Where I Live

WhereILiveI was delighted to have recently discovered Eileen Spinelli’s Where I Live (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2007) while at a children’s literature conference a couple of weeks ago. While chatting with illustrator Matt Phelan at his signing table, he mentioned that he was only supposed to do 20 illustrations for this book geared for 7- to 10-year-olds. But he fell so deeply in love with the family in the story that he ended up illustrating nearly every spread. As I read this book with my daughters, I could see why Matt found the characters so endearing. We fell in love with them, too!

Told in free verse, Where I Live is the story of elementary-aged Diana. She adores her Grandpa Joe, her little sister Twink, her best friend Rose, astronomy, and the wren who has built a wreath on the front door of her home. Spinelli has infused the story with touching symbolism and Phelan’s pencil illustrations add even richer emotional expression.

This book has so many wonderful things going for it: caring parents who really see and know their daughter, strong connections to a grandparent, an adored and loving teacher to draw out Diana’s feelings through poetry, beautiful portrayal of sibling hierarchy, and a realistic and healthy mix of Diana’s feelings around her younger sibling and her mad-sad adjustment to a substantial life change (moving houses).

This quiet book starring a reflective, heart-strong character is an excellent choice for drawing out tender feelings and depicting a language of the heart. Highly recommended!

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Waiting for Unicorns

waiting-for-unicornsMiddle-grade novel (ages 10 and up) – Twelve-year-old Talia’s mother has recently died of cancer, and so for the first time, Talia accompanies her father on his annual summer trip to study beluga whales in the small Arctic town of Churchill, Manitoba.

While Beth Hautala’s Waiting for Unicorns is not a book in the fantasy genre, one thing to know about Talia is that she’s a girl prone toward fantasy. She keeps a jar of wishes. She hangs her hopes on discovering a unicorn whale (narwhal) to wish on, for a chance to give a final goodbye to her mother.

And as can be expected in the midst of her immense grief, Talia’s defenses are high at the outset of the novel: “The more prepared you are for things, the less chance they have of surprising you. Or scaring you. Or breaking your heart.” More fantasy … which leaves ample room to show this endearing character’s potential for growth over the course of the novel.

While in Churchill, Talia and her father stay with one of Talia’s parents’ dear friends, an Inuit woman named Sura. Right away, Sura is an adult whom Talia can trust. Sura’s alpha-caring posture begins to open Talia’s heart – the first pathway in, fittingly, through Sura’s homemade pancakes and warm kitchen. “All of a sudden I had to rearrange some of the things I’d been imagining about her,” Talia says.

Later, it’s Sura’s steadiness and consistency that starts to earn her a place in Talia’s heart. “She took care of people, loving them with the food she made and other things she did for them … Sura was one of those people who seemed to know what others need and wanted to do something about it.”

As Talia expresses, at first she had natural worries over whether Sura would try to replace her mother. “I’d been worried that Sura was all determined to be some kind of fill-in mom. But the better I got to know her, the more I realized that Sura wasn’t actually treating me any different than she treated everyone else.”

Thankfully instead, Sura serves as a match-maker between Talia and her mother, helping to keep her mother’s memory alive by such gestures as talking of Talia’s mother often, gifting Talia an old photograph of her mother, letting Talia know, “ ‘You are so like her.’”

This calm, solid presence of Sura’s eventually softens Talia’s defenses. The turnaround point for their relationship comes the day Talia refuses to come home for lunch one day, so Sura brings lunch to Talia on the shore. Talia, overcome with immense alarm over her father’s whereabouts, ends up tossing the tin cup of meat stew that represents the cold Arctic and the huge losses she’s been facing. “I didn’t even care that Sura was right there beside me. I thought she would be mad, but she wasn’t,” says Talia. Through Sura’s response, Talia realizes that Sura makes room for all of her emotions. “She just sat with me and didn’t say a word. She didn’t even ask me to bring back the cup. So I didn’t. I left it there on the shore until the tide eventually came in and carried it away.”

And so it is no surprise that ultimately Sura is the person Talia trusts with her tears – the tears that need to flow in order for Talia to adapt and grow. She has so much to cry about, and thankfully she finds a safe place for the release of her sadness in Sura’s loving arms: “I cried for Mom because she was never coming back. I cried for Dad because he had lost so much, and I cried for me because I couldn’t do this alone.”

Later Sura offers wise words to Talia: “‘Loving someone means that sometimes you have to risk getting messy. It’s not always very fun, but it’s always better than being alone, or watching someone you love hurt alone.’”

Ultimately, coming to an understanding of this, among other universal struggles, is the beautiful path we see Talia embrace. As Talia puts it in her own words: “I guess when it came right down to it, I was terrified by how uncontrollable things could be, and of how terribly small I was, right in the middle of them.” And yet, she yearns for the treasure more than she lets her fear control her: “But I wanted to try. I wanted to be there for the people I loved.”

Among other gems in this novel are the tender-hearted memories Talia holds for her mother, the weaving in of folklore as Talia recalls the stories her mother told her, and the circle of other wise adults in Talia’s life.

For instance, “The Birdman,” who models an acceptance of futility over losses that cannot be changed: “‘But, Tal, it doesn’t matter how much time passes, or how many wishes I make. I’m not going to be able to change the fact that a polar bear tried to eat me for breakfast.’”

And if polar bears out to eat characters isn’t alarming enough, it is rather alarming that Talia’s father takes off on a research trip, just after Talia’s mother has died (even though it does create a vacuum for Sura to fill). And there are other frustrating moments when Dad is not in the lead, his own pain over his wife’s death getting in the way of his ability to help Talia through.

But when Dad finally returns from his whale-watching excursion, it is clear Talia still sees her father as her anchor: “I felt like a snow globe. Someone had shaken me up and sent everything inside of me swirling around, and now, here in my dads arms, was the stillness.”

Rewardingly, Dad has grown through the course of the novel, too – eventually he, too, is able to help Talia adapt to the futility of her mom’s death. “Wishing can be very good. But I think we both know, unicorn whale or not, all the wishes in the world won’t bring her back.’”

Throughout the novel, Talia shares her beautifully vulnerable approach and insight. Some of my favorite examples of Talia’s soft heart include:

“Sometimes I forget that almost everything takes practice. That I wasn’t just born knowing how to do stuff, like read, or play the recorder, or go on living. And breathing, and loving stuff without my mom around. Sometimes you have to do things over and over again before you can do them well.”

And:

“I couldn’t help but wonder: You can chart distance across a map in minutes and seconds. This I knew. But could you chart the growth of your heart by the things you do and say, by what you think and how you feel?”

As I read this novel, I did feel that I was reading the chart of Talia’s heart’s growth — a very satisfying journey to embark on with Talia.

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Insight Out: A Film Review

Reading up on the latest Pixar movie Inside Out before taking my daughters to see it would have saved me many anxious moments throughout the first act of the film, when the screenwriters seemed driven by the “Happy” agenda that so often permeates our culture, as evidenced in cutesy greeting cards adorned with “bee happy” bumblebee clipart… pillows silkscreened in giant stylized typeface with “Think happy, be happy”… and Etsy artists schlepping wall decals that preach Audrey Hepburn’s “Happy girls are the prettiest.” (Ick!)

In hopes of saving you unnecessary alarm, scanning for the exit doors in a dark, crowded theater while fretting that Inside Out’s message is just more of the same… I’ll share some of my insights—and delights. (And a warning that this review contains spoilers.)

Inside Out is set in the colorful and creative control room of a child’s brain. Right away the main character and leading emotion, Joy, orients the viewer to the child hero, Riley, a gurgling, cooing, adored newborn.

Joy is joyfully running Riley’s emotional show, storing all of Riley’s marble-like memories along “Headquarters” walls and happily sending the significant ones up the chute and into long-term storage. But the control room soon gets crowded, according to Joy.

In a fabulous scene where Riley’s parents introduce their toddler to broccoli, Joy simultaneously introduces her “colleagues” (other emotions) in action—at the same time demonstrating what Dr. Gordon Neufeld refers to in his latest course, Heart Matters: The Science of Emotion, as the first law of emotion: Emotion seeks expression.

There’s Fear, who stares in wonder at the incoming broccoli on a screen that shows Riley’s perplexed perspective and asks, “Do you think it’s safe?” Next comes Disgust, who hovers over the levers with her upper lip curled, since it’s her job to keep “Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.” Disgust makes her assessment and then her dashboard move… as Riley’s emotion is expressed in the launching of her broccoli bowl at Dad. At the threat of a no-dessert consequence, Anger moves toward expression, pounding on the dashboard with hair aflame, sparking Riley’s tantrum.

Dad responds with the airplane fork game, instantly entrancing all the emotions, and Riley. This one-minute scene succeeds in painting a hilarious portrait of the preschooler personality. True to development’s agenda, Riley can only register one emotion at a time. Her emotions have a certainty in their thinking. They’re short-sighted. They’re given to pendulum swings. And, best of all, they have an innocent belief in magic.

Saving her least-favourite emotion until last, Joy introduces us to Sadness. Throughout the bulk of the film, Joy works hard to keep Sadness out of the dashboard driver’s seat and far away from Riley’s memories—lest she taint them with her sad, blue touch.

Pixar opted to draw on Jaak Panskepp’s basic emotions—which simplifies the storytelling, of course, for young viewers. But it left me yearning for a broader, more accurate picture of emotions. Joy’s inherent promise to the viewer, by way of her description of a “crowded” control room, left me unsatisfied when only four more emotions came on scene. I would have loved to see the control room jammed with a wide spectrum of other emotions—dozens of them, even if only briefly—such as hunger, insecurity, resistance, to name a few. Additionally, “Frustration” would have been a more accurate name for what Pixar coined “Anger,”—and would have served as a blame-free word choice, to boot. Likewise, “Alarm” would have been a more descriptive name for “Fear.”

Nevertheless, even sticking with five emotions, Pixar gets high marks for showing the emotions’ work. As Dr. Neufeld says, “Emotion has work to do. It is meant to move us in ways that serve us. This is the way Nature cares for the child.” There is no doubt in the film that each of the five emotions care deeply for Riley and that despite their limitations, they are moving in her brain out of a shared motivation to serve her.

Things get interesting when Riley is 11 and her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. There, Riley is faced with all kinds of obstacles: broccoli “ruined!” pizza, whispering classmates, and distracted, busy parents. What’s more, Riley’s a new adolescent, and so is experiencing high levels of alarm—related to the move, and also from the loss of proximity to her parents (and imaginary friend Bing Bong) that comes with the territory of growing up.

Sadness doesn’t mean to interfere, but she can’t stop herself from approaching Riley’s memories, coloring them sad. Joy makes no room for Sadness. She tries to reason with Sadness. She focuses on Sadness’s behavior. She judges the feelings. As developmentalists would only predict, a messy situation gets messier when Joy tries to rescue Riley’s emotions from further “damage.” During an altercation, Joy and Sadness get sucked into the memory chute, forced to find their way back to Headquarters. Then the real quest begins.

“Emotion is spontaneous, but is not inevitable,” says Dr. Neufeld. “It can be dammed up. Impediments can get in the way.” Pixar throws many impediments in Joy’s way to illustrate this.

In Long-Term Memory, Joy is dismayed to see workers tossing out Riley’s memories, seemingly on a whim. But as classical psychologist Jean Piaget described, “The first futility children experience in their life is holding onto good experiences.” Joy gets this same first taste of futility, and adults get a good laugh, as phone numbers are tossed from long-term because, of course, Riley’s “got her cell phone for that.” And yet the annoying jingle from the gum commercial stays, just because the workers get a thrill in tossing that one up to Headquarters (Riley’s brain) at random moments.

Meanwhile, Fear, Disgust, and Anger struggle alone at Headquarters. They’re desperate for Joy to return to the controls and run the show, as usual. They do their best to express themselves as Joy would, all emotions believing Joy is the answer. But they’re failing. The emotions clam up—what neuroscientists would describe as a pressing down on all of the emotions—resulting in a depressed Riley. Without the intended movement of emotion, Riley is no longer moved to care. She stops caring about her attachments. Her five “personality islands” that represent the things she cares about most—Goofball Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island, Honest Island, and Family Island—begin to crumble.

Joy’s and Sadness’s journey physically takes them through Long-Term Memory Storage, Abstract Thought, and to Nature’s answer in play: Imagination Land, where Bing Bong is always ready for fun… and Riley’s imaginary boyfriend waits for his shining moment to gallantly step in. Joy and Sadness traverse through a Hollywood-like studio called Dream Productions, the Subconscious, and a wasteland of discarded memories.

But ultimately emotions Joy and Sadness must complete their own emotional journeys. Through her play and through her unstuck tears, Joy comes to the realization that she can’t censor Sadness’s influence. In fact, she needs Sadness. Sadness blooms in the newfound confidence that grows after she realizes how much she matters, too.

Once Joy and Sadness fulfill their heroes’ journeys, it’s all the more satisfying an ending when the rest of the emotions must mix together with Joy and Sadness in order to complete their shared mission for Riley: to save her from the adolescent temptation to flee from her alarm in this very significant rite of passage into maturity.

Just as William Blake penned, “Joy and woe are woven fine,” Joy and Sadness prove out what Dr. Neufeld says: “happiness lies on the other side of sadness that has been embraced.” When Joy and Sadness mix, sharing the control panel, Riley adapts through her tears, finding comfort in the arms of her loving, caring parents. And as she adapts to this huge change in her world and first passage into adolescence, Riley emerges as a separate person, her crumbled personality islands re-built as dozens of new islands form.

My children enjoyed the film, even though at five and six they were too young to fully grasp the film’s intricacies, meanings, and much of the humor. After we left the theater, I asked my daughters what the movie was about. They shook their heads, confused, and shrugged. “I don’t know.”

After a pause to consider it, though, my eldest said, “Everything was all mixed up.”

She didn’t realize what she was saying. But she was right. Even for children too young to grasp most of the film, Inside Out’s message will resonate in some way: happiness can’t own a person—or constantly drive the controls. What better message of a full picture of emotional health than that?

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I See the Moon

I See the MoonI recently reacquainted with a beautiful middle-grade novel about adoption that I’d sadly forgotten about until I discovered it on my bookshelf a few weeks ago: I See the Moon by C.B. Christiansen (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1996).

It’s the coming-of-age story of a twelve-year-old girl named Bitte, who is writing the book to the unborn baby that her older, teen sister Kari is expecting. This tender story of significance for the adopted child is Bitte’s gift to her niece — to share her birth story, show her how deeply they are connected, and talk about the meaning of love.

Thanks to the narration framework, we get the story of the loving and wise teen birth mom committed to finding just the right couple for her baby, as seen through her little sister’s eyes. And we also get the narrator’s story as she struggles to adapt to her sister’s huge decision, accept the adoptive parents, and ultimately say goodbye to her niece.

Bitte yearns to be an aunt to this child she has named Isabella. She has great plans for her niece, and can’t wait to be just like her own Aunt Minna, Bitte’s favorite, adored aunt whom she’d been very close with in her tightly knit Norwegian-American family. But Aunt Minna has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and while Bitte is dreaming about becoming a model aunt to her niece, she is also coming to terms with the devastating loss of her own aunt — all while in the midst of the onset of puberty and the many mixed feelings associated with the loss of her childhood. There’s a lot of heavy content in this novel, but it never feels over-the-top because it’s written so poignantly and with so much heart, Bitte’s voice so full of tender honesty and vulnerability.

Another reason the heavy content doesn’t overwhelm is because it’s such a heart-warming portrait of a wide and supportive village of attachment, both for Bitte and for the adopted baby.

Bitte gets sent to stay with her Uncle Axel for a while, as her lack of adaptation to the pending birth and adoption begins to get in the way for her big sister — Bitte just won’t stop trying to influence the outcome and change her scared sister’s mind.

Of course, it’s incredibly hard for Bitte to stay with her uncle. She feels cut off from all of the muffled family conversations and helpless in the face of Kari’s decision. And she’s reluctant to spend time with her uncle she hardly knows. Bitte was so close to her aunt, and their closeness seemed to have polarized Bitte’s relationship away from her uncle. Aunt Minna has been moved to a care facility, and without her aunt in the home, Bitte really feels the void.

There is a substantial amount of bridging and care taken, though, to help Bitte through. After a sad visit to Aunt Minna, who no longer recognizes Bitte, Uncle Axel sweetly whispers to Bitte, “She carries you in her heart.” And there is a lovely scene between Bitte and Uncle Axel, after Bitte’s mom helps guide Uncle Axel in celebrating a rite of passage for Bitte.

Once Bitte is able to accept her sister’s decision, she is invited to the hospital to be there for the baby’s birth. There, she meets adoptive parents Jacob and Hope, eagerly anticipating the baby’s arrival and taking extreme care with the hearts of both Kari and Bitte. As she watches her big sister wrap the baby up in a quilt she had made for her, preparing to say goodbye to the child, Bitte grasps the power of the baby’s attachment village and understands love:

“Hope bent down and put her arm around my sister. Mamma bent down and put her arm around my sister. Suddenly we were all leaning toward you, our arms reaching out and holding each other: Kari holding Mamma holding Pappa holding me holding Jorgen holding Axel holding Jacob holding Hope holding Kari holding you, Isabella, our baby.

“It was then I saw it: Love. I’ll never forget it. Love. We were all filled to bursting with it because of you, Isabella. Love. It passed between us, back and forth, and around and around and around.”

Even if the facts of each situation vary, this book has much to offer to young adolescents, as well as to transplanted children, providing much-needed match-making between the birth and adoptive families, so as not to polarize either of these two strong attachments. I read this book many, many years before finding my birth mother, and the story provided comfort and helped spark meaningful conversation between my adoptive mom and me.

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Adolescent Sweetness in Eleanor & Park

Eleanor&ParkAuthor Rainbow Rowell has just taken me over the rainbow… for a sentimental journey through adolescence in her outstanding young-adult novel Eleanor and Park (St. Martin’s, 2013), which recently garnered a Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature.

It’s a tender story, portraying the sweetness and awkwardness of first love, the almost guttural pain of feeling like an outsider in the wounding world of high school, and the sadness surrounding the life of a teen in an abusive family environment. The characters are deep, funny, and endearing – most strikingly Eleanor, one of the heroes of the novel.

Eleanor is the portrait of a highly sensitive teen, a completely lovable character crossing the bridge from childhood into adulthood. Through Park’s eyes we get a physical description of Eleanor when he sees her for the first time on the bus: “Not just new—but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly.”

Redheaded people tend to be prone toward sensitivity, often feeling the world very deeply. Rowell has done a superb job creating a believable, three-dimensional character in this regard, accurately portraying the tendency to emotionally pull away in defensive detachment that often goes hand-in-hand with sensitivity. Early on, Park has trouble figuring out Eleanor’s moods, thinking she’s always mad at him, when in fact she’s simply protecting her tender heart the best way she knows how – often coming across much tougher than she really is on the inside.

The adults in the novel aren’t exactly models of perfection. In fact, Eleanor’s parents are atrocious – a self-absorbed and distant father who’s essentially nonexistent in Eleanor’s life unless he needs something; Richie, an abusive and alcoholic stepfather; and a mother who is too caught up in her own abusive situation to see what’s needed for Eleanor and her siblings and get them out of danger. Eleanor’s story is heart-wrenching. And yet, it is also one of hope.

Eleanor is strong. She’s got a soft heart, and she’s capable of love – for Park, as well as her siblings. Eleanor’s sister Maisie puts on a tough face by day, but by night when Richie yells, finds comfort sleeping with Eleanor in the top bunk of the room shared by the five children. Maisie shakes and sucks her thumb, while Eleanor hugs the eight-year old and assures her everything will be okay.

It’s magical watching Eleanor tentatively give her heart to Park, see their relationship bloom, and watch as she learns to trust. And while Park is careful with Eleanor’s heart, it’s also inspiring to see an array of caring adults who are involved in Eleanor’s life, including Mr. Stessman, the honors English teacher; the high school counselor; and Eleanor’s uncle and aunt. She also finds a lot of support from Park’s mom and dad.

While they provide a safe haven for Eleanor, Park’s parents are not the idealized contrasts to Eleanor’s parents. At first, Park’s mom judges Eleanor by her looks, and Park’s dad is hard on his son for not getting the hang of driving a stick shift. He’s also not always accepting of his son’s style.

But Park’s parents have a nice developmental arc themselves and really come around over the course of the novel, growing in their acceptance of Park and making a lot of room for his adolescent journey – including supporting his relationship with Eleanor, and ultimately assisting Park in helping Eleanor escape her home life to be cared for by her more stable uncle and aunt, instead.

It’s a moving and meaningful book for young adults, who’ll be hard-pressed to hold back the tears at the bittersweet ending. Adults will enjoy it, too – guaranteed to bring back sweet memories to those of us who spent our adolescent years in the 80s and sentimentally recall the weighty importance of New Order, The Smiths, The Cure… and first love during that intense, melancholy, and reflective time.

This review has also been posted on the Seattle Neufeld Community blog, where I contribute parenting essays and book reviews.

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Review of Newbery-Winning Novel Flora and Ulysses

Flora&UlyssesLast Monday the American Library Association announced the 2014 winners of the Newbery awards – as prestigious as the Oscars are for movies, only this award recognizes distinguished contributions to children’s literature. It was a thrill to see Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses (Candlewick Press, 2013, illustrated by K.G. Campbell) garner the Newbery Medal, a hugely deserved tribute to a truly outstanding book.

This middle-grade novel, heavily illustrated with a graphic novel component, is about a gifted and eccentric child named Flora Belle Buckman, who has an obsession for comics and a mother who calls her daughter a “natural-born cynic.”

The story unfolds when 10-year-old Flora witnesses her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Tootie Tickham, getting dragged around the backyard by her spanking-new Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner, an unfortunate squirrel directly in the vacuum cleaner’s path.

Just as her comic-book hero Alfred T. Slipper (a.k.a. “Incandesto”) would say, Flora declares, “‘This malfeasance must be stopped.’” Flora revives the squirrel in the same way she continues to take action throughout the novel – by overcoming her fears, drumming up her courage, and listening to her soft heart. She’d read about CPR in her comics, after all, so in the heat of her own superhero moment, improvises mouth-to-squirrel resuscitation. The squirrel – Ulysses, as Flora aptly names him – is ‘re-born’ with obvious superhero traits. He can now lift vacuum cleaners high above his head, understand humans… and, of course, write philosophical poetry.

This laugh-out-loud novel can be enjoyed purely for its witty humor, stunning pencil illustrations, and delightful plot-twists – which include a viciously crazed cat named Mr. Klaus attacking Flora’s father’s bald head; an uncertain-yet-blooming friendship between Flora and Tootie Tickham’s nephew, William Spiver, who’s sure he’s blind; complete chaos in the Giant Do-Nut and a narrow escape from the cook wielding a knife; and a squirrel kidnapping/murder plot that leads Ulysses to conquer his ultimate superhero skill of flying; to name a few.

But underneath the novel’s hilarity, DiCamillo tackles mighty subject matter – a sensitive, eccentric, and gifted young pre-adolescent struggling with parental divorce… a mother who doesn’t invite all of her child, so attached to her lamp (Mary Ann) and other depersonalized endeavors that she can’t see or fully invite her daughter… other safe adult attachments and their power to shield a child… as well as obsessions, defendedness, the counterwill dynamic, and more.

There’s also a lot of language of the heart presented in this book, handled with impeccable, non-saccharine style. Case in point: “‘What are you doing?’ said William Spiver. He stopped, too, because she was attached to him and he was attached to her. Which is to say that William Spiver and Flora Belle Buckman were, unbelievably, still holding hands.”

And oh, the characters! As is true across all of DiCamillo’s novels, the characters in Flora and Ulysses are unique and lovable, their quirks and strengths equally and authentically alive.

Dr. Meescham, Flora’s father’s unconventional neighbor, is full of wise lines and insightful stories. When Dr. Meescham describes her childhood in Blundermeecen, she beautifully describes the importance of bridging separation. Dr. Meescham says: “‘Blundermeecen was a place of dark secrets, unmarked graves, terrible curses. Trolls were everywhere! So we said good-bye to each other the best way we could. We said: I promise to always turn back to you. I say those words to you now, Flora Belle. I promise to always turn back toward you. And now you must say them to me.’”

Through the perceptive eyes and open heart of Dr. Meescham, Flora learns of her father’s soft heart and mixed feelings. “’It means the heart of George Buckman is large. It is capable of containing much joy and much sorrow.’”

Dr. Meescham is exactly the kind of alpha-caring adult attachment Flora needs in her world, match-making Flora back to her primary attachments; generously taking care of Flora’s food needs and later, providing nourishment to Ulysses; and gently welcoming Flora’s tears in the horsehair sofa. “‘You see?’ said Dr. Meescham. She smiled at Flora. ‘I told you. This is how it is with this sofa.’”

Each character matures in big ways as the story progresses. Flora is able to believe in her mother’s love; William Spiver loses his glasses – and his defenses – and is able to see again; even Ulysses the superhero squirrel comes to his mixed feelings. You can’t read this novel without feeling endeared to each character – with one exception: Flora’s mother, who ultimately makes a turn in the right direction but her heart doesn’t soften quite enough to fully win back the reader.

Big accolades and applause for Flora and Ulysses – a superb book to read with your middle-grade reader (usually 8-12 years of age).

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Penguin and Pinecone

Penguin and PineconeI’ve recently returned from a ski trip and fluffy white snowflakes are still on my mind… inspiring a review of a heartwarming winter-themed book called Penguin and Pinecone, written and illustrated by Salina Yoon (Walker & Company, 2012).

In less than 200 words complemented by stunning illustration, it’s a story filled with so many gems – gently touching on emergence, attaching through sameness, falling in love, play, alpha caring, the hierarchical wisdom of grandfathers, the hero’s journey, bridging separation, missing, holding loved ones close, transplanting children, an attachment village, a sense of home, togetherness without a loss of separateness, mixed feelings, and reaching maturity.

Ironically, it would take me well over 200 words to describe all of these concepts applied to the story, and analysis at that level of detail could only detract from the simple beauty of this book.

At a high level, though, it’s the story of an inquisitive penguin who discovers a “curious object.” Enter Pinecone, with a surprisingly big personality for a… well, pinecone – who  doesn’t even talk! Penguin isn’t sure what his new friend is (and has all kinds of emergent fun imagining the possibilities!), but it isn’t long before he sees his friend is cold and begins knitting Pinecone an orange scarf to match Penguin’s own – attaching via sameness, one of the first ways people (and anthropomorphized Penguins) attach.

Penguin seeks the wisdom of his grandfather, who counsels that Pinecone belongs in the forest. And so Penguin embarks on his hero’s journey to bring Pinecone home, where he makes Pinecone a “cozy nest out of the softest pine needles he could find.”

One of the book’s main themes is of the permanence of love. “Good-bye, Pinecone. You will always be in my heart,” says Penguin as he says farewell to his beloved Pinecone. Illustrations and thought bubbles then show Penguin knitting and thinking about Pinecone as time passes.

All children know the pain of inevitable separation, and need to know their loved ones hold on to them when apart. But separation and loss are not just children’s experiences. Scour the bookseller and librarian reviews, and discover all kinds of adults, too, who cherish this book and find their own tears through its touching pages. It’s a book that resonates universally.

It’s also a book that would work well in the specific context of helping transplanted children – a way to ‘touch the bruises’ through the subtle themes that can be inferred and applied (without being directly spoken by either the adult or the author, which would be too much). First, that adopted or otherwise transplanted children are thought of and loved every day by their birth parents, regardless of their separation. “Penguin and Pinecone may have been far apart, but they always stayed in each other’s hearts.” And as the deeper levels of attaching develop, sameness holds steadfast. Even after maturing into a tree, Pinecone’s needled branches are still adorned with the lovely orange scarf Penguin had knitted for Pinecone when a babe. It also speaks to the practicality – and the mixed feelings – of many transplanted situations. “Pinecone was sad to see Penguin go, but the forest is no place for a penguin.”

As with all great picture books, the illustrations in Penguin and Pinecone add so many rich layers to this story. It’s sheer adoration and total mutual love portrayed through the images of Penguin and Pinecone playing together. Four separate illustrations show Pinecone growing in the center of a rock arrangement Penguin carefully made into the shape of a heart – revealing the tender care Penguin gives to Pinecone. One of my favorite images is of Penguin lying on a bed of Pinecone’s needles, gingerly shaped into a heart. Hearts are a symbol children so often draw or employ when giving their hearts to a parent or loved one. It’s implied, through the illustrations, that Penguin has Pinecone’s heart, just as Pinecone has Penguin’s. Another favorite is the poignant way Yoon shows grown Pinecone tipping slightly toward Penguin as he sadly heads back to the ice, each of them grieving the separation.

I’ve already used three-and-a-half times the number of words of this book to describe Penguin and Pinecone – and yet I still don’t feel I’ve done it justice. It’s touching but not overly sweet. It’s emotionally rich and not the least bit preachy. It’s deeply serious and also presented with a lot of humor. (The last spread of the book ends with a wide-view of the forest, more than half a dozen other matured trees marked by winter attire that matches their penguin loved ones.)

Suffice it to say, it’s one of those rare, absolutely perfect books – and a must-have for your library and to read to your child!

This review has also been posted on the Seattle Neufeld Community blog, where I am a regular contributor of parenting articles and book reviews.

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