I'm Emily Reynolds.
We all know that the real purpose of Valentine’s Day isn’t to give or get flowers or sea salt caramels from a romantic interest. It’s to give books, or course! (Are you reading this Matt? Ha ha! Just kidding. Kind of.)
February 14th around here, means cutting and pasting construction paper cards, crunching conversation hearts and exclaiming over their latest -isms (like "Text me"), and decorating sugar cookies--iced with the names of those we can't get along without. (You thought I was going to say, "icing the names of those we can't get along with," didn't you? Well that too....) At least that's how it goes at our house. What about yours? Any fun Valentine's Day traditions? Spill them in the comments below...
Not to mention celebrating the friends that text us goofy commentaries about life's awkward or miserable moments--to make us laugh out loud even when the sun is not shining inside, and it's twelve degrees outside. Because as we all know...uncomfortable experiences can always be related after the fact, to a trusted friend for shared glee in hindsight!
A true friend is someone who’s seen your best and worst, and still loves you regardless.
So this month’s book review will share six books about FRIENDSHIP, and the real meaning of the word LOVE. (And you can hum Nat King Cole's lyrics to "L-O-V-E" in your head all the while...)
1) If You’ll Be My Valentine, written by
Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Fumi Kosaka
With Valentine's Day next week, I'll be posting an interview with my long-time friend from college, and former roommate (from our “starving-artist-days-in-New-York-City"), Fumi Kosaka. You'll hear the scoop about her latest book release, and the inspirations behind her bright and cheery style.
But right now, I'll share with you my all-time favorite Valentine's Day books, Fumi's If You’ll Be Valentine. This tender tale is written by everyone’s picture book sweetheart and Newbery medalist, Cynthia Rylant. But combining this duo of author and illustrator, is like what Mr. Reese must have felt when he first paired peanut butter with chocolate—cups of sweet and salty bliss! Going along with the topic of “salty,” how could anyone not enjoy a book that has text such as the following:
“If you’ll be my valentine
I’ll give you extra treaties.
I’ll give you two,
and maybe three,
and let you lick my feeties.”
My childhood mutt (part terrier/pekingese/poodle/chihuahua), Taffy, really would crawl down under my covers at night and lick the salt from between my toes. EEEK! Fumi actually captures this tickly sensation in her darling and tidy illustrations! You'll find that her pictures are are sweet simplicity. The faces of my dear Fumichan's characters depict what is best in life—the innocence and joy of friend and family relationships experienced during childhood.
From parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and animals...to the trees outside our windows, this short picture book shows kids how to connect with others through small acts of kindness.
2) Jake’s Thumb, written by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Claudio Munoz.
Spoiler ahead (!):Though quiet for a little thumb-sucker, Jake, can maneuver all sorts of tasks while sucking, like riding his bike, walking the dog, mastering the remote, (such skill!) etc. But Jake’s family doesn’t understand the joy he derives from his “best thumb,” and they continually pester him to stop sucking, because as everybody knows…big boys don’t do it.
But when Jake starts kindergarten, and sucks his thumb in public, he’s teased by a bully in his class, Cliff. Jake is threatened and lonely, until he meets a sympathetic friend who also finds security through a crutch—her stuffed animal. But the climax peaks when the bully Cliff, jeers at Jake by calling him, “Thumb-sucker" loudly on the playground--just at the moment when a piece of much- stroked “blankie” drops from his pocket, mid-ridiculing.
Instead of turning the tables on Cliff, and calling him “Blankie Baby,” or drawing the attention of the entire studentbody to Cliff’s weakness (as Cliff did to Jake), Jake does something magnanimous--he forgives and lets go, to stop the cycle of hurt. We readers are forced to pause and consider ourselves...wondering what we would do in such a situation. I hope we can follow Jake’s path.
Bravo to Ilene Cooper for writing a character so endearing and so full of compassion and forgiveness, and to Claudio Munoz for making the story come so alive with emotion and detail.
The golden rule trumps all, thanks to the big-heartedness of one fictional yummy-thumbed boy.
3) The Great Sandwich Swap, written by
Rania Al-Abdullah, Kelly DiPucchio,
and illustrated by Tricia Tusa.
The story starts out, “It all began with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…and it ended with a hummus sandwich.” When two best friends, Salma and Lily, (who have done everything together at school), finally admit to being grossed-out by each other’s unfamiliar lunch choices, a school-wide food fight ensues. But as the two girls realize how lonely it is when they let their cultural differences come between them, they brave trying the other’s sandwich, and are in for a wildly-happy surprise.
This funny story pricks at our consciences, reminding us that no one has the market on deliciousness in life—the good in every culture can be shared when we let down our guards of fear, judgement, and blind repulsion, and try something new! Who knows, we might say, “Hey, this is delicious! And…this is heavenly!” just like Salma and Lily.
4) Dahlia, written and illustrated by
If you love an old-world feel, but haven't seen Barbara McClintock’s fresh takes on classic subjects, go straight to the library and enter her name in the catalogue's search window! Dahlia is the tale of an earthy little girl, Charlotte, who receives a delicate doll from her prissy Great Aunt Edme. Charlotte does not “do” dolls. As said in the story,
“In Charlotte’s room, among the dragonflies and boxes of beetles and found birds’ nests, the doll looks out of place. ‘We like digging in dirt and climbing trees…no tea parties, no being pushed around in frilly prams. You’ll just have to get used to the way we do things.’” Charlotte instructs. And Dahlia the doll does.
The illustrations, of the said bedroom, are fantastic! Bird nests are settled in tree branches behind the bed frame, sketch books lay open on the floor with drawings of mushroom specimens poised on the carpet, a woven basket holds a stash of walking sticks, a dragonfly collection is mounted on the wall, a snake in a cage lives on the dresser, an arrangement of cattails in a vase resides next to the seashells. Not to mention robin’s eggs, pet birds, pinecones—every sensible parent’s nightmare! KOOKA-BURRA! Craziness to a mom, I tell you!
No, I would not want to be Charlotte’s mother. But at times I guess I am that mom, when my kids ravage the woods here in Maine, and sneak walking sticks under their beds, robin’s eggs into their drawers, and wintergreen berry potions concocted into jars on their dressers. But Charlotte’s character is like a compendium of all six of my kids, making one ultra explorative, clutter-collecting child. A naturalist hoarder!
Though finding these “natural treasures” in my own house drives me batty (when I remind the kids that, “nature doesn’t belong in the house—it wants to live outside”), I am glad in my heart, secretly, that children do have that innate sense of wonder and awe at the creation around them. I like to enjoy it with them—just in the woods, though.
As Charlotte takes her new doll outside to tag along in her adventures with her teddy bear, Bruno, she discovers that anyone can enjoy the wonders of nature.
The transformation in Charlotte's perceptions of others undergoes a change as well, by the end, as she’s called upon to show her doll to her prim Aunt Edme after a surprise visit for supper. With the now-sullied and tattered Dahlia, Charlotte's afraid to face her aunt with the dirty doll in her hnads. But Aunt Edme gives her the stamp of approval when she says,
“When I saw your doll in a shop window, I thought she needed to be out in the sunshine, and played with, and loved. I knew that is just what you would do for her; I only wish I could make mud pies and be tossed in the air; but I’m too old.”
When you’re done reading Dahlia with your kids, if you’re still craving more naturalists' adventures—without having to bring the snakes inside yourself, pick up the cool bio on Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma, entitled Charles and Emma.
You’ll get an insider’s view on how the Darwins raised their explorative children as real-life “Charlottes.” (Think ten kids—seven lived long lives into adulthood—climbing trees, welcoming wild animals right INTO their home, looking at everything under microscopes, experimenting and observing flora and fauna on a regular basis. The details, of Mr. Darwin taking his daily walks alongside the hedgerows near their home every day, are delightful!
Such a life sounds incredible. Incredibly messy for parents. Ha ha! (The Darwin’s must have had a maid or two…or ten!) Still...beautifully adventurous! And the Darwin bio is a treat for those of us who need to relax and embrace a little more creative chaos--perhaps for the sake of science, or higher yet, our children’s joy of discovery.
5) Dear Dragon, written by Josh Funk, illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo.
Josh Funk’s witty storyline makes adults and children alike laugh and smile while pouring over every one of Rodolfo Montalvo’s vivaciously-ironic illustrations. Really, people, the humor in this situation is too delicious: a young dragon and a school boy corresponding as pen pals for a class assignment, without even knowing they aren’t of the same species!
Anyone who loves getting a letter in the mail will eat this tale up! Who didn’t thrive on having a pen pal as a kid? I still do love my occasional adult pen pals. I can’t get enough of sending and receiving snail mail to cherished friends and family. And in the case of George Slair (the human boy here), and Blaise Drogomir (the dragon child), the misperceptions are rife with charm.
Not to even mention that Josh Funk, the writer, went against what all editors advise (avoid rhyming like the plague!), and came out spectacularly well with a lyrical story that floats off the tongue, and into the hearts and minds of all kids who love dinosaurs, dragons, and imaginary worlds colliding with their own.
6) The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, written by Kate DiCamillo, and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.
Okay...so you know how there are some books you pick up, and think to yourself, “Nah. This book is not for me. I can just tell by the cover!” Well, for shame, Self! I did this to all of Kate DiCamillo’s books for at least a decade (after watching the movie version of The Tale of Despereaux BEFORE reading the book—BLOOP! BLOOP! BLOOP!—bibliophile faux-pas alert!). And how much I’ve missed!
Thus, how much my older children missed—or at least didn’t get from me, because a poorly-made movie adaptation affected my ideas about a book. Ugh. I really didn't enjoy the movie rendition, and quite conversely, I really did revel in the depth and creativity of the book's strong prose in The Tale of Despereaux. Only because after a fellow writing friend (Julie--bless you!) mentioned, on several occasions, how much she appreciated Kate DiCamillo’s stories, I figured I’d better give them an actual chance. So my kids and I checked out a few audio books from the library, and listened to The Tale of Despereaux during dish-washing duty.
And our consensus? Ms. DiCamillo nails humanity in her quirky, relatable characters. And after the film adaptation's stilting and vapid portrayal of the story, I was delightfully surprised at the moral heft and meaning the book holds.
Which leads to The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. After Despereaux, I wanted more! I needed more of Ms. DiCamillo’s insight. So we listened to the next book on our queue, and after disregarding Edward Tulane’s odd duck cover in second hand stores and book shops for years, I was sucked right in from the first chapter.
One must find out if Edward (a strangely-unique porcelain rabbit/doll/toy/thing) overcomes his own vanity and empty emotions. As he's hoisted into rough, ugly, and humble situations over the years, Edward gleans a shred of love here, and an appreciation for others there.
Soon, much like The Velveteen Rabbit, Edward's heart becomes real as he learns to love, and sacrifice his beauty and own comfort for the welfare of others. (I won’t give up the satisfying ending if you haven't read Edward Tulane's tale), but I will say this, there are parts in this book that may or may not make a driver quietly quake with tears and wipe them away while listening, among rapt children in the back of a twelve-passenger van.
Since hearing these audio reads, I’ve been ravenously looking up every interview I can find highlighting Ms. DiCamillo. Here’s the most remarkable one I’ve heard yet about her determination to overcome resistance and failure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcTgWWTD5lQ (regarding her experience in receiving 473 rejection letters before being published). There’s also another lovely acceptance speech for the Newbery Award on youtube, but if you watch the first interview from the link above, you’ll probably go on to see the subsequent offerings of Ms. DiCamillo’s goodness right there for your partaking. Just inspiring.
Enjoy these loverly books about true friendship. And Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you sweetheart reading buddies!
What's your own favorite book about friendship? Give us a recommendation in the comments below!