Growing into Her Name

Ways to Make Sunshine – Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

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There is an ever-growing list of chapter book series about grade school-aged girls with determined and lively personalities.  Some of these are formulaic and predictable; Renée Watson’s Ways to Make Sunshine is not.  The first release about fourth-grader Ryan Hart, from the author of Some Places More Than Other,  introduces a bright and introspective character, part of a loving but decidedly not perfect African-American family in Portland, Oregon.  Early in the novel, Ryan’s father reminds her that her name is derived from the word for “king,” and that she will grow into the strengths and traditions of her people and her own best qualities.  The encouragement and solidarity of her close-knit family are sources of support for Ryan; even her older brother Ray’s teasing is less important than his protectiveness. Yet it isn’t always easy to live up expectations.

Ryan’s family has moved into a smaller home after her father was forced by circumstances to take a lower-paying job.  Economic hardship has an impact on everyone.  Ryan’s social circle has been disrupted, and the physical space of the new house seems restricting.  Watson realistically describes the emotional impact on Ryan’s mother; adult’s stress filters down to children in ways which are difficult for them to understand.  Her mom is patient, yet not infinitely so.  Ryan’s grandmother shows her unconditional love by skillfully straightening Ryan’s hair with the skills of the professional beautician she had been before retiring.  When Ryan’s needs diverge from her mother’s and grandmother’s in this episode, every child who has argued with parents about her appearance or dress will relate to the difficulty of weighing parents’ best intentions against a young person’s need for independence.

Friendship is never easy for kids Ryan’s age, and Watson manages to portray both the joys and frustrations of competition among kids, especially when it verges on cruelty.  Her optimism, the way in which she finds “ways to make sunshine,” does not prevent her from experiencing anger, sadness, or even, with her brother, the desire for revenge.  Watson assures young readers that their feelings are valid, that even the most resilient young person has moments when the injustice of events or of adult’s seeming obtuseness are hard to take.  One of the book’s most skillful and touching subplots involves Ryan’s speculation about a tin of objects left in the house by a former resident, perhaps long ago.  Watson resolves it in an unexpected way, respecting the importance which children may assign to incidents which adults see as trivial.

Nina Mata’s pictures of Ryan, and her friends and family, capture their spirited individuality.  Ryan’s grandmother lovingly tending to her granddaughter’s hair, Ryan terrified as she tries to deliver an address in her church, and Ryan’s parents dancing together in their kitchen, all reflect Watson’s warm and engaging text.  Ryan Hart seems ready to grow into her name.

 

 

Moons, Full and Otherwise

The Sages of Chelm and the Moon – Shlomo Abas and Omer Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, Green Bean Books, 2019

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Who would not want to carry home a beautiful full moon, safely secured in a barrel, perfect for nights when the moon is only a crescent or barely visible at all? The Sages of Chelm and the Moon, by Shlomo Abas, with pictures by Omer Hoffmann, retells one of the stories about residents of the legendary town of Jewish folklore, who are not constrained by reality.  In a lucid translation by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, children read expectantly about people who believe they can carry reflected light home with them, wondering if they will be bitterly disappointed when they learn they have been tricked by a venal innkeeper.  They need not worry; the sages of the title are protected by an innocence which makes them vulnerable to deception, but equally prone to seeing the light in a dark situation.

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Omar Hoffmann has created a fully realized town of Chelm, furnished with rustic buildings, small detailed housewares and tools, and smiling residents socializing with one another. From elderly bearded men to young children, each person has a role to play and the tools required to play it. One two-page spread introduces the class of characters: a baker holding a pan with a bird perched atop a loaf of bread, a man with a basket of eggs, a woman brandishing a rake with a puzzled looking mouse looking on.  The author explains that these townspeople are “sages” because “they were supposedly very wise and intelligent.”  Adults catch the irony, but children are ready to see Chelm’s wisdom in action.

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As the story unfolds, young readers may begin to suspect that the sages of Chelm are neither knowledgeable nor, perhaps, even intelligent.  Confused by the darkness of moonless nights, they determine to find a solution. After careful consultation, they decide to buy a moon. The picture of their conference is a vision of every ineptly conducted meeting ever attended.  One man speaks dramatically, and probably interminably.  Others try to get a word in, schmooze with one another, or just look confused.  Off to the side, someone tries to catch a chicken about to interrupt the proceedings.  They set out at night against a dark blue background, arriving at the finally at the daylight of a town whose innkeeper has the solution to their problem.

When the innkeeper generously accepts the money contributed by the people of Chelm, and packages the moon’s reflection in a barrel of water, children reading the story might experience some sadness, even fear.  They can certainly relate to the idea of those with greater knowledge or experience have power over the less informed.  When the moon purchasers prepare to unveil their incredible surprise to the rest of the town, a blue sea of lightly sketched figures looks towards a white circle where the exciting surprise will be revealed.  Disappointment, anger, and then calm acceptance.  Chelm is not a town of embittered victims, or even one of stoic resolve.  Instead, they accept life and adapt with joy in “radiant nights when the moon is in sight,” and, when it’s not, they “fumble around in the darkness.”  Enjoy reading this book with a child, and talking with her about the traps set by the world and the fleeting nature of light.

Divinely Beautiful Kindred Spirit: Anne of Green Gables for Young Readers

If I Couldn’t Be Anne – Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2020

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The key to readers’ fascination with L.M. Montgomery is their belief in kindred spirits, people or books, which validate their inner lives.  For the second time, Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout have created an intensely beautiful picture book for young children, older readers, or adults who have retained lifelong associations with the original novels.  (George has also written two chapter books based on Anne, reviewed here and here.)  If I Couldn’t Be Anne explores the rich inner life of the beloved heroine, who can’t be constrained by the ostensible limits of the real world.  Anne can imagine that she is anyone, and so will children reading this artistically distinguished appreciation of open-ended possibilities.

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Each picture and accompanying text offers a different persona for Anne, a girl whose visions are too grand to be confined in one approach to her life.  We meet Anne floating peacefully in a boat. Readers of the novel may remember that she and her bosom friend, Diana, attempted to impersonate Elaine, the Arthurian heroine of Tennyson’s poem, by floating down the river in a small vessel.  Familiarity with the original books is not necessary for young readers to enjoy this work. In fact, the picture books function independently and prime children to meet Anne later in Montgomery’s work.  Here she is a picture of serene dreaming, her eyes closed and her famous red braids lying outside the white blanket covered with lilies.

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But Anne can be part of the real world, too, elevating it to the realm of imagined roles when she sees herself as a great lady serving tea. The rose blossoms on her dress match the tea set and pastries, in Godbout’s ode to an idealized domestic world.

 

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Not all of Anne’s dreams flourish without problems.  Children will appreciate that cooks who are “forced to follow a recipe” may wind up with awful results That’s what happens when reality places unreasonable demands.  Anne’s red hair, which she eventually appreciates as an intrinsic part of her special beauty, is at first a source of distress.

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She philosophically reasons that red is “divinely beautiful when compared to ghastly green,” the color which results in the novel from an experiment with cheap hair dye.  Anne’s sad face reflected in the mirror signifies every child’s disappointment in an unlucky attempt at change.

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Sometimes Anne soars to her aspired heights, following a bird with her free spirit, pictured by Godbout as a disembodied silhouette leaving Anne’s body. Anne, sitting on a star, watches a shooting star mimic her own flights of fancy with a smile of appreciation.

Perhaps the most ingenious picture in the book is a summary and a metaphor of what reading means to all of us.  Anne is “an invisible friend who lives in a book, a kindred spirit to anyone in need.”  Godbout’s two-page spread features a book open to a small violet shadow, Anne on the page.  A pair of steel-rimmed eyeglasses on a table points to the accessibility of imagination and literary friendship.  George and Godbout have effected this kind of magic in their creation of a new Anne, clearly related to her original, but also standing on her own two feet.

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Tell Me About Pirates, Grandpa

How to Be a PirateIsaac Fitzgerald and Brigette Barrager, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

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A little girl wants to be a pirate, but she is initially discouraged by the sadly familiar sexism of her male peers.  Fortunately, CeCe (her very name suggests a kind of compact adventurism) has a grandfather who has firsthand knowledge of the high seas.  We don’t actually meet these annoying boys at the beginning; Cece first appears en route to her grandfather’s house, determined to get accurate information about pirates and why anyone would suggest that she cannot be one.  Full of wry humor and illustrations evocative of mid-century children’s classics, How to Be a Pirate celebrates both feminist values and the grandparents whose support and love enable children to succeed.

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When Cece enters her grandfather’s ramshackle house, the articles in his living room point to comforting authority: a ship in a bottle, a large fish and a sword mounted above the fireplace, a print newspaper next to a mug with and spoon.  (A later picture shows him to be a tea, not coffee, drinker.) His voice in a speech bubble comes from behind a beaded curtain, “In here, CeCe!”  This is clearly a place where CeCe is always welcome. Grandpa is seated in the kitchen; the minute we see him, we know the denigrating comments of those boys will evaporate.  He is appropriately brawny for a pirate, and even wears a striped French sailor’s shirt, but he also has wire-rimmed reading glasses balanced on his nose as he reads the paper.  An angry and frustrated CeCe asks, “What’s it like to be pirate?” and his lesson begins.

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When CeCe explains that the boys had told her that piracy was off-limits to her gender, Grandpa, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a ship tattoo, affirms that pirates need to be brave, an adjective unfurled in large font across his ship’s sail.  Violet and green fish jumping through the swirling water bring to mind the palette of Alice and Martin Provensen.

CeCe’s grandfather helpfully points out that pirates need other less obvious qualities, such as the desire to have fun, here depicted as his tattoo of a flamenco dancer comes to life. (Grandpa must have an interesting story behind this one!)  Most of all, a pirate requires independence, the ability to “face problems on her own.”  Grandfather and granddaughter each ride on the backs of American bald eagles, a nostalgic allusion to patriotism at its best, when it embodies positive qualities.

Just to finish off the absurdity of the boys’ argument, Grandpa asserts that the most important component of being a pirate has nothing to do with weapons. In fact, love is at the core of this profession in its fantasy form.  A lovely picture of CeCe on her grandfather’s lap subverts the gender stereotype to which the nasty boys subscribed.  Grandpa’s tattoo of CeCe’s name, his warm and cozy kitchen featuring delicately painted canisters, a dishcloth with pom poms, and a casserole on the stove top all give CeCe the strength to assert herself, “her feet swift and her heart strong.” How to Be a Pirate is a wonderful vehicle for sharing with children, telling them they can enjoy the unlimited fun of imaginary worlds free of annoying and small-minded restrictions.  Even those boys in their treehouse with skull-and-bone flags will change their tune.

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Seasons of Friendship

Natsumi’s Song of Summer – Robert Paul Weston and Misa Saburi, Tundra Books, 2020

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There are many different ways for books to explore the meeting between two children from different cultures, of illuminating the ways in which they are both similar and different. I’m not aware of any others, aside from Natsumi’s Song of Summer, which focus on a specific insect which is familiar to one child but strange to the other.  This is the second venture by this author and illustrator featuring a text entirely in the traditional Japanese poetic form of tanka, an entirely successful experiment in unobtrusively introducing young readers to a classic type of literary expression. Words by Robert Paul Weston and pictures by Misa Saburi are perfectly matched in their delicate beauty and sensitivity to the fears and pleasures of childhood.

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Natsumi was born during the Japanese summer, when the lovely and richly symbolic lotus flower is in bloom. Saburi’s vision of her sitting on the plant’s petals, suspended in a pond full of carp, captures the mix of realism and dreams which drive the narrative. The unique plant and insect life of her environment are an inseparable part of Natsumi’s life:

There were butterflies
with their striped and spotted wings,
and the sudden sparks

of fireflies, and honeybees
fizzing flower to flower.

The flexibility of the tanka form allows the authors to use the framework of the natural world and the simplicity of a child’s perceptions to create a believable story.  Lines composed with a syllable count of five-seven-five-seven-seven (haiku uses three lines of five-seven-five) can convey ideas of great sophistication, or ordinary observations, often both.

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When Natsumi learns that her cousin, Jill, will be coming to visit, she is pleased but anxious.  Her dream of Jill shows a stranger with her back to Natsumi, who wonders if she and Jill will be to divided by their differences to become close.  The image of Jill is placed behind flower-filled lanterns with wind chimes swaying gently around her.  Natsumi is worried that her cousin will remain a stranger, facing away from the cherished parts of her own world.

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The young Japanese girl has been surrounded by the security of her family, sharing a definition of beauty with them which she is justified in believing may be foreign to her cousin.  She particularly questions whether the seasonal arrival of cicadas, which bring the summer with their song, will mean anything to Jill. After all, “Insects frightened some people./What is Jill was frightened, too?”

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After Jill arrives, things do change, and they also remain the same.  Natsumi explains to her cousin how cicadas “wait in darkness,” until they are old enough to emerge, when “they climb out to meet their friends.” The girls’ summer together is joyous and fun.  Ordinary activities, drawing, enjoying ice cream, playing outdoors, are enhanced by the realization that they are learning from one another.

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Outdoor scenes are marked by light, while the girls sketch indoors in semi-darkness and the artificial cool air of an electric fan. While Natsumi draws cicadas, Jill produces an image of a Luna moth, as exotic to Natsumi as its Japanese counterpart is to her American cousin: “Elegant green wings/with two black-and-yellow spots/like half-winking eyes.”

At the Obon festival, the girls share the festivities surrounding the rituals marking connections to one’s ancestors. Both girls are dressed in kimonos, with Jill naturally integrated into the exciting occasion. In a line of women, Natsumi turns around to face her cousin, her face half in light and half in darkness.  She seems to be reassuring herself that Jill is sharing in her delight.

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Natsumi’s Song of Summer needs to be experienced in its totality in order to fully appreciate the accomplishment of this author and illustrator team.  Like the unity of tanka itself, each page each picture and line of text, is an unforgettable poem celebrating the value of the transient and seasonal, along with the deep and permanent mark these moments and relationships bring.

 

Fierce Love

I Will Be Fierce! – Bea Birdsong and Nidhi Chanani, Roaring Book Press, 2019

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I Will Be Fierce is a delightful story of intergenerational feminism and nurturing power.  The young heroine wakes up in her dino pajamas and looks out her apartment window, determined to ensure that her world is safe.  Her metaphor-laden mind creates magic, from colorful clothing which is “armor” to a backpack “treasure chest” and a menacing “many-headed serpent” which is really a big yellow school bus.  No obstacle is too tough for her sense of self-esteem, and her secret weapon, a loving grandmother. The author’s simple statements and the illustrator’s bold colors and convincing expressions make for a believable journey into the perils of childhood, with a happy ending.

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Before beginning her quest, the girl faces her grandmother, a picture of warmth with her grey hair, glasses, and star-covered sweater.  Like a real fairy godmother, she delicately touches the girl’s chin, a gesture which empowers her the rest of the day.  Some of the girl’s potential adversaries are a bit physically scary, like the five dogs straining on their leash while their dogwalker seems barely able to restrain them.

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No problem; even though the girl looks frightened, her resolve will not fail her: “I will take on the monsters that stand in my way.” Other children, some taller than she, are “giants,” but their appearance at the bus stop seems minimally difficult.  When she arrives at school, the giants have multiplied, requiring a more affirmative and broader approach: “I will chart my own course.”

From here on, every challenge becomes the basis for a new narrative.  The kindly librarian is the “Guardian of Wisdom.” It doesn’t seem likely that she would refuse the girl access to her “Mountain of Knowledge,” but the sign does say that borrowers are limited to five books.  Five will not be enough for the girl to decipher the secrets of the universe, something which she definitely needs to do.  In art class, her chosen subject is less typical than those of the other girls, but, more importantly, her face glows with self-assurance as she stands back from her portrait of a young girl on a turtle: “I will break away from the ordinary.”

Lunchroom is where the going gets tough. For the first time in the book, the girl’s individuality is not just a question of taste or imagination.  She notices one girl, visibly sad, sitting by herself, while a crowded table of other students looks on. Some look surprised that the fierce girl is about to instigate change. Two children look nasty, one averts her eyes, and a boy with glasses seems to disbelieve the scene.  “I will stand up for my beliefs” is the core of the book, as the girl and her friend approach their lonely classmate.  After this everything seems easy whether dancing in the rain speaking in front of the class, or heading home on the bus with a new friend.

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Being a hero is tiring.  A nap on her grandmother’s lap is a return to the source of energy that enabled her quest, one which will begin again the next day.  The bookended images of grandmother and granddaughter ground the story in reality.  Children need support in order to stand up and not just stand by.  Bea Birdsong and Nidhi Chanani have created a realistic role model, with her flowing black hair and rainbow colored jumper, whose moral compass and rich imagination are up to the task, with a calm and constant older female to set her on her course.

Ray: A Bright Idea

Ray – Marianna Coppo, Tundra Books, 2020

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Inanimate objects with a life of their own are always fascinating to children.  From The Brave Little Toaster to Toy Story, electrical and mechanical things with human qualities have a story to tell. Marianna Coppo, the creator a lifelike rock in Petra, has now created Ray, a lightbulb and a bit of loner, until he gets pulled out of his dark closet and taken on an unexpected camping trip.

Children can be resistant to change, and adults can, too, so we may all relate to Ray’s unexpected odyssey: “Then, one day, Ray feels his head spin.  He feels upside down.  And then strangely light.”  His adventure begins with uncertainty and ends with a reassuring sense of permanence.

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Ray’s closet may be simple, but it’s home.  (image). Furnished with spider webs, old Christmas trees, and castoff clothes, it’s pretty cozy, if small.  “Once he counted as many as 41 things,” Coppo remarks, a number which turns out to be the maximum number he can imagine.  This is a book with a minimalist tone but a maximalist message about the limits of flexibility.

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Ray is round, his other objects are angular, and people are something new.  When Ray sleeps, he doesn’t dream. So when his familiar dwelling is suddenly replaced by the great outdoors, children will wonder if Ray will even survive.  He lacks the mental vocabulary to even understand where he is; Coppo’s playful irony about language will amuse both adults and children.

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How can he acclimate himself when he equates evergreens with Christmas trees in storage, and a winding stream with “a very long scarf?”  Nighttime at the campsite is particularly disorienting, since every other object and person is asleep, and Ray is a nocturnal.

Ray has an almost spiritual moment of recognition when he comes to appreciate that the natural and human-made worlds are related. All of a sudden, camping is fun, people are nice, and stars are for wishing. Just when you may assume that Ray is ready to abandon his closet forever, Coppo reminds you that lightbulbs, and people, still need anchors, and that we can change and still remain the same. A fable, a cartoon, a hymn to nature and to all the stuff we have accumulated indoors; Ray is an unforgettable and stellar addition to Coppo’s quirky universe.

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Goodnight Bears, and Foxes, and Rabbits

Goodnight, Sleepyville – Blake Liliane Hellman and Steven Henry, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

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Helping children to comfortably go to bed and fall asleep has always been connected to reading.  Before the lights dim and they drift off, that transitional reassuring story is essential.  Blake Liliane Hellman and Steven Henry’s new accompaniment to a peaceful bedtime is stocked with beautiful pictures, calming words, and allusions to a child’s daily routine.  If your kids, and you, are fans of that great green room with the red balloon, Goodnight, Sleepyville has some new rooms with new residents to start off dreamland.

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Readers will meet animal characters with of different species living harmoniously in Sleepyville, some reading newspapers, others toting loaves of bread for dinner. There are libraries, opticians, and multi-residence complexes in trees. The recognizably human aspects of the town allow children to situate themselves in the story. There is a great deal of family activity, not frenetic, but lively.

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Two fox siblings tussle over a book, and an assembly line of parent and kids wash and dry dishes together. Dinnertime includes reading and distracting conversation as well as attention to food. Henry includes many images of parental protectiveness, each one specific to its kind of animal.

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A pelican drifts through the water with babies in her oversized beak, and a mole curls around his young in an underground burrow.  Children will not be surprised to learn that fox cubs dream of candy.  Hellman’s text is not an imitation of classic bedtime stories, but rather an homage to that genre.  Rhyme alternates with rhythmic prose: “Breathing is fun./Now you’re almost done!/Let’s snuggle, wiggle, cuddle,” accompanies pictures of animals outdoors and in, sleeping under leaves or seated in front of the family’s fireplace.

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Nighttime in Sleepyville highlights continuity; “…down goes the sun, and up comes the moon,” over a quiet island wrapped in darkness, with bright yellow windows matching the crescent moon.  The reward for washing your paws and choosing the pattern on your favorite pajamas is a soothing night’s rest.

The book’s impact is a combination of features that set it apart.  Henry’s pencil, watercolor, and gouache drawings are almost tactile.  Children will encounter the characters and their home as characters in motion, almost animated in their lifelike world.  The many details of their clothing and homes brings to mind such classics as the works of Beatrix Potter and Arnold Lobel, but the final impression of the book is quite up-to-date, a contemporary tale of children mildly reluctant to give up the day and enter the night.  There is a fine literary line between repetition and boredom.  Children will want to hear, and see, this book again and again, finding new elements in the pictures and hearing the musical words which bring on sleep.  Caregivers and teachers will want to make room on their shelves for this beautifully painted poem to a universal experience of childhood.

Susan Jeffers’ Gift

Cinderella – Charles Perrault, retold by Amy Ehrlich, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, Dutton Children’s Books, 2004, (originally published by Dial Books for Young Readers, 1985)

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Artist and author Susan Jeffers died on January 22 of this year.  Her graceful and sophisticated illustrations accompanied both her own written works and books by other authors, including Rosemary Wells, Margaret Wise Brown, Robert Frost, and Chief Seattle.  Her pen and ink dye drawings for a version of Perrault’s Cinderella, retold by Amy Ehrlich, are evidence of both her immersion in classical illustration style and her own unique sensibility.  This love letter to fairy tales presents a young heroine whose beauty and goodness are manifest in every detail and stroke of color.

The cover of Cinderella shows a serious girl with a bird on her shoulder. Her features are elegant and natural, and her expression implies that adversity will not keep her down for long.  Jeffers’ scenes of Cinderella as an exploited drudge, surrounded by nasty stepsisters and mother, keep their facial expressions to a minimum.  Cinderella frowns as, barefoot, she sweeps the stairs, while one lavishly dressed stepsister climbs them, turning her head towards Cinderella with disdain.  In a kitchen full of shining copper pots, Cinderella sits at the hearth, her hands folded as in a classic portrait.  Understatement is Jeffers’ style here.  When the fairy godmother shows up to rescue her, Jeffers uses black and white lines and cross- hatching to draw the lively animals whose metamorphosis enables the girl to attend the grand ball.

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The fairy godmother’s dress and wings are a sky blue, and the pumpkin-turned-coach is a deep and royal maroon. On every page, children recognize the familiar elements of the story, yet each character in the cast brings something new.  The prince and Cinderella dance at the ball, he in his gold crown, and she with a dress decorated with live white birds, who also sit atop her hair.  If the prince’s crown is precious metal, hers is a gift of nature.  In the background, guests whisper to one another in astonishment, a thoroughly believable response to Cinderella’s otherworldly glamour.

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When Cinderella races down the palace steps and loses her slipper, she looks aghast, and when the king’s courtiers begin a community try-on to find the shoe’s owner, all the wealthy young women look faintly ridiculous in their voluminous and brightly colored gowns.  No matter what, that slipper will not fit. When the courtiers ride up to Cinderella’s house on black horses, only one animal has red ribbons tied in its mane.  The fairy godmother reappears to supervise the trying of the shoe on the improbable Cinderella, now once more a serving girl.  Jeffers’ subtle transformations of color end the book with Cinderella in wedding white among a procession of noblemen in red and gold.  Her fairy godmother hovers in the back, and the other women of the court are faint outlines of watching the ending which no one could have predicted.  Jeffers’ Cinderella embodies the traditional story of elevation over unfair circumstance and cruelty, visually narrated through her radiant art.

 

If You Go Out in the Woods Today, Don’t Forget Your Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear of the Year – Vikki VanSickle and Sydney Hanson, Tundra Books, 2020

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If you have children, or if you are still connected to your own childhood, you probably have a recollection of the 1932 classic children’s song with lyrics about the fantastic Teddy Bear’s picnic, an event where stuffed animals take over their lives, free of human control.  There have been several recorded versions, as well as picture books, based on this event, including one by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry García (illustrated by Bruce Whatley

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Vikki VanSickle and Sydney Hanson’s new interpretation of the premise is warmhearted, unpretentious, and up-to-date. A modern little girl, Amena, and her loyal stuffed bear, Ollie, are inseparable, in the way which children inevitably find reassuring.  Amena is cute, affectionate, and competent.  Even when she has a bad day falling off her bicycle, (wearing a helmet), she picks herself up and carries on.

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Yet her friendship with Ollie is as important as Christopher Robin’s with Winnie the Pooh. We know that Amena is social and happy; when we meet her at her afternoon tea party with Ollie, she has arrived home from school.  Ollie’s job, “the best job in the world,” starts at 3:00 p.m., although he shifts to full-time in the summer. One night, Amena and Ollie’s peaceful sleep is interrupted when a ship, right out of Neverland, arrives at their window. A more senior bear invites Ollie to the Teddy Bears’ picnic for some continuing professional education, specifically in the “ABCs” of “Always Be Cuddling.” While it seems improbable that Ollie needs this reminder, the night voyage becomes a pretext for some great networking.  My favorite picture in the book is actually the ship’s approach to the picnic, held, as always, “deep in the woods.”  The bears have their back to the reader, looking out towards the white moon and the distant event, so far that the picnic’s guests look like the circle of Stonehenge.  A deep green and sparkling lights suffuse the step into fantasy.

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The picnic has gathered bears from every walk of life. There is plaid bear, a lavender bear on horseback, and a pirate complete with eyepatch and hook. (Imagine the story there!) Adults, and maybe some kids, will recognize a special guest checking out the food at one end of the table.  VanSickle and Hanson have filled their book with allusions to the past, a touch of humor, and the recognition that children are intrigued at the secret life of their stuffed animals.  Here they have a pretty complete picture of what goes on, under the leadership of bears with titles: “Scottie from the Department of Bedtime Planning…Jessica, Regional Stuffing Manager and Stitchery Inspector.”

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After an unforgettable experience, which turns out to be an annual event, Ollie returns to Amena. For children who have questions about their teddy bears’ activities while they themselves are sleeping, this book offers some comforting and entertaining answers.  Adults will enjoy the excursion, as well. “Flying sailboats, honey tarts, and a picnic in the woods,” make for a nice dreamlike trip into childhood.