Sunday, February 23, 2014

Amadi's Snowman by Katia Novet Saint-Lot

We're getting our first real snow of the season today, and Sprout couldn't be more excited. Never mind that we had to wait until February to see the ground covered and the white flakes flying -- he's thrilled at the prospect of making a snowman, something we haven't really had enough snow to do in at least two winters. Such is life in the Pacific Northwest, after all.

I am a bit amused by his anticipation and excitement over the snow, mostly because his first winter here with us, Sprout HATED the snow. He cried and cried the first time we tried to play in it, and the second, and barely tolerated it the third time. But now he's become acclimated to our temperate weather, and looks forward to snow with the same heady sense of excitement I remember from my own childhood. I do often wonder what Sprout's family in Ethiopia would think if they could see him bundled up and enjoying the frosty climate. We've sent them pictures and I imagine them being surprised to see him in this setting, so different from their own lush, tropical weather. We really hope these scenes make them smile.

And of course, the snow today makes me think of a book we recently read together, Amadi's Snowman by Katia Novet Saint-Lot. The book centers around Amadi, a young Igbo boy growing up in his home country of Nigeria. Amadi's mother has arranged for a teacher in the village to spend time with Amadi and teach him to read, but Amadi's resistant. He wants to be a businessman when he grows up, getting started like the boy he sees who earn money for washing cars and then buy small trinkets they can sell to make more money. Amadi can't see how reading will help with that plan at all. And so he sneaks off before Mrs Chikodili arrives, rambling the market stalls where he sees another boy, Chima, at a bookstall reading about a creature made all of white with a carrot for a nose. Chima tells Amadi the creature is a snowman, and explains all about snow and winter. Amadi is captivated and wants to read more, but the bookstall owner chases the boys away. How will Amadi find out more about this strange snow, and a man made entirely of it? How will he learn about all the things in the world that he never knew existed?

"Lesson" books are often not my favorite, especially when they're text-heavy as this one is. But Amadi's Snowman manages to keep the tone light and the text, while plentiful, flows easily to tell Amadi's story. I like that, while set in Nigeria, the story's one that could work in many other areas. In addition, the tale is thoughtfully told, which makes it one that older readers will respond to -- I can see this used as a discussion starter in the classroom, and it's a nice book for developing global perspectives. The illustrations by Dimitrea Tokunbo capture the flavor of the setting while honoring the characters. (I wasn't at all surprised to learn that Tokunbo has a connection to Nigeria, as her father grew up there.)

All in all, Amadi's Snowman is a unique and memorable story that demonstrates the value in reading to open one's mind to new ideas and experiences -- not only for Amadi, but also for the readers who'll delve into his world.

Amadi's Snowman by Katia Novet Saint-Lot, published by Tilbury House Publishers
Ages 5-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Amadi closed the book and looked at the cover. The boy seemed to smile at him, as if challenging him. Amadi smiled back. Yes, he'd learn about snow."

Monday, February 10, 2014

Paul Meets Bernadette by Rosy Lamb

If your mind is turning to hearts and flowers, that's probably because Valentine's Day is just a few days away. Sprout's seriously excited about Valentine's Day this year, which is interesting considering that it's not a holiday we are overly effusive about around our house. Oh, we do the obligatory cards for his classroom companions (Star Wars Lego themed this year, because homemade cards take time and Mommy is tired). And we get him a couple small gifts -- in particular a book, because I'd rather emphasize International Book Giving Day than a candy-fueled Cupid fest.

And if you're looking for a terrific book to give a child, maybe something that celebrates love but isn't overtly Valentine-oriented, today's pick is a great choice. Paul Meets Bernadette is the debut picture book by author/illustrator Rosy Lamb, and it's one of our current favorites. This is the kind of quiet title that can easily be passed over -- it's pretty unassuming, and the title's one that might or might not stick in your mind. So I really wanted to be sure to call it out here on the blog, because I think the message and the medium Lamb employs for her story are just right for storytime at home or in the library.

The plot is simple enough for even younger preschoolers to easily grasp: Paul is a goldfish, and he's lonely. His life consists of swimming in circles and the biggest variety in his day is changing directions. Then one day Bernadette appears. She's a goldfish like Paul, but she has a decidedly unconventional way of looking at the world. Suddenly Paul is noticing everything, with Bernadette's help of course. And the world is pretty amazing, when right outside your bowl there's a boat, a cactus, and even a family of elephants!

Sprout got a huge kick out of Paul Meets Bernadette, largely because he's at that stage where he finds it hugely funny if we say things wrong on purpose. Like sometimes I'll tell him to wash his face and feet (instead of hands) or Daddy will call him Jasper (the cat's name). So when Bernadette starts identifying the objects for Paul, Sprout can't help but laugh -- considering that the boat she sees is really a banana, the cactus is really an alarm clock, and the family of elephants is a teapot and tea cups. Sprout just howls at this, and I expect he isn't the only kiddo who will do so. Plus this plot device opened up a great opportunity for us to talk about perspective, and how when you don't see much of the world, it's easy to misinterpret what you see, or think that one viewpoint is the only way to see things. Hmm, surprisingly deep insights, no?

And that's why I love kidlit in general, and books like Paul Meets Bernadette in particular. Because picture books like this one work on so many levels - as a beautiful visual treat, as a gentle story of friendship and the power of love, and as an opening to develop critical thinking skills in our young ones. That's why picture books are essential fodder for little minds. So if you really want to give your kiddo a treat this Valentine's, skip the conversation hearts and go for a book like Paul Meets Bernadette instead -- believe you me, it's one they'll remember after the candy is long gone.

Paul Meets Bernadette by Rosy Lamb, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
Sample: "Paul used to go around in circles. / He made big circles and little circles. / . . . And then one day, Bernadette dropped in."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You Were the First by Patricia MacLachlan

A couple of nights ago, feeling nostalgic, Hubs & I cracked out a few old photos and videos of Sprout when he first joined our family. It was fun for us, and for Sprout, to marvel over how small he was, how adorably squishy and cute, with his mop of curls and big eyes. We told Sprout story after story about his first days home: when he ate ice cream (and cried inconsolably at the cold); the way he used to stand in front of the oven and watch food cooking (Hubs called it "food tv"); the obsession with trains that meant we had track spread all over the living room. It seems like yesterday to us, of course, but to Sprout it's almost unthinkable that he was ever that small, and he loves to hear about himself at that age.

Tonight's title puts me in mind of that fascination that Sprout, like most kiddos I've known, has with hearing about himself as a baby. Patricia MacLachlan's You Were the First is a wonderful look back at a young child's early days, as told from the perspective of his doting parents. "You were the first to sleep in the basket with the yellow ribbon wound round," the book begins, opposite a picture of Mom and Dad (and puppy) gazing down at their newborn. On it goes, through early experiences like laughing at the dog, to milestones like learning to crawl, to reveling in the thrill of snow with Dad. On each page, there are tender family moments, and at the end, a reassurance: "One day there may be a second -- or a third -- to sleep in the basket with the yellow ribbon wound round. / But you will always be the first."

You Were the First is a beautiful book, gentle and sweet, written by a skilled author who knows what children enjoy. If you haven't read a Patricia MacLachlan title, you're missing out -- there are so many that we love, I'm hard-pressed to name them all . And this is a very worthy addition to her canon of modern classics, which is really what she writes, after all. While goofy and trendy titles capture attention, and are great for what they are, it is quiet books like this that parents can share with their children when it matters, when they need bolstering from the world around them. (And it could easily work for adoptive families, as there's no mention of pregnancy or birth, just an opening scene of the darling boy in his bassinet.)

MacLachlan's words are elegantly set off by Stephanie Graegin's illustrations. Graegin hasn't garnered as much attention as I feel she deserves, but she's one to seek out. Her finely articulated illustrations truly match the mood conjured by MacLachlan's prose. There are also lots of small touches that kiddos will enjoy - the presence of the baby's stuffed elephant, popping up here and there, the beaming puppy who is clearly besotted with his boy, and the cozy domesticity that's present in every image of the little family. Even the endpapers are adorable, small jewels of images that trace a baby's early months and days. 

It's worth noting that this is a transracial family, Asian American and white, which for me is a huge bonus. It's always nice to find a title like this that reads so easily and soothingly -- and diversity too? Almost too good to be true. Jump at the chance to read You Were the First to your little ones, whether they are onlies like Sprout, or the first (or tenth) of several. Because it's the kind of inclusive, peerless book we need more of for our children, and for ourselves as well.

You Were the First by Patricia MacLachlan, published by Little, Brown
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Knock, Knock: My Dad's Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty

This past Monday was a huge day in kidlit circles. Not only was it the first annual Multicultural Children's Book Day (see the list of diverse titles linked up here) but also Monday was the day the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced. This is kind of like the Super Bowl for us kidlit geeks - the day we wait all year for, when we find out at last who won the biggest children's lit awards given by librarians. It's always fun to find out which titles I've read and loved, which winners are surprises, and which just caught me by surprise.

Overall I was pretty thrilled with this year's list, especially the fact that Brian Floca's Locomotive won the Caldecott. (Honestly that was not even one I thought about, since the Caldecott is rarely given for nonfiction, but it was probably Sprout's favorite book of the entire year.) And I was happy to see a title we recently read, Daniel Beaty's Knock Knock: My Dad's Dream for Me, awarded a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Bryan Collier's incredible art.

Full disclosure: this is an honest book about a very tough situation, and it may not be for every kid. Certainly I'd say approach with caution when reading this one with a child who has been through early trauma, particularly the abrupt loss of a parent. It's a great book for discussing those events - but just know going in that there *will* be discussion from any kid, and maybe some upset from a wee one who's had early trauma. But while the subject matter is difficult -- Beaty writes from the point of view of a young boy whose father, like Beaty's one, drops out of his life one day -- I think Knock Knock absolutely has a place and a use with the appropriate audience. I applaud Beaty's willingness to tackle tough topics, and do so thoughtfully and sensitively.

Beaty's own story influenced the plot here; his father was incarcerated when the author was just three years old, and Beaty didn't get to see his dad for many years. That's an incredible burden for a young boy whose father is the center of his life, and that's what we see in Knock Knock: the daddy who has been such a fixture for the main character is one day absent, and he doesn't come back, though our hero waits and hopes. Beaty describes the loss the boy feels in concrete terms -- it's the scrambled eggs Daddy makes, and the absence of a return knock in their familiar game. One day the boy writes his father a letter, leaving it on his desk, and after a while a return missive comes. It's a heartbreaking answer, one that acknowledges the pain the boy feels but also relates the dreams the father has for his son, his hopes and wishes for the boy he knows he'll not see in the same way again.

Knock Knock is very beautifully written, and readers can feel Beaty's emotions through every line. This is an author who has lived this truth, and created something marvelous to help other children through the same sort of event. And the images by Bryan Collier are, as you might expect, amazing. Collier blends collage with his own watercolors to create pictures that are deep and introspective, even haunting. The character's expressions display their feelings, and kids who have experienced loss will recognize the look in our hero's eyes as he waits for his father. Toward the end of the story, as we read the father's letter to his son, Collier gives us a glimpse of the boy's future - we see him growing up, learning a career, and building a family of his own. Throughout, though, we know the father has never truly left his son, but is there in spirit and in thought.

Knock Knock absolutely deserves the attention it received and has earned its place in ALA award history. Read this one before you share it with your kiddos, but don't shy away just because the subject matter is hard - this is a title that will speak to kids who have been through a similar event, and create empathy and understanding for children who haven't yet had this kind of loss.

Knock, Knock: My Dad's Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, published by Little, Brown
Ages 5-7
Source: Library
First lines: "Every morning, I play a game with my father. He goes KNOCK KNOCK on my door, and I pretend to be asleep till he gets right next to the bed."