Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

19 DECEMBER, 2014

Take Away the A: An Unusual Illustrated Alphabet Book about How We Make Meaning

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A playful celebration of the magic of language.

As a lover of unusual alphabet books, I was gladdened by this year’s crop of particularly wonderful additions, including Maira Kalman’s imaginative design history primer, Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag and Oliver Jeffers’s magnificent short stories for the letters, Once Upon an Alphabet. Joining them is Take Away the A: An Alphabeast of a Book! (public library) by writer Michaël Escoffier and illustrator Kris Di Giacomo — an irreverent exploration not only of the letters and their alphabetic order, but also of how they come together to form words and convey ideas. Each letter of the alphabet is removed from one word to produce another as the two are depicted in a humorous semi-sensical vignette of confused meanings. A weary pig and chicken hitchhike on the side of the road because without its M, their farm has suddenly gotten too far; a family of snails find themselves bewildered at the dinner table as their aunt loses her U and becomes an ant; a terrified chicken realizes that without the X, the two foxes staring it down become foes. What emerges is a playful celebration of language not as a dry, mathematical exercise in letter-organization but as a living organism, in which letters make meaning through a vast mesh of metaphorical associations driven by the imagination — the very faculty that is the hallmark of children’s minds.

Throughout the story, there is also a subtle, wistful lament about our relationship to animals, its only protagonists. A monkey sits atop a cash register, collecting change, because without his K, he makes money selling bananas; but monkeys — as well as their primate relatives, chimps — have a long and heartbreaking history of being abused as money-makers in the hands of humans, from circuses to labs to the illegal pet trade. Having lost their O, a party of four — a duck, a zebra, an antelope, and a wolf — are fur-clad at tea time; the cruel price of fur garments, of course, is always animal lives.

In another vignette, the polar bears lose their E and find themselves at the zoo, behind bars, as a human father and child ogle them while enjoying their ice cream, sold to them by a displaced penguin.

But rather than embitter the story, these subtleties only enrich and elevate it by offering possible topics of education and conversation so understated as to offer parents the choice of whether or not to gently broach these darker issues with the child-reader. What remains at the forefront is the irreverent sweetness of the story, full of fable-like characters — there is the wolf, and the fox, and the ant, and the mouse — who behave in delightfully unfablelike ways.

A touch of continuity tickles the masterful pattern-recognition machine that is the human mind at any age. I was especially charmed by the ample and imaginative cameos of the orange octopus, always cheeky, and the little white mouse, a perennial cautious bystander and occasional bold partaker in the quirky alphabetic adventures.

Take Away the A, which is sheer delight in its totality, comes from Brooklyn-based independent publisher Enchanted Lion, maker of such timelessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday, and a strong presence among the year’s best children’s books.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion; photographs my own

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17 DECEMBER, 2014

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress: A Tender Story of Gender Identity, Acceptance, and Overcoming Bullying

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How to swish, swish, swish one’s way into the spaceship of identity.

Of all the imprisoning polarities and stereotypes in our culture, none is more pervasive than the imprisoning gender expectations we instill in kids from an early age. Even young Mark Twain took issue with them in his irreverent 1865 gem Advice to Little Girls, and a New Yorker cartoonist satirized them brilliantly a century later. Today, the situation is improving only slowly, only modestly, thanks to the occasional children’s book encouraging young girls to transcend our gendered vocational stereotypes. But what about little boys who don’t relate to society’s prescription for how they should inhabit their own identity and don’t understand why they aren’t allowed to enjoy what little girls enjoy? As Erika Trafton wrote in her moving meditation on gender identity, “This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.” And yet Andrew Solomon put it best in his superb book on parents, children, and the search for identity: “Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.”

That exercise is what writer and anti-bullying champion Christine Baldacchino and illustrator Isabelle Malenfant explore with great warmth and tenderness in Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (public library) — another belated but wholly worthy addition to the year’s best children’s books, which tells the story of a sweet but misunderstood little boy derided and ostracized by his classmates because he loves wearing the tangerine dress in his classroom’s dress-up center.

Imaginative and wildly creative, little Morris likes to paint and sing and do puzzles while humming to himself. He loves the tangerine dress because its color “reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair”; he loves the sound it makes, too: “swish, swish, swish when he walks and crinkle, crinkle, crinkle when he sits down.”

When the boys make fun of him and the girls jeer at the pink nail polish on his fingers, he pretends not to notice them, but his heart aches with anguish.

His classmates even shun him from the spaceship they are building — “Astronauts don’t wear dresses,” they scoff.

One day, Morris is so crestfallen over the ceaseless bullying that he begins to feel physically ill. (Indeed, psychologists are now finding that “social pain” has biological repercussions.) He is sent home, where he dreams up a grand space adventure with his cat Moo.

The next day, Morris takes out his brushes and paints a wild, vibrant picture of his dream, complete with a shiny space helmet for Moo. In the drawing, Morris is wearing his beloved tangerine dress riding atop a big blue elephant.

On Monday, Morris went to school with his painting rolled up in his backpack.

When he had the chance, he put on the dress that reminded him of tigers and the sun and his mother’s hair.

Morris swish, swish, swished.
The tangerine dress crinkle, crinkle, crinkled.
His shoes click, click, clicked.
Morris felt wonderful.

The boys in his class are so enchanted by the space-world Morris dreamt up — a world into which he welcomes them — that they decide “it didn’t matter if astronauts wore dresses or not” because “the best astronauts were the ones who knew where all the good adventures were hiding.” With a quiet smile, Morris accepts their acceptance.

When snack time was over, Becky demanded the dress.
Morris told her she could have it when he was done with it.
“Boys don’t wear dresses,” Becky snipped.
Morris smiled as he swished, crinkled and clicked back to his spaceship.
“This boy does.”

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress is immensely heartening from cover to cover. It comes from Canadian independent children’s-book powerhouse Groundwood Books, makers of such gems as Isabelle Arsenault’s Once Upon a Northern Night and Liniers’s What There Is Before There Is Anything There. Complement it with the rest of this year’s most wonderful children’s books, then revisit Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir of transgender parenting.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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16 DECEMBER, 2014

Pecan Pie Baby: A Sweet Children’s Book Celebrating Diversity, Single-Motherhood, and the Vitalizing Gift of Community

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A tender consolation for the disorienting journey of becoming a big sibling.

Half a century ago, Margaret Mead memorably asserted that exposing young children to people who differ from them is essential for teaching them to like or dislike others on the basis of personal character rather than because they belong to a category of people — in other words, for immunizing them against the poison of bigotry. And yet today, only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists (even Jane Austen once told her niece that, in literature, “one does not care for girls until they are grown up”) and a gobsmacking 0.3 percent include characters of color.

How refreshing, then, to come upon Pecan Pie Baby (public library) by writer Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by the always excellent Sophie Blackall — the story of a little girl named Gia and her journey of coming to terms with the disorienting fact that she will soon be a big sister.

The story, told through Gia’s perspective, begins after she has found out that a baby is on the way — how parents tell kids about where babies come from is something Blackall addresses in another illustrated gem, one of the year’s best children’s books — and is already fed up with “talk about the ding-dang baby.” Mama tries to warm her up to this alien newcomer by telling Gia that the baby is constantly craving pecan pie — one of Gia’s own favorite things. But even that peeves little Gia, who scoffs that the baby “is just being a copycat.”

At school, all of her classmates want to know about the baby — “You want a boy or a girl?” — and even come up with a jumping game called “Mama’s Having a Baby.”

When her friend Micaela comes over for one of their regular sleepovers, Gia worries about what will happen to Micaela’s guest bed once the baby arrives.

Man! I was thinking, That ding-dang baby’s going to try to take the place of my sleepover friend.

Even her aunties, when they come over for their weekly Sweet Tea and Toast Party, are “baby-crazy.”

One Saturday, the delivery man brings a giant box and Gia’s uncles set out to put together the baby’s crib as she sits dejected in the corner.

One night, Grandma took us out to a fancy restaurant. She kept fussing over Mama…

“Are you getting enough rest?” Grandma asked. “You know I can take Gia. The baby needs you now.”

I wanted to say, I need Mama now.

Then Mama reached over and rubbed my back. “Me and the baby need Gia with us.”

And even though I didn’t like it when Mama talked about the ding-dang baby, her hand felt nice on my back and I was glad that she needed me.

Even so, Gia continues to reminisce wistfully about the days when she had Mama all to herself.

Now, that baby was going to change everything!

Eventually, at the Thanksgiving dinner table — for aren’t the holidays when family affairs always reach their breaking points? — Gia loses her temper and lets all her vexation loose, screaming at the top of her lungs: “I am so sick of that DING-DANG BABY!”

She is sent to her room, where she sits on her bed with “that teary, choky feeling.”

Even though there were a whole lot of people in my house, I felt real, real, real alone.

When Mama comes upstairs later, they have an assuring talk over a slice of pecan pie. While Gia still fears the loss of “the good old days,” she finds comfort in knowing that she and and she alone will have the privilege to tell “the ding-dang baby” about all those memories.

But perhaps the most emboldening part of the story is the one left unsaid, only subtly implied — Gia’s mom is a single mother, a woman at once independent and with strong ties to her community. There is no father figure anywhere in sight — not even in Gia’s imaginings, suggesting that she doesn’t even have a reference point for fatherhood. Instead, it is Gia’s “uncles” who assemble the baby’s crib, and her “aunties” who come over for the weekly Tea and Toast party, and a diverse mix of family friends who sit around the Thanksgiving table, and Grandma who takes Gia and Mama out to a fancy dinner. They all come in as a collective co-parent — a touching testament to the vitalizing power of community, so very important in our turbulent times and our age of self-inflicted exile into individualism.

Pecan Pie Baby is sweet and wonderful in its entirety, a delightful duet of words and pictures. Complement it with Andrea Beaty’s Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau, the story of a little girl who comes from a very different social stratum but confronts a similar journey of overcoming lonesomeness, then revisit Blackall’s The Baby Tree, one of the year’s best children’s books.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.