Thursday, June 30, 2011

Picture Book Review - Yafi's Family by Linda Pettit

Awassa, Ethiopia, 2010
As an adoptive parent, the most important thing I can give my son is a continued connection to his heritage, his homeland, the people of his birth country. Maintaining that connection -- and finding resources to help -- is an ongoing process, and one that I expect we'll be working on for the rest of our lives. Fortunately, though, we are part of a large community of adoptive families with children from Ethiopia. I honestly wonder how adoptive parents did it before the internet. Being able to consult with other moms about issues, no matter how big or small, is simply invaluable to us, and I think it strengthens our ability to support Sprout's healthy development.

Through that Ethiopian adoption network, I heard about the book Yafi's Family, written by Linda Pettitt and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. This title is published by Amharic Kids, a small publishing house whose mission is to support adoptees by stimulating pride in their culture and heritage. Their nonfiction title Our First Amharic Words is a great resource for language development, especially for children adopted very young who may not remember the dominant language of their homeland.

Yafi's Family is unique in that it helps explore all aspects of adoption. Sometimes it seems there is a tendency to think only in terms of what an adoptive child gains by coming to another country; but in fact there is a distinct loss for most of these children as well. We learned through our pre-adoption education that what is a joyous occasion for us as adoptive parents is almost always the result of tragedy or loss on the part of the adoptee themselves.

For Yafi, there is loss on many levels -- the death of his birth mother, his grandmother's inability to continue caring for him, the separation from his friends at the orphanage as they too were adopted. Pettit describes these events through a conversation Yafi has with his adoptive family, illustrating the importance of talking openly and frankly with children about their history. Adoptees may feel conflicted about loving their new home even as they long for the country of their birth. Yafi is sad that he cannot remember his birth mother's face, and that he does not have a photo of her. But Yafi's mother tells him, "When a baby is born to a mother, that baby may not remember the mother in his mind, but he can remember the love in his heart." And she reassures Yafi that even though his Ethiopian family is not with him, they are still his family, and every much a part of him as the new family he has come to love.

This handsomely illustrated title is one that belongs on the shelf of every adoptive family, but especially those with Ethiopian children. It'll be some years yet before Sprout fully understands the story of his family, but that doesn't mean we're going to wait to talk with him about it. His story is already a familiar part of our everyday conversation, one that will be even more significant as we share books like Yafi's Family together.

Yafi's Family by Linda Pettit, published by Amharic Kids
All ages
Sample quote: "I think I remember Auntie and the bus, but I can't remember my first mother. When I think about her, I'm sad and I miss her. Why do I miss her when I can't remember her face?"
Borrowed from local library

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Raised by Readers

Few things make a better gift for a child than a book, in my mind. Toys wear out, clothes are outgrown, gadgets wane in popularity. But a book is forever, in the sense that it opens the mind and the heart to new ideas, and for a young child provides an excellent opportunity for one-on-one time with an adult. The one gift my niece and nephews could always count on was a book, like it or not!

Sprout is fortunate to have several adults in his life who give books as gifts (this is what happens when your mom and dad are avid readers, and their friends are too). To my delight he is as thrilled by a new book as he is by a Thomas engine, and that's saying a lot. And we always welcome an addition to the reading rotation, as it usually comes just when we think we can't read Goodnight Moon one more time without losing our marbles.

One friend in particular seems to have an innate knack for finding fun, engaging titles that also happen to celebrate diversity. We always get excited when a package comes from Miss Mary, because it is guaranteed to have great books inside! Even as I type this, Sprout and Daddy are reading our very favorite, Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury. We love this one for lots of reasons -- it's fun to act out (wiggling fingers and toes), it features illustrations of babies who are all kinds of cute, and it has the big finale, where Mama's baby gets "three little kisses on the end of its nose". Of course, we always plant three kisses on Sprout at the end, and he giggles in anticipation all through the book. What could be more fun? Such a great read-aloud!

Another gift from Miss Mary was, appropriately, Mary Had a Little Lamb by Jonas Sickler. This title is in the Indestructibles line of books, which are, as promised, darn near impossible for a baby to ruin. Seriously! Skip the fragile pop-ups and lift-the-flaps, or at least postpone them until your kiddo is read. T
hese books can be bent, squashed, chewed, pulled, wadded up and drooled on (and don't think they won't be). I've found ours folded up at the bottom of the train bin and stuffed into the couch cushion, and you'd never know it. Oh, and did I mention? In this version Mary and her woolly little friend live in Africa! We like to point out to Sprout that the hut in the pictures is similar to those in the village where he lived. This is a great way to bring two cultures together. Also look for their version of Old MacDonald, whose farm is in Bolivia. Love it!

For Christmas, Miss Mary sent us Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Asim. Not only is this fun to read aloud, with its rhythmic text and creative premise, but it's also a true pleasure to look at. The chubby-legged boy in question is depicted legs-only in various poses, from lounging on a boat to marching up a stair, and everything in between. In the last spread the oh-so-adorable boy is revealed, grinning devilishly like he's really pulled one over on you. Sprout likes to point at it and say "Me!", and it actually does look a lot like him, especially that gleeful smile. I really love this one, and will be on the lookout for more titles by Asim as well as by illustrator LeUyen Pham (and check out Pham's website, if you want to see something really fun).

Every kid should be as lucky as we are, to have family and friends who value books and want to share them. If, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child, then a village full of booklovers is just who we want for Sprout. And we'll do the same for others.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

YA Review - Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

You know when you read a novel, and almost from the first chapter you know it's going to be one of those that stays with you, the kind you recommend to everyone and end up rereading just for the pleasure of it?

Yep, I love that too.

Confession time: I have not read Gary Schmidt's Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars, despite the high acclaim it has received AND despite the fact that I actually own a copy, somewhere. And so I'm not sure why exactly I moved Schmidt's new novel, Okay for Now, up to the top of my TBR list, so much so that I brought it along on vacation. But many thanks to the mysterious forces at work that led me to do so, because wow, is this an incredible book.

For Doug Swieteck, moving to a new town just makes his crummy life that much harder. There's his brother Christopher, he of the "twisted criminal mind" who torments Doug at every opportunity. There's school, where Doug will do almost anything to hide his difficulty reading. And there's his father, whose abusive nature gets worse now that he has a regular drinking buddy. It all adds up to be just about more than Doug can bear.

But then beauty enters Doug's life, in the form of an original John James Audubon book at the Marysville Public Library. Doug is captivated by the prints and Audubon's technique, and compelled to learn all of what it takes to capture the images as vividly as Audubon does. And wouldn't you know it, those birds begin to crack the hard shell Doug has formed around himself, and before long there are new friends (a girl!), books to read, relationships with adults, and all kinds of good things taking the place of beatings and desperateness.

It's not all rosy and it's not all easy. There are still "wrong days", the kind of day when Doug just doesn't try to approach his father for anything. And there are still things that Doug makes a mess of, and that make a mess of him. But the difference is that there's hope there now, where it wasn't before, and maybe things will start to turn around, just a little, because suddenly Doug knows he has a lot of people on his side.

Okay for Now pulls together pieces -- Audubon prints, domestic abuse, Joe Pepitone's jacket, a Broadway play, learning disabilities -- that in any other author's hands would be little more than a disconnected jumble. But Schmidt knows what he's doing here, and he makes it all flow together like only the best storytellers can. It works, in that indefinable magic way that really fine novels do, so the reader is never aware of the machinations behind the scenes.

Gary Schmidt is more than just a great writer, he's a great writer for kids. There is a huge difference after all, because adults will give even the most unintelligible mess of a novel a chance on the basis of critical acclaim or a friend's recommendation. But kids -- kids are different. Grab them right away, make them care and then keep on making them care, or they are on to something else. Schmidt knows how to make kids see beyond the surface. We know from the start that there's a lot Doug isn't telling us, a great deal of pain he is hiding behind his tough exterior. And I think that is something many boys will relate to, the societal pressure to hide their real feelings under a veneer of "I don't care" bravado.

I'll be extremely surprised if Okay for Now doesn't make the Newbery list this year. It's certainly going to be on my personal short list. What I do know is this is one I will save for Sprout when he's old enough, anticipating his objections with a note that says "I know. Just read it."

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt, Clarion Books
Ages 10 up
Sample quote: "This bird was falling and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all. It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen. The most beautiful."
Highly recommended

Friday, June 24, 2011

Picture Book Review - Ten Days and Nine Nights by Yumi Heo

When preparing to add a new baby to the household, many parents seek out books that will gently introduce their older child to the idea. Just like with any transition, kids have a lot of questions and may need reassurance that the new baby isn't going to take their place in mommy and daddy's hearts (even though it may seem that way at first). And there are tons of titles that do this very thing quite well -- everything from the classics (Berenstain Bears, Little Critter) to newer titles like Cornelius P. Mud, Are You Ready for Baby? by Barney Saltzberg and Waiting for Baby by Rachel Fuller. The latter title I especially like not only for its bright, appealing artwork but also because it features a multiracial family -- this could be a terrific tool for parents who have previously adopted and are now expecting a biological child, for example.

But for families who are adding a child through adoption, very few titles explain this phenomenon from the older sibling's point of view. A notable exception is Yumi Heo's Ten Days and Nine Nights. In this sweetly relatable picture book, the older sister prepares to welcome home a new baby from Korea. Heo does a great job of addressing issues common to older siblings in this situation, from seeing Mommy off on the plane, to redecorating her bedroom and making room for a crib. Through it all, Sister is surrounded by the reassuring presence of Daddy, grandparents, and her friend Molly. And the sense of anticipation is emphasized by Sister's calendar countdown, where she crosses off the days until baby sister joins their family. The final spread, of the two sisters smiling at one another, underscores the celebratory nature of the text.

What I appreciate most about Ten Days and Nine Nights is that it doesn't go into an explanation of adoption and what that means. There are plenty of titles that do this, and Heo does offer some spreads that show Mommy going about the business of completing the adoption in Korea, while Sister prepares at home. But this title is aimed at validating the older sibling's experience, which in my mind makes it unique and beneficial for any family expanding through adoption, whether international or domestic. Families with only one child will also appreciate Heo's book, as it helps explain to a child what the rest of the family was going through to prepare for his/her arrival. And the charmingly simple artwork is a winner all on its own.

Ten Days and Nine Nights by Yumi Heo, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2009
Picture book
Sample quote "I mark a circle on the calendar. I have ten days and nine nights."
Highly recommended

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

YA Review - Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis

It's summer, finally, even if the weather here in the Pacific Northwest is still a bit on the cool and rainy side. And summer for many people conjures up very specific childhood memories. For me, it's lazy days reading whatever I wanted to, berry picking, riding my bike, eating popsicles, and piling into the car for the occasional weekend away. We never went on long driving vacations like many of my friends did -- no Grand Canyon tours for me -- which is probably why it's something I'm looking forward to doing with Sprout when he's old enough. My husband did do a number of road trips, and he has fond memories of stopping at every out of the way place to see various oddities, and taking photos at all the "Welcome to" signs they came across.

Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis is, on one level at least, a road trip novel. Octavia is less than thrilled to be taking a trip cross-country to a family reunion. Two big reasons she doesn't want to go: older sister Tali, obsessed with friends and fashion, and grandmother Mare, who "isn't at all normal" like a grandmother should be. Mare is larger than life, with a sense of style and spirit all her own. Octavia loves predictability, and Mare is anything but. So this summer road trip promises to be one major ordeal.

And then Mare starts talking about the old days, her years spent as a WAC during World War II. That's when the story splits in two, with Octavia's storyline alternating with chapters about Mare's life then, her friends and the challenges of making her way in an unfamiliar world far from home. Mare's stories about her own bravery -- escaping her alcoholic mother and mom's abusive boyfriend to land in a world of tear gas drills, barracks life and foreign deployments-- help Octavia to find the courage within herself. Gradually Octavia, whose life has always been about safety and security, begins to see that stretching outside her comfort zone may just make life more interesting, and even worth living. And both Tali and Octavia learn that there is a lot more to their unconventional grandmother than meets the eye.

Mare's War has a lot to say about the experience of African Americans during the war years, particularly female soldiers who found themselves a world away in cities like London and Paris. Author Tanita Davis does a great job here of mingling historical details with strong characters and compelling storylines, so the reader never feels bogged down in a history lesson. A common weakness of the alternate storyline-technique is that one of the plots usually comes out being much more intriguing than the other, but here Davis has hit a good balance. Young readers who may at first be put off by the history will soon find that Mare and her friends have problems that they can relate to, and are just as out of place serving in "this man's army" as they themselves might be at school or social situations. Personally I appreciate the realistic approach -- the girls aren't perfect, and neither is Mare, and this creates interesting tension within the storyline. While Octavia and Tali do come to appreciate and understand their grandmother a little better, it doesn't come right away and it isn't without some struggle. (The scene where Tali orders a drink at dinner, thinking she and Octavia are on her own, is one of my favorites.)

After reading this I've added two more entries to my TBR list -- A La Carte, Davis's first novel, and Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, about an African American girl who longs to fly planes during World War II.

Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis, Knopf
Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award
Sample quote: "What I know is this: God will surely help you, but you also got to help your own self."

Highly recommended

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Reading Dad

From my point of view, there's no more important way to encourage literacy in your kiddos than to model that behavior yourself. Kidlit blogger Jen Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page writes frequently and persuasively about the ways we can bolster literacy and the love of reading in little ones. In this post from 2008, she mentions modeling that behavior ourselves, and the importance of doing so especially for fathers. Jen says, "If the only people boys ever see reading are their mothers and their female teachers, it's very easy for those boys to absorb the message that reading is a feminine activity. But if even some of the time your son sees his father reading instead of watching television, that message goes a long way."

Another blog I love, Read Aloud Dad, not only hails the benefits of reading aloud, but also encourages dads to find ways to encourage their boys to read, especially. Not to slight girls, but let's be honest here: there does appear to be a cultural bias toward reading as a somehow "girlie" pastime (about which I strenuously object). Read Aloud Dad did a great interview with Pam Allyn (read the whole thing here) where she makes the case for meeting boys where they are, and reading what they want to read -- and especially reading it with them. So, not only do kids need to see us read, they need to hear it and be surrounded by it, in an environment that establishes the importance of reading in everyday life, not just for school or because we have to.

As a mom I feel particularly blessed to have a husband who values literacy just as much as I do. But for his love of comic books, we may never have met in the first place, and so that common ground has formed a basis on which our relationship has been built. And before Sprout joined our family, we talked a whole lot about reading, and how important it is to both of us that our little man be exposed to concepts, ideas, thoughts, mindsets far beyond the reaches of our little burg -- realms he can only find between the covers of books.

In Sprout's early days home, a major component of the bonding between father and son came about at bedtime, when Jake would hold him with a bottle and read to him. Mr. Brown Can Moo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Harry the Dirty Dog, Pajama Time. Some classics, some newer titles, most of which likely made zero sense to a one-year-old who'd never heard English before. But now those books stand out as some of Sprout's favorites, and the ones he goes back to again and again. And although both Mama and Daddy read to Sprout whenever he wants us to -- seriously, it's a drop-everything-and-do-it-now activity -- there are some titles that no one does just like Daddy. I mean, Mama tries her best, but she can't top Daddy's exuberance and suspenseful build-up for A Monster At the End of This Book. Not even close.

On this Father's Day, we'll be celebrating with family and spending time riding bikes and playing trains. But when bedtime rolls around, you know just where to find us -- all together, in one place, with our books.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of Trains and Planes and Things that Go

Pretty much everyone who knows my kiddo knows his obsession with all things transportation-related. It started with Thomas the Tank Engine, which has some oddly mesmerizing hold over the toddler male demographic. Then we got into Pixar's Cars -- great timing for that one because now with the sequel coming out, we can't even buy cereal without Lightning McQueen and crew staring out at us from every shelf. And along the way we have accumulated other vehicles of various origination and type. Most days my living room looks like we are about to hold a public auto auction.

Big surprise then that when we go to the library, most of our selections feature trains, trucks, boats and the like. This past week one of Sprout's favorite selections is Byron Barton's Trains. It's a classic that I remember from my bookselling days as being steadily popular, along with Barton's other titles like Trucks, Planes, and Boats. Barton's illustration style features chunky yet remarkably detailed translations of the theme, loads of primary colors, and pleasantly appealing humans, similar to Todd Parr's, who don't get in the way of the action. In short, all the things toddler boys are drawn to.

What I hadn't remembered, until I spent the past week reading this title twice a night, every night, is that Barton does a great job of incorporating diversity into a book that isn't ostensibly multicultural. Sure, the trains take center stage (especially that passenger train -- that sucker just keeps popping up!). But look closer and you'll note that Barton's people are all colors of the rainbow. And it's not just a token brown face at the edge of the crowd, but families, business travelers, and railway staff of multiple hues. Our favorite part of the book is the spread with the passengers asleep, one face in each window. Sprout delights in pointing out the little brown boy in the back ("me!" he chirps), and the reddish-haired white lady just in front of him ("Mama!"). This is a refreshing change for us from the mostly whitewashed world of Thomas and Friends. Kudos to you, Byron Barton!

If you can't find these in your library (and they are older -- Trains is copyrighted 1986), look for the board book versions online or at your local indie bookstore. A great addition to any little man's collection!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Open for Business

Just what the world needs, another book blog.

All right, so the blogosphere isn't crying out for one more voice speaking up about children's books. After all, the kidlitosphere is alive and well, and there are more than a few top-notch bloggers already pointing out what's good and not so good in the world of children's publishing (if you don't believe me, check here -- and yes, that's just the "sampler set". Impressive, no?)

But a while back I read an article in the November 2009 issue of School Library Journal, written by Elizabeth Bird. Bird's blog, if you don't know it, is A Fuse #8 Production, and it's quite simply one of the most fantastic examples of book blogging out there.

Go read some. I'll wait.

Now, for those of you who decided to rejoin this humble effort, you can see what I mean about there not exactly being a void in the world of kid's lit. And Fuse #8 is just one of the incredible blogs being written, to say nothing of Reading Rants!, The Brown Bookshelf, MotherReader, or Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, among many others. But what Bird wrote in that SLJ article hung with me. She says, "Bloggers blog because they love literature written for youth, and they want to share that love with others who feel the same way. Take away the distractions of who might be reading and why, and what you have are people who love what they do and are consistently willing to hear what others have to say. It is a community of people open to anyone who wants to join in the conversation."

Huh. Anyone, you say?

Well, pull up a chair, because I'm in.

And who am I exactly? In a nutshell, I'm a former bookseller turned library staffer, pursuing my MLIS online and raising my son, who just turned two. In fact, said son not only inspired the name for this blog (being the aforementioned Sprout) but also provided the kick in the hiney I needed to realize that children's lit is my true passion. Seeking out books to build his library has given me a whole new perspective on what's out there for families formed through international adoption, like ours was. Thanks to Sprout I am always on the lookout for books that depict diversity in a myriad of ways, while still being entertaining and fun to read together. And it occurred to me as I began to put this blog together that here was a niche I could fill, one for adoptive and transracial families from all walks of life.

So the goal here is to highlight books that Sprout and I read together, as well as middle-grade and even a few teen novels that I hope he'll be drawn to as he grows up. In that sense, I am building a virtual bookshelf for my son and others, never knowing which title might be the one that sparks the ongoing fire of a voracious reader.

If you're up for that, keep coming back. Sprout's Bookshelf is now open for business.