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.

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. 

May 1, 2018

Put Down That Smartphone: THE MANIC PANIC Is Here!

If you are reading this on a digital device, ignore my directive in the title and continue reading, please. After you've read my review and a delightful interview with author Richa Jha, I hope you'll purchase this new picture book or request it from your local library. It's a cautionary tale of what will happen when WiFi goes down, even for a day. But it is SO much more than that.

THE MANIC PANIC, written by Richa Jha and illustrated by Mithila Ananth, Is Richa's first picture book published in the USA, but certainly will not be her last. If Richa's name sounds familiar to you, it may mean you've read about her dynamic efforts and thriving talent in a previous post, here. 
It's ironic that I first "met" Richa through social media several years ago. That's also one of the best examples of the reality we face: WiFi and digital connections are a double-edged sword in our lives. In my case, that virtual meeting via social media has allowed me to follow Richa's career in the world of kids' books from the advent of her earliest publications in India through this latest release. I'll continue to enjoy sharing her journey in the years ahead. 
Before learning more about Richa's story in the interview, I must share my thoughts about THE MANIC PANIC in the review that follows. The you can read for yourselves what a charming and exhuberant person she is, and recognize that she deserves her success. Note her name well, and stay tuned for many more books to come.

I first read THE MANIC PANIC in a shared online file, fully aware of that irony, too. At that stage I loved it and knew I'd feature it here and send questions to Richa soon after. Then I was thrilled to receive a physical copy to read. Everything about the book's art and design expanded my appreciation of the story immeasurably. The characters and humor shine through while allowing subtle details on each page to enrich the story, anchoring it in specific yet universally recognizable places and experiences. The paper quality and linen binding make it a pleasure to hold, with both hands, reducing screen-induced temptations to swipe through pages with minimal attention.
And we NEED to pay attention to the wise-for-her-age narrator, a girl using first person voice and rare future-tense warnings to readers that "the day the internet stops working" they must be prepared to lead adults back to reality. In this delightful role-reversal from a typical narrative,  the girl drags her parents outdoors, connecting them with actual real-life shared experiences. Eventually, after many anguished pages, they reawaken to the joy of life itself.
Illustrator Mithila Ananth

Every detail and nuance of Ananth's  illustrations enriches the layers of humor and insight, including the ubiquitous and delightfully young-at-heart grandma. The combination of Jha's text and Ananth's images develop cleverly satisfying twists, including eventual recognition of the real cause for such an unexpected interruption in WiFi service in their formerly addicted family home. You're safe- no spoiler alerts here.

Richa's ambitious publishing company, Pickle Yolk Books, has gained recognition in the world of English language picture books in India, including titles featured here and here. In very few years Richa has gained footing in her own country but also in the international world of children's publications. I asked her about that in the interview that follows. Richa's responses are in BLUE.

Richa, thank you for allowing me to share in celebrating the launch of THE MANIC PANIC and your debut USA market launch. I adored this book and particularly chuckled at your author note. You indicated in it that your children have threatened to flush your mobile/handset while you sleep. Has it happened yet? Do your children have their own handsets/WiFi devices? Have you had to make the same threat to them? In other words, would you share a bit about how mobile/WiFi activity affects your family’s life? 

RJ-The handset is safe with me; so far! And in the past few months, I have undertaken steps to ensure that my children are not provoked to the brink of carrying out their threat (more on this later)! 

I’m both intrigued and troubled by the way mobile phones have taken over our lives in just a matter of years. Actually, it’s more the smart phones rather than a regular simple mobile phone itself that has changed the way people now have become slaves to their virtual lives.

I made a late switch to smart phones, about five years ago. But I can already see the kind of damages it is capable of unleashing. 

Screen addiction today is real and universal. But ever since I became aware that I was allowing it to rule (and ruin) my life in many ways, I have consciously tried to curb the usage of not just the handheld but also my laptop and iPad. The notifications are disabled for all the apps; this prevents me from lunging at the mobile with every ping every waking moment. I have stopped sleeping with the handheld on the bedside table; I’ve discovered my quality of sleep has improved because of this. There are periods ranging from weeks to months when I have unplugged completely - deactivated my Facebook account, stopped checking my twitter feeds, but these extreme measures are only temporary correctives.  I eventually do inch back to these because the nature of my work is such that I can’t lock myself up in an ivory tower and grow or expect people to discover my books! I am still struggling to find the right balance but I am happy to see the progress I have made over the past couple of years. 

As a postscript, I sheepishly must add that I am keying all this on my handheld as I wait here for my daughter’s concert practice to get over!
My children, 17 and 13, both have their personal handsets, despite my best (somewhat firm) intent to keep them away from it. It’s just the forces around us and them that make living without one next to impossible. Today’s lifestyle is so tuned towards taking for granted a mobile phone’s presence in our lives that if you are an anomaly, you’re in for a bumpy ride. So I had to yield to their persistent requests. While my younger one shows remarkable restraint using hers, my older one is clearly addicted to it. This, despite clear rules and limits that we laid down right at the outset. Some of it is also to do with how their school curriculum is designed. For both my children, nearly 90% of their academic assignments, submissions and assessments happen online. Which means that they are working on their laptops for homework and constantly checking their social media feeds because that’s where all their friends ‘hang out’ discussing group projects. What I find even more surprising is that even when they do physically hang-out as a group, they are still glued to their respective screens. That’s their idea of having fun. 

 So yes, as a family, we are far from what I would ideally want us to be! 

The core issue of your story has become a global one, not only because WiFi and handheld devices are now available globally (at least in many areas), but because  the addiction that follows such access seems universally true. How do you cope when WiFi goes down- with groaning or adapting?

 RJ- We have always been a family of book lovers, something which sadly lays somewhat forgotten in these constantly wired times; but come an outage and we immediately sink into our cozy corners with a book in hand. I think we secretly welcome a network failure (unless there's an important online deadline that I am about to miss; I end up getting hysterical then)!

The lovely conclusion of the clever child’s need to complete a book report enjoys a wordless resolution on your author note page. Was that designed in your original story or was that strictly the illustrator’s addition?

RJ-As a bookmaker, I always like having a little back story and front story on the end-papers. These help in adding that extra layer of depth and fun to a book's narrative. With this book, I knew I wanted to show the family before the events in the main story begin on the front end-paper. The back endpaper would have to show the family as a sort of post-script. This was also meant to be the space that reinforced that the joys the parents experienced on the day of the outage left a lasting impact on them (and therefore showing how the characters have grown over the course of the book). The girl discovering the joy of doing her report manually - all thanks to Nana's resourcefulness - seemed like a strong way of showing the growth in the girl's character, too.

However, while the book report vignette was a part of the original plot, the specific situations in which we find the parents on both the end papers is very much illustrator Mithila Ananth's additions. I love the perfect comic timing in her deceptively simple illustrations!

Your role reversal has a delightfully comic effect and will be a big hit with young readers. Adults may cringe a bit, but might also be nudged to shift their own patterns. Have you had reactions from readers in your local release events? Can you characterize or contrast the reactions from adults versus those from young readers?

RJ-The young readers love to see someone their age holding forth and being in charge with her firm resolve to not give in to her parents' tantrums. The adults, on the other hand, enjoy the joke on them with a sheepish grin. I had a dad's throaty laughter fill the room at one of the reading sessions. At another, a young mother walked up to me and said that if this funny book didn’t   'reform' her, nothing else would!

You’ve been experiencing wonderful success and recognition for your lively impact on the world of picture books in India. What are your hopesand expectations from this initial picture book release in the American market?

RJ-Thank you, Sandy! I’m happy to be making my tiny contribution to the Indian picture book landscape. Every new book nudges me up my learning curve, but with The Manic Panic’s USA edition, the learning has been immense!

Over the course of the several email exchanges I’ve had with the brilliant editor and publisher Marissa Moss, I haven’t tired of telling her how my one meeting with her at Bologna last year changed so much for me in a most special way! Ever since I began writing for children about six years ago, I had always dreamt of being an internationally published author. But I never could follow it through with the required hard work and tenacity of the submission process because of the demands of my writing and publishing works here in India. Therefore, Creston Books acquiring the world English rights to the book ended up being more than a dream come true!

Ms. Moss is an exceptional editor and a reservoir of inexhaustible energy! Working closely with her on the book’s text and artwork has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my book-making journey, not least because in her I find a role model I’d love to emulate. She’s an author, editor, publisher, businessperson, children’s book champion, all rolled into one. It’s a similar path I have chosen for myself in the Indian context, so each time I interact with her, I’m like a thirsty sponge covertly absorbing every ounce of book making wisdom I can from her! 

At the same time, I’ve also learned a lot about the streamlined ways in which the children’s publishing industry works in the US. If (and I hope) there is a second time in the US with a new book, I know I will do a significantly better job at promoting it. With The Manic Panic, I hope to create warm, lasting associations with the broader global kidlit ecosystem of reviewers and picture book enthusiasts. The initial pre-release love and response to the book has been heartwarming; I am naturally already over-the-moon! I hope the US readers embrace this book like their own rather than seeing it as an Indian import.   

Richa, will you share with us any hints about your current projects, what we can expect to see from you in coming months and years?

RJ-As an author, there are two projects that I’m particularly excited about- a picture book celebrating a voracious reader’s inevitable itch that pulls her towards becoming an author (the reader to author journey is something that so many of us will identify with). I’m teaming up with an acclaimed Spanish illustrator for this. The other book explores the myriad shades of motherhood; I’m doing it with Gautam Benegal who I have collaborated with on several other books.
The annual Bologna (International) Children's Book Festival connection has made a dramatic difference in your publishing journey. Will you share a bit about that?
RJ: I have been attending the BCBF for the last three years. I had reached out to Ms. Moss last year for an appointment at the fair to share some of our Pickle Yolk Books titles. Her prompt response stunned me (something I soon recognized as her characteristic trait). So when I finally got to my half-hour slot with her at Bologna, I was both excited and nervous. I showed her The Manic Panic in a semi-done state there. A couple of months later I heard from her saying she was interested in buying the world English rights to the book. I remember being on the phone with illustrator Milthila Ananth discussing the visuals of the same book when her email popped up in my inbox. I guess Mithila is the right person to ask how I screamed and nearly choked on my words mid-sentence to her! 
Once the paperwork was done, Ms. Moss and the Creston Books art director, the brilliant Simon Stahl, were constantly in touch with us with their feedback, both textual and visual, until we got to a stage where we had the best possible version of the book with us. Each time I look at the book, I’m filled with gratitude; The Manic Panic couldn’t have found a better home in the big wide world out there.    
Richa with Sylvia Hayes
I can’t overlook thanking Sylvia Hayse. She runs the Sylvia Hayse Literary Agency that handles the world rights to The Manic Panic. Ms. Moss had so thoughtfully sent her several copies, and she was kind enough to carry those author copies from the US to me  at the 2018 Bologna Children’s Book Fair. 
I’m full of gratitude for everything and everyone who has played such important parts in this journey.

Richa, I'm really grateful to have you in my life, too, even if only in my virtual life (for now). Your journey as an author, an editor, a publisher, and a life-changer for your readers across the globe is an inspiration to me. I hope the same is true for readers who "meet" you here. 
THE MANIC PANIC releases MAY 1, 2018 from Creston Books. Thank you to Richa Jha for participating in this interview, and to publisher Marissa Moss for sending a copy of the book for my review.

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.