John’s Turn

I have a LOT of feelings about this book, educ was just released, hitting the shelves of you local book shop, so I’m just prefacing this review by saying: this is deeply personal to me. It is, and I’m not pretending otherwise.

It’s so personal that when I saw Mac Barnett announced he was writing a book called John’s Turn, art by Kate Berube and I saw the descriptions, I wrote to the people I’m in touch with at Candlewick and said, “Look, I want to see this. I have a baby boy, I need this book yesterday. Please.” (Confession time: I was so excited when the book arrived, I tore the jacket when I opened the package and almost cried. Sorry, Candlewick!)

The first thing I saw was that he’d dedicated the book to Rafe (his baby boy, a little younger than the Spriggan). And I knew this was the book I was looking for.

A few anecdotes and memories.

Years and years ago, I read Frank Augustyn’s autobiography, Dancing from the Heart. In it, he describes the frustration of conveying that it’s entirely possible for a man to to dance ballet because he finds it beautiful. It doesn’t have to be apologetically qualified by “and you have to be very strong to do it! Did you know, hockey players sometimes learn ballet to train their muscles?” Men can love beauty, too.

These days, I take the Spriggan around, and he’s a deliciously chubby chonk, tall and decidedly interested in such activities as climbing onto tables. And reaching up to counters. And pulling things off of counters. And– ok, he’s 16 months old, we have to be nimble around him.

So people see my Spriggan and tell me he’s ready to be a linebacker, or play hockey, or… you get it. No one told me that about my daughter, of course, though she was also consistently tall for her age. (She was less prone to climbing on tables, but I’ve yet to hear any correlation between toddlers climbing on tables and those who become professional athletes?)

My regular reply is to smile and say, “I’m expecting him to be the next Nijinsky, actually!”

This is actually antithetical to my parenting philosophy– insofar as I have a parenting philosophy? I tend to think parenting comes down to “love your kid for who they are, not who you want them to be.” That’s about it. Oh, also try not to let them get the bread knife. So my knee-jerk response of “No, he can dance ballet!” is not really intended as “AND HE WILL!” but more of a “stop it with pigeon-holing a typically squooshy little 16-month-old boyo as a future footballer, ok?” I can’t with that attitude, I can’t.

Now, I could be unfair. Perhaps the response is coming from those who really enjoy sports, and want to share that enjoyment. (Although then why didn’t they say this to my daughter, who was so remarkably graceful?) But I don’t think there’s any denying that books about boys who enjoy dancing because dancing ballet is beautiful is fairly rare. As in, I cannot think of a book for small children about ballet featuring a boy which is simply focused on being sensitive to the emotions and beauty. Older books tend to get into gender and sexuality, younger ones usually sidebar the beauty if ballet turns up at all. It’s just cute, you know? We laugh, indulgently.

So what of parents who want their boy-child to move in a world that’s not exclusively cars and trucks (what did boys enjoy before the invention of the internal combustion engine?), that doesn’t glorify war (I think of Tove Jansson, writing during WWII, and declaring she didn’t want to have children because if she had a boy it would be too hard to see him turned into canon fodder), and that involves animals that aren’t extinct (not just dinosaurs)? What if you want your child to see beauty and be allowed to enjoy that? What if you are a parent who loves music and art and theatre and ballet and want to share that with your children of all genders? At this point in parenting, I don’t see that recognized in my world, and my decision to simply not buy clothing representing anything involving an internal combustion engine or anything military has significantly reduced available items– and ratcheted up the price of his snazzy wardrobe. You have to pay a premium for not-vehicle-related clothing. That’s depressing. And it leads me to this book, which allows a young boy the chance to dance and enjoy dancing– although not untinctured by anxiety.

That’s the rant. Here’s the book.

Mac Barnett is simply a genius of the written word, and Candlewick (well, many publishers– What Is Love? was Chronicle, and they paired him with Carson Ellis!) consistently does him proud in their illustrator pairings and design and production. Here he’s working with Kate Berube, whose scenes showing John dancing really blew me away, though my personal favourite picture in the entire book is the one starting us off before the title page. You flip the vintage yellow endpaper (calling to my mind the colours of The Philharmonic Gets Dressed) and there’s John…

Oh my. Look at him. {Side note: when I watched Mac Barnett reading this aloud on his Instagram account, which I highly recommend since he reads aloud beautifully, I noticed he held this open for a beat before turning the page. Mac, you like this spot illustration, too, don’t you?}

Now, you expect to hear John’s thoughts, don’t you, after that? Mac Barnett is too smart for you. He lets Kate Berube communicate with you what John’s feeling, since he knows full well how good she is at communicating kids’ emotions in her art. Mac tells us everything from the perspective of the class “we.” Who’s the speaker? Could be a student, could be the collective personality of the class– honestly, that’s the wrong question, Deb, get with it! The point is that the story is in first person plural and that’s your grammar lesson for the day, class. So: on Fridays after Assembly and before class, if we’re good, someone gets to perform for the whole school, and, in typical School Curriculum Language ™ it’s called “Sharing Gifts,” which the narrator points out is a pretty awful name but a great idea. (I loved that touch. Isn’t that always the way? Now I’m working in a school library a bit, I understand why, too… who has time to come up with a good name? It’s a school! We barely have a book budget, and we sure don’t have a marketing budget, and there’s shelving to do. Sharing Gifts. Perfect.) There’s a two-page spread of performances past: tuba, magic tricks, jokes.

Today was John’s turn: “He was quiet at breakfast. We knew why. He was nervous.”

We readers? We remember that nervousness from before the title page. It’s already on our minds.

Hey, remember how I said Mac Barnett is a genius of the written word? One of the reasons I say this is that he never, despite anything I said up above, talks to parents on one level and down to kids at another. So parents and kids are on the same page here. We get a sense that John’s nervous because he’s going to dance ballet because we see him changing into dance clothes. Kids know that too. They may be wondering why that would make him nervous? (I’d love them to think that way, would be great.) But the kids in the story don’t know what John’s going to do, they ask. “He’s doing a dance,” is what Mr. Ross replies.

Page turn. John comes on. The kids know he’s positively palpitating with nerves. And Mr. Ross turns on the music. Strings. {NB: on the book club, Mac played a waltz from CoppĂ©lia as Mr. Ross turned it on. Playing music with it was an idea I’d considered, but wondered if it would be gimmicky, distracting? It worked extremely well.}

This is where the art takes over: the subtle nuances of John’s delight in the dance, the rhythm of his body moving to the music, and the glow of his joy in the grace and beauty arches across the spread– and back– and back again, to a page turn of delight… And then the narrator notes that it’s the school’s turn, and the spontaneous joy of their applause shows their genuine appreciation both of beauty and dance and of their classmate’s pleasure in performing ballet.

I was so impressed by the subtle truth of it all, the emotional honesty of everyone involved. The kids giggle before the dance. They wonder, when they hear the music, how you can dance to that kind of music? But these are kids, not obnoxious, hidebound adults, so they watch their friend and they learn. They enjoy the beauty and they find a new source of pleasure in life.

Yes, I confess that this is a book I’m emotionally invested in– for a reason! I was the kid in school who loved classical music and opera and ballet and was nervous and increasingly, as I grew, was mocked for it. Let’s not talk about Grade 6 and up, ok? But I really do think that if grownups shared books like this before Grade 6, it would make a difference. Today I played David Oistrakh performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in the library for a class of Grade 3 students and they got quiet and listened. The kids are open. It’s the adults who close the doors.

Mac Barnett and Kate Berube throw doors open here. They say, “You have room to love beauty, enjoy music and dance, wear your sheer delight in it on your face.” And I am so very grateful.

Otto: A Palindrama

I’m breaking my hitherto unbreakable rule. I NEVER write about a book I can’t wholeheartedly recommend, and would NEVER write about a book to recommend against it, certainly– but this book is a menace. You will never be free again should you buy it.

I mean, this is Jon Agee. He should know better, surely? After all, he is the author and illustrator of fine literature for young people, including quirky and mischievous The Wall in the Middle of the Book, humorous and exploratory Life on Mars, sweet and funny Lion Lessons, and the downright beautiful and bizarre masterpiece The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau! He knows what he’s doing!

So how could he do this to me? To parents of children everywhere with what my daughter assures me is “words-backwards-itis.” How could he write Otto: A Palindrama? It was bad enough when she was just writing me notes backwards and popping up beside me with “did you know I like to read skoob? Guess what that is? Do you know what skoob are? IT’S PLURAL!” And now… now… “Mummy, did you know this is a palindrome? Look: ‘No jazz. I prefer pizza, Jon.’ IT’S A PALINDROME!”

The whole book is written in palindromes. THE WHOLE THING. And, worse, this graphic novel is entirely, fully, sensible… for a given, Jon Agee, degree of sense, that is.

If you want to live a life free of giggling, delighted kids popping up with “DID YOU KNOW? Look at the crime novel in the window here… It’s a palindrome, too!” bury this post, black out the starred review in The Horn Book

Save your sanity. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK.

Shirley Hughes

I’ve written before, too often now, about grieving the deaths of authors and illustrators. And I hope no one takes the lack of a full post on any one death to mean I don’t care! When Ashley Bryan died so recently it was deeply saddening. (Please read the Publishers Weekly and New York Times obituaries– more importantly, however, please read his books.) I cried, and in the library where I now work I told the students a bit about him and read them some of the proverbs he collected. The kindergarten class did their own illustrations for some of them. I think he would have liked that.

When I heard Shirley Hughes had died, I couldn’t quite get there. Maybe it’s that it was too soon after Ashley Bryan — when Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert died so close together, I know that my mind was just too numb to handle them otherwise than in tandem. But I think this was just different.

I love Ashley Bryan and he did teach me a lot: his collected stories and songs are wonderful and his art is hanging by my front door, right beside Ezra Jack Keats, to welcome people with colourful joy. He speaks profoundly to my story-loving and storytelling mind.

Shirley Hughes taught me to be a child and, later, to understand accepting and raising my child as she is.

Every parent knows that when your kid turns about 3 or 4, everything goes in a new direction, except for your child, who’s going in several directions, usually not anywhere close to any direction you want. Possibly sprinting ahead of you through the door and locking themselves inside. Or they’ve put on their new boots and gone splashing in puddles while you’re with the littler one and it’s only later, taking off the boots, that you realize their boots were on the wrong feet the whole time. Or it’s your kid’s first time at a birthday party alone, without parents, and they’re nervous and decide to bring a special blanket or toy.

All of these are stories that aren’t really stories, as such, are they? They’re incidents in life, but each is a book by Shirley Hughes. And they’re only Shirley Hughes books because she decides where to start writing and where to end. They have more words, usually, than a regular picture book today, and yet I’ve never had a child get bored or wander off. They’re riveting, the way that when you’re putting a child to bed at age 3 or 4 and they want you to tell them the story of the day, they will listen to every bit of it, including when they had their snack and what they ate, and they’ll remind you that they had apple as well as Cheerios. But whereas you might bore yourself at bedtime, Shirley Hughes does not bore you.

Shirley Hughes had the knack of writing and drawing honestly, without pretension. It’s tempting to me to compare her to Maurice Sendak, given their beautiful art and stories, but Sendak was delving into the psychology and pulling it out to be seen. Shirley Hughes was telling the surface story with such a complete understanding of the layers that they were evident without being uncovered– rather like Hilary McKay in her novels. But they’re all beautifully, unflinchingly, honest. When you chuckle over a particularly cute picture or moment in Shirley Hughes, it’s with unperturbed affection, and it’s never patronizing, never manipulative, nor would she manipulate you, or, worse, a child. Alfie and Annie Rose, I was convinced as a child and I remain convinced today, are real.

That’s how she taught me to accept every bit of being 3 or 4 years old, living it and living with it. No, I’m not a perfect parent, and I sure wasn’t a perfect child. But I knew then, and I know now, that Shirley Hughes saw me and loved me for who I was, and loved me as a parent who loved and continues to love my child. She never gave me advice, she never suggested I look at such an such a parenting book, she never looked askance at how I dressed my kids, nor did she tell me what she did when she had kids, and she never even told me what her friends did with their kids. She simply put down a true, real story, throbbing with love and acceptance of the wonderful and tiring and difficult and lovely bits of childhood. And I would read them over and over without tiring of them, they resonated so deeply.

The books are startlingly diverse, especially when you think about the earlier publishing time and place. Alfie and Annie Rose are white, but their friends span a wide range of cultures. I was quietly grateful for that, as a parent who looks for diversity in her library but also remembered these books and loved them. It’s quite something to be able to pick up a book published long before it was even a question, and see how ahead of its time it was. And it sure gives another perspective on that entrenched excuse that something is “a product of its time.” Shirley Hughes wasn’t concerned with that nonsense; she was writing and drawing what she observed to be true, not what she or others wanted to see and hear.

I think that’s why, when I was first discussing her with the owner of my local Children’s Book Shop, and I was saying how I just couldn’t put my finger on what made her art so utterly perfect, Terri said, so simply, “She knows how to draw children.” It’s true. In art and in words, Shirley Hughes drew children. She didn’t tell them who they should be, she didn’t tell parents what we should do. She simply put us all down with tender and loving accuracy, and we feel seen and loved for ourselves.

When I got this news, I told my friends I felt that I’d lost chosen family. It’s silly, maybe. While I did once make sure I told her, via someone on Twitter, how much I loved her work, we never met, I don’t think she knew me at all, except that once someone told her that a woman over in Boston loved her books. I like to think it would have given her a minute of pleasure, hearing that. But I have always had a very strong feeling of closeness because of the intimate truth of her work. And I know I will miss her. But I am so grateful for her years of work and her relentless truthfulness.