Owl Can’t Sleep, Writes Poems


Book reviewed:  Otto The Owl Who Loved Poetry – Vern Kousky, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015

There is whole category of children’s books about owls with a kind of sleep disorder; they want to stay awake in the daytime, when nocturnal animals should be fast asleep.  There are obvious challenges to socializing when most other species are not awake.  Some of the most endearing examples of these stories are the Little Owl books by Divya Srinivasen, and Brian Won’s Hooray for Today!


In Otto the Owl who Loved Poetry, Vern Kousky has created a more anxious and insecure creature, one whose circadian rhythm problem is exacerbated, but finally resolved, by his literary creativity.  Kousky is both author and illustrator of Otto’s tale. His portrait of a sleepless owl who finds both himself and friends by writing poems, may speak to parents more than to children.

We meet Otto perched on a branch, enclosed in a crescent moon against a very dark sky. He looks upset.  No wonder, because “Otto is not like the other owls of the forest.”  When others are sleeping, he prefers to read books, although even this activity doesn’t seem to make him happy, judging by the picture of him immersed in a volume of Keats.  Worse, he doesn’t want to hunt mice, but to make friends with them.  Otto’s peaceful nature makes him a literary heir to Ferdinand, but without the bull’s rejection of fame.

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Israel’s 70th Birthday

Book reviewed:  Jerusalem, Shining Still – Karla Kuskin and David Frampton, Harper and Row, 1987

On April 19 of this year many of us celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, the birthday of the state of Israel. There are a number of children’s books about contemporary Israel, its history, and sometimes, controversies surrounding the social and political problems which continue to challenge, or plague, the country, depending on your perspective. I am a proud supporter of the Jewish state, as well as a critic of some of its policies, and I am always concerned about ways to present Israel to children with both loyalty and realism. One of my favorites is still Leslie Kimmelman and Talitha Shipman’s Everybody Says Shalom, though others are more problematic).


In 1987, which seems like such a long time ago, poet Karla Kuskin (1932-2009) and artist David Frampton collaborated on Jerusalem, Shining Still, a visually stunning and literarily ambitious tribute to the ancient and modern city of Jerusalem.  Although it is out of print, because this book takes so unusual an approach, I believe it is worth the effort to find and to share with children.

Kuskin has written a brief history of Jerusalem, interspersed with lines of poetry, although all the language of the book is suffused with poetic imagery.  She begins with an introduction which asks children to imagine Jerusalem in the context of time.  First, she suggests, picture one day, then “three hundred and sixty-five sunrises,” and then try to understand the four thousand years of Jerusalem’s existence.  Beginning with an acknowledgement of Jerusalem’s incredible diversity, symbolized by the fact that “Every morning sixty-four kinds of bread are baked here.” (Obviously, many more today!)

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A Visit to the Doll Hospital

Book Reviewed:  The Doll Shop Downstairs – Yona Zeldis McDonough and Heather Maione, Viking, 2009


A visit to the doll hospital in New Jersey last week with my young adult daughter’s “Beth” doll from the Alexander Doll Company’s Little Women series sent me back to an underappreciated example of modern doll books.  The Doll Shop Downstairs, as well as its sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop, follow a familiar path in chronicling the attachment of children for their dolls.  However, it also offers a charming and detailed introduction for elementary age readers to life in New York City during World War I, as well as the way that immigration changed the city.  A blurb taken from Kirkus Reviews compares The Doll Shop Downstairs to Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy and to Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. Certainly, the happily resolved doll adoption theme of Rumer Godden’s book is in an influence, and the immersion in Lower East Side Jewish immigrant life immortalized in Taylor’s books is made available to a new audience.  Zeldis McDonough even includes a helpful author’s note, glossary, and timeline to guide readers who are probably less informed than Taylor’s original fans.

By far the most interesting element of this novel is that it is based on the childhood of “Madame” Beatrice Alexander Behrman, a daughter of Jewish immigrants who became one of the first and most successful female entrepreneurs in the American doll industry, long before Ruth Handler created Barbie.

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A Child’s Garden of (Quirky) Verses

Book reviewed:  When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons – Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad, Roaring Brook Press, 2016

It’s poetry month. There are innumerable books to help you introduce children to poetry.  These range from the classics by A.A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson to the modern classics by Jack Prelutsky, Bobbi Katz, Jacqueline Woodson, and so many others.  There are great anthologies, some with inviting illustrations that do as much to attract readers as the poems themselves. Even very young children will at first enjoy listening to brief selections for the rhythm and sound.  Even if you have read many of these, you may not be familiar with When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano, and one of my favorite illustrators, Julie Morstad (see here and here and here and here).


These are poems for the seasons, but they are not about Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Fourth of July.  They are, instead, quirky meditations in lower case, a mix of Haiku-like imagery, e.e. cummings, and William Carlos Williams (“So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow…”). The book is organized by season, with each short poem having a specific date.  Nature is personified, sharing feelings with the child narrator: “today/the sky was too busy sulking to rain/and the sun was exhausted from trying.” Some are meditations on the universe and its inconsistencies from the perspective of a child: “if you ever stopped/to taste a blueberry/you would know/that it’s not really about the blue, at all.” Note the distinction here. The speaker does not deny that the berry is blue, but rather that its blueness is not its essence, which you have to taste to experience.  If you don’t get it, your child might.

Julie Morstad’s pictures are, as always, exquisite.

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A Tale of Survival and Loss

 Book Reviewed:  I Will Come Back For You: A Family in Hiding During World War II – Marisabina Russo, Schwartz and Wade Books, 2011


Yom HaShoah, the day on which Jews commemorate the victims of the Holocaust by remembering history, falls this year on April 12.  It is difficult, but also extremely important, to select age-appropriate books for children and young adults on this subject.  There are no perfect guidelines; some children may be ready to process information that others of the same age simply cannot assimilate.  (link to Jewish Book Council review and their lists).  Is it best to focus on tales of survival and resilience, or, in doing so, are we misrepresenting a cataclysmic series of events?  It is dishonest and disrespectful to the memories of those lost to invent a false narrative in the guise of protecting children.  We can only do our best to gradually introduce the highest quality books on this subject and to understand when children are simply not ready.  Marisabina Russo’s picture book, based on the experiences of her own family during World War II, is straightforward in narrating tragic events, but subtle and artful at the same time.

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Poesiealbum/Poetry Album

Book Reviewed:  The Year of Goodbyes – Debbie Levy, Disney Hyperion Books, 2010

The assumption that children and young adults will want to read poetry is reflected in the many recent books that present history and personal experience through verse to young readers. Some of these, such as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace, successfully experiment with the boundaries between lyric and narrative, offering the reader a new way to enter the past. Debbie Levy’s The Year of Goodbyes is also an experiment, a profoundly moving one, in combining documents, conversations, and original poems to make the sorrows of the Holocaust individual and real.


In the book’s introduction, Levy (also the author of a children’s biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg) explains the structure of the book through the custom of the poesiealbum, a volume something like autograph books, “but…much more serious enterprises,” which students collected, inscribed, and exchanged with their friends in the Germany of the 1930s, from which her mother became a refugee.  Reproducing translations of actual entries from these books, images, and interweaving her own poems, Levy has attempted to capture the fear and confusion of a young girl about to be uprooted from the only world that she knew.  Levy creates a complete world, bookended between her introduction and a detailed afterward, along with a time line, photos, and bibliography.  The Year of Goodbyes needs to be experienced in this context in order to appreciate the depth of what Levy has accomplished.

“It is January 1938.
I am Jutta Salzberg,
a Jewish girl
in the city of Hamburg,
between the Elbe and Auster rivers,
in the north of Germany.”

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Islandborn, Brilliantly Made

Book Reviewed:  Islandborn – Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018

April is National Poetry Month, with lots of opportunities for engagement with young readers.   Therefore, I’m going to to take a different approach to a new book that is getting a lot of publicity, but not in this vein.

island cover

For,  Islandborn is not a poetry book…but it is a book filled with poetry.  Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa have created an exquisite tribute to the power of the past, even when that past is narrated to a child too young to remember. Lola, a little girl of Dominican heritage living in a close-knit community in Washington Heights, New York City, is assigned a project by her teacher, Ms. Obi.  When the kids in her ethnically diverse class area asked to draw a picture of the country from which they emigrated, Lola is anxious.  “Miss,” she asks, anticipating a problem, “what if you don’t remember where you are from?  What if you left before you could start remembering?”  Ms. Obi inquires if Lola knows people who do remember.  Lola’s response, “Like my whole neighborhood!” produces a child’s journey through her heritage, and makes her into an artist and a poet.

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Remembering Dr. King

As Good as Anybody – Richard Michelson and Raúl Colón, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008


On Wednesday, April 4, we remember the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s brutal assassination in Memphis.  There are many excellent picture books about his life and legacy, as well as about other activists in the movement for civil rights. As Good as Anybody stands out for its specific focus on King’s relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King and chose to use his religious authority to encourage support racial equality and condemnation of white supremacy.  The book introduces the biographies of these two men separately, emphasizing parallels between the two religious leaders from boyhood on, but without glossing over important differences in their experiences.

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The Cat in the Hat Is Not Perfect

My very first entry in this blog, posted almost six months ago, was a critique of Philip Nel’s recent book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (Oxford University Press, 2017).  Although the book included important historical material, if quite selectively, it ultimately seemed to be dogmatic and marred by internal contradictions.  Now Nel has posted on his blog an assault on the use of the Cat as a mascot for the NEA’s “Read Across America Day.”

Once again, Nel manages to choose only specific examples of Seuss’s racism, which no thinking person will deny or minimize, without contextualizing these within his long career.

Nel has an easy and patronizing answer to my discomfort with his need to send Dr. Seuss to a re-education camp.  I am no doubt “wrapping (my) self in an unreflective nostalgia,” and failing to realizing that “then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts” (Nel’s italics to emphasize the moral idiocy of anyone who questions him.  He cleverly anticipates anger with his dictatorial attitude…

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A Secret to Share

The Secret Seder – Doreen Rappaport and Emily Arnold McCully, Hyperion Books for Children, 2005

seder cover

It is difficult to balance presenting the truth and maintaining a sense of hope in Holocaust books for younger children.  Books that inspire a sense of terror outside of the ability of children to cope undercut their own purpose; they may fail to make the connection necessary to teaching about a tragic era in Jewish history. Books that only present benevolent rescuers or the ultimate victory of liberation are misleading.  In The Secret Seder, Doreen Rappaport and Emily Arnold McCully create the story of a loving and supportive family maintaining their Jewish beliefs within an ominous time.  The author and illustrator neither minimize the child’s fears nor depict an unalloyed sense of security.  Within the story, they emphasize the essential nature of Passover as a celebration of freedom and a defiance of slavery (unlike an unfortunate book that I reviewed earlier).  Though published over 10 years ago, this is a book worth having at Passover time.

Jacques is a Jewish boy living with his parents in Paris, all desperately pretending to pass as Christians under the Nazi occupation.

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