Personal Space and the Need for a Hug

A few days ago, my 6 year old neighbor, Karishma, wanted me to help her with her homework.  We did a little math, a little letter and word recognition, and a little reading.  She wanted to read her new favorite book, Hug Me, by Simona Ciraolo, published by Flying Eye Books, 2014.
I read it to her a few weeks ago when she was here with her 12 year old sister.  The sister didn’t think she’d be interested, but as I started reading, she sat beside us and wanted to see the pictures, too.  She was moved enough by it to say, “Awww,” more than once.
Hug Me is a remarkable book that tells a complex tale in charming drawings and poetic prose. “Felipe was descended from an old and famous family who liked to look good and always behaved properly.”
It’s the story of the universal need for affection and friendship, even if we are somewhat prickly.  Using a little cactus as the main character puts an interesting spin on it.  He’s prickly because of he descended from a prickly family.  Who hasn’t felt estranged from their family of origin?  Who hasn’t felt at least somewhat trapped by their ancestry?
I live in Bridge Meadows, a community made up of blended families that are adopting children out of the foster care system.  Some families have all adopted children.  Some have adopted children in addition to their birth children.  I live in the senior housing component, and we elders serve as helpers to the families.  I mentor kids, teach them art, and read with them. 
She sounds out all the words, even “uaahhh.”
I’ve read this story over a dozen times in the past few weeks to kids from ages 2 to 12, and they’re all gripped by it.  I now keep it in the book-bag I carry with me when I’m in the community center or else I’m chastised for not having it.  
Since many of the kids have been in foster care and counselling, they love that the Ciraolo uses the term “personal space.”  Many have had their personal space violated in the past, but they still want to be close to family and friends.
They love that in the end, Felipe knows exactly what to do.  His past loneliness has made him a better person.  (In his honor, a few of the kids and I may start a cactus and rock  garden this summer.)   They also LOVE the pictures.  It’s amazing to me, too, how much expression Ciraolo creates in her characters.  Even a simple dandelion has a personality in this story.
Karishma happens to be one of the children who has been with her birth family for her whole life.  She has foster sisters and her mom had a baby a little over a year ago.  When we read the book together, I asked her if she ever felt like she needed a hug and didn’t get one.  She first said no.  Then she flipped through the book again, and said, “Well, since my sister was born.  Sometimes she won’t hug me and sometimes everyone hugs her and forgets me.”
I told her the same thing happened to me when my little brother was born.  Now I know how important hugs are. 
“Me, too,” Karishma said.  “That’s why we’re so happy.”
I’m pretty sure if you read Hug Me, you’ll be happy, too.
Hug Me has been on numerous best book lists of 2014. You can read more about Simona Ciraolo on her website here

Flying Eye Books is based in England and publishes innovative books that introduce children to great graphics and compelling stories.  They published the inspiring Welcome to Your Awesome Robot by Viviane Schwarz, which you can read about in this blog post.   

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How to Build a Robot

Noah Tanatchangsang is a 10 year old boy who lives in my neighborhood, Bridge Meadows. We are set up to help children being adopted out of the foster care system.  He’s one of 4 brothers who regularly come to my all ages art class in the community center.  I’ll never forget the day he came to me with the idea of building a robot.  We were drawing at a table with his rambunctious 4 and 2 year old brothers. 

Noah jumped up and said, “I forgot to bring something!”

His brothers were a little alarmed, but he said he’d be back soon.  To console themselves, the brothers wandered over to the ping pong table and tried to figure out how to play, even though both of them were shorter than the table. 
About 5 minutes later, I heard a muffled knock on the door.  I opened it to find a tall box at the door.  The box shuffled in and bumped into the ping pong table.  The boys laughed and began to beat the box with their ping pong paddles. 

“Stop, stop!” cried Noah from within the box. 

I got the boys under control while Noah wiggled out. 

“We could make a robot out of this box.  My mom was just going to throw it away.”

The younger boys couldn’t leave the box alone, so we decided it was best to keep it in my apartment.  That was in the spring.  For the next few months, when Noah was free from school work, after school activities, camping and traveling with his family, soccer games and home work, we built a robot. 
It was a  project that engaged his mind and fired his imagination.  A few days after he delivered the first box, he was at the door with another smaller box with clear plastic panels, perfect for the robot’s head.  Again, he said, “My mom was just going to throw it away.”

I tried to explain that we sometimes have to throw things away because there isn’t enough room to keep everything, but he’s not entirely convinced.  But it’s truly inspiring to watch a kid build things from things what would otherwise be thrown away.  It lets them see the magic of transformation in a way nothing else can.  You can read a post about how Noah first became aware that things can be fixed and transformed here.  We made a prosthetic leg for his Godzilla toy.

So I hope I’m inspiring an artist and not a hoarder.  I had a bag of odds and ends including pill bottle caps we could use as dials, paper towel tubes for the rockets, and fabric scraps for the cape.

Just as we were getting close to the end of the project, I found the book, Welcome to Your Awesome Robot, by Viviane Schwarz, Flying EyeBooks, a book I wish we’d had when we started.  It’s both a story and a manual, and it’s perfect for creating a project with a kid.  I love that it features a girl.  Noah loved that it came with cut-out decals, and instructions on how to make fuel input additions and functioning dials.  

He didn’t want to cut things out of the book, although we could have.  He wanted to keep it intact for future use.  And it’s a lovely book.  It’s like a large Moleskine sketchbook with a gray paper flexible cover, and embossed print.  The illustrations are energetic and charming.  I’m so glad to have discovered Viviane Shwarz’s whimsical world.  Her website has a video of her reading her book, Is There a Dog in this Book, a fun one with foldouts and surprises.  She also has a place to post any awesome robots you make.  

Great End Papers

You watch a kid and her adult assistant build the ‘bot

We copied and enlarged the Death Ray decal and pasted it by the robot dials to warn off any enemies.

We made a magic wand with an old outdoor light and the light from another toy

We got to  make certificates, too!

While we were working on the robot, Noah became enchanted by my reading light.

He wanted to make an angler fish with it.  I was reluctant to give it up and on a trip to the hardware store to buy robot arms (dryer vent tubes) we found another light that would work even better.  We’d learned a lot about cardboard with the robot, but with the angler fish, we learned how to bend it and shape it. 

Making Teeth

to welcome little fishies in with gently smiling jaws

When Noah made his debut at the community Halloween party last week, we had a story about the robot going to the bottom of the sea to bring back the angler fish. 

Kids of all ages at Bridge Meadows Halloween party

Between our own projects and what we learned from the Awesome Robot book, we’re ready to teach other kids how to build their own robots.  We figure the best time will be in January. As long as the other kids keep the boxes that their Christmas presents come in, we’ll have plenty of material to work with.  Now all we have to do is convince the parents not to throw all those cool boxes away.

Reuse and recycle!

Special thanks to Flying Eye books for Welcome to Your Awesome Robot.  Check out their website, they publish lots of amazing books for kids.  Their committed to sustainable manufacturing and encouraging creativity.  They’re publishing new authors and helping children discover the joys of well made books.  

Thanks for reading my blog!

What a Difference a Doughnut Makes

I had the pleasure of introducing the book Arnie the Doughnut, by Laurie Keller, to a 4 year old last week.  I asked him if he’d like to hear the story before I got it out of my book bag, and merely telling him the title made him laugh. 
I stumbled upon this book a few years ago and the title made me laugh, too.  I was charmed by the story, the art, and the layout of the book.  It’s so rare to find a book that’s genuinely funny but doesn’t resort to mean or potty humor.  
Arnie is a bright, happy doughnut who has no idea he was made to be eaten. 
And once he finds out, he is again dismayed when his friends back at the doughnut shop are happy to be comestibles.  
Fortunately, Mr. Bing, who bought Arnie, no longer wants to eat him now that they’re on a conversational level.  So they must find something for Arnie to be besides tasty.  It’s a wonderful book with inventive puns and a compelling story line.  It’s also wonderful for sharpening visual literacy. 
Keller peppers her story and illustrations with side characters who have opinions on everything.  On any given page, you might have people, pastries and aliens making comments.  It’s an easier book to read with one or two children than in front of a class or big group.The children can participate in the story.  They can ask what the squirrel is saying.  Or they can read that the caveman says, doughnut make good wheel.
A few years ago, I got to read it to a 9 year old boy who was in foster care.  I live in an intergenerational community called Bridge Meadows, which is set up to help support families adopting children out of the foster care system.  (You can read about it here.)  I am fortunate to get to help introduce books to kids who have seen a lot of the scary world but not a lot of the caring world.
This boy, John, was so taken with Arnie the Doughnut that I decided to buy it for him.  Before I could give it to him, though, the Department of Human Services (DHS) discovered he was being abused and moved him to a safe house.  It was the 9thmove for this 9 year old boy. 
Through the social worker here at Bridge Meadows, I was able to get the book to him.  Later she told me that in a counseling session, John was asked about his anger. 
“I know what anger is. I’ll show you.”  He got his copy of Arnie and show them the picture of angry Arnie, who had discovered his fate.
 John was able to express his anger, but also, in the midst of extreme uncertainty, to laugh at it.  And laughter, often, is the first step to wisdom.  John will not have an easy life.  Nobody gets the kind of happy ending Arnie does.  But John has had the good moments hearing the story.  He has read it himself and he’s used it to express his own emotional state. It’s a colorful and safe spot in his memory.   

Perhaps it will prompt him to look to books for solace while he navigates the fractured path of foster care in search of an identity. 
I believe books like Arnielay the groundwork for deeper thinking.  Once you make the leap into imagining a doughnut has a personality, a will, and hopes for the future, you’re free to imagine everything has a higher purpose. Toys.  Plants.  Animals.  Humans.  Yourself.  Maybe it isn’t your destiny to be eaten.
This book didn’t miraculously make John’s life better.  I believe, however, it’s made his life more bearable.  I know, for sure, that it’s made mine more so.  I hope that it puts a few sprinkles of humor and love on his fractured and perilous path.  I can’t fix broken home, broken families, or broken children.  I can give them stories, though, to lighten their load. 
John is now in a permanent home and has a new family.  His future looks good.
Laurie Keller is the author of many picture books, all of which I’ve enjoyed, Birdy’s Smile Bookbeing my second favorite.  Or maybe Do Unto Otters.  Or maybe Open Wide.  She’s started a chapter book series on Arnie the Doughnut, including Bowling Alley Bandit, (a who-doughnut), and Invasion of the UFOnuts, (an outer spastery story).  These books are great for reluctant readers, and have elicited howls of laughter from one of the kids I mentor who hates to read.  
For another opinion on Arnie the Doughnut, here’s a link to a NYTimes review:
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 If you missed my last post on the books of Shuan Tan, you can read it here.
And there are links to my book reviews here.

Stand By Me

I got to see a short concert by the Bravo Youth Orchestra this morning.

The orchestra is from Rosa Parks, the elementary school a few blocks away from Bridge Meadows, where I live.  The orchestra started last year with an intensive music program and now the kids are performing in venues all over the city.  The kids have various levels of mastery, but they’re all living better lives because of the Bravo Program.  Here’s their Mission in their own words from their website:



BRAVO transforms the lives of underserved youth through intensive classical music instruction emphasizing collaboration, promoting self-confidence, and creating a community where children thrive.


Inspired by El Sistema in Venezuela, BRAVO will establish in Oregon a network of youth orchestras for social change serving both urban and rural communities with a high concentration of poverty.


  • Inclusion: Embracing racial, cultural and economic diversity by honoring the unique contributions of each child and family.
  • Equity: Improving academic and social outcomes of underserved children.
  • Excellence: Pursuing the highest musical standards through rigorous education.
  • Social Responsibility: Encouraging children
    to participate in their communities.
  • Joy: Strengthening the spirit in all that we do.”


That’s professional bassist Andre St. James who helps with the orchestra.  It hurts and astounds him that these orchestras aren’t in every school. 

Can programs like this really work?  I can see the success in the shining eyes of the children as they tuned their instruments, and again as they concentrated on the sheet music.  The best part was when they closed their eyes as they were swept up in their own playing.  The orchestra has professional musicians, teachers and college apprentices to help unify the music.  The children hear excellence and rise to the occasion.   They sing the parts they can’t quite play yet and the sound of their young voices was a delight.

They played a variety of pieces, including Stand By Me, the beautiful old song by Ben E. King.  The conductor said some of the children found out the teachers got the more difficult parts of the music, so the kids took the the sheet music home, practiced more and were ready to play along for the whole song.  Other members sang the lyrics and it touched my heart to hear I won’t be afraid, I won’t shed a tear, as long as you stand by  me.

We so need to stand by our children, offer them the instruments and the education they need to grow to their

Quick sketch of equity, excellence and joy

full potential.  Programs like this shouldn’t be rare.  We are a wealthy nation and yet our children are experiencing poverty and neglect at alarming rates. I see the way neglect breaks children down — and it’s not just the poverty.  Poverty is a manageable fact of life.  It’s the social neglect, underfunding of education, and very real lack of safety nets for many families. It’s seeing wealth all around them.  It’s the shame and derision we heap upon those who are poor. That wears down the resilience of us all.  It keeps the souls of children from flowering.

But this group nourishes parched souls.  No matter what else happens in these children’s lives, they will have music.  They can turn back to it again and again.  We all stood to sing We Shall Overcome with them.  How very moving to hear the voices of the elders of this community, the children we mentor, and these young musicians join together in the spirit of that song.  We are among the very lucky.  Deep in my heart, I hope to see that luck become common. 

“Music Changes Everything” was written on the back of some of their T-shirts. If you’d like to see more of that change, check out their website:

You can see a news segment about the origins of the orchestra here:

Keep a song in your heart and thanks for reading my post.