Friday, June 25, 2010


Grief is such an all-consuming experience. When grief strikes, the ground shifts like an earthquake, and then the tremors continue for days, weeks, months, often when we least expect them. It’s hard to see or hear anyone or anything else. Jandy Nelson captures that experience so beautifully in The Sky Is Everywhere when Lennie says, “It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.” When her sister, Bailey, dies, Lennie looks for ways to feel intense alternative emotions, like getting involved with her sister’s boyfriend, and then creating a love triangle with Joe Fontaine—and shutting out everyone else. And then there’s that feeling of, why do I deserve to make a life when my sister’s has ended?

All of us who have lost someone close to us know that the intensity of the feelings may lessen with time, but the feeling of loss never really goes away. We just learn how to carry that person with us. Lennie does it through her poems to her sister, set adrift in the river or aloft on a breeze. We find ways to honor their spirit, the music they loved, the dreams they dreamed. The tension in The Sky Is Everywhere resides in the question of whether or not Lennie will allow herself to pursue the music she herself loves and her own dreams.

When my mother died, a friend who had also lost her mother told me, “It’s like living underwater.” And it was. It felt like everything was happening at a remove. I could see that the world was still spinning and that life was going on around me, but I felt separated from all of it. Gradually, I surfaced again, but it took time, and everything was different when I did. In The Sky Is Everywhere, we watch Lennie during her underwater period—loving and laughing but at a remove, seemingly unaware of the consequences of her actions. And then we see her come to the surface. It’s how she gets there that makes Lennie’s story such a moving and healing experience.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Making (Fun) Choices

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga is a graphic novel version of a choose-your-own-adventure. It's about making choices and discovering the consequences of those choices, presented in a fun, entertaining way. There’s also a memory element involved because you want to avoid taking a path that leads you back to the same destination (though that seems inevitable, at least until you get the hang of it). As you go through the book, you also gain an appreciation of imagination—mostly Shiga’s, but also of what the human imagination is capable of—between Professor K’s inventions and the offhand explanation of physics, and the idea that our choices lead us to unexpected places, both physically and mentally. And it's all couched in a kind of Three Stooges slapstick comedy framework. As Shiga connects various plot paths to the multi-colored tubes, he leads us through the tabbed pages in unorthodox ways, on a journey of possibilities—3,856 possibilities, to be exact.

This is the ideal book for a long car trip or a rainy summer afternoon, when a child can plunge into Meanwhile with complete abandon, and no sense of time passing. The pages require that you engage your brain fully, to pick up on visual cues, so that you remember which tube(s) you’ve already followed and which new tube(s) may yield a different outcome. Then follow it with Adventures in Cartooning to get some idea of the structural planning and visual pacing required to complete a project like Meanwhile. Your child will be lost in it for hours and will want to share it with friends. No Kindle or iPad can create this kind of experience.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Moved to Act

In Moon Bear, readers follow the majestic creature through the seasons as it scrounges for food and finds shelter high in the Chinese Himalayas, and the book ends with the birth of cubs. When any of us is in the presence of animals, whether it be a tiny kitten or an 8-foot bear, we cease to think of anything else. Especially for children, such an encounter can be awe-inspiring. They immediately want to protect and preserve this life form—it’s one of the reasons I suspect that, despite the controversy surrounding even the best of zoo environments, we humans continue to build zoos. Once children are exposed to these animals, they want to preserve them.

When editor Laura Godwin learned about the moon bears and how they were being held in captivity (the bears are farmed for the healing properties of their bile), she wanted to do something about it besides just make a donation. She wanted others to know about the bears. She asked science and nature writer Brenda Guiberson (whose books Laura has edited for more than 20 years) if she knew about the bears and would be interested in writing about their situation. Once Brenda agreed, Laura approached Caldecott medalist Ed Young (whom Laura has also worked with for a number of years) and he, too, agreed.

Laura and Brenda felt it was important to let children know that there were adults working to rescue the moon bears, and that there were ways they, too, could help if they wished. The reference to the bears’ captivity is very subtle in the book (the text refers to “poachers”) but the end note shows rehabilitated bears and gives a link to find out more about Jill Robinson and her team at Animals Asia who are rescuing the bears. Your child will be reassured that efforts are well underway to rescue these magnificent creatures. And if they want to help, there are concrete ways to do so.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pillowy Pages

For us grown-up book lovers, nothing gladdens our hearts more than to see a baby cuddle up with a book—literally. We've all seen babies take to a book so strongly that they carry it around wherever they go, sit on it in their car seats, stow it on their high chair trays and fall asleep on it in their cribs. That’s one of the reasons I was delighted to discover the Fuzzy Bee and Squishy Turtle Pack by Roger Priddy. Not only can a baby snuggle up with Fuzzy Bee and Friends—and use its crackly pages as a pillow—but the bold stripes and contrasting colors captivate youngest eyes that can’t quite pick up details yet. Plenty of books for babies present the facts, but both Fuzzy Bee and Squishy Turtle deliver information with a touch of humor, too.

Here’s an idea: Maybe publishers could create cloth books for us grown-ups, too. One of my most moving memories of my grandmother, as she began to lose her short-term memory, was when she took me to her room because she wanted to show me something. She had carefully made her bed, and it was littered with hardcover books. She told me, “I want all my books with me.” There was just a narrow space in the center of the bed where her long, lean body could fit. I don’t know how she slept with all those books dominating her sleeping space. Now, if she could have created a makeshift bumper pad of cloth-covered books, think how well she might have slept!

Wouldn’t it be nice to be surrounded by our favorite books, softly bound in quilted covers? Imagine how sweet our dreams would be. Babies have that luxury, so let’s indulge them!