Monday, December 15, 2014

Of Words and Spirit...

Words and spirit were the stuff of my favorite books this year,
beginning with Jen Bryant’s and Melissa Sweet’s already award-winning and multiply-starred picture book THE RIGHT WORD – ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS (Eerdmans Books, 2014).
This story of how Dr. Peter Roget came to create a Thesaurus has been lauded for its lyrical text and brilliantly-detailed reader-friendly illustrations. I laud it for its celebration and love of words, its accessible story-telling of a one-of-a-kind long-ago individual hell bent on listing each and every one, its brilliant use of synonyms and downright gorgeousness.  Just as every writer needs a Roget’s Thesaurus by his side, those of us who love words and good storytelling need THE RIGHT WORD on our bookshelf.
Peter Roget remarks in the story “how wonderful it was to find just the right word!”
My very sentiments.

Mark Repo’s THE BOOK OF AWAKENING (Conari Press, 2011) sits on my bedside table for daily reading.
I love its subtitle: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have.
A philosopher-poet and author, Repo wrote this book when “freshly on the other side of cancer.”
He chose to exchange his life of words, he wrote, for a life of spirit.
Each day’s entry offers a parable or a tradition, a quote or an insight, a poem or verse, followed by Repo’s beautifully-written comments and a related meditative exercise.
Admittedly I don’t always do the exercises but instead journal about the eye-opening, heart-opening truths.
Today’s December 15 entry opens with the truth, “The sun doesn’t stop shining because people are blind.”
Repo then offers examples from the lives of Goya and Melville and closes with these words:
“No one can really know what you are called to or what you are capable of but you.  Even if no one sees or understands, you are irreplaceable.”

Ariel Sabar’s MY FATHER’S PARADISE is a book of words and spirit.
Subtitled A SON’S SEARCH FOR HIS FAMILY’S PAST, journalist Sabar tells the story of his father Yona, a distinguished professor and author of the only dictionary of the language of Jesus, Aramaic.  Aramaic was the language Yona's Jewish family spoke in the remote Kurdish village of Zakho in northeast Iraq.  Mostly illiterate, Yona’s people lived harmoniously with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, considering themselves descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Part memoir, part history, part linguistic primer, part geography, at its core is the author’s story of reconnecting with a father he’d disparaged for his differentness.  As the book’s cover states, it is “a son’s epic journey back to his father’s lost homeland.”
The writing is superb, as in National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Autobiography, allowing me to live inside this so unfamiliar story, no matter the locale, no matter the time period. 
“I am the keeper of my family’s stories," Sabar wrote. "I am the guardian of its honor.  I am the defender of its traditions.  As the first-born son of a Kurdish father, these, they tell me, are my duties.  And yet even before my birth I resisted.”
Sabar’s page-turning telling had the writer in me breathless, not to mention, envious. 

Finally, I consider Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING  (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2014) a book of words and spirit too.
Recently named a National Book Award Winner, the novel in verse tells the story of Woodson’s childhood in the Jim Crow 60’s and 70’s and her longing to become a writer.
I read the book from cover to cover in one sitting, then promptly returned to the first page and began again.
Just the way Beverly Cleary took me back to West Philadelphia at age 9 with the mention of Ramona’s pink plastic raincoat, Jacqueline Woodson pierced my little girl’s longing to be a writer.

    "You’re a writer, Ms. Vivo says,
    her gray eyes bright behind
    thin wire frames.  Her smile bigger than anything
    so I smile back, happy to hear these words
    from a teacher’s mouth."

 May the above books gift you as they’ve gifted me this year.

 Merry! Happy! Cheers for the New Year!

 Esther Hershenhorn


Rosi said...

I've only read The Write Word from this list. I have some work to do. Brown Girl Dreaming in high on my list. Thanks for the post. Happy holidays.

CS Perryess said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your response to brown Girl Dreaming. Ever since I read The Notebooks of Melanin Sun I've wanted to be Jacqueline Woodson when i grow up. Brown Girl, though, stands out in her work. Its simplicity and honesty are somehow remarkable in ways her other remarkable work wasn't. Thanks for spotlighting it.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you for tis wonderful list. Brown Girl Dreaming is surely on my must-read list. Nice, nice discussion!

Carmela Martino said...

I'm already on the waiting list to get BROWN GIRL DREAMING from our library. Now I have to other your other recommendations. Thanks, Esther!

jan godown annino said...


These suggestions sound like exquisite gifts - I receive them with joy. Some of the recommendations are known & already on the list but as you can guess the Aramaic dictionary son is not familiar to me until now. Wowza, about the accomplished son's spiritual journey to his father
Many thanks.
j a n

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, Ros, CS, Bobbi, Marti and Jan for taking time from your busy days to comment.
I'm glad my shared titles spoke to you.

michelle kogan said...

Thanks for this rich collection of spiritual books! With winter's darkness around us this time of year, these books seem to offer inner glowing lights.

April Halprin Wayland said...

The Right Word sounds terrific. Jeri Chase Ferris's 2012 book, Noah Webster and his Words ( is on the same topic. May I point out the accolades this book has garnered?

Selected by the Junior Library Guild

Starred review in Publisher's Weekly

Starred (and great) review in School Library Journal

NY Times Sunday Book Review

Hoorahs from the Huffington Post for NOAH

Good review in Booklist

Great review in Horn Book.

Starred and "highly recommended" review in Library Media Connection.

"Pick of the month" from California Kids

The National Council for the Social Studies has named NOAH a 2013 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Children.

2013 Golden Kite Award from The Society of Children's Writers & Illustrators for Best Nonfiction of 2012.

2013 Eureka! Award (silver honor book) from the California Reading Association for Excellence in Nonfiction.