Sibling Pet Rivalry

Princess Puffybottom…and Darryl – Susin Nielsen and Olivia Chin Mueller, Tundra Books, 2019

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As long as there are siblings reading books, or having books read to them, the rivalry between them will remain a popular topic for children’s books.  Here the siblings are a cat and dog pair, the cat being a pampered and only child of a partially off-screen and unnamed couple of stylish women, at least it appears they are stylish from our cat’s eye perspective of the richly drawn and colored pictures.  You may appreciate this book if you love cats and/or dogs, but you really don’t have to in order to empathize with both Princess Puffybottom and the perfectly innocent canine whom she fears will replace her.

princess puffybottom perfect

Books about the anticipated arrival of a new baby often emphasize the rewarding aspect of this experience, one which may elude an older sibling for months or even years as everyone lavishes attention on the addition to their family.  Susin Nielsen and Olivia Chin Mueller do not overplay the analogy between humans and animals here.  Princess Puffybottom is unmistakably a cat.  “Life was good,” she thinks, because she lounges in a softly lined bed surrounded by cat toys, and spends more time sleeping on couches than a child ever would.

But when Puffybottom’s idyllic life is interrupted by the arrival of an annoying dog, whom she characterizes as “horrible,” “disgusting,” and “an animal,” the cat’s reactions seem a little more like that of an angry child, even if she is more articulate in describing just how awful the new “sibling is.” Yet even the most distraught older sibling would be unlikely to try Puffybottom’s desperate but calculated approaches to getting rid of the dog.  She tries to hypnotize him, as well as tricking him into destroying her owner’s lovely red stiletto heels. (A child older enough to figure out how to do that would likely not feel intense resentment at a newcomer.)

princess puffybottom preg

Nielsen’s text is understated and funny. Children will relate to its simplicity and adults will understand all that is left unsaid about their children’s feelings. Chin Mueller’s pictures are incredible, both simple and lavish.  The colors are bright and realistic details stand out in every scene, from the delicate floral tattoo on a woman’s arm to the painting on a wall featuring a fierce orange tiger behind bright green leaves.  The most interesting choice by the illustrator is to depict the animals’ owners in several scenes as incomplete figures.  We see their torsos but not their heads, giving the small animal, or child’s, perspective.  What we do see of them is specific to every scene, whether their boots, jeans, and skirt as they hold the new intruder Darryl on a leash, or the seated couple in a domestic scene which really inflames Princess Puffybottom: one woman, wearing bunny slippers, pets the injured dog, while her companion crosses her legs and rests a hand on her enlarging middle.

One other sure to be remarked upon feature of this lovely book is the identity of the couple: same –  sex and interracial. They appear, as they should, without comment. To the pets, as to our children, they are just the people who care for them.  Princess Puffybottom…and Darryl contains unstated progress, along with distinctive artwork portraying a constant part of children’s lives.  There are many reasons to enjoy this book.

Struggle, Change, and Poetry

This Promise of Change – Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, Bloomsbury, 2019


Award-winning author and poet Debbie Levy (see my interview of her here) has collaborated with civil rights veteran Jo Ann Allen Boyce to tell Boyce’s story of being a young pioneer fighting to desegregate the high school in her home town of Clinton, Tennessee.  The book is a symphony of poetry and courage. Allen Boyce and Levy use verse, historical documents, and Boyce’s memories to recount the unforgettable pain and frustration, as well as the personal strength and triumph, of her struggle. The result is a riveting account of how unjust laws and deeply ingrained prejudice impacted the lives of African-Americans, as well as a glorious tribute to language and its power to both articulate and change experiences. (also see reviews of Levy’s work here and here)

Although the court-ordered desegregation in Clinton took place in 1956, before the Little Rock Nine and before Ruby Bridges attended a white school in New Orleans, many fewer Americans are aware of this timeline.  In an extended “Epilogue,” the authors reflect on the reasons for this omission.  The lives of African American residents of the town, as in the rest of the segregated South, were characterized by a kind of double existence, a precarious balance between friends and enemies, their own supportive communities and white neighbors blinded by prejudice.  Some of these neighbors, who interacted positively with Allen Boyce and her family, became seemingly deranged by hatred when compelled by law to surrender a small part of the power and control which they had enjoyed for generations by allowing African American students to attend school with their own children.  The authors capture the psychological destructiveness of this situation by alternating chapters in which Allen Boyce describes the events and individuals of this paradox.

A visit to the supermarket by people of color was governed by elaborate rules, in which

“We do not enter that aisle
while the white person is contemplating
baked goods.
This is not a bread rule, you understand;
it applies to milk and scouring powder, too.”

The narrator’s voice is seemingly detached, as when she describes the similar process by which African-American women could be permitted to try on hats at a milliner’s without contaminating the goods for white customers.  In other chapters, Allen Boyce expresses confusion, rage, faith, and determination.  Every attack becomes an indelible memory: “But you can’t unhear/what you hear,” when a child in a store calls her a filthy name. There is significant nuance to Allen Boyce’s reactions.  White people may show compassion under limited circumstances, but fail to support integration because of their total investment in an unjust system.  The book is not populated only by heroes and villains, although both play a role, but also by failed human beings who support racial inequality every day when, like President Eisenhower, they only reluctantly admit a need for some change.

The range of poetic forms in the book is breathtaking.  In her notes, Levy describes this choice as a tribute to Allen Boyce’s voice, developed by a mother who insisted on the importance of using English correctly and eloquently.  There is free verse, but also sonnets, ballads, haiku, villanelle, and other forms.  These poems are not meant to amaze the reader with technical virtuosity; each one is adapted to relating a specific part of Allen Boyce’s experience.  There is irony framed in rhyme as she comments on the temporary calm in the town enforced by the presence of soldiers:

“Decency rises
Decency won
Decency spurred
by a soldier, a gun.”

The precision of “Do the Math” uses equations and an acrostic to turn chaos into controlled forms, while the sonnet sequence of “Down the Hill” elevates her father’s choice to move the family to California:

“Abandoning the cause that I embraced,
retreating from a stand I know is right.
The risks I took, the dangers that I faced –
what purpose served if I don’t stay to fight?”

An extended section at the end of the book includes the authors’ explanations of the book’s genesis, historical background, lists of additional sources, photographs, and a timeline, making This Promise of Change an excellent choice for both individual reading and classroom use. Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy have succeeded in combining artistic distinction and historical truth in this outstanding work for young readers, caregivers, and educators.


Jada Jones’s Rocky Friendship

Jada Jones Rock Star – Kelly Starling Lyons and Vanessa Brantley Newton, Penguin Workshop, 2017


In this first volume of three Jada Jones stories, with a fourth to be released in the spring, Kelly Starling Lyons introduced her bright and appealing fourth grade heroine. Jada is as consumed by her interest in rocks as by a deep sense of loss when her best friend Mari moves away.  Even with supportive parents and a younger brother who looks up to her, Jada can’t shake the blues even though her father, a blues musician as well as an engineer, has assured her that the blues “don’t last forever.” Her librarian mom’s empathy and involvement are also imperfect substitutes for her missing companion.  Young readers who have endured the pain of competition for friends will easily relate to Jada’s situation.  For all her fascination with sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks, her sadness feeling like half of a pair seems overwhelming.

Starling Lyon’s text is simple, suitable for early chapter book readers, but she pairs kids’ language with subtle metaphors, adding depth to Jada’s story.  Jada’s forced smile is “All teeth with no joy,” and her persistent feelings about her friend become “my missing-Mari ache was back.” On the more positive side, her joy in geology is totally believable, as she rhapsodizes about the mineral specimens which Mari sends her:  “Light green and sharp like the point of a star. Peach and grainy like glitter mixed with sand.  Blue with stripes like ocean waves.” As Jada begins to hope that her friendship with science project partners Lena and Simone might bring back her sense of belonging, she learns that people have different ways of responding when they feel hurt or threatened.  Starling Lyon has created a young female character who loves science and is also a social being, not a caricature of intellect without feelings.


Another selling point of this engaging book: it’s purple. The illustrations are black and white drawings with purple elements, including a t-shirts, a lunch bag, and even her classmate’s beautiful black curls.  Jada writes in a lavender science journal, and her friend Mari’s letters appear in blocks of purple font.   Brantley Newton’s cast of characters are examples of her inimitable joyous style (I reviewed another of her beautiful books here).  Even anger and sadness are part of a range of emotions to be embraced and celebrated.  Jada and her possible nemesis Simone face one another, Simone’s arms crossed defensively and Jada clutching her purple backpack in anger.

Later, all three girls jump rope together, having resolved their differences, Jada having learned an important truth: “Each time I sailed over the rope, I felt a thrill kind of like finding a stone. I never thought of jumping and rock hunting as having something in common.”

Jada Jones Rock Star acknowledges the difficulties and the joys of childhood for early chapter book readers. Caregivers and educators will recognize Jada’s dilemma and remember the tough spots when kids learn about empathy. The book concludes with a purple list of “Jada’s Rules for Being a Rock Star,” perfect for sharing and discussion.


One Child, One Cat, One Bath

How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps – Nicola Winstanley and John Martz, Tundra Books, 2019

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Very young children like routines, as long as they can control them. However, it something upsets a familiar process, such as a cat who refuses to take a bath, the results may be frustrating.  Yet they also adapt, as Nicola Winstanley and John Martz chronicle in their sweetly empathic collaboration, How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps. A persistent little girl is determined to bathe her cat, appropriately named Mr. Flea. She has it all planned out.  When her five easy steps don’t produce the desired result, she needs to reevaluate without giving up on her goal.  Children reading this book will probably laugh both at her and with her, because kids can do that. Adults will enjoy the poetry of the simple language and the visual rendering of child-produced chaos.

how to give your cat a bath 1

No one has any reason to suspect potential problems on the first page: “STEP ONE: Fill the bathtub with warm water.” A little girl with a round brown face and equally round red pigtails peers over the edge of the tub while turning the faucet.  Her cat, whose red ball of a nose matches the girl’s hair, looks down from a shelf with no sign of anxiety.  By the second page, things start to go awry.  The tub overflows and the girl starts over, this time with “a little warm water.” Winstanley’s words reflect a child’s mindset, as the girl adjust her expectations in a way that adults would not. Maybe the water should reach the cat’s knees. Maybe the problem is lack of energy, requiring cookies and milk.

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In each of Martz’s pictures, the girl changes expression, from confidence to concern, and finally to anger, as she is forced to admit that cats have a different idea of a bath from humans.  The small objects on each page help to tell the story and even to build a backstory.  When she starts over after two failed steps, the girl stands on a stool to reach into the refrigerator. A broken egg and open jar of pickles litter the kitchen floor.  The cat, perched atop the refrigerator, looks down at the process.  Meanwhile, the refrigerator door is decorated with twin images of cat and girl, emphasizing their friendship, and even their equality.  They are each invested in their own ideas about taking a bath.  Step Ten is an image of defeat, the girl flat on her back, and the mop and pail in the background useless in cleaning up from her struggle with the cat.

how to give your cat a bath 3

The final two-page spread shows that the girl’s enterprise of bathing her cat was doomed from the start, as she has learned reluctantly to “Sit quietly while your cat licks himself clean.”  If fact, the most interesting part of this story is the lack of a tidy resolution. There is no embrace of cat and girl, and her plucky persistence just doesn’t work.  Toilet paper, an apple core, banana peel, and fish skeleton, as well as the more elevated accessories of books, a newspaper, and a cute stuffed koala, attest to the truth that, sometimes, you just have to admit your mistake.  Children know this, and will find the book both funny and comforting. Adults certainly know that multi-step attempts to accomplish a goal often end up with the equivalent of banana peels on the floor.  Everyone will appreciate this delightful book.

The Good Life, with Cats

Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess – Janet Hill, Tundra Books, 2019

missmink cover

Already experienced at enlisting pets to guide readers towards a better life, Janet Hill, author and illustrator of Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess, is back, this time with felines. In a series of twenty terse lessons, Miss Mink, a successful entrepreneur with her own cruise company, found that she needed the example of her own cats to step back and enjoy life.  Whether brushing her hair in front of an elaborate vanity, exercising in a flapper dress, or sipping tea while listening to an art deco radio, Miss Mink offers advice to young and old readers on complementary levels.  Adults who need a reminder of what matters and kids who see the appeal of cats dressed in human clothes can enjoy Miss Mink together.

Hill’s jazz age settings and gauzy colors are the setting for her brief and clear messages.  “Show kindness, even to your enemies,” features Miss Mink seated at a sidewalk café, where a large white poodle on its hind legs eats from her table without disturbing the cats sipping milk through a straw or eating pastries from her delicate hand.

miss mink lion desk

Another lesson encourages readers to nap, and what better way to be assured of a good rest than by wearing an eye mask, even if you are a lion?  Large cats and small are shown deep in slumber in Miss Mink’s office, while she puts her feet up on her stately desk and shuts out the world.

Her ship itself, christened “The Cat’s Meow,” highlights her cat friends on deck watching a giant octopus, along with the message to “Let your curiosity lead you to exciting new places,” an idea which Miss Mink endorses with her parasol in one hand and her spyglass in the other.

miss mink octopus

So what makes this a book for children?  Admittedly, the clever references to nineteen twenties style seem more aimed at adults. Miss Mink visits the Mona Lisa to understand a sense of mystery, and poses on a steamer trunk in front of a closet full of shoes as an example of “daily exercise.”   Yet in each picture, the cats are doing something antic and silly, whether hiding in a cookie jar, swinging from a chandelier, or dancing to Miss Mink’s accompaniment on the accordion. The final two-page spread of Miss Mink and her cats waving “Bon Voyage” from their ship is followed by a complete cast of characters, including Butterscotch Ripple, Mean Marcia, Sargent Smooshface, and Snowshoe.  Don’t underestimate your child’s sense of humor, or her interest in pictures that place the familiar figures of cats in unfamiliar settings. And who doesn’t need a lovely reminder to “Express yourself in creative ways, or to “Chase your dreams,” even with a cat on your shoulder?

Jasmine Toguchi: “What Was A Talent Anyway?”

Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018


If you have read the other books in the Jasmine Toguchi series (which I have reviewed here and here and here), then you know that Jasmine is a generally confident and capable third grader. She has supportive parents, an affectionate, if controlling, older sister, and Mrs. Reese, a lovely older neighbor who provides her with space to unwind and contemplate the problems that inevitably arise in even so anchored a young life. When her teacher, Ms. Sánchez, announces a school-wide talent show, Jasmine is forced to confront some big questions.  Most of her talents, including making collages and climbing trees, don’t lend themselves to performance.  Even worse, a new classmate, Maggie Milsap, is so supremely convinced of skills as a violinist, and of her general superiority to everyone around her, that Jasmine Toguchi briefly confronts despair.  But that is not the Jasmine we know.  After admitting that she is at a loss, Jasmine is ready to move forward: “I needed to figure it out, and fast!”

Jasmine’s mother is not perfect, but she is wonderful.  Not only is she a great role model as a successful editor, but she listens to her children and empathizes with their dilemmas with impressive consistency, considering that she is constantly multitasking in a way which young readers may not appreciate but parents enjoying the books with them certainly will.  She is able to elicit her daughter’s real feelings about the talent show, and also comes up with a brilliant and yet totally feasible plan, involving getting her college friend Kat to teach her to play the traditional Japanese taiko drums.  In fact, Kat doesn’t only teach her friend’s daughter some routinized movements so that she can parrot them in front of her friends and their parents, but, acting as a kind of surrogate mother, she imbues in Jasmine both respect for tradition and an overwhelming feeling of physical confidence and joy.  And she does this without minimizing the hard part: there are rules.

There are many small details, which set Jasmine Toguchi apart from some of her counterparts in series fiction chapter books.  Two funny and touching allusions to other works of literature pop up in Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl, one intentional, and one, maybe not. Jasmine’s favorite book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. She compares her friendship with Linnie Green to the bond between Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig, an indirect analogy since Charlotte is dedicated to saving the life of an animal meant to be turned into food from the day of his birth.  Linnie, on the other hand, is loyal and compassionate. Through her consistent sensitivity and support, she will save her friend from self-doubt and anxiety about the talent show.  Children don’t necessarily read books or relate to characters exactly the same way that adults do; Jasmine’s association of her favorite book and her beloved friend make that point.


Of course, the range of readers’ responses is not limited to the spectrum of age.  When I read the scene where Jasmine and her classmates lunch together in the school cafeteria, I immediately thought of another children’s book where differences in lunch box contents reflect the characters’ unique qualities.  Jasmine opens her unicorn lunchbox and enumerates its contents, and also relates the exchange of items with her friends: “She handed me her yogurt and I gave her my banana.”  To me, this scene echoed Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances. (If you have forgotten about the strong-willed little female badger, go back to that wonderful series of picture books and easy readers.) Caught in a picky eating cycle that seems it will never end, Frances reluctantly admires her friend Albert’s elegantly simply fare:

“I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread…And a pickle to go with it…And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos  bottle of milk. And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine.  And a cup custard and spoon to eat it with.”

Jasmine is not a picky eater and Michiko Florence is not imitating Hoban’s work.  But the significance of what children eat, centered on both their own choices and those of their parents, turns up with a new twist. Jasmine is Japanese-American and her stories all integrate the intertwining richness of her family heritage and her American life:

“I used to bring sandwiches every day, but when my grandma visited from Japan, she made omusubi.  I loved eating the rice balls wrapped in nori, or seaweed….Sometimes Mom puts a treat in the middle of my rice ball, like pickled radish or a piece of roast chicken.”

Jasmine’s friends’ lunches are also individualized.  Tommy has his turkey sandwich and chips, while Daisy, whose mother is a baker, brings “star-shaped cookies dusted with powdered sugar.” Jasmine’s world is full of the unprejudiced diversity of childhood.

As always, Elizabet Vuković’s black, white, and shaded drawings capture perfectly the ups and downs of Jasmine’s daily life.  We see Jasmine practicing her drumming on a gomi-kan, or trashcan, her parents and sister cheering her on. Her father, eyes closed in complete immersion in the performances, raises, his arms over his head, making them the highest point of the picture. His support is as crucial as Jasmine’s mom’s understanding.  On the other end of the parenting scale, we see a deflated Maggie Milsap holding her violin case while her father clutches a brief case and checks his cell phone.  Vuković’s drawings are as natural and understated as Michiko Florence’s language.

Now I have to wait for Debbi Michiko Florence to add more books to Jasmine’s saga.  I hope that will happen soon.

Don’t Hide Those Tines!

Spork – Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault, Kids Can Press, 2010

spork cover

Have you ever felt that you just don’t fit in?  Perhaps each of your parents are different and you live in a society where “Mixing was uncommon.”  Although you know some proud individuals who defy convention, you are unable to comfortably negotiate your own unique identity. The little utensil of Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault’s affecting and unpretentious tale learns a lesson that may apply to you, even if you are not the resident of a flatware drawer.

We meet Spork and learn about his parentage on the opening pages. He has a wide and innocent round face like a spoon, but his fork ancestry shows as three short tines extending from his forehead. His mother, dressed, or rather engraved, somewhat like a 1920s flapper, adores him, as does his dapper tie-wearing fork father.  But other members of the kitchen look down on him.  Spork looks sadly on his odd reflection on the side of a toaster and resolves to be what he is not: one thing only.  Wearing a natty bowler hat to conceal his fork features doesn’t work, and nor does a pointy paper crown cover up his spoon DNA.  Arsenault’s pictures feature juicers, corkscrews, and egg timers with comic features, looking a bit like Miró’s biomorphic figures floating in space. Spork’s quirky face manages to evoke a range of emotions, from desolation to joy.

spork inside

Then a bright splotch of action painting arrives to save Spork’s grey and white world.  This “messy thing” is too young and unprejudiced to care about fine distinctions when it just needs a way to feed itself.  A giant infant with a big smile and a jar of baby food finds Spork the greatest thing since sliced bread.  All of a sudden, someone appreciates the very qualities that had isolated him from his peers:

“Something that could do all sorts of things at once./Something flexible and easy to hold.” Children listening to or reading the book will be relieved, although older or more inquisitive ones, as well as adults, may wish for a sequel to this charming book.  Have all Spork’s problems really been resolved? What happens when the baby grows older and is pressured to choose correctly at the table? Maybe, as in Thomas Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster, Maclear and Arsenault could collaborate on a continuation where the utensils interact and their prejudices clash, but ultimately resolve. In the meantime, Spork is a sweet and simple story of for children about acceptance from an unexpected friend.


Nutcracker History

The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition, Chris Barton and Cathy Gendron, Millbrook Press, 2015

nutcracker cover

The Nutcracker Comes to America isn’t principally about fairies and the land of sweets, or a brother who deliberately breaks his sister’s beloved doll.  It’s a picture book history with engaging and detailed text about three brothers from Utah who staged the first full-length Nutcracker ballet in the U.S. You won’t read about Clara (or Marie in some versions) bravely defeating the Mouse King by hitting him with her slipper.  You will reverse some preconceptions about this ballet, which was not always popular or guaranteed to bring in audiences every December.  Chris Barton is the author of many picture books, including one of my favorite informational books for young readers, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors. Having brought the invention of fluorescent paint to life, he has no trouble creating, along with artist Cathy Gendron, a compelling story out of the birth of Tchaikovsky’s classic.

Readers may not be aware that the original performance of the Russian composer’s work in 1892 was far from a hit, or that American audiences did not always throng to theaters every holiday season to see a production of the work based on stories by German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffman.  Barton grounds the book in the American melting pot success story of William, Harold, and Lew Christensen, three grandsons of a Danish immigrant to Utah. Their family had a dancing school and two of the brothers joined the vaudeville circuit, which Barton explains as a world where the “competed for applause with jugglers, clowns, magicians, and dancing elephants.”  Through a series of acquaintances and opportunities, William choreographed some dances to Tchaikovsky’s score for a ballet company in Portland, Oregon.  Later, after World War II during which Lew served in the military, the brothers consulted with Russian dancers and concocted an early version of the marvel that would take root in American culture in many different forms.


Gendron’s pictures accompany Barton’s words on their journey, from the Christensens’ love of show business to their commitment to collaborate in producing a professionally excellent ballet in San Francisco.  She shows us the excitement of preparation “on as small a budget as possible, because small was all they had.”  A ballerina places the hem of the tutu she is wearing under a sewing machine operated by an intent designer.  Another artist carefully applies makeup to a cast member’s cheeks, while painters on ladders finish the backdrop.  The last two-page spread shows programs for the successors to the brothers’ dream, from the Pacific Northwest Ballet Nutcracker, (that one has sets designed by Maurice Sendak) to “American Ballet Theater’s with Baryshnikov as star, to Harlem Nutcracker arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (also the subject of a children’s book).

If you don’t need a break from The Nutcracker and Nutcracker kid lit, but would like a complementary history of its origins, The Nutcracker Comes to America will not disappoint you!




Jasmine Toguchi, Girl Detective

Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017


In this installment of Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine Toguchi series (previously entries reviewed here and here), Jasmine struggles with the friendship issues that can decimate the lives of middle grade readers. She learns about empathy, and renews her joy in celebrating Hina Matsuri, the annual Japanese doll festival, with her loving mother and her reluctant older sister. All the Jasmine Toguchi books are really about empathy.  Jasmine’s family relationships, her lovely affection for neighbor Mrs. Reese, and her ongoing understanding of how Japanese traditions fit into her life, are hallmarks of this warmly appealing and realistic saga. So what’s new for Jasmine here?

Jasmine is looking forward to March 3, when every year Japanese people celebrate girlhood, as well as the imperial family, by assembling an elaborate and hierarchical display of dolls. These are not play dolls, but fragile pieces which embody tradition and attention to aesthetic values.  Display dolls or not, Jasmine’s older sister Sophie isn’t having any of it.  One of the most subtle touches in the story is the moment when Jasmine relates to her mother’s sadness at the thought that her older daughter is growing up and struggling to break away:

“’You know it’s not only about dolls, Sophie,’ Mom said. ‘It’s about celebrating girls. I love celebrating with my daughters.’
Sophie shook her head. ‘I really don’t want to, Mom.
Mom’s eyes looked sad, but Sophie didn’t seem to notice. I felt sad, too.”

Jasmine is an artist, always busy making collages.  Her imaginative nature extends to the way she views the world. Exploring her neighbor Mrs. Reese’s garage, Jasmine notes that the carefully arranged plastic storage boxes resemble “trees in a forest,” while a big dresser “sat like a castle.” There to play dress –up with her best friend Linnie Green, Jasmine becomes determined to find out the meaning of the mysterious objects they find there, including piles of old flyers with the puzzling titles Annie Get Your Gun and Fiddler on the Roof.  Jasmine is creative, but she also proud when her teacher or other adults praise her rational approach to problem solving.

Jasmine’s friendship with the shy and less fearless Linnie, her friend who celebrates Hanukkah and not Christmas, (thanks, Debbi!), teaches her that friends need not be people with whom you share every personality trait or interest.  Unlike Sophie, Linnie is thrilled to be invited to participate in Girl’s Day with the Toguchi family, but first she and Jasmine needs to take responsibility for their own actions and to relate to each other’sfeelings.


As always, Elizabeth Vuković’s black and white drawings capture Jasmine’s emotions. When she opens a letter from her formerly best friend, Jasmine is wide-eyed with remorse at Linnie’s kindness. The numbered images of Jasmine and Linnie dressing in their kimonos according to the proper, complex order, portrays their excitement through outstretched arms and happy faces.  One of my favorite images shows kimono-clad Linnie, her back to the reader, observing the doll display, as a somewhat self-important Sophie points out the identities of each doll.  The doll display is a shadowy grey, while the girls are drawn in darker lines, making their interaction the center of the picture.

Debbi Michiko Florence includes an “Author’s Note,” providing brief and pertinent information about Japanese customs.  She chooses to explain exactly those aspects of Hina Matsuri that would be most intriguing to young readers, including the structure of the doll display and the details of traditional dress.  There are also instructions for making an origami doll.  Each book in the Jasmine Toguchi series sparks conversation and encourages readers to learn more.


Happy Birthday, Alice B. Toklas, A Little Early…

Happy Birthday, Alice Babette – Monica Kulling and Qin Leng, Groundwood Books, 2016

alice cover

It’s actually a little early to be wishing Gertrude Stein’s companion a happy birthday; she was born on April 20, 1877.  Gertrude, however, was born on February 3, 1874, so the day to celebrate the actual author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Stein herself) is coming up soon. It’s neither too early nor too late to celebrate a children’s picture book about the warm and caring relationship between these two independent women who enjoyed, in the words of a famous book about the era, “being geniuses together.”

Young readers who are unfamiliar with Stein’s inimitable cubist-inspired poems, or her mentoring friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso, will learn about Stein and Toklas’s devotion to one another, including Stein’s successful creation of a poem, and failed attempt at pineapple upside-down cake.

alice interior

Monica Kulling (I’ve written about other books by her here and here and here) describes the traditional elements of Stein and Toklas’s partnership: “Alice was the one who cooked and cleaned and typed and shopped.” Qin Leng’s image of Gertrude hunched over her work at a cluttered table, Alice placing one encouraging hand on the poet’s back while holding a cup of tea in the other, reinforces their division of labor. “Gertrude was a writer. She wrote mostly at night. During the day, she talked about writing or sat around thinking about it.”  Kulling has managed to allude to Stein’s writing style in her own words, without simply imitating it.  Yet Alice is not a downtrodden housewife.  She leaves Gertrude to celebrate her birthday by riding a carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens, enjoying a children’s puppet show, and having the chutzpah to apprehend a jewel thief by hitting him with her pocketbook.  When she returns home to find the wreckage of Gertrude’s cooking disaster, she is unperturbed, confident that everything her companion does will become Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Alice B. Toklas, A Little Early…”