Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"The Man Who Walked Between the Towers": Your New Favorite Book About September 11th

            Do you remember when you were a kid and you had a favorite book that you made your parents read to you over and over again?  You heard it so many times that you could recite it from memory, and yet you never got bored with it.  The book became a part of who you were, and you wanted everyone around you to hear it, too.

 The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein is like that for me.  I’ve personally read the book more times than I can count, and I share it with everyone I know.  Every class I’ve ever had has heard it, as well as my mother, my sisters, my friends, and anyone who will listen.  I’ve become that little kid again, wanting everyone I know to share in this part of my life.

So, why?  Of all the picture books in the world, what makes this one special? Picture this:  August 7, 1974.  The Twin Towers are almost done being built.  You are walking on a street in NYC and you look up.  There, tied between the two towers is a rope.  On that rope is a man, walking back and forth.    As Mordicai Gerstein says, “Everyone stopped and looked up.  They gasped and stared.  It was astonishing.  It was terrifying and beautiful.  A quarter of a mile up in the sky someone was dancing.”  You are scared, but more than that you are in awe of this man who dares to do this.

 If I had to choose the number one reason why I fell in love with The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and why my children love it, it is because of the great sense of awe that you are left with when you are done.  How can you not be awe-struck by this story?  The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is the tale of Philippe Petit who, in 1974, strung a rope between the Twin Towers and walked.  As Mordicai Gerstein tells you, though, he didn’t just walk—he “danced, ran, and knelt in a salute upon the wire.  He even lay down to rest.”  When you are done reading this beautifully crafted story, the number one question you will hear (if you haven’t already divulged the truth), is “Did this really happen?”  Then, you get to be the one who says “Yes, yes it did” and watch as people sit back in absolute amazement.  That’s why I love to share it to people.  It is a little known story that you get to gift to other—I’ve never met someone who didn’t love this book.

Although it is no longer in print, I highly recommend you find a used copy of Philippe Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds, so that you can show the amazing pictures inside.  I wouldn’t recommend letting the kids read the book, but you must show them the amazing pictures of Petit laying on the wire, kneeling on the wire, and the picture of him balancing a policeman’s hat on his nose, just like the illustration in The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. This You Tube video has some of the pictures from Petit's book, but some of the best are still left out.

The way the words are crafted in The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, as well as the way the text and illustrations are laid out on the pages, builds excitement.  Gerstein begins by telling us about the buildings being constructed and introduces us to Philippe Petit.  We learn of his street performances and tightrope walking.  Then, Gerstein posits the thought into our head of “Why not here, between these towers?”  You are suddenly gripped with the thought of “No, he wouldn’t.”  We build anticipation as we witness Philippe and his friends dress as construction workers to sneak into the towers, as well as the several snafus that happen along the way.  Finally, beautifully, in pages that open up into a three-page spread, we get to watch Philippe perform his amazing act.

It is more than just his incredible act that makes me love this book.  It is also a book that touches on September 11th.  Mordicai Gerstein wrote a book about September 11th that didn’t delve into tragedy.  Instead, he used his pages to remind us of the amazing acts we are able to do.  He reminds us of our strength as humans, while still touching upon a day that no one in my generation will forget. 

How do you teach children about such a horrific event? I feel like I have to read this book to my kids every year, but not so that they don’t forget, because a lot of them barely even know about the event.  This year, for the first time ever, not a single child in my classroom was alive during September 11th.  For them, it is very close to being just another thing in the past that has nothing to do with their life.  Soon, if we don’t prevent it, September 11th will have no more relevance to their lives than the Spanish Inquisition or the Black Plague.  By using books like this, we are able to teach our children about a day that changed our country.  With The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, we are able to not only teach our children about a terrible day in our history, but remind us of our incredible strength and determination as human beings. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Never judge a book by its cover... unless it's a really awesome cover with a fantastic title.

I am an absolute sucker when it comes to books.  I’ve been known to buy books simply because I like the title or the cover.  I know that chumps like me are the reason why publishers do that, but I really just don’t care.  How can you pass up a book called The Forest of Hands and Teeth or What I Saw and How I Lied?  I dare you to look up Through To You and not spend ten minutes drooling over the cover.  How can you look at books with gorgeous covers and not stare at them until you decide to buy them so that people in Barnes and Noble won’t know what a weirdo you are?  Sometimes it’ll take me a year to get around to the book, but I don’t care.  Just knowing they are in my possession makes me feel better.

So there I was in December, at my school’s Barnes and Noble night.  I was trying to keep the weird book-staring down to a minimal since there are a lot of my children and their parents there.  But there on the display next to every Christmas book imaginable, was one that caught my eye.  Once Upon a Memory, written by Nina Laden and illustrated by Renata Liwska, caught me first with the title.  You simply just can’t walk away from a book like that.  It automatically begs the question of “What in the world do you mean?  Are you going to pull at my heartstrings and make my cry in front of all of my kids?  Let’s find out!”

This picture book is so deceiving in that it masquerades as an innocent little picture book with a cute boy and adorably fuzzy animals donning its cover.   As soon as you open Once Upon A Memory and read the first words, you know something is different than what you expected.  The format of the text relies upon a question stem on one page, with the remainder of the question on the other page.  The first question that spans across the two pages is “Does a feather remember it once was… a bird?”  Talk about deep, right?  The text continues in this question stem on one page, with the end on the opposite page, throughout the book.  There is no real story line.  Instead, it is a text that is meant to make you wonder and feel inspired.

This book reminds me somewhat of The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown in that I think the children will enjoy predicting the rest of the question.  I can just see them guessing what the end of “does an ocean remember it once was…” will be, and then their faces when they hear the end is “rain?”  Halfway through the book, I know kids will be making their own guesses, and they should.  I think reading this aloud would be a great way for kids to be active participants with the text.

I am still not convinced, however, that this book is actually meant for children.  This “story” has barely over 100 words in it, is full of adorable illustrations of animals, and even uses the pronoun “you” referring to a child, yet it is something so complex that a part of me feels like it isn’t intended for children at all.  Towards the end of the book, the questions get nostalgic.  For example, two consecutive questions are “Does love remember it once was… new?  Does a family remember it once was… two?”  I think it is about at that point when you realize that maybe this book was meant for adults as much as it was for children.  Children just don’t get the nostalgia associated with new love versus the kind that’s been around for a while, or that a family once had a time when it was different.  The real kicker, though, that convinces me this book is nowhere as simple as it seems is the last line that reads “Will you remember you once were… a child?”  After reading this as an adult, I was flooded with memories and a longing for the past.  Children just aren’t there yet.

            I barely even mentioned the illustrations of this book, mainly because I am so interested in the words themselves.  It’s a shame, though, because Renata Liwska’s illustrations are incredible.  As I reread the book, I couldn’t help but look at the illustrations and think to myself that they just seemed quiet and soft.  It was in that second of thinking they were quiet that I realized “No!  It couldn’t be!  Is she the???” and I flipped to the back flap of the dust jacket and realized that she is the illustrator of The Quiet Book.  If you are familiar with The Quiet Book or The Loud Book, then you get an idea of the soft, muted, fuzy-feeling inducing illustrations that Renata Liwska creates.  I honestly can’t think of a better illustrator to accompany this simple text that hides so much more for the reader.

Overall, I love this book and I think kids will, too.  I just believe the reason kids will enjoy it is not the same reason that adults will enjoy the story.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and I kind of like it, actually.  What better joy is there than to rediscover a book you though you knew when you were young, just to find out when you are older that there was more there than you even remembered?  Once Upon A Memory is the kind of book that will stay with me and it can rest easy knowing that it will be anything but a memory for a very, very long time.