Books referenced: Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story -Pat Zietlow Miller and Jill McElmurry, Schwartz & Wade, 2015; Mad About Plaid – Jill McElmurry, Harper Collins, 2000; It’s a Miracle: A Hanukkah Storybook – Stephanie Spinner and Jill McElmurry, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003
This past August, we lost the wonderful illustrator, Jill McElmurry. It is surprising how few mainstream media publications reported her death or described her life’s work. McElmurry is probably best known as the illustrator of the popular Little Blue Truck series, written by Alice Schertle. Jill McElmurry was 62 years old.
Oddly, I learned of her death today when I decided to post a short piece for Thanksgiving, based on her beautiful homage to a traditional American Thanksgiving celebration, Sharing the Bread, with text by Pat Zietlow Miller.
Traditional here does not refer to historical accuracy or diversity. Instead, the book pairs simple rhymes resonant with American folklore with “primitive” gouache and watercolor paintings of an extended family enjoying their blessings. On the one hand, it seems frozen in the past, with no attempt to question a custom that ignores the tragedy of Native Americans. On the other hand, it depicts father, brother, and grandfather cooking, basting and serving food, adding an interesting dimension to the story. The richness of the colors and the details of 19th century cooking utensils and furniture provide an authentic background to the narrative.
McElmurry was also the author and illustrator of the wildly imaginative Mad About Plaid, about a little girl’s Midas-like odyssey; instead of gold, everything she touches turns to plaid. As we enter the holiday season, I would also like to mention It’s a Miracle: A Hanukkah Storybook, written by Stephanie Spinner and illustrated by McElmurry. The book goes beyond the traditional pictures of dreidels and menorahs, adding aliens in a spaceship who arrive in New Jersey where they celebrate Hanukkah.
The book also includes a series of fables related by Grandma Karen, including one about a kindly dentist who teaches his parrot to say “Good yontif,” (holiday), as well as “Yippee! No cavities.” McElmurry’s cast of family members have exaggerated facial expressions ranging from terrifying to nurturing. The text matches the pictures perfectly. The book jacket biography includes McElmurry’s statement that she is not Jewish, but that “Working on It’s a Miracle!” gave me the chance to step for a moment into the warm light of Hanukkah in a fun way.” I would like to thank her for that, too.