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Archive for the ‘Birth and up’ Category

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq

by Jeanette Winter

Harcourt, 2005

32 pages

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

by Mark Alan Stamaty

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

32 pages

When the United States, Britain, and George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003, the human toll of the operation was the only thing more upsetting to me than the destruction and looting of museums, ancient landmarks, and cultural resources.

I knew that the loss of Iraq’s landmarks and artifacts was not just about the Iraqi people. It was about all of us, because we all trace our history back to the early civilizations represented by those irreplaceable treasures.

Since then, I’ve wondered what happened – what is happening – to Iraq’s cultural repository. How much was lost to the war, and did anyone ever manage to protect what was so important?

Not long ago, I discovered just a small part of the answer to that question when my local library held a book club event for children. The featured book was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra.

Inspired by a New York Times article, this picture book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baqr (sometimes spelled Baker), who was the Basra city librarian at the time of the war. After reading Winter’s book and researching Baqr further, I discovered a second book about her: Mark Alan Stamaty’s graphic novella Alia’s Mission.

Alia’s story is this. She was head of the busy public library in downtown Basra, where people came to read and discuss ideas. Following the 2003 invasion, rumors reached Basra that the British were coming to take the city. Afraid that fighting would destroy the library, Alia asked Basra’s mayor for permission to move the books. He not only said no, he turned the library into a military command post, making it an even likelier target.

That was the last straw for Alia. She secretly recruited her friend Anis, who owned a restaurant next door, and other concerned citizens to help her. They began smuggling books over the wall to Anis’s restaurant and down the street to Alia’s home. The British did take Basra, and the library did burn – but not before Alia and her friends had saved about 30,000 volumes.

Winter lays out this story in just a few sentences, accompanied by simple but richly colored illustrations. Her book is suitable for children of any age.

Stamaty goes into a bit more detail, in a version that is suitable for elementary ages. He fleshes out Alia’s motivation for saving the books, the contributions of the Ottoman Empire, the participation of Alia’s husband and Basra’s citizens. He also tells the end of the story: following a stroke caused by stress, Alia recovered and oversaw the construction of a new library.

There are so many inspirational elements to Alia’s story: her courage, her civil disobedience, her tenacity, her ability to galvanize others. But what I really loved – and what most inspired my daughter – was the fact that this is a story about books.

There’s a reason so many authoritarian regimes deny girls an education, censor or even burn certain books, or deny freedom of the press. Because books make people think. A non-reading, unthinking populace is easy to control. But readers, like the men and women who visited the Basra library, absorb ideas and talk about them. And thinking, idea-sharing people are dangerous people.

Books can also be important tools for becoming better versions of ourselves. Books and other written materials have longed help to spread ideas – whether religious, scientific, political, or artistic – that have saved lives, encouraged compassion, promoted peace, and shared beauty.

As Stamaty points out, that’s why Alia considered “her” books worth the risk of rescue. She had the vision to understand that Basra and its people are better off with their library intact. Especially for a girl living in a free, developed nation, where reading is a mundane activity, Alia’s story is an inspiring reminder of the importance of books and the lengths a courageous woman will go to preserve them.

 

 

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Journey

By Aaron Becker

Candlewick Press, 2013

40 pages

Wordless picture books fascinate me. Perhaps because words are my “thing,” I’m somewhat in awe of someone who can tell a story – a fully-realized, rich, deep story – without them.

I didn’t read (is that the right term?) wordless picture books as a kid. In fact, I read very few picture books at all. I started with A Child’s Garden of Verses at age 3, but by age 7, I was reading A Christmas Carol. And once I’d discovered novels, I almost never looked back. Something about the immersiveness of fiction pulled me in and held me.

I rediscovered picture books as a high school senior, when I was looking for inspiration for an assignment. I remembered how much I had loved A Child’s Garden of Verses and went back to it. There was something entrancing in the spareness of the words and the way they nevertheless managed to tell an entire story. Intrigued, I started reading the occasional picture book in between my dates with Dickens and Steinbeck and other “grownup” favorites.

Then, my first year in college, I encountered my first wordless picture book (really). It was David Wiesner’s Tuesday, one of the wittiest, most imaginative works in the genre. I was hooked. Ever since, I’ve kept a weather eye out for more.

And that’s how I discovered Aaron Becker’s Journey. I was reading the ALA’s announcement of this year’s Caldecott books, and the description caught my eye. A wordless picture book that had nabbed a Caldecott Honor? Count me in! And there was a girl on the cover – bonus! (Yes, I’m a geek.) So, the next time I went to the library, I picked it up.

Journey is the story of a bored, lonely young girl who discovers a magical red crayon and uses it to create an adventure for herself. She visits an enchanted wood and a sprawling castle, rescues a beautiful bird from a greedy emperor, takes a magic carpet ride through the desert, and makes a new friend.

The book is full of clever allusions, some that older elementary-age kids might catch, and others probably only apparent to grownups. I saw shades of Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, M.C. Escher, and Lord of the Rings, to name a few. The characters and settings are a fascinating blend of steampunk and medieval-cum-early-20th-century Asian, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, and European.

Yet Becker somehow combines all these elements into an original, integral, captivating whole. I was virtually on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what the girl would do next, how she would solve a particular problem, or where she would go.

And that’s partly where the inspirational aspect of Journey lies. Becker’s heroine is a true adventurer – and girl adventurers still aren’t all that common in picture books. This little girl is curious, bold, and inventive: just the role model to encourage little girls to get out there, discover, and do.

The art is inspiring, too. And I’m not just talking about Becker’s breathtakingly beautiful illustrations. The heroine moves from place to place by creating art of her own, always in a blazing shade of red. Her art is elegant in its simplicity, but forceful and active. She’s an encouragement to girls to make and create, to let art take their spirits to new and wild places.

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Ladybug Girl

by David Soman and Jacky Davis

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2008

40 pages

I have a confession to make: I’m a book snob. I usually avoid bestsellers like the plague.

This is partly due to experience. When I have tried to read John Grisham, Tom Clancy, or the like, I’ve found them unappealing. They just don’t suit my tastes as a reader. Ditto celebrity-authored picture books. But sometimes the prejudice is nothing more than orneriness. I didn’t read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone until about 2001, for instance, simply because everyone else was reading it.

David Soman and Jacky Davis’ Ladybug Girl was one of those books, one I avoided reading just because it was popular. I assumed it would be like Fancy Nancy or Junie B. Jones: another bestselling book girls read in stages. Entertaining but formulaic, not certifiably “bad” but certainly not inspiring.

But then I saw the book showcased at our local library, and I had second thoughts. First, our children’s librarian doesn’t usually showcase mediocre books. Second, that cover! The title character has pride of place; she looks confident, energetic, and just a little mischievous.

So I checked it out. And I was very, very pleasantly surprised.

The story is simple: Ladybug Girl, also known as Lulu, is left to “figure out her own fun time” one morning. Mama and Papa have projects to do, and Older Brother says Lulu’s “too little” to play baseball with him and his friends.

She mopes for a bit, then slowly makes her way outside, where she discovers that she really can make her own fun. Accompanied by Bingo the basset hound, she jumps into puddles, climbs trees, and turns an old stone wall into a fort. In the process, she recovers her sense of self and ultimately returns home “feeling as big as the whole outdoors.”

I love this book for so many reasons. First, the story follows an authentic trajectory–like any normal little girl, Lulu is irritated and somewhat hurt by being left on her own. She only gradually transitions from dejection and uncertainty to self-direction and confidence. The message? It’s normal to feel sad when people let you down, and it’s normal to heal gradually from disappointment. But heal you will, if you give yourself space to do it.

I also love that Lulu gets a sidekick. Girl characters rarely have sidekicks–authors tend to give them friends or companions instead (or to make them into sidekicks). It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. You partner with friends or companions; you lead sidekicks. By giving Lulu a sidekick, Soman and Davis make her a leader–thus showing little girls that they can be leaders, too.

And then there’s Lulu’s reaction to her brother’s dismissal of her as “too little.” Early in the book, she takes it to heart. But later, when he repeats it, she reconsiders. Her confidence bolstered by her outdoor explorations, she decides that her brother is the little one–for being mean and combative.

In other words, she refuses to let someone else’s unkindness define who she is. Instead, she considers what she knows about herself and forms her own opinion. She realizes that her inner qualities are more important than outward stature, and she takes pride in her own helpfulness, courage, and resourcefulness.

When no one else inspires her, she finds a way to inspire herself.

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Abigail Adams

by Alexandra Wallner

Holiday House, 2001

32 pages

Grade-school lessons about the women’s movement are pretty limited in scope. They tend to focus on the women’s suffrage campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then skip ahead to the ’60s and ’70s and the battle over the ERA.

As a result, young girls can come away with the impression that the women’s movement (or any progressive movement, really) consists of isolated, dramatic showdowns, with nothing significant happening in between.

The reality, of course, is completely different.

While those dramatic showdowns are great for wide-reaching legislative or judicial gains, they’re only the culmination of days, months, years, even decades of day-to-day choices on the part of equality-minded men and women everywhere.

A dad tells his daughter he’s proud of her good grades, and she realizes that being a girl isn’t just about being pretty. A scientist mentors a woman protegee, and a male-dominated field gains one more female. A teacher corrects a child who says something offensive, and classmates learn to think outside stereotypes.

Or, of course, a caregiver reads an inspiring book, and a child learns to think of women as strong, capable, and smart. Alexandra Wallner’s picture book biography of Abigail Adams is one of those inspiring books you can read to very young girls (or boys, for that matter).

When I was a kid, Abigail Adams didn’t get much attention: she was notable primarily as the only woman to be both the wife and mother of a president. In recent years, however, blockbuster biographies, major miniseries, and the popularity of the revived musical 1776 have brought Abigail into the public eye.

She was quite the woman, it turns out, and Wallner’s biography really highlights her intelligence, her importance, and her revolutionary ideas.

Abigail’s egalitarian consciousness developed early, we learn, when her wealthy parents allowed only her brother to go to school. Undaunted, she educated herself by reading avidly in the family’s library and eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ conversations.

She fell in love with her husband because he was intelligent and respected her intelligence. Knowing that, in Colonial society, “her future depended on her husband,” Abigail chose John because she thought he would treat her as an equal.

As their marriage progressed, Abigail proved her mettle. She managed their large estate when John traveled, led Colonial women in boycotts of British goods, and wrote John with ideas and advice that he shared with George Washington.

John supported her through it all–except when she wrote passionately that the new nation’s constitution should include equal rights for women and freedom for slaves.

Despite his rebuff, however, she held to her principles and implemented them in her daily life. She saw her daughters fully educated, taught black servants to read and write, and continued to speak out for equal rights.

Wallner’s straightforward text and simple, folk-art-style illustrations evoke Abigail’s strong and direct nature. At the same time, they capture the salient emotions of Abigail’s life–her contentment in learning, her determination in her work, her pain at John’s rebuff, and her happiness in their well-earned retirement years.

The book shows girls that progress doesn’t always come dramatically, and not all heroines grab headlines. You don’t have to be interested in the limelight to make a very real and lasting impact. Wallner also shows that, even when progress is not all we hoped it would be, we can still find some way to make a difference here and now.

More than anything, I love the way Wallner goes behind the canonized narrative to demonstrate Abigail’s importance. It’s the kind of book that leaves girls asking, “If she was so important, and I haven’t heard much about her, who else haven’t I heard about?”

Inspiration to look behind the curtain, learn more, dig deeper–is there anything better?

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Virginia Wolf

by Kyo Maclear; ill. Isabelle Arsenault

Kids Can Press, 2012

32 pages

Fifty years ago, Maurice Sendak published Where The Wild Things Are–and all hell broke loose.

Parents, educators, and politicians alike were horrified that anyone would produce a picture book centered around children’s deepest, darkest emotions and fantasies. Most didn’t want to admit that such emotions and fantasies even existed. Many libraries and schools banned the book, and reviews were overwhelmingly negative.

Then the American Library Association awarded the book the Caldecott Medal, the picture book genre’s highest honor, and adults started to realize that kids loved the book. Wherever it hadn’t been banned, libraries couldn’t keep it on the shelves. Clearly, Sendak had struck a chord.

Producing a book like Wild Things only made sense to Sendak. In his Caldecott acceptance speech, he said, “From their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions. Fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives. . . . And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis.”

In a day when authors and illustrators are accustomed to being much more honest about the true inner lives of children and teens, it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking Where the Wild Things Are was. And it’s still hard to find anyone who engages those inner lives quite as elegantly, productively, and intensely as Sendak did.

But every now and then, I find a book that strikes me as a worthy successor to the Sendak legacy. This time, it was Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault’s Virginia Wolf.

Inspired by the real Virginia Woolf and her sister, this picture book chronicles Vanessa’s efforts to help Virginia overcome a howling, growling wolf of a mood.

Virginia wakes up one morning feeling depressed and irritated. She wants nothing to do with anyone and insists on staying in bed. Her dark mood turns the entire family’s world topsy-turvy–so Vanessa, whose little heart is aching for her sad sister, takes it upon herself to soothe the wolf.

Following a suggestion from Virginia, Vanessa begins to paint: flowers, birds, bugs, trees. And as she paints, Virginia begins to take notice. Eventually, Vanessa creates an immense, weird, and wonderful garden-world called Bloomsberry where Virginia can re-center herself. Then the world returns to rights, and Virginia is a girl again.

There’s so much to love about this book. Maclear’s spare, evocative descriptions of Virginia’s mood perfectly capture the chaos and pain of real depression. And Arsenault’s stunning illustrations–an inventive combination of silhouettes, black-and-white drawings, and thin-lined watercolors–evoke the mental and creative gymnastics both sisters execute over the course of the story.

I’m an inveterate learner, so I personally favor books that open doors to or plant seeds for other topics. And that’s something else to love about Virginia Wolf. It’s an excellent story for introducing young children to the real Virginia Woolf, if only to the fact that she was one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

Particularly for girls, I think it’s good to hear the names of influential women at a young age, to know from childhood that there are many women who have made great achievements in all kinds of fields. And the book can also open doors to conversations about art, how it affects us, and the creative process.

What’s inspiring about the book, however, is precisely what makes it such a worthy Sendak successor. Children get sad and angry, sometimes extremely so. And full-blown mental illness like depression often begins to manifest during early childhood. (Woolf, who suffered her first nervous breakdown at age 13, was herself a lifelong sufferer of depression and other mental illness.)

Virginia Wolf offers girls coping with outsize emotions–including those who may already be diagnosed with mental illness–a way to see that they’re not alone in how they feel. It also shows them that they’re not alone in coping with their emotions. It plants the idea that there are loved ones standing by who care deeply about how they feel and want to help them heal. It communicates the message that there is no shame in feeling sad or angry, that help is about being healthy, not about repression or blame.

In short, Virginia Wolf tells girls that big emotions are real, that it’s OK to feel and express them, and that the people who love them (especially other girls and women) are a safe place for coping. Unfortunately, it’s not all that common to find this kind of message in a book with female protagonists, but I’m glad to have found at least one book where it holds true.

Thanks to Neely’s News for introducing me to Virginia Wolf!

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Jessica

by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books, 1989

24 pages

Kevin Henkes is one of my favorite author-illustrators for children. His perceptive, sometimes sly and snarky heroes and heroines are among the most engaging characters in picture book land. And his lovely little jewel-like illustrations beautifully capture the simultaneous limitations and limitlessness of a child’s world, both real and imagined.

So I was eager to read Jessica, which my daughter picked out on one of our many trips to the library. This picture book is actually the story of Ruthie, a headstrong little girl who ignores her parents’ insistence that her invisible friend Jessica is only imaginary.

Ruthie and Jessica do everything together–they play, visit Ruthie’s grandparents, and celebrate their birthdays. Meanwhile, Ruthie’s parents repeatedly and fruitlessly (and, in classic Henkes style, in increasingly larger fonts) try to convince their daughter that Jessica doesn’t exist.

Finally, it’s time for Ruthie to enter kindergarten, and her parents suggest a fresh start with new friends. As she has with all her parents’ previous naysaying, Ruthie simply ignores the idea. And this is where Henkes’ genius really shines through.

Most books would show the parents winning out somehow: Ruthie would get picked on for having an imaginary friend, she’d decide to be a “big girl” and move on, or she’d get so wrapped up in the excitement of kindergarten that she’d forget all about Jessica (for good). But, true to his own unique form, Henkes goes in another direction.

Partway through the day, at a point when the children are told to pair up, another little girl suddenly appears at Ruthie’s side. “May I be your partner?” she asks. “My name is Jessica.”

Take that, grown-ups.

From Ruthie’s perspective, her invisible friend has just materialized in front of her eyes. We adults (and any really perceptive kids) know that’s not exactly what’s happened, of course. But the universe has definitely just given Ruthie its stamp of approval.

The overall effect is one of poetic justice for Ruthie. She was right all along, even if she wasn’t. She ends up being rewarded for her imagination, loyalty, and tenacity, for her refusal to give up on something good that genuinely enriched her life.

Isn’t that what we want for our girls? For them to figure out what’s good in life, what truly enriches and is worth fighting for? Friendship, of the kind Ruthie has with Jessica, is definitely one of those things. And Ruthie has the wisdom to know it.

I also like Henkes’ handling of imagination here. In addition to celebrating and validating Ruthie’s very vivid imagination, he draws children into imagining along with her. Many of his illustrations include a physical space for Jessica so readers can picture her in their own way.

Overall, it’s a characteristic Henkes gem: charming but just a little edgy, with that lovely whisper to kids of “I understand you.” And, for any little girls who share Ruthie’s vigorous imagination, it’s also an inspiration to keep doing what they do best and to use their boundless minds to celebrate what’s good in life.

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Madeline

by Ludwig Bemelmans

Simon & Schuster, 1939

54 pages

“In an old house in Paris, covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines . . .” Male or female, you recognize those words, don’t you? They’re the opening to each of Ludwig Bemelmans’ iconic Madeline stories, a series of picture books about a little girl who lives in a Paris boarding school in the early 1900s.

When I first thought of writing about Madeline (and its sequels) for this blog, I second-guessed myself. I try to focus on books that are beautifully written–and, to be honest, I think Bemelmans’ verse leaves much to be desired. His meter is uneven (sometimes distractingly so), his syntax often artificial. Overall, the writing just feels clunky; I can’t think of another way to say it.

Yet, somehow, he manages to sneak in brilliant turns of phrase, memorable and beautiful sequences of lines (like that famous opener), and descriptions that are by turns hilarious, moving, and epigrammatic. His paintings are a tremendous help, no doubt. Full of energy and movement, they capture Madeline’s indomitable spirit–the reason I considered reviewing Bemelmans’ stories to begin with.

Madeline is the spunkiest of spunky heroines, a tiny fearless package of wit, nerve, and initiative. She may be “the smallest one,” but she’s also the bravest and toughest of the group, their guardian Miss Clavel included. She’s the one who pooh-poohs tigers, walks the bridge-rail over the Seine, and keeps the school afloat when everyone else is sick. She is also the social adept of the bunch–clever enough to see past neighbor-boy Pepito’s bravado to his simple need for approval and friendship.

There are several discrete moments in the Madeline stories that I really love, that I think demonstrate precisely why this little girl is so inspiring. First is in the introduction of the first book, where Bemelmans explains that his heroine “was not afraid of mice”: while her fellow students cower in a corner of the kitchen, she goes nose-to-nose with three little mice who have invaded the cook’s domain.

She’s fearless when everyone else is petrified–she doesn’t let the crowd’s mentality determine hers. And she refuses to let her fear get in the way of her curiosity. She wants to get to know those mice, and she’s going to do it, regardless of whether they give her (or everyone else in the building) the willies.

Next is the page where Madeline shows off her appendix scar to her schoolmates. Anna Quindlen, in her introductory essay to Mad About Madeline (a 1993 edition containing all six Madeline stories), calls this moment “as good a rendering of carriage-as-character as I’ve ever seen outside of Holbein’s portraits.”

You don’t have to know anything about Holbein and his paintings to see what Quindlen means. Madeline’s proud yet careless stance is the very embodiment of her “pooh-pooh” attitude. It’s the little-girl equivalent of “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” She knows she’s a survivor, and she knows that surviving is something to celebrate. And I suspect that she also knows the scar will both impress and inspire, will show her schoolmates that a little girl can come through a terrifying experience not much the worse for wear.

Finally, I love her visit with the injured Pepito in Madeline and the Bad Hat. He sits trapped in bandages–the result of some characteristic animal cruelty that backfired terribly. But rather than dissolve into simpering pity, Madeline whispers fiercely, “It serves you right, you horrid brat!”

Turns out, that is precisely what Pepito needs to hear. Cosseted and spoiled by servants, ignored by his parents, he has become the stereotypical rotten rich kid. He needs tough love, and Madeline is the only one with the perception and courage to give it. She cuts through the conventions and taboos surrounding Pepito’s wealth, social status, and gender (not to mention conventions about appropriate feminine behavior, especially at a sickbed) and speaks the truth so he gets the jolt he needs to be a better person.

And that is really where the rubber of inspiration meets the road: when a strong girl or woman understands that sharing her strength doesn’t diminish it–it just creates more strong people who, in turn, inspire others, and so the cycle continues.

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