Luck and love and survival

survivors clubI first heard Michael Bornstein’s story on Iowa Public Radio this spring.  By the time I remembered to put myself on the holds list for it, there were quite a few people in front of me.  Anything they talk about on public radio, whether on the local shows or national shows, gets a bump in holds at the library.  It’s a nice reminder that there are other people out there listening to the same things I like, although I sometimes have to wait a while.

It’s such an incredible story – at any point, a wrong word or move could have and did mean that people he loved were led off in a different direction and killed.  Why is it that we humans seem to find, over and over, so many opportunities to dehumanize and kill each other?  It’s horrifying, and yet unsurprising, that after surviving Auschwitz and other camps, Michael and some members of his family returned home, only to be kept out of their homes and attacked by local bands of thugs who were looking for someone to brutalize and blame after the fact.

Michael was very young and very lucky.  What a gift to all of us that he shared the story, particularly now.

Survivors Club:  the true story of a very young prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

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The Treasure Box

treasure boxThis one’s not a happy book.  There is war, there is death, and there is disruption in this boy’s life.  The one thing he holds onto, after the library is destroyed, he has to flee, and he loses his father is a book.

There’s no backstory tying this to any real world event, but it’s easy to imagine this happening – with a book or another cherished item – in any number of recent or past situations where refugees arrive in a new land and rebuild their lives.

There are so many levels to this book for someone reading it to young children – the fact that wars take place, that libraries and other community organizations are destroyed, that people sometimes have to flee, that people die because of this, that people arrive in a new place with nothing and manage to survive and thrive…and more.  Of course we want our children to feel safe and not dwell on the darkness in the world, but talking about it helps them begin to understand the world and their place in it.

The art in this book is detailed and atmospheric and perfect.  Faded, torn book pages act as a background.  Since I didn’t recognize the language (and I love languages), I put a phrase into google translate, “hogy ne olvassak,”  and learned two interesting things.  First, the words were Hungarian.  Second, the random phrase I picked means “do not read it.”  But do read it.  Definitely read it.

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

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What is said and what is unsaid

beyondthebrightseaLauren Wolk is a master of atmosphere and setting.  There, I’ve said it.  Why not just put it up front and out there, right?  I found her earlier book,  Wolf Hollow, dark, titling my review of it “A lingering toxic fog,” not maybe what you’d think was a positive review. (It was not my typical positive review, but still…)

But apparently, she has a skill for this, and she’s able to dredge up a whole yard full of emotions in whatever she writes.  You might be pulled there slowly… or an angry, violent thief might materialize pounding on your door.  You’re never quite sure of anything.

Some mysteries are solved – Crow, the abandoned infant who’s now trying to find out more about her parents, does learn what has happened to her parents and that she has a brother.  But other questions are not solved as neatly or with happy endings.  Some characters are revealed; others stay a step back and out of the limelight.   And that is just fine.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

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Wordless, wonderful

little foxA girl.  A stuffed animal/cuddly toy.  The toy goes missing.  Will it be found?

It’s not a revolutionary idea for a picture book; all kinds of great books have started with this simple idea:  Knuffle Bunny and Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (a Newbery Medal winner in 1930) to name two.

Little Fox in the Forest takes this and moves it to a whole different level.  It turns out the fox who’s stolen the toy lives in a little town of animals – complete with soda fountains and grocers – and even finding it may not mean it returns to its owner.

The ending is sweet, and the illustrations are wonderful—full of light and shade and colors that fit the scenes perfectly.  This would be a great book for early readers who are a little afraid of the printed word.  They can “read” the story and tell it without getting slowed down by those pesky letters.

Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin

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Some of these are just for me

carrot and peaCarrot & Pea: an unlikely friendship is one of those incredibly sweet (not saccharine) picture books we could use to talk about tolerance and acceptance, how all of us have something to add to the world, no matter how different we look or seem to be.  And that is exactly what I thought when I read it last night.

And then I woke up this morning, wondering.  Why is the carrot a rectangular carrot stick and not a carrot with greens on top?  Or is it a carrot that’s been processed?  And all the peas are out of their pods, right?  So maybe these peas and carrots are in a vegetable processing plant, which makes the absence of other carrots suspicious.  Why is this carrot the only one?  What has happened to all of the other carrots?  Has there been some kind of epic disappearance?  A plague on carrots alone?

Ok, so maybe I think ridiculous things when I first wake up.  When I told my son about it, he said, “Well, obviously they’re all in a bag of frozen peas and carrots, and some human has eaten all the carrots but just can’t stand peas.  The carrot that’s left was just missed in the massacre.”

Well, at least I’m not the only one in the house with an imagination.

Read this one, though.  It’s a treat, as long as you can handle the suspense and sinking feeling that something is not quite right in Pealand.  Kidding.  Really.

Carrot & Pea: an unlikely friendship by Morag Hood

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Blooming perfect

bloomingStevie’s parents weren’t connected to their extended families, so when they’re killed in a horrible accident, Stevie is sent to live with her not-so-welcoming grandfather at his down-on-its-luck motel.  A long list of quirky characters enter her life – an older disabled couple who still haven’t gone on their honeymoon, the handymen, a few kids, an elderly woman who becomes her tutor and a some long-distant relatives.

It’s realistic middle grade fiction at its best.  There’s not a lot of action, although there are always things happening.  The days move forward and slowly, Stevie begins to rebuild her life in this new family of sorts.  The people around her are open to loving and including her in their lives, and she begins to open up, too, even towards a grandfather who is the opposite of warm and huggy.  It’s not just the garden that begins to bloom – Stevie and everyone around her do, too.  Nicely done.

Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberly Willis Holt

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More on pants

green-pants-coverAre pants – wearing them or not? – a theme in picture books now?  Hard to say.  It’s probably just a coincidence that I just read Pete With No Pants by Rowboat Watkins, and here we are with Green Pants now.

They’re very different books.  In one, an elephant is taking off his pants.  In the other, a boy will only wear green pants.

Every parent I know has some version of the green pants in their life.  In our house, certain young people had a strange fascination with wearing all red for a while – red shirt, red sweatshirt, red sweatpants, red underwear, red socks and red shoes.  Actually, it was a bold fashion move, and I approved.

Jameson’s problem comes when he’s asked to be in a wedding and wear a tuxedo – no green pants.  Yikes!  What to do?  There will be disco moves.  That’s all you really need to know.

Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegel

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When you are young and you have an imagination….

petewithnopantsHere’s what I love about Pete With No Pants:

·         Pete is an elephant.  Pete does not want to wear pants.

·         Pete uses his imagination to become a boulder and a squirrel, because they’re gray and they don’t wear pants.

·         Pete’s mom is cool, although she wears hats and dresses and–I’m sorry to say this–old lady pajamas.

This is a sweet book, with a lot to look at.  I don’t think I could pull off a read-aloud with it – the details are too small to really share well with a group.  But it’s funny and cute and ends with a rainbow, even if I secretly wish Pete’s mom was wearing yoga pants and a ball cap.

Pete With No Pants by Rowboat Watkins

 

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Friendships, found and lost

Does the ghost of a goldfish over an empty bowl require explanation?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  You might not need to explain the fact that the ghost is there because a goldfish has died, although you don’t see the body or anything.  Anyone who’s lost a fish and had the funeral in the garden — covering the goldfish grave with shells gathered on a beach – will understand what has happened.  And by the time the new fish appears several pages in, it’s clear what has happened.

But is it sad?  Not especially.  Goldfish Ghost is about friendships found, not lost.  The ocean fish ghosts might not be the right place for a goldfish ghost, but the right place and person/ghost will appear, right?  This struck me as kind of a weird book for children initially.  (Weird?  From Lemony Snicker/Daniel Handler?  What a surprise!)  It’s not a warm and fuzzy book about losing your goldfish and dealing with grief, but it IS, somewhat strangely, a book about it being ok that goldfish–and by extension, people – die.  Also, there are some wonderful visual references to other children’s books about fish.  That’s cool, too.

South, on the other hand, is about friendships lost.  Sometimes the person, or bird, you befriend cannot overwinter where you are.  They could stay with you, but it just wouldn’t be right to hold them back from what they’re meant to do and the home they’re meant to find.  Can you be happy at the new life they will lead?  You can.  Can you find joy in your own?  Of course.   And there’s more wonderful detail here to find – a picture of a squid, a cactus, a Polaroid camera, whales, expressive mustaches…

Goldfish Ghost by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown

South by Daniel Duncan

 

 

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Change, loss, hope…again.

100stringsSometimes it’s enough to read a story that could take place next door to you.  No magic, no long-lost rock star parent, no spy agency looking for kids to recruit.

Steffy is that kid you know who likes to cook and is kind of quiet but a good friend.  She likes her sister, at least most of the time, and she loves her Auntie Gina who has taken care of her since her mom’s accident years ago.  Mom is living in a care facility for people with brain injuries.  Dad is gone.  Until he isn’t.

Is it a good thing Dad is back?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Lives are so complicated.  Grief and loss and change are complicated.  Cooking is simple.

I’ve started a lot of realistic fiction lately, but I haven’t made it past the first few chapters very often.  This book was different.  It’s a quick read, but not one you have to read all in one sitting.  Steffy and the other characters are people with flaws, who make mistakes and then make other mistakes while they’re trying to fix things.  Kind of like all of us. It has a happy ending, but maybe not the happy ending you expect.  Like life, I guess.  I think that’s why I liked it so much – its imperfections make it special, and it doesn’t force a predictable happy ending on what we see around us every day.

And there are recipes.  That’s good, too.

One Hundred Spaghetti Strings by Jen Nails

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