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The Naming of Tishkin Silk & Layla, Queen of Hearts by Glenda Millard, illustrated by Patrice Barton

September 9th, 2010 (03:51 pm)
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In large families, quiet interludes are as rare as hens' teeth. They sometimes occur at the strangest times in the most unlikely places and must be taken advantage of immediately, before they are stolen away by someone else. It was almost unheard of to find one on a Friday evening in the Kingdom of Silk. But one was found, and it was Layala and Griffin who found it. This is how it happened. - Page 28 of the American hardcover version of Layla, Queen of Hearts

Looking for your next read-aloud chapter book for your family? Pick up The Naming of Tishkin Silk and Layla, Queen of Hearts. These two precious stories written by Glenda Millard and illustrated by Patrice Barton are perfect for independent readers 7 and up as well as families. Prepare to take turns reading aloud the short chapters, discussing the thoughtful storylines, and making sounds of approval (such as "awww") over Barton's cute black-and-white illustrations.1

In the first book, The Naming of Tishkin Silk, a family deals with the loss of a child. Griffin, the only boy in a large family, was the youngest child - until his parents announced they were going to have another child. Griffin was a little hurt at first, but then became comfortable with the idea.

Sadly, the baby girl died shortly after birth. Their mother became very sad, so she went to a hospital to get some help. Griffin misses her terribly. His house is filled with people (his father, his grandmother Nell, and his older sisters Scarlet, Indigo, Violet, Amber, and Saffron), pets (a loyal, deaf red dog named Blue and a one-eyed crow named Zeus), and sadness where there once was song.

Griffin's baby sister never had a name. The Silk family has various traditions, one of which is a naming ceremony which takes place one year into the little one's life. Since the baby girl didn't make it that far, she remains nameless. Granted, the title gives away the name Griffin has chosen for her, but the sweet reason he picks the name shall remain secret until you actually read the book. When you discover the secret, you'll be prompted to go for a midday walk through a nearby park, or reach for the Kleenex -- or both.

And, on that walk, you, like Griffin, will meet Layla.

Princess Layla's forget-me-not eyes looked down at her feet.She kicked at the loose gravel with her pink sneaker, and her crown slipped a little till it was crooked on her forehead.

"I don't know. I'll have to ask my mother first," she said, because even princesses have to ask their mothers some things.
- Page 20 of the American hardcover version of The Naming of Tishkin Silk

Griffin and Layla become fast friends. Layla, who is just as wide-eyed and imaginative as Griffin and his sisters, is also fiercely loyal. Observe:

Layla climbed on top of the monkey bars. Griffin was afraid a sudden gust of wind might blow her away, but what she lacked in size, she made up for in courage. She was fearless.

She stood up, her pink-sneakered feet clinging to the worn metal rungs, and with her hands planted firmly on her hips, she shouted above their taunts. [...] She stood there on top of the monkey bars, balancing precariously on the narrow runs. Her eys blazed ferociously and dared anyone to defy her.
- Pages 46-48 of The Naming of Tishkin Silk

Griffin's vibrant best friend has her own story: Layla, Queen of Hearts. Rather than being a direct sequel to the first book, this volume is a companion piece which features many of the same characters.

The story gets its title from the protagonist, whose favorite dress was made by her grandmother, who lovingly called her grandaughter the Queen of Hearts. Now her grandma is gone, and the girl is a little too big for her well-worn frock:

[The dress] was old and washed and worn. It was white with faded red hearts on it. It had a frill around the bottom and a thin, red velvet ribbon around the waist. She put it on and stood in front of the mirror. The dress was too short now, but that didn't matter. She knew that her heart would never, ever grow out of it. Layla lifted her arms and slowly twirled, and the dress floated like a dream around her. - Page 55 of the American hardcover version of Layla, Queen of Hearts (LQoH)

When Griffin and Layla learn that their school is going to hold a Senior Citizens' Day, Griffin plans to take his grandmother, Nell, and offers to share her with Layla, who doesn't have any living grandparents. Though grateful for Griffin's offer, as she is great friends with his gran, Layla is determined to befriend a kind elderly person and bring him or her to the school event. Through Nell, Layla and Griffin met Miss Amelie, a forgetful but kind woman who doesn't leave her house very often. The kids start visiting Miss Amelie regularly, with or without Nell. The more they visit, the more they learn about her past - and her medical condition.

Layla's energy and hopefulness reminded me much of my own at that age (and still now!) A naturally happy and considerate girl, Layla jumps right off the page, much like Ramona Quimby or Judy Moody, but without their mischief. Layla retains the innocence of their age while still being very thoughtful and insightful:

"It's hard to be determined all the time," she said. "And besides, I don't think you can rescue someone unless they want to be rescued." - Layla, page 98 of LQoH

The kids are lucky to have adults and other folks in their lives who encourage their creative and contemplative ways. Layla has loving, hardworking parents, and she is tickled by how different they are from Griffin's laidback parents, whom she is allowed to call by their first names. Griffin's nana, Nell, is the kind of grandma everyone wants, filled to the brim with love and encouragement:

"Unquenchable curiosity - that's marvelous, absolutely marvelous! Curiosity is a wonderful quality to possess; but unquenchable curiosity, now that's astonishing, that's what it is!" - Nell, page 25 of LQoH

Glenda Hillard's writing is both descriptive and artistic while being well-suited for its target audience. Though the exact words "postpartum depression" are never said, the first book is an excellent way to discuss that with your kids, just as the second book will inspire a discussion about Alzheimer's. Hillard handles the tough issues gently without being condescending, and she doesn't always take the easy way out with a super-happy ending. It is evident that Griffin's mama was sick with sadness, got help, and, thankfully, gets better, but she still has a way to go; Miss Adele's journey is a sadder one, handled with appropriate care throughout the book.

It bears repeating: Pick up The Naming of Tishkin Silk and Layla, Queen of Hearts by Glenda Millard and Patrice Barton for your family, your classroom, and/or your library. You'll be glad that you did, because your young readers will want to read them and discuss them with you.

1 My favorite top-of-the-chapter image appears in The Naming of Tishkin: Turn to Chapter Nine, The Flame of Courage, to see an adorable griffin!

Many thanks to Jules from Seven Impossible Things for the recommendation.

The Naming of Tishkin Silk was nominated for the 2004 New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards and honored at the 2004 CBCA Awards.

Layla, Queen of Hearts won the Children's Book Award at the 2007 Queensland Premier's literary Awards, and was nominated for the 2007 Children's Book of the Year Award in the Younger Readers category.

Booklist: From a Land Down Under