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

sheetal-sheth-0849-rt-low-res-1.jpg

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

IMG_2422.JPG

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.

 

A Textbook for the Study of Picture Books

Salisbury and StylesMore than halfway through 2018, I’m taking stock of my writing and teaching year. A novel draft half-done. A short story taking shape in my mind. Waiting for an editorial letter. Some travel. Some relaxation. It feels like a great balance.

The semester off from teaching stretches ahead, but I know it will rush past, so this is also a good time for a little advance planning.

I’ve agreed to teach the picture book semester when I return to Vermont College in January 2019, which reminds me that I need to decide on a common text, something that offers an overview of the form. I’ve looked at a few options and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Some are too market-driven, others offer formulaic paths to the intricacies of the form. One is brilliant, if dated–more on that in a minute.

And then there’s Children’s Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling by British academics Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles.

In my mind this book that offers a solid background to the picture book form wins hands down over the how-to manuals. While the historical section is arguably Eurocentric–where, for example, is Buddhist narrative art and Japanese scroll painting?– the account of contemporary books is optimistically international in scope, including American and British classics but also a number of titles that have gained recognition in Europe. My students will gain from thinking about how to extend this reading list by adding books in translation from Asia, South America, and Africa.

A chapter on how children respond to picture books offers an opportunity for questions and discussion. Material on the interplay of text and illustration will help writers find ways to decode the layers of meaning in picture books. Pictorial text, the widening of material deemed “suitable” for children, digital impact on art–these are all good places to begin a semester-long conversation about picture books.

I may still ask students to read the opening chapters of Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures and just skip the badly dated section on publication and production.  In all, however, Salisbury and Styles offer aspiring picture book writers a common vocabulary, a clear introduction to key concepts, and a contemporary framework for looking at this art form so central to children’s literature.

 

Nora Carpenter on Yoga Frog

Nora Carpenter author photo verticalI’m delighted to report that VCFA grad Nora Carpenter (my student!) has a new picture book out. A yoga book–with a frog character leading the way.

I asked Nora: Where did this book idea come from?

[Nora] When I first started teaching yoga to kids back in 2007, I searched the Fairfax County library system (I lived in Northern Virginia at the time) for a book that introduced a basic yoga flow in a way that was fun and simple without being simplistic. I found one kids’ yoga book, but it was written for older kids (10+), was incredibly wordy, and focused on minute details (“place your hand three inches from the end of the mat” kind of thing). There was no way it was going to help me teach preschool or young elementary children. Fast forward a few years to my time as a student in the MFA for Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I decided to write the book I wish I’d been able to find in that library. My efforts produced a series of lyrical yoga poems, some of which I included in my graduate reading.

[Aside from Uma] I remember those poems. They were quite wonderful.

Yoga Frog clear cover.jpg[Nora] They caught the ear of someone who went on to work for Running Press, so RP reached out to me about writing a yoga book. It was one of those moments that was both super long in the making and also serendipitous. My poems didn’t get picked up, but if I hadn’t created them, I might never have gotten the opportunity to write Yoga Frog. Writing (and life) is weird like that.

[Uma] How much did it change along the way?

[Nora] My early story drafts featured a young frog who befriends Yoga Frog and learns from him. Then I reshaped it into a dialogue form. Then I changed the frame. At one point there were tween frogs in the book! In the end, the book worked best as nonfiction.

[Uma] What did writing this book teach you? A joyful moment? A moment of realization?

[Nora] It reminded me to have fun while writing. Creation is tough work, but at the end of the day, why do it unless you love it? I had so much fun writing this book! It also reminded me not to cling too tightly to my work and to experiment with different forms. I was really excited about the initial, story version of Yoga Frog, but my editor was like, “eh.” She liked it okay, but she really wanted the book to make it super simple for kids/beginners to learn basic poses. In those first drafts, the story had taken over. So I scrapped all those drafts and started again. Magic happens when you let yourself play.

[Uma] How did you decide on the combination of Sanskrit names and your own whimsical ones?

cat pose at Malaprops[Nora] I wanted interested readers to have access to the proper Sanskrit names, but in my teaching experience, more child-friendly terminology gets better results with young kids. For example, preschoolers can have a hard time conceptualizing a pose which literally translates as Half Lord of the Fishes. However, by calling it Caterpillar and giving it a specific kid-friendly action with sounds (searching for leaves to munch as you twist) it gives children a way to remember what they’re supposed to be doing in the pose. (Why are we twisting? Oh yeah, we’re looking for leaves.) Poses like Chair (Utkatasana) didn’t require a kid-yoga name because children have no problem imagining they’re sitting on an invisible chair or creating a chair shape with their bodies. At the end of the day, my goal was to help kids relate to the poses in the simplest, most fun way possible.

[Uma] I found your backmatter fascinating as well. If it’s hard to write books aimed at the very young, I cannot imagine what it takes to get a toddler into balasana. Talk to me about how you approach teaching yoga to very young children.

Tree pose at Malaprops[Nora] I make it as imaginative and interactive as I can. Adults sometimes don’t realize that kids’ yoga classes look quite a bit different than adult classes. Specifically with very young children, I’ve found that nothing engages them like imagination and pretend play. For instance, if I asked a group of toddlers to mimic me in Child’s pose (Balasana) and stay for five deep breaths, most of them are not going to stay in that position very long. They get bored, restless, and start rolling around or getting up. However, if, like I do in the book, I ask them to pretend to be hawks and fly down to protect their chicks for five breaths, almost every single toddler is able to do that. The pretend play element gives children something to focus on, whereas adults are better able to concentrate on the sound of their breath or counting. Plus, it’s just fun! The kids love flapping their wings and “flying” down to their nest. It gives them ownership of the movement so they’re not just doing something that a grown up asked them to do for reasons they don’t understand. Importantly, the results of kids and adult yoga are the same. While pretending to safeguard their chicks, kids’ bodies and breath are still slowing down as they relax into a resting, forward folding bend. That is the main function of Balasana, even in an adult class.

[Uma] You are so finely attuned to the sensibility of the young child, so essential in writing for the youngest readers and listeners. Maybe those poems will find a home someplace one of these years. Thank you, Nora!

[Nora] Thanks so much for having me, Uma!

Update: Nora Carpenter’s YA novel, The Edge of Anything, is slated for publication in Spring 2020. Here’s a preview summary:

Sage is a high school volleyball star desperate to find a way around her sudden medical disqualification. Lennon is a loner teen photographer with a guilty secret. As Sage’s carefully planned life unravels and Len’s past increasingly threatens her safety, the girls develop an unlikely bond, finding the strength to conquer their internal monsters in a place neither of them expected: each other. Set in the mountainous outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina, The Edgeof Anything explores the transformative power of friendship and how it can help you find yourself and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.

Congratulations, Nora!

Music Carries an Orphan’s Story in The Flute by Rachna Gilmore

TheFlutespread

From The Flute by Rachna Gilmore, illustrated by Pulak Biswas. Tradewind Books, 2011

The flowing lines and strong contrasts of the late and much-beloved Pulak Biswas‘s illustrations dramatize this orphan tale from Rachna Gilmore.

Gilmore first brought stories of an Indian immigrant family to young Canadian and American readers with her Gita books. Biswas, a veteran of Indian publishing and an associate of the legendary cartoonist, philanthropist and publishing guru K. Shankar Pillai, illustrated the wonderfully playful Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar. So for me, The Flute is a continuation of familiar rhythms, echoes of a lifetime spent crossing from India to North America and back again.

In many ways, it’s a classic orphan’s tale. When we meet her, young Chandra is a baby, delighted and soothed by the sound of her mother’s flute.

She played of shimmering hot days and the richness of the earth. She played of the cool evening sky and the growing promise of the moon.

But Chandra’s parents are swept away in a flood, and she’s taken in reluctantly by a cruel aunt and uncle. The flute, worn smooth by her mother’s hands, represents her only connection with happier times.

Gilmore turns the flute into a magically endowed object, so that its music and the river seem to blend, channeling the emotions of those who listen. When the flute is lost, Chandra is plunged into truly bleak times.

She did her best to keep her mother’s songs alive by whistling the tunes, but sometimes she couldn’t remember them.

The season shrinks the river to a trickle, compounding the loss and serving as an artful metaphor for Chandra’s own hunger, pain, and grief. It’s deftly executed, so that when the magic turns longing to hope,  the story turn is light and mirrored by the blue renewal of the river on the right hand side of the spread.

I found a nicely Indian sensibility as well in the omission of a final, omniscient delivery of justice to the evildoers–which is, after all, what one might expect from a story with some motifs similar to those of European Cinderella stories. Instead, the aunt and uncle are simply distracted and move right off the page, leaving Chandra to proceed, surviving still greater dangers in her path, until she arrives at a final, happy resolution. The lyrical text is imbued with energy by the sweeping illustrations, much as the river bestows magic upon the music of the flute.

“Water is another matter”

Pablo Neruda wrote, relative to the “bristling” earth:

Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
from stone,

MonsoonI’m feeling drawn to thinking about water today. It’s the same sort of impulse that led me to write Monsoon, my very first picture book, which was published all of fourteen years ago. It seems more imperative now.

Maybe it’s just that in the time that’s passed, water has become ever more precious, an ever more fragile resource. Look at what they’re finding out about the delicate dance of ocean currents in maintaining the planet’s temperature.

Annapurna trek.JPGMaybe I’m missing the ice-cold waterfall I walked through, barefoot, three years ago in Nepal.

Whatever the reason, I find myself pulling this book down from my shelf: All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson.

Start with the jacket, with the small fish leaping in one corner, the tumultuous wash of blue and the swoop of the title and byline into the book’s interior.

all the waterThe title page takes this further. The fish have wings. The waves take on a purple hue.

IMG_2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, it’s pretty straightforward. But turn the page and this is what you see:

IMG_2014

There it is.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.

Simple. Elegant. And in the light of the slowing currents, deeply true. There’s more. I can’t quote the text without showing the images, and I don’t want to spoil the effect of the page turn. But between the art and the words, this book delivers its message with power and grace.

And now I think again about that waterfall. How I walked gasping through it. How it made me feel, for the next few hours, as if I were walking on clouds. How such things are gifts to us from the universe.

There are quite a few books for young readers now that address environmental issues including climate change, but it’s rare to find one that drives home the interconnectedness of living things with the systems and forces that keep the planet capable of sustaining life. Maybe we should be sending copies to policymakers in the United States.

Raised By a River

IMG_1517Isabelle Arsenault’s watercolor illustrations feature fine pencil and ink work, smudgy trees and giant flowers, and always the urgency of life flowing onward, its energy embodied either in water or in thread. The lines in the pictures keep the eye moving. They draw attention to the lonely figure at the heart of Amy Novesky’s picture book biography, Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois.

It was the art that made me realize how intentional Novesky’s opening is in this book. At first, I almost read past it:

Louise was raised by a river.

Of course. She was raised on its banks, right?IMG_1518.JPG

Wait. The lines of the water, so clear and purposeful, made me think again. Are those waves or boats, and does it matter? Reading onward, I could feel the water as it shows up again and again. I could see its movement echoed in swirls of thread and the chaos of a life. I could feel a break in my own heart when the water disappeared and an affirmation when the famous spider appeared, picking up once again the threads of the artist’s life. A complex, interesting book, weaving art and words together as only a picture book can.

Time as the Guide

The cobblestones stretch into the distance. Houses lace the horizon line. “We are heading toward the castle.” Peter Sis’s Prague is a place of magic and mystery.

And its traces are everywhere, like this little map I spotted in a restaurant, like the clock tower itself, like the endless cobblestones. Over the next few days, I’ll be exploring this city through the prisms of Sis’s picture book love letter to the city of his childhood.