Family, Art, and Chocolate

Grandpa Cacao – Elizabeth Zunon, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019

cacao cover

The chocolate metaphor richness of Grandpa Cacao is so striking that it would be difficult to avoid in any description of Elizabeth Zunon’s new book.  The richness refers to the content and themes: family, heritage, culinary traditions, agriculture.  The artistic complexity of the book is also gorgeously rich.

In a detailed “Author’s Note,” Zunon explains how she has chosen to use oil paint, watercolor paper, and collage to create the main narrative background, combining these media with pale silk screen outlines in the images of her grandfather at work on his African farm.  The sophistication of this multidimensional technique is, again, extremely rich.  Grandpa Cacao is also an informational book about the cacao cultivation, and the book’s backmatter gives further information about the history, technology, and ethical issues of chocolate production, along with a recipe for Chocolate Celebration Cake.  There is so much here to capture young readers’ attention that the book will surely inspire many conversations each of its ingredients.

Grandpa Cacao inside

The core of the story is a conversation between a girl and her father about the grandfather she has never known.  Her father’s narration of his own father’s life as a cacao farmer is both dramatic and matter-of-fact, as he explains to this daughter the difficulties of planting and harvesting a successful crop.  He emphasizes the communal cooperation necessary to the process, and ties its outcome to crucial economic gains: “We used our money to buy food, school supplies, uniforms, books, and fabric to have our special occasion clothes made.”  As the girl listens, she draws parallels to her own life and feels connected to her grandfather, as she and her father carefully bake a chocolate cake together.  The silk-screen images of life in Africa form a visual sequence of her father’s story and her own involvement in listening to it.

The ending of the book has a mythic element of reunion. Readers who have grandparents from other parts of the world, whether or not they have never seen them or benefit by a close relationship, will empathize with the family strength of Zunon’s story.  Whether or not you love chocolate, Grandpa Cacao is a recipe for learning and empathy.

Juggling Demands on Your First Day of School

Your First Day of Circus School Tara Lazar and Melissa Crowton, Tundra Books, 2019

cover

Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages! Step right up to Your First Day of Circus School. This madcap map of a first day at school will reassure an apprehensive child, not through patient explanations that school will be great, but by offering an inventive metaphor for just how great it will be. In fact, it will be the greatest show on earth. Don’t worry; no animals were harmed in the making of this book!

megaphone

The little boy in the story is awoken by his older brother blaring into a megaphone, and he is propelled out of bed with a look of terror on his face. Why should he want to leave his room, an inviting setting for imaginative play, as proven by all the fun toys and scattered items surrounding him?  A circus playset in the lower right corner leads to the next page, where he begins to warm to the idea of school, even if he is still a bit confused about what it will entail.  That’s what controlling big brothers are for; his shows him that “you’ll/find your way/around,” and gives him practical advice: “Don’t let the kids in the/ HIGHER GRADES /run you over.” Many of the lines are combined with visual puns; the kids in the higher grades are elevated on stilts, and “The cafeteria/can be a real ZOO” is accompanied by an assortment of animals and children eating, socializing, and performing daredevil feats in the lunchroom.

clownsincar

Some of the puns, as well as the clichés and aphorisms updated with visual interpretations, may be unfamiliar to kids.  Like many of the best children’s books, this one operates on more than one level.  Adults know that their kids will have “a lot to/JUGGLE/on your first day,” while young readers will instantly acquire that expression by seeing an image of their peers happily juggling small objects.  “HIGH EXPECTATIONS” can be attained by climbing a ladder.  Instead of a mundane school bus, the time worn joke about the endless number of clowns fitted into a tiny car, becomes a cheerful allusion to a community of excited kids ready for school.

canon

Does the book raise expectations that will be contradicted by real school, where you can’t actually sit backwards on your desk while wearing a cape, and where the tall kid in front of you isn’t an elephant? Only the most literal-minded child, or caregiver, will fail to recognize that imagination and reality can coexist in young minds, especially when thinking about and working through new situations.  Your teacher, even if she is not named “Miss Stupendous,” does want you to enjoy learning.  Your fellow students are also hesitant on the first day.  Your first day of school should indeed by “awesome,” even without the cannon blast conclusion pictured here.

Kids will love this book. Parents, look for the picture of the poodle writing on a typewriter.

 

Joe Krush is Extraordinary

Emily’s Runaway Imagination – Beverly Cleary and
Beth and Joe Krush, William Morrow and Company, 1961

Emily's_Runaway_Imagination_cover

On Saturday, May 18, the inimitable children’s book illustrator, Joe Krush, will turn one-hundred-and-one-years-old. I have tried my best before in this blog (here and here and here and here), and on The Horn Book, to write the kinds of tributes to him that convey, at least a bit, the glorious detail and expressive beauty of his line drawings.  Since Beverly Cleary, with whom Mr. Krush collaborated on three teen novels, has just celebrated her one hundred and third birthday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to draw attention to a Cleary book for middle grade graders for which Joe and his wife Beth also drew wonderful pictures.  Emily’s Runaway Imagination is an unusual Cleary work, partly based on her own life growing up in the nineteen twenties in rural Oregon.  Not surprisingly, the Emily of the novel loves books, and the plot partly involves the efforts of her small town to establish its own library.

As always when the Krushes are part of a literary team, the illustrations are inseparable from the story; my childhood memories of first reading this book are illuminated, if that is an appropriate term for black and white images, by the scenes of Emily moving through her adventures and misadventures with cinematic swiftness.  There is Emily opening the door of her family’s wood burning stove, her hand raised in dismay to her face. What happened to the flaky pie crust she had hoped to create?  Her mother, in an elegant, if simple, shirtwaist dress and black t-strap pumps, the perfect attire for baking, looks on with patience and empathy.  From the coffee grinder sitting on top of the stove, to the curly arabesques decorating the hood, every touch of the drawings immerses the reader in the story with unpretentious, invisible, skill.

A kind Chinese immigrant, Mr. Quock, is clearly isolated, but Emily becomes his friend, not before Emily learns to discard some foolish prejudices of her own.  The picture of Emily leaving his house, presented as a smaller oval inset at the bottom of the page, shows the old man waving at Emily as she walks past his house, He is in the foreground, and a small Emily to the right of the picture raises a mittened hand, fully colored in black. In the background, a Victorian gingerbread-style house is filled with closely placed lines, with black areas within the windows matching Emily’s mittens and shoes.  Mr. Quock, a figure drawn mainly in white, aside from a few lines on his cardigan’s cuffs, looks quiet and vulnerable. When a scene calls for action, the Krushes are equally ready, as when Emily and her cousin June are terrified by a thunderstorm and the expectation of seeing a ghost.  Emily opens the door with determination and confronts the darkness with a flashlight, while June, her face turned towards us, looks completely disoriented as she clings to Emily’s nightgown.  The Krushes have shown us who is the brave one here. Even the dog is cowering under the table.

Joe Krush’s contribution to children’s book illustration is difficult to describe but impossible to miss.  I hope I have conveyed, on his birthday, some of the joy which his art has brought to readers.

emily frontspiece

Nobody’s Perfect

Past Perfect Life – Elizabeth Eulberg, Bloomsbury, 2019

ppl cover

Anyone following the news over the last several weeks has been observing the outcome of the college admissions scandal.  What price will wealthy and well-connected parents pay for having tried, often successfully, to buy their children places in universities, often by creating false identities for them—as high academic achievers or champions in sports in which they had never even participated?

 

The teens in Elizabeth Eulberg’s new novel, Past Perfect Life, are the children of hardworking parents, and the beneficiaries of a solid support system of their peers.  Allison Smith lives with her widowed father in a small Wisconsin town.  Her goal is to be accepted into the state university system, and she is actively engaged in trying to earn a scholarship based on academic merit.  The novel offers welcome insights into the lives of ordinary kids leading ordinary lives, although the pressures of senior year in high school seem extraordinary at the time.

Then a series of events change Allison’s life, forcing her to confront a new identity and to look at her past through a new lens, one that presents a dizzying and chaotic view of the present and future as well.  Elizabeth Eulberg’s narrative skills are apparent on every page, as she asks the reader to consider, reconsider, and consider again the relationships and dilemmas surrounding her characters.  The affection and sincerity of almost all of Allison’s friends and community members tests the skepticism of readers accustomed to dystopian visions of cruelty and division in young adult books.  Yet the picture which Eulberg paints is convincing, not merely an exercise in nostalgia for an idealized time and place where movie night with a parent or a first date with a boy are meaningful events. The boy is both physically attractive to Allison, and a compassionate listener throughout her ordeals. Really! Even the enthusiasm for football and for Wisconsin cuisine held my attention; I have to admit that this was a high bar for me, and Eulberg reached it successfully.

Without giving away any of the suspenseful plot, Allison learns to integrate her past and her present, and to balance flexibility towards change and faithfulness to her unchanging self.  There are no easy lessons or facile resolutions. Relationships of parents and children are always difficult to negotiate. At the same time that changes in Allison’s life convert everyday problems into shocking and painful ones, readers will still identify with the core experiences of young adulthood which she meets without flinching.  “Describe a significant event in your life and how it has influenced you,” Allison reads on a scholarship application.  By the end of Past Perfect Life, readers will appreciate the irony of that simple request, and the meaning of significant to Allison and to themselves.

Soaring with Alis

Alis the Aviator: an ABC Aviation Adventure – Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail and Kalpna Patel, Tundra Books, 2019

Alis cover

Alis the Aviator creates poetry out of flight.  Danielle Metcalf-Chenail, writing about the first Indigenous commercial pilot in Canada, is able to make words soar.  Along with Kalpna Patel’s bright paper cutouts of planes and people, including a young aviation-obsessed girl, this unusual book teaches, inspires, and entertains.  The ABCs of aviation, from Arrow to Zeppelins, take flight in this beautiful book.

 

Alis dog

Alis is ambitious and modest at the same time.  The assemblage of colored paper into meticulously detailed aircraft and scenes of joyous human creativity demands the reader’s attention.  Alis herself begins by constructing paper airplanes; what could be simpler?  Her dog is asleep on a fringed rug at her feet, not even awakened by curlicues of paper from her project drifting onto his head.

 

Alis chair

Soon, however, Alis moves beyond her initial experiments, and takes us on a tour of the real thing. Seated in a small RCAF Chipmunk or gazing up in wonder from a hiker’s trail at Norseman and Otter planes, Alis is aviation personified. Each image and each line of text is different; the reader lifts off at “A” and continues on through a wild and bumpy flight. Another incredible two page spread takes the reader back in time to World War II, with VICTORY spelled out, if not yet assured, and Rosie the Riveter smiling in the lower corner.  Workers on the Lancaster and Mosquito bombers are depicted as smaller and less defined, with tapering cones for bodies and small found faces without features, reminiscent of Japanese kokeshi dolls. The people in the scene subordinate themselves to the task.

Alis victory

In an entirely different scene, Patel juxtaposes old sepia-colored newspapers with dramatic headlines about feats from the past: “P is for parachute, a jump like no other./Q is for Queen, which crashed into the loam,” contrasting on the next page with “R is for Renegade/…a plane you build at home.” (image).  From wild adventure to the security of model building, Alis is enthusiastic about it all.

alis newspaper

The text is accessible, but also sophisticated and full of fun imagery and inventive rhymes: “D is for Dakota a northern weather vane/E is for Electra, a shiny metal steed./F is for Fairey Swordfish, not known for its speed.”  It’s easy to string to together related items beginning with each of twenty-six letters, and many alphabet books do just that.  In Alis the Aviator, the letters are a pretext for a journey through the imagination of a plane enthusiast.  The book includes a biography with photos of the real Dr. Alis Kennedy, and an illustrated glossary rich with information and miniature images of all the planes in the book.  If a child is already in love with the world of flight, she will be thrilled with this book. If she is not, the fantastic artwork and compelling poetry will encourage her to board the flight.

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and No Subpoena Needed

The Sad Little Fact – Jonah Winter and Pete Oswald, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2019

seedcover

It’s a sad, and not so little, fact that today facts are in retreat. The amount of taxes paid by the current occupant of the White House, the size of his inaugural crowd, the reliability of security clearances, the reality of human-made climate change, the validity of our Constitution itself, are all under attack.  Do children of an age to enjoy picture books care about these threatened notions?  Even a kid knows the approximate difference between a lie and the truth. Here is a new book to help anxious parents encourage their children in their life-long pursuit of reality.

The combination of Jonah Winter’s direct and simple text, leavened with quite a bit of humor, and Pete Oswald’s signature colorful geometric forms (as seen recently in The Good Egg and The Bad Seed), here lost in a sea of falsehoods, forms the perfect vehicle for a ride towards the truth.  The first lesson kids will learn here is that facts are vulnerable. They can be ignored, bullied, even buried in a treasure chest so deep in the ground that no one may hear their cries.  Children will identify with the small blue wide-eyed dot as it is menaced by long shadowy figures, or pointed at with red-gloved hands.  Winter puts into words the message which we all hope to give to our children, even when it seems countercultural to do so:

pointing

It’s easy enough to explain who “authorities” are to kids: people who should be responsible for taking care of us, but sometimes don’t act as they should. Winter adds impact to his familiar and kid-friendly vocabulary: tools, dark, angry, big box, bunch of lies, with a limited number of concepts requiring explanation.  That is what sets his story apart and makes it a cross-generational experience to read together.

facts in box

No one likes to be isolated, and the sad little fact is rendered less sad by the fact that he is surrounded by other incontrovertible truths.  Kids love jokes, so they will appreciate that ‘A refrigerator is not a moose,” and no one can claim that it is.  If they don’t already know that “Christopher Columbus did not discover America,” they should, and what young dinosaur fan doesn’t appreciate the fact that his favorite animals “became extinct 66 million years ago.”

Winter’s lesson is not abstract, and Oswald’s embattled little creatures make them even more concrete.  Deceptive imposter facts are ejected from a scary contraption into a gumball machine of lies and released into a panicked world, but they will not succeed.  Solidarity and determination save the day:

“And so the fact finders started digging.
Equipped with only shovels, flashlights,
and a need to know the truth,
they dug a tunnel deep, deep underground.”

The best part of the book is its triumphant happy ending.  The lie machine is removed like a statue of Stalin and hauled off in a recycling truck.  The facts line up in a joyous chorus, standing atop the truth in giant font.  A fact is indeed a fact, and the sooner we can succeed in teaching that to our kids, and reminding ourselves of its power, the better the story will end for all of us.

Curious George, Toddler

The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 75th Anniversary Edition – H.A. and Margret Rey, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter – Leonard S. Marcus, Foreword by Lisa Von Drasek, Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, 2019

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey – Louise Borden and Allan Drummond, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2005

The Journey That Saved Curious George Young Readers Edition: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey – Louise Borden and Allan Drummond, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016

Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators – film directed by Ema Ryan Yamazaki, The Orchard Studio, 2017

CG cover404 screen

In 1940, a German Jewish couple fled occupied France in danger of their lives.  Traveling first to Brazil and then to the United States, they brought with them the manuscript for what would become the first in a series of one of the most enduring and popular children’s books, Curious George.  Author H.A. Rey and his wife, illustrator Margret Rey, brought to life the little risk-taking monkey who was frequently rescued from near disaster by his patient and benevolent friend, the man with the yellow hat.  Unlike a toddler, George cannot speak.  Like a toddler, he is often misunderstood.  Impulsive, highly physical, affectionate, and essentially kind, George became a character with whom children could easily identify. He represents both their best and their most difficult characteristics, but his adventures are always resolved without serious harm to anyone.  Most significantly, George represents parental compassion and unconditional acceptance. Note his introduction to the world: “He was a good little monkey/and always very curious.” That “and,” not “but,” promises that even George’s most problematic behaviors are routed in a healthy embrace of the world.

There is currently an acclaimed exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s renowned Kerlan Collection of children’s literature. (The amazing story of Dr. Irvin Kerlan, and how he came to create his collection and leave it to the University of Minnesota, would itself be worth of its own blog post.)  The exhibit is co-curated by Lisa Von Drasek, Curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections that includes the Kerlan Collection, and Leonard Marcus.  The exhibit is a revised version of the one originally curated at the New York Public Library from 2013-2014 by Marcus, a well-known and distinguished scholar of children’s literature.   (I saw the original exhibit; I thought it was one of the most comprehensive and exciting approaches to children’s literature that I could imagine.)

Not surprisingly, the Minnesota exhibit has received some criticism, which is healthy.  Viewers should always feel free to analyze and respond to perceived shortcomings in a public exhibition, even more so when the subject is as central to our daily lives as the role of books in the daily lives of our children. In the years since the New York exhibit opened, parents, educators, and scholars have expressed concerns about the need for diversity in books for children, with a greater confidence that their ideas would be listened to seriously than had been the case in the past.  One of the issues raised has been the difference between celebration and documentation.  If a book from an earlier era reflected the racism or sexism of that time, how should be approach it today? In my opinion, the worst response is censorship.  No, censorship is not strictly the government-controlled decision to legally outlaw certain books.  We don’t have that in the United States, although we can no longer take for granted that it does not loom on the horizon.  Censorship is also commonly understood to mean deliberately making access to books or other works difficult, discouraging or threatening publishers, libraries, or bookstores, and impugning the motives of any author who fails to agree with the critics’ perspectives or cede to their demands.  Wrapping a book in yellow caution tape in a public exhibition, as opposed to criticizing it and publicizing alternative perspectives, is wrong, and reminiscent of terrible times in history when books were physically destroyed.  (Here is a link to a post at the University of Minnesota’s Library blog that had originally depicted this act; that since has been removed; my description comes from memory:  https://www.continuum.umn.edu/2019/04/the-abc-of-it-things-to-think-about-caddie-woodlawn/.)

Back to Curious George.  The section in the exhibit on George now links him to other depictions of monkeys in literature, some of which are examples of crude and ugly racism, and makes the claim that therefore all depictions of monkeys in children’s literature, including George, are inherently racist.

curious-george-myh1

Yes, the man with the yellow hat does “rescue” him from Africa. The Reys were European, a continent with virtually no native species of monkey.  Originally, he is also put in a zoo, where he is very happy, but in subsequent books in the series he is living comfortably in a human home and enjoying a great deal of freedom. Oh, and the man with the yellow hat smokes like a chimney.  I have posted on Curious George numerous times (here and here and here), including on this problematic habit.

 

Viewers, and readers, can reach their own conclusion about the accuracy or justice of this comparison.  Look at George’s grief when he realizes, as toddlers inevitably do, that his actions have consequences, as when he inadvertently lets all the bunnies out of their hutch in Curious George Flies a Kite (“George sat down.  He had been a bad little monkey. Why was he so curious? Why did he let the bunny go?”), or when he just has to taste the puzzle piece and winds up in the hospital, where he cheers up the other kids by crashing the food cart.  If only life were like this!  In the Curious George books, the daily hazards of life are never catastrophic and bad decisions never have permanent consequences.  The Reys offered readers a safe introduction to negotiating the real world, one where adults will always care for you. Critics intent on placing George in a historical context of racism might also wish to learn more about the harrowing circumstances in which the Reys, themselves the victims of racism of the most murderous sort, managed to create this reassuring and endearing character for all children to enjoy.

“Blessed is the match”: Yom Ha-Shoah/ Holocaust Remembrance Day

Yom-HaShoah_ss_505595794-324x160

 

 

 

 

 

mov 320 001 ik

I have several Jewish religious school textbooks from the twentieth century.  One, Highlights of Jewish History, by Mordecai Lewittes, illustrated by Sam Nisenson,  comes in four volumes, with the fourth, (1957), covering the Middle Ages through the foundation of the state of Israel.  There is no separate section on the Holocaust. Rather, in order to encourage a sense of pride, rather than despair, in children, the lesson on the greatest disaster in Jewish history is embedded in the story of the Jewish state.  Students learn about the sufferings of the Jewish people, but also about heroic resistance to the Nazis, even when this resistance was doomed.  After a section on the Jewish Brigade of British Mandate Palestine, the book introduces the freedom fighter Hannah Senesh, the embodiment in modern Jewish history of courage, selflessness, and women’s strength.

Senesh was a parachutist trained to land in enemy territory and rescue Jews.  As Highlights reports:

“On March 13, 1944, Hannah and 4 men parachuted into Yugoslavia where they immediately established contact with Tito’s partisans who greeted them with the words, ‘Death to fascism; freedom to the people’  After completing her mission Hannah resolved to cross the border into Hungary in the hope of rescuing Jewish survivors…

After crossing the border into Hungary Hannah Senesh was betrayed by peasants.  She was  executed because of her refusal to reveal the secret code of the partisans.”

The tone is typical of one type of post-Holocaust Jewish education, emphasizing Jewish agency rather than victimhood.  The details are powerful, even if they might cynically be viewed as dated today. (Yugoslavia is itself a tragic memory, and Tito’s legacy is mixed.) They are not.  The partisans are fighting a specific enemy: fascism.  They are risking their lives to save fellow Jews.  They are, sadly but predictably, betrayed by the gentile population, who are themselves victims of Hitler.

Senesh is perhaps best known is for her beautiful poem, which is also included in the book:

“Blessed is the match that is consumed while kindling
flames,

Blessed is the flame which burns in the secret chambers
of our hearts,

Blessed are the hearts which, for honor’s sake, will
cease their beating,

Blessed is the match that is consumed while kindling
flames.”

As the remaining survivors of the Shoah become few in number, it is even more imperative to design powerful and compelling materials for teaching today’s children and future generations.  Fascism: it was terrible then, and it is terrible now.  Anti-Semitism in all its endless varieties.  Hatred of immigrants and refugees.  How dated is this textbook, after all?

Race, Culture, Gender: 1964

Jenny Kimura – Betty Cavanna, Morrow Junior Books, 1964

jenny-kimura-betty-cavanna1

The culture of Japan has been in the news, due to interest in the unusual choice by the current emperor, Akihito, to abdicate in favor of his son, NaruhitoAkihito is the son of Hirohito, the emperor who, at least nominally, led Japan during its descent into fascism in the 1930s through its defeat by the Allies in World War II.  Viewed by many as a war criminal, the U.S. occupying forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur, made the pragmatic decision that allowing Hirohito to remain as a figurehead would facilitate the transition to democracy in his devastated country.

This history provides a setting for a fascinating teen novel from the 1960s, an era in which the U.S. perception of Japan was still undergoing a transition from ruthless aggressor to economic partner in the new alliances of the Cold War. Although Betty Cavanna was best known for her incredibly popular “malt shop” teen romances, she also tackled some difficult subjects.  In Jenny Kimura, a teenager raised in Japan by her Japanese mother and American father travels to the United States to meet and spend time with her paternal grandmother.  Both sets of grandparents are essentially estranged from Jenny and her parents, unable to comprehend the choice their children made in marrying outside of their respective cultures.  Although the novel includes the typical reflexive racism of its time, Cavanna also succeeds in creating a cast of characters who are struggling with some of these prejudices, and of a girl who is determined to develop her own identity and her own path in life.

When Jenny first lands in Hawaii, she is struck by the glaring contrast between the young native Hawaiian women, whom she perceives as “peacocks moving with stately grace among the ill-dressed visitors in a zoo,” and the Americans, who

“…repelled her…The men were so red-faced and brash, the women so inappropriately bedecked, with mink stoles over their arms and bulging straw carryalls crammed with treasures, that they looked   like cartoon characters.”

This scene of aesthetic dissonance is only the beginning of Jenny’s confusion, as everything that she has learned from her mother about respect, decorum, and gender roles is challenged by life in the U.S., first in Kansas City, and later on vacation on Cape Cod.

Lest you think that Jenny is stereotypically submissive and quiet, she is not. She constantly questions the balance between the greater freedom accorded to American women against the apparent superficiality and distance from tradition of their daily lives.  Jenny astutely observes her own grandmother, an affluent widow who lost one son in the Pacific and has been unable to forgive the other son who disappointed her.  She is not employed, but is active in community activities that demand a level of authority unfamiliar to Jenny.  She dresses in bright colors and short sleeves and she speaks her mind, sometimes appearing brash or insensitive: “She acted as if it were the most natural thing in the world that a sixty-two-year-old woman should be dressed like a girl and working like a man.”   Yet Jenny empathizes with her and struggles to connect with this contradictory but loving figure.

One of the more jarring elements in the book is the circumscribed role of African-Americans as servants.  Jenny’s grandmother employs a young woman, Leona, who has a completely subservient role in the household.  Without questioning the oppression of minorities in the U.S., Jenny forms a bond with Leona, discussing boys and other problems with a familiarity whose contradictions she does not truly understand.  Jenny is aware of skin color, at least her own, noticing that in Japan she would be considered fair-skinned, but in the U.S. she is problematically dark, at least when Alan, a boy who is a member of her grandmother’s social circle, becomes attracted to her.  As in most malt-shop novels, Jenny needs to determine how far she is willing to go to meet the behavioral standards of a clueless male, as opposed to living according to her own moral and emotional compass. During her Cape Cod vacation, Jenny meets George, a young Japanese-American man, who is also attracted to her.  She ponders the connections with they share, as well as the vast dissimilarities.  She also learns about the internment of Japanese-Americans through the experience of her parents at the Tule Lake detention center.

There are no easy resolutions in Jenny Kimura, a book that blends the conventions of the teen girl novel with serious consideration of difficult questions: race, gender, ethnicity, family conflicts, and their challenges to one intelligent young woman seeking to find her identity.  Betty Cavanna’s novel continues to provoke readers today.

 

Finding Your Passion…the Countdown

Count on Me – Miguel Tanco, Tundra Books, 2019

countcover

Miguel Tanco’s Count on Me isn’t just one more welcome affirmation that girls can love math, although it does convince readers of that premise. This gentle and exquisitely illustrated story describes one child’s path towards recognizing what she likes to do best.  Her route may have fewer detours than many others’, because it is so obvious to her that numbers, patterns, equations, and geometric forms are the heart of her daily life.  In addition (no pun intended!), our heroine has easy-going parents, immersed in their own pursuits, and thoroughly comfortable with allowing their daughter to find her own.  Every page of the book reinforces the importance of loving what you do and doing what you love, especially when nothing can compete with the beautiful fractals and polygons surrounding you.

modrian

Count on Me is set in an unspecified city: probably European, but it could as well be elsewhere.  We know there are museums, because the girl and her family are enjoying the view of a large canvas, maybe a Mondrian. The dad is an artist, and his creative messiness contrasts with his daughter’s analytical approach to board games, playground climbing structures, and even the array of food items set out on their dinner table.

lab

Mom is an entomologist; as the girl happily watches her peering at insects through her microscope, we can see the approval on her face for this absorption in detail, but the girl’s own interests are somewhat more abstract. Her brother’s tuba playing also brings a smile to her face, and she is happy to try different activities at school to test her convictions.  Playing Hamlet, being a chef, and attempting ballet are all worthy endeavors; she needs to be sure they are not for her.

“We live in a world of shapes and I like to play with them,” the girl realizes; Tanco explains to kids that self-knowledge is essential; without it, we might wind up as bad tuba players or unfulfilled scientists.  Even though her parents are wonderful, the book concedes that the outside world might find one’s passion to be a little weird.  When the girl stops at the top of the slide to make some notes because “It’s fun for me to find the perfect curve,” some of her friends stuck on the ladder are scowling in annoyance.  Yet she is undeterred: “I know that my passion can be hard to understand.  But there are infinite ways to see the world.”

house

One way to see the world is in Miguel Tanco’s delicately detailed and allusive drawings, many in black and grey with striking elements of color.  I’m looking at the two page spread of the city, the little girl and a companion walking down a tree-lined path. The buildings in the background are a visual homage to Ludwig Bemelmans’s old house in Paris, where Madeline lived! (I don’t know if Tanco intentionally included this visual homage, but I almost expected to see Madeline herself testing Miss Clavel’s patience.)  The interior of the family’s house includes references to different eras: the mid-century intersecting circles on the floor of Mom’s lab, and the radio, straight out of the nineteen-forties, sitting on a bookshelf.

artclass

One two page spread manages to capture with both accuracy and humor the mind of a child who feels different. Each student in the girl’s art class sits in front of an easel. Some are actively at work, while others hold their brushes and expectantly look to the teacher for approval. We see whimsical animals, a portrait, and one student has drawn a tiny butterfly on an otherwise empty canvas. (She might be a good friend for our young mathematician.) The teacher, in an elegant plaid dress and matching beret, points at the heroine’s project, every inch of which is covered with equations, graphs, and polygons.  What is she saying? The girl smiles broadly, maybe nervously.  The teacher looks calm.  Readers may wonder about whether the conversation is going to induce self-doubt, or strengthen the girl’s resolve to follow her passion.

notebook

By the end of the book, we know that all those hours and days pondering shapes and resolving problems will lead to a very concrete kind of joy. The final section of the book is the girl’s portfolio. Presented as a spiral notebook and proudly labeled “My Math,” it contains line drawings and descriptions of fractals, trajectories, concentric circles, and more.  If Count on Me doesn’t convince you to quit running in concentric circles and follow your own trajectory, I don’t know what will.