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Archive for the ‘Birth and up’ Category

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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