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Can we read? No. 50
Togetherness, chile peppers, bodies are cool!, Stone Soup, and strong women
Welcome to all my new subscribers — I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re wondering what this newsletter is (especially what you’ll receive from me and when) and/or who the heck I am, you can read more here.
ICYMI: last week I released my 2021 special edition on fall — if you’re looking for some new reads for the season, don’t miss it!
Okay, let’s get on with it today.
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith (2017)
A note from Gray Smith in the back of this remarkable book states that it was written as “a journey of healing and Reconciliation” for the horrors inflicted upon Indigenous children (and by extension, their families) at Indian Residential Schools in Canada, in order to “remind us of our common humanity and the importance of holding each other up with respect and dignity.” A poem that offers examples of ways we can hold each other up — “You hold me up when you are kind to me / when you share with me / when you learn with me” — it serves as a both lulling meditation and a mighty prayer.
Daniel’s gouche, acrylic, and pencil illustrations are colorful and expressive, and help convey the message to even the smallest listener that showing love and respect to another person is both a simple and powerful act. That supporting one another matters is an important message to hear, not just as we look at the pain of the past, but as we sit with the next generation on our laps. Raising children is, after all, a radical act of hope, and “You hold me up. I hold you up. We hold each other up” are words to live toward and into as we create, and then hand off, the future.
Green is a Chile Pepper: A Book of Colors by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illustrated by John Parra (2014)
“Red is a ristra.
Red is a spice.
Red is our salsa
on top of rice.
Red is a ribbon.
Red is a bow
and skirts for
Red · rojo”
With their trio of bilingual learning books for toddlers and preschoolers, Greenfield Thong and Parra have created something unique, creative, and refreshing (especially if you’ve been reading these types of books for years ✋). Green is a Chile Pepper covers colors, Round is a Tortilla, shapes; One is a Piñata, numbers — each pairs a rhythmic march of text, spattered with just the right amount of Spanish, with vibrant, painted illustrations that suck little ones in and make these titles ones they bring to you to read again and again. (“Can we read?” “Yes.”)
For an unknown reason this title is the favorite of the three in our house, and lest you think a book about colors is too young for a 4yo (I did), well, you’re wrong — this has been one of my youngest’s Morning Time favorites this year, and if it wasn’t a pleasure to read and to look at, I wouldn’t get it (but it is, and so I do). Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, white — examples of what these colors look like range from masa (cornmeal, yellow) to platos (plates for Day of the Dead, orange) to palomitas (popcorn, white) and beyond, making this a varied and engrossing lesson in basic skills, language, and Latinx culture.
This is a rich, multilayered, purely enjoyable book that works on all levels.
Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder (2021)
I’ll be honest: the first time I read this book, I cried. I’d heard amazing things; I’d seen all sorts of hype about it online; I still was not prepared for my own emotional reaction. I read it alone and I was glad — not because I mind crying in front of my children (I absolutely don’t) but because I’m not sure I would have been able to receive it in the same way, had anyone borne witness. I took this book deeply and immediately into my heart — the place where my most painful feelings about my body (and years of disordered eating) are at least housed, if not still living — and it struck me powerfully: what if I had had this book as a child? I wish that I had had this book as a child.
With this title Feder created what I can only describe as an incantatory love song of witness, total acceptance, and celebration of bodies — something that has not only been thus far nonexistent in the world of children’s literature but feels, finally, like it has arrived in a moment ready to meet it. (I wonder what the reception of this would have been had it come out, say, 20 years ago, and I honestly can’t see it landing as well.)
It begins, “Big bodies, small bodies, dancing, playing, happy bodies! Look at all these different bodies! Bodies are cool!” and continues on for pages and pages more in utter joy, honoring every kind of body — I mean this truly, every kind of body — one can think of. All colors, all sizes, all shapes, all abilities, all ways of being are on display here in one big raucous body-loving party, and I AM SO HERE FOR IT I am willing to shout on this page and tell absolutely everyone I know, including you, to get this book. Don’t think about it, just get it.
(I was, as usual, going to describe the illustrations for you but I’d rather share the publishing details, which say it all: “The art for this book was drawn digitally, with love, by a left hand with a crooked index finger.” 💯 )
I wish I had had this book as a child more than any other children’s book I’ve ever come across, and that is really saying something. I am tremendously grateful I get to share it with my children. I want it to be in the hands of every child, everywhere. That’s how much it matters. That’s how important it is.
Quill Soup: A Stone Soup Story by Alan Durant, illustrated by Dale Blankenaar (2019)
This is a version of Stone Soup that hews closely to the original: Noko the porcupine, rejected in turn by Warthog, Rabbit, Monkey, Aardvark, Meerkat, and Pangolin, tricks the other well-fed but selfish animals into contributing items for his soup, after which he ends up, of course, with a big delicious brew for all to share. It’s an old story but the message behind it — that we are stronger together — is evergreen (it’s such a powerful tale, in fact, that my boss and I used it to write the narrative of our organization’s strategic plan 5+ years ago).
Still, rather than simply adding to the Stone Soup pot (see what I did there?), this title sets itself apart by being so visually stunning — Blankenaar’s riotously colored digital illustrations were inspired by Tanzanian artwork, the wood sculpture of Western Africa, and the costumes and masks of the Bwa people of Burkina Faso. This cultural melting pot clearly bubbled over onto the pages of this book (see what I did there?), making this a totally fresh and wildly fun take on a classic tale. Highly recommended.
Tatterhood and Other Tales by Ethel Johnston Phelps (1978)
Even after growing up in the 90s, I am not tired of the idea of girl power — I will forever be an unapologetic champion of women and girls, and I am still for reviving every Ophelia out there. So whenever I come across a collection of stories about strong, brave, whipsmart women (and they are out there, though not in abundance), I snap it up and hope for the best. Tatterhood does not disappoint.
The tales in Tatterhood are not traditional ones rewritten or modernized by Johnston Phelps to make the women, you know, human beings instead of prizes some prince or warrior or dumb idiot wins for accomplishing an impossible task or saving a kingdom or what have you — rather, they are fairy tales long in existence but buried beneath all the male-dominated ones in various cross-cultural collections. I love them for this reason alone, but no stories win my whole praise if they don’t delight my children, and that’s the thing with Tatterhood — when I read this to my kids at bedtime, ostensibly in an effort to calm and soothe them, their eyes get wide and they often cannot remain lying down, so eager are they to hear what’s about to happen (they beg for this book night after night). These tales turn every traditional frailty, thy name is woman, damsel-in-distress narrative on its head and they are compelling as all get-out.
I fully believe in the importance of fairy tales in their original forms — I wrote a long explanation about why this matters in my Spotlight On: Folk and Fairy Tales, Part 1 back in February (which is worth reading if you’re not convinced) — but there are also times when most fairy tales just don’t fit anymore, or at least, not always. (I recognize the deep psychological influence of reckoning with the darkness of fairy tales but a part of me — the grown woman raised on 90s girl power part of me — also gets pretty dang tired of “and then the courageous hero-man rescued the powerless little woman and they got married and had children, which may or may not have been what she wanted because no one asked her, and she either lived the rest of her life as an object or worked night and day until she died.” That’s hyperbole, I know, but also kind of not.)
Johnston Phelps’ groundbreaking book is both antidote and balm to the HIStory of folk literature as most of us know it, and I strongly encourage applying it.
Note: if you search for Ethel Johnston Phelps on Amazon or Bookshop.org, you will come across a hideous new edition of Tatterhood as well as three contemporary books that claim to be part of a series (they’re titled Kamala, Sea Girl, and The Hunter Maiden). Johnston Phelps died in 1984 after publishing only two anthologies, Tatterhood and its equally excellent companion, The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World — the “series” books are a mishmash of stories plucked from the original two collections and repackaged for Kindle. Track down the original edition of Tatterhood (on Amazon or Thriftbooks) and if you like that one, Maid (also on Amazon or Thriftbooks).
Thanks for reading (especially when I am kind of ranty). Have a wonderful rest of your week.