Friday, February 26, 2010

A Dose of Reality in a World of Magic

I used to think I was not a fan of fantasy books. I now know that’s not true. I just hadn’t read the right ones yet. The fantasies that draw me in are stories in which tightly constructed worlds that seem on the surface to be completely unlike my own cause me to think about my own world differently.

What would it be like to wake up one day and realize you were truly gifted in some way you’d never imagined? That premise could apply to any number of fantasy books (Harry Potter, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief ). The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Angela Barrett, however, puts a slightly different twist on this idea: a magical being is rendered rather ordinary, because she cannot use her wings after a bat accidentally crumples them. Flory must figure out how to get from here to there, find shelter from her predators, gather food one cherry at a time because that’s all she can hold. And she must do all these things without her wings.

For Flory, now nearly everything in Nature poses a threat. She is, understandably, angry. Things are not going the way they were supposed to go. And yet she figures out how to take care of herself in this new predicament. She grows accustomed to her new routine. She begins to accept her situation as it is. And that turns things around for Flory. She opens up to the possibilities around her, for friendship and forgiveness and flights on hummingbird wings. This is the paradox: as Flory begins to accept her new reality and the world the way it is, she also sees a world of opportunities in front of her.

Friday, February 19, 2010

In Celebration of Black History Month

A few weeks ago, we discussed Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, the story of the brave teenage girl who paved the way for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts. This week, we focus on another story of young people who brought about sweeping change with one courageous act, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by husband-and-wife team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.

Like the four people who began the sit-in movement, the Pinkneys take a big idea and break it down into its simplest principles. Andrea Davis Pinkney boils down a complex historical narrative into poetic phrases and a recurring refrain. Brian Pinkney’s swirling ink lines and watercolor illustrations convey a feeling of action among four people who are sitting still. The protest consisted of four young African-American men sitting at a counter where they were implicitly told they would not be served. They were not told this in words, but rather by an unspoken understanding that black people were not allowed at the same counter as white people.

It’s difficult for most children today to understand that kind of racism. Today we have a black president. How could segregation have happened so recently in our history! This picture book presents the situation in such a way that six-, seven- and eight-year-olds can have an informed discussion about what life was like for African-American citizens before the civil rights movement.

To put these events in context, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on March 2, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Nine months later, Rosa Parks also refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts began in December of that year. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine—nine black students in Little Rock, Ark.--enrolled in Central High School despite the governor barring their entry; President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to escort the students into the school. And on February 1, 1960—just 50 years ago--David Leinail Richmond, Joseph Alfred McNeil, Franklin Eugene McCain, and Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), four students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter and attracted more than 70,000 people to join them in sit-ins across the South. They were putting into practice the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A timeline at the back of the Pinkneys’ book charts these milestones. This is a book that the entire family can open as a way of reflecting on how far we have come as a nation, and as an instrument for sparking a discussion of where we continue to find injustice, and what we still need to do as citizens of the United States and the world.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Paying It Forward

Thank you to Rebecca Fabian for including me in a septet of Prolific Blogger Award Winners!

I’m especially honored because I enjoy escaping into Rebecca’s blog, Afterthoughts--notably her “Porn for Booklovers”—G-rated photos of sumptuous bookshelves filled to the brim (for me, it’s a tie between the books on the beach and the cottage with the sloping roof and wall-to-wall shelves). The Children's Department Manager for the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., Rebecca is also a graduate of the esteemed Simmons College Master of Fine Arts for Writing Children's Literature program, and calls herself “Full-time reader. Part-time traveler.”

Here are the rules for the Prolific Blogger Award Winners:

I. Every winner of the Prolific Blogger Award has to pass on this award to at least seven other deserving prolific bloggers. Spread some love!

Although I do not feel prolific with my weekly pace, perhaps this accolade will be an incentive for me to write more frequently? In any case, because I was slow to assemble my thoughts, fellow award recipient Deborah Sloan at the Picnic Basket (another blog I greatly admire) already passed along her kudos to another favorite of mine, Mitali Perkins’ Fire Escape.

But I easily found seven terrific blogs to praise:

1. A Fuse #8 Production: Betsy Bird via School Library Journal. Betsy was at the forefront of the blogging movement--at least in the children’s book world. She has an infectious way of talking about books that makes you want to join the conversation. She is currently counting down the top 100 novels, as polled by her readers. And she hails from Kalamazoo!
2. Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast OR “if you’re in a hurry, ‘7-Imp,’” as co-founders Jules (aka Julia Danielson from Smyrna, Tenn.) and Eisha put it. They are two librarians who love books and ask of each of their interview subjects seven questions. Jules is flying solo now, but she shoulders the responsibility well--the entries are funny, insightful and original.
3. Pixie Stix Kids, written by Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, may not come as frequently as you’d wish (because she is out at regional bookselling conferences running panels and such), but Kristen’s entries often delve into the thorniest topics confronting the book industry. She will make you think.
4. The Written Nerd, co-proprietor of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and formerly of McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan’s SoHo, this blogger (whose identity shall remain anonymous) had me riveted with updates of her store’s progress leading up to its opening, and blogs about books as well as store events. Her goings-on reflect the interests at the core of her community.
5. First Second Books. Okay, I don’t call attention to publishers’ blogs for the most part, but Mark Siegel, the editorial director of First Second, educated a great many of us when graphic novels were just breaking into the mainstream. His link for booksellers serves as the Comics 101 guide for setting up a graphic novels section in the bookstore, library or classroom, and he’s generous—he includes his favorite creators regardless of publisher.
6. Great Kid Books from Mary Ann Scheuer, a librarian in Oakland, Calif., reflects on books, students, and their reading habits. Her descriptions of her interactions with young people help me overcome my homesickness for the classroom and restores my faith that children ARE getting news about the latest children’s books!
7. Head Butler: Jesse Kornbluth’s thoughts on books, theater, music and all things cultural amuse me to no end. One of my recent favorites was his “Consumer Warning” about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. He's a co-founder of and former editorial director for America Online.

II. Each Prolific Blogger must link to the blog from which he/she has received the award.

Here is the original post from the Afterthoughts blog.

III. Every Prolific Blogger must link back to This Post, which explains the origins and motivation for the award.

IV. Every Prolific Blogger must visit this post and add his/her name in the Mr. Linky, so that we all can get to know the other winners.

Congratulations to everyone who received this award!

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Snuggle and a (Light) Lesson

Just by observing babies and toddlers, we can see how much they absorb through their eyes, nose, and fingers. They want to taste and touch everything. (That’s why board books are perfect at this age – if they wind up in your baby’s mouth, the pages can handle it.)

Four board books by husband-and-wife team Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben—Daddy Cuddles; Mommy Loves; Daddy Kisses; and Mommy Hugs—encourage cuddling and tickling between you and your toddler listener as your child learns about other animals and their young. Many of the creatures will already be familiar to babies and toddlers, but some of the animals’ behavior may not be—the fact that male penguins keep their young warm by tucking them under their bellies and between their legs, or that elephants show affection by intertwining their trunks. These scenes reassure young children by showing them a range of different animals that love their babies, while also introducing them to new words--like the koala’s “joey”—and also new environments through illustrations of the Antarctic or the Serengeti plains.

The impressionistic brushstrokes in the artwork keep the mood playful; this is no science lesson. Still, your youngsters will delight in being able to name and point to young animals who, just like them, have someone older and wiser looking out for them and giving them an encouraging squeeze, tickle, or offering a trunk to intertwine with theirs…

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Band for All Generations

A certain song can transport us back to a moment; an album brings back in a rush details from a certain period of our lives.

For Penny Lane Bloom in The Lonely Hearts Club, the Beatles play her life’s soundtrack. She’s a modern teen and, by all rights, she admits she should be rebelling against the Fab Four, since her parents are fanatics. The couple met at a makeshift vigil in Chicago after John Lennon’s death, all three of their girls are named for prominent Beatles characters—along with Penny Lane, Lucy (“in the sky with diamonds”) and (lovely) Rita; and the Blooms will not abide knockoff bands. But Penny sees the wisdom of the Beatles’ lyrics (each section of the novel begins with a quote from a song), and hears the genius in their music, and she proudly hangs their posters on her bedroom walls. So when she gets jilted, who can blame her for turning to the only men who’ve been true: John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Penny is a girl-next-door; she’s someone you know or grew up with (“...there beneath the blue suburban skies...”). She’s down to earth and no-nonsense. And that’s what makes her belief in the kind of true love that the Beatles sing about (“All you need is love…”) so compelling. When she realizes that her childhood flame is not the eternal one she’d hoped it would be, she decides it’s better to be true to herself than to abide by the “unwritten rules” of male-female dynamics. She will not compromise herself or her values for someone who does not value her. She swears off guys until she graduates and though she begins alone in the Lonely Hearts Club, she soon attracts many more young women through her example. When romance comes to Penny again, it’s in the form of a friendship that evolves into something more, with someone who respects the principles that led to the founding of her club.

It’s impossible to read this book and not hear the Beatles’ songs in your head. So why not give in to it? Get out an old Beatles album or two, and either play them while your teen is in earshot or leave them out where your teen can find them. There’s a reason the Beatles speak to generation after generation.