Feb 25, 2019

Dealing with Death: THE YELLOW SUITCASE

Death and grief are difficult experiences at any age. Even the youngest infants and toddlers experience disruptions to schedules and sense the emotional intensity radiated by family members in grief. 
School age children are developing awareness of the finality of death, feeling deeply the immediate loss of loved ones from daily life or from the matrix of extended family and memories. Discussions about death and loss at that age are challenging, at best, and often avoided rather than explored. That's why death-at-a-distance is particularly jarring for children. Picture books offer surprisingly powerful scaffolds on which important and necessary conversations can be built. 
Penny Candy Books, March 12, 2019

Many picture books rely on the comfort of animal characters, fables, or metaphorical tales to allow portrayals of death to move from the immediacy of personal sorrow into a safe zone, one at arm's length.
THE YELLOW SUITCASE, a debut offering from author Meera Sriram, was inspired by her own family's experience and confronts the subject directly. 
The pain Asha feels at her  grandma's death is complicated by the distance between their homes and the loving routine she had established when she traveled from California with her parents to visit in India every year. Asha has lugged her vibrant yellow suitcase back and forth each time. She brings it stuffed with special treats for her Grandma who, in return, fills that case with special surprises and remembrances when it was time for Asha to return home. 
Once they arrive at Grandma's home in India, Asha observes her family's grieving and remembrance rituals, smells the incense, notes familiar pictures, sorting the familiar from the unfamiliar. That process begins as soon as they arrive when Grandma's chair sits empty on the porch. Asha asks questions of her father, even though she knows the answers in her heart. 
The yellow suitcase becomes a symbol of unwelcome changes: the losses, the helplessness Asha feels, her emptiness. Only when it is time to return home does she realize that the suitcase has been filled with a special gift, a quilt Grandma made for Asha from the comforting fabric of her favorite saris. Only then is Asha able to spill her tears, gather Grandma's portrait, and carry with her the love that will never die.

This is a universal story with dynamic specificity in the illustrations, including a variety of two-dimensional art. On some pages it is sticker-like, on others somewhat surreal, and on others it is comfortingly familiar. Illustrator Meera Sethi's career encompasses design, textiles and clothing, and it shows. 
Asha is a character of nonspecific age, with a distinct sense of collage-like fashion. Although I found myself wanting Asha to be younger on my first read, I came to appreciate her potential strength in a preteen(?) identity, suggesting a developmental stage of deep emotion, firmly anchored memories, and cognitive capacity combined with a longing to regress, to NOT understand death. 
India is not named in the text, but iconic indicators throughout make that clear to adult readers or those with global awareness. For others the colors, images, and intensity will intrigue and encourage further investigation. This distinctive style, story, and setting are a welcome addition to picture book shelves. My "virtual" friend, author/publisher/entrepreneur Richa Jha, is a leading voice in picture book trends in India and I believe this book will be welcome there, too. I've featured Richa Jha's work in a prior post, HERE. As the world is shrinking I welcome the opportunity for our hearts to grow, to embrace global stories and styles. The Yellow Suitcase is a wonderful place to start.

It is available now for preorder and will officially release March 12. I was able to review an advance, untrimmed copy thanks to the publisher, PENNY CANDY BOOKS in exchange for a fair and honest review.

How to Track an Easter Bunny: Get a Jump on the Holiday!

It's never too soon to build excitement for the visiting Easter Bunny, at least as far as prolific picture book author Sue Fliess is concerned. Her latest, HOW TO TRACK AN EASTER BUNNY released early in February, even getting a jump on Mardi Gras! 
In this holiday charmer, Fliess relies on her knack for writing read-aloud rhyming text to create an appealing how-to book. Then she provides interesting back matter about the origins of the Easter Bunny tradition, adds a craft idea woven with academic connections, then follows with suggestions for STEM activities. (Science Technology Engineering Math). 
The early launch allows plenty of time to engage young readers with the simple text and related activities well in advance of the holiday. After even a few re-read-alouds the young ones will be chiming in on rhyming words. 
The initial premise is that a clever Easter Bunny may hide eggs and other goodies so well that they could be left undiscovered on Easter morning. Simple steps explain and illustrations support directions for how to make a "nest" for EB (Easter Bunny), including enticements and construction procedures. A trail of carrots guarantees that EB will pause in her pursuits to discover the nest and take a brief break there before hiding the goodies. (SPOILER ALERT>>>)
The finishing touch to the nest is a generous application of glitter. Everyone knows that glitter clings to everything and leaves a trail, which is the point of this project. The story resolves as expected and the diverse group of siblings/friends resist the impulse to catch EB in the act, allowing her to continue on to the next eager home. 
Fliess has an ear for rhyme and a heart for young audiences. (Previous reviews here and  here.) Illustrator Simona Sanfilippo saturates each spread with the exuberant colors of spring, suggesting action and momentum with broad sweeping strokes and lightly interprets the excitement and energy of the characters. 
I enjoyed reading this holiday picture book and can imagine plenty of young folks who will respond eagerly to the story and to the suggested activities. 

The publisher provided a copy of the book for my review with no expectations about content.

Feb 17, 2019

GOT TO GET TO BEAR'S: Get Your Hands on This Picture Book by Brian Lies

I recently wrote about THE ROUGH PATCH, written and illustrated by Brian Lies. I was not alone. The book was awarded a Caldecott Honor, among many other accolades, and I urge you to read it.
Houghton Mifflin Books

Just a few months after the release of that gorgeous and powerful picture book, GOT TO GET TO BEAR'S hit the presses. Also written and illustrated by Brian Lies, this picture book will tug your heartstrings and become a family favorite. The  remarkably appealing story involves adventure, internal rhyme, a few spontaneous and encouraging song lyrics, and a cast of characters with delightfully clever names. The nuanced language elements entertain but also enhance the momentum of their journey. The remarkable visual details provide rich resources for smiles and reveal each character's personality in wonderfully organic ways. Both voice and visuals entice readers to return to the book again and again.

This is a story to warm the heart, tickle the funny bone, fascinate the eye, and enjoy again and again. There are countless potential mentor moments- the importance of the apostrophe in "bear's", the voice of each cleverly distinct character, and the subtle visual details (many related to the story, and many others- not!). This cumulative adventure has a surprise component, a model of true friendships, and lilting language that leads readers to a satisfying, circle-story conclusion. 
Themes of loyalty, persistence, teamwork, kindness, and trust are woven throughout and emerge naturally in the course of the story. 

If you get the feeling that I'm a fan of BRIAN LIES you're nearly right. Actually, I'm a fan of his work, although I've never met the man. I look forward to each pending release, check them out of the library immediately, then feel compelled to purchase the book(s) for my own collection and as gifts. Yes, his illustrations are irresistible. Yes, I am a naturalist and deeply appreciate the ways his art and narrative capture the true nature of animals I adore. 
Good reasons to rave, right?
Yes, but my enthusiasm has as much to do with the undeniable heart in each distinct book, with the blend of humor and concern, with the hint of the unseen daily lives of the characters.   Here are some other suggestions to explore:

Feb 14, 2019

VOICES that Inspire: What Would You Do With a Voice Like That?

Beachlane Books, 2018
In the current political climate, and even in past decades, "raising your voice" tends to suggest protests, demands, arguments. The ratio of strident voices to inspiring ones has become so disproportionate as to be overwhelming. That's why I am sincerely  excited to share a recent (and acclaimed) picture book: WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A VOICE LIKE THAT? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Ekua Holmes.
I've lived long enough to realize that a book about Barbara Jordan is now viewed as historic biography, though, in my mind and heart, she is a contemporary hero, one whose life ended far too early but whose voice will last forever. Her voice, "a voice like that" resonates throughout my life. That's not only because of the timbre and authority and eloquence of her voice, but because Jordan's choices of words to frame with that voice felt as if each syllable should be chiseled in granite.

It was hard for me to imagine any book that could do justice to the amazing Barbara Jordan, but this one does. As her name came up many times over many years, I've praised her messages and her voice often. Had she lived a more typical lifespan, in good health, I'm convinced she she would have been our first black and our first female president. 

That should give you a clear idea of the immeasurable esteem I have for her intellect, her values, and yes, her voice. I doubted any book, even such a glorious picture book as this, could elevate her remarkable life and impact to a heartfelt awareness in contemporary children (and the adults who read to and with them). This book does just that, or at least it opens the door to further research and appreciation.

It's been a while since we've had a female voice in the public venue that has so effectively  inspired, celebrated, guided, and challenged the public to become our better selves. Certainly, there has been none, in my opinion, that even begins to equal the voice and inspiration of Jordan. There may never be. But her voice resonates even more clearly now than it did during her life. 

Barton's author note reveals that he has worked on the text for this book since 2013. The hard work shows. From Jordan's childhood years through to her death from advancing multiple sclerosis and related complications at the age of 59, Barton reveals the personal and public perspectives and progress of a very private but dedicated woman whose voice helped to shape our nation. Barton's back matter provides a detailed timeline of Jordan's life, links to view and hear Jordan's historic commentary and challenges, and suggests important options for further research. His author note also reveals that Jordan's tombstone is inscribed on one side with the word TEACHER and on the other with the word PATRIOT

One thing I enjoyed most about this book was the reminder it provided for me to access digital recordings and simply LISTEN to that voice. The dramatic and interpretive illustrations paired with the spare but potent text to provide a near-to-real experience of walking with Jordan through her life. Her strength magnifies our own, just as it did during her life. 

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.