A Tree is nice

Title: A Tree is nice
Author: Janice May Udry
Illustration: Marc Simont
Publisher: Scholastic
Age Group: 4-8
Picture : Wikipedia

A Tree is nice seems rather too plain for a title for children. Nothing fancy or funny. But its this quality that’s held in all earnestness up until the end that also makes the book enjoyable, without laboring to interpret or analyze.

The book is a Caldecott winner and this calls for dissecting the illustration. Color and black-and-whites alternate; ink drawings draped in gray, follow and precede beautiful watercolors. Especially the watercolors, they glorify the foliage in varying seasons with splurges of warm greens, sometimes with flaming reds and bright yellows in their midst. The book is 11×7 inches in size. This allows for generous detailing of the trunks and twisted branches in varying dimensions, in browns that remind us of barks of dark chocolate. Something about the book gives us that warmth – the thick dirty white paper with rawness resembling recycled material, and the uncomplicated content of the drawings and writing, I think. The fact that is was published in 1956 connects the dots.

Trees are very nice. They fill up the sky.
Every detail about a tree that might seem insignificant or intuitive to the adult fills up the pages alongside illustration that obediently portrays the discussed detail. The text will suit a read-aloud to the little ones, without fuss or frolic. The writing will also make it an encouraging experience for an early reader.


Even if you have just one tree, it is nice too.

Perfect for a swing, a playhouse, as a pirate ship, for nests, for shade, for picnics, or to even rest a hoe – gathering and presenting the obvious truths in succession makes my preschooler nod mirthfully with a new found appreciation for something taken granted. He sometimes pauses his play in the backyard to enlist nice things about a tree, with confidence and care.

A tree is nice to plant……
….
….
You say to people, “I planted that tree.”
They wish they had one so they go home and plant a tree too.

Without much ado, we celebrate our planet that bears the trees.

Back of the Bus – For MLK Jr.day


Title:Back of the bus
Author: Aaron Reynolds
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Publisher: Philomel
Age group:4-8

Last year my daughter and I had read Woodson’s “The other side” during the week of MLK Jr. day. It had served our intent very well, while ensuring that we stayed in the comfort of Subtlety, and the warmth of a story of two little girls in the countryside. I remember how the girls of different skin tones, afraid of crossing “boundaries”, had rightfully chosen to sit on the fence together. I had immediately reviewed it here.

This week we brought home a few books celebrating MLK Jr or what he stood for. Among them I found a gem. It was perfect for us, in that, it helped me inch forward in the right direction on the same subject. This, it did, in two solid ways. For one, we read about actually “crossing a boundary” this time around. Secondly, it was more than subtle. It carried a bit of history and eased me into introducing civil rights and the fight for it. Yet, it was not too big a leap because we still stayed with a boy her age, his perspective and a simple narration of a true incident.

A child is riding the bus that Rosa Parks rode on December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama. And the last trail of italicized words is how the book begins – verbatim. The combination of a boy’s perspective of the historical incident while the boy is a piece of fiction, makes it a good book for young children.

We’re sittin’ right where we we’re supposed to – way in back.

The boy’s words allowed me to give her the background. The boy is seen peeping out the window of a bus on a wintry morning. That morning ( she later learned) witnessed a solitary act of defiance that sparked a movement, that later changed America. Quite immediately we seem to be looking at a playful boy slouched on the backseat, rolling his marble on a groove on the floor of the bus. In fact Mrs.Parks sitting upfront returns his runaway marble for him. More people get in. The bus is now packed. But in a little while, the boy senses tension. The driver is arguing. It is getting very humid inside because the crowded bus is not moving. The boy’s mama does not let him distract himself with his marble, so he sends it back into his pocket. But soon, he gets a grasp of what’s happening – of Mrs.Parks not willing to give up her seat for Mr.Blake, the white rider.

But she’s sittin’ right there,
her eyes all fierce like a lightnin’ storm,
like maybe she does belong up there.
And I start thinkin’ maybe she does too.

Beside this is a portrait of the lady, her chin up and looking out the window. This is probably the right time to glorify the illustrations. They are generous in earth tones and are extremely realistic and beautiful. They bear the quality that takes us back in time – whatever that is! Floyd Cooper’s work is amazing.

Getting back on track, the debate ends inside the bus. The boy sees a handcuffed Rosa Parks being escorted by a policeman. His mama murmurs something to herself and also reassures him that everything is alright. But he feels different, in a good stronger way. He takes his marble from its hiding place and holds it against the sunlight.

That thing shines all brown and golden in the sunlight,
like it’s smilin’, I think.
‘Cuz it ain’t gotta hide no more.

I did not labor to explain the marble metaphor to her. The incident was already simmering the idea. History imparted with a childish attitude was very helpful. There was also a lyrical quality to the text that made the read-aloud powerful. The language was African-American and that added authenticity. I had pointed out how, many basic rights, now taken granted, were once forbidden. We went over areas that might have been segregated, like schools and transportation. We went on to predict what now seemingly normal practices carried the potential to be protested one day.

I read elsewhere that Rosa Parks was probably not the first to be arrested for such a “crime”, but she was the first prominent figure to have disobeyed, and that probably influenced and motivated many in the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. initiated and continued the bus boycott that Rosa Parks’ act had triggered. He was eventually instrumental in bringing social change in America, adopting Gandhian principles.

The other books that we are reading to celebrate history and change, in the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday are –
Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change by Michelle Cook

Dad, Jackie and me by Myron Uhlberg.

Tacky and the winter games – Winter Sports II


TITLE: Tacky and the winter games
AUTHOR: Helen Lester
ILLUSTRATOR: Lynn Munsinger
AGE GROUP: 4-8
PUBLISHER: Sandpiper
Picture: Amazon.com

Penguins in training for the Olympics. Of course it has to be the winter Olympics! Add loads of wit. And we have an entertaining, educational and athletic package!

Some of us are probably familiar with Tacky – Tacky the penguin. And this one belongs to the same series of books. It begins with Tacky’s friends declaring The winter games are coming, we must must must be in shape to win win win.And that’s when the riot starts! The next few pages show fluffy creatures with sharp beaks jumping ropes in a row, lifting weights, and even doing sit-ups. But not Tacky. He is digging into his junk food and watching too much TV while his counterparts are loading up on ‘training meals’ and good sleep. Its soon time for the opening ceremony and the athletes walk in with their chests thrust out. The anthem is played (which by the way goes With our beaks held high and our bellies held low…) And the medals are on display – not bad, pretty good, big winner.

The first event is the bobsledless race and our team is called Team Nice Icy Land. Tacky carries the team on his belly and slides down to reach the finish line in record time only to hear the official say This is bobsledLESS race. The ski jumping event follows. Picture helmet-ed penguins with frozen fish skis, and that’s exactly what you will see. But Tacky, of course, is tumbling and crumbling – simply because his “skis” thawed when he was “warming up” near the fireplace right before the game. By now, we get the idea that Tacky is not helping his team win, at all, and his friends are annoyed with him. Is the riot over? Not as yet. In fact it peaks further down when Tacky actually swallows the baton during the relay race and ends up going under the x-ray machine!

But wait.
Had Team Nice Icy Land really won?
Did Tacky have the baton?
Without the baton, Team Nice Icy Land would be disqualified.

Suspense mounts and smiles fade away. Not for us. But for the little ones, it is a nail-biting finish.
Lynn Munsinger’s illustrations are detailed, brimming with humor and intelligence, a combination that carries the story with ease. A light-hearted and yet glorious introduction to routines of official gaming events, training for games, the Olympics and particularly the winter Olympics. A gold winner shall I say?

Snowboard Twist – Winter Sports I


TITLE: Snowboard Twist
AUTHOR: Jean Craigbead Geroge
ILLUSTRATOR: Wendell Minor
AGE GROUP: 4-8 yrs
PUBLISHER: Katherine Tegen Books
Picture: Author website.

I picked up this book because, considering how books on sports and outdoor activities are relatively rare to find, one that involved snowboarding was hard to pass. The little one is taking lessons in ice skating and we do live just a few hours away from some generously snow covered ski slopes. These should qualify us I thought. I also succumbed to the seasonal temptation of a book sporting icy blues and whites, with evergreens all around. The more important rationale was to expose the little girl to adventure sports – to learn and enjoy the subtler details and experiences of such a sport while we safely resorted to accomplishing this through a picture book. At least for now:)

Axel is on his way to Glory bowl in the Teton mountains with his dad Dag and his dog Grit. The place has just received heavy snowfall and it seems perfect to bring out the skis and snowboards. But fresh snow with its weak slushy older layers beneath could trigger an avalanche. Dag is a snow patrol officer in the mountains and is testing the slopes for avalanche signs before the skiers came in. Kelly, Axel’s snowboarding rival joins them there. Axel and Kelly start showing off their snowboarding moves, neglecting the potential for disaster around them. Just then, an unimportant event gets a snowball rolling, setting off an avalanche. However, Grit leaps into action and ensures that all ends well.

What we actually took away from the book was an interesting insight into ski slopes, snow conditions and the science of avalanches. Just the backdrop of the tall mountains and pines, piles of slush and snow brought out through impressive artwork left us thirsty for ruggedness. However, considering how the stage was set with all the action, the text as we approached the end seemed to be lacking in zest.

Jean Craigbead George has many books encompassing nature, for children and young adults, to her credit. But she still claims – “The list is not really long when you consider that there are almost 250 million beautiful plants and animals on this earth that I could have written about.” This book is third in line, following two of her other “outdoor adventures” books called “Cliff Hanger” and “Fire Storm”. If I were to come a full circle and jot down one more excuse, it seemed like a good book to celebrate another amazing form of nature and how giving it is. Inspired by the book, we are now reading up more on how the sport came about and about serious snowboarding races. And we like this book for having initiated just that. Also, Jean Craigbead George, Newbery medal winner (Julie of the Wolves), has an energizing website: http://www.jeancraigheadgeorge.com/. Now where is that backpack?

Baseball Saved Us


Title: Baseball Saved Us
Ages: 5+
Author: Ken Mochizuki; Illustrator: Dom Lee
Published by: Lee & Low Books

Baseball is an all American thing, the national sport and pastime. It is almost a cultural identity and its own epic is often burdened with American history in the background. Standing testimony to this is how a Japanese-American boy regains dignity and acceptance at the ballpark, post World War II. Written by Ken Mochizuki, whose parents were camp internees in Idaho during the world war, this book makes you cheer our little hero, while holding off that drop of tear that has already arrived.

The voice is that of a Japanese boy, an American citizen who is pulled out of school one day by his mother. His family is sent with many more Japanese families to live in barracks in an internment camp established in the desert, in the middle of nowhere in 40s USA. A soldier with a gun stands on a tall tower at the camp monitoring the group every second, every day. With no basic amenities and no work to do, kids and adults idle around. There is pent up anger, frustration and boredom. This is when the boy’s father takes the initiative to come up with a baseball diamond. Soon, with collective and creative efforts (and no interference from the guard) many games are being played on that field encompassed by barbed wire fences and armed watchdogs.

However, the boy’s track record at school, before camp, is not very impressive. Tarnished by experiences of name calling because of his smallish stature which was even more accentuated amidst American boys, he is diffident and shy at his game. He was Shorty back home. But now at camp, he does not feel different in the company of Japanese boys like him. With this feeling of normalcy and the motivation to impress the guard staring at his game all day, he buckles up and performs. Daily sessions then on hone his bat-ball skills.

The war is over and he is back at school. But he feels worse. The boys don’t even talk to him now. This is when America had been at war with Japan, when the U.S Government seemed to suspect the loyalty of immigrants in the country and hate was running high. The Jap’s no good, Shorty, Easy out, the boys scream at him, when it is his turn to bat at the ballpark in school. He stares at the pitcher and sees the guard on the tower in him. A dramatic finish to the game and to the book is the last page showing the American boys in the winning team lifting Shorty up with pride and joy. Baseball sure saved – helped his people survive the camp and helped him become a hero.

The illustrations are in sepia, in tones of brown and black reemphasizing the depressing mood in the desert. The author has also restricted some of the darker details to a few sprinkles, without going overboard about wartime camps. While it can be hard for some of us and our children to directly relate to those times, the issues are still part of what every “different” child experiences under varying circumstances today – it boils down to the battle to fit in and to feel accepted.

This book provoked questions about war in my six something year old. She could not fathom being uprooted and seemed very curious about ways in which normal life is disturbed when a country is at war. The story can also set the stage for sensitive and meaningful discussions about tolerance and oneness. It can also make children value the better times of today, that some of them enjoy. While critics might think that a home run might not be the answer to discrimination, it still works for a child’s understanding is my personal thinking. The deeper virtue might be courage; courage of the kind that the short Japanese boy who played America’s game amidst racist gibes had. This book inspires in more than one way.

Picture Courtesy: Lee & Low Books.

The Other Side


Title: The Other Side
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrator: E.B.Lewis
Publisher: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, NY
Picture Courtesy – Amazon.com

“There is no school on Monday, no mail on Monday. And do you know why?”, began the teacher. I was at my daughter’s kinder room when it was my turn to help out, and I overheard the teacher beginning to read a book on Martin Luther King. I could not take my eyes off of the little ones’ faces, curious to know how they would absorb it all. They listened with intent. Silence ensued. And then they dispersed. I felt cheated when I could not comprehend what went through their minds. That afternoon I walked back home wondering how I could talk to my daughter on what Martin Luther stood for and how I could present the historical significance that surrounds him. The customary discomfort that preceded talks (with her) on “unhappy” truths, was again telling me that I was soon going to be guilty of adulterating the innocent mind. Even though, in most cases, the terminating message was good.

So, when I was at the library this weekend, I nonchalantly scanned the shelves for something besides King’s biography, and something that did not scream strong language or characters. The Other Side turned out to be the kind of book that would be an ally in my mission. In fact, it won me over to find a spot on Saffron Tree to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. today!

The opening spread, in stunning yet soft water colors, takes us to a flowery patch amidst lush greenery and scattered houses. A lengthy fence catches the eye in the middle of the rural scene. Just as we warm up to the narrative of a little African-American girl, Clover, we get involved in the incident that occurred one summer, when she noticed a white girl on the other side of the fence, staring at her. The fence is a repeating detail in the illustrations on most pages. Annie, is the lonely girl across the fence yearning to be included in the outdoor games Clover and her little group play all day. Clover also finds herself admiringly looking at Annie’s free-spiritedness. And then one day, things change. Clover and Annie exchange smiles and names. Annie invites Clover to join her on the fence. The girls exploit the technicality that their mothers’ never opposed their sitting on the fence. A fence like this was made for sitting on, we hear Annie say. By the end of that summer a friendship is born. It is not long before Annie is seen playing together with the rest of Clover’s gang. And the book ends with this –

“Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down”, Annie said. And I nodded.

“Yeah,” I said. “Someday”.

Yes, the fence is the metaphor. But the literal meaning sufficed. There was no need to mention civil rights or segregation. A warm setting, with girls her own age or older brought the much needed comfort, and kindled curiosity in my 5 yr old. I embraced the subtlety and capitalized on the situation. I mentioned King. She stared at the portrayals of Annie and the girls carelessly sitting on the fence and told me a few things. I think she will understand his context now.

The book reminded me that children have the power to make a change. Innocence is probably the secret. The story in The Other Side, I thought, brought Matin Luther King’s dream closer to reality.

Jacqueline Woodson’s another book “Coming On Home Soon” has been reviewed earlier, read it here – http://www.saffrontree.org/2007/05/coming-on-home-soon-by-jacqueline.html