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.

Review: The Where, The Why, and The How

Curiouser and Curiouser:  Books That Answer and Spark Questions

Do you ever long for a no-electronic media night?  I have two books to recommend that will make such a thing both a delight and a learning experience for everyone.

I’ve always have loved science and art.  Science always seemed to be more like an art to me, but it’s probably because I approach it that way.  The world is full of wonders — whole universes live in a drop of pond water, in a dribble of saliva. Science gives me the stories of those small universes and the ones that are bigger than I could ever imagine on my own.

So I highly recommend The Where, The Why, and The How, 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, by Jenny Volvosky, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe, Forward by David Macaulay, (Chronicle Books, 2012).  It provides a lot of scientific theory  and great splashes of color to illustrate what we can only speculate on. It’s promoted as “Science like you’ve never seen it before.”  The editors are partners in ALSO, a design firm based in Chicago and New York.  Julia Rothman is also author of the popular blog Book by It’s Cover. 

In the introduction, author and illustrator David Macaulay (The Way Things Work, Cathedral), talks about how we’ve become spoiled by an abundance of information.  “If you want to know anything, just Google it.”  He tells how a lively discussion about why eggs are shaped like eggs was abruptly ended by Wikipedia brought up on someone’s phone.  “The most fun, the period of wonder and funny guesses was lost as soon as the 3G network kicked in.  Fortunately, there are still mysteries that can’t be entirely explained in a few mouse clicks.  With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information.  While scientists have figured out a great deal, much remains theoretical and sometimes opposing theories exist.”

Fifty scientists agreed to be a part of the project and explain theories around unanswered questions.  Then 75 of today’s “hottest” artists and illustrators were let loose to provide visual accompaniment — they were free to be as literal or imaginative as they liked. 

Often they seem to go off on an improvisational riff which can be both baffling and add to the general sense of wonder.  What is the origin of the moon?  What causes depression?  Why do pheremones work?   Why do humans have so much genome “junk”?   And there’s a lot of humor here.  Why do we blush?  Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?

The illustrations have a modern and retro feel.  “We chose a mix of well-known and up-and-coming illustrators, comic artists, fine artists and designers.”  It has a remarkable cohesion and sense of style without being too stylized.  The book is dense and has the heft and weight of a new text book and invites hours of perusal. 

You can see a video of the art of this amazing book here.

While The Where, The Why and The How aims to rekindle curiosity,

Big Questions from Little People and Simple Answers from Great Minds, by Gemma Harris, (Ecco, 2012) is aimed at getting children curious as early as possible.  It’s a very entertaining and educational collection of short essays from philosophers, scientists, reporters, artists and doctors.  Harris collected questions from school children all over the world and then asked experts to answer them in a language the kids could understand.  The great minds include Mary Roach, Phillip Pullman, Sir David Attenborough and a host of other writers and scholars.  
Can animals talk?  Why can’t I tickle myself?  Are we all related?  Who invented chocolate?  Why are some people mean?  Do aliens exist?   
The editor is from Scotland, and the book originated in England, so many of the scholars are from England, Scotland, Wales, Australia and other English speaking countries. The book provides an opportunity to talk about how measurements and language differ in countries that speak “English.”
Both of these books will inspire wonder and give you a chance to think outside the electronic box.  They’re good to keep by the bed to inspire wonderful dreams.