this one is beautiful.  Two things surprised me about it: a) how very well Bryan Collier’s precise vision worked with the open-endedness of the poem; b) how much the Changeling liked it, even at age three.

Let’s take a look at the poem, shall we?  It never hurt anyone to pause and read a good poem, and it will help us to understand the story Bryan Collier tells with his images:

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

You see what I mean about “open-endedness”: this poem could tell any number of people’s stories, which, in fact, is one of its beauties.  It could (and this is as close as I’ll come to analyzing the poem itself) tell the literal story of someone sent to the kitchen, or it could tell the figurative story of someone sent to the kitchen; it could be speaking directly to you, to one person, or it could be speaking to a crowd, a group, a class of people.  Bryan Collier hears it speaking to, as he describes it, “the Pullman porters, African-American men who worked as caretakers to wealthy white passengers aboard luxury trains.  This practice began after legal slavery ended and lasted until the 1960s…”  And so our focus, as we flip through his illustrations, narrows from a story which could belong to many people to the story of the Pullman porters, catering to a white elite lifestyle which they could never reach.

And yet– as the poem tells us– they can and will break free from the unjust world in which they live.  Bryan Collier shows us in his beautiful and compelling mixed media illustrations the story moving through time and space with the train.  We begin with the train, just the train.  Then comes the porter’s face, veiled by an American flag.  We move, along with the poem, into the kitchen, seeing the black cooks hard at work.  And then, “I laugh, / And eat well” features a glowing image of the porter filling the foreground with his energy, while those he looks after sit muted in the background.  We then see the porters, and I quote Bryan Collier again from his Illustrator’s Note, “gathering newspapers, magazines, blues and jazz albums, and other items left behind by traveling passengers and then, from the back of the last train car, tossing this bundle in the air, acting as a conduit of culture, a distributor of knowledge to those who couldn’t afford these items on their own.”

In Collier’s illustrations, however, these cultural pieces don’t fall down, but flow outward, through time and space, all the way to the present, reaching audiences far and wide.  “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes.”  They flow from the old luxury trains to the modern subway train and, on that train, a boy peering through the same flag which had veiled the porter’s face at the opening of the book, looking and pushing through to a more hopeful future.

This book is both educational and inspirational: it taught me about Pullman porters, a story I’d never heard before.  My daughter, as she grows older and we continue to read this book together, will know their story.  I like to think that Langston Hughes would be a little bit proud of that, and that he’d be happy that children would learn to see a story through his words, and identify with it.  And, perhaps, reading this poem, seeing this story, they’ll learn that we are all America.

Altogether, this is a beautiful book.  I wasn’t sure how Langston Hughes’ poem could be rendered for children (and, well, I still am not sure what my three-year-old gets out of it!), but Bryan Collier has done a magnificent job.  He paints a story which flows with as much energy as Hughes’ words do, and together they are a powerhouse of warmth, understanding, and, I truly hope, empowerment.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think I’m the right person to comment on the Harlem Renaissance or to analyze Langston Hughes’s poems, but I do know how to recognize a good picture book.

And this, too, is one.

Shh! We Have a Plan

I was recently talking to my sister about ideas.  You see, when we were children, we both loved playing “make believe” or trying experiments or having adventures.  But all of these things need to be sparked by an idea– they need to be planned.  You can’t make believe without some spark of a plan.  My sister was the one with the ideas; I was along for the ride.  We still joke to this day that if my sister says, “I have an idea!”  Well.  You should hide under the table if you don’t have the stomach to go along for a wild ride.

This is a book about ideas, about plans, but it’s turned upside-down, right on its head:  Shh! We Have a Plan, by author-illustrator Chris Haughton.  (Can we digress for a little moment to discuss how cool I find it that Candlewick Press, which produced this book and so many other beauties, is located right in my neck of the woods?  Proud I am to breathe the same sweet air as Candlewick Press.)

Shh! We Have a Plan.jpg

Dear readers, this book exemplifies what Candlewick Press does so well: it’s fresh, it’s original, and it leaves you asking just a few questions at the end.  Meanwhile, the art (created digitally) is equally fresh and original, and yet it fits beautifully on a shelf beside such illustrators as Christian Robinson and Dan Yaccarino, for example, with its bold colours and blocky yet graceful shapes.

The story goes like this: There’s a group of four people (a family or friends, perhaps?) who are out on an adventure.  The three biggest are carrying nets; the smallest of the four is not.  As they walk along, they see a beautiful bird.  The smallest waves and says, “Hello, birdie!”  But the others say, “Shh!  We have a plan!”  They sneak up on the bird: Ready one, ready two, ready three… Go!  They pounce on the bird– but the bird gets away!  Over and over they try, until the fourth friend finally approaches the bird in his own way, according to his own plan: “Hello, birdie.  Would you like some bread?”  And what happens?  He ends up surrounded by a whole flock of beautiful, colourful birds!  When the other three creep up with their nets again, the birds chase them away, and then what do the three of them do?  “Look!  A squirrel!” and “Shh!  We have a plan!”

There is so much to enjoy in this simple story that I hardly know where to begin, but we have to start somewhere, so.  One of the most striking elements here is, as I mentioned above, that Chris Haughton leaves us with a lot of questions at the end: Who are these four people?  What’s their relationship?  Why are the bigger three hunting birds and squirrels?  And, by the end, do those three ever learn?

The answers to these questions aren’t evident from the story.  I’d call them “four friends,” but they might be a family, or they might be four Members of the Parliament of Blueville, for all that we really know for sure.  They have no specific background or gender or name or anything: they are, in effect, four little Everymen ready to receive whatever the reader of the story chooses to impose on them.  (I notice with interest that in my little summary I used the masculine pronoun to refer to the smallest of the four people; that was completely unconsciously done.)

Whatever we impose on them, however, there are still certain actions they take which might influence our perspective on these people.  I find myself automatically distrustful of anyone walking around carrying a net, for example, so my sympathies are immediately directed towards the smallest of the group, who cheerfully calls out, “Hello, birdie!” instead of chasing with a net.  And the story rewards this cheerful little fellow, bringing a whole flock of birds to surround him, whereas the original bird fled from the three fellows with nets.  And so we forge forward, looking forward to finding out how the three figures with nets will react: will they understand, will they join in on the party?

Nope!  First they spring at the birds with nets, and then, when they’re chased away, they pursue a squirrel in exactly the same way.  The smallest of the friends remains apart, scratching his head as the other three pursue the squirrel, and, once more, we’re completely sympathetic: “Why,” we wonder, “are they doing this again?”  And we’re back to questions.

What, in effect, do we know for sure about the story?  We know that there are four of these people and that they seem to be looking for some adventure together out in nature.  The bigger three want to possess it, and the smallest enjoys it on a face-to-face basis, leaving the birds free to do as they please.  Without ever being didactic, purely showing and never telling, then, Chris Haughton demonstrates to the reader the truth of an old adage: “If you love it, set it free.”  (Does anyone know the background of that saying?  I wonder where it came from.)  Those who try to trap the bird are left with nothing, but the one who came to the birds on their own terms was caught up in a moment of true beauty, and true happiness.  Maybe, we think, you don’t need a plan.  Maybe you just need to leave it to the birds.

What stands out to me from this book is how completely non-didactic it is.  It’s humorous, sweet, and very beautiful.  The message, too, is gentle and beautiful, but it in no fashion lectures children; it simply shows us the sympathetic small person, and asks us to love him.  And we do.

A Lion in Paris

Dear readers, I know that a lot of you are Americans, and I’m guessing, if so, that I’m not the only person sitting here today feeling as though she’d just been punched in the gut.  Even if you’re not American, you may well feel that way.  If you’re like me, you simply can’t stand looking at news sites, and you’re probably having a hard time getting used to the new picture for the next four years.

So today’s post goes out to all of you: Everyone who’s scared, everyone who’s shocked, everyone who had hoped for better for their children (or others’ children).  Today’s post is about a book which looks for better things, which takes someone sad and alone and helps him find his true place in the world.

A Lion in Parisby Beatrice Alemagna.

A Lion in Paris.jpg

This book is a large and tall book– if Mr. Collins wanted to read “one of the largest folios” in Mr. Bennet’s collection, he should have taken this one off the shelf.  It’s certainly an improving book, but probably more beautiful and uplifting than his preferred Fordyce’s sermons.

This is how it begins: “He was a big lion.  A young, curious and lonely lion.  He was bored at home on the grasslands, and so one day he set off to find a job, love and a future.”

How many of us leave home to find “a job, love and a future”?  I’m not a statistician, and I’m not here to give you precise numeric answers; there are lots of others out there who can do that better than I can.  I’m going to stick to saying: “a lot.”  I think that at some point in our lives, most of us stand up and say, “I have to find my path.”  And what do we have to guide us?  Ourselves.  And, as the lion in our book finds, leaving the grasslands for Paris with no luggage and only himself to guide him can be a little scary.

Being a lion, he wondered, too, whether he would scare anyone, whether anyone would attack him.  But no one did. The lion, who wanted to be noticed, roared for attention on the Metro, but no one paid any attention.  He wandered Paris through rain and through sun, watching the sunlight bounce off of all of the glass windows.  He visits the Seine, the lion reflected in its waters smiling back at him.  He visits the Mona Lisa, who also smiles at him, and climbs the Eiffel Tower.  And as he travels through the city, he begins to feel that Paris is now smiling at him from all its windows.

Finally, however, he comes to an empty plinth at a crossroads and, with a huge Roaaaaaaar! of joy, he leaps onto it and puts his paws together.  And there, having finally found the place that suited him, he decides to stay.

There are a few aspects of this book, which I tried to hint at in my summary.  First, there’s the travelogue.  The book even opens with the lion holding a little map of Paris on the end-paper.  As he goes from place to place, other visitors to Paris will enjoy seeing their favourite spots highlighted in Beatrice Alemagna’s beautiful illustrations.

But there’s a lot more.  A lonely traveller from another country comes to Paris hoping to find a job, love, and a future.  He searches everywhere, feeling lost and alone and ignored.  He roars for attention.  When he visits the Louvre, he finally feels glad to be noticed by the Mona Lisa, and, gradually, he goes on to win more attention from smiling Parisians.  At last, he finds the plinth on which he can sit (in the Place Denfert-Rochereau, in case you’re curious), happy, loved by visitors, for the rest of his life.  That story feels a lot like the story of a wanderer, maybe an immigrant, looking for his place in the world.

But there’s still more, something less tangible, more internal: the lion is lonely, and he needs to find his place in life.  Is there anyone out there who can’t identify with that loneliness, or with the desire for a dream to achieve?  Is there anyone who doesn’t nod along with the wish to have others tell us, “Yes, you’re here.  You’re alive, and I see you.”  I doubt very much that the lion is alone in his search for a job, love, and a future, whether you’re hunting physically or internally.

And, yes, in this miserable election there was a lot of talk about people’s hopes and dreams, and who has the right to pursue those hopes and dreams.  (There was also a lot of talk about immigrants, but I’ll let you suss out the connections to A Lion in Paris by yourself.)  I found, rereading this book, that our lion is a sympathetic figure: he’s on the side of those who believe that with a little soul-searching and hard work, we ought all to be able to achieve our hopes and dreams.  And, whatever the outcome of this one election, he encourages us to commit again to hoping and dreaming.  He encourages us to work towards achieving our dreams.  He encourages us not to sit at home, bored and unhappy, but to get out there and get doing, and to find others to love and help us, too.

So, disappointed and upset as I am, punched in the gut as I feel, I’m going to stand on the back of this lion and announce, “Onwards, friends!  Let’s hope, dream, and work.  Let’s find our jobs, our loves, and our futures.”

Just– maybe give me a few days to get there, OK?  This was sort of a hard election to face up to.  And, in the meantime, I recommend that you find your own copy of A Lion in Paris, and prepare yourself to pursue your own hopes and dreams.

Monthly Retrospective

This is going to be a fairly brief monthly roundup since I was otherwise occupied for much of the month of October.  That said, the books I talked about in October are definitely worth a look, especially if you’re into spooky books, whether picture books or novels.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to deal with very scary books.  Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I giggled my way through during the day, cost me several nights’ rest after the moon rose and the lights were out.  I am terrible at scary books, is what I’m saying.  But I love the spooky, especially in October: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is excellent for spooky but not too scary, for example.  So I made it my mission to find books which had slightly spooky elements but were fundamentally not-at-all-scary to share with my three-year-old this Hallowe’en, and I think we nailed it.  In the spotlights below you’ll find two mild-but-not-milky picture books and a slightly creepy novel.    All of these are books which are guaranteed not to keep you or your children up at night, but should make you glad that you’re in a nice cozy house, secure against whatever ghosts roam the world when the leaves are changing and the shadows seem just a little bit deeper…

Enjoy, and if you have any recommendations for spooky-but-not-terrifying books, please share them!

I Am a Witch's Cat.jpg I Am a Witch’s Cat: This book tells the story of a girl who is her mother-witch’s cat, and we watch as the cat-girl imagines various normal activities (grocery shopping and cooking) as a witch’s life, and herself as a witch’s familiar.  Just as you’re chuckling at her vivid imagination, you turn the page to see what her mother is up to on Friday evenings– and whoosh! she zooms by on a broom!  A beautiful tale of the warm and familiar with a very slightly spooky imaginative twist, this is a really ideal story for anyone, book-loving toddler and up, who’s got her head in the clouds.

Ghosts in the House.jpgGhosts in the House: Do you love ghosts?  The witch in this little story does!  When she moves into a haunted house, the little witch and her cat are thrilled to find a set of ghosts living there.  She catches them all, gives them a good wash, and puts them all to excellent use.  Perfect for toddlers and up, this story is right on the edge between “charming” and “uncanny.”  Without ever really being too spooky, you get a sense of the little witch’s power, and how she can do things no normal child her age can do.  The orange, black, and white illustrations perfectly complement the clever story.

Left-Handed Fate.jpgThe Left-Handed FateIf you have an older child looking for a slightly spooky novel, The Left-Handed Fate is absolutely ideal.  Set right at the outset of the War of 1812, it combines history with magic, all through the actions of a powerful cast of characters: Lucy, the honorary lieutenant of her father’s letter-of-marque; Max, the naturalist on a quest; and Oliver, the “prize-captain” of The Left-Handed Fate who has some of the most difficult decisions to make in the book as he balances his duty with the more nuanced situations staring him in the face.  Wartime pressures and excitement combine with a longing for peace and security, and all are overshadowed by whatever that mysterious black brig is off in the distance…  Whether you’re looking for a good historical novel or a mystery to make your spine creep just a little bit, or if you simply love a well-crafted book with well-developed characters, give this one a try.

For a comprehensive list of the books we looked at this past month:

  • Scary, Scary Halloween: One of the spookier books I’ve seen for children, and beautifully illustrated by Jan Brett. Ages 3 and up.
  • Ten Timid Ghosts: A charming counting book for toddlers and up.
  • Ghosts in the House: Toddlers and up, a slightly eerie story about a girl and her ghosts.
  • The Left-Handed Fate: A middle grade and up novel set during 1812, with courageous and clever characters.
  • Room on the Broom: A charming story for toddlers and up about a witch whose friends help her in a time of need.
  • I Am a Witch’s Cat: A daughter imagines herself as a witch’s cat, but readers will chuckle when they find out what the mother is really up to on Friday nights!

For a final note, check out my blog post over at Late Last Night Books for more on Cat Valente, the author of Fairyland!

Hallowe’en Trio

Oof, does it feel good to be back here after a crazy October of holiday after holiday!  Busy as I’ve been, though, I’ve been determined to get back here before the most notable literary holiday in October, by which, of course, I mean Hallowe’en.

I remember two things clearly from Hallowe’ens of my youth: Choosing what to be for Hallowe’en (as I describe in this post), and stories.  (That’s not entirely true: I also remember that our pre-trick-or-treating meal was always baked beans with hot dogs in it.  It was delicious, but I don’t remember having it any other time than Hallowe’en.)  My mother had a wonderful selection of Hallowe’en stories, and we also read a lot of Walter de la Mare poems.  (Does anyone else love Walter de la Mare as I do?  Please tell me I’m not alone.)

I’ve been trying, therefore, to build up my own library of good Hallowe’en stories for the Changeling (who is going to be Little Red Riding Hood again this year).  I want her to have as many good memories of ever so slightly spooky stories as I have.  My problem is that, search as I might, I haven’t found a huge number of recent Hallowe’en stories.  I have no idea why not (I might be looking in the wrong places, of course), but the good news is that I have found some really good stories while I’ve been searching.  Let’s go in chronological order, oldest to most recent:

Scary Scary Halloween.jpgThe earliest of the books I discovered is actually older than I am, so I have no idea how I didn’t know it growing up: Scary, Scary Halloween by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Jan Brett.  It’s the story of a group of glowing green eyes watching as all of the dangerous creatures in the neighbourhood creep about on Hallowe’en night.  The mysterious watchers are nervous of the monstrous creatures slinking by, one by one, until, in the end, it’s revealed that the glowing green eyes are a group of sweet little kitties, and the spooky creatures roaming the night are trick-or-treaters.

I’m sorry I was slow to discover this book for many, many reasons.  First, the story itself is the perfect balance of spooky and sweet: there’s a little suspense, but never actual fear, and the charming conclusion will make any reader smile.  Second, related to the first, Jan Brett’s beautiful illustrations help both the spooky and the sweet: their realism and depth of texture and colour give the mysterious green eyes and eerie creatures a certain heft in the narrative, but the same realism makes the sweet little kitties at the end a snuggly surprise.  If you have any cat-lovers in your family, this book is an absolute must, but even if you don’t love cats as much as I do, this book offers a lot to enjoy in its slightly spooky story and gorgeous art.

Ten Timid Ghosts.jpgOur next book is Ten Timid Ghosts, by Jennifer O’Connell.  This is a funny little counting book with a twist at the end.  A witch has decided to move into a haunted house, and so she decides to evict the previous residents of the house– ten timid ghosts.  One by one she scares them away, one with a skeleton, another with a bat, then a vampire, and so on.  The timid little ghosties just can’t take it, and they flee to the woods.  The last ghost, however, figures out what’s up, and decides that it’s rather unfair to be shooed out of his own house.  He gathers up his fellow ghosts and returns to give the witch a taste of her own medicine– they scare her out of the house and take back what’s rightfully theirs.

I didn’t find this book so spooky as Scary, Scary Halloween, and neither did the Changeling, but there’s a lot to love about it.  For one thing, it really is a simple concept, executed extremely well.  It’s a counting book, but with excellent bounce and rhythm and a great story behind it.  As a parent, I was left wondering: “Is the witch going to get away with it?  Is there going to be some saccharine ending where everyone learns to get along?  What will they do?”  I was thrilled when righteous vengeance was meted out instead.  This is a great book to read with your toddler or early reader before going out to scare the world with a spooky costume.

Ghosts in the House.jpgGhosts in the House by Kazuno Kohara was one of the Changeling’s earliest Hallowe’en books (we found it last year), and it’s remained a favourite with both of us.  A little girl moves into a house, which turns out to be haunted.  Fortunately, the little girl turns out to be a witch accompanied by her cat, so she’s got the situation under control.  She flies about capturing the ghosts, gives them all a good wash, and then puts them to great use as curtains, tablecloths, and blankets.  After a busy day, she and her cat go to sleep, nicely tucked in under ghosts, and that’s that.

It’s a story which really hasn’t grown old for us, and I put it down to the freshness of the concept.  There’s an eeriness to the story: it’s humorous, not at all frightening, but it is a bit unnerving.  Ghosts are supposed to be haunting creatures, and witches are uncanny.  Here, neither point is denied: the ghosts haunt the house, and the witch easily domesticates the ghosts.  It’s all a bit uncanny.  But on another level it’s just a funny little sweet story about a girl decorating her house… she just happens to be doing it with ghosts.  It’s absolutely simple and original, and the Changeling loves it wholeheartedly.  If you have very young children (toddlers and early readers, I suggest), this makes a great book to read when trick-or-treating is over and everyone needs to wind down before bedtime.

I hope this gives everyone some good ideas for Hallowe’en, and if you have any great suggestions yourself, I’d love to hear them!  Happy Hallowe’en to all of you.

Apologies

I swore to myself when I started this blog that I wouldn’t waste posts on apologizing for not writing, but I’m just going to poke my head in now to say that I really am truly sorry that October’s falling apart like this.  I knew the holidays would be tough this year, but I hadn’t expected them to be this tough, so I’m really quite abashed about the lack of updates.  In the meantime, here’s a few books for you to look at, though, which are appropriate to October:

Room on the Broom.jpg

 

Start with Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Sheffler.  A funny, clever, and just a teensy bit spooky book for Halloween, excellent for toddlers and up.

 

 

I Am a Witch's Cat.jpg

Another good one is I Am a Witch’s Cat by Harriet Muncaster, a truly charming little story about a girl whose mother is a witch, she’s sure, and she’s her mother’s cat.  But what does the mother do on Friday nights…?

 

 

Those books should be a good start for any family looking for some Halloween reading– but do you have any other good spooky books to share?  Let us know in the comments!

The Left-Handed Fate

Have you ever stumbled on a book completely by accident?  I did, with Kate Milford‘s The Left-Handed Fate.

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It went like this: I was reading John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, and saw that one of his Big Idea posts happened to be for a middle grade novel!  That’s always exciting, and is something I watch for.  I read the post (here) and was impressed by a few things: a) it’s a seafaring novel, b) it’s set during the War of 1812, c) she writes entertainingly.  I decided to keep an eye out for it.  Then my copy of The Horn Book Magazine arrived, and totally by accident had a review for this book in it!  (Amazing how a children’s book review magazine happened to review a recent children’s book.)  It compared the book to Patrick O’Brian, which intrigued me further.  So when I happened to be at the best-curated children’s book store I know, I promptly looked around for it and saw they had a copy of this book on prominent display.  At that point I caved to fate.  I accepted that I was obviously destined to read it and I bought it.  It was all completely and totally accidental, you see, if you ignore the part where I spent all that time looking for it.

Since I had some reading time during Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year), I accordingly read it.  Let me start by saying: Why, yes, this is a very good book and you should read it.  It has fine characters, many of them intelligent and courageous young people it would be easy for middle graders to relate to.  It has a plot which is finely balanced between fast-paced action and thoughtful analysis of the difficult circumstances the characters find themselves in.  It’s also just deliciously, compulsively readable.  I dare you to read the first chapter and not be sucked in.  (Go on, go on– I dare you!)

As for the novel itself– well, I don’t want to ruin the reading experience for you, so I’ll try just to give you a taste of the characters and story without going too far.  The Napoleonic Wars are raging, and the War of 1812 has just broken out.  Lucy holds the equivalent rank of lieutenant on her father’s letter-of-marque (or privateer’s ship), The Left-Handed Fate.  The Fate has been hired by young Max Ault to help him retrieve the pieces of a mysterious artifact which he believes to be a weapon so powerful it would end all wars.  Or will it?  Is it even a weapon?  What is he searching for?  The French are also pursuing the artifact, hoping to get their hands on this destructive weapon.  To complicate matters further, the Americans and English are now at war, just as Max and Lucy arrive in American waters.  When the Fate is captured by the Americans and Lucy’s father is killed, it seems the whole adventure is about to come to an end.  But young Oliver Dexter, an American midshipman, is given command of the prize to bring her to Norfolk, and things get complicated: The French are after the Fate, and Oliver needs the Fate’s sailors to help him fend them off so he can preserve his prize ship for the Americans.  Who is whose enemy in such a case?  And how will Lucy and Max finish their mission now?

What with the shifting politics of the wars and the overarching desire to find this fabulous artifact which will rend future wars impossible, there is plenty of excitement in this novel.  But there’s more than that.  I want to point to two elements: a) the fantastic; b) the realism.  You might just have blinked and wondered if I’d gone crazy, but, truly, this novel walks a fine line between fantasy and realistic historical fiction, and that’s part of what gives the novel its distinctive flavour.  Let’s start with the fantastic.

First of all, the weapon or artifact Max and Lucy are hunting down is evidently fantastical.  Everything about it has an aura of the mysterious, starting with the cryptic and ancient Egyptian inscription which guides those who pursue it.  Then the crew of the Fate finds itself pursued by an apparently indestructible and unbelievably fast all black brig with black-uniformed crew.  Who are they, and what are they after?  And when the ship arrives in Nagspeake (a fictional city), it has almost the feeling of a goblin market.  And, finally, when the artifact is– well.  I won’t spoil that for you.  But the supernatural is definitely in the air.  If you can ignore how realistic, and even scientific, it all seems.  Everything is practical.

You see, Kate Milford has certainly read her Patrick O’Brian novels and done thorough research of her own.  She represents the politics and intricacies of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 as clearly and precisely as O’Brian, but pitched at a much younger audience.  She raises the issues of impressment and treason, describes the horrors of the war in the Vendée, and altogether evokes a rich and textured picture of the tumultuous years around the early 19th century.  She does all this without taking sides and consistently providing an array of sympathetic (and, occasionally, less sympathetic characters) of all stripes.  There’s Lucy, brisk, no-nonsense and more at home on the ship than on land; there’s her brother, Liao, a young pacifist and fireworks expert; there’s Max, the clumsy but endearing natural philosopher; and there’s Oliver, the glowing idealist who suddenly realizes that maybe the world’s a bit more complicated than he gave it credit for being.  (Confession: I may have a slight crush on Lucy.  She’s a truly wonderful character.)

This balance means that as we read, we’re living in a real world.  We know the people and the flavours and the sights.  We know the people and we know the issues and the dangers they face, and we care.  At the same time, some of those problems are just a bit more mysterious than we’re used to, and we always have the feeling that maybe there’s something more happening just around that corner.  What do those strange lights mean?  What about the black brig?  And yet it’s all really real.

This is a perfect middle grade novel, in other words.  For a flavour of the naval issues surrounding the War of 1812, and the war’s connection to the Napoleonic Wars, you can hardly do better.  But in addition to being an excellent tie-in to a history lesson, it’s also an excellent writing lesson.  Kate Milford shows you how to make a big, apocalyptic, fantastical story interesting: by focusing on the precise and minute realism.  She evokes a real, true world and populates it with warm, knowable characters, and the big story grows out of that tangible background.

In a nutshell, then, if you like seafaring adventures, or if you’re a history buff, or if you’re simply looking for a quick, fun read with a cast of some of the most sympathetic characters I’ve met lately– get yourself a copy of The Left-Handed Fate.

(Also, Kate Milford?  If you decide to emulate Patrick O’Brian further and write twenty of these novels, I’d probably read them all.)

Monthly Retrospective

As October dawns, we’re having a rather early monthly retrospective.  A Sunday one.  Why?  Well, the Jewish holidays are upon us, so I must commune with the blog when I may!

What does October mean for you this year?  To me it’s going to be a rather hectic month, so far as I can tell: as I said, the Jewish holidays fall during October this year, which adds an extra layer to my workload.  Don’t be surprised if the blog falls a little quieter as I try to keep up with everything else.  But what does October really mean?  Fall, Hallowe’en… stories.  Telling stories about who you are, making yourself through stories, enjoying new experiences through stories.

That’s certainly the trend I notice in our reflections on the last month’s books.  Of course we’re always all about stories at the Children’s Bookroom, but this month seems to have a lot of identity-play through stories.  Some are a full exploration of being someone else (And Then Comes Halloween), others are more of an investigation of what your own place in the world is (Peter Pan), and still others have a very particular focus on the world of imagination and stories (This is Sadie; A Child of Books).  The common thread through a fairly diverse set of stories, however, seems to be the question “who am I?” or, perhaps, “who can I be?”

Last, month, then was rather introspective.  Who knows what next month will bring?   Stay tuned!  In between my holidays I hope to find you something good and spooky to read for Hallowe’en.  (And I’m always on the lookout for good spooky books, so if you have any recommendations– share in the comments!)

this-is-sadieThis is Sadie: A little girl spends her days diving into her own world of make-believe and storytelling, whether she sails all around her room in a cardboard box boat or dives beneath the sea as a little mermaid or has adventures in Wonderland.  There’s a Sadie in all of our lives, and this book reminds us of the beauty they live with– and reminds them that they’re not alone.  Perhaps you’re even a Sadie yourself.  This is Sadie is a story about living in stories, and is a reminder that it’s really OK to get a little lost in a good book.  Beautifully illustrated in gouache, watercolour, and pencil crayon by Julie Morstad, this is a perfect book for any imaginative child, or for anyone who loves a good story.

 

king-babyKing Baby: When a baby is born, we all gather and coo over the gurgly new being in our midst.  But what does the baby think?  Kate Beaton is here to tell us King Baby’s perspective: he knows his power, and is both a benevolent and a stern monarch over his subjects.  What happens, though, as King Baby grows, and crawls, and walks, and talks?  King Baby is, in a nutshell, one of the most charming books out there to explain babies to children (or adults).  It may seem an outlier in my introspective October batch, but don’t be fooled: King Baby is a most thoughtful and self-aware little monarch.

 

a-child-of-booksA Child of Books: Holy mackerel, I thought I’d gotten over being a bit choked up about this book, but then I flipped it open to write this blurb and my eyes prickled.  There is one word for this book, and it is: beautiful.  What is more powerful than watching the child of books guide her friend through the world of stories and the mountains of make-believe?  Only the reminder at the end that we, too, can visit the realms of stories as imagination is free.  A Child of Books provides a fresh and original story out of the enduring world of books and stories that surround us every day.

Dear readers, those are some very good books, indeed.  And here are some more good books, all the books we looked at in the last month:

  • Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (A beautiful and gentle novel and collection of stories, suitable for middle grade readers and up)
  • And Then Comes Halloween (If you understand and appreciate costumes, you’re ready for this; toddlers and up)
  • This is Sadie (An inspiring story about imagination and stories; probably best for ages 4 and up)
  • King Baby (A sweet story about the power of babies; toddlers and up)
  • Peter Pan (Zany and powerful, for middle grade and up)
  • A Child of Books (A book for a all ages about the places a story can take you)

That’s it for this month!  For a sneak peek into next month’s books, check out the Changeling’s new favourite story: I Am a Story.

A Child of Books

I’d say that I have a definite “type” of picture book I particularly love.  “Yes,” say my devoted readers, “ones with words and pictures.”  OK, granted, it doesn’t take much to attract me to a fancy new book.  But within the realm of the picture book, there’s a type which really hits me in a vulnerable spot– which makes me choke up and get emotional as I read it: the books about books.  We’ve already touched on some of those: Willy’s StoriesThis Is Not a Picture Book!This is SadieThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  All of those are about books and stories, and I love them all.

If you’re like me and you love books about books, I have got a book right here which is going to have a very special place in your heart.  It made me choke up right in public the first time I read it.  It’s called A Child of Booksby Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston, recently published by Candlewick Press.

a-child-of-books

The story is of a child of books who is showing another child around her world: she guides him over mountains of make-believe, they lose themselves in forests of fairy tales, and they escape monsters in haunted castles.  The child of books is a guide to her friend, but they also work together: they both participate in and experience the world they made from stories.  They both live in the “home of invention,” to which, ultimately, “anyone at all can come, for imagination is free.”  (God, I’m choking up again.)

I could go on forever about the beauty of this book, from the design to the text to the illustrations (which are done beautifully in watercolour, pencil, and digital collage).  I could talk about the end-papers which are an elegant wallpaper of book titles and authors.  I could talk about the subtle use of words to shape clouds of song for the children to sleep on and mountains of make-believe for them to climb over.  I could go on forever about the gentle beauty of the language which both evokes the world of the imagination built by others and creates a new imaginative landscape for its readers.  And we will talk about that.  (I mean, I just did, in my sneaky little way.)

But I also want to talk about how I came to find this book, and about children of books and homes of invention.  You see, maybe you’re a child of books yourself, and maybe you know some homes of invention.  This is my story:

I’ve bragged a bit to you all before about my local children’s book store, The Children’s Book Shop.  Well, I went in earlier this week and one of the lovely employees said, “We just got in a shipment of books and one of them is the new Oliver Jeffers.  You’re going to want to see it.”  I had to rush away before it was unpacked because, well, sometimes I have things to do other than hang around good books, but I made a special trip back there today, I was so excited to see this book.  As soon as I stepped through the door she handed it to me with a smile.  And that’s where I first read it, and, as mentioned, sort of choked up in public as I flipped through it.  (I also bought a few other books because it would have been irresponsible to make a special trip to Brookline for just one book.)

After I had a chance to read A Child of Books properly, by which I mean reading it aloud to the Changeling at bedtime, I got to thinking: Who is the child of books?  In the illustrations, she’s a little girl guiding her friend.  But who is she?  I thought of all the guides I’ve had to the world of stories– friends, teachers, my husband, my family… my world of stories would be much poorer without these guides to the mountains of make-believe and the forests of fairy tales.  I thought, too, about the “home of invention” where the child of books lives with her friend.  Surely you’ve encountered “homes of invention.”  Growing up, there were libraries where I spent hours browsing the fairy tale shelves, and there was also my mother’s library which I plundered mercilessly (sorry, Mummy).

And as I thought it occurred to me that there was a beautiful symmetry between how I came to find this book and its contents– The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline is a “home of invention” if any place in the world is, and the staff there are all “children of books,” guides to the stories which line its shelves.  I’ve always been passionate about the value of good libraries and independent book stores, but this book illustrates exactly why these “homes of invention” are so valuable.  They can be good guides to others, as countless librarians and book store staff have been to me, and, in guiding future readers, they can help form future “children of books.”  In fact, I know that as the Changeling becomes a “child of books”, I’m partly responsible, but all of the guidance I’ve had from librarians and The Children’s Book Shop must also be given their due credit.  I’d never have found half the books I’ve talked about here, for example, without help from my guides and the libraries and book shops I’ve had the great good fortune to visit.

To come back to the story at hand more particularly, its genius, as I’ve tried to show, is in evoking the world of stories which surrounds it: the gentle lines of words which form its illustrations are built of other stories (Alice in WonderlandBeauty and the Beast, and so on), all in a landscape of words.  Words from other stories form seas and trees and clouds.  The whole basis of the story is to glory in the world of literature which surrounds it, and the illustrations gently draw our attention outward, to the intertextual world in which all stories live.  That draws us, as I’ve demonstrated, to our own literary lives and our own literary experiences.  Despite drawing so much attention to the world of stories, however, A Child of Books hangs together perfectly as a story all its own with characters all its own and, especially, an aesthetic all its own.  We care deeply about the girl, the child of books, and the young friend she’s guiding, even as they remind us of ourselves and our own lives.  We lose ourselves in their world of stories, even as we find our own world of stories in there with them.

This is a book which will make you grateful for books, their readers, and their homes.  This is a book which is a love letter to all the books and readers of books out there, and I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t help guide more young pre-readers and young readers (and their parents) to “the mountains of make-believe.”

So I want to say a little thank you here.  Thank you to Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers for writing and illustrating this book.  Thank you to Candlewick for doing such a beautiful job of publishing it.  Thank you to The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline for making sure it made its way into my hands.  And thank you to the Changeling for giving me the opportunity to read it aloud and enjoy it the way it’s meant to be enjoyed, as a shared moment between two children of books.