More Saturday Books

I wrote a while ago about Saturdays and what they mean for me. And what they mean (in part!) is getting to read light fiction, mostly MG novels. (I mean, I can’t take notes or write on Shabbat so reading academic stuff in a useful fashion isn’t really possible.)

Do you know what? I’m going to be up front about this: I often go around feeling like a failure, and my reading is part of this. I could do more academic reading. I could read “better” books. I’ve never in my life read anything by V. S. Naipaul– how can I be considered literate and intelligent if I’ve never read V. S. Naipaul, I ask myself. Am I just lazy? Unintelligent? In short, I never think I’m doing enough and I’m consistently ashamed of myself for this. (I’ve spoken to other grad students, so I know I’m not alone in this.)

So, along come these Saturdays, designated as days for rest reading , and my husband is reading Proust and I read MG fiction. Well, my self-esteem takes a real hit: I’m not reading academic prose because my memory’s gone down the drain since I had the Changeling, and I’m not reading V. S. Naipaul because apparently I’m convinced that I’m stupid, so what am I reading?

Let’s get to a place of no shame, an answer which gets to the heart of things. That answer? I’m reading some damned fine fiction which shines a light on some of the most important questions we, as humans, face, if I do say so myself (read that in a defiant tone of voice). And I think it’s worth sharing with you. Please read on to find some intelligent, thoughtful, fun reads which, well, are really damned good, no matter which age they’re aimed at.

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Let’s start with Hilary McKay. Saffy’s Angel and its sequels came as something of a revelation to me. I hadn’t really thought about what we might call “family stories” in a long time– I remember enjoying stories such as Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, but most of the MG fiction I’ve been reading in the past several years has come from different angles: adventure stories, Gothic horror, tales of mystery and magic… not the plain old down-to-earth story of a family going about its business.

But to call the Cassons in Saffy’s Angel “plain old” and “down-to-earth” is to wildly misrepresent them. Who are the Cassons? The Cassons are an eccentric, artistic, and slightly loopy family living a short train ride from London. In fact, Bill Casson, husband and father of the family, spends much of his time in his London studio apartment, where he creates Real Art. He is very proud of his Art, particularly as compared with his wife Eve’s paintings, which he considers “not exactly Art.” Oddly, despite this infuriating attitude, Bill Casson manages to have some endearing characteristics (he is, ultimately, devoted to his family), and, refreshingly, he is challenged by his own children (both in terms of his art and his way of participating in the family), and, of course, by the flow of the narrative.

While the parents are fully fleshed characters in their own rights (a nice contrast to how often parents are pretty one-dimensional in “family books”), the real emphasis of the books, however, is on the children. The first book, Saffy’s Angel, opens with Saffy (Saffron) Casson discovering that she was adopted. Eve Casson is not her mother, but her aunt, and her mother, Linda, had died when little Saffy was only three years old, and since then she was raised by Eve and Bill along with their own children. I won’t spoil the plot, which extends throughout the series, but you can imagine the fallout: Saffy begins to question her place in the family and in the world she’s always known. Along the way she makes friends with spunky Sarah, and finds her “siblings” warmer and more caring than she had, perhaps, suspected. Her development through the book, and, in fact, the series, is realistic without being dark and gritty, and consistently intelligent and believable.

Perhaps Hilary McKay’s strongest skill (and she is immensely skillful) is in creating a whole cast of strong, realistic, flawed but lovable characters. As the series progresses, these characters grow; little details from Saffy’s Angel onward are brought forward, developed, and given whole new roles to play. For example, Rose Casson holds a fairly mid-level role in Saffy’s Angel, but little hints of who she is are planted in that book: her artistic skills, her unconventional ways of seeing the world, her distrust of her father– all of these elements are small points in Saffy’s Angel, but are picked up on in the later books and brought to full fruition. And she’s not the only one. In short, we really get the sense that Hilary McKay knows these characters, and her deft handling of them gives the full series a strong sense of cohesion– it grows and fleshes itself out without ever feeling disjointed. (A skill I strongly envy as I begin to think about how to bring my dissertation to a cohesive whole!)

To sum up: this is a family story, but not your run-of-the-mill Happy Family story. Everyone is explored fully. Each character is created in full detail and each detail matters. And while the stories don’t play down the more complicated aspects of messy family relationships, ultimately it comes back to a place of warmth, love, and mutual respect.

Next up? The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.

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Dear readers, this is yet another family-based set of novels, perhaps more reminiscent of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit than of Sydney Taylor– or maybe the comparison I’m looking for is to Louisa May Alcott. What I want you to expect is the feeling of children comfortably settled in a warm, loving home, but getting up to well-meaning antics as they go along.

The Penderwicks are each very distinctive, and all very lovable: they have a remarkable sense of family pride and honour, and they all have strong, loving bonds as a family. And yet they’re not faultless, not infallible, and not so prissy they’re boring or insufferable to read. Let me introduce you to them:

  • The father, Martin Penderwick, is a loving, caring, but slightly absentminded father. He’s a botanist with a tendency to slip into Latin at odd moments. (I love that about him.)
  • The eldest sister, Rosalind, is serious-minded and very reliable and maternal. After the death of her mother, Rosalind stepped up, and is, if anything, too reliable and caring; she has a tendency to put others ahead of her own needs.
  • Skye Penderwick: the only Penderwick girl to inherit her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes, she’s also brainy, good at math and science and facts. She also has a temper to be reckoned with.
  •  Jane Penderwick is as dreamy as Skye is down-to-earth. A writer, she fills notebook after notebook with the exploits of Sabrina Starr. She’s as messy as Skye is neat.
  • Batty: the littlest Penderwick, born as her mother was dying of cancer, she’s shy and retiring, but don’t let yourself think that’s because there’s nothing much going on. Batty has a very firm sense of justice and would do anything for those she loves, animal or human.

Also of importance is Jeffrey Tifton, the Penderwick girls’ close friend and a fantastic musician.

I’m deliberately not saying much about what happens because the characters grow as time goes by and I don’t want to spoil any events for you, but expect adventure (the kids meet a bull at one point which leads to– wait, I won’t tell you that), and hominess (baking figures largely in these books), and sisters sticking up for each other against any external forces. Any more details I give you will spoil the books for you, so for once I’m asking you to take it on trust: just go and read, OK?

Warning: when I read the last book, The Penderwicks in Spring, I actually got sniffly more than once. (OK, full confession: I outright cried. Full and complete confession: It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep until I finished reading and I was sobbing over a book aimed at kids less than half my age because MG fiction is the best and I am not even remotely ashamed.) These books may be gentle family stories, but they are not messing with reality: remember, the girls’ mother was dying of cancer as Batty was born, an event which isn’t romanticized; it’s horrible. Expect your emotions to go through the wringer, expect to be called on to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. There are no clear, easy answers, and even an adult would be challenged by some of the situations which arise in these novels (I mean… I am an adult, and I find them challenging to read), but, at the same time, this is, unequivocally, a book for children, so these highly emotional and complicated events are being gently introduced at a level children should be able to understand. It’s a fine balance, and Jeanne Birdsall handles it deftly.

I encourage you to read the whole series, and if there are any children of the right age for it in your life, share it with them! You might be surprised at the conversations that will result from reading it together. I can’t wait until the Changeling is of an age for these books, because I fully propose reading them aloud together. OK, confession: I tried reading a few passages aloud, just for the hell of it, and it reads as beautifully as the Moomin books.

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Lastly, I want to tell you about a new-to-me-but-not-so-new book, The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I bought this because I went to the Children’s Book Shop and asked Terri, the owner, about a different book (which shall remain nameless). Because she’s wonderful and knows my taste, she told me to skip that book and asked if I’d read this instead. I hadn’t, somehow, and was immediately intrigued by her description and the excellent flap copy. Note to publishers: good flap copy matters! Note to everyone: support good independent bookstores! Look, Amazon can’t tell you: “This one is over-hyped and not your style; read this instead.” Terri can.

Folks, this is possibly one of the best books I’ve read, and I can already tell that it’s going to be a book I return to again and again in years to come. The action is set during the waning period of Mary Tudor’s reign, shortly before Elizabeth comes to the throne. The paranoid Queen Mary has Elizabeth effectively under house arrest at Hatfield. Alicia, one of the ladies of Elizabeth’s court, writes innocently, incautiously, and, frankly, stupidly to the queen to protest her treatment of Elizabeth. The queen lashes out against Elizabeth and her ladies: she orders Alicia to be brought to her own court and has Alicia’s sister, Kate, sent to the Perilous Gard, out in Derbyshire, under the guard of Sir Geoffrey Heron.

The Perilous Gard turns out to be a rich and fine enough hall, and Kate Sutton seems to be in a good enough position, all things considered– until mysteries start to pop up all over the place. Who is the woman she spied on the road? Who is the young man in green lurking by the window? Why does Sir Geoffrey disappear for such long periods of time, leaving the running of the manor to his steward? Kate being who she is, she’s unable to leave the mystery alone– especially when she hears the story of Sir Geoffrey’s daughter’s disappearance. Following along the story with the headstrong, intelligent Kate, who has nerves of steel, common sense, and a ready sense of humour, you will also find the mysteries intriguing. Rational Kate pulls apart the myth of magic and finds that, from beginning to end, her own nerves and her own mind, are more than a match for– well, I won’t tell you that bit. Read the book and find out for yourself!

One last word, this one on style: I don’t know why it is, but I’ve lately been thinking about book length. It seems to me, unless I’m totally generalizing and making things up, that MG and YA books are getting longer. When I think about, for example, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, they wasted no words; something I fully and completely admire in them. (Now, Little Women is a long book, so, well, make of that what you will– I’m probably generalizing. It’s not like long= bad.) The Perilous Gard is fairly short. It’s also packed with action. It’s also full of intelligent, thoughtful characters (Kate being one) who make you think along with them. You don’t need more space to make a book more complex or intelligent; you need to be able to write the right length for the right book, and I suspect that practice and editorial help are of assistance. Anyway, I just find this book succinct and clipped clean and perfect, so in style, plot, and character, this is a truly perfect book.

(There’s another book along those lines I want to tell you about, but I’ve already written too much– there’s a smidgen of delicious hypocrisy for you!– so I’ll wait for another day to talk about… well, we’ll save that, won’t we?)

So there you are! Two series, one stand-alone book, all succinct, gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. Happy reading, and tell me what you think if you do read one of these, OK? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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This Is Not a Valentine

I promised you all a Valentine’s Day post, and here it is. Even if I have to keep it brief.

Dear friends, I love you all so much that I’m going to tell you about a perfectly delicious new book, This Is Not a Valentine, by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins.

This Is Not a Valentine.jpgWhen I first saw the title, my mind shot back to one of the Changeling’s most enduring favourites, This Is Not a Picture Book!but for another Sergio Ruzzier book you’ll have to wait until April. (I can’t wait!) No, this is very different from Sergio Ruzzier, but they have one thing in common: this book is sweet and adorable without being saccharine or fluffy. It has a lot of substance and a lot of gentle wit.

First, a note about the illustrations, which are done in brush marker, gouache, graphite, pencil crayons, crayon, ink, and charcoal. If that sounds complicated, I’m guessing it was, but Lucy Ruth Cummins makes it look simple and childlike, without ever getting to “childish,” and she never lets the page get overwhelming. In fact, if her art reminds me of anyone’s, it’s of Christian Robinson’s: there’s the same “child” feel with a special flair that will delight the adult reader, too. I hope that’s a comparison that would give both artists pleasure; both of their work is stellar.

As for the text, well, I’ll try to give you a flavour of the book: it is not a Valentine… unless a Valentine communicates dedication, loyalty, and affection, in which case it absolutely is. It lacks glitter and lace and sticky candies– but it does have a ring won “in some machine at a grocery store” which “matches your best shoelaces,” a grubby bunch of dandelions, and a paper airplane thrown from the back of the line to the beloved at the front of the line. Most striking of all, of course, is the superhero cloak given from the lover to the beloved because “red is pretty good for superheroes, and you are my favorite one.” (Whereat my husband, hearing me read this aloud, interjected with an “awww!” It was a very sweet moment, indeed.)

You get the point. There aren’t any chocolates or phials of perfume and there’s a distinct lack of glitter or lace. But there’s love in every line of the book and in every illustration. Shy love, open love, direct love– and what it all comes down to is sharing. True love, our narrator instinctively knows, isn’t based on what fits in with the heart-shaped picture of Valentine’s Day we’re taught in kindergarten. No, love is expressed by sharing what we love, and what we expect our beloved (whether we’re talking about a beloved parent, child, sibling, or friend) to love. A sacrifice shows love. Thinking really hard about what our beloved would want shows love. A red superhero cape which the beloved will wear in every subsequent illustration shows love.

And that’s really a message worth sharing, whether with your child, friend, partner, parent, or whoever else is in your life. And that’s why I wanted to share this book with you. Because, dear and darling reader, I bet that if you’re reading this, you like picture books, and so I probably like you, too, and I want to share my joy with you. That is, after all, why I write this blog. Because I want to share bookish joy with you. So I’m just going to say thank you for being here, thank you for reading, and (a few days early) happy Valentine’s Day to you!

(And while you’re here, looking for Valentine’s Day books, I’ll also remind you of Lucky Lazlo, which I wrote about last year, and which is absolutely delightful.)

So, happy Valentine’s Day, and happy reading! And if you know of any particularly good Valentine’s Day books, share them in the comments below!

I Am a Cat

Hello, old friend! Long time, no see. Well, here’s the thing: I did too much travelling (as you saw in my last post), so I had to make up the work time somehow. But does that mean I’m no longer reading new children’s books? I’ll give you a hint: the Changeling is still four and a half years old, and my personality hasn’t changed– I’m still attracted to anything shiny and new with words and pages involved.

Case in point: yesterday I had a doctor’s appointment in Brookline, and my little cousin will be celebrating his third birthday very soon, so I took the occasion to visit my favourite purveyor of fine children’s literature to get him a present. And a few other things, while I was at it. And since I’ve met the day’s word count, I feel free to tell you about it.

This book, I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein (her debut– and congratulations are due for such a strong first book!), is among the “few other things,” and I’m now slightly regretting that I didn’t get a copy of it for my little cousin as well as the one I got for the Changeling; he has a cat and I’m sure would enjoy it as much as he would the other two books I got him (an Alfie book and a book by the power duo Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett), so, well, I may be finding him a copy, too. (Don’t give me that look– my husband’s already tried it out on me and it doesn’t work. I am who I am, and I like to think that I am a Curator of Books.)

In any case, right now I’m sitting at my favourite working café, staring off vaguely into space and trying to figure out who wouldn’t enjoy this book. Well, there’s my father, I suppose: he’s allergic to cats both physically and spiritually. He can just barely endure mine, because they’re quiet and, frankly, afraid of people; they know he’s not a friend and never try to engage with him. But if it’s a cat, or has to do with cats, my father is generally opposed.

But I wonder if even he would smile over the cuteness that is I Am a Cat.

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Look at Simon on the cover there (Simon is the little grey kitty)! Isn’t he a sweetheart? Who could resist that face? Not even my father could deny his cuteness, this I believe.

But that’s not the question this book asks: it doesn’t care whether or not we find Simon cute, but whether or not he’s accepted into the cat clan with all of the other cats around him: Lion, Cheetah, Tiger, Puma, and Panther.

The story is simple: Simon is a cat, and declares himself to be so. The surrounding big felines respond with laughter, and then explain: Lion has a mane and is king of the beasts– that’s why he’s a cat. Panther is jet black and sleeps in trees– that’s why he’s a cat. And so on for all of the wildcats. But Simon is confused: each characteristic described is highly individual, he points out. What do they have in common that renders them cats? The animals respond: flat noses and long tails, sharp claws and eyes that can see in the dark. If that’s the case, Simon posits delicately, then, as he shares in those commonalities, he should be one of the family, too. The wildcats are briefly surprised, but then welcome him with open paws and they play and fall asleep together in a heap.

It really is a simple, straightforward book: the topic of belonging, a subject which is so frequently heartrending in MG, YA, and, frankly, in adult fiction, is tackled in a strong, direct, and self-confident tone here which keeps it fresh and original. After all, isn’t Tess of the D’Urbervilles about belonging to a clan (as I think I mentioned in my post about Quackers)? This book is just as effective an appeal to inclusiveness as Tess is, and by extension, and by its own lights, a strong indictment of gate-keeping. And yet, direct as the story is, its argument comes across without fanfare.

And, in fact, message aside, what I love in it– apart from Galia Bernstein’s lovely art, which is adorable without being cartoonish– is Simon’s personality. Partly this really is down to the art, which conveys the animals’ expressions with great economy of line, but it’s also in the straightforwardness of the text. Simon asks the obvious question: if each of you can have unique qualities and yet be part of the same family, why can’t I? And he makes this irrefutable argument directly and without any self-consciousness or seeming to feel humiliated by the big cats’ laughter. I cheered internally as he stood up for himself so politely and yet so strongly.

Simon is my new role-model. He doesn’t give a damn about whether others think he’s too short and chubby to be fast as a cheetah. He knows he’s not supposed to be a cheetah, so why should he be like a cheetah? He’s a cat. He doesn’t worry about what any of the others think of his distinctive qualities; he knows he’s a cat, and he will challenge the self-appointed authorities of catness on that point.

And yet, although I’ve teased out this message, I want to emphasize this point: this all comes across without any preaching. The surface story has you so wrapped up in Simon’s encounters from cat to cat that you’re just cheering him on; it’s only after the book was over that I started to think, “Hey, if Simon could face up to the other cats, well, why can’t I…?”

So, I want to encourage all of us to be like Simon: be straightforward, be direct, and state the truth. Who are you, really, and what or who is holding you back?

Also, it’s worth reiterating: this really is simply an adorable book.

And now I’ve got more work to do today. But watch out for a little something on February 14…

Stanotte… ha nevicato!

You know, I’m just going to admit to something: I’ve been grouchy lately. I have been balancing Things I Want To Do with Things I Don’t Want To Do, and, I repeat, it’s been making me grouchy. Some of it’s been just the usual: I don’t know many people who eagerly anticipate unpacking suitcases, for example. It’s just not a chore that gets people super excited, in my experience. But lots of people enjoy the travel which precedes that annoying task.

I hereby confess to the fact that I was extremely grouchy about the travel I undertook this winter. I take full responsibility for said travel: No one bought the ticket and dragged me to the airplane against my will. I sighed, bought the ticket, and got on the plane all of my own free will; I was just grouchy about it the whole time. Kudos go to my husband for putting up with a travel partner who said, “But I don’t have time for this!” at least a hundred times.

I was just that charming a companion.

That said, once we reached Rome (our destination), I took a deep breath, said to myself and my husband, “If I’m here, I may as well enjoy it,” and we sketched out a plan. The plan was to take it easy, see the city, get some work done, and bring back a shitload of paper. I think we did a good job of tackling all of the above. (We… got some paper, yes.) (From three different stores, including Il Papiro and Fabriano.) (We take paper seriously in my family.)

One other thing we did was to visit a children’s store which was half books, half toys, and entirely charming. And while we were there, I saw a book carefully wrapped in plastic, and my heart started to beat a little faster.

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Stanotte… ha nevicato! by Steffie Brocoli (originally published in French as Il a neigé ce matin!)

I snapped it up in a hot second and brought it carefully home with us, where I’ve been showing it to everyone I think will be remotely interested. And either people have learned to humour me, or else it really does make people sit up and take notice. As they turn the pages, they murmur to themselves, “Would you look at that? Oh, that’s charming! It’s so restrained. Look at that use of colour!”

And I get it, because I had very similar responses myself. What I don’t know how to do is to convey to you just how captivating this book is, and my hesitation is due to one particular challenge: the entire aesthetic of the book is predicated on texture, not colour. Further, it’s basically wordless. So everything depends on textured white paper, and white textured paper is really hard to get across on a computer screen. Normally if I want you to admire an illustration, I grab my phone take a (generally fairly crappy) picture, and post it here for you to admire. How can I do that for embossed white paper? But it’s my moral duty to share beautiful children’s books with you, so here we are.

The way the book works is like this:

You open it up, and see tiny footprints embedded in the page, leading to a little textured leaf. Then you lift the leaf and– ah! beneath it is a bright, colourful bird. You flip the page. There are three coloured flowers and another set of footprints leading to a bush, and behind the bush– a hedgehog! And so it goes. Each page sets up a little puzzle, the very simplest of puzzles, and a bright surprise behind a flap. It’s ingenious, charming, and uplifting.

Stanotte hedgehog (2)

(I stole this picture from Steffie Brocoli’s excellent website because it’s a much better quality picture than I was able to get!)

The question, I think, is: Uplifting? Why uplifting? And I don’t have a deep answer for you because it’s all very simple. We’re turning pages through a white, quiet world, and in that white, quiet world we find the occasional surprise of bright, cheery colour, all jewel tones shining through the snow. That feels exciting. It feels good. It feels like when you’re trudging along being grouchy– and suddenly you discover a beautiful book and everything feels worthwhile again.

So, I just wanted to share that simple joy with you. Usually I post links for places to buy books I share with you, but I bought this one in a tiny shop in Rome. If you’re really intrigued and want a copy of your own, here’s the French publisher and here’s the Italian. Good luck! (I agree with your private thought right now that it’s worth tracking down a copy of your own. Go for it.)

Best of 2017

I’ve been quite the absentee blogger this past while, and I apologize for that.  Frankly, things have just been a bit heavy and work has been intense (good! but intense, yes).  December, however, is upon us and I didn’t want to leave 2017 behind without a bit of a chat.

It’s been a strange year!  Difficult in terms of how the world goes, but really astonishingly good in terms of children’s books.  I mean, stupendously good.  And from what I’ve seen and heard, 2018 is going to be at least as good.  There are so many talented authors, illustrators, and editors at work that it really warms my heart.  Whatever else is going on right now, there are good people at work, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

I want to highlight that good work with a little look at some of the best books of 2017.  I was going to do a “Best Three Books” but I was struggling to narrow it down to three, so I’ll be doing a “Best Five” because that was as low as I was willing to go.

Here we go:

Karl, Get Out of the Garden! Karl Get Out of the GardenThis was one of the earliest books I fell in love with this year, and I continue to love it.  It’s exactly the kind of book Charlesbridge does best, and it’s one of the reasons I love them so much.  It’s offbeat, eye-opening, and educational without being didactic.  It tells the story of Karl, the boy who wants to spend all his time in the garden and ends up doing exactly that– and naming the plants therein for posterity!  I love how it rearranges the way you think about gardens and science so that the next time you see a lilac bush, for example, you’ll catch yourself thinking, “I wonder what Linnaeus would call it?”  It’s clever and beautiful, and, in true Charlesbridge fashion, as interesting to the adult reader as the child, but without ever forgetting that its primary audience is the child.

Town Is by the Sea

Town Is by the SeaTown Is by the Sea is the first of the Canadian books on this list, but it won’t be the last.  It’s the story of a boy in Cape Breton, and his life by the sea as his father works in the coal mines.  I remember rhapsodizing in my original post about the blurring of light and dark in the story (the light of the sun sparkling on the sea, the darkness of the mines).  The illustrations emphasize that quality in the text to perfection.  I remember, too, thinking that it was too young for my four-year-old Changeling.  That’s true, too; it’s geared towards an older audience.  And the Changeling loves it despite that.  And I love it.  I love that we love it together, each on our own level.

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

OK, here’s another Canadian one, from Tundra this time.  If you know me, you’ve probably heard me complain about the lack of good new Hallowe’en stories.  I remember a ton of old ones from my childhood, but I didn’t see new ones in stores.  This one is new, original, witty and sweet at the same time.  It’s a guide to being friends with a ghost throughout one’s life and beyond– and the lessons in here work just as well for living friends as for friends whose lives may be in the past tense.  It’s just a tiny bit gross and a teensy bit spooky, but my Changeling, who is currently hyper-sensitive to being scared, loves it, so I don’t think it could be called scary.  And we enjoyed reading it even past Hallowe’en!

The Glass Town Game

The Glass Town Game

The disadvantage of a novel over picture books is that it takes actual time to read and reread them.  One of the sorrows of my life at present is that I don’t have time to reread The Glass Town Game.  It’s so rich, so densely packed with history and literary and artistic allusions that I’m dying to read it again, really thoroughly, and unpack all of the hints that Cat Valente has woven into the text.  The story is of the Brontë children and the games they played, but virtually all of the 19th C seems to make its way into the book in some fashion or other.  And it does so without ever disrupting the fact that the story belongs to the children and the games they played.  It’s genius.  You should read it, and reread it, if possible.

Shelter

Shelter

Dear readers, this last one (another Canadian one– hello, Kids Can Press!) is going on my list of books to give to almost everyone.  It’s a story about seeking and sharing shelter, about selfishness and generosity, about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.  It’s warm and touching without ever being saccharine or denying the cruel realism that not everyone will be generous.  When the big bear tells the little bear that maybe the cold hillside will be more welcoming than the animal homes where they’ve been denied shelter– well, my heart twisted in my chest a little.  It’s a wonderful conversation starter with a child.  My Changeling noticed that the animals who said they didn’t have food to share actually did have plenty of food according to the illustration, and so we had a chat about lying and sharing.  In short, it’s both beautiful as a story and literature and a good way to start some difficult conversations with children.  It’s a keeper.

And so ends this little review of some of the best books in 2017!  It is by no means exhaustive, but these are the ones which sprang to my mind when I sat down to write.  What are some of your favourite books from this past year?  Did you discover anything new?

Winners!

First of all, a big thank you to everyone who participated in this giveaway.  Your warm and thoughtful comments about ending walls and promoting generosity and kindness were positively inspiring.

I have emailed the three lucky winners and will be putting the packages in the mail next week.

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Thank you again, and who knows?  Maybe I’ll post an actual book review here next week!  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?  Meanwhile, happy Friday, happy weekend, and happy reading!

 

Fight the Wall Giveaway Reminder!

Hi, everyone!  This is just a reminder that my Fight the Wall Giveaway is currently ongoing.  You can drop your name in the hat either by commenting on the giveaway post or by emailing me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com before Friday, December 1, 2017 at noon.  I will email the winners shortly after that time.  In the meantime, check out the original post, submit your name, and wait to see how fate decides the outcome!

As always, feel free to share the post around with anyone who has kids you think would enjoy one of these excellent books.

Fight the Wall Giveaway

Today I posted about Peter Sís’s incredible book, The Wall.  In my post, you may have noted that I was concerned about Walls of all kinds, and that I objected to Walls impinging on our freedom.  So, I thought, what can we do about it?  Well, I answered myself, we can read with our children.  So I want to have a giveaway here (it’s been a long time since we last had a giveaway!) to promote fighting those Walls and teach our children to reach out to each other instead of sequestering ourselves.

I’m going to give you, my dear readers, three books, each of which teaches something valuable to our children.  The rules are simple:

  1. Post in the comments saying you want to be entered, or email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com.
  2. I will choose the winners by a random number generator and, if you win, I’ll email you to arrange getting the book to you.
  3. All books will be coming directly from me, Deborah.  I have no sponsors for this.  It’s just me and you!
  4. If you DO NOT WANT one of the books (for whatever reason), tell me, and I’ll exclude you from the draw for that book.  Otherwise, everyone will be considered for each book– 1 book per person, though, so if you win once, I’ll exclude you from the draw for the next book.
  5. Everyone is eligible.  Anywhere in the world.  No Walls!
  6. Deadline is Friday, December 1st at noon.

What do I want from you?  Your promise that you’ll read the book with a child.  Any questions?  Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com.  Share widely!  Send this post to your friends, family, whoever!  Let’s spread good books and knock down Walls.

Now, here are the books:

1) To promote diversity: I, Too, Am Americaby Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier.

2) To promote generosity among strangers: Shelter, by Céline Claire, illustrated by Qin Leng.

3) To knock down Walls: The Wall, by Peter Sís.

The Wall.jpg

All right, that’s it!  Email me or comment below, and I’ll look forward to choosing the winner on December 1!

 

The Wall

There are a number of things you all know about me by now.  You know I’m a little crazy about children’s books, obviously.  You’ve probably figured out that I’m a bleeding-heart Canadian liberal, and I’ll tell you for free that I’m also easy to bring to tears with any sad book (ask my mother about when I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles).  And you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of Peter Sís: Ice Cream Summer and Madlenka’s Dog.  All of that comes into play in this post about Peter Sís’s wonderful book The Wall.

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Folks, this book was amazing.  Just plain amazing.  It did the best thing a book can do for me: it opened my mind and my heart, and, when I finished reading, I realized just how little I knew, and how much I felt.  If you thought you knew something about the USSR or about growing up under an oppressive regime, stop right there (unless, you know, you really did grow up under an oppressive regime) and take the time to read this book.  I guarantee that you’ll have learned something new by the end of it.

First of all, I want you to understand that this book was published in 2007.  Usually I write about either classics or, most frequently, about really new books, but I wanted to tell you about this one for two reasons: a) I just read it a few days ago, and, as I said, it had a profound effect on me, and b) it seems uncannily resonant right now, in the current political climate in the USA.

But what is the book?  Well, it’s half memoirs, half history lesson, and, together, the two halves form a seething yet incredibly lucid ball of ideas and ideals.  What do I mean?  The memoirs and history are easy to show.  The ideas and ideals emanate in a more nuanced fashion, but we’ll get there.  Let’s start with an overview of what Peter Sís says, and then we’ll go back and talk about how he says it.

Peter Sís starts with himself as a child, an ordinary child who loves to draw.  And then we go into a multi-panel explanation of the world he lives in.  Here, I’ll show you a crappy phone picture of what it looks like.  The actual book looks a thousand times better:

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I’ll draw your attention to a few things: Note that your eyes are first drawn to the big red star on the upper right and to the baby pictures in the middle of the left page (or at least that was my experience).  The baby looks so normal and happy, and the main text on the bottom of the pages is likewise normal development.  And the splashes of red have no context yet.  Then you read the annotations and notice the framing pictures: invasions, militia, and oppression become clear.  Turn the page, and, gradually, the semblance of normalcy deteriorates as well: “He drew shapes,” as you see above, becomes “He drew tanks. He drew wars.”  It’s heart-wrenching, especially as you read in an annotation, “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students.  Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.”  The illustrations remain grey with splashes of red, deceptively simple, but the text grows steadily grimmer.

You might think that it would be tough to read a whole book like that, but Peter Sís is way ahead of you:

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In case you weren’t getting the message already, this page bursts out of the book, with a real sense of emergency.  And the ensuing page is radically different, defining the image you’ve just seen.  He moves from the grey and red panels to a set of snippets, all dated, from his journals.  1954: “We’re supporting world peace by not eating meat on Thursdays.”  September 1963: “My school visited the Mausoleum to view the embalmed body of the first working-class Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Comrade Klement Gottwald.  It was scary.”

As we continue the story, things begin to change– more colour creeps in through the grey and red as more news from outside creeps in through the Iron Curtain: “Slowly he started to question.  He painted what he wanted to– in secret.”  And then comes the Prague Spring of 1968, and, with it, the seemingly endless possibilities of art, travel, music… the Beatles.  Peter Sís tells us of travelling Europe, of growing his hair, of starting a rock band.

And then it’s all over.  “Russian tanks were everywhere.”  I watched the returning oppression with a breaking heart: was it worse than having never tasted freedom?  But Peter Sís doesn’t let you think that, not for long.  We witness his debate: should he continue to draw, as his drawings could be used against him, or else: “But he had to draw.  Sharing the dreams gave him hope.”  And, we find, he wasn’t alone.  The colour continues to suffuse the grey panels as ordinary citizens paint a wall– the soldiers erase their art– and the citizens repaint it– again and again.

And so it goes: June 1977, “Rumors, rumors, rumors.  Everyone suspects everyone else of being an informer.  Can we hope things are ever going to get better?”  A series of pictures follow depicting the greyness of despair, and the colour of hope.

And, of course, things do get better, eventually: “On November 9, 1989, the wall fell.”

I’m barely ashamed to tell you that, when I turned the page and saw those words, saw the image accompanying them– my eyes teared up a little.  I’m not Czech.  I have no connection to Peter Sís’s world or childhood.  But I was so caught up in wanting to see the young Peter Sís break free of oppression and gain the right to draw what he wanted that at that sign of freedom I was truly emotional.  (Also: see above re: bleeding-heart Canadian liberal who’s easy to bring to tears.)

I’ve already gone on at length about what the book contains, and you’ve seen the cross between memoirs and history as we talked about the contents.  But I promised you could also see a roiling mass of ideas and ideals.  I think those have already come through pretty clearly, as well, but just to pin them down: if you care at all about freedom, particularly creative freedom (art, music, writing) then you’ll respond immediately to young Peter Sís’s frustrations growing up under an oppressive regime.  The Wall he talks about isn’t just the physical Wall or even the ideological Wall of the Iron Curtain: it’s a Wall in people’s minds, banning ideas, thoughts, desires– and, by implication, forcing people to sequester those thoughts in a different part of the brain, to try to kill them.  But people and ideas are strong, resilient, and, at the first sign of light, the ideas germinate and begin to grow.

This book has been haunting me for days.  We may not be talking about building a physical Wall just this second (although it’s never far from the current political discourse), but we’re seeing a lot of Walls these days, and they worry me: Walls between the rich and poor, men and women, and, what I increasingly fear, Walls in our discourse between truths and untruths.  This is not an easy time.  Frankly, it’s a really hard time.  It’s hard to keep working.  But this book teaches us to keep on working, keep on dreaming, and to never, ever stop fighting against Walls.  (I’m going to link you to it again: The Wall.)