Aunt Fanny’s Star

AuntFannysStarIn the midst of grieving a death in our family, I was touched to have discovered the picture book Aunt Fanny’s Star (Minedition, 2017), written by Austrian writer Brigitte Weninger and illustrated by Turkey’s prominent Feridun Oral.

In the story, playful Aunt Fanny moves in with her bunny family, courageously preparing to die while being looked after by Mama Bunny. Death, and caring for aging family members, are topics that are normalized — something our culture often struggles with. The children understand from the start that Aunt Fanny is aging and that her stay isn’t indefinite. At one point young Tony asks, “Do you want to leave? Don’t you like us anymore?” To which Aunt Fanny replies, “Of course I do, but at some point, each of us must go elsewhere—to that place where we were before we were born. It is where we return when we die.”

While there is no hiding the ultimate futility of death from the children, play still abounds. “Aunt Fanny always had time to play, and she had more silliness in her head than the three little bunnies put together.” She braids daisy crowns for the young bunnies, sculpts their carrots into crocodiles and radishes into pigs, passes along cherished family recipes, and sleds down the snow-capped hillsides with the children. It’s a beautiful portrait of the power of play in the face of separation and alarm.

Aunt Fanny also lovingly helps find ways for the children to hold on to her once she dies. A star-gazer, Aunt Fanny shows the kids how one day she’ll fly away to twinkle in the sky with the other stars. And she introduces the young bunnies to her treasure box, sharing stories from her childhood and trinkets for them to remember her by.

After Aunt Fanny dies, family and friends sing and weep together at her funeral. Because of the opportunity to “kiss the corpse,” so to speak, and to find their tears, the children adapt and ultimately find rest in knowing they can see Aunt Fanny in the stars twinkling back at them.

Posted in Picture Books | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Roundup: Fabulous Books About Immigrants and Refugees – Picture Books

Yesterday I shared some wonderful middle-grade books about refugees and immigrants. Today, I continue the theme by posting some of my favorite picture books that offer children and their adult caregivers insight into the immigrant’s experience:

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock (Scholastic, 2014)
A Jewish folktale about love and adaptation, lovingly telling various family portraits through an immigrant’s coat that is passed down, and transformed, through the generations.

Carmen Learns English by Judy Cox, illustrated by Angela N. Dominguez (Holiday House, 2010)
The story of young Carmen, who’s just moved to America from Mexico and starts a brand-new school with “So many kids! And no one spoke Spanish.” Carmen says, “They talked muy fast and I did not understand.” This lesser-known book is full of all kinds of gems — modeling sibling hierarchy, soft hearts, and strong adult attachments. Link to my full review here.

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick, 2013)
A grandpa recounts to his grandchild his life stories as an Italian-American immigrant, through the sharing of various sentimental items he has stored in matchboxes. Touches on themes of grandparent-child relationships, hierarchy, caring adults, and resiliency.

Fiona’s Lace by Patricia Polacco (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
A strong attachment village is portrayed in this story that uses the metaphor of lace to portray generations connected together, as well as the Irish immigrant experience.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (Aladdin Books, 2001)
Family heirlooms and traditions – inter-generational attachments and belonging in the story of a Russian family moving to New York.

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits (Candlewick, 2012)
A young Korean girl adapts to her move to another country, and in the process finds herself.

Posted in Picture Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Roundup: Fabulous Books About Immigrants and Refugees – MG Novels

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of America’s first Refugee Travel Ban. According to World Relief Seattle:

“Over the course of the first year of the Trump Administration, just 29,725 refugees have been admitted to the U.S., compared to 99,183 the previous year. Even as President Trump set the refugee arrivals ceiling for this fiscal year at a historically low 45,000, we are only on track to resettle half that number.”

Misconceptions about refugees – combined with a lack of understanding of the United States’ extreme vetting process, actual statistics on terrorism-related crimes, as well as the economic impact of refugees – have driven the fear-based ban … overshadowing the human perspective in what is the worst displacement crisis since World War II.

Time to glean some insight and caring! What better way to offer kids (and adults!) knowledge and empathy of refugees and immigrants than to read stories told from their perspective?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite middle-grade novels about refugee and immigrant experiences:

Refugeee Books-Novels-lowres

Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009)
Told through alternating viewpoints, this novel for ages 10+ about undocumented immigrants living on Tyler’s family farm is timely and at times heart-wrenching. Featuring hierarchical relationships, holding on to attachments, tender relationships with grandparents.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2011)
A strong alpha mother leads her gifted ten-year-old daughter through big struggles: understanding war, coming to terms with the death of her father, moving to a new country, and adjusting to a new culture while experiencing religious pressures, racism, and bullying. Link to my full review here.

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic Press, 2015)
Attachment village, ancestral connections, grief, futility, and adaptation dynamics are at play in this poignant story about 12-year-old Lily and her friendship with a migrant worker’s daughter, who are brought together for the blueberry picking season, thanks to a shared love of Lily’s blind dog Lucky. As the book begins: “The only reason I ever spoke to Salma Santiago was because my dog ate her lunch.”

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2010)
This eloquent novel is based on the true story of 11-year-old Salva, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who fled to Ethiopia and then Kenya, and ultimately, many years and sorrows later, to the United States because of Sudan’s violent civil war that ripped him apart from his family and home. It’s a page-turning book about adaptation, grief, emotion, family … and ultimately resiliency.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Little, Brown, 2014)
A heartfelt story of 12-year-old Sudanese refugee named Amira, who, despite incredibly difficult life circumstances, is surrounded by a loving family in a traditional attachment village. Caring adults, tears, and true play help the main character adapt and grow.

The Bone Collector’s Son by Paul Yee (Marshall Cavendish, 2004)
An historical novel set in Vancouver’s 1907 Chinatown, this is the story of 14-year-old Bing. His life helping his father collect bones from graves is hard, often alarming. His father is a compulsive gambler and at times downright mean. Between that, and the racism and physical violence young Bing endures, at times the book can be hard to read. But it’s an important depiction of futility and adaptation in the face of brutal racism, and ultimately shows how even one caring adult, even briefly in a child’s life, can make a difference for a struggling child.

Tomorrow, I’ll share a few of my favorite refugee and immigrant-focused picture books.

Posted in Middle-Grade Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Hate U Give

the-hate-u-give-angie-thomasAngie Thomas’s young-adult novel, The Hate U Give, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I truly could not put it down, and the only hate I have to give this book is the fact that it ended! I wasn’t ready to close the cover on Starr and her family and friends, who felt like they’d pulled me into their inner circle, letting me be a part of their lives through this compelling, intense, authentic, sad, and also heart-warming story.

There is much to say about this book that features 16-year old Starr Carter, who is the sole witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil. Since the novel’s release in 2017 much has already been said. It’s been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for 40-some weeks now. The film is forthcoming, complete with a stand-out cast. The Hate U Give was a finalist for both the 2017 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and the Kirkus Prize, as well as listed on TIME’s Top 10 Young Adult & Children’s Books of 2017. Early reviews, a large number of which were starred, called it a classic and a book everyone should read.

The Hate U Give (Balzer & Bray, 2017) is a powerful coming-of-age story that honestly, powerfully, and fairly speaks to police brutality, the modern-day civil rights movement, racial stereotypes, finding one’s voice, interracial relationships, living authentically, and systemic racism.

Since the focus of reviews on this blog is to discuss how books pertain to the Neufeld paradigm, I will touch on one aspect of The Hate U Give that I haven’t seen mentioned in many of the reviews, and that is the portrayal of Starr’s village of attachment. It’s largely Starr’s wide circle of caring adults in her family and community, I believe, that create in the story such a beautiful tone of hope and love, even in the midst of some very dire situations. While Starr’s mostly black urban neighborhood of Garden Heights is painted as poor and gang-ridden, Thomas portrays Starr’s community as rich in heart, abundant with people who care, nurture, and unconditionally love their young.

Child developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld regularly speaks of the importance of caring adults in a child’s life – people to treat our children’s hearts tenderly when peers, and the world in general, can be so wounding. “In today’s society, attachment voids abound,” Dr. Neufeld writes in his best-selling book Hold On to Your Kids. “Children often lack close relationships with older generations – the people who, for much of human history, were often better able than parents themselves to offer the unconditional loving acceptance that is the bedrock of emotional security.”

Not so in Starr’s world, in that regard. No matter the hard circumstances and alarm she’s faced with – even when she is physically in danger because of the color of her skin – it’s as if her soft heart is bubble-wrapped in protection because of the support she receives from so many caring adults in her attachment village.

First, there’s Mr. Reuben, owner of the BBQ shop who “remembers everybody’s names, somehow,” and genuinely connects with, and cares about, the youth in his community who frequent his restaurant. Here’s a lovely snippet from a scene after Mr. Reuben asks Starr and her friend Kenya how school’s going and whether they’re staying out of trouble:

“’How ‘bout some pound cake on the house then? Reward for good behavior.’

We say yeah and thank him. But see, Mr. Reuben could know about Kenya’s fight and would offer her pound cake regardless. He’s nice like that.”

Mr. Reuben intuitively seems to know that “the way to the heart is through one’s stomach,” isn’t just an old adage. The provision of food to help foster attachment has been proven both culturally and scientifically. (He’s not the only one in the community who knows this, either. In response to Khalil’s death, the whole neighborhood turned up with food. “‘That’s the Garden for you,’ Momma says. ‘If folks can’t do anything else, they’ll cook.’”)

There’s also Ms. Rosalie, Khalil’s grandmother, who Starr describes as “an African queen.” She gives what Starr describes as “the most heartfelt hug I’ve ever gotten from somebody who isn’t related to me,” and listens to Starr’s hand while holding it. “It’s like my hand is telling her a story, and she’s responding.” What a gift for Starr to feel significant and to matter, and to feel this kind of emotional intimacy and invitation to be known – all deeper levels of attaching – from someone who clearly treats Starr’s heart with care.

When there’s rioting in the neighborhood, Ms. Jones from down the street calls Starr’s mother to check in. Mr. Charles next door offers his generator if needed. Mr. Lewis, the barber whose shop is beside Starr’s family’s grocery store, may be cranky but underneath his crusty façade he’s supportive and turns out to be a strong hero in a time of crisis. Other secondary characters who wrap Starr up in a blanket of cross-generational love and support include her attorney, Ms. Ofrah, and Mr. Reuben’s son, Tim.

Dr. Neufeld often assures parents, educators, and helping professionals that children really only need one caring adult in their lives to make a difference. Sometimes the child might not have a caring parent at home (this is seen, sadly, in the lives of some of the other characters in The Hate U Give). But even one teacher, neighbor, grandparent, or other adult can be the person for the child to attach deeply to. In her community, Starr has several such adults she’s given her heart to … and I haven’t even gotten to the integral adults from her family yet.

Uncle Carlos is one such familial light to Starr. While Starr’s father was in prison for three years, Uncle Carlos became a surrogate father to Starr. To Starr’s delight and comfort, Uncle Carlos has a routine of two kisses on the top of his niece’s head. “I snuggle closer to Uncle Carlos and hope it says everything I can’t,” she describes. He’s the adult Starr calls when in distress at school, well aware she’s faking “feminine problems,” but there for her all the same – and while supporting her, pointing her back to her mother or father – as all good members of the attachment village do.

It’s also Uncle Carlos, a police officer, who helps keep the perspective that not all cops are bad. When he’s put on leave due to an incident where he physically stands up for his niece and Starr worries about his job, he says, “‘But I love you more. You’re the one reason I even became a cop, baby girl. Because I love you and all those folks in the neighborhood.’”

Uncle Carlos’s actions speak as loud as his words – not only in the shared care of Starr, but in his willingness to shelter a young man, DeVante, from Garden Heights as he tries to flee the King Lords gang. By the end, Uncle Carlos treats DeVante like a son, which is evident in his reprimand: “Of course I’m mad. I’m actually pissed. But I’m happier that you’re safe.”

For DeVante, Uncle Carlos may well be the one and only adult who makes a difference in his life (and that difference is visible and remarkable later in the story, too). Starr, though, is further blessed with two amazing parents, who tell her repeatedly how they’ve “got your back.”

Starr’s dad, Big Mav, may be an ex-gangster who’s done time, but he’s a stand-up father – loving, devoted, protective. That’s one of the themes that I especially relish throughout this novel: behaviors don’t make the person – whether it’s Starr’s dad, Khalil, DeVante, or any of the other characters. Just as in life, people aren’t pigeonholed as either good or bad, black or white – they’re complex, multi-faceted people, and when you look underneath their behavior, or their skin color, all you can see are their beautiful hearts. Big Mav has a big one, and it has certainly won over Starr’s heart, as a result.

Throughout, Big Mav is shown as strong, caring, and in-the-lead. His upper arm is tattooed with Starr’s baby picture and these words underneath: “Something to live for, something to die for.” Mav reminds Starr, “I’ll do whatever I gotta do to protect you.”

He echoes this message to his son, Seven. When Seven considers passing an opportunity at college to stay in Garden Heights and look after his sisters (whose abusive step-father heads the King Lords gang), Mav tells him: “Look, you not responsible for your sisters … but I’m responsible for you. And I ain’t letting you pass up opportunities so you can do what two grown-ass people supposed to do.”

It’s because of her dad’s alpha-caring that Starr (and Seven, too) finds rest, which you can feel in her descriptions:

  • “I can tell it’s Daddy who’s rubbing my back without him even saying anything.”
  • “Daddy pulls me into a hug … I could stay like this all day – it’s one of the few places where [Officer] One-Fifteen doesn’t exist and where I can forget about talking to detectives.”
  • “Daddy being home means Momma won’t sit up all night, Sekani won’t flinch all the time, and Seven won’t have to be the man of the house. I’ll sleep better too.”
  • “The crying, the puking don’t mean anything anymore. My daddy’s got me.”

Similarly, Starr’s mom gives her daughter the same kind of unconditional, I’ve-got-your-back-support that feels to Starr “as good as any hug I’ve ever gotten.”

Her mom is also particularly savvy at honoring Starr’s emotions and making room for them:

“You’re grieving, okay? … Grieve Khalil all you want. Miss him, allow yourself to miss what could’ve been, let your feelings get out of whack. But like I told you, don’t stop living. All right?”

In another scene, when Starr’s frustration is ready to come pouring out, her mom coaxes her while rubbing Starr’s back: “Let it out, Munch … Let it out.” And in so doing, she helps her daughter shed some hefty emotion. Starr says, “I pull my polo over my mouth and scream until there aren’t any screams left in me.” After the emotion has been released, Starr’s mom says, “You feel better?” and then, “We’ll get through this. I promise,” ultimately helping pave the way for Starr’s tears to flow and adaptation to take place.

Starr’s mom also offers smart counsel on friendships – seasoned with practical, simple advice to write down a list of the good stuff and bad stuff. She also has nothing but wisdom to impart to Starr when it comes to bravery, while also revealing to Starr how well she knows her daughter:

“I’m proud of you, baby. You are so brave.”

That word. I hate it. “No, I’m not.” 

“Yeah, you are.” She pulls back and pushes a strand of hair from my face. I can’t explain the look in her eyes, but it knows me better than I know myself. It wraps me up and warms me from the inside out.

“Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,” she says. “It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.”

I am so thankful that The Hate U Give steps away from the unspoken rule to “get the parents out of the way to tell the story” that so many children’s authors – especially authors of young-adult literature – adhere to. That’s just not always realistic, nor is a peer-to-peer culture what’s needed for young adults to successfully launch and flourish. That doesn’t mean it’s not Starr’s story, or that she doesn’t have friends – but that family, and the hierarchy found within the full attachment village – is integral to her life and thus to her coming-of-age story.

“It’s strange, dysfunctional-as-hell family,” says Starr as she describes her community in Garden Heights, “but it’s still a family. More than I realized until recently.”

That “dysfunctional” family keeps Starr’s heart from hardening up in spite of systemic racism, profound grief, and unjust circumstances … and keeps the reader’s heart open to hope, too – for a better, hate-free future for us all.

Posted in Young-Adult Books | Tagged , , , , , ,

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!

Posted in Chapter Books | Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.”


“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.

Posted in Middle-Grade Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Inside 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?

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , ,