Julián is a Mermaid

Oh, this book. I have hesitated to write about it, because it is one that I feel is best simply read and adored unto itself. Any review or re-cap just can’t do it justice, taking up more words than are included in the tight story and missing Jessica Love’s stunning watercolor, gouache, and ink illustrations. All the same, for the sake of making sure it’s given attention here, I will share a bit about this impeccable picture book.

In Julián is a Mermaid (Candlewick, 2018), a young boy and his abuela are leaving the pool after their weekly swim together when they encounter three mermaids on the subway. In dreamy illustrations that span three full spreads where the color palette has much to say, too, Julián is mesmerized by the mermaids and imagines himself transforming into one. His fantasy culminates with a beautiful large fish gifting him a necklace.

Upon returning home, Julián says, “Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”

Abuela says nothing other than that she’ll be taking a bath and to “be good.”

Like any preschooler, Julián is full of ideas. And he also full of emergent energy, as brought to life in two more spreads where we see Julián make use of Abuela’s fern, flowers, lipstick, and curtains to bring his dreams of becoming a mermaid into a reality.

Julián is proud of his work. It is truly beautiful, after all. But when Abuela emerges from the bath wrapped in a towel, we join Julián is worrying about her reaction.

“Uh-oh.” The only words needed to convey Julián’s fretting and our adult-concerns: fretting Abuela won’t respond kindly to her grandson’s play with gender identity. The tension continues over one more spread, as Julián drops his head and looks back in the mirror to study himself, and Abuela returns with her arms behind her back.

Abuela, though, is dressed in a beautiful blue dress, the pattern of which matches the fish from Julián’s fantasy. As in his fantasy, Abuela finishes off Julián’s transformation: by surprising him with a long string of pearls.

“‘For me, Abuela?'” asks Julián.

“‘For you, Julián.'”

Abulea takes young Julián on an adventure, then … to a carnival, where Julián triumphantly takes his place in a parade behind the mermaids he had seen on the subway earlier, with his accepting and proud Abuela – instilling confidence and love – right behind him.

So endearing that if you’re like me, you just may cry reading this one to your child and so might appreciate that so few words are needed to carry this story to its most satisfying end.

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Captain Starfish

Each year around this time, I get the great honor of helping curate the list of books for the Neufeld Institute’s list of children’s literature recommendations, match-making parents and professionals with outstanding kids’ books.

Our list includes more than 200 titles — a mix of picture books, books for the very young, early readers and chapter books, middle-grade books, young-adult books, and books to enjoy as a family — sorted by categories such as connections to parents; books about grandparents, extended family, villages of attachment; books that help with the language of feelings; books that inspire or portray play; books about relationships to special teachers; books about or for transplanted children; along with books for special challenges such as death, divorce, allergies, cancer, learning disabilities, moving, and sensitivity/giftedness.

Let me just say how much I love this list, each and every one of the books we recommend, and the process that goes into pulling the list together. With three or four of my savvy and soft-hearted colleagues, we spend the day at Vancouver’s Kidsbooks poring over hundreds of books — books we’ve been keeping on our radars for the last year, books the Kidsbooks staff recommends, as well as the gems we discover in the store. We laugh. We cry. Sometimes we rant or pout. We discuss our attachment-based, developmental theory as it’s showing up (or not) in themes, dialogue, illustrations, plot, and emotions. And we do it all in the memory of Gail Carney, our mentor, artist, and friend who left this special legacy for the Neufeld Institute.

Each spring the list — which has grown to become a booklet — is updated and published in time for the Annual Vancouver Neufeld Conference. We have this year’s booklet locked in, ready for its debut at the upcoming conference taking place March 1st and 2nd and I am eager to share it with the world! Hopefully without stealing any thunder from the full list, over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my personal reviews of some of the books that we’ve added to this year’s list that I’m especially excited about.

The first picture book is Captain Starfish, written by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015). I adore this book so much, and the story of Alfie, who wakes feeling worried about the Underwater Dress-Up Parade he is supposed to lead the next day dressed up in his starfish costume.

In spite of positive self-talk about his bravery and his very supportive parents, Alfie is still plagued with heavily weighted nightmares. “He dreamed that he was carrying the ocean, all on his own.”

He wakes up and shares with his mom that he’s not ready, fearing she will be angry. She’s not, she reassures him. Then she takes him somewhere special — the aquarium, where Alfie quietly works through his emotions.

On the way home, Alfie delightedly recounts his experience with a clown fish that seemed to connect with him. “‘He came out, but only for the tiniest second!’ said Alfie. ‘I think he smiled at me.'”

Mom’s soft response gently showers her son with both insight and acceptance:

“‘Sometimes clown fish need to hide away,’ said Mom. ‘It’s just what they do.’

‘People too,’ said Alfie, thinking of the dress-up parade, which didn’t seem quite so scary now.'”

What I most cherish about this book is its unexpected ending. Where I thought we were going all along was: Thanks to the fish encounter, Alfie would now have the courage to rush over to the Underwater Dress-Up Parade and do his part, after all. I would have been okay with an ending like this. So many books convey the mixed feelings that Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls “dragon and the treasure,” and usually end up conquering the fear to get to the treasure in a very satisfying way, after all.

But Captain Starfish rises even further above because it takes a different approach. Conquering our fears doesn’t always happen so quickly. Sometimes the process takes more time, especially for our really sensitive kids.

Contrary to my expectation, Alfie missed the parade this year. In fact, when Alfie and Mom return home, “It was so late that … Dad had already run the bath.” It’s then that we realize how Mom had protected Alfie from shame and overwhelm by taking him to the aquarium, and how she accepted him exactly where he was without pushing him to meet society’s expectations.

Alfie is at peace with his decision not to be Captain Starfish that day. Underwater Dress-Up Parade or not, Alfie he has grown. He knows he’ll have the confidence to participate next year.

And he does … as a clown fish.

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Roundup: Ten Holiday Books with Heart-Comforting Perspectives

Here, a list of just a few of my favorite holiday books that share heart-comforting perspectives:

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2005)
This is a beautiful story about taking the higher ground through family, home, and joy in spite of a climate of doubt, fear, and hate. Painted illustrations depict family, play, rituals. music, and the warmth of community. Angelou inclusively writes: “We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas. We beckon this good season to wait awhile with us. We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come. Peace.”

The Nutcracker in Harlem by T.E. McMorrow, illustrated by James Ransome (HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2017)
Set in Harlem’s Sugar Hill in the 1920s, this re-telling of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is lovely. Fictional characters are named after influential musicians of the Harlem Renaissance Adelaide Hall, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway — each of whom influence the main character, Marie, as she looks up to them as her role models.

The Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya, illustrated by Amy Cordova (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2015)
There are three stories in my edition: The Farolitos of Christmas, Season of Renewal, and A Child’s Christmas in New Mexico, 1944. Each story is a little lengthy for a picture book, but the stories capture the attention of my children, all the same. In The Farolitos of Christmas, Luz wants to carry on the village tradition of lighting luminarias in her village of San Juan in New Mexico. Her abuelo is sick, though, and her Papa is away in the army, so emergent Luz comes up with a creative way to keep the ritual alive, so that the farolitos “shone like guiding lights, welcoming the family home.”

The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah Through History by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Hyperion Books for Children, 2003)
To me, the term “heart-comforting” doesn’t always mean sappy and sweet and happy. Our hearts need sad stories, also, for comfort. Stories that move our children to quietly reflect, grieve, and sometimes even cry. The Stone Lamp is that kind of book, as historical Jewish moments of hardship are poetically told through the perspectives of eight different children.

A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Hyperion Books for Children, 2000)
This is a re-telling of the birth of Jesus with sparse text and realistic illustrations. Jesus, his parents, and the angels are depicted as black, so the imagery offers a fresh, needed perspective on this beloved Christmas story. My only frustration with this one is the factual error of Jesus being born in a barn (a common misconception that the adult book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey, straightens out). Sadly A Child is Born is now out of print, but can still be found at an awesome library or used bookstore near you.

Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough, illustrated by Lee White (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2017)
Almost every mom friend I know has at some point posted Brockenbrough’s letter to her daughter Lucy — The Truth About Santa — on one of their virtual walls. It makes the rounds of the Internet every holiday season. The author is a friend of mine, and I always get a little fan-friend proud when her letter gets shared in unexpected circles. Martha’s letter to her child elevates the simple answer to whether Santa is real or not to that of faith: in family, friends, and yourself. “Here, I’m talking about love, which will light your life from the inside out, even when things feel cold and dark.” This is one of those golden nuggets of parenting wisdom that can be shared with children when they are ready to know “the beautiful truth about Santa.”

The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Clarion Books, 2011)
“My father collects tears,” begins Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park, telling this Christmas story through the eyes of a young boy who joins his father at work collecting sap from knotty trees that seem as if they are crying. The “tears” are sold to the spice merchant, who uses them for medicine, wine, and funerals. (In modern-day terms, we’d probably say essential oils.) The young boy is honored by the chance to help his father in his trade, then proud to learn that the tear he harvested will transform into the gift of myrrh for a very special baby.

Home by Another Way: A Christmas Story by Barbara Brown Taylor, illustrated by Melanie Cataldo (Flyaway Books, 2018)
Stunningly illustrated, this book offers a unique take on the Christmas story by telling it from the perspective of the three wise men — who don’t know each other at first, but end up meeting on the road to Jerusalem after they all pursue the bright star lodged in their right eyes. I love that this book offers a diverse perspective and also portrays Mary as playful.

Christmas Tapestry by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 2002)
Year after year, this book remains one of my daughters’ very favorites. It’s a re-told story about a tapestry that ultimately ends up reuniting a Jewish couple who had been separated from each other during the Holocaust, each believing the other dead. When they both separately find themselves in a church, they discover their wedding tapestry. The pastor and his son realize their connection and on Christmas Eve, help bring the couple back together. It’s a lovely, non-preachy honoring of Jewish and Christian perspectives, as viewed through the relationship of a soft-hearted boy and his caring father.

Santa’s Favorite Story: Santa Tells the Story of the First Christmas by Hisako Aoki, illustrated  by Ivan Gantschev (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1982)
Our preschool teacher first told us about this book, a lovely story that helps make sense of both the Santa and Jesus narratives. Gantschev’s watercolor illustrations are beautiful.


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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.

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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.

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