When Anne Arrives, Make Sure You’re There

Anne Arrives (Inspired by Anne of Green Gables) – Kallie George and Abigail Halpin, Tundra Books, 2018


How old must a child be to meet Anne of Green Gables?  This is the Year at Anne at Canada’s Tundra Books, but they have been introducing Anne for a long time.  In 2014 there were beautiful hardcover editions of L.M. Montgomery’s books with elegant lettering, floral endpapers, and ribbon markers.  That same year Tundra released a paperback edition with original cover art by Elly MacKay, the author and illustrator of many acclaimed picture books. Earlier this year, Tundra gave us Kelly Hill’s board books with illustrations created in fabric and embroidery. Next week I will write about the new picture book Goodnight, Anne, also by Kallie George, and illustrator Geneviève Godbout.

Now we have the first volume of Anne’s saga for middle grade readers old enough to follow the plot and develop an enduring attachment to Montgomery’s characters.  Anne Arrives begins with the red-haired orphan’s surprising appearance at siblings Matthew and Marilla’s farm, and concludes as she resolves her conflict with intrusive neighbor Rachel Lynde, a woman who had mocked Anne’s appearance, and well-deserved our heroine’s  courageous expression of anger: “How dare you. You are a rude, unfeeling woman!” No wonder we love her.

Kallie George and Abigail Halpin’s new book is a distinguished collaboration, where words and pictures, as well as careful design by Jennifer Griffiths, work together to draw readers into Anne’s world.  The text is limited in length, but George’s language is relatively sophisticated. She accomplishes the difficult task of capturing Montgomery’s literary style by interweaving selections from the original novel into clear and accessible sentences.  Here is George’s version of Anne’s sincere if dramatic apology to Rachel Lynde:

“When they arrived, Anne threw herself down on her knees.  ‘Oh, dear Mrs. Lynde, I could never express how sorry I am. Not even if I used a whole dictionary.  Mrs. Lynde, please, please, please, forgive me.  If you refuse, it will be another one of my lifelong sorrows.”

Here is L.M. Montgomery’s abridged recital of Anne’s remorse:

“’Oh, Mrs. Lynde, I am so extremely sorry,…I could never express all my sorrow, not if I used up a whole dictionary…I’m a dreadfully wicked and ungrateful girl, and I deserve to be punished and cast out by respectable people forever…If you refuse it will be a lifelong sorrow to me.  You wouldn’t like to inflict a lifelong sorrow on a poor little orphan girl, even if she had a dreadful temper?”


Halpin’s pictures in colored pencil and watercolor are completely new interpretations of Anne’s world. Each one stands alone as a dramatic moment in Anne’s story, while in sequence they build together, along with the text, to ensure the reader’s involvement. Some pictures accompany a facing page of text; others are two-page spreads.  Some are partial portraits placed against a white background, while others the pages with color.  Earth and jewel tones predominate, with dark green fields, deep-red roses, and an occasional white dress or apron. Young readers may not stop to think about their immersion in this gorgeous palette, but adults will.  Facial features have a deceptive simplicity, but their broad smiles or despairing frowns will help kids to empathize with Anne and the other characters.  In one two page spread, an angry Anne has been sent to her room. She sits propped against pillows, on a bed so high that she might be an unlucky princess in a fairy-tale. Each surrounding object is as solitary as she is at this moment: a pair of boots on the floor, a single chair in the corner, her hat stuck on a bed post. How many ways can you illustrate loneliness?

Anne Arrives is an outstanding addition to Anne of Green Gables literature, for anyone old enough to turn pages. Make sure to be there when Anne arrives.




Grandpa Knows Best

The Magician’s Secret – Zachary Hyman and Joe Bluhm, Tundra Books, 2018


Who is going to teach you about the value of imagination if not your grandparents? Then again, who is going to obsessively protect your physical and emotional well-being? The same people!  The grandfather in Zachary Hyman and Joe Bluhm’s The Magician’s Secret shares a secret world with his grandson, Charlie, one where an hourglass is filled with sand from King Tut’s tomb and an old scarf flew around the neck of the Red Baron. Charlie’s father dismisses Grandpa’s thrilling accounts as “just tall tales…He just imagines all those things.” Whom should Charlie believe?

Hyman is best known as a star player for the Toronto Maples Leafs, but he has also authored several children’s books that emphasize the role of parents and grandparents in encouraging kids to have dreams.  Illustrator Joe Bluhm, co-illustrator with William Joyce of the acclaimed The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, again brings his animation-influenced style to the essential role of imagination in enriching children’s lives.  The distinctive edge to The Magician’s Secret is its admission that fantasy and lies are related and that children, and adults, may struggle with the tension between simply telling the truth and embroidering it with unbelievable but hopeful details.


On the book’s opening page Charlie’s mother and father cheerfully say goodbye as they go out for the evening, no doubt for some mundane event such as dinner in a restaurant.  Charlie is staying with Grandpa, requiring the mother’s request in a resigned tone, “Dad, please make sure he get to bed early this time…No more hocus-pocus!” The action ensures in sepia-toned pictures and darker brown backgrounds, punctuated by occasional bright colors, emphasizing the exciting and old-fashioned nature of Grandpa’s improbable escapades.  Depending on the age of the reader, as well as her predisposition towards fantasy or plan facts, she may follow along with tomb raiders, flying aces, and marauding dinosaurs, or stop to ask herself if this as not too good to be true. Charlie wants to believe; the sadness provoked by his own doubts is made clear in text and pictures.  Continue reading “Grandpa Knows Best”

Girl Makes Monster

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein – Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà, Tundra Books, 2018


It was a dark and stormy night when eighteen- year old Mary Shelley conceived the idea for a ghost story about a tragic being, assembled from body parts.  Dr. Frankenstein’s monster became a literary sensation, and a still relevant commentary on what can happen when technology outpaces morality. In this bicentennial year of her novel’s publication, Tundra books has released Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà’s engaging and accessible picture book introduction to Shelley’s genius. Bailey’s text manages to place Shelley in the context of her own time, as well as of feminist empowerment of girls who go against the grain.  Sardà’s rich and mysterious pictures are the perfect vehicle for drawing young readers into Shelley’s world.

Bailey’s tone is conversational, as if she were sitting down with a child and explaining to her how tough it was to be Mary Shelley, and how the author inherited a bold skepticism from both her parents. Unfortunately, her mother, the pioneering advocate for women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after Mary was born.  Her father, radical philosopher William Godwin, was less than enlightened when it came to supporting his daughter’s independence.  Bailey builds her narrative about the importance of freedom for women without moralizing.  “By the time she’s fourteen, she has become a Big Problem.” What independent girl can’t relate to that, even if she didn’t grow up, as Mary did, listening to Coleridge recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in her living room?

Mary Shelley’s participation in a ghost story writing competition with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, is the stuff of legend.  Bailey turns it into one about female persistence. As Shelley and Byron nag her to reveal her idea, they lose interest: “Shelley and Byron get bored. They stop writing stories. They start to plan a sailing tour around the lake instead.” Mary, on the other hand, has been listening more than talking. She decides to incorporate what she has heard about new scientific discoveries to integrate the experiments of the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani into her terrifying tale.  An excellent “Author’s Note” provides more information about the background and genesis of Shelley’s novel.

Julia Sardà’s illustrations are as lugubrious as Frankenstein itself, but also witty and allusive.  The major characters first appear, labelled, on a two-page spread.

Continue reading “Girl Makes Monster”

Rosh Hashanah: “Some Days Sunglasses, Some Days Sweaters”

New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story – April Halprin Wayland and Stéphane Jorisch, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009


Izzy’s description of the fall weather when the Jewish New Year falls might also be a statement about the holiday itself.  New Year at the Pier follows Izzy’s thoughts and actions as he prepares to celebrate the New Year with his family and friends, culminating in an enthusiastic community’s participation in Tashlich. This ceremony, generally performed on the first day of the two-day festival, involves casting off bad deeds and resolving to do better; a common custom is to symbolically toss pieces of bread into a body of running water.  Izzy has plenty to feel sorry about, including revealing a friend’s embarrassing secret and drawing on his sister’s forehead.  The book emphasizes the universal experience of regret, as well as an intergenerational approach to acknowledging it.

The book’s setting is less than universal.  It is a picturesque pier in what may be April Halprin Wayland‘s home of Los Angeles.  The bread throwers include smiling Rabbi Neil, dressed in striped pants, a bright red and white scarf and what looks like an L.L Bean barn coat as he blows the shofar (ram’s horn) to call attention to the ceremony. (Blowing the shofar is not commonly incorporated into this event, but there are certainly congregations that include it.) Cantor Livia plays this guitar, while small boats and a buoy bob in the water. One of Izzy’s sins was apparently having broken his older neighbor’s Mrs. Bickerson’s drum, apparently the contemporary California version of a kid breaking a window with his baseball.  If you are not Jewish, this book is a lovely and heartfelt introduction to the Jewish approach to repentance and forgiveness, albeit in a decidedly accessible and nontraditional version. If you are of a more traditional Jewish background, it may not resonate with you.

The sincerity of Izzy’s words matches the kindness and respect of the adults in his life.  Izzy is surprised when his mother expresses remorse for that typical adult sin, being on the phone when he wants to play with her.

OTS new year at the pier int.indd

Stéphane Jorisch’s pictures definitely downplay solemnity and play up joy. In one two-page spread we see a virtual parade of adults and kids walking across the pier; many are turning and waving to the reader.  If the images seem familiar, it is because the illustrator’s style is easily recognized.  People have broad faces, wide-set eyes, and full lips, as if they were all related.  In a sense, they are, in the same human family that includes Suki’s Kimono, about a Japanese-American girl and her insistence on bringing her grandmother’s customs to school with her.

The last page of the book is sweet and familiar. We see mom, Izzy, and his sister Miriam from the back, as they embrace, leaving the ceremony of Tashlich with “clean, wide-open hearts.”  Shana Tova/Happy New Year.




Leaving Japan, Feeling at Home

Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms – Robert Paul Weston and Misa Saburi, Tundra Books, 2018


There is a Japanese aesthetic and philosophy known as mono no aware, which translates approximately as “the sadness of things.” Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms is a child-size version of this acknowledgement that all the things that fill life, and life itself, are impermanent.  Robert Paul Weston and Misa Saburi have created a picture book about a little girl leaving her home to find a new one, and it is infused with this belief, in an utterly unaffected way. While the language seems simple and unassuming, Weston has actually composed the story as tanka, a Japanese verse form somewhat less familiar in the west than haiku. While haiku have, in translation, three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, tanka follows those lines with two more of seven syllables each.  If you are not familiar with the form, or too engrossed in Sakura’s experience to notice it, an afterword explains the form, and encourages readers to try writing in it.

Sakura lives in Japan and has a close relationship with Obaachan, her grandmother.  Saburi depicts their bond in two initial pictures. In the first, they sit on a blanket under a cherry tree, Obaachan in a kimono, and a cane at her side reminding the reader of her age, and therefore, relative frailty.  Her legs are folded under her, and her geta, (shoes), are on the grass. Sakura’s western style shoes are also on the grass, and she is sitting as any child might, her legs sticking out.  Slanted black lines around her eyes and face also indicate Obaachan’s age.


The next page continues to illustrate their relationship, although they do not appear. Instead, Saburi shows only their empty shoes, and a close-up of their picnic food, including an artfully arranged bento, or box lunch.  The tanka relates the deep bond between grandmother and grandchild, which can no more last forever than the cherry blossoms shading them:

“Together they sat
in the shade of pink petals
watching them flutter.

They ate bento box lunches.
They told each other stories.”

Sakura’s father’s job takes them to live in America, where Sakura is lonely.  A picture of her in front of her new school, a monumental building attended by grey silhouettes of students, shows Sakura as a purple figure with a long purple shadow.  In the sky, the clouds form white shoes, and an animal shape that she now learns is no longer a neko, but a cat.  One consolation is Sakura’s developing friendship with a quiet and sensitive boy named Luke, who loves astronomy, and even understands that stars, like cherry blossoms, are both temporary and beautiful:  “they fade, so we treasure them/because one day they vanish.”

The most difficult part of the book is the illness, and implicit death, of Obaachan. Continue reading “Leaving Japan, Feeling at Home”

Payday on the Prairie

By the Shores of Silver Lake – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (first published 1939)


In the fifth volume of the Little House series, Laura learns more about the potential dangers lurking as she and her family continue their frequent moves in search of a home (see earlier essays here and here and here and here). They have left the relative calm of Plum Creek, moving to the Dakotas.  Mary has become blind as a result of scarlet fever. There is a new baby, Grace.  Both Mary’s disability and the appearance of a new child are described only in retrospect.  The book ends with a murder, forcing the family to hastily leave their temporary home in town and set up house in a small shanty on the homestead that Pa has only recently claimed.  Little Grace runs off, causing panic in the family, until Laura finds her in a buffalo wallow, or, as Laura prefers to think of it, a fairy ring.  Pa explains to her that the buffalo used to “paw up the ground and wallow in the dust,” before they were exploited to the point of extinction. In fact, earlier in the book, the desolation of the land is compared to the loss of these animals, long an essential part of the Native American economy and culture: “Only a little while before the vast herds of thousands of buffaloes had grazed over this country.  They had been the Indians’ cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all.”


Pa isn’t working the land anymore. Instead, he has temporarily taken a clerical job on the expanding western railroad.  His duties include keeping records and paying the workers their due. Disputes over pay were common, as the men could hardly afford any delays in their compensation.  “As Pa went back to the store, Laura saw the handle of his revolver showing from his hip pocket.” One night, the men pound on the door and threaten Pa, who models self-control and calculation to a terrified Laura, listening from inside.  She is desperate to help her father, but her mother forbids her.  Ingalls Wilder describes Laura’s anger with a paradoxical phrase: “’Let me go, they’ll hurt Pa!’ Laura screamed in a whisper.”

Continue reading “Payday on the Prairie”

I Love You, Je t’aime, Ti Amo/Mom, Maman, Mamma

My Mom is a Foreigner, But Not to Me – Julianne Moore and Meilo So, Chronicle Books, 2013


The title of this book is a little matter-of-fact, a little defiant.  Actress Julianne Moore, author of the popular Freckleface Strawberry series, and prolific illustrator Meilo So, have collaborated on an homage to motherhood in all its diversity and all its sameness.  The underlying political message of embracing immigrants is implicit; it never interferes with the child’s ambivalent perspective. Her mom can seem “weird,” “not cool,” “crazy,” but Moore and Meilo makes it clear that it is really those who are suspicious of mom’s special attributes who are strange and obtuse.  However much an immigrant mother may need help with acculturation, she is an expert at what matters:

“There are SOME things I don’t tell her,
Because she already knows,
Like how she should take care of me,
From my head down to my toes.”

So why even remark on her mother’s difference?  In unobtrusive and natural rhymes, and celebratory images, Moore and Lo express empathy for kids whose moms are weird. The food they force on their reluctant offspring can seem “gross,” the endearing nicknames in different languages are unintelligible, and the special festive clothing she treasures is “weird.”  None of these observations are disrespectful or cruel.  Any frustration children feel is offset by attachment to the wonderful, strong, figures in this book.  “She teaches me to read/She sings when I am sad/She listens to my stories/And hugs me when I’m mad.” Each one of those essential jobs are printed in different font, accompanied by moms of different races and ethnicities, some different from their own children.


The pictures are absolutely wonderful. They use bright colors, and combine intricate detail with broad strokes and sometimes exaggerated expressions. They are realistic and, at the same time, idealized portrayals of a mother’s love. One two-page spread shows an elderly grandmother hunched over a cutting board in the kitchen, while a mom in colorful dress and jewelry raises her hands in what might be song. A swirl of green ribbon extruded from a pasta maker extends to float over the mother’s head.  Meanwhile, a little girl holds her nose, presumably at the array of cheese in front of her.  A beautifully carved cabinet holds candlesticks and a simple bowl of three symmetrically placed pears, and the window overlooks a busy street scene.  There is so much going on in each picture, because mothers are incessantly busy performing the world’s most important job.

I was surprised to read a negative evaluation on Kirkus Reviews. I am as skeptical of celebrity-authored children’s books as the next reviewer, maybe more so, but I found their problems with this one to be puzzling.  The reviewer calls the text’s rhyme “amateurish,” and complains of the changing typefaces and images of mothers from many different parts of the world in quick succession. That is the point of the book.  Publishers Weekly makes a similar complaint about the book’s poetry, noting that “the meter is inconsistent and many rhymes are slant.” Are we only to allow end rhymes and quatrains, or poems that resemble nursery rhymes, in books for children?  I thought the rhymes, the changing font, and, most of all, the beautiful range of mothers, some of whom elude conservative standards of beauty.  My Mom is a Foreigner is for every child, since every mom is sometimes “weird, crazy, not cool.”  Children and parents will both recognize themselves in this lovely book.


The Elephant in the Room: Pachyderm Meets Armored Vehicle

Tilly and Tank– Jay Fleck, Tundra Books, 2018


Tilly and Tank reminds me of Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s Ferdinand. The gentle bull who has no interest in fighting, but only wants to sit in a field of flowers, seems to have been a bit of an inspiration to author and illustrator Jay Fleck.  Tilly is an innocent elephant who, seeing Tank, believes him to be a fellow member of his own species.  After all, “It had a trunk and a tail, just like she did.”  Then again, this creature is green, not a typical shade for elephants.  The defensive tank is ready to respond to an attack as he pictures Tilly in the crosshairs.  Given the soft colors and simple text, you just know this story isn’t going to end in a dreadful battle.  Both characters realize their respective mistakes, kind of, and they make friends.

Fleck’s delicate and comforting story manages to avoid overt moralizing about how people can avoid conflict and embrace their common humanity.  Instead, Tilly gradually recognizes, although she never articulates her realization, that Tank may not be a member of her tribe, but still be nice. She is bright blue and has feminine eyelashes. We first see her strolling through the forest with two brightly colored birds perched on her back. This is a fable; the setting doesn’t much resemble the habitat of either an elephant or a tank.  Fleck’s picture of Tilly and Tank’s first encounter is an ingenious arrangement of four different poses. Tilly examines the vehicle’s weapon and the birds follow her path.  On the next page, her tentative greeting of “Hello” is tall font is returned with an act of aggression, a two page explosive “BOOM” on a flaming red background.  Even young children listening to the book will wonder if this failure to communicate might be fatal.


While Ferdinand, as you recall, is passive, withdrawing to “sit under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly,” Tilly takes action, taking the risk of bringing flowers to Tank.  Tank regrets his error and returns a beautiful bouquet sprouting from him gun, a kind of 1960s poster image of resistance to senseless violence.  The “happy sound” emanating from the hearts of both Tilly and Tank is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The last image we seem of them is from the back, Tilly leaning against a former weapon of war as they gaze into the sunset.  Where have all the flowers gone? They’re right here, in this lovely book about avoiding dangerous misconceptions and being open to friendship. Tilly and Tank is well worth sharing with young readers.

tilly flowers

Remembering Rifka

Rifka Takes a Bow – Betty Rosenberg Perlov and Cosei Kawa, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2013

Really, I am remembering Betty Rosenberg Perlov, who briefly became a little famous as a first-time author at the age of 96.


Perlov died in 2016, although her passing attracted little notice in the press.  As the afterward to Rifka Takes a Bow explains, Betty grew up a child of the famed Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, where her parents worked. In this once-thriving world, Jewish immigrants and their children produced and attended every type of play, from comedy to melodrama to Shakespearean tragedies, in their own language. Perlov’s book, with suitably dramatic illustrations by Cosei Kawa, draws young readers back into that world, one which historian and journalist Stefan Kanfer has called Stardust Lost.

I came across a review of Rifka Takes a Bow at Publishers Weekly, which, although largely positive, mentions that the book gives little information about Yiddish theater, focusing instead on the excitement and glamour of theater in general.  That may be a fair criticism if the book’s purpose were principally to teach kids about a specific part of Jewish history, which is relegated to a brief afterword.  In Perlov’s defense, the book is a warm, dream-like vision of the past, in which Perlov remembers her loving and supportive parents and her brief debut on the stage where they lived out their professional lives.  From Rifka’s perspective, Yiddish theater is theater; it would be artificial and misleading for her to step out of the text and describe the background of this normal cultural experience.

Rifka’s childhood is filled with artifice. Her parents are not who she thinks they are, if only temporarily:

“Papa pastes on a brown, curly mustache and picks up a cane.
Mama puts on a white wig. She bends over when she walks.

Suddenly they are an old man and an old lady. I can
hardly recognize them.”

This situation is hardly frightening, or even confusing. Rifka’s parents’ shifting identities are no more nor less magical than her lunch at the Automat, where “There are little boxes in the walls with glass windows that let you see the food.” Eating there is as intriguing as her the actress’ dressing room, full of lights and make-up, even rabbits’ feet to use as powder puffs.  When her father takes her on a tour of the prop room under the stage, he becomes a guide to an underworld, dark and a little off-putting.  But he reassures her: “I’ll protect you.  Come, Rifkeleh. Just look at those treasures.”  One is a birthday cake, which seems so real that Papa has to warn her not to eat it, since it is only plaster.


Cosei Kawa’s pictures are fantastic images of a remembered world.  There is an obvious allusion to Chagall’s flying people and angled buildings, and maybe Modigliani if his long, thin faces were stretched into expressive ovals.  Rifka’s mother and her colleagues show a touch of Arthur Rackham’s Cinderella. Kawa’s pictures affirm that this is a work of fiction, or fictionalized memoir, not an overview of Yiddish Theater.  When a bored Rifka stumbles onto the stage during a performance, she seems to be a character in a fairy tale, whose performance is meant as a lesson: “Not to worry. I am going to act on the stage when I grow up.”  Perlov actually grew up to be a speech pathologist, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  But all the world’s a stage, Second Avenue or elsewhere.



Genius, Race, and Saving Lives: Garrett Morgan’s Inventions

To the Rescue! Garrett Morgan Underground – Monica Kulling and David Parkins, Tundra Books, 2016


To the Rescue! Is another in the Great Ideas series from Tundra books, in which Monica Kulling and several outstanding illustrators present the life story of someone dedicated to improving the world through the development of new technologies. The series is characterized by the different approaches that Kulling adapts to different subjects; this is not a typical set of interchangeable volumes in which young readers get the mistaken impression that greatness follows a formula. In this life of the gifted and tenacious black inventor Garrett Morgan, Kulling’s challenge is to compress in a picture book for elementary and middle grade readers the sequence of innovations that Garrett produced, along with the historical background that made his success improbable.

Kulling begins, as she does throughout the series, with a poem, three quatrains that set the tone for the story about finding light in oppressive darkness: “Think of the men/lowered on ropes/to underground tunnels/where disaster can strike.”  Readers should now be motivated to learn about Morgan’s life-saving inventions.  The book begins by establishing that Morgan’s parents had been enslaved, and that “the family still worked the field as hard as ever.”  David Parkins’ picture of Morgan and his family hoeing fields has a touch of cinematic melodrama, as Morgan alone is not working the land, but looking into the distance: “One day, Garrett stopped hoeing to stretch.  I want more than this, he thought, gazing at the worn-out farm he’d lived on all his life.” This is a picture book, with neither the purpose nor the space to record the long history of slavery in the United States.  Instead, readers assimilate key details through the simple text and lush pictures.

Working in a factory in Cleveland, Ohio, Morgan has an inventor’s inspiring moment…

Continue reading “Genius, Race, and Saving Lives: Garrett Morgan’s Inventions”