The Journey by Francesca Sanna Review

I was so pleased to see that The Journey, by Francesca Sanna, made the Publisher’s Weekly list of Best Children’s Books of 2016.  It’s a gorgeous, deeply moving book.  I found myself wishing that it could be mandatory reading for everyone since it presents the plight of war refugees with such clarity and insight.

In this past year, we’ve been subjected to so much political simplification about this matter, it’s brilliant to see a picture book restore the humanity and complexity to the story.  It looks at the situation through the eyes of a child.

The book’s author’s note says:


Published by Flying Eye Books, The Journey is beautifully bound and presented.


I appreciate Flying Eye for taking a risk on this book, since it’s not a happy children’s story.  And it doesn’t offer solid closure.  In fact, it reads like a poem to what is lost when war tears a country apart.  The illustrations are both simple and complex, and very moving.


I’ve shared this book with more adults than children.  The children I do share it with are over 10, watching the news, and listening to what is being said about refugees, immigrants, and the disenfranchised.

It’s been hard for me to see so much hatred and distrust rise up in the upcoming presidential elections.  It’s particularly hard to see the children I work with exposed to this kind of fearmongering for the first time.

The discussions The Journey has inspired haven’t been easy.  What causes a war?  What is a border?  Why don’t people help each other more?

The children I work with haven’t had sheltered lives.  Since most of them have been in the foster care system, they know exactly what it means to lose everything.  Their journey has been harrowing but none of us has seen actual war in our country in our life time.

One of my 11 year old friends said, when he gets big, he’s going to try to make it easier for people to find a place where they will be safe.

I hope one day he gets that big.  I hope we all do.

Sanna’s use of migratory birds as a metaphor for refugees brings hope into the story.

I know for now that The Journey is book that will make our hearts bigger, even if that growth feels painful.

Blessed are the peacemakers.




Emotional Calculous: How to Be Human By Florida Frenz

“Emotions can be broken down into logical pieces most of the time, but what’s hard to grasp is the cause and effect relationship that comes with the emotion.  When a person is sad (the cause), they might cry, listen to slow soft music, contact friends as an effect of the sadness.  It’s a bit more complicated than simply subtracting two, isn’t it?   Still, there are even more complicated situations than that such as looking at an effect and guessing what emotion caused it.  Then, there’s the ability to do that for the feelings of others.  Honestly, don’t you think all those normal people do emotional calculous every day without realizing it?”   
~Florida Frenz
How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl, by Florida Frenz (a pseudonym), is an extraordinary look into the life of a 15 year old girl with autism.  Although her diagnosis was pretty grim at age 3, the work she did with her parents and her therapist, Shelah Moss, helped Florida become more comfortable in what she came to understand as an alien world.  She explains herself this way:
Though Florida was diagnosed with autism and “mental retardation,” her family and support team were able to break down and address each of her learning and socializing issues.  They tackled each problem as it arose.  When at age 8, Florida realized what it meant to have autism and how different she was from other children, she began working to overcome those parts of her autism that kept her isolated from the rest of the world.  How to Be Human is the result of that process.  Moss says, “She is a gifted artist and writer so using art seemed like an obvious tool to help her work through understanding what, to her, were foreign concepts.  Each picture represents hours where we discussed or read about or role-played different scenarios.  The pictures represent eight years of growth.”
Florida generously shares her hard earned lessons:
I still have trouble figuring out faces.

This is a wonderful introduction to what it’s like to have autism, but even more so, it’s re-introduction to how hard it is to be human.
We all have trouble with bullying ourselves
You can see there’s lots of humor and insight in Florida’s writing.  It humanizes her.  She has autism, she feels like an alien, but she’s a unique and lively girl, too.  I’ve read her book to 6 and 7 year old girls, and have had a 12 year old girl read it.  All of them could identify with the struggles Florida has with the calculous of human emotions.  The art is funny, inviting and inspiring to them.  I’m using it now in a class on journaling for adults to show what a powerful means of expression drawing can be.
All of us struggle with how to figure out when someone is being truthful.  Florida’s insights about bullies, cliques and true friendship are touching.  There’s a rare honesty and authenticity in this slim primer.
If you want to understand what it’s like to have autism, this books takes you right to the heart of the matter.  Of if just you feel you might have accidentally wound up on the wrong planet, it might help you feel like you belong here after all.   
The book is beautifully bound and fits nicely into your hands.  Creston Books is a small independent press publishing beautiful and innovative books for children of all ages.  They’re having their books printed in the United States, so that’s pretty cool.  You can see their catalog by clicking here

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A Trip Through Time and Space: Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson

Sometimes life can seem like a lot of drudgery and sorrow.  These days we don’t only have to deal with the troubles of our own life, but we have instant access to troubles all over the world.  It’s easy to start feeling oppressed and depressed.  It’s easy to forget about the wonders of the world amid so much bad news.  You might even go days and days without really looking up, seeing the sky and realizing what a miraculous planet we live on.
Twice in the past month, when the conversation got too dreary, I took out the book Cosmigraphics and showed it to friends.  Even the cover made them gasp a little.  The wonders inside turned the conversation from the earthly to the cosmic.
Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, by Michael Benson, Abrams Books, 2014, is the story of how people have both imagined and documented our creation, the structure of the universe, and the earth’s place in the cosmos.  Benson is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker.  In the last decade he has staged a series of increasingly large-scale exhibitions of planetary landscape photography. He lives in Boston and Ljubljana, Slovenia
He works from the intersection of art and science, and tells the story of how we perceive the universe using illustrations, graphs and maps.  He has gathered beautiful works of art from the world’s great science libraries. 
The book take you on a journey through more than 1000 years of images, through humanity’s ever-expanding understanding of the size and shape of space.  From before the telescope was invented and people believed the earth was flat, to the most sophisticated maps and supercomputer simulations, all the beauty of our understanding comes to light. 
Sky Disc from 2000-1600 BC – the first known astrological instrument
This book is a literary gem, too.  Benson’s writing is lyrical and accessible, making clear the story of human thought and beliefs.  Chapters are divided into Creation, Earth, The Moon, The Sun, The Structure of the Universe, Planets and Moons, Constellations, the Zodiac and the Milky Way, Eclipses and Transits, Comets and Meteors, Auroras and Atmospheric Phenomena.  Each chapter starts with an essay from Benson on how our beliefs and thoughts about space have changed through the centuries.  Benson says:
“I have felt free to include material that would not necessarily figure in a presentation of exclusively astronomical images.  I’m interested in innovative approaches to the conundrum of how to present such a vast subject within the frame of a graphic image, even if they aren’t directly associated with scientific research and occasionally represent conservative reactions against astronomical findings.  I’m biased toward the striking and unusual, even if it restates a case that has previously been made with less visual flair.  While this isn’t an objective visual history of astronomy, I do believe that sometimes a subjective approach reveals cultural or historical truths better than a dutifully comprehensive method.”

He opens the first chapter on Creation with a quote from The Tao Te Ching:
There is something formed of chaos,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void, it is not renewed,
It goes on forever without failing
It can be seen as the World-Mother.

He begins the last chapter, Auroras and Atmospheric Phenomena, with a quote from Robert Burns’ Tam O’Shanter:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis rays,
They flit ere you can point their place.

Depiction of Sun Dogs from 1533
I can’t overstate how beautiful this collection of graphics is.  Almost every page reveals a breathtaking look at the universe – from illuminated maps and manuscripts that illustrate early belief system, to a 2009 supercomputer simulation of a sunspot:  
The book is too big for me to scan pictures for you, but just Google the title and you’ll see what I mean.  That’s how I got pictures for this post.  This book has been praised in the New York Times, and hundreds of other sites, including Brain Pickings, one of my favorite book and culture sites, so you don’t have to take my word for it.  The publishers say this book “will be a revelation to space-struck Earthlings, art lovers, and readers interested in the history of science, the visualization of information, graphic design, and mapping.”
1979 geological map of the south region of the moon
I’m a big library user, but this is a book I feel you should own.  If for no other reason than to look at it with your depressed friends and take a little flight away from the tyranny of bad news into a universe of stunning mystery. 
Or for a stolen moment, when gravity seems to have you glued to the ground, to take a trip through space and time, and come back elated.   

The Delights of Pettson and Findus

There’s nothing more delightful than finding a storybook that is visually engaging, tells a funny story, has great characters and a good plot.  Findus Disappears! (The Adventures of Pettson and Findus) by Sven Nordqvist, published by NorthSouth Books, 2014, is that book.  Nordqvist is a Swedish writer who wrote and illustrated a series of books about Pettson, a forgetful and eccentric old farmer and his cat, Findus. 
Findus Disappears!tells the story of how Findus came to be Pettson’s companion (he’s so much more than a pet.)  Pettson’s a lonely old farmer.   His neighbor suggests he get a wife, but Pettson is daunted by that thought: “I’m too old now.  A whole woman – that would be too much.”  So the neighbor brings him a kitten in a box labeled “Findus Green Peas.”  Pettson names the kitten Findus and thus begins a charming story filled with humor and magic.

The illustrations are astonishingly imaginative and beautifully executed.  In Pettson’s world there are strange creatures peeking out of cups and hanging from lampshades.  His house and farm are furnished with unique objects like nails hanging on a clothes line, melting pencils, giant teapots and tiny teacups.  His bed side table has skis.  Chickens roam the house.  The salt shakers is hung by a rope under the radio. 
Findus seems like a normal enough kitten until he sees a clown in the newspaper that Pettson is reading.
Findus looked for a long time at a picture of a clown in big striped pants.
“’I want pants like that,” Findus said.
Pettson stared at him.  These were the cat’s first words. 
“Then you shall have some,” the old man said.  “I’ll sew you a pair of pants right away.”

These were the kitten’s first words but not his last.  He becomes a chatty, playful friend to Pettson and fills the emptiness in his life.
That kitten is everywhere!
Findus explores the house and sees creatures — mumbles, they’re called — that Pettson can’t see.  (The mumbles hide Pettson’s socks and move things around.)  Findus gets more and more brave about exploring the farm, but one day he gets frightened by a creature he’s sure is looking for kittens to eat.  He has to hide, and then he gets lost.
When I read this story to kids at my community center, they kept scooting closer and closer to me, they wanted to see everything and they wanted to know what was going to happened next.  They asked that the book be passed around so they could see it up close because the illustrations are so compelling.
A tender and expressive illustration of  Findus’s fear 
Nordqvist’s said he is inspired by the delights of everyday life and that delight is very present in the details of each page.  Each time you look at one, you’ll find a hidden world – steps going up the stem of a plant, giant apples, and mumbles hiding everywhere. 
Nordqvist also said these stories were inspired by his loving observations of his two sons when they were younger.  His appreciation for childlike antics and nature and imagination all shine forth in his work.  
NorthSouth Books plans to publish a whole series and I look forward to reading them.  And so do the kids I read to.  This story is a pleasure in all regards.
NorthSouth Books publishes beautiful books by international authors and illustrators.  Check out their catalog here.

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