Team Outer Space

It was space that first drew my daughter in to Brains On, a science podcast for kids, so it was hardly a surprise that when it came down to Outer Space vs. Deep Sea, she was firmly cheering for Team Outer Space to win the debate. In her mind, it was hardly even a debate.

“What’s so great about the ocean?” she asked from the back seat as we set off on a long drive one recent Saturday. I was about to press play on the big debate, and I admit, I was hoping she would keep an open mind.

“You might be surprised,” I said, thinking of the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean that I was certain would be as fascinating as planets, stars, and the possibility of alien life if she gave it a chance. We listened as Brains On producers presented their arguments for each side. We mostly kept our commentary to ourselves other than the occasional “huh” or “wow” for both Outer Space and Deep Sea.

We kept track of the points we would award each debater, and, in the end, Team Outer Space won the debate for both of us. But for those of you still on the fence about which one is cooler, perhaps one of these books will sway you:

Deep Sea
I wrote about What if Sharks Disappeared a few weeks ago, and it certainly fills in the argument for Deep Sea by sharing how we are connected to ocean life. But let’s stay focused on the debate at hand—The Deep Sea vs. Outer Space. For a look at the deepest parts of the ocean, Down, Down, Down by Steve Jenkins is a must-read. Really, all of Steve Jenkins’ books are must-reads, or at least must-browse-through-to-look-at-the-remarkable-illustrations.

Outer Space

Last time I wrote about Brains On, I shared Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, and this is still one of my daughter’s favorite books. It’s funny and browsable while being full of information. Plus, she likes cats. Not as much of a cat person as she is? That’s okay. How about Destination: Space? In this book five kids take a tour of the universe from the big bang and beyond. It’s similar to Professor Astro Cat, just a little less cute and funny.

It’s up to you to choose a team (or remain neutral) in this very important debate. ;)

As a side note to fellow librarians reading this, it occurs to me as I write this that “Deep Sea vs. Outer Space” would be a fun library display. Actually, there are probably lots of possibilities here. Well, I’m off to brainstorm potential “versus” displays I could do in my library….

If you like… Time Travel

If you follow me on Goodreads or other social media, you may have noticed a theme in my reading choices lately. You are not imagining it. I am binge reading time travel novels. This is not a new reading interest, by any means. I did a project on time travel fiction for one of my library school classes eleventy billion years ago, and I will sometimes admit that I have the beginning of a time travel novel of my own creation saved on my computer. I started it years ago, and I always say I’m going to finish it but that’s not what this post is about. Lay off!

Focusing on the matter at hand: If you like time travel fiction, what should you read next? Here are a few newish suggestions:

For Kids: The Time Museum by Matthew Loux is a fun adventure that takes readers all over time in graphic novel format. My daughter enjoyed it and is eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.

For Teens: The Passenger by Alexandra Bracken and Into the Dim by Janet Taylor are very similar stories. Both fall into the “Hey, your mom is secretly a time traveler and in serious danger from a rival faction of time travelers and you will have to rescue her somewhere in time” category. Apparently, that’s a Thing. Who knew? Anyway, both were good, but probably don’t read them back to back like I did or you’ll probably find yourself confusing the details and growing tired of the genre. Tempest by Julie Cross is slightly different in that it’s more of a spy thriller, but still has a secretive parent and possibly evil time travelers with whom the protagonist has to contend.

So which one should you read? If you want plenty of romance in your time travel story: The Passenger. If you want an action-oriented story with a male lead: Tempest. If you want a story that spends a lot of time in the distant past: Into the Dim.

For Adults: If you missed my post about The Jane Austen Project, that’s where you should probably start. That was the book that began this little genre binge of mine, and I recommend it to readers of historical fiction who want something unusual as well as those who, like me, are obsessed with time travel. If you’re more of a mystery/thriller kind of reader, try A Murder in Time by Jill McElwain. It’s the sort of book that I couldn’t put down despite feeling like it was a little bit cheesy. If I’m honest, a bit of cheesiness is part of the fun of time travel stories, at least for me.

Of course, there are as many reasons for reading a particular genre as there are readers. Some people are enamored with the idea of a do-over or want to mull over the paradoxes. For me, it’s the silly anachronisms and the fish-out-of-water elements that make it fun to read. Not to mention: star-crossed love. I can never seem to resist a love story, even if it makes me cry.

Links of interest:

Library Heroes

What librarian doesn’t have something of a weakness for books about books? I can’t imagine I am alone in finding stories that celebrate stories particularly charming. That was, of course, how I ended up reading The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library by Linda Bailey, which is the story of a bug who loves books. This is unusual for bugs, mind you, and Eddie’s family thinks he’s a bit strange for his preoccupation with reading. They don’t expect much of him at all. Too much of a dreamer.

As an aside, how many kids who always have their heads in a book are written off this way? It makes me sad to think about.

In any case, Eddie is a bug of action no matter what his family thinks. When his beloved Aunt Min, who taught him to read, is missing, he braves the wider world to find her. The bug’s eye view of the world is sure to get kids laughing, and the references to children’s books (both obvious and not obvious) throughout are fun to spot.

As if this wasn’t enough to make this book a winner, get this: After Eddie finds Aunt Min at the library, naturally, he learns that the library is in danger of being shut down. What can a little bug do to save a library populated by “squishers”? Sticky notes. Eddie leaves sticky notes in the library asking the squishers to save it, to keep it open and full of books. The kids at the library think it’s a ghost leaving the notes, but it doesn’t matter who left the notes, they will save the library as requested.

I love this. I love the idea that even the smallest person, or insect in this case, can make a big difference, and I love the idea of sticky notes being the way the difference happens. I’ve always thought that notes left in unexpected places had a particular sort of power, and it seems I’m not the only one. At the library where I work, I’ve found two sticky notes inside the front cover of picture books with messages for whomever may find them. I have no idea who is leaving these notes. I’m fairly certain it’s not a tiny bug or a ghost, but I agree with their sentiments.

I’ll be watching for more of these notes in the library. Meanwhile, I added The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library to my Animals list and the Books & Libraries list on my wiki. I quite recommend the book to young readers looking for a humorous and charming adventure.

What about sharks?

Everyone is afraid of sharks, right? They are fearsome creatures who come out of nowhere to attack when you’re swimming and having fun. Aren’t they? Perhaps there is more to it than that.

When we were in Boston a few months ago, we visited the New England Aquarium and caught a showing of Great White Shark 3D in the IMAX theater. The movie used suspenseful music and beautiful shots to explore the fear of sharks that is deeply ingrained in our culture while making it clear that sharks are in danger from humans far more than we are in danger from them.

My daughter was entranced by the film. First it was the 3D effects that caught her attention since it was her first 3D movie, but by the end, she had clearly invested in the shark’s plight. The call to action to protect sharks that ended the film earned a soft but firm “yeah” from her, which surprised me.

It’s been a few months since then, but I finally got my hands on a copy of If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams to share with her to reinforce and deepen the idea that sharks are important to the ecosystem—and to us. Imagine if the ocean became unlivable because plankton grew out of control because fish and pinnipeds disappeared because sharks disappeared. We are all connected. That’s the point here, and it is made in a way that even kids younger than my nine-year-old will be able to grasp. The scientific vocabulary and kid-friendly tips for helping protect sharks are just bonuses in an already powerful picture book.

I’m still afraid of sharks. I can’t imagine cage diving in shark infested waters, much less free diving in those places as was depicted in the film. But fear doesn’t negate the connection between us, which seems like an important idea to explore with kids whether we are talking about nature or other aspects of our world.

Great White Sharks 3D trailer:

If Sharks Disappeared trailer:

If you like… Roald Dahl

The most consistently popular posts on my blog are these “If You like…” posts, so I thought I might try to do more of them. What better author to start up the series again than Roald Dahl? His books are beloved by kids and grown-ups. His quirky, subversive style has endured for over 50 years with a strong base of adoring fans. But once you finish the 19 children’s books Dahl wrote, what next? While I imagine that very few authors measure up to Roald Dahl in most fans’ eyes, here are a few books that might satisfy readers looking for something similar:

Ms Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera is a whimsical adventure that includes the social satire that Dahl fans enjoy. I read it aloud to my daughter, and we both found it quite charming.

The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld is an absurd fairy tale style story full of wit and wordplay. It’s a princess story, but it’s sarcastic and funny. What could be better than that?

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon is another whimsical adventure story with quirky characters that reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl’s books.  And I wasn’t the only one who saw the similarities. Both the Booklist and the School Library Journal reviews compared the book to Dahl. I will say that it’s a bit long and slow moving at times, but the dreamy nature of the story pulls the reader along well enough.

Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner stars Emily Vole, an abandoned child who has been adopted by a pair of terrible parents who treat her like a servant. But things change for Emily when she gets to know her neighbor Miss String and all sorts of magical things start happening. This is a silly adventure full of the sort of humor and wit that Dahl fans know and love.

Need more suggestions? Try these:

Weird and Wonderful Books for Kids who Like Roald Dahl

If you like Roald Dahl you might also like…

The BFG Readalikes

Living in a Multilingual World

Every document that comes home from my daughter’s elementary school comes in three different languages: English, Spanish, and Somali.  In the hallways, you can see various languages on signs and posters.  Her school isn’t a language immersion school; it’s just a typical school in Minneapolis.  According to the school district, there are 96 languages or dialects spoken by students or their families throughout the city, and her school is only 31% white.

Our kids are growing up in a world in which you can’t count on the people around you speaking your language.  You might have to meet people somewhere between your language and theirs or listen for more than just the meaning of words.

I was thinking about this as I read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, which is written in journal format and includes a lot of Spanish words and phrases throughout the book.  Gabi’s life is in both languages, and it feels real to have both languages represented in her journal.  I don’t speak Spanish, but I loved Gabi’s story.  I connected with her through her intimate and humorous diary entries as she sorted out big issues like cultural identity, family problems, and feminism all while discovering the power of poetry.  It’s a story that will stick with me for a long time.  Sure, I didn’t always know the Spanish words, but I did know Gabi.

At the AWP Conference in Minneapolis in 2015, I attended a session in which M. Evelina Galang spoke about her book Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, and she shared her experience that young people never seemed to question the inclusion of Tagalog in her book the way adult readers did.  The teen readers accepted that it was part of the story and created their own context around it.  Galang advises readers in a post you can download on her web site to “feel the words” they don’t understand.  In her book, Galang creates a rich world full of feeling that will give readers an opportunity to connect with Angel’s experience whether they know any Tagalog or not.

My daughter, a third-grader, is far from reading these teen novels, but she could “feel the words” in Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina, which includes lots of Spanish words in the text as the story follows a young Colombian girl as she learns English. Juana is a wonderfully likable character, and it is easy to relate to her even with a limited knowledge of Spanish.  Her story is just the thing to generate enthusiasm for learning a new language!

I also made sure to share I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien with her last year when a new student arrived in her class. The student had only recently arrived in the country from Somalia and spoke very little English, much like Fatimah in the book. I’m New Here helped us to talk about how it would feel to go to school in a different country and explore how we might connect with people when we don’t share a language. This conversation could easily be had in a classroom setting, and teachers may be interested in the resources available on O’Brien’s web site, including a community event kit and a video. Pair it with Meg Medina’s Mango, Abuela, and Me for the way the story blends English and Spanish as grandmother and granddaughter attempt to communicate despite not speaking each other’s language.

These are the books that reflect the world in which we live, and I hope to see even more cultures and languages (especially Somali!) represented on the shelves of our libraries to help us remember that there are ways to connect with people and things we share with them even when we don’t share a first language.

Exploring Japan

A few years ago, my daughter and I spent a summer exploring the world. Well, not literally. Our family travel budget isn’t nearly large enough to accommodate a world tour. But we felt like world explorers as we read each book in the Dodsworth series by Tim Egan that followed the title character from New York to London, Paris, and Tokyo. For each book, we would seek out as much of the location we could experience from afar as we could.  It may seem silly, but we had a great time armchair traveling to all of these places. Thanks to our imaginary trip to Paris, chocolate croissants have become a favorite treat in our family.

Recently we took our first non-imaginary mother-daughter trip to visit family in Boston, and we were delighted to discover an opportunity to explore a faraway place while we were there thanks to the Boston Children’s Museum. Amid the usual children’s museum exhibits in which kids can play, build, and create is a unique exhibit that allows museum visitors a special glimpse of life on the other side of the world: The Japanese House.

The house, which was a gift to the city of Boston from sister-city Kyoto, is a traditional live-work space from the textile district of Kyoto. We learned that very few of these houses still exist in Kyoto.  In fact, a 2012 National Geographic article featured Kyoto as one of “9 Places to See Before They Slip Away” citing this architectural style as a highlight of Kyoto that is losing ground to modernization. We may never get to Kyoto ourselves, so I really appreciated that this house was preserved and shared this way. For those who are far from both Kyoto and Boston, you can armchair travel via a virtual tour or this video.

My daughter left the exhibit with all sorts of questions about what life is like in Japan now compared to the lifestyle preserved in the exhibit, so when we got back to Minneapolis, we found ourselves poring over books from our local library about children’s lives in Japan and watching this video.

Our favorite book we found was My Awesome Japan Adventure, which is a fictional travel diary about a boy spending four months in Japan. I liked it because it modeled the idea of a travel diary while sharing all sorts of information about Japanese culture. My nine-year-old liked it for the cartoon style, the humorous tone, and the spread that included origami instructions. Either way, it was a winner. ;)

Wherever we end up on our next mother-daughter trip, I hope to find hidden gems and surprises like the Japanese House exhibit there too. Perhaps we’ll keep our own travel diaries as we move from imaginary adventures to real ones out in the world. We may not always be able to go far, but we can always keep a sense of adventure with us.

Book Review: Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez

My initial reaction to Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez was, embarrassingly, “huh?” I was excited to receive a review copy from the publisher because the art looked beautiful, the setting was unusual in a children’s book, and my nine-year-old loves graphic novels.  I expected this to be a rave review all around, but upon receiving the book, I found I didn’t know what to make of it. Sure, the illustrations were as beautiful as I had expected, and the story’s Colombian setting isn’t one often found in books for kids. Those things are true. But I wasn’t expecting a story that was so dark and creepy. Could I share this with my sensitive nine-year-old? It was the stuff of nightmares, I thought.

The book, however, has stuck with me in a way that had me rereading it multiple times. To appreciate the illustrations. To make sense of the story that seemed so unsettling and almost unfinished. It was a book that wouldn’t let me go. That alone must mean something, I thought.

As I reread the story again and again, I found it shifted from the dark and creepy nightmare I saw at first to something empowering. The little girl in the story encounters a strange darkness and instead of running from it, she finds a way to live with it. To allow what might have been scary to be part of her world. The openness of the ending, so unsettling at first, seemed more appropriate when viewed through this lens.

Maybe the monstrous character of Morfie is Sandy’s doubt and insecurity. Maybe the story shows Sandy learning to live with that kind of anxiety and still be creative. I’m not sure what the author intended. But I know that Nightlights deserves to be read. Maybe more than once.

More about Nightlights:

Finding Mother Goose

 

“Mother Goose was a real person?!” my nine-year-old asked in confusion as we walked along the Freedom Trail in Boston last weekend.  Our tour guides (my brother and sister-in-law) had pointed out some of the famous people buried in the Granary Cemetery, including John Hancock, Ben Franklin’s parents, and Mother Goose.

I admit I hadn’t given much thought to whether Mother Goose was a real person or not despite having written an old blog post about the value of nursery rhymes. I figured that her identity, if known at all, was probably lost to history. It turns out that I was right. The woman buried in Boston was probably not the woman behind the rhymes, but legend has it that Mary (or Elizabeth) Goose enthralled the children in her community (including sixteen of her own) with stories and poems which were eventually published. Is this true? I have no idea, but I like the story.

Whoever she may have been, Mother Goose has endured as an almost ubiquitous part of childhood in the English-speaking world for hundreds of years.  Among the loads of picture books that offer the rhythm and rhyme that our little language learners need, Mother Goose’s rhymes have stayed in print. Perhaps it’s adult nostalgia that drives the demand? Perhaps there’s something universal about the poems or the time period they represent?

Whatever the reason, there are many, many editions from which to choose for your little ones. I happen to like Mary Engelbreit’s version for the way Mother Goose’s poems are described in the introduction written by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus: “Her words are both merry and wise. Mother Goose rhymes meet children at eye level with their colorful characters, disarming honesty, and playful feeling for life.”

Of course, I think we can agree that some of the rhymes could use an update like the one that Jane Cabrera gives to “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In Cabrera’s version, the Old Woman is resourceful and capable as she cares for her many children by solving problems, fixing stuff, and working hard.  A brief author’s note shares Cabrera’s desire to celebrate mothers with a version that showed a mom who could take care of her family “despite being very out-numbered!” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.

May 1st is the day Mother Goose is celebrated in schools and libraries around the country. Even if you think you’ve outgrown her poems or you think they aren’t relevant to modern life, take a moment on that day to explore the legend of the person behind the poems and select one of the many editions of her work to share with a child. Let the bouncy rhythm and the silly rhymes remind you that “childish” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just right.

On Wonder

I recently finished reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio aloud to my daughter, which might seem like a surprising choice to some since the book is, arguably, inspiration porn that perpetuates the idea that the people who look significantly different deserve accolades for simply existing and anyone who befriends such a person is a hero.

Frankly, that’s exactly why I chose to read it with her rather than let her find it on her own, which she likely would, considering how popular the book has become. This way we could take the story slowly to parse out what I see as the problematic elements of the story as we read. I have complicated feelings about this book as I expect that many other people in my position—people who are used to being stared at because they have a significantly different body—share. It isn’t easy to read about Auggie’s award for “bravery” at the end of the book when readers are well aware that he has done nothing to deserve it.  It really isn’t easy to watch Auggie accept the eventual popularity he gets at school, which is more condescending than it is kind. As I found reading with my daughter, these aren’t easy things to talk about either.

But in my world, it’s necessary to talk about them. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been given inordinate accolades or given apparent hero status for simply existing. Or how often my long-term partner has been seen as saintly for being with me. So when I read Wonder the first time, I read a book that portrayed ableism, especially internalized ableism, in a way that was painfully affecting and emotional. I admit, I thought it was obvious to readers that August should not have been given the award and that the mascot-like relationship he has with his peers at the end of the book was not healthy friendship. When I finished the book that first time, long before it was published, I was optimistic about the way that this book could share parts of my experience in a way that I hadn’t been able to communicate before.

Unfortunately, the book couldn’t seem to communicate it either. Or perhaps the message that I thought was there never really was. Even on re-reading it now, I’m not really sure. I still found it difficult to read at times in how realistic some of it was. The character of Miranda, in particular, felt real to me in the worst way. I have known people who feel like they deserve some sort of “credit” for befriending people who are different. I have known many, many people who feel that protecting people, the way that Miranda seeks to protect August, is love/kindness/friendship. I truly hope that no one finishes that book thinking that that’s what friendship is. That that’s what August wants from the people in his life. But I’m worried that that’s exactly what people have been getting from this book.

I love that the book has inspired so many people to Choose Kind. I only wonder if people are confusing being inspired by someone for being kind to them when the two actually have very little to do with each other. I love that the book created a place for my daughter and I to talk about healthy friendships, bravery, and other important but not often discussed topics.

I may not like the truths that this book captured about the way we treat people who are different, but that doesn’t make them any less true.  I don’t know that my thoughts about this book or about disability/ableism are fully formed or off base. Here is what I do know: one insensitive thought or action does not define you. Via isn’t a bad person for what she thinks about August. Jack isn’t evil for what he says about August. You aren’t a bad person for double-taking or staring at someone like August (or at me). You aren’t a bad person for being curious or expressing curiosity—even if you express it kind of rudely. That moment isn’t all there is. There is always more to the story. Kindness is being open to the stories you haven’t heard yet.

Choose kind, but know that sympathy isn’t kindness. Pity isn’t kindness. Special treatment isn’t kindness. Know that this book is mostly showing what not to do when it comes to kindness. For me, the book gets at a deeper truth than simply “choose kind.” It shows how the kind choice isn’t always obvious. And sometimes our instincts about kindness are wrong.

To close, here is Stella Young talking about inspiration porn: