Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Board Book to Count On

Kass Reich accomplishes a great deal in her first board book, Hamsters Holding Hands. As her rhyming text counts up to 10, she establishes a bond between the furry heroes from the moment there are two. It’s easy to underestimate how challenging it is to get the right balance of words and pictures for children just beginning to make meaning from images and the spoken word.

Her sherbet-colored tones of lemon, lime and orange look good enough to eat, and her hamsters engage in activities every toddler will either recognize or wish to emulate—playing telephone with two tin cans, sharing trucks and balls, a day at the beach with snorkels, popsicles and water wings, under a sun shining like a fried egg in the sky.

With minimal backdrops, she keeps the focus on the friendships between the hamsters and the joy of shared activities. She also leaves a lot unstated, so toddlers can make their own discoveries with each rereading. Here’s hoping this is the first of many books by Kass Reich.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Farfetched, or Possible?

George Orwell may have written his novel 1984 in 1949, but his themes of an all-powerful government, the submersion of the individual, and invasion of privacy reverberated with his readership—and still do. First-time author Marie Lu was born in 1984, and her book, Legend, plumbs these same themes—in ways that will also resonate with readers today.

In Lu’s world, global warming has reshaped continents, the military runs the country and disseminates the information, and plagues run rampant through the poorest neighborhoods. Enter 15-year-old June, who was born into privilege, with both parents employed by the government, and who believes what she’s been taught. Day, on the other hand, also 15, has witnessed firsthand how the government’s policies have betrayed his family and put their lives in danger. They cannot both be right.

When I had a chance to interview Marie Lu about her book, she discussed the underpinnings of her fiction as being rooted in fact. “The dystopian setting came about when I was looking online at a map of what the world would be like if all the fresh water in the world melted and the oceans rose 100 meters,” said Lu. The ever-evolving plague grew out of the author’s research on factory farming, and how quickly diseases like SARS can spread via factories of farms with animals on antibiotics. And Day’s dexterity and agility, scaling buildings and the like, were inspired by a discipline called parkour or “free running,” developed in France, with roots in the martial arts but with a focus on moving efficiently around obstacles.

Marie Lu said that she did not set out to convey a message with Legend. Quite the opposite. The inspiration came one day when she was watching Les Miserables and tried to imagine what it would be like for two teenagers who found themselves in the opposing positions of Valjean and Javert. But as she reflected on her novel, she realized that a pivotal moment in her own life inspired a climactic scene in the book. In 1989, Lu was living with her aunt in Beijing, and tensions were mounting all summer between the government and its citizens. One day, kindergarten was canceled, and Lu found herself with her aunt in Tiananmen Square. The turning point of her book is “a mirror,” as Lu put it, of watching the protestors in Tiananmen Square. Suddenly her futuristic "Republic of America" does not look so farfetched.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Time and Trust

Wonder by R.J. Palacio made me want to be the kind of person who could and would welcome someone like 10-year-old Auggie Pullman and put him at ease. His sister, Via, does that. His sister’s friend Miranda does that—Miranda even gave Auggie an astronaut's helmet to wear when he was small, which he wore in public all the time to hide his disfigured face. His new friends Summer and Jack are able to put him at ease, too, and we hear from them all.

Palacio helps us remember that there’s more to every situation than we can see or know. Even Auggie learns this about his classmates Summer and Jack. We know so little about someone else’s life or circumstances. It takes time and trust to get to know someone else well. I think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s quote: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.” In Auggie’s case, his looks are all people see initially. And it takes time for them to see past that to the person inside.

My father always told my brother and me that if you could count on one hand the number of true friends in your lifetime, you are lucky. When he first told me that, it was during the cruel era of junior high, and I thought his words were harsh. Now I know them to be true. Friendships go through tests—one friend becomes more popular than another; one gets a boyfriend or girlfriend and the other doesn’t; one makes a new friend and the other feels left out. All of that happens to Auggie, or the people close to him, in Wonder. The solution lies in being able to talk about what’s going on. That’s what Auggie and everyone around him learns. Eventually.

If Wonder models anything, it’s the importance of confronting situations and problems as they arise, and then figuring out if and how they may be resolved. And not going it alone. Talking to one other person about an issue plays a role in resolving each situation that arises in Wonder.

With time, more will be revealed, whether it’s more of the story or the way to address an issue. With a friend you trust, you can wait it out.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

VoilĂ !

Spring is my favorite season. Having grown up in Michigan, we waited patiently, very patiently, for that first golden spray of forsythia to tell us winter was over. And even then we might get another blizzard, crushing those fragile first blossoms. Erin Stead, who illustrated Julie Fogliano’s And Then It’s Spring also grew up in Michigan. Maybe that’s why her visual interpretation of the hero's emotions in Fogliano’s poetic text feels so right and true.

Spring is the season akin to the starlet who’s an “overnight sensation.” No one knows of the years of cold call auditions and being turned away and lining up again. Few but the starlet remember the hard slogging and patient persistence once success arrives. When spring finally bursts into full bloom, we feel we’ve earned it, after all those dark days of endless trudging in high boots through cold snow.

Yet because spring has always come, we trust that it will come again. Like the young gardener in Fogliano's story, we start to see glimmers of “a hopeful, very possible sort of brown” in the same brown ground we’ve stared at for many bleak months. We, too, see a... “is that a little green?/ no, it’s just brown sort of brown,” and then, a week later with still no change, we think the worst. Birds have eaten the seeds, bears have stomped on the seeds. This is my favorite line of the book: “[B]ears can’t read signs/ that say things like/ ‘please do not stomp here--/there are seeds/ and they are trying.' ”

Aren’t we all trying? Just trying to get through these last brown days, however long the brown stays, until the green pokes through. “Please do not stomp here, there are seeds and they are trying!” It’s so much more eloquent than “Stay off the grass.” And while we wait for the seeds to succeed, we can put an old tire to use as a swing or refashion a milk carton as a bird feeder.

And then suddenly a riot of color runs rampant, and cherry blossom trees escort us on our walks up the Hudson River or past the reflecting pool in our nation’s capitol, or in the town square in cities all across America. And we have an overnight sensation: Spring.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Rewards of Sharing

The lesson may be overt in The Rainbow Fish—that sharing is the key to friendship—but for toddlers, it’s a topic that can never be discussed too often. The other two books in My Rainbow Fish Book Box build on the rewards the hero reaps from the friendships he makes and the things he learns from his experiences in that first book.

Remembering how it felt to be left out (by his own choice, but nonetheless…), the silver-scaled hero feels for the striped fish in Rainbow Fish to the Rescue!, whom his friends want to leave out. With the confidence he’s gained from his friendships, he summons the courage to swim down to the depths in search of his last silver scale in Rainbow Fish Discovers the Deep Sea. It’s never too soon to learn the rewards that emanate from that first act of friendship—sharing. And it’s one that most kids will have to re-learn over and over again.

If your toddler is already a sharer, there likely have been times when he or she has been taken advantage of by a still-prideful Rainbow Fish–type peer. And if the toddler in your life is going through a prideful Rainbow Fish phase, then these tales offer teachable moments.

I recently got to interview Kevin Henkes, creator of so many characters that lead the way to rich discussions with children (Wemberly Worried; Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse) and he said, “I can't tell you how many times when my kids were little, when something was happening, we'd pick a book from a shelf and we'd read.” Henkes added, “I'd be waiting for a particular page to open the door to what was happening in their lives.” Whether it’s a silver scale, half a sandwich, a secret or a book that touches on what’s going on in a child’s life, sharing is a lifelong practice with countless benefits.