Friday, January 27, 2012

Letting Go

With Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler ties a relationship to the objects that have been meaningful to (at least) one of the parties involved. Maira Kalman animates those objects in her artwork so that they almost seem to take on the emotional life of the two people involved in this ill-fated romance. When Daniel Handler discussed the seeds for this project (with a gathering of teachers, librarians and reviewers), he said it began with Maira Kalman.

Handler and Kalman had collaborated on a picture book, 13 Words, and Handler asked Kalman what she’d like to work on next. She showed him paintings of ordinary objects that she’d done. If you look at her picture-book biography, Looking at Lincoln, that’s what she does there, too. She enters President Lincoln’s story through the stovepipe hat she spies in the park, the $5 bill on the table at the diner, then delves more deeply into the details of his life. Handler said that he tried to think of what makes ordinary objects seem a bit magical, and felt that “endowing them with significance because of a romance” would do it.

Min and Ed form a pie-in-the-sky connection—two people from opposite ends of the high school popularity scale who meet because the co-captain of the basketball team is hiding out after his team’s loss at a party hosted by the “arty” crowd. (Ed never uses that term to describe Min, she does; he simply calls her “different.”) But the tangible objects that give their connection meaning keep their interactions credible. The couple operates most smoothly outside the daily rhythms of high school life. When they try to pull each other into their individual orbits, trouble brews.

Ultimately, Min cannot change Ed. She brings out his best but she cannot keep his best. He would have to wish to change, and he either cannot or will not (we know not, because we only see Min’s side). Through Min’s eyes, we see that Ed tries, and perhaps even wants to sustain it, but he does not. And that is why they broke up.

With her “Dear John” letter, the basis of the entire text of the novel, Min describes the objects in the box that she is returning to Ed and replays the key moments of their relationship. Her letter and her returning of the objects allow Min to begin the process of letting go. She expects nothing back in return. She allows herself to reflect on the meaning Ed had for her, and the best parts of him that she brought to light, and why she couldn’t see then what she sees now. She’s very human and very healthy about it. By doing this physical and emotional housecleaning, she will be able to move on. Don’t we all wish we’d had a Min to guide us through high school?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Clues from the Past

In The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet, history holds the clues to an unsolved mystery. And what could be better for two modern teens with a sense of adventure than a puzzle that began generations ago? The author threads together elements of the French Resistance, two competing scientists, and children who disappeared--which no one in Paris wants to discuss.

In fact, it seems that 13-year-old Maya Davidson and her new friend Valko are the only ones who care about the unsolved mystery of the missing children. As Maya tries to help her “invisible” Cousin Louise locate the relative who “rescued” Louise as a child, Maya and Valko discover clues that point to a disturbing underlying cause for both Louise’s “invisibility” and the missing children.

Nesbet maps out plenty of paths for readers to follow if their curiosities get the better of them. What was the French Resistance? Who were these scientists (whom the author bases on actual men)? And along more abstract lines, is there a difference between people who appear to be invisible and people we ignore? How far would you go to be physically beautiful or handsome? What would you be willing to give up? What would it be like to live forever? To outlive your parents, your siblings, even your own children?

Nesbet raises all these questions and more. Very early in the book, Henri’s grandmother decides that the emotional pain of one of her sons betraying the other son is too great, so she embraces her mortality. She removes her bottle of earth from the cabinet and allows her natural aging process to run its course. She lives out her life (mostly to be there for young Henri), but she chooses not to live forever. This book is a terrific conversation starter with your children. What gives life meaning? If you could live forever, what do you think would begin to be less valuable to you? More valuable?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pieces of a Picture

At the start of the New Year, I suppose it’s tradition to set goals one hopes to work on or reach by year’s end. One of my ongoing quests is to break down the Big Goal into smaller parts. Few do it better than Maira Kalman, and perhaps the best example is her book Looking at Lincoln.

As I mentioned in the review, the seeds of the book began with a blog that Kalman did for the New York Times. She started with her love of Abraham Lincoln, which led her to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. On her blog, she shares pages from her notebooks, which brim with drawings and phrases and doodles in the margins culled from her research about the 16th president, as well as photo reproductions that she shares with readers.

It’s such a great example of how our interests can lead us down deep and winding paths. And as we wind our way down these paths, unexpected connections can occur. Kalman also shows us—if we compare the notebook doodles on her blog to the images in her picture book—how she selected the facts and images that made the greatest impact and refined them for her book. We see the amount of thought and discipline that went into her choices of what to include and what to leave out, and how those pieces of the picture add up to a three-dimensional portrait of a great leader and extraordinary human being. She captures Lincoln’s humor and sorrow, his joy and his pain.

And most of all, Kalman models the way she starts small, with details that interest her, and builds to the larger integrated whole. What a great way to approach any goal, whether it’s writing a book or building a house or running a marathon. We have to begin a little at a time, word by word, brick by brick, step by step.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Bedtime Buddies

How often have we walked in on a toddler who’s acting out a familiar scene? She might be showing a friend how to throw a ball using the same pointers you showed her, or explaining to her doll how to share with her friends (after receiving the same advice herself). Sleepyhead by Karma Wilson, illustrated by John Segal, encourages that same kind of role-playing—a tool that helps a child process his day and, in this case, to drift off to sleep.

We see the kitten hero instructing her teddy, Sleepyhead, to brush his teeth just as we presume her own parents instructed her to do. Then we watch her anticipate Sleepyhead’s stall tactics: “We’ve hugged our hugs…. You’ve drunk your drink.” Still, Sleepyhead asks for “one more.” It’s a gentle humor that arises from recognizing one’s own behavior and being able to laugh at oneself.

At the same time, the rhyme and the nursery-hued art (in the imagined scenes of the kitten carrying a drink in a boat to Sleepyhead as he rides on the back of a swordfish, or brings a book to the teddy high atop a giraffe) are soothing enough to have a lulling effect. And because the book, first published in 2006, is now in a board book edition, you may send it off with your toddler to naptime or bedtime. It’s durable enough to sleep on, drool on or be tossed across a crib.

Don’t be surprised if, when you check in on your toddler, you hear a quiet “Sleepyhead, Sleepyhead. Now close your eyes, my Sleepyhead” wafting from the nursery.