The World Belongs to You, by Riccardo Bozzi and Olimpia Zagnoli (illust.). Templar, 2013.
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.”
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.
A is for Musk Ox, by Erin Cabatingan (author) and Matthew Myers (illustrator). Roaring Brook, 2012.
Dr. V’s take
The troublemaking musk ox in book is correct: alphabet books are boring. (Though sometimes they’re adorable enough to outweigh their lack of excitement, as in the case of LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker).
A is for Musk Ox, meanwhile, is often hilarious and weirdly enlightening. It’s premise—-the zebra is trying to put together an alphabet book, and the musk ox (who I read with a hybrid Canadian surfer dude accent a la Chelsea Peretti because I am excellent) keeps interrupting him to explain why each letter should actually stand for musk ox (musk oxen are Awesome, Brown, Cool and live in Canada, etc.)—-works better for kids who are already fairly solid on their alphabet phonemes, whose skills will be fine-tuned rather than confused by the musk ox’s goofing. Also, the prose is on the long side, so it lends itself well to alternating reading it with one’s early-reading child, using the old each-of-us-pick-a-character strategy (CLASSIC). (Actually I don’t think this is classic, but it’s a good idea, and this would be a good candidate for that).
Two really unfortunate moments, however, keep it out of the Recommended pile. The first is a really lazy joke in which the musk ox frets that his fur makes him look fat; as far as fat jokes go, it’s not horribly cruel, but I just really don’t need a fat joke of any kind in a book I’m reading with a 5-year-old (especially a 5-year-old girl), thanks.
The second is much more egregious: throughout the book, Author sneaks in actual interesting facts about musk oxen—-their habitat, their behaviors, and so on—-which is brilliant; who would ever purposely seek out learning on musk oxen? yet now my impossibly small child and I both know all sorts of facts about them, which is fun.
In one instance, however, Cabatingan refers to the musk ox’s name in an Inuit language…and literally refers to the Inuit people as “Eskimos.” In a book written in 2012.
Maybe you didn’t know this (many people don’t), but Eskimo has long been considered a derogatory term by those who have formerly been categorized as such. It’s similar in tone-deafness to referring to an Asian person as “oriental.” And the thing is, unless Cabatingan just happens to be some kind of weird musk ox hobbyist, odds are she wasn’t just spinning facts off the top of her head; this book is surprisingly meticulously researched, and even features other Inuit terms. How is it that she looked up where musk oxen live, what they eat, their natural predators, how they avoid those predators, and all of the different terms used to describe their wool but never figured out that the term Eskimo is insulting? Even allowing for the fact that many people are not aware of the term’s very-much-not-okay-ness, it’s not like this fact is a big secret—-the goddamn dictionary designates the term “sometimes offensive.“* If Cabatingan was so keen to include factoids about Inuit culture as they pertained to musk oxen, why in the world would she refer to that culture by a term widely disliked by the people in it?
And, the thing is, it’s not a word I want to teach my little kid.
There are very few negative reviews on this site, mostly because I think they’re a little pointless, especially for books that aren’t extremely popular—-if you’ve never heard of it, why would I tell you about it just to tell you that it sucks and to forget you heard of it? The case of A is for Musk Ox, however, is particularly frustrating, in that it’s such a great book otherwise, and this little bit of casual racism was so completely unnecessary, and it’s an example of a surprisingly common issue.
Let’s do better, you guys. We can do better.
*Some think the term is fine to use if referring to the language or some cultural artifact—-again, similar to how “Oriental rug” is considered ok but “that human is Oriental” is not—-hence the “sometimes.” But, really, that’s just kind of confusing, and plenty of people side-eye those types of usages as well, so I vote we just go ahead and move on from these terms entirely.
But though I feel obligated to make fun of anything I really, really like (no YOU need therapy), the main thing we need to talk about when we talk about Mo Willems is that his books are just the best, especially for preschool-age types.
A quick list of my very favorites:
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and its sequels, since 2003. In his career as a children’s book writer, Willems is probably the most famous for his series in which a cantankerous pigeon, who I always read with a (bad) sassy Brooklyn accent for some reason,
tries to coax us readers into letting him do various things he’s not supposed to do in the absence of the bus driver (who, frankly, we ought to start charging for our pigeon-sitting services).
They aren’t the only books that feature a protagonist who throws a tantrum (see Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama books, for example), but it’s a particularly well-executed play in the Pigeon books. Given how constantly little kids are told “no,” it is obviously hilarious and delightful to them to be able to say it to someone else for a change, and the tantrum is definitely played for their tiny laughs. Yet asking little kids to role-play in this way—-asking them to be the ones that prevent the capricious Pigeon from doing some lunatic thing or other that’s clearly against his best interests—-also has the potential to teach them so many soft skills at once: empathy, responsibility, boundaries, and probably more I’m not thinking of (ETA: an especially smart reader suggested I add “conviction, follow through—–all necessary for learning how to problem solve and lead with care” YES!).
Edwina, the Dinosaur who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, 2006. I gave Edwina a shout-out before, but I’m highlighting her again here because I think this is an underrated gem in Willems’s archive. Little jerknugget Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie, in addition to having a never-not-hilarious name, is a little Men’s Rights Activist in training, and Edwina is kind and gracious to him but ultimately breaks through a brick wall in a burst of IDGAF when he tries to explain to her how extinct she allegedly is, and proceeds to bake everyone some great cookies. It’s basically all of my life goals in picture book form.
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs….and Leonardo, the Terrible Monster….and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed…you guys there are too many favorites. Willems is prolific and consistent, with a goofy sense of humor that’s perhaps a little sarcastic but without anything resembling meanness driving it. His characters are largely weirdos and often flawed, which is an incredibly difficult thing to balance within the scantness of a children’s picture book, but he does so with a lightness and intelligence that keeps his characters and the lessons they learn from overwhelming. It’s rare to be unable to predict the ending of a children’s story, and have that actually be a good thing, but Willems pulls it off.In fact, that may be the best thing about Willems’s writing: it’s so hugely entertaining that your kid will hardly even notice that she’s actually learning—-and learning the kinds of things that can’t be taught in a worksheet or through memorization, but only through stories. I actually don’t think I’m being dramatic if I say that Willems’s work is a great example of why children’s books—-or any books—-matter.
Coming soon: Part 2, which focuses on his early reader series, Elephant and Piggie.
*who is actually supposed to be from Chicago, so the bad accent is even worse. And I’m beginning to think I’m revealing more about myself than I ever intended to on this blog with my movie references.
What a Wonderful World, as sung by Louis Armstrong, illustrated by Tim Hopgood. Holt, 2014.
Dr. V’s take:
When my son and I were both under the weather on a grey spring day, we came home from running some horribly tedious errands, took off our wet socks and grabbed a blanket and this book. Instead of reading aloud in my hoarse, congested voice, I let Louis Armstrong sing it for us. We had a full several minutes of cozy serenity. It was like parenting nirvana. It is imperative that everyone knows about this magical book.
Tim Hopgood isn’t the first person to remediate a song into a children’s book. It’s a great idea—-Mother Goose would agree, I suspect—-yet it’s more difficult than it seems to pull off. One would think that good words + good pictures = good children’s book, but just because words are good for Bob Dylan to….sing I guess? Maybe choke? How about we go with sing. doesn’t mean they’re good for a mere mortal to read aloud to a small child. Things like repetition of a chorus or interjections like “Yeah!” all seem perfectly reasonable when you’re listening to someone cool sing them in a classic song, but feel perfectly ridiculous when you’re reading them over and over out loud on the couch in your dowdy sweater. Immediately, Jon Muth’s adaptation of Blowin’ in the Wind presents a conundrum: do I say it “blowing” or “blowin'”? You try saying “blowin,'” and you’re like, “that was weird, I would never say that,” so next time you switch to “blowing,” and you sound like someone’s great aunt Mabel ruining pop culture again, and you’re like, “no that’s worse,” and then you just feel silly until the book is over.
These are serious problems.
But Hopgood’s adaptation of the beloved song written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss and sung so bittersweetly by Louis Armstrong has none of these problems. As a song, “What a Wonderful World” offers the total package: poetic lyrics, a lovely lilting melody, and a signature performance by a great artist. As a book, What a Wonderful World adds pictures that complement the optimistic-but-not-twee song perfectly with saturated blocks of color that fill the pages. Hopgood’s illustrations don’t change the song, but enhance it; What a Wonderful World is a song, visualized. It’s paced well to read right along with Armstrong’s recording—-you won’t be frantically turning pages or getting lost. Yet Hopgood’s inclusion of a gender- and race-ambiguous child and a little blue bird on each page gives the book a master narrative, a through-line that makes it feel unified and organic, and the lyrics sound just as nice when spoken, which makes What a Wonderful World work just as successfully on its own.
By the time you get to the end of Hopgood’s book, damned if you don’t think the world IS wonderful—-and that’s good, because the exultant feeling one gets from being the person that introduces a human person to the existence of things like rainbows is what keeps the population going despite all the diapers and late nights and the where-do-you-think-you’re-going-young-mans of parenting.
(I have but one, very small quibble with this book: the music notes sprinkled across the pages are pure decoration. I’m not expecting formal sheet music or anything like that, but the notes are written in a way that is completely nonsensical. Why do artists think eighth notes are the only ones that count? This bugs me because there’s more than one kind of literacy, and it strikes me as sort of rude to act like one kind of reading doesn’t matter. But I’m definitely making too much of this.)
This is a book worth buying, if you’re into that sort of thing. I don’t think access to books should cost money (support your library!) in general, and at 18 bucks, this one is not cheap. But if you’re interested in buying a book, this is the sort of title that prompts warm memory-making, and its sturdy construction, lovely pictures, and timeless text give it handing-down potential.
The Book With No Pictures, by B.J. Novak. Dial, 2014.
Dr. V’s take:
I wasn’t sure about this book at first. I tend to find B.J. Novak (yes, that guy from The Office) sort of irritating. In my humble authoritative opinion as boss of this blog, Beej (I call him Beej) is just a scootch smug. I just feel like if his writing was a person it would have a man-bun on its head and in its beard. I assume you get what I mean with that crystal-clear analogy.
I have to hand it to him here, though: every single time we read this book, my kids positively dissolve into laughter. I mean, I was moved to chuckle myself, and, in my experience, any adult who happens to be within earshot of this book being read aloud tends to come closer to hear the rest. But in addition to being good for mild amusement all by itself, it’s the kind of book that tickles kids so hard they start ugly-giggling—-snorting, spitting, peeing pants, the whole deal—-and it’s basically impossible not to have fun reading a book like that.
Plus, the lack of pictures makes the letters themselves all that much more compelling to pre-readers, and the typeface itself is pretty lively, so it’s not without visual interest.
Ok, FINE. I was just jealous because I didn’t think of it first. So there.