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.
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Anonymous said...

Esme -
Your review of my new book, THE WORST BEST FRIEND, made me laugh ("Et tu, . . . Conrad?") Thanks for including it in your roundup of issue books. I'm happy that WBF is in such good company with these other terrific books. Best - ALEXIS

Anonymous said...

Thanks for including Zip zip Homework and some of my other titles in your blog! Hope you know Rhyme Time Valentine...Feb. 14 is right around the corner. Best, Nancy Poydar


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