I Talk Like a River

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.

Even the cover image makes clear the whole new development in style Sydney Smith brings to this book.

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.

Nimbus reviews: I Lost My Talk; I’m Finding My Talk

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 Talk by Rita Joe, illustrated by Pauline Young and I’m Finding My Talk by 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.

5781: Reflections on Rosh Hashanah and RGB

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.

Three Little Kittens + Cards!

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 Ice by 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.

Do you see the little card in the bottom right corner of the book? HOW CUTE IS THAT?

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???

Now for the treat:

Remember when I told you about impulse-buying 80 Snowy Day stamps?

Yes I have a lot, no I don’t regret this.

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 deborah@childrensbookroom.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.

Enjoy your books, enjoy your reading, and enjoy the art!