Who Is in Control?

Aviva and Her Dybbuk – written by Mari Lowe
Levine Querido, 2022

In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a supernatural creature, the soul of a deceased person who has taken possession of an unfortunate human being.  There are many works of art and literature which explore this imaginatively rich premise.  In Mari Lowe’s new middle-grade novel, set in the Orthodox Jewish community, the ambiguous nature of one particular dybbuk becomes a vehicle for discussion grief and psychological vulnerability.  The novel is unusual for several reasons, offering a compelling look into the mind of a young girl, and her relationships with her mother, friends, and teachers. Lowe also looks at the dybbuk figure from a multidimensional perspective, suggesting how the interaction of an individual and her culture produce a specific emotional response to tragedy.

After the loss of her father, Aviva and her mother move to the small apartment at their synagogue. Her mother, formerly a teacher in a girls’ yeshiva, is suffering from depression and has given up her job. Instead, she now works as the mikvah (ritual bath) attendant for her community.  Lowe is unsparing in her portrait of the ravages of long-lasting grief.  Aviva’s mother is a loving, protective parent who is no longer able to be the person she once was.  Aviva’s peers have also become complicit, seeming to shut her out of their lives as she and her mother appear to have chosen, in some sense, their marginalized and lonely existence.  Adults at Aviva’s school try to help, but are unable to reach Aviva and her mother in their isolation.  Aviva is particularly hurt by her former best friend Kayla, who has turned her own frustration into the nasty behaviors for which preteen girls can sometimes be famous.  Yet Lowe does not need to redeem anyone here; her explanations for their choices evolve naturally out of the narrative.

Who is the dybbuk who is determined to disrupt lives in this small Jewish community? Readers will hypothesize before the novel’s conclusion. This is not a mystery, but there are facts, metaphors, and surprises in dialogue throughout Aviva’s story.  Lowe has created a fully realized world, one which will be completely familiar to some readers and strange to others. She does not offer a tutorial about an Orthodox subculture, with explanations of ritual and religious beliefs. Instead, these components are presented straightforwardly, making sense within the context of the novel. If there are gaps, readers who are curious may be motivated to learn more, but, even if they don’t, Aviva’s struggle to survive both grief and the attacks of a supernatural being hold together.  The antisemitism which forms an integral part of the plot should not be a surprise to anyone. If it is, then Lowe has also revealed a truth about Jewish life which is urgently needed.  

Although there is no explicitly feminist discussion of the Jewish laws of ritual purity for women, or of education segregated by sex, all the female characters are nuanced, believable, and in charge of their lives.  Lowe writes from within Orthodoxy, but at the same time, she expresses the perspective of an outsider.  Aviva and her mother are both deeply rooted in their community, and, at least temporarily, forced by circumstances to live on its periphery. Aviva vs. the Dybbuk opens the door to a part of the Jewish world often invisible in mainstream children’s fiction.  Like the dybbuk himself, Lowe’s novel may disrupt some assumptions and turn readers’ ideas in a new direction.

After the Big Bang, Who Am I?

Thingamabob – written and illustrated by Marianna Coppo
Tundra Books, 2022

Once you’ve seen some aspect of the world the way Marianna Coppo presents it, you won’t go back to seeing it the old way.  A light bulb, a rock, and now a shape-shifting product of imagination’s big bang, all become illuminated.  Just as a light bulb can experience the anxiety of change, and a seemingly inert rock can be a friend, things are not merely what they appear to be. Nor are thingamabobs. What are these flexible products of our imagination? 

Maybe a child in your life knows that the universe is the product of an explosion of sorts, known metaphorically as “the big bang.” Even if she doesn’t, she will understand that the people and objects on her life have to come from somewhere; once they arrive, they have a role.  But that role, even for a child herself, can become confusing. 

Sure, there are the nice, solid entities of Coppo’s delightful pictures: an elephant, a double helix, an origami crane. That last object had to have been developed in someone’s hands, while the first evolved according to Darwin’s theory. Then there are thingamabobs, strangely dynamic blobs that can’t seem to find their assigned place in the world. But is that a bad thing?

Careful composition, as in her other books, presents Coppo’s reader with a clearly defined space.  Dark font against a white background, and a limited color palette featuring the orange thingamabob, show how different he is from the gray and black figures surrounding him.  An uneasy chair, an awkward hat, a failed kite, an inadequately rounded basketball, even a question mark, express the problem of someone who just want to fit in somewhere. “What’s the use of this thingamabob?” readers are invited to ask.

Fortunately, he approaches a boy at a sandbox, and soon he is as malleable as sand, but more playful and animated.  A sphinx, a hula hoop, and a plane are just some of the possibilities of someone who, moments before, had been afraid that he was just the useless by-product of creation. 

Coppo shows a deep connection to the way children think, a quality she shares with best authors and artists for young readers.  When the thingamabob curls up to share a bedtime story with his new friend, the book they share is Coppo’s homage to Maurice Sendak, an unmatched example of the adult who remembers exactly what it meant to be a child.  Even without the book’s dedication, “To the square pegs,” we that that she identifies with everyone who was ever gratified to learn that “if you aren’t one thing, you can be anything.”

The Fight for Martin Luther King Jr. Day: A Foot Soldier’s Story

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day – written by Kathlyn J. Kirkwood, illustrated by Steffi Walthall
Versify, 2022

As we celebrate the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, Kathlyn J. Kirkwood’s memoir in verse offers a reminder that this acknowledgement of King’s legacy was far from inevitable. Like every other success of the movements for civil rights, it was the result of struggle, both collective and individual.  In the book’s foreword, author and activist Jacqueline Woodson pointedly describes the ignorance which surrounds so much of our history.  By rooting the story of King’s achievements and the day which commemorates them in her own personal connection to them, Kirkwood educates and inspires young readers.  She reaches them at their own level, never patronizing in tone, but understanding that they may open her book with little prior knowledge of the events which informed her choices.  Personal anecdotes, primary source documents, and carefully presented explanations of civics, all add up to an unforgettable story.

Kirkwood’s memoir begins in 1968, when the movement to win equal rights for Black Americans had been underway for some time.  The author is a high school student, reporting on the parallel celebrations in Memphis of the “whites only” Cotton Carnival, and the Cotton Makers Jubilee Parade for those excluded by race from the city event.  The casual cruelty of legally sanctioned racism is far from abstract in Kirkwood’s self-portrait. A young woman full of excitement and enthusiasm about her academic and social life is the same person who is increasingly motivated by anger and frustration.  She will turn both those parts of her character into a vehicle for change, and convince readers that she is not exceptional. They can do the same in their own lives.

The book teaches, not from a distance, but up close.  Kirkwood interpolates primary sources documents into her poetic narrative. When adults read the selection from King’s words about getting to the mountaintop but not arriving at the promised land, they will be filled with a sense of foreboding.  Kirkwood knows that young people may not share that historical context, but they will come to share it in her book.  When a young Kathlyn hears of King’s death, the drama is not invented. When she commits herself to activism and convinces her parents to allow her the freedom to demonstrate in spite of their fears, her words ring true. Kirkwood even includes the handwritten letter in cursive, pleading with her mother about this issue: “I guess if I don’t go I’ll never feel right.”

A crucial component of Kirkwood’s book is her emphasis on King’s complete vision of racial and economic progress for Black people and for all Americans who had been marginalized by the poverty.  King fought for the sanitation workers of Kirkwood’s city, and opposed the war in Vietnam.  He was vilified for his courageous stand on these issues, as he called for societal change in ways that threatened entrenched power.  Kirkwood lines encapsulate the endless obstacles that seemed to hold back change:

      No economic justice for the poor.

      No economic bill of rights

      for those seeking and needing to work,

      for those disabled and unable to work,

      for those needing fair and decent housing.

But not stopping there, she patiently explains the interaction between protests and the legislative processes that eventually brought victories, although so much remains to be changed.

In one section, entitled “My Life Was Full,” Kirkwood chronicles how even a career, marriage, and motherhood could not completely fulfill her vision for the future.  Instead of a linear process leading to success, her story admits the ups and downs of her mission, with the support of family, friends, teachers, and even Stevie Wonder.  Readers will share her rage at overtly racist members of Congress and her resounding “HALLELUJAH” when a bill is passed formalizing the new holiday.  She identifies herself, and everyone who worked for that goal, as “foot soldiers,” a crucial term of reference in this story of lesser-known individuals committed to making a difference through persistent action.

Steffi Walthall’s black and illustrations match the inventiveness of Kirkwood’s narration. Walthall creates starkly dramatic interpretations of Kirkwood’s personal story, and of events in the civil rights movement. Her use of shadow to emphasize character and setting captures the impact of every actor, from the picture of Kirkwood’s father at work in his barber shop, to the iconic image of National Guardsmen menacing striking sanitation workers. Guns with bayonets extend into the center of the scene, crossing the path of undeterred demonstrators bearing signs stating, “I am a man.” Walthall’s work is an inextricable part of the book’s impact.

The book includes extensive backmatter, making it perfect for use in the classroom, but also for discussion with parents and caregivers.  Not every foot soldier has either the gift or the inclination to tell her story; readers are fortunate that Kathlyn Kirkwood has told hers.

A Tiny Spark and the Poet Who Made It Immortal

Like a Diamond in the Sky: Jane Taylor’s Beloved Poem of Wonder and the Stars – written by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

How much do you really know about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?” How much do the children in your life know about it? A new picture book biography of British poet Jane Taylor (1783-1824) will answer questions which had never occurred to you.  Is this childhood poem a piece of folk art or the work of an individual?  Is it based in astronomy or fantasy? What social and political issues, including feminism, form part of its background?  The amount of information in the book is considerable, but what makes it amazing is the way in which Elizabeth Brown and Becca Stadtlander have integrated each component together in a beautifully woven web.  Like a Diamond in the Sky is a distinguished work of picture book art, and one which intuits how children learn.

Jane Taylor grew up in a creative and inquisitive family. The opening page establishes both the resources and the obstacles which defined her life:

          In the days when girls were taught to spin wool into yarn, set the table for tea,

          and smile and curtsy at the right times, Jane Taylor lived a different kind of

          childhood, schooled by nature and the stars.

In this short, poetic, introduction, Brown invite children to understand how and why her subject came to write “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She and her sister, Ann, explored nature, created their own books and sewed them together, and loved intellectual pursuits. Sound familiar? There are numerous echoes of the Brontë sisters here; adults will recognize them, and they may wish to explain to younger readers how familiar, in some ways, Taylor’s circumstances were.  Brown even points out that Jane and Ann sent out their work under pen names, because of common prejudice against female authors.  These allusions are part of the richness of Taylor’s story. She was both representative and exceptional, as is the beloved poem which most children will bring to the reading of this book.

Brown and Stadtlander depict the ordinary aspects of Taylor’s life: doing chores, singing, sharing meals with her family. But she also views the constellations in the night sky with her father, and recites literature at the table. She learned to love words by using them:

          the flow of the words as she ate breakfast,

          the art of the verses at midday lunch, and

          the beauty of language during dinner.

If Jane was a “bluestocking,” a woman suspected of inappropriately intellectual leanings, she was also sensitive to beauty, everywhere visible in her world. Her life is a lesson in dedication not just to observation of nature, but also to the power of language.  Brown emphasizes connections between these parts of Taylor’s character, negating any preconceptions about STEM vs. the arts.  Every page of the book reinforces the intersections in Taylor’s life: earning a living in the family business, studying science, writing books and printing them.  When she becomes discouraged, she persists. 

Stadtlander’s Victorian image of the young poet, in a long white gown, sitting by the window and gazing at the stars, signals frustration and longing. Taylor knows that women are capable of accomplishment in every field. She is ambitious, determined to convince publishers “that her words could shine as brightly on the page as any male poets’ could.” 

Finally, the reader is prepared to learn about how that famous star came to be.  In a lyrical, but also accessible, passage, Taylor meditates on what she hopes to achieve. Her poem will have a musical rhythm, it will be based on her family’s immersion in nature, and it will unite scientific observation and literature.  Completing the picture of a creative and learned woman, author and artist end with a scene of Taylor in old age, still observing, and still writing. The book’s backmatter is thorough and user-friendly, including further biographical information, quotes and sources used in the book, a timeline, and an extensive bibliography. Of course, there is also the score for the poem’s musical setting, and the complete text of “The Star,” by Jane Taylor.  Travelers  in the dark about the poet’s life can now find their way.

Toy Stories

Four Dolls: Impunity Jane, The Fairy Doll, The Story of Holly and Ivy, Candy Floss – written by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Pauline Baynes
Greenwillow Books, 1983

Rumer Godden, an author of books for both children and adults, has had a resounding influence on all modern doll fiction, from Ann M. Martin’s The Doll People, to Rebecca Caudill’s The Best-Loved Doll to Sara O’Leary’s Gemma and the Giant Girl. In 1983, four of her best-known short novels were collected in one volume; the original books were published between 1955-1960.  Each story reenacts the central dramas of all her doll works.  Dolls cannot truly come to life unless a child understands and communicates with them.  Dolls have positive magical effects on children’s inner lives, but toys can also be malicious and destructive.  Girls are often the principal actors in dolls’ lives. However, sometimes boys can participate, too.

Impunity Jane is a dollhouse-sized doll who has earned her name by virtue of her sturdiness. She can apparently be dropped anywhere and still not break. (It’s unlikely that a doll would be given a name, derived from a noun which would be unknown to almost all readers, anything like this today!). The book spans the years from the turn of the twentieth century to the earlier decades of television, although Pauline Baynes’s drawings of children in flared pants seem to bring the stories into the nineteen-seventies or eighties. Several artists have illustrated the original editions of these books; I find these to be somewhat dissonant, a little bit modern, for the tone of the stories, but this is subjective. 

Generations of girls, all with names beginning with “E,” have owned Jane and her dollhouse, but when Ellen inherits Jane, things don’t seem to go well. Ellen clearly lacks the gift of doll-person communication: “Dolls, or course, cannot talk.  They can only make wishes that some people can fee.”  Ellen is not one of those people. Godden isn’t particularly judgmental about this fact.  But when Ellen’s male cousin, Gideon, arrives, it becomes clear that playing with dolls is not exclusively a feminine domain. 

Sadly, and perhaps unbelievable from the perspective of some child readers today, Gideon is terrified that if a tough gang of boys find out that he carries a doll in his pocket, they will label him a “sissy.”  Gideon has stolen the doll from his cousin, and his conscience plagues him.  Ironically, there is nothing stereotypically “feminine” about Gideon’s pursuits. The contents of his pocket, a slimy snail, some string, a cork, pencil, and sweets, are assuredly boys’ playthings of his era.  (The cork would be really puzzling today.). Eventually, Gideon’s moral panic is resolved when Ellen decides to deaccession her toys before going off to boarding school. I felt a little sad, and wondered if she would regret her decision, but her possible loss is Gideon’s game.  Meanwhile, he has convinced the insecure male crew that Jane is not a doll, but a “model,” to be used in trains and boats.  Godden was ahead of her time, even if not all of her characters could be.

In The Fairy Doll, Elizabeth is the youngest of four children, and she is treated by her siblings, and even her teacher, in a way which now be considered verbally abusive. Elizabeth is small for her age, and has difficulty learning and with developmental tasks, such as riding a bicycle. Yet she does have the gift of doll communication, a fact which is recognized by her great-grandmother. (It’s interesting that Godden chose this relationship, rather than the more common one with a grandmother.)  The Fairy Doll which sits atop her family’s Christmas tree eventually helps Elizabeth to develop self-confidence. Much like Dorothy’s friends in The Wizard of Oz, just the recognition of her frailty and her good qualities is enough to resolve the problem.  One object in the story is a cedar chest, which doubles as storage for Christmas items and the location for behavioral time-outs, leading to some interesting twists. This book also includes the dramatic “toy-which-goes-missing-but is eventually-found” subplot.  It’s wonderful to experience Elizabeth’s triumph, after she has been called “a perfect duffer,” by her brother, a “careless little idiot,” by a sister, and “a stupid child” by her teacher. Thank goodness for her great-grandmother.

The Story of Holly and Ivy has been enshrined as Christmas classic. It is also an orphan story, featuring a little girl wandering astray during the holiday break from orphanage. (The orphanage administration, although somewhat insensitive, is not nearly so nasty as Elizabeth’s own family in The Fairy Doll.)  Ivy, the orphan, eventually finds Holly, the orphan doll, and even a human family to care for her.  The villain in the story is Abracadabra, a dreadful toy owl, who taunts the unadopted toys in Mr. Blossom’s toy shop, eventually landing where he belongs, in the trash.  The owl is something like Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear in the Toy Story movies, although he does little to conceal his malicious personality.  He has shiny eyes which, reflecting the light from a car outside the window, cause the shop attendant to fall off a ladder. Even with all its clichés, the story is beautiful. (The edition from 2006 has wonderfully matched illustrations by Barbara Cooney.) Godden’s style is so unaffected and in tune with children’s hopes and fears, that the book is unforgettable.

Candy Floss returns to Godden’s view of gender. The owner of a coconut shed at a traveling fair, Jack, is also a person who empathizes with dolls and toys.  He is a lot tougher than Gideon, making it less probable that he would care at all about not conforming to oppressive gender norms. Yet he does, insisting that the doll, Candy Floss, along with a toy horse and his real dog, Cocoa, are “partners” in his enterprise. Candy Floss brings irreplaceable good luck. When Clementina Davenport, the perfectly named poor-little-rich girl, decides that she wants the one thing which she cannot have, she steals, and damages, Jack’s doll.  Not only is Candy Floss eventually returned and repaired, but Clementina learns her lesson, even in class-bound British society of the day.  As with Holly and Ivy, Godden makes this all believable, if Jack as a character is somewhat less compelling than Ivy, Holly, or the kindly police officer and his wife who adopt both girl and doll.  It’s not that these books haven’t aged, but rather that they still continue to cast a spell on readers. Not the terrible spell of Abracadabra’s glittery eyes, but the one about lonely children , even young adults, and the solace of toys.

Babar, Je t’aime

Babar and the Professor – written and illustrated by Laurent de Brunhoff
Random House, 1957 (translated from the French edition of 1956)

Babar and Father Christmas – written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff
Random House, 1940

While there are stylistic differences between the original Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff (1899-1937) and his son, Laurent, (b. 1925), I love the works by both père et fils. Some are long out-of-print, and are not necessarily in tune with the presumed attention span of today’s readers.  Most of them are of irreplaceable beauty, and still lots of fun.  In Babar and the Professor, the elephant king’s mentor and mother figure, the old lady, pays a visit with her brother, Professor Grifaton, a kindly and distinguished academic who seems to specialize in butterflies.  The pictures are splendid scenes of Babar’s fantasy world, where animals play human roles in a society where everyone has a specific niche and is well-respected for fulfilling it.  (My edition has the text in script, the original format of the series.)

The plot involves several mishaps and near-disasters, with a reward at the end. The considerate old lady arrives with presents for Babar’s children, Pom, Flora, and Alexander. But the professor also has children, Nadine and Colin, and the combined families create some imaginative if risky events.  There is a tea party with eclairs in a cave, and a medieval fair with costumes, but Alexander also falls into a tunnel. Fortunately, the well-trained adult elephants take control of the situation and turn it into a productive day: “…and you, my dear Professor, should consult with my friend Podular, the sculptor. Exploring caves is his hobby.” The expedition also includes Dr. Capoulosse and Olur, the mechanic.  There is an incredible two-page spread of elephants, outfitted with illuminated helmets, rowing through the cave on inflatable rafts.

For children who are mechanically minded, there is a diagram of an excursion steamer, its cutaway interior carefully labeled. From the captain’s cabin to the ballroom and kitchen, it is well-appointed. The book concludes with a scene of transitions.  Babar and Celeste award Professor Grifaton a medal as Benefactor of Celesteville. Meanwhile, “The children, in their pajamas, watch the proceedings over television.”

Babar and Father Christmas was published after Jean’s untimely death.  According to the introductory section by Maurice Sendak (!) of the collection Babar’s Anniversary Album, Laurent colored some of the original unfinished black-and-white pictures.  Babar’s children, along with their cousin, Arthur, and their monkey friend Zéphir, eagerly compose a list of toys they would like for Christmas.  When they don’t receive a reply to their carefully written letter, Babar wonders why Father Christmas doesn’t visit his country, so he sets off for Europe in order to meet the benevolent figure directly. There have been many critiques of the Babar books as colonialist texts in which Babar and Celesteville need to be civilized through contact with European culture.  I guess this book won’t persuade people otherwise. 

Babar locates a charming hotel, using it as a base for his search.  Everyone is helpful, from some resident mice, to an artist’s model named Lazzaro Caompeotti, to a professor who tries to decode Gothic script.   Babar, attired for the cold of winter, rides in a sled and travels by skis in locations that recall the Alps. The title page of the book pictures their encounter.  Babar is wearing an elegant blue and white robe; Father Christmas is dressed in red. Both are smoking pipes. A small table seems to hold both tea and, perhaps, a bottle of sherry.

Similar to the ship diagram in Babar and the Professor, there is a detailed floor plan, this time of Father Christmas’s home and workspace. Instead of labels, there is a caption in small font explaining the building, which includes rooms for toys, dolls, tin soldiers, toy guns (!), and the “dwarfs’ dormitories.”  By the story’s end, Babar has ensured a happy future for the children of Celesteville.  The incomparable Babar books are timeless.

Bears in the City

When You Meet a Bear on Broadway – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Elivia Savadier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

Sometimes one book, or one work of art from other media, reminds you of another. A while back, I compared the lovely picture book Snow Sisters, by Kerri Kokias and Teagan White, to the A.A. Milne poem, “Twice Times,” about two dissimilar bears who appear to switch roles. I still sometimes notice visitors to my blog who found the post through an A.A. Milne search.  Today I am writing about one of my favorite authors in the world, Amy Hest, whose charming story with an urban setting also sends me back to Winnie the Pooh’s creator.

In A.A. Milne’s “Lines and Squares,” the city is London, and the narrator is a little boy who casually explains the careful system for avoiding the predators lurking on the streets of his home.  Obviously, taking care not to avoid both lines and squares is the best way to avoid the fate of those oblivious children who are unaware of the dangers lurking: “And the little bears growl to each other, ‘He’s mine,/As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.’”  In Amy Hest (I’ve reviewed her here and here and here and here, and interviewed her here) and Elivia Savadier’s (my first review of her work, and I hope not the last) When You Meet a Bear on Broadway, the city on New York, and the narrator’s goal is not avoiding danger, but rather locating a young bear’s missing mother.  In addition to the most direct link of city plus bears, there is the matter-of-fact instructional tone.  From a child’s perspective, the way in which she sees the world makes perfect sense, even if adults seem to miss that fact. 

The girl is confident and direct, with a little bit of the knowingness of Kay Thompson’s Eloise, without her obnoxious personality. She first appears in a bright blue coat, striped tights and a jaunty beret, holding out her hand to make sure that she is in control of the situation: “’Stop there, Little Bear.’/And he will. Stop. Immediately.  (To your great relief.)”. We soon learn that the girl is quite maternal, and truly concerned about her lost animal friend. 

The walk through the city, uptown and downtown, past doormen at luxury apartment buildings, pizza and bookstores, and the banks of the Hudson or possibly the East River.  Children, who otherwise often feel small and vulnerable, may feel proudly grownup when they help someone even smaller. As she always does, Hest shows her deep ability to empathize with children and to capture their thoughts and speech.  Once the bear has been safely reunited with her elusive mother, the little girl needs to run home to her own: “Now run! RUN! RUN!/On the wings of the wind. All the way home.” 

Each clause is equally important and builds to the crucial conclusion, which is to narrate the day’s events, “To tell your mama everything/that happened on this crispy-cold day.”  You can be sure that her mother will believe everything.  I’m not as sure about the young Londoner whose mother we never meet. He seems satisfied to call out, “Bears,/Just watch me walking in all the squares!”  Hest’s New York City girl needs to share her story. That’s the point.

And you should share it, too.

George and Godbout: More from a Perfect Team

Merry Christmas, Anne – written by Kallie George, illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
Tundra Books, 2021

When it comes to children’s books, there’s the concept and the execution.  Illustrated, edited, or adapted versions of classics may be a controversial proposition, but Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout’s reimagined Anne of Green Gables would win over any skeptics.  (The same applies to the illustrated chapter books by Kallie George and Abigail Halpin, also from Tundra Books.) Whether or not young readers eventually find L.M. Montgomery’s books, and it would be a terrible shame if they didn’t, these parallel stories stand on their own as beautiful, engaging, and sensitive homages to the originals. 

George’s text is both playful and poetic, showing deep respect for children’s ability to understand metaphor: “I’m so thankful for many things,/feathery frosts and silvery seas/and wreaths as round as the moon.” Anne and her bosom friend, Diana, are both Avonlea residents eagerly awaiting the Christmas holiday, and also the incarnation of Anne’s admiration of fairies. 

After all, this is the best season for a leap between the real world and the fairy realm: “Oh, Winter, you make the world dream/as much as I do.” If anyone doubts that she meets the requirement to transform herself into a fairy, Anne will not be dissuaded. She gazes into the mirror with a wreath crowning her red hair, as wild as the roses decorating this ornament.  Readers face the mirror, and see Diana in the background, sharing their perspective on Anne’s theatrical nature.

Godbout’s delicate pastel and colored pencil images are perfect for the incredible picture of a fairy feast.  As in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, a diminutive Anne and Diana appear on the table, surrounded by a gravy boat, centerpiece, and roasted goose for the Christmas meal.  Anne looks the more ethereal of the two, seated next to a sprig of holly, while the more practical Diana seems to be serving a small item of food.  It’s a bold choice to combine anecdotes from the novel with elaborations of new possibilities, like Anne and Diana’s fairy transformation.  We are still grounded in the world of L.M. Montgomery, as Anne and her friends perform in a grand theatrical success.

When Anne, Matthew, and Marilla return to Green Gables in a horse-drawn sleigh, the nighttime image of silhouettes against the snow evokes comfort without sentimentality. A dark night sky, white snow, and the dominant tone of blue-black capture Anne’s world perfectly.  An imaginative and independent girl who defies convention and yet longs for stable attachments to friends and family, Anne embraces Christmas with the same intensity as her other experiences, both real and imagined.  The deceptive simplicity of George and Godbout’s vision is actually a loving rendition of childhood, in all its contradictions. 

A New Spin on the Dreidel Song

I Have a Little Dreidel – written by Maxie Baum, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Scholastic, 2006

The book is not new, but the interpretation of the beloved, if repetitive, Chanukah song is.  If you thought it was a folk song, it is not. Even though the song is relatively recent, dating from the 20th century, its ubiquitous presence makes it seem ancient.  In I Have a Little Dreidel, gorgeous folk art-inspired pictures by Julie Paschkis, which accompany the original lyrics, and additional words by Maxie Baum, make this one of the most distinctive Chanukah children’s books I have seen. 

Yes, I know that some parents might find the song irritating, especially when repeated by children, either spontaneously or in an official school production, but there is a reason these lyrics are so popular!  They celebrate an entertaining tradition whose roots have been debated, but which has evolved into a symbol of joy and purpose-free play.  Baum makes the song into one about family, retaining the same lilting rhyme scheme. Some of her choices break the rhythm slightly: “We’re going to make some latkes/Because it’s so much fun,” or “Because we celebrate/the victory of the Maccabees.” Since children naturally do that when repeating nursery rhymes or songs, it works in this child-centered book.

The real innovation here is the artwork.  Paschkis is inspired by folk art and fabric design.  A blue and white background frames the lyrics, with motifs, such as the hamsa hand, the chanukiya (Chanukah menorah), and elements from nature. These images also recall traditional Jewish paper cutting.  Pictures of family members are both realistic and stylized: Mom with her dark curly hair, aged grandparents, children dancing and spinning the dreidel.  The composition of the pictures draws the reader’s eye to multiple activities without being visually overwhelming.  In the same scene, some people are presented in profile, others facing the reader, and still others only partially visible (the grandparents’ feet in their cozy slippers).  In the center of the book, a two-page spread reveals a glorious gold chanukiya, as one white-sleeved hand lights the eighth candle.

If you’ve forgotten how to make potato latkes, or the rules for playing dreidel, both are included at the end of the book.  Latkes, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), are a nice accompaniment but are not necessary for enjoyment of this artistically sophisticated love poem to the holiday of Chanukah. 

Time for Julie Morstad

Time is a Flower – written and illustrated by Julie Morstad
Tundra Books, 2021

Readers of my blog know that Julie Morstad is one of my favorite illustrators. Whether she collaborates with an author or, as in Time Is a Flower, accompanies her own text, her work has a distinctive vision.  The dream-like contemplation of time’s passage in her latest book may be linked to other Morstad explorations of childhood, but here she draws a bigger picture of individual children thinking about the cosmos.

The book is full of unaffected poetry. What is time? A ticking cuckoo clock, a seed sleeping in the darkness, a beautiful flower losing its petals.  Children visualize time in different images.  Scale is important, too, and Morstad’s comparison of a growing child to a growing tree takes the long view.

There are pages of spare words against an empty white background, and Morstad shows respect for children’s intelligence in offering these images.  The earth’s rotation, creating day and night, means that a child in one location is exchanging perspectives with his counterpart somewhere else.

Many of Morstad’s books reflect the continuity between children and the adults they will become, and also show a breadth of cultures. One two-page spread of drawings rendered as photographs illustrates how “Time is a memory/captured long ago/in a tiny part of a second.” The pictures take this philosophical statement and make it concrete, depicting a Japanese mother and children, a couple in a photo booth, a girl at the foot of a mountain, and a woman braiding a child’s hair.  Everyone is different and we’re all the same, the sum “of all the seconds that ever happened.”  There are scenes in black and white, pink interiors, yellow sun, a white moon. One scene at the seashore typifies Morstad’s subtle and inventive use of color. We may be accustomed to blue water, yellow sand, and, perhaps, pink clouds, but her pictures’ composition always make us see these choices from a new perspective.  Nothing is extraneous in any scene.

Family relationships also have a special imprint in Morstad’s work.  A father reading to his children highlights his focus on the book as well as the way everyone is embracing a moment of quiet comfort.  The brightest colors in the scene are the invented books, just like in a story by Jorge Luis Borges: The Lonely Ant by Mahalia Mae Stanley, and a small volume about a dog named Minty. Is this a joke or lovely tribute to the potential world of children’s books? I think it’s the latter.  Time Is a Flower is another elegant production from Julie Morstad’s endless imagination.