Welcoming Vaunda, Remembering Sylvester

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson recently launched her new blog, The Book Itch, with a tribute to William Steig.

SylvesterHere’s a snippet:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Winner of the 1970 Caldecott Medal, it was and remains truly deserving. In my 27 years as a children’s librarian, I shared it with thousands of story-time kids.

Oh, Sylvester! How many ways do I love that book? When my son was in pre-school, we borrowed a copy from the library, and then we borrowed it again, and yet again. On the fourth borrowing, it was clearly time to buy the book. Magic, coincidence, the dangers lurking in the world, the nature of happiness, the endurance of love–you could talk for hours about what this book means, all the possible things it could mean.

And now Sylvester is 50 years old! Thank you, Vaunda Nelson, for becoming an unlikely blogger and for reminding me of this jewel of a book.

More: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was banned in 1977 because of the policemen (and others, but never mind that) being depicted as pigs.

steig-sylvesterStill more: Julie Paschkis remembers the beautiful picnic scene in Sylvester in her Books Around the Table post on summertime picnics. Look at those loving hooves resting on Sylvester’s back, and could anyone bring more purely loving parents to life in strokes of a brush and pen?

“Young girl, you were not born only to cook…”

LetHerFly.jpgWho has not heard of Malala Yousafzai? Her courage, her clarity, her vision so startling for someone so young?

Here is a book by the father who has stood at her side all along. Excerpt from a poem by Malala’s father that serves as an epigraph:

Young girl, you were not born only to cook.
Your youth is not to be ruined.
You were not born a victim, were not born
as an instrument for a man’s enjoyment.

And this from the opening chapter…

I was going to be a father who believed in equality, and believes in a girl as she grows into a woman, and who raises her so that she believes in herself, so that in her life she can be free as a bird.

MalalasMagicPencil.jpgMalala herself, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, continues to speak eloquently of her journey and her vision for the world’s girl children. Her father’s book is worth reading in tandem with Malala’s own picture book, Malala’s Magic Pencil, illustrated with a suitably delicate touch by Kerascoët, the husband-and-wife illustrator team Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy.

Your Voice Matters: Guest Post by Carmen Oliver

Last month, at the Royal BC Museum, I got to see the IMAX movie about the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the planet’s most spectacular wild places.

Great Bear Rainforest IMAX Trailer from Pacific Wild on Vimeo.

A Voice for Spirit BearsAnd I got to read Carmen Oliver‘s picture book, A Voice for the Spirit Bears, about Simon Jackson, the founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition. What a happy coincidence! The rush of water and the leap of salmon in the IMAX movie, the incredible close views of those amazing bears, and the voices of the First Nations people who are the stewards of that land–all that was fresh in my mind. I asked Carmen to tell me what sparked this story for her. Here is what she wrote:

One Labor Day, as a girl, I watched a muscular dystrophy telethon on television. Many of these kids were younger than me. And their lives were filled with mounting physical challenges but they radiated strength, positivity, resilience, and hope. My mom explained to me that the money raised would help scientists to find a cure. That people all over the world could be a part of the solution. That year a seed was planted in my twelve-year-old mind. So I harnessed the help of my brother and friend Dana to go door-to-door Christmas caroling and to ask for donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I can’t remember exactly how much we raised (fifty or sixty dollars rings familiar) but I’d felt that in a small way I’d made a difference.

Now fast-forward twenty years. In my early thirties, I read an article about a rare type of black bear called the spirit bear. One in ten of these bears are born with creamy white fur and they’re found only in Canada. I’d never heard of them before. As I dug into the research, a young boy’s name kept re-surfacing—David Simon Jackson. At the age of thirteen, Simon learned about the endangered spirit bears living roughly six hours away from his home in British Columbia and he wanted to help use his voice to save their habitat and keep them safe. He was bullied in school and overcame his own stuttering problem to speak out and raise awareness about the many issues affecting their habitat including over-logging. He created a youth run organization (Spirit Bear Youth Coalition) of six million members from eighty-five countries to ensure their survival.

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This story spoke to my twelve-year-old activist heart. It spoke to the shy girl who could relate to being bullied in school and to loving wild life—especially bears. It spoke to the girl who wanted to make a difference in the world. And still does. So when I came across this quote by Simon, I knew I had to turn his journey into a book for children. This is the book I needed when I was twelve-years-old. A book about strength, positivity, resilience and hope.

I think Simon’s story found me. And in telling his story, I want children to understand that every voice matters. They have important things to say. They can make a difference in the world. Their voices are our future.

If I could go back in time and talk to my twelve-year-old self, I’d tell her that no matter how many times people put you down, shun you, make fun of you – you matter. Your voice matters.

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I began this book in 2006. Along the way, I had many people tell me Simon’s story was an article at best. That it would never become a book. But I didn’t listen to the naysayers. I believed a story about a young boy with no remarkable skills or intellect, but armed simply with a passion, can take hold of a cause and unite the world was – remarkable. All change begins with one voice speaking out. Your voice can change the world.

In Simon Jackson’s words:

“If together we can succeed in saving the spirit bear, we will have proved that one young person with no remarkable skills or intellect, but armed simply with a passion, can take hold of a cause and unite the world. After all, we are the voices for the sick, the poor, the children, the dreamers…and the bears.”—Simon Jackson

Here is a video Q & A with Simon Jackson about the book on Canadian Geographic:

Blue Trunk and Access for Travelers With Physical Disabilities

Rupa_Valdez_9552_2017-200x300.jpgAssistant Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia, Rupa Valdez is also the founder and President of Blue Trunk Foundation, an organization and web site dedicated to a single goal–accessible travel for everyone.

 

I asked Rupa if she’d talk to me about her organization and its  mission.

[Uma] I love the intersections of so many ideas in the Blue Trunk name—an old traveling trunk, the blue color of the international disability symbol, the trunk of the elephant god Ganesh who removes obstacles from the paths of people. Talk about how real-life intersections, symbolized in this name, are reflected in your mission.

[Rupa] People with disabilities or health conditions typically face many types of obstacles when traveling, from a lack of ramp access to smoke-induced breathing challenges to limited allergen-friendly food choices. Our ultimate goal is to be advocates for removing these obstacles, like Ganesh, but in the meantime, we hope to give people access to the information they need to make travel enjoyable.

[Uma] On your web site you have a page about your choice to use person-first language. Why does this matter?

[Rupa] The intention of person-first language is to emphasize that a person who has a disability is, above all, a person, with many other characteristics including but beyond disability. Some within the disability community find terms that are not person-first, like “autistic child” or “disabled person,” as reducing the individual to their disability. However, not everyone within the disability rights community prefers person-first language. This perspective comes from many ways of thinking. One is that it is often the environment which creates the experience of disability; for example, a person who uses a rollator might not feel disabled if there is short, properly graded ramp access because nothing is preventing them from equally experiencing the venue. From another point of view, using terms like “disabled person” is a way to reclaim that identity for the purpose of furthering the disability rights movement. Ultimately, we chose person-first language because we believe it is less likely to alienate the people we seek to reach.

[Uma] Your current web site is just a placeholder. I understand a full-service site is in the work. What are you aiming for?

[Rupa] Currently, we are approaching the final stages of building out our full website. This will allow people to search restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, and other travel-related businesses based on the accessibility features important to them. Our site will first go live in Charlottesville, VA, and Madison, WI, and our ultimate vision is to become a global resource for accessible travel. We have been partnering with many organizations and individuals, both locally and nationally, to develop these resources and expand our reach.

As a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of others to continue growing. If your readers are interested in learning more about Blue Trunk or contributing to our mission, they can visit us at bluetrunk.org.

Our blog is a place for sharing stories about traveling with a disability or health condition. We bring together many voices to share the personal experiences of a particular trip, from attending a Broadway show with a wheelchair to navigating airport security with liquid nutritional supplements.

[Uma] Thank you, Rupa Sheth Valdez, and much luck with this important work.

Trading e-mails with Rupa reminded me of how few picture books I have seen depicting kids with physical disabilities so I went to the library to see what I could find. In looking through the picture book shelves, I was taken aback to find only one that wasn’t beating me over the head with its good intentions!

Here it is:

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Emmanuel’s Dream is the true story of Ghanaian athlete and activist Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, whose bike ride around his country made headlines, bringing people with disabilities out into the streets (some of them emerging from their homes for the first time ever!) to cheer him on. Sean Qualls captures the energy and movement of the story with clever shifts in perspective. In telling us about Emmanuel’s story and his life, Laurie Ann Thompson’s words leave traces in the mind: “being disabled does not mean being unable.”

As Rupa says, we need to avoid “reducing the individual to their disability.” Shouldn’t that also mean making people with disabilities visible–way more than we do now–in books for our youngest readers?

 

Inviting Pictures: The Magical Text of Marion Dane Bauer’s The Stuff of Stars

StuffofStars.jpgThere is no question that Ekua Holmes has brought pure magic to the pages of The Stuff of Stars.  Her CSK Illustrator Award-winning art is otherworldly.

Created on hand-marbled paper,  the images seem to float, drift, explode upon the page as they render the text in visual terms. They are brilliant, abstract, compelling. I am driven by words, I’ll admit it, and I can’t help myself. I’ve spent an hour peering into the depths of those color swirls, finding new patterns each time I look. Every time I open them, the pages of this book make me feel as if I’ve been invited to visit an art gallery.

But it’s the invitation in the text I want to talk about. Because Marion Dane Bauer’s  very spare text is written on nothing short of a cosmic scale. Just look at this:IMG_2840

…invisible as thought,
weighty as God.

We’re told that text has to be illustratable. As a writer, you offer up the possibility of an image. You leave room for the artist to enhance your words. You say only what the art can’t say.

But this much room? How do you take the concept of all creation and even begin to translate it into pictures? What a nerve, to even think about this as a picture book! And such a perfection of words. About to embark on an exploration of the Big Bang and the formation of the Universe, Bauer’s words “weighty as God” challenge the narrow-minded to check preconceptions at the door!
IMG_2841.jpgBut all this may be precisely why this text invited the creation of this particular style on the part of this particular artist. How else can you show “the beginning/ of the beginning/ of all beginnings” other than in pure color, pure abstraction?

Holmes uses the brilliance of her palette, the luminosity of contrast and the sharp edges of collage shapes, until, in the final moving moment, we encounter the adult and child figures of the book’s jacket. Ungendered, unmarked by race or other elements of identity, not even necessarily human, they are simply alive in the face of a marvelous, living universe. The concluding words carry the same wonderstruck realization: “All of us/ the stuff of stars.”

This is no ordinary text. It seems only fitting that it ended up inviting such extraordinarily beautiful illustration.

 

 

A Wordless Dance of a Picture Book

waltz-of-the-snowflakes-cover.jpgIf you’re a fan of wordless picture books, Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes lends itself to conversation with a child reader.

Or to a cozy turning of pages with a grownup page-turner and an attentive child listener, set to the  music of the titular waltz itself.

Layers of story, the gradually shifting emotions and the progression of color in the book give writers a way to access the illustrator mind–an essential kind of thinking if you want to write a picture book.

Images of Home in Three Picture Books

What it is about us humans that we keep longing for home? Wherever we are is never quite it. Home is always some far place, or in a time long ago, or even just a dream in the heart.

From Groundwood Books, here are three picture books, each addressing the notion of home in a very different way.

MalaikasWinterCarnival.jpgIn Malaika’s Winter Carnival, Mummy is marrying Mr. Frédéric. Suddenly Malaika not only has a new sister, Adèle, but has to move to a different country. Here’s a fresh twist on the immigrant story that raises questions of what constitutes home. Look at  how very strange Malaika’s new country is! It’s cold, for one thing, and people speak with a “different talk.” For another, the new sister “kiss me two sides of my face,” a little gesture that leads us to the setting—Quebec, where people speak French. A gentle resolution results in this child-centered story.

Onlyinmyhometown.jpgKisimi Taimaippaktut Angirrarijarani/Only in My Hometown by Angnakuluk Friesen, illustrated by Ippiksaut Friesen (they’re sisters), is a bilingual book with three fonts. How can that be, you ask? It was written in English and translated into Inuktitut (the Aivilik dialect). The Inuktitut language is represented in two fonts–syllabics and transliteration into roman script. And the illustrations–how fantastic is this?–were painted with watercolor and acrylic on elephant poo paper. Yes. That is correct. I thought I was seeing things too, because the book opens with these words: “Sitting on the elephant…” Elephant? In the frozen north? You have to read the book to understand this particular and heartfelt evocation of home.

 

bitterandsweet.jpgIn Bitter and Sweet by Sandra Feder, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, Hannah doesn’t want to move, but her father has a job in a new town. Hannah’s grandmother tells her there are bitter and sweet parts to change. As the move becomes reality, Hannah keeps trying to find the sweet parts, and with each new spread, even as she opens up to hope, the sweetness keeps eluding her. The chocolate “ptooey” page is especially charming. The story circles naturally around with Hannah’s phone call to her grandmother, arriving at a final turn of understanding and resolution.

Childhood is a place of emotion barely understood but deeply felt, and in a different way, each of these books captures the fresh new feelings of a young life, newly lived.

 

Sheetal Sheth on Bullies and Bullying

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Actor Sheetal Sheth (ABCD, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World) has published a children’s picture book. Always Anjali is about a conundrum familiar to many immigrant families. Parents often want to give their children culturally grounded names, only playground politics can be as cruel as the real thing and as grounded in prejudice.

Sheetal says:

Anjali’s journey in this first book is about confidence and courage. Her name is an entry point into a larger conversation. In this climate and ‘otherness’ that is being perpetuated, our kids need language and strong, positive examples. So many are struggling right now and I have had so many reach out to me sharing their stories. People of all backgrounds.

Always Anjali.jpgIn a piece for Thrive Global, Sheetal talks about how the shift in public discourse in the real world affects children. Excerpt:
Last week, during an elementary school discussion I was conducting about bullying, one of the children asked, “But what if the bully is a grown-up?”
What if…?
The conversation in that classroom reflects the real world in an uncanny way, because children are us. With less experience, sure, but with their own clarity of perception and a knowledge of their own vulnerable place in the world.

At Canada’s Edge, Trails of American History

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Review copy courtesy of Groundwood Books

The Africville of this heartfelt and beautiful picture book no longer exists as it did for 150 years just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. That community, largely consisting of the descendants of Black Loyalists migrating north after the American Revolutionary War and Black Refugees fleeing American slavery, was torn down in the 1960s and its inhabitants forcibly relocated. Few know that Halifax itself was built with the labor of enslaved people.

Africville’s history is the background and context for Shauntay Grant‘s lovingly crafted picture book, illustrated with Eva Campbell’s lustrous oil and pastels on a textured canvas background. The graininess of the canvas gives the characters shadowy edges, blurring the borders between past and present. Imagining the community as it must have been many years ago, the young narrator leads the reader through details of landscape and sensory experience, from hill to field to pond and to the ocean’s shore. Infused with the tenderness of family and community, conveying the sense of stories kept alive, the book simultaneously embraces today’s child reader.

Africville may no longer be the thriving town it once was, the book suggests, but feel the stubborn love that kept its stories alive. There is much to this history. The residents of the community paid taxes but got no services. A railway extension cut through the village, destroying several homes. But wait. The story also includes an admission of racism, an apology rendered by the Mayor of Halifax in 2010, a replica of the orginal church built to house a museum, part of a compensation deal. Lyrical and healing, this picture book offers a window into a little-known past and suggests it holds deep relevance to the present.

What might America look like, I wonder, if healing from the past’s wounds could ever be made a priority? What would that mean for America’s children of every color? Compensation? Apology? What a concept!

Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

Mustafa.jpgMustafa, a child refugee from an unnamed country in crisis, finds a friend in his new home. That’s the storyline in this simple, elegant picture book by Marie-Louise Gay of Stella and Sam fame.

The setting in Mustafa is urban, offering the relief of a green park safe enough for a child to venture into on his own. The delight of this book lies in its close adherence to its small hero’s perspective, both in the choice of words and in the finely rendered multi-media illustrations.

Marie-Louise Gay is the gifted author-illustrator of numerous fine books. She shines a loving light on many facets of a new immigrant’s experience—the hugging hijabi mother, the lively younger sibling, the trail of leaf-cutter ants in the park that parallel the family’s own difficult journey, the feeling of being a stranger and invisible.

At a time when more and more countries are resisting immigration and there are forces pushing against the acceptance of refugees in Western countries, this is an important book. It shows not only how children cope with the traumas of displacement but also where the ingredients of comfort might be found.