A Literate Bear

Bearnard’s Book – written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Misa Saburi
Godwin Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2019

Bearnard Writes a Book – written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Misa Saburi
Godwin Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2022

Bears play many roles in children’s books. They may be big, lumbering friends, or hibernating mammals looking for the perfect cave, or beloved stuffed animals that come to life.  Deborah Underwood and Misa Saburi’s bear is large, friendly, and a bit naïve, but he’s also a lover of books.  In his first appearance, he is thrilled to receive a letter from the Queen of Storybook Land, informing him that he has been chosen to be the character in a book. What could be more exciting?  In the second volume, as often happens to bibliophiles, he determines to become an author himself.  Sweet and witty at the same time, both books invite children to think about what it means to use their imagination, and to take a step beyond into creativity.

Bearnard doesn’t just passively accept his new role as literary character. He weighs the most promising possibilities: astronaut, superhero, knight.  Then he decides to do a little research, and here Underwood draws in parents and caregivers as well as kids. He might emulate “a bear who floated away in an umbrella,” a bear whose favorite food is marmalade, or the three porridge-eating bears who make the mistake of leaving their home unattended. (The endings are not predetermined, with a terrifying monster taking the place of a curious little girl.) Sometimes authors take an easier route, offering in-jokes to parents that will go over children’s heads, but there is none of that patronizing tone here.  Adults can explain the allusions, but even without that input, kids will relate to Bearnard’s earnest approach to his new opportunity.

Saburi’s lovely pictures reflect her own mastery of classic children’s book illustrations, but also great use of color and composition, and sensitivity to the way that children visualize the world.  In one two-page spread from Bearnard’s Writes a Book, our hero sits on a couch reading the earlier story.  He is large and solid, but not out of proportion to the substantial couch, the goose friend sitting next to him, or the sagging bookshelf overlooking the scene.  The facing page gives an extended view of his home, including a refrigerator also topped with books, a water cooler that dispenses honey, and a pair of sturdy boots. He’s a fully realized character. Saburi’s depiction of the writing process is also on-target, as a perfectionist challenged by writer’s block slumps at his desk and litters the floor with rejected manuscripts. The final page resolves the book’s conflicts, with Bearnard and Gertie the goose as collaborators.  They look out a wide window, their backs to the reader, while absorbed in their work.  Goose’s small, elevated platform to reach her desk is the kind of tool every writer needs.

The potential plots that Bearnard considers include some scary pirates and a goose who transforms into a dragon, but also the more mundane challenge of a broken crayon. The joys and frustrations of writing are presented to kids as real and tough, but not overwhelming.  These books are perfect for people who already are drawn to literacy, but also for those just beginning to consider its possibilities.


The Story of Bodri – written by Hédi Fried, illustrated by Stina Wirsén
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2021 (Originally published in Sweden, 2019)

This is an unusual book and it requires both courage and sensitivity to share with children. The author, Hédi Fried, (1924-2022) was a survivor of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She became a psychologist, and lectured widely about her own experiences and their implications for the world. The first-person narrator of The Story of Bodri is a child, explaining the persecution and imprisonment she suffers and her ultimate liberation. Bodri is her dog; they are separated when the Nazis inflict the Final Solution on Europe’s Jews. I would not suggest reading this with children of the narrator’s age; they are too young. It would be appropriate for older readers, educators, and other people who work with children. The book’s subtle combination of revealing truths too horrible for children to contemplate, and revealing those truths from the perspective of a child, is compelling.

Like many Holocaust accounts, it begins in a normal home of loving family members and a sense of security. Bodri, the Hédi’s pet, is a guard dog who protects the community. Because the narrator’s voice is convincing, there is no irony in her innocent statement that “…I knew Bodri was watching over our family and our little town.”  Hédi’s best friend, Marika, is just like her, in the way that children describe intensely close friendships. There is only one difference. “I was Jewish. Marika wasn’t.” 

Hédi’s life is shattered when Hitler comes to power. Unlike the vast majority of picture books illustrators, Stina Wirsén has chosen to directly portray the dictator. His horrifying face emerges from the radio in a dark cloud. It appears again, even larger in scale, looming behind the terrified girl and her mother as they walk with arms raised, at gunpoint. Once Hédi and her sister are interned, Fried’s description is a careful distillation of the facts, while still avoiding some of the most terrifying truths. The prisoners are cold, hungry, thirsty, scared. Their uniforms are dirty and their shoes, hard wooden clogs. Wirsén’s picture shows emaciated figures with shaved heads standing behind barbed wire. Descriptions of the actual mass murders are avoided, but neither words nor pictures are sanitized.

The illustrations have a tremendous impact because of Wirsén’s delicate use of watercolor and ink, as well as digital media, to express the whole range of Fried’s experiences. Her happy family is first rendered in light green and deep yellows, with Bodri a reassuringly solid dark brown. Then, dark clouds of color explode over their home. A scene of beauty in a public park is punctuated by a sign on the bench reading “Für Juden verboten. No Jews allowed.” Later, when the Nazis have been defeated, Bodri sits under a tree with deep green leaves, which turn to “copper-red autumn robes” as the season changes. The natural world has remained a constant while the world of human-caused horrors was buried in devastation. Adjacent pages show Hédi and her younger sister as inmates, and then as girls again in flowered dresses. They will never be the same as they were before the tragedy; this is not a Holocaust book that ends on a false note of hope. Fried’s simple statement of purpose, “So that it will never happen again,” is directed at the future, although it cannot change the past.

Drawing Outside of the Lines

The Boy and the Mountain – written by Mario Bellini, illustrated by Marianna Coppo
Tundra Books, 2022

I’ve reviewed other books both written and illustrated by Marianna Coppo.  In The Boy and the Mountain she partners as illustrator with author Mario Bellini, and the result is terrific. We’re still in the universe of the imagination, where kids successfully navigate the normal perils of childhood in inventive ways. The title would seem to imply a difference in scale; a boy is quite small in relation to a mountain. But when you’re drawing on graph paper, you have the freedom to enlarge, minimize, and equate anything. You hold the pencil and crayons, and it’s up to you.

The book is presented as a fable. “There once was a boy who always looked at a mountain.”Why is the mountain so central to his vision? It’s a constant in his life, there when he wakes up and before he falls asleep. Naturally, he wants to capture the mountain as an image, so he can both control it and keep it forever. If you have ever been involved in an art project with a child, you know that she or he can become frustrated when an idea doesn’t easily conform to its realization. Coppo sets the boy’s drawing on graph paper within a frame of writing implements and erasers. The small squares should help him to build his scene, but he still has trouble.

The graph paper element is one of the most interesting choices in the story. There is always tension between using helpful limits, like meter in poetry or figurative requirements in art, and letting your style run free. Children, and sometimes adults, even use stencils or pre-made pictures to color. Graph paper is a compromise. Yet the graph paper never seems to contain the boy’s imagination. Birds in flight, a friendly goat who is pleased with his portrait, even an accidentally smudged blue stream, all assume a life of their own. The boy begins to understand that art cannot be pinned down, even within a set of squares. He cannot draw all the leaves that he sees; “there wasn’t enough room for all of them.” Bellini and Coppo transform a universal moment of the child’s consciousness into an elegant work full of empathy. No one can duplicate all the wonders of the world in a picture, but we can create something new, which is even better. Instead of feeling resigned, the boy is finally satisfied with his efforts, and goes to sleep happy. The Boy and the Mountain does not rely on a facile Zen moment, but rather a deep sense of children’s emotions when they set their favorite mountain on a piece of paper and it looks just right. Adults may have a similar response to this eloquent book.

Union Maid

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid…

Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children – written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020

Children don’t know enough about the history of labor unions and activism in this country. One solution is to share with them Jonah Winter and Nancy Carpenter’s resounding call for bravery, Mother Jones and Her Army of Courage. It tells the story of how, in 1903, labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led an army of exploited child laborers across the country, with the goal of exposing the exploitation and cruelty that ruined their young lives. Narrated in her voice and directly addressing the reader, Winter keeps up the pace on every age.  First, we learn that Mother Jones is enraged at injustice. Then, she explains how the wealthiest Americans live in luxury, their conscience-free existences supported by the grueling labor of others, including children.  Then, she reports how she and her army of kids took matters into their own hands, publicizing their cause from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay Long Island, where they hoped to confront President Theodore Roosevelt. They hoped to gain his empathy or at least provoke some shame.

The book begins with quotes from Mother Jones embedded in iconic drawings on the endpapers.  A hammer, a factory, a restrictive women’s corset, are all filled with the words that defined her cause.  One of the best features of Winter’s approach is the way he unapologetically demands attention. There is certainly a place for picture book biographies that narrate events in the third person and explain, or suggest, their significance. That approach is valuable. Here, instead, readers have an informative, factual and carefully researched story framed with high drama.  Children will not be bored reading, or listening to, this book! Interspersed with quotes from Mother Jones herself are Winter’s words; he captures the essence of Mother Jones’s message without merely paraphrasing her.  Quotes and his text work together to move the story forward.

Carpenter’s pictures evoke the early twentieth century economic boom and its dark side.  Barefoot children with delicate limbs work machinery. Robber barons in pinstripes laugh at the apparently pointless attacks on their greed, assuming that they had all the power of monopoly capitalism.  But Mother Jones reveals their potential weakness: “Money is a powerful thing. But there is power in the people. There is POWER in the UNION – the union of workers marching side by side, demanding better lives.”  Carpenter’s Mother Jones is an older woman wearing glasses and an ankle-length black dress, but fronting an army of revolutionary kids, she is powerful.  As for her unlikely attempt to reach Roosevelt: “Flashbulbs flashed, and before you could say ‘Piscataway,’ we’d gotten our pictures in all the local papers….Why stop at New York? Why not march to the fancy-schmancy Long Island summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt himself?”

This past Sunday there was a long piece of investigative journalism in The New York Times about child labor. If you think there is exaggeration for the sake of effect in this book, read the article.  Most of the companies contacted by journalists either refused to comment or promised to look into the situation.  The most obtuse response came from Ben & Jerry’s “head of values-led sourcing,” who shamelessly justified the company’s exploitation of children with the outrageous logic that “if immigrant children needed to work full time, it was preferable for them to have jobs in a well-monitored workplace.” Mother Jones, in Winter’s text, would reply this way:

          I saw children…tying threads to spinning spools, reaching their hands inside the dangerous

          machines that make the fabric, sometimes getting their skirts caught, sometimes getting

          hair caught,…working for hours and hours, never resting…robbed of their childhoods,

          robbed of their dreams, and all for a measly TWO CENTS AN HOUR, while outside the

          birds sang and the blue sky shone.

Add dairy equipment to textiles and slightly elevate the wage, but the motives are the same.

The two-page spread of Mother Jones parade with her children up Fourth Avenue shows the young workers as determined, patriotic, Americans, holding both flags of their country and signs protesting injustice.  Police stand silently by, and onlookers watch from balconies and windows.  This is real social justice activism, with both noble goals and pragmatic solutions.  Lots of people oppressed those children but many other supported them and worked for change. It’s the same today.  Read this book with your kids and students to learn more.

Where the Wild Girl Is

Be Wild, Little One– written by Olivia Hope, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2023

There are no quiet indoor voices in this book.  The narrator directly addresses an outgoing and active child whose imagination takes flight in the natural world.  In brightly colored pictures and rhythmic text set in large font, she rides with elephants, wings with chimpanzees, and travels into a storm in her hot air balloon made of dandelion. There is no return home to a hot supper (apologies to Maurice Sendak) and no transition to the everyday world.  Be Wild, Little One is a straightforward celebration of untamed childhood.

There are realistic elements to the girl. She wears a striped t-shirt and shorts, and her hair is no more unruly than might be expected.  When she appears nesting inside a flower or riding on an elephant’s trunk, she is still identifiable as a real person.  The scale of her adventures varies, since in the flower scene she is smaller than a butterfly, but just the size one would expect in relation to the elephant.  She defies gravity when dancing with fireflies, but runs on the ground alongside a rabbit. The colors of nature predominate in Daniel Egnéus’s images: the star white of snow, a fading blue night sky, the deep green of a forest.

Olivia Hope’s words mix description and metaphor, although children reading or listening to the book need not see that distinction.  When the girl is told to “Run with wolves through mountain snow,” there are no perils suggested by that activity.  On the other hand, “Stomp and stamp, clap and cheer. Sing your song for all to hear!” corresponds to any child’s ordinary activities.  There is implied reassurance in the reminder that “Storms will come, but storms will go,” and an allusion to classic fairy tales in the direction to wish on a star.  Every one of these scenarios is part of the definition of childhood as a time of unfettered freedom. 

No doubt, children know that their routines are not defined by befriending wild animals or sitting atop a castle, but they also know that such imaginary journeys sometimes surface in the midst of more mundane events.  By insistently repeating the message to “Be wild,” Hope implies that the two parts of life don’t need to contradict one another.  The book’s assumption is a refreshing one. Sometimes kids just need to be wild, without specifying the inevitable return to reality.

It’s Elementary, in More Ways Than One

Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock – written by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Isabelle Follath
Tundra Books, 2022

Children love stories, and often mysteries, whether or not they are familiar with the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.  Linda Bailey and Isabelle Follath have used this elementary truth to devise a rational, beautiful, and entertaining introduction to the inventor of one of literature’s greatest sleuths (Bailey has previously written a picture-book biography of Mary Shelley).  Their picture book biography of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) begins with the premise that young Arthur was always drawn to stories, carrying that quality into adulthood as he added to the pantheon of fictional problem solvers. 

The book begins by posing a question: Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Bailey asks, if you created one of the most popular characters in literature? “Or…would it?”  Holmes’s famous profile, as well as his pipe, violin, and a magnifying glass, accompany this challenge.  Young readers are now prepared to consider the premise that even when dreams are fulfilled, problems may follow.  Arthur’s childhood is not perfect.  His father is severely compromised in the parenting department.  Bailey is careful not to assign blame: “He has problems with alcohol, and when he can’t work, there is even less money.” But, as children no doubt realize, all of these issues have an impact, and young Arthur’s life is tough and unfair.

Fortunately, Arthur has a mother as enraptured by fiction as he is.  Follath (who has also illustrated the great Aggie Morton Series) shows this Victorian mom preparing supper, a book stuffed in her apron pocket, as she regales Arthur and his sister with “thrilling” stories narrated with sound effects. Even the family’s cat pays attention, as fantastic images of knights and mythical beasts emerge from her the steam in her soup pot. Evidently, domesticity is not a barrier to imagination; it’s appropriate to be reminded how much influence a bright and compassionate parent can have on her children.

Eventually, Arthur has to leave the hearth and attend boarding school, in an environment that may not be familiar to young readers. Those equations on the blackboard look rather challenging for the young students, and the teacher’s motivating techniques involve physical punishment and humiliation.  Follath draws this with restraint, but the sadness on Arthur’s face, and the protective way he attempts to cover his slate, make it clear that he is miserable. 

Eventually Arthur becomes a role model to younger children, and then attends medical school.  He is resilient and determined, and still enraptured by books. Bailey connects the disparate parts of his life into a continuous search: studies, a whaling voyage, and the beginnings of his medical practice.  How will an intelligent and rational man reared on tales of wonder put the pieces of his life together? It’s elementary.  He will construct a detective as unique as himself. Holmes will be “brilliant and scientific.” He will observe the world like a hawk and “even look like a hawk.” Surrounded by books and inkwells, Conan Doyle is a seemingly modest and hard-working author. Yet Holmes emerges dramatically, consuming most of the space on the two-page spread. 

Arthur will be persistent in the face of rejection, continually trying new approaches to his literary project.  Eventually, when Holmes stories are serialized in magazines, Conan Doyle finds the success that had been elusive.  (Here is good opportunity to explain to children what serialized magazine fiction meant in the pre-social media era.).  But even success leads to problems.  The now-famous author learns that he is not in complete control when he tries to end his character’s life and career.  Follath drawing literally renders the mechanism Conan Doyle used to bring Holmes back to life, a clearly labeled series of figures making clear that his resurrection was not magical. Once again, reason triumphs, although Bailey points out that the gullibility of fans has played a part.  (There is another good lesson to discuss with kids.)

At the end of the book, Arthur Conan Doyle is an old man, tremendously successful and still surrounded by books. Two young would-be Holmeses follow in his footsteps, literally and figuratively.  Whatever the goals of the children in your life, Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock encourages them to both dream and pursue what they love.  The book includes a wonderfully readable and informative author’s note and a list of sources.

Books and Freedom

Love in the Library – written by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, illustrated by Yas Imamura
Candlewick Press, 2022

Two bookish young people fall in love in a library.  In Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Yas Imamura’s picture, book, based on events in the lives of the author’s grandparents, that library is not a quiet and safe space of contemplation.  Tama works in the library of the Minidoka internment camp during World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 implemented the unjust policy of incarcerating Japanese Americans, both citizens and residents, because of the alleged threat they posed to the United States.  (This topic is also covered in the children’s book A Scarf for Keiko.)  When a young man, George, becomes a regular library patron, Tama finds her job enhanced with greater meaning.  This is a book about two people who fall in love against a background of hatred, finding in one another not only consolation, but evidence of hope for the future.

The books endpapers depict fences and barbed wire, and readers learn the basic facts surrounding Tama and George’s imprisonment.  The author and illustrator depict Minidoka realistically, neither minimizing nor embellishing its horrible conditions. Tama had been “relocated,” to use the misleading euphemism, from the West Coast to the Idaho desert, where extremes and heat and cold, along with spartan living conditions, were a cruel daily reality.  In understated text which conveys Tama’s emotions, Tokuda-Hall captures the inner life of a frightened and frustrated young woman: “Constant questions. Constant worries. Constant fear.”

Yet there is also a sense of community, as well as Tama’s liberating access to a rich imagination.  Outside, men and boys play baseball. Inside, while she helps select books for others, and sits immersed in them herself.  “Tama loved books,” a matter-of-fact statement, becomes a key to her preservation of life before the war and maybe after, as well.  There is underlying sadness, and tension between the joy Tama still finds in reading and the pointlessness of life within the fences and watchtowers of the camp.

George is not a knight-in-shining armor rescuing a distressed maiden.  But he is constant, the same adjective used to characterize Tama’s fears.  Imamura’s pictures mix reality and its alternative, literary dreams and dreams of a future.  Figures from fairy tales and medieval lore emerge from the pages of a book. 

Tama and George sit across from one another at a table amid stacks of books, while outside the window the guard tower is clearly visible.  They both search for the right words to express their anger, buried beneath the surface of accommodation to circumstances beyond their control.  “Everyone at Minidoka knew. ‘I try not to complain. I know this isn’t fair…I try not to be afraid.’” The composition of images also reflects this need for a sense of control, as Tama and George join hands across two open books on an otherwise empty surface.

The concluding pages present the vision of a new postwar life for the young couple and their family, but also a two-page spread returning to their past in the camp.  In an almost utopian scene, a guard holds a rifle, but an elderly couple socialize, children happily play, and Tama and George embrace.  The author comments, “That was humans doing what humans do best,” a modest summation of her tribute to family, community, and anyone struggling to survive oppression. 

Aggie Morton, Trailblazing Again

Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Seaside Corpse – written by Marthe Jocelyn, with illustrations by Isabelle Follath
Tundra Books, 2022

Aggie Morton, confident girl detective, is back. In the fourth adventure (reviews of the others can be found here and here), she and her loyal friend and interpreter of clues, Hector Perot, are participating in a paleontology dig.  Socially, if not geographically, far from her well-appointed home, Aggie is the first female Morton to sleep in a tent, as her brother-in-law James observes without an ounce of condescension.  If you haven’t read the previous Aggie Morton books, they are crime novels loosely based on an imaginative approach to Agatha Christie’s childhood. Each book stands alone with no knowledge of Christie’s work required, although fans of both Christie and Marthe Jocelyn will be thrilled to find Aggie and Hector once again confronted with an apparent unsolved murder.

The novels are rooted in historical reality; The Seaside Corpse reflects early twentieth century fascination with dinosaurs, as well as the ongoing popularity of less scientific area attractions. An American millionaire and a British Barnum-like entrepreneur would both like to get their hands on a fossilized ichthyosaur, but first husband and wife team of Howard and Nina Blenningham-Crewe will need to excavate “Izzy” from fossil-rich beaches of Lyme Regis.  Although a book for middle-grade readers and older, Jocelyn does not shy away from marital conflict, in this scenario observed by the young apprentice scientists. Aggie and the other female characters are challenges to stereotypes of women and girls, and Hector is the ideal, supportive boy who will undoubtedly grow up to be the same kind of man. Aggie’s no-nonsense Grannie Jane there is also on the scene, demonstrating how strong young women can develop into equally assertive older women. 

Jocelyn is funny without descending to parody.  Her control of language is as precise as the rational methods which Agatha and Hector applying to solving mysteries.  No wonder Agatha is successful! Her dedication is far stronger than the limited expectations of her class for affluent, if intelligent, young women: “I had a moment’s pang, thinking how lovely it would be to stay another night in the hotel…but that was not to be.  We had a murder to attend to! If Hector could face mosquitoes and nettles, I most certainly could do without a bergamot bubble bath.”

Interspersed throughout the chapters are newspaper articles, accurate, understated, but also laced with sensation.

Isabelle Follath’s black-and-white drawings are like delicate accessories added to chapter titles.  “A Lovely Respite” is accompanied by a tiered display of sandwiches and cake, while “An Unanticipated Truth” features two glasses, one ominously fallen on its side.  As in the other novels, the book opens with portraits of everyone the reader will meet, each one labeled for handy reference.  An author’s note and list of sources clarify Jocelyn’s framework for the story and reflect her obvious love of the project.  A description on the flyleaf refers to The Seaside Corpse as Aggie and Hector’s “fourth and final mystery,” but, if Arthur Conan Doyle could revive Sherlock Holmes, maybe readers could hope for more from this young team. In the meantime, there is plenty of rewarding material here for readers, young and older, who enjoy informed, literate, and inventive fun.

Not Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour – written by Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block
Tundra Books, 2015

The Further Adventures of Miss Petitfour – written by Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block
Tundra Books, 2022

Miss Petitfour is not Mary Poppins.  She does like children, and she can fly, but both her eccentricities and her empathy set her apart from one of her most obvious inspirations.  In two episodic collections, so far, readers follow her, along with her human friends and collection of cats, as she helps her neighbors, indulges in creative pastimes, and evokes both fun and sophisticated lessons about language for children and adults alike.

As you read about Miss Petitfour, you will learn to like the fact that much of what happens is a digression, a word highlighted by both italics and a different color font.  Similarly, a child named Carlos Cornelius Carruther sits, not in a stroller, but in a perambulator, and festooning appears as a way to decorate a Christmas tree. Most important, you will learn that eccentricity means “a quirky thing we like to do just because.” That definition summarizes the whole experience of the two books, with the quirkiness matched by the lovely illustrations by Emma Block.

Each chapter of Miss Petitfour’s adventures can stand alone, although in total the stories add up to a portrait of a colorful and compassionate character. Unlike Mary Poppins, who often gaslights her young charges (“Up in the air?…What do you mean, pray, up in the air?”), Miss Petitfour kindly helps out at the jumble sale in the first book, and teaches her young friend, Pleasant Patel, about anagrams in the second. One of my favorite chapters in The Adventures features Miss Petitfour’s philately (stamp collecting) and a near mishap with the extremely valuable first British postage stamp, the Penny Black. As the author, Anne Michaels, describes it to children or stamp neophytes, this stamp features “a lovely little picture of Queen Victoria wearing her crown, with her hair pulled back in what looks like a ponytail.  Imagine a queen with a ponytail!” The description of Miss Petitfour captures the essence of pure fun without a practical purpose, as she pores over her album on a snowy day, accompanied by her cats.

When the valuable stamp sticks to a cat’s paw, and then takes flight out the window, chaos ensues, but everything is ultimately resolved with the help of friends.  The combination of patience, chance, and community spirit add up to a satisfying conclusion.  In the second book, Miss Petitfour prepares a picnic lunch, or burgoo, for the local racing event.  As always, the text and pictures complement each other perfectly; readers will visualize the “piles of carrot swords and celery paintbrushes” along with seeing the illustration. Of course, there is a digression about the history and different varieties of olives.  There is some confusion involving runners, cats, and a lucky charm, but the day ends happily with a delicious meal. By the way, “tail” and “tale” are homophones. Both and homage to classic children’s books and an up-to-date excursion to a slightly quirky world, both Miss Petitfour books are worth the trip, no flying is necessary.

Tokyo Holiday

Jasmine Toguchi, Brave Explorer – written by Debbi Michiko Florence, pictures by Elizabet Vuković.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022

Debbi Michiko Florence graciously dedicates this fifth installment in the Jasmine Toguchi book series to all her readers who requested more about Jasmine. I am one of those readers, and I was not disappointed by Jasmine’s latest adventure.  (I had reviewed the earlier four Jasmine Toguchi entries here and here and here and here, and another Debbi Michiko Florence middle grade novel here).  While the series is about the challenges of childhood and Jasmine’s emotional growth, there is an actual element of adventure in this one, as Jasmine and her family visit Japan, affording her an opportunity to finally encounter the country of her heritage, previously experienced through her parents’ and grandmother’s experiences.  As always, Florence captures subtleties not always present in chapter books for young readers.  Jasmine is a real person. Her delight in the sights and tastes of Tokyo is as tangible as her frustration at confronting the immovable force of a difficult older sister.

The book is not a pretext for a brief introduction to Japan. Jasmine’s excitement, her parents’ empathy, and her older sister Sophie’s apparent failure to understand Jasmine’s perspective are thoroughly believable. At the same time, the setting, a new departure for the series, adds a distinct dimension.  The reader views Tokyo Tower, a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, and the simultaneously new and familiar aspects of Japanese food through Jasmine’s eyes.  Although Jasmine, unlike Sophie, has not undertaken a systematic study of language and customs, she is more open to assimilating all she sees. As the novel progresses, we learn why Sophie’s methodical approach may not be more sophisticated than Jasmine’s, so much as different. 

Journal entries alternate with the narrative, both written in the first person.  Jasmine’s observations are those of a bright, curious child, and they ring true.  A trip on the subway is a radical departure from the familiar: “It was quiet as a library. People were reading books or looking at their phones. Kids like me were sitting silently…How was I supposed to know this rule?”  Jasmine is adaptable because she pays attention, summarizes, and notes her discomfort. Then she learns.  What matters to children may not be as significant to adults, but Jasmine’s parents are attuned to their daughters’ needs.  Visiting the Sensoji Temple, Jasmine is impressed by the “…ginormous red lantern with Japanese kanji in black written on it,” and the ritual of burning incense, but she is also captivated by the omamori (good luck charms) available for sale.  Her parents explain everything and also indulge her with souvenirs.

The pictures are an integral part of the story. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Jasmine with a different illustrator! They give a sense of Elizabet Vuković reading the story and stopping at key points to enhance it with her images. Of course, that’s not the way the process necessarily works, but a reflection of the way that the text and pictures seem to be seamlessly connected.  The careful attention to facial expressions, as well as important objects and foods, advance the plot but also encourage the reader to pause for emphasis. In her author’s note, Florence provides instructions for using hasi (chopsticks), and a recipe for dorayaki pancakes, accompanied by Vuković’s graphics.  But all the illustrations coordinate closely with the text, not in the sequential form of a graphic novel but with a similar kind of clear correspondence.

The next volume of the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Peace-Maker, is due to appear in March, and it continues the setting in Japan.  In many ways, Debi Michiko Florence reminds me of some of the best classic authors for children in her ability to remember and communicate what it is to be a child.  Reading Jasmine Toguchi, Brave Explorer, I was reminded of Patricia Reilly Giff’s wonderful Polk Street School books. Although perhaps best known for her Newbery winning Lily’s Crossing (blog), her series fiction was also memorable. In the special editions, Next Stop, New York City! Look Out, Washington D.C. and Oh Boy, Boston! the kids broaden their horizons by learning about new places.  Of course, Jasmine’s connection to Japan is more specific, but both authors know how to elevate these cultural forays above the level of social studies textbooks. Wherever Jasmine goes, we hope to follow her.