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.

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!


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,