Counting Birds

The Christmas Bird Count in Victoria BC last year yielded sad news. The count, that took place on Dec. 14, found 135 different species of birds, well below the 10 year average of 140 to 143. Local ornithological experts say that bird counts in Victoria are the lowest they’ve been in over a decade.

But it doesn’t do any good to get into a pickle about what’s going on in the natural world. We still need to put one foot in front of the other. We need to try to deal with the present, as grim an outcome of past mistakes as it might appear to be. Maybe we can treat it instead as a kind of seed of what we’re trying to become.

When you’re looking for hope, open a picture book. Bird Count by Susan Edwards Richmond documents the counting of birds by a young girl learning to be a citizen scientist in her communty. The tally, which grows down the side of each spread in a clever design feature, depends on young Ava’s sharp eyes and ears, both of which she puts to good use. At least two other people need to hear or see each bird, and no bird should be counted twice. Young readers not only learn how the annual Audubon Bird Count works but also get to identify a nice array of birds.

From Bird Count by Susan Edwards Richmond, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

An additional touch in Stephanie Fizer Coleman’s digital illustrations is that both Ava and Mom are brown-skinned, while Big Al, their team leader, is identifiably white with a weathered face and a carroty beard.

So there. Count those birds. Plant a garden. Compost. Do what we can do and write the stories that matter.

Kindness is Welcome Here

Frog, Mouse and a bunch of homeless animals figure in this woodland setting that easily stands in for anybody’s everyplace. In a world that increasingly feels devoid of welcome and kindness and the shared building of community, editor and writer Patricia Hegarty‘s warm comfort tale offers a simple code that lies at the heart of all peacemaking.

As the year ends, if not the decade, I’m comforted as well to find this web site, representing an ongoing project between two friends, one Hindu, Ravi, and the other, Azeem, Muslim. The Dharmadeen Alliance features videoclips and articles about interfaith friendship in Nepal, an exploration of the feminine concepts of Shakti and Shakina in both religions, an interfaith symposium in Singapore, a story of Kashmiri Muslims taking care of Hindu orphans, tech professor and activist Ram Puniyani’s TEDx talk about history and the political imposition of divisive hatreds, and more. (Puniyani has received threatening calls for his lectures promoting tolerance and understanding between Hindus and Muslims in India).

Gandhi was fond of quoting Corinthians 1:13, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” And what greater way to manifest love than with kindness?

All over the world, we humans are busy corroding our souls with suspicion of and hatred for one another. What if instead, we practiced (and welcomed) kindness, communication, understanding?

What a Book Can Hold: Kyo Maclear’s Picture Book Biography of Gyo Fujikawa

A couple of months ago, I posted about Gyo Fujikawa’s work and how her bright, inclusive books, created all the way back in 1963, contained a subtle call to the world to become kinder and better, to treat all children alike.

Now Kyo Maclear‘s beautiful picture book biography of Gyo Fujikawa offers another loving tribute to an artist who was far ahead of her own time.

Consider the title. It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way.

It began with a page. That is how the book opens as well:

Look to the right and the eye falls on little Gyo, five years old in 1913 and sketching away as her mother writes a poem, rendered in sweet bare-toed concentration by illustrator Julie Morstad.

It’s a dual kind of looking–back in time to the story’s chronology, yet capturing the  immediacy of the child’s reaction to the events of her life. Yet somehow, in the space between image and word, the book manages to leap forward as well, showing by example how art can heal and illuminate. At the same time, it recognizes the family’s aspirations and disappointments and the enormous tragedy of the prison camps that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

And then it shows us who that child grew into, and what imagination looks like:

At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories–mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.

Gyo knew a book could hold more and do more.

It Began With a Page is a rich evocation of a life that offers direction in our own challenging present and reminds us that equality remains an urgent cause. As Maclear puts it:

…babies cannot wait.

Going Forward: What Else is There?

From Lahore, Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid writes on behalf of hope for humankind.

None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.

Humans have always moved, Hamid writes, so why are we now divided into natives and migrants, and why must there always be a struggle for supremacy? Why do we have to accept a world of walls and barriers? Why must we buy the false notion that we can and should return to a better past?

Hamid’s eloquent essay reminds me for some reason of the E.E.Cummings poem, pity this busy monster, manunkind. Only I’m fairly certain the good universe next door is really our own “world of made.”

Of course, you know there’s a picture book for every existential dilemma known to humankind (or humanindifferent, for that matter) so here’s one particularly suited to our own precious, fleeting instant.

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The great forest is on fire. Everyone is terrified, panicked, fleeing. All but hummingbird, who flies back and forth to the stream, bringing a drop of water back in her beak with every trip.

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This is simple enough for a child to understand, so what’s wrong with us?

Clear, sparse text with bold illustrations in black, white, and red, by Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. An afterword from Wangari Maathai underscores the message. Do what you can. What else is there?

From Greystone Books.

 

Honoring Migrants in a Dangerous Time

Artist Alvaro Enciso has made it his goal to remember and honor the lives of the thousands of migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert, trying to cross into the United States, trying to get to a new life. Every week, Enciso goes out with a group of volunteers from the Tucson Samaritans to place crosses at the exact location where the remains were found.

This is the narrative behind a brief Arizona Public Media documentary, Where Dreams Die. The question is, if we’re to be honest, if it were any of us, if our lives and our children’s lives were at risk, would we care about borders or would we cross them recklessly, wherever we could? And there are other factors at play. With the immediate reality of climate change, there will only be more refugees. They will not care about borders and how can we, in conscience, blame them?

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I wish we lived in a time when we didn’t need to write and publish books for children about these horrors visited upon children. But since we live in this dreadful reality, I’m grateful for books like Diane de Anda‘s beautiful Mango Moon.

There’s a full moon out tonight and Maricela misses her father. He’s been taken away from the family, and he’s facing deportation. The hole in the family and the community is made palpable through simple, text and through Cornelison’s tender illustrations. The book ends on a note of hope that comes, not from reality (real life, alas, is all about detention and razor-wire). Rather it comes  from a child’s imaginings and from the moon, symbolically helping Maricela to hold her Papi  in her heart.

For more children’s books on families crossing at the US-Mexico border, check out this list at Erin Boyle’s Reading My Tea Leaves blog.

 

The Idealized World of Gyo Fujikawa’s Books

The idealization of reality has long been a technique available to children’s writers and illustrators. When the world spins in dangerous directions and you try to remedy that in a book for adults, you run the risk of seeming either disingenuous or naive. But when your audience is still tender and young, sorting that world out, learning to live in it, it seems only fair to right its wrongs on the page, to show what might be. In the end, we may hope, those signposts to the very young can imbue them with the energy to nudge that world in a kinder, better direction.

No one knew this like Gyo Fujikawa. Born in 1908 to Japanese immigrant parents, she studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, today the California Institute of the Arts. She wrote and/or illustrated over 50 picture books. She also designed promotional materials for Disney and six United States postage stamps.

In a New Yorker article, Sarah Larson paints a loving portrait of a beloved children’s author-illustrator for whom freedom became an enduring yet elusive dream.

Excerpt:

In 1941, she was sent to New York, to work in Disney’s studios there; in early 1942, her parents and brother, along with many Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, were sent to internment camps. The Fujikawas were sent to the Santa Anita racetrack, where they lived in horse stalls, and then to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Fujikawa visited them there and found what she described as “barbed wire and a sentry walking around the wall with a bayonet.”

Here is the first book that Fujikawa both wrote and illustrated:Babies.jpg

IMG_3184.jpgThe babies are lovingly drawn, capturing the expressive emotions of the very young–and there’s more.

This little board book exemplifies something that was subtly characteristic of Fujikawa’s art. She didn’t beat you over the head with it, but Gyo Fujikawa was perhaps the very first American illustrator to render a diverse array of children in her books.

Here, she seems to be saying, is an Asian child, a child with ginger hair, a black child. Here they are, all children, doing what children do, being in the world the way all children are.
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Like the best picture books, there’s a huge takeaway from this one that isn’t spelled out in the words. It’s there in the images without explanation and it’s all the more powerful for that lightness of touch.

This is the way the world ought to work, the book seems to be saying with quiet authority. In these pages, this is how it is. So here, toddler whose eyes fall upon these pictures, put that into your heart. Carry it out into the real and precious world you will inhabit.

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?