Best Things in Life are Free

The Smile Shop – written and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura
Peachtree Publishing, 2020

A young boy in a bustling city is excited, because he has saved enough money to buy himself “something for the very first time.” The reason for his happiness may be the desired purchase, or perhaps the experience of independence itself, but he is going to savor his trip through the street market before deciding how to spend his money.  Satoshi Kitamura evokes the sense of a child’s new freedom, his disappointment when an accident occurs, and the realization that, sometimes, the best things in life are not an expensive toy boat. The Smile Shop gives the sense of both a classic fable and a modern tale of endless choices in urban life.  At the end, readers understand that, while the boy’s wish for something new was not trivial, his ability to adjust to circumstances was more meaningful and fulfilling. 

There’s a timeless quality to the book. The multicultural city residents wear contemporary clothes. As the boy walks among them, his dark blue sweater and matching boots, and his bright red scarf, cause him to stand out from their gray, brown, and pastel forms.  He might be a boy in a fairy tale, or Harold among the creations of his purple crayons. Kitamura’s unmistakable choices for the market’s wonders are not disposable. Instead, the boy is attracted to such serious items as a wonderful-smelling soup , an analog clock, and a finely crafted musical instrument.  Young readers may recognize that there are no video games or even sports equipment among his possible choices.

Once his money falls down a street grating, we are in the territory of easily identified disappointment. How did that happen? Was he distracted by too many possibilities?  The book then slips from reality to possible fantasy, as the boy enters a shop labeled “Smile.”  There are portraits of smiling people on the wall, but the owner at first appears quite serious.  In fact, the element of caricature in Satoshi’s drawings, as well as his three-piece suit and bowtie,  gives him an intimidating demeanor. After the non-monetary exchange takes place, the boy has been enlightened. Even the economy of the street is transformed, as the search for ordinary goods and services becomes a celebration, with music, dance, and conversation.  There is no heavy-handed moralizing about materialism or greed, just an appealing and subtle illustration of ideas.  Disappointment is part of life, distraction can lead to mistakes, and people need more than a fancy toy boat or a gourmet meal to be happy.

Little Women Fan Fiction

Little Women Next Door – by Sheila Solomon Klass
Holiday House, 2000

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-69) has influenced authors, readers, and bookish girls for more than one hundred and-fifty years. The original novel has been reimagined and recreated in film, opera, and theater, and has also inspired numerous works of literature, from biography to graphic novel.  I would like to begin looking at some of the novels which respond to the original classic; some of these have become relatively well-known, while others remain obscure. In the latter category is an unusual middle-grade novel by Sheila Solomon Klass, the author of several works focused on female characters. Sadly, there is not even a Wikipedia entry dedicated to her. (Klass is the mother of pediatrician, author, and New York Times health columnist Perri Klass. Dr. Klass is a founder of the children’s literacy charitable program, Reach Out and Read.).  Little Women Next Door is based on an unusual premise. Set in the Massachusetts community where Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, along with other “consociates,” attempted an experiment in communal living at Fruitlands, it is told through the perspective of a next-door neighbor, Susan, who befriends Louisa and the odd assortment of Fruitlands residents.  The narrative makes clear that Transcendentalist philosophy was more of a burden than a liberating experience for women and children.

Susan lives on the adjacent farm with her stern, traditionally Christian father, and her empathetic Aunt Nell. Her mother has died, and Susan is acutely aware of the loss. Her father’s standards are exacting and she has few opportunities to socialize outside of her family.  When the non-conformist newcomers show up next door, the first key to their unusual way of life is a man with a long beard.  Klass is adept at presenting the perspective of an intelligent child who questions adult behavior while still lacking the confidence to fully trust her own judgments.  Soon Louisa becomes her friend and confidante, and her father, who turns out to be more flexible than he had first seemed, actually allows Susan to become a student in their unorthodox school, where experiential learning is the norm.  Susan also has a stutter; rendering her speech in the text seems awkward, yet probably as close to accurate as possible.  As she gains confidence studying with Louisa’s father and her friends, her speech improves. Klass shows this as an incremental process, not a miracle.

One of the strongest and most compelling characters is Louisa’s mother, Abigail.  Her patience with the philosophy of Fruitlands’ male founders is not infinite.  Not only is veganism enforced, but other less palatable prohibitions also make everyone’s life difficult, even dangerous.  Without a lamp using whale oil, Mrs. Alcott can barely see well enough to read, nor, for that matter, to perform the countless domestic tasks which the supposedly radical men cannot envision as anything but women’s work. 

The villain of the story is based, as are most of the characters apart from Susan and her family, on an actual person.  Charles Lane was a British philosopher whose rigid adherence to abstract ideals, as well as his overall incompetence, reduced life at Fruitlands to a daily struggle for survival. Yes, they are abolitionists and committed to progressive education and other causes, but Lane’s insensitivity borders on cruelty. When he attempts to force the Alcott’s to join him, and his motherless son, at a Shaker community, Abigail refuses.  Enforced celibacy and its destruction of her family relationships are beyond her ability to compromise. 

Susan sees adults and their shortcomings clearly.  Klass’s creation of this fictional character exposes their hypocrisy and Bronson’s weaknesses, but also his tenderness and Abigail’s strength.  Most importantly, it brings out Louisa’s wild imagination as she invents the stories that will become the beginning of her career, eventually chronicling the lives of girls and women.  Sheila Solomon Klass has offered a different angle on Little Women’s creator, elaborating on her challenging childhood and her fierce support for the people around her. 

Sleeping in Space

Goodnight, Astronaut – written by Scott Kelly, illustrated by Izzy Burton
Tundra Books, 2021

Everything is different in space, even sleeping.  Children often resist going to sleep, finding the daily routine of bedtime to be mundane, even frustrating, compared to the fun of being awake.  In Goodnight Astronaut, Scott Kelly and Izzy Burton make a convincing case of getting a good night’s rest, especially for aspiring space travelers, or anyone who needs energy for a day of adventure.  How could argue with Kelly’s premise, especially as he is an actual member of this select profession? “Luckily, sleep can be exciting if you’re drifting off in the right place.”

Burton’s pictures are infused with nostalgia, a comforting sense that childhood can be a good start for nurturing dreams.  Readers meet Kelly not as an accomplished veteran astronaut, but as a child reluctantly saying goodnight to his mother as he and his twin brother “fight sleep like an enemy.” When the Kelly twins are a bit older, they share time on the family boat, where the sensation of sleep returns as the rocking of waves, and foreshadows the future astronaut’s true vocation, where water mimics the weightlessness of zero gravity.  Kelly imaginatively describes each stage of his life as a step towards space. 

Time on a submarine as a young man is more nuanced than the simple comfort of a family boat trip. The underwater environment is also soothing, even womb-like, with the crew encased in bubbles, but there is pressure and stress.  “We’re secret sentries guarding against danger,” Kelly writes, and sleep is no longer an annoyance to be avoided. Instead, it is a desired part of the day which is rationed, because “there are more people than beds.”

Kelly’s story alternates between earth, sea, and air.  Flying in a military jet, sleep is an essential tool, a defensive weapon against exhaustion that allows the pilot to fly “whenever and wherever I’m needed.”  In every environment, sleep is a component of preparedness, a natural process, and a reward.  Unlike in books for younger children where the end of the day punctuates a routine with consistency and reassurance, here it is exciting, as well.  Kelly’s words and Burton’s pictures accomplish a true balance between the different qualities of rest. They even reinterpret the cliché of life in a fishbowl, where people feel themselves to be scrutinized and judged. Here, an explosion of colorful sea-life, in Kelly’s speculation, are the ones who feel themselves being monitored by the aquanaut’s respectful observation.

The relationship between the twins returns when Scott Kelly travels on the shuttle, Discovery, while his brother, Mark, also an astronaut. remains committed to his family, and to progress on planet Earth.  (The book omits the tragic, but ultimately inspiring, parallel story of Mark Kelly’s dedication to caring for his wife, then Representative Gabrielle Giffords, after she was shot.  Mark Kelly is now a United States senator.)  By the end of this book, children will have learned that family, dedication to a goal, and a good night’s sleep, are all essential to success.  Goodnight Moon, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Goodnight, Astronaut, are all a beautiful sequence for sharing.

Why We Fight

War Stories – by Gordon Korman, Scholastic Press, 2020

Trevor Firestone is a typical twelve-year-old, who loves video games and argues constantly with his father. Actually, he is not that typical.  His parents having divorced, he lives most of the time with his mother, stepfather and two half-sisters, but when he stays with his Dad, the other member of the family is his paternal great-grandfather.  Jacob Firestone, or G.G., as he calls him, is a World War II veteran, a crusty ex-infantryman with no patience for euphemisms when describing his wartime experiences: “He didn’t pass anything; he died. Why do we have to soft-pedal it?…First you’re alive and then you’re not.”  He also lacks patience with modern technology, although his great-grandson’s fascination with simulating World War II through that medium is a central part of Trevor’s life. Trevor’s father, Daniel, has actually been raised by Jacob, his grandfather.  This relatively unusual family constellation allows the author to center on a direct relationship between a member of the “greatest generation” and a preteen.

The novel reveals a compelling mystery. Traveling to Europe so that Jacob can receive a long overdue medal from the French town which he helped to liberate during the war, Jacob and Daniel learn that some young residents of the town are attacking him as a traitor, posting messages on the internet about his alleged complicity in having contributed to the deaths of those whose lives he was charged with saving.  Underlying this plot is the essential conflict between Daniel, who is disturbed by what he sees as his grandfather’s glorification of war, and Trevor, who believes that his father fails to understand the magnificent sacrifice of soldiers who fought the Nazis.

While Daniel’s concern about his son’s constant immersion in a virtual world of war seems justified, after a point I became impatient with his apparent lack of appreciation for the historical context of one particular war, World War II. (Daniel is a history teacher by profession.)  His philosophical pronouncements about war as a terrible way to resolve conflict are certainly true in a general sense, but they came to seem as naïve as Trevor’s excitement about everything connected to his grandfather’s service.  (The title of this post comes from director Frank Capra’s series of documentaries produced by the United States Department of War as effective propaganda; while these films clearly simplify the truth, they make it clear that the result of the war would have existential consequences.) Chapters in the present alternate with scenes from Jacob’s participation in basic training and the subsequent battles for which no soldier could have been emotionally prepared.  A colorful cast of characters, reminiscent of classic movies about the era, advance the story in a moving and believable way.  Yet the reality of Nazi aggression and grotesque crimes against humanity is almost completely absent. 

The most difficult part of the author’s approach for me, was one odd and glaring omission.  Jacob Firestone, by his name, is clearly Jewish.  The author dedicates the novel to the memory of his own grandfather, Sergeant George Silverman.  Aside from one brief mention of a cemetery with “endless rows of immaculate white crosses and the occasional Star of David,” and one comic reference to a soldier named Ben Schwartz whose mother sent him a salami from Brooklyn, the Jewish identity of the main characters never enters the story. Gordon Korman has no obligation as an author to approach the story from this specific angle, but it is wholly improbable that Jacob Firestone would have been unaware of the dangers he faced as a Jewish American G.I. were he to be captured; some Jewish soldiers even elected to omit the “H” for Hebrew from their dog tags, for this reason. In addition, although Daniel, unlike his son, is totally aware of “why we fight,” in the general sense, Jews in America, by 1944, knew of Nazi genocide against their brethren in Europe, even if the horrific magnitude of their atrocities did not come to light until after the war.  Towards the end of the book, Jacob Firestone meets a German soldier whose life he had spared in a moment of humanity, causing the American to feel “reborn” by his own act of mercy.  During the commemorative ceremonies, the German shows Jacob photographs of his family. As if in vindication of his grandson, Daniel’s, ideas, Trevor expresses joy that, due to his great-grandfather’s decision, “all those lives suddenly became possible.”  Given that two out of three European Jews were killed, never to have descendants, I personally found this facile conclusion to be grossly insensitive. Although War Stories raises interesting points about generational differences, I would recommend that the author do more research before approaching this topic again in his work.

Putting Out Fires

Send a Girl!: The True Story of How Women Joined the FDNY – written by Jessica M. Rinker, illustrated by Meg Hunt
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

There are still many gaps in books for children about lesser-known heroes of the fight for women’s equality.  Send a Girl! tells the true story of Brenda Berkman, the first woman to break the seemingly indestructible barrier against allowing women to join New York City’s Fire Department.  The book evokes powerful emotions: frustration, anger, pride, and gratitude.  It is also a cautionary tale; there is still a great deal more to be accomplished.  Children reading the straightforward and yet dramatic text, and looking at the powerful pictures, will definitely be drawn to Berkman’s struggle, and will also have productive questions for parents and educators.

The front and back endpapers of the book are a wonderful preview and summary of its themes.  Red drawings against a light-yellow background simulate fire. Icons of the story include flames, city buildings, fire-fighting tools, and a photograph of young Brenda adjacent to a firefighter’s helmet.  The moving dedication page includes a scene, later repeated in the text, of Brenda studying for her firefighter’s exam. She is the totally authentic person we will meet in the book itself. A pencil behind her ear recalling pre-technology days, she points to the lines in a book while making notes with her other hand.  A cup of coffee and a bunch of bananas indicate that Brenda is dedicating her personal time to the pursuit of a goal.

The book narrates Berkman’s life in flashback. At the beginning, she is a busy professional. “She hauled hoses! She climbed ladders! She even broke through walls!” Yet readers soon learn that the achievement of her life’s dream was almost blocked by man-made and malicious obstacles.  First, during her nineteen-fifties childhood, Brenda was discouraged from participating in sports. Later, she attends law school, but just entering any male-dominated profession is not enough. She knows that she wants to be a firefighter, and she is ready to confront the prejudices that deem her incapable of doing so.

Jessica Rinker and Meg Hunt’s depiction of Berkman’s ordeal does not soften the hard facts.  Angry and threatened men bully their colleague. Even tough New Yorkers, portrayed reading The Daily News on the subway, are full of snide skepticism at the possibility that women could be first responders to the city’s needs. Although Berkman passes the competitive exam and is welcomed to the ranks of the FDNY, her triumph is marred by the entrenched hatred of her colleagues and even of the people she is committed to serving.  One two-page spread is truly heartbreaking, reporting that “Some of the other firefighters were cruel. They pulled a lot of pranks. But these pranks were not funny tricks. They were mean and dangerous and sometimes threatened the women’s lives.” There is a lot left unsaid; adults reading with children can fill in the gaps, and also address exactly why so many people opposed the inclusion of women in a department dedicated to public service.

Hunt’s illustrations are unusual. They have a cartoon-like quality, in the sense that they convey action as well as emotion.  Brenda Berkman becomes both a distinct individual and a symbol of women’s bravery.  Her compact frame is physically strong. Her face registers a range of feelings. Watching a group of her colleagues enjoying a spaghetti dinner in the firehouse, she sits on a bench, seeming on the verge of tears. The joviality of the men highlights the grotesque hypocrisy of their actions.  But addressing a group of the United Women Firefighters, she exudes both compassion and confidence.  Suited in her protective gear and wielding a mallet, Brenda Berkman has greater superpowers than any comic book hero.  Send a Girl!, which includes “A Note from the Author,” further background information, and list of sources, is an essential book to share and an inspiration to both children and adults.

Versatile Fun with Narwhal and Jelly

Blankie (A Narwhal and Jelly Board Book) – written and illustrated by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021

Bubbles (A Narwhal and Jelly Board Book) – written and illustrated by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021

Not all board books are created equal.  Different young children prefer different ones, but Ben Clanton‘s newest incarnation of his Narwhal and Jelly series in this format has promising features. They are square and medium sizes, not for babies but for kids old enough to listen to the story. Their characters, a narwhal and his jellyfish best friend, follow a logic familiar to toddlers and young kids.  The pictures are bright and simple, almost as if children could create them themselves, although, of course, the concept of the books is from the mind of a talented author and artist who relates to their perspective.  They are about two subjects close to children’s hearts: the simplicity of a beloved blanket, and the almost supernatural fun of bubbles.

The plot of Blankie starts with an obvious but key observation: blankets are not merely meant for the limited uses of adults. Narwhal and Jelly seem to float against a white background, and they take off on a fight of make believe.  A blanket might have a mundane use, yucky to adults but not to kids, as an improvised way to blow your nose.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is a hat, a flag, or a picnic blanket.The picnic scene includes another popular verbal entertainment: puns. “I like this idea a waffle lot!” proclaims Narwhal. Parents and teachers know that, even when kids don’t initially get the humor behind a particular phrase like this, once you explain to them they find it hilarious. 

Of course, draping a blanket around your shoulders instantly converts you into a superhero. The best part of Narwhal and Jelly’s friendship is that each one has total support and admiration from the other.  Jelly’s sincere compliment, “That cape is super great!” is the equivalent of a starred review.  Naturally, a book about blankets would not be complete without their most reassuring use, for restful companionship. Under the blanket together, the two friends each grasp the top of it, narwhal with his flippers and Jelly with his tentacles, drawn as Clanton’s signature single black line.  Their normally wide-open eyes are black ovals; asleep, their eyes are an inverted letter “U”s. Clanton knows how children perceive the world.

Another popular source of fascination for kids are rainbows.  They make an appearance In Bubbles, where the friends have fun with objects that are a bit more ephemeral than a sturdy blanket. In fact, the disappearance of a bubble sometimes causes some anxiety, as in the phrase, “You burst my bubble,” which Jelly utters in one moment of frustration. But the rest of the book involves just relaxing and joyous exploration. A bubble which refracts light becomes, in Narwhal’s imagination, a rainbow, and Jelly agrees.

Even the word itself is composed of multicolored letters, joining text and picture in a way which kids understand is the whole point of picture books.  Even a simple blue bubble attains the status of “the most bubbliest bubble I’ve ever seen,” because redundant language doesn’t strike kids the way it does adults.  Superlative, redundant, or simply “unbelieva-bubble” all delight children.

In the Middle Ages, the narwhal’s tusk was sometimes thought to be the elusive unicorn’s horn.  Ben Clanton has captured that sense of magic, along with zany humor and verbal play, in his Narwhal and Jelly books for older children. Now little kids can enter this universe, where ordinary objects and their infinite uses form the backdrop to friendship.

Life Changing Ups and Downs

The Elevator – written and illustrated by Yael Frankel, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude
Tapioca Stories, 2019

It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to write about a children’s book based on the imaginative possibilities of elevators. Actually, as you can tell from the name of my blog, I do, but a new publishing house has given me another opportunity. A child enters the elevator in her apartment building and leaves a changed person, in a story combining real urban dwellers with a magical realist element.  The black and white cartoon style artwork, accented with touches of bright red, calls to mind the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, (link), the Italian illustrator Beatrice Alemagna, but, principally, Yael Frankel’s own fertile imagination. 

What is it about elevators? They are a small space, so whatever takes place within them is concentrated.  They allow for isolation, or for interaction among very different individuals under strange circumstances.  Here, a little girl boards the elevator to take her dog for a walk. Either she has supplied her own stepladder or, less probably, the elevator includes one.  This oddity sets the fanciful tone of the book, where the unusual meets the more probable on every floor.  As in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, normal expectations get turned upside down. The elevator goes in the wrong direction. People board with conflicting goals.

This is a multigenerational elevator, a microcosm of society. Mr. Miguel is “the oldest person in the whole building,” while Cora‘s twins in their double stroller may be the youngest. People become confused and one twin has to be removed from her stroller and comforted. But there is never a real sense of fear. The birthday cake which Ms. Paula is conveniently carrying provides some respite, but the most calming part of the strange trip is Mr. Miguel’s story about a bear “who always said he didn’t care when he did.” Whether or not Ms. Frankel intended this to be an allusion to Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, the boy who responds to every situation with “I don’t care,” the connection popped out at me.

Just when Mr. Miguel’s bear story becomes its most riveting, the elevator returns everyone to reality.  People who had thought they had little in common learn that they actually do, and the book concludes.  As Mr. Miguel declares without any irony, “After all, who cares whether they ever fix the elevator?”  But the best feature of the book is the deft way in which Frankel delivers this message.  Maybe the apartment building’s residents will all become best friends; maybe they only traveled together on one meaningful journey.  We don’t actually know if the bear, like Pierre, learned to care. In fact, his ostensible lack of caring may even have been a kind of Zen acceptance or a ploy to encourage others to take care of one another. If you are reading The Elevator with children (adults may enjoy it on their own), you could raise some of these questions with them, along with ones about imagination and reality, which typically intersect in children’s minds.  This elevator rewards more than one ride.

Mitsumasa Anno (1926-2020)

Anno’s Spain – Mitsumasa Anno
Philomel Books, Penguin Young Readers Group, 2003

The great Japanese artist and author of numerous books for children, Mitsumasa Anno, died this past December at the age of 94. Known for his wordless journeys around the world, his books about math concepts, and his many innovations in illustration, Anno was the recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1984, as well as numerous other honors. Just one example of his lovely visual storytelling is Anno’s Spain, imbued with affection for a specific culture, in this case that of Spain. 

Each two-page spread features realistic detail combined with an implicit narrative.  Past meets present in the windmill scene, where Don Quixote himself can be found tilting at the monstrous structures. (He and Sancho Panza appear throughout the book.) At the same time, contemporary workers harvest olives, tiny block dots standing out in a lush field of green trees. Readers also get the opportunity to view the mechanical structure inside a windmill, where technology meets rural life.

One incredible picture shows, on the right-side page, a typical bullfight, a custom dating from pre-Roman Celtic times. On the left, there is a lively street market full of activity, including a thief snatching a woman’s purse. The side of a shop is decorated with azulejos, blue glazed ceramic tiles, each one with a different design. This craft has its origins in the Islamic art that is central to Spanish history and culture, but one is designed with a Star of David, an obvious allusion to the rich Jewish history of Spain.  There is a quite a lot of potential in this book, as in all of Anno’s work, for children to connect the elements in the pictures through building a story. 

Anno had so many artistic influences, some of them described in an afterword, “A Note About Mitsumasa Anno and His Journey,” which is, unfortunately, not credited.  The same scene described above includes an homage to the great Spanish painted Velázquez and his famous portrait of the royal family, Las meninas. As in the original painting, viewers observe the artist himself at work, painting the princess and her servants. Here, instead of being ensconced in a place, they share the outdoor space with ordinary people, also depicted intently watching the artist.

Illustrators today owe a debt to this marvelously gifted and humanistic Japanese artist.  His legacy on the world of children’s books is indelible.

All the World’s a Stage for Kids

Maya’s Big Scene – Words and pictures by Isabelle Arsenault
Tundra Books, 2021

Here is another unforgettable character from author and artist Isabelle Arsenault.  Outgoing confident, stagey, a bit bossy, Maya is a child theater director with an uncompromising artistic vision. In other words, she tells her fellow thespians what to do. She might be the modern-day heir to Maurice Sendak’s Rosie in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (as well as the Carole King musical, Really Rosie), Maya is definitely her own person; kids will identify with both her uncompromising convictions, and the understandable rebellion of her friends.

Maya is a perfectionist. The other neighborhood children are ready to dive into the dramatically red costume chest for their planned performance, but Maya cautions them to “Wait, wait, wait.” Arsenault’s little diva is distinguished by her bright pink tutu; her friends appear in black and white, in contrast to both their boss and to the most important props in the story.  It seems that their play is from an unusual script for young kids, since it includes a celebration of revolution.

Soon, the fourth wall collapses, as it becomes apparent that both the characters and the actors want to rebel. “We come in peace!” but also announce without apology, “We want freedom!” “We want equality,” and, in case Maya has missed the point, “In the queendom!”  Maya is not getting the message, since she declares herself ready to issue a proclamation.

At that point, the world of fantasy steps in.  As in another children’s classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon, the children become their own creation.  Arsenault’s pink and red-hued cast of knights, damsels, and horses ask the reader to step back from the conflict and enjoy the show. Everything looks promising, especially when Maya asks, “Who will conceive of this land of freedom, respect and equality with me?!!!” But then reality intrudes.  Maya apparently thinks that respect and equality are a one-way street. Not until she concedes that actors, workers, and kids have rights (“Good point, musketeer.”) does true equality enter her queendom.  Any child who has ever been pushed around by a peer convinced of his own superiority will cheer along, throwing festive objects into the air with joy.

Maya’s Big Scene isn’t about a bully. She’s a talented little girl who needs to cultivate empathy and perspective. Part of the book’s appeal is that Arsenault avoids the temptation to make her a completely unsympathetic tyrant.  Children need to learn how to get along with one another; the jubilantly performative setting of this inventive book is a perfect expression of that truth.

Seems Scary, But It’s Not

Wolfboy – written and illustrated by Andy Harkness
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

If you’re not partial to terrifying young children, but you want to acknowledge their inevitable fears, Wolfboy is a wonderful choice.  Illustrated by photographing Andy Harkness’s original clay sculptures, the book tells the story of a fierce and frightening monster who is really just lonely, and perhaps hangry. The simplicity of the text and the drama of the pictures are both appealing and highly original.  They validate children’s feelings with humor and artistry.

The cover shows a weird and indeterminate creature, his name emblazoned in big red letters, except for the “O.” That one letter gives a visual clue to his problem and its ultimate solution. It is a full moon, later miniaturized as a “moonberry,” the perfect answer to his bad mood.  Since children are no strangers to arbitrary bad moods, or the crankiness resulting from hunger, they will follow the story, first with fear, then with delight.  In “A Note on the Art,” Harkness explains how each of his creatures “become real,” as he views them “from different angles.” Those angles, and the shifting perspective from page to page, envision Wolfboy as a dynamic figure.  In one scene he is dwarfed by his leafy surroundings, although a tiny rabbit leaning over a leaf is even smaller.

The hungrier and angrier he becomes, the more space he occupies on the page, finally becoming a huge open mouth about to ingest some innocent bunnies. There is no gratuitous cruelty here. In fact, Wolfboy’s fuming threats when the bunnies escape him is comical: “I don’t need you anyway, rabbits!” he pronounces, while bouncing across a two-page spread in a series of silly poses. 

When the rabbits finally seem within his reach, they are transformed into a giant pair of ears, a foot, and a disembodied fluffy tail as large as the moon itself.  Children’s perceptions of size are obviously different from those of adults; Harkness captures this idea without overemphasis.  His clay creations, and the way in which they exchange positions of size and power, truly reflect a child’s sense of the universe. When Wolfboy gets his moonberry pies, his whole mood changes, and he expresses his satisfaction in poetry:

Rabbits, I was just so HUNGRY

The final image of peaceful reassurance shows Wolfboy asleep, two nearly dangerous white teeth protruding from a closed mouth. He is surrounded by bunnies whose clay form resemble cookies. In an instant, they have changed from something edible into just friends.  There is no explanation required for this magical, and yet thoroughly believable, part of a child’s world.