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.
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.
There really are a great number of wonderful Hanukkah books available for children, like Naomi Hawland’s Latkes, Latkes Good to Eat or Joan Holub’s Light the Candles: A Hanukkah Lift-the-Flap Book. And I can’t help but sing the highest praises for Stephanie Spinner and Jill McElmurry’s It’s a Miracle! – my new absolutely favorite Hanukkah book for kids. In it, little Owen Block (just six and a half) has been deemed the Official Candle Lighter (or O.C.L.) – a true responsibility that he takes very seriously. Each night after the candles have been lit, Owen’s fabulously spry grandma Karen weaves a tale of Hanukkah for her beloved grandson. Her stories vary from aliens to soldiers to dentists – each one more intriguing and entertaining than the last. Not only is the storytelling fantastic, but this lovely book includes a great summary of the Hanukkah story, a list of traditional blessings and even a glossary of Hebrew terminology. This book is, by far, the most comprehensively delightful Hanukkah book on the market today. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In 1975, Peter Mayle (yes, of A Year in Provence fame) and Arthur Robins published a book that would forever change my life. Their brilliantly informative and remarkably unembarrassing teenage tome, What is Happening to Me: A Guide to Puberty, would prove to be my personal roadmap through acne (why yes, it does appear on your back!), periods (why yes, they do happen on ski trips!) and bras (why, yes, the woman in the bra department will quickly become your worst nightmare!). Written for both boys and girls, Mayle and Robins’ book gently and factually describes every injustice known to plague teenagers – handling each question, no matter how humiliating, with common sense, and no hint of ridicule or judgment. Robins’ illustrations bring a sense of humor to the topics and make the reader feel a lot more comfortable reading about unexpected hairs than you’d ever imagine. I poured over this book as puberty beckoned and found comfort in not being the only person on the face of the earth to experience the new feelings, emotions and struggles of that time. For any parent working through the first signs of adolescence with their children, this book is as powerful now as it was then to a little girl in her pegged jeans who just needed to know that everything was going to be alright.
I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker when it comes to collage. Give me a pair of scissors, some paper and a glue stick and I’m good to go for hours at a time. And I love it when illustrators tend toward the collage-tastic – like Lois Ehlert and Lauren Child and Leo Lionni (who all seem to have “L” names…interesting…). So imagine my utter delight at finding Hanoch Piven’s My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil in all of its collage splendor. The story begins when a little girl’s grandmother comes to visit and, instead of just explaining what her friends and teacher are like, the little girl decides to show her grandma with a series of found objects. Her friend Jack, for example is “as sharp as a pencil” and sports a microscope for a nose. Her art teacher has a palette for a face. And her teacher, Mrs Jennings, doesn’t miss a thing – just like a pair of glasses. Piven’s use of objects as art pieces is truly clever, witty and utterly endearing and you and your child will keep busy guessing how he’ll incorporate each little doo-dad into the characters. Not to mention your children will get a subliminal lesson in metaphor and simile. (Shhhh..don’t tell them…) This is an adorable book and when you’re through, be sure to go check out Piven’s other book My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks.
Around our house, Star Wars is King. And not in some sort of ineffectual, outdated Monarchy kind of way. I mean, truly Kingly – in charge, ever-present and downright overpowering. We talk about Star Wars, we dream about Star Wars, at times we dress like Star Wars, and we read every book available on the topic. So imagine my utter delight when my mom purchased Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy for my sons. I swear the Heavens opened. Angels sang. And my boys found themselves completely blissed out on every eye-popping, 3-D page. (Pssst…there’s even a light-up light saber…). This is the perfect gift for any Star Wars-oholic, young and old…made by the expert hands of pop-up author Matthew Reinhart. It’s so awesome, they even keep it in plastic wrap at the book store. I mean, how can you resist? Star Wars is King, I tell you. And long may it reign.
In celebration of Black History Month, I wanted to be sure to recommend one of the most beautiful books I’ve seen in some time. “In Daddy’s Arms I am Tall” is a compelling and stunning collection of poems paying tribute to African American fathers from a wide variety of writers, new and old. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, this book is a treasure trove of words and collage pictures from Javaka Steptoe that will resonate with every family, no matter the color. From the introductory Ashanti proverb: “When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him”, to the poems of Folami Abiade and Sonia Sanchez, this collection is a true testament to the power and beauty of fathers everywhere.
Now, granted, I have an intense bias. I love Maine. Everything about it. The ocean. The lobster. The osprey. The way the salt sticks to you like powder and the way the lobster boats hum in the morning. It’s utterly delicious. So, of course I’m going to adore the quintessential Maine writer, Robert McCloskey. It sort of goes with the territory. But you don’t have to love Maine…heck, you don’t even have to be able to find Maine on a map..to love Robert McCloskey and his brilliant ode to The Pine Tree State, “One Morning in Maine.” You might recognize Sal from her adventures in Blueberries for Sal (plink, plank, plunk) and this time she’s going on another adventure to Buck’s Harbor with her father and little Jane. The simplicity of the day – a loose tooth, a loon on the water, rolling up her pants to dig clams – all make for a magical McCloskey day matched beautifully with his black and white pencil illustrations. If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s not only a Caldecott Honor book, but it’s the kind of book you don’t find every day…magical for no other reason than it just is.
When I was in elementary school, I did my science project on optical illusions. You know the one with the picture of the old lady with the big nose that is also a picture of the young lady looking to the side? And the little gray dots that appear in between the black and white squares? Ooooo, I loved those. I’d spend hours staring at them and marvelling at the moment when I could finally see the trick within. Well, imagine my delight while visiting the Getty Museum at finding Silke Vry’s Trick of the Eye: Art and Illusion. It’s one of the best books on optical illusions I’ve seen since it marries both the ubiquitous illusions, a la “is it two faces or a vase?” with real-life illusions in fine art. From the mirror in van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrai” to those darn stairs from MC Escher, Vry’s book is a gorgeous way for children to see, or not see, illusions in art and design.
Years ago, my dear friend Gaby gave me a copy of Sharon Creech’s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup and, for some reason or another, I just never got around to reading it. Well, shame on me, because last night around 11pm, when i finally turned the last page of this remarkable book, i immediately added it to my list of absolute favorites. It is a stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking tale of the friendship between 12-year-old Rosie and her best friend, a very handsome and vision impaired boy named Bailey. For anyone who has ever had a best friend…for anyone who has ever felt those first stirrings of love and friendship all mixed together and for anyone who absolutely adores their grandmother, this is the book for you. Granny Torrelli is the heroine of this book – the no-nonsense Italian grandmother who solves all of the world’s problems with a little garlic and a whole lot of love. This chapter book is most appropriate for children ages 8 and up, and yet it speaks perfectly beautifully to adults as well. A complete and utter treasure of a book from a treasured friend.