“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers”
–Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers”
–Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Brown Girl Dreaming
The Story: Winner of the Newbery Honor, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction, Woodson’s novel has already made quite the splash. Written completely in verse, this novel is an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood growing up between South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. Focus is placed on Jacqueline’s early childhood, from her birth to her first few grades in elementary school when she discovers her passion for writing, stories, and making a difference in her world.
What Wallace and I Think: Wow. This novel is amazing! It’s marketed as a young adult book, which I hate to say, is almost too bad. I know there are many “adults” that turn their noses up to YA lit, and would be missing out in the case of Woodson’s novel. So, if you usually do shy away from anything with a YA label, muster the courage and read this book!
Woodson’s novel deals artfully with issues of racism, family, divorce, education, and finding and following your passion. I will admit I was a little hesitant to read this book knowing it was all written in verse. I assumed it would take some “work” to get through the book, as I find it difficult to read poetry for extended periods of time. However, the verse in Brown Girl Dreaming is extremely easy to read, and although is somewhat disjointed, does provide us with a linear story-line that makes it extremely readable. I’m going to share some sections with you, just to prove it.
Being written in verse made this novel perhaps one of the most beautiful narratives I have lately read. There were sections that touched my heart so deeply that I found myself rereading the section over a few times before moving on. For example, this small section keeps haunting me days after reading:
I do not know if these hands will become / Malcolm’s–raised and fisted / Or Martin’s–open and asking / or James’s–curled around a pen. / I do not know if these hands will be / Rosa’s / or Ruby’s / gently gloved / and fiercely folded / calmy in a lap, / on a desk, / around a book, / ready / to change the world . . . Woodson 5
This gave me chills, friends! Several tears were shed on my part, as well as some wide smiles and silent laughs. I also loved her descriptions of places. She conveys South Carolina in an almost mythical and nostalgic tone, while also being able to communicate the dangers of being black in the south during the 1960s and 70s.
And the air is what I’ll remember. / Even once we move to New York. / It always smelled like like, my mothers says. / Wet grass and pine. / Like memory. Woodson 95-6
Likewise, if South Carolina is based in nature, Brooklyn is felt to be gritty and concret, yet offering more opportuities.
Here there is only gray rock, cold / and treeless as a bad dream. Who could love / this place– where no pine trees grow, / no porch swings moves / with the weight of / your grandmother. Woodson 143
Although I have argued that this novel should not be read by only children and young adults, it is such an important work that offers a diverse narrative within a still very white-washed literary canon, that it is especially important for children and youth to read. Walter Dean Myers in his essay “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” published in The New York Times, describes that in the books he read while growing up:
I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. Myers 2014
Brown Girl Dreaming is a step forward in developing children’s and YA literature into more of a mosaic by having more voices tell new and different stories. Myers argues books that offer more than one type of narrative humanizes those to fall outside the Eurocentric norm, and that for himself, they gave him “the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map” (Myers 2014). That is the potential power reading Brown Girl Dreaming can have on younger readers: it can validate experience and tell them their lives and stories matter and are important; it can encourage children to enter into the dialogue themselves and become active participants in their own lives. This is no small accomplishment.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Print.
What Pet Should I Get?
By Dr. Seuss, 2015
The Story: A brother and sister go to the pet store to choose a pet. Dad says they can only get one. And mom says to be home by noon. So they have to make a decision, and make it quick. But it’s hard to choose between a dog and puppy, kitten and cat, fish, turtle, bird and even fantastical creatures. So which pet should they get?
What Wallace and I Think: Hooray for new Dr. Seuss! The story goes that the late Dr. Seuss’s wife and assistant found the completed manuscript of What Pet Should I Get? while going through some old boxes. There are several theories why he never published it. Apparently Seuss usually worked on more than one project at a time, and seeing as the siblings from this book are the same from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish there is speculation that this book inspired One Fish Two Fish and his attention went to creating that book. Or perhaps he was simply working on too many projects, and he forgot about What Pet. Whatever the reason, thanks to his wife and assistant we now have a NEW Dr. Seuss book over twenty years after his death, and it may be in the running for my favorite Dr. Seuss book.
The whole story is about making difficult choices within guidelines. Making a decision with so many wonderful options can seem next to impossible. Each time the brother and sister think they have settled on what pet they will get, something new catches their eyes, giving more possibilities for them to weigh. The struggle reminded me of my brother, who when he was little, would always take a lot of time to make decisions. Whether it was what movie we would rent, what chocolate bar to get, what toy to buy, he would silently pace the isles for what seemed like hours until someone (usually me) made him make a decision so we could move on with our day. I was teasing him about this when we were much older, and my brother told me that he always took so long because he knew he could only choose one thing, and wanted to make sure he made the right choice, not one he would regret later. Sooooo, if this book was out when my brother and I were little, it would have been his “theme” book.
The wonderful wordplay you expect from Seuss is present, and the fantastical artwork is also what you would expect. I love how it moves from the children considering real animals, to imaginary ones, showing how out of control the choice process has become. What I LOVE most about this book is that the pet the siblings choose is a mystery! They walk out of the pet store with a box, some eyes peeking out, but it is left up to the readers to decide and imagine which pet they picked. This could make for some fun writing activities in the classroom, or generally fun theoretical imagining with your little ones. I for one think they chose the dog, because it’s the first pet the brother saw and I firmly believe in going with your initial gut instinct. And dogs are the best. Obviously. Though, considering how many pets the siblings have in One Fish, Two Fish, maybe they didn’t follow their father’s rule at all!
What pet do you think they chose?
This book lives up to the Dr. Seuss legacy and should to be added to anyone’s Dr. Seuss collection.
What Do You Do with an Idea?
By Kobi Yamada (author) and Mae Besom (illustrator)
The Story: A little boy has an idea, but he has no clue what to do with it. Should he share it? Pretend it isn’t there? Whatever he does the idea will not go away, so the little boy gives the idea the attention and nurturing it demands and the idea grows, and grows, and grows until . . . it changes the world. The moral of the story: what do you do with an idea? You change the world.
What Wallace and I Think: This picturebook gave me goosebumps. The message that children’s ideas matter and have the potential to make a difference is powerful. The lesson that ideas must have work put into them if they are going to have the potential to make an impact is an important one for all of us. It is only through cultivating ideas that they can be born and turned into something real. For ideas to change the world, you need to develop and work on them first. These two lessons make this book one that needs to be read to children so they know their ideas matter, and that their ideas need to be cultivated.
The illustrator personifies the “idea” by illustrating it as an egg, which is a fantastic visual metaphor! The little egg follows the boy until he finally gets the attention he needs to grow. The egg grows larger and larger until it “cracks,” resulting in an illustration of colorful new city. Similarly, the egg/idea is the first thing to have color in the book; the little boy and the surrounding world is all pencil gray. As the egg/idea is nurtured the color slowly spreads until it finally explodes in the last page with a saturated, colorful city. Mae Besom’s illustrations are meaningful and beautiful, and add power to the message.
This book could be read to a varying age range from as young as toddlers. Though the metaphor may be out of the grasp of some young children, the illustrations would hold their attention. It could be used in classrooms to spark discussion, or be used to generally give someone/yourself encouragement.
So do you have an idea? Go and DO something with it, and maybe you’ll change the world!
I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872) this week:
the boy should enclose and keep, as his life, the old child at the heart of him, and never let go. He must still, to be a right man, be his mother’s darling, and more his father’s pride, and more. The child is not meant to die, but to be forever fresh-born
To me, this means growing all the while keeping your childhood hopes, dreams, aspirations within your adult heart. It means to honor your child self, and to aspire to be someone your youngest self would be proud of. What does this beautiful quote from MacDonald mean to you?
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
Kid Can Press 2014
The Story: A girl has a wonderful idea to make the most magnificent thing. She enlists the help of her best friend, who happens to be a dog, and gets to work trying to make her idea a reality. But translating her wonderful idea into what she pictured is hard, time consuming, and takes many trials and errors. Frustration builds until the girl explodes! Lucky her best friend has the perfect type of stress relief: taking him for a walk. The longer they walk, the more her frustration fades, until she’s refreshed and able to return to her project and finally produce her most magnificent thing.
What Wallace and I Think: This picturebook hit home for me. Whether it’s having an image in my mind that I struggle to put on paper just as I imagined, or translating an idea onto paper as eloquently as it seems in my head, turning an idea into a real thing is hard and rarely turns out just as I imagined it. This picturebook encourages perseverance, patience, and teaches the valuable lesson that creating something takes hard work.
What I found the most valuable piece of advice, something that has worked for me for years, is that sometimes you need to walk away from that idea for a while, gain perspective, and refresh your mind in order to come back stronger. This is a hard thing to do when you’re in the middle of something, and want to get it done (or at least if you’re like me and get a little obsessive about finishing something once you’ve started it).
Just like the unnamed girl, what usually works for me is taking Wallace for a walk, breathing in fresh air, playing in the dog parks, and just taking in nature. Then, without even trying, new ideas and thoughts float in. I have always figured out my best solutions and my greatest ideas when walking Wallace.
You’ve probably already guessed that one reason why I love this book is because it features a dog. And you would be right. The relationship between the girl and dog is great, and often times humorous. I also love how determined the girl is, and that her idea involves building something (girl power!) Especially powerful, are the models she makes before achieving her magnificent thing, the models she deems failures, are found to be useful to other people. Even “failures” have significance and a use. Mistakes are OK. Maybe even welcomed. And her final product is far from perfect, showing that being successful doesn’t mean perfection. Heavy stuff people. These lessons are not just valuable to children, but to us grown-ups too.
I recommend this magnificent book not only to be read to children, but to all my fellow perfectionists, creatives, builders, and dreamers. It would make a nice gift to someone starting out on any new venture, or to someone struggles to make their wonderful ideas into a reality.
My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) By Peter Brown
The Story: Robert has a big problem at school. His teacher is a monster! She doesn’t appreciate his paper airplanes, his chatting in class, even the way he walks! With a teacher like that, Robert needs some downtime on the weekend, so he heads to his favorite park. But lo and behold, Robert finds a terrible surprise! His monster of a teacher has decided to spend her free time in HIS FAVORITE SPOT! Bound by social graces, Robert says hello, and he begins to realize maybe his teacher isn’t a monster after all . . . well . . . at least when she’s not in school.
What Wallace and I Think: This is a great picturebook for those of us heading back to school (I start on Thursday!!!). How many times have we all felt misunderstood by our teachers? Sometimes they’re worse than parents! Noticing everything, making it seem like you can’t do anything right! If you, or a child you know, feels this way, this is the book for you.
Peter Brown literally humanizes the monster teacher, Ms. Kirby. The longer Robert spends with Ms. Kirby in the park, the more Ms. Kirby loses her monsterous form and is revealed as a human woman. We’ve all had that experience of running into our teachers outside of school, and it feels weird to realize they’re people too, they don’t live at the school! Outside of school, Robert and Ms. Kirby are able to better understand each other. Most importantly for Robert, he realizes that Ms. Kirby isn’t a monster, she can have fun, but perhaps school isn’t the place where she can have it. It’s a great lesson in changing your perspective, and looking outside yourself to consider things from other people’s vantage points. This is one of the great benefits of not only reading picturebooks, but just generally reading to younger children, as it can develop their empathetic sensibilities.
Aside from the great message, Brown has created a funny book with quiet punch lines found mostly in Robert and Ms. Kirby’s facial expressions. The art is fantastic, and as I’ve already mentioned, I love that Ms. Kirby slowly transforms from looking like a monster to a woman.
While this book is obviously great for kids that have already started school, I think it could be of benefit for younger children to have this lesson instilled within them before starting school or preschool or daycare. Or, do you know a teacher that would appreciate feeling understood? This could make a great funny gift for teachers in your life. My mom might just be getting one for Christmas (if she hasn’t already bought it for herself, which is a huge possibility!!)