Unspeakably Angry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Carole Boston Weatherford never failed me.

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

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

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

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

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

On Sendak and Truthfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents recoil from anger and wildness and fierce expressions.

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

The other books have similar escapes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Runaway Bunny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frindleswylde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’s the B’y

You know the song, right? If not– I am here to help you! I’s the B’y, here performed by Great Big Sea! This is the Spriggan’s favourite “stompy song” for doing his funny stomping in a circle dance. He’s always loved music– I’m not sure I’ve met a baby who doesn’t love music? He would calm down immediately for “Au Clair de la lune,” and the first song to make him giggle and gurgle was “I’s the B’y.” He’s a child with very diverse tastes. I won’t say I felt pride that he showed such a marked taste for Canadian music– but I will cheerfully confess that I’m insufferably smug about it, and was beyond thrilled when one of my favourite Canadian artists, Lauren Soloy (remember her?), was illustrating this wonderful song: I’s the B’y, friends, out now! Isn’t the cover fabulous? Make sure to check under the dust jacket, though…

What, are you sure you want me to spoil the surprise? Would it be more fun…? No, you insist? Oh all right.

There! I love the puffins, too. The whole book is like that: Joy, a bit of Canadian education, a lot of fun for everyone. The book, in itself, is the kind you either hold in front of a class or open for the kids in front of you in the house, flipping while singing– and the kids in the class will probably call to you to “wait– I want to see that picture, is that a dog?!?” and your littlest Spriggan who’s just learning his words will rush to point and say “wow-WOW!” at every Newfoundland dog picture (ok, yes, I liked the “dog-dog”, too). Your older Changeling will examine everything and ask about the boats and “are there really puffins?” You, yourself, will smile at the clothes hanging out to dry (so funny they don’t do that here), and quietly enjoy that the cast is diverse and inclusive (humans and MerB’ys of all kinds, and let’s not forget the Newfoundland critters, too) in a way that just didn’t used to happen. Yay for illustrators like Lauren Soloy, Qin Leng, Isabelle Arsenault, and so many others who just make these things happen!

There’s sheet music and awesome backmatter in the form of a letter from Lauren directly addressing the reader, in exactly the right voice for my Changeling, which means it was also enjoyable for me, the adult in the room, but the kids are the focus here. Spot on, I say.

But what’s the real star? Why does this book shine and glow and feel so right for me, and is it just my incredible nostalgia and longing for a world that feels like that? A space that’s not loud and angry, but instead loud with laughter and music and cawing birds and crashing waves? I’ll own up and say that’s probably a chunk of it, but if that’s so, then Lauren Soloy’s version of this song was simply perfect for hitting that spot, and I think what did it is the rough joy in it. I don’t mean rough as in abrasive.

“I’s the B’y” the song is one that gets a room together and leaves no one out. It doesn’t say “it’s just a joke, can’t you take a joke?” It’s a song that makes space for everyone to sing together, kids and adults of all stripes, in the same way that when you were a kid in daycare everyone would sing in circle time together: “The Wheels on the Bus” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” (Except that, speaking for myself, “I’s the B’y” is way more fun to sing.)

And Lauren’s art shows this communal feel: everyone in it together, everyone chatting and eating and dancing, and no one sidelined for being weird. I think a good chunk of it is the delight in the oddity. Wheels on buses do have a tendency to go round and round, but if you’re bellowing out “I don’t want your maggoty fish,” there’s a strong likelihood that you’re aware you’re not singing something that would make sense to folks over in Toronto, for example. So you lean into it. You embrace that you’re a bit odd to folks from away. But that’s ok, because we have fun singing!

And Lauren brought that to us.

I’m very grateful for that right now, and I think that maybe a lot of us could use this warmth and joy and a tang of humour that’s not clear-cut lines and polish, but cheerfully rubs along in a way that invites you in, and doesn’t leave anyone out.

Wait, I heard another request– my favourite spread? Oh, that’s a tough one. It really is. But, even though this isn’t a puffinny spread, I think it probably wins… Newf in the bottom right, the dancing and fiddling codfish, and the laundry? Perfection. Thanks for asking! (My picture shows a teensy bit of my assistant, Castor, right down on the bottom left.)

Here’s a link to purchase from my local shop, I’s the B’y! But you should by from yours.

The Boy with Flowers in His Hair

This is a sad and happy review. But the book itself is one you should definitely get so I want to put the link right upfront: The Boy with Flowers in His Hair by Jarvis.

This past week, I lost the flowers in my hair, just like David. I wanted to wear a hat to cover my falling flowers, I was worried about scratching people with my bare branches. Jarvis, who made this book for us (sent to me by Candlewick), doesn’t tell us how or why David loses his flowers, or what ultimately precipitates them coming back, and I’m not going to go too much into why I lost mine. The beauty of the book is that it doesn’t go into causes or Why This Happens and How You Should Deal With This Situation. I once read Mac Barnett on the topic of being asked “what you want children to take away from this book,” and I agree with him that it’s an infuriating question: isn’t it up to the kids? Is this really how we think, about correct answers in reading literature? Kids are better than that, aren’t we? What I know this book gave me, seeing David lose his flowers and the protagonist standing by his best friend in a time of pain, was catharsis:

I had read this book to many children at the school library around the time of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is associated with flowers so it seemed appropriate. The students loved it, and laughed and got quiet and had feelings and laughed again. As with another book I read them, Shawn Harris’s Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, I realized with a thrill that reading the book to a group of captivated children was the best way to enjoy that book, getting immediate feedback and spontaneous sadness and joy.

David, in the book, loses his flowers, but the narrator and protagonist, his best friend, won’t abandon him, and paints new flowers to put in his hair to give him his colour back. Ultimately, David regrows his flowers “prettier than ever,” but the narrator keeps plenty of others to hand, just in case he might ever need them again.

The book has a bit of the feel of a parable, where there’s a hint of symbols beyond the immediacy of practical reality. But I want to put that aside for now because the real strength of the book is in an emotive truth, that sense of catharsis. (Which is related to the sense of parable, but that’s another topic, not for now.)

I lost my flowers when, after difficulties on top of difficulties, and while I’m still struggling with ongoing effects from covid (nothing too severe– but my abilities with words aren’t where they should be or where they were), I was told I wasn’t needed in the school library where I read this book to those wonderful kids. I knew it wasn’t the right place for me, mind you, and in fact I never applied for the position. But it still stung to know that those children, who loved me and whom I loved, weren’t going to have anyone in the library at all, and I was dismissed from there despite (well, because I was) doing a very good job. Yes, my flowers fell off and I felt “twiggy, spiky, and brittle.”

Then my wonderful public library contacted me. They really loved my French storytime I did last month, and would I be willing to do more over the summer? They understood it was a lot to ask, but… (Yes, of course I would!) And I got feedback on some reviews I’d done for another organization. (They’re very excited.) And my Spriggan insisted “a-yen, a-YEN!” when I put down Jamberry. (NOTHING feels better than that.) They were all giving me my flowers back.

This is what reading a true book feels like. We are all David: sometimes we have our own flowers, and sometimes they fall away. But I hope we all also have people like David’s best friend, who understand when our twiggy hair scratches and who think of ways to give us our colour back while we wait to be able to grow new flowers.

Huge, huge thanks to Candlewick press for sending me this one– they sent it when I started at the library and told them I was on the lookout for read-alouds to the Kindergarten class (note that I read this to Kindergarten, Grade 1, and Grade 2, and they all loved it in different ways), and I didn’t expect that it would do at least as much for me as for the kids. That’s what great books do. The link again! To my local Brookline Booksmith, but you can also get through Bookshop.org if you’re looking for a way to support indie bookshops. (Also the good news for this space is I’ll be able to use my writing time for this space, I hope!)

The House of Grass and Sky

It’s been slow, trying to get reviews done, but the book that keeps coming back to my mind is the story of this house, The House of Grass and Sky by Mary Lyn Ray with art by E. B. Goodale– art of that special quality which captures the heart of the book and completes it, simultaneously.

This is a book Candlewick sent me to consider for review before Easter (you know, back in April) (it is now June) (yes I feel bad). It immediately lodged itself in my mind and waited. Just like the house.

When I did my picture book course with a few kids last semester, we had a wonderful time considering the fullness of what a story could be (“boy gets wrong sweater in mail”– name that book), or who the main character can be (a train, for example), or what an ending can be (do we really get cake every morning?). I could summarize this book as follows: a house gets built, people live there, move out, other people move in, others move out, and eventually it’s an old house and no one lives there until people do. The idea of someone making a picture book out of evolving real estate questions is boggling– though, of course, this isn’t really the first or even the most “on the nose” example of that being done exceptionally well: Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House is a slightly more structured example of a book about having to leave a house, from the perspective of the family.

This has a more dreamlike though no less realistic quality. The story is the house’s story. I was about to say “doesn’t everyone have a house they love in their memory?” but then I realized maybe that’s not so. For me, I read this book remembering certain houses in my own story at certain points, and wistfully hoping for a house one day which fits me the way that this house loves its families. The house I still think of as “my house” is the house where I lived in Sackville, New Brunswick, looking back over a marsh. I loved not seeing houses behind my house, but being able to walk to town or the park from my house. I still feel that’s ideal. I feel that house in my mind.

This house, in this book, is a patient house. A house which loves stories old and new. This house stayed in my mind, hoping I would share the book with others who would move in, and love the house, and feel cozy and safe.

I feel deeply grateful to Candlewick, actually, for sending me this book which was, yes, good for a season of rebirth, but, more than that, was absolutely right for the moment in which we live. I was down for the count with covid and my brain is actually still not back to full order. This is a deeply tough virus to kick. But this house really comforted me! “The house,” I thought, “learned to say Goodbye but it also learned Hello. So can I.”

I felt bad, initially, not writing about this book for Easter, which was what Candlewick sent it for. But I think it’s deeply appropriate for this new transitional time: the end of the school year, resting for summer, anticipating changes.

I think parents and teachers and students are all, right now, adjusting to a new and constant state of change. Here in MA, the DESE has made some new announcements about changes to the recommendations and programs and requirements around covid. Elsewhere, others are doing other changes. There is no consistency, there is no cohesion, and it’s very difficult to know what to do.

As always, I look to books for help– and so often it’s a picture book that has the answer. The answer is never simple in a good picture book. (“And it was still hot.” Gorgeous last line.) This book is, though, here for us in the way the house is there for us and for families. It’s a conversation with yourself, with your kids, with your students. You are allowed to feel scared, lonely, unsure. You will learn to say Goodbye and Hello. There is no easy, but, in the words of Julian of Norwich “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” How frequently that’s misunderstood! She saw devastation as she said that, she was under no illusions. This house went through frequent loss, but was well.

But, the house is well, and so are we, and so shall you be. It’s OK not to be OK, and yet we’ll be OK.

Yes, this can feel like a sad post, but, ultimately, I think it’s a reassuring one, just as this book and this house go through sorrow but come out with happiness in the end.

(And I want to tell Mary Lyn Ray and E. B. Goodale: Not everyone gets compared to Julian of Norwich! I’m a fan.)

An Ode to Book Shops, and a Farewell to One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Osmo– now known! (+ Giveaway)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GIVEAWAY DIRECTIONS:

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

John’s Turn

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

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

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

A few anecdotes and memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the rant. Here’s the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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