May 27, 2019

Suddenly- Grief and Loss

On past Memorial Day weekends I've shared thoughts on that subject and recommended various titles in previous posts, here, here, and here (and more). I linked those to reassure myself that I'm not neglecting the important topic of veterans lost to us in service by veering to a more general theme in this post. 
It's not as if I haven't written about death and loss and picture books in the past. Just enter  death or grief in the search box on the right and you'll find some of the many books I've recommended on this topic. In each case, though, I've found the books first and shared my reactions and recommendations for various uses.

This post, however, is a response to a specific situation, a heartbreaking loss that left me, and I suspect everyone else involved, feeling helpless. I often have to bite my tongue when faced with loss or tragedy, desperately grasping for something, anything, to offer those suffering some tangible relief beyond my sympathy. This is exponentially more true when the grief involves children. The older I get the more aware I am of how grossly inadequate and even inappropriate that impulse is. 
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2019
A recently released picture book makes this point more brilliantly and beautifully than I can. THE RABBIT LISTENED is written and illustrated by Cori Doeerrfeld
This little book offers a universe of wisdom. It opens with utterly appealing scenes, introducing a character, Taylor, about whom we instantly care. 
Then trouble swoops in: sudden,  shocking, irrational. Taylor is rightly dismayed. 
The author/illustrator's use of caring, well-meaning, and slightly absurd animal interveners highlights the fact that each portrays a "fixer" approach- giving advice that wasn't sought. Even though the effort is sincere and the suggestions are generally textbook-smart, there is little or no effort to "read" the child and realize that time and circumstances make their well-meaning offers, well, meaningless.
Then Rabbit arrives. As the title says, Rabbit Listened, recognizing and absorbing Taylor's raw emotions. Rabbit's only role is to be present. To offer comfort without expectation or exit. Only then can Taylor (who could be a boy or a girl) try out various reactions, move through stages of grief, and work through the pain of loss until it is resolved. As comforting as this book may prove to be for young audiences, it should be considered an advanced course in human outreach for those of us with the "fixer" impulse.

While respecting the privacy of the family involved, I'll share the circumstances that prompted this post. It involved the recent sudden death of a bright and kind young man. He was the husband of a woman I've known since she and her sister were in elementary school, girls who had cookies and cocoa at my table and helped me open up my classrooms in each fall. Now that little girl I knew has grown to be this young woman. She and her husband are both young professionals, parents of an incredibly bright and sweet five-year-old girl. That former little girl and her own daughter now face the daily reality of drastically altered lives, shifting dreams, and an achingly deep absence in their futures. 
My fixer impulse surfaced in full force, but with an absolute awareness that nothing "fixes" this situation. Nothing can, nothing will. 
That's when I remembered this picture book. I also checked for other titles at CHILDREN'S BOOKS HEAL, a blog by Patricia Tilton and  BOOKS THAT HEAL KIDS a blog by Roxanne. I turned to the power of picture books based on the way they can act as the rabbit: to be there, to be present and available, waiting to listen and share the child's grief  whenever and however they are able to express it. 
Star Bright Books, 2013
Those and other searches led to two more very specific titles. These may help now or wait in the wings for several months, or more. The first is ALWAYS BY MY SIDE, written by Susan Kerner and illustrated by Ian P. Benfold Haywood. The simple but lyrical text inspires lovely examples of the ways in which young children can turn to happy memories and moments of comfort to feel the presence of a daddy who has died. The story was inspired by the author's own experience in being the widowed mother of a young child while pregnant with another. This is the book she hoped to find. GEEKDAD blog presents an interview with the author. An added benefit of this book is the diversity of the characters, settings, and supporting cast which emphasizes the universality of the situation and the human responses. 
Magination Press 2007

Another book that could be useful as the months pass is SAMANTHA JANE'S MISSING SMILE: A Story About Coping with the Loss of a Parent, written by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus, illustrated by Beth Spiegel. This story, written by two professionals in the field of grief and anxiety in youth, tenderly explores and supports young Sarah Jane as she resumes her "new normal" life after the death of a parent, in particular helping her to accept moments of happiness, even laughter. The story reminds Sarah Jane that, as she recovers a full range of emotions, she can experience happiness without feeling guilty or worrying that it means she is forgetting her parent. 
The story directly addresses these questions but is kid-friendly. Back pages provide additional professional advice to surviving parents supporting a child through such a loss. Magination Press is a publisher curated by the American Psychological Association with a long track record for topic-specific titles that have helped countless children and families. 

Now, back to the Memorial Day question. I grew up at a time when veterans were lost to war,  but those were wars that lasted five to seven years. Even so, they produced a nightmare of losses and family grief. Our current war(s) has extended nearly two decades. For many of the white crosses and  fluttering flags there are young children feeling that loss, whether raw and new or achingly present after many years. Whatever the reason that young people are left dealing with the death of a parent, there are ways to support the grieving and dealing process. Books can help.
But, above all, remember the rabbit:  Be present. Listen.

May 17, 2019

Nurturing Faith, Hope, and Strength

I recently read two very special picture books, each of which could be accurately described as "quiet" books.  "Quiet books" reportedly struggle to make it to market, based on the argument that kids prefer rousing, rambunctious, raucous books. I've never agreed with that assumption, and I find it's rarely smart to second guess kids' tastes and preferences.
Nor should it be assumed that "quiet books" are best reserved for bedtime, although both of these books will serve well at night or nap time. 
Each, though, is also a compelling story, encouraging discussions and repeated readings to explore and imagine further details within each scene. Both also provide scaffolds for children to build confidence, to find agency and self-reliance, and to value imagination beyond immediate gratification. Both also expand perceptions related to size, perspective, distance, and connections.  And both are GORGEOUS in color, images, and book design.
Minedition 2019
Let's begin with a close look at THE BLUE PEBBLE, written by Anne-Gaelle Balpe and illustrated by Eve Tharlet. This doesn't overtly "teach" or "preach" to kids but is dense with reflective lessons. A persistent thought hovers over every page and is stated clearly on the back cover: hang on to what is special. Originally published in Europe, this luminous book elevates traditional fairy-stories and  reads like a whisper on the page. The combination of spare text and expressive illustrations invites us to lean in and use all of our senses. With little effort we can hear crickets and chirping birds, smell damp earth, and feel  daisy petals rustling overhead.
The central character, acorn-capped Oli, is a sensitive and observant little fella, clearly a member of the wee-folk world but not quite a fairy or elf or otherwise easily labeled. Oli appreciates the pebble's unusual shade of blue, its "not-quite" shape. As he encounters various woodland animals and elves, he is challenged to cast aside the useless blue pebble and pursue more practical items. 
Oli responds gently and politely. He is not naive, but is undeterred by their arguments, convinced that he should be guided by his inner compass. The very satisfying ending confirms the value of his decisions and offers a thread of a suggestion that he will continue on his centered, mindful travels through the world.
And what a world it is. The robin-egg blue tones are rendered in a dreamlike wash, with misty edges with just enough enough sharp contrast from pragmatic others to elevate the tension without becoming sinister. 
Minedition 2019

WHEN THE MOON CAME DOWN is written and illustrated by Feridun Oral. This quiet book is also a fantasy story, one that feels perfectly suited to bedtime. 
Briefly, when little bunny wakes at night, feeling alone and frightened, he is befriended by a sliver of a waxing moon. During their nightly meetings, moon helps bunny find food, explore the woods,  and experience the security of a deepening friendship. 
Eventually, full moon invites bunny to visit his home in the night sky. Magical moments unfold. Their relationship and special talisman allow little bunny to navigate his days and nights on his own. Here, too, the illustrations are mesmerizing.
As gentle and soothing as this story will be at bedtime, it invites daytime discussions to compare fantasy with reality. It can spark curiosity about  the relative sizes, distances, and shapes of moon and stars, as well as the role of instinct and learning in rabbits, particularly their nocturnal habits. None of that may be what the author/illustrator intended, but that's the magic of beloved picture books- they work their way into the nooks and crannies of hearts AND minds. 
It is also an example of ways in which picture books offer different appeal at different ages. 

A copy of each book was provided by the publisher, Minedition, with a request for a free and honest review.

May 12, 2019

Happy Mothers' Day: Mom Loves little Jumbo

Minedition, 2019
Here's a terrific suggestion for the many families who have the smallest wee ones, ideal audiences for board books. MOM LOVES LITTLE JUMBO is a newborn book itself, released within the past few weeks. Its durable construction, glossy surfaces, and compact size are a perfect fit for infants and toddlers. The physical book and the emotionally connected characters will appeal to little hands across all ethnicities, races, and genders, using the simplest words in first person voice to universally represent the dependance of tots and the loving security of moms.

Baby "JUMBO" is tiny in relation to Mom, but they mirror each other's simple shapes, basic activities, and expressive eyes. Their shapes and body postures form perfect pairings in each scene, their symmetry creating a lighthearted contrast to the extremes differences in their size. Their colors are always reflective of the other, at times natural and at times interpreting the situation or events with surreal but subdued coloring. Essential details are included on otherwise unframed simple backgrounds, emphasizing the relationship between Jumbo and Mom. Always, the pages are a duet of loving care and reassurance, displayed through explorations of daily life, joy, learning, and love.
Author/illustrator Yasushi Muraki has created this handful of love that is a perfect homage to moms on Mothers' Day and a treasure for the tot-mom pairs throughout the months ahead. In fact, for those who are not biologic moms, the simple roles on page after page of bonding and support reinforce the definition of parenting regardless of bloodlines.

Minedition 2019
While you're at it, check out another Minedition recent release. MY LITTLE CHICK is written by GERALDINE ELSCHNER and illustrated by EVE THARLET. Despite the cartoonish calendar displaying impatient anticipation of a baby chick, this picture book is actually filled with lush illustrations of a farm family and their lovely fowl. The child/narrator uses first person voice to convey the intensity of hope, excitement, and tender care for a newly hatched chick. Other than a small white hand and cleverly portrayed effort to "nest" an egg under layers of blankets, the reader views each stage with a child's-eye-view. 
There are delightful moments throughout, eliciting chuckles, sighs, sympathy, and cheers. Among my favorite scenes are the ruffled-rump-revealing process of actual egg-laying, and the  centerfold/cut flap reveal as the chick gradually exits its egg. Before readers can become too concerned about the bitty chick's lack of a feathery mom, the young narrator delivers the fluffy one back to Mama Alma in the flock, knowing that will be the best way for a newborn chick to learn the ways of the world.

Both books are well-suited to Mothers' Day, or any day. Both are also ideal books for a baby shower. 

I received a copy of each book from in exchange for a fair and honest review.

May 10, 2019

PREDATOR and PREY: A Conversation in Verse

Candlewick Studio, 2019
This new picture book, PREDATOR and PREY: A Conversation in Verse, explores pairs (and groups) of animals "locked in a battle for survival". 
Predators need to eat. 
Prey need to avoid being eaten. 
This never-ending fight is depicted in verse and informational text by author Susannah Buhrman-Deever. 
The author introduces the topic in an introductory verse that describes the "tricks" prey and predator might use, many of which are a sort of conversation: using voices, listening in on others, even "talking" to each other. The ultimate goal, of course, is to survive and raise the next generation. Successfully raising young is necessary for species survival.  Babies must be fed and protected. This reality drives both predators and prey to never stop trying.

Each spread is gorgeous, and  includes an inset text box presenting factual information about both predator and prey. Their specific interplay and the possible outcomes of their encounters is described simply and clearly, with enough detail to spark imaginations. 
These passages are accessible science that allow readers to visualize the various battles as  action videos. On each page one or more poems adopts the voices of the animals pictured. The inset text combines with the images to enhance the meaning of the poems.This approach with parallel text provides excellent content to explore writing craft: voice, figurative language, sequential narration, cause/effect, and poetic forms, including reverso poems and poems for two voices.
Illustrator Bert Kitchen  has produced natural, representational full page scenes that appear, at first glance, to be photographs. Some of the double spreads are designed with half-page foldouts, providing nearly panoramic habitat scenes that are as informative as the 
the informational text. The oversized, square trim format results in double page spreads (some with extra wide fold-outs) that are perfect for sharing. 
The animals depicted represent global locations and species, with accurate names provided in every case. The bibliography includes primarily adult scientific resources, which allows authentication of science, but does not offer options for young readers whose curiosity will surely be sparked by these animals. I believe this would have been improved with a page or two of kid-friendly back matter such as poetry form notes, a food-chain diagram, and a few titles or links for kids. Despite that, I'm eagerly recommending this impressive and inspiring new book.

May 6, 2019

A Fresh Look at The Road Not Taken

First lines of many poems are highly recognizable. In some cases, several stanzas or the entire poem can be recited by heart. That's likely true for one of Robert Frost's most well known poems: THE ROAD NOT TAKEN. You can hear Frost recite it by clicking HERE (preceded  by an ad you can skip).
Memorization and recitation of poems have been shown to benefit the literacy, fluency, and learning of young people. Check this interview and notes. My unscientific opinion is that this is true for anyone, any age. 
Familius Books, 2019
Whether you know this particular poem or not, I urge you to take a close and reflective look at THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood. The author, of course, is Robert Frost, and not a single word has been changed from the original poem. The publisher's note reveals that Frost originally wrote this poem as a joke about indecisiveness, but it has become a quiet anthem to self-determination, reflection, and appreciation for the journey itself. IN this picture book, illustrations created by Vivian Mineker lift the poem from the ear and offer a story for the heart that explore these expanded interpretations.
Line by line and page by page, the choices of daily life lead the young boy through many stages of human growth, each becoming a step toward the next until a boy becomes a man, a man becomes a partner, a couple raise a family, and so on. The fluid, rounded art is vibrant but subtle, wrapping the reader in both comfort and encouraging mindfulness. 
I've loved this poem since first reading it in my youth. The layered illustration approach and line-by-line unrolling of life revealed a deeper appreciation than I had previously enjoyed, despite years of rereading, reciting, and reflecting on this poem. 
I suspect it will do the same for you.
Young people will enjoy the book for its colorful appeal, for the visual narrative, and for the familiarity of scenes like collecting leaves, walking with a dog, etc. The book format also provides a tool for memorization, for recitation, and even for choral reading. 
I hope you'll give this a close look and consider using it with every age.
On a further note:
Graduation season is upon us. This title will make a remarkably suitable gift. Another title I've recommended (and gifted) ever since it first released is Wherever You Go, written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.

Miller's book came to mind while I was reading THE ROAD NOT TAKEN for several reasons. The illustration styles are quite different, but both use rounded, flowing forms and  sweeping movement to propel the text forward. Both have a lyrical optimism and convey trust for the characters' choices. Both suit the immediacy of the moment and scenes, but offer a long view that fosters confidence and joy in each moment of the unfolding days and years. 
In the same way, either (or both!) will be treasured as gifts in during the time of celebration, but will intensify in meaning and relevance with each passing year.

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.