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Through NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin, a middle grade book that will debut mid-September 2015. In this book, Suzy Swanson processes the death of her old friend Franny and the end of a friendship. She grieves the way that she and Franny grew apart before Franny drowned. Suzy’s way of making sense of this loss is to fixate on jellyfish: she reads about them and believes that Franny must have drowned after being stung by a jellyfish because otherwise Franny’s death makes no sense.
When I worked in children’s publishing many years ago, I remember that we had specific educational books and then we had fiction. Years after I left that industry, I learned that even fiction books need some kind of educational component in order to sell them to the school and library market…I say that to say that this book has a lot of educational material. The author really packs in the scientific info and uses a science teacher’s explanation of the scientific method to introduce each chapter. This is not a bad thing but it is noticeable. When you choose fiction do you consider its academic as well as its storytelling merits?
At the end of the book, the author explained how the book began with the copious research she did for a different project that was rejected. She repurposed that research to create Suzy, a character who finds subjects she is passionate about but misses the social cues that would tell her when others may not be quite a interested as she is.
As a reader, I came to feel a lot of compassion for Suzy because she is so lost. The first half of the book alternates between the present and Suzy slowly narrating just how she and Franny went from young BFFs to sitting at separate lunch tables and no longer hanging out in middle school. As a parent, the book is a reminder of a child’s rich inner life: you just can’t know all your child is going through. Suzy’s well-meaning parents put her in therapy and try their best but they aren’t really reaching her.
The tone of the book changes when Suzy decides to embark on a trip to see the one person she thinks will understand her interest in jellyfish. While I’m not one who believes that every wring must be severely punished, I was surprised at the lack of consequences in this book. Suzy steals significant amounts of money from family members but I guess they feel that she has been through enough so they don’t address the theft in a punitive way.
Towards the end of the book Suzy finally reveals her rather disturbing actions that may have done away with any chance that Franny would reach out to her again. Suzy is never found out and doesn’t get to speak to Franny again before Franny dies but clearly Suzy feels a lot of guilt, which can be its own punishment.
Oh, twitter. Sometimes you are a wonderful thing! Last July I was at my daughters' swim lesson reading away, and I shared a shot of the book I was reading online. Barbara, it turns out, was reading the same book and we began somewhat of a back and forth as you are want to do when you find out someone besides yourself is smitten. We decided we would co-blog closer to the publishing date, and here are our thoughts!
Barbara: Gracie Lockwood's voice immediately drew me into the story. She keeps a careful record of the family's journey in a diary, a gift from her mother. It is lovingly inscribed with these words, To Gracie, May this diary be big enough to contain your restless heart. Gracie is a girl with strong opinions, stating from the outset that her purpose in keeping a written record is to "prove that I knew it first." Her friend Oliver's observation, "You're kind of fiery" is an understatement. In addition to Gracie's fire, readers witness her gradually evolving realization that the world is much more complex than she initially imagined it to be. She begins to temper her original strong judgments. "I've realized I may have been completely wrong about my dad." "I wondered about the word 'beast.' I wondered if sometimes, the way everything looks - who's the beast and who isn't - depends on where you're standing." I love this statement of self-realization: "Every year I realize how dumb I was the year before."
One of this book’s striking aspects is the comparisons I made to Homer’s The Odyssey. The book’s 416 pages is itself a reading odyssey. It requires an investment of time, attention to storyline, and a commitment to the characters. Reading Gracie's diary becomes a personal journey for the reader.
The travelogue aspect is certainly an integral part of this family's epic saga. We follow Gracie and her family on an extended journey to known and unknown places, several described in vivid detail. The mode of travel is symbolic. The family first travels via Winnebago, a name reflecting a Native American Tribe who excel in oral storytelling. Later they board the Weeping Alexa. Alexa is a reference to Alexander the Great, the “protector”. These modes of transportation give added meaning to the family’s quest.
The major characters read like the cast from a Greek drama.
We meet good guys, bad guys, both real and mythical. Sea monsters and mermaids inhabit the waters. Dragons and unicorns take flight through the skies.
Homer’s motifs take the form of the individuals the family encounters on their journey: an oracle (Grandma), sirens (Luck City), Penelope’s suitors (Captain Bill).
Not since the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? have I encountered such an imaginative homage to Homer’s epic classic.
Without question, the theme which resonated with me and continues to haunt my thinking is the concept of fate. This also reflects the Greek concept of The Fates: goddesses who controlled the life of every mortal from birth to death and watched that the fate assigned to every being proceeded without obstruction.
Stacy: I read quite a few books. Especially during the summer when I am fortunate enough to be lakeside and poolside depending on the day. So it’s not everyday that a story really makes me sit up and notice it. In the first few pages of MDFTEOTW I found myself looking up from the pages and grinning. Reading bits aloud. And then tweeting this to my friend Barbara -
“@moonb2 thanks for the spotlight on this book, Barbara. I'm only on page 7 and I'm already delighted!”
By page 7 we know this: Cliffden Maine isn’t the Maine that we know in 2015. It is a Maine where there are the expected things like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s, schools and houses. But people in town are scuttering around because the dragons are on their way to hibernate and they’ve been quite destructive this year. Protagonist Gracie is out at her favorite spot (where she’s not supposed to be) on top of the hill overlooking town and writing in the journal her mom gave her for her 12th birthday.
Dragons aren’t the only odd things in the sky in Maine. There are also Dark Clouds. These are not the storm clouds we know that release the likes of lightning and rain. Rather they come to town and take away the people who are meant to die. And now a Dark Cloud is settling right in Gracie’s yard. Gracie is worried about her little brother Sam, who is often ill. Complicating family matters is the fact that Gracie’s dad’s crackpot theories about the Extraordinary World have just ousted him from his job. So when Gracie comes home one day to see a Winnebago in the front yard, she’s not too surprised that her dad means to pack up her mom, sister, brother and Gracie and head out of town.
Obviously this is a story about a journey, but it wasn’t until I had back channeled a bunch with Barbara that I could see the Odyssey’s tracks. For me, the Lockwood family was running from crisis and desperately grasping at possibility.
Gracie truly makes this books shine. Whether it’s seeing her witchy grandmother’s house through her eyes, feeling her affections for Sam, seeing her longing to have a relationship with older sister Millie, or having those moments of embarrassment followed by yearning to believe in her father, if Gracie’s voice was less Gracie, the story wouldn’t work half as well.
The other high point for me was Anderson’s world building. The magical mixing with the mundane is presented so matter of fact, that readers simply have to buy it. The journey has them landing in places like Luck City, Big Tex’s Circus, The Crow’s Nest, a broken down L.A. and even Cliffden itself and of the places contain different magic, but the magic follows the same rules.
And then there’s the idea of hope. Inextricable hope tangled up with fate. Which one rules the day?
What a pleasure it was to virtually read My Diary from the Edge of the World with Barbara across geography and time. Clearly, both Barbara and I love this book, and though we both approached it differently, it worked for us. I can’t wait to share this with a big cross section of readers. It works on so many levels that I am sure it will be a crowd pleaser!
A big note of thanks to Barbara Moon for co-blogging with me this time. Barbara is a retired librarian who reads up a storm! Member of 2009-2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection committee, 2012 Odyssey Award committee, 2014 Margaret A. Edwards Award committee. Currently servicing on the 2016 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award committee. You can find Barbara blogging at Reading Style.
Here are two #YAlit audiobooks that I recently reviewed for AudioFile Magazine. I am not permitted to reprint the reviews here, but have provided the links (which include audio excerpts). Both books offer a unique viewpoint of the adolescent male experience - Me and Earl and the Dying Girl through the medium of film making, and 100 Sideways Miles through the medium of abstract concepts. But now I've had my fill of angsty boys for a bit. Time for a change of pace. Up next: Sci-fi and a new picture book roundup.
I would never think of "North Carolina fiction" as a genre in children's literature, but I seem to have read quite a bit of it lately. I picked up Three Times Lucky because my daughter is attending college in North Carolina. I loved it!! Later, I had the good fortune of reviewing The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing (also by Sheila Turnage) for AudioFile Magazine. I can't say enough how quirky and wonderful and timeless these books are!
Another North Carolina book caught my eye last year (I love the cover art!) but I just got around to reading it.
The Sittin' Up by Sheila P. Moses (Putnam, 2014).
The premise for The Sittin' Up is an interesting one. The year is 1940, and former slave, Mr. Bro. Wiley has died. Stanbury "Bean" Jones is 12 years old, finally old enough to attend his first "sittin' up," an area tradition with similarities to an "Irish wake" or Judaism's "sitting shiva." There is not a lot of action in The Sittin' Up - something I've seen it knocked for in other reviews. I, however, loved the opportunity to take my time and get to know the rich personalities of the Low Meadows community, where they treat death with sorrow, remembrance, practicality, and humor.
Mr. Bro. Wiley lived with Bean and his parents, Stanbury and Magnolia Jones, and was revered by the everyone in the closely-knit African American community. Bean's father, a stutterer, is generally accepted as a leader of the community and is a foreman on the tobacco farm where many of the Low Country men work for the white, wealthy, Mr. Thomas. Bean's mother is Magnolia, a kind, commonsense woman with a baby on the way.
Other characters include Miss Florenza (the bootlegging sinner who dares wear red to a sittin' up) and Miss Lottie Pearl (Pole's busybody mother and Magnolia's best friend),
"Yes, Lord. Please help us," Miss Florenza said. Miss Lottie Pearl rolled her eyes at Miss Florenza. Poor Miss Florenza can't even talk to Jesus without Miss Lottie Pearl putting her two cents in.
Bean's best friend is Pole (they go together like a bean to a pole), and there's the preacher (who is more concerned with fancy clothes, cars, and women, than his parishioners),
"I thought we were in a Depression," Pole whispered to me. "We are." I whispered back. "Look like to me Reverend Hornbuckle should have been thinking about how the folk at Sandy Branch Baptist Church are gonna eat come winter instead of buying a new car," Pole said. Wasn't sure if the preacher heard my sassy friend, but she didn't seem to care. She got a whole of Miss Lottie Pearl in her as sho' as Mr. Bro. Wiley was dead in the house.
There's also Uncle Goat the liar,
Ma swears Uncle Goat is the biggest liar in Northampton County. Papa said that ain't so. He said Uncle Goat is the biggest liar in the state of North Carolina. That's how he got the nickname Goat. Ma says he eats the truth up faster than a goat eats grass.
Even Mule Bennett has a personality,
"I will never forget Mr. Bro. Wiley," I thought as we headed to town. Mule Bennett must have felt the same way. He was slowing down and barely lifted his head. Papa kept saying, "Get-get, get up, mule, get up." But Mule Bennett took his own sweet time.
Mr. Bro. Wiley,the reader gets to know through the remembrances of the living.
Yes, this is a story about segregation and how a great catastrophe serves as a catalyst for change, but that is the backdrop for a story that is mostly about people - wonderfully flawed people - people who sometimes do the wrong thing, but choose the right one when it matters - people who know the value of dignity and community - people who find sorrow and joy and humor in the small occurrences of daily life - people - just plain people - just like us.
I may have nothing in common with North Carolina sharecroppers of 1940, but these people "spoke" to me, nonetheless. If you enjoy historical fiction with a character-driven plot, you'll love The Sittin' Up.
I’ve been watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently. So far the resident husband and I have only made it through two episodes, but I was pleased as punch when I learned that the plot twist in storyline #2 hinged on a Baby-Sitter’s Club novel. Specifically Babysitter’s Club Mystery No. 12: Dawn and the Surfer Ghost. Peter Lerangis, was this one of yours? Here’s a breakdown of the book’s plot with a healthy dose of snark, in case you’re interested.
And now a subject that is near and dear to my heart: funny writers. Author Cheryl Blackford wrote a very good blog post on a comedic line-up of authors recently presented at The Tucson Festival of Books. Mac Barnett, Adam Rex, Jory John, Obert Skye, and Drew Daywalt were all there. A good crew, no? One small problem – we may be entering a new era where all-white male panels cannot exist without being called into question. Indeed, I remember years ago when I attended an ALA Conference and went to see a “funny authors” panel. As I recall, I was quite pleased to see the inclusion of Lisa Yee. Here, Tucson didn’t quite get the memo. The fault lies with the organizers and Cheryl has some incisive things to say about what message the attendees were getting.
Speaking of Adam Rex, he’s got this little old major feature film in theaters right now (Home). Meanwhile in California, the Gallery Nucleus is doing an exhibition of Rex’s work. Running from March 28th to April 19th, the art will be from the books The True Meaning of Smekday and Chu’s Day. Get it while it’s hot!
Boy, Brain Pickings just knows its stuff. There are plenty of aggregator sites out there that regurgitate the same old children’s stuff over and over again. Brain Pickings actually writes their pieces and puts some thought into what they do. Case in point, a recent piece on the best children’s books on death, grief, and mourning. The choices are unusual, recent, and interesting.
Chomping at the bit to read the latest Lockwood & Company book by Jonathan Stroud? It’s a mediocre salve but you may as well enjoy his homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mind you, I was an Hercule Poirot fan born and bred growing up, but I acknowledge that that Doyle has his place. And don’t tell Stroud, but his books are FAR closer to the Nero Wolfe stories in terms of tone anyway.
Over at The Battle of the Books the fighting rages on. We’ve lost so many good soldiers in this fight. If you read only one decision, however, read Nathan Hale’s. Future judges would do well to emulate his style. Indeed, is there any other way to do it?
You may be one of the three individuals in the continental U.S. who has not seen Travis Jonker’s blog post on The Art of the Picture Book Barcode. If you’re only just learning about it now, boy are you in for a treat.
AT RISE: MRS. EVERYBODY IS HAVING AN IMPORTANT CHAT WHILE MR. EVERYBODY IS READING A NEWSPAPER
MRS. EVERYBODY Why? Why must you torture me like this? What did I ever do to deserve this treatment other than heap undying love and devotion to your upkeep?
(MR. EVERYBODY glances up and returns to reading his book)
MRS. EVERYBODY You seem to be dying slowly right in front of my eyes and I'm at a loss how to save you
MR. EVERYBODY (looking around) You talking to me?
MRS. EVERYBODY Fed you top of the line nutritional supplements and this is the thanks I get
MR. EVERYBODY I appreciate your cooking, honey. You make fantastic meals and really, I'm in great shape
MRS. EVERYBODY You are not aging well, sweetheart
(gets up to examine himself in the mirror on the wall behind him)
For the record, I'm in better condition now than I was when we married. Sure there's a few extra inches on my stomach but that's due to your good cooking. Work out on the tread mill...
MRS. EVERYBODY I fear it's time for us to part, sweetheart. You are halfway between this world and the next
MR. EVERYBODY Say what? Is it something I said?
MRS. EVERYBODY You've given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Your nightly performance kept me riveted and it's something I will cherish all my life
MR. EVERYBODY Hey! There's still a lot of life left in this body! Is there somebody else? I can change, y'know!
(MRS. EVERYBODY turns around and stares at her husband)
MRS. EVERYBODY It's just so hard to say goodbye! Did you say something?
MR. EVERYBODY You never said a word. I deserve to know who's the new love of your life!
MRS. EVERYBODY Say what? What are you babbling about?
MR. EVERYBODY You're leaving me!
MRS. EVERYBODY Are you insane? You thought that... That is really funny
MRS. EVERYBODY There is nothing funny about being informed that your wife is leaving your for someone else. It's always the husband that is the last to know
MRS. EVERYBODY Husband of mine - I was talking to my prayer plant here that is slowly croaking after 40 years and I'm about to replace her with a new one
MR. EVERYBODY How was I supposed to know? There was only you and me in the room and I never guessed you were talking to a...a... house plant
MRS. EVERYBODY I've raised this houseplant from a small little stalk. Fed her...coddled her...and she gave me years of pleasure but lately she seems to have taken a turn for the worst. The writing is on the wall...or in this case, in all those brown leaves.
MR. EVERYBODY A plant is a plant is a plant. Don't know what the big thing is. Just empty the pot and replace it with a new one. Simple
MRS. EVERYBODY How could you be so cruel and callous! You just can't...discard it like it that!
MR. EVERYBODY I dunno. Never bothers you to do that with your clothes
MRS. EVERYBODY Besides, I read an article that said plants can sense pain and they react to it. How could I betray my friend after all the years we've been together? I feel like a killer! I feel like I'd be ripping out her guts and tearing her apart
MR. EVERYBODY Not that I pretend to feel what you feel but check this out
(MR. EVERYBODY shows her a page of the newspaper)
MRS. EVERYBODY What's this? The Plant-a-atrium is having a sale on houseplants?
(turns to look at plant and at newspaper ad)
(MRS. EVERYBODY cont'd.) 'Parting is such sweet sorrow my formerly green friend. Go meet your other friends in the composter! Do not think badly of me for I shall remember you with great fondness.' I'm ready.
MR. EVERYBODY Ready for...?
MRS. EVERYBODY To make new friends at the Plant-a-atrium, silly! We all gotta go some time. I mean, it's just a silly plant for heaven's sake...
So I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight against it as much as I am able. Truth be told, it’s a weird thing to get all snobby about. People are more inclined to understand your point of view when you’re a snob about fine china or wines or bone structure. They are somewhat confused when you scoff at their copy of Another Monster at the End of This Book since it is clearly a sad sequel of the original Jon Stone classic (and do NOT even try to convince me that he was the author of that Elmo-related monstrosity because I think better of him than that). Like I say. Kid book snobbery won’t get you all that far in this life. And that’s too bad because I’ve got LOADS of the stuff swimming between my corpuscles. Just take my initial reaction to Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa. I took one glance at the cover and dismissed it, just like that. I’ll explain precisely why I did so in a minute, but right there it was my gut reaction at work. I have pretty good gut reactions and 99% of the time they’re on target. Not in this case, though. Because once I sat down and read it and watched other people read it, I realized that I had something very special on my hands. Free of overblown sentiment and crass pandering, this book’s the real deal. Simultaneously wrenching and healing.
Buckley and his mama are just two little beavers squeaking out an existence in a small wooden house by the sea. Buckley loves working with his hands (paws?) and is particularly good at turning driftwood into boats. One day it occurs to him to send his best boats off into the sea with little notes that read, “For Papa. Love, Buckley”. Buckley misses his papa, you see, and this is the closest he can get to sending him some kind of a message. As Buckley gets better, the boats get more elaborate. Finally, one day a year later, he runs into his house to write a note for papa, when he notices that his mother has left her desk open. Inside is every single boat he ever sent to his papa. Realizing what has happened, Buckley makes a significant choice with this latest seagoing vessel. One that his mama is sure to see and understand.
The danger with this book is determining whether or not it slips into Love You Forever territory. Which is to say, does it speak more to adults than to kids. You get a fair number of picture books with varying degrees of sentimentality out there every year. On the low end of the spectrum is Love You Forever, on the high end Blueberry Girl and somewhere in the middle are books like Someday by Alison McGhee. Some of these can be great books, but they’re so clearly not for kids. And when I realized that Boats for Papa was a weeper my alarm bells went off. If adults are falling over themselves to grab handkerchiefs when they get to the story’s end, surely children would be distinctly uninterested. Yet Bagley isn’t addressing adults with this story. The focus is on how one deals with life after someone beloved is gone. Adults get this instantly because they know precisely what it is to lose someone (or they can guess). Kids, on the other hand, may sometimes have that understanding but a lot of the time it’s foreign to them. And so Buckley’s hobbies are just the marks of a good story. I suspect few kids would walk away from this saying the book was uninteresting to them. It seems to strike just the right chord.
It is also a book that meets multiple needs. For some adult readers, this is a dead daddy book. But upon closer inspection you realize that it’s far broader than that. This could be a book about a father serving his time overseas. It could be about divorced parents (it mentions that mama misses papa, and that’s not an untrue sentiment in some family divorce situations). It could have said outright that Buckley’s father had passed away (ala Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas which this keeps reminding me of) but by keeping it purposefully vague we are allowed to read far more into the book’s message than we could have if it was just another dead parent title.
Finally, it is Bagley’s writing that wins the reader over. Look at how ecumenical she is with her wordplay. The very first sentences in the book reads, “Buckley and his mama lived in a small wooden house by the sea. They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” There’s not a syllable wasted there. Not a letter out of place. That succinct quality carries throughout the rest of the book. There is one moment late in the game where Buckley says, “And thank you for making every day so wonderful too” that strains against the bonds of sentimentality, but it never quite topples over. That’s Bagley’s secret. We get the most emotionally involved in those picture books that give us space to fill in our own lives, backgrounds, understandings and baggage. The single note reading, “For Mama / Love, Buckley” works because those are the only words on the page. We don’t need anything else after that.
As I age I’ve grown very interested in picture books that touch on the nature of grace. “Grace” is, in this case, defined as a state of being that forgives absolutely. Picture books capable of conjuring up very real feelings of resentment in their young readers only to diffuse the issue with a moment of pure forgiveness are, needless to say, rare. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan was one of the few I could mention off the top of my head. I shall now add Boats for Papa to that enormously short list. You see, (and here I’m going to call out “SPOILER ALERT” for those of you who care about that sort of thing) for me the moment when Buckley finds his boats in his mother’s desk and realizes that she has kept this secret from him is a moment of truth. Bagley is setting you up to assume that there will be a reckoning of some sort when she writes, “They had never reached Papa”. And it is here that the young reader can stop and pause and consider how they would react in this case. I’d wager quite a few of them would be incensed. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of an adult lying to a child, right? But Bagley has placed Buckley on a precipice and given him a bit of perspective. Maybe I read too much into this scene, but I think that if Buckley had discovered these boats when he was first launching them, almost a full year before, then yes he would have been angry. But after a year of sending them to his Papa, he has grown. He realizes that his mother has been taking care of him all this time. For once, he has a chance to take care of her, even if it is in a very childlike manner. He’s telling her point blank that he knows that she’s been trying to protect him and that he loves her. Grace.
Now my adult friends pointed out that one could read Buckley’s note as a sting. That he sent it to say “GOTCHA!” They say that once a book is outside of an author’s hands, it can be interpreted by the readership in any number of ways never intended by the original writer. For my part, I think that kind of a reading is very adult. I could be wrong but I think kids will read the ending with the loving feel that was intended from the start.
When I showed this book to a friend who was a recent Seattle transplant, he pointed out to me that the coastline appearing in this book is entirely Pacific Northwest based. I think that was the moment I realized that I had done a 180 on the art. Remember when I mentioned that I didn’t much care for the cover when I first saw it? Well, fortunately I have instituted a system whereby I read every single picture book I am sent on my lunch breaks. Once I got past the cover I realized that it was the book jacket that was the entire problem. There’s something about it that looks oddly cheap. Inside, Bagley’s watercolors take on a life of their own. Notice how the driftwood on the front endpapers mirrors the image of Buckley displaying his driftwood boats on the back endpapers. See how Buckley manages to use her watercolors to their best advantage, from the tide hungry sand on the beach to the slate colored sky to the waves breaking repeatedly onto the shore. Perspective shifts constantly. You might be staring at a beach covered in the detritus of the waves on one two-page spread, only to have the images scale back and exist in a sea of white space on the next. The best image, by far, is the last though. That’s when Bagley makes the calculated step of turning YOU, the reader, into Mama. You are holding the boat. You are holding the note. And you know. You know.
I like it when a picture book wins me over. When I can get past my own personal bugaboos and see it for what it really is. Emotional resonance in literature for little kids is difficult to attain. It requires a certain amount of talent, both on the part of the author and their editor. In Boats for Papa we’ve a picture book that doesn’t go for the cheap emotional tug. It comes by its tears honestly. There’s some kind of deep and abiding truth to it. Give me a couple more years and maybe I’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. But before that occurs, I’m going to read it with my kids. Even children who have never experienced the loss of a parent will understand what’s going on in this story on some level. Uncomplicated and wholly original, this is one debut that shoots out of the starting gate full throttle, never looking back. A winner.
Nelson Almeyda, one of my best friends, died today after living with cancer for more than a year. He was one of the most big-hearted people I’ve known, one of the funniest, sharpest, most expressive and most beloved, and also one of the most private. He was in fact so private about his troubles, so invested in being the one who helped other people and not needing help himself, that even now it almost feels like a violation to be posting this here.
My thoughts are with his wife and young daughter, and the rest of his family, and also with all his many friends, particularly those who were with him at the end. If you’re Googling around, bereft, because you knew him and cared about him, please rest assured he cared about you too, no matter how long it’s been since you were in touch.
In surface ways Nelson and I didn’t have much in common. We had extremely different temperaments and few shared interests or friends, and only one of us was an irredeemable nerd, and it wasn’t him. But there was always an intuitive understanding between us, a sort of emotional affinity that I’ve had with very few people.
As Max says, there aren’t enough people like Nelson in the world. I will love and miss him always.
A finely woven novel exploring grief, hope and friendship, Storm Horse by Nick Garlick moved me to tears, even though I started reading it with a great sense of wariness, my inner cynic poised to be proved right with the slightest hiccup in plot, writing or characterization.
Having recently lost his parents, a young boy can’t believe he’ll ever feel at ease with the relatives who have agreed to take responsibility for him. But all that changes when he makes friends with a horse. A growing sense of trust and (self) belief enables him to find a place where he’s happy to belong, even though in the process he comes face to face with some of his greatest fears, loss and sadness.
This page-turner, with dramatic, breath-taking scenes worthy of the vast gloomy shore skies under which it is set made me nervous before I turned the first page; Storm Horse is set on the Frisian islands off the north coast of the Netherlands and is partly inspired by a very emotive true life story about a lifeboat disaster that devastated an island community.
Surrounded by huge and exhilaratingly beautiful sandy beaches, the lifeboat on Ameland was traditionally launched by horses who pulled the boat over the sand and then into the tide, enabling launches where no pier existed. But in 1979 eight horses drowned during a lifeboat launch and in this small island community their terrible loss was felt deeply and powerfully and is still remembered with great sorrow, but also pride, for launching lifeboats with horses was something unique to this particular community, long after other Frisian islands had given up on this tradition.
As it happens I know Ameland and this story rather well (the photo above shows M and J visiting the grave and memorial to the eight horses back in 2012, whilst the photos below show a re-enactment I once saw of how the lifeboat used to be launched), and so when I found out about a novel set on the Frisian islands, centered on horses and lifeboat rescues I was both curious and anxious.
Starting a novel when you already have an emotional investment in it is a scary thing. What if it doesn’t live up to your hopes? What if you feel it betrays the beauty / the sorrow / the wonder you feel about certain events or places or times?
But I took the plunge and turned the first page and…
…Well here’s why I think you might enjoy this book as much as I did, even if you’ve never heard of the Frisian islands and have not one ounce of hope at stake when you come across it in your local bookshop or library:
Storm Horse is brilliantly plotted with chapter endings which demand you turn the page and read just a bit more. I actually read this book in a single sitting and couldn’t believe how the time and pages had whizzed by.
Garlick’s characterization is lovely, authentic and satisfying. From the most wonderful Aunt Elly, who exhibits the kindness, compassion and wisdom that we all wish we had, to the silent and imposing (and ultimately big hearted) Uncle Andries, via uncannily spot-on observations about life as a seven year old who wants to be a part of everything, to the thoughtfulness of old and lame Mr Bouten, the cast of this story is rich and not without humour.
Bereavement and how people cope with loss is explored in several different strands, each offering a different light and reflection on the grieving process and being able to eventually see light at the end of a sorrowful tunnel.
Quietly and powerfully Storm Horse gives its readers a sense that they can find a way to hold on to what matters to them, through perseverance, through patience, through resourcefulness and generosity. What a great gift from a book, don’t you think?
This is no literal re-telling of the terrible, heart-breaking events of the 14th of August 1979; Garlick sets his story on an imaginary island (though Ameland is briefly mentioned), and yet all the details ring beautifully true. The challenges of island life are not shied away from, but read this moving, convincing, vivid novel and I think you may nevertheless fall in love.
Now… what will my lifeboat-mad, Dutch husband who spent every childhood summer on Ameland think of this book? Well, somehow I’m going to have to find the time to read it aloud to him and the girls as I now know I needn’t have worried: Storm Horse is a cracker.
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.
I would expect to find this book in the part of the bookshop/library aimed at 8/9 – 12/13 year olds.
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It's happening again! Books with similar themes end up on my list right next to each other.
The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is narrated by Suzy who can't believe that her oldest friend could just drown. "These things happen" is NOT an acceptable explanation. Suzy becomes convinced that a rare jellyfish is responsible for Franny's death.
Suzy is a fact person who inundates the reader with math and facts about jellyfish and the people who study them. But this book also chronicles the all too frequent trauma that occurs when one person outgrows another - as Franny outgrows Suzy by the end of 6th grade. This relationship break makes Franny's death so much harder for Suzy to accept.
Her search for someone who can understand the horror of jellyfish - as she sees it - leads Suzy to start out on a dangerous and possibly illegal journey.
Her parents, her older brother and an unexpected friend help Suzy to move into a life without Franny.
Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff Ok. In fifth grade, Trent killed someone during an ice hockey game. Total accident. Trent's parents and older and younger brother seem to think Trent should move on. Trent's Dad, especially, has little patience for Trent's surly attitude. Dad's new wife is expecting their first child any time now. So, it was an accident. Get over it already. (Not actual words from the book.)
Trent reacts to the guilt and the anxiety he feels by making sure he gets into trouble at school, and with his Dad. He even refuses to enter into prank wars with his little brother.
Luckily, Fallon, a girl at school with a noticeable facial scar befriends Trent after she peeks into his Book of Thoughts and sees the pictures he draws there - pictures of what the boy he killed might be doing at that very moment. Fallon wants Trent to draw a picture for her.
How Trent manages to make things worse and then how he manages to make them better - with the help of sympathetic outsiders - makes an engrossing and emotional read.
These books have totally different styles, despite their similarities - see below. Jellyfish is awash with facts and musings on facts - the type of book that will lend itself to STEM curricula. But there is an immediacy to Suzy's pain, even as she carefully plans her science report and her journey, and her need to find explanations for her friend's death.
Sun, on the other hand, concentrates on Trent's emotional struggles. Trent speaks in a matter-of-fact voice, referring to the accident almost casually. And all the time he is seething and unable to see that he is till a worthwhile human being.
Here is a list of other similarities: New friends: Both of the new frends have problems of their own that they seem to have overcome. Older brothers: Aaron - yeah, both of them. Nice teachers: Suzy likes her science teacher right away. Trent hates everyone but his homeroom teacher really is pretty old.
Read 'em both, except you might want to read other books in between. OK?
This is how I'll always think of Jay Lake. It's how he looked when I first met him, 10 or 12 years ago. He died of colon cancer yesterday. He fought so hard, up to and including getting gene sequencing. Lisa Madigan (Lisa Wolfson) died from pancreatic cancer in February 2011, just 8 weeks after she was diagnosed. She had had breast cancer 20 years earlier, and accepted more than most of us that life does not last forever. At 33, Bridget Zinn was young enough to be my kid. She died in May 2011, again from colon cancer. (Don't tell let anyone tell if you if there is blood in your stool that you are too young to have colon cancer.) Her 2013 book, Poison, was just named a Oregon Spirt Honor book, as was The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.
Whatever else we think of poets, we don’t tend to see them as heroes.
There are exceptions, of course – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon famously won the Military Cross, and some three hundred years earlier, Sir Philip Sidney was praised for his dash and gallantry at the Battle of Zutphen; then there’s Keith Douglas from World War II, one of the few deserters ever to abandon his post to get into a battle, who was killed shortly after the D-Day invasion.
It’s not a long list, and those on it performed their acts of heroism in, so to speak, their time off. They were heroes who happened to be poets as well. Poetry, by and large, is a solitary craft: it’s not easy to perform acts of derring-do when you’re hunched on your own over a desk. The greatest battle most poets fight is the unequal struggle against a blank sheet of paper.
But there’s another sort of heroism that poets can achieve, in honour of their talent and their craft – the courage to stare death in the face, and to keep on writing, honestly and truthfully.
Vernon Scannell managed it. After months of illness, shuffling from room to room and from oxygen cylinder to oxygen cylinder, he gave up and took to his bed — often, in the sick and ailing, a sure sign that death is approaching. Instead, he started writing again, and produced Last Post, maybe the best volume of his life:
“There’s something valedictory in the way
My books gaze down on me from where they stand
In disciplined disorder and display
The same goodwill that wellwishers on land
Convey to troops who sail away to where
Great danger waits …”
A couple of months later, he was dead.
And now there’s Clive James. Poems like Sentenced to Life and Holding Court chart James’s progress towards what he calls “dropping off the twig” with clear-eyed courage. There’s sadness and regret, but not a shred of self-pity. Approaching death, he seems to say, brings its compensations:
“Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.”
The Daily Mirror, never far from the front of the pack in the race to find a crass and clumsy phrase, quotes James (inaccurately, as far as I can see) as saying that he has “lost his battle with cancer”. Not so.
We all, as one of Shakespeare’s less well known characters points out, owe God a death, and getting better from cancer can only ever put off the final reckoning. But facing it down, as Scannell did and as James is doing – sending back poems like dispatches from the last frontier any of us will ever cross – is the only battle we can win. Catching the tone of leaves as the world closes in is what a real poet does, and if it’s not heroism, then I don’t know what is.
Andrew Taylor is the author of ten books, including Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scanell, biographies of the Arabian traveller Charles Doughty and the 16th Century cartographer Gerard Mercator, as well as books on language, literature, poetry and, history. He studied English Literature at Oxford University and worked as a Fleet Street and BBC television journalist in London and the Middle East before returning to Britain in the 1990s to concentrate on his writing career.
I know it's Labor Day, not New Year's, but I'm declaring it officially the start of a new year. This last year was the hardest year I have ever had in my life. Good things happened too, I'm not saying that, but I would trade those good things to reverse some of the bad. A year ago today, I was involved in a horrific car accident, then moved home and took care of my mom while she was on hospice, and then ended up in the hospital.
We were driving to dinner. September 1, 2013. I had my hand on my husband's knee and we were smiling and talking about nothing.
Past his shoulder suddenly: a dog. Appearing so out of nowhere it's like magic. A black lab running flat out toward us. Pink tongue streaming behind. Black leash streaming behind.
It looks totally happy. Happy and clueless.
No time to scream. No time to brake. No time to react.
A second after we first see it, the dog and car meet just past the driver's side front bumper.
And then we are screaming.
We pull over in the gravel, still screaming. It has to be dead. It has to be. Oh my god. It seems like we are a long ways away, blocks and blocks, but later I see it's not even half a block.
I get out. It's worse than I thought.
Not one dog, but two.
Two dogs lying on their backs in the street, paws in the air.
I've never seen dogs lying like that. Cars are already stacking up. A young man kneels by one, a young woman by the other. Screaming, crying, begging. What will these people think of us? We killed their dogs.
As I get closer, I can see they are street kids. The girl with red-gold dreads and pants made of patches. The guy with red-gold hair and a black T-shirt. (I later found his picture online.) They carry their dogs to the side of the road. The guy is begging. "Aldo! Aldo!" The black lab is moving a little. And then it dies.
The little dog is still alive and whining.
I try to look up Dove Lewis, the emergency animal hospital, on my phone. I keep typing the wrong letters, and the harder I try the worse I get. The lady who answers says to bring the dogs in. I tell my husband to get the Subaru.
These two kids are wailing. Stumbling from one dog to the other, shaking, weeping so hard that snot runs down their faces.
The guy lifts the lab into the back - even though we all know it must be dead - and then climbs in beside it. The girl sits in the back with the little dog and I pick up their two huge packs (they were setting down their packs when they lost control of the dogs) and bag of groceries and somehow manage to shove them all in the car.
And then we drive. Too fast. I keep telling my husband to be careful, that the guy is just loose back there.
Otherwise, the car is mostly quiet. The guy is curled over the dog, weeping soundlessly. The girl is trying to reassure the little black and white dog, named Karate Kid. Neither of these two are that much older than our daughter. But somehow they've gone from being someone's precious babies to two kids living on the street with their dogs.
At the vet hospital, a tech in blue scrubs comes out to the parking lot, puts her hand to the lab's neck and shakes her head. She's a tall girl, broad-shouldered, and she manages to carry his body in by herself. Three hours later, we are looking at X-rays of the smaller dog. (It turned out that another car actually hit him.) The ball on one hip joint has been turned into paste. Everything has been pushed to one side.
And after they say goodbye to both dogs, both kids stagger back out into the waiting room. Eyes nearly swollen shut with weeping. We were strangers thrown together, sharing a nightmare.
Becoming an orphan Eleven days later, I drove down to my home town on a few hours sleep. I had gotten back from a business trip to North Carolina and New York City the night before. My mom had declared that September 12 was when she was going on hospice. She had congestive heart failure and interstitial lung disease and had been put on oxygen a few months before.
I think she had hoped that the magic of going on hospice would cause her to die right away. But then the hospice nurse said she might live for months. My mom and I exchanged horrified glances while the nurse prattled on, oblivious. It took her a long time to figure out that Mom wanted to die and soon.
For years, my mom has been dying on the installment plan. She was ready to die. There was nothing unsettled, nothing unsaid. She thought it was funny when, after she had decided she would go on hospice, her fortune said, "You are soon going to change your present line of work." She firmly believed in God and and afterlife, although she had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like.
The nurse only took her off a couple of her meds. On her own, Mom decided to go off the others. She stopped her oxygen. Then she stopped eating. Then she - sort of - stopped drinking.
It was a very strange three weeks. Good conversations. Watching a lot of old movies and documentaries, as well as the entire first season of Homeland and the Forsyte Saga. Being bored. Wondering when/ hoping/being afraid she would die. Weeping in the laundry.
I was getting an award October 5. I was going to cancel. Mom told me not to, and then died quietly October 1, a few hours after the hospice nurse said she would live for at least a week, maybe longer. Of course, I was flat out useless at the awards. I basically stood at the podium and wept. It got so bad that one of presenters gave me her already used Kleenex.
room and biting my hand so she wouldn't hear me. Being scared. Laughing. Telling her to stop apologizing for my being there. Trying to write a little. Eating my way through so much junk food. The day the wild turkeys came - and my mom's favorite memory involved a drive in the country and a flock of wild turkeys.
When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras
Doctors have a saying. "When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras." In other words, it's probably a cold, not a rare fatal virus.
Or in my case, just before Christmas when my leg turned red and started swelling up, it was probably cellulitis. And when it didn't respond to three different antibiotics, they decided it was MRSA cellulitis, and I ended up in the hospital for three days. In case I was contagious and might pose a danger to people who were already physically sick, they put me on the psych unit. Let's just say, that was interesting. Then I had a rare reaction to IV Vancomycin called hand-foot syndrome. First my hands and feet felt like they were on fire. Then eventually all the skin peeled off. Oh, and somewhere in there, the doctor thought I had a blood clot in my heart that was throwing off bits. It was a month or so of suck.
I did a LOT of lying on my back, staring at white acoustical ceilings, and crying. And wondering whether I would lose my leg or die. I actually came out okay (except a scar from a biopsy). It turns out that an errant kung fu shin clash probably led to something called traumatic panniculitis (dermatologist's theory) or a crush injury (orthopedic doc's theory). Unfortunately, even though everyone eventually agreed I never had cellulitis, they couldn't agree on what I did have, so I coudln't be featured in the NY Times' Think Like a Doctor series. I couldn't even persuade the hospital to not charge me my copay, since they never tested to see if I had an infection.
Write or die I like that program, Write or Die, for forcing you to write, forcing you to create instead of criticize or dither.
This past year was write or die for me. I turned in a book February 19th. February 20th I started a new book and turned that in June 1, despite doing school visits and events in St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago and Houston. Both editors said the books were the best I had ever written. And I sold a new book over Memorial Day. I'll finish it in November.
So that's it. The highlights of my year. I hope to have a much quieter one this year.
If you’re looking for a book that will get your kids curious, disgusted, delighted, amazed, and astonished all in the space of a few pages, it will also be your kind of book.
An exploration of the greatest animal survivors, how they defy death and keep alive against the odds, Dead or Alive? shares stories of many extraordinary animals. From frogs who can freeze to catatonic opossums via zombie crabs and animals which have survived in space without spacesuits, this book is packed with unusual, engaging and remarkable facts.
The importance of playing dead, the huge range in animal life spans, the discovery of creatures which have come back from (apparent) extinction, and cloning are amongst other topics which feature. All are backed up by a really useful further reading list, web resources, glossary and even a fun quiz to take (or make your parents take). Exciting, engaging and the start for many more questions – what more could you want from a book?
Horne’s illustrations are funny and full of energy. Her cartoon style characters show a terrific range of emotions, surreptitiously encouraging readers to feel really involved with the bizarre and fascinating stories being told. Judicious use of animal photos in amongst the brightly coloured, zany illustrations add another richness to the visuals.
Amazing information, brilliantly presented in a way which is bound to get young readers wanting to know more (and providing them with some starting points to do so). This is the sort of book kids will return to time and time again, to discover new facts as they dip in and out of the book, to re-live thrills when reading about particularly disgusting animal behaviour, to think about the very essence of what it means to be dead or alive.
This book has ‘lived’ by our dinner table for most of the summer. It’s been read and returned to many times, with lots of it being read out by the kids, desperate to share something they’ve found revolting or surprising. It has inspired all sorts of play and exploration, starting with a hunt for a bit of dead or alive action in our own back garden.
Maybe it was a bit gruesome watching the spider prepare its prey (the wasp was wriggling when we started watching), but it gave us plenty of opportunities to talk about wildlife, food chains, and even a little bit about how death is very much part of life.
Next we scoured under rocks and in neglected corners of the garden for any dead bugs we could find so that we could look at them under our microscope. We stored the spiders, woodlice and bees we found in small makeup containers (from our local chemist, but you can get them online too).
This is a field microscope which works really well for us as we can look at 3D objects (ie not slivers on slides), and the kids can look through two eyepieces (which is easier than looking through just the one). We got ours from here and can highly recommend it. It’s super simple to use, and yet packs quite a punch; Dr Who monsters have nothing on close-up views of pincers and scales and eyes of everyday garden bugs!
After examining our dead subjects we added them to our own Natural History Museum (here’s the post explaining how we started it) and this led to a conversation about a different Natural History Museum we had visited earlier this summer which was packed with specimen jars. Spooky and intriguing, mesmerising and slightly frightening, we then decided our museum needed specimen jars too.
We made our “specimens” out of plasticine and wax, put them in jam jars with water stained brown with the swish of a tea bag, and then wrote labels explaining what strange creatures we’d found, when and where.
The one specimen that was made from plant matter (shhh! It’s a secret – of course, this is really a slice of alien brain) we put in a jar of vinegar stained with a little bit of brown sugar.
I think these could provide great prompts for storywriting, or as props come Halloween time… (if you want to create EDIBLE specimen jars for a spooky party, do take a look at this!).
Other ways to bring the pages of this book “to life” include:
Making clones. Choose your favourite animal cookie cutter and make a trayful of genetically identical biscuits you can munch on.
Visit a butchers and talk about the different animals (some) humans eat, and the different parts of the different animals. Can you identify the different parts? Why does meat from one animal look different to meat from another animal?
Find a museum or stately home to visit and hunt stuffed animals. Our experience is that kids are fascinated by the results of taxidermy. Mummified animals are also always a hit.
Were you fascinated by dead animals as a child? Are you kids curious when they see a dead animal?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Dead or Alive? from the publisher.
Death. Grief. Sorrow. Those aren’t words that any of us like, especially when they involve those closest to us. I don’t pretend to understand sorrow, though I have experienced it many times. I experienced it when my grandparents died. I experienced it when my own father was in a car accident, and again when my…
A stumper to begin the day. I got this message from my aunt and I simply do not know the answer. Librarians of the world, do you know? Just to clarify beforehand, the answer is unfortunately not Are Your My Mother? by P.D. Eastman:
“… seeking info on a children’s book that was [a] favorite at least 30 years ago about a baby bird (with goggles) who is having trouble learning to fly.”
Here’s a new one. Apparently the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for literature is a French author with a children’s book to his name. And the book? According to Karen MacPherson it’s Catherine Certitude. Now THAT is a title, people!
Me Stuff: Pop Goes the Page was very very kind and did a little behind-the-scenes interview with me about good old Giant Dance Party. Ain’t Dana swell? Meanwhile my favorite transgender children’s librarian Kyle Lukoff just posted a review of Wild Things on his blog. I’ve been very impressed by his reviews, by the way. The critique of A is for Activist is dead on.
On the one hand, this may well be the most interesting board book I’ve seen in a long time. On the other, why can’t I buy it through Ingram or Baker & Taylor? Gah!
Movie news! Specifically Number the Stars movie news. Read on:
Young readers and their families enjoyed an afternoon celebrating the 25th anniversary of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars at Symphony Space in New York on October 19th. Actor Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings) was on hand to read from Lowry’s work,. He and his wife Christine have secured the rights to adapt the book for film.
Blurb: Join NPR’s Ask Me Another, along with host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton, for a rousing night of brainteasers, comedy, and music. This week’s V.I.P. (that’s puzzle speak for Very Important Puzzler), is acclaimed children’s book author Mo Willems. Willems is known for titles like Knuffle Bunny, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, and the Elephant and Piggie series. See how he fares in a trivia game written just for him. For more information and tickets visit www.amatickets.org.
As a children’s materials specialist I have a little file where I keep track of my 80+ library branches and the types of books they want. One of the topics you’ll find on my list? Death. We’re always asked to provide books about the bereavement process. Now The Guardian has done a nice little round-up of some of the more recent ones. Note, though, that death books all have on thing in common: They’re all about white families. Finding a multicultural book about death isn’t impossible but it is harder than it should be, particularly when we’re discussing picture books. Thanks to Kate for the link.
There is a tendency online when a story breaks to write a post that comments on one aspect or another of the situation without saying what the problem was in the first place. That’s why we’re so grateful to Leila Roy. If you found yourself hearing vague references to one Kathleen Hale and her article of questionable taste in The Guardian but didn’t know the whole story, Leila makes all clear here.
Hm. I like Harry Potter as much as the next guy but the Washington Post article Why the Harry Potter Books Are So Influential All Around the World didn’t quite do it for me. Much of it hinges on believing that HP is multicultural. I don’t suppose I’m the only person out there who remembers that in the original printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Dean Thomas was not mentioned as black. That was added for subsequent editions. Ah well. Does it matter?
Daily Show Head Writer and fellow-who-is-married-to-a-children’s-librarian Elliott Kalan recently wrote a piece for Slate that seeks to explain how his vision of New York as a child was formed by Muppets Take Manhattan and Ghostbusters. But only the boring parts. Yup.
Fountas and Pinnell have a message for you: They’re sorry. Thanks to Colby Sharp for the link.
They’ve finally announced the winner of the whopping great huge Kirkus Prize. And the final finalist on the children’s side turns out to be . . . Aviary Wonders, Inc. And here’s an image of the committee that selected the prize with the winner herself.
Left to right: E.K. Johnston (author finalist), Vicky Smith (Kirkus Children’s Editor), Claudette McLinn, Kate Samworth, John Peters, and Linda Sue Park.
They mentioned the prize money but they never mentioned that the winner also gets a TROPHY!! That’s big. We don’t get many trophies in our business. Well played. And thanks to Claudette McLinn for the photo.
At first, I wasn’t sure quite why. I get what they meant. It seems like Ebola’s everywhere! It’s constantly on the news, all over the internet, and everyone’s talking about it. It makes sense to be sick of hearing about it. We’re bound to get sick of hearing about anything that much!
But still, I couldn’t shake the discomfort that rung in my head over that status. Ebola seems far away, after all, it’s only been diagnosed four times in the US. It’s easy to tuck it away in your mind as something distant that doesn’t affect you and forget why it’s a big deal.
It’s even become a hot topic for jokes on social media:
Because so many see this very real disease as a far away concept, we find safety in our distance and it’s easy to make light of it.
4,877 deaths. 9,935 sufferers. That’s not funny. That’s not something to ask to “omg shut up.”
The idea of disease never really hit home for me until my little sister was diagnosed with cancer. Yes, Ebola and cancer are two very different things. But I know what it’s like to watch someone I love very dearly suffer. I know what it’s like to hold my sister’s hand while she cries because she can’t escape the pain or the fear that comes with her disease. I know what it’s like to cry myself to sleep begging God to take her illness away. And I can’t help but imagine a sister somewhere in Africa in a situation very similar to my own, watching her loved one suffer, hearing her cries, and begging for it to all be over- but without the blessings of medicine and technology that my sister has access to.
We are quick to throw on our pink gear for breast cancer awareness and dump ice on our head for ALS because that kind of awareness is fun and easy. I’m not trying to diminish those causes- they are great causes that deserve promotion. But I mean to make note of the fact that when another very real disease with very real consequences is brought to light and gains awareness, people groan that it’s in the news again and make jokes about it on the internet. Because Ebola doesn’t have the fun and cute promotional package, we complain and make light of it and its need for awareness and a solution.
People are suffering and dying from Ebola. Just because that suffering seems far away, doesn’t make it any less significant.
This is a guest post from my oldest daughter, Meredith. I begged her to let me post it.
One of Glasgow’s best-known tourist highlights is its Victorian Necropolis, a dramatic complex of Victorian funerary sculpture in all its grandeur and variety. Christian and pagan symbols, obelisks, urns, broken columns and overgrown mortuary chapels in classical, Gothic, and Byzantine styles convey the hope that those who are buried there—the great and the good of 19th century Glasgow—will not be forgotten.
But, of course, they are mostly forgotten and even the conspicuous consumption expressed in this extraordinary array of great and costly monuments has not been enough to keep their names alive. And, of course, we, the living, will soon enough go the same way: ‘As you are now, so once was I’, to recall a once-popular gravestone inscription.
Is this the last word on human life? Religion often claims to offer a different perspective on death since (it is said) the business of religion is not with time, but with eternity. But what, if anything, does this mean?
‘Eternal love’ and ‘eternal memory’ are phrases that spring to the lips of lovers and mourners. Even in secular France, some friends of the recently murdered journalists talked about the ‘immortality’ of their work. But surely that is just a way of talking, a way of expressing our especially high esteem for those described in these terms? And even when talk of eternity and immortality is meant seriously, what would a human life that had ‘put on immortality’ be like? Would it be recognizably human at all? As to God, can we really conceive of what it would be for God (or any other being) to somehow be above or outside of time? Isn’t time the condition for anything at all to be?
If we really take seriously the way in which time pervades all our experiences, all our thinking, and (for that matter) the basic structures of the physical universe, won’t it follow that the religious appeal to eternity is really just a primitive attempt to ward off the spectre of transience, whilst declarations of eternal love and eternal memory are little more than gestures of feeble defiance and that if, in the end, there is anything truly ‘eternal’ it is eternal oblivion—annihilation?
Human beings have a strong track record when it comes to denying reality.
One fashionable book of the post-war period was dramatically entitled The Denial of Death and it argued that our entire civilization was built on the inevitably futile attempt to deny the ineluctable reality of death. But if there is nothing we can do about death, must we always think of time in negative terms—the old man with the hour-glass and scythe, so like the figure of the grim reaper?
And instead of thinking of eternity as somehow beyond or above time, might not time itself offer clues as to the presence of eternity, as in the experiences that mystics and meditators say report as being momentary experiences of eternity in, with, and under the conditions of time? But such experiences, valuable as they are to those who have them, remain marginal unless they can be brought into fruitful connection with the weave of past and future.
From the beginnings of philosophy, recollection has been valued as an important clue to finding the tracks of eternity in time, as in Augustine’s search for God in the treasure-house of memory. But the past can only ever give us so much (or so little) eternity.
A recent French philosopher has proposed that time cannot undo our having-been and that the fact that the unknown slave of ancient times or the forgotten victim of the Nazi death-camps really existed means that the tyrants have failed in their attempt to make them non-human. But this is a meagre consolation if we have no hope for the future and for the flourishing of all that is good and true in time to come. Really affirming the enduring value of human lives and loves therefore presupposes the possibility of hope.
One Jewish sage taught that ‘In remembering lies redemption; in forgetfulness lies exile’ but perhaps what we it is most important to remember is the possibility of hope itself and of going on saying ‘Yes’ to the common, shared reality of human life and of reconciling the multiple broken relationships that mortality leaves unresolved.
Pindar, an ancient poet of hope, wrote that ‘modesty befits mortals’ and if we cannot escape time (which we probably cannot), it is maybe time we have to thank for the possibility of hope and for visions of a better and more blessed life. And perhaps this is also the message that a contemporary graffiti-artist has added to one of the Necropolis’s more ruined monuments. ‘Life goes on’, either extreme cynicism or, perhaps, real hope.
Featured image credit: ‘Life goes on.’ Photo by George Pattison. Used with permission.
On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.
Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!
“Griffin came into the Silk family after Scarlet, Indigo, Violet, Amber and Saffron. He came early in the morning on that uncommon day, the twenty-ninth of February. His father’s prediction, considering the date of Griffin’s birth, was that he would be an uncommon sort of boy.
Perhaps he was, thought Griffin ruefully. For the first time in his life, he wished he’d been born on the twenty-eighth day of February or even the first of March. Maybe then he would have been an ordinary boy instead. If he were an ordinary boy, maybe Mama wouldn’t have gone away. Maybe his secret thoughts wouldn’t have changed everything.
Griffin is a member of the somewhat unusual and perhaps slightly bohemian Silk family, who live on the outskirts of a small Australian town. Griffin carries a secret deep inside him, a huge worry that he finds hard to share until he meets Layla, instantly recognisable to him as a princess because she is wearing a daisy-chain crown. Thanks to the thoughtfulness shown by his new friend, Griffin’s courage grows and together they do something that heals the sorrow which all the family has felt after a terrible event no-one has been able to talk about for months.
Just like Griffin, this is a truly “uncommon” short novel, the first in a seven part series. From unexpected characters to profoundly moving themes threaded together with sometimes astonishingly lyrical writing, this book is something utterly different and incredibly beautiful. I have never before come across such delicate and yet powerful writing in a novel for children. Unique, breathtaking and full of fierce love and deep sorrow, The Naming of Tishkin Silk is the sort of book that changes you forever, the sort of book you are just so glad to have inside you, to enrich even the happiest of days and to sustain you on dark nights.
The dual aspect of this novel – intense sadness and intense happiness – reminded me of a passage in The Prophet by Khalil Gibran about joy and sorrow; “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.“. Whilst this book deals with some of the most difficult themes you’re likely to come across in books for its target age range (approximately 8-12), Millard does it with such quiet tenderness that it doesn’t overwhelm. Indeed, like the adult characters inside the book, Millard enters the world children inhabit without patronising them, but rather with immense respect, sincerity and creativity.
The stories we tell ourselves in an attempt to make sense of the world around us, adjusting to different family setups when new babies are born, sibling jealousy, and the value of having space and taking time to think form some of the varied threads woven throughout this precious book. Never once soppy or sentimental, Millard writes with honesty and integrity about deep and loving emotions. This is a tremendous book for exploring kindness and empathy.
It’s Australian setting is lightly but evocatively worn, grounding the somewhat enchanted story in a very real time and place. Yes, my praise for this book goes on and on! And yet, when this book first arrived in my home, I shelved it in a dusty corner. I judged the book by its cover, and the cover did not work for me at all (Caroline Magerl illustrated this first book in the series, but subsequent volumes have been illustrated by Stephen Michael King). It looked airy-fairy, hippy-dippy, saccharine and syrupy and not like something I would enjoy. Someone whose judgement I trust, however, kept telling me I should read the book. Pig-headedly, I kept ignoring this advice. But what a fool I was! Tishkin could have been part of me for two whole extra years if I had listened and not let my prejudices sway me.
For once I had read the book, I was utterly smitten. I could not get hold of the rest of the series quickly enough.
If, however, I still had a niggling doubt, it was about how children would respond to these books. Subtle and yet emotionally complex, featuring an unusual family, and dealing with issues as varied as death, illness, fostering, immigration and dementia over the course of the books now available in the UK (the 6th title in the series, The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk, is published next week on World Book Day, and the final will be available in September this year), I was very curious as to how young people, rather than adults would respond to these books.
I only have one child’s response to call upon, but M, my ten year old, has taken these stories to her heart as much as I have. She’s read each one in a single sitting, and whilst she agrees they are indeed full of sadness, they are also “really funny and playful”, “just the sort of family I want ours to be like”. She has SO many plans for implementing aspects of these stories into our lives, from making the recipes which feature throughout the series, to adopting the special breakfast rituals the Silk Family has into our own home, from making our own paper to consecrating an apple tree for tea parties, from collecting shiny foil to painting special poems on walls and doors. I think I shall be posting our activities, our Kingdom of silk playing by the book for a long time to come on the blog!
As it is, we’ve already got our own green rubber gloves with red nail polish…
…we’ve painted our toes like Layla…
… and we’ve started having hummingbird nectar and fairy bread when we come in from school.
Layla and Griffin and all the Kingdom of Silk clan are now part of our lives: We are all the richer for them. These books are alive with wonder and warmth and they’re some of the best I think my family has ever shared.
In the closing pages of The Naming of Tishkin Silk , this gently heart wrenching, heart-soaring short novel, Millard writes, “There are some days when heaven seems much closer to earth than others, and Friday the twenty-seventh of February was one of them.” By introducing you to this book today, also a Friday the twenty-seventh of February, I’ve tried to offer you a slice of such beauty, kindness and wonder as will indeed make today (or at least the day you start reading your own copy of The Naming of Tishkin Silk ) one of those days where heaven really does seem a little nearer by.
The Flat Rabbit Bárður Oskarsson Owlkids Books 9/15/2014 978-1-77147-059-9 40 pages Age 4+ x
“What do you do with a flat rabbit? A dog and a rat come across a rabbit. A flat rabbit, lying silently on the road. It all seems rather sad, so they decide to move her. But where to? They can’t just return her to her apartment, completely flattened. What would the neighbors think? The dog and the rat try to figure out what to do. Then the dog gets a brilliant idea. They decide to give the rabbit the send-off she deserves.”
The Flat Rabbit deals with a serious subject most young child, under age 6, are incapable of understanding: the finality of death. The author uses humor in this gentle story of two friends sending off another friend—the flat rabbit—in a respectful manner, honorable and pleasing to the rabbit. They find their friend in the middle of the road and decide it cannot be much fun lying there. The dog and rat decide to help the rabbit move to a better place.
“Do you think she is having a good time? the rat finally asked . . .
As a social worker, The Flat Rabbit would be a great tool for helping kids process not only death, but also separation. Nearly every page can provoke discussion. The abrupt ending demands discussion. The Flat Rabbit can open up discussions on the mysteries of life, the finality of death, and the use of compassion and respect.
I also love the simple illustrations and the gentle humor.
“Do you know her?” [The rat asked the dog.]
“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”
The Flat Rabbit may not be a typical picture book, but it does a great service for children dealing with, or asking about, death. Parents will have a platform for discussion and a gentle way to help their child cope with a difficult subject. The most important aspect, as this social worker sees it, is the respect and compassion for life and death that the author deftly deals with in The Flat Rabbit. The dog, after brainstorming most of the day, comes up with a brilliant plan to help the rabbit. The dog and the rat gently lift the rabbit off the road then spend the rest of the day and night on their plan to honor and care for the rabbit.
On 25 February 1603, Queen Elizabeth I’ s cousin and friend - Katherine Howard, the countess of Nottingham - died. Although Katherine had been ill for some time, her death hit the queen very hard; indeed one observer wrote that she took the loss ‘muche more heavyly’ than did Katherine’s husband, the Charles, Earl of Nottingham. The queen’s grief was unsurprising, for Elizabeth had known the countess longer than almost anyone else alive at that time.