Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book

Edited by: Anita Silvey
Recommended for: Children's Book Lovers Everywhere

A friend of mine recently told me about this gem of a book which is sure to resonate with people who love children's books. In it, over one hundred leaders from different areas--science, politics, sports and the arts--write about the children's book that has had a big impact on their lives, one way or another. For those of us who love children's books, it's not surprising that a book we read so many years ago continues to resonate with us years later.

The book is edited by the eminently qualified Anita Silvey, a former Horn Book editor and publisher at Houghton Mifflin. It's divided into six sections entitled: Inspiration, Understanding, Principles & Precepts, Vocation, Motivation and Storytelling. Each entry has an essay about the book by the contributor, an anecdote about the actual book and/or author, an excerpt from the book itself, and a picture of the book. There's also a heading that states a lesson learned. As much as I wanted to devour the book all at once, I found that it's a book to be savored over many sittings.

There are so many fascinating people featured, and each one of their books is an interesting choice. For instance, the author Sherman Alexie chose Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day, because "it was pretty much the only children's book that featured a protagonist with dark skin...It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character--a character who resembled me physically and spiritually, in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation." The lesson Alexie learned: "People might want to listen to me too."

Or there's the entry by author Judy Blume talking about Madeline being her favorite book. It was checked out from the library, and she loved it so much she hid it from her mother so she wouldn't return it to the library. As she says, "I thought the copy I had hidden was the only copy in the whole world. I knew it was wrong to hide the book, but there was no way I was going to part with Madeline." The lesson she learned: "To understand other people-and myself."

Or there's heart surgeon William C. DeVries, who contributed to the development of the world's first artificial heart. His choice was The Wizard of Oz. His favorite character was the Tin Woodman who states, "For my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me a heart." DeVries goes on to say that he has thought about those lines "many, many times." Lesson learned: "Brains, heart, and courage--the brains, heart, and courage within me."

As I've read through this book over the last week, I must admit that I've gotten a thrill each time I've opened it. The books run the gamut from the classics (The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn) to the sad (Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling) to the silly (Go Dog Go, The Cat in the Hat) to the more obscure (The Animal Book, The Story of Mankind). And each one passed on some little nougat to a child long ago. Every time I sat down to read an entry, I felt like I was being rushed back to the time I first discovered the magic of reading.

Of course, it also made me think about what children's book I would name as having continual resonance in my life. It didn't take me too long to come up with Little Women. I have read Little Women at least ten times in my life (I'm due for another reading this year). The story of the March sisters (especially Jo) captivated me as a ten year old, and has continued to do so forty years later. She was a tomboy, bookworm who became an independent young woman in a time when women were relegated to the home. She was the perfect role model.

So here's a question for you. What children's book would you say has had the most impact on your life? Or to put it another way, what children's book changed your life?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mama Miti

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

Written By: Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrated By: Kadir Nelson
Recommended Ages: 4-8

Here is another stunning picture book about Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize (see previous post Planting the Trees of Kenya). In Mama Miti, Napoli tells the story of Maathai and her devotion to the replanting of trees in Kenya.

In this brilliantly illustrated picture book, Wangari Maathai is shown as a wise woman in Kenya with a strong devotion to the environment, and to trees in particular. She grew up listening to stories about her people and the land around her, and became devoted to restoring it to the way it had once been. As her reputation grew throughout the land, other women came to her with their problems, such as too little food, no shelter, difficulties collecting firewood etc. Her wise recommendations always involved the planting of a tree. As she and the other women of Kenya planted trees, the countryside grew strong and verdant again. By 2004, when Mathai received the Nobel Peace Prize, her Greenbelt Movement had planted 30 million trees in Africa.

The illustrations by Kadir Nelson are stunning. They are rendered with oil paints and printed fabrics on gessoed board. Nelson states at the end of the book that he hopes he's "been able to capture the spirit and culture of Kenya, Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement."

I loved Nelson's illustrations so much, that I promptly checked out as many of his books from the library that I could find. Next Non-fiction Monday I'll be posting about two of his sports books. In my opinion, he's one of the best illustrators out there, and I eagerly await his next book.

BookNosher Activities: At the risk of being repetitive, here are two of the activities I wrote about in Planting the Trees of Kenya. With spring on its way, both sites have great activities for young children to participate in.
Plant-It 2010 is a non-profit organization dedicated to planting, maintaining and protecting as many indigenous trees as possible. For every $1, you can have a tree planted in different locations around the world.
The Arbor Day Foundation has lots of different resources and activities for preschool children on up.

More BookNosher Activities:
Based on Nelson's wonderful illustrations, I think it would be fun to do something with fabric art. Here's a step by step process that one preschool class did in creating African inspired fabric art.
Or for a slightly easier project, you can always create a fabric collage.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fortunately by Remy Charlip

Written and Illustrated by: Remy Charlip
Recommended Ages: 4-8

If you are looking for a book to give a five to seven year old child, then look no further. Fortunately is a great choice, and chances are the child that you are looking for won't have it, as it's a bit obscure. It was originally published in the late 1950's, went out of print briefly, was reissued in 1969 as What Good Luck! What Bad Luck!, and finally came back as Fortunately in 1993. Luckily for us, it seems here to stay.

Fortunately is the story of Ned who, through a series of fortunate and unfortunate incidents, makes his way to a party throughout the 48 page book. It begins like this:
"Fortunately one day, Ned got a letter that said "Please come to a surprise party."
But unfortunately the party was in Florida and he was in New York.
Fortunately, a friend loaned him an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded."

You get the idea.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Written and illustrated by: Grace Lin
Recommended Ages: 7-12

In the middle of reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I realized that I was reading something very special. It has all the elements that make a book a classic, including a believable main character tackling major obstacles, beautiful writing and gorgeous artwork. It's a timeless story that will appeal to both children and adults alike. If you have a child between the ages of six and twelve, I would say run to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. You will not be disappointed.

Minli is a young girl who lives with her mother and father at the juncture where Fruitless Mountain and the Jade River meet. They are desperately poor as they eke out a meager living by working in the rice fields. Her mother complains constantly about their futile existence, but her father fills Minli's head with wonderful tales. One day Minli spends one of her precious copper coins on a goldfish, which it turns out can talk. He convinces her that she should go to Neverending Mountain to visit the Man in the Moon and ask how their family can change their fortune. So off she goes.

Along the way, she meets (and rescues) a dragon that can't fly, and together they venture towards the Man in the Moon. Minli and the dragon meet a cast of characters, rich and poor, who share their stories with the pair. They encounter kings and princesses and green tigers throughout their journey, and you, the reader, are left wanting more. Minli is an appealing character, whom children will relate to. She's feisty, brave and determined to better her family's situation.

One of the wonderful things that Lin does in almost every chapter is interject a Chinese folk tale that weaves in beautifully with the story. She does a masterful job of lacing together Minli's quest with these folk tales. She also manages to present a parallel story of the parents' evolution as they (especially her mother) become less bitter about their circumstances and more appreciative of what really matters.

I think Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a must have for anyone who cares about children's literature. The book itself is printed on heavier than usual stock, and there are beautiful color-plate illustrations scattered throughout the 278 pages. It reminds me of the high quality hardcover books I had in my library as a child.

One last thought. I think this would be a wonderful story for a class or a family to read together. While many 7-12 year olds are certainly capable of reading it on their own, I think this is one book that everyone benefits from hearing it out loud. I realize I may sound a bit over the top about Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but it is truly a gem and one of the best books of 2009 (if not the last decade!).

BookNosher Tidbit: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was a 2010 Honor Newbery Book. It also has the following:
•Starred Kirkus Review
•Starred Booklist Review
•Booklist Top 10 SF/Fantasy for Youth:2009
•2009 Parents' Choice Gold Winner

Monday, February 8, 2010

Like many people who read a lot, I have piles of books all over the house. I have a pile by my bed of the three books I am currently reading (The Happiness Project, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Angle of Repose). I have a pile of recently read middle grade books that I need to write a post about (When the Mountain Meets the Moon and The Higher Power of Lucky). And I have a very tall pile of picture books from the library that I need to read. Tonight I decided to tackle the picture book stack, and I'm delighted to write about three of them.

All the World

Written by: Liz Garton Scanlon
Illustrated by: Marla Frazee
Recommended Ages: 3-6

All the World was recently given a Caldecott Honor award, and it is well deserved. Told in lyrical rhyming prose, the book draws you into a day in the life of an interracial family. Starting off at the seashore, the family builds castles and moats on an idyllic beach. They move on to a busy farmer's market with families, young and old, harvesting and selling their wares. As the day moves towards noon, the children migrate to a hilltop with a giant tree where they play high up in the branches, as the grandfather watches below. Soon a storm moves in, sending the family fleeing into a warm and cozy restaurant. Finally as the day draws to a close, the family is shown gathering with cousins and nanas and papas playing music together. It's a warm intergenerational scene, which most of us can only dream about. The last few pages show a town gone dark for the night, and the words read:
"All the world is you and me
Everything you hear, smell, see
All the world is everything
Everything is you and me
Hope and peace and love and trust."

As you might have guessed by now, this is a book to savor with your child for those moments when you just want time to slow down. It celebrates the world and our place in it. All the World is a good book to read aloud before bed, as it has a peaceful, lulling message to it.

The Imaginary Garden

Written by: Andrew Larsen
Illustrated by: Irene Luxbacher
Recommended Ages: 5-8

The Imaginary Garden is a very sweet tale about a girl and her grandfather and the very creative idea they come up with for gardening. When Poppa moves into his new apartment, he and Theo realize that he no longer has room for a garden. Then Theo comes up with the idea of an imaginary garden. Poppa buys a huge blank canvas for his balcony, and they begin their project. Together they sit and plan out what they will have in their new garden. First they paint a brick wall for the eventual vines to grow up on. Then they paint a rich bed of soil. As the garden comes to life, they paint first crocuses, then scilla, and a robin and an earthworm. The garden grows and grows. The illustrations are lush and children will love watching as the garden unfolds before them. Plus, it's done in such a way, that kids may want to try and paint their own imaginary garden.(There's a clever illustration that shows how to paint a bird.) So make sure to have some paints and paper on hand for them to give it a try.

The Curious Garden

Written and Illustrated by: Peter Brown
Recommended Ages: 4-7

The Curious Garden is a story about a little boy named Liam who lives in a gray and dreary city. Unlike the other residents of the city, Liam likes to explore and be outside. During one of his excursions, he discovers a "lonely patch of color" atop a broken down railroad track. As he gets closer he sees some dying plants and realizes they need a gardener. What unfolds is the tale of Liam the gardener nursing the plants back to health. As the plants become strong they grow restless and want to explore, sending their seeds and color throughout the city. Slowly the city is transformed and a nice message is transmitted about taking care of the world. It's not preachy, and Liam, with his shock of red hair, is fun to find on every page. Kids will like the book and may even be inspired to start a little garden of their own.

So there you have it. My picture book pile is three books shorter, and I feel like all three had a special tale to tell. All of these books came out in 2009, and I'm sure you'll find at least one (if not all of them)that will please your pre-schooler.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Naomi's Song-Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Teen Readers

Naomi's Song

Written by: Selma Kritzer Silverberg
Recommended Ages: 12 and up

I am thrilled to be participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. I had the privilege of interviewing Judy Vida, daughter of the late Selma Kritzer Silverberg who wrote the book Naomi's Song. This Sydney Taylor Honor book in the Teen Reader's category, details the life of the lesser-known Naomi in the Book of Ruth. It's a gripping story of Naomi's rise from abused orphan, to her loving marriage to Elimelek, to her days as a destitute widow, and on to her well-known relationship with her daughter-in-law Ruth. It's biblical fiction at its best, with strong female characters that you don't soon forget.

Judy, the story behind the writing of Naomi’s Song is so interesting. Please tell us how your mother came to write it, and how it ultimately came to be discovered so many years later?

Mother had written Naomi’s Song with the intention of presenting it to me for my sixteenth birthday in 1959, but it took her nine more years to complete it. In the 1960s there was not a big market for biblical fiction for teenage girls and she could not find a publisher so it lay on her bookshelf untouched.

In 1984 she made photocopies of the hand-typed manuscript for each of her five granddaughters and wrote the dedication, ending with this sentence: “Naomi was a female of little note in ancient Israel. Hence, to win a place for herself, she evolved necessary convictions and courage -- qualities I wish for my five beautiful granddaughters.”

The manuscript was not thought of again for twenty years, until Mother’s curious hospice aide discovered it on her shelf, read it, and enthused about it to me. At that point I reread it, and was struck by the power of the biblical story and the quality of the research and writing. Mother died at age 96 in April 2005, twenty-one years after she wrote the dedication and almost forty years after her original draft of the book.

What followed in bringing this book to life Mother would have credited to God’s handiwork. She was a profoundly committed Jew and enjoyed a personal relationship with God that sustained her during her entire life. She always talked things over with God, prayed to God when she needed help, and gave thanks often to her “Gracious Lord”.

After her death, the family observed the traditional one-week mourning period. Many friends came to support us in our loss. We reminisced about her and took the opportunity to share the joy of knowing her with them. We talked about her love of writing, and how she had self-published a children’s book about the Shaker people who lived in Cleveland in the mid-1800s. The booklet was later reprinted and distributed by the Shaker Historical Museum.
I also mentioned the unpublished Naomi’s Song manuscript. One night after everyone else had left, our friend Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, a Jewish educator, asked if he could read it. His response was very positive and at his suggestion I submitted the manuscript to the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). To me, it seemed like divine intervention when JPS offered to publish the book.

The book is such a richly detailed account of life during the biblical times of Naomi and Ruth. Your mother really brought the time and the people alive for the reader. Do you know how she researched the life of the ancient Israelites? What sources she drew upon?

I was a young teenager at the time, and not too aware of my mother’s activities. But I do know she was an accomplished researcher and spent countless hours in libraries, both public and synagogue. I remember her going often to consult with Mr. Frank, the original owner of Cleveland’s Jewish book store. He was extremely knowledgeable about current and historical publications in her areas of interest.

She also counted a number of Rabbis and Jewish educators among her friends. I’m sure they were resources for her. She had always had an interest in the details of life in biblical times, which is apparent in the picture she is able to present of what it was like to be living then. She was excited about biblical flora, fauna, eating and cooking utensils, methods of healing, etc. She kept a large poster of the flowers of Israel on her wall.

Naomi is depicted as a very independent, strong-minded woman in a time when men were in charge of virtually everything. Naomi’s Song was originally written in the late 1950’s-the very dawn of the women’s movement. Would you consider your mother an early feminist? Did she have some of the similar traits as Naomi?

Yes, I would consider her an early feminist. She was quiet about it, but she was determined to develop her own character and pursue her own interests even within the confines of a traditional 1950’s family role. It never occurred to her that there was anything she could not accomplish. She had long wanted to return to college to earn an elementary education degree. At the age of 44 she started toward that goal, taking only 1 course each semester, and completed her degree at the age of 58. Like Naomi she identified tasks and goals then persevered to complete them.

Do you have early memories of learning about the Story of Ruth and Naomi as a child?

We learned the story of Ruth as just one of the many bible stories Mother would tell us throughout the year. The book of Ruth had a special place through its attachment to the major spring holiday of Shavuot. Mother celebrated all the Jewish holidays in engaging and stimulating ways so that we were imbued with a sense of the essence and traditions of each. I had always known the importance of the Ruth story through its elevation to a level of pilgrimage festival association. These are the three harvest festivals: Shavuot, Pesach and Sukkot. Each of the three has an associated book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes for Sukkot, Song of Songs for Pesach and Ruth for Shavuot.

One of the things that I particularly liked in the book were the relationships between the female characters: Naomi and her mother-in-law Malkah, Naomi and her first real friend (the very independent Kezia) and of course, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. How much did the friendships between these women parallel your mother’s relationships with friends/family in her life?

I think the relationships in the book were somewhat idealized; they were my mother’s vision of what close, reciprocal relationships could be. She was one of four sisters and those relationships were the loving, and respectful connections that we see in Naomi’s Song. She also had a few close independent women friends who were resources for her, but more often she deferred to my father’s choice of men friends and then she did her best to develop cordial relationships with their wives. After my father’s death she was able to expand her circle to include more “Kezias” in her life.

She was naturally a friendly and caring woman- famous for learning the family details of every cab driver or repairman she ever met. She was compassionate to everyone and this endeared her to family and friend alike. Like Malkah, Naomi’s mother-in-law, in the book, Mother understood that family relationships are complex and require respect and understanding on everyone’s part. I very much see my mother in the character of Malkah, And Malkah was my maternal grandmother’s name

What have been your children’s (grandchildren’s) reactions to their grandmother’s book?

They think it's wonderful!

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say about your mother or Naomi’s Song?

During the process of shepherding Naomi’s Song through publication, I discovered aspects of my mother I had not consciously known. She was a powerful force who impacted many lives, but in her own immediate family her voice was secondary to her husband’s. This was her choice -- a “good” wife needed to put her husband in the limelight while she remained in the background. Her voice should not be too strong.

But in her original written dedication to Naomi’s Song she tells us “ Naomi was a female of little note in ancient Israel. Hence, to win a place for herself, she evolved necessary convictions and courage...” Mother’s convictions came through clearly in many ways: her creative home celebrations, her tradition of a nightly bedtime Jewish prayer, her advocacy of positive thinking, and her volunteerism.

After my father’s death her public “voice” became stronger. She moved to Florida and began writing monthly letters to her children, whom she called her “kinderleben” (beloved children). Relatives and close friends heard about these letters and asked to be included in the “kinderleben” mailings until she was photocopying and mailing close to fifty letters a month.
In those letters she had free rein to teach, moralize, address injustices, and detail her many current interests. She shared with us her convictions, her courage, and her curiosity. She urged us to go into politics to shape the world around us. Always, her compassion and understanding shone through, and all of us felt enlightened and inspired by her teachings and writings.
The publication of Naomi’s Song brought to fruition her lifelong goals of teaching, Bible storytelling, and empowering girls to have that “necessary conviction and courage”. For me, the discovery of her manuscript opened a vista to the fully empowered woman that she quietly was -- and that she wrote about in Naomi’s Song.