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.

Osmo– now known! (+ Giveaway)

I’m going to tell a story first, but please read to the end, there’s a freebie book for one of you at that point!

I was feeling diffident about writing about this, possibly from a fear of Putting Myself Forward and Bragging, I have no idea. But I’m just going to rave delightedly instead, and share the joy. Yesterday was the release date of Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods and with my ill-fitting Librarian hat on (I think I prefer the title, developed by a friend, of Lexorcist, given that I’m in no way trained as a librarian) I arranged to have the wonderful author, Catherynne M. Valente, make a Zoom class visit to the Grade 3 class that comes to the school library where I work. (The Changeling is in that class, by the way, but I swear it wasn’t– just– preferential treatment, ok? They’re the oldest group that comes to the library and I thought the best-suited for Osmo.)

I was, in all honesty, a bit worried. These students had not, as a class, ever had an author visit. This was a NYT bestselling author who was being incredibly generous, and doing this visit on the very release date. Not to put too fine a point on it– I was sweating when I walked into the room and some of the kids were so overexcited we delayed admitting her on Zoom until the room calmed. I was convinced it would be a disaster and I’d be emailing Ms Valente a stilted and abject apology.

It was magical. First of all, and this is me speaking to any teachers or real librarians (the kind who aren’t swanning around with a hoity-toity yup I’m a librarian hat on, like me) out there, I can’t even tell you how great a class visit Cat Valente does. She gives a very brief chat so they know who she is, and then tells them her priority is for them to get to hear answers to any questions they have for her– that everyone should have their chance. And then she listens carefully, and she doesn’t talk down to the kids– she really, really listens to them and gives full answers that demonstrate she’s heard them.

For her, she told me when I thanked her, it was wonderful to get to end by reading them the opening of the book and hear them recite the oath (oh yeah, the book opens with an oath, get ready to raise your hand and make an oath when you read!) along with her. Which, I’m in full agreement, made me so happy– especially when the whole thing ended and I heard one student say to another: “OK, don’t forget you took an oath! You can’t forget!” But for me, the most special bit was earlier: when a student who’s not always the easiest (though I love the kid dearly) asked a question which blew me away, and got the reply, “That is a deeper question about writing craft than most adults ask! What I’d say is…” And, later to the group, “You’re asking incredibly impressive questions…” And I could only think, “I’m learning from these kids just how much there is to them from what I thought was a treat for them. This is more of a treat for me, seeing how great they are.” It was a wonderful conversation, and, after we said goodbye and ended the Zoom, a student, flushed with excitement, said that hearing the author give one of the answers had helped them figured out a story they wanted to write. “Show it to me when you’re ready, please bring it to the library!” I urged.

At dinner that night, the Changeling told me that the class had made a list for the order in which the students get to read the school copy of Osmo. And I thought to myself that if there’s one thing I got to do for the kids this year it was getting them one day when they’re really excited about a book with a cross skadgebat and mysterious forest and a brilliant collection of mushrooms… and about books, empathy, and telling stories. That’s more than I’d hoped for.

So, in thanks to Catherynne M. Valente for the enormous gift she gave me of seeing that bookish joy and inspiration in action– a giveaway of Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods! (That link is to bookshop.org though please always consider supporting your local independent book shop. Or win this giveaway.)

GIVEAWAY DIRECTIONS:

If you agree to take the oath seriously please email me: “I will take the oath seriously.” My email address is deborah.furchtgott@gmail.com and I will choose ONE winner, I will mail anywhere in the world (that’s a promise– I’ve sent mail to Australia and the South Pole, so believe me), and I will choose a winner at random on Monday, May 4 in the morning, so email before 8 am Eastern time. I will choose a random winner from those who email me, and I will reply by email. Did I mention that you should communicate by email? deborah.furchtgott@gmail.com again. I will not be able to keep track otherwise.

John’s Turn

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

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

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

A few anecdotes and memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the rant. Here’s the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otto: A Palindrama

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

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

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

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

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

Save your sanity. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK.

Shirley Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

Sometimes I have an instinct, and it is not the most common feeling, but it’s one I pay attention to. “This book. This book. Hey, you listening, Deb? THIS IS THE BOOK.” At some point in some context, I don’t remember when and where, but I do remember the words, Catherynne M. Valente mentioned she was working on “a boy-Persephone novel.” My ears pricked up: “This book. This book! I’m listening…” So I started watching for updates. And when the book cover was released, I waited. My very kind contact at S&S mentioned an upcoming picture book which looked cute but not the kind I review, so I replied as politely and impressively as I could that I appreciated them thinking of me, but I’m actually looking for more MG content (Lord forgive me this mild lie, I’m always looking for simply books I adore, whatever the target age) and Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods looked like the sort of thing I’d be interested in. They kindly sent me a review copy and my instincts shrieked as I flipped it open: “THIS IS THE BOOK.” They won’t shut up even though I’ve finished reading and am running in circles waiting for it to be released April 26, 2022 and I want it so badly, so I’m telling you about it well before release day, even though I normally time things a bit more closely. I want to spread word in advance, and I’m telling you, now, to pre-order, because THIS IS THE BOOK. (The link I gave you is to her local book shop, so you can ask for it to be signed.)

I’ll give you the splashy blurb, first, and I’m gearing this towards teachers of kids in the Grade 4-8 range, more or less, though you can definitely find readers older and younger for this one. After that, we’ll get to the nitty-gritty. Blurby-splash: “This is the perfect book for the mythology-loving kid in your life or your class. Readers of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books will fall hard for Osmo and his journey, and any animal-loving reader of Kate DiCamillo’s books will be thrilled to head into the woods and meet Bonk the Cross and Never the Pangirlin.”

More, though, this is the book the teacher or the parent wants to read with the kids. I couldn’t put it down, and when the Spriggan, in his mischievous way, decided to wake up every time I thought, “I could read a chapter while he naps now,” much less touching the cover, I did an awful lot of reading-while-nursing (though he still grabbed the book) to get ahead. It’s smart, and it’s beautiful, and it’s fun, and it’s a real page-turner while grabbing your heart and brain.

Normally, these days, I don’t run books by the Changeling prior to reviewing. It would be too hard. She steals my books and doesn’t give them back. It’s very annoying, and when I ask for them (this happened with The Beatryce Prophecy— and “if your kid loves The Beatryce Prophecy they’ll definitely go for Osmo!”) she says in an injured tone: “But I let you read it first!” This one, I wanted to hear what she had to say. The first thing I noticed was her reading aloud. (You’ll understand when you get to page 3.) Then the giggles. Then quiet, rustling pages, giggles, and quiet again… Finally, when she finished and I got the book back, I saw her taking out a post-it page flag with a kitty on it, from page 123. “Well, I had to mark my favourite page,” she explained when I asked, “so I could go back and visit it. I liked knowing it was there.” (You’ll understand when you get to page 123. It was one of my favourite parts, too.)

The story begins with the love of the Forest and the Valley. And it continues, reaching people and animals, and it grows to the day that Osmo Unknown, who is very much not allowed to go to the Forest– no one is– has to go, and for less than pleasant reasons. Osmo goes not just to the Fourpenny Woods, but to the Eightpenny Woods, and he has to go on a quest to save his whole village. (“Describe Osmo! Why does he feel so familiar? Does Persephone feel familiar?” Teachers, I’m writing you so many companion questions here.)

This is the part where I’m giving any teachers reading this a REAL freebie question to explore with their classes. We all talk about heroes in mythology, right? What’s the heroic ideal, what’s the heroic quest, and so on. Maybe you talk about how modern retellings play with those ancient stories with ancient heroes! If that’s what you do, you could totally have a great unit about how it feels different to have an Osmo in place of a Persephone. But in modern fantasy books, kids get really interested in villains, we all know that and we talk about it a lot less– maybe we start to think about it when they get to university and read Milton, and we think about the Romantics and how they read Milton’s Satan, but we don’t talk about it in middle school even though they kinda sneakily like villains more than they like heroes.

So, think about this: ask your students who the villain is in Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods. Ask them to find a villain in mythology. What is a villain, and where do they even come from?

Do you see what I mean? This is a book for so many of us. I remember extremely well that when The Glass Town Game came out I thought, “Wow, this was for me, it was written exactly for me and I wish I could go back to Grade 7 and hand it to myself so I’d feel that sense of being recognized and loved.” I still feel that way, and I want someone to talk to about that, so go read Glass Town Game, too, please, and let’s have tea and cookies together.

But my feeling with Osmo was slightly different: I wanted to go back and give it to my friends. I wanted my teachers to put it on lists we could choose from for book reports so I could draw pictures of the characters. I wanted to dress up as Bonk and Never and Osmo for Hallowe’en with a group of friends– we could argue about who’d be who! (I would be Never, calling it. I’m the loner, I get to be Never.) I was listening to the Changeling try to figure out how to come up with a costume so the Spriggan could be Button and she could be Never and I was actually jealous and thinking about maybe I could get away with dressing up as a Quidnunk, even though I’m grown up?

And all of this excitement and absorption was intertwined with an awareness that at deepest level this book was thoughtful, beautifully written, and valuable. It’s a book with power, it pulses with it. It’s like Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s like Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books. It’s not smart despite being for young readers, it’s wise and delightful because it’s for them.

I’m telling you, get your pre-order in. Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods will be released April 26, 2022 and you want to have it on release day.

Valentine’s Day 2022, because this year we need that love!

One of the things I love best about my childhood, looking back, is the way my parents didn’t sweat the occasions for small celebrations– they just let us enjoy them, and helped us get there! Hallowe’en? Costumes all the way! Who will you be? Mother’s Day? Yes, of course, I really did want that poorly potted marigold you brought home from school, let’s plant it! Valentine’s Day? I never even heard of the angst I hear today about how painful it genuinely is to many adults from a romantic perspective, because I was under the impression that it’s a fun time to get chocolate and cinnamon hearts which I never even liked but was always excited about from my parents, and who doesn’t like a good story with hearts in it? I had a stuffy, Valentin (yes, pronounced in French, please), which was a crocheted heart. Today, thinking fondly of that much-loved-to-pieces yarny heart, I wonder what happened to him? (Yes, Valentin was a pink-and-red him of yarn, he was mine, I know these things.) I loved Valentin. And I loved Valentine’s Day, and even when, much much later, the guy I was seeing broke up with me the day before Valentine’s Day I loved the holiday because I had really, really nice memories from when I was a kid, and I was secretly (under the humiliation) glad that the jerk dude didn’t ruin the day for me by being romantic and THEN breaking up, that would’ve been awful…

These days, as a mother, I’m always excited to give my kids Valentine’s Day books and am still a bit baffled when people sigh and/or groan about romance, because I just don’t see it that way. And this year I’m feeling really strongly about enjoying the gloriously loving heart-and-hugs-and-chocolate day. Why let anyone ruin it? Grab it! But if you do have hesitations, I hereby present you with author Catherynne M. Valente’s history and philosophy of Valentine’s Day, why it’s such a great holiday, and why you shouldn’t let anyone take it away from you– with bonus birds (public Patreon post, and yes I subscribe to her Patreon, it’s awesome). YOUR definition of love, YOUR way, in YOUR life. Grab the joy!

And now? BOOKS! Fun, beautiful, love-filled books!

OK, this is a general list. Some were review copies, some were not, I’ll tell you what was what but, c’mon, you know me by now– I don’t review books I don’t love even if I get a review copy. And I will be linking to other books I’ve reviewed for Valentine’s Day in the past because they’re still good. That has not changed.

Candlewick kindly sent me two unbelievably beautiful board books, one very cute, one simply exquisite. The cute one is Peekaboo Love by Camilla Reid with art by Ingela P. Arrhenius, and is one of those gloriously sturdy Nosy Crow board books which somehow stand up to toddler love better than any other board books, and get tested more thoroughly because Nosy Crow does amazing board books, I’m always impressed. (Another Ingela P. Arrhenius book Where’s the Puffin? has been the Spriggan’s favourite non-music book since September, which is when I bought it, and it’s still intact. Incredible.)

And, yes, the sturdiness and cute art are just wonderful, in themselves. But I’m about to blow your minds here: the text is good. I know, I know, board books, with the exceptions of those written by Sandra Boynton and select others (I personally adore Whose Toes Are Those? and Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Asim and LeUyen Pham, if you’re searching) just don’t get good text. This one is written with care. Let me prove it:

Peekaboo rainbow, Peekaboo bugs / Peekaboo cactus, Peekaboo hugs.

What do you notice? If your answer is “it rhymes,” you’re my mortal enemy. Metre!!! Screw books that rhyme, seriously, rhyme is and almost always has been irrelevant. Metrics matter. I’ve mentioned this before with other books for wonderful read-alouds: Jamberry and Atticus Caticus are two that spring to mind. The beat in this book goes: dactyl, spondee; dactyl spondee catalectic (just means shortened to drop the unstressed beat) / dactyl, spondee; dactyl, spondaic catalectic. It is thoughtfully chosen to be a perfect bouncing rhythm. Yes, it rhymes. That’s a necessary and important secondary detail, which reinforces the easy-feeling bounceability of the read. The effect is: “PEEK (bounce!)- a-boo, RAIN (bounce!)- bow (and here you slide the slidey bits while the baby or toddler chuckles and squeals),” etc. The things that make your lovely, joyful reading experience with a toddler so very memorable are really worth recognizing and celebrating. So I bid you welcome to the joys of prosody! OK, fine, you don’t have to study prosody, I’ll do that bit. But, please, believe me when I tell you that rhyme is basically incidental to a good reading experience with your kiddo, while metre is profoundly important. I feel so strongly on the subject that I will prove it via the magic of Helen Oxenbury’s classic and perfect book, All Fall Down:

Singing all together, running round and round, bouncy, bouncy, on the bed, all fall down.

That’s the text. That’s it. I read it three times in a row to the Spriggan today and he’d have been happy to keep it up forever. Please note there is what my Changeling would tell me crossly is “ALMOST a rhyme, it’s ALMOST there, Mummy!” But the magic is not in that “well, c’mon, it’s ALMOST there,” it’s in the perfect affinity between the metrics and the text. You lose that, you lose everything.

I hope we now have a perfect understanding on this topic, and if you’re still awake and I haven’t killed the joys of Valentine’s Day for you, you can feel free to excerpt those paragraphs and share them with all authors, editors, publishers, etc., and once we’re having parties again you can read them aloud at parties and people will find you as charming as they find me! Next? OK. I know, I feel relieved, too.

I’m not going to tell you much about the exquisite pop-up book LOVE by Robert Sabuda (also sent to me by Candlewick, thanks folks!) because, honestly, there’s not much to say about it except that the experience of going gently through it is beautiful.

I frequently puzzle over the purpose of pop-up books. They’re often designed with very young children in mind, it seems to me: cute animals, cartoonish funny jokes, designed to elicit squeals of joy while you’re singing, for example, “The Wheels on the Bus” or something. Toddlers, however, do not often engage with pop-up books in a fashion designed to preserve their longevity. This one is not designed for toddlers. It’s the sort of book you open carefully with an older child, admiring the artistry and beauty and reading the tender descriptions of what love is to you, and musing over what it might be–

And, indeed, What Is Love? asked Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis.

Well, I want you to imagine, just now a package of the picture book by Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis and the above pop-up book by Robert Sabuda. Share it at the morning table as a family, and it would be sooo perfect and I need one of you readers to do that because I spoiled the whole thing by getting the books ahead of time, dangitall.

Finally, here’s a post with three other recommendations, all for picture books that are appropriate for readers ages about 3 and up, and they will all last for reading well beyond then!

And, parents? Don’t forget to read something lovely for yourselves on Valentine’s Day, too! Maybe go get yourself a blind date with a book at your local indie…

Urchin

There’s a special pleasure and a special anxiety in reviewing books from a small Canadian press. While certainly not inaccessible, there’s an impression that maybe they’re harder to get, they’re not Big Five (or whatever it is now that PRH is acquiring S&S?) so they’re somehow odd or have to prove themselves in a way that Books from Big Publishers Don’t– I don’t really know. What I do know is that Urchin by Kate Story (you can buy from that link in the USA) from Running the Goat (or you can buy direct from the press in Canada!) in Newfoundland could not have achieved what it did with the dexterity and rough beauty it did, the jaggedness and windiness it did, without the attention to atmosphere and the honest understanding of the Newfoundland history a publisher who lives right there could give, so I’m glad that it was done in Newfoundland by Newfoundlanders who know the history and the ground. And it’s beautiful.

Just look at that cover design. There, right there, you see the power of a publisher, editor, and designer who get it. That’s the book. When I saw the cover design, I knew I needed it, and I have never been so right. (Look at the crow. I love the crow.)

I’m going to say something that may sound like I’m overstating things, but I really don’t think I am: If there’s a novel that expresses the trapped dual-and-unreal feeling of living through this pandemic, this is that novel. Yes, it’s local, and yet the local focus has universal appeal. I think Kate Story’s book, written before but out now, is the closest I’ve come to the living-in-two-spaces feeling of the pandemic in a novel, though. (As I said in another post, Brian Selznick’s fractured and non-linear Kaleidoscope also has the feeling of time and space being fluid.)

One of the issues with encapsulating what makes this book so particularly special is that I want to tell the story, but I also want to convey the atmosphere. I want to pin down the protagonist, but also tell the history. Basically, I want to give you the full reading experience, which you can only get by reading the book (which I highly recommend). It’s very tricky! But I’m enjoying the process of revolving my mind around this beautifully readable and yet original and experimental book.

The book is told in the first person, which is decidedly never my preference for a novel, yet Kate Story makes it work. The limitations of this point of view get us into protagonist Dor’s mind, letting us see through Dor’s eyes, hear through Dor’s ears, and, most importantly, feel with Dor’s heart and body. It’s intimate, but it’s limited, which works to the book’s advantage. We start in the future: a pandemic is raging (hahah yeah don’t stop there, please, it’s worth it), we aren’t sure where, exactly. And Dor, at the bedside of someone sick and beloved, is being begged to write down the story they lived. So Dor does.

Back to Newfoundland. We see Dor as an uneasy girl. At that point Dor is seen exclusively as a young woman, but is already and increasingly uneasy in that skin. And here’s where that first person perspective so clearly comes through as the right way to do things: today, and hereafter, I’m going to use they/them as Dor’s pronouns, which is accurate– but the book is never in that position since Dor is doing the talking. That intimacy is exactly the lens that allows them to elide any need for a clumsy category. Dor, we slowly discover, is nonbinary, but I see in Dor’s story, which doesn’t use that term and doesn’t use those pronouns (though, to be clear, I will and we certainly should), something more intimate and deeper in our appreciation of them: not what they’re not (“Dor is not binary”) but what they are (Dor is Dor, and Dor is unique and beautiful and vivid and brave and sometimes timid). After learning from a number of friends how frustratingly limiting the standard vocabulary of gender can be, I found this plunge into perspective of a human, a person, a brain and a soul, frankly liberating. I felt Dor’s liberation in “boy’s clothes” and I likewise felt their humiliation and loathing in being called “young lady.”

You, the reader, feel this, but this is not the story. The story is Newfoundland. The story is, in banal terms, a historical fiction set when Guglielmo Marconi comes to Newfoundland and captures a transatlantic wireless transmission on Signal Hill near St. John’s. Well, you think, isn’t that nice! A cool moment in local history, for a local press. Don’t stop there, this is not the story either.

Dor’s family lives close by Signal Hill, and her ancestor actually moved the house to a hill to be far from the risk of St. John’s traumatic fires– but in doing so actually moved it to a fairy mound. Putting it right on their path was a dangerous thing to do, and the consequences resonate for generations, and so it all comes to a crux when Dor’s deeply depressed midwife mother disappears when called out one night– and Dor, not believing she’s dead, sets out to set things right, and, in the process, is right at the heart of Marconi’s work, discovering what he’s up to, as well.

With every breath of the story you feel the high winds, you see the crashing waves, you stumble on rocks, and you hear the Newfoundland voice (even the quick changes as Dor notes that someone switches to proper English when they want to be impressive). There’s the desire for escape to New York, as her friends, a journalist and a singer, set their sights on a greater future, and Dor wants to join them, but, simultaneously, a rootedness by the sea, a feeling all too familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on the Atlantic coast (oh hi, that’d be me).

And, through it all, is the personal whisper: “Who am I? What am I? Am I even ok? Please, someone just see me for me and still care about me.”

Kate Story, really, has created an original, interwoven story, present yet historic, realist yet fantastic, which feels so fractured and whole that it’s resonance with this fractured yet whole Covid-19 day and age will not disappear. This is not a book which will have only a year’s relevance. It feels so rooted in history and present in the soul that I think it has staying power. And I feel so grateful to have read it at a moment like this, when I needed someone to echo my own feelings: “What is this world? Where are we? Is my house talking around my ears?”

Oh! And, if you’re not already sold? There’s a crow. And if you stick with reading, you will hear the crow and even the crow’s name but I’m not telling you more. You’ve got to read it for that.