Anyone who works with children on a regular basis knows it’s important for them to see their families reflected in the books they read and the books read to them. I’ve got three brand-new picture books here today that take a look at families through the prisms of parents (with a focus on mothers) and siblings. Let’s start with brothers.
The touching We Are Brothers comes from teacher and youth literacy champion Yves Nadon, who makes his home in Quebec, and French illustrator Jean Claverie. This is an exhilarating story of courage and faith and family.
“Here I am, facing the rock,” the book opens. Every summer, this boy (our narrator) and his older brother head to their favorite swimming spot at the family’s lake house. The boy’s brother always jumps, fearlessly, into the water from a large wall of rock that terrifies the younger brother. “Every year, he jumps off, as I watch and cheer, too afraid to even try.” But this year, his brother insists he jump. “Not now,” the younger boy thinks.
Watching his brother, once again, gracefully jump, the boy compares his sibling in his mind’s eye to a nimble cat, an elegant bird, and a fish. Overcoming his fear, he decides to climb the rock, envisioning himself as a lithe cat. He nearly freezes at the top of the rock, but he makes eye contact with his brother: “[E]ven from the top of the rock, I can see my brother’s eyes, just above the water, believing in me.” He jumps, and he is bird. When he lands in the water, he is fish.
Each of these moments—cat, bird, and fish—is given its own spread, and I found myself lingering over Claverie’s fluent pastel illustrations here, so eloquent and evocative. Nadon’s text is perfectly paced, building tension as the boy stands atop the great rock, just about to jump: “Breath. Heart. Breath, breath, heart. Breath, breath, breath. My brother’s eyes … Heart,” we read.
It’s a powerful, emotionally compelling moment in a story that lingers long in your mind. If you have a brother you love, whose faith in you keeps you going, or a brother you loved once upon a time, I’m here to say that you should have the tissues handy. But it is, as Doctor Who calls it, happy crying (“humany wumany”).
Juniper Fitzgerald’s How Mamas Love Their Babies, illustrated by Elise Peterson, is an unusual picture book in so many ways that I’m not sure where to begin. First, I’ll tell you that it is a remarkably sex-positive picture book. I’ve heard a lot of people saying that it’s the most sex-positive picture book they’ve seen, but I’d say it’s tied with Anastasia Higginbotham’s Tell Me about Sex, Grandma, released last year. Both books come from Feminist Press, based in New York, and have unusually progressive attitudes about sex and sexuality.
This is a book that shows the many ways in which women use their bodies to care for their children — women who stay home and work, as well as women who have jobs outside of the home. In one spread, a toddler sits upright in his mother’s lap and nurses on her breast. In another, a pregnant woman does yoga. Mothers carry children on their backs and their shoulders. With a series of spreads focusing on occupations, we read that some mothers use their arms to clean houses; some use their heads to “make big ideas”; some use their hands to till the earth; and some use their eyes to fly planes. “Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes,” we read, and we see a woman holding a picket sign, stating that all strippers want is “a bare living.” (Could this be the first picture book to include sex workers?) “Mamas who dance, just like mamas who clean and think and farm and fly,” Fitzgerald writes, “use their whole bodies to care for their babies.”
Peterson’s busy collage illustrations are dynamic, featuring women of various ethnicities. Many of the images are retro, featuring women who, as the Kirkus review notes, are of the era of second-wave feminism here in the U.S. (I found myself wishing there were even more contemporary images of women, but I quibble.) This is a book that takes more than one stigma about women and work and chucks them right out the window. A mother’s love, in other words, has no limits. No matter a woman’s socioeconomic class, occupation, or skin color, the work of all of these caring mothers “helps their babies thrive.”
For a much different change of pace (and tone), there’s The Big Bed from Bunmi Laditan, the creator of the blog The Honest Toddler. It’s illustrated by Tom Knight, who gets so much humor out of his characters’ ever-shifting eyebrows, particularly the narrator, a young girl (in what appears to be a solidly suburban, middle-class family) on a campaign to get her father to sleep in another bed so that she can have her mother all to herself.
Boy howdy, does this ring true for a lot of families, this dynamic of a young child wanting to monopolize a mother’s affection. The father in this book takes it all in stride, his daughter going so far as to lay out her points on a flip chart. (We know she possesses a plan dastardly in nature, as we see her in the very funny and dramatic first spread lingering in the doorway, her shadow forming a monster-like shape on the floor with her hapless father staring: “We need to talk about the big bed.”)
First, she asks: “Who does Mommy belong to?” (Here, we have yet another mother giving up her body for a child.) This is followed by her observation that he already has a mommy, so perhaps he can just have Grandma sing him to sleep at night. She also points out that she can’t sleep alone (darkness frightens her); that there are actually benefits to her peeing in bed (no, really); and that she has just the bed picked out for him anyway, a metal-and-canvas cot used for camping.
There’s so much humor here, particularly in the protagonist’s over-the-top scheme and her mother’s reaction (hysterical laughter). My favorite line may be: “No one can deny that Mommy is full of cozies and smells like fresh bread.” (My own daughter has told me I smell like “happiness and donuts.”) Though the main character appears toddler-sized, older children, who are past this age of push-and-pull with their parents over where they will sleep, may get the most satisfaction from this charmer with its endearing, exaggerated humor.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
WE ARE BROTHERS. Text copyright © 2018 Yves Nadon. Illustrations copyright © 2018 Jean Claverie. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Creative Editions, Mankato, MN.
HOW MAMAS LOVE THEIR BABIES. Copyright © 2018 by Juniper Fitzgerald. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Elise Peterson. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Feminist Press, New York.