PCP Two of Hearts: The Thing About Luck

the thing about luckThe Thing About Luck

by Cynthia Kadohata, with illustrations by Julia Kuo

Atheneum, 2013

I am a huge fan of Cynthia Kadohata’s work. Huge. I was on the committee that selected Kira-Kira, her first book for children, as the 2005 Newbery Medal winner, and I have loved every subsequent book. There is a quiet, raw honesty that runs through her writing, a transparency of language that sneaks up on you and, out of events that seem mundane, delivers something exquisite and profound. It’s like magic.

The Thing About Luck tells the story of a Japanese American farming family toiling amidst a flurry of bad luck. Sunny’s parents have been called away to Japan on emergency family business, leaving Sunny and her little brother Jaz in the care of her grandparents Obaachan and Jiichan, saddled with the back-breaking work of itinerant, contract wheat harvesting. Kadohata paints the circumstances in vivid, albeit plainspoken detail: Sunny’s fear of mosquitoes (she had malaria once); Jaz’s difficulty connecting; Obaachan’s strict, traditional ways; Jiichan’s tireless effort; and an impossibly thorough explanation farm machinery. And somehow, in the spaces between these definitions and explanations, she offers a tender, immediate, indelible portrait of family that is as touching as it is unique. These are people who love one another deeply, and Kadohata’s ability to show us that love, in the conflicts and struggles that would threaten it, is simply staggering.

When You Wander: A Search-and-Rescue Dog Story

when you wanderWhen You Wander: A Search-and-Rescue Dog Story

by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mary Morgan

Henry Holt, 2013

“If you are lost, stay in one place. Hug a tree. Think of me.”

On paper everything about this sounds didactic and cloying, in the sort of way that might give one a headache and a toothache at the same time. A sniffing school graduate offers help to would-be lost children to keep them safe and get them found. Her first person (first canine?) exposition outlines specific procedures to be undertaken by a lost toddler matched to the dog’s skills and knowledge.

And it is sweet, make no mistake, and not without purpose.

But it is so much more than that. The language is warm and clear, presenting the instructions in an easy, friendly way, studded with details of particular meaning to a child. It is lilting and confident and happy on the tongue, broken like verse to reinforce its poetic rhythms to the reader-alouder. The toddler in question is shown in the rescue dog’s imagination, doing toddlery things that leave an indelible olfactory trail. The pictures themselves, soft and unapologetically accessible, establish a tone of security and success. And so children understand being lost in terms of the dog’s expertise, not the danger the dfficulty represents. In a final spread the roles are switched, as the child, now safe home in bed, dreams of her rescuer in a dream bubble of her own.

Above all, though, this is a story. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment reading this aloud to a group of children, not because it contains important information that all children need to hear, but because it is purely delightful. Would that more books built on a message could be so.

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012

For a dog owner, it’s always a fascinating exercise to see what your pet notices. You pick up the house keys and she’s at the door; simply raise your eyebrows and her ears are pricked up in anticipation. A dog’s job is above all observing her humans, and we’re amazed by what she notices.

Yet nothing tops our own species as the reigning champions of observation. When we’re paying attention, we see everything: the slight tightness in a boss’s face, or the averted eyes of a suspicious stranger. The key is the paying attention part. In psychology experiments, a subject might be “primed” for a test by viewing significant words or images. In life, our past experiences teach us what to look out for.

One for the Murphys is a story about seeing. Twelve-year-old Carley Connors keeps much to herself, but the reader sees she’s a pro at observation, especially of her foster family:

“Michael Eric comes in with his hand tucked into his armpit. His mother drops to the floor like someone has kicked her behind the knees, but she lands gently, holding out her arms, and he melts into them.”

From smiling photos, neatly arranged pantry supplies, and especially the warm gestures and touches exchanged between the Murphys, Carley sees she doesn’t belong. She sees other things, too: moments of tension, worry, and anger. To another’s eyes, these might be normal moments of stress for a family, especially a new foster family. But to Carley, every frown is evidence that she is unwanted. Every hand reaching out is a potential slap, and she reflexively flinches. Although she has a keen eye for observation, her perception is skewed.

Through fragments of memory, the reader starts to see why: the last thing Carley saw before she woke up in the hospital was her stepfather raising his fists to beat her, and her mother holding her down. Carley, believing strength and emotion are mutually exclusive, doesn’t share this information readily with the people she encounters. Without all the facts, these other characters make their own judgments: a police officer sees her as an instigator; a classmate, seeing only the new clothes Mrs. Murphy has purchase for Carley, thinks she’s a mindless clone of any other kid. But the reader is granted the most accurate view. In seeing each person’s mistakes in perception, including Carley’s, we start to wonder about the people we see and the judgments we make. There’s almost always more to the story – in One for the Murphys and in life – and it isn’t always something that we great observers can clearly see.

My Family Valentine

When I was growing up, Valentine’s Day was the biggest holiday going. The Valentine’s Day Peacock would administer the annual treasure hunt, hiding construction paper hearts around the house, each with a different clue on it, in Latin, and it fell to me and my sisters to hunt them down, translating one to lead to the next, and so on. Each of us was assigned a different color heart (lest they get confused) and as we grew older, the clues became more difficult and more plentiful. The trail invariably ended with particular paydirt: a cellophane-wrapped, heart-shaped box of chocolates and a pair of pink socks. I believe this went on all through our high school years (though my sister swears it was the Valentine’s Day Aardvark, so my memory may not be especially dependable) and was, even as a teen, a sweet, resonant tradition. To me, Valentine’s day will always be a holiday about family, more than romance, and so I offer you a bevy of picture books about family love, in its infinite variety, as my valentine.

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina by Monica Brown,  illustrated by Sara Palacios, Children’s Book Press, 2011

Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton, Candlewick, 2010

The Dog Who Belonged to No One, by Amy Hest, illustrated by Amy Bates, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008

All Kinds of Families, by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marc Boutavant, Little, Brown, 2009

My People by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Charles R. Smith, Atheneum, 2009

I’ll See You in the Morning, by Mike Jolley, illustrated by Mique Moriuchi, Roaring Brook, 2008

Monday is One Day by Arthur Levine, illustrated by Julian Hector, Scholastic, 2011

A House in the Woods by Inga Moore, Candlewick, 2011

The Family Book by Todd Parr, Little Brown, 2003

In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco, Philomel, 2009

The Schmutzy Family, by Madelyn Rosenberg, illustrated by Paul Meisel, Holiday House, 2012

Mad at Mommy by Komako Sakai, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010

marisollittle owl lostdog who belonged to no one all kinds of families     my people ill see you in the morningmonday is one dayhouse in the woodsfamily bookin our mothers houseschmutzy family    mad at mommy