Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Emotional Calculous: How to Be Human By Florida Frenz

“Emotions can be broken down into logical pieces most of the time, but what’s hard to grasp is the cause and effect relationship that comes with the emotion.  When a person is sad (the cause), they might cry, listen to slow soft music, contact friends as an effect of the sadness.  It’s a bit more complicated than simply subtracting two, isn’t it?   Still, there are even more complicated situations than that such as looking at an effect and guessing what emotion caused it.  Then, there’s the ability to do that for the feelings of others.  Honestly, don’t you think all those normal people do emotional calculous every day without realizing it?”   
~Florida Frenz

How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl, by Florida Frenz (a pseudonym), is an extraordinary look into the life of a 15 year old girl with autism.  Although her diagnosis was pretty grim at age 3, the work she did with her parents and her therapist, Shelah Moss, helped Florida become more comfortable in what she came to understand as an alien world.  She explains herself this way:



Though Florida was diagnosed with autism and “mental retardation,” her family and support team were able to break down and address each of her learning and socializing issues.  They tackled each problem as it arose.  When at age 8, Florida realized what it meant to have autism and how different she was from other children, she began working to overcome those parts of her autism that kept her isolated from the rest of the world.  How to Be Human is the result of that process.  Moss says, “She is a gifted artist and writer so using art seemed like an obvious tool to help her work through understanding what, to her, were foreign concepts.  Each picture represents hours where we discussed or read about or role-played different scenarios.  The pictures represent eight years of growth.”

Florida generously shares her hard earned lessons:

I still have trouble figuring out faces.







This is a wonderful introduction to what it’s like to have autism, but even more so, it's re-introduction to how hard it is to be human.


We all have trouble with bullying ourselves

You can see there’s lots of humor and insight in Florida’s writing.  It humanizes her.  She has autism, she feels like an alien, but she’s a unique and lively girl, too.  I’ve read her book to 6 and 7 year old girls, and have had a 12 year old girl read it.  All of them could identify with the struggles Florida has with the calculous of human emotions.  The art is funny, inviting and inspiring to them.  I’m using it now in a class on journaling for adults to show what a powerful means of expression drawing can be.
All of us struggle with how to figure out when someone is being truthful.  Florida’s insights about bullies, cliques and true friendship are touching.  There's a rare honesty and authenticity in this slim primer.

If you want to understand what it’s like to have autism, this books takes you right to the heart of the matter.  Of if just you feel you might have accidentally wound up on the wrong planet, it might help you feel like you belong here after all.   



The book is beautifully bound and fits nicely into your hands.  Creston Books is a small independent press publishing beautiful and innovative books for children of all ages.  They're having their books printed in the United States, so that's pretty cool.  You can see their catalog by clicking here




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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Eternity in the Flowers

It’s hard to do a proper review of everything I read and love, so occasionally, I’m going to post an excerpt or picture from a book I love here on my blog. 


This is a meditation on death from the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, which I picked up again and can’t put down.  The narrator, Christopher, has autism and was accused of killing a dog.  He is trying to puzzle out who really did it and it leads to many other puzzles that he was unaware of until he started trying to be a detective.  I like this passage, particularly now, when spring is here and all the plants are reviving and blooming and we all feel a sense of hope being resurrected from the earth:

                What actually happens when you die is that your brain stops working and your body rots, like Rabbit did when he died and we buried him in the earth at the bottom of the garden.  And all his molecules were broken down into other molecules and they went into the earth and were eaten by worms and went into the plants and if we go and dig in the same place in 10 years there will be nothing except his skeleton left.  And in 1,000 years even his skeleton will be gone.  But that’s all right because he is a part of the flowers and the apple tree and the hawthorn bush now.
                When people die they are sometimes put into coffins, which means that they don’t mix with the earth for a very long time until the wood of the coffin rots.
                But Mother was cremated.  This means she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke.  I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral.  But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in the clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.


--Mark Haddon



Thursday, April 2, 2015

How to Love and Care For a Book


I read to children a lot, but I’ve never had a child squeal with delight when I removed the book jacket to reveal the book’s cover.  Such is the magic of the book The Jacket by Kirsten Hall and illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova, published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2014.  Actually, I don’t often take the jacket off a book, but this one is special.

I read it to Karishma, my 6 year old neighbor here at BridgeMeadows community.  She’s become my go-to girl for reading picture books.  Most kids delight in story, but Karishma seeks books out and is always working on one of her own.  She was very interested in this story about a book that is alive.

Not only is Book alive, but he's a bit lonely and in need of someone to care about him.








Finally, a girl discovers Book and takes him home:

The art is playful and inviting with lots of white space


But Book isn't the only love in the girl's life.  There's her dog.

The name Egg Cream always gets a laugh from kids


Book can see why the girl loves Egg Cream, but he's a big slobbery problem to Book, and that dog's always interrupting the girl's reading.

Tolstikova's creates great expressions for book and the girl

One day, a disaster happens and Egg Cream damages Book.  The girl is upset and it feels like she no longer loves Book.  The next morning, however, the girl makes Book a jacket and he is even more special to her.  The last pages of the book show how to make a book jacket for any book you love.




One of the things I loved about The Jacket was that although Book saw Egg Cream as a problem and was damaged by him, they never became real enemies.  The girl, the book, and the dog are all a kind of family, and there are ways to work out things if there is love.  The sweet way the girl repairs Book delights the children I read it to. 

It’s always a pleasure when I find books like this because the children I read to are all part of adoptive families.  Some are adopted into families, some are with their birth parents but have adopted brothers and sisters.  They need stories about creative resolutions to problems. stories that show how damaged things can be repaired – sometimes in ways that make them more colorful.

I read it to a group of children, and before I started I asked them if any of them had a very favorite book they liked to read over and over again.  None of them did.  After I read it, one girl said, “The Jacket’s my favorite book now.”

When I read it to Karishma, it was just me and her.  After I read it, I took off the jacket.



She squealed, “It’s book!” grabbed it from me and hugged it.  “Oh Book, I’m so happy you’re here.”  Then she was quiet for minute.  “Wait a minute.  This is Book.  And Book is a book about a book.  That’s awesome.”

Awesome, indeed.







Here’s a trailer for The Jacket:



Kirsten Hall is a former teacher who wrote learn-to-read books for Scholastic .  She is the proprietor of Catbird Productions, a literary agency.  The Jacket is her debut picture book.  You can learn more about her by clicking here.

Dasha Tolstikova has held many jobs including photographer, reporter, film producer and painter.  This is her debut into the world of picture books.  You can find out more about her here.

The Jacket was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of 2014 and a Huffington Post Honorable Mention for 'Most Charming' Picture Book of 2014. 

The publisher, Enchanted Lion Books, publishes LOTS of charming and thoughtful books.  You can see their catalog by clicking here.  I reviewed another of their books, The Hole, by Oyvind Torseter earlier this year and you can click here to see it.  I will review more in the very near future.

You can read reviews that Karishma helped me with here (Wild by Emily Hughes) and here (Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo).


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Friday, March 27, 2015

Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory

I found a quote on my Good Earth tea tag:  “Life isn’t about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.”  It didn’t say exactly how.  Nevertheless, I pasted it on the front page of my latest journal. 

My journal is my constant companion and often it props me up when I'm sagging with fatigue.  Little quotes like that keep me going.  Since I sometimes write and draw in my journal at coffee shops or in the park, I often get comments from people who pass by.  They often say some variation of I wish I had time and the talent to draw. 

I try to tell them you don’t have to have talent (I don’t), but you need to make time.  Everyone claims to be busy, and I don’t doubt that.  I’ve been recommending Danny Gregory’s book Everyday Matters since it was published in 2003, because it’s a compelling illustrated memoir, and it’s also a story about how to make time for art in your life.  How to create yourself by observing the world around you, drawing what you see, and writing about it. 

Now I have another Danny Gregory book to recommend:  Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to Be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are (Chronicle Books, 2015).



He says:  “Art will make your life richer and more fun and better, and cooler, and less stressed…Art stops time.  When you draw or paint what’s around you, you see it for what it is. Instead of living in a virtual world, as we do most of the time these days, you will be present in the real one.  Instead of focusing on all the things whirring in your head, you will be able to stop, clear your mind, take a deep breath, and just be.  You don’t need a mantra or guru.  Or an app.  Just a pen.”

I’ve always kept a journal, but not every day and often I got rid of my journals.  When I started purposefully doodling, adding a visual element to my journals, it made me treasure my journals more.  It also took away the fear of despoiling a beautiful blank book.  Once I started drawing, doing some calligraphy and colorful front pages in the journal, I wanted to work in it, and I wanted to go back and see what I’d drawn and written.  It’s not great work, but it’s mine.  A celebration of the ups and downs of my life.  It helped me through the years when I had a mystery neurological disorder – drawing pictures of the spine, drawing a network of nerves in a simple gingerbread type figure, doing self portraits – it took the sting out of life.  It made me appreciate the details. It made me grateful for what is around me.

Art Before Breakfast is a playful and accessible book.  It stops time – and it makes you aware of all the time you do have.  We make time for all sorts of things in life.  If we elevate our own creative needs to the level of say, washing the dishes, then we create the time we need.  Keeping a little book to draw and write in close by makes it easy to take the few minutes you need to create and center yourself.

If you think you're too busy to make art, then by all means, make art.

First, redefine what you think of as art.  It's within you, truly.

This is not a typical book that emphasizes a certain technique or mastery, it's a book that gives you permission to ignore all rules and just play:

Don't let your brain stop you from drawing.

As for making time, develop an art addiction and take art breaks just like smokers make time for smoke breaks (and if you smoke, take your journal with you


When you were a child, you drew with abandon.  Find a kid to teach you abandon again.  Tell your story in your own unique and beautiful way

If you're afraid to draw a picture, practice calligraphy and writing in cursive.  Develop your own font.

Gregory has written and edited several books to encourage the artist in us all.  In the book An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers, How Books, 2008, he says, “Illustrated journaling has transformed my life and given me the clearest form of identity I’ve ever had.”

Can an art journal really do that?  Everyday Matters was a memoir that told how it happened.  In that book, he encourages illustrated journaling but also tells the story of how he came to accept his life after his beloved wife became paraplegic  after a subway accident.  The story unfolds in the drawings and his writings.  


In it, he explains there is ALWAYS something to draw


Years later, his illustrated journals kept him afloat while grieving for the loss of his wife in the stunning and profound A Kiss Before You Go, which I reviewed here and I encourage you to read.  It helped me understand more about grief and how to honor it. 




If you haven’t started drawing or keeping a journal, I urge you to read Art Before Breakfast.  It’s an invitation to make your world more vivid, playful and beautiful.  The instructions will lead you to judge yourself less harshly and celebrate your unique style and story. 

I'm much more likely to draw the empty plate after I've eaten

Writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau said, “After the writer’s death, reading his journal is like receiving a long letter.”  There are so many of my ancestors I would have loved to get a letter from.  Don’t let your life slip by, or wind up being a pristine blank book.  Encourage yourself and start to draw.  Create yourself.  Let Art Before Breakfast nourish the urge to leave your mark in the world, if not for your heirs, then for yourself.  It’s a gift you can give yourself that will reveal the treasure all around you.


You can find out more about Danny Gregory at http://dannygregorysblog.com/  He's got lots of encouraging articles and has a presence on both Facebook and Twitter.  Get to know his work, then get drawing.  

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I'm linking this post to Paint Party Friday.  Click the link and find a whole list of artist who are living creatively and have made art a part of their lives.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's in a Dress?

Some books come along at just the right time.  I read to kids Bridge Meadows, an intergenerational community supporting families adopting children from the foster care system,  I live there and serve as a mentor.  One of the boys here has, at age 5, had an identity revelation.  He says he is not a he or she, a boy or a girl.  He likes playing ball and drawing, he likes pink and wearing dresses.  His mother is supporting him in figuring out who he is on his own terms, so some days he wears pants and some days he wears dresses. 

As soon as she let him choose his own clothes, she noticed his behavior changed, he grew more confident, a part of him blossomed that he’d held tightly under control.  It was amazing to see.

Still, outside of his loving family and community, there isn’t a lot of support for a boy who wants to wear dresses.  There is outright disdain and worse.  It’s a worrisome situation.  

When his mother reached out to the community to explain their choices for her son, I’d recently read about the book Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, by Chistine Baldacchino and illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant on the altogether exuberant blog Brain Pickings

I immediately got the book to share with him.  It’s a sweet and moving story of a complex boy who, in spite, of being teased, holds on to his love of a tangerine dress that he discovers in the dress-up center at school.  The dress reminds him of his mother’s hair, his cat, tigers and the sun.


Morris Micklewhite likes to paint, do puzzles and sing loud during circle time.  That’s all fine.  It’s his love of the tangerine dress that causes him trouble.  But it’s such a fantastic dress!



My young friend loved the dress, was upset at the bullying,
Malenfant's illustration incorporate a lot of white space when the action is stark


It gets so bad that Morris eventually get sick with a tummy ache.

The mother's worried look is so touching

But while he's thinking things out, he begins to dream and finds his way to self-acceptance.

I love way the art is drawn as if by Morris



And his pride

When his friends won't let him play with them, Morris creates his own rocket ship, one so cool that the other kids come to him to play.   The dress doesn't matter, it's Morris's sense of adventure that draws the other kids to him.

My friend thought it was really cool to see a boy in storybook who was like him. "I've never seen a book like this before.  I like it." The bullying made him mad, but he was so glad Morris kept wearing the dress.  
He wanted a closer look at all the picutres

I’ve been impressed at how my friend is so sure of his need to wear dresses at such a young age.  He’s teaching me a lot about when personality and identity start, if it isn’t pushed down by shame and shock.

I also read this book to a group of girls and boys.  When I showed it and read the title, one of the girls said, “But he’s a boy!”  As I read the book, though, and Morris started getting teased, the kids all commented about how mean that was.  The dress didn’t matter.  

We talked about what made something for a girl – dolls, pink, dresses—and something for a boy – action figures, beyblades, football.  We found no real reason why things are for girls or boys.  They all knew girls who were “tomboys,” but not boys who liked dresses.  They didn’t see any reason why boys shouldn’t wear dresses.  The girls felt good that they were able to wear whatever they wanted.  Why shouldn’t boys?  This is a great book to open a conversation about what bullying is, and how it hurts the person who is being bullied.  It shows that a person who is different is non-threatening, and often a lot of fun.

On another note, all the kids were impressed with the fun things that Morris Micklewhite got to do at school.  None of the children I've read the book to have painting stations, singing circles, or dress-up centers.  The author and illustrator of this book are Canadian.  It's published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, a wonderful Canadian publisher.  (Look at their catalog here.)  It makes me wonder if there is  more emphasis on creativity in Canadian schools.  Hmmmm.

Chistine Baldacchino is a graphic artist and web designer with a background in early childhood education.  This is her first book. She lives with her husband in Toronto. Isabelle Malenfant has illustrated more than a dozen children's books.  She lives with her family in Montreal.

Sometimes, these days, when I see young men in their very loose, long shirts and sagging trousers, I wonder why they don’t make a transition to tunics and dresses.  It’s only random cultural associations that make garments, colors, and styles seem male or female.  I now know several parents who are allowing their boys to wear dresses.  Will they face the same kind of bullying that they would have in the past?  Are we evolving a little bit out of our strict sense of what is appropriate dress? 


I think back to the furor it caused when women began to wear pants.  And in places on our beloved planet, pants are still illegal garments for women.  What a strange world.  But books like Morris Micklewhite envision a world a bit less strange, a little more colorful and kind.  I like that story.


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Friday, March 13, 2015

Wild and Happy

I often read with my 6 year old neighbor Karishma, here at Bridge Meadows community.  Last week, she came over and urgently asked for the book Wild by Emily Hughes.  Her shoulders were scrunched up to her ears.  I quickly found the book.  She flipped to the back and read the last page out loud.  “You cannot tame something so happily wild.”
Her shoulders relaxed and she sighed.  She then read the whole book again.

It’s been her favorite book for about a month now.  Even though she doesn’t really want to eat raw salmon from a river or sleep in a tree, she identifies with wanting to be wild.

The day she so urgently needed to see the ending was her first back at school after a week off.  She’d had a cold, then impetigo.  She got a toothache which required a visit to the dentist.  Her first day back at school didn’t go well.  I didn’t get the details but I was happy that she sought relief in a book. 


Wild tells the story of a girl who has known nothing but nature since birth.

“No one remembered how she came to the woods, but all knew it was right. 
The whole forest took her as their own.”

This spread is from the book but scanned in on Emily Hughes' site.  You get better detail than on the other pictures I've posted

In many ways, this is a Garden of Eden story.  And I think it touches on the same desires for a peaceable garden, something not so dog eat dog, evolve or die.  In Wild, bears teach the girl to eat, birds teach her to speak, foxes teach her to play.



The trouble comes when she’s discovered by humans and they try to help her.  It doesn’t go well.  


from Emily Hughes Site

The girl is powerful enough to know when enough is enough and gets her freedom back.  And she takes the dog and cat with her.  This element is important to every kid I’ve read this book to – they are as concerned about the dog and cat as they are the girl.



Wild represents an idyllic family, where everyone plays together and there are no confusing rules, or school, or bad days, or shoes.

For me, it was a nod to the wild child that I once was – the one who got in trouble for jumping on furniture, climbing trees, and spitting out food I didn’t like.  I was tamed, but I like to think there is something happily wild still inside me even in my fifties (aging has helped me shed a lot of the need to please, and makes me appreciate my inner wild.)

Hughes illustrations are detailed and loose at the same time.  This wild girl’s expressions bring her to life.  I’ve never see such an accurate illustration of a child who feels she is the victim of an injustice or stupidity.  


Hughes' style is vivid and lyrical.  The scans and photos I‘ve posted here do the book no justice.  It’s a Flying Eye book and it’s done in their usual beautiful style with a great binding and colorful endpapers.



Emily Hughes lives in London, but is originally from Hilo, Hawaii.  She earned 2nd place for the Macmillan's Prize for Children's Picture Books in 2012.  She is a young author and I look forward to the work she creates in the future.  Flying Eye Books is bringing out her second book, The Little Gardener, in August.  I can't wait!

In Wild, Hughes has created a powerful and determined girl.  The girls at my community center who I read it to just love that.  They study the book, the details of the art, and get dreamy eyed about being wild.  It’s a delight to see them imagine a joyous adventure that has nothing to do with being a princess. 

Karishma loves the girl’s hair and big eyes.  And she loved the ending even more than I imagined.  What a thrill it was that she came to me frustrated and wanted to see a book instead of play on the computer.  Playing computer games might have helped her escape from her problems, but reading Wild helped her reimagine why it’s so hard to be schooled and civilized.  It reminded her that life is sweet and there’s a whole world of nature out there for her.

You can follow Emily Hughes’ blog by clicking here.

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