TITLE: The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus
Author: Jen Bryant
Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2014)
Two of my favorite photos I have of my Dad involves him reading with a child. In one photo he is reading to my baby nephew, probably something like Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. His face is animated and engaged, as is my nephew's 1-year old face. It was always like that with my Dad, diving into a book headfirst. Nothing else mattered until the end of the book. The second photo involves me as a teenager, and it's telling you something that I as a teenager would happily sit next to Dad looking at a book. That book was most likely something like The Story of English, one of my Dad's favorites. Any time you saw my Dad reading by himself, it was often with a non-fiction book about words or about places. Sometimes it would be an atlas. Sometimes it would be Roget's Thesaurus. I imagined that like other reference companies like World Book or Oxford, "Roget" referred to a faceless company that I would probably never learn anything about. I carried my mindlessness about Roget well into my forties, until my mind was blown open by this book.
The title of this book is enough to tell you: there was a real man called Roget, and he made a thesaurus. What kind of man was he then? Was he like my father, with his nose in a book and poring over things quietly in his mind? Did he think of words all day and feverishly jot them down while he stood in the supermarket line? Did he have little labels all over his house that not only named common household items but provided synonyms for them? Was his toilet paper otherwise used for lists and lists and more lists, so much so that he had to find an alternative to rolled up toilet paper itself?
All these questions and more popped into my mind simultaneously once I knew that Roget was a real person, perhaps because of my childhood experiences with my father. From the very first to the very last endpaper (see my copy of the last endpaper that I have framed) this book is packed with lists and labels, drawings and diagrams. Starting with a simple timeline of Roget's life and ending with a more fleshed out version of the same, in between the story is told in words, pictures and lists. Pictures that look like lists, stories that look like pictures, and big long sentences that are written list-like from top to bottom all add to the wonder of this book. Tiny details in this book make it a pleasure to re-read. You could read it quickly, or slowly. You could have it as a coffee table book to pick up every now and then to study (like my Dad). Every time you read it, or read it to a child, everyone is likely to pick up something new each time.
In some ways this is a book for adults. The author's note and illustrator's note at the end are written in sophisticated language that would not likely speak to a younger audience. However the story and layout are so engaging for a broad range of children. Those most likely to love this book are children who have discovered the power of words. From a young age children realize that language is a tool. From the simple demand: "Ice-cream!" and the imploring plea "Please, pretty please with cherries on top?" to the complex negotiation "I could use some extrinsic motivation to clean my room, mom", some kids know more than others that words are their keys to discovering (and creating) their world. This book tells the story of another little kid like that, who built his world around the words that were his friends.
The story is a simple comparison between the two mountains you can see on the cover of the book. One mountain has been created over a long time by mother nature, and the other has been created in less than an afternoon by a girl, Elizabeth, using her bucket and spade. Most pages follow a predictable pattern - the left page tells the story of the towering old mountain, the right tells the story of Elizabeth's sand mountain down on the beach. The little girl builds up her mountain to be almost as tall as herself, and she is justifiably proud of her effort. When the rain comes to pound down on the big mountain, it flattens out Elizabeth's mountain as well. The sudden rain shower doesn't last long, and neither do Elizabeth's tears, as she starts from scratch again.
I like this book for its simplicity and a description of the physical world that readers by themselves will have begun to discover. The comparison of the big mountain and the little mountain rarely seems forced, although it will take some thinking (or talking with adults) for the reader to figure out that the "new earth mountain" that Elizabeth is walking on has not changed itself in the same time frame as the book. The symmetry of the book has a real-time feel to it, although there are certainly cues in the text to explain that mountains are made over millions of years. The lining up of the left and right pictures is very clever in some ways, but the continuation of the lines may suggest a real-time comparison to some young readers.
The colors are really nice - the earthy tones of nature and the clean, crisp white + primary colors of childhood. I found myself a little distracted by the white strip of page along the bottom, on which the text appears in all of its symmetry. It is apparent that the text is trying to stay away from the imagery and highlight the symmetry of the picture, however the whiteness of that strip seems like a lazy choice. I'm not an artist, but I found myself wishing they had come up with a more creative way of presenting the text - even if only to put it on an earthier toned background. This is an older book (1988) and I find myself wondering if it were to be published today - would different design choices be made?
All in all, I think this is a great book for parents and children to read together after a nice day at the beach or even in a sandpit. Although the story is not an exciting barrel of laughs, this simple storyline will appeal to children who have a fascination with the natural world.
Sharing my depression with President Lincoln and hearing how it could fuel my greatness has made me something of a collector of Lincoln picture books. There are a lot, and I don't buy every one I see, but this one asked me to buy it and so I graciously agreed. I knew about a dream President Lincoln had told people about - it was a recurring dream and he'd had it the night before he was assassinated. The story was interesting to me and so I was interested to see how it could be a children's book.
Lane Smith has a very stylized illustration style that suits President Lincoln quite well, especially when you consider that in this story, the subject is Ghost Lincoln. The long, pale, gaunt face is perfect for the troubled former President, and the many angles in this book deftly draw the eye from one side of the page to the other. The canvas for each picture seems cracked, giving the pictures an antique feel, and the occasional burst of colour breaks through the muted tones and makes the whole piece visually appealing, keeping the reader moving forward through the story.
A strange little quirk of this story is the inclusion of dogs of past Presidents who refused to go into the room where Lincoln's ghost hung out. The dogs of past Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan are shown slinking away from the fateful room. Since the book was published in 2012 I also looked for President Barack Obama's dog Bo in this line-up but was disappointed. Bo was the only POTUS Pet I had heard of, and it took me a while to search out whose dogs Fala, Yuki and Rex were. Nonetheless, I felt the dogs offered an enticing way for children to engage in the story, and an opportunity for parents and children to find out together.
The story goes that a little girl named Quincy who is on a tour of the Whitehouse finds Lincoln's ghost, leaning over the Gettysburg Address. He looked very worried, which makes Quincy feel sorry for him so she attempts to talk to him and cheer him up. Children have an amazing talent for seeking out those who need them, and I just love how Quincy pursues Ghost Lincoln (despite his attempts to walk through walls to escape from her). I also like President Lincoln's attempts at humor, which I also recognized from non-fiction accounts of his life. Depressed people often shirk away the blues with a joke, putting a brave face on what only small children can see through. The pages that contain jokes also contain the aforementioned bursts of colour, a metaphor for how we all can affect our mood through human interaction.
Quincy takes Ghost Lincoln outside of the Whitehouse for the first time in years, and shows him how much the United States has changed. The two friends take a flying tour over the land: Lincoln did the flying and Quincy answered the questions. Here's where the text becomes problematic for me. "Are the states united?" asks Ghost Lincoln. "Yes, that worked out fine", replies Quincy. "And equality for all?" asks Lincoln. The little girl's answer: "That's working out too," she said. "It's getting better all the time". This is where I did a double take and wondered, is equality working out? It might be getting better when compared with slavery and the civil rights era over time, but is it getting better all the time? In addition, is it a bit ironic that a little African American girl seems to be giving President Lincoln the A-OK on the issue of equality?
Visually, I don't think the picture gives any easy answers to this question. The Statue of Liberty image is partially in shadow, and the boy in the window doesn't look particularly happy or unhappy. You can only see the shadow of Ghost Lincoln and Quincy, but from previous pages you know that she is African American, and here she is, clearly telling President Lincoln that it's all working out. On the next page, she does admit to some "fussing and fighting" among fellow men, but the little graphic of a chair being thrown out the window of congress does little to elaborate on what the fussing and fighting might be about. While it may be a deliberate choice not to make the conflict seem too severe, I think the weakness in this book lies in its whitewashing of not only black history, but the current state of institutionalized racism in the USA.
Back to those dogs. I wondered if the introduction of Bo as a presidential pet might have illustrated that yes, now the United States does have a black President, things have come a long way since Lincoln was assassinated by someone who would rather kill and be killed than let slaves be free. I wondered also if the words could have been tweaked slightly, something like "It's getting better all the time, although we've still got a way to go" (take out the reference to "working out"). I freely admit that I don't have any answers for this book - I am filled with only questions.
At the end of the book, Lincoln sails away on the boat from his dreams, and he is smiling. He has confirmed for himself that things are good in America. The founding fathers would be proud. America has planted a flag on the moon. Lincoln has only very briefly touched on equality (which was kind of a big deal for him during his Presidency) and flown quickly forward onto safer topics. I feel like this book collaborates with safely complacent white people to tell a convenient story to children, that racism is "working out" in America. It's a missed opportunity, and one that makes me sad.
At the very least I do think this book is a call to a conversation. I like the way the humor of the text lends itself to Lane Smith's art. I like that some of the elements of the book seem based in past evidence, such as Lincoln's dream itself. I would hope that readers of this book are able to take from this book what they want from this story - and something more. I hope that others (like Lincoln himself) have questions, and that talking about this book with kids will help them deepen their understanding of an imperfect history and a troubled president.
My teenaged daughter has a lot on her mind right now too. Nasty grown up things were getting in her way as well, so I invited her onto the sofa to hear this book. It's OK. It's perfectly acceptable to read picture books aloud to teenagers if they will let you. It's even OK to blog about it if you're sure that teenager never reads your blog. Because if there's one thing I know about picture books, is that they can be therapy for any age of human being. And this one is for any age of human being who would like to take a long, long nap.
I read this book aloud in the type of soothing voice you would expect from a mother to her child, and I am 100% sure that in the olden days, when my kids were little this book would have been a terrific bedtime book. It rhymes, kind of Dr Seuss style but with words like "naptacular" and "Nuzzledome" that are constantly suggestive of sleep. The main character, sleepy sloth Snuggleford Cuddlebun takes her special blanket, pillow, journal and favourite bedtime book to the Nuzzledome by bus, where she sets herself up in a hammock to sleep through a music festival of sleep inducing bands.
I would have enjoyed this book far more thoroughly if I were not Australian. I'm sorry to have to say this, but I was rudely awakened from my own slumbering narration by the following line: "All the best sleepers in Snoozeville are there, like wildcats and wombats and koala bears". Click here if you don't know why that made me cringe. I get that this is a book for an American audience. And I get that some people say "koala bear". However, every time I see this I want to coin new phrases like "coyote dog" or "bison cow" to use with my American friends. Later on in the book the story also refers to a poet mole who "imitates rain with his didgeridoo", and I just don't want to start up about how little the sound of rain resembles the sound of didgeridoo....
All in all, I find this book delightful, so much so that I read it to my other teenaged daughter when I had a chance. And although I quite ruined the rhyming scheme, I left a poignant space where the "bear" once was, which ultimately allowed us to share a smile, while also sharing a blanket this cold winter night in front of the fire, before listening to the didgeridoo. Mmmmmmm. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
The bird in this book shares my pain. He knows what it’s like to resent others. He is sitting, most contented on a small island in a swamp before he is joined by a giant goofy stork. Before long a frog hops along. Then a turtle. What was previously a peaceful haven is suddenly a crowded meeting place, with the bird squawking irately at each new arrival. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but this book ends up putting a smile on the scowliest of faces and a laugh in the knottiest of bellies.
The art in this sparingly worded book is absolutely divine, from cover to cover. The end papers are as understated as they are a bold statement of truth (I know this sounds like an oxymoron). The changes in the sky as the story continues are really, truly breathtaking. Emotions throughout the book, from quiet, to ominous, to aggravated, to the climactic freak-out and back to quiet and ominous again, can all be traced through the background colours in the sky. The fine details in the feathers, clouds and on the surface of the water all add to the characters and storyline in this book.
Do you ever have a day where a book chooses you? If I worked my way today through the entire Purple Book Cart, and then moved on to my well-stocked public library and on again to the children’s literature library where I work, if I went through every book in the football fields of archives wedged under the Mississippi River, I doubt that I would find a more perfect book for myself in this moment. This book has pulled me out of my dark space, and replaced the bitter scowl on my face with a vow to be calmer, more relaxed, and willing to open my life to the better things all around me.
Another thing I LOVE about this book is that you can't say for sure whether the child in the pictures is male or female despite being obviously the same child. On some pages you might guess the child is a boy, on other pages you might guess she is a girl, based only on vague cues that I can't even articulate well. In fact, I find myself basing my guess on things that I later feel are my own ingrained gender stereotypes. The point is that you could read this book to either a boy or a girl and have them identify with the feelings in the book.
See how each picture really captures the emotion of the child while deliberately staying away from "gender marketing" the book? The pale pink sheets of the bed and the blue pajamas, the rosy cheeks of the child cuddling the rabbit and the strong angle of the child swimming next to the shark. Certain cues like the swimsuit could push you one way or the other as a reader (in fact Amazon refers to the child as a little boy), but I maintain that you could read this book either way. Hey, haven't you ever let a little girl go swimming in her shorts?
Either way this book works as a book that a parent would read to a child on their lap. It's very suited to its bilingual format with the spanish words written in a different colour, It's playful tone with the child interacting with and imitating each animal suggests that your child would do the same during the reading of this book, whichever language you chose to read it in. One thing to note is that it doesn't seem to be easily available in this bilingual format anymore. In my family (bilingual in Japanese and English) I would have immediately made my own stickers in Japanese for a DIY bilingual board book. The format maximizes the value of a book for families who want to encourage their child's bilingual language development and strong self-esteem concurrently.
Are you even more intrigued now that you've seen the inside of the book? I was. I couldn't quite grasp why this book was published. Why would a publishing company make money by printing a large number of difficult to read books split up into strange quasi-syllables (more accurately "word bits"). At first glance it might be a school textbook (young people can so rarely understand more than one syllable) but the language seems very adult. After I got this book I showed a number of bookish types that I know but nobody could come up with an explanation. Then when I took the book back to the store, I got an answer that kind of makes sense.
Are you ready?
Are you sure?
Apparently, it was a book for immigrants who were new to the country and still learning English. Despite a terribly verbose writing style, this explanation makes some sense. Highlighting "-ed" on a word helps an ESL learner visualize the past tense (it must have messed with their pronounciation though). Using lots of cultural terms like "deep reverence" or "it was customary" makes sense if your audience is immigrants - although it's not at all the simplified language style we might find in an ESL textbook today.
You might expect that a book like this one would not be without its unique biases. You would be right. In addition to painting an image of native Americans as uncivilized savages, it is filled with interesting messages about women. Check out the excerpt below which asserts that "the red man was the warrior, the hero, the huntsman, and his squaw was his slave". The passage seems to set Native American customs apart from "our latest American civilization". While reading this passage, I couldn't help but wonder what the author's wife was doing while he wrote this book? And who was doing his washing, or cooking? If not his wife then a female servant?
I still haven't finished this book although I am quite desperate to make it to the end to find out what happens to Lincoln. ;)
In all seriousness though, I am so happy to have a book about the history of Illinois that was written by a likely contemporary of Abraham Lincoln (if the author was 79 when he wrote this book, he would have been born in the same year as Lincoln). Since I haven't finished the book, I can't give away the ending, but perhaps something really interesting will come up and I'll have to write a part 2....
Elliot is a playful little rabbit whose parents love him very much, but unfortunately they have trouble looking after him. When he cries, they can't identify that he is hungry, and when he yells or misbehaves they just don't know what to do. A social worker comes to help and Elliot goes into foster care until his parents can look after him. He eventually comes back, but they still haven't mastered the parenting skills for him to stay. This rotation of foster care continues until finally Elliot is adopted by someone else.
The muted pastel collage style of this book makes the characters very approachable, and there is not a sense that there is a "right or wrong" to the book. Neither Elliot or his biological parents are demonized in the book - the situation just is what it is and the straightforward narrative credits the child audience with having the intelligence to consider the story. It is not an independent reader, rather it is a book that you would read with a child. I imagine during the reading of this book there are a lot of questions, and a lot of opportunities for children to come to grips with the subject matter.
Some may opt out of reading this book to their kids, steering towards cheerier topics, but that would be a shame. Children don't have perfect cheerful lives and they need to know that even if there are problems, there are always solutions. This book is a kind introduction to a difficult subject.
Author/Illustrator: Daniel Miyares
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (2015)
Language: English / Wordless
When I unpack new books that get sent into the office, certain books unpack themselves, gently demanding that I stop what I am doing and read them. So it was with Float. I stopped my colleague and we read the book together. Then we walked around the corner to show our librarian. This striking book was very quietly demanding attention. Now at 5:37 am on January 11th it is demanding attention again after I woke up dreaming of it. Later this morning I will find out if it demanded any attention from 15 Caldecott judges who were meeting this weekend. I am in Boston for the announcements. Who knows?
Float is the simple wordless story of a little boy who takes his paper boat outside in the rain to see if it will float. Very soon the boat embarks of a journey on its own as the boy chases along. A dramatic climax is followed by a gentle scene where his Dad blow dries his hair. A hopeful ending is beautifully drenched in colour, the grey/yellow palette of the book suddenly reversed in a visual twist. You can find more pictures on the publisher's website.
I don't care much for children's books that are artistic but fundamentally miss what it is to be a child. However, Float is both a visual feast and a wonderful tribute to the things of childhood: creativity, adventure, splashing in puddles, facing problems, being sad and picking yourself up again, moving on, being joyous. A modern myth about children is that they are constantly stuck to a screen, or that busy parents schedule too many activities during the day to for their children to enjoy childhood. While these stereotypes may bear some truth, I believe that children are happiest when they independently think of something to do and then do it. At school and at home, kids do best when they play creatively. Even when things don't go as planned, they can always move on to the next thing. It's a concept that adults too often forget.
Float woke me up this morning and bathed me in its metaphors. Now I'm walking off to the convention center to see if any Caldecott judges agreed with me. There are other really good books that could easily be chosen, but I'm floating this paper boat out there before we find out for sure.
The story follows a little girl in a red coat following her distracted father through an otherwise grey cityscape, stopping to pick colorful wildflowers she spots along the way. The pages you see above show that the book utilizes the square pages in different ways to further the story. Whole page illustrations show the bright red coat of the girl against the background, which starts in black and white and slowly grows more colorful as the story progresses. Other pages have a comic book feel and have special things to say. Notice in the nine frame page above that it seems that the flower sees the little girl at the same time as she sees the flower (look at the perspective in frame #7) suggesting that wildflowers are calling out to be noticed and picked. Further on in the book, the dual frame with the park and the dead bird shows that color comes into the background world as the little girl decides to use her wildflowers as a colorful tribute. As the story goes on, the little girl shares her wildflowers again and again, and each time she does the surrounding world gets a little more vibrant.
When I think of children from war-torn countries reading this book, several things come to mind and some of them bring a dull ache into my heart. The story of a small girl who can walk safely through the street, letting go of Daddy's hand as he talks on his mobile phone while resting his shopping by the side of the road while she climbs up embankments to gather wildflowers I feel would be painfully out of reach to refugees in Syria, and along the escape route as families struggle to survive in any way possible. On the other hand, the idea that little tiny pockets of color exist in places to which young children are naturally attuned might be as true in Syria as it is in Canada. The little girl's tribute to the fallen bird is absolutely heartbreaking in the context of children who have likely lost family members along the way. It makes me wonder what feelings this page will bring up for Syrian refugee parents and children who read it, and how they will deal with these emotions. It is easy for politicians and others to speak of the "problem" of refugees, but in all honesty, how absolutely insignificant these inconveniences seem compared to the devastating loss of life and the constant threat of violence from which these families have so desperately fled?
After the little girl in the book has finished making her small world more beautiful with her tiny floral gifts, there is a double spread where she looks up in the sky at the freely flying birds and places the last flower in her own hair. It might be cold outside, because she's pulling up her hood. This optimistic double spread is also a call to thoughtful self-care, and the independence the little girl shows as she now walks alone outside puts her independently in charge of her own surroundings. She's safe enough, having arrived at her destination. The lack of highly detailed illustration on this page harkens to the unharmed, unfettered simplicity of childhood. It's possible that this spirit is still alive inside the refugee recipients of this book. Let's hope so.
Another book I previously wrote about, My Two Blankets, uses color to show the journey of refugees and the difficulties of arriving in a new land where everything (including language) is strange. In Sidewalk Flowers, in the context of being read with refugee children who do not yet speak English, the gradual transition from black and white to color in this book is surely indicative of arriving in a foreign world, and finding your own place bit by bit as you gather beauty along the way. The language-free format of the book makes it possible for this book to be read in whatever way it is most needed.
For Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, this gift is an eloquent and deeply meaningful welcome to a new, more secure world. For the rest of us who buy this book, it is the perfect Christmas (or New Year, or Hanukkah, or Pancha Ganapati or other holiday) celebration this December as we open our hearts to the love of humanity and innocent children.
An Australian who lived in Japan with my bicultural family now living in the USA, I believe that there are more different realities than there are books to be written.