Red and Green and Blue and White; Nicky and Vera

I started this post so long ago that I started it, somewhat awkwardly, “I think this book could have gone in my holiday book post, in a way.” And, well, yes, it could have, and I bought it in December and even gave it to a very dear friend in December. And yet– while normally I feel very sheepish about a late post, this time I think I’m glad I sat with this book longer, and mulled it over seriously. That’s what this book feels like it’s for. Books dealing with anti-Semitism that are nevertheless appropriate for young kids are in decidedly short supply, and should be given attention, not rushed into glib reviews. I’m doubling up here to allow the two picture books I will recommend on the subject to talk to each other, and to you.

I have… how do I put this? I have a lot of thoughts about anti-Semitism, Jewish representation in children’s literature, and the shadow of the Holocaust. I think it’s very important to have these conversations, to have them openly, to be firm, open, polite, and direct about Jewishness in books. I also think it’s a really hard, really painful topic, and the enormity of the trauma of the Holocaust, which was so very recent and is still deeply felt, makes it harder to have these conversations. Anti-Semitism did not go away after that traumatic event, though we say “Never again” so often, and said it so recently, weeks after Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants were taken hostage in a totally unrelated act of anti-Semitism which nevertheless immediately clicks every brain to that moment in history. It’s automatic, because it was so big, so enormous and so traumatic, to relate every current act of anti-Semitism back to that black, gaping wound in our history.

Right after the hostage-taking, I got a text message: “How do you talk about anti-Semitism with kids? Are there books?” And then I got an email from another friend, and she asked me how to talk about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with children, are there books? (Yeah, I love that question: “Are there books? Can you recommend books?”)

And the first thing I thought was: “Well, good job Lee Wind and Paul O. Zelinsky did Red and Green and Blue and White,” and the next thing I thought was, “Careful with those conversations, friends. There’s still so much trauma and you do not want to hand it wholesale to the kids.” And the third thing I thought was: “Remember that the one person, the one friend, who reached out to check in with me after that hostage-taking in Texas was a Muslim woman, because she knew what it felt like. We have so many friends, and we should learn to talk about these problems openly and honestly and compassionately with them. We have so many friends.”

First, I’ll talk about Red and Green and Blue and White. Then I’ll talk about talking to kids about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, what not to do, why Nicky & Vera is so wonderful, and finally I’m going to urge you to do more than read this book; I’m going to urge you to do more talking about Jews, Judaism, Jewishness, and how to tell Jewish stories.

I love this beautiful book. It tells the story of Isaac and Teresa, a Jewish boy and a Christian girl, who are friends across the street from each other and share a love of both Christmas and Chanukah. That sounds kind of corny, but for me it rang so true! I have a deep and abiding resistance to stories where Jewish kids are jealous of Christmas, because I found so much joy in sharing my Christian friends’ holidays and sharing mine with them. (Usually I found it even more fun having them for Shabbat, it was simply more important to me than Chanukah and I loved sharing it.) They would invite me to help decorate their trees and I would admire how each friend had a different story to their trees, different types of ornaments with different histories. This book taps into that feeling, and it gave me a warm glow. And that glow was what made the shattering glass as a rock breaks the window in front of the Chanukah menorah feel all the more fractured. “Jews aren’t wanted, shouldn’t feel warm glows, shouldn’t feel safe,” is the hissing of the rock breaking the glass. And, indeed, Isaac’s family is scared, despite the immediate police response, but they decide that it’s impossible not to go on lighting their candles: that would be like hiding their Jewishness. And Teresa stands by her friend, putting a picture of a menorah in her own window, and inspiring the whole neighbourhood to do the same, in an act that feels instinctively evocative of the legend that King Christian of Denmark wore the yellow star to rally his citizens to do the same, standing by his Jewish citizens (except this story from Lee Wind is actually based in reality). See? You see how strong the shadow of the Holocaust is, popping up even in my response to this story?

It’s impossible and irresponsible to suppress that mental jump, but, I will warn you from personal experience, too much too quickly for a kid is also traumatic. So what do you do? I can’t tell you what you should do with your own children, but I can tell you my experiences, and my thoughts. I can tell you, also that this book is one of the only ones out there that, in my view, does a good, straightforward, honest job of confronting real-world anti-Semitism today, as well as making children feel reassured that they do have friends who can and will help.

I did not, however, pick up this book the morning after the hostage situation in Texas and run around reading it to kids. I felt shaken, my friends felt shaken, that was not the time. Instead, I went back to basics: I thought in myself, and I talked with my friends and the Changeling, about what discrimination is, anyway? Being religious, we could think about it in those terms, which I found helpful. If all humans are created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elokim, imago Dei, choose your language– I find that soothing, too), then what does that mean when we hurt someone? Is there a limit? Maybe, my daughter once suggested to me, it’s about what you can be, and how you get there, as a person. I liked that. It’s a spark of possibility, that image, but it’s no guarantee. But everyone does have it, whether they get there or not. So if we say that a given group is worse than we are, we’re breaking that rule: we’re saying that they don’t have that image, that it’s wrong. Well, that doesn’t work, so we can’t deny that image is there in everyone. Kids have a strong sense of logic, and I always find it helpful to try to get that logic in order. Adults may not want Jon Klassen’s bear to eat the rabbit in I Want My Hat Back, but every kid expects it to happen. It’s logical.

When you’ve got that sorted (and it may be more necessary to do it in your head than to walk through it with kids), it’s easier. You can get specific. You still don’t strictly need to go into the nitty gritty of anti-Semitism, though; they need a story to relate to, and sometimes a step removed is helpful. I read a Jewish Grade 3 class excerpts from Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Eric Velasquez. I paused when the teacher told young Arturo Schomburg that there was no one and nothing of value in Black history: “Imagine you had a teacher who said that about Jewish history!” There was an angry mutter and one more vocal girl exploded, “That would be horrible!” “Well, that’s how Schomburg felt.” “She shouldn’t have said that!” “You’re right. There are people who say that about Jews, and about Blacks, even today, but, as you’ll see, Schomburg didn’t back down…” And I read on. The story tells itself, the kids relate, you’re just there to highlight it. And I had kids follow up, too.

Depending on the age and the kid, eventually you can get to the Holocaust. It’s important not to hide it, because then it becomes a Big Unknown, and that’s scary. But too much too quickly is simply unnecessary and traumatic, but the balance depends on your kid. For example, at age 8 the Changeling knows there was the Shoah/the Holocaust, that it was a time of great fear and danger to the Jews, she knows about certain particular stories of WWII. What would 6 million mean in her head, though? I don’t know, I haven’t gone there. When we were at the Eric Carle Museum, I drew attention to the fact that Eric Carle’s teacher had secretly shown him “degenerate” art to open his mind, and that this was at great personal risk. What was that about, and who were the artists? Again, we listen to a lot of music in my family. Did you know that Wagner was allowed and encouraged and considered great, but Mahler was not? Why was that?

But I strongly discourage too much vivid historical fiction of the Holocaust until the kid walks there independently, and you’re there as support. I vividly remember lying in bed at night watching car lights go by followed by shadows and hearing dogs bark and expecting the Gestapo. You don’t want to put a kid through that! Historical fiction is vivid, it’s dramatic, it’s very effective, and it’s a terrible idea for young readers about the Holocaust.

My advice is to go small, not big, and focus on people. That’s why this is the one and only picture book to do with the Holocaust I can recommend: Nicky & Vera by Peter Sís (no, he’s not Jewish, and I think that remove may be part of what gave him the space to do this).

Peter Sís’s Nicky & Vera does not talk about the horrors of the Holocaust but also does not in the least minimize or erase them. He uses the story of Nicholas Winton who cancelled a ski vacation to go to Prague and rescue hundreds of children. And then, when he’d done what he could, he never bragged, but quietly lived a good life. And the way Peter Sís does it shows through Vera (a child Winton rescued) that every person is a whole person, a life, unique, truly imago Dei, and it gets at that pure level of logic: “Hey, if that person hadn’t been saved, that kid I see on the page who loved cats there in Prague would have died. And that kid, that whole person who went on the train to England and then lived and did all those things and had kids– that wouldn’t have happened. And that must be true for every kid he saved.” And later they’ll probably realize that there were many who were not saved, and every person who died was a world of potential killed, snuffed out, never allowed to develop, which, yes, is a hard leap. But it’s in the power of the individual that Peter Sís makes his mark there.

That’s what I like to emphasize, because that’s all a kid should be asked to stretch their mind to, honestly. If they can’t do that, they can’t think more broadly later. It has to start with understanding that an individual mattered. So, rationally and emotively, every person is an individual who matters– what a difficult, difficult concept! I have to work on it every day, as, I’m pretty sure, do you. Schomburg worked for my kids in the library because they could relate so clearly to a kid in a classroom being told he and his people didn’t matter. You need that moment to relate to. And if you don’t do that, if you only do the big, traumatic picture, you end up with: a) a story that can be denied or minimized later based on prodding at the big picture history, b) people who want to deny and minimize that story because it’s so horrible. If they can minimize it, they can get away.

I do not think there’s value in the horror just as horror. There’s only value if we can really push that Peter Sís side to it: The side that says we want to hear about each person, each valuable member of the human race, and grow in kindness and compassion and work for better. (The book for grownups that did that for me was Edmund de Waal’s Letters to Camondo.) That level of individuality and compassion is how you get people who reach out to you and say, “Are you OK? I know how scary it is. I feel it, and I know you must. I’m not here to bug you, but I’m here for you, beside you.” And then you feel less alone.

Why don’t we have so many good books representing Jews? Well, honestly I think it’s because we’re still so paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of what was lost that we can’t come around to representing the many beautiful and valuable Jews who have lived and continue to live, and figure out how to tell their stories. I wish that we had more of those. I wish we had stories that told what it’s like to be a kid eating a kosher lunch in the cafeteria at school, a boy in a kippah. I wish there were picture book biographies of Jascha Heifetz, ones that told how when he was a kid studying with Leopold Auer in St Petersburg, Auer registered his father as a student as well to get him a permit to live outside the Pale of Settlement so little Jascha wouldn’t have to live alone. I want a book about Vera Rubin for kids. I want all of this!

But first we need to do the same thing I say we should do with kids: don’t jump into the deep end of the trauma. Remind ourselves that every human being has a spark of the divine. Jews, too. We can relate to each other, and each other’s stories. And then, moving forward, we can look at these stories and, by thinking small, thinking about the individual, we will see the Isaac and Teresa, the Nicky and Vera, in every person, and stand by each other’s stories as we tell them, listening and enjoying, laughing and crying, and learning.

What Is Love?

I’m super nervous about this post. Sure, I haven’t been in Canada for two-ish years now (I refuse to look up the exact dates lest I cry) but that doesn’t mean I want my citizenship revoked and to be barred entry for the foreseeable future. And I’m worried that if I write this wrong, I’ll get a letter from Passports Canada politely requesting my passport be returned so they can KEEP ME OUT FOREVER. So, up front: Robert Munsch is a treasure and I love him and I’ve written about my love of him and he is just amazing. But here’s the thing– I think that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis’s new masterpiece (and there’s no other word for it, it’s a work of art) What Is Love? is like Love You Forever but for everyone not in Canada.

Allow me to explain, please! Don’t take my passport! I ABSOLUTELY want non-Canadians to see the glory that is Canadian literature. I think it doesn’t cross the border nearly enough and that’s one of the reasons I actively try to talk about it here! I talk about amazing Canadian illustrators, I talk about reading about war on Remembrance Day. But I also know that some books require a certain kind of experience, Robert Munsch started with storytelling, and if you’ve never heard him tell you (and it does feel like he’s talking just to you) Love You Forever, you haven’t gotten the full experience. I know Love You Forever is the book by Bob Munsch that really crossed that border to the USA, along with The Paper Bag Princess. But I also know American booksellers who can’t stand it. They think it’s corny and sentimental. They don’t love the art. I say, “Wow, really? Wait– have you heard him read it? Do you know the tune to the song?” No, and they don’t. Whereas I remember being in the car with my parents and my sister, and we put on the radio, and I’m a teenager mind you, and Bob Munsch starts reading Love You Forever, and next thing I know we’re chuckling along, sighing at the key bits, and then we’re all sobbing and my dad’s pulled over to the shoulder of the highway because he’s the kind of responsible driver who knows not to drive while tears are pouring down his face. It’s a story narrated with a chuckle here and a sigh there, a groan here and a lump in your throat there. You can’t get the full effect just by picking it up and reading, not without the voice. Every Canadian child knows the original Hockey Night in Canada theme music– and can sing you the song from Love You Forever. This is simply not the case in Brookline, MA, it’s just not, and that’s why I’m so, so, SO glad that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis came together to create a book that has the chuckles, the sighs, the occasional groan, but very much the lump in the throat, all in the book itself.

And the thing is? I don’t think Mac Barnett could have achieved this if he were not, also, the consummate storyteller, completely in the same line as Bob Munsch: everyone who’s listened to the sage of Grump Grumpus on his book club knows this. And Carson Ellis is a genius communicator with her art, conveying beauty, feeling, and humour. But: this book was not generated as an oral narrative, and while it’s beautiful to read aloud, it needs to be read with the book, the beautiful, physical, delicious book of gorgeous art. Any reader of any age will hear, see, and absorb this on their level, but the book itself is necessary. Now, I did have the absolute joy of hearing Mac Barnett read it aloud on his Instagram book club and then watching Carson Ellis draw some beautiful art of what love was to the children watching. It was a joyful experience, and I laughed and sighed and got choked up. But you, too, reading this with your kids, grandkids, or friends will have that experience, when you buy it and read it with them. Or to yourself.

(Side note to Passports Canada: I’m not saying that the national experience of being “in” on the true, essential meaning of Love You Forever isn’t special, though, ok? Honestly, I will cry if you take my passport.)

I’m trying to nail what makes this book so palpable an emotional experience, and I don’t think it’s just the skill of the writer and the skill of the artist, though, certainly, those are essential. I have seen plenty of books about love for kids. They can be very nice by skillful authors and illustrators. And they can be corny and sentimental, even when created by skillful authors and illustrators. But this is different, and the answer is in the collaboration.

First, the “I” in the book leaves home at the beginning, with the encouragement of his grandmother. He goes out to find out what love is. She sees him off and he goes. I do not find that an easy, sentimental moment to read. I think, “holy crap, kid on my lap, don’t leave me.” I am not, as a parent, as strong as the grandmother, who says, “If you go out into the world, you might find an answer.” Give me a few years. And a few more years than that, ok? The text leaves it at that– the art shows the grandmother watching, and waving, while the boy doesn’t look back. Oof.

More, the boy encounters a huge range of people (and animals) with a range of experiences of what love is. But as each explanation is offered, the boy knocks it down, and the carpenter, the actor, the poet and more reply, “You do not understand.”

Until the boy goes home. (Shit, I’m about to cry. I’ll leave that bit to you.)

So, yes, maybe that rupture, that pathos from the very first pages when you already feel a wrench– maybe that’s enough? But I think it’s more.

Enter Carson Ellis, enter the collaboration. Carson Ellis– wait, what? I was just about to say she was a Caldecott Award Winner, but apparently she “just” got a Caldecott Honor, which is obviously impressive enough, I never got a Caldecott Honor. But anyway– Carson Ellis, in my heart you’re a winner. Excuse my digression. (Wait, another digression: I need a word with the Caldecott folks, because did you know Barbara McClintock never won the Caldecott, either? CRAZY.) (Now I’m done.)

Look, Mac Barnett has collaborated with a wide range of great artists. Like many, I particularly adore Jon Klassen’s beautiful, funny, deadpan collaborations with Mac Barnett. But this is the first time he’s worked with Carson Ellis, though they’ve been friends for years, and she nailed it. No one else could have done the art for this book. It has the right level of detail, the right level of deliberate vagueness: take a look at the night behind the cat, or the poet’s chair with the the sunset over him. Look at the garden in morning and the garden at night. And yet, there’s a subtle washed feeling, a kind of beautiful nuanced blankness that lets you finish the images in your mind. Such as time period. When does this book take place, and where, for example? The boy’s clothing doesn’t tell you much, and the poet is timeless.

There’s also the question of tone, of atmosphere. The fluidity of Carson’s art doesn’t pin it down, but flows gently, deliberately, warmly, colourfully into every nuance of the tone of the text: the boy leaving feels natural and painful at the same time, the fish is both funny and beautiful, and the poet’s love of language feels exalted while the boy’s desire for a straightforward answer, dammit, is so easy to relate to! This would not be the case without Carson Ellis’s human and humane and beautiful art. (Cough, give the lady a Caldecott for this book, it’s insanely good art right here.)

And that’s the thing. She hears the words, working with a powerful focus on the text. Mac Barnett leaves a lot of room for the art to do more than half the work. That is friendship, collaboration– that is love.

Mac Barnett dedicated this book to his wife, Taylor, and Carson Ellis to her grandmas Helen, Claudia, and Ruth (doubtless thinking of the wonderful grandmother in the book), but I can’t help but feel the book is, in itself, a testimony to the loving collaboration of a perfect picture book team.

What Is Love?

This book. This book is a work of love, and I’ve already choked up more than once, reading it aloud to my kids, whom I love, and thinking about the book as the answer to the question of the book.

(Also: My kids themselves, for me. The Changeling and the Spriggan, looking out the window together as the fresh snow fell, that was love in a nutshell.)

(And, Passports Canada? There’s room in the world for multiple books about love, OK? We’re friends, right?)