Mar 15, 2017

Fiction, Fact, and the Funny Side of POOP!

I'll begin here on a personal note. 
The first days of February found me biting back expletives much more harsh than "OH, POOP". I'm ashamed to admit that it was not just the pain and frustration of breaking my leg that had me sounding like a comic strip: 
I was utterly embarrassed by the foolish way it happened- putting on my shoes. And I broke my right leg, which made driving off-limits for 6-8 weeks.

Just as I was adjusting to the consequences of my klutziness, I tumbled back into potty-mouth territory when the orthopedist viewed my x-rays a few weeks later. His verdict... the eight week prognosis instead of six. I indulged in several hours of grumbling and self-pity, before deciding that wasn't helping, even a tiny bit. A late winter snowstorm, cancelled appearances, etc. prompted even more muttering of "OH, POOP!" 
I channeled my frustration into even more reading and writing and decided to share the upside of those downsides, developing a more constructive take on that word "POOP".
Originally 1993, republished by Abrams, 2007

THE STORY OF THE LITTLE MOLE WHO WENT IN SEARCH OF WHODUNIT is written by Werner Holzwarth and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch. The cover and title launch the plot, or plop, if you prefer. Shortsighted mole is determined to find the source of that sausage-like emoji-ish deposit that greeted him one fine warm day as he lifted his head from his tunnel. 
In a finely paced and humor-laced series of encounters, mole narrows the list of suspects, dodges disastrous demonstrations, and eventually exacts his revenge. 
An animated version of this book can be viewed on YouTube, here, but the physical book allows for even better appreciation of page turns, expressions, and rising tensions. This is a seriously funny book that defies bad moods. It is also a slick and sophisticated example of everything wonderful about picture books. First and foremost, kids and adults alike will return to it again and again. In the process, they'll find effective repetition, clever language, plot twists, and plenty to talk about.

Puffin Books, 2014
Compare this simply brilliant story with the equally inspired nonfiction book, THE TRUTH ABOUT POOP AND PEE:All the Facts about the Ins and Outs of Bodily Functions., written by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by slightly-wacky Elwood H. Smith. 
(This title is a fairly recent consolidation of Goodman's earlier two volumes, THE TRUTH ABOUT POOP and GEE, WHIZ! IT'S ALL ABOUT PEE.) The titles alone are indicators of the clever wit, wisdom, and wonder explored within the covers of this kid-magnet. 
What's more, author Goodman never let's go of a topic, even after her books have been published or reissued. In this case, her website offers a plethora of additional factoids that reached her after the book went to print. 

I look back on my childhood firmly convinced that I was born knowing how to read. In part, that's because we had few books. From early on I was able to pick up a book and "read" it, knowing all about front-to-back, up-vs-down, page turns, visual stories, and even inserting long strings of words I recalled from frequent bedtime reading. As an early reader I owe even more to having a newspaper plunked onto our doorstep seven days a week. I "read" the funnies every day of my life. Elwood Smith's cartoonish images and speech bubbles offer a huge appeal with their speech bubbles and comic details, offering big ideas even when the text is challenging. 
Here's a sidestep to other frustrating "Oh, Poop" moments-- the proliferation of outrageous statements presented as truths. As incredible as they may seem, Goodman's facts are indisputable. I can say that with confidence for several reasons: the author's reputation for in-depth research and objectivity is undisputed; she cites extensive and reliable resources in the back matter; each and every claim can be reverse-engineered to obtain third party confirmation, should a reader  choose to do so. In other words, even though the content itself and the comical illustrations provide laughable, quotable quips that sound like jokes, they are, in fact, facts. Not half-truths, distortions, or lies, or alternative facts. Readers of any age can and should be reading such surprising content with a skeptical eye and with tools to verify. Recognizing the ability to sort, save, and discard based on reality provides a powerful jolt of self-confidence.

Among those funnies from my earliest readings, I always included a daily dose of RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOTlike this one. You can subscribe on social media for a daily post from their website. I recommend an exercise in  reading with a duality of amazement and skepticism, of challenging extraordinary statements with quick searches for sources and the validity of those sources. This should become as mundane as brushing our teeth, applying a studied eye (or ear) to everything we read (or hear). 
Perhaps even a book like The Story of the Mole...
offers an object lesson in seeking out primary sources to answer our questions. When those searches are unproductive, frustrating, or even too messy, we can seek out authentic experts to resolve our confusions. (What better experts to consult about the origins of poop than flies?)
So, take these three recommendations and run with them, following their leads to seek out truth and facts from among the #$*!% filling our media these days. I challenge anyone who says, "I don't like to read" to try these and find yourself hooked.

Mar 6, 2017

The Case For Loving: Supreme Court Decisions Matter

While serving as a first round panelist for Cybils nonfiction earlier this winter, I read and posted some notes about THE FIRST STEP: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial, written by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by E. B. Lewis. (Read it HERE.)

As Goodman so adeptly points out, within the text and in the back matter, the court loss described was, in fact, a gain. By laying the foundation for future cases and eventual successes, civil rights cases culminated in the landmark BROWN vs. BOARD OF EDUCATION ruling in 1954-55.
Labeling that last ruling as landmark is not meant to suggest it succeeded in ending segregation and discrimination in education. Nor was that the last case the Supreme Court would face regarding Constitutional protections for civil rights. Far from it. But it, too, was another step, a giant one, in the continuing process of opening hearts and minds to the reality that the only race that matters is the human race. 
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015

The same is true for the Supreme Court ruling described in The Case for Loving:

The Fight for Interracial Marriage, written bSelina Alko and illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. Although this simple picture book portrays an adult issue (confirming the constitutional right to interracial marriage), the narration and illustration combine to make it a kid-friendly, empathetic experience for even the very young. 
(A 2016 film depicts an adult version of the true story of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter . See a Movie trailer on YouTube, HERE.)
At its core, this compelling and dramatic story is  about family. Alko focuses on the human desire (and right) of all people to pursue happiness through marriage and raising a family, freely and safely, anywhere in our country. From the cover, through the end pages, and winding across every spread, iconic images of happiness and love (hearts, flowers, birds and music) combine with active children engaging in familiar family situations to depict real people living real lives. The illustrations adopt a folkart approach with colorful collage, paint, and stamp art, presenting a child-like take on a mature story. Kids "get" this, they rebel against the injustice, cheer for the strength and validity of of the court challenge, and revel in the eventual victory.
An equally valuable use for this book will be with older readers. It's an ideal way to introduce an immediate experience with the mid-twentieth-century "legal" manipulations and maneuvers that sustained Jim Crow laws for more than a century beyond the emancipation of enslaved people. The inimitable Diane Rehm conducts an outstanding program on the topic of Jim Crow laws, providing voice to several points of view in an interview, here. Another resource to share is the NPR program that examined the official Congressional apology for slavery and Jim Crow laws from the summer of 2008, here. In each case, both the transcript and the recordings are available to allow for careful discussion and review. 
A rude awakening to the reality of those years can be explored by researching the NEGRO MOTORIST GREEN BOOK, an annually updated resource for anyone of color traveling south during the many decades of segregation and unchecked activity by the Klu Klux Klan. This article in Smithsonian Magazine details the origins and need for THE GREEN BOOK.
Carllrhoda Books, 2010
Those sophisticated investigations, though, can be translated to the heart by another picture book, RUTH AND THE GREEN BOOK, written  by Calvin A. Ramsey and Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. In this case, as in Alko's and Goodman's books, the immediacy of individual lives and  the relatable illustrations evoke personal and visceral responses from readers of any age. In each book the back pages provide further insights and explorations from the authors and offers resources for further exploration and research on the topics and characters portrayed. Now, more than ever, providing young people with the facts of our own history and the ease with which individual liberties were distorted and restricted is essential. Actually, it's not a bad time fro adults to review these stories and resources.
(For more on the Supreme Court, check this recent post about Deby Levy's I DISSENT: Ruth bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark.)

Feb 16, 2017

Seeing the World in the Pages of Picture Books

When I launched this blog five years ago I named it after my workshops for educators, librarians, and anyone interested in working with kids and books: Unpacking the Power of Picture Books. I extended my in-person workshops to this blog in an effort to  reach a wider audience and maintain an archive of picture books and comments as a resource. My thesis in both platforms is that picture books are a) alive and well, and b) high quality literature with powerful benefits for many ages.

 I'm not the first to notice that not only are picture books thriving in the publishing world, they are finding wider attention among bloggers, educators, and readers of many ages. That's despite predictions of the demise of picture books in 2010 New York Times article. 

As for the power of picture books for any age, let's consider two examples in this post. First, though, I offer a caution that I've repeated in many posts and in workshops.
Books are meant to be experienced intact, whole and complete. Quality books of any kind, but especially picture books, offer immersive, absorbing engagement, visual feasts, luxurious narratives, and page-turning entertainment. Each book deserves to be read, initially, in that way. Often repeatedly. In fact, before returning to explore books as mentor text for writing, tools for concept discussions, or other analysis, 
HONOR THE BOOK as a whole.
And then, dive in more deeply.
Beach Lane Books, 2009 
ALL THE WORLD is written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee, a magical pairing of talents. It was released several years prior to recently organized efforts to raise awareness of and opportunities for greater diversity in images and stories in every format for young readers. (We Need Diverse Books)
Even so, the universality of Scanlon's  lilting, rhythmic, rhyming text  finds it's ideal expression in a visual community realistically and inspiringly varied in age, ethnicity, interest, and expression. It resonates with a natural diversity that sets a high bar for all others.
In scenes that range from expansive to intimate, small visual narratives invite exploration and discussion. Lives intersect and culminate in a gathering in which any and all readers can find themselves revealed. The lushness of the settings contrast with the economy of lines and strokes in the characters' expressions and movement. The cast of dozens, on page after page, offer up ingredients for stories of individual and interconnected lives. The potential for discussions of relationships, mentoring writing craft, and the balance of visual and verbal narrative is unlimited.
Read what New York Times had to say about it, here.

Chronicle Books, 2016

Next, turn to another Caldecott honor winner, more recently released. Both words and images for THEY ALL SAW A CAT were created by Brendan Wenzel. Again, this book must be savored, multitple times, in its wholistic glory. As a cat walks through page after page, it maintains essential traits (whiskers, ears, and paws) but is utterly transformed by the point of view and attitude of each observer. The inherent relationships (and assumptions) of "the others" shape and color their perceptions of what a cat is, or can be. 

Eventually, though, it's worth considering on another, deeper, level. THEY ALL SAW A CAT offers an extended metaphor of the way in which many rely on narrowed perspectives to define others based on individual, predetermined expectations and protective assumptions. Rich discussions can emerge from examining the double-page spread on which the cat is portrayed as bits and pieces of each viewpoint. Being defined by others' limited perceptions of us, especially in adolescence, can have a similarly jarring, disorienting impact. 
At any age, and especially in the pervasive environment of social media, the views of others can shape one's identity, one's sense of self. When teens find narrowly defined labels offered by others disrupting their personal development, a book like this can be a lifeline of perspective and validation. 

Then, in the final page turn, we see the ultimate truth: even when trying to view ourselves honestly and directly, what we discover is ever-changing, not fully accurate, and requires frequent reflection and consideration.

I hope you'll take a close look at these two books, and then find readers of many ages with whom to share them.

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.