Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ten wordless books.

Here are twelve of my favorite wordless (or nearly wordless) books.

I have taken photographs of a few pages to give you a taste of what's in store, but they really don't do the illustrations justice. I've linked each book's title to its Amazon page, where you can usually peek inside the book.


1. The Journey, Aaron Becker

Lush illustrations tell the story of a lonely girl who uses a magic red crayon to draw a door into another world where she travels by boat (again, drawn by the crayon) to a fantastic castle filled with canals. Her adventure continues in a hot air balloon where she bravely confronts danger, makes a narrow escape on a flying carpet, and finally finds true friendship. Reminiscent of Harold and the Purple Crayon, but richer and deeper, this is a satisfying read for all ages.

2. Home, Jeannie Baker

This is a book you'll want to spend a lot of time with. Collage-style illustrations follow the life of a young girl as she matures to adulthood. Each two-page spread records the view out her window, at two-year intervals, beginning on the day her parents bring her home as a newborn. As we watch her grow up, we also see a story of urban renewal unfold as neighbors work together to transform the neighborhood.

The first scene out the window.

In this detail, we see the neighbors planting a tree in the empty lot across the street.

Here, the tree has matured, and the space has become a pocket of green.

The last window scene. The girl has married the boy next door, and together they will open a native plant nursery.
I recently acquired Window, another wordless book by Jeannie Baker in a similar style. This time it's a little boy who grows to adulthood. Instead of seeing an urban neighborhood change for the better, we watch as  his rural home gradually succumbs to suburban sprawl. I'm still a fan of Jeannie Baker's, but Window was depressing (probably intentionally so).

3. Flotsam, David Wiesner

Almost everything by David Wiesner is fantastic, and this is my favorite of his wordless books. A boy on a beach finds an antique underwater camera that has washed up to shore. He has the film developed, and the photographs reveal eye-popping secrets about life in the ocean. Tiny green people live on the backs of sea turtles in cities made of seashells. Sea creatures lounge in an underwater living room on old sofas and easy chairs.  . . Every page of this book delights me.

Notice the electric fish in the lampshades.

4. Anno's Journey, Mitsumasa Anno

This has been a favorite of mine since childhood. A lone traveler makes his way through countryside inspired by the author's travels in Northern Europe. The details in each two-page spread are captivating, and if we look closely, we find visual references to fairy tales, historical figures, and famous paintings. Be sure to check out Anno's other wordless books, including Topsy Turvies, Anno's Counting Book, and his other journey books: Anno's USA, Anno's Britain, Anno's Italy, and Anno's Spain.

Look carefully in the upper right corner.

Anno quotes Georges Seurat's painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte.

Notice anything familiar in the upper left corner?

Here's a close-up of Don Quixote charging a windmill.

5. The Arrival, Shaun Tan

If I could recommend only one wordless book, this would be the one. As rewarding for adults as for children, this is a highly imaginative, richly illustrated book. A man leaves his troubled homeland and immigrates to a strange and unfamiliar country, temporarily leaving his family behind. Everything is different here: the homes, the food, the language, the architecture, modes of transportation. He eventually finds a job, makes friends, and acclimates to the local customs. At the end of the book, we see a joyful reunion with his family as they join him in his new home.

Honestly, though, the summary above feels like thin gruel compared to the book itself. Read it.

The oppression in the protagonist's homeland is symbolized by a dragon-like tail.
He must adjust to a way of life that is unlike anything he has experienced before.

Here he is in his bewildering new apartment.

Opening a box from home reminds him of his wife and daughter.

He finds a job in a factory.

6. Rainstorm, Barbara Lehman

A boy is stuck inside on a rainy day with lots of toys in his large house but no one to play with. That changes when he finds a mysterious key and a secret entrance to an underground tunnel that leads him to a sunny island and new friends.

It's difficult for me to decide which of Lehman's wordless books I like best. Trainstop is delightful, and  The Red Book won a much-deserved Caldecott Honor. (I haven't yet read The Secret Box or The Museum Trip.) The three that I have read share common themes without being formulaic: Each protagonist is a lonely child who goes on a journey and finds friends. I love stories like that.

All alone.
After much trial and error, our hero finds that the mysterious key unlocks a trunk - with a ladder inside!
At last, he emerges into open air.

This is by no means the end of the story . You'll have to see for yourself how it turns out.

7. The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, Molly Bang

A long-limbed blue person follows a woman home from the market and attempts to steal the scrumptious  strawberries she just bought. It's amazing how much drama Bang is able to pack into the story. The grey lady's escape from the strawberry snatcher includes, among other things, a tree to be climbed, a daring swing on a vine, and a trek through a swamp.


8. Good Night, Gorilla, Peggy Rathmann

This book is not quite wordless (the characters say, "Good night," throughout the book), but the narrative is mainly told through pictures, rather than words. And for toddlers, this almost-wordless book is as good as it gets. A gorilla steals the zookeeper's key, escapes from his cage, and unlocks the cages of the other animals in the zoo. The zookeeper doesn't notice them as they follow him to his home and into his bedroom.

9. Polo: The Runaway Book, Regis Faller

This is a rollicking good time. Faller  makes use of comic-book style panels to tell the story of Polo's attempt to chase down an alien who has stolen his book. He makes friends with a princess pig in a castle made of clouds, a penguin who likes to knit, a  genie who grants him a wish, and a chicken who drives a pedal-powered hot air balloon. Even when they were toddlers, my boys were absorbed with all 80 pages of this book.

This is one of a whole series of Polo books.

Polo begins the chase.

The penguin and the chicken fall in love at first sight.

10. In the Town, All Year 'Round, Rotraut Susanne Berner

I find this book to be utterly irresistible. It's divided into four sections: winter, spring, summer, fall. Each detailed two-page spread shows a scene from a little town and its surrounding countryside. Then those scenes are revisited in each season of the year.

This is another not-quite-wordless book: The author prefaces each of the four sections by naming some of the characters and giving us clues about what to look for (e.g. "Where is Hannah taking such a large present?"). Some story lines continue throughout the pages of one particular season: In the winter pages, a girl and her father try to catch their escaped parrot. Other stories continue through the whole year. A new school is built. A baby gets bigger. A romance blossoms.

This is the moment that our couple of interest meet. On the next page, she will bandage his hand.

Three other books deserve an honorable mention:

Noah's Ark, Peter Spier

Peter Spier paints Noah and the animals with a sort of gentle humor that charms me in spite of my Noah phobia. This is a Caldecott Medal winner.

Deep in the Forest, Brinton Turkle

This is a fun twist on the Goldilocks story. This time, it's a little bear that makes its way into a human family's house, sampling their porridge, sitting in their chairs, and trying out their beds.

You Can't Take a Balloon Into the National Gallery, Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Glasser

While a little girl visits the National Gallery of Art with her grandmother, her helium filled balloon escapes, taking us on a tour of downtown D.C.

What books would you add to the list?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Having fun spelling words with Bananagrams tiles.

My first grader has had only one list of spelling words to learn so far this year. They seemed pretty easy to me: I, we, here, like, play, school, little. But spelling is not something that comes naturally to Johnny, and he resented having to practice his words repeatedly.

Until we got out our Bananagrams set.


Any set of letter tiles will do, but Bananagrams tiles work well because there are so many of them that you're less likely to run out of the more frequently used letters.

Since Johnny was having a particularly hard time with the words play and little, I wanted to target those without inducing boredom and frustration.

First, I challenged Johnny to unscramble the word play.


Once Johnny could unscramble those letters with ease, I added distractor letters. I tried to use letters that might actually fool him into thinking they're part of the word. I started with one extra letter, then worked up to something like this:

We did the same thing for little.


Notice that the distractor letters below give Johnny plausible ways to misspell the word. Littil, lettle and littlle almost look right. (You could, of course, throw in something obviously out of place, like a Z or a K just for fun.)

This repetitive practice felt like play — no, it was play — and I was surprised at how well it worked. Johnny loved being challenged to unscramble the letters faster, or with even more distractor letters. He loved boasting that spelling was becoming "too easy." And when I brought out the bananagrams several weeks later for a spelling review, he was excited.

When we got tired of unscrambling letters, we also liked doing this:

But we liked this even more:

Trying to fit as many of his spelling words together as possible, Scrabble style, turned out to be a big hit. Johnny was fascinated with connecting the words, and I think that I may have a future Scrabble player in the family.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A respectful parody of the BYU-Idaho president's dress code letter.

With apologies to President Kim B. Clark, president of Brigham Young University, Idaho, who wrote the letter that inspired this one.  

Find the link to the story that Fox News did on President Clark's letter and the ensuing reaction here. It includes the complete text of the letter.
Good Afternoon! I had the opportunity yesterday to put childcare and housework aside and get caught up on reading several back issues of the Ensign. It was inspiring to read the words of the prophets and the personal experiences of ordinary Latter-day Saints. I am grateful for all the people who make this publication possible.

While perusing the art and photographs in the magazine I noticed that all of the contemporary Latter-day Saint men depicted (and it was all) were following a set of narrowly defined grooming standards. The things that caught my eye were that all were clean-shaven (with the exception of a few mustaches) and all had short hair cut above the collar. Moreover, I understand that those same grooming standards are enforced on the campuses of Church schools such as BYU. Men must be beardless and clean-shaven; modesty, cleanliness, and a neat and tidy appearance are not sufficient.

You may wonder why a busy mother of young children with a demanding church calling would spend time on these small things. Here is the reason: This is one of those small things on which big things depend. The images we see in Church publications, along with the dress and grooming standards of Church-owned schools, send a powerful message about who we are as a people. A false impression has been created that the Church and, by extension, God approve of only a very narrow range of personal style choices in dress and grooming. More fully embracing diversity of culture, style, and appearance can bind us together as a people and deepen our understanding of the Savior's Gospel. Discipleship of our Lord Jesus Christ has always demanded our very hearts, minds, and souls. But the rigors of discipleship have never included conforming to norms of corporate culture in our dress and grooming. Broadening our understanding of what it means to be a good Latter-day Saint will bring the blessings of heaven to us as individuals and as a community of saints. I hope we will help each other to be inclusive in even these small, but important, things. I send my love and hope you will share this message with family and friends.

Genevieve Kelley

Friday, June 20, 2014

Mormons, we need more kindness.

If you're a Mormon, your Facebook feed has probably seen a flurry of activity regarding the news of disciplinary councils to take place in the near future for several high-profile members of the Church, including Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women.

Let me be up front about my biases. I am a liberal-leaning Mormon. I am a feminist. Many church members do not see things my way, and I accept that. Disagree with me? I'm cool with that. Disagree with Ordain Women? I'm okay with that too. In fact, though I share the broader goal of greater opportunities and authority for women, I'm not part of the Ordain Women movement, and I am uncomfortable with some of their tactics.

But I have been wringing my hands over some of the blog posts, Facebook posts and other comments that members of my church are writing. I'm generally in favor of clear, reasonable dialogue between people with different viewpoints — dialogue that includes disagreement. But so much of what I see is not dialogue. It's as if we've forgotten the ground rules for discussing a disagreement: Attempt to understand what the other person is saying. Lay out your arguments cleanly. Look for common ground. Respectfully state your convictions. Don't misrepresent the viewpoints of those you disagree with.

Some writers are mixing their well-thought-out positions and heartfelt expressions of faith with totally inappropriate misrepresentations and exaggerations of the viewpoints with which they disagree. The author of one popular blog post beautifully describes her faith in God, her testimony that He has a plan for her, and her belief that God's plan does not include priesthood for women at the present time. She is able to articulate her views on the complementary roles of women and men in a way that resonates with a lot of people. I respect that. I think that feminists need to listen more closely to people like her and try to empathize with feelings like hers, even when we don't agree on every point. But in the same post, she claims that those who seek female ordination are accusing God of oppressing women (they're not), and she uses the word "whining" to describe what I believe are sincere expressions of real feelings held by real people. By obscuring what Mormon feminists actually believe, she misses an opportunity for real conversation. Instead, she paints a caricature of those she disagrees with, using her words to further polarize the members of the Church.

Divisive words are not, of course, the exclusive domain of conservative Mormon bloggers: I see them coming from liberal feminists as much as from anyone else. But I also see members of the Church who come from various perspectives writing thoughtful pieces that attempt to move us toward healing and understanding. We need more of that. As a people, we are prolific bloggers, and we can use our talents to write for peace.

And peace is sorely needed. Many of the feminists who have been described as "whining" are, in fact, heartbroken over recent events. People close to me are wondering whether there is a place for them in the Church anymore. People who have been clinging to thin testimonies are losing their last little bit of will to hang on. People feel alienated and afraid. Some of these men and women are "less active," and some are very active. Most have donated tithing money and countless service hours to the Church, many have gone on missions, held demanding callings, and raised faithful families. They are hurting right now. And even if you think they're dead wrong, even if you think they're sinners, even if you don't want to empathize with them or try to understand their point of view, now is not the time to use language as a weapon or a wedge.

I don't know how we are going to bridge the divide between Mormons who are "conservative" and those who are "liberal," between orthodox and heterodox, or feminist and traditionalist. I am worried that the feeling of "us vs. them" is growing, when we so desperately need to be unified in love and faith. Perhaps church spokeswoman Ally Isom's words are appropriate here:
The church is a family made up of millions of individuals with diverse backgrounds and opinions. There is room for questions and we welcome sincere conversations.
If we are really going to have sincere conversations with each other, we have to do better. We must say, "Enough," to the sarcasm, smugness, and meanness that we see in all ideological corners of our community. We can be bold about stating our beliefs, but we can do so with respect. We can pray for inspiration and for charity. We can approach each topic with humility; we can be open to new insights. We can frankly disagree with each other, but in so doing we can attempt to see all sides of the issue more clearly. Rather than repeating the sentiment, "I just don't see how anyone can think that [fill in the blank]," we can try to understand the reasons why someone might hold that view.

We can be instruments of peace by seeking first to understand, then to be understood. At the very least, we have to try.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How my high school English teacher and I turned forty.

I owe a great deal to a handful of high school teachers who opened worlds for me. Mrs. Schmetz taught me the immensely satisfying pleasure of writing geometry proofs, of making an argument airtight, and fitting a theorem into an axiomatic structure founded on a spare set of postulates. Mr. Newport inspired me with a passion for choral music and gave me skills that I've used for more than twenty years. Ms. Bradley gave me the chance to be on stage, something that I had always dreamed of doing. Ms. Paslawsky introduced me to Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, and Mary Shelley. I loved her class, and I remember every novel we read together.

In twelfth grade, Ms. Snyder was my AP English teacher.

One of the earliest memories I have of Ms. Snyder happened on the day she turned forty. Mr. Newport led the Chamber Singers up the stairs, down the hall, and into her classroom to sing "Happy Birthday." He announced her age in a stage whisper and then kissed her on the cheek. I don't know what Ms. Snyder thought of so brash a performance, but she received us with her characteristic grace. People whispered that she had recently gotten engaged, and we ogled the ring on her hand. I was still a junior, but I knew who she was — everybody did — and I knew that she would be my teacher the next year. I had spoken with Ms. Snyder several times, and I was looking forward to taking her class, but I did not know then how far-reaching her influence on my life would be.

Ms. Snyder wasn't flashy: there were no Smart Boards back then, and she didn't prepare multimedia presentations. She wasn't particularly dramatic: there was enough drama unfolding in the literature that we were reading. She mostly stood at the front of the classroom and made us think. We learned how to be better writers and better readers, how to look for layers of meaning in a literary passage and how to make thoughtful comments in a discussion. As we dove into the Western cannon, I had the sense that we had tapped into a deep reservoir of human experience, full of tragedy, love, horror, and beauty.

We knew that Ms. Snyder cared about us. She came to our plays and concerts and to the high school prom. She congratulated us on our extracurricular accomplishments and empathized with us when we struggled. She listened carefully to our contributions to class discussions and treated us with genuine respect and affection. She reminded us of the polite, intelligent, decent people she knew we could be. On the last day of class, before we graduated and went our separate ways, she presented us with a poem that she had written, one verse for each student in the class.

Seven years later, just before I started teaching high school, I found Ms. Snyder's phone number. I took a deep breath and called her, hoping that she would remember me. (She did.) I wanted to ask her how she had been such a good teacher, and how I could be a good teacher. I had dozens of questions, and she had answers. By this time, she was no longer teaching high school, but pursuing an advanced degree and working with prospective teachers. She urged me to call her any time; she wanted me to have a successful first year. After I gave my first geometry test, I called her in tears because I was so disappointed with my students' grades. She spoke to me emphatically: "Genevieve, in the eternal scheme of things, this test doesn't matter. What matters is that they become good people!" She encouraged me throughout that year.

I continued to teach and learned to love it. Ms. Snyder and I spoke from time to time, sometimes letting years go by between conversations. We occasionally sent each other Christmas cards. I talked to her once or twice about my graduate work and possible ideas for my thesis. She congratulated me on my second son and my new house.

Years passed and, incredibly, I found myself approaching my fortieth birthday. How was this possible? I could not conceive of myself as a forty-year-old, and I certainly did not feel ready to be middle-aged. I wasn't mature or accomplished enough; I didn't have the appropriate gravitas or wisdom. I was scared. Usually, I talk through my difficulties with people close to me, but I found it hard to talk about this.

Though we had not spoken in several years, I thought of Ms. Snyder and the day that we had sung to her on her birthday. I wondered how she had made peace with turning forty. I fervently wished that somehow it would not be weird to call her up, as I had the summer before I started teaching, and ask her to mentor me again. I wanted her to answer all of my questions and show me how to be forty years old, as she had shown me how to begin my teaching career.

Of course, I was too shy to make such a dramatic and potentially embarrassing phone call. But I thought of all that she had taught me.

I thought of the poems that I knew. "My heart leaps up when I behold  a rainbow in the sky . . . " And "Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?" And "Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold . . . " Poems that captured loss and aging and being human. Poems that I loved, in part because she had taught me to love poetry.

I thought of her continuing education, how she went back to school and got her doctorate well into middle age. She knew that her work was important and never stopped expanding her skills and her mind.

I thought of her willingness to reach down and mentor and lift people higher. I thought of her love for her students. I thought of her confidence and grace as she taught a bunch of teenagers the power of words on a page.

And I realized that she already had shown me how to be a forty-year-old. Read, study, teach, share, love. She had modeled it for me in hundreds of tiny ways.

The General Conference talk I want to hear.


I don't often repeat clich├ęd Mormon expressions of unabashed, enthusiastic, faith, but here goes:

General Conference is a spiritual feast.

It is not an impeccable feast. There are always a few talks that don't interest me, and to be honest, there's usually at least one talk that offends me. Some of the talks are eloquent, some appeal to my intellect, and some of the speakers are able to stir my soul. Before I had kids, I dozed off during the Sunday afternoon session. Now, I'm too busy feeding people and monitoring the chaos that's happening in my house to fall asleep. Of course, that means that I also miss some of the content. So General Conference is not a perfect experience, but it leaves me feeling nourished and refreshed. By the end of the weekend, a very deep place in my heart has been filled.

There is one talk that I have not yet heard, but very much long to hear from that pulpit: an honest, thorough, nuanced description of what it means to be a Prophet in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to hear the themes of prophetic fallibility that President Uchtdorf touched on in 2013 more fully articulated by our leaders.

Because there is one polarizing argument that crops up every time a controversy breaks over a church-related issue. I've probably heard it — or read it — expressed by church members hundreds of times, over the pulpit, on blogs, on Facebook. Here's my paraphrase:

Either the Church is led by God, or it's led by man. Either our leaders are Prophets of God teaching correct doctrines, or they are false Prophets.

In this dichotomy, the question of whether the Church is "true" is an all or nothing proposition, and there are only two possibilities for the President of the Church: Either he's a false Prophet, or he's a completely-correct-in-every-doctrine-Prophet.

But with even a little bit of research into the history of the Church, we find that Prophets of the past have, on occasion, taught doctrines that turned out to be incorrect. Not true for their time, not true for any time. Completely, totally false.

The most obvious example is probably the Church's past teachings on race. We may rejoice that those teachings have now been disavowed. But though the article on uses the word "theories" to describe the teachings, suggesting that they were perhaps not doctrinal, it is clear from primary source documents that these ideas were taught as doctrine by the First Presidency. Here is a link to a First Presidency letter written in 1949, found at the pro-Mormon website, FAIR. Here is a link to a correspondence between Lowry Nelson, a member troubled by the Church's racial policies, and the First Presidency. 

In their letters to Nelson, the First Presidency reiterates the doctrines of racial inferiority that we find so repugnant today. And they include these statements:

We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the church. They are either true or not true. It is our testimony that they are true.  Nov. 12, 1947
As a Latter-day Saint living in 2014, as a member of a Church that has disavowed the very doctrines of which the First Presidency bore testimony, the irony of those words is almost too much to bear.

What do we, as members of the Church, do with painful revelations like these about the mistakes in our past? In my view, holding on to the dichotomy of infallible Prophet vs. false Prophet forces us to conclude that past Presidents of the Church were indeed false prophets. This dichotomy weakens faith and leads some of us out of the Church. Some stay, but are left with troubling doubts that they are afraid to talk about. Others seem to hold onto the all-or-nothing mentality by ignoring or rejecting any evidence that Prophets made doctrinal mistakes. 

But it does not need to be this way. I believe that as a Church, we are mature enough for a more nuanced understanding of Prophets and revelation. We're ready. And we need to talk about this. Not just on the bloggernacle, not just on Facebook, not just in private conversations. We need the General Authorities whom we sustain as our leaders to help us navigate the complexities of hearing from God through a living Prophet — an imperfect, fallible, inspired, living Prophet of God. 

I appreciate the sensitive nature of this topic, and I can only imagine the difficulty in writing a General Conference talk addressing the issue. Such a talk would no doubt fail to satisfy every member of the Church. It would not answer every question nor clear up all confusion. It would probably leave some members disappointed or troubled. But we're used to that. We can handle it. For some members, the recent talk by Elder Oaks in the April Priesthood session of conference was a powerful clarification of women's roles in the priesthood. For others, it raised more questions than it answered. That's okay. We don't need all of the answers yet. But we need to at least grapple with the questions.
What does it mean to be led by God? What does it mean to sustain Prophets? What does it mean to trust them? How are we to reconcile ourselves to the fact that some of the "revealed doctrines" of the past are now recognized as incorrect and, in some cases, morally objectionable? And what are the implications for the revealed doctrines that we receive today? 

"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part."  It is my prayer that our leaders will be increasingly open about the issue of prophetic fallibility. I hope that this will be a great blessing to the Church, as we wait for that which is perfect to come.