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:

More New Kid Stories

countingthymeOnce you start looking for something, you see it everywhere. That’s how it has been for me and books about being the new kid. I wrote about Catching a Storyfish a while ago, and since then I have been compiling a list of all the books I have come across on this topic. Just counting the 2016 pub dates, there are The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin Van Draanen, Wish by Barbara O’Connor, and Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin in addition to Catching a Storyfish. Has this always been a popular theme in middle grade or is it just that I am looking for it now? Either way, I suppose, I am happy to have found these books.

I particularly liked the way that Counting Thyme explored the idea that “home is more than just a place” because when you moved as often as my family did, this was a lesson you learned quite young. In the book, though, this is Thyme’s first move, and it comes with some serious complications: her little brother is sick and they have moved across the country so that he can receive some experimental cancer treatment. This isn’t an easy situation for anyone. It hasn’t been easy for anyone in Thyme’s family for a while. She says about the move,

“When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes.”

So that’s how Thyme found herself starting middle school again and having to explain to everyone at her new school that her name is “Thyme with an H-Y” while they look at her like a creature from another planet. She doesn’t tell them that her little brother is sick because she doesn’t want to be “cancer boy’s sister.” If she has to be in New York City, she at least wants to be her own person while she’s there.

Counting Thyme is just what I love about middle grade fiction. It’s sweet and heartfelt. There are serious themes, but it isn’t overwhelming.  In the end, I was happy to have gotten to know Thyme and her family as they made their way in a new city in a difficult situation.

Check out the trailer for more:

Monday Morning Music with Lunch Duchess

iamdrumsHow many female rock drummers can you think of? I could probably come up with five or so off the top of my head. But the girl in I am Drums by Mike Grosso doesn’t know of any other girl drummers, and other kids make fun of her for being the only girl in the percussion section of her school band. Not that she lets that stop her. She’s singularly focused and determined to play the drums no matter what. Even if her parents just think it’s an expensive hobby that they can’t afford or if her classmates say girls look stupid playing drums and have no rhythm. None of that matters to her.

Still, it’s always nice to know you’re not alone.  after an assignment from her drum teacher to listen to amazing rock drummers, she discovers that other girl drummers actually do exist, including Karen Carpenter who sang while playing the drums, which is a bit of a surprise to Sam. She makes a whole list of women rock drummers to listen to for the assignment. I loved Sam’s dedication to her instrument. She didn’t always make good choices, and yet I couldn’t help but root or her in this cute story. Recommended for similarly music obsessed kids.

Today’s music choice adds to Sam’s list of amazing girl drummers: Katherine Seggerman of Lunch Duchess. Like Karen Carpenter, she is a singer/drummer. The quirky grunge-pop might not be everyone’s taste, but it’s well worth a listen.

“This might seem rude, but…”

uglyI have talked a lot on this blog about acknowledging differences and asking questions. I was thinking about that as I read Ugly by Robert Hoge, a memoir for kids about Hoge’s experience growing up with a facial deformity. This passage, in particular, stood out to me:

“Some of the best talks I have ever had started with someone asking, ‘This might seem rude, but can I ask about your face/nose/scars/bumps?’ Wherever those conversations ended up, they started as honest exchanges. Acknowledging someone’s differences can be about saying you’re not scared to talk to someone about the things that make them who they are.”

A lot of kids have been afraid of me in my life. When I was a kid, it was confusing to have my peers be afraid of my prosthesis or of my little arm. I wasn’t scary, was I? As an adult, I understand why it might be surprising, uncomfortable, or even frightening for a kid to see someone like me. And I go out of my way to be approachable, to be unscary. I’ll never look just like everyone else, and I’m okay with that.

I promise: I’d much rather be asked a rude question than have someone be afraid of me.

Robert Hoge’s memoir shares his journey to being okay with how he looked. It can be hard to read about how his mother initially rejected him, about the taunts he received from other kids, and about being perceived as ugly, but I hope readers, young and old, come away knowing that they don’t have to be afraid of someone who looks different. They can ask honest questions. That it is possible to be comfortable with what you look like even when you stand out.

You can listen to Hoge talk more about how important it is to be comfortable with how you look in his TEDx Talk:

The Stories Behind the News

As I type, I have Minnesota Public Radio News playing in the background.  We usually have MPR News playing at home or in the car. And we often find ourselves discussing what we’ve heard throughout the day or read on other news outlets at dinner.  My husband and I make time for debates and for the recent political party conventions, and we talk about them and about the issues they raise.  A lot. In front of our eight-year-old daughter.*

Sometimes it’s easy to think that she probably isn’t paying attention to the radio or to the conversations we are having about politics or issues, but every once in a while, she’ll interject a question or a comment that brings us back into the smaller world of our dining room table and forces us to consider how to explain issues related to race and police brutality, terrorism and refugees, or other difficult topics to a privileged eight-year-old kid. Honestly, I don’t always want to explain any of these things to her. There is a part of me that wants to turn off the radio and keep our discussions fixed on sunshine and lollipops until after our daughter’s bedtime.

In reality, I know that keeping her disconnected from the world won’t do her anymore favors than overwhelming her with information will, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to find the appropriate balance. While my advice is probably just repeating what I’ve read or heard from others, here’s what has worked for me: Find out what your child already knows before you start explaining something. It turned out that my daughter already knew a great deal on the subject of refugees from classroom discussions at school last year, so when the subject was in the news again, she wanted to join our dinner time discussion with her own thoughts and opinions.

journeyFor parents or teachers who want to give age-appropriate context to words like “migrant” and “refugee,” I recommend The Journey by Francesca Sanna. This picture book is about an unnamed child and her family whose lives are disrupted by war. It is a powerful look at the refugee experience that came from author/illustrator Francesca Sanna’s desire to capture the stories of the people behind the news, which is important for helping kids understand and empathize. Sanna’s book doesn’t shy away from the darkness, but it still offers some sense of hope. It’s a book that will linger in your mind, as Julie Danielson put it in this Kirkus feature, and I think that’s true for both child and the adult readers.

When I read it with my daughter, we talked about the power of stories and imagination as it is portrayed in the book. We discussed the open-ended conclusion of the book and shared ideas about where a family might find safety if they needed it. No matter what you’ve gleaned from news stories about immigrants and refugees, The Journey will deepen what you know. I know it did for us.

 

*Within reason, of course. Here is a guide from PBS Parents about kids and the news that gives some good advice.

On being the new kid

catchingI started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.

Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”

“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock.  My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.”  I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”

Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”

Read more about Catching a Storyfish:

  • Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
  • School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”

 

In Words and Pictures

inwords

While it was Young Adult Literature that drew me to the world of children’s book initially, once I started exploring picture books, I fell in love with picture book illustration as an art. I loved the variety, the experimentation, and the visual storytelling evident in the picture books I saw. I can’t claim to be an expert on artistic styles or media, but I know what I like, and after over ten years in the kidlit world, I have a pretty good idea of what works with kids, critics, or both.

The In Words and Pictures exhibit at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design is an opportunity to see a small window into the picture book world to get a sense of what is possible when it comes to picture book illustration. The exhibit includes Debra Frasier’s cut paper collages from A Fabulous State Fair Alphabet, Betsy Bowen’s wood block prints from Antler, Bear, Canoe, and a variety of other artistic styles. But the really interesting part, for kidlit fanatics like myself or kids who are curious about the story behind the books, are the notes and sketches paired with the art that give a sense of the process.

What better way to show kids that the process is messy than to show them the way a rough sketch goes through so many iterations before it becomes the book they know and love?

winterithewarmestI must admit, I was particularly captivated by Lauren Stringer’s paintings from Winter is the Warmest Season, which has long been one of my favorite wintery picture books.  But all the artists and books in the exhibit—from veterans of the field like Nancy Carlson to some that were new to me—taken together offer a fascinating look at the different paths that these stories take from idea to publication and all the twists and turns in between.

If you can get there in the next few days, I highly recommend In Words and Pictures to families. Even those who aren’t usually drawn to art exhibits may find that the opportunity to see where your favorite books come from or discover a new favorite is the real pull here. While you’re there, have a seat in the cozy reading nook and grab a book to read. Whether you are a book lover or an art appreciator, it’s well worth the visit.