Last Call!

There are fourteen hours left before the Fight the Wall Giveaway ends– this is just a last call!  Leave a comment on the post or email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com, and you’ll be entered for the chance to win one of three amazing books.  See the original post for more details!

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Fight the Wall Giveaway Reminder!

Hi, everyone!  This is just a reminder that my Fight the Wall Giveaway is currently ongoing.  You can drop your name in the hat either by commenting on the giveaway post or by emailing me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com before Friday, December 1, 2017 at noon.  I will email the winners shortly after that time.  In the meantime, check out the original post, submit your name, and wait to see how fate decides the outcome!

As always, feel free to share the post around with anyone who has kids you think would enjoy one of these excellent books.

Fight the Wall Giveaway

Today I posted about Peter Sís’s incredible book, The Wall.  In my post, you may have noted that I was concerned about Walls of all kinds, and that I objected to Walls impinging on our freedom.  So, I thought, what can we do about it?  Well, I answered myself, we can read with our children.  So I want to have a giveaway here (it’s been a long time since we last had a giveaway!) to promote fighting those Walls and teach our children to reach out to each other instead of sequestering ourselves.

I’m going to give you, my dear readers, three books, each of which teaches something valuable to our children.  The rules are simple:

  1. Post in the comments saying you want to be entered, or email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com.
  2. I will choose the winners by a random number generator and, if you win, I’ll email you to arrange getting the book to you.
  3. All books will be coming directly from me, Deborah.  I have no sponsors for this.  It’s just me and you!
  4. If you DO NOT WANT one of the books (for whatever reason), tell me, and I’ll exclude you from the draw for that book.  Otherwise, everyone will be considered for each book– 1 book per person, though, so if you win once, I’ll exclude you from the draw for the next book.
  5. Everyone is eligible.  Anywhere in the world.  No Walls!
  6. Deadline is Friday, December 1st at noon.

What do I want from you?  Your promise that you’ll read the book with a child.  Any questions?  Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com.  Share widely!  Send this post to your friends, family, whoever!  Let’s spread good books and knock down Walls.

Now, here are the books:

1) To promote diversity: I, Too, Am Americaby Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier.

2) To promote generosity among strangers: Shelter, by Céline Claire, illustrated by Qin Leng.

3) To knock down Walls: The Wall, by Peter Sís.

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All right, that’s it!  Email me or comment below, and I’ll look forward to choosing the winner on December 1!

 

The Wall

There are a number of things you all know about me by now.  You know I’m a little crazy about children’s books, obviously.  You’ve probably figured out that I’m a bleeding-heart Canadian liberal, and I’ll tell you for free that I’m also easy to bring to tears with any sad book (ask my mother about when I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles).  And you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of Peter Sís: Ice Cream Summer and Madlenka’s Dog.  All of that comes into play in this post about Peter Sís’s wonderful book The Wall.

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Folks, this book was amazing.  Just plain amazing.  It did the best thing a book can do for me: it opened my mind and my heart, and, when I finished reading, I realized just how little I knew, and how much I felt.  If you thought you knew something about the USSR or about growing up under an oppressive regime, stop right there (unless, you know, you really did grow up under an oppressive regime) and take the time to read this book.  I guarantee that you’ll have learned something new by the end of it.

First of all, I want you to understand that this book was published in 2007.  Usually I write about either classics or, most frequently, about really new books, but I wanted to tell you about this one for two reasons: a) I just read it a few days ago, and, as I said, it had a profound effect on me, and b) it seems uncannily resonant right now, in the current political climate in the USA.

But what is the book?  Well, it’s half memoirs, half history lesson, and, together, the two halves form a seething yet incredibly lucid ball of ideas and ideals.  What do I mean?  The memoirs and history are easy to show.  The ideas and ideals emanate in a more nuanced fashion, but we’ll get there.  Let’s start with an overview of what Peter Sís says, and then we’ll go back and talk about how he says it.

Peter Sís starts with himself as a child, an ordinary child who loves to draw.  And then we go into a multi-panel explanation of the world he lives in.  Here, I’ll show you a crappy phone picture of what it looks like.  The actual book looks a thousand times better:

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I’ll draw your attention to a few things: Note that your eyes are first drawn to the big red star on the upper right and to the baby pictures in the middle of the left page (or at least that was my experience).  The baby looks so normal and happy, and the main text on the bottom of the pages is likewise normal development.  And the splashes of red have no context yet.  Then you read the annotations and notice the framing pictures: invasions, militia, and oppression become clear.  Turn the page, and, gradually, the semblance of normalcy deteriorates as well: “He drew shapes,” as you see above, becomes “He drew tanks. He drew wars.”  It’s heart-wrenching, especially as you read in an annotation, “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students.  Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.”  The illustrations remain grey with splashes of red, deceptively simple, but the text grows steadily grimmer.

You might think that it would be tough to read a whole book like that, but Peter Sís is way ahead of you:

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In case you weren’t getting the message already, this page bursts out of the book, with a real sense of emergency.  And the ensuing page is radically different, defining the image you’ve just seen.  He moves from the grey and red panels to a set of snippets, all dated, from his journals.  1954: “We’re supporting world peace by not eating meat on Thursdays.”  September 1963: “My school visited the Mausoleum to view the embalmed body of the first working-class Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Comrade Klement Gottwald.  It was scary.”

As we continue the story, things begin to change– more colour creeps in through the grey and red as more news from outside creeps in through the Iron Curtain: “Slowly he started to question.  He painted what he wanted to– in secret.”  And then comes the Prague Spring of 1968, and, with it, the seemingly endless possibilities of art, travel, music… the Beatles.  Peter Sís tells us of travelling Europe, of growing his hair, of starting a rock band.

And then it’s all over.  “Russian tanks were everywhere.”  I watched the returning oppression with a breaking heart: was it worse than having never tasted freedom?  But Peter Sís doesn’t let you think that, not for long.  We witness his debate: should he continue to draw, as his drawings could be used against him, or else: “But he had to draw.  Sharing the dreams gave him hope.”  And, we find, he wasn’t alone.  The colour continues to suffuse the grey panels as ordinary citizens paint a wall– the soldiers erase their art– and the citizens repaint it– again and again.

And so it goes: June 1977, “Rumors, rumors, rumors.  Everyone suspects everyone else of being an informer.  Can we hope things are ever going to get better?”  A series of pictures follow depicting the greyness of despair, and the colour of hope.

And, of course, things do get better, eventually: “On November 9, 1989, the wall fell.”

I’m barely ashamed to tell you that, when I turned the page and saw those words, saw the image accompanying them– my eyes teared up a little.  I’m not Czech.  I have no connection to Peter Sís’s world or childhood.  But I was so caught up in wanting to see the young Peter Sís break free of oppression and gain the right to draw what he wanted that at that sign of freedom I was truly emotional.  (Also: see above re: bleeding-heart Canadian liberal who’s easy to bring to tears.)

I’ve already gone on at length about what the book contains, and you’ve seen the cross between memoirs and history as we talked about the contents.  But I promised you could also see a roiling mass of ideas and ideals.  I think those have already come through pretty clearly, as well, but just to pin them down: if you care at all about freedom, particularly creative freedom (art, music, writing) then you’ll respond immediately to young Peter Sís’s frustrations growing up under an oppressive regime.  The Wall he talks about isn’t just the physical Wall or even the ideological Wall of the Iron Curtain: it’s a Wall in people’s minds, banning ideas, thoughts, desires– and, by implication, forcing people to sequester those thoughts in a different part of the brain, to try to kill them.  But people and ideas are strong, resilient, and, at the first sign of light, the ideas germinate and begin to grow.

This book has been haunting me for days.  We may not be talking about building a physical Wall just this second (although it’s never far from the current political discourse), but we’re seeing a lot of Walls these days, and they worry me: Walls between the rich and poor, men and women, and, what I increasingly fear, Walls in our discourse between truths and untruths.  This is not an easy time.  Frankly, it’s a really hard time.  It’s hard to keep working.  But this book teaches us to keep on working, keep on dreaming, and to never, ever stop fighting against Walls.  (I’m going to link you to it again: The Wall.)

Shelter

The first thing I have to explain is that I love Wednesdays.  Wednesday is “ballet day” at my house: I pick up my daughter from Pre-K a little early, take her to ballet, she has class for 45 minutes (which allows me to get a cup of tea or relax for a bit), and then we have a nice walk home during which she usually shows me all of her ballet moves.  I love it, the Changeling loves it, and all is well with the world.

Usually I go to a café during her class and write some letters to friends (45 minutes is a bit too short for real work, so I catch up on correspondence instead), but today I had another job.  I went to the Harvard Book Store to pick up a present for a friend, and since I was there I decided to spend the time perusing the picture book shelves for any books I might have missed.  I did it slowly, publisher by publisher (Chronicle Books, Candlewick, Charlesbridge, Kids Can Press…) browsing for books I had missed, or else for books I’d heard of but never looked through (guys– Princess and the Peas from Charlesbridge is as great as I’d expected).  45 minutes sped by quickly, let me tell you!

The whole time I had a feeling there was a book I wanted.  You see, I’ve been busy, busy, busy lately, and bold colours and animated text weren’t what I wanted.  Don’t get me wrong: I love super active books like Who Done It? and This Is Not a Picture Book!, but today I needed something to slow down and think a little.  And I found Shelter, by Céline Claire and Qin Leng, from Kids Can Press.  I want to start out by saying kudos for the production values of this book: everything about it is beautiful, from the leaves on the endpapers to the spot art showing a ladybug sheltered under a leaf.  I love a pretty book, and this was appealing from the moment I picked it up: my busy feeling slipped away and I relaxed.  Just look at this cover!  (And, well, I always feel a patriotic glow when I see Kids Can doing well on this side of the border.)

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So what is the book about?  It starts off with a general view of the animal world, watching different creatures waking up in the morning, and then focusing in on them as they prepare for an oncoming storm: we see the individual animal families gathering wood and food and generally making preparations.  Then we meet one of our main characters: ‘”What if others are still outside?” Little Fox asks.’  Two figures emerge from the frost as he speaks, and these two strangers go from house to house, seeking shelter from the storm.  They ask for warmth at one house, food at another, and light at a third.  Each time they’re turned away with a lame excuse, even from the Foxes’ door.  Little Fox, however, runs after the strangers, who turn out to be Big Brother and Little Brother Bear,  with a lantern, concerned about them.

When the snow becomes heavy, the Foxes’ den collapses and they become the family without shelter, barred from their own home.  I could be coy here, but I won’t be: Little Fox sees a light in the distance: the lantern he gave to the strangers!  The strangers had built a shelter and share it with the Fox family.  It may not be the most luxurious home, but when we share with each other, the implication goes, it’s amazing how even a small act of generosity can make all the difference.

It was exactly what I was looking for– gentle, heartwarming, and not preachy in the least.  Much as I loved the story and the message of the book, though, I want to draw your attention to something I truly love to see done well: the interaction between the art and the text.

A note about the art style, first: it is so dreamy yet precise and vivid, with a deceptively simple use of line, that it reminds me of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books.  Qin Leng works with what might be my very favourite combination of media: pen and ink and watercolour.  That combination is absolutely perfect for this gentle story.

The effect of the art might be dreamy, but that doesn’t make it passive.  In fact, the art plays a singularly active role in the storytelling.  It is easy to see that there must have been considerable close collaboration between all parties working on this story as the work was underway, because, honestly, if the text were removed from the page (or if you’re a four-year-old who can’t quite read yet, in the Changeling’s case), the illustrations still tell you quite a lot of the story, and even fill you in on details that aren’t explicit in the text.  I can’t quite explain this without illustration, of course, so take a look at this spread (sorry it’s late and I couldn’t get decent light– I think you can see what’s going on, at least, but the illustration is a thousand times better in person):

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You see the strangers at the door, asking for something.  The family is cuddled in front of a roaring fire, the father standing and shouting back at the strangers.  The text informs us that the strangers are seeking warmth, and the father is saying, “Our fire is out.  Try next door.”  As I was reading it with the Changeling, I asked her what she thought, and she pointed out the fire.  The text might not have been legible to her, but she could fill in the gaps perfectly.  On a more subtle level, notice the characters.  The text is so low-key and subtle that they aren’t individually named or introduced, and yet by the genius of its interaction with the art, each character is fully realized.

Why is this important?  I could say, simply, that it makes the book prettier and more interesting, or I could say that it’s just a tour-de-force, an exemplar of the power of collaboration between art and language.  These are all true.  But in this book, the impact is undeniable: the text is gentle and limited and the art carries a lot of the nuance.  What this means is that it’s not up to the text to say that the animals were lying to the strangers when they turned the bears away from their homes.  This is made evident by the illustrations, but the harsh, preachy words, “they lied,” aren’t there.  We see, we understand, but without being jolted out of the world of the book.  I’m not saying that the text is lazy while the art does the work: I’m saying that it’s like weaving, with the text as the warp and the illustrations as the weft.  They’re inseparable, and each thread depends on the others for structural integrity.

Simply put, this is a beautiful book, an ideal of its kind.  It’s also timely, in an unfortunately evergreen sort of way.  Right now, as we debate issues surrounding immigration and refugees on the world stage, this gentle story which unflinchingly discusses the need for shelter, the denial of shelter, and, ultimately, the sharing of shelter, is a perfect introduction to generosity and why it’s needed.  And so, as the holidays creep up, maybe consider getting a few copies for the children in your life and start a conversation or two.