Two Books

Over Passover, I had the wonderful, amazing opportunity to read. I won’t go into the details of why, but, suffice it to say, after the intense, focused work I’ve been putting into my dissertation work, getting the opportunity to read two MG novels of very different character, and very different style, and very different construction– etc., etc.– was a distinct pleasure.

So let me tell you about them, and encourage you to read them both. One is a fantasy book, the other realist fiction. Both were gripping, both are highly recommended.

The first, Furthermore, by Tahereh Mafi, is colour and magic and fun.

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It reminds me, in the colourful worldbuilding, the glorious characters, and the lush prose, of Catherynne Valente. The comparison does credit to them both, and I hope that both would be delighted with it, because both take these skills and use them to create fiercely original worlds and characters.

In Furthermore, Alice Alexis Queensmeadow, our story’s protagonist, is the only girl in Ferenwood, which thrives on colour, to be born colourless. It is difficult, of course, to be different, and she feels this on many levels: at school, at home, and– once her buffer, the father who always loved her no matter what, disappears– all throughout Ferenwood. Convinced that she is magicless and talentless in a society which lives on magic and magical talent, she remains proud and strong, and faces her world with what she has cultivated herself: her talent for dance.

It is not enough.

Devastated, she goes out to seek her father– and I think that’s where I should stop telling you the story. Instead, I’m going to tell you a bit about the construction and the feeling of the book, and tell you why I think you would enjoy it.

The construction is, on the surface, your classic “quest” story– girl goes out to seek father. Spoiler alert: she finds him in the end. Yawn.

Except not.

Everyone knows, of course, that Alice is going to find her father. Just as everyone knows in Howl’s Moving Castle that Sophie will conquer the Witch, and everyone knows in the Odyssey that Odysseus will complete his journey and come home and find Penelope and throw out the suitors. But… but. Did you know he’d find his old faithful dog again, too? Did you know that Penelope would test Odysseus to see whether he was still the husband she loved? In Howl, did you know what would happen with Calcifer? At the end of these books, it’s the relationships that matter, and they run in many directions.

The same is true, gloriously true, in Furthermore. Alice’s relationships grow and blossom and the isolated child of the first chapter ends the book surrounded by people who mean something to her. And it’s complicated by the fact that the relationships aren’t just between people, but between places, but I can’t tell you more about that… and apparently there’s a sequel… Tahereh Mafi is new to me, but Furthermore already feels like an old friend. I love books that do that.

One final word about Furthermore: It’s a story about colour, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t underline what I alluded to above: the colour of the language. This book is positively symphonic in its use of language. It’s gorgeous. Baroque, by times, colloquial by other times, it doesn’t feel inconsistent, it feels harmonic. Different registers, different uses of adjectives and adverbs– often elaborate, never overdone. You’ll enjoy the enthusiasm of the language as much as you enjoy Alice’s enthusiasm in the plot.

Now, the next book I wanted to tell you about is a new-to-me-but-old one: Joan Aiken’s Midnight Is a Place.

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This one just fell into my lap over Passover. I had finished Furthermore more quickly than I’d anticipated (see above regarding how much I loved it to understand why that happened), the weather was dull and grey, I couldn’t work because it was a holiday, and basically, I needed a book. Fortunately I was in a place where books were in plenty, and this one was by Joan Aiken which meant it was good and–

Reader, it is the spiritual polar opposite of Furthermore, and it is phenomenal.

Gripping, haunting, grim, but, somehow, hopeful– the ending very nearly brought me to tears.

Lucas Bell is an orphan, living in Midnight Court, the splendid but cold and somewhat mysterious home of his guardian, Sir Randolph Grimsby. He can tell something is not quite right, but he can’t put his finger on what, or why. Gradually, gradually he finds things out– his guardian had won the Court in a bet from its rightful owner, but under dubious circumstances, and seems haunted by his past; there’s a girl, Anna-Marie, who suddenly shows up at the hall who is somehow connected to it, but how?; and when the Court goes up in flames, Randolph Grimsby dies in the blaze, and the children are left alone and penniless in a hostile town which hates anything remotely connected to their late, unlamented guardian–

It’s a dark story, isn’t it? And then consider the Dickensian or Gaskellian angle: Grimsby had owned the Mill, the horrible, inhumane carpet mill which runs through employees as swiftly as Grimsby himself ran through money. There’s the cruelty of the employers and the management, but there’s also the sadism of the Friendly association of the employees, ostensibly out to protect the employees against the hard press of the owners of the Mill– will the children end up having to work at such a place?

Or will they take the alternatives, turning to the town with industry, vim, and youthful vigour? After all, they’d hated the Court, and were wary of the Mill, so why not first try to earn their keep on the streets– or, in Lucas’s case, under it?

This book is a combination of brooding realism, Gothic mystique (think of the big house and the mystery surrounding it), and almost fantastical elements: is there a witch living in the old ice house? what happened to Mrs. Braithwaite’s baby when she goes off to Australia? and what’s in that mysterious box?

But nothing is allowed to remain too fantastical for long… after all, this is a grounded, realist piece of literature. The colours are all dark. If Furthermore was a riot of colour, Midnight Is a Place is all black and charcoal grey– or is it? Isn’t there a streak of colour in Anna-Marie’s frivolous little pink dress? I would argue that, dark as it is, if you read it closely, you’ll find it a shadowed rainbow, while Furthermore was a bright one.

But both are beautiful, and, ultimately, hopeful.

What have you been reading?

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Here We Are

Where are you?

I’m on planet earth, in North America, in the United States, in Massachusetts, in Boston, in Inman Square, working and visiting my old neighbourhood… and suddenly I got the urge to write to you. And I thought, “Here We Are.” Here We Are is a beautiful book by Oliver Jeffers, whom you know (along with Sam Winston) from A Child of Books.

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Oliver Jeffers is (arguably) one of the best-known children’s author-illustrators working today, and deservedly so. And Here We Are really shows his work at its best.

What do I love about Here We Are? Oh, there’s so much to love! The art is Jeffers’s best– the sketchy, child-friendly feel with infinite sophistication in the details. The text is warm and communicative without ever talking down to the child or the adult reading to the child.

But what I love best is the trajectory of the story. Do you remember way back when I first told you about Madlenka’s Dog? It’s been a while, so I won’t be offended if you need to refresh your memory. In brief, Madlenka’s Dog starts out with the universe and rapidly narrows its scope to Madlenka herself, and the others on her block who own dogs. Oliver Jeffers does something pretty similar, but his focus is a little difference and his pace is more gradual.

Oliver Jeffers begins in space, with a map of the solar system (“probably not to scale”), and talks about our place therein, then relative to the moon, then the land and the sea, then the sky, then the nature of the land and of the people who inhabit the land. He talks about our relationships to the earth and to each other. He talks about how similar and how different we are, one from another. Then he gets more specific, talking about families and what people do (“Generally how it works is that when the is out it is daytime, and we do stuff.”), and how things move slowly sometimes and quickly sometimes. And then he steps back, “Well, that is Planet Earth,” but never too far back (“I won’t be far away.”)– the direct address, as parent to child, keeps the book very intimate.

And I tell you this much: I am not a weepy sort of a person (except for the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Giselle, and… fine, I can be weepy, but not gratuitously weepy, OK?) but I got choked up at the last few pages of Here We Are.

I feel that’s important to tell you. Because this book does two things: a) It provides a kind of floor plan to living on earth, and b) It creates a sense of intimacy between the earth and its peoples, and among the people on the earth, and between the book and the reader… Basically, it’s a linking book. And we can use more links.

I can hear you now: “But… is it preachy?”

The answer is no. It is not remotely preachy. This is Oliver Jeffers, and he always manages to convey something valuable without talking down to the reader. In this book, written for his son, Harland, he speaks directly to his son (or the reader) without speaking down to him. And the warmth and humour of it keep the book upbeat; in that, I’m reminded of Joan Aiken, and I think she’d be happy with the comparison.

Since Jeffers’s son is a proxy for the reader, Oliver Jeffers speaks with warmth, humour, and love. It’s as though someone took a love letter and published it, but, you know, with consent. It’s not creepy! Is it educational? Sure! Who wouldn’t want to teach humanity and compassion to their child? But is it preachy? Not at all.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I’ve been plowing through books about science (directly educational) and humanity (ranging from preachy to just educational) and pure kids’ lit (literary). My mum came to visit and read a Robert Munsch book to my daughter’s class, and we all remarked on how good it was, what pure fun for the kids, who all adored it– but simultaneously entertaining to the adults in the room.

In this case, I’d say Oliver Jeffers is really talking to kids, not adults. But because he treats kids as humans with good understanding, any adult who listens with an open mind can learn something, too. Compassion. Respect. Gentleness. How to tread a little more lightly on this planet we call our home.

And that, in the words of the last page, “You’re never alone on Earth.”

There’s a growing range of books out there about tolerance and respect. About being fiercely compassionate and standing up for yourself and others. Some, like A Friend for Henry, provide a much-needed perspective in a sensitive, open fashion. Others are, to be blunt, lacking in sensitivity, nuance, or, simply, in artistry, and I can’t see how a child would connect with them.

But I am universally glad these books are finally being written. They’ve definitely been lacking, and more voices is a good thing. Compassion is good. Diverse books are good. STEM and art books are good. They won’t all be good books, they won’t all last, but I thank publishers for bringing them out, and we’ll see which ones rise to the top.

I would lay a wager that one of the books which will last is Here We Are. Its message is strong, stronger than just one generation, and therefore I’m certain it will resonate for years. Its voice, likewise, is strong, and resonates with my daughter and I’m sure with other children.

Basically, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. The art and message are beautiful, and it will help your child feel wanted and love, and, therefore, will help them love the earth and others. What more do we look for, as parents and teachers?

So give it a try, and then tell me what you think! I think I’m going to see if the Changeling wants to read it again tonight. I have a feeling she’ll say yes.

Fox + Chick

You may not have noticed, but I’ve been writing a dissertation in between posts. That’s been fun (no, really, it is!), but it does mean I’m not actually doing this full time, and that means that I miss out on writing about a lot of books I love. Books I love deeply.

Such as?

Well. Remember This Is Not a Picture Book!, by Sergio Ruzzier? Remember how much I loved it? (I’ve given it as a gift more than a few times.) Well, Sergio Ruzzier, to my great delight, wrote another book last year, Fox & Chick: The Party + Other Stories. (I never know whether those & and + are right, but let’s say they are!) I bought it and loved it and so does my Changeling. I never got around to writing it up here. It did rather well, to my delight, and was a Theodore Seuss Geisl Award Honoree (I may have squealed with joy over that). And then, a few weeks ago, Fox & Chick: The Quiet Boat Ride + Other Stories came out! I just got my copy today from my local Children’s Book Shop, and now I happen to have a crack of an instant to write here and I’m determined not to let the chance to sing the praises of these two delightful books pass me by.

We all know and love odd literary couples: Frog and Toad, Ant and Bee, Charlie and Mouse… well, if you love that kind of dynamic, you will adore Fox and Chick.

Tonight I read one of the Fox & Chick stories (“Chocolate Cake”) with the Changeling before bed. (She was as excited for new Fox and Chick stories as I was! She’s about five and a half, and the perfect age for these books, I think.) I asked her which of the two characters she preferred. She hemmed and hawed for a long while, mulling over the tricky question. “Fox,” she finally said, “because he’s a little bit more sensitive and always knows the right thing to say.” I see her point and was impressed by her reasoning, but I will tell you that that’s not the right answer. It wasn’t a question I was asking to find out anything about the characters, both of whom are lovable by any right-minded person; I asked the question to find out more about my daughter, and I wasn’t surprised by her answer.

Fox is decidedly sensitive, smart, and clear-thinking. He always sees reality, and sees the road straight before him. Chick is flightier, more imaginative, and more prone to fits of emotions of all kinds. He sees Anne Shirley’s “bends in the road.” Fox thinks twice and speaks once, Chick speaks before he thinks at all.

Each collection contains three stories, and they are all equally imaginative, original, and fresh. Despite the age-old technique of bringing together two opposing figures and hoping something fun comes of it (Aesop’s Fables, anyone?), the trick has not gotten old, and Sergio Ruzzier’s characters run into adventure after adventure (in Chick’s view) without ever getting boring (in our view!).

I was going to choose one story to talk about to give you a sample of what I’m talking about, but I quickly realized that would give the wrong impression, that the stories all follow a similar pattern. They don’t. In some, Chick might get up to mischief (“The Party,” in which Chick asks Fox if he can use the bathroom… but doesn’t tell Fox exactly what that request entails!), but in others, there’s peace and beauty (“The Sunrise,” in which the two friends might miss the sunrise but find beauty elsewhere) while in others there are moments of true, shared friendship (“Chocolate Cake” teaches us the joy in giving, receiving, and sharing). Nor are these divisions more than arbitrary; many share these elements and more.

I will tell you the plain truth: I’ve missed writing about every book that comes my way and delights me, but I haven’t felt too guilty about it, because a) this is a blog, not my profession, so I can’t possibly review everything– I’m not The Horn Book!; b) I’ve been busy, as mentioned above, with a little thing called my dissertation, not to mention my family; c) I write here for pleasure, and if I felt guilty that would detract from my pleasure, now, wouldn’t it?

I felt guilty when The Quiet Boat Ride came out and I realized I’d never reviewed The Party.

Why, I wondered? And I realized: it wasn’t that I felt like I’d let down Sergio Ruzzier– I like him very much, but I doubt he’s waiting on my thoughts! I felt like I’d let down Fox and Chick. They’d become my friends, much like Frog and Toad are my friends. Frog and Toad taught me the values of persistence, friendship, and hard work today so you can relax tomorrow. I wonder very much what Fox and Chick will teach the young readers of tomorrow? I know they’ve taught me to sit still for portraits, look for pirates in ponds, and always share my chocolate cake.

This Is Sadie: Redux

Dear Readers:

I am writing, writing, writing. Work is going well, but I need to get back to it. So I have only one thing to tell you: This is Sadie has been released as a beautiful, complete board book! Just saying. I got a copy for my little niece. I’m guessing you know someone who needs a copy of this book, too, whether as the board book or hardcover.

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I’ll be back after I’ve finished the body of my dissertation and am onto the copyediting. I have so much to tell you! Hint.

International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day and I, a woman, am trying to write my dissertation. I can’t look my supervisor in the face if I don’t. I can’t look my daughter in the face if I don’t.

But I can’t look myself in the face if I don’t, on this day, acknowledge the huge debt the book world owes women creators of books (authors, illustrators, editors, designers, publishers, etc., etc.) which teach our own young women to be strong women and so to change the world.

So I’m just going to set my timer for five minutes– there I go– to say: THANK YOU to all of the women out there creating the books I give my daughter and other young women. And I’m going to just rattle off some names of women book people whom I love to share– and I’m going to ask you to add your own names in the comments, or feel free to recommend them to me by email!

Here’s my list, in no particular order: Shirley Hughes, Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken, Micha Archer, Rebecca Green, Liz Wong, Lesléa Newman, Diane Adams, Claire Kean, Hilary McKay, Judith Rossell, Janet Ahlberg, Nancy Cohen, Joanne Schwartz, Cynthia Rylant, Catherynne Valente, Eleanor Farjeon, and Ursula Le Guin.

That’s a deliberate mishmashmixture! Browse the site for those names and more and share yours with me! Let’s get inspired to write for a new generation of women!

And now my timer rang, so, for International Women’s Day, I will do my own work as well as I can. As women do.

“Mama, how does the sperm reach the egg?” and other questions + giveaway!

I recently heard some very good news from a member of my family, and was permitted to share this news with my little family. From my husband, it prompted a “Mazal tov, I’m so happy to hear that!” From my daughter it prompted a pleased wriggle, “Will I get to hold the baby?” and then some Other Questions.

Now, this isn’t the first time the Changeling has Asked Questions. When she was a little over three, maybe closer to four, she started exploring her anatomy and asked some Questions. Questions like: “Mama, what does this do? Why do I have a bum over here” patting her behind “and a smaller bum over here?” patting in front of her. So I accordingly did what I always do– I went to the library and talked to the librarians. I was shocked to discover that most of the books explaining bodies to young children were somewhat older, but they’re actually pretty darned good. So I bought two of them: Amazing You! by Gail Saltz, illustrated by Lynne Cravath, and, thinking ahead, What’s the Big Secret? by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. I was very proud of myself for thinking ahead, too. And it was great! We talked a bit about anatomy and where babies come from and how and why, and it was fabulous and I was so proud of myself for handling tricky territory with grace and openness.

And then a year passed. And now the Changeling has started asking New Questions, Questions which are more pointed, more detailed, and don’t let me get away with answers like, “Well, maybe we can discuss that in a year or two, what do you think?” Questions like, “If the daddy has the sperm and the mummy has the egg, how does the sperm get to the egg?” and “What does sex look like?” and the follow-up “Then how old do you have to be to see sex happen?”

I did some additional research (which is to say, I consulted the expert– Erika Moen –NSFW– Erika’s site is wonderful and educational, but save that link for a private space), and she directed me to It’s So Amazing! by Robie S. Harris and Michael Emberley, which is for ages 7 and up.

So the Changeling and I have talked and talked, she comfortably, and I calming down as I become more comfortable, and it’s all gone so much more smoothly than I thought it would. Partly, I realized, because I know more than I thought I did, partly because librarians and Erika are wonderful and directed me to great resources, and partly because the Changeling is teaching me more than I am teaching her!

So I thought, after talking to a few friends and family members who also had curious youngsters, or anticipated some curiosity in future– maybe a brief exploration of these resources would help you all out, too– and provide a forum for people to share their stories, experiences, and helpful resources.

Amazing You!.jpg

Amazing You! is a lovely early book for explaining the basics: what your body is, what it looks like, and how it’s private and individual to YOU. It really emphasizes anatomy and privacy and is wonderful, I think, starting at about age 3. It has excellent basic diagrams and is packed with accurate information reframed for a foundational level. My daughter has moved past it at age 5, but, as I said, she is perhaps unusually curious, so your experience may vary.

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What’s the Big Secret? is a great next step: it’s more explicit about sex, sexuality, and, particularly, about being open and unembarrassed with your questions in the face of a society which casts shame on these subjects. It still emphasizes privacy and bodily autonomy for both boys and girls. My daughter still had more questions than were answered here– we have homosexual friends she didn’t see represented in here, for example– but for the basics of explaining how sex works, this is more direct and a little bit older than Amazing You! I’d say the target age here is around 5 or 6.

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For questions that go beyond just “how are babies made?” and into questions about love, sexuality, and, basically, living life beyond childhood, It’s So Amazing! is a wonderful introduction to what an adult universe looks like. It still affirms basic facts about anatomy, biology, and science. It also talks about loving relationships (of all kinds– this is where my daughter was able to see our homosexual friends represented), families, and where sex figures into that. It even has some basic information about sexually transmitted diseases, which I was certain would confuse the Changeling, but was so well presented that it hasn’t. I love the graphic novel + text format: some pages are funny discussions between the bird and the bee in a standard graphic novel page, which engages a new child reader, and some are laid out in a more “picture book” page, but more text-heavy and informative. As it says right on the cover, it’s for ages 7+, but even before I got to it the Changeling (now aged 5 and a half) zoomed to it and I decided to let her. She was absorbed in about five seconds flat and had only lucid questions. It’s very basic, very clear, and very engaging.

So, these are three stepping-stone books for you all! The only “complaint” I have is that they are all rather old. That said, the books are excellent, and have served me well. I have no problem with these books and recommend them without reservation, but I do question why no new child-oriented books about sex are being published in this era. I’d have thought it a topic which could use updating on a regular basis.

So, dear readers, since I understand that I’m not the only parent with a curious child, I want to present this information to you with a little giveaway treat, and here’s the only rule:

Tell me (in the comments or at deborah@childrensbookroom.com) your story about your kid’s sex ed question (the funniest, cleverest, or just most thought-provoking question) and I’ll enter your name in the hat!

I will use a random number generator to pick one of you and you can choose which of these three books you prefer for your child. If you have questions about the books, I’ll happily answer. Open to anywhere in the world. You have ONE WEEK (March 1-7) to get your entry in!

Enjoy!

Gittel’s Journey

I’m up against a thousand deadlines, each breathing a further blazing flame against the back of my neck, but–

This morning I got a call from the Children’s Book Shop that a new book had come in, one I’d been waiting for, and I went in, glanced through it, and immediately bought two copies (not gratuitously– one for me, one for a friend who I decided needed it). Which book prompted this rapid response from me? Bought today, blogged today?

Gittel’s Journey, by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates.

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We’ve read about Lesléa Newman here before, and also about Amy June Bates, since they’re the duo who brought the world the amazing Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed. To be perfectly honest, when I read that Amy June Bates would also be doing Gittel’s Journey, I was simultaneously thrilled (“I love her work!”) and nervous (“But this is such a different story– will she suit it?”). Why did I worry? Her work is as adept, and I can give no higher praise, as Trina Schart Hyman’s on Little Red Riding HoodAnd I don’t think it’s any coincidence I was reminded of that book: There’s the same painterly style, the same splash of red that pulls Gittel right off the page, and the same windswept grace to the style.

And when we consider the story– well, here let’s pause and talk about the story.

Gittel and her mother have to leave their home, which isn’t safe for them, to journey to America. Leaving much they love behind them, including Gittel’s beloved goat, Frieda, they travel to the shore to board a boat to America, but there they’re stopped– Mama has an eye infection and isn’t allowed to accompany her nine-year-old daughter onto the boat. Gittel must go alone on a long, arduous journey to a distant relative, whose address Mama has written on a piece of paper for her. Gittel bravely goes forward, only to find in America that her terrified grip on this piece of paper has smudged the address until it’s unreadable! A kind interpreter helps her find her cousin, and, ultimately, Mama is able to join her, too. All ends happily– on the surface.

Except that we all know more. If we look to Little Red Riding Hood here, the little girl travels by boat instead of through a forest, but she does meet a wolf, yes. But the wolf in Gittel’s story isn’t any particular person, no. The wolf is the threat of pogroms in the Old Country (Russia, Poland– as Newman makes clear in the excellent backmatter, borders shifted). The wolf is also the health inspector who separates Gittel from her mother. The wolf also rears his head in the threat posed to Gittel, who has no English, at Ellis Island before the kind interpreter appears and saves her, quite literally, from being lost in, if not the woods or the wolf’s belly, a new country with no home and no prospects. The wolf was– and still is– all around for immigrants with few resources available to them. (For a beautiful modern story of immigration to America, check out, I’ve said it before and will say it again, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.)

Like Ketzel— and like Dreamers, for that matter– the story is ultimately hopeful and very beautiful. But unlike them, the wolf is around the corner in every page. My daughter noticed this when she read it alone before I could get to read it to her (the little scamp!). I asked her if she liked it. “Yes,” she said, “it was a very good book. But it was sad.” Coming from the Changeling, that means that something in it worried her. And, after reading it with her, I saw what it was. If I had to guess, if I had to put my finger on one page that made her sad, I’d guess it was the two page spread where on one side you see Mama on Shabbat, holding her candles, and on the other page you see Gittel, weeping over her Mama’s candlesticks: “Candles and candlesticks belonged together just as she and Mama belonged together. Gittel shut her eyes and sang the Sabbath blessing softly to herself. It only made her sadder.” Note that, absent the illustrations, these words lose much of their poignancy: in context, my eyes prickled as I read them aloud to the Changeling, and I held her a little closer.

But, in the end, Gittel prevails over the wolf: she arrives and is brave, and, ultimately, her mother arrives, too. “Come, Mama. […] Let’s go home. The sun is about to set, and it’s time to light the candles for Shabbos.”

I don’t know what else to tell you. The illustrations are exquisite. The story is heartbreaking but beautiful. If you have a heart, you will feel. If you don’t, this is a book which could make you grow one. If I gave starred reviews here, this would get one. I bought two books on an impulse– I knew this book was something special. But after reading this with the Changeling tonight? I know I’ll be getting more. I’m not going to use a word like “timely” here and make reference to current affairs: this book is more than that. It’s history, it’s the present, and we have the power, if we want to make it so, to ensure that we can edit out the wolf for the future.

Please, do me a favour. Call your local bookstore and reserve two copies: one for yourself, and one for a friend or for a donation.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This is more of a postcard than a post, but Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear readers! Here are three books for you– we’ve seen all of them before, but why not revisit them?

I recommended Love Is by Diane Adams, illustrated by Claire Keane, as a baby present before, but it would also be a beautiful Valentine’s Day gift.

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Funny and sweet with a spice of zest in the form of messy bath times and wakeful nights, Love Is shows the universality of love: children will see themselves in both the duckling (the one being cared for) and the child (the caretaker), while parents will identify with the child as caretaker and maybe learn a thing or two about themselves in the process…

always love Steve Light and Lucky Lazlo is no exception!

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For young children and up to adults, this is a zany, lovelorn adventure at the theatre, and theatrical it is! Parents will appreciate the funny allusions to theatre, children will enjoy the slapstick elements, and who doesn’t enjoy a romantic comedy ending with a rose and a kiss? As for the detailed, crazy, pops-of-colour art… that’s Steve Light in a nutshell, and always a delight!

And finally, check out This Is Not a Valentine by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins.

This Is Not a Valentine

An unfluffy, not-too-sweet book of romance, this is about loving your own person on your terms in your own way. No glitter and sugary hearts here! The art is deliberately sketchy, but, in its very roughness, exquisitely beautiful (I see in my post I compared it to Christian Robinson; astute of me!). Likewise, the text rebels against jewellery and roses… but only if you want to. It’s a book that’s sweet in its own way, on its own terms, and teaches you to do the same.

So that’s a set of three good books for today– all sweet, but not saccharine. Tell me, what’s your favourite Valentine’s Day book?

The House of Lost and Found

(A note about the giveaway is at the bottom of the post, but first I want you to read about this gorgeous book.)

You know, I didn’t plan to write about this book. I didn’t plan to write about anything tonight, honestly, and if I had planned to, it would have been about one of the really recent books I found and love– some are very new, and some I’ve been meaning to write about for several weeks, in fact… including the exquisitely beautiful Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales, which I only just bought but have loved since it came out in September. And then something happened.

I’ve been tired, honestly– happy tired, but tired. Work, family, and life have sort of ganged up on me and I haven’t had much time for anything but getting by, day to day. So there are a lot of things which have slipped by me: things I love, including knitting for my daughter, and even reading and writing. Oh, I manage to get both in, or else you’d only find me in jail. If I don’t knit, write, or read– I go bonkers. But I’m doing a base level of these to get by, and I miss keeping up with new books and making beautiful things.

Please, don’t worry about me! I’m doing good work and I’m excited about it. I know that after I finish my dissertation I’ll be back on the knitting, reading, writing horses and as productive as ever. But I admit that I was feeling a little melancholy.

And then my daughter, the little Changeling I live with, pulled this book off of my shelf tonight: The House of Lost and Found by Martin Widmark and Emilia Dziubak. I bought this book about a year ago (I see it came out September of last year, which sounds about right). And when I first bought it I flipped through it a few times, admiring it, but deeming it too old for my daughter. Then this child, this Changeling, pulled it off the shelf tonight and I read it to her and narrowly avoided tears.

The House of Lost and Found.jpg

This is, without a word of a lie, one of the most exquisite books, visually and intellectually, I’ve ever read.

The story is of an old man, Niles, who lives alone– his wife is dead, his children have grown up and moved away, and even his cat has wandered off: “Just as well, thought Niles. That’s one less thing to worry about.” Whereat this cat-lover’s chest tightened and eyes prickled. He turns off the lights in his house, one by one, saying good-bye to everything he used to love, one by one, as dreariness sets in.

And then his doorbell rings, and a small boy is there holding a flowerpot full of dirt, and asking Niles to look after his flower while he’s away. Niles is left with the flowerpot and no desire to look after any living thing.

But he waters the dirt in the pot.

And he finds himself wondering, as the seed sprouts and a tendril of a leaf pushes through the dirt, “What kind of flower is it?”

And as the plant grows and grows and our curiosity increases, so does his excitement increase– and his interest in life revives: he cleans the house, the cat comes back (YAY!!!), and he reads again (there go the tears again…). And the flower grows and grows until…

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you. It’s too beautiful.

But the story might sound a little familiar to fans of folklore out there. The story is decidedly similar to that of the traveller who brings something of some apparent value, but dingy, to a family in dire need and asks them to look after it for him. The family is virtuous, and with every act of goodness their fortune increases and the dingy item brightens. The traveller returns and sees how their goodness has polished the cup or horn or whatever the item was and says something about how good they are and they can look after the item for the rest of their lives. And so they live on in prosperity and virtue for the rest of their lives. I’m sure I could look it up in Aarne and Thompson and find something there– it’s an old story!

There are key differences: here it seems like the tender growth of the flower fuels the revival of life in the old man, rather than the virtue of the man fuelling the growth of the flower. (There are other differences but you can discover them when you read the story!) But the symbiotic relationship between the protagonist and the special object is key to the soul of the story and it’s a thing of beauty: both the beauty of the flower and the beauty of spiritual heart of the book.

I want to add something here about the illustrations, while we’re talking about beauty. First of all, Polish illustrator Emilia Dziubak is new to me, and I’m both sad about that (what have I been missing?) and happy (I’ve discovered someone new and amazing!). She might be the only one out there so able to convey the dinginess and gloom of Niles’s house while at the same time rendering it with visible tenderness and love: he’s not slovenly, her art seems to tell us, he’s just old and sad. And as light and air and cleanliness and the cat creep back into the house, the tenderness and love remain but the dinginess and gloom flee the scene; her skill is glorious and if, like me, you’ve been missing out, you may want to rectify that.

All in all, this was a lesson for me in many things:

a) Listen to the Changeling, for she is wise;

b) Read new and poignant books, for they will open your heart and soul and render you more fit for future work;

c) Hug your cats and water your plants, for who knows what the future will bring?

So that’s the story of an unexpected book creeping in and changing the course of my evening.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for participating in the Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones giveaway! For those of you who participated: I have ordered the books into the Children’s Book Shop and they should be arriving this week. It might be the third week of February before I get them to the post office, but I promise I will email you as soon as they go into the mail! Thanks again.

February Giveaway: Final Call!

A real post with a real review will be coming soon (I promise!) but this is a final reminder that TOMORROW is the last day to get a free book from me! Thank you so much to those who have participated so far, and I’ll be sending out all books as soon as the Children’s Book Shop has gotten in all of the copies I’ve asked them to order in (probably the second week of February).

Also note: I am happy to giftwrap and include a gift note if you ask me to– books make great surprise gifts, as we all know.

Here’s a reminder of the rules:

a) I will, if you email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

To sum up: Please don’t be shy! Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and get a free Joan Aiken or Diana Wynne Jones book! I will be buying the books locally and shipping via USPS. Happy reading, and happy February!