I was just watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty again. My current favourite comfort film, this story of taking leaps of faith and jumping off into the world reminded me of my other favourite story:
TITLE: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend
Author/Illustrator: Dan Santat
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2014)
This is the story of a small rotund nameless creature waiting to become somebody's imaginary friend. He is sad, because in the beginning of the book it seems everyone finds a friend and gets a name for themselves, besides him. It takes a certain amount of bravery to sail off into the real world, but this is what he does.
The colours used in this book do a lot of the heavy work. As soon as the setting changes to the real world, colours become instantly muted, with only pops of colour from other imaginary creatures who have already found their place. Our hero is white with a golden yellow crown, sticky taped together at the back. I love that he has made himself this crown. He's not losing hope. He keeps striving and searching, climbing to the top of a tree for a better view. Just when he may be about to lose hope, a magical thing occurs.
When I first moved to America, I had to give up a job that I had fought to get. I felt a bit rudderless, and quite a lot apprehensive. However I kept positive. I volunteered at a bilingual school and when that didn't feel right, I applied for a job at a different school. I got that job, but was unable to take it. That's when I met a group of friends at the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books in Chicago. These people are my people, and I love them dearly. It took a certain amount of bravery to start going to meetings and then a larger amount of bravery to start going to ALA, NCTE and IBBY conferences, but like Beekle I just kept going. I became Magic Food Fairy of the Caldecott Committee in 2015, and magically, this is how I met Beekle.
Look under the gold-stickered dust jacket and you will find a different front cover (pictured above). It's a much simpler picture than the one on the dust jacket, but to me it more accurately captures the feeling of the book. Lines of lightness and shadow imitate life and the way that feelings and attitudes can change even within the very same day. Beekle stands at the front, looking straight out from the book. The outlines of buildings and clouds and bus stop seem almost incidental to the beautiful patchwork of patterns in this picture of dark and light.
If you don't already know what's on the back cover under the dust jacket then I won't ruin the surprise. Suffice to say that these front and back covers, in addition to the end papers that tell the story of Beekle lost and Beekle found, really make this book very special. I believe there is an audio version of Beekle which I haven't listened to yet, but to my mind this book is best appreciated at a snail's pace, free from jarring page-turn pings that would propel you through the book. If you hurried too much you might miss the serendipitous twist. Again, if you don't know what this twist is already, go back and read the book again - slower this time.
I am at a time in my life right at the moment I'm trying too hard. Like Beekle I am running here and there and searching for something that I won't know until I find it. However, I am happy to be having the adventures I've found along the way.
This delightful book about an absolutely perfect little mouse, Chrysanthemum, deals in hugs and kisses (and Parcheesi) as ways to combat the slings and arrows of teasing at school. The amount of love in this book is simply tremendous - from home cooked food to cuddles and consultations with parenting manuals such as "The Inner Mouse Vol 1. Childhood Anxiety". Even the music teacher Mrs. Twinkle and her heavily pregnant belly ooze the love that we hope all children have in their lives.
It's a sweet story, but it was my friend's back story about it that warmed my heart even more. New to Japan and heavily pregnant, she and her husband had only decided on two names for their triplets they had thought to be twins. The doctors settled on a date for the C-section, the ninth of September. The ninth day of the ninth month happens to be Chrysanthemum Festival in Japan, Kiku no Sekku in Japanese. Kiku (Chrysanthemum) is also a girls name, so my friend wanted to call her third daughter Kiku. However, her husband explained that Kiku is a name like "Doris" or "Mabel" - hopelessly old fashioned and worthy of teasing at school. My friend acquiesced trusting her Japanese husband's judgement, and they settled on another beautiful name - one in fact that is written using the kanji character for "beauty". The story of Chrysanthemum and its relation to the family legend soon became entwined.
As for my friend and her daughters, they too are looking for survival skills. All five of them are strong and vibrant women, bruised terribly by recent events but with all the personality traits they will need going forward. The solid bedrock of parenting they've had over the years, the many laps and the many books, all the memories are clear and present for the time being. This morning I spent a couple of hours bringing all of these picture books back onto the living room shelves, not only for future grandchildren but also as a reminder that while life can be devastating, there can be joy in the cracks.
TITLE: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Poems: Misuzu Kaneko
Author (narrative): David Jacobson
Translators/Contributors: Sally Ito & Michiko Tsuboi
Illustrator: Toshikado Hajiri
Foreword: Setsuo Yazaki
Publisher: Chin Music Press Inc. (2016)
Language: English with original poems in Japanese
This impressive picture book combines the little known true and tragic story of a Japanese poet, Misuzu Kaneko with her own poems presented bilingually, inlaid on unmistakably Japanese art. It's not a picture book for tiny little children, but like the last two books I've written about this week this is a book that shows depth. It tackles difficult topics in ways that are respectful of children's intelligence and yet gentle enough to allow space for thoughtful conversation.
The book starts with the story of the young poet who had read one of Misuzu Kaneko's poems and set out on a quest to find her. The last known copy of her collected works had been destroyed in World War II, but the young man eventually finds her brother who is still alive and in possession of her diaries. As you can see from the artwork below, the book is long and rectangular, creating a vast scape of art and words on each page.
* cover art and other artwork provided by the author with permission
I hope you're not reading this on a mobile device because it would be very hard for you to see the words and feel the art from this tiny narrow space. In fact, I really think you should just run to a library or a book store right now so that you can have this very substantial book in your hands. This impressive project is much longer than the average picture book. It is in fact a kind of double picture book in format, with the first half of the book being the story and the second part dedicated to the original poems in Japanese with their translation in English. Look at these excerpts below to realize why you really need to have a copy of this book in your hands.
This book would be perfect for older readers who are studying poetry, but it is also a book that informs without being didactic. Women's issues and domestic abuse are mentioned, as are venereal disease and suicide. It may seem like a hard sell if you have parents at your school who would object to such topics for children, however the topics are approached in such a way as to bring it to the foreground of the picture without explaining it. For example, mentioning that Misuzu caught a disease from her husband is not the same as saying that she caught a venereal disease, but it is. On the page where Misuzu decides to end her own life, she is faced away from the reader, private with her own pain. Her poems remain thoughtful but hopeful throughout the whole book, and the ending to the story shows how one person's life can positively impact a whole community in turmoil. In the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, Kaneko's poem "Are You an Echo?" was also shown as a public service announcement in place of advertisements on television.
My children still remember the time after that earthquake as a really strange time. Some of their teachers at International School went home, but some of their classmates remained. Those of us who remained either stayed at home and worked remotely - an uncomfortable thing for the middle schoolers they were, or showed up to school and combined classes with whichever teachers remained. During that time, the pictures on the TV seemed to be on repeat - houses washed away, debris piled up and spilling inside windows of buildings. One oft-shown footage of a boat that is wedged on top of a house has been burned in my memory forever, and is mentioned in the book like a little tragic after note. However the thing that I most remember during those days was the spirit of the Japanese people just to keep going, and just to keep being in the world, imperfect as it was. The spirit of helping each other by whatever means possible is one that shines though this book in which a woman, mistreated in her own life, is able to still heal the hearts of the children she loves with her words; even from her grave.
One of the most dramatic images in the book, cleaved basically in half by the valley in the middle, is the horrified look on Humpty's face as he realizes that his precious bird has landed neatly on top of the wall. Look at his face below. Can't you just imagine yourself and a time that your stomach sank to your knees when all of your best laid plans came crashing down around you? Children have less power than the rest of us - their lives controlled by adults who may or may not have kids' needs foremost in their minds. I believe that every child will have bucket loads of empathy for Humpty on this climactic page of reckoning.
* Cover art and this illustration provided by the author, with permission
Santat's Caldecott winning The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend shares certain aspects with After the Fall. There is something so fragile and vulnerable in each book, and to me the band-aids in this picture closely resemble the bits of sticky tape used to secure Beekle's cardboard crown. In every kid's daily life there are bandaids and tape, little imperfect tools that are used to hold things together until the bigger problems can be solved. In this picture, the bandaids peek out from Humpty's collar even as the huge wall looms reflected in his eyes.
It's this breathtaking attention to the detail and Santat's loving expression of feelings important to children that makes this book such a powerful book. The nursery rhyme really takes on another life and teaches gently without a hint of being didactic. Humpty knows better than anyone that each reader will make their own decisions and overcome their fears only at their own pace. The masterful climax is a twist that surprises everyone including our dear Humpty. Each one of us carries inside the secret happy ending we never knew we had.
TITLE: Draw the Line
Author/Illustrator: Kathryn Otoshi
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (2017)
Language: English / Wordless
I haven't visited this space in way too long. I don't have any particular excuse for that - life getting in the way sounds so trite, but for whatever reason I lost my words for a while. Ironically it took a wordless book to bring those words back to me.
Draw the Line is simple and beautiful, an important book about the things that divide us. It can be read different ways by different people. I see it on a lap read by a mother and her two children. Or in a classroom to students as a way to discuss complex interpersonal interactions in a simplified way. I read it as someone who has experienced a really challenging year, as well as bearing witness to the personal tragedy of a good friend.
Colours and lines are used in this book in ways that tell the story. It's a little Harold and the Purple Crayon in the way that two boys create their own reality with a simply drawn line. They meet in the valley of the book, and it's this centre space where the action begins. Yellow tones are used as two cheerful boys play together with the rope they have made. Then purple tones appear as one of the boys is caught up in the rope. You can see from the progression of the story and the development of feelings as the action builds. What happens next, again in the valley of the book, is that the whole world comes apart and the boys are stuck on either side of a gaping chasm, the sky deeply purple and bruised.
* Pictures provided by and used with permission of author
The first time I came across this remarkable book I was walking around an ALA conference in Miami when I came to my friend Ellen's booth. I had heard about Kathryn Otoshi from another friend, and had been told to meet her if possible. Happily for me, she was sitting right at Ellen's table signing her newest book at the time, Beautiful Hands. I introduced myself and said that our mutual friend Junko had said we should meet, and suddenly a new story started to be written. Junko Yokota, by the way, is the kind of magical unicorn that you want to have in your life. She not only knows the best picture books, but the thing about Junko is that she knows the best people. As soon as Kathryn knew of our mutual friend she handed me the original artwork for Draw the Line and asked for my opinion. At first I thought there may be some misunderstanding. "No, Junko isn't here with me," I said. "She's in a meeting." However Kathryn insisted that she wanted my opinion, and Ellen's, and Ellen's son... and suddenly we were a little team of book assessors with this precious manuscript in our bare hands. We all looked at it, and it was astounding. It was quiet. Understated. Clear. Poignant. I handed the book back to Kathryn and said it was perfect. However this was an answer she wasn't prepared to accept. After all the book wasn't finished, there must be something we would change. Suddenly our book posse took on a new tone. We read it again with new eyes. And then again with different filters. And again we read it with a variant story. And we came up with some changes which our lovely author seemed excited to hear. Those ideas may well have been what was in her head already. The point is, all of us felt that WE were important contributors to a story that was yet to come to the world..
The magical thing about wordless books, and in particular this magical wordless book is of course the shared experience in storytelling. The most important contributor to the story is the reader. One child will remember a bullying incident on the playground and how it could have been different. One mother will think of the time that she and her child seemed to be on different sides of a raging river. Someone else who reads the book might remember last Christmas and the difficult political conversations that happened between aunt Jude and their big brother. Whatever the situation, when misunderstandings and bad feelings cause a rift, the trauma of that can make it seem like the world has suddenly ripped in half. What should you do when that happens? How do you think this book will end?
I'm going to do you a favour and leave it to you to find out. Find this book wherever it lives, in the library or in the bookstore and bring it into your classroom and your home. In bilingual or multilingual contexts wordless books are perfect because of course the story can be told in any language. The subject matter of this book gives it the added bonus of being able to help in situations where language has failed and misunderstandings have opened up a wide gap between cultures. The simplicity and the beauty of this story is that it really does belong to each and every reader, and the conversations that can take place between them.
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.
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.