Jun 16, 2018

Making and Keeping PROMISES.

If you've been reading posts here, here, and here, you're aware of a recent pattern: spotlighting picture books intended for a young audience but with enough depth to engage readers of any age. In each case, kindness is presented as a personal choice, a mind-frame for individuals to adopt and practice, even when it doesn't appear spontaneously. 

Second Story Press, 2018
I feel like a shift is overdue.  It's time to focus on picture books for older readers, ones that require a more mature awareness of history and life itself. Presenting a true family story, THE PROMISE is written by cousin/friends Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe and is illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal. Those hands forming the heart-wrenching image on the cover of this book and represent the authors' mothers, Rachel and Toby, when they were young sisters entering Auschwitz together. 
From the opening spread it is clear in text and illustration that any kindnesses portrayed would have to occur within the tragically surreal images of desperation surrounding Rachel and Toby. As gray and desperate as their circumstances were, their stricken faces and emaciated bodies were hauntingly protective and supportive of each other. After the first page turn we readers learn of their parents' arrest, and of their charge to the older sister, Toby: stay together to survive, and hold this small treasure in reserve. Use it ONLY when you need it most. That treasure was three gold coins, pressed into a small tin of shoe polish. 
The next page turn reveals the vicious teeth of a snarling dog, poised at the side of an equally ominous character: the Nazi-uniformed female guard of Barrack 25. Even the word kindness had no place on these pages. 
The story that unfolds incorporates specific details in text and illustration: the daily roll call, the inhumane living conditions, the starvation rations, the intentionally cruel work details, and the unflinching heartlessness of casually crossing names from lists as prisoners succumbed to all of the above. 
These scenes are unflinching and yet accessible to readers as young as mid-elementary age. That remains true as a frightening incident threatened the sisters even further. And yet kindness did play a role in keeping them both alive, and not just the kindness of the other girls in Barrack 25. Those coins played a crucial role, but some guards would have taken the coins and NOT turned their backs. Even that vicious Nazi roll call guard, the one who delivers Toby's beating, allowed the names of both girls to remain on the list, allowed them to live another day, and another, surviving to the end of the war. 
Toby's and Rachel's stories were eventually told to their own children, two of whom were determined to research, confer with family, and present a narrative that documents this remarkable sibling love. Then the illustrator accomplished the seemingly insurmountable task of portraying cringe-worthy scenes without overwhelming impressionable readers. The digital collage illustrations incorporate Victorian-era photos with textures, drawings, and intentionally distorted proportions to lend a dream-like buffer to the scenes while sharply defining the reality of individual lives. 
Scholastic Press, 20133
For readers who are intrigued by the authenticity and specificity of these pages from Holocaust history, I also recommend the fact-based depiction of Jack Gruener's experiences in PRISONER B-3087, written by author Alan Gratz. This reads like a mind-blowing and heart-crushing novel, but is woven from the incredible-but-true experiences of young Jack, whose Holocaust survival journey led him through TEN different concentration/death camps, many with names that are synonymous with gas chambers and crematoriums. 
No, this is not a contest to see which story can out-shock the next.  Instead these books and so many others allow readers to recognize that even the smallest decisions, the most difficult struggles to survive, can allow for individual choice, for momentary kindnesses, for sustaining hope in the face of hopelessness. 
Alex Baughm writing  at The Children's War, calls  THE PROMISE "compelling and inspirational", and I agree completely. She also makes the point that as the original survivors, the personal witnesses to the Holocaust are gradually disappearing, it is more important than ever to share, discuss, and research the truth of the Holocaust with upcoming generations. A recent survey reveals the disturbing truth that about half of millennials cannot define the Holocaust, anchor it in history, or distinguish it from other man-made disasters such as the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York.
In these times when sorting fact from fiction, truth from propaganda presents an ongoing struggle, how can we urge our youngest to nurture their most humane and heartfelt instincts without sharing the ways real people in a real world may- or may not- be guided by such values?

Jun 10, 2018

One More Title On Doing the Right Thing: Super Manny

Atheneum Books, 2018

My recent posts featured picture books for EVERY age, books with advice on dealing with bullies, and making active efforts to be kind. If I had been aware of this recent release it would have been included in one or the other, but it just flew onto my radar screen a few days ago.

That may well be for the best, since SUPER MANNY STANDS UP, written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin provides a perfect introduction to summer vacation! It goes without saying that this talented author's work deserves attention, blending word-perfect readability with humor, surprise, and heart. 
The premise is perfect for summer, even though it is a school-ish story. Populated by appealing animal characters, Super Manny Raccoon is introduced in a styling display of his many super-power capes, ones that allow him to be fearless, strong, brave, powerful, and invincible against every imagined foe! That could leave Manny feeling vulnerable when he goes to school without a cape, but (and here's the surprise!) he has a SCHOOL cape, an INVISIBLE one! That super undercover cape lets him continue his imaginative fun at school. But one day, the enemy who appears is REAL! When Manny and all all the others in the lunchroom witness BIG bullying small, Manny remembers that he carries his power with him. And it IS a magical power, because when he speaks up in defense of small,  other bystanders STAND UP with him and BIG doesn't feel so big anymore.

This book is a perfect launch to summer at playgrounds, library reading circles, and at home. Outdoor play, imaginative play, interactive play were once the  default setting for the kids everywhere. Whether the  kids in your life are programmed throughout every day of summer or experiencing free-roam bliss, wearing an invisible undercover cape may be just the boost needed to STAND UP to bullies, for themselves and on behalf of others. 

While you're at it, check out the downloadable checklist of suggestions of kind things to do, organized and heartfelt ideas from the blog, Doing Good Together.

There's an advanced list for overachievers, too. 

It's not hard to find recommended lists of books about kindness, but if you're getting into this theme, check out this post at READ BRIGHTLY, here. This  blog does a great job of sorting recommendations by target age, themes, and also archives many topics and themes. It's a great place to start for anyone wondering aloud, "What can I read?"

May 26, 2018

When Kindness Is Lacking: Facing a Bully

My previous post shared some outstanding picture books about kindness, each featuring young characters who chose to notice, to consider the feelings of others, and to ACT in positive ways. The lead character in each offers realistic examples of the power a single person can wield to make other lives better. 
Empathy is innate, according to some recent studies. (Check out an easy-to-read-and-uplifting report on one study HERE.) It's pretty obvious that encouraging those natural tendencies, modeling intentional kindness, and discussing books like the ones featured  (and others) will foster those human, humane tendencies in young people. It's also pretty obvious that our world would be a better place if all humans of every age displayed those humane, empathetic patterns in daily life. Sadly, it's more than obvious that some people, young and otherwise, have lost or repressed their natural empathetic tendencies to varying degrees. Some not only ignore others in need or pain, instead actively causing others physical or emotional pain.
That's not true of MOST PEOPLE, a truth that is comfortingly presented in Michael Leannah's book, discussed in this previous post. 
And yet...
Even a single bully can cause others to feel fear, depression, or even lead to suicide or violence. There are countless picture books on this subject used by parents, teachers, and others. Some are featured HERE. As a teacher I've shared many of the recommended titles, and as a blogger I've reviewed a few, HERE
Owlkids Book, Inc. 2018

This post  will shine a well-deserved spotlight on a recently released picture book, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Carey Sookocheff. On the face of it, so to speak, it merits our attention for its powerful cover. The dull-gray tones, simple line drawings, and obvious situation makes the subject matter evident. In case there's any doubt, the back cover reveals an explicit scene: an intentionally side-eyed mean-girl is bullying a slump-shouldered and sad-eyed boy. The simplified line art and body postures, including that of the bystanding girls on the cover, reveal a universal bullying situation. 
In a sense, this stark approach is counterintuitive, lacking the spontaneous appeal of bright colors, charming animal characters, or other enticements to open and read on about an important topic. Instead, this book declares its topic before a single page is turned. The title suggests a powerful dramatic tension, suggesting escalating meanness and/or a full-out confrontation. 
Neither is the case. Nor does the book unfold in traditional text form. Instead, the unnamed narrator controls the story in unique, script-like format:
"Why I Don't Want to Go to School Today:
Bully B.
What Bully B Does at School Today:
Blocks my way.
Asks me questions that aren't really questions, like: 'Why are you so weird?'
What Her Friends Do:
What Everyone Else Does:

From that first page, the bullied boy struggles with hiding his situation from his mom, seeking comfort in his books and from his unconditionally loving and sensitive dog. One day his mom reads his face rather than his answer about how his day was ("fine"). Together they spend time in simple ways, experiencing comfort and fun together. Then his mom gently leads a conversation about bullies, options, and potential resolutions. This is all revealed in that same child-controlled monologue. The transitions leading to a resolution are entirely realistic, providing a template for others to use in similar circumstances while thoroughly  reinforcing the character of a quirky (not weird) boy and a compelling story.

I do have a few concerns about this outstanding picture book. The line drawings are a bit of a double-edged sword. Throughout page after page of  dull-toned spreads, the boy is washed from head to toe in pale blue and the girl in green. That may avoid racial identity, but the straight-hair, straight-featuered characters read very Caucasian to me. In the final spread each character, including some incidental classmates, are colored in traditional ways (clothing, hair, backpacks, etc.) and one boy is a person of color. I realize the intentional symbolism of the narrator's perceptions regarding his worldview until the problem is resolved, but I hope it is discussed with young readers as intentional.  On the plus side, the majority of "bullies" in picture books are males (or "male-types"), so this female antagonist is a welcome dose of reality. 

Here's hoping you'll get your hands on these books and share them widely. Can we really live with the fact that humans are BORN with the right instincts and the adults (or screen images) in their lives are not actively strengthening and supporting those instincts? I can't.

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.