A Walk Through the Rain Forest

I was going to start Halloween posts but then I made an awful discovery, creepier than any Halloween story: I think Candlewick is anticipating family conversations and sending books in advance. Look, I’m just saying… Ok so this is one I requested, yes, but it’s not like I gave them a schedule! I just figured it could be an interesting option for homeschooling and if it were good, I could review it in that light.

Then comes the day that my daughter and I are out at the cafe and she was reading about deforestation. She looked up and wondered about instituting a policy where “for each tree cut down, one had to be planted.” We discussed it, talked about current policies, and talked about new forests (sustainable or not) planted as she suggested vs old growth. And then we got home and my eyes fell on the book that had arrived the very day before… A Walk Through the Rain Forest by Martin Jenkins with illustrations by Vicky White. (It will be out October 18.)

The book is, in terms of production and style, an absolutely appealing nonfiction hardback suitable for a number of ages, though I think my daughter is technically probably at the older range for it: I think the sweet spot is Grades 2 and 3. You could easily build a classroom unit around it, and if I can fantasize, a whole elementary school project centered in the school library would be fantastically fun and enriching. But I’m thinking as a homeschool mother now and this was startlingly perfect for the moment and, further, proof of something I’ve been wanting to rant about for a while: how adamantly I believe that the idea of books being “too young” or “outgrown” can be damaging.

See, I think if I were a Grade 4 or 5 classroom teacher, I might hesitate to use this book. Not because I think the kids wouldn’t benefit from it: they would. But because the schoolroom pressure (sometimes based in curricula, other times coming from parents or other forces) can push away from picture books. This is a mistake I find it hard to overstate. I recall once being in a book shop and I saw a kid enthusiastically picking up a brightly illustrated book and saying “oh look!” The parent barely glanced and didn’t so much as flip it open before saying “that’s too young for you.” I wanted to cry and throw a tantrum as the kid put it down.

Fortunately, I think the sophisticated cover on A Walk Through the Rain Forest will give it more of a chance to reach older kids, and every child will enjoy the engaging storytelling and almost detective-like investigation in this book as we walk in, listen and look, wonder at the absence of young trees and why they can’t see animals… and try to figure out how a rain forest grows… And, finally, thrillingly, discover the answer through the guidance of author and illustrator! Watching how the trees and animals work together is explosively interesting to children who love nature, and the illustrations are the kind that make kids say, “cooool” and “oh wow!” Ask me how I know.

The gentle humour with which the book unfolds is exactly like that in a good storybook, and I’m going to boldly surmise (though I haven’t given it a practical test drive– I’m arrogant enough to know I’m pretty decent at gauging such things by now) it would be a great read aloud.

But the versatility of this book comes entirely down to the gorgeous storytelling paired with remarkably perfect art. It’s so beautifully executed in what it limits itself to doing (telling the story of how a rain forest works) that it evokes far, far more: for my purposes, it propelled our conversation about planted forests vs old forests to a whole new level. It also played into the independent project my daughter is doing on the trees in our area. It led her to ask about maybe making a trip to a forest in our area.

Her reading level is, perhaps, “higher.” I don’t know what that means in practical terms. She’s beside me on the sofa laughing over Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox + Chick books now (there’s a new one, Up and Down, and it’s somehow as good as the first three– no one since Lobel has kept quality up that long in a buddies series of that kind). That series is aimed at new readers. There is not, to my knowledge, a legally binding ruling that prevents anyone else from enjoying them. And enjoying their sly, smart, somehow tender but unsentimental stories is beneficial to her.

Likewise, this slender, brilliant picture book which takes a precise yet original angle on the growth of a rain forest has given us the answer we were looking for yet didn’t know how to find in the unit I didn’t know I was doing at this level. It was a homeschooling gift.

It’s out October 18, and if you know a kid who loves animals and forests, they will want this. Teachers and librarians? You might as well pre-order it, honestly.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff

I’ve been wanting to write this up for a long time but my poor tired brain has been slow as a troll in direct sunlight and I’m focusing all intellectual space on the Changeling. But said Changeling and I just finished reading one book that heavily features a troll (The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente, you absolutely must read it but start with the first book first, I’ve told you this before, but you never listen, I know you, so just go for the full boxed set and find it out) and I’ve noticed myself thinking “I bet there’s a troll hidden there” every time I see an illustration of a bridge, or, well… Any bridge in real life, honestly. Or in illustrations. Bridges and trolls go together like waterfalls and bears in canoes full of blueberries. They just fit. I was singing this to the Spriggan, and couldn’t stop thinking: “I bet there’s a troll just to the left, I know it.”

And when my kids started playing “troll under the bridge” over and under the little slide, I knew the time was right. And when I saw the preorder campaign… But I’m ahead of myself. What is the book? The Three Billy Goats Gruff retold by Mac Barnett (he did the words) and Jon Klassen (he did the art). When does it come out? October 18? How on earth did you get to see it early, Deborah? Well, I’m chopped troll food compared to my super cool daughter, who has been sending Mac Barnett letters and even occasionally copies of her awesome newspaper, The Weekly Animal Post. Mac Barnett, if I speak plainly, is simply one of our family heroes, and Jon Klassen no less so. But Mac Barnett more so at the moment because he, very kindly and equally unexpectedly, sent an advance copy of The Three Billy Goats Gruff signed and personalized to the Changeling. I may have gasped and flailed in excitement. She, cool and calm, said, in an nutshell, “Oh how lovely. I’ll have to send him a thank you note and a few more newspapers. I should write another joke for him, too.” But this exchange enabled me to get a look and give the book a trial run as what it needs to be: an active read aloud.

That should be said three times: once small, then more clearly and firmly, and then GIGANTICALLY UNDERLINED.

This book will seem nice in the hand, but it is only truly to be fully enjoyed when read aloud.

I’m going to digress briefly. [Ed.: Your digression, dear author, was not brief.] I have a long-held, deep and rich, profound and passionate love for hardback picture book retellings of fairy tales and folklore. Just take one story, rooted in some form of tradition going back centuries or, perhaps, millennia, and tell it over 30-odd pages with fabulous art… I will always take a look, and probably buy it. My curated collection of these goes back to my first babysitting gig in my early teens. I was paid, and I went to the book shop and had to choose between Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. (I wasn’t unionized and didn’t have enough for both.) I don’t remember which I got first because I changed my mind ten times in a minute but I do remember I got the other one the next time. My collection has grown and altered and curated itself until it’s quite a beautiful set. I do not keep every book because while I have strong opinions about any fairy tale retelling you can name, my standards for a fairy tale or folk tale in picture book form with full art, and I really think endpapers, borders, and design count, ok?, are extremely high and extremely refined and extremely hard to get across succinctly. [Ed.: I’m noticing that last word. Rethink “briefly” above.]

Let’s talk about the process of getting this particular form right, shall we? The story, first of all, is not yours, as the author. At least, not initially. You have to live with it enough to make it yours. Twisted fairy tales are a way of doing this in a faster fashion: you can take a story, mull it over, and give it a tweak right there that’s personal and amusing (and can really work or really flop) and suddenly the story belongs to you. I’ve done this, and it’s very fun. A straight retelling is even harder, in my view. At least, I’ve never been happy with a single attempt I’ve made, not enough to even show it to a friend, and I’ve only given up in frustration. Those who have done it well, Joseph Jacobs being one of the best in my not at all humble opinion, have a strong but flexible voice. Here, I’m not talking of picture books. I’m speaking of any folk or fairy tale. So if you look at Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales, for example, if a story calls for a more narrative, literary style, he can do that. If it’s lighter in atmosphere and heavier on dialogue, he excels at that, as well. But the point is that his voice, while distinctive, serves the needs of the original story. He is not appropriating it; he is telling it faithfully. There are brilliant authors, truly fantastic storytellers in their own right, who are utterly incapable of good retellings of fairy tales because they do not own or serve the existing, independent narrative, and they just end up as a dull sequence of events rather than a lively and captivating retelling.

Side note of an academic nature: the process of retelling is old, old, old. I believe it to be harder to accomplish now that we have a more sacred view of authorship. My first surprise as a medievalist was seeing how cheerfully stories were taken and retold. NB: Mac Barnett, who retold The Three Billy Goats Gruff which I will review before this post is through, was a medievalist before he was a children’s book author. I can’t help but sometimes think how he’d have enjoyed getting a whack at adding a tale or two to the Roman de renart… (I’m not dropping hints, that would be crass.)

Fine, so you’ve got your medievalist retelling a story with the correct balance of absolute reverence and complete independence, using their personal voice in service of a story they acknowledge is not theirs at all, no big issue there, and then, after all that, you have another problem. Almost all of these stories are accustomed to being told or read aloud. To return to Jacobs, of whom I spoke above– when I mentioned his voice, I wasn’t just thinking of it in literary terms; I have been known to read those stories to myself in an undertone because they do strongly desire to be spoken. I clearly recall that once upon a time I referenced the story of Mr. Fox to a friend, who said she didn’t know it. I didn’t have the book to hand, but I could still tell her the story as Joseph Jacobs had written it, not word-perfect, and not because I’d memorized it, but because his narrative was so perfect that I was able to entirely call his retelling to mind. (I think that would make a great picture book.) Now, is your fairy tale or folk tale going to be a picture book? The need to be a good read aloud has gone from “necessary” to “compulsory.” But you’re still not done.

You have retold the story with an eye to spreading it across 30-odd pages, it is ready for art, and all of the needs of a picture book in terms of the integral relationship between art and text remain. I’m not pushing this one farther; we all know how hard that is. Of course, the process will depend on whether you’re the artist as well as author, in which case your brain is exploding by this point because you know your job and realize that you’ve created a scenario where even though you don’t like drawing structures, you have to draw a bridge on every page, or you, the author doing that perfect retelling described above, are handing over your carefully written, rewritten, edited, read-aloud-to-check-it-works narrative to an artist and have to have faith they’ll take it to the next level. The artist, you or someone else, has the simple task of representing the text with accuracy, but not replicating it in extreme detail, which is to say: all the artist has to do is make sure they represent the narrative without exactly reproducing the words boringly; the text, I forgot to mention above, has to have left room for the art and the art has to seize on that and go beyond the text. Without either impinging on the ground of the other. Easy. The two are halves of more than a whole. But, beyond the needs of the usual picture book, in folk and fairy tales the need is both narrative (stories in fairy tales tend to be real arcs) and psychological and emotional (these stories are likewise deep and powerful and live on for a reason). So the art has to work with that.

All of this has to be inconspicuous and seamless and come across with smooth delight.

And I wish publishers used better paper for these sorts of books since the slick, lightweight shiny stuff normally used just doesn’t suit a book of that caliber. They should have hefty, creamy paper that takes the colour and print to the next level.

Also I want a cottage in the woods on hens’ legs, while we’re at it, and whatever story Mac Barnett would add to the Roman de renart. (I’m just joking, I’m not really asking you to write that story!) (But wouldn’t you enjoy it?)

Look, there’s a real reason I don’t often review these sorts of books. First, not many are being produced now. Second, when they are, they rarely meet my exacting standards (and I bet you, reading this, are thinking “those poor people, Deborah is viciously picky” and, thank you, yes, I am– I just checked and I’m at over 1700 words and haven’t gotten to the book; I’m not only stupidly picky and obsessive, I’m proud of it). Third, when a book is that good it can be hard to review.

But [Ed. This is where the “brief” digression ends, you can come back now.] I’m doing it for this because, first of all, to my delight The Three Billy Goats Gruff went beyond everything I described and is faithful and original, funny and tender, slightly creepy and incredibly robust, beautiful and gruesome, all while smoothly retelling the old story. Being a world away from the usual fairy tale book retellings (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc) it has room to develop itself without contending with endless predecessory– and being very short in most collections, being given room to breathe across several pages reveals its enormous narrative potential.

It is, in a word, a new type of old retelling.

I do not wish to suggest that Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen– and both names have to be given in tandem, you can see how they work as a team– are in any way ignoring prior work; on the contrary, they really pay attention to patterning a story across page turns, for example, with equivalent attention to earlier masters of the form: Paul O. Zelinsky, for sure, but also Trina Schart Hyman, Marianna Mayer, and so on. The Three Billy Goats Gruff is in many ways very, very traditional. While the voice is uncompromisingly Mac Barnett Telling a Story, he doesn’t twist the story, it’s not “set” in any time or place, and it has the combination of specificity (you can reach through the words and images to touch the core) and universality (it’s in fairy tale time and space, which is “always and forever”) of any old, true story.

But it’s not the kind of story I’m used to adding to my folk and fairy tale shelf. It’s the story they chose that is so distinctive. Think about the stories I’ve collected in perfect editions: Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Dear As Salt, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, The Twelve Dancing Princesses… Most of these are more fairy than folk tale. Most of these are beautiful and get exquisite, intricate borders, and glowing colours. Most of these have genteel humour and subtle horror. Most of these are also for older readers.

I love them. I truly believe they made me an academic. I will always love them. I would not be who I am without them.

And I am just crazy with joy to see an equally attentive, traditionally perfect retelling of an old story with faith and trust in the actual narrative, perfect artistic pairing, and perfect editing including brilliant endpapers that will make younger kids laugh at the distinctive narrative voice telling them a story from years gone by. This retelling is fun to read with a kid bouncing on your knee. I’m desperate for a chance to read it to a crowd: are you a kindergarten or Grade 1 teacher? This is for you. A librarian? For you. A grandparent or parent with (grand)kids of the younger age and some who claim to be too old but will inevitably be drawn in? Welcome, here’s a book for you!

The story has a tinge of the creepy and spooky and a heaping dose of gruesome as the troll fantasizes about goatish meals– please recall that Hallowe’en is around the corner. Jon Klassen’s gloriously dingy art highlights the danger and gruesome nature of the story while unexpectedly adding tenderness as the largest goat shelters the smaller brothers at the end (did I mention this is the art for the poster that Scholastic is giving away with preorders?). And because the humour of the telling is never made evident in the art, the straightforwardness of the art simply highlights the exaggerated absurdity of the story as the troll disappears.

The very oddest bit to me, though, is that I retain that twinge of sympathy for the hungry troll. I would never wish harm on those billy goats! But farewell, troll. Until I read your story again.

I want more of this.

Oh, I will always want new editions of my beloved Beauty and the Beast (though it’s hard to beat Marianna Meyer), Snow White (though who could do better than Trina Schart Hyman?), and so on. But imagine a Mr. Fox or a King of the Cats in picture book form! Why not? I want more of this, I want more stories that mine the richness of the old and bring them into a full hardback form with perfect art. I hope that Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen are at the leading edge of a trend. This is an area with so much to offer.

I’m greedy as a troll: I want more of this.

Did you lose the purchase link? Though don’t forget your own local shop! And should I remind you where to submit for the pre-order campaign for the beautiful poster?

Unspeakably Angry

I haven’t entered in on the current rising wave of book bannings and challenges in the USA for a few reasons. First, I’m hardly the best person to speak about it, and I’m learning enormously from those who are, including excellent (though sobering and infuriating) speeches recorded in The Horn Book in their recent awards issues. Second, I’m still being slow to write while my brain continues to recover from the aftermath of Covid. The cognitive effects are no joke, and it’s taking me longer periods of time to write cogently.

But one very recent case struck me with inescapable force and I wanted to tell you why.

Recently, I’ve written about a few classics of the American picture book world, both of which were challenging books for adults to grasp, and, indeed, Sendak continues to be hard for adults of my acquaintance to stomach, while Margaret Wise Brown is often profoundly misunderstood. What I attempted to highlight in writing about them, though whether I succeeded was another story, was their profound trust for the children they addressed. Adults, seeing Mickey pop out and cheerfully challenge the adult bakers by proudly announcing and then experimenting with his own identity, got fits of the vapours.

That wasn’t the first time and they’ve never stopped, often with greater precision and nastiness, as this recent wave highlights all too bitterly.

The most recent story was that certain school libraries in San Antonio, Texas have refused to add Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Floyd Cooper, which is a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee, to their holdings, even when free copies were offered by a local shop (link to account on Twitter by Nowhere Bookshop). So what we are observing in this case is a deliberate obfuscation of the book which, in itself, was a forthright attempt to uncover a story which had been deliberately obscured. And this all broke during Banned Books Week. (My purchase link is to Nowhere Bookshop which is donating copies of the book to classes in their school district.)

One further aspect, to my mind, takes this story from grim to offensive and hurtful: Floyd Cooper died on July 15, 2021 at age 65, too early to see the accolades Unspeakable received, but not too early to explain, as quoted in the linked article, how important this project was to him in that it communicated a story and told children the truth about a piece of history rarely communicated in schools, and which he only knew about from his grandfather, who lived through it. The accolades, nominations, and awards mean only so much while schools and libraries remove it from lists and ban it from shelves, refusing to trust children with what Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper trust them enough to tell them.

I focused initially on Floyd Cooper for the simple reasons that a) this feels like a slap to his memory, and I’m furious about that, and b) you may remember I’ve talked about Carole Boston Weatherford before already, though I welcome any chance to do so again.

And, in fact, my experiences sharing her work with students in a school library are a key reason I’m writing this at all. When I was so briefly working in a school library as the sole librarian with barely any hours to assist kids and next to no budget for books, one of the books I made absolutely sure I catalogued immediately was Box, which I reviewed a while ago. I had a spare copy since I’d been sent a review copy, and I knew the students needed it, so I brought it in and catalogued it right away.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it as often as is necessary: much of the best poetry being written in the 21st century is being written for children. Carole Boston Weatherford is one of the most direct and powerful of these poets today. She has the skill of writing completely unpretentious yet beautiful poems which are direct and clear to read (or be read by) children without pandering to them, but in language which is both accessible (not flauntingly high and hard) and juicy (she knows to trust and challenge them to pay attention).

That last point is hard and not to be underestimated. Sometimes I trust a teacher’s knowledge of what will be good for a class, sometimes not. I absolutely had a teacher who glanced at a book I was reading and talking to the kids about and she chuckled: “you’ll lose them, they’ll never get that.” They loved it. Other times, I wasn’t so lucky. You have to have the knack to know, and you have to choose the day and time.

But Carole Boston Weatherford never failed me.

Her book Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library was one of the most meaningful experiences I had reading to one of my hardest classes. I carefully pre-selected poems, expecting only to get through maybe two. I got through all five I’d bookmarked, I remember, with conversation that built from poem to poem. For each one, I would pause and say “Imagine…” and relate it to these Jewish kids’ backgrounds. “Imagine you were in a class and a teacher straight-up told you that there was no Jewish culture, no contribution to culture by Jews. You were little in that room, she was big, and she told you there was nothing, it didn’t happen.” There was a susurration of anger. “Well, listen.” They did. I read about Schomburg at school, belittled not just personally– his whole heritage insulted. One of the girls fired up, angry, “The teacher was lying and mean! She shouldn’t have been a teacher if she didn’t say it right!” She was, of course, correct– it was bad teaching.

Sort of like how if you’re, for example, getting holdings for your library and have a list of award nominees and deliberately refuse to get one book for teaching history you don’t want kids to know…

You’re lying to them. You’re omitting information. You’re withholding truth, and you’re not trusting children to grow and do better than you’re doing.

Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper did their parts. They shared the truth, beautifully.

It’s time we did our part. I encourage you to buy a copy of Unspeakable, or Box or Schomburg, or maybe Floyd Cooper’s Juneteenth for Mazie, from Nowhere Bookshop (they ship!).

On Sendak and Truthfulness

As faithful readers must surely be aware by now, I am a person of many fine qualities. Upon judicious reflection, I must humbly state that one of my most notable virtues must be a staggering ability to maintain friendships with a diverse group of people, even those who think I am wrong about things (they, of course, are incorrect). I am so truly remarkable in this virtue that I even have friends who don’t like Maurice Sendak. While I understand that some may consider this a bridge too far, I must firmly ask that you respect my choice in this matter; these are my true friends, and nothing will change that– even though they are absolutely wrong.

On reflection, though, it’s time I articulate to the world what these poor, misguided souls consider to be flaws in the flawless work of Sendak, and then explain in full why Sendak is the pinnacle of picture book creators. True, this has been done before, but clearly not enough, or I wouldn’t be meeting anyone who thinks Sendak is anything less than a master of the craft.

In fairness, I should be writing a review of a new book. I have one right here. Several, in fact. But a discussion on Shabbat which culminated in my friend saying in less than perfectly calm tones that “childhood is innocence and roses!” while I replied in a volume which wouldn’t be considered acceptable in a library that “You have children!” while my Spriggan was beside me pointing at Outside Over There and saying “dog? dog?” has prompted a deeper exploration of the brilliance of Sendak, and I feel it a deep obligation to share my views.

Because the chief, uncompromising principle in Maurice Sendak’s works is their absolute dedication to truth. We might be so used to lies by the time we’re adults that we don’t see this initially, but, fortunately, Sendak isn’t talking to us; he’s talking to our unflinching children who boop Mickey’s bellybutton in In the Night Kitchen and, I am not making this up, lick the milk he’s pouring out of the bottle of milk. (I did ask the Spriggan to please not lick the book– it can be hard to find a hardcover edition these days, honestly.)

And yet Sendak has always met with resistance: Ursula Nordstrom, his editor, wrote a firm letter in his defense when librarians were cutting out little diapers to paste on the, ahem, naked (titter) Mickey in In the Night Kitchen. (As I said: the Spriggan neither noticed nor cared that he had a bare bum or a penis. He does insist on booping his bellybutton, and he gave him a kiss when he was getting back into bed.) Years ago now, when the Changeling was about 3 years old, a friend asked my advice on getting books for his nephew of a similar age, and I said that In the Night Kitchen was the Changeling’s favourite at the time. He read it, and said it was far too scary: the kid is put in the oven, how horrible! Meanwhile, another friend has told me that in Where the Wild Things Are the very anger and danger is dangerous; literature, I was told, should show an ideal world. I nodded seriously: “Yes, that’s why I love Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” I replied earnestly.

So these are some of our accusations against poor, maligned Maurice Sendak, whose reputation I will then proceed to defend: his books are scary, show a dark and dangerous world, and are disturbing to the innocence and rosiness of childhood.

These are, Mr. Darcy would agree, weighty accusations, indeed!

But what are the books about, what do they show, and what is there to be afraid of in them? In my view, there is nothing for children to be afraid of beyond what they already know, but there’s plenty to scare off adults, which is why it’s adults who object while children don’t. And, once again, it goes back to the point I cited from Mac Barnett in my post on The Runaway Bunny (I sure am going back to the classics, aren’t I?) regarding what the best children’s literature does: that it shows things as they are rather than mandating what things should be. In other words, Sendak is telling the truth.

Now, you might say I’m completely bonkers, and many would agree. I will concede that most homes don’t have a secret kitchen in which three giant bakers whip up massive cakes by night which we all get to eat every morning. And it’s a rare bedroom which sprouts forests and oceans to take you to a land of Wild Things so you can rumpus. I may have a Changeling, but my changeling is certainly not a thing all of ice which was brought by goblins who spirited away my real child while I sat in an arbor.

I concede that all of this is accurate. It is also true that I’ve yet to see a child and a bear in a broken top hat picking strawberries and blackberries in the same season while elephants skate on raspberry jam, but somehow that book feels so damned plausible it’s just perfect, but if the metre faltered even a little the whole book would collapse in a puddle.

But why is it scary for a child’s walls to melt away in a forest while he sails off to an island of Wild Things but going over a waterfall in a canoe full of blueberries with a bear is funny?

We, as adults, have to remember what a child sees and experiences. And I think that quite often we, as adults, have learned to recoil in fear whereas children fear unflinchingly. Sendak knew that better than many.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max is mischievous, bouncing off the walls. We don’t necessarily see how that mischief turns to anger; both parents and children can, I know, fill in those blanks in any number of realistic ways: maybe the mischief was already angry, or maybe there was a catalyst, or maybe the excess energy spilled into high emotions and anger. Max, angry and mouthing off, is sent to bed without his supper. We watch as the open-eyed anger turns to closed eyes and the inner space of dissolving rigid walls into open air and the forest and the ocean, where he takes his anger and his wildness into expression and joy. The page layout matches this: small, constrained panels widen and broaden until the rumpus pages are full, gorgeous, wordless spreads with canny eyes and glorious smiles.

Parents recoil from anger and wildness and fierce expressions.

Children, however, are delighted by roaring terrible roars because in the pages of the book, as in the dissolving walls of the imagination, you can roar safely.

The other books have similar escapes.

It’s my suspicion, for example, that the terrified librarians pasting diapers on poor Mickey were fixating on that to avoid even looking at the scariest page in the book: Mickey pops out of the oven with a happy smile on his face saying: “I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!”

Mickey, from falling dreamily through the air, buck naked, mixed into a cake, hops happily into action, forcing the bakers’ eyes open, telling them exactly who he is, and then taking charge. “I’m Mickey the pilot!” he declares. Then abandoning his dough-plane to the Milky Way he becomes a milkman, diving down to the bottom: “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me…” Mickey flies and swims and cries “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Mickey is the hero of cake-creation, but he is cheerfully defiant and happily reinvents himself throughout the book.

Mickey is the kid who cuts their hair in the bathroom sink and (not that I’ve ever seen this done) writes their name in Sharpie in the middle of the bedroom floor (I think it will come off with rubbing alcohol).

Let’s end with the book that’s the hardest, always the hardest, one that I reviewed very badly years ago so I don’t want to link to my review (though I still agree with my final line: “In very short form: this book feels like music sounds. And I have no greater compliment to pay it.”)– Outside Over There. On Shabbat, I looked at the cover and waved it at my husband: “Silver? Caldecott Honor? What else came out that year?” He shrugged while I ranted. I looked it up after Shabbat and texted him this screenshot…

Well, all right I guess. Fine. The committee must have been slightly overwhelmed. (I still would have pushed for Outside Over There.)

Why, though, do we adults insist on such lists and choices and clarity? Why do I have to explain that maybe it’s OK for Max to have a safe space to discharge the inevitable anger all children– all humans– feel? Why is it important to think about whether the Wild Things are dangerous? (NB: The Wild Thing is not only Max, but his family. The figures of the Wild Things were drawn from his own family members, according to the beautifully researched and written Wild Visionary by Golan Y. Moskowitz. Categories blur.)

Outside Over There deliberately rejects all such easy paths. Papa is away at sea (where, why?) and Mama is in the arbor (what’s she looking at?) and Ida has to look after her baby sister, whom she loves, but isn’t watching, so the baby is stolen by goblins. That poor baby– but, wait! That poor Ida! But can we blame the parents? Well, it’s their job–

This is not simple. Families aren’t simple. We all make serious mistakes and tumble backwards into outside over there, but we can be clever, too, and quick churn our goblins into a dancing stream (wait, aren’t the goblins the ones dancing, and doesn’t quick water churn?), and we can succeed.

Why does Sendak drop Mozart into Outside Over There? Well, why not? Why the German Romantic style? Why the German Shepherd dogs, based on his own, when he’s a child who grew up in the USA while his family was murdered in the Holocaust– his parents’ own siblings? Because the world we, all of us, including our children, live in is not simple. It defies understanding, but we can face that, and be brave rescuers, and love the innocent, rosy children crooning and clapping as a baby should, and look after them always, because that kind of love is stronger than any goblin.

Emotionally, psychologically, Sendak knew that to be true, and that is an unflinching, unshakeable truth I want every child to have the opportunity to hold in life.

Which is why I will read these books over and over every time my Spriggan says “Ah-gehn? Ah-gehn?” and the Changeling, all 9 years old as she is, will always pop her head up from her bigger books to watch and listen while we go through forests and kitchens and outside over there until we wind up back home, where our supper is thankfully waiting for us, and it is often even still hot.

I’m sure hoping you already have these books, but if you were, before you read this post, one of those poor, misguided souls– here are links to my local, beloved Brookline Booksmith: Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There (link to the Carle Museum book shop because it’s sadly so hard to come by these days).

The Runaway Bunny

I have a bit of a history with this book, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. Who doesn’t, really? Of course, Goodnight Moon is still more famous, though The Runaway Bunny can’t feel too bad about its own success, but in my family I somehow grew up feeling that “The Moonie Book” was my sister’s book, and The Runaway Bunny was mine. This is how children’s minds work, and it’s as it should be. I think children’s minds are very good minds, and I like them.

How do adult minds work, though? Adults wonder strange things. They wonder: “I don’t know, how do these books work? Why are they popular? Is that mother bunny a warm and loving mother or a terrible, grasping mother?”

I’ve been thinking about classic bedtime books perhaps slightly on the obsessive side lately, because I’ve been reading them over and over at bedtime. My Spriggan has decided that daytime books should be contemporary books, including Circle Under Berry by Carter Higgins which I’m conveniently linking as a recommendation because it’s so delightful to share with a Spriggan. Bedtime, he decrees, is for the classics: In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are, various beautiful French song books, and both Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny.

And this is how you know I’m a weirdo: I am reliably informed that I’m supposed to get tired of these books. I’m not. Last Shabbat we read In the Night Kitchen at least ten times between naptimes and bedtime. I didn’t get sick of it, no one little bit. In point of fact, I was ludicrously excited to discover for the first time– how did I never see this before?– that the cake the bakers are making seems to be flavoured with orange blossom water, so I made my husband’s birthday cake with orange blossom water. He tells me it was very good.

And I’m endlessly fascinated by the Margaret Wise Brown books, particularly The Runaway Bunny.

The Runaway Bunny was the most controversial book I enjoyed growing up. My mother maintained that it was a lovely story about a mother who loves her child. My father thought it was a terrible story presenting a clingy, hovering, grasping mother who wouldn’t let her kid have any independence and pursued him relentlessly. My interpretation as a small child was that I absolutely adored the way the line drawings on the pages with text were more “realist” whereas the gorgeous full spread colour pages were fantastical and had the bunnies merging into the landscape. I could have stared at the garden page forever. And as I grew old enough to recognize the links between the art in The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon, my mind all but exploded with the delight of puzzling out the comparisons and links. I’m not entirely sure I considered the role of the mother at all (except to wonder what my parents were on about), because this was so obviously a game of “find the little bunny in the pictures.”

Fast forward to growing up and having my own children. I didn’t read The Runaway Bunny very often with the Changeling, interestingly. Like the Spriggan, she was absolutely in love with In the Night Kitchen, but didn’t go for Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny much. We certainly read them, but not as obsessively as the Spriggan does. He does not permit a day to pass without giving the Bunny Crocus in the garden a kiss, point to the “flow-flows” in the garden, and smell them. He seems to love that page as much as I did when I was a bit older than he was. And I’ve found myself thinking about it as I read, because at this age I’m paying much more attention to the mother, both as a mother myself and as an academic.

And one of the things I’m thinking about is a point that Mac Barnett has made several times in discussions, for example, of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This book has been rather controversial especially recently, as kids who grew up being expected to be accommodating are suddenly realizing that boundaries have a purpose. Maybe, they think, that meek tree should have said stood up for itself: “What about me, asshole? Relationships go in both directions.” Therefore, the readers say, this book is promoting an unhealthy type of relationship, and isn’t a good book. Mac Barnett points out that the book isn’t promoting anything; it’s representing a relationship, and if you feel uncomfortable with that relationship, that’s kind of the point. (Side note: if you want my views on The Giving Tree, you can buy me a coffee and casually mention the title and I’ll talk your ear off for 30 minutes at a conservative estimate. I’m writing about The Runaway Bunny here.)

Personally, I agree wholeheartedly with Mac Barnett that a good picture book isn’t telling kids or parents what to think. Authors and illustrators of that caliber have far too much respect for the children they’re talking to (and the adults who read to them) to do more than evoke: they are not manipulative, they are not prescriptive. Your gut response is the point. And for me, reading the back-and-forth between the mother bunny and the baby bunny, I have a number of responses, because people (and bunnies) contain multitudes, and so do these twists and playful transformations.

One thing I have to wonder, as a medievalist and a Celticist by training, is whether Margaret Wise Brown, who was a very well-educated and brilliant woman, may have known, if not about the story of Ceridwen and Gwion Bach (who became Taliesin), any of the analogous stories of transformation and chase? I think she must have. Basically, the Ceridwen story goes like this: Ceridwen (whoever she was, it’s debated, but she seems to have been rather well-educated and brilliant) has a son who’s not exactly the prettiest boy on the block, Morfran. So she decides to brew up a potion in her cauldron which will grant the Awen (poetic wisdom, inspiration) to her son. Well, it has to brew for a year and a day, and then the first three drops that pop out carry the gift. She sets a boy, Gwion Bach, to stir the mixture– and you know what happens. He gets the gift, Morfran doesn’t. Gwion Bach, imbued with all that wisdom, doesn’t take long to realize he’d better run, and a game of hide and seek in different forms takes place. He goes through different forms: hare, bird, fish, and ends up as a grain of corn, which Ceridwen, in the form of a hen, eats. Back in human form, she gives birth to the new form of Gwion Bach, who grows up to be Taliesin.

Because this is a Very Serious Work of Literature, grownups think a lot about it and even analyze the roles of the different forms Ceridwen and Gwion Bach take. And I think the story is actually great fun and wasn’t it nice of Margaret Wise Brown to do a version for younger kids? (NB: I do not claim a direct line of inspiration and transmission; please see my doctoral dissertation for why I really have given up on the question of direct influence, it’s a loser’s game and often pretty secondary in importance– the grapes of influence are sour, anyway.) But look at the mother’s transformations, following her baby! Look at the baby’s choices, which she follows! They change. As do children and mothers. As I have, with the Changeling and the Spriggan.

Still, when you consider many of these stories of chase in transformation, the final step can either be absolute death (the sorcerer’s apprentice sneakily learns all his tricks, they have a chase, and finally the apprentice is able to kill the former master) or, in the Ceridwen case, which, given the mother-child relationship, is a step closer to The Runaway Bunny (I can’t believe I just typed that) rebirth. Either way, it’s very, very high stakes stuff.

What’s really interesting is that Margaret Wise Brown takes us for a much, much wilder ride. This isn’t single-minded; this is exploratory. (Side note to the many academics sharpening their pencils as they read: I’m entirely aware that Gwion Bach’s transformations are also potentially exploratory, as he navigates the full depths of existence from the salmon of knowledge to bird and mammal life, but even Taliesin was never, ever a rock on the mountain high above you.) The little bunny who wants to run away envisions himself as a trout, a rock, a bird, a crocus, a boat, a trapeze artist, and a little boy running into a house. Some of these are genuine ways of fleeing or hiding; others seem more playful: by the time he’s saying he’s a boy running into a house, does he really imagine anything but that his mother will be waiting for him? Meanwhile, the mother is following her bunny not just to try to catch him, but trying to catch up to him: fishing for him involves bait (a delightful carrot for the bunny-fish), and the boat is pursued by the mother-wind who wants to “blow him where she wants him to go,” which certainly feels like an overbearing mother. But she is also the gardener finding the crocus in the hidden garden; is that gardener in invader or a nurturing figure? When the becomes a bunny-bird, the mother doesn’t even envision herself as a pursuer, but she imagines the bunny-bird flying to the bunny-mother-tree as his home. Her part of the conversation is quite as far-ranging and exploratory as his.

This is not something I could have appreciated without having two children. Children are explorers, but in different ways. There are as many types of people in this world as there are people, after all, and as we go through life we change from trout to crocus to bird as surely as the little bunny. But with the Changeling I was often in the role of listening and gentle shoves with a kid who didn’t necessarily want to venture far out there. The Spriggan is definitely more of a gigglesome runaway: This very morning I had to catch him running pell-mell across a field because there were dog-dogs and he was very sure they were his friends and maybe they’d lick his face. He is a scampering creature who loves the whole world and expects the world to love him back. I am constantly figuring out when to hold out a carrot to get him over here, please, and when to walk across the air, and when to just be the tree and wait. Oddly, it was with the Changeling that I was most like the wind, giving gentle and invisible puffs of air to get out there a bit, just give it a try– and I don’t think I understood how far from being overbearing that was until reading it more recently. That gentle push was hard, but it was necessary, I can now see, as she walks confidently to the playground on her own.

To go back to Mac Barnett, he actually wrote– for kids, beautifully illustrated by Sarah Jacoby– a book about Margaret Wise Brown, The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown. It was the longest book I got to read in the school library, and the review I got from a kindergarten student was a very surprised: “It was longer than you usually read but it kept me interested in the whole thing and we had good things to talk about!” And what did Mac Barnett say about The Runaway Bunny in that book? He says it’s a story about a rabbit who is trying to escape from his mother, but his mother won’t let him get away. (He opens brackets, like this, and adds, “Maybe that is why he is trying to escape from her.” Then the brackets close, like this.) I argue, evidently, but not much, because what I love is Mac Barnett’s maybe. And that he doesn’t say the mother is bad or good. Mac Barnett, like Margaret Wise Brown, like so many of the greatest authors, is exploring what it means to be a character and a person. That’s why my students loved reading his book about Margaret Wise Brown. And why my Spriggan and my Changeling and I all love reading Margaret Wise Brown and Maurice Sendak and Mac Barnett and Carter Higgins. Not because they’re simple and easy, but because they’re real.

I don’t think this is such an easy book, just as being a kid isn’t ready, and being a parent isn’t easy. Is the little bunny running away because the mother won’t let him go? Is the mother doing her damned best, and where’s the dad anyway? The judgment we fling at this mother bunny feels an awful lot like the judgment I hear against other parents every day, like the judgment I level at myself on an hourly basis. But the little bunny seems ok. That little bunny still seems to chuckle as he decides, in the end, to be a little boy and run into a house, knowing full well his mother will be there to hug him. And I’m very glad that he gets a carrot.

Frindleswylde

I am in the fortunate position of sometimes getting review copies for the most beautiful picture books coming out. It still boggles me that people sometimes send me free books. I don’t just mean “it’s so kind and lovely that they give me books and let me think about reviewing them.” (To be clear: it’s truly and wonderfully lovely.) I mean… I just don’t know why anyone would. Here’s an example of why.

I ordered Frindleswylde from the UK months ago (that link is to the Brookline Booksmith, where you can preorder it here in the USA). One of the most self-denying acts of heroism I’ve ever managed was to wait so long to do that; I’d been seeing people talk about it and post the most tantalizing images for whole weeks, maybe months, before I got it myself, and it was described (brace yourselves) as a fairy tale, which is a sure-fire nasty poke to my “Deb, I’m getting you to buy this” zone. I don’t know how I held out so long, but one day I casually decided to look it up, and in doing so I accidentally reminded myself that by ordering directly from the O’Hara sisters you could get a signed copy with postcards and things, which is just too cool, really (and by the way, that link there above is to the page where you can still do that), and I decided to casually check on the cost of postage from the UK to the USA, and well since I got that far I may as well buy it. I did a little happy dance when it arrived. I may have squealed and shown the package to the cats.

And I need to add, for clarity, that since it was a lovely book from Walker in the UK, I had a pretty strong suspicion that Candlewick would be publishing it in the USA at some point, and now I see that the American publication date will be in November, which is wonderful! Also? I sincerely have no regrets that I spent the money for international shipping rather than waiting to hear if it would be released here. I even emailed the people I talk to at Candlewick after I bought and read it to ask if they had publication plans here, because I’m not sensible enough to have done it before. I’m a simple person with a genius for getting picture books wherever I can.*

Knowing all this about myself, I don’t quite understand why publishers don’t simply send me catalogues with lots of pretty pictures and maybe conspicuous arrows to the ones with the most subtly lovely art or inscrutably quirky text.

Which is all background to saying: I should probably be waiting to review this closer to November, when it will be released, at which point I could say things about it being a good Christmas present (which it is, and, intriguingly, would also be good for Chanukah), but we’ve already established that I’m horrible at waiting.

And I have personal yet impractical reasons for wanting to talk about it now.

Next month I’m going to begin homeschooling the Changeling (not a long-term plan, we’re taking a year to experiment). This was not Plan A, nor, Plan B, nor really, a plan at all. Even when we did, finally, choose to remove her from the school she’d been attending, we didn’t think of homeschooling at first. And when we did, the first real decision I made regarding curriculum was to forget about divisions between topics and classes– at least the ones I’ll be teaching. What I mean is that the thought of teaching a science class and a history class and a writing class all started to feel boring, so I decided to blur the lines– and yes this has a point.

I thought about that decision and connected it back to one of the reasons we’d decided we were frustrated with some aspects of schooling the Changeling was receiving: those brilliantly clear lines, drawn in a crisp Sharpie, around so many topics: correct and incorrect, good characters and bad characters, checkmark for good work and exes for bad work, school and out of school. It was starting to get me down (though the Changeling was fine, she didn’t mind a bit), since I have only one question: are you learning or not?

I have no patience with stasis. If you are alive, you should be striving towards something beautiful, you should want to make progress in some way, whether it be towards rest and restoration or learning a skill or working out a problem. Stasis is too close to stagnation, which stinks.

And so I have, equally, a certain frustration with cleanly demarcated lines, and this is where I come back to Frindleswylde (preorder link for Bookshop.org) (I give you so many options).

Take a look at the cover, at those beautiful lines in the art up there! The lines in the text are just as lovely, I promise you. (I also need to tell you in the interest of honesty that the design and production work– well the cover has silver foil accents, I’m just saying ok.)

Unless you’ve tried your hand at it, I’m not sure it’s possible to appreciate the level of work it takes to achieve that immaculate imprecision, that deliberately unfinished appearance which you know is finished, the kind that forces your mind and heart to engage in meeting the creator on the page. Think of Edward Ardizzone, Edward Gorey, Charlotte Voake, Barbara McClintock, Sergio Ruzzier, Qin Leng, Steve Light, etc, and not for nothing are many of these equally skillful authors.

Frindleswylde is created by sisters Lauren (the illustrator) and Natalia (the writer) who merge their skills without losing their distinct powers– a blurred line, again. The art for Frindleswylde is done with gouache and ink washes and pencils (I believe, I’m remembering notes from an Instagram post from long, long ago when I was obsessively tracking but certainly not buying from the UK, that would be absurd). The effect is subtle, luminous, evoking the protagonist Cora’s leap into another world. The text meets it. The lines seem so very clear: Frindleswylde is the dangerous ice boy king of the wintry world who sets three Impossible Tasks for Cora which she has to achieve in order to rescue her Granny, or else she must become Queen of Winter. She’s even assisted by a stork, a bird helper, making it a perfect fairy tale story– until the lines blur and change.

If I were writing advertising copy I might compare it to the Necklace of Raindops collection by Joan Aiken with art by Jan Pieńkowski, and I think that would be apt and that all four creators would be thrilled with the comparison, as they should be. But now, focused as I am on my kids and my home and this question of learning more largely, I’m thinking of the trust the creators put in the audience, and I’m thinking of lines and what I love about them.

I do not love a crisp, clean line (except when I do). I see the value in precise lines that demarcate this shape from that one, perhaps digital art with saturated colours. But my heart goes out to the art that talks to me, and that art is the kind where the artist (or the writer) has put in a lot of background work only to make me bring my own best self to the page.

Who on earth is Martin Pippin, I wondered as I first read the book. Eleanor Farjeon doesn’t tell you, but by the end you know him better than if he’d been introduced cleanly and clearly. The art by Richard Kennedy is equally allusive and elusive, capturing the whimsical mischief of the book with its interlaced stories. It calls me in, and I have to do the rest.

Why am I thinking this now? This is the work I think I’m doing, now. I’m doing the background labour. I’m breaking down a lot of crisp, clean lines between “classes” and instead coming up with projects that will encourage the Changeling to bring her own best self to the work. I’m keenly aware I’m going to have a lot of messed up artwork, all done by a shaky hand, still learning, to shove aside as we start this homeschooling project, and I’m going to try not to despair as I mess up, but I’m hoping that if I do the kind of prep work and roughs that allow for the glorious imprecision of a blurred line, our framework for this new venture will be both strong and flexible, allowing us to come up with a lovelier and more nuanced final artwork than we could have with the clean lines carving things up. I’m going to remember that stories like Frindleswylde couldn’t work with an obvious line, and the O’Hara genius was to make the story feel obvious to us while also obfuscating the obviousness.

Well, we’ll see. But it’s a venture worth pursuing, so, with Cora and the stork, I will tumble into a new world and see what I can learn. The tasks may not be so impossible as all that.

Meanwhile, I’m going to encourage you to see how inspired you may feel by this beautiful art and original yet traditional fairy tale– Frindleswylde is out in November!

* Speaking of that– I got some books in France and Pollux wants to warn you I might talk about some of them at some point. Or not. You never do know what will show up.

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.)

An Ode to Book Shops, and a Farewell to One

Note to you, reading this: When I started writing this and pressed save on the draft, that was an unusual thing for me to do. I normally write quickly and post quickly, snapshot of a moment. I save my editing for almost everything else I do, not blogs and reviews. This time, I wanted to make sure I got everything clear, it’s a thought particularly dear to my heart. And then– another shooting, the school shooting at Uvalde. The fact that it’s “another one” alone is bitter in my mouth while I write. I was pregnant with the Changeling during Sandy Hook, I’m nursing the Spriggan during Uvalde. The names we give for quick reference to murdered children. And my first instinct, always, is “I need to go to the book shop.” Only my book shop, my safe haven (and why it matters I articulate below), is closed now. The Children’s Book Shop was particularly dear during every painful time (after news of my two lost pregnancies, for example) because I felt so surrounded by ultimately hopeful wisdom, not sugar coated (kids don’t like that, they prefer the bear to eat the rabbit because that’s what bears do), but also with a clear view of justice and kindness making the world better. So read on, and care for books and those who curate them.

I remember my first book shop, and the first purchase I made there from my own money. The book shop was Tidewater Books in Sackville, New Brunswick, and I’m deeply grateful the town community has supported it so well and it’s still around. I’ve called a few times recently to make purchases by phone for friends still there, and every time I hear the owner’s voice on the phone I have a mental image of myself at age 8 carefully choosing a pen with lilac ink for myself with allowance money. Later, when we were moving to Toronto, I went there to buy a book to bring with me for the travels. I wanted the book, but also I wanted the book to come from there, to visit there, to have a piece to take with me on the road because Tidewater Books mattered to me.

In Toronto, I met many book shops. The earliest one that sticks out in my mind is Mabel’s Fables, where I had my first job interview. They were extremely kind. I had zero availability to work there, despite my boundless enthusiasm which I guess I thought would bend the time-space continuum, and so somehow I was still applying and they still granted me an interview. We had a lovely talk about books, how to select them, and how to handsell them, and I retain a strong affection for that beautiful shop where I first felt like I had a voice about literature for children.

Later, I came to love Type Books, which now has three locations. My closest friend from school in Toronto worked there for years, and this was the shop where I was challenged and expanded my ideas of what books could be. There I started to articulate when books didn’t feel they’d reached their potential as opposed to when a book felt like it simply wasn’t right for me– that I wasn’t the audience.

In a nutshell, these shops were classrooms and friends for me, as much as libraries and schools were, but with more nuance: these shops were curated. The owners and managers selected what was there and where it was shelved or displayed.

I feel like in this Big Data world, the idea of curatorship has taken on a loaded meaning. Being selective isn’t a bad thing, and we have libraries and order forms and other shops for further reading. But if you have a massive database or the entire Library of Congress to choose from, where will you start? Whereas I love knowing that if I’m looking for a book with a given vibe, but I’m not sure which book would hit the spot, I know where I can go and who I can talk to. Which is very much why the idea of children’s book shops continues to matter to me: Not every adult, no matter how excellent and profoundly beautiful or whimsical or thoughtful or irreverent their taste, knows how children read or enjoy literature. Those who do, do.

A few months ago, Terri at The Children’s Book Shop here in Brookline told me she had to close the shop. It’s gone now, though not before I got many last books from her. I went to her inventory sale and bought an armload. I wrote notes on postcards saying this was a farewell gift purchased from her shop and stuck them in the books. I’ve been slowly slipping the books in Little Free Libraries around Brookline.

And I think back as I do. I remember being pregnant with the Changeling when I saw her shop for the first time, and I went in and felt like I’d found my place. The first books I bought were the Moomin books, thrilled to rediscover these old friends. Then I found, stunned with pure joy of discovery, The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon. And bit by bit, as I found old books that feel cozy and wild, I found new wild and cozy books. Terri introduced me to Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Yuyi Morales, Carole Boston Weatherford, Peter Sís, and so many more. We would chat about book history and new books, and she’d listen to my thoughts with genuine interest and share her perspective rooted in a knowledge that went back farther than mine, even as she updated her mental database with new books.

I only started writing here because I needed a place to talk to people about books I found there and it seemed easier to find a place to throw my words than to move into the shop.

Since I fell so deeply in love with that shop, I started thinking more about curatorship, more about why it’s so important. And here’s what I think: curatorship isn’t limiting any more than choosing the speaker or perspective for a story is limiting. When Christian Robinson chose to illustrate Leo: A Ghost Story in shades of blue, he was not rebuffing the colour red. In fact, he’s using the limitations of colour to explore a whole world in deeper thought and joy and feeling. And red gets full play in other books, such as Oge Mora’s warm and vivid illustrations to Everybody in the Red Brick Building! This is why, in fact, any community will benefit more from having a selection of small independent book shops over either one giant one, even if that one giant one has more books than all the others combined– or, of course, simply being told to shop online.

Does that sound selfish, grasping, unrealistic, or absurd? Well, it might not always be attainable, but I still think it’s true. My family benefits enormously from shopping for produce at one shop but the selection of fish is better at another and we aren’t called naïve for that.

Terri’s shop suited me because it was geared very seriously towards children not as sweet poppets to be patronized, but as full people to nurture with entertaining and intelligent books. When I read Dear Genius, Leonard S. Marcus’s wonderful collection of letters written by Ursula Nordstrom, I couldn’t help thinking how she’d have enjoyed Terri’s shop. (I told Terri how I loved that book and thought of her and she said, “I really should read those letters again! I remember one where she–” There’s truly no book about children’s literature you can bring up that she hasn’t read. When I found Canadian books she hadn’t seen, I always felt a bit victorious.) Certainly Terri stocked classics and new books, both, but that’s a narrow way of approaching it. Terri really focused on having judicious options the way a good parent keeps an eye on what their kids might need to eat now. Hmmm, after eating only chicken for four days the kid is contemplating a meltdown? Thank heavens you carefully anticipated this and have pasta to pull out! Uh oh, kid refused a snack and is now past hungry and can’t focus enough to eat anything– the time has come to give the kid a cookie and after that, you’ll have a calmer kid who can contemplate real food. Terri knew what you meant if you wanted a snack to read before diving into a rich but delicately spiced meal, or if you wanted a hearty stew with good potatoes.

Terri had excellent options for all appetite issues. Her specialty, however, was in the generously wicked, the dangerously cozy. Think of Sophie Hatter, suddenly an old lady, wrapped in her shawl as she heads on adventure while longing for an armchair by the fire. Think of Fox giving a surprise birthday party for Chick, and everyone is having a marvellous time, though it’s not actually Chick’s birthday as it turns out. Think of Pokko only stopping her drum to reprimand the fox for eating a rabbit. All gems, all loved for the sheer realism of the true imagination, which is something children’s books excel in at a much higher level than most (though certainly not all) literature for adults. We need more of this.

I will not starve for books. I’m deeply fortunate to live walking distance from the wonderful Brookline Booksmith. Right across the river we have more options: Porter Square Books, the Harvard Book Store, there’s Frugal Bookstore, too, over in Roxbury.

But one story, one vivid and valuable perspective, rooted in one of the most entertaining and intellectual perspectives on children’s books I’ve encountered, has come to a close. I feel grateful to have spent nearly a decade learning from those shelves. I’m sorry we’ve turned the last page. And I encourage you, wherever you live, to try to make friends with any book shops you meet. It’s an enriching experience.