For Memorial Day, We’re Reading the Constitution

Books referenced:

Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution!– Jean Fritz and Tomie dePaola, Puffin Books, 2017 (reprint of 1987 edition)

We the People: the Constitution of the United States – Peter Spier, Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2014 (reprint of 1987 edition)

Who could forget the heartbreaking moment at the Democratic National Convention of 2016 when Mr. Khizr Khan, supported by his wife, Mrs. Ghazala Khan, pointedly offered to loan Donald Trump his pocket edition of the United State Constitution, a document that he correctly implied that Trump had never read? The Khans’ son, Captain Humayun Khan, had been killed in 2004, a casualty of the war in Iraq.  Trump, once an implausible candidate, but now, unbelievably, the president of the United States, has revealed on a daily basis his abject ignorance of our founders’ ideals, and is utterly unable to comply with his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution for which Captain Khan gave his life. In addition to sharing books about other soldiers who have made this sacrifice, through just and unjust wars, popular and unpopular conflicts, it is also a good day to help our children to understand what service to our country means. It does not mean using public office to enrich oneself and one’s family. It does not mean mocking those who have served, been captured, or killed. It does not mean issuing a fiat by twitter rejecting the service of transgender Americans. It does not mean assaulting and degrading women. It certainly does not mean deriding the immigrants who have contributed to every area of American life.

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Jean Fritz tells the exciting and accessible tale of the men who hammered out the agreement necessary to sew together the disparate states in order to form a more perfect union.  Parents and teachers will want to explain in much greater detail how this work of genius included allowing slave owners to ensure their continued exploitation of African-American people and to exclude them from “the blessings of liberty” which the document promises.  The book’s chatty narrative style, in fact, makes it easier to engage in a conversation about American history, and how we are still participating in and perfecting the process that Fritz describes.  Tomie dePaola’s pictures bring the Constitution’s authors into the recognizable world where symbols become real people.

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Peter Spier’s book is a beautiful tribute to the best of our inclusive country, the very nature of which Trump is so deeply suspicious that he needs to uproot and destroy it.  The book pairs the actual text of the Constitution with pictures of ordinary Americans throughout history engaged in the activities protected and enhanced by our founders’ vision, and, when they could not see far enough, by later generations.  We see diverse images of Americans becoming educated, enjoying leisure time, practicing our religion, serving in the military, working to support ourselves and our families, and using the systems of transportation that connect our vast space.

Thank you to all the fallen soldiers and to all the American families who suffered losses.  We the people still define how we will support and defend, or tragically, distort and erode it until it no longer works.  We need to give children the tools they need to make those decisions; good books help.

 

 

Farewell, Philip Roth

Book Discussed:  The Plot Against America – Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, 2004

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Philip Roth died on May 23. No, he was not a writer for children.  But in his 2004 counterfactual novel about American isolationism, xenophobia, and sympathy with fascism in the 1930s and 40s, he assumed the voice of his childhood self. In fact, I consider the novel is appropriate as a young adult selection.

Sometimes childhood is a frightening and threatened place:

“Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.  Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”

Roth’s novel assumes that isolationist and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh has been elected president in 1940. Lindbergh, a hero to most Americans because of his transatlantic flight and his supposed embodiment of the American values of independence and courage, had long been a vocal opponent of aid to the Allies and had openly praised the Nazi party. In his infamous Des Moines speech of September, 1941, he accused Jews of promoting intervention in Europe, and accused American Jews of having undue and pernicious influence in our country.

It is interesting that Lindbergh is still presented in some children’s books as an unvarnished American hero, or at worst, as a complex and flawed figure (for example here and here.) Even James Cross Giblin’s supposedly evenhanded Charles A. Lindbergh: a Human Hero, characterizes the views expressed in his speech as “controversial,” and attempts to explain them partly as a psychological response to the kidnapping and murder of his son.  Young adults reading this book should learn that after the massive violence against Jews on Kristallnacht, 1938, Lindbergh refused to return the medal he had accepted from Hermann Göring, claiming it had been a “gesture of friendship.”

The young Philip of the novel is an enthusiastic stamp collector, and proud of the fact that he shares this obsession with Franklin Roosevelt. In a devastating and yet poetic passage of the destruction of childhood innocence, he has a nightmare in which his prized collection of 1934 stamps commemorating America’s national parks is transformed into a hideous tribute to Nazism:

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“I fell out of the bed and woke up on the floor, this time screaming.  Yosemite in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Mesa Verde in Colorado, Crater Lake in Oregon, Acadia in Maine, Mount Ranier in Washington, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Zion in Utah, Glacier in Montana, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee —and across the face of each, across the cliffs, the woods, the rivers, the peaks, the geyser, the gorges, the granite coastline, across the deep blue water and the high waterfalls, across everything in America that was the bluest and the greenest and the whitest and to be preserved forever in these pristine reservations, was printed a black swastika.”

In remembering Roth, it is fitting to note that The Plot Against America details all the dimensions of totalitarianism, including the way in which it disfigures childhood.

Joe Krush: Co-creator of The Borrowers Turns 100

Book discussed in detail Miracles on Maple Hill – Virginia Sorensen and Beth and Joe Krush, Harcourt Young Classics, 2003 (reprint of 1956 edition)

Today is the one hundredth birthday of American illustrator Joe Krush.  Both in his own work, and especially during his years of collaboration with his wife, Beth, (1918-2009), he made indelible contributions to American books for children (as I wrote before here and here).  Please look at today’s blog entry on The Horn Book for my brief celebration of his life and career.

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Prizes are ultimately not the final or most significant evaluation of an artist’s work. Although the Krushes never won a Caldecott, they did illustrate one Newbery and one Newbery Honor book.  The Newbery Honor went to Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, and the Newbery to Virginia Sorensen’s Miracles on Maple Hill.  This is a wonderful novel which is only superficially dated and still deserves to be read and taught.  The “miracles” of the title are events in the natural world, as well as the support of community in a small maple sugar producing town in rural Pennsylvania.  The Krushes’ pictures, as they always do, work inextricably with the text to create characters and settings to which children will relate.  Marly is a ten-year-old girl whose father, a veteran and former POW, suffers from what we would today identify as PTSD.  Had the book been written today, references to clinical depression, even violence, might enter the story.  In 1956, allusions to the father’s anger and exhaustion were enough to explain why the family needs a miracle.

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The opening two title pages show a small girl in the distance dressed for winter. She is looking towards a group of run-down buildings and a curing broken fence.  This is apparently going to be the setting for a series of miracles, and without this introduction by the Krushes readers might be less intrigued.  The village certainly doesn’t look miraculous.  Throughout the book Marly’s series of tense, hopeful, and joyous experiences appear in the Krushes’ drawings.

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Eager to please her family, Marly decides to surprise everyone by cooking pancakes on the antiquated stove. She winds up starting a fire, risking the anger of her tense and emotionally wounded father.  We see her surrounded by black smoke in the black and white line drawing; her hand is raised to her mouth in fear.  In the back of the scene stands her father, looking very angry indeed.  Sorensen describes one of the series of miracles; instead of shouting or threatening, he relaxes and empathizes with his daughter’s mistake.  But readers don’t know that until “reading” the picture and then turning the page.

People are imperfect in the Krushes’ world. Although their pictures convey a kind of mid-century cheeriness, old people’s faces are lined, children are fearful, and physiques may be heavy or very thin.

As Mr. Chris, one of the family’s greatest supporters, recovers from an apparent heart attack, Marly solemnly and carefully brings him a cup of maple syrup to see if it meets his standards:

“Mr. Chris reached out and took it from her.  They both moved so carefully one would have thought they carried a magic potion like those in fairy stories – some drink that could  make a person grow suddenly tall or suddenly small, like Alice in Wonderland.  Maybe some magic liquid that would help Mr. Chris not to be sick anymore, but to live forever and ever.”

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In the picture, Mr. Krush smiles and holds out his hand towards Marly, who is focused not on his face, but on carrying the cup of syrup safely.  A worn pair of boots sits next to the bed until Mr. Chris can use them again. The adults in Marly’s life watch silently, her mother looking rather hopefully towards her father in profile.  The expression of his face is watchful and does not predict the outcome of the scene.

The Krushes have brought their art and their insight into many books for children.  I am glad to have the opportunity to thank Joe Krush for his life’s work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Lesson x Two

Books referenced:

The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story – Allison and Wayne Marks and Annie Wilkinson, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017

The Art Lesson – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989

This Sunday and Monday (May 20th and 21st) is the holiday of Shavout, which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. Children’s books about Shavout often focus on the religious importance of this central event in Jewish history, so I was interested to find one that does not. While The Art Lesson does explain the meaning of the holiday, its central theme is the importance of creativity and of traditions within families.  As I began to think about this story, I realized that I just could not write about it without paying tribute to the other Art Lesson, Tomie dePaola’s autobiographical picture book, which is also about creativity and the importance of a family’s support to a child.  The books are not so alike, but they have the same title! Tomie dePaola’s book was a favorite of my own children, and no wonder.  How will Tomie survive school if he is forbidden to use his box of sixty-four Crayola crayons, and only has access to one piece of paper?  How will Shoshana, the heroine of the other Art Lesson, be able to have the confidence to create the magical paper cutouts that are a traditional decoration for Shavout? I recommend reading these books together, but, don’t worry, they work as stand-alone experiences.

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Shoshana’s grandmother is a beret-wearing artist who keeps her supplies in a kind of cabinet of curiosities and encourages her granddaughter in every way. One way is by affectionately calling her by the name of a great Jewish artist: Chagall, Modigliani, Pissarro. Grandma’s cat is named Krasner, after abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, who was married to another great Jewish American artist, Jackson Pollock. At the end of the book Shoshana is herself a grandmother, passing on the family’s artistic tradition to her own granddaughter. If you are now hearing songs from Fiddler on the Roof going through your mind, that’s o.k. There is sentiment in this story, but also a strong push for originality and independence. An afterword gives some minimal information about the holiday, and brief biographies of the artists mentioned. Some of Wilkinson’s pictures mimic the artistic style of these influential painters, but she does not follow this idea consistently throughout the book.

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Tomie dePaola was a gifted child who knew he was different.  Rather than forcing him to color inside the lines, his family encouraged him.  We see pictures of Tomie’s father hanging his artwork in the barbershop where he works, and his mother posting them “all around the house.” It is interesting that in both these pictures we see Tomie’s parents from the back. His father is cutting a customer’s hair and his mother is kneeling and reverently putting up one of her son’s medieval-inspired images.  Other pictures show his grandparents’ faces, and his parents’, as well.  Perhaps the view from the back makes Tomie’s images central to the picture; his parents are so impressed that they themselves stand back and admire.

Continue reading “Art Lesson x Two”

More on Little House

Book referenced:  Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1935 edition)

In my last blog entry, I attempted to look at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books from a different perspective.  It is undeniable that they employ many racist stereotypes about Native Americans, and that their characters embody the value of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that European- Americans had an unquestioned right to take over the Indian lands.  At the same time, some characters in the books admit, if only momentarily, that the process of displacing Indians from their land will naturally cause anger and conflict.  One of the most frequently cited and toxic phrases from the book is “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” spoken by the Ingalls’ family’s neighbor, Mr. Scott. Mr. Scott and his wife are uninterested in Pa’s qualifiers, including his suggestion that “Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were left alone.”

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Pa responds to what he believes to be the bravery and leadership of the Osage leader, Soldat du Chêne, with the rather patronizing phrase, “That’s one good Indian!” Yet Laura hears this admiration as a validation of her own doubts about the treatment of Indians by white settlers: “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”  Nevertheless, when Laura expresses confusion to her father about the possible right of Indians to feel anger at the loss of their own land, he tells her to stop asking questions.

If the Little House books are so problematic and include so much biased material, why read them?  My answer would be…

Continue reading “More on Little House”

A Few Thoughts about Little House

Books referenced:

Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2004 (reprint of 1932 edition)

Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1935 edition)

As educators and readers pay increased attention to the depiction of Native Americans in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, the American Library Association is considering changing the name of the award named in her honor.  Considering that characters voice such sentiments as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and that the entire premise of the series is that white settlers have the right, even the obligation, to take over Indian land, the movement to remove Wilder’s name from the award is not surprising.  I am concerned about several issues at stake here and I have been rereading the books and considering the options available to those who admire Wilder’s work yet also recognize the need to give children books with accurate portrayals of Native American peoples, and of American history in general.

woodsprairie

First, it should be clear that removing Wilder’s name from the award is not the same as removing her books from libraries and bookstores.  There are people who would like to do both.  While I respect their opinion, I strongly maintain that reading the books in context, accompanied by other works by Native American authors, such as Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, is more appropriate than eliminating them.  There are also hundreds of primary sources available about Manifest Destiny and the violent displacement of Native peoples from their lands; some of these may be excerpted and explained for use with elementary age readers (for example here, here, here, here, and here).   In fact, the explicit nature of Wilder’s statements about her family’s beliefs and their role in appropriating Indian land makes the books an ideal starting point for discussions about what really took place in our country.

Little House in the Big Woods has only a few references to Indians; in fact, they are conspicuous by their absence.  The book has many references to other widely accepted practices and inevitable parts of life on the frontier that would require a great deal of explaining today.  The first fifty plus pages include casual descriptions of animal slaughter. Laura and Mary are happy to play a balloon made of a pig’s bladder. Laura sometimes expresses sadness at the need to kill animals if she has become attached to them.  Much more challenging is Laura’s description of corporal punishment.  During an argument with her sister Mary, Laura slaps Mary.  Children today will still identify with the cause: Laura’s jealousy has been provoked by her sister’s “golden hair,” when her own hair is brown.  Pa uses a strap to “whip” Laura, an act clearly identified today as abuse.  The most devastating part of this incident is that, after being beaten by her father, Laura sits on his lap “and everything was all right again.”

Continue reading “A Few Thoughts about Little House”

We Need Dr. Seuss, Now More Than Ever

Book Referenced:  Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1986 (reprint of 1958 edition)

The ALSC, the children’s services arm of the American Library Association, is currently discussing the possibility of renaming some of their awards, which honor achievement in the field of children’s literature. Two of the awards under consideration are the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for “a substantial and lasting contribution” to books for children, and the Geisel Award, for an outstanding book for beginning readers. Aside from the larger issue of balancing the need for respect and cultural diversity with recognition of literary excellence, the two authors whose names are identified with these awards are quite different. While Wilder’s entire body of work is defined by her pioneer narratives, in which the displacement of Native Americans is an essential theme, Dr. Seuss was involved in many more different types of work over his long career. I have written on this blog before (here and here) about why I believe that calls for his removal from libraries, homes, or awards result from a lack of historical understanding.  It often seems that his critics fail to understand the political climate in the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s, when Geisel/Dr. Seuss was a courageous opponent of isolationism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.  I am aware that he also supported the internment of Japanese Americans, and I believe that is unforgivable. He later went on to support progressive causes, and he revolutionized beginning readers in a way which has benefited all children.

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Everyone knows that Yertle the Turtle is a bully and a fascist.  Dr. Seuss’s cautionary and inspiring tale about the need to speak truth to power was published as a book with two other stories in 1958.  Let’s review what happens when an insignificant and insecure would-be dictator actually assumes power. Quotes that do not rhyme are from a Yertle today, one unknown to Dr. Seuss, yet repeatedly described and mocked in his work:

“I’m ruler,” said Yertle, “of all that I see.
But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me….
If I could sit high, how much greater I’d be!
What a king! I’d be ruler of all I could see!”

 “I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency so far”
Des Moines Register, 2/06/15

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“But that isn’t all.  I’ll do better than that!
I’m king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
My throne shall be higher! His royal voice thundered,
“So pile up more turtles! I want ‘bout two hundred!”

“I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.”
Phoenix rally, August, 2017

 

 “You shut up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.”

“I would never kill them (reporters), but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true.”
Speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, December, 2015

 

“You stay in your place while I sit here and rule.
I’m king of a cow! And I’m king of a mule!”

“Spend more time working – less time talking.”
Advice to United Steel Workers union in tweet, December, 2016

In the near future, we hope to see the ending of Yertle the Turtle repeated, applied today as it did to tyrants in Dr. Seuss’s era:

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“I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
“And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course…all turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

 

 

 

 

Don Freeman’s Corduroy Turns Fifty

Books Referenced:
Corduroy – Don Freeman, Viking Books for Young Readers, 2008 (40th anniversary edition)
A Pocket for Corduroy – Don Freeman, Viking, 1978

I recently learned that the Museum of the City of New York will unveil a retrospective exhibit on the work of author and illustrator Don Freeman (1908-1978) in the fall of this year. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Corduroy’s debut in his eponymous book, as well as the fortieth of his sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy. Freeman, a respected illustrator of New York City life, was well known for including working people and the world of Broadway theater (his son maintains an extensive website of his legacy).  Yet he also wrote an illustrated children’s books and became most famous for his portrait of a bear who almost isn’t purchased from a toy store partly because he is missing a button.

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Freeman was Jewish and white; the story’s human characters are African-American. As with Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, this choice is presented as unremarkable, although it was much remarked upon, since it was still unusual in 1968.  Corduroy’s story is about an affectionate little girl, Lisa, with a responsible if busy mother, and Lisa’s conviction that she really does want a slightly imperfect toy bear who really needs a parent figure himself.

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Corduroy lives on the shelf in a department store, randomly housed between an oversized bunny and a cute doll. In the next picture, the doll has disappeared. Apparently, someone has taken her home. When Lisa identifies the bear as “the very bear I’ve always wanted,” her tired mother replies, not unreasonably, that she has already spent too much on their shopping trip, and that the bear is damaged goods.

They leave, and Corduroy then does what children suspect their toys do when their owners aren’t around. He boards an escalator and winds up in the bedroom furnishings. As a child might do if he is bored being dragged around a store, Corduroy uses his imagination: “This must be a palace…I guess I’ve always wanted to live in a palace.”  That “I guess” leaves room for the happy conclusion. Lisa finds some money in her piggy bank and she returns to the store to buy Corduroy. She does not bring him to a palace, but up four flights of stairs to her urban apartment, where she sews a button on his overalls. The important point about the button is that Corduroy doesn’t really need it: “I like you the way you are…but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened.”

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Freeman’s pictures are understated, with Corduroy’s different positions in different situations showing movement naturally.  His feet fly up in the air as he grasps a lamp to keep from falling; in the next page, his hands cover his ears as protection from the noise.  In a really memorable image of vulnerability, only Corduroy’s ears stick out from the blanket as a night watchman shines a flashlight on him; the watchman then pulls back the linens to reveal the misplaced toy.

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In A Pocket for Corduroy, the bear has another close call, also resolved by some good luck and by Lisa’s protective love for him.  He winds up left in a sack at the local laundromat where, fortunately, a kindly bearded hipster (as we would call him today) rescues him until Lisa returns the next day.  She brings him home once again and makes him an ID card and a pocket to put it in. If you have ever spent hours looking for a child’s beloved toy, you will feel immense relief and gratitude for the kindness of strangers.

There are so many positive and reassuring moments in both these books, all of them natural and understated.  Children reading or listening to the book will identify both with Corduroy and with Lisa, and will feel drawn to a world where parents and other adults take care of children, and children learn to take care of other small and vulnerable beings.  That’s why we still appreciate Corduroy and can look forward to the upcoming exhibit.

 

 

 

 

The Legacy of Alice Provensen (1918-2018)

I was saddened to read in The New York Times this morning that Alice Provensen had died.   Along with her husband Martin (1916-1987), as well as in her independent career, Alice’s distinctive style found its subject in a wide range of subjects: history, poetry, and delightful original stories for children. They illustrated their own writing as well as the work of other authors.

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The lush colors and fantastic swirling images of The Color Kittens, the information-packed parade of U.S. presidents in The Buck Stops Here, (updated  in 2013 to include President Obama), and the Provensen original interpretation of both Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and traditional  Mother Goose rhymes, are all unforgettable.  Much of her work is still in print, including the recent A Day in the Life of Murphy and Murphy in the City¸ but some of the most outstanding of the Provensens’ work can only be purchased on the secondary market: The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends Adapted from the World’s Great Classics by Anne Terry White, The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales, and Leonardo da Vinci. These are sophisticated works with high expectations of young readers.  Why must they disappear?

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The Provensens won a Caldecott for The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot July 25, 1909, and a Caldecott Honor for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by the brilliantly inventive poet Nancy Willard (1936-2017). The latter is an incredible achievement, with Willard’s original poems and the Provensens’ artwork conjuring a fictional past rooted in Blake’s life.  The Provensens include primitivism, medieval imagery, and the architecture of 18th and 19th century London, as ingredients in their indelible vision of the poet and his imagined guests.  Tigers and cats sleep side by side, busy artisans work at their trades, and the Blake himself composes poetry undisturbed by all the activity.  The subjects this book encourages for discussion with children, as well as adults, include the Romantic Age, Blake’s work, architecture and art, and the creative process itself. A related work also by Nancy Willard and the Provensens, The Voyage of the Ludgate Hill: Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson, also opens a window to the past, with the Provensens’ Stevenson holding to the ship’s mast, his tie fluttering in the wind, and a copy of Treasure Island in his hand.

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The world of children’s literature has lost an artist who embodied all the best qualities of her profession: genius, originality, continuity, breadth and range of work, and respect for the intelligence and imagination of children.

A Purse That Everyone Needs

Book Reviewed:  Grandma’s Purse – Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018

If you are a grandma, had a grandma, and whether or not you or your grandma carried a purse, this is the book for you.  Vanessa Brantley-Newman’s Grandma’s Purse is not so much about Grandma’s accessories as about the deep well of boundless love and approval that her purse symbolically holds.  Brantley-Newman is a prolific author and illustrator. Unfortunately, she received some negative publicity during the controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a book that Scholastic actually removed from production because of its unfortunate implication that Washington’s slave was happy and honored to serve him.

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I cannot defend that book, but Vanessa Brantley-Newman is a gifted artist who has contributed so much more: Grandma’s Purse is one beautiful example. Brantley-Newton is described in the book’s cover copy as a “self-taught Illustrator, doll maker, and crafter,” and that modest list of her qualifications is evident in her portrayal of Grandma Mimi and the little girl who looks forward to her visits. Mimi looks old, in a really nice way! She has lovely grey curly hair,… Continue reading “A Purse That Everyone Needs”