Life on Mars

I begin with a disclaimer: the Changeling found this book ever so slightly frightening.  Please do not let this deter you from exploring its pages; these days, she even finds books like The Paper Bag Princess scary, and I can’t figure out why.  (But she’s not scared by Outside Over There.  I’m perplexed!)  So while I normally try to limit this blog to books both she and I love (or novels I particularly enjoy), I’m going to break with the usual pattern for this one.  It’s just too good not to share.

You see, I had a lunch date with my cousin in Brookline today, and, naturally, took the opportunity to poke my head into The Children’s Book Shop to see what was new for the spring.  The lovely staff there responded beautifully when I showed up and said, “Hi, I was just in the area and wondered what was new here.”  Boy, did they ever deliver.  People, this is a great season of new books.  And one of my favourite new books was Life on Mars by Jon Agee.  We’ve met him before for Lion Lessons.

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Life on Mars is just as cute a book as Lion Lessons, and with the bonus that I didn’t have to give away my copy as soon as I had the pleasure of reading it.  They even wrapped it up for the Changeling with a sticker on the front, because the staff there are just that nice.

But what makes it so special a book that I recommend it here even without the Changeling’s wholehearted endorsement?  The answer is: Chocolate cupcakes.

Let me explain.  (I’m resisting the urge to add, “No, let me sum up.”  I’ve watched The Princess Bride a few too many times, I guess.)  The story is of an astronaut who flies his spaceship to Mars (reminding me strongly of Harold’s Trip to the Sky).  He has a very specific purpose: there are those who don’t believe in life on Mars, but our astronaut does.  His job?  To locate life on Mars and silence the unbelievers.  So off he goes to Mars, carrying a package of cupcakes as a gift for the friends he’s inevitably going to make there.  But once there, he’s dismayed: it’s so arid and rocky!  What if… what if he’s wrong and the naysayers are right?  He walks around without seeing a single sign of life until he’s even lost his way back to his spaceship.  He puts down the box of cupcakes as he roams.  But what’s that?  A flower!  Life!  And then– his box of cupcakes?  How did they get there?  Finally, he climbs a mountain to help locate his spaceship, and then off he goes.  Settled into his spaceship with his Martian flower, he opens the box of cupcakes with satisfaction– he deserves a treat!  But… wait, why are there only crumbs in the box?

You see (spoiler alert!), the whole time our astronaut has been roaming over Mars, a creature has been right behind him.  A huge, orangey-brown, Martian creature who apparently very much enjoyed the chocolate cupcakes and very neatly closed and tied the box up again.  And our astronaut, earnestly seeking life on Mars, never even noticed the creature, even when he mistook it? he? she? for a mountain and climbed it to try to locate his spaceship.

May I just indulge myself for a second?  As an academic, it is somehow extremely satisfying to watch this astronaut scaling the sides of the creature he’s looking for, totally oblivious to the fact that the whole point of his research is right there beneath his feet.  I’m surprised that I don’t find it more frustrating than satisfying, but it’s true– all I feel is satisfaction that, dear God, at least I’m not alone in sometimes (often) feeling like the whole point of my work is somewhere but I can’t find it… until I open the now-empty box of cupcakes and realize that, oh right, that was it all along.  Followed by the realization that: Dammit, I missed the cupcakes.  What I’m saying is that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll recognize yourself in this book.  Maybe you’re not the astronaut– maybe you’re more self-aware than we are and are always on top of your research.  In that case, you probably identify with the Martian creature, patiently hanging out right nearby, just in case the astronaut will finally notice him.  Or maybe you just like chocolate cupcakes.  But I think that whoever you are, you’ll probably sympathize with some aspect of this adventure.  And maybe after recognizing this parable’s application to my own life I’ll be better on the lookout for the cupcakes.

As for children?  Despite the fact that the Changeling found the book a little bit scary when she thought it over afterwards, during the reading itself she very much enjoyed looking for the creature in each picture and was deeply concerned for the fate of the chocolate cupcakes.  In fact, hours after we’d read the story, as I was getting her ready for bed, she suddenly reminded me, “The cupcakes weren’t in the box.  They were all gone!  The creature ate them.”

To be honest, I’m not sure how much she understood about being on Mars: we haven’t done much astronomy together and she doesn’t really know about other planets.  (Give her a break: she’s not even four yet.)  But she definitely got that the astronaut had gone to a new place and was looking for something he couldn’t find.  If your child knows more about outer space and cares about planets more than she does, that would be fantastic, but even without that background I think this book is a total winner.

One warning: before you read this book either to yourself or to your child-audience, do make sure that you have cupcakes in the house.  I really want cupcakes now, and I hold the lovely owner of The Children’s Book Shop completely and totally to blame.

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Elidor

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been keeping my main focus on my dissertation lately (I don’t think it’s going too badly, and I’m enjoying it, so that’s all good news), and that’s had an interesting effect on a lot of my other activities.  Knitting, spinning, sewing: seriously geared down, of course, though never entirely abandoned.  (You wouldn’t like to meet me if I’d completely abandoned my knitting– I get grouchy, and not the funny Oscar-type grouch, either.)  Here, I post as inspiration strikes rather than on my former schedule.  And what’s interesting is that “as inspiration strikes” in this case isn’t from any of the beautiful new publications I’ve seen, and that’s not for lack of beautiful new publications, I promise you.

The thing is that when I’m in “academic reading” mode, I find it very hard to read anything else except by specific rules: a) I only read for relaxation on Shabbat afternoons, b) I can only read very low-stress books or graphic novels.  I used to think I was broken, but then I met other people with the same experience.  Perhaps it’s a function of contrasts: my husband, a scientist, reads Proust for fun; I, a student of literature, read Susan Cooper and Alan Garner.  For me, it’s the equivalent of comfort food, but in book form.  All of that is to explain why I’m posting a review of a classic of children’s literature instead of reviewing any of the new lovely picture books I’ve got around this house.

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The story of Elidor, by Alan Garner, has fascinated me ever since I first read it, back when I was in my early teens, I think.  The story might be rather familiar in some respects.  A family of four children go into Manchester to escape the packing frenzy as their family is about to move houses.  The youngest of them, Roland, finds a map, and, on it, finds a street called Thursday Street.  Intrigued by the odd name, they go over to see the street.  Then, one at a time, they’re spirited away by a mysterious figure named Malebron to the magical, besieged land of Elidor.   Once there, they gain, and are entrusted with, four Treasures which hold the light of Elidor.  Pursued by the powers of darkness in Elidor, however, they have to escape back to their own world and keep the Treasures safe until it’s possible to return them to Elidor.

Now, a lot of that sounds like standard fare for fantasy buffs: children whisked away to a magical land under siege by powers of darkness?  C. S. Lewis, Guy Gavriel Kay, and many, many others have written some variant of that story.  But Alan Garner is entirely different, entirely original, and it’s taken me years to put my finger on what makes Elidor, and many of his other novels (The Moon of Gomrath springs to mind) so different.  Alan Garner pushes both the magical elements and the everyday elements to their logical extremes, and the results are beautiful.

In Elidor, for example, there’s a magical prophecy which predicts the four children coming to Elidor and rescuing the Treasures, there’s a circle of standing stones which nearly drives Roland out of his mind, and there’s the figure of Malebron (whoever he might be) who at one point communicates with Roland through a planchette.  What I’m saying is that Alan Garner really pushes and expands the range and complexity of what magical, otherworldly forces can do in children’s literature.

But that’s not the surprising thing.  It’s a distinctive feature of his work, for sure, but what really differentiates him from other authors of fantasy for children is the extent to which the magical adventures impinge on the children’s day-to-day lives.  For a simple example, when the children return from Elidor, they’re filthy.  They’re not allowed on the train in that condition, and have to smuggle themselves home, where their parents are furious with them for making extra trouble when they’re busy moving houses and so on.  Actions in Elidor have consequences in Manchester, in other words.  Even Cat Valente, in her Fairyland series, keeps the parents out of it until the very end of the third book in her series– it’s simply understood that parents get in the way of adventures, so they have to be tidied aside, one way or another, in most children’s fantasy novels.  Alan Garner doesn’t tidy anything aside; he embraces the complexity.

Thus, when Roland uses his memory of the family’s new house to help him open the doorway to a mound in Elidor, that has repercussions later as evil figures from Elidor try to reverse that magic and get into his world through his house.  Naturally, logically, his parents notice the shaking at the door, although they know nothing of Elidor.  The heated pursuit which ends the novel begins with the soldiers from Elidor overturning a cupboard full of china in the children’s very house.

While it’s true that the parents aren’t around for the pursuit and never directly encounter Elidor, it’s also true that things get messy between magical Elidor and the rigid logic of the children’s world.  In fact, they’re so messy that the three older children themselves (never Roland) try to logic themselves out of Elidor: they determine that they must have been through a mass hallucination.  This fits perfectly into their day-to-day world, which doesn’t admit Treasures or menacing standing stones, but it isn’t true.  Roland never wavers in facing, with equal logic, the truth: I was there, I saw it, I know it must be true.

What does this all add up to?  Alan Garner creates a world encompassing both the “real” world and “magical” Elidor, and its rules are relentlessly logical.  If you bring magic into the “real” world, then, yes, there will be consequences.  It will try to follow you.  You may end up with a unicorn prancing around the streets of Manchester escaping two evil soldiers from another world.  (Yeah, that happens.)  And your parents might just begin to suspect that something is going on…

The key point here is that Alan Garner’s Elidor shows him to be a master at crafting both new worlds and our own world.  So why don’t you take a little break, put up your feet, and let him introduce a bit of magic into your day-to-day life?

Lucky Lazlo

Dear Blog, remember me?  That would be your author writing here.  It’s been a while, and I’ve left you unfed and out in the cold for too long.  Let’s just say that while I was picking up the pace on the dissertation, I left a few other things by the wayside.  You could commiserate with my knitting and sewing projects, if you like; you’d all have plenty to complain about.  And yet I made some real progress on my dissertation, and, well, just know that I never forgot you, and here I am, back again with a new tasty book for you to sink your teeth into: a book from one of my favourite children’s book authors writing today, the great Steve Light.  We’ve met him before with his wonderful books Have You Seen My Dragon? and Swap!.  I spotted his new book, Lucky Lazlo, at the Harvard Book Store last week and snapped it up like the treat it is.  It’s a little gem, and I’m sorry I only got to posting about it the day after Valentine’s Day!

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Dear readers, Lucky Lazlo is sheer fun, and truly fun for all ages, a term I don’t use lightly.  There’s plenty in here for parents and children alike, and, while I think it’s perfect for kids around the age of four and up, I’d be tempted to try reading this even to a toddler.  I think the bright splashes of colour and zany antics might be a real delight for little ones.

“Zany antics?” you inquire.  Well, yes, let’s talk about the content of the book now, shall we?  Lazlo, our protagonist in this oeuvre, is a young gentleman who is shatteringly in love with a young lady who is starring in a production of Alice in Wonderland.  (Anyone who knows me will also know that this automatically endears the book to me.)  And so he buys her a rose from the flower-seller: “The last red one– how lucky!”

Then misfortune strikes: as our young hero rushes off to see his beloved perform in the play– bam!  He runs straight into a post, drops the rose, and a cat snatches up the rose and runs off with it, straight through the stage door of the theatre.  Oh no!  Poor Lazlo runs in hot pursuit of cat and rose.  The dastardly cat gets into a mess at the theatre, tangling himself in the tailor’s thread and trying to hide in a tuba, and then rushing straight into the orchestra as the play was about to begin.  The mess continues until he’s distracted by something more interesting: a mouse!  Lazlo snatches up the rose as the cat pursues the mouse, but then– oh no!  Lazlo steps onto a ball.  But luckily he soon picks up the knack of balancing on the ball and glides straight across the stage, stealing the show.  Our last glimpse of Lazlo shows him receiving a nice kiss on the cheek from his lady love, who, after all of these adventures, gets her rose.

There’s a lot of “zany antics” going on here, as you can tell.  Of course, there are all of Lazlo’s misadventures with getting the rose to his beloved, but there are also plenty of adventures and misadventures going on in the illustrations around the theatre.  Steve Light, as usual, has positively jam-packed the backgrounds of each page with little surprises.  In this case, it’s full of hints and entertaining trails to follow for anyone who knows anything about theatre life, and good and bad luck in the theatre.  As Steve Light explains in the notes at the back of the book, he’s drawn references to every superstition he could, and it’s up to the reader to see how many they can find.

Now, I won’t say a toddler would be able to go on a theatrical superstition treasure hunt, but I’ll admit I had a good time flipping through the book looking for candelabras with three candles, broken mirrors, and all the other superstitions carefully listed in the back.  And I got a flashback to myself when I was a kid in love with the theatre (lo, these many years ago…).  I did a lot of babysitting back then and read a ton of terrible books and a meager number of very good books to the kids I looked after.  How I wish I could go back in time and hand myself this book.  I would have gotten a kick out of all of the theatrical lore packed into every page, the kids would have loved the surface story, and we’d all have been happy.

If “zany” is the first word which came to mind to describe this story, “sweet” is the second word I think of.  Perfectly sweet.  Sweet without being nauseatingly saccharine.  Lazlo engages our interest precisely because he’s a total sweetheart, stopping to buy his young actress a rose.  That opening image absolutely melted my heart.  But making him walk into a pole and drop the rose was frankly hilarious, and the chaos he and the cat cause at the theatre is just zany enough to keep the sweetness from overwhelming the story.

So, my dear Blog, I hope that this offering of a book perfectly balanced between the sweet and the zany, and 100% funny and engaging all the way through is enough to mitigate any anger you might feel over my seeming abandonment of you.  I never truly forgot you, and I brought you back one of the most charming books I could find as a gift on my return.  I hope you enjoy it, even if it is past Valentine’s Day.  I love you every day, so here’s Lucky Lazlo, his darling red rose and the mischievous cat, all for you.

 

The Hired Girl

I’m going to let you in on a secret (which is really not so much a secret as a fact which is uninteresting to people who aren’t me): I love novels with strong, introspective female narrators.  Let’s just run through some of them: there’s Vicky Austin in Madeleine L’Engle’s novels (A Ring of Endless LightTroubling a Star), Catherine in Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Judy in Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, and Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  All of these have been favourites of mine for years, and all have in common that they’re told, through one mechanism or another, as st0ries from the first-person perspective of the female narrator.  They also have in common that the narrator in question is deeply reflective, keenly intelligent, and often a little willful.  I love them all like old friends, and now I have a new novel to add to the list: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, whose narrator, Joan Skraggs, is quite as intelligent and introspective as any of these earlier narrators.

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There’s a really nice review of it from the New York Times which you can read over here, and which will give you a quick glimpse of what it’s like to read a book guided by someone like Joan.  I would add, though, that part of what makes Joan such a fascinating guide is that not only does she build her own story throughout the book, but that she’s remarkably gifted at drawing characters: her father, each of her brothers, her mother, and her teachers all come to life in the early part of the book.  After she runs away from home, her new employers and their entire family take centre stage, and she, as much a director of a drama as protagonist in a novel, deftly sketches each of them.

But you haven’t yet read the book, so let’s talk a bit about what goes on with this varied cast of characters.  Joan Skraggs is fourteen years old in 1911, her mother is dead, and her father is tyrannical, just literate enough to run his farm without seeing the use of further education– not for himself, and certainly not for his daughter.  And so, at fourteen, forbidden from attending school, she suddenly finds herself without future prospects.  After her father burns her only books, she’s spurred to action and plans her escape to Baltimore, where she hopes to find a position as a hired girl: $6/week seems a fortune to her, and surely she’d be able to make more of a life for herself on such a princely salary.  And so she escapes, and, after a series of adventures, the Catholic Joan, now going by the name Janet Lovelace, finds herself the hired girl for a Jewish family, the Rosenbachs.

The Rosenbachs are just transitioning into the fashionable Reform Jewish world of educated German Jews in America, and, as they figure out their own Jewishness (they frequently run into conflict with the more traditional Malka, the beautifully-drawn old housekeeper for the family), so, too, Joan has to figure them out, and figure out her own place as a Catholic in their household.  The consequence is a series of occasional conflicts: when Malka sees that Joan has hung her mother’s crucifix in her bedroom she’s horrified, and Joan has to learn that to someone of Malka’s age and history the crucifix is a symbol of pogroms, not of peaceful personal religious observance.  Learning of anti-Semitism is a painful process for young Joan, and so is recognizing the symptoms of it in her religious mentor, Father Horst.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this process throughout the novel is seeing how Joan represents each of these new figures in her life.  After leaving her family behind, Joan is bereft of mother, father, and siblings.  Her escape to Baltimore shows her to us in two lights: on the one hand, she’s all independence now, and making her own way; on the other hand, she’s constantly looking at her new acquaintance as, in a sense, her new family.  Having lost a loving mother, she has a rather tense relationship with Mrs. Rosenbach, who is generous but inflexible.  But the revelation to her is Mr. Rosenbach (“Little Moritz” to the old housekeeper, Malka), who, when he hears of her longing to read, orders Joan a new kimono so that she’ll be able to read in the evenings in the comfort of the library after her work is done.  How could a father be so kind?  And Father Horst, who encourages her to ask questions and even owns up to his mistake after Joan reproaches him for his anti-Semitism, is a different kind of revelation to her: just imagine a Father (or father!) who takes ownership of his errors!

Our eyes are opened to different types of characters along with Joan’s, and our reflections as to what is right and what is wrong and what is a bit more subtle and complicated move along with hers.  We sympathize with her, we groan at her errors, we worry for her.  But, ultimately, and in this I am strongly reminded of I Capture the Castle, we are concerned less about the actual sequence of the story and much more about Joan’s day-t0-day relationships with the other characters she meets: “Tell us more about you and Mimi,” I silently beg her.  “I want to know whether you make up that quarrel.”

In that sense, this is a book about family, about relationships between people, about faults and forgiveness and kindness.  As such, this is an absolutely fantastic YA novel: perfect for an age where people wonder about just such themes.  And it’s fantastic for older readers, too; after all, who exactly stops wondering about family, about relationships, and about faults and forgiveness and kindness?  I know it was interesting to me, and I strongly suspect that it would be interesting to you, too.  Take a look and let me know what you think!

First Snow

It’s cold today.  Yesterday was warm beyond belief for December in Boston, but today is cold, and a few days ago we had our first real snow of the season.  All of that means that I’m finally feeling winter arrive, if a bit tenuously, and I just got my daughter a book which fits the feeling of the season: First Snow, by Bomi Park.  First Snow.jpg

I was inspired to pick this book up because the cover reminded me so strongly of a perennial favourite in this house, The Tea Party in the Woods.  Feast your eyes on that soft black and white with occasional pops of colour in the child’s red scarf and the cat’s fur.  The whole book is that lovely, and, if you want to be really infuriated, please note that this is Bomi Park’s debut book (first published in Sourth Korea in 2012, and just now brought to the American market by, you guessed it, Chronicle Books).  I think it’s entirely unfair that such a lovely book is her first, but, on the other hand, I’m so smitten with it that I’m just glad it exists.

The story is very, very simple.  A little girl is lying in bed when she hears something go “pit, pit, pit” against the window.  Snow is falling.  She quickly gets dressed and sneaks out into the snowy night.  She begins to shape the snow into a ball, and then rolls it to make it bigger (remember how to do that?).  She rolls it through her yard, through her town, through fields, past a train, through the woods, until she arrives somewhere– somewhere special with other children all rolling snowballs, building snowmen, and simply enjoying the first snow.  And that’s the story: just a girl playing with the snow.

It’s a beautiful balancing act between the very real, very tangible delights of first snow and a rather magical idealization of children playing in the snow.  On the one hand, what is more real than children bundling up and rushing outside to pat and roll snowballs when winter first arrives?  On the other hand, somewhere along the way there’s a turn for the more-than-real: our little girl goes rolling her snowball through the woods until she sees a bright light and breaks through into a snowy landscape where all the other children are also enjoying the snow.  It never stops being realistic, in one sense.  After all, it’s simply children playing in the snow.  In another sense, however, it’s consistently mysterious.  From the very beginning, starting with a girl waking in the night, we get the impression of a dream landscape, and so a magical journey is no more unexpected than in, for example, The Nutcracker.  And yet there’s no journey to the Land of the Sweets in our book; from our girl’s backyard to the forests, it’s all a journey through snow.  In other words, it never stops being realistic, even though it’s dreamlike and magical from the very first page.

But let’s take another look at the art.  You see, the very same balancing act is going on in the art as in the story.  On the one hand, you have the dreamy haziness of the black and white, which functions (again, think of The Tea Party in the Woods) as a muted reflection of the world: familiar, but a bit unfamiliar at the same time.  You’ll also notice as you read that it starts out darker, a nighttime scene, but gets whiter and whiter as you progress farther into the snowy landscape with the story.  (I’m sorry, this is where I’d normally talk about the medium the illustrator used, but, sadly, I can’t find that information!  I’d hazard a guess at pencils and maybe charcoal.  Perhaps also some digital effects.)

And yet, even through the dreamlike shades of charcoal-like blacks, greys, and whites, we’re constantly being grounded into reality by occasional pops of colour.  Our girl’s red scarf, the orange in the cat’s fur, and a variety of red accents on the other children’s clothing all serve to bring us back to the realism of playing in the snow.  And there’s something else I wonder whether a non-parent would notice: Bomi Park gets the posture of a young child bending over in a snowsuit spot-on perfect, absolutely 100% real.  Children move and bend their legs differently in snowsuits, and that touch of realism makes me smile every time I flip through this book.

You know, I grew up in a very snowy place (New Brunswick, Canada), and I have to say that it’s been a long time since I saw anyone capture what perfect, fresh snow feels like as well as this book does.  I’d say that it handles snow as beautifully as Ellen Bryan Obed handled ice in Twelve Kinds of Ice.  And as winter begins to arrive in earnest, I can use a book like this to remind me of the beauties and joys of the season.  So I have one recommendation right now:  Go and get this book (it’s 20% off at the Harvard Book Store!), and then read it with your kid.  Then get bundled up together and just walk outside and see what winter looks like for you.

Who? What? Where?

Dear everyone who’s stopped by my blog only to mutter: “Who? What? Where?”

I’m sorry.  I’m writing my dissertation and fighting demons at the same time, and it gets a little hectic!  Also the Changeling caught a nasty cold last week.  In short: I was prevented from writing here by Life Happening.

I will be back very soon with a proper post (boy, do I have some great books to share with you all!), but in the meantime, do you remember this book?  Who Done It? by Olivier Tallec?  Well, Chronicle Books has another of his!  The same cute concept, some of the same cute characters, but a new little hunting game.  It has the Changeling’s stamp of approval already.  Go here to check it out!  Who?  What?  Where?

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I, Too, Am America

I was at the Harvard Book Store on Sunday.  All right, being honest, I was there on Thursday, but completely lost my mind and forgot the presents I needed to get while I was there.  So I had to go back today and get the presents (two copies of Instructions for two little girls I’ll be seeing over Thanksgiving).  And here’s the thing: while I was there, I noticed they had a beautiful display of books by minority groups out there, including quite an extraordinary illustrated edition of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” And I am here to tell you that I, Too, Am America, poem by Langston Hughes, illustrations by Bryan Collier, is heart-wrenching and inspirational.

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I hesitated a lot over this post, because what can I tell you about Langston Hughes or his poetry?  Being perfectly frank here, does the world really need another earnest post by a rather privileged white person about a distinctly, famously black poem?  I’m too Canadian, too white, too Jewish, and too privileged to analyze Langston Hughes for you, so if you have any curiosity about him, then I’m just going to point you to this excellent, nuanced, and fascinating article and that should give you plenty to think about.  For myself, I’m not going to pretend I can tell you much about Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance, or the black experience in America.

What I do know something about, though, is the world of kids’ books; I know a good book when I see one, and this one is beautiful.  Two things surprised me about it: a) how very well Bryan Collier’s precise vision worked with the open-endedness of the poem; b) how much the Changeling liked it, even at age three.

Let’s take a look at the poem, shall we?  It never hurt anyone to pause and read a good poem, and it will help us to understand the story Bryan Collier tells with his images:

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

You see what I mean about “open-endedness”: this poem could tell any number of people’s stories, which, in fact, is one of its beauties.  It could (and this is as close as I’ll come to analyzing the poem itself) tell the literal story of someone sent to the kitchen, or it could tell the figurative story of someone sent to the kitchen; it could be speaking directly to you, to one person, or it could be speaking to a crowd, a group, a class of people.  Bryan Collier hears it speaking to, as he describes it, “the Pullman porters, African-American men who worked as caretakers to wealthy white passengers aboard luxury trains.  This practice began after legal slavery ended and lasted until the 1960s…”  And so our focus, as we flip through his illustrations, narrows from a story which could belong to many people to the story of the Pullman porters, catering to a white elite lifestyle which they could never reach.

And yet– as the poem tells us– they can and will break free from the unjust world in which they live.  Bryan Collier shows us in his beautiful and compelling mixed media illustrations the story moving through time and space with the train.  We begin with the train, just the train.  Then comes the porter’s face, veiled by an American flag.  We move, along with the poem, into the kitchen, seeing the black cooks hard at work.  And then, “I laugh, / And eat well” features a glowing image of the porter filling the foreground with his energy, while those he looks after sit muted in the background.  We then see the porters, and I quote Bryan Collier again from his Illustrator’s Note, “gathering newspapers, magazines, blues and jazz albums, and other items left behind by traveling passengers and then, from the back of the last train car, tossing this bundle in the air, acting as a conduit of culture, a distributor of knowledge to those who couldn’t afford these items on their own.”

In Collier’s illustrations, however, these cultural pieces don’t fall down, but flow outward, through time and space, all the way to the present, reaching audiences far and wide.  “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes.”  They flow from the old luxury trains to the modern subway train and, on that train, a boy peering through the same flag which had veiled the porter’s face at the opening of the book, looking and pushing through to a more hopeful future.

This book is both educational and inspirational: it taught me about Pullman porters, a story I’d never heard before.  My daughter, as she grows older and we continue to read this book together, will know their story.  I like to think that Langston Hughes would be a little bit proud of that, and that he’d be happy that children would learn to see a story through his words, and identify with it.  And, perhaps, reading this poem, seeing this story, they’ll learn that we are all America.

Altogether, this is a beautiful book.  I wasn’t sure how Langston Hughes’ poem could be rendered for children (and, well, I still am not sure what my three-year-old gets out of it!), but Bryan Collier has done a magnificent job.  He paints a story which flows with as much energy as Hughes’ words do, and together they are a powerhouse of warmth, understanding, and, I truly hope, empowerment.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think I’m the right person to comment on the Harlem Renaissance or to analyze Langston Hughes’s poems, but I do know how to recognize a good picture book.

And this, too, is one.

Shh! We Have a Plan

I was recently talking to my sister about ideas.  You see, when we were children, we both loved playing “make believe” or trying experiments or having adventures.  But all of these things need to be sparked by an idea– they need to be planned.  You can’t make believe without some spark of a plan.  My sister was the one with the ideas; I was along for the ride.  We still joke to this day that if my sister says, “I have an idea!”  Well.  You should hide under the table if you don’t have the stomach to go along for a wild ride.

This is a book about ideas, about plans, but it’s turned upside-down, right on its head:  Shh! We Have a Plan, by author-illustrator Chris Haughton.  (Can we digress for a little moment to discuss how cool I find it that Candlewick Press, which produced this book and so many other beauties, is located right in my neck of the woods?  Proud I am to breathe the same sweet air as Candlewick Press.)

Shh! We Have a Plan.jpg

Dear readers, this book exemplifies what Candlewick Press does so well: it’s fresh, it’s original, and it leaves you asking just a few questions at the end.  Meanwhile, the art (created digitally) is equally fresh and original, and yet it fits beautifully on a shelf beside such illustrators as Christian Robinson and Dan Yaccarino, for example, with its bold colours and blocky yet graceful shapes.

The story goes like this: There’s a group of four people (a family or friends, perhaps?) who are out on an adventure.  The three biggest are carrying nets; the smallest of the four is not.  As they walk along, they see a beautiful bird.  The smallest waves and says, “Hello, birdie!”  But the others say, “Shh!  We have a plan!”  They sneak up on the bird: Ready one, ready two, ready three… Go!  They pounce on the bird– but the bird gets away!  Over and over they try, until the fourth friend finally approaches the bird in his own way, according to his own plan: “Hello, birdie.  Would you like some bread?”  And what happens?  He ends up surrounded by a whole flock of beautiful, colourful birds!  When the other three creep up with their nets again, the birds chase them away, and then what do the three of them do?  “Look!  A squirrel!” and “Shh!  We have a plan!”

There is so much to enjoy in this simple story that I hardly know where to begin, but we have to start somewhere, so.  One of the most striking elements here is, as I mentioned above, that Chris Haughton leaves us with a lot of questions at the end: Who are these four people?  What’s their relationship?  Why are the bigger three hunting birds and squirrels?  And, by the end, do those three ever learn?

The answers to these questions aren’t evident from the story.  I’d call them “four friends,” but they might be a family, or they might be four Members of the Parliament of Blueville, for all that we really know for sure.  They have no specific background or gender or name or anything: they are, in effect, four little Everymen ready to receive whatever the reader of the story chooses to impose on them.  (I notice with interest that in my little summary I used the masculine pronoun to refer to the smallest of the four people; that was completely unconsciously done.)

Whatever we impose on them, however, there are still certain actions they take which might influence our perspective on these people.  I find myself automatically distrustful of anyone walking around carrying a net, for example, so my sympathies are immediately directed towards the smallest of the group, who cheerfully calls out, “Hello, birdie!” instead of chasing with a net.  And the story rewards this cheerful little fellow, bringing a whole flock of birds to surround him, whereas the original bird fled from the three fellows with nets.  And so we forge forward, looking forward to finding out how the three figures with nets will react: will they understand, will they join in on the party?

Nope!  First they spring at the birds with nets, and then, when they’re chased away, they pursue a squirrel in exactly the same way.  The smallest of the friends remains apart, scratching his head as the other three pursue the squirrel, and, once more, we’re completely sympathetic: “Why,” we wonder, “are they doing this again?”  And we’re back to questions.

What, in effect, do we know for sure about the story?  We know that there are four of these people and that they seem to be looking for some adventure together out in nature.  The bigger three want to possess it, and the smallest enjoys it on a face-to-face basis, leaving the birds free to do as they please.  Without ever being didactic, purely showing and never telling, then, Chris Haughton demonstrates to the reader the truth of an old adage: “If you love it, set it free.”  (Does anyone know the background of that saying?  I wonder where it came from.)  Those who try to trap the bird are left with nothing, but the one who came to the birds on their own terms was caught up in a moment of true beauty, and true happiness.  Maybe, we think, you don’t need a plan.  Maybe you just need to leave it to the birds.

What stands out to me from this book is how completely non-didactic it is.  It’s humorous, sweet, and very beautiful.  The message, too, is gentle and beautiful, but it in no fashion lectures children; it simply shows us the sympathetic small person, and asks us to love him.  And we do.

A Lion in Paris

Dear readers, I know that a lot of you are Americans, and I’m guessing, if so, that I’m not the only person sitting here today feeling as though she’d just been punched in the gut.  Even if you’re not American, you may well feel that way.  If you’re like me, you simply can’t stand looking at news sites, and you’re probably having a hard time getting used to the new picture for the next four years.

So today’s post goes out to all of you: Everyone who’s scared, everyone who’s shocked, everyone who had hoped for better for their children (or others’ children).  Today’s post is about a book which looks for better things, which takes someone sad and alone and helps him find his true place in the world.

A Lion in Parisby Beatrice Alemagna.

A Lion in Paris.jpg

This book is a large and tall book– if Mr. Collins wanted to read “one of the largest folios” in Mr. Bennet’s collection, he should have taken this one off the shelf.  It’s certainly an improving book, but probably more beautiful and uplifting than his preferred Fordyce’s sermons.

This is how it begins: “He was a big lion.  A young, curious and lonely lion.  He was bored at home on the grasslands, and so one day he set off to find a job, love and a future.”

How many of us leave home to find “a job, love and a future”?  I’m not a statistician, and I’m not here to give you precise numeric answers; there are lots of others out there who can do that better than I can.  I’m going to stick to saying: “a lot.”  I think that at some point in our lives, most of us stand up and say, “I have to find my path.”  And what do we have to guide us?  Ourselves.  And, as the lion in our book finds, leaving the grasslands for Paris with no luggage and only himself to guide him can be a little scary.

Being a lion, he wondered, too, whether he would scare anyone, whether anyone would attack him.  But no one did. The lion, who wanted to be noticed, roared for attention on the Metro, but no one paid any attention.  He wandered Paris through rain and through sun, watching the sunlight bounce off of all of the glass windows.  He visits the Seine, the lion reflected in its waters smiling back at him.  He visits the Mona Lisa, who also smiles at him, and climbs the Eiffel Tower.  And as he travels through the city, he begins to feel that Paris is now smiling at him from all its windows.

Finally, however, he comes to an empty plinth at a crossroads and, with a huge Roaaaaaaar! of joy, he leaps onto it and puts his paws together.  And there, having finally found the place that suited him, he decides to stay.

There are a few aspects of this book, which I tried to hint at in my summary.  First, there’s the travelogue.  The book even opens with the lion holding a little map of Paris on the end-paper.  As he goes from place to place, other visitors to Paris will enjoy seeing their favourite spots highlighted in Beatrice Alemagna’s beautiful illustrations.

But there’s a lot more.  A lonely traveller from another country comes to Paris hoping to find a job, love, and a future.  He searches everywhere, feeling lost and alone and ignored.  He roars for attention.  When he visits the Louvre, he finally feels glad to be noticed by the Mona Lisa, and, gradually, he goes on to win more attention from smiling Parisians.  At last, he finds the plinth on which he can sit (in the Place Denfert-Rochereau, in case you’re curious), happy, loved by visitors, for the rest of his life.  That story feels a lot like the story of a wanderer, maybe an immigrant, looking for his place in the world.

But there’s still more, something less tangible, more internal: the lion is lonely, and he needs to find his place in life.  Is there anyone out there who can’t identify with that loneliness, or with the desire for a dream to achieve?  Is there anyone who doesn’t nod along with the wish to have others tell us, “Yes, you’re here.  You’re alive, and I see you.”  I doubt very much that the lion is alone in his search for a job, love, and a future, whether you’re hunting physically or internally.

And, yes, in this miserable election there was a lot of talk about people’s hopes and dreams, and who has the right to pursue those hopes and dreams.  (There was also a lot of talk about immigrants, but I’ll let you suss out the connections to A Lion in Paris by yourself.)  I found, rereading this book, that our lion is a sympathetic figure: he’s on the side of those who believe that with a little soul-searching and hard work, we ought all to be able to achieve our hopes and dreams.  And, whatever the outcome of this one election, he encourages us to commit again to hoping and dreaming.  He encourages us to work towards achieving our dreams.  He encourages us not to sit at home, bored and unhappy, but to get out there and get doing, and to find others to love and help us, too.

So, disappointed and upset as I am, punched in the gut as I feel, I’m going to stand on the back of this lion and announce, “Onwards, friends!  Let’s hope, dream, and work.  Let’s find our jobs, our loves, and our futures.”

Just– maybe give me a few days to get there, OK?  This was sort of a hard election to face up to.  And, in the meantime, I recommend that you find your own copy of A Lion in Paris, and prepare yourself to pursue your own hopes and dreams.

Monthly Retrospective

This is going to be a fairly brief monthly roundup since I was otherwise occupied for much of the month of October.  That said, the books I talked about in October are definitely worth a look, especially if you’re into spooky books, whether picture books or novels.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to deal with very scary books.  Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I giggled my way through during the day, cost me several nights’ rest after the moon rose and the lights were out.  I am terrible at scary books, is what I’m saying.  But I love the spooky, especially in October: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is excellent for spooky but not too scary, for example.  So I made it my mission to find books which had slightly spooky elements but were fundamentally not-at-all-scary to share with my three-year-old this Hallowe’en, and I think we nailed it.  In the spotlights below you’ll find two mild-but-not-milky picture books and a slightly creepy novel.    All of these are books which are guaranteed not to keep you or your children up at night, but should make you glad that you’re in a nice cozy house, secure against whatever ghosts roam the world when the leaves are changing and the shadows seem just a little bit deeper…

Enjoy, and if you have any recommendations for spooky-but-not-terrifying books, please share them!

I Am a Witch's Cat.jpg I Am a Witch’s Cat: This book tells the story of a girl who is her mother-witch’s cat, and we watch as the cat-girl imagines various normal activities (grocery shopping and cooking) as a witch’s life, and herself as a witch’s familiar.  Just as you’re chuckling at her vivid imagination, you turn the page to see what her mother is up to on Friday evenings– and whoosh! she zooms by on a broom!  A beautiful tale of the warm and familiar with a very slightly spooky imaginative twist, this is a really ideal story for anyone, book-loving toddler and up, who’s got her head in the clouds.

Ghosts in the House.jpgGhosts in the House: Do you love ghosts?  The witch in this little story does!  When she moves into a haunted house, the little witch and her cat are thrilled to find a set of ghosts living there.  She catches them all, gives them a good wash, and puts them all to excellent use.  Perfect for toddlers and up, this story is right on the edge between “charming” and “uncanny.”  Without ever really being too spooky, you get a sense of the little witch’s power, and how she can do things no normal child her age can do.  The orange, black, and white illustrations perfectly complement the clever story.

Left-Handed Fate.jpgThe Left-Handed FateIf you have an older child looking for a slightly spooky novel, The Left-Handed Fate is absolutely ideal.  Set right at the outset of the War of 1812, it combines history with magic, all through the actions of a powerful cast of characters: Lucy, the honorary lieutenant of her father’s letter-of-marque; Max, the naturalist on a quest; and Oliver, the “prize-captain” of The Left-Handed Fate who has some of the most difficult decisions to make in the book as he balances his duty with the more nuanced situations staring him in the face.  Wartime pressures and excitement combine with a longing for peace and security, and all are overshadowed by whatever that mysterious black brig is off in the distance…  Whether you’re looking for a good historical novel or a mystery to make your spine creep just a little bit, or if you simply love a well-crafted book with well-developed characters, give this one a try.

For a comprehensive list of the books we looked at this past month:

  • Scary, Scary Halloween: One of the spookier books I’ve seen for children, and beautifully illustrated by Jan Brett. Ages 3 and up.
  • Ten Timid Ghosts: A charming counting book for toddlers and up.
  • Ghosts in the House: Toddlers and up, a slightly eerie story about a girl and her ghosts.
  • The Left-Handed Fate: A middle grade and up novel set during 1812, with courageous and clever characters.
  • Room on the Broom: A charming story for toddlers and up about a witch whose friends help her in a time of need.
  • I Am a Witch’s Cat: A daughter imagines herself as a witch’s cat, but readers will chuckle when they find out what the mother is really up to on Friday nights!

For a final note, check out my blog post over at Late Last Night Books for more on Cat Valente, the author of Fairyland!