Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Student Body

Have you ever considered that it’s often the changes in a student’s body that determine his or her place within The Student Body? Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach puts that reality at the center of Felton Reinstein’s story. For his entire 15 years, Felton has been the butt of the jocks’ jokes (they call him “squirrel nuts”). But during a spring gym class, he sprints the entire 600-yard dash, outrunning the best runners. That summer, as Felton continues to get taller and meatier, the jocks claim him as one of their own. Felton’s physique earns him a place with the popular crowd.

The same holds true for young women. The ones who get curvy first draw the attention of their male peers (whether they want it or not) and win the loyalty (or envy) of most girls. They become the popular girls. These changes arrive seemingly overnight, often during the summer, and change everything for those individuals.

Herbach probes the complex feelings of being thrust into a world that was previously off-limits and, in Felton’s case, completely unsought. There are advantages and disadvantages. As his mother falls apart, Felton has another place to go. On the other hand, immersing himself in this alternate refuge can feel like a betrayal to his family. His crush, Aleah, also has a calling and a discipline as a pianist. While he lifts weights, she practices scales. For those of us who were late bloomers, this can be a confounding time, just waiting for your body to “catch up.” You have no control over when the changes will take place or if they will happen in the way that you would like. The book describes the emotional purgatory of not quite belonging where you once did and not quite fitting into a new realm, but moving forward anyway. Sometimes Felton jumps to wrong conclusions, sometimes he’s right. But he has to keep going. And that’s not a bad message either. Felton grapples with the balance between friends and family and his newfound athleticism, and sometimes that kind of mindful grappling is the best we can do.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Call to Action

It’s difficult to hear messages so frequently about the bleak outlook for our planet. Young people can start to feel saddled with—and even guilty about—problems they did not create. Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish, illustrated by Frank Stockton, arms kids with facts, and then the author tells them what they can do to change things for the better.

He provides them with Web sites that list sustainable fisheries (and rates those sites for their effectiveness); they can eat fish responsibly, knowing that these fish populations will continue to thrive. He gives young people concrete steps they can take in their own communities to effect change. He teaches them respectful ways to begin a conversation with the person in charge of the fish department at the grocery store or a waiter in a local restaurant. In the same way that Kurlansky presents the points of view of most everyone involved in trying to address the environment, he also instills respect for all parties involved.

The book does not shy away from worst-case scenarios, but Kurlansky also offers plenty of reasons for hope. He wrote it, in part, for his 10-year-old daughter, Talia. (When you read the book, you’ll notice that the characters in the running comics-style story are Kram and Ailat, Mark and Talia [at right] spelled backwards.) In a recent interview, I got to ask him what he believes is the most important thing we can do to help the planet. He answered, “Participate. The thing I find encouraging about kids is that they keep offering solutions… The most important message in the book for children is… that over the next 40 years more change [will occur] than was witnessed during the 120 years of the Industrial Revolution. They'll get to participate in these changes; I hope they view this as a tremendous opportunity.” What a great way to head into summer, thinking about ways to create positive change.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Who’s in Charge?

One of the things I love most about Mitchell’s License by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile, is that the boy hero believes he is truly in the driver’s seat. The car (Dad) lets him pretty much steer their course. He plays along, and improvises a little (Dad makes the “VROOM!” noise when they “go fast,” and “BONK!” when they literally hit the wall). But when Mitchell tries to get away with something he knows he shouldn’t, Dad puts on the brakes.

In an interview with Hallie Durand and Tony Fucile, they both said they played similar games in their own households. Durand expanded on the “Remote-Control Dad” activity in their home, and Fucile often makes sound effects while bumping into walls (for effect only, no worries). The book joins the ranks of the few other father-child interactive games such as Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig and Jules Feiffer’s The Daddy Mountain. Durand said she was inspired by the “pizza” breaking into laughter in Steig’s book (“Pizzas are not supposed to laugh!” says the pizza-maker father) to have the “car” speak in Mitchell’s License. Now this book can be a jumping off point for you and your child to riff on the game yourselves.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Fathers Know Best

March of the Penguins (2005) is the first film I can think of that informed mass numbers of children about the important role fathers often play in the natural world. They learned that male emperor penguins care for their young while the mothers go out in search of food. Eric Carle’s Mister Seahorse came out before that film (2004), and now it’s newly available in a board book edition. The author-artist is a master of distilling information into its simplest form. Here he exposes an entire undersea community in which fathers care for their unborn offspring.

Mrs. Seahorse lays her eggs in Mr. Seahorse’s pouch, then disappears from the pages. Ever after, it’s Mr. Seahorse protecting his offspring in his pouch while communing with other caretaking fathers in his travels. Mr. Stickleback, a fish, guards the nest he built, where Mrs. Stickleback laid her eggs. Toddlers can see the eggs that Mr. Tilapia keeps in his mouth (therefore he cannot speak but Mr. Seahorse tells us what's happening). Eggs are clearly visible on the belly of the pipefish, Mr. Pipe, and (my favorite), on Mr. Kurtus’s forehead. Transparent “windows” in a few of the board book pages fill in the reeds, coral reefs and seaweed that offer camouflage to other sea creatures. (Eric Carle described how he creates his collage artwork in a recent interview.)

Mister Seahorse is a great way for toddlers to learn about another approach to “child-rearing” in nature, and curious older siblings will scamper off to read more about fascinating creatures such as the Kurtus nurseryfish. It’s a great conversation-starter about the important role both parents play in child-rearing.