I’s the B’y

You know the song, right? If not– I am here to help you! I’s the B’y, here performed by Great Big Sea! This is the Spriggan’s favourite “stompy song” for doing his funny stomping in a circle dance. He’s always loved music– I’m not sure I’ve met a baby who doesn’t love music? He would calm down immediately for “Au Clair de la lune,” and the first song to make him giggle and gurgle was “I’s the B’y.” He’s a child with very diverse tastes. I won’t say I felt pride that he showed such a marked taste for Canadian music– but I will cheerfully confess that I’m insufferably smug about it, and was beyond thrilled when one of my favourite Canadian artists, Lauren Soloy (remember her?), was illustrating this wonderful song: I’s the B’y, friends, out now! Isn’t the cover fabulous? Make sure to check under the dust jacket, though…

What, are you sure you want me to spoil the surprise? Would it be more fun…? No, you insist? Oh all right.

There! I love the puffins, too. The whole book is like that: Joy, a bit of Canadian education, a lot of fun for everyone. The book, in itself, is the kind you either hold in front of a class or open for the kids in front of you in the house, flipping while singing– and the kids in the class will probably call to you to “wait– I want to see that picture, is that a dog?!?” and your littlest Spriggan who’s just learning his words will rush to point and say “wow-WOW!” at every Newfoundland dog picture (ok, yes, I liked the “dog-dog”, too). Your older Changeling will examine everything and ask about the boats and “are there really puffins?” You, yourself, will smile at the clothes hanging out to dry (so funny they don’t do that here), and quietly enjoy that the cast is diverse and inclusive (humans and MerB’ys of all kinds, and let’s not forget the Newfoundland critters, too) in a way that just didn’t used to happen. Yay for illustrators like Lauren Soloy, Qin Leng, Isabelle Arsenault, and so many others who just make these things happen!

There’s sheet music and awesome backmatter in the form of a letter from Lauren directly addressing the reader, in exactly the right voice for my Changeling, which means it was also enjoyable for me, the adult in the room, but the kids are the focus here. Spot on, I say.

But what’s the real star? Why does this book shine and glow and feel so right for me, and is it just my incredible nostalgia and longing for a world that feels like that? A space that’s not loud and angry, but instead loud with laughter and music and cawing birds and crashing waves? I’ll own up and say that’s probably a chunk of it, but if that’s so, then Lauren Soloy’s version of this song was simply perfect for hitting that spot, and I think what did it is the rough joy in it. I don’t mean rough as in abrasive.

“I’s the B’y” the song is one that gets a room together and leaves no one out. It doesn’t say “it’s just a joke, can’t you take a joke?” It’s a song that makes space for everyone to sing together, kids and adults of all stripes, in the same way that when you were a kid in daycare everyone would sing in circle time together: “The Wheels on the Bus” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” (Except that, speaking for myself, “I’s the B’y” is way more fun to sing.)

And Lauren’s art shows this communal feel: everyone in it together, everyone chatting and eating and dancing, and no one sidelined for being weird. I think a good chunk of it is the delight in the oddity. Wheels on buses do have a tendency to go round and round, but if you’re bellowing out “I don’t want your maggoty fish,” there’s a strong likelihood that you’re aware you’re not singing something that would make sense to folks over in Toronto, for example. So you lean into it. You embrace that you’re a bit odd to folks from away. But that’s ok, because we have fun singing!

And Lauren brought that to us.

I’m very grateful for that right now, and I think that maybe a lot of us could use this warmth and joy and a tang of humour that’s not clear-cut lines and polish, but cheerfully rubs along in a way that invites you in, and doesn’t leave anyone out.

Wait, I heard another request– my favourite spread? Oh, that’s a tough one. It really is. But, even though this isn’t a puffinny spread, I think it probably wins… Newf in the bottom right, the dancing and fiddling codfish, and the laundry? Perfection. Thanks for asking! (My picture shows a teensy bit of my assistant, Castor, right down on the bottom left.)

Here’s a link to purchase from my local shop, I’s the B’y! But you should by from yours.

The Boy with Flowers in His Hair

This is a sad and happy review. But the book itself is one you should definitely get so I want to put the link right upfront: The Boy with Flowers in His Hair by Jarvis.

This past week, I lost the flowers in my hair, just like David. I wanted to wear a hat to cover my falling flowers, I was worried about scratching people with my bare branches. Jarvis, who made this book for us (sent to me by Candlewick), doesn’t tell us how or why David loses his flowers, or what ultimately precipitates them coming back, and I’m not going to go too much into why I lost mine. The beauty of the book is that it doesn’t go into causes or Why This Happens and How You Should Deal With This Situation. I once read Mac Barnett on the topic of being asked “what you want children to take away from this book,” and I agree with him that it’s an infuriating question: isn’t it up to the kids? Is this really how we think, about correct answers in reading literature? Kids are better than that, aren’t we? What I know this book gave me, seeing David lose his flowers and the protagonist standing by his best friend in a time of pain, was catharsis:

I had read this book to many children at the school library around the time of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is associated with flowers so it seemed appropriate. The students loved it, and laughed and got quiet and had feelings and laughed again. As with another book I read them, Shawn Harris’s Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, I realized with a thrill that reading the book to a group of captivated children was the best way to enjoy that book, getting immediate feedback and spontaneous sadness and joy.

David, in the book, loses his flowers, but the narrator and protagonist, his best friend, won’t abandon him, and paints new flowers to put in his hair to give him his colour back. Ultimately, David regrows his flowers “prettier than ever,” but the narrator keeps plenty of others to hand, just in case he might ever need them again.

The book has a bit of the feel of a parable, where there’s a hint of symbols beyond the immediacy of practical reality. But I want to put that aside for now because the real strength of the book is in an emotive truth, that sense of catharsis. (Which is related to the sense of parable, but that’s another topic, not for now.)

I lost my flowers when, after difficulties on top of difficulties, and while I’m still struggling with ongoing effects from covid (nothing too severe– but my abilities with words aren’t where they should be or where they were), I was told I wasn’t needed in the school library where I read this book to those wonderful kids. I knew it wasn’t the right place for me, mind you, and in fact I never applied for the position. But it still stung to know that those children, who loved me and whom I loved, weren’t going to have anyone in the library at all, and I was dismissed from there despite (well, because I was) doing a very good job. Yes, my flowers fell off and I felt “twiggy, spiky, and brittle.”

Then my wonderful public library contacted me. They really loved my French storytime I did last month, and would I be willing to do more over the summer? They understood it was a lot to ask, but… (Yes, of course I would!) And I got feedback on some reviews I’d done for another organization. (They’re very excited.) And my Spriggan insisted “a-yen, a-YEN!” when I put down Jamberry. (NOTHING feels better than that.) They were all giving me my flowers back.

This is what reading a true book feels like. We are all David: sometimes we have our own flowers, and sometimes they fall away. But I hope we all also have people like David’s best friend, who understand when our twiggy hair scratches and who think of ways to give us our colour back while we wait to be able to grow new flowers.

Huge, huge thanks to Candlewick press for sending me this one– they sent it when I started at the library and told them I was on the lookout for read-alouds to the Kindergarten class (note that I read this to Kindergarten, Grade 1, and Grade 2, and they all loved it in different ways), and I didn’t expect that it would do at least as much for me as for the kids. That’s what great books do. The link again! To my local Brookline Booksmith, but you can also get through Bookshop.org if you’re looking for a way to support indie bookshops. (Also the good news for this space is I’ll be able to use my writing time for this space, I hope!)

The House of Grass and Sky

It’s been slow, trying to get reviews done, but the book that keeps coming back to my mind is the story of this house, The House of Grass and Sky by Mary Lyn Ray with art by E. B. Goodale– art of that special quality which captures the heart of the book and completes it, simultaneously.

This is a book Candlewick sent me to consider for review before Easter (you know, back in April) (it is now June) (yes I feel bad). It immediately lodged itself in my mind and waited. Just like the house.

When I did my picture book course with a few kids last semester, we had a wonderful time considering the fullness of what a story could be (“boy gets wrong sweater in mail”– name that book), or who the main character can be (a train, for example), or what an ending can be (do we really get cake every morning?). I could summarize this book as follows: a house gets built, people live there, move out, other people move in, others move out, and eventually it’s an old house and no one lives there until people do. The idea of someone making a picture book out of evolving real estate questions is boggling– though, of course, this isn’t really the first or even the most “on the nose” example of that being done exceptionally well: Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House is a slightly more structured example of a book about having to leave a house, from the perspective of the family.

This has a more dreamlike though no less realistic quality. The story is the house’s story. I was about to say “doesn’t everyone have a house they love in their memory?” but then I realized maybe that’s not so. For me, I read this book remembering certain houses in my own story at certain points, and wistfully hoping for a house one day which fits me the way that this house loves its families. The house I still think of as “my house” is the house where I lived in Sackville, New Brunswick, looking back over a marsh. I loved not seeing houses behind my house, but being able to walk to town or the park from my house. I still feel that’s ideal. I feel that house in my mind.

This house, in this book, is a patient house. A house which loves stories old and new. This house stayed in my mind, hoping I would share the book with others who would move in, and love the house, and feel cozy and safe.

I feel deeply grateful to Candlewick, actually, for sending me this book which was, yes, good for a season of rebirth, but, more than that, was absolutely right for the moment in which we live. I was down for the count with covid and my brain is actually still not back to full order. This is a deeply tough virus to kick. But this house really comforted me! “The house,” I thought, “learned to say Goodbye but it also learned Hello. So can I.”

I felt bad, initially, not writing about this book for Easter, which was what Candlewick sent it for. But I think it’s deeply appropriate for this new transitional time: the end of the school year, resting for summer, anticipating changes.

I think parents and teachers and students are all, right now, adjusting to a new and constant state of change. Here in MA, the DESE has made some new announcements about changes to the recommendations and programs and requirements around covid. Elsewhere, others are doing other changes. There is no consistency, there is no cohesion, and it’s very difficult to know what to do.

As always, I look to books for help– and so often it’s a picture book that has the answer. The answer is never simple in a good picture book. (“And it was still hot.” Gorgeous last line.) This book is, though, here for us in the way the house is there for us and for families. It’s a conversation with yourself, with your kids, with your students. You are allowed to feel scared, lonely, unsure. You will learn to say Goodbye and Hello. There is no easy, but, in the words of Julian of Norwich “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” How frequently that’s misunderstood! She saw devastation as she said that, she was under no illusions. This house went through frequent loss, but was well.

But, the house is well, and so are we, and so shall you be. It’s OK not to be OK, and yet we’ll be OK.

Yes, this can feel like a sad post, but, ultimately, I think it’s a reassuring one, just as this book and this house go through sorrow but come out with happiness in the end.

(And I want to tell Mary Lyn Ray and E. B. Goodale: Not everyone gets compared to Julian of Norwich! I’m a fan.)