Feb 16, 2017

Seeing the World in the Pages of Picture Books

When I launched this blog five years ago I named it after my workshops for educators, librarians, and anyone interested in working with kids and books: Unpacking the Power of Picture Books. I extended my in-person workshops to this blog in an effort to  reach a wider audience and maintain an archive of picture books and comments as a resource. My thesis in both platforms is that picture books are a) alive and well, and b) high quality literature with powerful benefits for many ages.

 I'm not the first to notice that not only are picture books thriving in the publishing world, they are finding wider attention among bloggers, educators, and readers of many ages. That's despite predictions of the demise of picture books in 2010 New York Times article. 

As for the power of picture books for any age, let's consider two examples in this post. First, though, I offer a caution that I've repeated in many posts and in workshops.
Books are meant to be experienced intact, whole and complete. Quality books of any kind, but especially picture books, offer immersive, absorbing engagement, visual feasts, luxurious narratives, and page-turning entertainment. Each book deserves to be read, initially, in that way. Often repeatedly. In fact, before returning to explore books as mentor text for writing, tools for concept discussions, or other analysis, 
HONOR THE BOOK as a whole.
And then, dive in more deeply.
Beach Lane Books, 2009 
ALL THE WORLD is written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee, a magical pairing of talents. It was released several years prior to recently organized efforts to raise awareness of and opportunities for greater diversity in images and stories in every format for young readers. (We Need Diverse Books)
Even so, the universality of Scanlon's  lilting, rhythmic, rhyming text  finds it's ideal expression in a visual community realistically and inspiringly varied in age, ethnicity, interest, and expression. It resonates with a natural diversity that sets a high bar for all others.
In scenes that range from expansive to intimate, small visual narratives invite exploration and discussion. Lives intersect and culminate in a gathering in which any and all readers can find themselves revealed. The lushness of the settings contrast with the economy of lines and strokes in the characters' expressions and movement. The cast of dozens, on page after page, offer up ingredients for stories of individual and interconnected lives. The potential for discussions of relationships, mentoring writing craft, and the balance of visual and verbal narrative is unlimited.
Read what New York Times had to say about it, here.

Chronicle Books, 2016

Next, turn to another Caldecott honor winner, more recently released. Both words and images for THEY ALL SAW A CAT were created by Brendan Wenzel. Again, this book must be savored, multitple times, in its wholistic glory. As a cat walks through page after page, it maintains essential traits (whiskers, ears, and paws) but is utterly transformed by the point of view and attitude of each observer. The inherent relationships (and assumptions) of "the others" shape and color their perceptions of what a cat is, or can be. 

Eventually, though, it's worth considering on another, deeper, level. THEY ALL SAW A CAT offers an extended metaphor of the way in which many rely on narrowed perspectives to define others based on individual, predetermined expectations and protective assumptions. Rich discussions can emerge from examining the double-page spread on which the cat is portrayed as bits and pieces of each viewpoint. Being defined by others' limited perceptions of us, especially in adolescence, can have a similarly jarring, disorienting impact. 
At any age, and especially in the pervasive environment of social media, the views of others can shape one's identity, one's sense of self. When teens find narrowly defined labels offered by others disrupting their personal development, a book like this can be a lifeline of perspective and validation. 

Then, in the final page turn, we see the ultimate truth: even when trying to view ourselves honestly and directly, what we discover is ever-changing, not fully accurate, and requires frequent reflection and consideration.

I hope you'll take a close look at these two books, and then find readers of many ages with whom to share them.

Feb 10, 2017

Protection for Future Generations: Reading Widely

One of my earliest posts after launching this blog was focused on my lifelong belief that the potential for a better future rests with our youngest citizens- of this country and of the world. In that post,  History Repeats, Picture Books Heal, (here), I referenced the lyrics to that SOUTH PACIFIC song, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.
Image: We Need Diverse Books

"You've got to be taught

To hate and FEAR

You've got to be taught from year to year

It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught."

Mass media/social media are frighteningly effective at teaching young people precisely this polarization, which reinforces a victim/victor mentality, helplessness, anger, zero-sum resolutions, and a "them vs us" view of life. This has been so effective, in my opinion, because it's fully immersive, surrounding small humans with vitriol. 

My hope for combating those messages lies in providing equally immersive experiences with openmindedness, generosity, selflessness, and, above all, empathy. Lending another a hand doesn't weaken us, but strengthens both, and even those who view the action. That's already happening on several fronts, including Ellen Degeneres's  long-running "BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER" campaign, as well as the broad coverage of massive outpourings of love and support in the Women's March and protests of travel bans. 
An ideal immersion experience for young people is found in reading, in the empathetic process of losing ourselves in the lives of others. This happens in many ways, but two are worth considering more closely. We readers are strengthened by recognizing ourselves in characters and experiences that reflect our own lives. Even more powerful, though, are the opportunities to "walk in another's shoes" when those shoes, or sandals, or bare ground paths lead us far beyond our individual, limited experiences. When we make those journeys we realize that there, too, we can recognize ourselves.

The Washington Post ran an important article about proactively teaching/leading middle grade readers to a more inclusive and empowering approach based on KINDNESS. 
From www.readbrightly.com
But this is a blog about picture books. We, as in "mainstream Americans", seem very open to reading stories of European immigrants, ones that reflect our own more distant immigrant pasts and feature characters who resemble us in physical and cultural ways. Sadly, this attitude has played out in the book-producing industry in the past, resulting in fewer selections for adults to actively share or for young readers to discover on their own. 
That has begun to change in recent years. You can explore a few of those more recent releases (here). Sometimes the focus of the books is subject-specific, and in other cases the books merely portray universal stories with images and details that reflect the wide world in which we live. An ever-expanding community of authors, illustrators, agents, editors, publishers, and industry professionals are actively working to expand the quality diverse literature available through #We Need Diverse Books (#WNDB). Check it out. 
Every voice matters.
In an effort to support and expand Muslim voices, to allow young people to see themselves in the lives of ALL others, agents Cindy Uh and Clelia Gore launched a challenge to other agents for open submissions by MUSLIM authors. Read more about their campaign here, and please pass on the information to those you know who may feel their stories are unwelcome, or only suited to a narrow market.  
Every voice matters.
Every story matters.
Shape positive values and views of the world one book at a time.

Jan 10, 2017

Medical Pioneering: Tiny Stitches

My grandma lived with us while I was growing up for stretches of several months at a time. I treasure the time I had with her and the many things she taught us. Among those were how to play canasta and euchre, along with the colorful expressions one uses while playing those card games. None were bawdy, just hilarious, much like the altered lyrics to old songs she sang. She regaled us with countless stories of her and my father's various escapades involving her myriad siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors, all living in a tight-knit German community in the midwest. 
I wish I had written those stories at the time, preserving the details of names and places and punchlines. Much stays with me, but so much is lost. 

One thing about which she spoke only briefly and occasionally was unforgettable. 

I had an aunt I would never know. My father was the oldest of not three siblings, but four. He had a baby sister, Rosemary, who lived only a few hours.  She was a "blue baby", and that expression was followed by saying she was born with a bad heart. I still recall my earliest, confused images of what "blue baby" meant, progressing over the years to an adult understanding of congenital heart defects and cyanosis. 
Lee and Low, 2016
While serving on the nonfiction panel for Cybils awards I read TINY STITCHES: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. Medical progress since the 1920s is impressive on countless fronts, and many individuals deserve credit. In this picture book the author, Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks, reveals the overlooked life of Vivien Thomas. His childhood dream of becoming a doctor was a daring one for an African American at that time in history. He was derailed from his quest after only a year of college by the financial crash of the Depression. 
Thomas found work in a Johns Hopkins medical laboratory, eventually becoming a surgical assistant to a noted heart surgeon. He transferred his desire to become a doctor to dedicating himself to developing procedures and adapting  techniques and tools specific to serving the youngest patients. His devices and processes were capable of performing corrective heart surgery for the tiniest hearts of all, those of blue babies. Surgeries previously thought to be impossible.
With direct and descriptive narrative, Hooks reflects the purposeful and steady approach Thomas took toward this goal and others throughout his professional life. Because he lacked a medical degree he wasn't allowed to perform the surgeries himself. He stood at the elbow of others, guiding them in the live-saving techniques that came too late to save my Aunt Rosemary. His race reinforced many limitations, but eventually he was recognized for his life-saving innovations. 
Colin Bootman's illustrations complement the text perfectly, conveying the intensity and dedication Thomas demonstrated throughout his career. They also portray a realistic view of medical settings, including laboratories and operating theaters. The angles and perspectives within various page spreads show Thomas in relation to others. Those perspectives and expressions tell a story in themselves about both the credit and the dismissive attitudes he dealt with throughout his career.
The good news is that he was eventually awarded an honorary medical degree, joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical College, and is credited with his role in the development of materials, techniques, and care that saves lives on a daily basis around the world. Today the vast majority of infants born with heart defects can be treated successfully and go on to live full and healthy lives.
Read more about Thomas in this archived article, here.
The extensive titles nominated for Cybils non-fiction means that many outstanding books missed the cut as finalists. I'm spotlighting this book because it is among those remarkably well-done books that deserve every bit of attention we can give them. In my opinion it should be included in every library "maker-space" and STEM classroom. And, as I've said so often, it should not be relegated to a box of "Black history" books that are hauled out once a year and then stored away until the next year. The best books are timely and timeless, as this one is. That's true of so many books by Lee and Low Publishers.
Don't miss this one.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.