Untold Stories

Untold Stories
by Laura Koennecke
10924747_10203407812172599_3398855842908337277_nWhen I was eleven, we lost my brother Kurt and almost every material thing in a house fire. It was a terrible time for my family that was softened by the kindness and generosity of the people who came together to help us. It was an overwhelming and foggy time, to say the least, but there are a few memories that stick out.

There was all the food being delivered daily. That was the year we had lasagna for Thanksgiving. There was Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s and the special gifts they picked out for us – including the stuffed bear for Sheryl that needed an x-ray at my uncle’s vet office for some reason.

And there were the socks. A boy from my bus route, a year or two older than me, showed up at my Grandpa’s doorway with a huge department store bag filled with socks. Brand new, never-been-worn socks in all sizes and colors. To this day, the thoughtfulness of this gift stays with me.

A few years later, this same boy’s father ended his own life. I cried for him, and I wanted to somehow return the kindness that he had shown my family. So I baked him some chocolate chip cookies. I put them on a plate, wrapped them in aluminum foil and set them on the table in the front hall. All that was left was for me to knock on his door and hand them to him.

They sat on that table for at least a week. I’m not sure what even happened to them. But I know I didn’t bring them to him. I didn’t know how to face that much pain, and I didn’t know if he wanted anyone to know what had happened.

I don’t know what led up to his father’s decision, but I do know that people didn’t talk about mental health much thirty years ago, at least not in front of kids. Thankfully that is changing, but there is still a dearth of information about it.

So why talk about this on a children’s literature site? Because books are powerful. Because they have the power to help heal, to start a dialogue, to let a child know that he or she is not alone, to provide an escape.

Because teachers and librarians can include books that deal with mental health on their shelves.

If you look for books addressing issues such as depression, suicide and addiction, there are plenty for teens. The School Library Journal has an excellent article by Erin E. Moulton about bibliotherapy and an extensive list of books by subject area. 

But according to the Educational Research Newsletter, “School personnel need to be aware that many learning disabled children appear to experience depression during the elementary years.” 

Obviously, this is important for parents to know too.

So where are the books for younger kids? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m curious. And I’m not talking about “how to” books; I’m talking about books with nuanced characters that young readers and listeners can relate to.

And, are we as parents, teachers and counselors misreading the signs of mental health issues? According to the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “The presence of depression in school-age children may not be adequately recognized by teachers. Teachers may be misdiagnosing depressed children as having a specific learning problem.” 

Saying that teachers are misdiagnosing is a bit misleading as they aren’t doctors, but they are often the first people to see signs that a child is struggling.

The Educational Research Newsletter also notes that “Researchers do not agree on which is the primary condition; does being learning disabled lead to depression or are learning problems a symptom of depression?”  

There is so much to learn and so much more research that will be done, but ultimately we need to be aware that mental illness can affect anyone, even young children – either as someone suffering from it personally or someone trying to understand what a parent or sibling is experiencing.

So where do we go from here? I guess we keep talking about it, sharing our stories and reading about it. We talk to our children’s doctors. And we stop being afraid to knock on the door and deliver the cookies.

Do you know of a children’s book that addresses mental illness? Let us know in the comments.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

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Celebrating the 20th Annual National Poetry Month (Giveaway!)

April is National Poetry Month, a celebration of the writing craft that often speaks most directly to the heart and soul of life.

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. – Rita Dove

There are plenty of ways for children and parents (and aunts and uncles!) to take part in the celebration – from reading and writing poetry together to attending local readings and events. And don’t forget, April 21st is Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Here are just a few books of poetry that you might like to try reading with your kids.


Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Published by Candlewick (March 11, 2014)
Ages 6-9


Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons
by Jon J. Muth
Published by Scholastic Press (February 25, 2014)
Ages 4-8


A Child’s Garden of Verses
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Originally published in 1885
Reissue Edition published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (February 1, 1999)
Illustrated by Tasha Tudor


The Random House Book of Poetry for Children
Selected by Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Arnold Lobel
Published by Random House (September 12, 1983)
Ages 7 and up


Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost
Edited by Gary D. Schmidt
Illustrated by Henri Sorensen
Published by Sterling Children’s Books, New edition (March 4, 2014)
Ages 8 and up


Poems to Learn by Heart
by Caroline Kennedy
Paintings by Jon J. Muth
Published by Disney-Hyperion (March 26, 2013)

Giveaway! [Update: this giveaway has ended. Stay tuned for more giveaways in future posts]
Some books are too good not to be shared, so I’m giving away 2 copies of Poems to Learn by Heart through an Amazon giveaway. Click here for your chance to win. Good luck everyone!

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Review: Twenty Yawns


Twenty Yawns
by Jane Smiley
Illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Published by Two Lions, an imprint of Amazon Publishing (April 1, 2016)
Ages 3-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley will have her first children’s book, Twenty Yawns, released at the beginning of next month. The bedtime tale is illustrated by Lauren Castillo, author and illustrator of Nana in the City, a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book. With its engaging story and warm, inviting illustrations, Twenty Yawns is a worthy addition to the nighttime arsenal of soothing bedtime stories.

We meet Lucy as she’s digging a big hole at the beach. We then travel with her as she spends a fun-filled, sunny day playing with her mom and dad and other kids by the ocean. When the day is done and it’s time for bed, Lucy’s mom starts to read a bedtime story, but after such an exhausting day she falls asleep before the story is finished – leaving Lucy wide awake. The dark, quiet house makes it even harder for Lucy to fall asleep, so she gets up to find her bear, Molasses. As she’s carrying Molasses back to bed, she looks back to see her other stuffed animals looking lonely. She drags them all to bed, and with big yawns from the stuffed animals, the moon and Lucy herself, she finally falls fast asleep.

Castillo employs soft, boldly outlined illustrations to set the tone throughout the story. With an impeccable use of color, she transitions the mood from the bright beach to the sleepy bedroom and from sleepy bedroom to spooky bedroom and back again.

Smiley’s text holds its own – painting a picture of a little girl enjoying an exciting day, then struggling to fall asleep because of the quiet, “mysterious” atmosphere that descends upon a house at night. From the opening line to the very end, you could read the story without the illustrations and still see the scene in your mind’s eye.

The combined strength of the illustrations and storytelling, plus its gentle tone, makes Twenty Yawns an excellent choice for exploring the theme of nighttime fright with a child. And it’s enjoyable to read.

Diversity in children’s books is a hot topic right now, and rightfully so. The We Need Diverse Books™ organization makes the case that all children should be able to find books that allow them to see themselves in the story. The fundamental story in Twenty Yawns could be any child, but the illustrator, writer and publisher have done a great service for our culture at-large by simply making the family in the story bi-racial. Kudos!

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Interested in Lauren Castillo’s work? Here are links to some of her other books:


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Review: The Almost Terrible Playdate


The Almost Terrible Playdate
by Richard Torrey
Published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers (February 16, 2016)
Ages 3 – 7

My Rating: 3 Stars

Review:
The Almost Terrible Playdate starts with an oft asked question among children, “What do you want to play?” Two friends begin formulating ideas about their own ideal pretend play, and as they do they inevitably disagree on what to do. In imaginative thought bubbles we see the girl wanting to be characters that are the most important and powerful, and we see the boy wanting to dominate his stories. Typical behavior for both kids and some adults. Aren’t we all the main character in our own minds? After retreating to separate play areas, the two friends, thanks to curiosity, organically manage to compromise. Who says one story can’t have a ballerina, a circus, a dragon, a race car and a zoo?

The conflict in The Almost Terrible Playdate is cleverly portrayed on the cover with opposing crayon illustrations in opposing colors – a technique that is carried throughout the story. The cover art and the entire story are very accessible. It’s easy for even the youngest ages to understand what is happening from the illustrations. For parents, it may even seem like they’re looking at a slice of their own children’s play experiences. It is a humorous view of two children riding the emotional wave from stubbornness and selfishness to curiosity to compromise.

The reason I am giving an average 3 out of 5 star rating is because it is heavily gender stereotyped. Does it ring true that the girl wants things like Queens, ballerinas and ponies in her story? Does it ring true that the boy wants dinosaurs and race cars in his story? Of course it does. And that’s partially what makes the book accessible. But which comes first – the boy who likes cars and the girl who likes ponies or the images and messages that they receive from parents, TV and books about what they are supposed to like? The conflict in the story would have been just as poignant had the girl wanted to be an astronaut and the boy wanted to be a zoo keeper. With so many gender neutral combinations that would work just as well to tell the tale, there was a lot of room here to push the envelope. While the story provides a realistic view into the world of pretend play and offers a way for teachers and parents to easily introduce kids to the concept of cooperation, it’s a bit too conventional for my taste.

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Take Your Child to the Library Day

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Saturday, February 6th is Take Your Child to the Library Day, which encourages families to take their children to the library with a day of celebration and fun activities. Check with your local library to see if they are participating.

What if my library isn’t participating?
You can still make a fun day out of going to the library. Many libraries have regular storytelling times for kids. And once you’re home with your pickings for the day, you can encourage your kids to write or draw their own stories or act out the scenes in their favorite book.

What is the point when all my kid wants to do is play online?
Finding alternatives to screen time is more important than ever these days. Why not share some of your favorite stories and let a librarian help your kids find books that will be of interest to them? Make it a special trip by topping it off with a stop at the ice cream shop or another point of interest that’s near and dear to your little one.

I’m interested, but I just don’t have time to get to the library this month.
Take a look at this Take Your Child to the Library Day program guide for librarians. See if you can modify some of these activities for fun at home. Even setting things up for your kids for play where they act out going to the pretend library reinforces the value of reading and familiarity with this special resource.

Do you have a regular habit of taking your kids to the library? If so, what drives you to make it a part of your lives? If not, what’s holding you back? Let me know in the comments section.

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Review: By Mouse & Frog


By Mouse & Frog
by Deborah Freedman
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers (April 14, 2015)
Age 3-5

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
What happens when two friends or two siblings are complete opposites? How do they relate? When one is quiet and careful and the other is rambunctious and unfettered, it’s not always easy for them to get along, but sometimes opposites come together to create a real friendship.

One morning, Mouse wakes up and starts writing a story. As Mouse begins, Frog bounces onto the scene, wanting to help. Frog wildly adds kings and dragons and melting ice cream to Mouse’s story, which had barely begun. When it all turns to chaos, it is just too much for Mouse. Mouse explodes and shouts at Frog. Frog is hurt, but they manage a truce. Mouse begins the story again. This time Mouse finally gets to the part where Frog is part of the story, but that’s not enough for Frog. Frog aches to add elements to the story. Mouse obliges, but makes suggestions to keep things a little more down-to-earth. Together they create a colorful, magical story they are both happy with.

By Mouse & Frog explores themes like cooperation and mutual respect in a way that is natural. The dialogue between Frog and Mouse sounds a lot like how real children talk when they’re playing together, yet in a structured story. Anyone with multiple children will see their most wild, free-spirited child in Frog and their most subdued, restrained child in Mouse. The text is subtly humorous, and the illustrations are soft and endearing. Mouse and Frog are the kind of relatable, charming characters that would be good in a series (think Frog and Toad for younger kids), but unless the author has plans for this, we’ll just have to be content with this delightful story about two friends learning to play nicely with each other in order to create a masterpiece.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Review: Be a Friend


Be a Friend
by Salina Yoon
Published by Bloomsbury (January 5, 2016)
Ages 3-6

My Rating: 5 Stars

Review:
The cover of Be a Friend wears its heart on its sleeve, so to speak. The heart of the story is clearly about a friendship between a regular-looking girl and boy who is a little bit different. The intriguing part is that the boy is so outwardly offbeat. I couldn’t help but wonder how a mime would get along in the world of chatty children and rough-and-tumble play.

Dennis doesn’t speak. To express himself, he acts out scenes. While the other children show-and-tell, Dennis puts on his wordless show. When the other children climb a tree, Dennis stands tall and lets a bird rest on his branches. Because Dennis is silent and a bit different, the other children barely see him and he is lonely. One day, when Dennis kicks an imaginary ball, it is caught by a girl named Joy. Even though Joy talks to the other kids and likes to play in the tree like the other kids, she also understands Dennis and becomes his friend by miming with him. Eventually, Joy’s friendship and understanding opens the eyes of the other children – they see and play with Dennis, too.

Every time I read this book, I fall in love with the illustrations a little bit more. I love how Joy is quietly noticing Dennis all along. I love how the red heart Dennis wears on his black-and-white striped shirt suddenly appears pinned on Joy’s dress after a few spreads of them miming together. And, I love how the expressions on Dennis’ face are spot on.

There will always be children who are a bit different from their peers. They may not fit in as well because they’re quiet or they look different or they come from a different culture or economic background. While sometimes it’s not easy to understand others who are different, it is a great kindness to simply try – to look at another person and see their humanity inside.

Dennis isn’t a monster, he’s a regular boy with a different way of expressing himself. Because another child looked and accepted him for who he is, he was spared from loneliness and the rest of the world got to see and appreciate his uniqueness.

Be a Friend is a hopeful book. And, I hope it makes its way into the hands of many children.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.