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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, dear reader, it DOES!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So: my offer!

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

Write to me at with the following:

a) Your literary interests

b) Your name

c) Your mailing address

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

Julieta and the Diamond Enigma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Representation Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folks– representation matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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