Jun 27, 2018

Celebrating the Unloved: House Sparrows and Starlings

I'm a huge fan of  UBIQUITOUS, the word and the picture book. I expounded on that in a post HERE, back in 2012. The premise of that remarkable collection of themed poems was similar to the theme of this post: just because some things are abundant, common, ubiquitous, be they flora or fauna, animal or mineral, it does not mean they lack merit. In fact, they deserve second looks, closer looks.
At this time of summer solstice it could be said that BIRDS are ubiquitous, regardless of the climate or hemisphere in which you might live or travel. And yet, the cheerful chick-a-dee-dee-dee of a black-capped chickadee brings a smile while the piercing CAW!! of a crow can knit the brow. Bird feeders are lovingly filled and tended, although we know full well that among the hundreds (or thousands) of visitors to those feeders, it will be the cardinals and woodpeckers, the hummingbirds and nuthatches that will be hold our gaze, will make us reach for a camera, will merit mention on social media, while the sparrows and starlings are considered a necessary nuisance.
Groundwood Books, 2018

A careful, thoughtful, well-researched second look at house sparrows is provided in a fascinating picture book by Jan Thornhill: THE TRIUMPHANT TALE of the HOUSE SPARROW.  
Here's what I have to say about it on GOODREADS:
It's about time someone explored and celebrated the durable, adaptable, resilient global house sparrow. Thornill has once again created a non-fiction picture book, one that is able to encompass thousands of years of history and science affecting the ubiquitous and often maligned house sparrow.
There are certainly birds that capture our eyes, ears, and hearts more readily, birds that are less of an annoyance. Yet the individual and flocking sparrows should be appreciated and viewed with admiration for their measurable benefits to humankind, for their capacity to defy scientific explanation, and for their seemingly endless ability to live each day "in the mo
ment". Both the informative narrative and the lush illustrations compel page turn after page turn. Back matter is succinct and worthwhile, accessible and useful to launch further investigation. 

Although this blog is focused on picture books and other formats that feature visual narratives, I can't resist endorsing another book, one intended for an adult audience with only occasional photo inserts. 
MOZART'S STARLINGwritten by ornithologist/author Lyanda Lynn Haupt, provides a remarkably personal perspective on another "invasive" species, the European starling. Her academic research is deep but not dense, ranging from amusing and insightful first person investigations through the arts through scientific journals and on to primary sources and field trips. 
Her credentials are unquestionable even though her hands-on effort to obtain and raise a starling for study will raise some eyebrows, but not because her efforts were illegal. On the contrary, starlings lack legal protection, along with house sparrows, due to the fact that they were early-days imports. These species are also similar in that they are both adaptable and resilient, as well as being prolific breeders who have mulitplied to the point of being considered pests.

Both authors have achieved a remarkably compelling conclusion- that anyone who dismisses these birds or views them simply as "rats with feathers" will miss out on meeting truly remarkable creatures. I'll be the first to admit I'm a huge fan of birds of all types, as prior posts on this subject will reveal HERE, and HERE. I'm convinced, though, that even someone who views birds with a "meh" response will be intrigued and entertained by both of these books. 
And keep your eyes and hearts open to the mundane, ubiquitous lives around you. 

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?"

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.