Dear Author

Dear Mr. Henshaw – written by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
HarperCollins, 1983

Mallory Pike, Number One Fan (Baby-Sitters Club #80) – written by Ann. M. Martin
Apple, 1994

While the late Beverly Cleary (1916-2021) is probably best known for her Ramona series, and for several early classics, she won the Newbery for a later work, Dear Mr. Henshaw. If you have never read it, or read it so long ago that it is a distant memory, you should return to this truthful exploration of children’s resilience, responding to adult incompetence when they have no oter choice.  The novel chronicles the painful experiences of a boy named Leigh Botts, whose estranged father is a long-distance truck driver and whose mother is struggling to support him by helping a friend in her catering business.  It is full of lyrical language and painful insights, as Leigh unwillingly corresponds with a well-known author as part of a compulsory school project.  Soon, the Mr. Henshaw of the title becomes a mentor to Leigh.  We only meet him through Leigh’s end of the letters, including subtly humorous references to the author’s novels (Ways to Amuse a Dog, Moose on Toast) which must reflect Cleary’s opinion of children’s publishing. 

Leigh’s father is a tragic example of parental selfishness. He has the best of intentions, but he continually disappoints his son.  He had inflicted the same repeated pattern on his ex-wife, but she eventually learned her lesson and, throughout the book, she is a source of strength to Leigh, although she suffers from loneliness and regrets. She is honest with Leigh, but, unlike his father, she understands the limits of what a child is capable of emotionally accepting.  Friendless, except for his author correspondent and a kind custodian at this new school, Leigh is depressed.  Eventually, his narrative in letters turns into an example of his literary gift.  Leigh’s talent at expressing his thoughts and feelings is not only a form of therapy, but evidence that he is perhaps as gifted as his role model, Mr. Henshaw.  By the time Leigh earns only an “honorable mention” in a school writing contest, he has developed the confidence to admit that “I have heard that real authors sometimes have their books turned down. I figure you win some, you lose some.”  When he does earn the opportunity, due to the plagiarism of another student, to have lunch with a “real author,” what reader doesn’t respond to her sincere and honest praise his moving “A Day on Dad’s Rig,” obviously a more authentic piece than those of the contest’s major winners. (a future Newbery Honor, or perhaps Newbery overlooked author?)

Ann M. Martin is a fine writer, even though Mallory Pike, Number One Fan is not as sophisticated as Cleary’s novel.  Still, there are obvious similarities.  Mallory’s family is intact; her problems are those of a child in a large family caught between her personal needs and seemingly unreasonable demands to help out at home.  She wants to be a writer, and, somewhat improbably, her favorite author turns out to live right in her own town.  Henrietta Hayes is the author of the Alice Anderson series, starring a plucky girl whose incredible adventures are only helped, never hindered, by the wonderful supporting cast in her life.  When Mallory learns that Ms. Hayes’s novels do not reflect her personal experience, which has actually been characterized by tragedy, she feels betrayed.  How could this be? Authors are supposed to draw on what they know, right? (A subplot involves the anger Mallory provokes from her own family, when she writes and produces a play for elementary school students, portraying her mother and siblings as irrational nuisances. Apparently, they are not aware of the late Nora Ephron’s adage, “everything is copy.”)

Like Leigh Botts, Mallory learns a lesson about writing.  Literal facts compose only a small segment of a novel, play, or poem.  The grief-stricken Henrietta Hayes patiently explains to Mallory that her cheerful novels do tell the truth, just not with a direct correlation to everything the author has experienced, including the death of her only daughter. There are clear parallels between the two books, so much so that I half expected Ann M. Martin to have acknowledged them in her short afterword.  Martin’s novel seems to be, on some level, an homage to Cleary’s. Both children contact their favorite authors through a school project.  Both aspire to be writers, and both benefit from the generosity of a “real author” who clarifies the difference between factual and imaginative truths.  Both form a bond with adults outside their own families, filling in the inevitable gap between parents and children.  Still, to quote Leigh Botts, reading these books, especially Dear Mr. Henshaw, “I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time.”

Friends and Change

Keep It Together, Keiko Carter: A Wish Novel – Debbi Michiko Florence
Scholastic, 2021

Writing intelligent books with compelling characters for middle grade readers that transcend the most commonly successful formula is not easy.  Nor is writing chapter books for younger children. Debbi Michiko Florence accomplished the latter with her Jasmine Toguchi books. (I would hope to see more of those!) Now, with Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, the first in a series about older girls, she has created a new heroine: bright, introspective, sometimes confused, and often hopeful.   Like Jasmine, Keiko lives in California.  She has a younger sister, and two decidedly imperfect parents who are trying to do their best, even though her mother’s new and demanding job takes her away from the family more frequently than everyone would like.  Keiko has two best friends, Audrey Lassiter and Jenna Sakai.  I know what you’re thinking. That will never work out.  While it is true that some of the girls’ conflicts are partly determined by jealousy, and suspicion that each one may not enjoy the deepest loyalty from the others, this is not a patronizing picture of female relationships. No one in this novel is doomed, through some type of intrinsic gender quality, to turn against a friend. 

Jenna is slowly recovering from the trauma of her parents’ divorce. Audrey is the victim of an apparently dreadful older brother, Connor, who, along with his friends, devises ways to torment the three girls.  Since one friend decides to taunt them with the nickname “the Great Wall of China,” since two of the three are Asian-American, you get the idea of eighth-grade idiocy at its most grotesque.  But many characters in this complex novel are not what they seem.  People change, although not outside of the boundaries of what is possible. Just when you give up hope on one character, the author delivers a surprise. On the other hand, she refuses to deliver the most optimistic resolution in other cases.  Sometimes people are shallow or selfish, even manipulative and cruel.  Keiko is aware of this uncomfortable fact about life, but it doesn’t make her happy.  “I wasn’t afraid of change,” she tells herself honestly, “Just as long as everything else stayed the same.”

Keiko’s mother is of Japanese ancestry, while her father’s background is European-American.  The fact that Jenna’s family is also Japanese-American does give Keiko and Jenna a certain bond, but it does not ultimately determine the way the three girls care about one another or fail to do so.  There are many cultural references which feel authentic, including discussions of movies which the friends watch together.  All three girls are Miyazaki fans, but also enjoy films by John Hughes.  Connor is a fan of classic Hollywood and that turns out to be a good sign. When he and Keiko, along with Audrey, watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Keiko objects to the ugly stereotype of a Japanese man played by Mickey Rooney, Connor empathizes. That’s a good sign.  Audrey accuses Keiko of being overly sensitive.  That’s not a good sign.  Each incident is one small part of a whole, with some moments only fleeting or even misleading, while others turn out to be unexpectedly revealing.

Keiko loves chocolate, even falling for Gregor Whitman, the boy with the same name as a brand of her favorite sweet.  No spoilers here, but think of Shakespeare…As I was reading Keiko’s thoughts about the incredible variety of this food, “Some people think that all chocolate is the same, but they’re wrong,” I couldn’t help remembering The Baby-Sitters Club. While the later books in the series were churned out at record speed to take advantage of their unexpected success, the original ones were wonderful; many children’s authors have paid homage to their influence (for example here and here). Kristy, Stacey, Claudia, and Mary Anne were each individuals with distinct, believable, personalities, and wildly different approaches to conflict.  At their meetings, Claudia Kishi would bring out the chocolate and candy hidden in her room, along with the Nancy Drew novels that her parents found disappointingly non-academic.  Is this inclusion in Keiko Carter an allusion to that earlier group of girls also trying to “keep it together?” Maybe not. Maybe Debbi Michiko Florence isn’t a fan of The Baby-Sitters Club, but if readers are, they might think back to that girl’s bedroom in fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

Why is Keiko Carter, like David Copperfield, the hero of her own life and not just an ingredient in a formula?  She’s vulnerable, self-doubting, loyal, angry, loving, and conscious of her own weaknesses. It may take time for her to reach that last quality, but the process through which she does is unforgettable. 

Like Father Like Daughter

Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem – written and illustrated by Lauren Soloy
Tundra Books, 2021

If your father is “one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the World,” but you want to believe in fairies, do you have a problem? If so, how do you resolve it? In Lauren Soloy’s Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem, father and daughter share a dialogue about belief and knowledge.  The book takes on this weighty philosophical problem in a weightless way, as light and unassuming as a fairy itself.  Soloy compares the gravity of the way adults explain the world to the very different perceptions of a child.  The bond between a caring and empathetic father and an imaginative little girl is at the center of this deeply reassuring story.

You won’t mistake Soloy’s highly individual artistic style for that of any other illustrator, Of course, she has many influences, including folk art, Asian art, cartoons, and several other elements.  The resulting images are uniquely hers: people with broad faces and minimally delineated features that express the words of her text. 

Here those words and pictures tell the story of Charles Darwin and his daughter, Etty, as they take a leisurely walk through the natural world that Darwin dedicated his professional life to explaining. There’s no conflict, just a deep conversation about reality. When Etty asks her father if he believes in fairies, he answers obliquely: “Well, I’ve never seen any proof that fairies are real.” That’s red flag to a curious child who is wedded to the idea that these lovely creatures have at least the possibility of existing. After all, who wouldn’t believe in the deep and light green fairy in flight against a dark green background, right in front of Etty’s eyes?

Etty is not exclusively interested in fairies. She asks her father about butterflies, an obviously related but thoroughly real species. Her father provides maps with lines detailing the butterflies’ routes, while Etty considers other hypotheses about things with wings, and things that resemble magical beings but are real. Darwin suggests that “living things,” such as the oxalis flowers known as “fairy bells,” are ones which “leave evidence, if you know what to look for.”  Yet Etty is not convinced.  Reasoning that people might not be looking for evidence in the most productive way, she still hopes for proof that will confirm her emotions.

Etty’s father realizes that.  This is not a book equating science with magic, or suggesting that provable theories are the same as fantasies.  It’s the story of a parent who respects his child’s experiences and validates them.  Having asked Etty rather pointedly why she wants to believe in fairies, he proves his own probable hypothesis.  Etty identifies with the elusive winged characters “I want to BE a fairy.” With her arms held up triumphantly, her hands holding a leaf and a feather, Etty appears to be conjuring the red fox moving behind her.  She has been liberated from the bounds of reason.

Does Etty actually believe that her father has admitted the existence of fairies?  You might have that conversation with a child sharing the book with you. Etty states that she feels better after the walk that she and her father shared.  She feels better because he tried to answer her questions and came up with some new ones.  The beauty of nature had given her “thoughts space to fly.”  No doubt, she processed her father’s information about living things and the evidence of their existence, while she could also imagine the perfect habitat for an unproven fairy. Darwin walks calmly, one hand in his coat pocket and the other holding a cane. Etty is the picture of determination, her arms denoting energetic movement.  The world surrounding them is lush and vivid, mysterious and subject to scientific investigation at the same time. 

Like Father Like Daughter

She Persisted

Dangerous Jane: The Life and Times of Jane Addams, Crusader for Peace – written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Alice Ratterree
Peachtree Publishing, 2017

“Women cooked, cleaned, and cared for children. What could women say to presidents and prime ministers?” They could say plenty, as this picture book biography of pioneering activist and social worker Jane Addams (1860-1935) proved in her persistent and productive life. The subtitle of this engaging book present its challenge; writing a “life and times” for children is not easy. Most young readers will come to the book with little background knowledge of such issues as pacifism, immigration, or the settlement house movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They might well be aware that women were assumed to play a different and lesser role, if any, in public life.  Suzanne Slade and Alice Ratterree frame Addams’s life as a response both to her own personal obstacles and to the injustice she saw surrounding her.

It’s often popular in children’s books to present the hero as struggling against some adversity.  Jane is born in a middle-American town; although the text does not specify that her family was affluent, the pictures imply a level of financial comfort.  Jane’s vulnerability, a condition which made her “back crooked, her toes point in,” was debilitating, and Slade evokes the reader’s sympathy by extending its reality into a fairy tale metaphor.  Ratterree depicts a sad girl sitting in a window seat quietly reading a book.  Jane “felt like the ugly duckling in her storybook: different, unwanted, hopeless.” Even more devastating was the loss of her mother, leaving her with “deep sadness and pain.” The Dickensian description of anguish on this page sets the stage for Addams’s eventual transformation, like the ugly duckling, into an assertive woman who threatened those in power with her advocacy for the vulnerable.

The book consistently shows Addams’s developing consciousness of inequality by alternating scenes of her comfortable circumstances and her observation of inequality.  She travels the world, visiting theaters and monumental works of art and architecture, but is inevitably dissatisfied.  Observing Toynbee Hall in London, a pioneering settlement house dedicated to empowering the poor through education and job training, Addams determines to bring the concept to her own country.  The full history of the settlement house movement includes criticisms of the patronizing attitude which professional social workers sometimes imposed on immigrants, as well as the underlying assumption that acculturation into specific American values was always positive. This is a children’s book; of necessity, it emphasizes the progressive goals behind Addams’s crusade.  The author is careful to describe her work as bringing “dignity and hope” to those who needed her help.

The lovely illustrations are both dramatic and subtle. Sepia and pastel colors dominate with selected brighter tones.  Facial expressions convey a range of emotions.  Chicago’s famous Hull House is a center of progress, emphasized through a scene of motion and activity.  Working people enter the house and embrace change, some literally ascending the staircase, and all engaged in meaningful pursuits or receiving crucial services.  Slade alludes to possible conflicts, since many different ethnic groups and political persuasions are represented, but Addams “asked them to listen carefully…and peacefully settle their differences.” This type of supervision implies that Addams is still in a position of control and influence over the lives of her clients, yet it reflects the reality of the Progressive era.  Change is sometimes gradual and imperfect and the settlement house movement was an important beginning.

Addams was also a peace activist who helped to organize the Women’s Peace Party in response to the terrible carnage of World War I.  The text is balanced, pointing out both the origin of the war in fights over “land, money, and power,” and the need of countries to defend their citizens.  Parents and educators can use this part of the book to engage children in discussions of war, conflict resolution, and the potential of activism to sometimes effect change. By the time of Addams’s death in 1935, fascist world powers were leading the world towards war again, but this time as a response to genocide and the worst crimes against humanity the modern world had ever seen.  But that’s another children’s book. This one is an accessible and engaging way to introduce children to a powerful woman who used her commitment and influence to move the world forward, towards social justice and away from war.

Anti-Boredom for Girls

A Girl’s Treasury of Things-to-do – written by Caroline Horowitz, illustrations not credited
Hart Publishing Company, 1946

Who was Caroline Horowitz? It’s difficult to find any information about her online, aside from links to booksellers offering used copies of her works.  She specialized in collections of recommended activities for different categories of children; boys, girls, “tiny tots,” little girls, young boys. Some of the collections are described as “swell,” “jumbo,” or other attractive adjectives. One is entitled, The Great Big Happy Book.  I’ve acquired some of these, and I look at them affectionately, in spite of the radical gender division and the fact that some of the suggested activities might cause physical harm.

Horowitz might be the illustrator, as well, of this volume, since no other illustrator is listed.  The publication date, immediately after World War II, is significant.  Since children would no longer be involved in growing victory gardens or in collecting scrap metal or rubber for the war effort, they presumably needed other activities.  In addition, the temporarily expanded opportunities for women on the home front had been abruptly closed off, and it was time to train girls for their future roles as homemakers.  The acknowledgements of support at the beginning of the book are also interesting. One is to Josette Frank of the Child Study Association of America. Frank was quite well known as an advocate for children’s literacy and several progressive causes, and as a voice of sanity in the attacks on comic books. Evidently, although Horowitz is little-known today, she interacted with key players in the world of children’s literature. 

So what, according to Horowitz, should girls be doing with their free time, in an era when structured and highly specialized after-school activities were less common than today? Here are a few suggestions.  They might create a “sweet-spice sachet” out of apple, cloves, and ribbon.  That might now show up on Etsy. A somewhat more ambitious project, but still very feasible, involves making a picture frame. Perhaps “ambitious” is less precise than “dangerous.”  This project requires cardboard, tape, and ribbon, but also a razor blade.  I can’t help but notice that the drawing of a girl inside the complete framed bears a marked resemblance to Barbie, the revolutionary new doll who would not appear until thirteen years later. Speaking of dolls, girls can learn to craft a simple yarn doll, designed with many emblems of femininity. “Susie Shy Lapel Doll” doesn’t actually list any way to attach her to the crafter’s lapel, but she is truly decorative, with a skirt, a pink face, red lips and “downcast eyes,” and a ruffle.

Girls need no restrict themselves to making dolls. For future journalists there is a family newspaper. Granted that it is restricted to domestic news: “…a visit from a relative, someone’s graduation from school, a new business venture by some member of the family, a furlough visit of your older brother.” Many men were still completing their military duty in 1946, although Horowitz may well have written the book before the war ended.  For a different form of communication, readers could simulate a telegram by pasting words from newspapers or magazines onto a sheet of paper.  One of the most refreshing elements of the projects, razor blades aside, is the simplicity of the materials. Most require only paper, pencils, ribbons, glue, and one’s mental faculties, such as “Toothpick Tower.. 

“Mixed Answers” is billed as “hilarious…a sure-fire hit at any party.”  It’s somewhat related to Mad Libs, mixing questions and answers in an improbable way.  Some of the questions are: “What will you serve at your wedding,” “Where will you meet your husband or wife,” and “What business will you be in then?” This is apparently a coed game; maybe the girls will work in businesses someday, and the boys might concern themselves with the food at their future weddings. 

I don’t mean in any way to mock this sweetly nostalgic exercise. Projects and memory games are great.  The “Gallery of Movie Stars” is basically a scrapbook of celebrities. If “Schnozzola,” a game involving transferring a matchbox from your nose onto someone else’s nose in a relay, seems problematic, you might try one with less contact, “Who Am I?” Children with the names of famous people taped to their backs need to ask one another yes or no questions about their identity: “Am I an American?” “Am I a man?” “Am I alive?” If the possible famous people list of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Cleopatra, or George Washington, seems limited, feel free to add your own choices. The best part of this and all the activities in the book, according to the author, is that “It won’t be necessary for an adult to give directions or supervise your play. What’s more, you’ll be so interested you’ll want to do everything yourself.”  That’s an idea which isn’t dated at all.

Hats Off to Carol

Carol and the Pickle Toad – written and illustrated by Esmé Shapiro
Tundra Books, 2021

Esmé Shapiro opens her latest picture book with a statement and a question about an oddly endearing girl, Carol. She wears a toad as a hat.  “Did you know,” Shapiro asks the reader, “that some people wear toads as hats?” Since the answer to that question is probably “no,” she assures you that “some do.”  To fully enjoy Shapiro’s mildly iconoclastic books, including this one, begin by accepting her premise and then enjoy the way her words and images expand the world a little bit. Carol’s physical proportions emphasize that she is a child, but also a creature of Shapiro’s rich imagination. We meet her riding a bicycle, her dark hair and big glasses almost overwhelming her face.  She is turning her head around completely so that she can see behind her, an implausible action which many kids would love to be able to perform. There is a toad sitting atop her head.

Turning the page, we observe that hats are so much a part of the city’s diversity that a toad is just one more means of self-expression. After all, people were wide-brimmed hats, Little Red Riding Hood-like pointed ones, and “big and furry” Hasidic shtreimels. A dog even wears an umbrella hat.  So Carol’s hat is only slightly off-kilter, if at all.

Readers can easily identify with her creativity, which brings along a dilemma. Carol’s hat, like a Freudian superego, tells her what to do.  (If at this point you think of Disney’s Ratatouille, where Rémy sits under Chef Linguini’s toque and directs him how to prepare the best dishes, the young chef is appreciative of the help, not frustrated by bossiness.) Carol can’t so much as ride her bicycle, let alone paint a picture her own way, without the toad’s obnoxious interference. Worse, she can’t even select delicious food at her favorite deli. 

One of Shapiro’s most playful and appealing qualities as an author and artist is her combination of themes and images in a quirky way.  This book is about children’s desire to be independent. It’s also about creativity, and about friendship. The food element emphasizes comfort.  Who wouldn’t want to order the great items on offer at Little Shapiro’s: blintzes, bagels, potato latkes, matzo ball soup, strawberry shortcake, and lettuce leaves?  (The wonderfully diverse clientele, harmonious décor, and friendly service are perfect. If only a toad on Carol’s head did not insist on ordering “a side of flies.”  Shapiro understands perfectly how to include humor for both children and adults in her stories.

But wait, this book doesn’t stay in the deli. Shapiro’s change of scenes calls to mind the way children think about experience. Carol visits a hat shop, eager to find a more liberating kind of headgear.  A lovely older woman is sewing her creation, while Carol, in wizard hat, ascends a ladder to find what she is seeking. “She was so used to being bossed about that she knew what SHE wanted.”  Once again, Shapiro’s words get to the heart of what children feel. Carol’s solution to her problem involves thinking outside of the box, and her diagram of the perfect hat gets right to the point. (image).

Cities and the outdoors also coexist in Shapiro’s imagination and in the book.  With gray city buildings in the background, Carol paints outdoors, “…all kinds of things, not just toads.” Another, presumably, wise and sympathetic old woman, with funky glasses and earrings, encourages Carol.  Who is this maternal figure? She is dressed in blue stripes which approximately match those of Carol’s outfit 7under her smock. Perhaps she is older version of Carol, as she embraces some adorable animals as well as one of Carol’s original artworks.  Shapiro depicts closeness between different kinds of people in Carol’s life, at the same time that she highlights Carol’s independence.

After further adventures and trials, Carol learns to listen to her own voice, and it’s a loud one: “With her big loud voice everything felt completely brand-new. She biked freely all about town.” Finally, she rewards herself with a trip to the deli and a wonderful feast with friends, including a man wearing a lampshade hat, a child in a bee costume, and the wonderful blue-robed lady and her pink puppies. They, as well as well as her friend the waiter, all have something in common: kindness. If fact, kindness is “fabulous,” and so is the city where Carol lives. The final two-page spread has a touch of Maira Kalman’s love of humanity and the urban world.  Even in the darkness of night, there are friends in every window, each one of them guides on Carol’s journey away from the pickle toad’s voice and towards her own.

Happy Birthday to the Wonderful, Inimitable Joe Krush

The Magic Circle: Stories and People in Poetry – edited by Louis Untermeyer, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952

Readers of my blog know that Joe Krush, and his late wife Beth (1918-2009) are among my most favorite illustrators in the world of children’s books. (Here is my Horn Book article published on the occasion of Joe’s centenary three years ago, and some of my posts about the couple’s work from this blog can be found here and here and here and here and here and here). Their style incorporates so many artistic styles and historical allusions, but it can never be imitated.  In addition to the many novels which their pictures brought to life, transforming them in a way which no other artists’ work would have matched, they illustrated a classic collection of poetry for young people, The Magic Circle. The book is organized into sections, each one with a title which represented the value of its era, even if they now seem dated. There are “Strange Tales,” “Gallant Deeds,” “All in Fun,” and yes, “Our American Heritage.” But this post is not about the changing perspective on what constitutes “American,” “gallant,” or “fun.” The point here is the pictures.

An excerpt from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “A Knight,” portrays a knight, a squire, and a prioress, as envisioned by the Krushes.  The one woman in the trio is seated side saddle on a horse, her partly veiled face looking out at the reader.  Her sleeves are covered in arabesque patterns in the elaborate filling of space in black and white lines so typical of Beth and Joe. While the knight looks preoccupied with his latest deeds, she is positively serene. As Untermeyer’s adaptation asserts, “She was all goodness and a tender heart.”  The Krushes excelled at depicting goodness, although they drew quite a few villains, too.  The prioress’s wimple has cross-hatched lines, matched by those on her fine cheekbones. One shoe protrudes from the bottom of her gown. Here we are in the Middle Ages, courtesy of Beth and Joe Krush’s deep feeling for beauty.

We meet another woman from a different social class in “Molly Malone,” the folk poem about a poor Dublin fishmonger and her tragic end. Molly is no high-class prioress, but she is every bit as lovely if much less constrained as Chaucer’s character.  Instead of wearing elaborate footwear, she is barefoot, pushing her cart as she loudly hawks “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!” The many tiers of her skirt seem to emit tiny stars. Her two braids fly in the wind, and she is strong enough to push the heavy cart with one hand while using the other to project her voice. She does look extremely happy for someone who, as we all know “died of a fever of which none could relive her.” But that was later. In the picture, Beth and Joe Krush pay homage to her tough and wild heart.

Happy 103rd birthday to Joe Krush, a national treasure!

Soup of Life and Luck

The Other Side of Luck – by Ginger Johnson
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

The title of this new middle-grade and older novel by Ginger Johnson is the first indication of its unusual focus.  There are many books about pre-teens and teenagers struggling with the inherent unfairness of life and how to cope with it.  There are other novels set in fantastic or semi-fictional historical worlds, not governed by the norms of realistic fiction.  The Other Side of Luck falls into neither category, although its title might lead readers to believe that it is one more contemporary examination of young lives. Instead, we meet Una and Julien, a girl from the ruling class and a boy whose job is to help his father locate valuable plants and herbs for sale by potion makers in the local market.  They do have family problems. Each has lost a mother.  They both confront injustice.  Yet Una and Julien’s life circumstances would seem to dictate very different outcomes.  Subtlety, humor, and empathy give this novel, set in a fictional past world but full of identifiable problems, a rich and compelling dimension.

Una is the First Daughter of the Magister Populi (master, or teacher, of the people in Latin, which is not required for reading this book)! The privilege which defines her life does not extend to gender; her younger brother will inherit their father’s power.  Julien, also motherless, has a tough job, helping his Baba (father) to locate valuable pharmaceuticals in the natural world.  Since he has no sense of smell, this task is particularly challenging.  There are lots of olfactory images and descriptions, some quite stunning, as when the author contrasts two different relationships of people to the environment:

          …the marauders rode straight into a meadow of wildflowers…their horses’ hooves
          trampling the delicate leaves and petals, crushing them, much the way an
          apothecary grinds leaves and petals in a mortar with a pestle.  The difference was
          that the apothecary turns his destruction into something beautiful, whereas the
          horsemen only left a path of wreckage.

Different themes weave together throughout the novel: feminism, parenting, coping with loss, finding one’s own path in life, fighting injustice.  There is a marked absence of ideological statements, as the characters’ speech and internal monologues ring true to the way in which intelligent and insightful young adults might articulate their feelings.  The colorful details of dress, language, food, and customs in this imaginary world are both specific and universal, allowing a great deal of room for the reader’s imagination. While character names such as Cassius, Brutus, and Ovid seem to be an homage to classic works of western literature, they enter the novel with a light touch, with multiple allusive possibilities.  Even if the reader is completely unfamiliar with the sources, their compelling stories move forward.

There is also soup, in the hands of wise older woman named Vita (life), whose concoctions play an important role.  “Soup of life has spice and lime, chiles, garlic, luck, and time.” You can’t argue with that recipe, only one of many essential ingredients in this beautiful and memorable book.

Milk in the Stars and on the Ground

Ernestine’s Milky Way – written by Kerry Madden-Lunsford, illustrated by Emily Sutton
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2019

I first encountered Emily Sutton’s work at the Society of Illustrator’s annual show of original picture book art, which I used to attend in person, before the pandemic temporarily converted it to an online event.  The book exhibited was One Christmas Wish and I fell in love with her pictures—beautiful, evocative, resonating with classical illustration styles, but not imitative.  When I found Ernestine’s Milky Way, I was not disappointed. Kerry Madden-Lunsford’s story, set in a poor community in the Great Smoky Mountains during World War II, is an absolutely perfect match for Sutton’s art.  Everything about this book deserves attention.  The story is nostalgic, but does not romanticize the past.  The little girl at the center, Ernestine, is brave, persistent, and good at conquering her fears, but not unrealistically so.  The composition and use of color is gorgeous and the text matches the pictures with appealing symmetry.  In fact, symmetry is the core metaphor, since the celestial Milky Way has an earthly counterpart in the scarce and precious milk available on Ernestine’s farm.  Her mother is even expecting twins, keeping the metaphor operating on every level.

Life is not easy for Ernestine and her mother. Ernestine’s father is “off in the war,” and she and her mom are responsible for keeping the farm running.  (The “Author’s Note” explains that the story takes place in 1942.) Ernestine’s lovely, strong mother assures her that they are a team: “I’m the Big Dipper and you’re the Little Dipper, and way over in Germany, Daddy sees the same stars we do up there in the Milky Way.” This. matter-of-fact poetry characterizes their closeness and warmth, as do the pictures of mother and daughter under a quilt with star motifs, and the two embracing after Ernestine has completed her special mission.  A neighboring family with many children needs milk as much as they do, and Ernestine is given the challenging task of delivering two mason jars full of the liquid to their friends.

Her odyssey is truly daunting, with obstacles both real and imagined.  Ernestine fortifies herself by repeating “I’m five years old and a big girl.” Children will easily relate to her tenuous feeling of confidence, as well as to the rhythmic descriptions of nature: “Soon Ernestine found herself in the valley of green doghobble and devil’s walking stick, where she heard a mighty big something scratcha-scratcha-scratchin’ up a tree.”  Madden-Lunsford’s combination of fairy tale repetition and realistic plot works flawlessly. Ernestine’s trip down the slippery path is tenuous. When one “runaway jar of milk” escapes her grasp, she tries to recover it, to no avail: “But it vanished without a trace.”  Each segment of the mishap is accompanied by Sutton’s picture of Ernestine in motion, as she walks, trips, and tries to regain her balance.  When she arrives at the home of Mrs. Mattie Ramsey and her family, their Aunt Birdy pours the one jug of milk over each one of twelve bowls of oatmeal carefully set out on the table. Again, the characters, from strong matriarchs to needy children, are both real-life people and archetypes.

Sutton’s ink and watercolor drawings are glorious.  She uses earth colors and jewel tones, includes many homely details of rural life, and allows even minor characters to claim their own personalities. One two-page spread of the Ramsey family enjoying their meal of both oatmeal with milk and cornbread with butter features each person responding somewhat differently to the fortunate occasion. The mother feeds the baby in her lap, one boy reaches for seconds while another closes his eyes as he bites into the bread.  Colorful flowers decorate the table, while pots and pans on hooks and wooden shelves signal the everyday work involved in sustaining a family.  The book ends with a lovely “Author’s Note” about the story’s origin, and a recipe for traditional corn bread.  Ernestine is five years old and a big girl, but her adventure resonates with anyone faced with a task, motivation, and the support of a loving community.

A Line of Generations

On the Trapline – written by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
Tundra Books, 2021

In David A. Robertson and Julie Flett’s hauntingly beautiful new book, a boy and his grandfather renew their connection to one another and to the past which they share. Robertson, prolific author and member of the Norway House Cree Nation, and accomplished artist Flett, of the Swampy Cree and Red River Métis, have created a dialogue between generations. The reader is invited to join in, as author and illustrator offer insights into the specific values of the Cree as well as the universal bond between grandparents and grandchildren (see examples from children’s literature here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).

Everything about the book demands a careful and attentive pace of reading.  From the dominant colors of blue and grey accented by brighter red, to the boy’s faithful rendition of his conversations with Moshom (grandfather), a picture unfolds of two contrasting ways of life. But the boy does not only observe the differences, he analyzes them, noting surprising similarities as well as clear divergences between the city where he lives and his grandfather’s life “in the north…Kīwētinohk.”  While the space between houses seems vast, the space between family members sharing a room (image) is smaller than he could have imagined: “I guess some things are bunched up in the north.”

Moshom defines the trapline of the book’s title as a place “…where people hunt animals and live off the land.” Although central to the community’s life, it is an entry point to other truths that he shares with his grandson about the history of their people.  Talking about the school he attended as a child, Moshom reveals that, although he has his friends spoke Cree, they were forced to communicate exclusively in English while in school.  When his grandson asks with evident concern if they still were able to speak Cree, Moshom answers that “My friends and I snuck into the bush so we could speak our language.” Even without any explicit elaboration of this injustice or the pain it must have caused, the boy understands what happened, using both his grandfather’s words and geographic setting to recreate the past: “We look at the birch trees and pine trees and all the long grass.  I imagine Moshom and his friends speaking Cree in there.”

It is difficult to capture the totality of this book in a brief review, because the sequence of understated words and almost dream-like pictures operate as a seamless whole.  Out in a motorboat together, the boy and his grandfather continue to become closer. Moshom emphasizes the slow tempo and natural beauty of his life in the past. As on every page of the book, his meditative comments end with the boy noting the meaning of key words in his grandfather’s Cree language.  Robertson leaves some ambiguity about the speaker, or thinker, of these words.  They may be new to the boy, or they may have been familiar before they were reinforced on this visit to his grandfather. Unless the reader is a native speaker of Swampy Cree languages, they are likely new to her.  The exquisite subtlety of their impact, reinforcing what the boy is learning and the deep love of grandfather and grandson for one another, is at the core of this wonderful story. Moving notes from the author and illustrator, and a list of Swampy Cree words, conclude the book.