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Our 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.
For 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.
I 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.
Never 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!)
Over the holiday break, I made a point of reading a few books (children’s and otherwise) that have long been on my to-do list. These included You Know When the Men are Gone (Siobhan Fallon’s utterly remarkable and heartbreaking collection of short stories centered around the military wives of Fort Hood) and Mrs. Dalloway (which I read every year just to be inspired). Also on that list was R.J. Palacio’s debut novel for young adults, Wonder. I’d seen this book on a number of “Best of 2012” lists for both children and adults and am always impressed when a writer can span the two audiences. Kathryn Erskine’s mockingbird is another of these books that speaks to any age – a brilliant, lovely piece which I hope to review soon. Wonder tells the story of young August Pullman, a ten-year old boy born with a severe facial deformity. Homeschooled until this story takes place, Auggie has been protected by his lovable parents and sister with a fierceness and loyalty that any parent would exhibit in such a situation. Now, in an attempt to bring him out into the world and mainstream his education (both academically and socially), Auggie will take on new challenges as a 5th grader at an elite private school in his neighborhood. What unfolds is a story so universal in its pain and joy that every child and adult can relate. Auggie’s challenges, his ups and downs are, indeed, magnified by the extreme physicality of his differentiation, but the heart with which Palacio tells his story, makes Auggie an everyman…everyboy. Friends come and go, cafeteria seats are saved, then not saved, then pulled out from under him, until ultimately, kindness wins. This is an important book. One that every child and parent should read, even together as a means of opening up necessary discussions about interaction with one another. And in an era of bullying and teasing and taunting the likes of which we have not seen before, Auggie’s story is not only a beautiful example of the resilience of the human spirit, it is a reminder that there is always kindness in the world. It may take a while a find it, but it’s there, waiting with wonder.
Today, in place of recommending a holiday book, I wanted to take a minute to thank one of the most gracious, talented and altogether wonderful children’s book authors around. Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author of the inimitable Lunch Lady series among other amazing works, recently unveiled a piece of artwork in response to the tragedy in Connecticut. This piece, entitled “Make Magic, Preserve Wonder” is, to me, a true recognition of all that is most wonderful about children and all we must to do safeguard just that. This piece, which you can see above, was created by Jarrett to honor the beauty of childhood and the role that educators play in maintaining that beauty for the world. So today, in honor of Jarrett’s contributions, please take your child to a local library or bookstore and pick up one of his many, amazing books. From Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute (my sons’ personal favorite) to Baghead to Max for President, Jarrett makes magic and preserves wonder with every word he writes and each picture he draws.
A few months ago, I reviewed one of the unbelievably charming books in the BabyLit series – Romeo and Juliet: A Babylit Counting Primer (click here for the review). And now they’ve gone and done it again. The amazing literary team that is writer Jennifer Adams and illustrator Alison Oliver has created yet another instant classic in their holiday book A Christmas Carol: A BabyLit Colors Primer. This utterly adorable board book will keep your little drooling darlings delighted with its lovable drawings, all while learning their colors! Scrooge never looked so good, and the added bonus of a hidden mouse throughout the pages will keep even the most discerning baby literati on their toes. Now, I’m an old English major dork so the thought of board books based on classic literature is just about the most wonderful thing to happen. But you don’t have to be an Austen aficionado or a Dickens dilettante to appreciate the brains behind these beautiful books. If I were you, I’d buy all the babies in my life the full set of these. Adams and Oliver have covered many of the most beloved books, from Sense and Sensibility to Moby Dick, all the way to my personal favorite, Jane Eyre. (I always was a sucker for Rochester…) Honestly, I can’t think of anything better than these wee little books – perfect for your wee little bookworm.