On a Beam of Light

on a beam of lightOn a Beam of Light

by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

Chronicle, 2013

I fancy myself a scaredy dad. My son, who has been with us now for approximately 750ish days, has managed to instill a deep rooted paranoia within me concerning every possible aspect of the human condition. “Is he choking or just laughing really hard?” “What was that, a poop or a toot” (please just be a toot!)? And something I’m certain every parent can relate to: “Why isn’t he deciphering complex algebraic proofs yet?” Unreasonable? Absolutely! Whereas I can look past perceived mathematical deficiencies, I worry away over words and speech.

Believe it or not, other parents have shared concerns for their child’s development. Case in point; THE EINSTEINS! Turns out, even the most (arguably) brilliant scientist ever took a while to blossom. Jennifer Berne’s book On a Beam of Light reveals a quiet, curious baby Albert who barely spoke at the age of three. He sort of took his time checking things out. Upon receiving a compass from his father, young Albert became mesmerized by the consistency of its northward pointing needle. This revelation developed a thirst for knowledge within him that would span a lifetime. Far more inquisitive than his classmates, some teachers believed he would be an utter failure in life. Unperturbed, he searched for answers in books on science and math. Tireless thinking and daydreaming led him to discover some of the most important concepts in scientific history.

Berne takes an interesting approach to Einstein’s story by focusing on his difficulties fitting in, his curious nature, and a love of simple pleasures. In a word: his normalcy. For all practical purposes this seemingly super-natural man was little more than a thoughtful boy who loved music, riding his bicycle, eating ice cream, and wearing shoes with no socks. The author’s clever references to activities children adore make Albert all the more appealing to young readers and listeners. Particularly keen observations and significant moments in Albert’s story are written in large, red ink to emphasize their meaning.

Vladimir Radunsky creates a whimsical mood with static pen drawings which are often colored with ink and gouache paints. Some of Albert’s thoughts and questions are drawn as word bubbles. Particularly effective are the freckled, parchment-like pages which are soft on the reader’s eyes. Images frequently portray Albert in a pensive pose. Depictions of his thoughts and dreams bounce across pages as if they were darting through his mind. One particular spread illustrating a scene made of atoms accompanies Albert’s understanding of nature’s building blocks. In another, mathematical formulas and sheet music spew from a violin played by the passionate genius.

On a Beam of Light is a unique middle grade picture book that allows young readers to indulge their inner mathematician and/or scientist without feeling compelled to learn. It feels complete in many ways. The exquisite, diverse artwork complements the energizing text creating broad appeal for a topic some young readers may consider bland. It even gives fretful parents food for thought. I take comfort in the realization that my boy is WAY smarter than Einstein was at his age. Fellow scaredy dads, there’s hope for us all.

Such Soft, Snuggly, Sleepy, Sloths

Lucy Cooke celebrates the otherwise underappreciated sloth in her book a little book of SLOTH. Few children’s books begin with an author’s note confessing “I love sloths. I always have.” Of course, to my knowledge, there are just not many books entirely dedicated to the beloved sloth and shame on publishing for that. Books about soft, fuzzy kittens and playful puppies enjoy rampant popularity. To be sure, if mice were paid for their abundance of stories they would have started their own colony on the moon (after all it is made of cheese, right?) far from those mean kittens. Who knows why authors love them so. No offense against rodents but even I jump when one scampers across the living room floor. The world’s largest rodent, the capybara, happens to be my favorite but how many books were published about the capybara last year (seriously, if there were any, let me know)?

slothMy apologies…this is neither about my empathy for the under-sloth as it were nor my anxiety from excessive dog/cat/mouse lit.

Slothville shelters well over a hundred sloths that have been hurt or found parentless in the wild. Founded by Judy Arroyo in Costa Rica, the sanctuary cares for the curious, grinning creatures which are lanky in appearance and leisurely in motion. In reference to a sloth named Mateo who is particularly protective of his stuffed cow Moo, Cooke jests, “If any of the other baby sloths tries to sneak a Moo hug, a fight breaks out – a very, very slow fight, in which the winner is the last sloth to stay awake.” Each page of the colorful photo album contains a single image or multiple images of the animals in cute poses a la Anne Geddes, hanging from tree limbs, or snuggling with stuffed toys, blankets, and fellow sloths. Alongside images the author relays interesting tidbits with clever quips on the animal’s behavior. The sloth’s unique behavior and bizarre characteristics will fascinate parents and children alike while the round eyed, stumpy nosed babies in their hand-crafted onesies are absolutely adorable. Besides, with a little imagination they sort of look like mice, too. Envision a rainy evening, scoop up your little one, and snuggle up to a little book of SLOTH.

A Little Book of Sloth

by Lucy Cooke

Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

Mike-Mulligan-and-his-Steam-Shovel-Book-CoverRecently, I had a chance to look at Virginia Lee Burton’s classic for the first time since I was a child. My memories of the story, though fond, consisted of fast paced machinery digging stuff. As a 39 year old child, I’ve come to realize much more.Burton begins her story with a proud Mike Mulligan showing off Mary Ann (his steam shovel both named and personified with ever-grinning face – I love it!) on a hilltop, rays of light surrounding her; tah dah! The story follows their rise to stardom as key members in the architectural development of our country and the subsequent takeover of more efficient machines. While other steam shovels find their way to the junkyards, Mike can’t bear to leave Mary Ann to such a dismal end and looks for work outside of the busy city.

Throughout the story, Mike remains confident in Mary Ann and proves her worth with a final dig of Popperville’s town hall cellar. Whereas the new and improved technology is taking over in the cities, the steam shovels are still efficient, viable, and even exciting for folks in rural areas. Mary Ann proves to be the newest and fastest digging machine the townspeople have ever seen. In a sense, the story on its face seems to suggest that newer and faster is better. Mary Ann and Mike are nudged aside by better technology and in turn replace “a hundred men” digging the new town hall cellar. However, Burton proposes a clever quandary when Mary Ann literally digs herself too deep with no way out. An insightful little boy’s suggests building the town hall around the machine and the citizens, as well as Mike and Mary Ann of course, agree. Mary Ann retires with pride as the town hall’s heating system and Mike finds a less strenuous position as the building’s janitor; happily ever after. In the end, the town hall doubles as a museum to the old steam shovel and serves as a nostalgic salute to Mike and his contemporaries.

Today, technological advancement (especially as it relates to speed) is nearly constant. It’s hard to deny the improvements in efficiency and perhaps quality of life for those able to take advantage of new technology. Just as challenging is remembering how we got here and realizing that older and slower still have an important role to play in the world. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel almost seems an answer to a child’s question, “What happens to the older (fill in the blank) when the new ones come along?” Though perhaps somewhat idealistic, Burton’s nod to the past and progress is a wonderful book for children brimming with morality and opportunity for meaningful discussion.


elephantMy wife and I recently brought our 22 month old son to his first pajama storytime. Unwise in the ways of toddler aging, I would prefer, “He is almost two year old.” He in his onesie, me in my version of pjs, and Mom the only mature, pajama-less one of us set out for an adventurous evening at our library. I suppose I should mention here my disappointment that adult onesies are not widely fashionable. When they are, as my dreams foretell, I shall forever wear them.

As I was saying, we planned to arrive at the library a bit early so B could explore. Unfortunately, a significant aspect of his exploratory process includes climbing stairs at the speed of molasses. Against his wishes, we decided to carry him up for fear of missing the program entirely. Librarians have organized short, picture book stacks in rows overlooking a play area and glass-walled activity room. My eager little guy scurried through the aisles pointing, oohing, and ahhing almost exactly the way I envisioned he would. For B, nearly every audible thing on earth; cars, elephants, trains, cows, trains with car driving cows and elephants, produce an enthusiastic ‘Bbbbbbbbbbbb!’ sound. Naturally, when he noticed the dozens of stuffed animal characters on top of each book stack, the once quiet library was transformed into a bustling circus train yard. I was smitten.

B has little previous contact with other children beyond our nuclear family. Toddler storytime at the library proved an excellent way to introduce him to other people his age. Although he looked to be the youngest of the bunch, he interacted with other children through play, crafting, and dancing while learning to share, communicate, and listen. Not bad for a 30 minute library program. The theme was spring and although librarian shared only two books (for the life of me, I can’t remember them…I was too busy being a proud father; bad librarian!), the group was ready to graduate to building a paper plate mask with lion and lamb on either side. Afterward, we scurried out to the play area for some block building and car ‘bbbbbb’ing.

As we left the library I reflected on the last hour (should I have said sixty minutes?) feeling happy and eager to enjoy our next visit. Strapping B into his car seat, I realized that the chances of him remembering his first storytime when he was say 96 months old were remote. Fortunately, I knew that I would never forget it.

Image from Microsoft Word Clip Art

Thank you, Mr. Stork

Marcelo-in-the-Real-WorldMarcelo in the Real World

by Francisco X. Stork

Arthur A. Levine, 2009

Late to this literary shindig, I often find myself running (speed walking?) to keep up with my fellow bibliophiles. Better said, I’m discovering pots of gold that have long ago been plundered by my colleagues, but finding them nonetheless. Such is the case with Marcelo in the Real World. Content with studying at Paterson High School, (a special school for students with Asperger’s Syndrome) caring for horses and living in his own tree house, seventeen year old Marcelo Sandoval is challenged by his father to accept a summer job at his law firm. Marcelo reluctantly accepts and begins to feel and express emotions that he has never before recognized. As he learns to cope with this new world, what Marcelo once saw as clear lines between right and wrong, good and bad, and the like become fuzzy. The competitive nature and opposing viewpoints of this ‘real world’ create a far more challenging, often confusing reality for Marcelo.

As with many books of late, I experienced Marcelo as an audio book. Fellow listeners can attest to the utter deflation of a good book brought on by poor audio production. The audio starts off slow and I admit hovering my finger over the eject button on my CD player. Fortunately, I remained patient and soon the reader’s (Lincoln Hoppe) deliberately slow pace and hushed, deep tone became harmonious with Marcelo’s unique and wonderful thought processes. Though I have never had the occasion to read a book after listening to it, I most assuredly will do so with Marcelo. Indeed, not since The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Thank you, Ms. DiCamillo) has there been a creation I wished I had written. For those who have not yet read it, try listening to it. To those who have, I offer the same advice.

A Library Lost

Seattle Public Library

Seattle Public Library

I’ve noticed an apocalyptic atmosphere has permeated the mindset of more than a few library folk pondering the future of libraries and cannot imagine it is entirely related to recent popularity surges in dystopic YA literature. Upon entering one south suburban public library recently, I felt an urge to manually shut my gaping mouth. The foyer (if you will) is stories high, endless in square footage, and enveloped with more glass than the Louvre. Stunning? Absolutely. Overkill? Of course it is; to someone who believes the mass exodus from and therefore subsequent end of the library as we know it is nigh. It seems unreasonable to spend already scarce dollars on fanciful buildings to house ill-fated manuscripts. Surely, there are more important things for society to build. Maybe a new strip mall just inches away from already abandoned ones? Did anyone say coffee shops? While no architectural expert, I would suggest that the increasing number of contemporary library spaces boasting impressive price tags speaks volumes. There’s still an outside chance that libraries are doing alright. On the other hand, to the catastrophe seeker, such spending makes for shameful waste in a time with only one apparent certainty: library mortality is imminent. The party is over.

So be it! Car per diem, or is it carpe diem? Sempre Fi? Siempre fiel? Who can say? Alas, I shall prepare for mine end. Woe to he who dares wish be in a shelf-lined fallout shelter donning a scraggly, Howard Hughes-esque beard and early Roman Empire garb (shiver). I, for one, have chosen not to ignore the copious patron masses that frequent these new library spaces. None need tell my family I love them and am hoarding countless first editions, many of which are self-help volumes to ease my transition into a loathsome, lackluster, library-less shell of a world. Perhaps a day will come when mean-spirited, torch-wielding, cyborgs with melting faux-flesh enter our sanctuaries to destroy all who read have come to champion. Nevertheless, I will not go shhhhingly into those dark stacks. Hear me, faithful library servant, I feign no shame in sharing my last crumb with the likes of Despereaux, in shedding one last tear over the quintessential relationship troubled, in breathing the last collective breath of gallant protagonists lost. No, I shall with constant vigilance continue fighting for freedom of the intellectual kind until that shiny, circuit driven, skeletal hand punches through four stories of plate glass bellowing “You are terminated!”

Image from http://www.spl.org/locations/central-library