“What children’s books can teach us about the value of art, acceptance, kindness, and the meaning of family” – by Mandela Harmon

From the time my big sister taught me to read I’ve spent my life living in the pages of books.  I didn’t grow up in a family that could afford books, or time to read to me, and if not for libraries and yard sales my mind as much as my belly would have been at a lost for the nourishment my soul needed to thrive.  I firmly believe that not only are books a magic portal to anywhere, but that children’s books in particular remind us of what is best and worst in humanity in purest form; unfiltered, open, honest, and without condescension.

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I spend what free time I have trying to help children and their adults, or anyone who will listen, find the perfect book just for them. I dust off classic titles long lost and forgotten and try to lure readers to behold whatever new gem I’ve found and fallen in love with.

Next Tuesday November 29th is “Giving Tuesday“. A day to ignore the melee of “Black Friday/Cyber-Monday” and instead honor each other as human beings by donating to charity to enrich our local, national, and global community.

This week of all weeks, I find myself with four particular titles spinning in my head.

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Each title shares an element of giving and community with a pinch of beauty to strum your heartstrings  and a dash of empathy that will remind young readers of what matters more than “things”. My gifts to you this week are these stories that when shared remind us what each of us can contribute to make our corner of the world a better place.


Picture Books (Pre-K-Age 7)

Frederick by Leo Lionni
Caldecott Honor Award 1968 (publisher Scholastic Books)

Frederick

As a takeaway from Aesop’s, “The Grasshopper and the Ant”, it is no surprise that Leo Lionni (a lifelong artist) reinvented the tale to remind young readers that it takes more than stores of food to get a family of field mice through a long grey winter.

While the other field mice in Frederick’s family toil to gather food for the winter ahead, Frederick seems oblivious with his head in the clouds. When his weary family ask about his work ethic, he replies, “I do work. I gather sun rays for the long dark winter days… I gather colors, for winter is grey…I gather words for the winter days are long and many.”  This all seems so selfish and foolish to his family, that is, until food dwindles and the mice grow weary of being trapped inside until springtime arrives. It is then that Frederick, the gifted story teller, feeds their hearts and minds with the remembered warmth of the sun, the colors of nature, and words to captivate them so they forget their ennui.  A reminder to all that our story tellers and artists give the gift of themselves to round out the variety of crafts needed to help our communities flourish and grow.

Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman (publisher Simon & Schuster)

“They tweet and they twitter.
They chat and they chitter.
But the bear snores on.”

The marvelous melodious combination of words and illustrations in Bear Snores On is what no doubt catapulted the title to become a whole series of books over the years.

An unusual tale of friendship begins with a single mouse seeking warmth from a blustery storm in the cave of a bear. One after another various forest friends find their way into this comfy friendly refuge and gather together around a fire. Each creature brings a little something, and before you know it, a lively little feast ensues. It isn’t until a small pepper flake awakens Bear that things go amiss. Bear seems very upset at first, but we come to discover just feels left out of the fun. Mouse and his motley crew of new  friends comfort Bear and they all enjoy home, hearth, and festivities.

Intermediate Readers (grade 4-7):           

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (published by Feiwel & Friends 9/22/15) 

This book struck me like an arrow to the heart. My sisters and I spent the better part of our childhood as nomads. A single mom working multiple jobs, last minute evictions, little if any food sometimes, and a car we packed up over and over again with our doberman Sugarbear in the back seat along with us.  Just like Jackson we all understood what the anxiety of living on the edge meant, and just like Jackson I too had an imaginary friend to help me through the worst times.

I encourage as many readers as I can to pick up Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate.  You may not know her name immediately, but no doubt you’ve heard of her  Newberry Award winning book “The One and Only Ivan”. She brings the same soulful voice to our main character Jackson that moved us so deeply in the gorilla Ivan.

This is the first book I’ve read that approaches homelessness with honesty, and in a way that this age group of readers can fathom . The book puts to rest rather quickly the dismissive offhanded notion young readers have learned from adults…to ignore the homeless or see them as “others”; adults, invalids, lazy, or con-artists.  Jackson and his family are like most who live on the cusp of being homeless every paycheck. They have an average life until his father was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Jackson was little then, and only remembers in flashbacks the tough times that followed. His father, mother, little sister, and the family dog lose their house as his father’s condition declines, and his earliest memories include the family undertaking a new summer activity called “car camping”; or in their case mini-van camping.

This is where Jackson’s old friend Crenshaw enters the story. Crenshaw appearred to Jackson at a rest stop when he was about 7 years old. A larger than life (adult-size anyway) cat with a devil may care attitude who loves to cartwheel and be mischievous in general. Just what a confused little boy would wish for in an imaginary friend. The only problem is, much to Jackson’s dismay, that Crenshaw shows up again from out of the blue when he is eleven and in the  fifth grade.  As the bills pile up, his mother works three jobs, and the family sells almost everything they own. Coincidence? Not likely. As Jackson tries to comfort his little sister, who now mirrors who he was the first time around the bottom fell out of his life, the reader can really feel for him and his situation.

No, it doesn’t sound like a cheery read, but I’ve learned that there are lots of young readers who seek out books about empathy. They want to understand, just as adult readers do, and be emotionally connected to and moved by the book in their hands. The book has its moments of levity in Crenshaw’s antics, but ultimately the love the family has for each other speaks to the audience in a way that only love can.

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown  (published by Hachette Books 5/22/15)

The Wild Robot

So many books try to teach children about the human experience, but few succeed as well as re-known children’s picture book author/illustrator Peter Brown does in his chapter book debut, The Wild Robot.

Roz is just one of many robots boxed in shipping crates who find themselves dashed upon the rocks of an unnamed island. If not for a playful lot of sea otters and a strange twist of fate, Roz would never become the being we all come to embrace in this coming to life story.

Peter Brown is able, as in his many astonishing picture books, to transport us into the wilds and beguile us with his myriad of sentient creatures.

In the course of her adventures Roz must learn to survive, make friends, become part of an alien community of woodland creatures, and ultimately become mother to an orphaned bird. As we travel beside her it is easy to relate to the difficulty of becoming something so far outside the scope of what we are hardwired to be. As she releases her solitude and struggles to relate to her animals neighbors we are are reminded of how closed off from each other the world seems at times. It is only with kindness on both sides that all creatures, including a robot, learn to embrace one another and realize that we are all interdependent on one another.

This is a story soft enough to read aloud as a family, but also deceptively heavy on a philosophical level for those who have advanced readers. A story worth sharing that reminds us that humanity is more than metal/fur/skin-deep.


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About Mandela:

Born in Maryland and raised a little bit of everywhere, Mandela Harmon is a mother, wife, sister, daughter, and giver of bear hugs who currently lives in Monrovia, Md. Mandela attended Hood College to work on a degree in philosophy. She is a lifelong bookworm, and has worked in sales as a children’s book specialist on and off 15 years. She likes blustery snowbound days reading by a fireplace drinking Earl Grey, hot.

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