Dr. V’s favorite classics: Bea and Mr. Jones

After the other day’s ranty post about an overrated classic, today let’s celebrate an underrated one!

Bea and Mr. Jones, by Amy Schwartz. Harcourt, 1982. 51qxvu6uetl

Dr. V’s take:

We’re familiar with the Freaky Friday plot: two people switch places (or even bodies) for a finite period of time and live life in each other’s shoes. Bonus points if the two people butt heads or appear to be opposites in any way at the beginning of the story, because the journey to mutual respect by the end is all the more gratifying.

Besides Freaky Friday‘s many (many!) remakes—-so many that people don’t realize that the original Freaky Friday was a young adult book from 1972—-this plot device has been employed by such illustrious works as Olsen twins movie It Takes Two, Eddie Murphy/Dan Akroyd movie Trading Places, the candy-maker episode of I Love Lucy, and multiple Disney Channel Original Movies.

The Freaky Friday genre peaked early, you guys. I give you Bea and Her Father—-one of the world’s most underrated children’s books that has everything great about this trading-places plot but also turns the tables on it. As I’ve noted before, pulling off a surprise ending in a children’s book is a rare, beautiful skill; this one will make you “HA!” out loud.

In addition to the adorable premise that Bea would be just as tired of pasting things on other things in kindergarten as her father is of meetings and paperwork, the illustrations—-in that classic line-y textured style*—-of five-year-old Bea in a suit at business meetings are hilarious and the ease with which everyone accepts their swap is delightfully weird.

Bea and Mr. Jones is also refreshingly 1980s about Bea being a girl. Compare these LEGO ads that circulated a few years ago with this one, and you can kind of see what I mean. Bea and Mr. Jones imagines a world in which a five-year-old girl is readily accepted as an executive with no resistance whatsoever, and she finds that it suits her well, even though there are no princesses in sight. We’ve made progress since the 1980s in many ways, but its possible that we’ve lost some things, too: if you’re weary of the constant drumbeat of princesses and sparkles, a girl protagonist for whom the “girl” part doesn’t have to be expressed in that exact way, and who feels no need to explain herself to anyone, is a great find.

But the surprise ending is really the best part. Go read the book before you read anymore of this post, because I really don’t want to ruin it for you.

Go on!

Did you do it?

Okay.

****spoiler warning****

We know how this story was supposed to go: everybody was supposed to learn a Very Important Lesson about how it feels to be someone other than yourself. Or, as we used to hear it phrased back when we had a POTUS who knew how to do sentences, how it feels to “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.” Empathy, compassion, blah blah blah.

But Bea and her father are like, eh. Instead of learning to appreciate their own lives and respect each other’s struggles more, Bea and her father find that they really like being an ad exec/kindergartner. It turns out that bosses at ad advertising firms are on the same wavelength as strong-willed five-year-olds, while the values of kindergarten skew more toward cooperation and sharing (and of course, the ability to reach things is highly coveted). Bea and her father declare the swap a permanent success and everybody lives happily ever after. It is silly and charming and brilliant and a perfect book.

office-door

 

 

*I tried to find out if this style has a name, but came up empty. If you know about it, leave a comment or shoot me message!

UGH: Rainbow Fish

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Awww, a book about a fish who learns to share! Or a book about a bunch of other nonspecial fish who learn to ostracize others until they receive the bribe they feel they so richly deserve. One of those.

Inquisitive mop-top: But why does the Rainbow Fish give away all of his scales, Dr. V?

Dr. V: Because, darling, the community surrounding Rainbow Fish was so petty and resentful of anybody different from them that they actually demanded that he decimate his literal body and give it to them as an offering before they would accept him. It’s a garbage book and it belongs in the garbage.

Inquisitive mop-top (who is astonishingly precocious and definitely not imaginary): But Dr. V, Rainbow Fish seems like a book you would love! It’s got all of your favorite things: beautiful full-page pictures, a misfit protagonist, and socialism!

Dr. V: True, wee nugget. Also true: Rainbow Fish began the book hella obnoxious. Flitting around marveling at how beautiful you are is lowkey rude and it also makes you very, very boring. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Kim Kardashian’s Instagram.

Im-t(wiapadni): And isn’t this book about [streams of pure light] [angel choir] ~*~*~*sharing~*~*~*~???

Dr. V: No, my dear baby musk ox, it is about a perversion of sharing: the lack of respect for anybody’s boundaries.

If the story of Rainbow Fish depicted its title character learning how to give the world something other than his shallow self-importance, and in so doing, making connections with others that eases his loneliness, I’d be on board.

If the story of Rainbow Fish depicted its title character learning how to show compassion for those less fortunate than he is, or returning the kindness of the those around him by sharing his beautiful scales, I’d be able to overcome the this-is-part-of-his-actual-body aspect of it and get on board.

However.

The story of Rainbow Fish depicts a mildly obnoxious gifted fish getting denigrated and brought down by all of the jealous uggos around him. One of them has the nerve to come up and ask Rainbow Fish to give him one of his scales. When RF refuses to remove a piece of his body and give it to him, Mr. Entitled-Fins gets angry with him, and all of the other fish side with Mr. E-F. Rainbow Fish caves, and this is a Valuable Lesson because it teaches children the universal virtues of recognizing the fact that everyone else is entitled to anything they ask for, so you should never hesitate to dismember yourself to suit others’ desires.

Rainbow Fish ends the book with lots of friends, of course, which teaches a second no less important lesson that if nobody likes you, you should give them stuff until they do; and that being special is bad, so if you’re special, make sure you unspecial yourself until everybody is the same.

No.

The real lesson to be learned here, children, is that jerks deserve each other. #classic

Let us leave them to their dysfunction forever and go be cool to each other elsewhere.

Author Spotlight: Sara Varon

This has gone on long enough. It is high time we discussed Sara Varon.

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Last year, Varon released a collection of short stories, comics, and journal entries that discuss her creative process called Sweaterweather (First Second, 2016); part of the inspiration for starting this blog was so that I would have somebody to talk to about my love for writers like Sara Varon. Varon is less prolific than some of the other writers I’ve covered in the spotlights, but literally every last project she’s been involved with is delightful.

Graphic novels for middle-grade readers are kind of a big thing right now. We’re getting graphic-novel adaptations of classics, like Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale’s Rapunzel/Jack and the Beanstalk reboots, autobiographical stories like Raina Telgemeir’s work, and even strip comics collected into books, like Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate series.

Respectfully, I submit that Sara Varon is the indisputable world champion of this cohort, and this is for two reasons:

1. In a world of reboots and the lamentable Everykid phenomenon I mentioned here, Varon’s characters are new, interesting, and a special blend of weird and relatable.

Sometimes this characterization is explicit, as in Odd Duck, which was written by Cecil Castellucci but illustrated with Varon’s signature whimsy, about the friendship of two ducks who don’t quite fit in with the other ducks, or anybody else either, and who aren’t even that much alike between themselves. But affection for the “odd duck” is a cornerstone of Varon’s milieu even when she’s not illustrating literally odd actual ducks. Her characters are all animals, anthropomorphic desserts, or robots, but they are somehow really believable, and her worldbuilding always makes a strange sort of sense. The anteater family in Robot Dreams eats ants, because obviously, but they also enjoy snowball fights and sledding, because obviously. Similarly, the robot shouldn’t swim, because hello rust, but it does enjoy dancing and books, because who doesn’t?

What’s more, Varon’s books explore the task that so often eludes the odd duck: how to forge real, genuine connections in a society that doesn’t seem to have set itself up to quite welcome you, personally. In Odd Duck‘s example, the ups and downs of Theodora and Chad’s friendship teaches them how to discern when differences are superficial and how they can coexist with connections that run much deeper.  Chad may not share Theodora’s preference for tidyness and she may not care for his favorite music, but they share an appreciation for the notion that the world is much bigger than them and support each other’s instincts to be curious.  e1f2720d93d86f791c27a982181c5d00odd59

In Robot Dreams, a graphic novel with a more literal take on the title of an Isaac Asimov short story, Robot and Dog are unable to circumvent the obstacles, both coincidental and self-inflicted, that separated them; they both end up moving on with others. But this more bittersweet ending is okay, too, because sometimes the stars just don’t align for particular relationships to work out, and sometimes that’s okay, too. And in Bake Sale, Cupcake learns how to balance her solitary pursuits with maintaining her relationships with others.

These lessons are thorny and complicated, but Varon presents them with warmth and fun and subtle humor.

2. Her books are genre-bending in ways that they don’t get credit for.

Her books are marketed to children and housed in children’s sections because of their pastel color palettes, ultra-G-rated content, and tenor of kindness and warmth. But they are the best example I have ever seen of media that is truly for “all ages,” if only we can get the heck over our need to categorize books by their shape and size.

Because Robot Dreams is a graphic novel with no text, the reader plays a significant role in infusing the story—-whose ending isn’t unhappy, but it’s not of the straightforward “and then everybody got exactly what they thought they wanted after all” variety—-with meaning and nuance. An eight-year-old can certainly read it, and sit with it, and discuss it from his perspective, but it was also pretty universally embraced by the college students I assigned it to in my university teaching days, and it’s a personal favorite of mine. (Side note: Robot Dreams‘s publisher, First Second, is pretty dope generally if you’re into graphic novels; I highly recommend checking them out.) Odd Duck works as a read-aloud if you skip the talk bubbles and stick with the narration in the captions, but is even better read silently to oneself.

Bake Sale and Chicken and Cat are perhaps Varon’s most early- and middle-grade-reader-specific titles, but these, like the aforementioned Justin Case books, are of the type that one can read as an adult concurrently with one’s child and still find engaging and fun.

If you have never read a book by Sara Varon, your life is more tragic than you know. Get thee to a library or a local bookstore and give her a try!

All ages
Robot Dreams, First Second, 2007.
Odd Duck (illust.; written by Cecil Castellucci), First Second, 2013.

Early- to middle-grade readers
Bake Sale, First Second, 2011.
Chicken and Cat, First Second, 2006.

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Grumpy Goat and What to Do with the Sad that You Feel

Grumpy Goat, by Brett Helquist. HarperCollins, 2013.61ticg-ri6l-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Dr V.’s take:

One thing people like about kids is how damn happy they can be. Extremely medium jokes about interrupting cows are the height of hilarity in their worldview—-and never (ever!) get old!—-and they can turn pretty much anything into irrational amounts of joy: crunchy leaves, the existence of squirrels, their own butts. If you can get past the mysterious perpetual stickiness, it’s hard not to laugh when you’re around a little kid for any extended period of time. I’ve often tried to remember what it felt like to have a heart so open, but I can’t get back there with any significant lucidity.

Open hearts, however, are also susceptible to disappointment (see: tantrums; the flip side of the ability to act like a basic trip to the park is a party in your honor is the inability to control your devastation at being asked to wear a coat because it is winter.)

And small, young people experience loss, too, and grief and sadness.

Less gravely, they also sometimes just wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and want to try out cantankerousness for awhile and see how it suits them.

For these days, as in all days, we need books.

Enter Grumpy Goat, a very sweet book about cantankerousness and grief.

When Goat first arrives at the farm, he’s similar to a contestant on The Bachelor in that he’s not there to make friends: “He just kept his head down, scowled, and ate.” (Goat’s hunger, and his inability to feel satiated, may ring familiar, which is brilliant or awful, depending on how much you’re in the mood for a children’s picture book to gaze into your termite-infested soul). hqdefaultBut when he comes across something that strikes him as beautiful, his impulse to care for it disrupts his glare-eat-glare routine, and makes room for some pretty cool games of tag and companionship with his peers.

In many—-maybe even most—-children’s books, this would be the end of the story. And Goat lived happily ever after.

Grumpy Goat takes us a little further, however: the bright days don’t last forever. But when Goat finds himself grieving a loss, his new friends’ response is itself beautiful, too: the pigs “sit with him awhile”; Cow brings him dinner; and “the sheep don’t know what to do, so they stay nearby.” And when Goat is ready to be happy again, so are they.

Helquist packs this model for how to feel hard feelings, and how to help a friend who is feeling hard feelings, into a concise, perfectly paced story—-a sentence or two per page against soothing, full-size illustrations. The protagonist may technically be a goat, but Grumpy Goat helps us practice being human.

* * * * * * *

BONUS RELEVANT MATERIAL:

Check this video of Mr. Rogers explaining why PBS matters to a Senate subcommittee, using his song “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?”

I Hate Blogs: An Anniversary Post

Dr. V’s Children’s Book List is a year old this week. To celebrate(?), I thought I’d post my first draft of the “About This Site” page, which I ended up scrapping, opting for a more informational and less inflammatory approach instead. Here it is.

 

I hate blogs. Food blogs are the worst (omg stop describing everything as “tender”), but book blogs are terrible, too. Here’s what I cooked; here’s what I read; here’s what I DIY-ed; here’s how I braid my hair for the workouts I also definitely do. You should too, they hiss at me. Look how beautiful. Why don’t you?

I wrote my dissertation about the anxieties of midcentury tastemakers as they contended with popular fiction, and found that the practice of sorting out and announcing what is good and what is lesser is the pastime of the comfortable yet insecure. I basically have a PhD in holding middle-class tastemakers in contempt, and modern-day bloggers are the Ladies’ Home Journal editors of the past.

Yet…how on earth else could I have ever figured out how to build a desk by myself for under $50? Where else would I have heard of quirky short films like The Wardrobe? Who else would have ever thought to tell me that you can make oatmeal in a crockpot? Hating on blogs—hating on middle-class print culture, which is what blogs are, lack of material “print” notwithstanding—is….well, the pastime of the comfortable yet insecure.

Meanwhile, as I’m underemployed, spending most of my time at home alone with my youngest child while the afore(and oft-)mentioned PhD collects its first film of dust in my office (aw!), my day-to-day bibliography has transformed from hundred-year-old novels to titles more along the lines of I Really Like Slop! And I started to think, boy it would be nice to talk to someone about this.

So, I started a blog. Here it is. I hope you like it, but it’s okay if you don’t.

 

In retrospect, I think it was good that I tossed it. But, it’s also good that I went ahead and started the blog itself; though you are not numerous, readers, you are cool and smart and this has been fun.

 

 

The Virtues of Forgoing Universality: The Case of Justin Case

We (I) here at Dr. V dot com enterprises (my house) have thus far focused mainly on read-alouds for the preschool set for this blog, mostly because there are bazillions and bazillions of them and also you have to read them out loud so it seems worthwhile to keep a running tally of the standouts.

The problem of bazillions and bazillions is less of a thing with books for the older-but-only-so-much-older-than-preschool set, however. Call it the Mean of Eight category: books for those six- to ten-year-olds who have been reading for a while and are way too grown-up to have picture books read to them and yet are actually not very old as far as human beings go. There are still one bazillion, probably, in my very scientific guess, but….a lot of the aren’t very good.

You can’t go wrong turning to that renaissance we seemed to have in the 1960s and 1970s, with the likes of Cleary (I think Strider is underrated), Dahl, and Blume (ditto her weirdo story Freckle Juice). But, as relatable as they somehow remain, these books do present needlepoint as a common hobby and act like going to the corner store by oneself as a 7-year-old is normal; modern books as good as these classics can seem hard to come by.

But not impossible! and we’re going to start talking about more of them around here. Starting with:

The Justin Case books, by Rachel Vail. (Illust. by  Matthew Cordell). Feiwel and Friends (imprint of MacMillan), since 2010.justincase

Dr. V.’s take:

Justin Krzeszewski (he’s half-Jewish; everybody always messes up his name) is just about the nicest kid I’ve ever met. And yet he’s a great example of how being eight means that sometimes your good intentions aren’t quite in line with your social skills, and situations can kind of get away from you.

jc2_04Justin is precocious but also kind of strangely worrywart-y for a kid his age—-hence his nickname, Justin Case. He frets about the largeness of his friend’s head (turns out to be a nonissue, believe it or not), whether there will be sharks at the beach (shockingly, there aren’t), and he takes the liberty of searching the classifieds for new jobs for his parents in New Jersey so he can avoid starting a new school year in third grade (“no movement…, despite all my arguments”).

Justin’s uniqueness is one of my favorite things about him as a character, and Vail makes him totally believable. In my view, too many books aimed at kids this age try to create these Everyboy/Everygirl protagonists (and heaven forfend the ‘twain should meet); the medium-looking, medium-talented, medium kid, who accidentally does some shenanigans and along the way learns the True Meaning of Friendship or other family value.  It’s bland, and it’s also a bummer, because in order to work it relies on certain common ground with readers that may or may not actually exist (see, for example, the stuff I said about apartments in this post).

Justin, however, is his own person. And even though Justin’s natural nervousness might not be something everyone feels themselves, it makes him real. Real characters are always better than imitations of “universality,” which is imaginary; and interesting is always better than familiar. What’s more, Justin’s lack of “runny-aroundy”-ness, as he puts it, is kind of refreshing, considering how quickly people tend to assume that boys are always rambunctious.  And anyway, he has the most important thing in common with other eight-year-olds, which is the fact that he is a goober, and they are all without exception goobers. Though the hijinx in the Justin Case books are pretty tame, they’re paced well and recounted with humor.

These are the kinds of books I can read myself without being miserably bored; this is something I look for in books for my older kid, because it’s fun to be able to chat over chores about what “we’ve” been reading lately. It’s okay if we don’t directly identify with every facet of Justin’s personality—-the important thing is that he has one, and he’s learning how it meshes and doesn’t mesh with those of others. What’s more relatable than that? jc2_05

The Very Best Books About: Dinosaurs

Almost every kid has a “thing”; some topic or other that he/she is laser-focused on pretending, reading, watching, hearing, or talking (and talking and talking) about.

My youngest is very much about dinosaurs right now.

I blame this guy:

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What do you think, Brett? Uh, gosh, I don’t know Chad…how about a show about dinosaurs? And also trains? And time travel? Great idea, it’ll be a huge success.

Despite The Conductor‘s offensively goofy voice, I’ll be damned if my child has not absorbed an absurd amount of paleontology from this show. At this point, if my child says something about the characteristics of sauropods or shares a fact about what a pachycephalosaurus eats…I pretty much just assume he’s right.

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Dr. Scott looks like a stock photo search result for “Canadian paleontologist who does research in Utah.”

Dr. Scott the Paleontologist has the dinosaur facts pretty much handled, so the only question Dr. V. the Humanist needs to answer is: which of the bazillions of books about dinosaurs are most likely to satisfy my weirdo dino-obsessed kid’s need for a steady stream of dinosaur facts without making me want to gouge my eyeballs out in boredom and despair?

The best dinosaur books have a few things in common. For one, they are as accurate as possible. If a dinosaur book lists “Pterodactyl” as a dinosaur, give it a miss. Though a casual reader might not be confused by it, a kid who’s really into dinosaurs will spot that for the BS that it is (and let you know about it); plus, it’s a good indication that whoever put the book together was being kinda lazy, and thinking “how about dinosaurs? Kids like dinosaurs, right? Dinosaurs are cool?” and maybe not taking their audience as seriously as they ought.

Secondly, illustrations are paramount. Realistic and honest, but not nightmare-inducing, is a surprisingly difficult balance to strike.  Plus, because paleontologists aren’t in universal agreement with what any one dinosaur looked like, illustrators also have to balance their audience’s canonical expectations with their own interpretations of the available data. Children’s dinosaur-book illustrators may be the only real rock stars we have left. (<–reasonable opinion)

And finally, all the standard rules of non-boring children’s nonfiction apply here, as well: not too long, not too short, engaging but straightforward, etc.

With those standards in mind, here are Dr. V’s top 3 books about dinosaurs:

51fln3iqg6l3. The Big Book of Dinosaurs. Discovery Kids, 2015.

Less scary than the cover would lead one to believe, this one is great if you don’t actually feel like reading. Pages and pages of pictures of dinosaurs, and their names, and that’s it. Diverting, low-maintanence, great. My only wish is that it included more full-size pictures of dinosaurs; most of the images are portraits of their heads. Still, it gives the book almost a baseball-card sort of efficiency.

 

 

 

53eff90a-1961-4cdc-925a-eee512fde49d_1-4710b1281c2a2164af101a634cec6f572. Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs, by Catherine D. Hughes and Franco Tempesta (illust.). National Geographic Society, 2011.

It’s from National Geographic, so of course the illustrations are on point, filling multiple pages with close-ups and full body shots that have a photojournalistic feel. Grouping the dinosaurs by size is clever as well; seeing how they match up to one another, as well as how they measure against the scale of an average human, offers interesting perspective.

The book also highlights a unique fact about each dinosaur to help kids remember the different types, which can be fun and handy.

 

 

97815157279271. The Dinosaur Fact Dig books, by Kathryn Clay—-especially Triceratops and Other Horned Dinosaurs: The Need-to-Know Facts and Stegosaurus and Other Plated Dinosaurs: The Need-to-Know Facts. Capstone, since 2016.

I cannot explain how much I love these books. They hit on all of the high points of the Little Kids First Big Book, but they’re broken down into smaller volumes, which helps ensure that your kid doesn’t respond to your “let’s read a book” by putting a five-pound tome in front of you right before bedtime. The tone of these books is also much more conversational, though still mercifully brief, which makes these the easiest dinosaur books I’ve ever found to read 9781515727910aloud—-the captions are there, but if you don’t feel like reading them the book can have a more narrativized feel, too. The way they group dinosaurs by type helps the little ones make distinctions between the smaller details. Not every dinosaur with a frill is necessarily a triceratops, for example, and having them all side-by-side is a great teaching tool—-for learning the dinosaurs, specifically, I suppose, but also for the skill of distinguishing superficially similar things in general.

Seriously: these are THE BEST. Go to your library and request one!

UGH: The Little Red Hen

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By the fiftieth time of reading this, I have a few choice words for one Ms. Hen.

INQUISITIVE MOP-TOP:
But why didn’t the Little Red Hen share her bread, Dr. V?

DR. V.:
Because the Little Red Hen believes that she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and did all of the work of making the bread herself and is therefore entitled eat all of it herself, an act which is evidently made all the better for her if she can do so ceremoniously for an audience of contrite ne’er-do-wells. The lesson is, apparently, that the Little Red Hen deserves ALL THE BREAD and her neighbors deserve NO BREAD and also MOCKERY. However, the Little Red Hen is forgetting:

  1. she didn’t earn that wheat by being the most virtuous. She completely lucked into it—-and she got it for free, as a side effect of some anonymous wheat-picker’s labor! It was an actual hand-out! Is she chasing whoever dropped the grain of wheat to hand them a piece of her venerable Bread of Industriousness?
  2. the miller? Hello? Kind of an unsung hero here? Little Red Hen acts like taking the wheat to the mill is some astonishing act of determination, but surely the actual milling of the wheat entails some labor? I assume she must be planning to go down to the mill and pass out next-day croutons in the sequel.
  3. just because she decides she wants to undertake a project doesn’t obligate her neighbors to drop everything they’re doing to help her. If she asks for a favor, she needs to take “no” for an answer, and if she doesn’t want to give anybody any bread, she can just keep it to herself and nobody will care. She really cedes a good deal of moral high ground with the “PSYCH!” maneuver. RUDE.
  4. watering one plant is not that serious. It’s really not the kind of thing that anybody needs help with. It’s more like the kind of thing your friends do with you because they like your company and chatting with a person you like in a garden is nice.

So the real lesson, my little darlings, is that the Little Red Hen has no friends, probably because she’s the worst and nags everyone incessantly. If you ever find a free seed, you should try not assuming it entitles you to others’ free labor as well, and instead have fun with it.

With any luck your plant will provide you with something pretty and/or delicious, and you’ll want to pay it forward.

How to Color with Poetry: Colors! ¡Colores!, Luján and Grobler (illust.)

Colors! ¡Colores!, by Jorge Luján with pictures by Piet Grobler. Groundwood books, 2008.41wqqtzvonl-_sy376_bo1204203200_

Dr. V’s take:

This book. I love this book. Everything about it is ridiculously beautiful, from the pictures to the verses.

About the verses. I like the idea of poetry in theory, and I like the idea of my kids liking it. Sitting at the foot of my child’s tidy bed surrounded by his child-appropriate decor reading him a poem so that he might dream literary dreams as he drifts to sleep sounds like the sort of thing beautiful, cultured people do.

But it’s also very boring.

And I feel like if I think it’s boring, it’s got to be excruciating for someone who hasn’t been trained up the wazoo about reading as I have—-and certainly for someone who doesn’t really like or “get” poetry at all.

The problem isn’t poetry, exactly. It’s how poetry is often packaged for children. Lots of kids’ books rhyme, which can be fun or super annoying, depending on the book, but there are far fewer books that are true volumes of poetry for kids. Yes, Shel Silverstein was brilliant—-I’m sure we all pretty much agree—-but if you take a look at your children’s library’s poetry offerings, probably entirely contained by one shelf of the “nonfiction” section, it….doesn’t sound fun.

Weirdly, books of poetry for children are often books of epic poetry—-the whole thing will be one long poem describing an adventure or mythical beast of some kind, with painstakingly detailed illustrations, and….after 5 pages my voice is hoarse and my kid doesn’t care. Or, they’re the work of people trying to adapt adult poetry for kids: Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost or whatever. This, my friends, is literary broccoli. It’s something you’re supposed to feed your kids because it’s good for them; if you read them an illustrated Wordsworth collection at age 4 they will for sure get into your state’s flagship university and become a really nice, well-read dentist.

Colors! ¡Colores! isn’t like that. Sure, it incorporates a bunch of good-for-devel0pment stuff: it’s poetry, it’s bilingual, and it’s about the color wheel.

But Luján’s book is so much more than rote information transfer: it itemizes the colors, yes, but it invites readers not only to memorize what the colors look like, but to consider how they  feel in context, and all the different ways they can surround us. Luján’s brief but evocative verses, lovely to the ear and a pleasure to read aloud in both English and Spanish, combined with Grobler’s illustrations that directly translate the 10-ish-word poems into gorgeously detailed two-page visualizations, take readers beyond “what are the colors”: Colors! ¡Colores! is “why are the colors” and “how are the colors.”

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I don’t know if it will make your kid a well-read dentist. But “yellow” really does “roll through the sky like a warm gold coin / rueda por el cielo como una moneda de oro tibio,” doesn’t it? And Colors! ¡Colores! is the loveliest book of poetry I have encountered for very young children so far ❤

You Are Free: The World Belongs to You (Bozzi, Zagnoli)

The World Belongs to You, by Riccardo Bozzi and Olimpia Zagnoli (illust.). Templar, 2013.6748f3271ed6306d7d115e56d5f7fcba-w2041x

Dr. V’s take:

When things are crashing and surging all around you, and the writers and the thinkers and he scholars have dropped everything to conduct on autopsy of your country, your kids will still ask you to read them a book.

It might be good for you both to put down the news ticker on your smartphone and read them this one.

Amidst the noise and the panic, the white space and simplicity of the illustrations bring calm—-but “calm” here is not a euphemism for “silence,” because the words offer gentle but unyielding affirmation.

“The world belongs to you,” it says. It’s a simple truth that you belong here, regardless of what anybody else tries to tell you. And, what’s more,

“You are free. Hopefully.”

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I hope we are free, too. But even if it turns out that our freedom has “limits,” The World Belongs to You goes on to remind us of the many ways in which our freedoms are unassailable by world powers of any kind. We are free, for example, “to love.” We are free “to be loved.” We are free “to let love go.” We are free “to be happy.”

But so too are we free “to be unhappy”—-and being unhappy, The World Belongs to You reminds us, “isn’t useless.” And though our freedom has limits, we are free “to overcome these limits.”

Sometimes, it’s good to sit close with the little people we love most and let a book lead us all through the things nobody can take away from us and encourage us to have confidence in things that are true.

One change I like to make when I read this book to my children: the second page and final page both state “You belong to the world.” When I read it, I say, “You belong in the world.” For, as the rest of The World Belongs to You asserts, we do not exist solely within physical matter—-but we all are worthy to live here, happy or unhappy, loving or letting love go.

Then, once you and your children have been reminded of everyone’s worth and of the ways in which we are always, always free, you can pick your smartphone/sign/petition up again and head back into the fray.

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