Sep 10, 2018

The GIFT of TIME: Two Picture Books

Before the busy back-to-school season becomes a blur of sports, recitals, dioramas, homework and assorted holidays, pause for a moment to think about the power of quietly, peacefully being present. 

Marvin (Armstrong)

A recent post celebrated the power of nighttime reading, especially with picture books (HERE). This Marvin cartoon (Armstrong) turns my attention to the power of daytime hours. (Look closely at his dad's tablet tucked into the back of Marvin's pants.) Routines and obligations (or self-absorbed distractibility) can take over, but the books in this post offer wise advice, reminders of something Marvin already knows: time spent together is the greatest gift of all. 
little bee books 2018

Pat Zietlow Miller, New York Times Bestselling author of BE KIND, reviewed HERE, Is back with LORETTA'S GIFT. illustrated by Alea Marley. In this charmer, MIller's characteristic love and lyricism shine through a tale of growing families. When young Loretta hears the news that she'll have a new baby cousin, she's on board and eager to give a gift. She's even willing to give away her own belongings, but realizes that they won't be the best choices.

It's a remarkable accomplishment when any picture book that's NOT focused on the changing seasons can manage to span more than a day or two, let alone reach beyond the span of a full year. These two books do just that, and both do it well. In both books I believe the span of time serves the topic well, revealing how quickly time passes, whether dealing with newborns or school years. 
From the days of diaper changes right through to Gabe's first birthday, Loretta calms her baby cousin's tears, organizes and tugs his tiny clothes into place, and otherwise showers him with her greatest gifts: time and attention. The story circles back to remind Loretta and her family that sharing laughter and tears, hugs and cheers is the best gift of all.

Although a day may come when it doesn't merit comment, it's worth noting that the text makes absolutely no references to the race of the these characters. The story explores universal truths, ones that apply across continents, ages, races, and circumstances. Until recently, the illustrations would most likely have been Caucasian. Marley's lovely depictions of characters of color, including little Gabe's mixed identity, might not have been considered in the past. Now, they are a welcome indicator of the publishing industry's slowly bending curve toward justice, representing ALL people in all kinds of books and stories.
Candlewick Press 2018

Next up is A GIFT FROM ABUELA, which is written and illustrated by Cecilia Ruiz. These two new titles pair perfectly, offering rich content in their own spaces and providing countless discussion starters to compare and contrast their text, the settings, the characters, the art, and the gently-conveyed messages.
In this tender but intense story, Niña grows with Abuela from a welcomed infant (like Gabe) through to later childhood. 
Those years pass quickly in page turns showing laughter and habits that establish their loving relationship. It reaches into the age when Niña grows beyond her days spent with Abuela. That time period also spans economic downturns in their hometown, Mexico City, presented through direct text and also through subtly changing details in their surroundings and expenses. 
During the process, Abuela's demeanor gradually saddens, while Niña's awareness of those changes increases. Near the book's end, the child's effort to give Abuela the gifts of time and attention feels like a satisfying conclusion, an interesting flip side to Loretta's gifts to her tiny cousin. 
But Ruiz has imbued this story with rich resources for finding another layer. That plummeting economy, the change in the currency and in life's circumstances open discussions to bigger issues. And those circumstances allow Niña to offer an even bigger gift to Abuela-- returning the love and comfort they shared so many years before. 

The pair in A GIFT FROM ABUELA are more secure in the early pages, struggling more over passing time. The title itself suggests that it was Abuela's efforts to give her grandchild treats and even something special, like a vacation, that demonstrated her love.The title works well in those earlier pages, and yet it fits even better with Niña's inspired resolution shows, in a warm and meaningful way, that Abuela's REAL gift has been received and welcomed. 
Unlike the first story, which could occur anywhere in the world, the plot of Abuela's story depends on a very particular time and place. And yet it, too, is universal. The families in LORETTA'S GIFT are blessed with economic security, but that doesn't prevent them from recognizing the value of attention, time, and talents as gifts. 
Only a fool would say that no one enjoys physical gifts, that money doesn't matter. 
These books don't say that. 
I'm so enthused about the extent to which these two books work well together to foster empathy, to convey the value of spending meaningful time together, and to raise awareness that relationships are treasures to be nurtured.
Please, check them both out. Read them carefully.
Please, share them widely.
Please, encourage kids to discuss openly and explore deeply. 
And please, spend time with kids you love. 
Really, spend that time.
It's priceless.

Sep 2, 2018

Good Night Rituals with BOOKS, and More!

I began working on this post by searching for previous posts in which I discuss the importance of bedtime books in my childhood. I addressed the importance of books from birth onward in this post. It seems I never directly addressed the powerful role my own parents played (BOTH Mom and Dad) in shaping me and my siblings as lifelong readers. I honestly cannot remember a night that didn't include time spent with read-aloud/follow-along books, most often with the kids all piling into one of our beds like puppies. 
I grew up at a time when publishing children's books and our limited economic conditions meant access to books was NOTHING like the current plethora of glorious choices available to families today. Our home kid-lit library contained only about five or six traditional-tale anthologies and a couple of well-worn Disney books (based directly on the movies). Here's a look at our nightly go-to collection: 

Repetition was NEVER an issue, since both Mom and Dad loved to read, recognized the impact of ritual, and would interpret the voices, drama, and humor of those stories with unlimited variations of expression and style. 

Now that school is back in session, it's a perfect time to establish reasonable bedtimes with a read-aloud ritual. To encounter resistance to summer's end and summer habits is not uncommon and becomes most clear at bedtime. The first two books here reflect some of that normal pattern in ways that are both amusing and comforting, while also serving to ease the day to its end in the best possible way- with books!
GOOD NIGHT! GOOD NIGHT! is written and illustrated by Carin Berger. If yours is already a GOOD NIGHT MOON family, you'll recognize some parallels with this book, but also appreciate its delightful, unique approach. The back cover question says it all: Will these silly little bunnies EVER go too sleep? 
The spare text combines with simple but charming collage illustrations to make the problem and the pattern clear:  After early page turns revealing familiar rituals, there this: 
"Good-night hugs. AGAIN. 
Good-night... DANCES!

It's a sheer delight, a giggle-inducing discovery that holds up during repeated readings. 
A less subtle version of bedtime resistance can be found in 10 LITTLE NINJAS, written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Nate Wragg. I wrote about this book and bedtime battle in a prior post that included other great bedtime books. You can check those out, here. It would be fun to include both of these titles in a nightly rotation. The kids will be reciting along with you, easing themselves to sleep in the process. 

What matters even more than the books you use (or how limited your selection of books may be) is the message your children will absorb, the feelings they'll develop, the sense of empowerment they'll gain. You'll transmit all that and more by spending a few minutes at your child's bedside each night sharing books, stories, and even music. You'll be raising book-lovers and readers. That's absolutely true.
But you'll also be raising individuals who have an enormous capacity to see themselves as competent actors on the world stage.

I say that in a purely anecdotal and personal way. I was privileged to grow up in a stable, loving home with plenty of daily squabbles but a huge amount of security. Trying to separate the effects of our nightly readings from the other hours of the day and say definitively that this variable made the difference in my own life is unsupportable, but feels undeniable. I know with certainty that all of it mattered, but those nightly minutes with Mom or Dad are some of the warmest memories of my long life. And what I gained from them stretches far beyond literacy.  

Author Michael Leannah must know this truth, too. Perhaps that awareness comes from his own childhood experiences, but I'm certain it also comes from his perspective and practice as a parent. His recent release, GOODNIGHT WHISPERS is illustrated by Dani Torrent. (If you or the kids in your lives have had concerns about frequently reported acts of violence in our society, you'll want to know about Michael's earlier picture book, MOST PEOPLE, review and interview HERE.)
I'm confident of Michael's agreement because his text cuts to the heart of the bedtime ritual. 
In his story the loving father does not read to his growing child, but begins with nightly whispers and progresses to a lifetime of loving whispers. Each whisper is an affirmation of his daughter's goodness, strength, persistence, skills, determination, and capacity to succeed in the world. In a very real sense this dad's day-to-day reassurances and comforts are the opposite of the much-maligned lament that "kids today" are over-praised and becoming "snowflakes". 
Instead, the situation-specific whispers acknowledge a child's shortcomings, failures, and struggles while providing reassurance that the dad has seen and values the unique qualities, inner strengths, and attitudes his daughter displays amid the challenges of life. 
What matters in this book, in the  whispers, bedtime stories, and even family dinnertable time, is the consistency of the practice, the ritual, and the many ways in which the messages convey confidence and love. 
So, YES to reading at bedtime, for all of the literacy and life practices that will develop. 
But an even more powerful YES to doing things intentionally with kids, on a consistent and caring basis. These will be the moments, repeated daily, that will seep into the characters of kids and carry them on through life. 

To read about another family ritual, here's an archived Father's Day post about the FUNNY PAPERS.

Aug 30, 2018

The Rough Patch: Wisdom for Every Age

I launched this blog many years ago to celebrate the joy, value, quality, and benefits of picture books for every age. If this is your first stop at this blog, you can read my manifesto about picture books in these early posts, HERE and HERE

Greenwillow/Harper Collins Children's Books, 2018

I take great joy in reading picture books (text and illustrations, which is how picture books speak to us).
I never planned to provide daily posts (and I'm still  in awe of those who manage to do so). I'm very selective about the books I feature here.

Deciding which picture books to discuss and how extensively to write about each book challenges me. I look for something unique in the books I feature, searching for something that attracts my attention, draws me back again and again, and allows me to uncover new elements in the text and the illustrations on each rereading. 
I share books that are multi-layered, both timeless and ageless, in my opinion. 
Even though it goes against my nature to name favorites among the many books I love, some continue to absorb my attention, even years after an initial reading or post.

THE ROUGH PATCH, written and illustrated by BRIAN LIES, will undoubtedly be such a book. I'm not alone in feeling this way. It has already garnered rave reviews and three stars. Check out what School Library Journal said (HERE), Kirkus Reviews (HERE), and Publishers' Weekly (HERE). Each outlines the story well and makes note of a few of the many distinctive details, like Evan's garden boots.

I offer these trusted sources to confirm that my opinion about this tender story wasn't unduly influenced by the fact that I faced a heartbreaking final good-bye to my own four-legged companion earlier this summer. In fact, if this book had been released in June I probably wouldn't have chosen to read it at that time. My emotions were still too new, too raw.
Having read it now, though, I wish it had been available to me then. 
There is as much comfort between the covers of this book as I feel when wrapped in one of my heirloom family quilts.

Yes, on one level, THE ROUGH PATCH is a story of loss. But it is so much more than that. It explores and celebrates the amazing capacity and power of friendship and love. It reveals the depths and strengths of human emotions, the importance of living in the moment, and, yes, the circle of life.
In fact, the initial opening spreads are joyous, vibrant, luminous. Evan (the Fox) and his friend (the Dog) savor every moment of their full, shared lives. Their companionship, comfort, and wordless communication shine on the pages and will be deeply felt by those who share their own lives wth dogs, cats, or other friends. 
The scant but potent text in each spread, throughout each stage, conveys Fox's joy, grief, anger, and eventual healing. Lies's writing perfectly suits the lives of this garden community: simple, direct, and pure. It reminds me of a free-verse Robert Frost.  In one achingly gentle double spread, Evan realizes that "the unthinkable happened."

The next several spreads follow Evan through his stages of grief: his isolation and anger, and his rejection of his formerly joyful garden. The metaphoric title plays out superbly in the middle portion of the book, in which "a good place won't stay empty for long". Evan destroys his formerly manicured garden, but nature abhors a vacuum. The space soon fills with growing things: weeds, thorns, and spiky intruders. Evan nurses that negativity, embraces it. In the process, though, he experiences the healing power of resuming his daily habits despite his aching, broken heart. 
Time passes, sun shines, and a "volunteer" vine creeps into the garden. 
When Fair Week finally rolls around Evan is open to a twinge of familiar excitement. Time and old habits have allowed his heart to begin to heal, to give himself permission to enjoy familiar joys. When a scrabbling tendril of possibility reaches out to him at the fair, he chooses to begin anew.

Throughout each page and stage, Lies uses his mastery of illustration to combine expressive features, shifting perspectives, light, shading, color, and detail to create scenes that beg to be examined closely while urging readers to turn the page and know the characters more deeply. Throughout it all I found myself walking hand-in-paw with Evan, wanting desperately to comfort him but knowing his was a journey to be traveled alone.

Lies has created many books I admire. His talent for capturing the nuance of expression, movement, habits, and postures in animals is incredible. I first described that talent in a post (here) about MORE, which he illustrated for author I. C. Springman. 
Apart from the elements within each scene or spread, I greatly admire the way he conveyed the emotional arc of this book through the continuity and transformations from first page to last. In THE ROUGH PATCH I noted his use of similar artistic tools, and yet he achieves distinctly different effects. In both cases, the transitions are so deftly accomplished that what might be considered simple circle stories instead become salvation stories, each ending with the characters transformed and strengthened in ways that are layered and lovely.

I recommend many books, but put THE ROUGH PATCH at the top of your list. 
Share it widely.
This fox and dog represent all of humanity.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.