Monday, February 19, 2018

Poetry Hour: Blog Tour Purple Kisses by Priya Prithviraj

In my last post published in 2017, I promised myself that I will read in the next 12 months more poetry. For the last year, my only book of poems I've read was by my dear friend Monica Bhide Telltales, whose lecture encouraged me to try more encounters with this literary genre I neglected so much lately.
After a poetry-less January, my chance for a qualitative change in February occured from the talented Priya Prithviraj, who shared recently on my blog her thoughts on the writing process. After a Young Adult novel, she published a short book of poetry, that I had the chance to read these days. 
What is really special about this book is that it happily combines the poetry of the written word with the delicacy of the collage images, created by Niveditha Warrier. The beautiful images composed through words are kept alive and transformed through the language of images. The words are like touches of the brush on a canva, releasing feelings meeting vivid colours and creating worlds whose shapes are struggling to find their place on the canvas of the book page. Haiku-like, each page opens a door that encourages dreaming and emotions, telling stories of love and hope. The poetic stories are not complicated but complex and able to offer a different window into the worlds of ideas and emotions. Priya found a very genuine and original way to tell stories and hopefully she will continue to explore this universe by creating more poetic stories, encouraging the mind to fly far away, although for a short while, in a world of purple kisses and a life of colours.

Disclaimer: Book offered by the author in exchange for an honest review  

Interview with Romanian First Time Author Anca Niculae

Anca Niculae, a first time writer from Romania, got in touch with me via my reviewer profile, asking me if I am interested to read and review her book: Emilia's Treasure: How a Mermaid Makes Friends. I've accepted and since then, we kept writing short notes once in a while. I decided to ask her a couple of questions, part of my interview series with authors from all over the world. Here is the interview witnessing her challenges and passion of being a writer.

What was the biggest challenge of starting writing?
I started writing because I saw I can really help kids with my stories. You see, I became a mother for the first time in 2011, blessed with a little girl, and in 2013 with a baby boy.
If you are a parent just like me, especially if you have 2 kids you understand that giving attention to both, at the same time, can be really challenging. So, while I was busy helping my little boy learned to walk, my girl was learning to make friends. I witness so many times while she was getting rejected by other kids, so I felt I had to do something. I’ve tried to help her, but initially, my words seemed too vague for her. Just telling her where she went wrong or what she should do seemed pointless because it only made her even more insecure.  It was her that pointed me to the solution – as she loved to pretend she was a mermaid we started to make up stories about a mermaid called Emilia. It is amazing the power stories and games can have on kids! I was thrilled to see how attentive my daughter was, living the adventures of Emilia, asking questions, and laughing while she was playing the board game we designed. It was her favorite thing to do in our “special time”.
I was delighted to see her wanting to become like the little mermaid, learning to listen with empathy and control her impulses because the story spoke about what she enjoyed the most and the game was giving her real-life examples she could identify with.
I decided to make our story into a book, and give the board game in form of a downloadable pdf, so that other kids could enjoy it too, at a minimum cost for parents. This is where I’ve had my first big challenge, as this was my first picture book. You see, reading and playing with my own kids was one thing, as I always was a playful parent, but turning it all into a picture book, was another. Overcoming my own limiting believes, learning to come out of my comfort zone and show my work to others was by far the hardest thing I’ve had to do. There were many other challenges as well, and after I’ve had a hard time with the first illustrator I found, I was lucky enough to meet an artist, mother of 3 kids, who really loved working at this project. With her help, I was able to send the game to 37 mothers to test it. I was very nervous while I was waiting for the answers, but after a few weeks, feedback started to come in. Mothers of girls and boys from 4 to 10 years old loved the game and told me how much the kids enjoyed it! The happiest moment for me was when a Romanian editor expressed interest in publishing the book and the board game in the traditional form. It was more than a first-time author can ever hope for!
I believe that any parent can help their kid increase their emotional intelligence, teaching them about empathy and kindness, by reading them this story and playing the game.

What do you recommend to anyone considering a writing career?

To anyone interested in starting a writing career I would tell the same thing I tell to myself, and to my kids – to overcome self-doubt, because if you have a message, and you believe in what you do, nothing can really stop you from making your dreams come true. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, either way, you are right”.
There will always be setbacks, there will always be mistakes, but if you keep trying, and believe in your message, you will pull throw.
I am still at the beginning, and I am sure I can do more, I can do better, I can help more people. I think the need to write comes from within, and it never goes away. I do not believe in talent or inspiration. Your talent is your hard work and your inspiration is the message you feel you need to give.
As long as you have your message in mind, then, make lots of mistakes. Every one of them will be a step forward.
I think every new writer needs to think about what he/she wants to give to the audience and how they want to inspire people, to help them and to make them try to reach out for their dreams.  The more people you help, the more you will feel you made a difference in the world. We all have a dream, but most of us are really scared to go for it. But nothing is ever perfect, and very few things worth doing are easy, but the most important thing is to do your best every time, to make lots of mistakes – as they help you learn – and do better next time. In the end, the only thing truly sad is giving up on your dream before even trying to make it real –because this would mean giving up on YOU.

How do you find inspiration?

As I’ve learned long time ago - stories and games are the best tools to get kids to truly listen. This is why I keep a diary of things they love, want to know more about, or what they need more practice with and other things that are funny or just silly to them – because fun relaxes the brain and this way they learn easier. I think my mission as a parent is to be a coach to my kids - not to be with them in every fight they have in life or save them from hard times - but to help them develop the resilience, the will to fight, and the self-believe that they can overcome anything.  And this is what I try to write about – this is my inspiration.
As every other parent, I do my best to raise my kids to be confident, resilient and kind. I want them to try new things, and the games we play, the ideas they have, are an endless source of inspiration.
I think the most important thing I can give them is a set of values that would make them believe in themselves, fight for their dreams, be happy and live a good mark in the world.
What are your favorite writers?

I read books in very different genres, from parenting and self-help books to fiction written by Frank Herbert, Paulo Coelho, Richard Bach, or picture books of Giles Andreae and Ashley Spires.
I have a deep love of kids – they are little universes - and I am fascinated by the way the human mind works and how they translate the world throw creative play.
I believe in gentle playful parenting, in encouraging kids to express their emotions, and I loved books like “Playful Parenting” (by Dr. Lawrence Cohen) and “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting” (by Dr. Laura Markham) but the one that resonated with me the most was the work of famous philologist and researcher Carol Dweck about developing a growth mindset as defined it in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”.
What are your writing plans for 2018?

I have many projects in my mind for this year, but the most important is a series of game-books aimed to help kids learn to set goals, increase self-confidence and develop a growth mindset. I believe that we cannot rely only on school to teach our kids important life skills but us - as parents have the biggest impact in our children’s lives and can coach them to live fulfilled and happy. These books will have real-life stories, lots of fun and games and interesting activities that will speak about expressing and understanding feelings, building grit, but also mindfulness, dealing with setbacks, learning to follow your dream and much more.
I will, of course, continue the series of mermaid books about friendship with even more exciting adventures and funny moments to help kids relax and parents build connection.
They will all be united under the brand “Empower Kids! Books and Games” to help kids develop their emotional intelligence, teach them to be kind, understand the impact they have on the world they live in, raise their resilience and help parents build special connection moments with the little ones.
Photo: The personal archive of Anca Niculae

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Disappointment: The French Girl, by Lexie Elliott

If I will ever make a top of the worst books I've read, The French Girl will definitely one of the first to mention. I hardly finished it, only because I really wanted to be sure that it is not only a first impression. Many many pages into the book, after being pretty tolerant with the slow pace and the abundance of references to the business management of a recruitment company, and also a lot of casual booze, I realized that in fact nothing will ever happen. The whole book is like a broken jump into nowhere, with a good promising writing, and interesting connections between the characters, thrown here and there, but that do not end up being put up together into a coherent story. And we are back to the business worries and insecurities of Kate, the storyteller, and more and more booze.
Beautiful Severine, the neighbour next door, was killed after the last day of vacation in France of a group of six universities students from Oxford. She was for a long time considered disappeared, but her body was just discovered in the well on the property of the vacation house. A charming French police inspector is investigating the case, while he is falling in love with one of the girls from the group, a potential suspect, and even let her see the stage of the investigation, where her best friend, Kate was considered a suspect. And the chain of errors continues, with a murder attempt against the same Kate by another member of the group, possibly a suspect, but for 'political reasons' the case was closed anyway.
The entire story bored me to tears. I've survived this book to write my review.

Rating: 2 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

3 Very Special Children Books Recommendations

I review very often children books on my blog or on Goodreads and, and read even more, but very often I am disappointed by the mismatch between words and images. Very often it happens to really like the wording content, but to realize that the visual representation is so clumsy, looking like made through a very basic illustrations program which, in my opinion, greatly damages the very essence of a children book. Especially in the cases when the books are aimed to a non-reading audience, it really diminishes the impact and relevance of the writing approach.
In the last weeks, I've had the chance to read some very special books, which are reflecting exactly my approach to children books: beautiful, creative illustrations complimenting an insightful text. I am happy to share with my readers my latest findings.

I've found the combination between comics-like drawings and colouful illustrations very inspired for this very cute story farm story. It carries the reader on a short journey where the big and small animals at the farm are not only doing their daily jobs, but where also friendship are created and parties thrown. It is the kind of story you end up reading to your kid over and over again, because you, as an adult, you also love this book so so much. A simple message of friendship beautifully illustrated.

The little Herodotus is a wise hedgehog, trying to find by himself what this big thing called life is all about. He has an eye for observing the world while at the same time he is trying hard to find his own answers to big life wonders. The pastel like illustrations are an invitation to dream and wandering through the major life questions. A good read for children from 5 years up.

The story, although it has a coming to age, optimistic happy end, it brings you to tears. The little rabbit embarks on an independent path, creating his own, free story, which means also leaving behind the one to whom he promised to never leave. Starting to live your life means also breaking up old promises and pushing beyond your limits and it is what rabbit is doing, being joined by other adventurous souls during his journey. The vivid colours of the illustrations, pastels with a brush stroke that reminds me of Chagall, are the perfect reflection of the search for meaning into the rabbit's life. A story that would love to read to my child before he is becoming a teen.

All books were rated with 5 stars
Disclaimer: Books offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Learning the Language of Tolerance: Hats of Faith

Faith comes in different shapes, manifestations and hats too. In a very well-targeted and smartly written book, Medeia Cohan makes an admirable overview of the main ways in which faith can be read by only looking at the headwear. Especially when you are living in a multicultural, multi-faith world and society, it is useful to learn to distinguish between different external manifestations of faith not in order to build walls and inspire fears, but for a mutual understanding.
'Learning about each other makes it easy to be more understanding. Being understanding helps us spread love and peace'. Of course in the everyday life it is not very easy to follow this motto, but a good basis can be laid down through a positive behavior and learning. 
The book was elaborated following consultation and direct advice from people from many different faiths, and I am sure it was quite difficult to find out only one and only manifestation of faith to be put into the story. For instance, I will rather say that many Orthodox Jewish women wear nowadays a sheitel - wig, instead of tichel as said in the book -, but the tichel is the exterior way easily recognizable of a headwear among Jewish women, especially from someone from outside the community. 
Diplomatically, the wording choice after indicating a specific head covering is 'which many - fill it with the representative of the faith - wear', that greatly solves dilemma and controversial intepretations. 
Hats of Faith is a really useful book, recommended especially for schools in multi-ethnic and multi-faith communities, but in fact that could be read to every child, regardless if part of a mixed background or not. We are all living in a diverse world, and we better try to understand it before swimming deep into the sea of stereotypes and misunderstandings.

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Mystery of Feelings: Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami

There is a special way in which most of the Japanese literature deals with feelings. Or how actually it rather avoids to express them in our usual, Western way of doing it: loudly, aggressively, showing off and through direct interaction with the object of desire or hate. In the case of all the Japanese authors I've read until now, both from the old and new generation, feelings are guesses, described, hidden as much as possible. You may dance out or cut your hair suddenly, but you will not talk about your feelings straight. You may decide to end up your poor life, but you don't keep talking and talking about it over and over again. You just do it.
Ms. Ice Sandwich by the young Japanese author Mieko Kawakami is a novella of a young boy falling in love with a strange looking lady selling sandwiches. His love is consumed by going there to see her every day, describing her to his grandmother who is in coma and also drawing her. If not an incident takes place in the middle of the story when other people are describing her - a quiet person, no smiles or no external manifestation of any kind - you might think that this lady with her blue eyelids doesn't exist at all. It seems she went through some plastic surgery which makes her look weird and possibly unmarrigeable. Or this is how his colleagues are describing her. But the young boy, the storyteller couldn't believe it, but he decides instead to give up the visits to the supermarkets where she sells. Meanwhile, he makes a portrait of her, as he sees her, with qualities attributed by his imagination too, with fresh memories of fairy tales. He is still not a young man, but not a child either, swimming without direction through the river border between the two worlds. When he finally addresses her the word, is before she is leaving for good, as she is about to get married. He gaves her his portrait. That's all.
The two main characters, the boy and the Ms. Ice Sandwich, do not have names. They are just characters. In Japan, there is the tradition of changing the name once someone is going through a different life stage. Both the boy and the Ms. are about to enter a new stage of their life. They are still wearing their old clothes of their previous lifestage, while embarking on new beginning.
The story is moving on slowly, smoothly and tender. No sentimentality or drama, just days after days going on. Until the story ends.
For me, it was a happy come back to the world of Japanese writings, that I will visit hopefully more often in the next weeks. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Immigration Stories for Young Readers: Americanized by Sara Saedi

'The eighties weren't the most ideal time to be a Persian in America. With the hostage crisis still fresh in the country's minds, we were public enemies number one. The news footage of Iranians protesting in the streets, burning the American flag and screaming 'DEATH TO AMERICA', didn't really do much to bolster our image. And then came the Iran-Contra scandal, which was the vanilla ice cream on the poop pie. But my parents tried to teach us to ignore any negative perceptions of our homeland. We know the media didn't define our culture. What the news didn't sow was that we were a passionate people who loved art and music and poetry. A people who came up with any excuse to throw a party and danced with their hips and shoulders in full swing. And who, above all, put family before any thing'.
Americanized. Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi is a humorous, hilarious and honest memoir about life as illegal immigrants in the 1980s-1990s. Through stories that usually have a colourful language, she is sharing normal life story of any teenage - in America or elsewhere - except that her life was for a long while shadowed by the danger of being deported any time. Which didn't stop her from fully living the American dream, with all its dangerous excesses. 
Although she left Iran at a very early age, the language, culture and history remained an important benchmark defining her identity, as in the case of many Persian expats in America. Her view on Iran and the sentimental relationship to the country is part of an identity which resists the test of political allegiances and stereotypes. 
The ironic testimonies are in fact the best way in which serious struggles that almost all immigrant parents and their children cope with and therefore the book is an useful read to both children with an immigrant background and those in the country for over a generation. It helps to increase the tolerance and understanding of the everyday difficulties. 'Immigrant kids often feel like their parents will never understand what it's like to be a teenager in the States. They'll never fully comprehend what it's like to bounce back and forth between two worlds and two cultures without offending either side'.
Maybe the language will make it a bit difficult and non-recommended for a middle grader, but high-school kids are definitely a good audience for the book. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review