Pretzel, The Graphic Novel

Pretzel – Margret Rey and H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (reprint of 1944 edition)
Pretzel and the Puppies – Margret and H.A. Rey, Harper and Brothers, 1946

pretzel coverpuos cover

Margret and H.A. Rey wrote and illustrated several books about animals with human qualities, in addition to their classic monkey-as-toddler, Curious George (my most recent Curious George blog also links to several older blogs on the subject).

Pretzel the dachshund first appears as one of five siblings, all with names beginning with the same letter, always a funny premise to children. Yet, in spite of that same first initial, Pretzel grows up to be different. His special dachshund quality grows strangely awry; soon he is longer than any other member of his breed.  Since this is a children’s book by the Reys, you know that his weird idiosyncrasy is going to turn out to be a big plus.

long pretzel

H.A. Rey provides clear points of comparison for Pretzel’s odd dimensions.  He sticks out of sibling lineup, and needs an extra-long display cubby when he wins a Blue Ribbon as “best looking dog of all,” obviously awarded by a discerning and compassionate group of judges.  Then he meets Greta, a girl dachshund of normal proportions and soon “Pretzel was in love with her and wanted to marry her.”  He is completely defenseless and naïve, meeting Greta’s snide refusals with a heartbreaking “Please marry me…and I will do anything for you.”  Children may be wondering at this point what he sees in his prejudiced love object, who doesn’t even bother to conceal that she is put off by his looks.  He offers her a beautiful green ball and even twists himself into the snack for which he is named. At least that gymnastic feat ears him a grudging compliment: “Not bad…your name certainly fits you,” from Greta.  (This may seem like a small point; how did Pretzel’s invisible owners know his future length when then named him?)

Only when Greta’s life is endangered and Pretzel has the size, and the courage, to rescue her, does she relent.  This is not the end of their saga.  Children will be gratified to see, on the last page, that Greta becomes the proud mother, judging by the expression on her face, of five puppies.  Everything has been resolved, and a satisfying sense of life’s permanence concludes the book. The Reys, however, still had more to say about this odd couple and their progeny.  They decided to do so a little different, in comic book/graphic novel form.  Pretzel and the Puppies explores what happens when a conventional mother and a well-intentioned but still naïve father, produce a family.


Perhaps the popularity of comics during the 1940s influenced their choice. The story opens with pictures of Pretzel and Greta, along with their five children: Polly, Penny, Pat, Pete, and Puck. (Is Puck the unconventional one?). The last caption reads, “And if you want to know more about Pretzel – -,” continuing “—just turn the page!” after the reader does so.  Even better, there is one small image in the center of that next page, of four puppies surrounding a book while one puppy actually turns the page. A series of chapters, in the form of individual vignettes, continues the story.  In each one, Pretzel is the impulsive, fun dad, entertaining his children by climbing trees after squirrels, buying them balloons, and taking them for a walk in an unforeseen thunderstorm.

At the conclusion of each episode, Pretzel suffers some negative result, sometimes even an injury which looks awfully frightening, such as his long body covered by abrasions which the puppies bandage, or, getting covered with soot as he falls down the chimney to recover their football. That last one doesn’t seem to faze him, as he has the same broad smile on his face that accompanies most of his activities in the book.  The important part is that his children remain unscathed through every harsh episode.

As for Greta, she remains the responsible parent, keeping the home fires burning while Pretzel has fun.  She finds the children’s missing toy inside a fish while she is preparing supper, and brings enough hot water bottles to cover her husband’s long body when he has a cold. She can’t resist expressing annoyance when Pretzel splashes water all over her newly-waxed floor.  They are complementary parents, Pretzel and Greta, and the unconnected format of the comic strips allows the Reys to avoid any real conclusions about how well this works.  Polly, Penny, Pat, Pete, and Puck seem happy on the last page, as they follow their father on another adventure with mixed results.  When they get older, who knows?

A Life of Service

Sergeant Billy: The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War – Mireille Messier and Kass Reich, Tundra Books, 2019


In 2016, Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, written by Lindsay Mattick and Illustrated by Sophie Blackall, won the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award for its beautiful and evocative pictures.  Now, Tundra Books is about to release another historical picture book with an animal theme, also beginning and ending in Canada. Mireille Messier and Kass Reich’s Sergeant Billy: the True Story of the Goat Who Went to War takes on the difficult task of presenting war to young readers without romanticizing its terrible reality.  The appeal of the book lies in its hero, a goat named Billy who actually became the mascot of the Canadian Fifth Battalion serving in Europe during World War I. The warmth and adventure of this true account, in which one unwitting animal provides support to a group of soldiers far from home, offers an entertaining and age appropriate history lesson to children.


While children will be drawn to the story by the improbable nature of Billy’s wartime heroics, adults may notice subtle allusions to the soldiers’ feelings of loss, and need for a mascot who roots their service in country and family.  They acquire the goat, Billy, “in a small prairie town,” where they ask a little girl named Daisy if they may “borrow” her goat.  She looks understandably sad in the picture, but she agrees.  Readers may also feel sad; here is the first, gentle, suggestion that war is harsh and people need to make sacrifices.  A. picture shows the young soldiers clowning around with Billy on the train taking them to deploy; one soldier pushes Billy away in annoyance.




As they board ship, the men show some mild subversion of authority when they sneak their mascot up the ramp: “The colonel ordered Billy to stay.  But the soldiers of the Fighting Fifth had grown so attached to their goat that they didn’t want to leave him behind.  So they snuck him on board.”  Both picture and text communicate the message.  One soldier raises his arms in an expression of emotion, while his skeptical officer crosses his own arms in front of his chest. Even the juxtaposition of the Battalion’s name, “Fighting Fifth,” with the admission that they had “grown so attached,” poignantly lets the reader know who is fighting this war.


There is no explicit mention of casualties. In fact, the book offers an invitation to caregivers and teachers, who may need to answer questions and elaborate. Private Billy, as the goat is now known, comforts grieving men, “those who missed their fallen friends.” The poetic phrase referring to those killed in action is both suitable for children, and reminiscent of some of the great poets of the War. an image of a letter and a soldier’s hand composing it is headed “July 11, 1915, somewhere in France.” The date is specific, but the location is one more place in a grueling list of battles.

billy explosions

Children will feel reassured by the letter’s funny anecdote about their mascot, while adults will recognize the fear behind the phrase “to keep up our morale.” The greatest risk that author and artist take is in a scene of trench warfare, where Sergeant Billy pushes soldiers away from exploding shells.(image). (On the previous page, Billy himself has been described as “shell-shocked.”)

Billy is rewarded for his patriotism with a distinguished medal, but this is not a book which glorifies war.  Rather, it introduces an important subject, the Great War, by including many references to the vulnerable humanity of soldiers who are comforted by the presence of a farm animal from their country’s prairies.  The resolution is happy, but the book also encourages opportunities to discuss the tragedy of war on a level which children can understand. Messier and Reich deserve a medal for their ambitious work.

billy medal



Wishing Things Could Stay the Same

Love Is – Diane Adams and Claire Keane, Chronicle Books, 2017
Love Is a Special Way of Feeling – Joan Walsh Anglund, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960

love cover

I recently wrote about Sue Fliess and Claire Keane’s A Fairy Friend, in which a fairy-loving little girl needs to learn that even fairies with the most wonderful and custom-designed habitats need to fly away and move on. In Love Is, written by Diane Adams and illustrated by Keane, it is not fairies, but an urban-dwelling duck, who teach this valuable if painful lesson, again, with a comforting ending.  An adorable city child acquires a duckling, which exits the open gates of a park, along with a butterfly, which I think symbolizes freedom.  The girl puts down her jump rope, backpack, and lunchbox, and picks up the duck, and she is in love.  The text rhymes, characters’ faces are expressive and exaggerated, and the domestic and outdoor scenes are full of unforgettable details and bright highlighted with bright colors.

love tub

The girl is utterly loyal and caring towards her new friend.  She shares sunflower seeds while watching t.v., and trains the duck’s little muscles by allowing it to climb the stairs in what may be a rather grand townhouse.  When the duck flies out of the bathtub, the girl learns that it is “ready for a bigger pond.” The season turns to winter, and girl and duck gaze out the window at a flock of birds flying over a bridge.  Eventually, the duck paddles off with members of its own species and the girl is bereft. We see her grieving over a solitary snack of sunflowers, “reminiscing” by drawing the duck, and “wishing things could stay the same,” as she eats breakfast alone and realizes that things are never going to be the same again.

love hug

Remember the fairies who returned, as a reward for allowing them to fly away?  The little girl has recovered from her deep depression and is seated on her beautiful tree-lined street, that same butterfly poised on her finger.  Now that she has reached a level of acceptance and understanding, the duck returns. It still loves the little girl, and how has a bunch of babies.  Everyone is happy.  Like the fairies, the duck has returned only because the girl was ready to move on.



If you remember the classic mid-century books by Joan Walsh Anglund, you may see something of an homage here to Love Is a Special Way of Feeling.  That book’s examples were not limited to ducks, or even animals.  A mom in a Victorian nightgown represented unconditional love, as did a boy feeding a lost cat, a girl on a school playground noticing one forlorn kid sitting on a log by himself, or another girl studying a flower no one else had seen.

In a typical Anglund book, the only features on people’s faces are eyes, always two small black dots, so she had to convey a lot with other elements in the picture. The girl in Love Is has huge eyes, but also a nose and mouth, and a much more fluent range of gestures. Anglund’s characters are quiet, but social.  Love Is a Special Way of Feeling maybe acutely sentimental, but there are lots of people interacting with one another.  Love Is seems more like a parable; there is no one but the girl and her duck, and that single butterfly.  The urban setting is more contemporary than the pine trees and fireplaces of Anglund’s book.  Still, both books aim for timelessness and they are unapologetic in that design.  You might like to read them together.

“But How Do You Braid Your Trees?”

Alma and the Beast – Esmé Shapiro, Tundra Books, 2019

alma cover


Esmé Shapiro, illustrator of Kyo Maclear’s Yak and Dove,  is back with another story of improbable friendship, this one steeped in fairytales and fantastic images from a child’s dream world.  How can the comforts of your own home seem strange and puzzling to others? What kind of creature has a “plumpooshkie” for a pet?

Alma and the Beast 1

How do you braid your trees?  Alma’s world of mysterious houses and crazy foliage offers an inviting setting where Shapiro plays with reader’s expectations, turning them into something new. Be ready to pay attention. As any child knows, “…beasts do not always go away when you close your eyes.”

Alma and the Beast 2

Beauty and the Beast, in all its different incarnations, hovers over this book. If you expect a rough and hair covered almost human to imprison a beautiful girl, you will find that different rules apply here.  Alma, in spite of her beautiful and soulful name, is a short monster whose long noodle-like locks and big expressive eyes bring to mind Charles Adams’ inventions as well as Jim Henson’s, but also the beings who populate children’s dreams and fears.  Don’t worry; she is entirely friendly and strangely familiar, waking up in a bedroom with walls covered in kids’ art, brushing her teeth, and feeding “butter breakfast tulips” to the pet with the Russian-sounding name. Then, a strange and relatively bald person shows up, hiding behind a fountain of flowing hair.

Alma and the Beast 3

As you remember, in many of the versions, from eighteenth-century France to Disney, Belle is held hostage by an aggressively male Beast who prevents her from returning home. Here the “beast” is a sad little girl who has lost her way in the woods. Alma empathizes with her completely, asking herself “Where would I be without my home?”  Alma patiently leads her new companion back to her origins, heroically guiding her.

Alma and the Beast 5

Shapiro has written and drawn a setting like no another, one defined by either the abundance or lack of hair.  Woods, cliffs, and glens, beards, mustaches, and a willow weeping long, brown tresses form the stark contrast to the Beast’s home.  After Alma gets over her shock at “bald” houses and trees that cannot be braided, she adjusts to a new routine. She even learns that the Beast has a name, one oddly similar to her own.

Shapiro’s choice of hair as the center of her tale will not seem especially strange to children.  Monsters are covered with it, even nice ones.  Alma’s perception of her friend as hairless will be a little less familiar to them, but understandable from Alma’s point of view.   Mainly, the wild and lush setting of hair as plants and plants as hair sets the book apart from other retellings of Beauty and the Beast.  Alma and the Beast’s two bedrooms bookend the story, with Alma waking and the Beast welcoming sleep. Children want both consistency and adventure, and they will find it in this imaginative celebration of difference.

Alma and the Beast 6




Friends Who Fly

A Fairy Friend – Sue Fliess and Claire Keane, Henry Holt and Company, 2016


If you love someone a lot, you have to let her leave. If that someone is a fairy, you have a little bit more flexibility, because she may fly back to you. This sweet and fanciful book explains how the process of giving fairies their freedom works.


Author Sue Fliess and Illustrator Claire Keane have created perfectly matched text and pictures in this description of a girl’s fascination with fairies and their miniature world.  They may be related to Tinkerbell, but somewhat distantly. There is even a bit of the commercial White Rock Girl, but modestly dressed.  They are active and energetic, as is the little girl who loves them.  She begins her fairy-finding excursion pairing a wispy dress with hiking boots and a backpack; these are the type of inventive and funny details that set Keane’s fairies apart from the typical little winged creatures.  In Fliess’ rhymes, they are always on the move, as they “Skip through flowers,/Zip through trees,/Hum and buzz among the bees.”  Quoting individual lines does not do the text justice because, cumulatively, they add up to convincing picture of a mutually positive friendship.  The girl builds them houses of twigs and flowers, cooks flower-petal stew, and even flies with them over a dizzying image of houses lit up at night.


If you are not yourself fairy-obsessed, or if you do not know any children who are, this book might give you a glimpse into an unknown world. If you have children who like to construct fairy homes complete with furniture, Keane’s two page spread of a particularly appealing one will fill you with recognition. “Mossy rooftop, pebble path,/Mushroom cap to take her bath,” are only some of the features of this ideal dwelling. One fairy bounces off a thistle bed while another slides down an English cottage roof.  The most interesting aspect of this scene is the large and heavy hammer lying next to the structure, and the little girl in the background hanging nutshell swings to a tree.  It’s clear that fairy houses don’t build themselves.  They are the result of dedication and skill.

Finally, readers have to learn that fairies are meant to be free and that trapping them in habitats, no matter how comfortable, will not work.  They fly away, each carrying a small suitcase.  Finally, however, if you are “thoughtful, kind, and true,” you may expect your fairy to return.  I know what you are thinking; if only life were like that!  In defense of realism in books about fairies, as if that were necessary, it is not clear if they are back for good, or if they will come and go like unanticipated gifts. A Fairy Friend beautifully validates this hope for children who are fans of fairies, as well as for adults attached to impermanent things.


I Love You in the Morning, and in the Afternoon

Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Skinnamarink – Sharon Hampson, Lois Lillienstein and Bram Morrison, with Randi Hampson and Qin Leng, Tundra Books, 2019


Children’s illustrated books that interpret well-known songs are generally assured of an audience.  It may be the parents who are eager to share with their children the rousing lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land  or Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. It may be a classic lullaby, such as Marla Frazee’s faithful but funny version of Hush, Little Baby. There is the underrated Sesame Street Golden Book of The Monster’s on the Bus, for both kids and parents who have exhausted the possibilities of the original song.


Now there is a wonderful addition to this genre, an absolutely lovely and enactment in antic pictures by Qin Leng of Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s most popular song. If you have never had the joyful experience of watching or listening to this Canadian trio of kid folk performers, this book is a good place to start.  If you are already a fan, this unselfconsciously antic exploration of a song about unconditional love will not disappoint.


As Sharon and Bram, (Lois passed away in 2015), characterize their years of experience performing and listening, this is a song to be sung “loudly and proudly,” and, one might add for this book, naturally and constantly.  Leng’s pictures are delicately colored and fluid scenes. Lines from the song accompany each image, encouraging readers to narrate the book by singing.


Her scenes are also messy, in the very best sense of the word. There are a smiling mom and dad working as a team to bathe two lively kids.  One child is in the tub gesturing the song; the other is drying off with her mother while the father rushes through the door with some nicely folded pajamas.  Overturned bottles, puddles of water, and even a mouse doing a high dive from a shelf illustrate the sort of everyday activities that indicate love in the understated style of both the song’s lyrics and Leng’s art.


Of course, grumpy children deserve love, too. A compassionate dad brings a tray of milk and cookies to an angry little boy fuming in a supply closet. (insert image) A huge bear, small duck, and smaller fox, who peacefully coexist in the universe of this book, lean over the stairs watching expectantly, read for the family hug to remedy matters.


Every picture unobtrusively celebrates diversity, with people of different races, ages, and abilities, living and learning together. One image makes this more explicit, as a teacher, looking as enthusiastic as her students, gathers them around a huge globe.  Its size makes it more of a symbol than an actual teaching tool; one of the most engaging aspects of Leng’s illustrations is this melding of reality and fantasy.  Animals wear clothes and mice plant flags. Some kids reach out to touch their homelands, while others remain seated, behind desks or on top of them. (One bookish child with oversized glasses remains fixated on a large book rather than sharing everyone else’s fascination with the globe.)


A city street captioned, “Be sure to sing this love song with everyone around,” gives Leng the opportunity to create an entire miniaturized environment. Readers can peek in windows to see animals and humans enjoying snacks in a restaurant and watch musicians perform, while, outside, a hedgehog steadies his bicycle for a ride. Children typically love to find these small details.  They will also appreciate the humor of a duck crossing guard helping a mom with her ducklings. Parents may see an affectionate homage to Robert McCloskey’s picture book classic, Make Way for Ducklings.


It’s hard to see how anyone could fail to appreciate this dynamic reimagining of Skinnamarink. Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s long career, dedicated to bringing music into the lives of families, has found the perfect book to express love and gratitude for their work.




Every Doll Wins

The Best-Loved Doll – Rebecca Caudill and Elliott Gilbert, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962


The dolls in this book are competing for a party invitation.  Their owner, Betsy, can only bring one doll to her friend’s party, and, what’s worse, it is a winner-take-all competition.  At this party, given by a mother who wants a lot of structured activity, awards will be given in specific categories: oldest, best dressed, and multitasker, (“doll who can do the most things.”). As often happens in doll books (for example here and here), the characters are relatively helpless when their human friend is not playing with them.  They can communicate with one another, and needless to say, they are pretty anxious about this event. Parties can have messy food and frightening dogs. Yet they also relieve boredom and prove in public, as in the Toy Story small movies, that Betsy needs them.

Rebecca Caudill (1899-1985) was the author of several popular novels about life in Harlan County, Kentucky set in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They were both nostalgic and detailed, a bit like the Little House books, although less nuanced and literary.  The Best-Loved Doll is a picture book, illustrated by Elliot Gilbert with black and white line drawings and touches of violet.  The children themselves, as well as the mother at the high-stakes party, look somewhat like dollhouse figures: small and delicate, with simple features.


From the beginning of the story it’s pretty clear that the big winner isn’t going to be the centenarian doll, who looks adult but, rather sadly, lives in a cradle.  Nor will the doll whose obtrusive wind-up key allows her to operate a sewing machine; she looks impressively busy, but maybe also oppressed, as she hunches over her work.  Betsy is the kind of child who is confident in her own feelings, and she brings Jennifer, a worn-out veteran repaired with adhesive tape. “With the smile on her face that never went away, she looked like the happiest doll in the world.”


There is a wonderful picture of the party, in which twelve dollpartylittle girls don’t walk in two straight lines, but rather sit around a long table eating cupcakes and twirling miniature paper parasols.  The mother, Mrs. Anderson, looks calm and easygoing, her elbows on the table, which I had thought was a sign of bad manners.  The dolls have their own table with a little less activity.) Mrs. Anderson is compassionate and flexible, as evidenced by her informal posture. She has awarded the promised prizes, but, at the last minute, added one “For something important…Something I didn’t think of before.”  Jennifer receives a gold paper medal, testifying to her best quality, which is much more important than an elaborate wardrobe or the status of an antique.  You would think the other dolls might hate her, but she re-gifts the party favors to her fellow dolls and decides to share the medal with them.  Who needs a medal, anyway, when your weakest and most tattered attributes turn out to make you the best at something?

Tortellini Tango, Dumpling Dance

Frankie’s Favorite Food – Kelsey Garrity-Riley, Tundra Books, 2019

frankie cover

It’s hard to see how kids could not like a book about dressing up as their favorite food.  It’s easy to see how adults might view such a project as pandering to children’s love of doughnuts and popcorn.  But wait, Frankie, the hero of this inventive tale, also loves sushi, falafel, and sardines, as least as characters in his school’s play. Not only that, but he dreams of orchestrating a production starring such imaginative combinations as “nachos with spring rolls and marzipan on top. In this inventive story by author and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley, a child whose refusal to pick favorites results in an extravagant theatrical tribute to the joys of both food and musical theater, as well as of being a generalist.

pineapple hat

Frankie is the kid who doesn’t want to be part of the melting pot, or mixed salad, or whatever culinary metaphor for individuality within diversity you choose.  His teacher, Ms. Mellon, whose grey dress, grey hair, but bright red glasses signal that she is a little predictable but open to change, proposes a school play in which each student dresses as her favorite food.  While everyone else is dressing as pretzels or trying on pineapple hats, Frankie stands alone to the side.  He isn’t a rebel, but he just won’t be forced into choosing between chowder and guacamole.  He sends a validating message to any child who has been told that loyalty to just one snack, or activity, or future career, is essential to success.  Ms. Mellon finds the perfect solution, allowing everyone to stick to his conviction that either avocados or cupcakes are the best, while putting Frankie in charge of the “Foodstravaganza” as costume manager.



As you might expect, a spectacle this demanding has some dicey spots, from a burrito boy rolling off the stage to some awkward moments with preschoolers playing rice and beans, but Frankie’s enthusiasm and brilliant multitasking make everything go smoothly.  There are plenty of food puns for adults, including “GOUDA job, guys,” and “it’s a PITA that song wasn’t longer.” My experience is that kids are often interested in simple explanations of why their parents are laughing at, for example, a reference to “the FALAFEL of the Opera.” Even if they don’t yet share our enthusiasm, they may be intrigued at what grownups find funny.  Don’t underestimate them, or just enjoy the motto of the French Revolution applied to a chorus of fruits.

fruit chorus

Frankie’s Favorite Food is unpretentious fun from curtain raiser to curtain call.  This is true whether you would choose to wear a jar of pesto or sing in the Snack Pack trio.  Maybe you don’t even need to decide.


Keep Relatively Calm, and Carry On

Whistling in the Dark – Shirley Hughes, Candlewick Press, 2017


There are some English language authors better known on one side of the pond than the other.  One of these is Shirley Hughes, born in North West England in 1927.  The author of more than fifty books, Hughes is best known for stories for young readers, which she both writes and illustrates.  Her culturally and generationally diverse world of mums and dads caring for young children is appealing and realistic, even comforting.  Hughes’s series about the siblings Alfie and Annie Rose , and her enchanting rhymes and pictures of everyday life in other books for the youngest readers, have won her many awards in her native Great Britain.  Only two years ago, this talented octogenarian decided to try something new, and wrote two middle grade novels set during World War II.

Whistling in the Dark describes the challenges facing Joan, a fourteen -year-old girl growing up, as Hughes herself did, near Liverpool during the years when German bombers threatened the lives and security of her community, as well as that of all the Allied nations.  The value of this compelling story is immeasurable, both for its historical setting and for its examination of an adolescent’s resilience under intense pressures.  The book is dedicated to “those brave men who served in the British Merchant Navy during the Second World War,” a large number of whom lost their lives when the Germans sunk ships that were bringing crucial supplies of food, armaments, and other necessities to their country.


In the novel, Joan’s father had been killed before the War, when the ship on which he served caught fire.  Joan’s loss, therefore, is a sort of warning of the catastrophic losses which would affect many more families in the coming months and years.  After his death, Joan’s mum had temporarily become “too ill with sadness to manage,” while Joan herself gradually began to remember her father as a distant image, one which she compares to the British painter J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of a burning ship.

I found it dissonant to read Joan’s admission that “If she was being really honest, she didn’t miss Dad so much now,” not because I found the idea to be implausible, but because the rest of the book does not support her claim.  Continue reading “Keep Relatively Calm, and Carry On”

Family Is Everywhere

Some Places More Than Others – Renée Watson, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019


Amara Baker is an African-American middle school student growing up in Beaverton, Oregon, in a community unlike the one her father, Charles, knew at her age, when he lived in Harlem, New York City.  Amara’s parents are expecting a long-wanted second child, leading Amara to question if and how her role in the family will change.  But overall, her life is good. Her parents are protective and loving, even if her mother, a designer, seems disappointed sometimes that Amara feels more uncomfortable in her fashionable dresses than in her sneaker collection from Nike, where her father is an executive.

There is no crisis looming in her life, until her teacher, Mr. Rosen, assigns the Suitcase Project.  Asked to interview family members and to determine which special objects and experiences she will choose to represent in her suitcase, Amara needs to confront her father’s estrangement from his own father, Amara’s only living grandparent.  A trip to Harlem to spend time with him and with her extended family becomes an unanticipated opportunity to learn about her own past, as well as the past of her people.

Renée Watson’s narrative skills are expert and subtle.  Amara’s story could easily have become one of dramatic clashes between angry relatives, or singular moments of realization that African-American history is full of previously unknown riches.  Instead, the Harlem trip is full of illuminating moments, when Amara takes in the cultural landmarks which she has missed in Oregon, but which were always a part of her through her parents’ strength and pride.  Whether embarrassing her cousins by taking photos of the Apollo Theater or touring the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with her enthusiastic Grandpa Earl, Amara is thoughtfully filling her mind and her heart, as well as her suitcase, with inspiration from the past.  Standing on the famed mosaic tribute to poet Langston Hughes, Amara notes that “I don’t take my phone out to capture this.  I just want to stand here, just want to be.”


Not everything in the past is an unambiguous source of pride.  There is the bitterness and anger between Amara’s father and grandfather, and the tensions with her cousins, whose own father is absent but who share a deep bond with the grandfather which had been unavailable to Amara. During the trip, Amara tests some limits of independence, and her father reflects on his own authority as a parent.  In one scene at his mother’s grave, Amara’s father recites an original poem which is Watson’s implicit dialogue with Hughes’s “Mother to Son.”  In a book filled with profoundly moving moments of recognition about the ties between parents and children, this one stood out for its emotional impact.

Some Places More Than Others is an unusual chronicle of a child’s journey towards understanding of her family and her own place within it. Some books do this more than others; this is one you will want to put in your suitcase.