Why We Broke Up, or Remembering the Onion Shirt

why_we_broke_upWhen I heard that Daniel Handler, of Lemony Snicket fame, had written a young adult novel with a romantic bent, I’ll admit I was intrigued. My children adore the Series of Unfortunate Events books and I love, love, love listening to any and all interviews with him, particularly his Fresh Air interview from 2004. Daniel Handler is one of those rare authors and people who isn’t at all ashamed of his intellect. Of his predisposition to odd references and awkward jokes. He is like one of those kids in high school who (like me) could quote the entire script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and not think that was odd at all. In fact, he (like I) probably wore it as a badge of honor. His books are filled with references to little-known books and long-forgotten movies, as if the entire book were colored in sepia like a beautiful vintage photograph. And he’s hilarious. One of my favorite all-time tidbits from his book When Did you See Her Last (part of his All the Wrong Questions series) is when he introduces the name of the local grocery store and it is, wait for it, Partial Foods. Handler has a gift for this…for trundling along in his mysterious, occasionally rambling way, and then inserting a little treasure like Partial Foods into the text to really emphasize his quirky awesomeness.

But a young adult romance? About breaking up? I guess I could somewhat picture it, given some of the more sentimental moments and themes in Unfortunate Events, but I had to find out for myself if he could pull it off. And pull it off in a book told from the point of view of a teenage girl. Enter Why We Broke Up. And enter my amazement.

What could read as a schmaltzy, overdone, we-broke-up-and-I’m-crying-while-listening-to-The-Cure tome, surprises with its sweetness. Its realness. Its ability to quickly undo the reader with a lyrical and almost scientific analysis of the aftermath of a break-up. In the book, the main character Min writes a lengthy letter to Ed, her now ex-boyfriend, using artifacts from their relationship to tell the tale. She has delivered a box filled with these items (as many of us have done) on his doorstep and is now cataloging them for us in great detail. I will say that one of my favorite things about this book is Maire Kalman and her gorgeous illustrations which are strewn throughout the book like little gifts.  From a toy truck rescued from the beach, to a movie ticket stub, to two caps from bottles of Scarpia’s Bitter Ale, these relics from their relationship tell a tale that is both heartbreakingly familiar and entirely new. It’s an old story of teenage love, but one that is infused with a new freshness.

On the negative side, for the parents out there, there is some language in the book. The F word. The S word. And one of the biggest bones to pick I have with the book is that Handler allows Min’s ex-boyfriend to throw around the other F word as a derogatory reference to homosexuality. I hate that about the book and honestly don’t think it was necessary to go there. Perhaps Handler’s proving a point, by characterizing Ed in a way that the reader will be suspicious of from the get go, but I just can’t read the careless tossing of that word into a book as anything other than disrespectful and tasteless. It is a point of contention between Min and Ed, but I think there might have been better ways to set up that dynamic that this.

And sometimes the wordiness is a bit much. Handler can run away with himself (a trait I have found in his other books as well), but if you’re willing to just keep reading you’ll find some of the most beautiful nuggets. Moments like “The days were all day every day, get a grade, take a note, put something on, put somebody down, cut open a frog and see if it’s like this picture of a frog cut open. But at night, the nights were you, finally on the phone with you. Ed, my happy thing, the best part.” Handler gets it. He gets the pain of a break-up, particularly as an adolescent and his Min, in her poetic and self-deprecating way, manages to make even this almost 40 year old, feel that pain again.

We’ve all been broken up with and we’ve probably all been the breaker as well. And, while neither side is particularly delicious, being on the receiving end of the end is nothing I would want to live through again. It’s long diary entries and being told my shirt smelled like onions so I might as well just leave now. (True story.) And only someone as talented as Daniel Handler could take me there again, and can show young people just at the introduction of such events, how it is done and how beautifully it can be handled.

In the end it’s worth reading. It’s an honest account of a very intelligent girl who is grieving something that may not have been altogether beautiful in the first place. But that hindsight, as we all know, doesn’t come until much later. And even then, perhaps some of us wouldn’t necessarily change a thing.

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A Splash of Red, or The Best Art Book Around

13642600I have an amazing, clever, wonderful friend who often sends me books. Not just ordinary books. Gorgeous, beautiful, life-altering books. This is the sort of friend that everyone should be lucky enough to have and I adore her to pieces. One of the books she sent me recently was the most surprising, delightful book I had seen in some time. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (swoon swoon swoon) is honestly, in my humble opinion, one of, if not THE, best art books around. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Pippin, he was and remains an absolute American treasure. An artist known best for his simple and stunning paintings of American life, Mr. Pippin has quickly become one of my favorite artists. I taught my Museum Masters students about him last week and they were fascinated by this man who overcame huge obstacles in his life and yet still stayed true to his artistic soul. Wounded severely while fighting in the trenches in World War I, Mr. Pippin lost almost all mobility in his right hand – his “drawing” hand. And for many years, he figured his days of creating artwork were over. That is, until he took his right hand in his left and taught himself to paint, holding one hand in the other. Bryant’s words and Sweet’s gorgeous drawings bring this humble and extraordinary man to life for children and adults. Interspersed through the book are quotes from Mr. Pippin himself. Quotes like “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for her must be true to himself” and (my students’ favorite) “Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead.”  This is an inspiring, at times heartbreaking, groundbreaking book that should belong on the shelves of every child and adult the world over. Please take a moment and get to know Horace Pippin through the eyes of Bryant and Sweet. They have done him proud.

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On a Beam of Light, or The Genius Without Socks

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 beam-of-light-feature-600x442Our elementary school librarian is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is her immaculate taste in books. So, when I was looking for a children’s book about Albert Einstein to read to my history students, I went directly to her. And, like always, she never ceases to amaze me. This time, her treasured eye turned me onto Jennifer Berne’s lovely 2013 book, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein. I must admit, what first caught my eye was the name of the illustrator, Vladimir Radunksy, who is one of my all-time favorites. (If you’re not familiar with the wonder of Radunsky, please take a peek at An Edward Lear Alphabet and I Love You Dude – two of his best illustrated works.) So, you have a fabulous illustrator, an equally fabulous author (Jennifer Berne of Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau fame), and a fascinating subject…Add it all together and you’ve got an equation more brilliant than e=mc2. The book details Einstein’s childhood, as a quiet, rather introverted, yet deeply intellectual child who, for years, didn’t say a word. Legend has it his first words were “This soup is too hot!” And when asked by his parents why he didn’t speak before then, he responded, “Everything was fine until now.” With a wonderful attention to quiet details, like his favorite compass and his distaste for socks, On a Beam of Light captures the brilliance of this man while simultaneously making him accessible to a new generation of fans. And it doesn’t pander to children. It doesn’t dumb down the story of this man. Rather, it holds itself up to the standard that Albert himself might demand. And our children are better for it. For to read a special book like this is a gift all itself.

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The Best Halloween Books for Little Boys and Ghouls

The neighborhood children are buzzing with excitement over costumes. Pumpkins are making their way onto the front porches of houses. And bright orange and black M&Ms are moving into the four basic food groups.

It’s Halloween time again and what better way to kick off this spooktacular holiday than with a fun assortment of the best and most beloved Halloween books for children. From smelly feet to Norwegian grandmothers, this list will bring a devilish grin to your little boys and ghouls.

The Hallo-Wiener
Written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey
Ages: 4-8
I apologize in advance for recommending a book that has within its title a word that will invariably cause incessant repetition by your children. Or perhaps that’s just my children. Nevertheless, “The Hallo-Wiener”, by Dav Pilkey (of “Captain Underpants” fame), certainly belongs on any list of great Halloween books. Oscar is a dachshund who is “half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long” and is regularly teased by the other dogs. But nothing causes more ridicule than his mother’s decision to dress him for Halloween with a bun complete with mustard. Poor little Oscar – what shall he do? Come to the rescue, of course, as the little readers will find. A tale of inner strength and the best sausage puns you’ve read…

 

Trick or Treat, Smell my Feet
Written and illustrated by Lisa Desimini
Ages: 4-8
Growing up, we used to sing “Trick or treat, smell my feet, dance around the toilet seat” and the image of boogie-ing around the potty was always a show-stopper for me. Now, thank Heavens, we have Lisa Desimini’s “Trick or Treat, Smell my Feet” to entertain us just as hilariously. This is the tale of twin witches, Delia and Ophelia, who take it upon themselves (as all true witches do) to ruin Halloween for the sweet neighborhood kids. So, they concoct a spell using, you guessed it, stinky socks. All does not run smoothly for these identical hags, and your kids will adore the result. I do…almost as much as lambada-ing around the john.

 

 

The Best Halloween Ever
Written by Barbara Robinson
Ages: 9-12
Hooray for the Herdmans! Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Halloween Ever” may, in fact, be the funniest book on the market. The author of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, among others, has a lightning-quick wit and a tenderness towards her characters that is unparalleled. Reading this out loud to my boys is an act in self-control since her lines are so funny and heartwarming you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I adore adore adore this book and can’t recommend it highly enough. Somehow the horrible Herdmans always save the day – and we, as readers, root for them despite our better judgment. Don’t miss the audio recording of this book, read by Elaine Stritch. Hers is the only voice I could imagine for this. Sheer perfection.

 

The Witches
Written by Roald Dahl
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Ages: 9-12
While it may not be a Halloween book, per se, no spooky book list should neglect “The Witches” – one of my (and my sons) all-time favorites. Not only do we get to meet a cigar-smoking Norwegian grandmother, but we encounter ladies with itchy scalps, quite a few references to dog poo (and really, who could resist that!?!) and several reasons for your children not to bathe regularly. The coupling of Roald Dahl and longtime illustrator Quentin Blake is a marriage made in heaven for any book, but for this one in particular. Don’t miss Lynn Redgrave’s reading of “The Witches” on the audio book, and, if you’re feeling particularly witchy, check out the movie starring Angelica Huston. It’s nowhere near as spectacular as the book (few movies are), but entertaining nonetheless.

 

The Vanishing Pumpkin
Written by Tony Johnston
Illustrated by Tomie daPaola
Ages: 4-8
Where else can you find a 700-year-old woman, an 800-year-old man, a rapscallion, a ghoul and a varmint? Not to mention characters who say things like “Great snakes!” (which, let’s face it, everyone should say now and then…). Look no further than “The Vanishing Pumpkin” by Tony Johnston, illustrated by, none other than, Tomie DePaola. My sons wait all year long to check this book out of the library each October and now my older son loves to read it to his little brother with all the silly voices he can muster. What starts with a missing pumpkin and a hearty desire for pumpkin pie quickly becomes a veritable parade of Halloween misfits and a seriously old wizard. Don’t miss this wonderful Halloween book. (Or I might just have to say “Great snakes!”)

 

Georgie
Written and illustrated by Robert Bright
Ages: 4-8
No Halloween book list would be complete without “Georgie” by Robert Bright. Written in 1944, Georgie features not only the gentle little ghost from the title, but the wonderfully spooky illustrations by Bright himself. Georgie lives with the Whittakers and provides them with a little ghostly routine of a creaky floorboard and a squeaky parlor door. But when Mr. Whittaker decides to fix these, where does that leave Georgie, who really doesn’t want to scare a soul? This vintage Halloween tale has been delighting parents and children for more than 60 years and should take its rightful place on the bookshelves for 100 more.

 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Retold by Alvin Schwartz
Drawings by Stephen Gammell
Ages: 9-12

Disclaimer: I am 37 years old and the stories in the book still scare me. Hence, this book recommendation is for older aged children or at least children who are braver than I. This was THE book for slumber parties growing up. I vividly remember sitting at my friend Damara’s house, with flashlights on and spooky music in the background, and her mother, all dressed up as a witch, reading “High Beams” from the story collection, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Do you remember high beams? The urban myth of the woman driving home and the car behind her keeps putting on its high beams? I shudder now just thinking of it. This story continues to force me to look in the backseat of my car when I get in. And who could forget “May I Carry Your Basket?” and “The Big Toe.” Ack!  This is the ultimate scary story collection and I dare you to read it and not feel that chill up your spine.

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Today’s Pick: Martin’s Big Words

Martins big wordsFor anyone looking for a children’s book that honors the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that is both approachable to children while still maintaining the reverence necessary to truly capture his life, please read “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Author Doreen Rappaport has made a name for herself as a go-to writer for biographies and non-fictional books for children and this, her gorgeous, poetic and sometimes heartbreaking profile of Dr. King, is the best of its kind. Rappaport has a gift for bringing children the facts they need to know, no matter how difficult they may be, in a way that keeps them reading and engaged and wanting more. Match that with Bryan Collier’s stunning illustrations, and you have the best of both worlds. “Martin’s Big Words” captures the essence of Dr. King and will help inquisitive children understand the big picture of his life and legacy.

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Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, or Smiling Through Tears

PickleJuice_COV_FINALI had heard wonderful things about Julie Sternberg’s book Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie and, let’s face it, any book with the word “pickle” in the title has got to be good. So I made a bee-line for the Storyteller bookstore in Lafayette. Like many other books I’ve loved, I was initially drawn to the cover art (by Matthew Cordell)  – with its simple illustration of a little girl writing a letter. What I could never have imagined is how utterly sweet and touching the book inside would be. Sternberg has created, in this 128 page book, an unforgettable character in Eleanor as she suffers through the loss of her beloved babysitter Bibi. When Bibi moves to Florida to be with her father, Eleanor struggles through various stages of grief and ultimately learns to accept and love her new babysitter who will never truly replace Bibi, but just might be able to forge new pathways of friendship with this darling little girl. Written in a simple, almost poetic way, Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie speaks beautifully to the emotions of a child who has suffered a loss and will certainly serve that magical literary purpose that books so rarely do: making a child feel better and smile through tears.

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Review: George and the Big Bang

george-and-the-big-bangNever before have the mysteries of the Universe seemed so appealing than after reading Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s latest book, George and the Big Bang. Beautifully and engagingly written, this newest offering in the series is an exciting adventure that strikes all the rights chords for young readers. It’s jam-packed with fun, heart-racing capers, villains, a lonely pig and, believe it or not, lessons from the world’s most famous physicist. If you’ve ever read Stephen Hawking’s theoretical work, you’ll know how difficult it can be, at times, to wrap your head around. What’s utterly brilliant about this series is that Stephen, in partnership with his delightful daugher, Lucy, has taken his most highfalutin concepts and broken them down into understandable and downright appealing ways. As a university freshman, A Brief History of Time was required reading for all incoming students. Thus, I spent my summer slogging through his dense prose and, at times, mind-boggling theories. For a literary soul with nary a minute of experience with physics, his book was like reading an Ancient Sanskrit text without the aid of a translation. I recognized the brilliance, respected the man behind the ideas, but couldn’t quite decode the complexities of his imagination. With this children’s book series by Hawking and his daughter, it’s as if I’ve been given a second chance at understanding the Universe. In this particular book, George and his best friend, Annie, (isn’t it wonderful to see boy/girl friendships in children’s books?) are back at their intergalactic adventures courtesy of a super computer named Cosmos. Using portals offered by Cosmos, George and Annie begin this tale in a rather unexpected way: trying to find a new home for George’s pet pig. What ensues is a conspiracy of the most clandestine and sinister kind that involves Annie’s brilliant father, Eric, and his experiment to find the source of the Universe. Children will love the fast-pace, the space and time travel and will most likely be asking for a Cosmos of their own for their next birthday.

Eager parents will appreciate the fact that interspersed throughout the book are lessons and illustrations about physics – offering a fun and surprising way for kids to take the first step towards understanding Stephen Hawking’s brilliant mind.

In an interview, Hawking himself said that he hoped that the readers of this series would be open to reading his other, more complex, works when they grow up! I think he and Lucy have and will accomplish that (and might even inspire a few adults to follow suit!)

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