Friday, November 30, 2012

Unconditional Love

When it comes to unconditional love, there is no better teacher than a pet--both for giving and for receiving love. In Charley's First Night, when Charley the pup wants Henry the boy to take him home, a lifelong lesson begins.

"This is home, Charley," the boy tells his new pup after a tour. Helen Oxenbury's image of Henry staring into his pup's face, and Charley's vulnerable four-legged body language make clear that each is the only one for the other. In a pitch-perfect scene that blends humor and poignancy, Henry prepares Charley's bed for the night. His parents have been "pretty clear" that Charley must sleep in the kitchen. So Henry places a big comfy pillow under the table, along with his Teddy bear Bobo next to Charley--stuffed bear and dog's bellies bared irresistibly--and a clock between them: "tick-tock-tick-tock--like another little heartbeat in the night."

Even youngest readers will predict that neither boy nor dog can make it through the night alone. "The crying started in the middle of the night and you knew right away it was Charley," Henry says. His feet do not even touch the ground as he runs to his dog, just the way a parent would with a crying newborn. Youngsters will feel that palpable pull. 

Henry breaks the "pretty clear" rule, but who can deny his sense of responsibility? His indisputable, irrefutable love for this dog?  A closing image shows the reflection of an understanding mom in the mirror on Henry's bureau.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Modeling Friendship

Is it possible to model friendship for toddlers, to show examples of how to be a good friend? Jane Cowen-Fletcher's Baby Be Kind suggests the answer is, "Yes." 

Through a series of interconnected scenes between two toddlers, the author-artist depicts a strong friendship (and also how to treat one's pup well). The concept of sharing can be hard for littlest ones. They've just gained a sense of what it's like to have and to hold a toy, a Teddy bear, a graham cracker, and now they're being asked to let someone else play with their toys and share their snack.

The concept is a hard one to teach: You share your toy and then you get another turn. But they only know the here and now. The concept of "soon" is alien. But in these 18 pages, this terrific board book models what it's like to share, to take turns and other ways to be a good friend: how to help a friend up when he falls, to thank her, how to "say you're sorry when you are." 

At a time when toddlers are learning so much, here's a book of gentle humor and life lessons that could well serve them throughout their lives. 

Friday, November 16, 2012


How well do we really know another person? And in adolescence, when everybody is changing--from their physical looks to their aspirations of belonging--it can seem as if the ground is shifting beneath teens who are navigating home life, school life and the world at large. Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz captures this feeling of "outsiderdom" and "'turns [it] up to 11,' to use a Spinal Tap phrase," as Zack Stentz put it when I got to interview the co-authors recently.

Zack Stentz (l.) and Ashley Edward Miller
Through notebook entries and footnotes we get to know the inner workings of Colin Fischer's mind. He looks at the world a bit differently, as a brilliant kid who also has Asperger's. We walk with him through his days. His need to decode his world, to get to the truth of his experience and the events around him, border on obsessive. So much so that when the kid who has bullied Colin all his life and is wrongly accused of bringing a gun to school, Colin cannot rest until he finds the true culprit.

In this way, the authors tap into the universal adolescent experience, with humor and insight. Either we fearlessly go in search of the truth or try to run from it, which can often lead to drug or alcohol use and other delinquent behavior. Colin would rather team up with wrongly-accused Wayne to discover the real villain than to let Wayne take the rap for something he did not do. Colin is fascinating to watch, and thanks to the authors, we get an intimate view of his internal logic and the way he unravels the mystery of not only the true gun owner but also the mystery of his life.

Kids can't help but gain appreciation for Colin and, through Colin, for other outsider kids whom they may have misjudged or overlooked. It's an invitation to understand someone else, who may seem to be unlike you on the surface, but whose passions and pursuits are just as (or perhaps more so, in Colin's case) involving and inspiring.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Emotional Honesty

Liu and Martinez with their daughter
Wife-and-husband team Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez reveal remarkable emotional honesty in Little White Duck. Because young Na, called Da Qin (or "Big Piano") by her family, is so young and unguarded, her expressions are raw.

When Chairman Mao dies, she cries in response to her parents' sorrow rather than because of any attachment she herself felt to China's famous leader. Yet through Martinez's illustrations, readers who know nothing of Mao's impact on China can see what an influence Mao had by the banners, the murals, and Da Qin's recounting of how Mao's policies helped her working-class mother get the surgeries she needed to recover from paralysis caused by polio.

Da Qin's youth ensures that there's no political slant here. We see through her eyes the poverty in her grandmother's rural town; we hear from her mother about times when there was literally nothing to eat. It's a portrayal of a people ravaged by poverty, even though Da Qin's family makes enough to feed and house them comfortably. We also see how content Da Qin is in her family life, how close she is to her parents and her sister. She thinks it's perfectly normal to brush your teeth with an outdoor spigot.

Da Qin's mother tells the girls how difficult life can be for many people, but Da Qin sees this for herself when she goes with her father to visit his mother in a rural area. The children have never felt anything as soft as the little white velvet duck sewn onto Da Qin's coat. She wants to be generous even as she sees that they are soiling her white patch.

A mural of Chairman Mao in Little White Duck

It's an instinctive act of kindness. Of her childhood home, Na Liu explained in an interview with me that she was part of a “transitional generation—a generation caught in between one way of life and another, between the old and the new.”

Friday, November 2, 2012

Infinite Doodles

Barney with his dog Arlo
Barney Saltzberg has a wonderful message for children of all ages as his through line: There are no mistakes, and there are no limits to the imagination. Andrew, the hero of his latest book, Andrew Drew and Drew, might say that there are infinite doodles.

Andrew knows there will be times when he's not inspired, and the key is to doodle through them. Suddenly something new emerges from his pencil onto the page. To the child who says, "I can't draw" or "I don't know what to draw," Barney Saltzberg says, "Of course you can draw," and "Just begin." In Beautiful Oops! Saltzberg demonstrates how a spill or a rip can become part of the composition. In Andrew Drew and Drew, the half-pages that unfold mimic the artist's sense of discovery as he follows the doodling pencil to its destination--as an alligator, a rabbit or a fantastical night creature.

All that's needed is a paper and a pencil. No fancy dancy supplies required. The main thing is to have fun, and not to sweat it if your pencil needs a rest. The doodles will return, Andrew's example shows us, more plentiful for their dormant period. Barney Saltzberg believes, and also instills in us the faith that there's a limitless supply of doodles.