Author: Julie Pearson
Illustrator: Manon Gauthier
Publisher: Pajama Press (April 4, 2016)
I am sitting in Boston airport having had a wonderful ALA Midwinter Conference, and with time to kill I turn to my bulging book bag. My suitcase is maxed out and checked through (probably bursting open in the hold of the plane) and my carry on would best be described as a drag-on, as it is almost impossible to lift.
I have succeeded in lifting it, and have extracted this poignant book about Elliot the Rabbit whose cute features hide a troubled story.
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.
When I got away from the register, still on the Parco escalator I ripped open the plastic to inspect my new find. Wow, wow, wow. Firstly I couldn't believe that I had just found this amazing book in English, made from what seems to be some kind of linen parchment in a Japanese department store on sale. The Disney princess books be damned - I had found a real life unicorn.
The next thing I noticed about the book is that it is filled with labyrinths of many kinds. My parents were both fans of Jean Houston's dromenon movement which used the labyrinth from the floor in Chartres Cathedral in France for personal enlightenment, and after a workshop they attended they bought matching pendants. My Dad gave his to me before he died, and it has remained my treasured possession. For a long while I believed it lost forever, but then it was inexplicably found in a pocket of a bag I was giving away when I moved to the United States. I wear it on days I want to feel close to my Dad, and when I went to France with my Mum, Chartres Cathedral was high on our list of places to visit. What, then, was it miraculously doing in a Peter Sís next to the Disney princesses in Parco, Nagoya?
Labyrinths of all kinds are a nice metaphor for life's journey. You walk along and think you might be getting closer, only to be jettisoned away at the last minute and sent to the other end of the maze. Keep going and you will get there. Your limited choices include a) keep going, b) stay still and c) go back which pretty much summarizes all the choices you'll ever have to make at any given time in your life. The epic poem The Conference of the Birds is also a metaphor for life's journey, as all the birds in the world join together on a quest to meet the "true king". Their journey is long and arduous through seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement and death.
What I like most about this book is its ability to provoke thought. Running your hands along the rough surface of each page is like tactile meditation, and the words match with the pictures perfectly. Some pages are filled to every corner with intricate detail and are overwhelming. Others make use of white space around the individual thoughts of the birds. Even though these birds move in a giant flock they are each individuals with their own characteristics and personal struggles. This is not a book for children nor is it a book for adults. Rather, this is a book for a person of any age who shares the poet's and the artist's sensibilities for metaphor.
For me and my pendant, the labyrinth has been lost, and found, and found, and found. Every time I think I am getting further away I am suddenly there. I am there in France, or I am there on the escalators in Parco. Every time I am suddenly there I am whisked away - like the time I landed my dream job in Nagoya and then immediately had to move to the United States. However like the labyrinth I have certain choices, and I am choosing to move forward a little each day. (Welcome to my blog)
Title: The Conference of the Birds
Author/Illustrator: Peter Sís
Publisher: The Penguin Press (2011)
Language: English (based on a classic 12th century Persian epic poem)
This book is the one that all children from Poland will know. The copy that I have is great in that it features the poem by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953) in three languages: the original Polish, English and German. Whether this was done to increase sales of the book in neighboring Germany (and international countries that use English) or as a learning aid so that Polish parents can expose their children to other languages, I love that this book comes in translation. Translating a work like this would have been no easy feat - quite brave really when you consider that the original poem relies so much on the rhythm and rhyme to sound like a train as it is being read. Different translations also exist and are not difficult to find - I'll leave you to Google them yourself. The story follows a locomotive, its cargo and passengers as they move along the tracks.
Did I mention? This book rocks as a read-aloud, and if you don't believe me, just listen to this video of it being read aloud. Even though I don't speak Polish at all I've listened to the whole thing three times now (and am listening again as I type this) because it sounds so awesome and locomotive-like that it gets me jiggling in my seat (Note to self: listen to this video the next time I ride a train). If I still was in contact with my young Polish ESOL student from years back, I would email him immediately and congratulate him from coming from such an awesome-sounding language background. Wow, what a read aloud!
Now for a little about the author which I gleaned from Wikipedia and this blog. He was kind of a bad-ass in the poetry world, an inference I took from the title of one of his poems, "A Poem in which the author politely yet firmly implores the vast hosts of his brethren to kiss his arse" which was written in 1937 (by the way, don't click that link if you are easily offended by strong language, or by anything else). You can see his satirical sense of humour in this more G-rated example of his work (Lokomotywa was written the following year in 1938), on the page that describes the passengers in the third carriage of the locomotive as "fat-bellied dummies, sitting and eating greasy salamis". Although this Jewish poet wisely moved from Poland during World War Two, as soon as the war was over he moved back. I would love to know if he did any work in English during the five years he was living in New York.
This book is a bundle of fun from the beginning to the end, the end papers appearing as one big long locomotive forging through the countryside. I believe this book would find a good place in any international school library that wants a collection that celebrates different languages and cultures as vibrant resources in a classroom. Where I live in the United States, I'm almost sure every Polish immigrant family would love to have this book, as a way of making their language really fun, and really alive for their children who may only receive their education in one language.
I'm off to wire a large amount of money to my world-travelling friend so that she buys me a book in every country. If THIS is what she came up with, I think I need more....
These days my town has become much more multicultural due (in part) to an influx of refugees from Sudan. Not all of our white residents have been welcoming to the newcomers, but I really like to think that Australians on the whole are willing to give people at least a "fair go" - the benefit of the doubt. Others in the town, like my friend who is herself a reverse refugee of sorts (she moved back home from Fukushima in Japan after the earthquake with her two small children), work actively in the area to make sure our most vulnerable new residents are made feel welcomed in the community. I asked my friend what Christmas present she could recommend me to buy myself from my hometown, and she recommended this book.
The author, originally from Austria and an immigrant to Australia (and my hometown), wrote this book about a real-life encounter she witnessed in a local park when her daughter befriended a girl from Sudan. The story is simple - the two little girls spend time together in the park while the girl from Sudan learns English. At home, the girl curls up under her "blanket" (a metaphor for her life experiences and language). As her English language develops, she has two blankets - her old one and the new one, woven from new experiences and words as she collects them.
Two colour palettes are used deliberately throughout the book, and you can see them right on the cover above. The "old blanket" from Sudan and all things Sudanese are painted in rich red tones, warm and dark and familiar. The "new blanket" colours (everything from the new land) are fresh, cold, pale or dull blues and grays. In this way you can feel how foreign and unfamiliar the new land is to the young girl. When she makes a "new blanket" from her new experiences and knowledge, she is not replacing the "old blanket". Rather, she now has two blankets and a wealth of life experiences that she can call her own.
My hometown in Australia is probably gearing up for another summer Christmas right now. The old designs of Christmas firs and snow probably still decorate some Christmas cards, while on others Summer Santa is surfing on his surfboard while his kangaroos loll on the beach drinking a beer. Australia is finding its own identity around Christmas, but it is also finding ways to include residents for whom Christmas itself is not as familiar. Whatever your views this season, it is to be hoped that the love in your heart (the love that starts with two children in the park) is the most important thing.
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.