Thursday, January 29, 2009


This comment from my post CORETTA SCOTT KING AWARD: THE DREAM AWAITS deserves its own post:

Dear Esme,

I have been much moved by your posting, and after reading your thoughts about the awards as well as Mitali’s, I wanted to add my own to the discussions. Since it would not be possible to actually link to both here, I hope you don’t mind my posting this answer here as well as in
Mitali’s blog. I might also post it in my own blog in case anybody wants to refer to it. I could not evermore claim innocence after reading Mitali’s and your thoughts and reflections about Ethnic awards. Thank you for being such a mind provocateurs!

Ethnic book awards: Discriminatory or Necessary?I have received them, I have enjoyed them, I have them shine light to my work, and I have loved them. I can only talk from my experience.
I can’t claim to represent anybody else but me. When I think about the questions that Mitali and you, as well as other people have expressed about this awards, I don’t find myself with any answers but only more questions of my own. I confess I am partial to both sides of the equation. While I vote for inclusiveness rather than discrimination—no matter from what side--there is something I have experience about the nature of this awards that eludes my reasoning and instead runs with my heart. Let me see if I can explain myself.

What I know from receiving these awards is that they are a celebration. People cheer, committees champion your work, put the word out, make you a party with music and all, invite everybody, give your book a medal to paste on the cover, and tell everybody to look, look, look! at your book. And so, if the function of an ethnic award like the Pura Belpre is to celebrate a writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth, why not then make the celebration broader and invite everybody to love the Latino culture and be eligible to win the award?
After all , anyone who dedicates his or her time, talent, and efforts to create a great book about the Latino cultural experience, could only do it out of admiration and love for that culture, whether she or he is Latino or not. Or, is there any other reason to spend one’s precious time cranking a book about Latinos?I understand that awards like the Pura Belpre and the Coretta Scott King award were born out of the need to encourage the work and shine light upon the otherwise obscured books of people from minorities, at a time where authors and illustrators of color were everything but missing from awards like the Caldecott and the Newberry. Is it perhaps that the time has come to change things around? Have we reached the equilibrium we dream of? If not, I hope we will soon. My friend Rose tells me it is just a matter of time before love and lust erase the race lines completely. For now I find it interesting that the Coretta as wells as the Pura Belpre are being announced as part of the ALA crop of awards, because it is from this announcement that they receive their moment in the spotlight as well as their prestige. Were those awards to be announced in a different day or without the support of ALA, we might not be discussing them right now. Their impact upon readers would be different. And perhaps the audience looking for the result of such announcements would be different, even smaller in number. You know?

To me the USA is a country of surprises. Anything unexpected can happen here. For instance, it was a surprise to me that here in the USA existed a book award that celebrated the efforts of people like me--multicolored skin, even Indian looking, heavy accent. I was surprised to know that all what I had believed to be against me in the past, was exactly what made me eligible. You must understand that I come from a country that from colonial times and all the way to my parent’s generations, and more, had lived under the social unwritten code that claims that beauty comes in white skin, light hair and blue eyes, that intelligence and reason does evade indigenous people, peasants, or anyone with dark skin. For generations we have been taught to give preference to others whiter than us. Breaking that mold has been the life work of many, many of my country people, and yet, there is still much more to accomplish. And yet, in my new learning, do I want people to lower the bar for me because of my history? Certainly not. I might have had a self-dubious start, but I am not without the capacity to amaze myself and others with what I do.

If the ethnic awards were to disappear, or integrate, would I miss the celebration? Yes I would. Would there be other challenges to obtain? Certainly yes, because what I am is not Latina but a force. I have expressed in the past that I see the Pura Belpre Award as a regalo, a gift that is given to someone when you might least expected it. At first the regalo goes to a book creator; and artist or a writer, and we receive the gift joyfully and gratefully. But after that, the gift is given to everybody. Once the award brings out the voice that there is a book worth of looking at, it is the readers who receive the gift next. In a way, the decision of the Pura Belpre committee to give an award to a person (an "ethnic' person, for that matter)and not exactly to his or her book, has interesting consequences. You need to go to the schools to see it. You will understand it when you are propped in front of children—those of all possible colors, including brown, like me; who speak all kinds of languages, including Spanish like me; who perhaps struggle with their English, like I did; who feel like“tontos”, fools, unable to fit in the foreign culture, like once I did too. And then, in that moment when the teacher introduces you, and tells the audience that you have been the winner of this prestigious shiny golden medal stuck on the cover of your book, given here in the United States to a person like YOU in recognition for the quality of your work, you can see it with your own eyes and your heart, that very moment when a child begins to dream that if you did it, he can do it too.
--Yuyi Morales

Well. I was very reticent to initially post my query about the Coretta Scott King Awards, and I am so glad that I did, because these words are another regalo, a gift to the world in the form of a bridge built by a truly remarkable artist.

As I mentioned elsewhere on the internet, the intent of my original blog post was not to suggest that we should end the Coretta Scott King Award. I was saying that the literary criteria for the award was awesome and that I aspire to all of the the criteria that I can, within reason. I was confused by the use of the King name in an award that seemed segregated to me in comparison with other awards, thus making the hope of contribution out of reach for some (myself included), and named titles that I personally thought were excellent representations of other books that met the literary criteria. I asked for clarification of the goal of the award, and I received it, and Yuyi's words also illuminated for me why the awards are supported by the American Library Association. If the power of their support is really as described, I hope, then, that they will consider taking others under their umbrella. I think it is the dream of every author and artist that the book finds its true audience, the reader who, to paraphrase Jacqueline Woodson, will "sit up a little straighter" by turning the pages. I thank everyone who participated in the conversation that sparked and sparkled all over the internet.

I am glad if this conversation has brought out some important information (including Zetta Elliott's point that according to the CCBC, less than 3% of children's books in 2007 were authored by African American people). Thanks also to Finding Wonderland for the great conversation, including some very unique perspective from one of my favorite authors of young adult literature, Sherri L. Smith. Hopefully as the dialogue continues it can remain constructive.

As someone who has also been graced with an "ethnic" award, I know the joy that Yuyi describes. I did not personally feel the honor or celebration was diminished by the eligibility and past winners of people who do not match my profile, and believed many other book creators might share my view, and that is why I brought it up for consideration by other committees. I can certainly appreciate if now is not the time for every group or even every individual (a point eloquently made in Richard Michelson's comments), and trust the committees to make those judgements. But I still most closely embrace the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and the bravery of those children directly involved as emblematic of Civil Rights and a manifestation of the King dream, and as such, I will always hope and work for desegregation and opportunity in all directions. I will wait for that day to dawn eagerly with Yuyi's friend Rose.

As much as I've enjoyed the increased traffic that controversy inspires, folks, I will be back to regular book reviews ASAP, and hope you'll visit anyway! Read-aloud is still our country's best hope for equalizing education in America. Hope you'll come back again, wherever you stand on the issues, to find recommendations, links and community to support you in this most important work of sharing literature and getting great books in the hands of great children of every color, religion, creed and income.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009


It's the big, prestigious awards week for the American Library Association, and the Youth Media Awards will be announced tomorrow (you can watch it happen on a live feed). I'll be back during the week with regular reviews, but for now, I want to share some concerns I have about one of the awards. It's hard to talk about critically, because its a prize that represents many friends and artists that I love and admire very much. But because I want the award to continue to have the gravity and excellence of its original cause and namesake and the great talent it represents, I hazard to bring it up, and to suggest a little tweaking.

From the Coretta Scott King Award criteria:

The award (or awards) is given to an African American author and an African American illustrator for an outstandingly inspirational and educational contribution. The books promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream. The Award is further designed to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.

In response to Black Threads in Kids Lit and Fuse#8’s blog query of January 15th, “Why Is No One Discussing the Coretta Scott King Award?” I have a very hard time with an award that claims to “commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood,” and yet uses the author’s race as a criteria. I find this contradictory. My own books notwithstanding, I have a hard time recognizing an award that would not have considered Ouida Sebesteyn for WORDS BY HEART, Pam Munoz Ryan or Brian Selznick for WHEN MARIAN SANG, Anne Rockwell for ONLY PASSING THROUGH, Doreen Rappaport for MARTIN'S BIG WORDS, Ezra Jack Keats for THE SNOWY DAY, and this year, Laurie Halse Anderson's CHAINS as books that make an outstandingly inspirational and educational contribution to an African-American audience and to everyone else as well. Many of these books have received accolades in other ways, and Ezra Jack Keats even has his own award, but surely, the goal of an award is not to have extraordinary works recognized elsewhere? The Coretta Scott King Award uses the scaffolding of civil rights to elevate it, and yet fails to fully judge a book by the content of its character, or, the contents and its characters, as the case may be. One might argue that the award goes to an author or an illustrator, not a single book, but as the award is not attached to all of the works of the winners but indeed a single work of the author, it seems particularly untoward in the context of the dream of racial equity to be so exclusionary. At this juncture it shouldn’t be news to anyone that ANY exclusionary measures based on race causes pain, alienation and division.

The legitimacy of race-based awards has been argued on both sides, very compellingly by Mitali Perkins and Andrea Davis Pinkney. As an author of several books that feature African American characters, what I say may be construed as sour grapes, but in reality, my grapes are more sad than sour. On a personal level, I have to confess that I am deeply pained by the fact that my work would never be considered by a Coretta Scott King Award Committee. Every single day, I reflect on messages of social justice in our nation and work as an advocate of read-aloud specifically as an extension of civil rights and educational equity. I like to believe that I live in a way that would do honor to the vision of Dr. King. If I saw a book award that was only given to authors who met my racial and ethnic criteria, I would speak up. In the case of the Coretta Scott King Award, while I can understand the initial determination of the criteria historically, it becomes more and more offensive in the context of an integrated and global society, and is also not in line with awards given by other library organizations. The Regina Medal (given by the Catholic Library Association) and Sydney Taylor Award (given by the Association of Jewish Libraries), both awards unrecognized by the ALA, manage to honor distinguished work that recognizes their heritages without requiring the authors be Jewish or Catholic. One of this year's Sidney Taylor winners happens to be Richard Michelson and Raul Colon's AS GOOD AS ANYBODY: MARTIN LUTHER KING AND ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL'S AMAZING MARCH TOWARD FREEDOM (Knopf), about the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which also was not eligible for consideration by the Coretta Scott King committee. Most painful to me, my African American characters have the misfortune of being authored by me. Paris, Sahara, Darrell, they were never be considered for the award through which they might have found their most empathetic audience, their truest friends, just because of the color of my skin.

The Coretta Scott King Award was borne of both pride and unfortunate necessity, an effort to end exclusionary practices based on skin color in the world of children's literature. Prior to its inception, the talent of African American book artists went largely unrecognized by the Newbery and Caldecott, the biggest children's literature awards in the land. In 1969, librarians Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer had an argument over the last Martin Luther King poster at a convention booth, which lead to a discussion between the women about how African American authors and illustrators deserved more attention and distinction. When a publisher at the booth overheard their exchange and suggested that they start their own award to those ends, they ran with the idea. The first award was given in 1970 at a dinner gala of the New Jersey Library Association, and the American Library Association (ALA) joined in true affiliation in the 1980's. Since its beginning, the African American authors and illustrators represented by the Coretta Scott King award have been outstanding and certainly award-caliber by any measure, and the bibliography has been a boon to classrooms. There can be no doubt that the award met and continues to meet the goals of its inventors as a celebration of African American contribution to the genre of children's literature. But to offer an idea of the time period of the award's inception, interracial marriages were just made legal, and the world has changed, however slowly and incompletely.

To say that there should not be a forum in which African American contributions should be celebrated would be wrong. African Americans and other minority groups (as well as anyone who cares about children and reading) need to continue to advocate for diverse representation in children's books in order that children should continue to enjoy the strides made in years past, which have allowed them to look inside a book and recognize themselves. These strides can't be taken for granted now or ever; 1969 is still the recent past. But our fears of going backward are not necessarily our children's fears. The question of whether the stringency of the racial criteria is in step with the times casts a shadow on the prize, and may ultimately impact what young readers come to recognize in it, and whether the award continues to represent something positive and in keeping with the dream.

If the Coretta Scott King Award strives to celebrate the bodies of work of authors and illustrators of a particular race as a way of encouraging young African Americans, that’s one thing, but if it’s going to claim to be a book award, then I say, judge the books and only the books, or at least create an award under its umbrella that is truly multicultural and open to all. African-Americans were a step ahead in 1970's, and the Coretta Scott King Award was emblematic of a movement, visionary of more than what all people were willing to embrace at the time. Perhaps in the name of our first African American president, who has garnered support across color lines to hopefully achieve the changes needed for democracy's survival in a new millennium, the award can find its way to continue to be a step ahead in its spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. The nation proved last week that African American achievement is American achievement. Will the Coretta Scott King Award follow suit and say, vice versa?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009


THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic)
"Private Finch," I say, turning back to tug at his stiff woolen sleeve. "If you happen to come across Harold Figg of Pine Swamp, Maine, would you please tell him to get on home? His little brother Homer, is dying. Will you tell him that?"
"If I meet him, certainly," says Private Finch. "But it is a big war. How will I know him?"
"Looks a lot like you, except Harold is slightly taller and stronger and better looking."
"Is that a fact?" says Private Finch with a toothy grin. "I'll see what I can do, Homer. You are Homer Figg, right?"
I shrug. "Maybe I am."
"I must say, my young friend, that you look remarkably healthy for a boy who is dying."
"Never mind that. Will you tell him?"
"Of course."
After glancing around and grinning to himself, he snaps me a fine salute. "Thank you, Homer Figg. I am reminded to write a letter to my own dear little brother, who is slightly taller and stronger and better looking than you, and who would no doubt fake his own death to have me safe at home."
Homer Figg is a world-class fibber, but when his evil uncle shanghais his brother into the Union army for a price and he must go and rescue him, his real adventures become as wild as the lies he tells. From helping a Quaker abolitionist avoid closing down his station on the Underground Railroad to playing the part of a "pig boy" in a traveling medicine show to escaping charges of treason in a hot air balloon to waving a flag on the front lines of the Battle of Gettysburg, when this title promised adventure, that was the biggest lick of truth in the book. Homer's only fidelity is familial, and he changes sides more often than an old phonograph record, but all is fair in war when it comes to keeping his fine, brave brother in the land of the living. What might have been a predictable ending takes a surprising twist, and the steady character development and real honest-to-goodness caring and affection between the brothers builds to a surprisingly emotional crescendo. I know many a teacher who will be thrilled to have a funny, page-turning narrative from this time period to share, as the read-aloud rations on that end were getting mighty thin. Pair with Margaret McMullan's very powerful drama HOW I FOUND THE STRONG (Houghton Mifflin) that also focuses on war's effect on a family, as well as some of the great non-fiction recommended below to create literature circles that will have your reading troops falling into line, not to mention a whole new generation of history buffs. (10 and up)

Also of interest:
By the time I had finished high school, most of what I knew about the Civil War had come from Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both brilliant and moving, but these days intermediate readers can enjoy a wealth of age-appropriate non-fiction that brings history alive with the immediacy of a bugle's call and a horse's charge!

Celebrated children's literature critic and aficionado has made a direct contribution to the juvenile shelves with this meticulously researched and well-organized account of women who fought on the front, sometimes in disguise, sometimes to accompany beloved family members and sometimes to simply experience life to the fullest: "I...was more than repaid for all that I had being not only a spectator, but an actor, in such a sublime, living drama." Extraordinary stories, such as the woman who lived under the guise of being a man for decades after the war only to have her ruse discovered in death and still was given full military burial, are fresh and riveting, and speak to the complicated matter of equal participation in the world, through both the good and the bad. A valuable addition and perspective. (10 and up)

Brilliantly reliant on primary sources and photographs, this journalistic endeavor brings the ghosts of this war back to walk among us and tell their tales from a perspective closest to the young reader's own. It's not often I see boys fighting over a history book, let alone crying as they read, or turning pages until the minutes are lost, but that's the power of this time machine in a book. (10 and up) Other compelling POV's not always explored in textbooks are found in the brutal but eye-opening account of Louisa May Alcott's days as a civil war nurse in HOSPITAL SKETCHES (12 and up), the excellent, comprehensive and concise pictorial overview of Civil War campaigns and battles in James McPherson's FIELDS OF FURY (Atheneum) (11 and up), and James L. Swanson's CHASING LINCOLN'S KILLER (Scholastic), the children's version of the best-seller by grown-ups about the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth which gives THE BOY'S WAR a run for its money with the reluctant readers. (12 and up)

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


OLD BEAR by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow)
What does a bear dream about when he hibernates? A summer that rains blueberries, with a bright daisy sun in the sky? An autumn as brown as tree bark and fur? An ice-covered world, or a springtime return to the days of frolicking like a cub? When the old bear's eyes open to the real world, it is filled with all the wonders of his dreams. Double-page spreads with broad, heavy lines journey through all the seasons and capture both Old Bear's lumbering size and sweet vulnerability. Even if you are used to the exceptional talent of this author/illustrator first made famous by the energetic LILY'S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE, you will be surprised by this simpler style, at once bold and gentle. This book is a celebration of the Earth, its changes and its creatures. Perfect for preschoolers, and paired with the surrealistic wordless WONDER BEAR by Tao Nyeu (Dial), children will love to illustrate their own scenes of bear's winter dreams, or perhaps depict a dream of their own. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
The best kind of bear market!
BEAR'S PICTURE by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by D.B. Johnson (Houghton Mifflin)

"It doesn't look like any of those things to us,"
said the two fine, proper gentlemen.

"It doesn't have to," said the bear. "It's MY picture."

Know any other artists like this...maybe in your home or classroom,? Two straight-laced critics come upon a bear attempting to create art, and have a heck of a time identifying what is on the canvas. That's okay, they never believed a bear could paint to begin with. Naysayers often get their come-uppance, and this story bears no exception. This jaunty tale by an author who often leads the parade of people who like to march to their own drummer (case in point: THE BIG ORANGE SPLOT) is well matched to the jaunty, angular, borderline abtract style of this newly-illustrated reissue. (5 and up)

On a personal note:
Blessings and best wishes today to all the children who now truly believe that they can be president someday, and that, like Old Bear and Mr. Plumbean of The Big Orange Splot, the real world is filled with all of the wonders of their dreams. My favorite moment of this new day:

What if the mightiest word is love,
love beyond marital, filial, national.
Love that casts a widening pool of light.
Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made,
any sentence begun.

-Elizabeth Alexander, "Inaugural Poem"

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Monday, January 19, 2009


WABI SABI by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young (Little, Brown)

Wabi Sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, mdest and mysterious. It can be a little dark, but it is also warm and comfortable.It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than an idea.

A little cat in Kyoto who sets out on a journey across the Japanese landscape to discover the true meaning of his enigmatic name. Collage and torn-paper masterpieces are composed vertically, so the reader turns pages from bottom to top instead of left to right. A similar idea of the beauty of imperfection was explored in Linda Sue Park's Newbery-winning novel about the lifework of a Korean potter, A SINGLE SHARD, but gets new treatment here in picture book form. The adventure is accented with haiku that the reader experiences like stepping stones along a garden path, and the art, from the temple rising out of the crowns of auburn maples, a cat's reversed reflection in a shining bowl or the ripple of the smallest yellow frog slipping beneath the water's surface, well, those read like haiku, too. This book already has legend behind it, with the Caldecott award-winning illustrator misplacing the original artwork and vowing to re-do it all, and to do it even better. It's hard to experience this ambitious project without imagining the spirits of Issa and Basho nodding their approval. An abstruse concept is well-grounded in the framework of this offering that has a cultural, literary and visual richness that will be realized fully by young readers with the guidance of an appreciative, bookloving adult. Children will be inspired to seek the wabi sabi all around them. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN by Elizabeth Coatsworth, illustrated by Raoul Vitale (Aladdin) A pariah cat finds a place in the heart, home and painting of a Buddhist artist. Reading a bit like a Siddhartha for kids, this vintage Newbery award winner is light on pages but heavy on ideas of forgiveness and acceptance, and is sure to enlighten many readers on aspects of Asian culture. I was always a little confused as a child who had a healthy dose of Zen why the cat would end up in something akin to a Christian heaven instead of being a little heavier on the Nirvana and reincarnation front, but, hey, the book was written in 1930, and was a multicultural stretch for its time. Theological nitpicking of my youth aside, this oldie but goodie continues to find a perennial audience of all faiths because the language is challenging and transcendent, and it is the unusual sort of story that can reverberate for lifetime if, like WABI SABI, it is read aloud by a supportive adult. (11 and up)

SKY SWEEPER by Phyllis Gershator, illustrated by Holly Meade (Farrar Straus & Giroux) The monks need a temple, the temple needs a garden, and the garden needs a flower keeper...Takeboki! As one season follows another, though, members of the Japanese community question why Takeboki's ambitions do not stretch far beyond the garden gates. In the end, Takeboki's dedication and singleness of purpose inspires all. In these days of unnecessary competition, this story of a boy who is content to do one simple job well is very refreshing, and this book will also awaken an understanding in children to give thought to workers who do the tasks that may seem mundane, but are necessary and deserve appreciation. (6 and up)

ZEN SHORTS by John Muth (Scholastic) One day, a generously-sized panda named Stillwater speaking in a "slight Panda accent" shows up at the door of three children, befriending them and sharing with them stories passed along to him from his "Uncle Ry." In fact, the Panda is sharing with them three zen koans, which are simple fables or parables that have been rooted in Chinese and Japanese culture for centuries. Like a mellow, behemoth Cat in the Hat, children will hope that someday they will open their door to such a guest. The retellings are illustrated using a sort of opposite Wizard of Oz technique: when he shares a tale, they become a sketchy brush-painted blue, black and white, and when it is the children's everyday life, we return to realistic full-spectrum watercolors. "Uncle Ry" is inspired by the poet Ryokan Taigu, one of Japan's most popular poets, and the Panda is named for the great teacher Sengai Gibbon. The stories are a bit watered down from their original sources (children eight and up will be able to enjoy a broader array in their more original forms in ZEN FLESH, ZEN BONES, a title that by my standards is as necessary to a child's upbringing as Aesop's Fables!), but this book definitely serves as a valuable introduction for the youngest reflective reader. (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
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Sunday, January 18, 2009


"Though I think it is possible to learn from works of children, I don't think it possible to teach from does not rush to give Anna Karenina to friends who are commiting adultery. Such impertinence is limited to dealings with children." --Jill Paton Walsh

For the reason stated above, I am not the hugest fan of bibliotherapy, or the use of books to help children to deal directly with problems. I have long advocated that all good books are contribute toward character education, and sometimes a child with a big problem just wants a good joke book, or a chance to escape into a world of fantasy. Still, there are occasions in which a well-done piece of literature shared out of the spirit of caring can help children contend with particular issues, and to know they are not alone. Recently there are some particularly excellent, provocative and well-illustrated books that can do just that, so I have no problem sharing them here!

ONE by Kathryn Otoshi (KO Kids Books)
Less is more in this extremely effective story about bullying. Blue is a quiet color, and Red likes to pick on blue. the other colors of the rainbow try to comfort Blue, but they are bystanders, not upstanders. The more Red says something mean without being stopped, the bigger and more unwieldy he gets. But when a number comes along and decides not to put up with Red's mess, the colors find it within themselves to stand and be counted. This minimalist illustration style packs a punch and reminded me of Norton Juster's THE DOT AND THE LINE, (see Chuck Jones' animated version here!) maybe even the simplicity of Shel Silverstein without the cynicism. The book subtly offers a model of how to deal with and de-escalate the harrowing situation of being intimidated, and how the situation becomes everyone's problem, not just a single victim's. Another aspect of this book that is important is that in the end, even the bully is pulled into the circle of acceptance once he decides to make different choices, which is a comforting redemption for readers who have perhaps tried on that behavior before; once a bully is not always a bully. This book by a small publisher was first shared with me by an exceptional kindergarten teacher, and I can't imagine what a wonderful world we might live in if every young child had a chance to hear this book's message, and blessedly, it can be read to older children with similar effect. This book is a jewel and a tool, and if I am to recommend a picture book that belongs in every collection, this is the one. (All ages)

SORRY! by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Maurie J. Manning (Tricycle)
Ouch, everybody knows what it feels like to receive an insincere apology. A little boy uncomfortably watches while his buddy Charlie gets away with murder, until he is about to destroy something that another friend has worked very hard on and a line has to be drawn. Every bit as valuable as the text is the author's note in the back, describing her inspiration: "It dawned on me how destructive an insincere apology can be, adding further insult to the already injured party." She reiterates a la Beverly Engel's The Power of Apology how just saying "sorry" is not enough to make amends, and introduces children to the art of giving a sincere apology by implementing the three R's: Regret, Responsibility and Regret. She offers a plan for real healing by being specific about the hurt one has caused another, asking for the injured party's input, and replacing or repairing damaged items. Discussion questions, an afterward by a professor of psychiatry and a list of "apology do's and don'ts" are included. I am as excited to introduce you to this author as I am to this book; she takes on many tough issues, such as the weird emotional bullying that is the art of Queen Bees in MY SECRET BULLY, gives gossip a wallop in TROUBLE TALK, and this spring, she has another title taking on the idea of misplaced jealousy and how nobody's life is without its trials, no matter what it seems like from the outside in TOO PERFECT. Pointed without being overly preachy, these are picture books that double as springboards into meaningful discourse. If there is one nasty little shrugged-off "sorry!" that can be avoided with the help of this title, it's money well-spent. (7 and up)

I GET SO HUNGRY by Bebe Moore Campbell, illustrated by Amy Bates (Putnam) This book dealing with the hard-to-tackle issue of childhood obesity is a controversial one, as there are many reasons why children gain weight and it isn't helpful to make children feel like there is a panacea for this complicated problem, or to make children feel at fault for their size when they may be struggling with genetics or lifestyle choices that are largely and usually outside of a child's full control. This author, who sadly passed away this past fall, was not one to shy away from topics that would be precarious for others (scenes in SOMETIMES MY MOMMY GETS ANGRY will be recognizable to children who have a parent with bipolar disorder), but due to the teasing, however realistic it may be, I can't say I would be entirely comfortable sharing this book with a group of children in case anyone got any bright ideas. However, this book does address this issue of eating as a coping mechanism, which many children struggle with and so might serve as a talking point with an individual, especially since the book is optimistic about creating a plan and sticking to it. Nikki and the teacher who shares her challenge are resilient, well-liked and positive as characters. I must point out once again the great talent of the illustrator, who does a marvelous job of depicting expressive children who seem to live and breathe on the page and emanate beauty from the inside out, just as real children do, whatever their size. You can also see her work in the heart-wrenching HAIR FOR MAMA by Kelly Tinkham (Dial), in which a family struggles to devise a show of support for their mother during chemotherapy so she will be willing to join in a family photo. (7 and up)

There are a number of books out on the subject of divorce, none of which mention the "d" word overtly, but certainly deals with the other one, "distance." In A DAY WITH DAD by Bo R. Holmberg, illustrated by the truly brilliant Swedish artist Eva Eriksson (Candlewick), a little boy's father comes on the train for a day's visit, and the son takes him on a grand tour of favorite local stops: the movie theater, restaurant and library, and every place he goes, he can't resist proudly introducing his dad to everybody. When it's time to go, Dad returns the love by introducing his special boy to all his fellow passengers on the train. Yes, break of the kleenex here, folks! This book does an excellent job of the very realistic, unspoken feeling of a clock ticking away precious moments together during time together, but as the train pulls out of the station, the reader knows the child is loved, and that visiting time will come again. An almost identical story but with a little girl in the feature role is MOLLY AND HER DAD by Jan Ormerod, illustrated by Carol Thompson (Roaring Brook) in which a daughter gets to know her dad when he flies in on an airplane for some quality time, as mom takes off on a weekend break. This book portrays the tentative feeling of getting acquainted with one's own parent and discovering traits in common and not-so-in-common, but in the end, there's no doubt that this darling little cupcake is at least partly a daddy's girl. And in Nancy Coffelt's FRED STAYS WITH ME, illustrated by Tricia Tusa (Little, Brown), a little girl upholds her own rule that something that stays the same, whether she's at her mom's house or her dad's house. (5 and up)

THE WORST BEST FRIEND by Alexis O'Neill, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith (Scholastic)
Look at that, Mike and Conrad are the best of friends! They even share a special secret best-friends handshake greeting: "High five high five/knuckle, knuckle/Clap/Shoulder tap, shoulder tap/Stomp, stomp/Snap!" But oh, the anguish of thinking someone is in your corner, and then turning around and feeling quite alone, especially when choosing sides for games. Et tu, Brutus, or in this case, Conrad? Loyalty is the baseline for this story about surviving the common pendulum swing of childhood friendships in this realistic but still cheerful playground drama by the author of THE RECESS QUEEN. (6 and up)

MOTHERBRIDGE OF LOVE illustrated by Josée Masse (Barefoot)
What a moving book was created out of a poem anonymously donated to Mother Bridge of Love, an organization dedicated to promote bridges and adoption between the West and China. The verses lovingly describe the necessity of two women in creating a life for a little girl, alternating pages between an Asian and Caucasian mother ("The first one gave you life;/the second taught you to live it. The first gave you a need for love; the second was there to give it./...One saw your first sweet smile; the other dried your tears...") and finishing with affirmation that the different kinds of love and different homes were both equally important, contributing parts of the person that the child becomes. Attractive acrylic paintings look as though they were done on wood instead of paper. The poem is transcribed in Chinese at the front of the book. A heartfelt tribute to the special and wonderful families and love built through adoption. (All ages)

ZIP, ZIP...HOMEWORK by Nancy Poydar (Holiday House) Organizational skills make for a scholastic stumbling block for many children. In this picture book suitable for older children as well, a little girl falls behind in her homework, and her new-fangled backpack with all the zippers and compartments isn't proving to be much help. Nancy Poydar is another author worth knowing by name, specializing in classroom situations and earnest portrayals of associated childhood anxiety, such as THE THE BAD-NEWS REPORT CARD, her treatment of standardized testing in THE BIGGEST TEST IN THE UNIVERSE (on the subject, also see Judy Finchler's TESTING MISS MALARKEY), as well as seasonal books such as the timely SNIP, SNIP...SNOW. (7 and up)

And if I may remind you of one of my favorite "issue" books from last year:
HALF A WORLD AWAY by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Scholastic) Exceptionally beautiful watercolors grace of this story of two great friends separated half a world away by a move. "If I call Amy really loudly, she'll hear me, won't she?" "Maybe," says grandma. "You can only try." The boy's call covers wordless double-page spreads across the country and into the distant city in the form of clouds, a dream that is felt and recognized by his dear friend so far away. This book so gracefully acknowledges both the real pain children experience when a friend moves away as well as affirms the power children have to continue to love. Moving and beautiful, when I read it to a group of early childhood teachers, there was a lot of damp eyes and a choke in my own throat. As far as books that deal with childhood issues, this sensitive, hopeful and powerful title deserves to be a classic about moving the way Judith Viorst's THE TENTH GOOD THING ABOUT BARNEY marks the passing of a pet. (4 and up)

And how about a resource for adults?
BOOKS TO GROW WITH: A GUIDE TO USING THE BEST CHILDREN'S FICTION FOR EVERYDAY ISSUES AND TOUGH CHALLENGES by Cheryl Coon (Lutra Press) This author really did her homework in creating this resource of excellent recommendations falling under such clear and helpful headings as sharing, bullies and teasing, feelings, fears, babysitters, stuttering, being gifted, boasting, honesty, sleepovers, self-esteem, adoption, moving, glasses, divorce, strangers, aging, illness, disabilities, death, and many more, making it sure to be dog-eared by booksellers, counselors, physicians, parents and educators. When it comes to prescribing bibliotherapy, Cheryl Coon has the country's best bedside manner, so the next time you have an issue, don't reach for a tissue, grab this title instead. (Adult)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at

Saturday, January 17, 2009


In the tundra-like province of Pinrut, the inventive Breeze family is the last bastion of hope under the tyrannical rule of the heartless and blustery lord Tullock. He forces his enslaved minions to turn out the turnips from his endless, icy fields. Unyielding in their belief that the sun will return, the family continues to make wildly intricate and ingenious fans, so meticulously described that you can hear the gears turning and the metal unfolding like petals. When the real threat looms large that the Breezes will lose their precious home, the father and daughter decide to search for a land of heat using a flim-falmmer's map, while son and mother try to hold down the fort against an army of hammer-weilding heavies. The relationship between the brother and sister in the story and the influence they extend to each other across the miles through their examples is touching and refreshing, and the theme of families sticking together even when all hope is lost rings forever true. Apart from this, though, the fantastical story does not pluck any deep emotional heartstrings or offer any deep moral lessons, but if it's a great cinematically written adventure your reluctant reader is seeking, this book offers fire instead of ice. While the setting is definitely frigid, you may be surprised to find yourself sweating over this break-neck paced page-turner. Who can resist a story with famished, flailing octopi, a house that can fold in on itself, and a evil and enthusiastic taxidermist? This original feat is filled with secrets and surprises, and ends almost every chapter with a cliffhanger, or rather, glacier-hanger, perfect for hunkering down for a wintry read-aloud. Fans of MOLLY MOON'S INCREDIBLE BOOK OF HYPNOTISM by Georgia Byng and Laura Ruby's high-flying THE WALL AND THE WING will want to attend this snowy ball. (10 and up)

Also of interest:
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
THE SNOW SHOW by Carolyn Fisher (Harcourt) Using a cooking show as a vehicle to teach children the process of evaporation, condensation and precipitation, a snowman joins sous chefs Snow White and Jack Frost to whip up some wintry weather. This book's execution lives up to its premise, showing the step-by step process with the eye-popping whimsy of Marjorie Priceman's HOW TO MAKE AN APPLE PIE AND SEE THE WORLD with the informational clarity and credibility of Molly Bang's MY LIGHT. The high-end science vocabulary is in a context that children can understand, and the text is used decoratively as part of the artwork. All elements crystallize into a perfect piece of picture-book nonfiction that no classroom or aspiring scientist should be without. Go to the author's site to download a free activity guide that, as the website states, will make you wish every day was a snow day. (6 and up) And speaking of...

THE SNOW DAY by Komako Sakai (Scholastic) A rabbit boy watches the snow fall past his window. While his father's airplane flight is delayed, he shares a quiet day with his mother in their apartment complex, and an evening of making snow dumplings, until the chilly little son must be gathered in his mother's arms in the picture of warmth and comfort. Paint laid heavily on the page in shades of grey and blues and browns and wordless spreads thoughtfully placed perfectly capture the muted quality of light and mood that the weather brings. A gentle Japanese import with an understated, universal quality. (3 and up)

SNOW by Cynthia Rylant (Harcourt)

The best snow is the snow that comes softly in the night, like a shy friend afraid to knock...

What gloriously crisp illustrations grace this lyrical text, capturing a cold snap with a dreamlike glow and vibrancy not seen since the work of Barbara Helen Berger. It captures the chill and cheer so vividly, you may want to wear your winter scarf to the reading. Intergenerational images of a girl enjoying the weather with her grandmother are an added thematic bonus to an already beautiful book. (4 and up)

A KITTEN TALE by Eric Rohmann (Knopf) As the seasons pass, four kittens await their first snow with fear, but one lion-hearted soul can hardly wait to romp in it! With its paw on the pulse of its intended audience, this titles manages to capture the intense and genuine feelings of anticipation and trepidation when encountering something new. Sure, there are a lot of cat books, but don't be scared; this Caldecott-winning illustrator has made one that is as fresh as any snowflake. (3 and up)

SNOW CRAZY by Tracy Gallup (Mackinac Island Press)
You know the kid: lots of miniatures lined up on the windowsill. Jars of seashells, stones, bones. Stops to look at bugs. Rolls Fimo dough into necklace beads, happy to spend the afternoon coloring, or cutting out...snowflakes? This author and dollmaker creates little books which affirm that child, and their willingness to turn small treasures round and round in the hand and in the mind. In this title, a girl is whisked away in her imagination by an old photograph of a girl standing in the snow, a girl who, like her, can't wait for that day when it falls from the sky to transform her world. The illustrations are quirky photographic stills of three-dimensional mixed-media models and scenes that Gumby and and fans of a kind of a certain kind of 1970's funky aesthetic will appreciate. Add this and Gallup's other titles, TREE CRAZY, STONE CRAZY and SHELL CRAZY to that child's eclectic windowsill or bookshelf. (4 and up)

UN-BRELLA by Scott E. Franson (Roaring Brook)
Never mind the windchill, this little girl has a handy magical umbrella that allows her to brave the elements in her bathing suit. And when winter's done, she can make snowmen in the sun! How wonderful to have the weather you want wherever you go in this wordless picture book! Computer-generated artwork inspired by cut paper captures all of the seasons with a colorful sharpness, from flowers in bloom to the lacy wonderland of a January day. Besides being a whimsical flight of fancy that imaginative children will flock to, folks suffering from the "winter blues" may find that this is just what the doctor (and the librarian) ordered.

Still snow crazy? Check out When It Starts to Snow and other wintery reading picks.

Cutie mice pictured above from Fadeeva Toys.

On a personal note:
Snowflake Sopapilla Recipe!

Most of the books I have written take place in Chicago, where the winters are long and the snow is deep (check out chapter four, "It Snowed and It Snowed and It Snowed" in SING A SONG OF TUNA FISH for the full-flurried effect). On these chilly days, I eat breakfast in my kitchen next to my window, where I can often watch the white powder falling, falling from the sky. Whenever I make these sopapillas, even though they are in the shape of snowflakes, I think of my friends in Texas and in Mexico, and I can practically feel the warm sun. This is also my son Russell’s favorite breakfast treat!

Flour tortillas
Powdered Sugar

Fold a flour tortilla in half, then half again, and half again, so you have a triangle. Using a scissors, cut small shapes and score into the sides of the triangle without cutting all the way through, and then unfold. Heat a frying pan and add oil (kids, if you're reading this, get a grown-ups help as it gets very hot and might splatter!), then lay the tortilla on the heated oil until it browns (about 1- 2 minutes on each side). Lay on paper towels to remove excess oil, then transfer to a plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and drizzle with honey or syrup. Enjoy!

And thanks to Dianna Aston for introducing me to my first sublime sopapilla at El Sol Y La Luna in Austin! I'll never forget it.

Snowy scene from the incredible Palais Ideal built by Postman Cheval in Hauterives, France.
Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
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Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that I'm ga-ga about children's picture book biographies, and why not? They are so very versatile; you can share them with children in first grade or eighth grade, all with easy success. I am a strong proponent of "the biography break," or a short interruption in routine to open up to the inspiration of the lives of others. Just imagine if you read aloud just one picture book biography to a child every week. By the end of the year, how many new heroes would that child have? How many new mentors? How many figures from history and around the world would that child know? How many great artists? There's only one way to find out!

Wah-la! Here is a selection of stellar picture book biographies from this past publication year (and a couple 2009'ers, too). The strong suit of these true stories is that message that success doesn't come easily to anybody, underscoring the inherent virtue of the adage, "try, try again." And in hopes of getting this new year off on the right foot, in honor of this hot and helpful genre, I have also created an archival blog of biographical book recommendations with enough suggestions to get teachers through biography breaks for the rest of the school year (thanks to my buds at the fabulous Chicago chapter of the New Teacher Center for the inspiration). Check it out!

THE ROAD TO OZ: TWISTS, TURNS, BUMPS AND TRIUMPHS IN THE LIFE OF L.FRANK BAUM by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Knopf)
Amicably spoiled and hardly risk averse, Frank comes to creative fruition after a few false starts. The Art of Window Decorating just wasn't the best-seller he anticipated, actors with penchants for expensive costumes ripped him off, and his investments in competitive poultry shows also didn't pan out. These tribulations are related with the tone of good humored shrugging that we can only imagine Baum would have appreciated, and robust illustrations help to capture the spirit of this difficult and delightful storyteller, newspaper man and theater enthusiast who penned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (7 and up)

Megan McCarthy: a name you can trust. With unfettered text, she consistently adds books to the shelves that are appropriate for the intended audience, and matte-acrylic illustrations that manage to help tell the story while tickling the funny bone. This sister consistently knows how to write a book that cuts all the fat, which is especially perfect for the subject at hand. After the infamous kicking-of-sand-in-the-face at the beach and an inspirational moment with a statue of Hercules at a local museum, Charles has a transformational epiphany that turns him into a muscle man. Developing a technique developed by watching the rippling muscles of lions at the zoo, he manages to pump of the men of America up through "Dynamic Tension" and win the "World's Most Beautiful Man" contest. The page of poses for the many statues for which Atlas modeled was a revelation (did you know when you're looking at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, you're looking at handsome Charlie?) Considered perfectly developed, this handsome Italian-American was able to pull a 145,000 pound train with his bare hands, he was a picture not only of physical health, but a lifetime of enthusiasm and inspiration. Meet the man behind the comic book ads in this larger-than-life immigrant story. Also included are four fun exercises to start the heart pumping, and an author's note which includes the fabulous picture of our husky hero flexing in what looks like underpants, which, if you ask any grade-school boy, should be worth the price of the book alone....maybe a few bored librarians will also agree. (6 and up)

MANJIRO: THE BOY WHO RISKED HIS LIFE FOR TWO COUNTRIES by Emily Arnold McCully (Farrar, Straus Giroux)

Even though he was barely fourteen years old, Manjiro persuaded a fisherman to hire him. There were five men on the little boat when it set off for fishing grounds a few miles from shore...But then ominous black clouds appeared, followed by ferocious winds, and suddenly the boat began to founder in the stormy sea. The fishermen tried to head for shore, but an oarlock broke off and the oar itself was washed overboard. The boat was borne southeast, at the mercy of freezing winds.

The men were afraid they would never find their way back home and that if they did, they would face the executioner. For over two and a half centuries, Japan had been closed to the outside world. Anyone who tried to return after leaving the country could be put to death. But Manjiro told himself over and over again that somehow he would return to his mother.

So begins the truly remarkable adventure of a young man loosed from the environment of the Tokugawa government, and a xenophobia paralleled only perhaps by the likes of Brigadoon. Manjiro is picked up by an American ship and transported to colonial Massachusetts, with their own special brand of xenophobia. With the support of mentor and seaman William Whitfield, Manjiro becomes highly educated and respected in his community, but never forgets his oath or his original home. He has much to share upon his return...if the authorities let him in. This is a survival story of an individual that hinges on the willingness to learn and adapt and make friends, and a survival story for the world that hinges on the very same things. Shout it from the crow's nest: a perfect read-aloud! (7 and up)

THE RAUCOUS ROYALS by Carlyn Beccia (Houghton Mifflin)
This book invites readers: "Test your royal wits: crack codes, solve mysteries, and deduce which royal rumors are true." Go ahead, spin the ax. Can you guess which of King Henry's wives met her end with the same implement? Is the rumor that Anne Boleyn was really a witch with six fingers or the legend of Prince Dracula true or false? Which of the following were among Queen Elizabeth's favorite things: dancing, cursing, The Spanish, bear-baiting? What did a typical spa day look like in the seventeenth century? An eclectic, inviting layout plays off of Medieval-inspired paintings of scowling sovereigns. Children will laugh out loud and gasp in shock in turns while they learn enough facts about British history to make them a formidable match on Jeopardy, and the chance to be next in succession to read this book is appealing enough to inspire the like of intrigues of Mary, Queen of Scots against her cousin Elizabeth. Okay, maybe not that appealing; let's hope not. (8 and up)

ONE BEETLE TOO MANY: THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF CHARLES DARWIN by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman (Candlewick)

"I am a complete millionaire in odd and curious facts." -Charles Darwin

Much to his father's chagrin, young Charles was a phenomenal flop in school, dismal in his efforts to become a doctor, and a terrible theologian. His own sister would correct the spelling in his personal letters. The only thing Charles seemed good at was, well, sticking beetles in bottles. But with an unrelenting eye for detail and a heart set on adventure, his absorption in the natural world and in-depth observations led him to a theory that would shock and rock the world. Insights into the balance between his scientific and spiritual life, his permissive parenting style, and his great adventures riding across the plains with gauchos , finding seashells on mountain tops, dipping into South American river beds to find octopus friends and making the most out of earthquakes, well, you can't read all of this and not say, "that was one heck of a life." For all the fascinating details, the artwork is really the scene stealer; the slick, even flow and strangely alluring depth of the illustrations might lead one to believe they were computer generated, but it was really done with graphite pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, acrylics and collage with paper, string, weeds and wildflowers, and the effect is stylistically distinct and nothing short of beautiful. Don't be daunted by the length of the text; this exciting read-alone or read-aloud life story of a man who truly embraced life and nature will leave you wanting more. And if you do, check out CHARLES DARWIN, by Alan Gibbons, illustrated by Lee Brown (Kingfisher), a fictionalized account of the voyage of Darwin's ship, The HMS Beagle, through the log a ship's boy. (8 and up)

ASHLEY BRYAN: WORDS TO MY LIFE'S SONG by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum)

I love painting from the landscape, when weather permits. Later in the day I return to my studio and work on my book projects. At times I turn to work on a puppet or a glass panel. Each activity taps into a different level of energy that allows me to extend my working day. I don't regard visits of family and friends as interruptions. Everything feeds into the day, which feels big here. In response to the flow of events, I hope to validate my time, my life.
-Ashley Bryan

Take a stroll on Cranberry Island with Ashley as he recounts his progression from an art-loving boy in the Bronx to a world-traveled painter to an award-winning author to puppeteer in Maine. Family stories, disappointments, and motivations are all revealed in this fiercely intimate memoir by an author who is a true citizen of the world. Told in the format of a parallel story that takes place both in his home in the present and in the recollections of his past, he writes about his experiences of discrimination in the early part of the last century, but in a matter-of-fact way that will not discourage or alienate his diverse modern audience. The writing is as uncareful and warm as a conversation with a friend, and Bryant shares again as only Bryan can, beckoning with both brush and finger to the artful, heart-full life of a creative soul. There is a goodbye in his tone, but hopefully it will not demarcate an end. Of special interest especially to adult children's book enthusiasts. (11 and up)

HOME ON THE RANGE: JOHN A. LOMAX AND HIS COWBOY SONGS by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Putnam)

One day, John got the courage to show his precious collection of cowboy songs to his teacher. He hoped the professor would find them as fascinating as he did.
But that snooty professor just turned up his nose. "There's nothing of value in these songs of plain, ordinary folk," he sneered.

Success is the best revenge, as this Texan sets out on the cowboy trail with his notebook and clunky recording machine to capture the dusky, doleful soul of the open range. A surprisingly moving portrait of a folklorist and musicologist who captured the home where the buffalo roam for posterity. It's impossible to read this story and not to rediscover the poetry that Lomax saw first. Score one for plain, ordinary folk. (7 and up)

And as you embark this year on the task of living large, I'll leave you with this Kipling-inspired quote from that delicious bad boy Teddy Roosevelt:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again...who spends himself in worthy cause; who, at best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly."

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at


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