Magritte’s Marvelous Hat: Art Found in a Child’s Book

MagritteIn our eclectic town of educators, professionals and artists, a book that would be appreciated by young and mature alike is none other than a child’s picture book, Magritte’s Marvelous Hat by D.B. Johnson.

The surrealist, René Magritte (1898-1967) is known for painting odd depictions like produce and flowers masking faces, nature in unnatural states, a pipe that is “Not a Pipe,” and stoic men in black coats and bowler hats showering down on peaceful towns, to list a few. His art challenges the psyche to imagine the hidden and stretch beyond reality into dreams.

And Johnson’s tribute to Magritte is no different except it suits the taste of a younger audience. But whether or not you have children, this artistic piece would grace the shelves of any home.

It’s one reason I collect picture books, because in and of themselves, they are worthy and moving pieces of art. I don’t have a fancy home to hang works from great masters, let alone, the money to buy such pleasures. But for a reasonable cost of around $17, I can still have beauty where I dwell. But even if you do own a home filled with priceless paintings, picture books like Johnson’s is an endearing addition.

The book itself is gorgeous. The heavy matte pages are filled with soothing and stunning colors, uniquely curved corners and the occasional velum page that allows the story to twist into unexpected worlds.

Of course, there are nods to Magritte’s art on every page, but beyond that, Magritte’s Marvelous Hat has its own creative turns that beg for another viewing and reading in order to catch what was missed the time before. And in this way, it’s a continuous adventure trying to figure out what is happening on the magical pages of D.B. Johnson’s work.

In René Magritte’s own illuminating words, “Everything we see hides another thing… we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”

The things we notice are always just a part of the picture. There is always more. And in the very act of hiding it, do you realize there is an endless array to discover.

Magritte’s Marvelous Hat is a fantastic romp into the mind of a genius, a creator, a kid immortal. D.B. Johnson makes the journey enjoyable for both children and adults. And as an adult, I am thankful I can afford at least this bit of art amidst our humble home.

Old Book for New Year: Discover Poetry

poetryTo ring in the new year I wanted to celebrate an older book with even older content: “A Poem for Every Day! An Anthology of 180 Poems…” By Susan Moger. There are many similar types of books, but this particular one is for kids in grades 3-5, so it’s perfect for me, a self-proclaimed poetry simpleton. I know, it’s a sad and embarrassing confession for a writer. But there you have it, raw honesty to encourage you to pick up poetry at any age.

Actually, I found this book years ago at a fair, hoping to explore it with my own kids (and the fact that this old lady gets to learn right alongside them, even better!) The book was meant for teachers; but as a parent, “teacher” is simply another hat we wear, so don’t be intimidated by the author’s guide for the intended audience. Rather, be empowered by it.

Last April during National Poetry Month, my boys and I opened this book to enjoy a new burst of words each day. It was not easy — maybe because I chose the time right after school to have “more school.” (Well, it seemed like a good hour at the time.)

“If at first you don’t succeed…” just stop. Take a break. Then try again and again. So for round 2, we will attempt impassioned poetry readings at bedtime. The constant procrastination attempts before sleep should work well for this. And doing a poem a day or every other day will take us well into April, as we join countrymen in celebrating crafty phrases.

As for the book itself, I like how it is divided: poems for patriots; poems about the living world; haiku; poems about people, places and things; poems about poetry and words; poems of beauty and magic; poems for fun. It’s organized so you can skip around, depending how you feel. Some are quite popular, like  “Casey at the Bat” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while others are more obscure, at least to me. But all are a form of expression that can sometimes say profound things in simple ways. It’s a gift to behold.

So in this season, enjoy some good poetry, at any level, from any anthology. And hopefully, maybe quite by surprise, your kids (and you) will discover the magical and transforming power of words — before our eyes retire for the night, surrendering ourselves to rest  and allowing these lovely words to slip into our dreams.

Publisher: Scholastic 2006

Picture Book Review: Ferdinand is Still Fiercely Good

Some spoilers ahead.

One of my top 10 favorite picture books of all time is celebrating its 75th birthday! The Story of Ferdinand was written by Munro Leaf, beautifully and comically illustrated by Robert Lawson.

There is something endearing and timeless about this well-told story with a universally common theme. I know this, not because it was first published in 1936 and is still a best-seller, beloved by countless generations, but because kids (and adults) don’t tire of it. I know I want to read it over and again; and when I haven’t read it in a while, I itch for it and have to get my Ferdinand fix.

So if you happen to be one of a handful of people who have yet to read this delightful tale, here is the lowdown… Ferdinand is a bull who is different from his peers. The repeating phrase, “But not Ferdinand,” shows just how unique he is: he doesn’t run, jump or butt heads like all the others. He is wired differently, to enjoy other things. So when an untimely sting causes Ferdinand to act atypically, he is tagged as “Ferdinand the Fierce.” He is carried off to the bull fights, feared by all the bull fighters. But Ferdinand stays happily true to who he is. Others become frustrated in their desire for a good fight… but not Ferdinand.

And if you know this story and haven’t read it in a while, perhaps it’s time to pick it up again, share it with your kids, whether they’re 18 months or 18-years-old. See new ways to apply age-old truths. Find in Ferdinand: the environmentalist, nature-lover, peacemaker, a reflective soul, a big scary guy with a kind heart, one who appreciates the simple things in life, and an individual, secure in who he is. (And when you find more, please share.)

If nothing else, pick up the book at your local library to simply enjoy a good old-fashion story.

Happy reading to you! And happy birthday to my old friend, Ferdinand!

Later publications by Scholastic

Sniffing Out A Great Read — Middle Grade Chapter Book Review: Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Once in a blue moon, I read a book that takes my breath away. I read (in one sitting) one such children’s historical fiction recently – Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin. I first knew Yelchin as a talented illustrator, so was glad to see his drawings illuminate his story here.

In this simple chapter book, a depth of insight is revealed, not only about Russia in the early to mid 1900’s, but insight into all fear-driven societies. And we should never be so arrogant as to think it can’t happen to our own, should the perfect blend of circumstances allow it. And to this end, “Stalin’s Nose” keeps us on our toes.

Yelchin’s work, drawing from his own childhood in Russia, is not only interesting, it’s important. The book did not win a Newbery Honor for no reason. It’s an excellent read for any child around 10, the age of the protagonist, Sasha Zaichik. But even more, it is a must read for all ages, with each generation understanding a different layer of truth.

To pack in so much wisdom about the human psyche into a short 151 pages, for kids no less, is nothing less than brilliant. Upon first glance, the title seems almost funny and too light to include the horrific “Stalin.” Yet it is the perfect balance of an innocent, well-meaning hero facing his realization of a hovering monster, his own society.

Usually, when I read a book, I am pretty pleased when I’m thoroughly entertained. But in this case, I was also swept away, left with a feeling of “what just happened here?” Yelchin made me ponder and probe well after my first reading. I think I’d like to read it again and hear your thoughts on it as well.

Published by Henry Holt and Company

Back to School with “E-mergency”

Spoilers ahead…

School is back in session! And the books I like to take out for my kids (okay, for me, too) usually involve letters, numbers, and anything having to do with a school setting… in a fun context, of course. One of our favorite picks these days is E-mergency by Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyer.

This witty and entertaining book is full of laughs and puns. Though most of the jokes go right over my kindergartener’s head, he still enjoys the reading. And my 10-year-old understands almost of all it, making it entertaining for all ages, including adults. The younger one chuckles at the comedic illustrations and reading “EMT, IV, ER, CPR, A-OK” letters that have their own meaning. The older one is drawn to the twist of phrases, words, and letters (the letter “Z” is always sleepy, the letter “P” goes pee).

So when “E” has an accident, “No one can use E, including US… Y US?” The “O” then replaces “E,” but it just won’t do – for instance, “Ice Cream” becomes “Ico Croam.” Even more than the chaos on signs and in speech, the disuse of  “E” proves to be sad for all.

Amidst the silliness, the underlying story that should not be ignored is that each member of a group is valuable. Each part is important and necessary for their unique role in the world. And without it, something is simply missing, even downright wrong.

Every letter and Everyone is Extraordinary! Unfortunately, we do not always recognize this until it’s gone.

Published by Chronicle Books 2011

Picture Book Review: Wave

As summer comes to a rapid end, may I suggest a final hurrah… Wave, by Suzy Lee. It’s a story with no words, but full of warmth as a girl and a wave befriend each other and produce, as friendships often do, a surprise.

Being a person of words, I imagine it’s challenging to tell a story without them. But Wave does it beautifully, the best I’ve seen since Tuesday and far more simplistic, yet not more juvenile. The use of one bright color, besides charcoal and white, is used masterfully to show the wave’s emotion and effect. I also like the supporting role of seagulls and cameo by mom.

Through the playful illustrations and telling facial expressions, one can truly feel the subtleness of a blooming friendship.

Wave touches, in me, a nerve that cannot be touched with words. It’s a primal sense that relationships cannot always be explained, but rather and simply – experienced. So like many great stories, this one speaks to different ages in different ways, with a thread: the ebb and flow of getting to know someone (or something) new.

This is a book I’ll come to again and again with each new summer, full of fun, sun, and new discoveries.

Published by Chronicle Books

Picture Book Review: A Place to Call Home


Warning: Spoilers ahead

Seven siblings stick together through thick and thin to find a new dwelling place. The adorable and very funny hamsters learn through their adventures, that teamwork, perseverance, and loyal courage can take them far. They may be small and fluffy, but there’s nothing they can’t overcome. And in the end, they are rewarded with A Place to Call Home.

When I first read this story, it was just funny. I laughed at the silly antics, witty banter, and emotive illustrations. But when I read it again, as second and third readings often do, I saw something altogether spiritual about the plot. I saw myself reflected in these hamsters. These little guys saw life through their filtered perspective (literally with objects covering their heads). I, too, can only see a part of the big picture. My God can see so much more about life than I can ever imagine. I need only to make sense of what I know while trusting others as we maneuver through life together.

And like the band of brotherly gerbils, I go through my days with obstacles in my path and a figurative shoe over my head. What gets me through life is community (of my family, church family, girlfriends, and so many more). The loyal people around me take turns to keep me going, hear my gripes, pick me up when I fall, fight for and with me, laugh at me lovingly, and enjoy the good things in life with me. Together, we find our home in this earthly place. But our adventure, leading to our heavenly home, continues ’til the day we die.

The author probably didn’t mean for me to gain all this through her writings; but I love how God is able to use anything in this world to point us to deeper truths.

Book written by By Alexis Deacon * illustrated by Viviane Schwarz * Published by Candlewick Press * For ages 3 and up