May 20, 2018

Be Kind: a Message For Everyone

After decades of teaching, I'll be the first to say that "Be Kind" is not the simple admonition it seems to be. In fact, I recall a school campaign that featured "DO KIND____" in posters and in lessons in an attempt to emphasize that actions speak louder than words or intentions. The grammatical quirkiness of that phrase diluted its impact, in my opinion  but the message mattered and relates to the content of a new picture book that I believe should be in every home, classroom, and library.
Roaring Book Press, 2018
Pat Zietlow Miller's recent and widely acclaimed release, BE KIND, features an aware and intentional main character, one who actively attempts to "be kind". As with the stumbling school campaign slogan above that required an object for its verb, this kind character has an object of the intent: a classmate who is upset by a simple accident, spilled grape juice. 
When an initial attempt at support is misunderstood, the wannabe-kind youngster makes an effort to observe, consider, and analyze ways that kindness is (or isn't) effective. Those examples, the progression of observations, and the conclusions are entirely child-friendly but also provide dense content for discussions about ways individual acts can affect others' lives. 
Illustrator Jen Hill has provides visual spotlights throughout the book, offering a subtle reminders to focus on both sides of the kindness equation. The reflections of the main character convey not just intention but persistence, not a sense of his/her own desire to be kind, but on the needs of the classmate. I used the gender-optional pronouns because some young readers have asked- is it a girl or a boy? Hill's gender-ambiguous illustration allows all readers to see themselves in the story, and to answer the questions for themselves: Who do you think it is? What difference would it make which way you see the child? Does assigning an identity affect the story? The universality of the story shines through from the book jacket front to back.
Schwartz and Wade Books, 2018

Two other picture books to explore while sharing BE KIND stress similar messages about individual acts that have direct objects in classmates in need of comfort or support. A recent one is I WALK WITH VANESSA: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness, created and illustrated by Kerascoet
This wordless book is told in page after page of spot illustrations on pure white background. New girl Vanessa's family moves into the neighborhood on the title page, and remains alone throughout the day. she doesn't initiate contact, but no one else does, either. From the first page our "kind" classmate notices everything, including the boy who says something mean to Vanessa as she walks home alone. The caring classmate tells her friends, notices which house Vanessa lives in, and then worries about her through the evening and overnight. At breakfast she has a thought and runs to Vanessa's house to walk with her to school. Along the way they are joined by other classmates and that one simple act allows Vanessa to feel welcome in her new school. 
As in BE KIND, this caring character invests in the process of empathizing and problem solving, keeping the object of her concern foremost in her efforts. 
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013

Finally, include in your sharing and discussions a picture book from a few years ago, THE INVISIBLE BOY, written by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patrice Barton. This subtle story allows the kindness to spring from the boy who has been ignored to the point of invisibility. The illustration has incredibly potent emotional impact, as the early pages reveal a boy who is generally unseen by peers- the last chosen in a game, ignored during activities, etc., making him fade to sadly pastel invisibility. 
A new boy arrives in class, a Korean student, who is first questioned then teased by peers for the names of and unusual forms of his lunchbox foods. In an exemplary twist, it's invisible boy who empathizes and writes a supportive note to his new classmate. As they become friends and participate in class activities, the others interact and the colors and definition of the boy return.

In each of these titles, readers can see themselves in both sides of the equations. Each also portrays specific, thoughtful, but simple responses to a peer in need of comfort. All too often, young (and old) may define themselves as kind because they contribute to a food drive or create a May basket to hang on a neighborhood doorknob. All are worthy efforts, as is the writing of checks in response to disasters. But these books remind us all that kindness requires attention to the title things, the individuals around us who may be sitting alone, having a bad day, or just in need of a smile and hello. 
As important as these books are for young readers, I'm convinced they matter even more for middle grade, teen, and adult readers. I hope you'll read them and help me spread the word to every age.

May 13, 2018

Happy Mothers' Day: The Magic of Memories

An interesting series of events in recent weeks involved author Stephanie Stuve Bodeen, who writes middle grade and young adult novels as SA Bodeen.She is the author of a favorite picture book of mine, ELIZABETI'S DOLL. I'm not the only fan of the book, since it became a series of three titles featuring Elizabeti. 

My email exchanges with Stephanie on other matters reminded me of my first Mothers' Day post six years ago when the blog was only a few months old. 

I enjoyed rereading it, recalling the time with my mom described in the piece. It also reminded me that there's no time like today to refocus on the power of picture books for readers of ANY age.

Then I met with another writer this week and we happened to discuss Barbara Joosse's I LOVE YOU THE PURPLEST. She said that even in the earliest days of her family (she has two children) this became a central text for their lives. Now her children are independent adults and Purplest continues to bond them. Some years ago the two offspring had a necklace custom-made for their mom with the phrase on it. They text daily and they always sign off with a purple heart. One offered to have the phrase tattooed, but so far that idea has been squelched by my friend.

The two conversations made me squelch my own plans for a post today, Mothers' Day, and urge you to read the original post, HERE. I hope you'll take a few minutes to check it out, and then give some thought to a book that touches the core of your feelings for your own moms. If your mom is no longer around to share it, consider gifting it to a new mom, but share your family memories in the process. 

Picture books have power at any age, and across the years. 

This one's for you, Mom, again.

May 7, 2018

TEACHER APPRECIATION: Teaching from the Heart

This week, May 7-11, is NATIONAL TEACHER APPRECIATION WEEK. There's no better time than now to acknowledge the truth: the vast majority of teachers choose their profession with their hearts. They do so with the full knowledge that, in a financial sense, they will not be compensated fairly. Not early in their careers. Not late in their careers. In comparison to professionals with similar levels of formal education and experience, and in comparison to teacher-compensation in other developed countries, there are many better ways to make a secure and substantial living.

But it's all about the heart. Teaching has always been as much a vocation, a calling, as it is a career. In other words, Teaching isn't a job, it's an identity. That inspiring reality also explains the ease with which school boards and government entities consistently underpay and undercut the professionalism and dedication of teachers, and yet teachers work on, devoted to and grateful for the learners in their lives. It's fair to say:

 Teachers gotta teach.

Lee & Low Books, 2018
Which leads me to review a remarkable new picture book: MIDNIGHT TEACHER: Lilly Ann Granderson and her Secret School.  It's written by prolific and award-winning author Janet Halfmann and is illustrated by the equally distinguished London Ladd. Before I comment on this book, take a peek at what others have said since its release:
From a starred review on Kirkus:
"Midnight Teacher is an inspiring testament to an amazing instructor and pioneer in education. Lilly Ann Granderson's steadfast courage in the face of adversity provides an inspiring model for all who attempt to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges." 
From Publisher's Weekly: 
"The painful but uplifting narrative may spark readers’ curiosity about other enslaved individuals whose stories have not yet been told."
From School Library Journal: 
"In the afterword, Halfmann delves further into this hero's legacy: her grandchildren and great-grandchild would go on to become college grads, U.S. congressmen, and more. Ladd's illustrations, rendered in acrylic and colored pencil, are realistic and done in an earthy palette of sandy browns and rich greens. Ladd adroitly conveys the tone of the narrative with dioramalike scenes and uses perspective to add intensity. VERDICT A top choice for any library serving elementary school—aged children."

I'm proud to say that I consider Janet as my professional friend, always providing me with  writing inspiration. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, and this book blends those two talents. It's an extensively-researched biography of perhaps the least known and most inspiring teacher in American history. Research is rarely easy, but Janet faced particular challenges, as she describes in an interview on the Lee & Low website, here. 

Without further delay, I'll share my opinion:
Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School is an intense and moving biography of a remarkable woman. I won't give away the intriguing details, but at each turn in her enslaved life, she found ways to sustain herself and improve herself, then she lifted the lives of others by teaching. Rare circumstances allowed her to learn to read, and read well, at a very young age.  She read everything she could get her hands on, including discarded newspapers that revealed a potential path to freedom in the North. She realized as a child and throughout her life that education was the key to FREEDOM. The enslaved people surrounding her understood this, too. The power-based reasons for prohibiting the teaching of slaves is explained simply and well in the book. 
Even as a child, she confronted the serious risks of teaching other enslaved children, sneaking off with them to share the keys to literacy, and they welcomed Lilly Ann's brave efforts. Lilly Ann continued her calling to teach despite numerous changes, including being sold from border state Kentucky to deep-south Natchez, Mississippi. 
Each scene in this descriptive narrative is accompanied by deep-toned, thought-provoking images. Text and illustration combine to provide readers with remarkable insights into the driving forces that kept Lilly teaching throughout her life, long after the Civil War and slavery ended. 

The cover image is quite literal, illustrating that Lilly had to sneak through the darkest nights to pursue her goal of teaching others. It is also deeply symbolic, suggesting that education, literacy, and knowledge are the flames of FREEDOM, and not just freedom from enslavement. I believe that Lilly Ann Ganderson would agree that teachers are not simply transferring factoids and details, not meant to measure success in tests or by echoing back simple facts. Teachers are LIGHT BEARERS, providing a beacon, working to open the eyes and guide the way for learners. When one of Lilly's students surprised her by using newly acquired understanding of the alphabet to write FREEDOM, it brought tears to her eyes. 

I believe teachers everywhere have many such memorable moments in which they've been brought to the verge of tears by witnessing a student making a leap of insight, gaining independence, or even asking a question that new learning had inspired. This book would be an ideal gift for a teacher you know who deserves a bit of appreciation. It will be a welcome addition to the classroom library, and won't develop permanent coffee stains like a WE HEART TEACHERS mug will. 

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.