TITLE: Pardon Me!
Author/Illustrator: Daniel Miyares
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2014)
I owe this blog about a million entries, but recent events have prevented me from writing. Which is to say, that recent events being what they are, I have been sucked into a negative vortex of what could politely be termed as “adult life”, and have been spending my time worrying about an “Important Issue” (ironic capitalization and overuse of quotation marks completely intentional). In short, I have been dealing with a certain salesperson who has ripped me off and absconded with quite a sizaeble portion of my money.
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.
The publisher One Moore Book attempts to right this wrong by publishing culturally sensitive educational stories for children with countries that have low literacy rates or are otherwise underrepresented in the literary world. In the case of their Haiti Series, books are published trilingually (in English, French and Kreyol), giving students the best chance of becoming literate in their home and school languages. For monolingual English or French speakers from other countries, the book serves as a window into life in Haiti they would otherwise not be exposed to.
The story is very simple - a girl who is learning to ride a bike and the challenges she faces along the way. A story free of stereotypes, the reader knows nothing about the socio-economic status of the girl except to know that she has a bike. It is an everyday scene that could happen in any country, but is set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Two older role models are teaching her how to ride a bike, and while she at first has trouble with the brakes (an experience novice bike riders all over the world will share).
The copy I have was printed in the USA in 2015, is in frugal paperback and does not include a price on the back cover. If this makes the book (and books like it) more affordable in countries where it is needed I am very happy that publishers like this exist to fill this crucial need in underserved communities. If teachers in the USA and other countries didn't add this book to their classroom libraries on account of it being a paperback, I would consider this a missed opportunity. Multicultural books like this one should find their place on any bookshelf, but in particular on the bookshelves of teachers who want to celebrate their multicultural classrooms in a way that is meaningful, more than just hanging flags on the wall.
In between my parking space and the school was the Chicago History Museum. It seemed a likely place to spend a few hours, so I wandered in. Before I could even get to the ticket booth, I kept wandering into a space called Chicago Authored which seemed to be a semi-digital semi-print display space for Chicago writers. There were digital displays of old postcards penned from Chicago, right next to a free postcard display where you could be free to write and send (or display) your own hand-written post card. There were art installations of Chicago neighborhoods, showing the diversity of the city and then right in the middle of the space, there was a bookshelf with a sofa inside for reading. The bookshelf was also interactive, and you were encouraged to place your choice of Chicago books on special display shelves for "books to heal", "books that shock you", "books that give you a different perspective" and the like. There were bookmarks you could have to write your favourite quotes from the books. You would write your quote, the page number, and why you chose that quote on the bookmark, then leave it inside that book on the display. You can see what I mean scrolling through the photos below. My head was already spinning at this point. I took it all as an invitation to sit in the little sofa bookcase and read a book.
My first choice was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which came with a quote bookmark that you can see photographed above. A few pages into the book however I felt compelled to look for something different. It had nothing to do with the first book, I just seemed too restless as I flipped through the pages.
That's when this book hit me in my face. The first thing I noticed was that I couldn't find a title. Or an author. Or publication details. Despite this it didn't seem too much like a self-published book - it was professionally bound with a plain hardback cloth cover, and the quality of the printing seemed too good for a DIY effort. More than anything though, this book looked like it had taken years to complete, so I couldn't understand why it was just sitting here in this non-library non-bookstore place.
Whatever reasons brought it to that place, it was clear that the book wanted to be read by me, the person who had just walked past with several hours still on my parking meter. That's what I did. I sat down and from the very first endpaper (that seemed to be an elaborate suicide note) to the very last endpaper which shows the protagonist (the author?) at various stages in her life in the same pose on her bed, I read each and every frame.
The protagonist in the book has had her leg amputated under the knee, went to art school, attended writing classes and works in a flower shop. That's about all I can tell you about it without it being a giant spoiler alert. It might seem like an odd choice to steer away from spoilers for a book that is unlikely to be read by anyone reading this blog. Even my friend who works at the school next door probably wouldn't have time to go in there before the exhibition closes, since she works full time. So even though this may have been just a book intended for me, I won't tell you the story. You might be able to work some of it out from the pictures I've included here.
This is what I will say. The book was well written - despite its annoying habit of messing with my head. The direction of the frames is not entirely obvious so I find myself trying to follow arrows or read frames in the valley of the book - deciding which half of the book claims those valley frames within the story. The thing is, the book really wants to mess with you head. It's a messy, beautiful, anguished, brutally honest book. If the book is autobiographical, there are good reasons she might want it to be anonymous. That would all make sense, except that it's too good a book to only be read by a select few.
Maybe it's a book that was submitted for publication but was too risky and didn't make it. If that's the case my heart bleeds for the author because it's so honestly full of talent and brutal soul destroying honesty. It's. just. so. good.
I have nothing more to add.
Endpapers of rough washi paper set the tone of the tone which takes place in the natural world and suggestive of natural hues and textures used throughout the book. As you can see from the example artwork on the illustrator's page, the magpie will, throughout the book, collect way too much stuff and as he does, the artwork will become much more overwhelming and oppressive through the use of messy detail and foreboding shadow. The words are deliberately kept simple - words and phrases rather than sentences to indicate the ebb and flow of the increasing and decreasing stuff on the page. This makes it a great book for young children and beginning ESL students (I don't think the pictures are too babyish for older kids), and a good conversation starter around the holidays when we all seem to accumulate too much stuff.
The author of the book is a self-proclaimed "small-house person in a McMansion-loving world", and her strong preference for simple living is evident throughout the book. The identification tag attached to the magpie's leg is a sad reminder that he or she is part of a human world and that there is literally no escape from all the stuff, but within that confine we can do certain things to arrange and curate our own belongings to get things under control and free ourselves from the nightmare that is too much stuff.
The last page (spoiler alert) shows the magpie and the mouse flying away with just a few of the most precious items wrapped up in a ribbon. This page to me is where things may get a little bit too didactic. It could be just that I have never known the true joy of being a minimalist, and my half-read copy of Marie Kondo's trending book is probably testament to the fact that I have not learned the lesson that the magpie has learned. I've moved several times and twice internationally - I get that paring down your stuff will set you free, but somehow the magpie and mouse taking flight with two little items wrapped up in a ribbon seems too easy.
Either way - it's probably time to tidy up my place and especially my purple book cart, so this book is probably a call to a better life.
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.