Not just for the 4th of July

blue skyI have such a deep admiration for Kadir Nelson’s work.  When I’m thinking of children’s displays, I often check to see if he’s done illustrations for books that would fit in with the theme, because they are always so perfect when they do.  His illustrations rarely even need words to accompany them, and he’s a genius at finding ways to amplify already powerful language, creating art that expands an idea as much as it represents it.  Adults who think they’re beyond picture books could benefit from a few hours just looking through his work.

Blue Sky, White Stars – from a poem by Sarvinder Naberhaus – is no exception.  Looking at these paintings, you see our country – not all of it good – in its many layers and complications.  For younger kids, it might be a simple walk through our past, our present and our future, but there is more if you take the time to look, and you should.  You really should.

Blue Sky, White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus and Kadir Nelson

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All ages wonder women

ty g picI used to see a bumper sticker a lot – “THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY!”  It’s kind of a feel-good, “I can change the world” sort of thing.  I can care about what’s happening in Syria, but by shoveling an elderly neighbor’s walk, I can make up for the fact that I am ill-equipped to change anything about wars in far-off lands, right?

I have to admit, though, that I feel ill-equipped to conquer many of the world and societal ills smacking me in the face these days.  I am a huge lover of public education, for example, and our state has recently gutted collective bargaining rights for state employees – including teachers – and thrown in  a number of other flat-out mean-spirited policy items which they didn’t mention they were going to do in the last election.  So, I marched and wrote and showed up at meetings when I could, but it’s not like they seem the least bit worried about what regular people think, because anyone who opposes them is, they accuse, “out of touch.”  Meanwhile, they have been handing away tax breaks to companies and rich folks, so of course, our state revenues have fallen and next year – they’re so sad to report – there will have to be more cuts.  And if they could re-organize all the voting districts, so that my vote meant nothing and they would remain forever in control “doing what’s best for the state and the country,” I think they would.  That’s how little I trust them.  And on the national and world level, it’s at least as bad if not worse.

I understand that my politics are probably neither here nor there to you, but I have a point here.  Some days I have to focus on what I CAN do, and not on what I can’t.  I realized long ago that I was never going to get a Nobel Peace Prize or do something that really changed the world, but I do try to live a life that is mostly positive when I’m not complaining about my legislators.

And here’s where my love of reading and books comes in.  I’m lucky enough to work in a library and spend some time volunteering in a school.  I’m really lucky, because I came to my job in the library as a second career, and I came to volunteering in a school because of my son’s absolutely wonderful elementary education.  (There’s that love of public education.)

Along the way, I have met some really incredible women who make me feel like there is a reason to hope.  Things happened last week that made me appreciate each one of them all the more.

J. is one of our regular library patrons. I liked her even before I knew that she was friends with some people I admire and respect. She is always telling me about interesting books and TV shows and movies she’s come across, and she is kind to absolutely everyone.  She notices things, too.  One day, she came up to me to thank me for being nice to people who are complete jerks to me, having had to listen to someone angrily accuse me of a whole list of things, followed by the threat that they would get me fired for being incompetent.  Nice.  She spends a lot of time trying to do good in the community and her own family.  Last week, she told me about something happening in her life – a really awful thing brought about by people in her own family – which upset me, because people shouldn’t be jerks to her, either.  So I wrote her a poem, which I will add in below.  I’m a mediocre poet, but hey, I was trying to repay some of her kindnesses.

That same afternoon, I went to see V., whom I’ve known for almost three years.  V. got her first library card in 1920.  Her grandfather, who lived with them when she was a child, was a Civil War veteran.  When she was in high school, she rode the streetcar (which doesn’t exist anymore) to the old downtown library.  After her eyesight failed, she started listening to books on CD, which is how I came into her life.  At almost 104 years old, she was sharp as a tack the last time I saw her, three days before she died.  From the outside, I can see how someone dying at almost 104 would not be a shock to most people, but V. really had become a friend.  We talked about books, but we also talked about our lives at work and at home.  She was such a delightful and kind person that I often talked about her at the library with my coworkers and with my son, so her influence went far beyond the minutes I spent in her room.  I was touched by the fact that her obituary noted her love of books on tape, because the library was able to keep her love of reading going right up until she passed away.

The next day, I went for a walk with one of my teacher friends.  I volunteered with her kindergartners last year, reading books, doing finger plays, occasionally staying for recess afterwards.  One of my favorite kids was a little girl who barely spoke above a whisper, but who paid attention to everything and had a spark in her eyes.  You could just tell she loved being at school and learning.  Yay!  And on the playground, she had two friends, and those little girls as a group were so fierce and fearless!  I loved watching them coming up with games, jumping rope, racing around, giggling.   My teacher friend gave me a little book of drawings the kids had made for me.  My favorite had drawn the picture you see here.  And what’s wonderful about it to me – aside from the really awesome triangle dress which I never wore, but clearly am rocking in this picture – is that she included two books in her picture:  The Snowy Day and You Can Read.  Both are books I read to the class in the sometimes chaotic time before recess.  She remembered!

So as I thought about all of this, it struck me that even if I can’t do much to change a toxic and angry world, I could do these things.  And I have to start somewhere, because hope and kindness (and public education!) do make a difference in the world.



you are a warrior

Midwestern Amazon

you stand

arms open wide

heart exposed

the selfish, the greedy,

the mean-spirited fools

are blind to your might

unable to bend your destiny to their will

you carry no shield, no sword

marching ahead

embracing, welcoming

unafraid of bitterness

energized by ideas

open to challenge

no arrows can pierce you

when you share yourself so willingly

do you armor yourself with so much

love tempered by loss —

can they not feel your strength?

your weapons may be your kindness,

your generosity,

your baked goods

(Midwestern, after all)

do not forget your power

you are a warrior

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When 63 pages = powerful…

dear ijeawele

If you’re a feminist, you’ll love this engaging, funny, thoughtful essay on raising feminist daughters.  It works for grown-ups, too, since many women rethink their place in society at challenging moments.

“Being a feminist is like being pregnant,” Adichie says.  “You either are or you are not.  You either believe in the full equality of men and women or you do not.”

I am a feminist.  I did love it.

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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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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