Monday, July 27, 2009

A Storytime Winner: Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krause Rosenthal

Duck! Rabbit! is so much fun and so, so simple. Ridiculously simple, really, when you look at how successful it is at conveying a fairly complicated concept, the double picture optical illusion (one image which can be seen two different ways). It must have been a lot of work to make a book this smart and succinct, but I'm glad Rosenthal went the distance, because now I have a brand-new book I can read at a mixed-ages storytime without boring either the two-year-olds or the ten-year-olds. In my world, that's a rare and precious thing.

In Duck! Rabbit!, two characters we never see argue about whether the picture on the page is of a duck or a rabbit. As each character makes a point (It's a duck! That's its bill!) the other one comes up with an equally plausible counter-point (It's a rabbit. And those are its ears). No matter how the picture moves on the page, or what backdrop it is given, it is always possible for us to imagine it as either a duck or a rabbit. The clean black outlines and clear colours make it possible for even very young readers and listeners to see what's going on, and the fact that, in real life, ducks and rabbits don't look like each other at all only adds to the fun. I loved the sly little touch on the back cover (look for the ISBN barcode--or is that a zebra?)

Duck! Rabbit! reminds me a bit of Jules Feiffer's Bark, George, another of my favourite read-alouds, again based on a simple concept that I really should have thought of first, but didn't.

I guess that's why I'm a librarian and not a writer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Reaching Out by Francisco Jimenez

"I thank Francisco Jimenez for honoring all brave children who grow up poor in America."
Sandra Cisneros

Reaching Out is the kind of memoir I love; quiet, intimate, affecting. It hasn't been getting much attention here in Canada, despite its being a multiple award winner and a Belpre Honour book in its home country. In fact, the major urban library I work for does not even own a copy--I had to buy this myself in order to read it. I think this book may find its audience slowly, but will be richly rewarding to those who come across it and appreciate its simplicity and insight.

Francisco Jimenez grew up in poverty. Not modern North American poverty, but real spend-your-childhood-working-the-fields poverty. Born in Mexico but raised as an illegal alien in the United States, Francisco is the first in his family and community to attend University. His father has never been to school at all, cannot read or write, and is crippled by back pain brought on by a lifetime of itinerant field labour. In Reaching Out, Francisco leaves home for the first time to pursue an education as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University.

Francisco faces many challenges in his four years at school; guilt over not assisting his family financially, loneliness, anxiety over his academic capability, and what I would describe as socio-economic culture shock. He describes how jarring his fellow student's freshman antics seem to him; for him, school is serious, attending University a privilege. Despite Francisco's intelligence, it is clear that his previous schooling has not prepared him for higher education, and were it not for several teachers who reach out to mentor him, he may well have had a very different experience. Reaching Out honours those mentors, who consistently took the time to give him the feedback and the support he needed to achieve success in this foreign environment.

This book made me reflect on how important a role confidence and encouragement play in learning at every level. It made me reflect on the idea of learning communities, as places where personal connection is a recognized part of the learning process. I was affected by the respect for learning Jimenez brought with him to the classroom, the value he placed on his education. While understandably frustrated that it takes him a week to write an essay his roommate knocks out in one night, there is a dignity to Francisco as he travels the path to his goal. Respect is a big value in Reaching Out, and thanks to both the respect Francisco has for his opportunities and the respect for his abilities, however latent, his teachers consistently demonstrate throughout his undergraduate years, he has gone on to have a distinguished academic career. I find it fitting and happy that Francisco is now a teacher himself, and I suspect his students consider themselves lucky people indeed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Magic Trixie and the Dragon, or, How to Have Fun With Your Baby Sister

Ohhh, I'm such a Jill Thompson fan. Particularly her children's books, the Scary Godmother series (all out of print, for crying out loud, but they're so great I tracked them down secondhand, because really, how can my kids grow up without them?) and now the Magic Trixie series. One of my life goals is to own some Jill Thompson originals. Her art is so lively and dynamic and playful, with all these great little details and such a vibrant palette. It's full of verve and character, yet clear enough for kids to easily follow. And I love how stylish all the characters are--no dowdy spooks or spectres in these books, no siree!

Ewan and I treated ourselves to the latest Magic Trixie adventure, Magic Trixie and the Dragon, at bedtime last night and it was so, so satisfying. When Magic Trixie's grandmother Mimi takes her to the circus, Magic Trixie gets to see real live Performing Dragons and is instantly smitten. She pleads for a dragon of her very own, but no one else seems to think this is a good idea. Parents are such spoil-sports. Magic Trixie's cat, Scratches, becomes more and more despondent the more Magic Trixie raves about how dragons are the Ultimate Thrilling Pet. But when Magic Trixie accidentally transmogrifies her baby sister Abby Cadabra into a dragon, she discovers that dragons, like baby sisters, are not exactly Tame. Or problem-free. It's a good thing Miss Magic Trixie is so brave and resourceful!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Two Voices, One Story

Fortunately I have a son, my beautiful boy.
Unfortunately he is a drug addict.
David Sheff
It's not like I owe these people anything. This is my life to live--or throw away. Isn't that true?
Nic Sheff

Beautiful Boy by journalist David Sheff and Tweak by his son Nic Sheff both grew out of an article David wrote for the New York Times magazine, "My Addicted Son". Together, these two books form an unusually full account of a family impacted by hardcore drug addiction. I read Beautiful Boy first, and what a heartbreaker it was. What must it be like to have your child repeatedly steal from you, lie to you, disappear for months at a time, risk his life on a daily basis, and respond to your concern with anger and contempt? David's hope for his son's permanent recovery comes crashing down time after time with each of Nic's many relapses. His intense focus on Nic to the detriment of other aspects of life leads to the deterioration of his own health and stresses his marriage. It also compels him to research and understand his son's condition, and this book tells us as much about methamphetamine addiction and its physical effects as we would ever want to know. So great is the impact of Nic's addiction on David's mind and heart that he sometimes wishes he could just "erase' his son from his life. Ironically, when David has an aneyurism and lies in the hospital, unable to remember the year or his own name, his only clear thought is that he must call Nic, must call Nic, must call Nic.

We are connected to our children no matter what. They are interwoven into each cell and inseparable from every neuron. They supersede our consciousness, dwell in our every hollow and cavity and recess with our most primitive instincts, deeper even than our identities, deeper even than ourselves.

My son. Nothing short of my death can erase him. Maybe not even my death.

In Beautiful Boy, the father-son relationship is the crux of the story. In Tweak, it is sadly peripheral. Nic spends most of the time he describes here away from home, cut off from his family. Reading Nic's story is like watching the same car crash again and again and again. It's hard to tell whether he won't let go of the drugs or the drugs won't let go of him, but something in Nic craves the excitement, danger and edginess of his drug-fuelled lifestyle, and that something seems just as powerful as his physical addiction. It's a sure bet that no one will accuse this book of glamourizing drug use; Nic's story is replete with the most off-putting anecdotes, like the description of an arm infection after he uses a dirty needle, or the time he gets his ribs broken by a "date" as he is working as a prostitute to support his habit, or the time he OD's and ends up on life support, only to pull out the IV as soon as he comes to so he can go home for his next fix. Not to even mention the many descriptions of broken and fragmented relationships and of some rather unattractive egocentrism which Nic's drug use won't let him grow past. It's fascinating and horrifying all at once, and you get so frustrated with Nic each time he comes clean and then relapses. Although little underground glimpses of Nic's love for his family occasionally break through, for much of the book he is incapable of expressing or acknowledging this attachment. There is a kind of empty sadness in this depiction of a soul who is so loved by his family and to whom it makes so little difference.

David and Nic are both compelling writers, and while their styles are very different, they are both incredibly insightful and open about their experience. Although they have different publishers, they have toured together, and it looks to me like their writing has opened a private dialogue between the two of them, as well as the larger public dialogue they are inviting. I hope they can maintain their new connection and be at peace.