In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why we read (after Orlando)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've been trying to write a blog post about children's books, but I keep stopping to cry. I keep stopping because I can't stop thinking about Orlando, about the 50 people, most of them barely out of their teens, who were killed on Sunday morning in the nightclub that was their sanctuary, their safe space. I can't stop thinking about how rare safe space feels right now. It is not safe in this country to be queer. It's not safe to be Muslim. It's not safe to have brown skin. It's not safe to be a woman. It's not safe to go to the bathroom. It's not safe to worship in your church. It's not safe to dance in your nightclub. It's not safe to sit in your school classroom.

How do we explain this to our children? How do we make sense of it for ourselves?

In the last couple of months, Eleanor has started reading Harry Potter. She began a year or so later than many of her friends, but she's still younger than Harry is when he begins his journey. I've been trying to slow her down. I don't want her to get to the worst deaths too soon. I don't want her heart to break for Dumbledore before she's ready.

Here is what she's learning from Harry Potter: that in this world, there is magic. That there are friends who sacrifice themselves for others -- true loyalty exists. That pure evil exists, too: there are those who believe there is no value to human life, who believe that an ideology and the quest for power are more important than anything else. That sometimes the person you think is the bad guy isn't the real bad guy. That sometimes, the person who seems to be the bad guy is more complicated than that: he has hatred in him, but when it matters most, he chooses to be on the side of good. That we can survive unthinkable tragedy.

This is why we read. Reading allows us to think through the complexity of human beings. We read because it allows us to understand and work through the issues, because we learn human things through literature. We learn how to live, and we learn how to keep living when those who we love die. We learn that people are not just one thing or another, that the world is not black and white. That there are no easy answers.

This is why books matter.

One of the questions I've been trying to address in the blog post I can't write for the tears comes from Eunice, a friend who's started a book club for her 4th grade son. She started the book club because her son's school has essentially stopped teaching literature. Instead, they're teaching "critical reading skills" through passages that mirror what students will find on standardized tests.

There is so much wrong with this. I could write a book. (I'm actually starting to write a book.) As a parent, as a teacher, as a reader of long standing, I know down to my bones that the best way to develop "critical reading skills" is by reading things that matter to you, things that engage you, things that push your imagination and your skill, that make you question and wonder.

When our children read books that matter to them, they grow as readers, and as people. They become citizens who are able to assess the literature of the world around them, to read articles, speeches, bills, debates, and more with a critical eye. They become more empathetic, more likely to listen to others, more likely, as you've written, to be willing to understand issues from someone else's perspective.

When our children read test prep passages, they grow as test-takers, and little else. They learn to look for a single right answer. They learn that the form and length of their essays are more important than the content. When we evaluate our children solely through standardized tests, we are perpetuating a reductive view of the world. This has political consequences.

Eunice wrote to me because she's looking for guidance -- a list? -- of good books for her son's age group. She's concerned about encouraging her son and his friends to find "great" books as well as "fun" books -- right now, each kid involved takes turns picking a book, and leads the discussion about that book. She's also concerned about the intensity and maturity of the material in some of the books her son's friends are choosing, a concern I've heard recently from a number of parents.

I'm going to save the list question for my next post (though anyone reading this blog might start by checking out our lists to the right of this page: Middle grade booksYA books, and Lots of Ages all contain a variety of options).

For now, I want to say two things about the book club:

First, it's a wonderful idea. A book club like this provides two things vital to creating readers: choice and community. Looking to book lists can be a great way to find books to "interview" to see if you like them, as I wrote about last summer. But allowing kids to choose books for their peers, to have that ownership and that enjoyment, goes a long way toward building their identities as readers.

Second, a book club, like a good classroom, can be a perfect place to talk about some of the issues of content that parents (and kids) find disturbing in a book. It can be a safe space for both kids and parents to bring up their feelings about the content they're reading. These discussions might lead to a larger conversation about the goals of the book club: do the kids involved want to set guidelines about the content of books they pick? Do they want to agree to bring in classics every few books, along with contemporary fiction? How about nonfiction? Choosing the books can be an opportunity for critical thinking as much as reading and discussing them. But again, the decisions should come from the kids. We become readers when reading becomes something we want to do rather than something we feel we should do.

Part of what makes great literature great -- this goes for children's as well as adult literature -- is a willingness to engage with complexity. But a large part of what makes it great is pleasure.

We read to find so many things: joy, and peace, and excitement, and knowledge. Reading is a sanctuary. It is a safe space within which we can find ourselves or escape ourselves. Sometimes it's a space where we retreat just to laugh; sometimes it's a space within which we confront the things which frighten us most.

Reading with our children gives us a common language and an opening to try to understand the world together, in all its horror and all its beauty. Even when the world is inexplicable. Even when we know we cannot always keep our children safe.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Springtime: reveling in the wacky

Dear Annie,

Earlier this week, I had a lovely conversation with a mother who told me how much her three year old loves Maya Makes a Mess, a book that was a big hit in your household a few years ago.  It has a wonderful deadpan wacky sense of humor (food tastes better when eaten with hands? then we must do it!) which has popped up again in two new releases.


Back in 1967 Edward Gorey and Victoria Chess wrote Fletcher and Zenobia about a friendship between a cat who is stuck in a tree:


and a doll who emerges from a papier mache egg inside a steamer trunk he finds in the tree:
Neither can figure out how to get down from the tree, so they have a party, complete with many hats which were in the steamer trunk, punch, four quarts of peach ice cream (there's a freezer), and a Zenobia-baked "lemon cake with five layers, which she covered with raspberry icing and walnuts and decorated with green and blue candles ('Perhaps it is one of our birthdays,' she said)."

While Zenobia is teaching Fletcher how to waltz (there's music on the gramophone), a friendly moth joins the party, eats most of the refreshments, and wakes up the next morning big enough to carry them out of the tree and on to new adventures.   The matter-of-fact-ness of all the absurdity is so delightful.  The New York Review of Books has resurrected this little gem from out-of-print land, bless them: it went on sale last month.

Fletcher and Zenobia somehow strikes me as not from this continent: the freshness of the absurdity, the high-end vocabulary (withal, gramophone, mauve, gondola, maharajah).  Goes to show what I know.  Both authors were born in Chicago; wiki tells me that Gorey only left the U.S. once in his life.

But
Daisy Darling, Let's Go to the Beach!
by Markus Majaluoma is definitely from elsewhere: Finland.

Daddy takes a look out of the window.
"Daisy darling, let's have a jolly day on the beach!
Do you remember where you put the spades and other beach things?"
Yes, Daisy does remember.

Daisy is a curly-haired toddler whose pacifier never leaves her mouth.    She gathers her buckets, swimfins, snorkeling gear and large inflatable alligator and they set off on Daddy's bicycle.   When they get there, Daisy applies suntan lotion to her father's back with a spade.  A cast of minor characters appears in marginalia and the end papers: each plays a role in one or two pages.  There's the fisherman who gives Daisy a fish, the crossword puzzling woman whose hat Daisy adorns with the fish ("What has four letters and lives in the sea?" the lady asks.  "Fish," Daisy whispers in the lady's ear.), an ice cream man and more.  It's a book about some of the things a child is likely to encounter in a day at the beach, but all slightly off in its own nutty way.

Daisy and two children pile sand all over Daddy, but he's afraid he's stuck.
On the way home, Daddy pedals fast.
"Didn't we have a jolly day at the seaside?" he puffs.
Daisy, too, is happy because Daddy's back is covered with many exciting sea creatures.

A very satisfying day at the beach.

Here's to the anticipation of summer.

Love,

Deborah


Thursday, February 11, 2016

The categorizing mind

Dear Aunt Debbie,

There's a new kind of reader in our house.

I've always enjoyed the way that kids have their own reading personalities, their ways of approaching and engaging with books. Eleanor was ready for chapter book read-alouds far earlier than Isabel, and her love of a long, gripping narrative has continued well into her own independent reading years. Isabel has always responded intensely to visuals, and graphic novels have eased her transition from emerging reader to full-on independent reader. Will, it turns out, has a categorizing mind.

This first became apparent last spring when Eleanor was doing a 2nd grade nonfiction project about Jim Henson. We took a bunch of books out of the library (how much do I love the Brooklyn Public Library?), among them a nice big coffee table book about all of Henson's creative projects ever: Christopher Finch's Jim Henson --The Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination.

It's a pretty fabulous book, especially if you're interested in the Muppets at all: accounts of Henson's early life, his first commercial projects, the birth of Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, his later, weirder TV shows and movies. Lots of glossy pictures, including a four-page spread with thumbnails of the guest stars in every Muppet Show episode that ever aired. (Bob Hope! Lesley Ann Warren! Alice Cooper!)

Will became obsessed with this book. He was just over 2 years old, and would sit on the couch turning the pages over and over -- so much so that, after he ripped a couple and we taped them, we returned the book to the library and bought our own used copy. He called it "Gog Book" (for "Frog," a.k.a. Kermit). And as he turned the pages, Will was categorizing: memorizing names and faces, putting things in order in his mind.

He particularly loved the big Muppet monsters: Sweetums, Thog, the purple-bodied twins/triplets The Mutations. One double-page spread contains pictures of the cast of puppeteers, showing who played which characters, and Will would ask us to read all the names: Richard Hunt played Janice, Scooter, Beaker, and Wayne of Wayne and Wanda. "Who played Thog?" The book didn't say. "Look it up on your 'puter, Mommy." I looked it up. Turns out it was Jerry Nelson.

Probably three weeks later, Jeff was reading the Gog Book with Will, and got to that page. "Daddy, Jerry Nelson played Thog." Okay, though it doesn't say that in the book. "No! Jerry Nelson played Thog!" Total nerd recall.

While full-bodied Muppet monsters still hold a place in his heart, Will has lately moved on to a full-fledged superhero obsession. Again, there is so much categorizing going on: the names of superheroes, followed of course by the powers and weapons of each one. What does Batman carry in his utility belt, you ask? Why, among other things, Batarangs, Batcuffs, and Batrope, of course.

As I mentioned in my last post, we've been reading a ton of superhero early reader books, some better than others. Generally speaking, we've found the I Can Read! books featuring the DC superheroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) to be better written than the World of Reading books about the Marvel superheroes (the Avengers, Spiderman, X-Men). Not loads better, but enough that the language allows you to read aloud with a little dramatic flair.

Here's Donald Lemke writing Batman: Winter Wasteland:

When he arrived in Gotham City, he spotted his coldest enemy, Mr. Freeze.
The frozen felon fired icy blasts at nearby buildings.
"Stop right there!" shouted Batman.
The villain turned and smiled.
"Don't you mean freeze?" he asked.

Compare that to Clarissa Wong writing This is Black Widow:

She was an orphan.
She lived at the Red Room.
The Red Room was a secret camp.
It was an evil place.
The camp leaders trained her to be a spy.
They taught her to steal.
She knew the Red Room was bad.

Yup, that's the book I read aloud five times yesterday.

Your latest slam-dunk gift, however, gives me hope for the Marvel universe. A month ago, you gave us Will's current favorite book, Meet the Marvel Superheroes, by Chris "Doc" Wyatt. It's an illustrated character encyclopedia, listing more than 100 Marvel superheroes, from the best-known to some I'd never heard of (Squirrel Girl, anyone?). The lineup is more diverse than I feared it might be -- lots of women, and a decent if not huge number of superheroes of color (Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan, is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants; Black Panther stars in a new series this year written by Ta-Nehesi Coates). None of the depictions of women are so sexualized as to make me cringe, though it is interesting to note how many of the female superheroes have powers that involve mind control. (Those crazy women -- they can make us do anything they want!)

We read this book all the time. Will has memorized names, relationships, weapons, powers. Each page contains handy thumbnail illustrations of the superheroes related to the one depicted on the page, which helps with the categorization.

I hesitate to be gender reductive here, but it does strike me that I've seen this kind of reading pattern -- learn all the facts about a particular universe, categorize them, repeat them -- more often with boys than with girls. But even as I write that, I think of the power of the superhero narrative: Will takes all of his knowledge and puts it into 24/7 roleplay, dressing up and casting all of us as superheroes around the dinner table, stopping our conversation to announce: "There's a new villain in Gotham City!"

So I'll take a step back from trying to categorize this type of reading, and go get ready to fight crime. You might not know it, but I'm Batwoman.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

New year, new spunky feminist princess

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happy New Year!

It's been an intense and happy holiday season, filled on our end with lots and lots of good reading. As it's been a while, here's a quick snapshot of the reader profiles at my house these days:

Eleanor, in 3rd grade, tries very hard to read at every waking moment: at the breakfast table, brushing teeth, on the street walking home from the library. We've outlawed reading at dinner, but allow it during dessert; consequently, it can now take up to 25 minutes for her to eat a single cookie.

Her tastes run to big novels about mythology and magic: she's read and reread all of Rick Riordan, from Percy Jackson through his Egyptian series and the new foray into Norse mythology. For lighter fare, there are the Dork Diaries books (not my favorites, as you know), and lots and lots of Geronimo and Thea Stilton, the strange, translated-from-the-Italian series about talking mice with long hair and clothes.

Isabel, in 1st grade, has become a full-fledged independent reader in the last several months. She went from early reader books leapfrogging up to the Critter Club series (early chapter books focusing on girls who love animals -- a clear fit), and just this past month I looked over and she was reading Ruth Chew -- real, full-on chapter books, with hardly any pictures -- and telling us all about the stories. I remember loving Ruth Chew as a kid. The Matter-of-Fact Magic books are set in 1970s Brooklyn, actually not far from where we live now; in each, children encounter small, imaginative bits of magic that change their lives a little bit, but aren't scary or terribly permanent. The fate of the world is never at stake, and practical details pop up regularly: what do you do when you use a wizard's magic umbrella to transform your clothes into bathing suits, then lose the power to change them back, and no longer have the front-door key to your house? (The Trouble With Magic.)


Will, closing in on age 3, picks up books almost as often as his sisters. He's currently obsessed with superheroes and Yoda, so we're reading aloud a lot of I Can Read! books from the library with titles like Batman: Winter Wasteland. He is building up a baseline of specific character knowledge that I'm sure will come in handy later. Meanwhile, we all know much more about the specific powers of a wide variety of superheroes, in both the DC and Marvel universes.

Despite their different interests and ages, graphic novels remain a major go-to for all three kids, a kind of common denominator. When one picks out a new graphic novel of any kind, from Avatar: the Last Airbender to My Little Pony, they all vie for a turn to read it.

We stumbled across our newest favorite graphic novel series at the library, and the girls kept the first three books in such solid rotation that it was clear we needed to own them.

Princeless is centered around the adventures of Princess Adrienne Ashe, who begins the series at age 16 having been trapped in a tower -- like her 5 older sisters before her -- by her parents, in the hope that a dashing prince will come to save her. Unlike her sisters, Adrienne makes friends with the dragon guarding her, puts on the armor of one of the hapless princes who's been eaten by that dragon, and busts out of her own tower. Her goal? To save herself, and then to head out and save her sisters.

There is so much to like here. First, Adrienne and the entire royal family (King Ashe, Queen Ashe, 7 princesses and one prince) are black. This is obvious from the illustrations, of course, but it's also front and center in the text: the first three pages of the first issue show Queen Ashe reading Adrienne a prince-saves-the-blonde-princess-in-a-tower story, and Adrienne angrily critiquing it while her mother struggles to comb her hair.

Adrienne is confident, strong, and smart, not to mention physically capable -- she teaches herself swordfighting, and almost immediately does pretty decently in combat with her father's soldiers (they think she's a knight who has killed the Princess Adrienne). She's not invincible -- there's a good amount of slapstick with Adrienne falling from balconies and being tangled in her ill-fitting armor -- but she's resilient.

Almost all of the supporting characters in the series are female. In book 1 (Save Yourself), Adrienne meets and befriends Bedelia, the teenage daughter of a dwarf blacksmith who, it turns out, has been doing all the smithing for years while her father goes to the bar. Book 2 (Get Over Yourself) brings in Adrienne's sister Angelica, the most beautiful of the princesses, who has positioned herself as the muse for a town full of artists. In Book 3 (The Pirate Princess), Adrienne and Bedelia rescue, fight, and team up with Raven Xingtao, the daughter of a pirate king. (Raven is getting her own spin-off series this month.) Book 4 (Be Yourself) focuses on the quest to save Adrienne's sister Angoisse, who is shut up in a dark swamp castle with a gorgeous but creepy vampire boyfriend. There are also Kira, a werewolf being groomed to take over her father's position of wolf pack leader; Delores Grunkmore, a dauntless goblin guide; Queen Ashe, who disappears mysteriously partway through the series (Eleanor and Isabel and I have a theory about that); and of course Sparky, Adrienne's dragon.

Contrast this with the lineup in the (otherwise wonderful) Zita the Spacegirl, in which the rag-tag bunch of creatures and robots Zita gathers on her journey are entirely male, in classic Wizard of Oz fashion.

Characters throughout the series are diverse, both racially (so nice to see such a variety of skin colors in a comic book) and in ways that play with stereotypes. I say "play with" rather than "defy" because author Jeremy Whitley's tone is often knowing -- he's consciously poking fun at and retooling narratives we've seen before, sometimes in ways that feel a little heavy-handed to me, if not to my kids. I think of Adrienne's twin brother, Devin: a sensitive guy, an artist and designer, written in direct opposition to the hyper-masculine King Ashe, who so far has no redeeming qualities.

But I felt that way about the stereotypical aspects of both Princess Angelica (the beautiful one) and Princess Angoisse (the goth one) too, and Whitley managed to find endings which allowed each princess to find her own way of being empowered. I'm willing to reserve judgment as the series goes on.

And some of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments are Whitley's funniest. When Adrienne first meets Bedelia in Book 1 and expresses an interest in getting some armor that fits her, Bedelia ushers her into the "Women Warriors Collection":



That would be, from left to right, the costumes worn by Wonder Woman, Red Sonja, and Xena, Warrior Princess. Adrienne and Bedelia's commentary:


[Side note: I mentioned Will's current superhero obsession, which, among other things, is bringing home to us just how sexy and sexist the depiction of female superheroes is. Here's what happens when your son asks you to google pictures of Poison Ivy -- and this is with Safe Search on! We have a lot of conversations about how Wonder Woman must be really cold.]

After walking us through the implications:


Adrienne requests that Bedelia make her some real armor. Which she does:


In my googling, I found a nice interview with Whitley about his inspirations for the Princeless series. He's white, but his wife and daughter are black, and he saw a huge gap in the kinds of comic books he'd be comfortable giving her to read:

"Good heroines are few and far between. When you look for ones that are leading books, it narrows the scope more. When you look for one that is appropriate for kids, it gets much narrower. When you talk about one with a lead female of color, the number drops to nearly zero (they exist, they are just very difficult to find). My daughter is black and while I encourage her to look for role models of all colors, girls need to be able to see girls that are like themselves in media. They need it even more when it comes to seeing them portrayed with strength."

Here's hoping these books keep selling like hotcakes. We'll certainly be buying them.

Love, Annie

P.S. What did you think of yesterday's Newbery and Caldecott winners? I was thrilled to see Roller Girl named a Newbery Honor Book!





Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A nativity that breaks the mold

Dear Annie,

One more shopping day to go.  The store has been its usual nutty busy self these past few weeks.  We've sold out of a lot of good books, but are having fun finding the right matches for the kids Santa is just starting to think about.  Almost 200 of the new Star Wars movie books, which went on sale last Friday, have already sold.

In keeping with the season, I thought I'd mention one more nativity book.  As you probably know from your mother, our parents' household always incorporated the Bible story of Christmas into our non-religious life.  My interpretation of that as a grown-up is that if you're going to get all the pagan and commercial benefits of the holiday, you need to acknowledge the religious underpinnings too.  In 1950s Pleasantville, this meant staging a nativity pageant in our living room.  Two of us would be Joseph and Mary, Judy's doll Annie played Jesus every year, and the third child would read relevant Bible passages aloud.  Someone would play whatever instrument he or she was learning at the time, and there would be some giggling about the King James wording.

I've already written about my favorite nativity book for kids: Julie Vivas' exuberant Nativity.  (That post is full of links to many of our other Christmas blog entries.)  It's still the best.  But here's another for the construction-minded child:
The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids
  by Brendan Powell Smith.  Yep, it's the nativity illustrated with tableaux of Lego figures.  Smith seems to have the corner on many stories with Lego illustrations, including several Bible stories for kids, and more comprehensive Old and New Testaments for adults (circumcision in Lego: who knew it could be so vivid?).

The wording in this one leaves something to be desired.  But the illustrations are a kick.  Consider, for example, the progression of Mary's pregnancy, from annunciation (left), to Joseph's discovery of her condition (center) to the arrival in Bethlehem (right):
Makes one think about Lego bricks a little differently.

The baby ends up in a sort-of manger in a stable Joseph is trying to make livable:
Always a pleasure to have a variety of interpretations to offer readers.

Merry Christmas and much love to you and yours!

Deborah

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Holiday Choice: the Gift of Other Lives

Dear Annie,

Here we are this holiday season, with many of us are feeling horrified at the tone and content of political discourse in America.  How to handle this with the children we love?

You know me: I look to children's books.  One of the things we can do this year -- and any other year -- is to give children the gift of other people's lives.
We've written here (and here and here) about books as mirrors/books as windows.  The mirrors reflect back readers' own experiences; the windows let them experience worlds they haven't known.  And of course, one reader's mirror can be another's window.  Americans need more looking into the windows of those who we are not.

Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco
by Judith Robbins Rose provides a nuanced window for many of us.  Aimed at kids from 9 to 13 or so, it's the story of Jacinta, the U.S.-born child of undocumented parents in Colorado.  Most of her world is the barrio in which she lives, with little contact with the Anglo culture.  Then a white television news reporter reluctantly agrees to become her mentor through a community center.  Everything is new and threatening, including a ride with her sister to an indoor swimming pool:
Long after we should've been at the pool, we took another turn.  Then we were on a freeway.
   I gripped Rosa's hand.  Her sweaty hand.
   We'd been places in Papi's truck, but never on the freeway.  Driving on a freeway is like begging la policia to drag you back to Mexico.   
One of the things I like about this book is that it's full of flawed characters.  Jacinta gets jealous, fights with her sister, tries to manipulate situations to her advantage.  But she's a very believable 11 year-old.  Her mentor introduces Jacinta to white privilege in action: she's an assertive woman who's used to getting what she wants through manipulation of her fame and veiled threats.  The girl is impressed by what she sees as a woman being powerful, but eventually understands the arrogance.

Lots for readers to think about in this book.

Thinking about others is one of the things we can give children in books.  Here's a quick list of books we've written about over the years that speak to some of the issues roiling around right now.  They immerse their readers in other lives.  There are lots more -- readers, please add more below.  This is just a start.

A Long Walk to Water  - what leads people to become refugees
Day of Ahmed's Secret - daily life in a busy arab city.
Anna Hibiscus  - daily life in Africa, including children learning about poverty
brown girl dreaming - growing up black in America 
American Born Chinese - one teenager coming to terms with his Chinese identity
Persepolis - living under -- and eventually leaving - an increasingly repressive government
diversity in kidlit - lots of resources
Wonder - an amazing and now-classic book about a severely deformed child.
Almost Home by Joan Bauer and Hold Fast by Blue Balliett - we haven't written about these: both are middle grade novels about American families becoming homeless.
All American Boys - I haven't read this one but it sounds excellent -- link is to School Library Journal.  The story of an incident of police violence told through the voices of the black teenage victim and a white classmate who witnesses it.

Wishing good holidays to all,

Deborah





Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Scientific women

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Welcome back from summer! It's lovely to hear from you, and to get a glimpse of the goings-on at the National Book Festival.

You asked whether Harry Potter has made an appearance in Eleanor's life. It's interesting: several of her friends and 3rd-grade classmates have gotten very into the books, but Eleanor is holding off. Twice, she's tried starting to read the first book on her own, and each time she has stopped because she feels like it's "too scary." This from a girl who within the last year devoured all of Percy Jackson, and is two-thirds of the way through the Books of Beginning, both series which include great violence, battles, magic, and end-of-the-universe stakes. And yet there's something about Harry that she doesn't feel ready for. As we've discussed in person and you've mentioned on the blog, there's a lot of material in the later Harry Potter books that isn't really appropriate for elementary-age kids, so I'm fine with Eleanor waiting until the books click for her. I've thought about beginning it as a read-aloud, but right now most of our read-aloud time also includes Isabel, and I don't really want to start Harry Potter with an almost-6-year-old.... Ah, well. Thankfully, there's plenty of time for reading and rereading.

Isabel has started out her first-grade year by declaring that she wants to become a rock star, and that her favorite subject is science. As if by magic, two of your recent gifts chronicle female scientists who became rock stars in their fields. Both books have become huge hits over here.

The Tree Lady, by H. Joseph Hopkins, is a picture book chronicling the life and times of Kate Sessions, the scientist and tree hunter who brought trees to the desert climate of San Diego in the early 1900s.

On each page, Hopkins positions Kate as an exception to the rules of her world:

Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in the woods of Northern California. She gathered leaves from oaks and elms. She collected needles from pines and redwoods. And she braided them together with flowers to make necklaces and bracelets.

It was the 1860s, and girls from Kate's side of town weren't supposed to get their hands dirty. 

But Kate did.

...

When Kate grew up, she left home to study science in college. She looked at soil and insects through a microscope. She learned how plants made food and how they drank water. And she studied trees from around the world.

No woman had ever graduated from the University of California with a degree in science.

But in 1881, Kate did.

A nice proud feminist vibe throughout!

The illustrations, by Jill McElmurry, are beautifully specific: pictures of plant cells, specific (labeled!) types of leaves and desert trees, a real sense of the desert climate in the San Diego scenes.

There's enough of a story here to make it interesting, and enough scientific detail to encourage questions and further investigation.



The graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks, gets far deeper into the complexities and triumphs of scientific research. This is a book you can get lost in.

Primates provides a clear and well-dramatized introduction to the work and lives of these three primatologists, the first to live with and study primates for years in their natural habitats: Goodall with chimpanzees, Fossey with mountain gorillas, and Galdikas with orangutans. Each woman tells her own story in first-person, and in her own font and color, which helps keep the voices distinct. There are similarities in the stories, but the very different personalities of the researchers come through well.

The fourth voice in the book is that of Louis Leakey, the anthropologist and archeologist who gave all three women their start. He believed that women were better-suited to this kind of work: more patient, more observant. Through Leakey, the three women meet each other, so there are some nice moments of crossover.

Ottaviani and Wicks don't romanticize the details of living in the bush. You get a real sense throughout of the difficulties and privations of each woman's chosen career: leeches, trekking through forest, sitting for hours, days, weeks in observation. All three come across as passionate and unconventionally brilliant, deeply dedicated to the animals and their land.

While non-kid-friendly details are alluded to in the book -- Louis Leakey's womanizing, Dian Fossey's murder -- the stories are kept age-appropriate. It feels to me like a book that will deepen with rereading as you learn more about each woman's life from other sources.

I think that Isabel responds to the fierce determination of the women depicted here: their focus and refusal to be put off. I have a feeling there are more animals in her future.

Love, Annie