Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory Christie

Cover image of Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory ChristieWheeler, Lisa. Jazz Baby. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007.

Plot:  “Bitty-boppin’ Baby” claps, dances, and eventually snoozes to the jazzy music-making of his family and neighbors.

Setting: Urban

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: jazz, music, singing, dancing, family, neighbors, community

Literary Quality: With boisterous rhymes and toe-tap worthy rhythms, Lisa Wheeler’s text bounces off the page and begs to be read aloud: “Mama sings high. Daddy sings low. Snazzy-jazzy Baby says, “GO, MAN, GO!” So they TOOT-TOOT-TOOT and they  SNAP-SNAP-SNAP and the bouncin’ baby bebops with a CLAP-CLAP-CLAP!” R. Gregory Christie’s gouache illustrations bring further music to the page with their depictions of a multi-generational family passing around a happy, spunky baby. Warm colors outlined in broad-stroked lines that contrast against plentiful whitespace, these paintings carry forth the playfulness and energy of the narrative. As the story winds down and the “Drowsy-dozy Baby” drifts off to sleep to the soothing arms, smiles, and voices of his family, readers will be reluctant to return from this imaginative celebration of music and love that transports and inspires.

Audience: I would recommend this book to readers ages 1-8. A perfect read-aloud for a classroom or story time, but with family at the center of it, a great book for the home, as well.

Personal reaction: Picture books that take on music and sound are my favorites, and Jazz Baby ranks among the top of that list. It is fun to read, to actually say the words which tickle your mouth and in tempos that get your body itching to move.  This story is one of my son’s favorites, as well. At 18 months, he dances (bounces) when we read it, and claps and chimes in with an enthusiastic “OH YEAH!” at the end. In other words, he has been converted to a jazz baby, himself.

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Matched by Ally Condie

Cover Image of Matched by Ally CondieCondie, Ally. Matched. New York: Dutton Books, 2010.

Plot: Cassia is thrilled that the Society has Matched her with Xander, her best friend. But when she puts the government-issued microcard into her port to review Xander’s information, his face disappears after a moment and another face pops on the portscreen. Ky. An Official explains that there has been a mistake, Xander is still her Match. Ky is an Aberration and can never have a Match. The Society does not make mistakes, though. Cassia’s entire world — her family, her health, her work — has been formed around Society’s decisions and her own confidence in the system. Now the questions, and the doubt, come slowly, but steadily. Cassia could accept the explanations handed to her and be happy, or she could have choice. She could create.

Setting: A futuristic society descended from Western cultures.

Point of View: First person (Cassia)

Theme: future civilization, government, autonomy, independence, love, self identity, coming of age, family, risk, technology, self expression

Literary Quality: Fast-paced and laced with poetry, especially that of Dylan Thomas, Matched is a thought provoking page turner. As Cassia catches a glimmer beneath the surface of the Society, questions bubble up about love, autonomy, order, health, family, technology, and happiness in the future that will resonate with readers today, as well. Writing and reading are dangerous in this imagined society, and while it is suggested that the role and increase of technology has expedited and eased the elimination and outlawing of learning to write and create one’s own words, readers are reminded of words’ power and hopefully will recognize that the tradition of illegal words is based solidly in history. The division of knowledge to prevent anyone from knowing too much in this civilization is likewise an old theme into which Condie breathes new life. While the questions asked and the answers gradually arrived at in Matched are complex, their delivery lacks the same nuance. The explicit morals and lessons border on being forced and preachy, and can feel at times like a lack trust in the reader. Nevertheless, this absorbing book is well worth reading, and will keep readers pondering Cassia’s dilemmas long after it has been shelved.

Audience: I would recommend Matched to readers ages 12 and up.

Personal reaction: Matched was totally addicting. I am glad I waited a couple of years to read it, because I could (and did) immediately check out the next installment, Crossed. I appreciated the gray area in Condie’s portrayal of the Officials and the Society–that Cassia’s own father, grandfather, and neighbors are Officials and partake in actions she dislikes even though they are people she respects and loves; that Cassia can see how a problematic system can still be successful and produce happiness and meaningful relationships. I couldn’t help comparing Matched to The Hunger Games trilogy, as I read, especially given the love triangle, but with no conclusive thoughts worth sharing for now. I loved the weaving in of and framing by poetry, the subversiveness of reading poems and learning history. I found myself wishing for more discussion surrounding ethnicity and race.  There is a comment at some point about how many ethnicities the Society includes or has Matched over the years, but nothing more than a passing mention. Overall, though, a very pleasant reading experience.


Snowballs by Lois Ehlert

Cover Image of Snowballs by Louis EhlertEhlert, Lois. SnowballsOrlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.

Plot:  It’s a snowball day, the perfect kind of day to make a snow family! But it only lasts until the sun comes out…

Setting: A snowy winter day

Point of View: 1st person

Theme: snow, snowballs, snowmen, nature, creativity, play, winter, family, birds, seeds, materials, textures,

Literary Quality: In Snowballs, a child describes waiting for the perfect snow day and the process of creating a snow family, including the family pets. From the opening page, which asks, “Do you think birds know when it’s going to snow?” Ehlert’s large-print text is conversational, and her collages are big and colorful. The collages also change orientation, using full two-page spreads vertically to depict a single snowman. When the sun comes out, the background changes from grey to bright orange. The the story and illustrations combine to make a great read-aloud where children are viewing the book from a distance and ready to respond to the narrator’s questions and observations. Kids will especially enjoy Ehlert’s edgy, funny snowmen. In addition to snowman supplies such as hats, scarves, sticks, and pinecones, the narrator has saved objects like seeds, nuts, fruit, popcorn and dried corn kernels, washers, compares, toy car wheels, plastic fish, and a necktie. Readers will have fun recognizing the every-day materials, and find great inspiration for either their own collages or snowmen! The picture book includes a visual index of the “good stuff” to save for snowmen as well as information about snow and photographs of snowmen. In these final pages we see supplies, mittens, and gloves from all over the world. The board book edition does not have these fabulous appendices.

Audience: 0-8. A great read for a snowy day, or a day stuck at home, as it provides activity ideas for both indoor and outdoor play! 

Personal reaction: Snowballs is a favorite winter story in our house. Even as a baby my son loved the book, I think because he found the stark contrast in the collages stimulating. The big white circles with bright splashes of color are appealing to little eyes! The story has good rhythm, too. Now, at a year and a half, my little guy still loves the book and we play outside in the snow whenever we can. Of course, he has more interest in sliding down a big snowball than continuing to build it into a snowman, but hey, a snowball is a snowball! We’ll get to the snowman stage eventually. 

Parenthood

Photo of shadows of a family on sandAn old friend recently reached out on Facebook for perspective on having children. She wondered in particular how parents stay sane in the face of things like explosive diapers, extensive sleep deprivation, childhood illnesses, and the need to find and then pay babysitters to do anything without a child in tow. She explained that while lots of parents she knows say their kids are the best thing that ever happened to them, she could not see how she would overcome the aforementioned obstacles. Her questions and comments struck me for two reasons: one, their honesty — I think a lot of people have these questions and wonder why people assume having children is a good thing rather than just the next logical step at a certain stage — and two, I think she has picked up on something. Yes, plenty of parents do think and say that parenthood is the best thing to ever happen to them but not many expound on that. It is a lot easier to vocalize the frustrations of another sleepless night than the reason having a child is so wonderful. Plus, based on my very unscientific observations on the social media I inhabit, snark is a lot more “in” than sincerity. Complaints are or can be funny. Talking about love and joy, not so much (or at least those subjects take a lot more work). There is also the presumption, I think, that parents don’t need to explain to other parents. But for what it’s worth, here is the gist of the response I gave my friend.

I don’t judge anyone who doesn’t want kids. There are as many reasons to not be a parent as to be. (Furthermore, not having children does not make your life childless. Some of my child’s most ardent and adoring fans are dear friends who do not want their own children.) For me, though, having a child has been an exercise in falling in love, the greatest love of my life. There has been all the excitement, leveling of expectations, and attempts to be the best version of myself. More sleepless nights, yes, although it hasn’t felt so very different than college exhaustion-wise and from all accounts will probably last about as long per child. The reasons for the sleeplessness are different, and the responsibilities are greater, but exhaustion is exhaustion as far as I am concerned. However, no other person has the ability to make my heart explode with joy so many times a day. Or my throat tighten as quickly if I see them hurting. To make me feel like a superhero or like the most helpless creature on this planet. I have never had more fun or felt as humbled. The diapers, night wakings, illness, and babysitters, they’re all temporary. There’s probably a reason that those things coincide with the phase in which your kids love you so hard and so openly it can blow your mind. Thus far, parenthood is another type of education. High investment, high return, and the lingering hope that I don’t go utterly broke in the process.

Is my child the best thing that ever happened to me? Yes. “Best” is a misleading term, though. It sounds easy and obvious. Likewise, my “worst” days as a parent, the days when I feel most challenged, still contain more love, joy, and pride than any single day prior to becoming a parent.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Cover image of The Absolutely True Diary of  a Part-Time IndianAlexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007.

Plot: Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, has always been picked on. Small-framed, with big hands and feet, a lisp and stutter due to health problems when he was born, he is an easy target on the Spokane Indian reservation where he lives in Wellpinit, Washington. Luckily, his best friend, Rowdy, serves as his protector. Or at least he does until Junior decides to go to an all-white school twenty-two miles off of the reservation. Now Rowdy seems to hate Junior as much as everyone else, and Junior faces a whole new set of racist taunts at school. Torn between his identity as an Indian and his desire to make something of himself in a broader world, Junior just does not seem to fit in anywhere.

Setting: Present day on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.

Point of View: First person (Junior)

Theme: self-identity, bullying, Native Americans, childhood, school, friendship, family, death, coming-of-age, disability

Literary Quality: Simultaneously poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, this is an outstanding piece of fiction that should be read by young adults and adults alike. Certain to raise some eyebrows with frank references to masturbation, sexual arousal, domestic (and non-domestic) violence and racial conflict, Junior’s brazen and humorous narrative voice will speak to many teens who negotiate societal “norms” and rules of acceptance. Forney’s line-drawn illustrations, which stand in for Junior’s own as he is an aspiring cartoonist, are the perfect complement and add to both the laughs and the insights of this book. Alexie does not shy away from casting judgments on both Native Americans and whites, but delves into the complicated interactions of races, history, alcoholism, disabled individuals, family, and friends.  He takes a profound and unapologetic look at some of our country’s most troubling history and interrelations, raising issues wish high stakes in U.S. society today. This is a coming-of-age story that won’t soon be forgotten, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Cultural Authenticity: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is, by Sherman Alexie’s own description, partly autobiographical. Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit,Washington. Like Junior, Alexie changed schools after opening a textbook only to see his mother’s name printed in it. He, too, underwent conflicting feelings of guilt and shame as well as pride about leaving the reservation. His experiences growing up as a Spokane Indian greatly contribute to the story’s authenticity.

Audience: I would recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for readers ages 12 and up because of some of the language and sexual references. The age of the protagonist (14) also lends the book to that age group. That said, I would recommend it to any reader over the age of 12, be they 16 or 56. This book would work well in a high school classroom or as an individual leisure read.

Personal reaction: I could not put this book down. In addition to Sherman Alexie’s wonderful storytelling ability, I was impressed by his careful consideration of the many layers of complicated relations and mindsets of his characters. I came to really care about Junior. The first time I read this book a number of years ago, it made me more aware of my own thought patterns surrounding Native Americans, and sparked my interest in reading about reservations today. I laughed a lot and enjoyed the provocative nature of the story and topics at hand.


Hello 2014

It’s a brand new year! I didn’t stay up until midnight, but that turned out to be a good thingPhoto of Alex and her son on New Year's Eve since a certain small fellow in my household woke me up at 2:45 a.m. and didn’t go back to sleep until the sun began to rise. So really, I just observed the turning of the year with the west coasters! Prior to middle-of-the-night wakings, we had a blast celebrating New Year’s Eve in downtown Bangor. Our evening was complete with Indian food, admiring the festive lights adorning the trees and streetlights, running around the Discovery Museum (after-hours at museums are the best), and attending a great New Year’s Eve Party at the Bangor Public Library. I am thrilled to live somewhere with such family-friendly activities and festivities! Sometimes having a very young child makes me feel…not like we’re missing out, that’s not right, because we’re partaking in a different kind of excitement at this stage of our lives, but it makes me miss staying up late and being out and about in the evening. So it felt NYE_Hinrichs_familygreat to be out with other families after sunset! It was also fun to see restaurants filled to capacity and everyone preparing for the street party later on. The sidewalks were buzzing, and I suspect that crowds might have been thinner this year even given the sub-zero temperatures. As we scurried from our car to dinner, the little one managed to lose a mitten. We had strategically parked closer to our final destination, and decided not to trek back looking for the too-big mitten. It was just too cold. When our bellies were full and noses warmed, we retraced our steps. And here’s what makes Bangor fabulous. Someone had picked up the mitten and placed it high up on a snow bank, balancing it on the cuff in a little wave so that it would be easier to see. We found it effortlessly. The reason I know this is a trait of this community and not just a coincidence is because this was the third time I have lost something belonging to my son (yes, I know…I really shouldn’t admit that. But honestly, how do babies and toddlers lose articles of clothing that quickly and quietly?!) and found it again thanks to the good graces of caring individuals. To me this was the most impressive instance because somebody stopped in the freezing weather and thought about where a worried parent might look. It would have been so easy to just continue walking. Thank you to that somebody. To all the thoughtful somebodies out there. You make parenthood a bit easier and more forgiving, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

At one point a news crew asked my spouse if he had any New Year’s resolutions (I was too busy trying to cover the little guy’s mitten-less hand to respond), and that got me thinking about resolutions in general. I’ve never been one to make specific resolutions. In some ways I stash them away in the same category of my brain as diets — things that seem temporary and often unpleasant and/or unrealistic– perhaps because diets are so often included in resolutions. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t do that, though. Where I dislike many specific resolutions because I think I would just set myself up for disappointment and dissatisfaction, I do find vague resolutions in the form of broad goals helpful. Last year was the first time I really made one, very casually, by saying out loud that I wanted to become a more organized and neater person. I feel like I achieved this, but given the level of organization I was at to begin with, that wasn’t hard to do! Our house is still a disaster most days, ha. Still, though, I feel satisfied that I made some improvement in that category of my life. Now rather than dirty laundry piling up, the clean laundry piles up! I should probably just keep organization and neatness as my resolution this year, too, given there is so much more room for improvement, but I think there are more urgent things in my life at the moment.

Namely, I would like to work on growing my patience. And I would like to size down my stress triggers and habit of worry.

So there you have it. My shiny new resolution that leaves me plenty of room for missteps and backwards steps, making me feel confident that I can fulfill it.

Happy New Year, everyone! May the year bring much joy and laughter. And, of course, many wonderful children’s books to read.

Photo of an icy shrub on a sunny day in Bangor, Maine

“Mainely” at home now

There have been quite a few changes in my life over the last few months. Primarily, when a fabulous job opportunity arose for my husband, we moved to Bangor, Maine. That last sentence makes it sound as though it happened quickly, and I suppose in some ways it did. We found out it was a possibility in January, knew it was happening as of February, and made the move in May. But those months in between were filled with preparations, flights to and from Bangor, minor surgery followed by prolonged illness for our son (nothing serious, just one thing after another), selling and buying a house, and waiting. Juggling graduate school, jobs (four between the two of us), and taking care of our dear baby boy led to quite a bit of stress. And our son decided to stop sleeping through the night during these months, which certainly wasn’t helped by the aforementioned health issues and our anxiety levels. We were exhausted to say the least. I finished up at work as best I could and made tearful goodbyes to my co-workers. I worried over the precious friendships I’d made in Madison and how lonely I would be in Bangor.

Train at dusk in Bangor, Maine

Train at dusk in Bangor, Maine

But it was all worth it in the end. Brian drove cross country with our two cats and, after living in a hotel for a couple of days with the baby, I flew out with him, and we even met Garrison Keillor on our flight. He was utterly charming and gave my little boy his blessing, which I took as a good omen. Despite my worst fears about traveling alone with a baby, everyone was friendly and helpful, and I, in turn, felt rather like super mom. I had planned and packed perfectly for once, although that was probably the first and last time that will ever happen.

Life in Maine is just swell. We love Bangor, and I’ll write more in the future about the city and all its offerings, because there is a lot to say. Our new neighborhood is fabulous. Our new house already feels like home in all its varying states of done and undone. The summer did start out rather lonely. There was a period where I avoided thinking too much about friends and co-workers back in Wisconsin because I was liable to burst into tears. I felt like I should wear a sign around my neck whenever I stepped out to the park (which is really just steps away from our house, so lovely!) with something akin to a classified ad for a friend. Despite (and probably because of) my lack of such an absurdity, I have slowly made friends. Conversations and visits with friends back in Madison make up for the day-to-day distance between us, and we’re now closer to old friends and most of our family.

View of downtown Bangor

View of downtown Bangor

The biggest transition for me has definitely been ceasing to work outside our home. I miss my job and co-workers something fierce. On the other hand, I love having more time to spend with my little guy, who began sleeping through the night again the day he turned mobile via an adorable monkey-type crawl. It’s funny to think about that now, because now he is walking, running, climbing, falling, sliding, dancing, and starting to talk. But then, we have been here five months already!

And actually, work has even popped up already, much faster than I was expecting. For now, all I’ll say is that I have an exciting opportunity still related to children’s literature. It might turn into something bigger, but even if it doesn’t, it has been a great experience and provided me with intellectual stimulation during naptimes.

Things are a bit crazy here yet. Our weekends have been filled with travel and visitors, a product of having family and old friends closer by again. While always fun, these activities make for a very different type of weekend than our weekends in Madison. Sometimes it feels like we can’t quite catch our breath!  But books are finally making their way out of boxes and onto shelves (organized by color nonetheless!), and we’re finding our groove.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ll have to change my site design to reflect the new locale soon. For now just know that I’ve been enjoying autumn in New England once again. And wondering how on earth it is that I have a toddler on my hands.