Home is Where You Build a Story

A Boy and a House – by Maja Kastelic, Annick Press, 2018

This is a wordless picture book about creating a home. The home is not only a building, although the buildings which grace the streets are beautiful and mysterious. It is not only the dark interiors with their carefully placed objects: a red wing chair, a teakettle, an aging pile of magazines.  The home is not the domestic setting for a nuclear family. Instead, it is the bond between two children, beginning inside, and ending outside in a vision of freedom. A Boy and a House, by Maya Kastelic, asks readers to question what constitutes a story and a picture book, by presenting an alternative possibility.

When we meet the boy he is walking down a street of townhouses with double doors, sculptural elements, and iron balconies.  We are in a world of literature, with one placard labeled Grimm Street, although its carved cherubs are smiling.  The boy is smiling, too, although he looks puzzled as he finds an entrance on Andersen Street, where a cat peers out of the doorway and the silhouettes of mice in conversation appears in the window.

Each scene offers clues, not to a specific plot, but to the purpose of the boy’s journey.  The author’s name is affixed to a note asking that anyone entering care for the house. The lobby is a visual puzzle, including a baby carriage with a peace sign painted on its side and a number of post cards nailed next to a group of mailboxes, as if the cards’ recipients had never claimed them.

The book continues with more objects framing an as yet untold story.  There is the weighty suggestion, “GIVE DESTINY A CHANCE,” as well as assorted keys, toys, and children’s pictures placed in locations which may or may not be significant. Literacy is everywhere. Rather than showing children eagerly opening a book or listening to an engaging story, there are books and other reading matter stacked and collected everywhere. Some have titles, like a New Yorker magazine, and titles by Provensen (Alice and Martin?), Tove Jansson, and Uri Shulevitz. Some of the titles are difficult to read, in small letters against a low-contrast color. 

The world of people finally intrudes in the form of an exquisitely or oddly laid table with food and playing cards.  The boy has been collecting a child’s drawings left on the floor, assembling them as a kind of entrance ticket.  He finds a gallery of paintings, and then, finally, the young artist who has been producing the drawings.  She is sitting in the attic and carefully folding them into planes, set to take flight.  Normally, a paper folded and launched this way connotes fun, mischief, and disregard for whatever is written on it.  Here, the two children set the works free from a balcony, into the town below.  The town looks peaceful, but momentarily, the image of birds and planes floating above seems to allude to a scene of war, transformed into reconciliation by the magic of art.  There are endless ways to share this story with children, by inventing a story, encouraging them to do so, or talking about what it means to create and share.

Fly Me to the Moon Babies

Moon Babies – by Karen Jameson, illustrated by Amy Hevron, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Moon Babies is not a STEM book. Not only that, but it negates all the carefully selected astronomy-for-kids books that are designed to teach children about their tiny place in our huge universe.  In the realm of fact, it would be part of the same genre as the moon made of green cheese, and the soothing nursery rhyme about the man in the moon reminding children of their approaching bedtime. 

Instead, it is a charming fantasy about multiple celestial creatures, infants and some adult caregivers, who either live on the moon or are themselves individual moons, twirling around some unspecified planet, presumably Earth.  They have a lot in common with human babies, but they are just different enough to create an offbeat and appealing parallel world for bedtime reading.

Each baby has its own “crescent cradle; several cradles form a “pod.”  There may be more than one way to interpret each picture and accompanying poem, but these babies inhabit a system of collective childcare, unless they are all siblings.  The float through space, holding a small doll, sipping a bottle, and, from the expressions on their faces, dreaming.  During the day, or “moonrise,” they get busy, supervised by “grammies.” One grammie wears glasses; the other does not. This might have been a multigenerational team of caregivers, but they are identified as grammies. The babies have the usual difficulties in learning to walk, but that may be partly due to gravity issues.

The world of the moon babies has a park and a swing set, even a barking dog, although the latter is actually a constellation. Their carousel glides around a central planet, causing one baby to drop its doll and shed tears into the atmosphere.  Each identifiably human activity is just different enough to be easily recognized by children listening to the book, but also flagged by them as distinctive.  When the moon babies enjoy bowls of “steamy porridge, smooth and white,” drops of food float away, some landing in a smiling Big Dipper. Bath time is fun “in a grand celestial tub,” but one baby frowns from the ordeal of having her hair washed. At bedtime, the stars become sheep ready for counting, after a reading of the cow jumping over the moon.

The refreshing element of this book is its almost countercultural overlap of fantasy and the natural world. In classic children’s books, this fluidity was often the norm. Today concerns with presenting the world of science and technology accurately have made this choice somewhat less common, at least for the youngest readers. (Fantasy and magical realist novels for older readers assume that, by a certain age, they can understand when the laws of nature are subverted for narrative purposes.) You will want to explain to Moon Babies fans that the points of contact between their own world and that of these space-soaring infants are outnumbered by differences.  The point of this lovely book is that the comforts of eating, playing, and going to sleep surrounded by protective love are as enchanting as fictional stardust.

Night Owl

Little Owl’s Bedtime – by Debi Gliori, illustrated by Alison Brown, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

First, you have to suspend disbelief because the little owl in this story is not nocturnal. His mother expects him to go to sleep in the dark of night, and he doesn’t want to; whether his reluctance is based on his species or his personality does not matter. Little Owl wants more bedtime stories,his night light, and the reassurance that his missing stuffed hedgehog isn’t gone for good.

Like his equally inventive human counterparts, Owl doesn’t want the day to end in darkness and he will do almost anything to avoid the fact that it does. Debi Gliori and Alison Brown capture a child’s sense of fear and anticipation in facing sleep and looking forward to when light returns. 

Owl, his mother, and younger sibling have broad faces and simple features.  Soothing green and blue shades alternate with brighter colors, making the setting more imaginary than naturalistic.  Owl’s hedgehog is light purple, his mom’s bath is full of cotton candy-pink bubbles, and the doors on an owl-themed cuckoo clack are deep red. 

There are inventive elements in some of the pictures, including one of Little Owl’s mother reading to him from a book about sleepy mice.  Mother and child are in profile, interacting both with one another and with the bedtime story, which is opened to a two-page spread of yawning and sleeping grey mice against a field of gold wheat.  This mom is extremely patient, yet her exasperation shows when even her most dedicated efforts to bring bedtime to its conclusion fail.

Little Owl is sweet, but obstinate.  Mom is kind, consistent, but flexible up to a point.  Rather than bathing a child in the aura of almost otherworldly security provided by a book like Goodnight Moon, Little Owl’s Bedtime places its characters in a familiar setting, but punctuates this domestic quiet with realistic objections and predictable responses.  Going to sleep will make the next day come sooner, the tiny night light is “so small even a very shy frog wouldn’t mind you using it,” are statements that defy normal logic but make perfect sense to a young child eager to believe a parent’s explanations.  Of course, a missing stuffed animal has probably made a brief trip to the bakery before returning to sleep alongside Little Owl.  Every children’s book about bedtime inevitably alludes to the tradition of reading as a gateway to sleep.  Little Owl’s Bedtime has its own place in the canon, balancing the inevitable fears, the protective role of parents, and the possibility of a little brief rebellion before letting the day end. 

Snow Day

Snow Falls – by Kate Gardner, illustrated by Brandon James Scott, Tundra Books, 2020

Snow days may have taken on a new meaning under lockdown, but being briefly free of normal responsibilities is the opposite of needing to stay inside to reduce risks to yourself and your community.  Kate Gardner and Brandon James Scott’s Snow Falls is about the childhood experience of snow, that always welcome moment when snow covers the world and transforms it into something different.  Even if you live in a region where climate change has not deprived kids of this annual joy, the first snowfall of the year still seems new.  The simplest of sentences guide readers among paintbox-colored pictures of winter, when every activity becomes layered with imagination.

The book starts indoors, where the first appearance of snow, as every child knows, is essential to appreciating its wonder.  The opening pages declare that “Snow starts,” and we see two windows. The first shows a little girl peering out at the beginning snowfall, while the second reveals behind three of its four panes a rack of outdoor clothing, and in one pane on the bottom, ordinary non-seasonal items.  These books and a plant will have to wait for spring to become important again.

Outside, things are not what they seem.  While the girl rolls a huge snowball, her dog looks aside at a fantastic group of snow creatures.  There is a car covered with snow, its headlights and bumper forming a smile. there is a friendly ghost with a pointed top and twig arms.  A small snow animal with protruding leaves looking like spikes, like the other figures, may be the result of snow covering ordinary objects, but also of the girl’s creative play with her winter weather medium.

When she returns inside for a reviving cup of cocoa, there is a sense of Zen beauty and calmness as she closes her eyes, immersed in the moment. Her father, fallen asleep on the couch with the newspaper on his lap, is also resting, but in the more mundane adult way. Meanwhile, the dog watches the blizzard outside with an expression of unmodified excitement.  Only a child strikes that perfect balance between anticipation and living in the present.

There is an element of fantasy in some of the pictures, while others are familiar scenes of snow play and its pleasures.  “Snow hides,” reads the text, and the little girl is half hidden, face down and up to her waist. Nothing is frightening here; pretending gives her the power to both have fun with nature as it is and push the limits of the possible.

The bird’s eye view of a snow-covered town at night features flying scarves and big stylized snowflakes over the serene scene.

Then there is the little red bird hidden on every page.  Sometimes he is brightly obvious, at others obscured by his surroundings. Scott has subtly varied the bird’s shade of red, as well as his size and placement, in different scenes.  By the time spring arrives, the reader is delighted at the deep green trees and bright leaves, but also a little sad. There’s always next winter.

A Different Perspective on the Prairie

Prairie Lotus – by Linda Sue Park, Clarion Books, 2020

Linda Sue Park grew up, like many of us, entranced by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books. She describes her process of increasing awareness in a thoughtful afterword to Prairie Lotus, as she came to question her deep sense identification with Laura. Exploring the history of Asian Americans in the American west, as well as the parallel experiences of Native Americans, Park became compelled to tell a different story in Prairie Lotus, whose heroine, Hanna, is of mixed Chinese, Korean, and European ancestry. Her novel is partly a dialogue with Wilder’s book, but also an independent narrative of family life, friendship, racism, and resistance.  Hanna is a complex creation, an intelligent girl who loves to read, a child marked with sadness by her mother’s early death, a daughter who struggles to communicate with a loving if imperfect father.  She is also determined to identify injustice when she sees it and to try, within her limited freedom, to challenge it.  Hanna is truly memorable.

The book begins with Hanna’s encounter with a group of Lakota Sioux women with whom she shares a meal.  Their friendliness and generosity become a part of Hanna’s memories when, later in the story, she is forced to defend the Indians’ right to provide for themselves on their own land.  Park’s language directly speaks to Wilder’s books, particularly an evocative scene in which Laura feels an almost desperate sense of connection to a Native American baby, although her own parents have repeatedly dehumanized the Indians who are their neighbors. Laura’s response had been inchoate: “Its eyes are so black,” Laura sobbed. “She could not say what he meant.” Hanna is older, and able to articulate her feelings; ‘As the Indians departed, one of the little girls turned her head to stare at Hanna. Her eyes were very dark, almost black, and at the same time, bright with curiosity.”

Of course, Hanna, unlike Laura, understands that her own status as a mixed-race person is almost as tenuous as that of the Sioux.  As she and her father try to establish a business in a small town in the Dakota Territory, Hanna is subjected to relentless prejudice and unthinking hatred. Even the kind and well-intentioned teacher who recognizes her value is only able to devise a weak compromise when Hanna tries to attend school with white children.  Yet Hanna and her father also encounter kindness, and find hope for a future with at least some opportunities for Hanna to use her gift at needlework, and to participate in the life of their community.  Sadness, frustration, and anger coexist with empowerment when Hanna tries, indirectly, to confront all the obstacles imposed on her.

There is always a challenge in historical fiction of imposing out-of-context or anachronistic values on characters from the past.  Park succeeds in giving Hanna a voice from her own time, but one that echoes in the present.  Like Laura in Little House, Hanna somewhat idealizes her father; her attachment to him is even more weighted since he is her only parent.  Park’s metaphor of a mirror for Hanna’s identification with her mother reverberates throughout the book, culminating in a moment of recognition when Hanna is able for the first time to see herself as a both a daughter and a separate person.  The book’s final note of optimism seems almost unearned in light of the bitter reality that circumscribes Hanna’s life. Prairie Lotus does not pretend to answer all of Hanna’s questions about injustice, only to raise them, and to give Hanna her own unmistakable voice.

A Feast for Readers

Minette’s Feast – written by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Amy Bates, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012

The endpapers are a checked tablecloth.  The book includes a glossary of French words.  Yet this is not only a book for cuisine fans (foodies) or even of Julia Child.  Nor does it appeal only to fans of books about famous people’s pets.  Minette’s Feast is a gloriously illustrated picture of Paris in the late nineteen-forties, when Child and her husband, Paul, lived there and she started her culinary career.  The book’s dialogue, according to the author, Susanna Reich’s, notes, is taken from Child’s My Life in France, and from letters quoted in Noël Riley Fitch’s Appetite for Life. The descriptive narrative is as unpretentiously descriptive as its pictures.  Julia’s cat, Minette, looks through the window of her “old gray house, one block from the River Seine,” and smells “the delicious smells of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, cheese soufflés, and duck patés wafting from the pots and pans of her owner, Julia Child.”

I have admired Amy Bates’ picture book work before (see this interview with her collaborator Lesléa Newman).  Here, her images combine detailed realism and impressionistic colors and shadings.  A delighted Julia in a long green skirt, matching heels, a blue blouse and white apron, practices her art, stirring two pots at once, while Minette looks on.  The famous chef was extremely tall, and Bates does not minimize this quality, showing Julia shopping at the local market. 

She towers over the two other women in the picture and her sturdy laced shoes are also proportionately long. When Julia hosts a dinner party, Minette sits at one end of the table, a woman in a dark red dress holding a glass of red wine at the other.  Everyone is happy, including Julia, her white dress matching the ribbon of smoke swirling around her roast. Two pages of Minette’s acrobatics while feasting on leftovers and chasing a bone are matched by a ballet of words: “She frisked and flounced, darted and batted./She tiptoed and hopped, danced and pranced.”

“As the months passed, Julia became quite the gourmet cook.”  The two-page spread features four versions of Julia in motion: reading, whisking, searching, and tasting.  The well- appointed kitchen is the scenery and the action unfolds like a movie.  Julia is utterly absorbed, with all the enthusiasm of a novice. Her cat’s attention is equally focused on a small mouse under the stove. 

The story of how Julia acquired Minette adds a poignant touch to this snapshot of one moment in the chef’s life.  A cutaway picture of Julia and Paul’s apartment on the top two floors of an elegant old building shows their life together. we see them, in each room, dining, sleeping, eating, sharing coffee in front of a fire.  “There was only one thing missing.”  The next page reveals their adoption of Minette. Julia and Paul never had children, although their life was full in other ways.  Yet the expectation raised on one page and humorously altered on the next one leaves a graceful suggestion of changed expectations in this charming book.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg 1933-2020

Books for the Next Generation of Feminists

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, feminist, jurist, social justice advocate, Jewish-American heroine, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, crusader for oppressed and vulnerable Americans, has died.  There have often been questions about why so many children’s books have been dedicated to her life and legacy.  I can only respond to the implicit question of why she was the focus of a seemingly disproportionate number of biographies the way that Ruth did when asked how many women would be enough on the Supreme Court (nine). Here are links to reviews of some of these outstanding books for children, and for adults, too:

https://imaginaryelevators.blog/2018/02/10/372/

https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/no-truth-without-ruth-the-life-of-ruth-bader-ginsburg

https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/becoming-rbg-ruth-bader-ginsburgs-journey-to-justice

https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/dissenter-on-the-bench-ruth-bader-ginsburgs-life-and-work

https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/ruth-objects-the-life-of-ruth-bader-ginsburg

Hello, Purple

The Purple Coat – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Amy Schwartz, Four Winds Press (Macmillan), 1986

Gabrielle is so enamored of the color purple that she addresses it personally in the pile of fabric that her grandfather, a tailor, keeps stacked in his workshop. When her mother takes her on the commuter train to Manhattan to visit him and to get measured for a new winter coat, Gabrielle insists on a rather unorthodox choice for a child’s outwear in mid-century New York.  But grandparents sometimes convince parents to accede to children’s wishes, especially when the parents themselves had harbored equally unreasonable demands when they were kids themselves.  Amy Hest and Amy Schwartz’s story is set in a now nostalgic city of busy commuters and pastrami sandwiches, but the core of Gabrielle’s relationship with Grandpa is as relevant today as when the book first appeared. 

Schwartz’s picture of a train rounding the tunnel into Penn Station ushers Gabrielle and her mother into their special day in the city. The two-page spread of the subway at Thirty-Fourth Street shows New Yorkers rushing past the signs to the Broadway Local and the Crosstown Shuttle.  A lady in a green herringbone coat carries a purse too small to be anything but decorative and a Hasidic gentleman reads the paper as he walks towards the train.  Nowhere but New York! When they arrive at Grandpa’s large office building, another trip, in a crowded elevator, leads them to a long corridor.  The black and white tiles, which match the large pink and white plaid of Mama’s coat, give an Alice in Wonderland feeling of fantasy to the trip.

Grandpa’s office is full of all the details of his trade, from bobbins mounted on a board to a probably ineffective ceiling fan.  Then there’s the fabric, “…stacked in open shelves way up to the ceiling and down to the polished wood floor.  Hello Purple, she whispers.”  Gabby has her heart set on a purple coat, not a practical navy blue one. A picture of Grandpa and Gabby enjoying deli sandwiches together, after Mama has left to do errands, captures the essence of their bond.  Both sit on top of Grandpa’s desk; he places his feet on a swivel chair, having reversed the purpose for which these two items of furniture would ordinarily be used.  Their facial expressions and sandwich-holding postures are nearly identical.  They understand one another.  After lunch, Gabby holds a large bolt of purple fabric bigger than she is, prepared to negotiate for her demand.  When Grandpa reminds her that her mother nixed the purple idea, Gabby replies, “Not exactly…what she said was, navy blue coats are what I always get.” Who else but a grandparent would put up with this chutzpah?

There is a balletic scene of Grandpa measuring Gabby for her coat, color still to be determined.  It turns out that Mama is more than reasonable and really empathetic when her father reminds her that she had once demanded a tangerine coat, and with the even more fantastic addition of puffed sleeves and “tiny tangerine buttons.”  The three generations find a compromise between beauty and practicality.  Just like Gabby and Grandpa’s discussion of sandwich preferences, salami or pastrami, Grandpa’s reminder that “Once in a while it’s good to try something new” saves the day.  Mama kicks off her black pumps, relieved to find a compromise, and everyone’s happy. 

Goals and Relegation

Striker Boy – by Jonny Zucker, Green Bean Books, 2020 (reprint of 2010 edition)

Nat Levy is a thirteen-year-old British boy who has spent the seven years since his mother’s death traveling the world with his bereaved father, Dave.  Wherever they live, Brazil, France, Germany, or elsewhere, their peripatetic existence is tied to soccer.  Dave had hoped for a professional career in the sport, but the demands of life had denied him that dream. Now he has transferred his hopes onto his incredibly gifted son, hoping to derive “nachas,” Yiddish for joyful pride, from Nat’s triumphs at soccer after deciding to finally return to England.  Green Bean Books has reissued this novel in tribute to the late Jonny Zucker, and to raise money for his family.

Striker Boy is truly a family book.  The story is structured around short, action-filled chapters, each with an intriguing title.  Middle-grade and young adult readers, as well as adult sports fans, will undoubtedly become engrossed in the details of specific soccer matches, as well as the complex rules of the sport that determine whether Nat’s Hatton Rangers will be relegated to a less prestigious division due to their uneven performance.  A mystery involving the dark side of the professional sports world complicates the picture of a boy and his father struggling to remake their lives. Both kids and parents will also be drawn into the book’s examination of family relationships.  Where does parental protectiveness need to recede and allow children to negotiate the difficulties of growing up?  How may a parent’s unfulfilled dreams grow to take over a child’s life, imposing expectations that eventually erase the boundaries between the two generations?  The line between Nat’s own goals and those of his dad become dangerously blurred.

This novel of soccer and parent-child relationships is also about the long life of grief.  Dave has never come to terms with his wife’s death; his emotional devastation has caused him to remain constantly in motion so that his son never been part of a community.  Nat has never attended school and his bar mitzvah was the result of a hasty negotiation with a Paris rabbi.  Nat confesses that, after his mother’s death in an accident, his “whole world had caved in and buried him alive.”  Even more expressively, and in language to which kids will easily relate, he sums up his feelings about the move back to England: “Rubbish home, rubbish school, rubbish soccer team – can life get any worse?” There is a fairy-tale quality to Nat’s unbelievable good luck when his talents are recognized, but, as in fairy tales, this rapid turn in his young life may be too good to be true.

Readers, depending upon their expectations, may be surprised by the book’s resolution. Nat, Dave, the brotherhood of the soccer team and powerful ambitions of its management, all lead to detours in Nat and Dave’s journey towards reassembling the pieces of their life together.  As the team’s manager exhorts his players, “Don’t forget what’s at stake…So this isn’t an ordinary football match. It’s a battle for survival.” Indeed!

Classic Ode to the U.S. Postal Service

Seven Little Postmen – by Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, Random House Golden Book, 1952, (reprinted 1980)

Golden Books are always relevant and so is the United States Postal Service, pioneered by Benjamin Franklin and later established in our beloved and embattled Constitution. One of the loveliest children’s books about this deeply democratic American institution is a poetic story authored by children’s literature icons Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd, with pictures by Golden Book great Tibor Gergely. The technology of mail delivery depicted in the book may be strictly mid-twentieth century, but the image of the postal system as a reliable link among Americans, staffed by dedicated workers, is more important than ever.   

The simple, partly rhyming, text tells the story of a little boy mailing a letter to his grandmother.  He lives in a city, but she lives in the type of rural area for which the postal service was a crucial lifeline, using Rural Free Delivery to bring residents many daily needs.  The boy wears shorts and knee socks so his attire, along with the wonderfully retro vehicles in the pictures, might require some explanation for children today. In the first picture he is carefully composing his letter, surrounded by kittens who will be key plot point in the book.  The words are musical, terse, and sometimes humorous: “The first little postman/Took it from his box,/Put it in his bag,/And walked seventeen blocks/To a big Post Office/All built of rocks.” 

Then the fun begins, as we watch the letter work its way through sorting machines (remember those?), hand sorting, and trips on prop planes and coal-spewing trains.  One magnificent two-page spread shows a train at night, one half holding sleeping passengers, the other half a busy hive of postal activity: “The train carries the letter/Through gloom of night/In a mail car filled with electric light.”  Then we are out in the country where a post office might be size of a New York City apartment closet and where a jalopy rolls along delivering not only chickens, but other less obvious items, including “a wig for an actor.” (Small town theater; great!)

Grandma is an adorable old lady with white hair in a bun and glasses, seated in a wicker chair while knitting.  She may not be instantly recognizable to young readers as a typical grandmother today, but they won’t miss the idea of her excitement at receiving a letter from a grandson, with the promise of his imminent visit and a gift to stave off loneliness.  A condensed version of the story in the form of a poem appears at the end of the book.  Today, many of the postal workers would be women and people of color. Lots of them would be veterans, but we can imagine that, in 1952, some of them were.  America still depends on our postal service, and immigrant Tibor Gergely’s classic illustrations are a glorious blend of European traditions of drawing and affection for his adopted country. If you don’t own this Golden Book, now might be a good time to send for it and share it with a child.