Israel and Palestine: Part III

In Part I we talked about authorship, in Part II we talked about precise use of language. Here, in my final piece, I’m talking about how to write responsibly about the Middle East, with a return to children’s literature.


The consistent problem with all of the terms and behaviours I listed in Part II? They’re attempts to sideline the political issues, and, counterproductively, just end up reinforcing them. Say “apartheid” or “genocide” and the Jews of North America rise in outrage to say: “But no, we’re the ones who were there first, we were always first! We’re the truly indigenous population, we were the ones who were oppressed, we faced the genocide—” and next thing you know it’s no more than fisticuffs about who has the greater right to the land, historically, and…

People are hurting today without anyone getting anywhere, which makes the whole situation not merely annoying, but frustrating and angering, because these are political issues.

So, the issue with that knee-jerk use of “human rights issues” terminology? An editorial comes out with the word apartheid, and every organization floods my inbox (despite my having unsubscribed) with campaigns to reply. Enough people do, and the next thing you know, every journalist starts writing “I’m going to get a full inbox for saying this, and, no I’m not an anti-Semite…” And do you even know how awful the optics on that are? They’re bad. Really bad. “The Jews control the media” level bad, and not because of someone sending around The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but because we, ourselves, are genuinely so paranoid we can’t stop ourselves. (I’m only focusing on the Jews of North America here because I am one. I know perfectly well we’re not alone in this, but I’m not going to speak without authority about others’ inboxes.)

“But would you have us let genuine anti-Semitism lie?”

Well, let me ask you? Does this type of alarm and indignation help the Jews of North America or help American relations with Israel? What about helping the Palestinians, who, by the way, also do genuinely need help? No, no it does not. There’s genuine anti-Semitism within every bit of North America, if you want to know, and we do have to vote it out of power, but inundating every opinion piece in the New York Times or an obscure college’s alumni magazine or whatever it is with a letter-writing campaign due to either real or perceived anti-Semitism will only ever serve to reinforce the view that we’re being absurd, not to be taken seriously.

The racism in Israel is genuine, so is the Islamophobia. The anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Arab world is bad, too. And the best thing for everyone is to treat politics as politics, and look to actually help out with genuine attempts at real negotiations if they are in a position to do so.


OK, so what does any of this have to do with children’s literature? Was that just an entry point to talk about voice, sharing perspectives, shutting up when you don’t know something, trying not to speak for other people, and not letting outrage over perceptions get in the way of an honest story? Was it just so I could invent the Mac Barnett Duck Test, which may have been my greatest idea ever?

Yes and no.

I recently saw a book deal (and I’m not going to identify it, so don’t ask) that royally ticked me off. It didn’t seem like a great or necessary book to begin with, the premise was weak, and the author has (elsewhere) spoken out against “Israel” (in quotes due to imprecision, again—I hope by now you recognize the myriad ways that this imprecision in language causes undue tensions and rifts) in ways that were imprecise, aggressive, and truly dishonest, which makes me question the author’s ability to write for children with the honest precision I’d associate with the Mac Barnett Duck Test. I’m being as veiled as I possibly can for the very simple reason that I do not want to be an attack dog, or to lead anyone else to attack. That means I did not engage with the author regarding the issues, and I do not suggest anyone else do so. If, indeed, the book turns out to be as lacking in merit as I think it is, hopefully it will implode; political issues aside, the world doesn’t need more lackluster books.

But I was frustrated because we really do need good books that handle sensitive topics with honesty, genuine thoughtfulness, and impeccable research. Books like Peter Sís’s Nicky and Vera but about the Middle East.

And I’m asking you, if you’re an author or an editor, an illustrator or an agent, I genuinely don’t care if you’re Jewish or not (though, hey, more good Jewish voices would be amazing), Muslim or not (same story there, though) to put yourself in our skins and think about this. It may be, in fact, that we really need an outside perspective here, we’re so emotionally entrenched. I have no idea, and will have no idea until I see what a really good book surprises me with. Books about the conflict, books about the history. Or, perhaps, books of or about Jewish and Muslim poetry, a literary history which is gloriously, poignantly intertwined. What a magnificent book that could be!

But I want more books that are real, honest, true, and have an unfinished quality because this is an unfinished story.


For the rest of us, who are not authors, and who are unlikely to write glorious books about the Middle East:

Do not rise to the bait of politicians who would deliberately provoke racial violence (I’m looking at you, Netanyahu, as well as at Hamas as a whole), and while I can’t really expect an audience outside of my group, I would say Jews of North America have got to do a whole lot less talking and a whole lot more listening. (I’d say this goes for most of humanity, though.)

Vicious anti-Semite that I am to my own people, I would say I’ve noticed if there’s one thing Jews have got in common it’s a complete inability to shut up, but we should practice. Really, we should. And maybe when we do talk, we should speak with our neighbours? Not at them?

Shut up and listen, and do some real, logical thinking about what the ultimate goal is, and how to achieve it. I guarantee, fellow Jews, that calling every journalist out there an anti-Semite is not going to secure Israel’s peace and stability.

If the goal is lasting stability and peace, which, to my mind, is the ideal outcome, and if you disagree, we’re probably not talking on the same page, it’s not going to happen overnight. The best way to get there is to confront nuances and realities, not to subsume them beneath flaming generalizations.

Take several steps back, calm down, and do not respond to everything you see with an aggrieved shriek, do not write snarkily and pointedly on your social media that “I see you, people who are speaking out/not speaking out.” Don’t shame people for responding in a complex way to a complex problem. Complicate yourself, don’t simplify others.

And consider sitting down with a cup of tea and reading something else. It’ll be all right.

Israel and Palestine: Part II

In the first post in this series, I started with a very exact quote from Madeleine L’Engle to exemplify what happens when an author writes with authority, but with either incorrect information or a deeply problematic approach. Here, we’re talking about using language with precision, and I don’t just want you to think about the articles and news reports below—think about picture books. The absolute master of precision in language today is—drumroll—Mac Barnett. Consider his book The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Marked by repetition (“Oh woe!”), it has humorous cadence. But in few pages, each with few words, Mac Barnett establishes characters’ voices (especially the briskness of Duck), and one stunning example of precise vocabulary when the duck says, “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” OK! Well, then. Everyone laughs, but Barnett has everyone thinking: “What do these words mean? What is the duck telling us, and why does it matter to the story?” If every journalist and op ed author out there were given the Mac Barnett Duck Test, every discussion of conflict over Israel and will-there-be-a-Palestinian-state would be vastly improved.


When I see articles and discussions about “Israel” or “Israel-Palestine” there’s always so much missing. Is a given article talking about the actions of the IDF in Gaza, or are we talking about the current government (whatever it may be today) and its political bungling (whatever it may be today)? Perhaps we’re talking about the police, which is a word that has additional charged feeling in North America right now, which you’ve gotta know people are exporting with North American understanding to apply exactly the same metrics to the police in Israel, and though I personally doubt they’re much better I do know they’re different. Perhaps, however, we’re talking about Arab populations in Israel—but maybe the Arabs in question are those in the territories outside the borders? Wait, when we say “Arabs” are we talking Christian or Muslim Arabs? Are we, perhaps, forgetting the intensely nuanced and diverse populations of the entire area and all of the charged feelings altogether?

I know the answer to only one of those questions, pretty much.


Let’s start with a thought exercise: When are you asked to “Support Sweden!” or “Denounce Finland!” Sweden did an absolutely crappy job of handling the Covid crisis, right? Did you “denounce” it? I sure didn’t, because I figured, as I figured in the USA, which, by the way, also did a crap job, that there was a pretty complicated situation going on with key figures who were mismanaging things. Sweden-the-country had very little to do with Anders Tegnell. Sweden, to break things down carefully, is a country: a chunk of territory within artificial borders human beings like to set up so they can fight about where the imaginary lines run with other human beings. The people of Sweden enjoy a democracy, and they elected people, and who’s in charge of what got arranged following the elections of people to do the decision-making. To put it a bit more seriously and plainly: being a democracy, which is not a perfect system, they did what they did based on where they are at this moment in time, just as we did in the USA. We had a dreadful election in 2016 and the repercussions were simply disastrous in terms of the mismanagement of Covid despite the valiant and imperfect efforts of truly heroic people. I wouldn’t “denounce” the USA, nor would I “denounce” Sweden, so why would I, and why should you, “denounce” Israel or whatever the equivalent terminology for “Palestine” is?

What about “support”? Surely it’s OK to “support” someone! Again, Israel is not “someone,” and I feel stupid even typing that. No, I do not “support” Israel except in that I think it’s fine for it to exist and I’m glad it’s there, absolutely. And I regret that there is no equivalent State of Palestine, by the way. I wish with all my heart that there were a strong, stable, and happily kvetchy State of Palestine. Having got that out of the way—why should I “support” or be asked to “support” Israel every single time someone criticizes anything about “it” and I have to put “it” in quotes because I DON’T KNOW WHAT “IT” EVEN IS HALF THE TIME.

Does a university hire a probably mediocre academic who undoubtedly got hired due to being better at applications than most better academics (believe me, that happens a lot) and who knows how to write a snappy “controversial” piece in a journal somewhere? Write to the university! Support Israel! (NB: Israel really won’t vanish in a puff of air because someone wrote a snappy piece. It didn’t happen last time, it won’t happen this time.) Does a journalist write a thoughtful piece critiquing a military action of the IDF that, honestly, was necessary but wouldn’t have been necessary if the government had had the sense to be more diplomatic? Write a letter to the editor! Support Israel! (NB: think about why you’re asking me to do that.)

What about “Support Palestine!” Well, look. There’s the pretty obvious issue: there is no State of Palestine to support yet. There are territories where the Palestinian people live, where various bodies are in charge, such as Hamas or Fatah. It’s all very messy and complex. It would, without a doubt, be much better for everyone if there were a State of Palestine with jobs, a democratic government, elections, medical care, public education, etc. The thing is, it doesn’t exist and I find it hard to support what’s demonstrably nonexistent. As I just said above, I, personally, wish it did exist! So, when we’re told “Support Palestine!” many folks feel very righteous for saying it because, well, Palestine should exist. Right? OK, but since there’s no agreement, to put it mildly, as to what we’re being asked to support (i.e. are we supporting the hope for the existence of a state, are we supporting people who are Palestinian, are we supporting the eradication of the State of Israel and a return to pre-1948?), many who are met with the demand to “Support Palestine!” blink silently in question… and others fulminate, imagining that they’re being asked to see their relatives deported from their homes and the State of Israel turned into… hmmm. What?

Again, think logically. When I’m told that Israel is a colonial power which shouldn’t exist and we have to “do something about it” I wonder what there is to return to. Pre-1948? There was no actual Palestinian autonomy, I’m afraid. Probably Britain doesn’t want to get involved here… they’re having enough issues with Brexit. There’s no Ottoman Empire since, you know, WWI, and if we want to go really far back—Italy and the Vatican would have to fight it out and I think that’s not likely to go anywhere. Without being too glib (oh, too late), there’s nothing to go back to, meaning the only way out is forward. So what’s going forward, what’s the goal?

Honestly, a good chunk of the issue is that the goal is not clear. There doesn’t seem to be agreement as to a goal, on the “Palestinian Side” if there is a “Palestinian Side.” It’s an enormous question built on politics, geography, and history, and most articles I read don’t seem to want to talk about that, even to say, “I recognize X, Y, and Z but am limiting this discussion to A, B, and C.”

What does all of that mean, then, the analysis of terminology above? Well, as I just said: the political landscape and history are fraught. The logic of terminology is hard to cope with. Most articles, especially opinion pieces, do not like to acknowledge or grapple with that… So they don’t, and readers and activists never respond calmly because the fraught history is emotionally charged. Politics and political history are hard at the best of times, and this… this is a question of “well ok what historical landscape in which territories and for which group of people at that historical moment?” Which is, clearly, not the easiest of scenarios.


So the easiest thing to do, and the laziest, and aren’t we all so lazy? (Yes, yes, we are!), is to duck political history altogether and say, no! This isn’t political history at all! (I’m so sorry, my friends, but it really is.) It’s a matter of human rights and discrimination! Well, it is. But it is in the context of political history. And that’s the issue: who’s talking about which form of discrimination at what point, and if you want to “do something about it,” how is that best achieved with the most lasting results?


The Palestinians are being oppressed! OK, which Palestinians? Those who are Arab Israelis of Palestinian background in, perhaps, the area of Jerusalem? They have voting rights, healthcare, etc. Are they discriminated against? Often they are! They’re subjected to racism, Islamophobia runs rampant in Israel as in North America, and the erasure of Arab Christians has always bothered me. All of that is true. It is equally true that they have MKs who advocate for them, and their healthcare is equivalent to Jewish Israelis. They get parental leave like any other Israeli, better than most Americans. So we have to differentiate their situation from the oppression of Palestinians outside of Israeli territory, in which case we simply can’t evade political history because it comes right back to who has the rights to which territories. In short: who’s in charge, who’s doing the oppressing, and in which situation does which group have the right to claim rights to oppress whom on which square foot of land? That’s complicated and if your goal is simply stability then you either have to wipe out one group altogether (that’s called “genocide”) or else you have to concede that it can’t possibly be figured out without negotiations and compromise, really, it just can’t. And, my friends, I’m going to make you all mad: I have heard everyone—liberal Jews, conservative Jews, Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, American Muslims—try to get around negotiations by claiming human rights, but it simply won’t work that way. Even if we don’t think it’s “fair,” labelling a political situation “just” a humanitarian crisis is not going to get you out of the realities of negotiations and politics. Every humanitarian crisis also has political issues inextricably entwined, from antiquity to the present day, from the Reconquista to Darfur. There’s no way out of it.

OK, what about another one? Criticism of Israel isn’t anti-Zionist, it’s anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism! This one gets at me personally, boy does it ever, in large part because I’ve heard that since I was at least 12 and I tried to accept it, really, I genuinely did, hearing it from people I love and trust, but… it doesn’t compute, it really doesn’t. That’s not to say that no one uses Israel as code for Judaism, criticizing Israel gratuitously for the sake of getting at Jews. But let’s not forget that many “supporters of Israel”—see above: what does it mean to “Support Israel”?—use it as a barb against Jews and Judaism, too.

Criticism of Israel, again, depends on the day and the situation, it just does. Are we criticizing the IDF? Well, that’s one situation: we can discuss their policies, methods, leadership, all of which changes with general circumstances. But they’re the military, responding to military threats; they do not have very much (if anything) to do with the negotiations around running Israel or talks with the Palestinians. So what about the political leadership, which depends on who’s elected when and by whom? Was criticism of Ehud Barak anti-Semitic, or is criticism of Netanyahu anti-Semitic? What about criticism of Israelis? Which Israelis? Settlers? For what it’s worth, I’ve been criticizing the settlements since I was 14 or 15 years old, starting high school, and arguing with my teacher that it looked pretty freaking disingenuous to claim to have the moral high ground in peace talks while tacitly or explicitly permitting settlements to spring up all over the place. That was at my most conservative phase, my friends! If you think I wasn’t “supportive of Israel” then, if you think I was anti-Semitic, I don’t think we’re seeing eye to eye today, because you’re not even reading this, you’re in your own little world.

The only “Criticism of Israel” I can concede is inherently, every time, problematic is “Criticism of Israel for existing at all in today’s world.” Which, by the way, I differentiate from “thinking Israel shouldn’t have been permitted to exist, but accepting it’s a done deal and must be dealt with.” Fair enough, I feel that way about lots of things! However, saying it needs to cease to exist today? That’s problematic, for sure, because, well, Israel does exist, and, again, it’s a hard thing to deal with logically: what would the return to pre-1948 look like, and, given that it’s impossible, does your interlocutor just want to eradicate the State of Israel, period? If that’s the case, you’ve got bigger problems, there, and that’s actually worth looking at—depending on whether the interlocutor is worth your effort to begin with. (Hint: Do they have power to eradicate Israel altogether? Then pay attention.) However, 99% of the time I see screeching emails in my inbox about “criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism,” I look and find that it is not inherently anti-Semitic by any stretch and the hawklike glare at any criticism is so entirely counterproductive I’m simply boggled at its prevalence.


However, the problem is that we’ve sunk so far into this “but it’s a human rights issue not a political issue” that it’s dizzying to keep up with. Let’s look at more of the language regarding human rights:

Apartheid is a biggie. I was taught that any reference to Israel as an apartheid state is automatically wrong and anti-Semitic. I still don’t like it, I consider it unclear, unhelpful, and unnecessarily divisive, but I’ve started to approach it differently because it’s become prevalent enough that people who are otherwise logical and open to conversation use it and I think it’s more important to have the conversations than it is to shriek about terminology. Here’s what the OED says:

“Name given in South Africa to the segregation of the inhabitants of European descent from the non-European (Coloured or mixed, Bantu, Indian, etc.); applied also to any similar movement elsewhere; also, to other forms of racial separation (social, educational, etc.). Also figurative and attributive.”

It started in South Africa, in other words (the word literally means “separateness” or “apart-hood”), and the situation there simply can’t be logically extrapolated to be comparable to Israel. Arabs within Israel, as I said, vote and have rights. Palestinians outside are in a bad way, but they can’t vote in Israeli elections for the simple reason that they aren’t Israelis, have their own government and issues, and their own system, messy and inadequate as it is. But there are certainly forms of racial and religious separation, there is plenty of racism (institutional or not) and, yeah, ok, figurative and attributive… well, there we are. It’s used, I’m not happy about it, and I wish people would think more critically before application of the term or at least footnote it with why and wherefore, but if we write off everyone as “anti-Semitic” for its use, that’s neither accurate nor is it helpful. Far better, in my opinion, to ask the question, listen carefully and politely to the reply, and respond with thoughtfulness. If you respond with insults and indignation, you’re doing both the people and the language a disservice.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Apartheid isn’t a good term, but this time round I’m seeing Israel/the IDF/Israelis (again, be specific, folks!) accused of actual genocide (one quote from a certain “Statement in Solidarity with Palestinian Liberation” said “What we are witnessing is called genocide,” so you can’t get more categorical than that), which it’s hard to think of as being anything but disingenuous. To me, it says: “Israel rose in 1948 from the ashes of the Holocaust so if we say they’re just as bad, we get rid of them and get a state, maybe?” Except, you know, these are North Americans talking. They aren’t even there. And it’s insulting to call it a genocide. I’m not bothering to go to the OED on that one—really, I trust you.

Equally as insulting, but not to me personally, are the folks calling the Palestinians the “indigenous” population, often residents of North America drawing a direct analogy to the First Nations tribes in North America. I’ve heard First Nations leaders speak against that, and I’m not at all surprised. The First Nations tribes were here for long years before European contact, with autonomy and culture and lives—until Europeans showed up and took over and, in a nutshell, killed them and deliberately attempted to eradicate their way of life. The situation in the Middle East is far messier historically, much less cut and dried, and if you don’t know that—you should. Do research before you draw such comparisons, and allow each tribe a voice, a history, a present, and a future.

And don’t think for a moment as I list the issues with language such as “apartheid,” “genocide,” and “indigenous” that I don’t see those Jews of North America using sometimes explicit, often more veiled critiques of the usually Muslim leaders in the Palestinian Authority. I have heard with my own ears Jewish homeowners in Jerusalem say they’d rather not hire Arab workers, for example. Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia run rampant and I refuse to pretend they don’t exist.

In North America, I have broken bread with people who have, without the benefit of knowledge of any kind (and I think back, here, to Madeleine L’Engle having Vicky’s grandfather muse on who has the authority to say “what Christians think”), explained that violence is inherent to Islam; that since certain Muslim leaders are anti-Semitic and want to kill Jews, “we” (and I wasn’t really clear on who “we” referred to) are more than justified in annihilating the countries of those leaders (I never returned to that house but I’m still ashamed of not having gotten up and left at those words, leaving no doubt of my anger); and who have told “anecdotes” without evidence beyond “I was there and I saw this” which attempted to suggest that “they’re different from us.” That last one is the most insidious, the most problematic. It drives in wedges. It makes us doubt. “Well,” it quietly says, “if this is what they are teaching their children then we just know they’re not going to like us because they’re indoctrinated against us and no attempt at rapprochement is even necessary, justified, or worthwhile.” Meanwhile, of course, that sort of thinking means we instill “they vs us” in our own children, and, I’m sorry to say: I saw this in school, too.

Which is a great way of making sure nothing good ever happens because we’re indoctrinating ourselves with so much anticipatory racism that we’ll never, ever be open to those who are open to us. Great job, us. We’ve persuaded ourselves they hate us so profoundly that we’ve created an enmity within ourselves so that we don’t even have to try.

What we’re left with is a pretty miserable mess of language that creates alarm, paranoia, separation, and division. In my next and final part in this series, I’ll discuss writing responsibly, and what we can do to create a better form of discourse at both the personal level and in the literary landscape.

Israel and Palestine: Part I

This is an unusual piece for me, as it gets very directly into politics by the route of scrutiny of authority, misinformation, and mistakes in children’s literature. I’m dividing this into three parts, to be posted serially. The first part will be on “Authorship,” the second will be on “Use of Language,” the third on “Writing Responsibly.” The most direct audience I’m speaking to is my own natural group, Jews of North America. However, I do think what I have to say should resonate outside, especially into the more liberal-minded readers of literature in North America.

The goal is not to determine “rightness” and “wrongness.” Instead, I’m discussing how to communicate with authenticity, precision, and in the most helpful way possible to achieve a goal. Why me? Because I read kids’ lit, and as we give children the best of ourselves (or should) this is the best area to look for clear, honest communication that helps build trust. I’m not looking at kids’ lit about the conflict– I’m looking at how we communicate and achieve goals. With that said, you’ve been warned, read on.

Part 1: Authorship


One of my favourite authors as I entered my early teenager years was Madeleine L’Engle. As is customary, I read A Wrinkle in Time first, but it wasn’t my favourite. I love the rest of the series, but I fell, hard, for A Ring of Endless Light. And Madeleine L’Engle was probably my first introduction to loving an imperfect author. Now, one of the things I loved in L’Engle was her love of poetry—I have always loved poetry and she quotes so much of it, so enthusiastically! Like this poem:

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,

Like to a shell dishabited,

Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,

And say — “This is not dead,” —

And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,

And hast such shrewd activity,

That, when He comes, He says — “This is enow

Unto itself — ‘Twere better let it be:

It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”

She attributes the poem to Sir Thomas Browne, a not particularly brilliant seventeenth-century poet. In fact, it is a poem by T.E. Brown (Thomas Edward Brown), who wrote in the late nineteenth century. Back in the era when I read it first, I had no idea. Google cleared it up for me more recently.

That was an obvious issue. When people today croak about the falling standards in publishing and the lack of fact-checking today? Oh my friends. It’s been this way for a while.

L’Engle did introduce me to Henry Vaughan, whom I’ve loved ever since, and she was really responsible for getting me into the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. That’s also the book where she quotes from Messengers of God by Elie Wiesel, a truly extraordinary book I was glad to find because I wasn’t able to cope with Wiesel’s more direct accounts of the Holocaust but I did want to read his work. Messengers of God was a wonderful book for me.

And then there are the other, more nuanced issues. I had a very hard time with passages from her other books. In her book Dragons in the Waters (1976), a thoughtful and intelligent character discusses “the passion to bring past crimes to judgment” and reminds his interlocutor, “Don’t forget that there are at this moment Israelis in Argentina tracking down Nazis.” The interlocutor concedes, “Yes. That, too, is a long time to hold hate.”

There’s also a passage in A Ring of Endless Light, the very part where Vicky’s grandfather quotes Wiesel. He says of Messengers of God: “It’s a fascinating book, though there are some sections I’d love to argue with him, especially when he writes about what Christians think, which by and large is far from what I think.”

I always struggled with that pair of passages. How could Madeleine L’Engle recognize that Elie Wiesel, for all of his deep humanity and clarity of vision, couldn’t speak authoritatively for Christians, and yet she has these two thoughtful characters in a book published a mere 31 years after the end of WWII critiquing the Israelis capturing unrepentant Nazi war criminals in Argentina? Consider that Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960. It was a question I grappled with, returning to it over and over again as I reread these books for years. You could say that I, like Vicky’s grandfather, think her books are fascinating, but want to argue with her voice of authority.

And I did reread them, because they’re good, if imperfect, books. My copies are the kind of battered old paperbacks in multiple pieces that authors grin over in delighted dismay because they’re gross but obviously loved.

This matters, ever so strongly, right now. You see, Madeleine L’Engle was writing her truth, earnestly, and she wrote well and worked very hard to get herself into others’ minds, try to understand others’ perspectives—but she wrote Noble Savage type Indigenous characters, she wrote White Saviour narratives, and, at least in these two characters she seemed to think it was acceptable to tell Jewish survivors of the Holocaust that they needed to relinquish their “hate” instead of bringing criminals to justice.

And yet? I keep her books on my shelves, imperfect as they are, good as they are. She inspired me. She gave me so much. I like to think, given the nature of her work, that she, like Grandfather, would have been open to a conversation with me. (There are other authors who sure don’t make me feel that way, and that’s a different story for another day.)

I’m seeing an awful lot in the kids’ lit world these days of very unilateral discourse about what’s good and bad in books and authorship. I’m not ideological about this, by the way. So long as it’s a good book, I’m really ok with a lot.

I’ve seen discussions of #OwnVoices authorship—a well-intentioned initiative that has turned out pretty badly after, for example, authors were forced to “out” themselves when they weren’t ready to because they were attacked for writing queer voices without (apparently) being queer. That’s extreme, of course, and really not ok… It was also predictable.

I can’t tell an author who and what they can or should write. Diana Wynne Jones said (I paraphrase) she agreed you should write what you know and that’s why she writes about dragons.

The best recent Holocaust-related book for kids I’ve ever read just came out. Peter Sís’s Nicky and Vera. He’s not Jewish. He didn’t usurp a Jewish voice or perspective. He also didn’t force young kids to live through trauma they’d never experienced, or push them into confused anxiety and guilt. His approach was emphasis of the value of each individual life saved. Thus he prepares kids to draw their own conclusions, as they grow, regarding the Nazi crimes and murders, once they have established as a foundation a clear vision of every life as valuable, every death as a tragedy. It’s not #OwnVoices, but it’s intensely valuable. On the other hand, I also welcomed Nimbus’s picture books from Rita Joe and Rebecca Thomas, and I lament the relative paucity of picture storybooks from Indigenous authors of their tribes’ histories and narratives in the kids’ lit world. I recall old picture books by white authors of First Nations stories—but I want the narratives directly from the source. Stories matter, and honesty matters. I want to have that experience, I want it from the source, and I want it in all honesty.


Why do I write this today?

I’ve been watching as everyone talks and talks about Israel and Palestine this past month or two—not to mention all my life, I guess. Being a Jew in North America is simply a whole THING about being whatever-your-country-of-origin-is plus being defensive about Israel. That’s just the way it is, and I’ve probably just pissed off every Jew in North America. I’m sorry, but I’m about to get worse.

This time around, I’ve been watching with genuine pain as friends in Israel go from grieving the familiar spiral down into violence to, once again, getting frustrated as they attempt to justify their very existence. At the same time, I listen with genuine and familiar frustration as friends and organizations in North America pontificate, once again, about supporting Israel against the attempts to eradicate it. I turn around and watch with similarly familiar frustration as activist friends go from decrying “apartheid” to deploying the word “genocide.” It’s such a familiar pattern, it’s everywhere, it’s incredibly counterproductive, and I very rarely speak about it, but I kind of want to talk, so I’m writing it down. Because it’s the same story as in the kids’ lit community.

Most everyone has no clue what they’re talking about, they’re unclear about the precise story, they claim one voice is The Real Voice to listen to, not others, and they get a lot wrong but the wrongness gets repeated ad nauseam and the irrational is spinning out of control… Sort of like spouting a poem as being from Sir Thomas Browne and then it kind of becomes that way and poor T.E. Brown loses his voice. Who even are they? Do most readers of Madeleine L’Engle know? They don’t. But the name “Browne” has won over “Brown.”

So I’m feeling puzzlement, frustration, and irritation of my own that has precisely nothing to do with “supporting” or “denouncing” anything.

I want to break a few things down about what we know, how we know it, and how we talk about it. I want to talk about setting goals and doing things that will achieve those goals. I want to talk about using the good brains we have in useful ways—and yes, all of that has to do with kids’ lit. Because one of the things about kids’ lit is the level of expertise that goes into few words. Peter Sís wrote and drew with such care and precision, with perfect use of language and deeply responsible and judicious understanding of what he had to say that others could note, that he captured a great deal; Madeleine L’Engle, unfortunately, was less precise, misattributed authorship of a poem, and gave a valuable lesson on not usurping authority—while, herself, usurping authority over another issue, which kind of undercut her authority on authority. It’s so important to know when not to speak.

And so, for today, I want you to think about who’s telling a story, and what story, and why. But when I next post, we’ll be talking about language and precision in storytelling, whether for kids or in journalism or, honestly, in any conversation, anywhere. It will be technical, and it will be uncomfortable. It will also be worth it.

Here Babies, There Babies in Summer (postcard review)

Well, now. I couldn’t well resist giving you a postcard when I got the loveliest bit of mail today! You all know how much I always loved Here Babies, There Babies by my good friend Nancy Cohen and illustrator Carmen Mok (who’s got a lot of fine books out there right now– check out Percy’s Museum by Sara O’Leary with her art!). I knew Nancy and Carmen were teaming up for a new book on the same theme, but wasn’t it a lovely surprise when a copy landed at my house, signed to my own new baby, ready to take on summer? Well, he’s definitely not a fan of summer, if we’re honest: he’s got good Canadian blood, he was born in November, and he’s completely opposed to this whole “hot weather” business. But here’s a book to teach him how to find cool fun in the warm sun– even if he and I still grumble about the hot sun!

In Here Babies, There Babies in Summer, you and your babies can have the same cuddly, bouncy experience, but figure out what to do in sultry weather: do you want to build a sandcastle (or maybe squash one?), play at the park, get that first taste of delicious ice cream, or snuggle up to your parents in a sleeping bag on a campground?

As in the first book, the star is the light touch in words and art as Nancy and Carmen bounce around with fun, diverse babies doing everything a baby loves to do! My favourite bit? The description of going up in a swing!

Babies at the playground, learning how to fly

Sailing swiftly through the air,

Toes touching the sky.

I’ll let you get the book to see Carmen’s pictures for that scene…

Huge thanks for the bookmail treat– and I want everyone to count this as a recommendation for a good summery treat for the babies and toddlers in your lives as we reconnect with families and friends post-vaccinations!

Fairy Tales Series: Part 1, we begin in Newfoundland

The title is slightly deceptive. The renewal begins in Newfoundland, this part begins in Newfoundland– but really it goes back to the year… hm. Maybe 1995? I remember this, and pretty much only this: I was about eight or nine years old. I had read a few different Cinderella stories and noticed similarities and differences. I talked to my mother about them and she said something about scholars not being sure to what degree the stories had started in one place and travelled elsewhere and to what degree the same type of story had sprung up independently around the world. Being an eight-or-nine-year-old with no academic background but limitless reading time and no barriers to my sense of possibility, I decided it was a very a simple question and that it was up to me to solve the problem.

All you had to do, I decided, was read all of the stories out there (oh sweet child) and sort them out according to time and place on a map and then see whether there was a pattern to show they’d travelled. If there was, they’d travelled, if there was no discernible pattern, it showed that humans everywhere have a natural sense of story and the stories spontaneously emerged across the globe! Simple!

Dear, quixotic child that I was. I read a lot of stories and had a great time and my Unified Theory of Fairy Tales never was published given that I came to no conclusions beyond “huh this is complicated– ooooh another story!” I read Cinderella-style stories from around the world, I read animal transformation stories, and I began to weigh the bestial nature of the beast against other figures… and I learned a great deal from those traditional stories. And I also noticed the other stories. Stories like The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka. “Cute,” I thought rather condescendingly, “but… I have work to do, Mr. Scieszka, don’t interrupt me.” (Note: I was still about 9 or 10 years old. I had limitless reading time and so much condescension.) (Mr. Scieszka, it’s a good story and I enjoy it to this day, please don’t take this as any type of criticism, it just didn’t fit with my Big Job, OK?)

In hindsight, I think that was maybe the beginning of a shift, though? I never stopped loving reading “original” stories, but I didn’t see so many new editions and anyway as my reading level went up, the available stories turned towards retellings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, Beauty by Robin McKinley, and, of course, the more recent, older ones: the Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente, not to mention her not-for-kids Six-Gun Snow White and Deathless, and the graphic novel Snow White by Matt Phelan… I’ve written about Hilary McKay’s rather extraordinary Straw into Gold, I know.

These are all fairy tale adjacent, to greater or lesser degrees, but not one single glorious picture books of folk and fairy tales of the kind I grew up with and I have to say I’m really missing those on book store shelves. Which brings me back to Newfoundland, and a box I got from Running the Goat Books.

I’d posit that part of the reason for the decrease in single picture book fairy tale editions is, quite simply, wordcount. (Pause: I’m using a lot of qualifications for a reason. Broad generalizations are broad, I do not want to go into the niggling details, I’m not an expert, I don’t work at a publisher, I’m not published, etc. This is a very limited view from one person who would like more fairy tale books, please. Got it? Don’t wave your bundle of exceptions at me unless there are really awesome book recommendations in there, in which case—do.)

There’s been a really noticeable trend from “storybooks” to “picture books” over time, and that means (generally speaking, very much generally) that authors who want to actually get a book published will limit wordcount because agents know that editors want fewer words on the page, not a Big Fat Story.

Exceptions? Absolutely. Nonfiction, for one. If you’re writing a picture book biography, for example, you’ve got to do what the narrative requires, and that will have heavier wordcount. Likewise, for example, a scientific concept, natural history, history of a time period, etc. Are you covering a lot of facts? Those facts are going to be delineated in words. While you don’t want to waste words, as, for example, may happen in a blog post which no one is editing for length and clarity for example—you probably need more words than would go into, oh, concept picture books, for example, such as A Child of Books. Think of the sparse wordcount and enormous feeling in I Talk Like a River.

“Yes but I get lots of picture books that tell a good story, and do so within a limited wordcount!” So do I! I’m happy with them and am beyond thrilled that you are, too. Not complaining in the least about them and I’ll cheerfully list a bunch that have come out and I never got to review: Sara O’Leary and Kenard Pak’s Maud and Grand-Maud is a wonderful story of relationship between grandmother and granddaughter; Shawn Harris’s Have You Ever Seen a Flower? shows us a kid really seeing a flower; Maile Meloy and Felicita Sala’s The Octopus Escapes tells of, surprise!, an octopus’s escape back to the wild.

But I can think of only one absolutely glorious recent picture book narrative with a dense, wordy story (which I have to admit Candlewick sent me, I didn’t spot it “in the wild”): P. J. Lynch’s The Haunted Lake (I still really want to review that one, but don’t wait on me, get it now). It’s dense, rich, and packed with a story as wild and wonderful as the muted, dangerous illustrations.

The types of fairy tale books I grew up with, though, I’m not seeing renewed: Paul O. Zelinsky, Trina Schart Hyman, K.Y. Craft… I just don’t see editions like those coming out again. And what’s sad to me is that while we can say that those were done and don’t need to be done again (no one will do a better Rumpelstiltskin than Paul Zelinsky or a better Snow White than Trina Schart Hyman, which I can’t seem to find in print?, ever, fight me)—I feel pretty strongly that there are stories not told.

Ashley Bryan told stories from Africa in Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum, for example, back in 1980. And those were still in collections, not the big individual hardbacks I crave. My vague memories of old stories from Canadian First Nations tribes is that most were collected by white people, though I won’t swear to that, and I think an Inuit tale is (probably, but not certainly) best told by an Inuk author, illustrated by an Inuk artist. I think there’s a real lag in telling old stories right now: I love the new ones, I don’t want them to stop, but I do want old stories told and illustrated by people who know them, and I want them individually packaged in big, beautiful hardbacks. Thank you. Hop to it.

The reason I rant at such length is that I’ve been stewing over this for a while, pretty cranky, if we’re honest.

And then I got a beautiful, lovely email from my personal hero right now: Marnie Parsons of Running the Goat Books & Broadsides in Newfoundland. First of all, Marnie had obviously read my page explaining how I handle review copies. (I love it when people read first! It makes me feel all warm and cozy like a teacher whose student reads the syllabus!) Second, when I selected a few books and she sent them (very promptly), she sent a few extras and very good materials explaining background for each book. Third, she also handles shipments from their store in Tors Cove in Newfoundland and she kindly arranged a package to my friend in Newfoundland. So Marnie is just the best.

And the books. My friends. Local, independent presses are never to be underestimated. Running the Goat produces curated books from incredibly talented local authors, takes the time to shape and edit the text beautifully, the illustrators are often astounding, and the design and production values are great.

And the best bit? This is Newfoundland. I GOT LOCAL FAIRY TALES.

The first one I saw on the website and immediately requested from Marnie was Spirited Away: Fairy stories of old Newfoundland, collected and told by Tom Dawe with perfectly eerie illustrations by Veselina Tomova. Note: this is a collection, not the single story spun out over 32 pages I was craving. But it was a re-immersion in the collections I loved from later childhood. A prim, usually upper middle class gentleman or lady during the Celtic Revival would wander around Ireland or Scotland writing down stories told by an older woman or gentleman, spinning literal and figurative yarn simultaneously while the earnest recorder set down the words. The methodological issues with those early collections are known and I won’t revisit them, but I’m glad to have them. Tom Dawe’s collection is better than those of the Celtic Revival, if I’m being blunt. He knows these stories in their creepy, delightful, eerie beauty. He knows them in his blood and bones and spins them into words with lyrical honesty, with a voice that reminds me of Ellen Bryan Obed’s in its poetry and simplicity. Veselina Tomova, originally from Bulgaria, illustrated these stories with dark wood-cuts that snatch the heart of the story and splay the feeling across the page, grabbing the eye into the mood from the first glance. I love her art and want it on my wall.

I was less sure what to expect from Andy Jones (Marnie sent me Barefoot Helen and the Giants and Jack and the Green Man before I started reading. It didn’t say “fairy tale,” because, well, I guess they aren’t fairy tales. But they are the closest thing I’ve seen to what I was craving, and surpassed my wildest desires in actual execution.

Andy Jones is a storyteller of the Robert Munsch kind: he tells a story and knows how to record it in words such that the voice emanates from the page. (In fact, he reads his own stories on audio, available for download from the Running the Goat website!) And they’re real stories, with brilliant, exciting narratives with kings and queens and princesses running around and giants and everything—all in a hardback with gloriously flamboyant illustrations. And the stories are decidedly familiar: there’s your Molly Whuppie (Barefoot Helen slaying the Giants), there’s your Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Jack and the Green Man), but there’s also a failed fishery with families moving away, and there’s rediscovering old family and remaking a new family. The Master Maid narrative gets a bit of a mischievous makeover, and Molly Whuppie doesn’t end as expected, either. If you, like me, sometimes grumble about stupid worthless princes and heteronormative storytelling… fear not.

The art? Barefoot Helen and the Giants is illustrated with bright, quirky, and bold art from Katie Brosnan. It’s fun, upbeat, and not too beautiful for the story, which emphasizes boldness over beauty—thus leading us to a new type of beauty in the end. Jack and the Green Man is illustrated by Darka Erdelji who also designs puppets in Slovenia, and you can absolutely see that narrative drama in her work, and I just loved tracing the story in the visual landscape of the page.

(Side note to Marnie: Can you get your illustrators to produce prints to sell through your shop? I have a few in mind…)

For me, the icing on the cake was this: Andy Jones brings both the hardback glory of a single story excitedly sprawling its tall tale across 32 pages and the glorious notes of Joseph Jacobs who kindly and accessibly explains his sources at the back of this collections so that nerds like me could run after them and read more stories.

Marnie Parsons is the actual best because in the finest form of every publisher and bookseller she found me new books, authors, and illustrators to love and get excited about.

My friends, I was wrong. There are new folk and fairy tale or tall tale storybooks out there. But don’t limit yourselves to the Big However Many (Big Five, Big Four?) in your searches. It’s totally worth it to look more broadly, and I pledge to tell you of any I find. (There’s a reason this is Part 1…)

Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem

I’ve never actually tried to write a post from my phone before, so this is a first time test… But it’s not meant to be a long or complex one, so hopefully it goes ok. This is, really, just a heads up to everyone looking for the perfect Father’s Day gift: Lauren Soloy has you covered with her new book, Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem (isn’t that a great title?).

It’s such a shame, I think, that good dads generally turn up in books, if they do at all, as “special time” parents. What’s lovely about this book is that Lauren Soloy roots it in history (there’s a note about Etty’s work with her famous father, Charles Darwin, at the back) so the reality of this wonderful dad spending time with his daughter doing a normal, not “special time,” thing together feels all the more real. This is the story: they go for a walk and think and talk. He listens carefully to her thoughts, responds honestly and thoughtfully, and shares his thoughts with her. He notes it when she says something that prompts him to remember to keep an open mind, showing that dads learn from kids as much as kids from dads. At the end they feel better for taking time from the day to walk and think and talk together.

I think this is a great book at any time, but if you’re looking for something to show the dad in your family that you appreciate his “every day” fathering, his attention and listening, his open mind and genuine fondness for spending time with his kids… Don’t get a grill. Get this book.

(I completely blew it because as soon as I got it I shoved it in my husband’s hands so I guess I just have to get him a grill instead. Too bad there aren’t any other books out there instead…)

215 children

I’m going to guess that if you read anything I write, you care about children. If so, you’re probably as shattered and horrified as I am to read about the discovery of the remains of 215 Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops “residential school” as we politely call those former institutions where First Nations children were taken from their families and horribly maltreated. There’s an article from the Globe and Mail here which tells a bit of history.

I remember learning about these schools a little when I was in middle and high school. I got the impression it was a bad thing to do because of the impact on the culture: the erasure of language, family ties severed, generational gaps widened to chasms. I knew some of the priests and nuns did bad things.

We didn’t read any Rita Joe. We didn’t hear personal accounts. We had no idea about unmarked mass graves of 215 children whose parents were waiting and waiting and grieving and never, ever knew– knew for sure— what happened to their kids as young as the age of 3. Each of those 215 kids came from someone, somewhere. Each lost child is a lost story, or, really, stories: the story of the child, the story of the family waiting, the gap of everything that might have happened if they’d been together. All that was left was grief, destitution, rancor.

It’s sickening to look directly at that history and see that it’s not ancient history; it’s quite recent, and the implications are being quite literally excavated and disclosed today. I’m linking you back to these books from Nimbus, I Lost My Talk and I’m Finding My Talk in humility for my lack of knowledge and gratitude to Nimbus for publishing these accounts.

There are, thankfully, more materials being published today directly from First Nations authors and illustrators and I encourage everyone to seek these out and read them with your kids. Not just stories of pain, but narratives of all kinds, featuring joy, the genuine lives and feelings and culture of real living people, with an eye to history, the present, and the future. Don’t leave those graves unmarked.

A Time of Loss

On March 30, 2020, the world lost Tomie dePaola. March 8, 2021, we lost Norton Juster. March 25, 2021, Beverly Cleary died. May 23, 2021, Eric Carle died. And May 25, 2021, Lois Ehlert died.

I’m still trying to absorb this. Every one of these creators left a body of wonderful, beautiful work. They all lived full lives. And I’m still having a hard time.

I say it with Dylan Thomas… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I once half joked here that Eric Carle should win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (I’ve also thought of Ashley Bryan– I just checked, and, thank God, he’s still alive, ever brilliant and ever a mentor at age 97.)

Of course, we can comfort ourselves that the beautiful books and stories will live on. And, yes, they do.

But as I’m here, with a Spriggan curled up sleeping beside me, and the Changeling presumably reading in bed… I have another thought.

I’m thinking of the when the warm sun comes up, how it shines on a little egg lying on a leaf. Out of the egg– pop!– comes a little caterpillar. The caterpillar needs food. It eats and it eats all different things. It builds a small house around itself for a nice rest, and out comes– a beautiful butterfly!

Every single creator I list above? For each of these creators I’ve seen an outpouring of loving memories: “She wrote back to me and I have that postcard to this very day,” “He smiled and said, ‘Call me Eric,'” “He had such a great sense of humour.”

Words and images endure, yes, of course: but these creators left behind an energized, inspired series of artists and authors who will continue to create new and original work. More? Eric Carle co-founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art which does an incredible amount of good. I will never forget running into the beautiful artist and author, Grace Lin, there with her daughter. We were there masked, social distancing, and I stammered out my request for a signed book for the Changeling and the Spriggan, telling her how my girl reads up everything she writes.

Without Eric Carle, I wouldn’t have had the space to encounter Grace Lin. He’s been such a warm, nourishing sun to so many creators. That museum gives honour to the creators of preceding generations and support to the creators of the present. It’s a living, breathing testament to the greatness of the arts.

One of the exhibits I remember clearly from the Museum was “Eric Carle’s Angels: An Homage to Paul Klee,” where we had a chance to see how his art evolved in response to the influences of Paul Klee, even the past 5 years. There was thought, abstraction, playfulness: he never stopped learning, never stopped absorbing. That takes humility.

Humility, a willingness to learn, the generosity and openness to shine a light on others and warm them with education and support: this is the legacy these creators (all of them, so far as I can tell from the outpouring of love I see and hear) are leaving behind.

I’ve got a lot of writing to do here, and several reviews in progress, but I couldn’t let tonight go by without saying this:

I never wrote to any of these five. (The Changeling did write to Beverly Cleary, a few months before her death.) I have a membership to the Carle Museum– but I never wrote to Eric Carle.

I have a recording my parents took of me “reading” (reciting) The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a child. I read it every night to the Changeling when she took her bath. (The first time I got to the last page– she cried at the butterfly, she was so surprised!) I have it off by heart in English and Welsh, both.

I wish I’d written to tell him. I regret not having done so, I regret it deeply. I think he was such a part of the landscape to me that I never thought to because… the warm sun comes up, you know? But the sun is setting tonight and while I know it will rise in the morning, tonight I’m sad. I wish I’d told Eric Carle that I care. I wrote to a few other creators tonight.

I hope you all reach out to tell people whose work matters to you that it really does. And, if you ever get the chance– visit the Eric Carle Museum and just absorb the greatness of picture books. There are so many, and the warm sun of the generations behind us has given us that space to learn, enjoy, and be inspired.

Thank you, Tomie dePaola, Norton Juster, Beverly Cleary, Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert– your memories are an ongoing blessing on the children’s book community and families everywhere.

And to everyone out there who knew these great creators: I’m holding you all in my thoughts, too. It’s tough to say goodbye, even when the books are still there.

Cat Books: Because I want to

Hello. I’m in the middle of a Very Heartfelt Post about something else, but then two books involving cats fell on me and I decided I need to write about them.

I really love cats. I have two cats: Penelope (Penny) the floofy elegant lady, and Telemachos (Telos) the Big Orange Doofus. I’m still deeply bitter I do not have twin stripey grey kittens named Castor and Pollux. They were in Indiana during quarantine but my husband said we couldn’t get them because I was due to give birth in the next five minutes and there wasn’t time. ANYWAY: sometimes people write really good books about cats– sometimes not. I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein, for example: VERY GOOD. There was also A Castle Full of Cats, many years ago. VERY GOOD. And just recently we got TWO really nicely done picture books about cats, showing two different, but very true, cat personalities– one involving a dog, too, which I consider a bonus.

Elisha Cooper, of Big Cat, little cat, wrote and illustrated yes & no, which tells the story of a very simple day in the life of a cat and a dog. I bought three copies of yes & no when I first saw it… And I’m sorry to tell you that the only reason I only bought three is because they only had three copies on display. It was not my finest moment. The story follows the very different reactions of a cat and a dog to a new day, and their different visions of the day (“YES!” says the enthusiastic dog, “no” says the prickly, indifferent cat), until suddenly they converge in a set of wordless pages of glorious silent mutual enjoyment… and the muted end of the day separates them, but in a lovely companionable disjunction (“no” says the tired dog, “yes,” says the gently helpful cat)… concluding with a very slightly mischievous twist.

I’ve seen some really great analyses of this book, but one review which I thankfully can’t pinpoint right now, offered a very earnest pointer that it’s really about how you can have different interests and personalities but still get along and this would teach kids that and…

I can’t disagree more. This is, fundamentally, a true portrait of a cat and a dog, each with a distinct personality. Every kid and every adult will understand and appreciate this, together, and, in that truth, will come the recognition of their own personalities. “I’m so the cat here!” I thought as I read one page, and turned it and laughed as I was the dog on the next page. These are the conversations you’ll end up having as you read. I guess you could say it teaches about personalities and getting along and… that makes me cringe, though.

One final note: the art… wow, it’s possibly Elisha Cooper’s finest yet, and if you’ve seen his other books… you’ll know that’s baffling to consider. Watch the facial expressions and the landscapes.

Now, Atticus Caticus by Sarah Maizes with art by Kara Kramer is a book that Candlewick did not send me (I found it at the Harvard Book Store and bought it in a heartbeat like a normal person, except that normal people don’t have that poor impulse control, I’m guessing), and I have read it aloud to the Spriggan several times already just because I enjoy reading it aloud.

This is a very different cat from Elisha Cooper’s stately, aloof feline. Atticus Caticus is less like my Penny (that would be the elegant cat in yes & no) and more like my Telos (The Big Orange Doofus), but I think Atticus is smarter? Telos never stalks our toes and is actually too stupid to watch birds, honestly. Atticus wants a “chat-a-ticus” with the birds out the window… that’s a Penny trait, that is.

Fundamentally, though, the glory of this book is that it’s a perfect read-aloud book… not just in that it sings right off of the page onto the tongue, which it absolutely does, but also in that the personality of the characters (both the little kid and the cat) and the art ring together with the silly fun rhythm in an ideal, rollicking merger of pure delight in each other.

Note: I am fanatically picky about rhyming books. I studied poetry at the graduate level. I read a poem every night to the Changeling and the Spriggan (he cares! I know he cares!) and I am just… picky. This is not a “rhyming picture book,” though. It’s more like Jamberry in that the rhyme is part and parcel of a narrative poem where the rhythm and the bounce and the dance is of far greater importance than the (nevertheless satisfyingly perfect) rhyme scheme.

Side rant: Lord only knows why we have to keep talking about rhyme in children’s books. Have you read Mother Goose? Half of them have rhymes all over the place. It’s about good poetry not rhyme. And metre and rhythm and beat can be ten times more important. (End of rant.)

So there you have it! Two new cat books (sorry, Elisha Cooper, the dog is also adorable but it’s a cat book in my head), and I think you should really get both of them. Buy indie, please, and let me know if I can help you find your indie book shop!

(This is all rushed Because Baby so you know I mean it, OK?)

The Rock from the Sky

Sometimes there’s a book you know you need before the deal is even made, much less the writing and art finished, much less printed and distributed, etc. For me, that’s… basically every Jon Klassen book ever written or illustrated, if we’re honest. Definitely it’s true of The Rock from the Sky. I knew I would need it, but I had no idea until it arrived and I read it how much joy it would give us all.

The back cover shows– you’ve guessed it!– a rock, falling from the sky. Crazy surprise.

Hey, did I tell you I sent a copy of Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett with Jon Klassen illustrations to the South Pole? That’s the kinda fangirl I am. (Yeah, they sent the Changeling a beautiful thank you letter and NOAA gear. She’s planning our trip to visit them.) (Dear Family: You all are looking forward to the end of covid-times so we can get together again? See you at the South Pole!)

The point is, though, this is the first book where I actually wrote to a publisher requesting a review copy. I straight up told Candlewick, “I’ve pre-ordered this, actually. In fact, I’ve got two copies waiting at two local indie shops. But I do want to see it and review it ahead of time, so if you’ve got a spare copy…” Inexplicably, they sent it to me. (They were so nice: “Sure, happy to! Send us your review!” I’m like– I love you, Book People, but why do you care about me?)

Look, Jon Klassen and I both love hats– a hat photo was inevitable. Judge not. (Hey, Jon Klassen? I wanna see a turtle in a hat with a feather!)

But in this case it was so much more than simply wanting the book. (Even though, clearly, I wanted the book.) It was more, even, than wanting to slot it into my calendar. I wanted this book, even though I hadn’t seen it yet. I knew roughly what it was “about,” as it were. There would be, the title strongly suggested, a rock, and the rock would be coming from the sky; also I anticipated animals wearing hats. I was not disappointed. Thorough prior research of the Jon Klassen oeuvre suggested he tends toward the “deadpan,” with muted expressions, evasiveness, and animals playing it straight. I felt, rather strongly, that this would be a different experience from my recent reading in the arena of lyrical, gut-punching, earnest books.

It was. The reading was incredibly fun, with delightfully suspenseful page turns and absolutely gorgeous art.

And it’s very, very hard to write about. One reason (and this I know) is that today it’s hard to write about “fun.” The real is surreal today, and it’s bitter and bizarre and heartbreaking. The books about Real Life for adults are, almost without exception, heartbreaking if they let you have a heart to break. The books about reality for kids range from hauntingly wistful and beautiful to desperately peppy “sure it’s crap but you can change it, and sorry we let it get so bad!” books of activism.

It’s very, very hard to pull back from that to say, “Uh, here! This book is funny and will make you feel happy. Are… are we allowed to be happy…?”

And then, quite apart from giving permission to access joy and animals in hats, I was puzzled by what I might write about. I absolutely knew I had something to say… but what? My ever-so-kind husband decided to help out: “You should say…” he began, eagerly. I sputtered in utter fury: “I SHOULD SAY??? You start your own review, then!” So he did:

What first struck me about The Rock from the Sky was Klassen’s use of a sans serif font. Whereas the Hat trilogy is typeset in an easy-to-read serif font (New Century Schoolhouse), The Rock is set in a bleak Helvetica. One character’s lines are in black, the other’s in gray. In We Found A Hat, you know who is talking without the typographic cues. In The Rock, the typography is pointing to the disconnect between the characters. They stand far apart. They cannot hear each other, THEY NEED TO SHOUT. 
The Rock reminds me of Waiting for Godot, down to the bowler hats that the characters wear. (The hats in The Rock are simply there, they don’t have the same aura of spunk and individuality that they possess in the Hat trilogy). “What happened?” asks one character. “Nothing.” Later, “OK. What are you doing?” “We are not doing it anymore.” There is certainly a fun undercurrent throughout the book, but in the end I came away a little unsettled, thinking about closeness and intimacy, the meaning of life, and other existential questions. 

“I should do guest reviews for you!” No, no you should not.

I needed real help, so I talked to the Changeling, who always has insights to share. She loved the book, had things to say, but hesitated a lot about how to say it (so I wasn’t alone). She found it “funny but not ‘hahah laughing out loud funny.'” Please note that all funnies appear on a spectrum from “bathroom humour funny” (which is a fine and legitimate form of humour, too, allow me to refer you to I HAVE TO GO! by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko) on the “hahah laughing out loud funny” side of the spectrum and the dry, the deadpan, and the “my father developed this sense of humour in both me and, by extension, the Changeling” humour which turns up in Pokko and the Drum, for example, on the other side. She noted that the friend who would like The Rock from the Sky best is the friend with whom she reads the heavier duty novels. Usually she wouldn’t think of him for picture books at all, so I was very intrigued that this one (labelled “4-8 years”) struck her as being suitable for her High Intellectual Buddy.

Here’s the thing: I don’t need to tell you what The Rock in the Sky is “about” because, as noted, it’s in the title. And that’s my favourite kind of book. I had a conversation with a buddy recently in which I enthused forever about James Branch Cabell, he asked me “what sort of things he wrote,” and I simply couldn’t figure out how to describe it. How to define that level of bizarre, different, new… even when the new is nearly a hundred years old? That indefinability is absolutely key to me in literature. If I can define it, it might be very good, but it’s unlikely to enter the “I need it before the book deal is made” zone.

I did far too much reading and advice-seeking, in fact. A short list:

Candlewick posted a fantastic video of Jon Klassen himself talking about the influence of Hitchcock on his storytelling.

Over at SLJ, Elizabeth Bird wrote a review distilling everything I think into a beautiful, fun-to-read review so why am I even bothering? (I shouldn’t admit in public how badly I want to be her when I grow up.)

Even the New York Times compares it to Beckett— my husband was doubly scooped, let me note.

At least no one else thought of James Branch Cabell. (“Deb, sweetie, nobody else knows about him or reads him today.” Neil Gaiman does, so there.)

What I think all of this misses is a very simple fact:

Jon Klassen is not writing for Hitchcock fans. Nor is he writing to replicate Beckett, Ionesco, and I wonder if he’s heard of James Branch Cabell? (Hey, Jon Klassen! You should read Cabell!) Let’s look at his art.

I swear my whole life feels happier for uploading this image.

Look at the armadillo’s eyes, tilting up the rock face. The armadillo is slightly baffled, trying to process the sequence of events, piece things together. The turtle, in respectable denial, saving face, keeps those turtle eyes perfectly level, willing the armadillo to go quietly away. (Genders are not vouchsafed, and while I have my own private thoughts, I will not share them. Make your own canon. I mean, my daughter has decided that Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” are a gay, interspecies couple, so go for it.)

The colours are muted, as ever, but just look at the glowing, dangerously, gloriously louring sky! One rock has fallen already– what may come next? Turner could infuse no more breathless ideas into a sky than does Jon Klassen…

And we’re giggling at the turtle, hatless and yet not precisely hatless, precariously balanced on the ground, upside-down, while the armadillo puzzles out the past.

Parents may think of Ionesco, Turner, etc. but


The glory of Klassen is that he does not write or draw for parents at one level, kids at another. Parents and kids will both bring ideas to the page, and laugh at the same pictures and ideas on the page.

Another sample:

Is this my favourite page? I haven’t decided. Maybe!

The armadillo and snake are enjoying the sunset– and what a sunset! We, the readers, are breathless, watching the sun descend… and the poor, blundering turtle is breaking the peace, the beauty, with loud shouts, creeping closer against the glorious colours and the deepening intensity of the moment…

And the suspense present over the falling rock is precisely the same, inverted for “oh no the turtle’s going to block the sunset” from “oh no the rock will fall,” but we giggle away…

With parents who have probably wiped tears over an intense movie while the kid is saying “why are you crying I don’t get it” wondering how their kids found this artistic sensitivity.

Jon Klassen is quietly linking parents and kids with glorious storytelling and art.

I recently almost smashed my laptop out of anger over some dude sneering that he’d always thought of Dr Seuss as junk food for kids (but now they’ve decided to stop printing 6 old, desperately out-of-date titles Dr Seuss is sacrosanct to this dude, obviously) with the implication that children should be carefully trained to Appreciate Higher Things and so on.

Jon Klassen is a perfect answer to that kind of snobbery. Instead of saying kids have to be mini adults, he simply provides the same quality for everyone, kids and parents. Instead of “making art accessible” by carving it down to kid size, he takes the best of the kids’ world and joins with it the level of artistry that goes into art “for adults,” so we can all enjoy it together.

In case you, like me, have been worried you have to seek permission to access this joy? I grant it to you.

Get this book, read it with a kid, and maybe stick one in a Little Free Library or something.

We all need this. We need the joy, the art, the fun.

To sum up in Elizabeth Bird’s words: “It is, in fact, his best book to date. Period.”