Friday, January 28, 2011

Lifting the Veil

As an Upper West Sider in Manhattan, I live among Orthodox Jewish families. Parents drop off their children at the school on my block. I see the men in hats and women with their heads covered and wearing long skirts as they walk to services on Friday nights and stroll along the Hudson River with their children during the High Holy Days. Hush, by Eishes Chayil, took me inside this insular world and offered me a deeper understanding of its culture and customs. The novel’s narrator, Gittel Klein, lives just two blocks outside of the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, but that’s enough to give her a rare arm’s-length perspective of her community.

The goyishe (non-Jewish) family that rents an apartment from Gittel’s father may be off-limits, but Gittel and her best friend, Devory, form a friendship with Kathy, Gittel’s upstairs neighbor, and realize that she is not the devil she’s painted to be. This raises other questions for Gittel. That exposure to outside values factors into her contemplation of whether or not to confide what she comes to realize about Devory’s suicide at age 10. While Gittel spends the night at Devory’s house, she witnesses something she doesn’t quite understand but that fills Gittel with fear. Devory’s 15-year-old brother, who is home from yeshiva, comes to Devory’s room in the dark and goes under his sister’s blanket: “I saw the blanket, how it moved back and forth and back and forth so fast I thought they were playing tug-of-war.” Those are the only details the author gives, but they are the only details she needs to give. Gittel never discusses this with Devory, but she knows something is terribly wrong. Only as she prepares for her marriage does Gittel realize what happened to Devory, and she must either betray her community by telling the truth, or betray herself.

There has been some debate about whether Hush would have been better served if it had been published as an adult book rather than as a book for teens. But I believe it is solidly young adult. The author clearly traces Gittel’s coming of age, and the way that the gradual realization of what happened to Devory shapes the person Gittel becomes. The chapters in which the 12-year-old Gittel narrates perfectly capture that young, trusting mind attempting to make sense of her world and testing her theories. It’s a book filled with warmth, humor and respect for family and tradition. So when Gittel begins to question the dark side of tradition and absolute loyalty, we feel the devastating consequences as acutely as Gittel does.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Rendezvous with History

Rita Williams-Garcia has many gifts. One of them, which may be hardest to achieve for any writer, is her ability to fill in only the details the narrator (and thus, the reader) needs in order to make sense of her experience. That’s what the author accomplishes through Delphine's narrative in One Crazy Summer.

Big Ma, Delphine’s paternal grandmother, does not embrace change. The Brooklyn household she runs with her son, Delphine’s father, is a traditional home, and those are the values she instills in Delphine and her sisters. So when Delphine and her sisters arrive in Oakland, Calif., and they find themselves immersed in the Black Panthers Summer Camp, they must sift through Big Ma’s beliefs and the values that their mother, Cecile, lives by to figure out what makes sense to them—as readers, we get to go on that journey with them.

The girls’ mother puts on a lot of armor. To survive as an African-American woman on her own, she has to. But Delphine doesn’t understand why that armor shields Cecile from her daughters, too. That’s another journey to understanding that we take with Delphine. There are no easy fixes for Delphine. There were no easy fixes in 1968. What the author does is create an opening to understanding. Cecile gives Delphine as much knowledge and exposure as she can handle and leaves a door open for future revelations. And Rita Williams-Garcia does the same for young readers. Brava!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Gone Reading

On Monday, January 10, Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile, won the 2011 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for beginning readers. This was the sixth Geisel Medal awarded.

We’ve reflected on the Newbery and Caldecott criteria in the past, now let’s look at beginning readers and the goals of the Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) Award: “The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award recognizes the author(s) and illustrator(s) of a book for beginning readers who, through their literary and artistic achievements, demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.”

In the case of Bink and Gollie, the heroines themselves demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading. Gollie hikes “high in the pure air of the Andes Mountains” without ever leaving her house in the treetops. Bink in some ways plays the role of the beginning reader, as when Gollie leaves a note on her door while on her adventure that states: “To whom it may concern: I am on a journey….” And Bink says, “I’m baffled. Am I ‘whom’?” When Bink goes away and comes back, she finds another note: “Bink, I implore you, do not knock.” Bink wonders, “What does implore mean?” as she knock knock knocks at Gollie’s door. Young readers can figure out the general meaning from the context, but the words may well prompt children to pause and puzzle out their meaning, and then adopt the words for themselves.

The three brief stories, told mostly through dialogue, keep readers captivated. Fucile’s illustrations (which garnered a New York Times Best Illustrated Book citation) ramp up the humor. Take Gollie’s trip to the Andes, for instance. Inside, Gollie’s house is transformed into snow-capped mountains, while outside, Bink stands on the same familiar landing and knocks at the door where she always comes to call. In another episode, Bink buys a goldfish, and Fucile depicts Bink holding up Fred’s fish bowl in the movie theater so he can see, too. In my other favorite moments: when Bink goes to buy her “outrageous” socks, only her eyes and spiky hair clear the store’s counter; Bink and Gollie “compromise” by meeting on the stairway halfway between their two homes for pancakes (the striped sock that Bink forfeits in the deal serves as Gollie's wind sock--a fun pun--and later winds up on the summit of Gollie’s Andes Mountains).

Bink and Gollie stretch the vocabulary beyond the limits of your usual beginning reader (think Cat in the Hat, Frog and Toad, George and Martha). But the challenging words, couched in humor, are ones children will want to collect and try on for size in similar contexts. We may raise a generation of readers who say, “With whom am I speaking?” or “Don’t take my bike, I implore you.” Just when you thought text messages were butchering the language, here come Bink and Gollie to make the case for eloquence and cleverness!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Books to Chew On

Board books are the ideal format for toddlers, and certainly they are safe for newborns, too. But even better for babies are cloth books. Their soft pages can be balled up in tiny fists, and drooled over, then thrown in the washing machine. Add to that some sound effects, like the crackling sound of the pages in Crinkle Animals: Farm, and nearly all of your baby’s senses will be engaged.

Studies have shown that with newborns, one of the key elements to capture babies’ attention is contrasting images such as black and white. All of the animals in Farm feature black-and-white elements, with the bold black outline and white feathers or fur—except for the pig finale, in a blush of pink (and a kiss mark on its cheek). There are no words in the book, allowing you to improvise with your baby to see what he or she responds to—animal sounds, animal names, perhaps a game of hide-and-seek with the page turn (Where did the cow go? There it is!). It’s soft enough to go in the crib or stroller, and the crunchy sound will help baby find it if it winds up beneath a leg or belly.