Not the Little Mermaid

Mermaid Dreams – Kate Pugsley, Tundra Books, 2019

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Who doesn’t love a mermaid? With a fin in both worlds, this fantastic creature seems to appeal to the human desire to be more than one thing at once.  In Mermaid Dreams, author and illustrator Kate Pugsley adds a new resident to the undersea world when Maya, a bored and lonely little girl, finds herself transformed into an agile and beautiful being.  With bold colors and simple shapes reminiscent of both Maira Kalman and Leo Lionni. Pugsley places childhood wishes in a believable setting, which will draw young readers into Maya’s world of nature and dreams.


The book’s endpapers are a parade of coral, jellyfish, sea anemones, starfish, and more, against a white background.  They are not in the sea; these visual elements of the story have an independent life as part of Maya’s imagination.  We first meet her on a beach scene that looks promising: “The air smells fresh and salty.  The sand feels warm and soft between her toes.” Yet Maya is disappointed when she realizes that a day off for Mom and Dad may not meet her own expectations. Her request that her parents play with her is met with the thoughtless rejection of kind, but tired, adults: “Maybe later. We want to relax now.”  Maya sits sadly on her turtle floaty, then lies back, closes her eyes, and loses herself in thoughts of wonderful escape.


Suddenly, she awakens, riding a real turtle and discovering her new powers to move “just like the other ocean dwellers.  She’s a mermaid with a beautiful blue tail!” Who needs parents and beach umbrellas when you have seahorses, coral reefs, and an octopus?


The problem with that octopus is that “It has eight wonderful legs, but it can’t hold a conversation.”  Maya’s need for adventure meets her longing for companionship when she “sees an unusual shape in the distance,” which turns out to be Pearl, another child/mermaid. Neither Maya nor Pearl conform to the slinky Ariel image of their species. They are rounded, solid, little girls with lots of energy and no search for a prince.

The girls play together in the multicolored ocean, and their friendship survives on land as well.  Maya and Pearl walk into the sunset, Pearl holding on to a giant pink jellyfish kite floating in the air. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Mermaid Dreams invites children to test the waters of independence from parents, and reassures them that they are not alone in this quest.  Using the language of a child’s dream world and the shapes and colors of their own crayon box perspective, Kate Pugsley adds a new vibrancy to the enduring mermaid myth.  And Tundra books has done it again with ocean-based picture books.








You’re the Best: The Blue Ribbon Puppies

The Blue Ribbon Puppies – Crockett Johnson, Scholastic, 1987 (reprint of 1958 edition)


Classic children’s author Crockett Johnson, (1906-1975), creator of the immortal story of children’s creativity, Harold and the Purple Crayon, has a lesser-known but comforting book about the inanity of prizes. I thought about it in the wake of the American Library Association’s recently announced Youth Media Awards, including the Newbery, Caldecott, and others, recognizing excellence in books for children. This year’s announcements also included the awards given by the Asian Pacific-American Librarians Association, and the Sydney Taylor Awards of the Association of Jewish Libraries. Winners included: Hello, Lighthouse; Islandborn; All-of-Kind Family Hanukkah; Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster; A Moon for Moe and Mo; and Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall.

As always, there were some objections on social media to books that were apparently slighted, with some critics and readers claiming there were political motivations behind the choices. Some of the discussions were thought-provoking and insightful; others were negative and ad hominem.  There are many wonderful books published each year for children; it would almost seem better to replace the “winner-take-all” mentality of the awards with a list of recommended books, all distinguished. (The ALA does publish a list of Notable Books, but even this long list has books notable by their absence.)

These thoughts bring me to The Blue Ribbon Puppies, originally published in 1958, before the frequent suggestions that we have supposedly weakened children’s ability to withstand disappointment by rewarding them for every refrigerator quality artwork or lost sports match.  Crockett Johnson’s children and large, diverse, puppies, could come from Harold’s purple crayon. The boy and girl in the book, unnamed and generic, are trying to select the best-in-show to win a blue ribbon, but they just can’t seem to sign on to arbitrary adult standards. Instead, each flawed puppy gets an award. “He is too fat,” becomes “the best FAT puppy,” (extremely problematic term for any future reprint), along with prizes for “the best SPOTTY puppy,” “the best LONG puppy,” (they should meet H.A. and Margret Rey’s Pretzel), and “the best PLAIN puppy.” Each puppy is given an oversized blue ribbon, engulfing them in a likely annoying way. No wonder that the last page just shows the untied ribbons strewn on the floor.  Even the boy and girl award themselves identical blue ribbons, making it clear to children that they also deserve distinctions, whatever their special qualities may be.

The Blue Ribbon Puppies is perfect to read aloud, but its controlled vocabulary also makes it an ideal beginning reader. Wherever you stand on the nurturing vs. socializing children spectrum, it’s a good reminder that prizes are zero-sum games and that books without special seals may also deserve blue ribbons.

Reading about Mom and Dad Felt Wonderful

Great Job, Mom! – Holman Wang, Tundra Books, 2019
Great Job, Dad! – Holman Wang, Tundra Books, 2019

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Artist and author Holman Wang’s two companion volumes describe the phenomenal talents and brilliant multitasking of an ordinary mom and an ordinary dad. The books are immersive, as readers enter a tiny world of exquisitely crafted felt figures and their accompanying accessories.  Here is what the books are not: gimmicky.  If you are at all skeptical that 1:6 scale figures produced by needle-felting, a process which the author accurately terms “a painstaking process,” offers a warm and authentic perspective on parenting, read the books!  Both books feature a perfect balance of miniature detail and the “big picture” of a child’s sense of security in a super-competent and loving parent.

In a “Behind the Scenes” section at the end of each book, Wang, the creator, along with his twin brother Jack, of the Cozy Classics board books, reveals the process behind his productions.  Comparing himself to a film director, he explains how, after having crafted his figures and made or located “pint-sized props,” he builds sets and photographs them, using the cinematic technique of “forced perspective.”  The intricacy of this process is reflected in the books’ illustrations, each one a completely realized scene of family life.

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Each picture is accompanied by one brief page of text, an expression of gratitude for Mom and Dad’s many talents.  “By night he’s our librarian/with stacks of books piled high,” shows Dad with his arms around son and daughter, reading them bedtime stories from the impressive collection in their room.  The current selection is The Hockey Sweater, from 1985, Roch Carrier and Sheldon Cohen’s affectionate tribute to Canadian hockey. Other books lying on the quilt and gracing the shelves include The Wizard of Oz, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Book with No Pictures, linking generations and genres.  Even the quilt itself, decorated with Russian nesting dolls, is both literary and child-friendly.

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Now and then Dad has a tougher job: “He sometimes has to serve as judge/to find who’s in the wrong.” Arms crossed and looking more stern than in the other pictures, Dad has to adjudicate between two kids pointing the finger at one another over who made a mess at the picnic table, while the family dog, like a side figure in a Brueghel painting, goes after a bottle of ketchup and some fallen French fries.  Dad is also a chauffeur pushing a stroller, and an architect building a structure out of bridge chairs and a table.

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Mom is just as versatile. Her professions include curator of refrigerator artwork, and impromptu actor: “At times she has an actor’s flair–/without a line rehearsed.” What could have been the boring conclusion to a supermarket trip becomes a performance, as Mom turns a shopping bag into a pirate’s hat, a juice bottle into a spyglass, and a baguette into a sword.  Her kids are an appreciative audience.


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And her journalism skills are not wasted when she captures her little girl’s playtime on a cell phone camera.  This mom is active and strong, concentrating with great focus on everything she does. Her search for socks in a laundry basket is as meaningful as an archeologist’s search for artifacts in a cave.


If you have never attempted to turn wool into felt figures, you may not realize that each figure, as Wang explained in a 2016 interview, may require between twenty and forty hours to complete.  The posing and photographing of the book’s scenes is an even longer investment in time.  On a much more modest scale, if you even try to experiment with the made-for-kids version of this art form as a hobby, with, for example, the wool felting book from the versatile Klutz series, you will realize how committed Wang must feel to this medium as the best way to illustrate the challenges of parenting.  Reading these books, which succeed in making a complex process look simple and natural, one can only tell the author, “Great job, Mr. Wang.”




Chiune Sugihara: A True Hero

Passage to Freedom – Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee, Lee & Low Books, 1997

passage cover

On Monday, January 27, many people and organizations around the world will observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day, honoring the memories of those lost to Nazi terror.  On that day in 1945, Soviet soldiers liberated the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. (On the Jewish calendar, Yom HaShoah, which will fall this year on Thursday, May 2, commemorates the Jewish lives lost to the disaster.)

I posted a blog several weeks ago about a recently released book, Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, about a failed Japanese attempt to bomb a small town in Oregon during World War II.  One of the defining untruths about that book was the author’s characterization of the bomber as a “noble figure.”  I suggested that, for a true portrait of nobility during the War, readers return to a much older book, Passage to Freedom, the story of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara’s undeniable act of heroism in defying his own government when he personally took responsibility for issuing visas to thousands of desperate Jews in Lithuania, where he was serving as vice consul, allowing them to flee east, to China and Japan, and eventually to safety in other countries.

Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee, who collaborated on the outstanding historical picture book about the internment of Japanese Americans, Baseball Saved Us (1993), tell Sugihara’s story from the point of view of his son, Hiroki, a child at the time of his father’s courageous decision.  Hiroki Sugihara provides an afterword about the events described and his personal response to them.  The simplicity of the text realistically conveys the experience of a young child undergoing a chaotic experience, but finding meaning through the ethical decisions of adults who chose to resist immoral social norms by following their own moral compass.  The sepia toned pictures capture the feeling of watching an old newsreel, yet they are also both immediate and timeless.


A young Jewish boy stares out at the reader, holding the food item which Sugihara had given him the money to purchase. His expression echoes that of so many photographs from the era, ones in which the confusion and fear of children faced with inexplicable adult actions are manifest.  Another picture frames Sugihara and his son in a window pane.  The diplomat looks out, in the process of thinking through the ominous facts about his position.  Hiroki looks on in confusion, which the text resolves:

“My father cabled his superiors yet a third time, and I knew the answer by the look in his eyes. That night, he said to my mother, ‘I have to do something. I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I will be disobeying God.’”

The final illustration shows a line of railroad tracks narrowing to the horizon.  One creased document sits in the center of the tracks at their widest point. Perhaps it fell from the departing train, as the story relates how, even as trains pulled away, “My father still handed permission papers out the window.” The picture also suggests an opposite and ghostly image, of trains which pulled away full of Jews who would never return.

In every way, Sugihara was the embodiment of heroism, in stark contrast to the “hero” of Thirty Minutes Over Oregon. Although that book was supposedly about reconciliation, the bomber appears never to have come to terms to his blind obedience to a fascist government. His acknowledgement that ritual suicide might be the only response if the people of his intended target did not forgive him proves how little he had learned about courage and sacrifice.  Chiune Sugihara and his family were stigmatized even after the War, but were eventually honored at the Yad Vashem memorial to “Righteous Gentiles” in Israel. Passage to Freedom is a book to read, reread, and share with our children and students, especially as recent surveys report how knowledge of the Holocaust is receding dangerously into the past in the United States and elsewhere.



Sibling Pet Rivalry

Princess Puffybottom…and Darryl – Susin Nielsen and Olivia Chin Mueller, Tundra Books, 2019

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As long as there are siblings reading books, or having books read to them, the rivalry between them will remain a popular topic for children’s books.  Here the siblings are a cat and dog pair, the cat being a pampered and only child of a partially off-screen and unnamed couple of stylish women, at least it appears they are stylish from our cat’s eye perspective of the richly drawn and colored pictures.  You may appreciate this book if you love cats and/or dogs, but you really don’t have to in order to empathize with both Princess Puffybottom and the perfectly innocent canine whom she fears will replace her.

princess puffybottom perfect

Books about the anticipated arrival of a new baby often emphasize the rewarding aspect of this experience, one which may elude an older sibling for months or even years as everyone lavishes attention on the addition to their family.  Susin Nielsen and Olivia Chin Mueller do not overplay the analogy between humans and animals here.  Princess Puffybottom is unmistakably a cat.  “Life was good,” she thinks, because she lounges in a softly lined bed surrounded by cat toys, and spends more time sleeping on couches than a child ever would.

But when Puffybottom’s idyllic life is interrupted by the arrival of an annoying dog, whom she characterizes as “horrible,” “disgusting,” and “an animal,” the cat’s reactions seem a little more like that of an angry child, even if she is more articulate in describing just how awful the new “sibling is.” Yet even the most distraught older sibling would be unlikely to try Puffybottom’s desperate but calculated approaches to getting rid of the dog.  She tries to hypnotize him, as well as tricking him into destroying her owner’s lovely red stiletto heels. (A child older enough to figure out how to do that would likely not feel intense resentment at a newcomer.)

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Nielsen’s text is understated and funny. Children will relate to its simplicity and adults will understand all that is left unsaid about their children’s feelings. Chin Mueller’s pictures are incredible, both simple and lavish.  The colors are bright and realistic details stand out in every scene, from the delicate floral tattoo on a woman’s arm to the painting on a wall featuring a fierce orange tiger behind bright green leaves.  The most interesting choice by the illustrator is to depict the animals’ owners in several scenes as incomplete figures.  We see their torsos but not their heads, giving the small animal, or child’s, perspective.  What we do see of them is specific to every scene, whether their boots, jeans, and skirt as they hold the new intruder Darryl on a leash, or the seated couple in a domestic scene which really inflames Princess Puffybottom: one woman, wearing bunny slippers, pets the injured dog, while her companion crosses her legs and rests a hand on her enlarging middle.

One other sure to be remarked upon feature of this lovely book is the identity of the couple: same –  sex and interracial. They appear, as they should, without comment. To the pets, as to our children, they are just the people who care for them.  Princess Puffybottom…and Darryl contains unstated progress, along with distinctive artwork portraying a constant part of children’s lives.  There are many reasons to enjoy this book.

Struggle, Change, and Poetry

This Promise of Change – Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, Bloomsbury, 2019


Award-winning author and poet Debbie Levy (see my interview of her here) has collaborated with civil rights veteran Jo Ann Allen Boyce to tell Boyce’s story of being a young pioneer fighting to desegregate the high school in her home town of Clinton, Tennessee.  The book is a symphony of poetry and courage. Allen Boyce and Levy use verse, historical documents, and Boyce’s memories to recount the unforgettable pain and frustration, as well as the personal strength and triumph, of her struggle. The result is a riveting account of how unjust laws and deeply ingrained prejudice impacted the lives of African-Americans, as well as a glorious tribute to language and its power to both articulate and change experiences. (also see reviews of Levy’s work here and here)

Although the court-ordered desegregation in Clinton took place in 1956, before the Little Rock Nine and before Ruby Bridges attended a white school in New Orleans, many fewer Americans are aware of this timeline.  In an extended “Epilogue,” the authors reflect on the reasons for this omission.  The lives of African American residents of the town, as in the rest of the segregated South, were characterized by a kind of double existence, a precarious balance between friends and enemies, their own supportive communities and white neighbors blinded by prejudice.  Some of these neighbors, who interacted positively with Allen Boyce and her family, became seemingly deranged by hatred when compelled by law to surrender a small part of the power and control which they had enjoyed for generations by allowing African American students to attend school with their own children.  The authors capture the psychological destructiveness of this situation by alternating chapters in which Allen Boyce describes the events and individuals of this paradox.

A visit to the supermarket by people of color was governed by elaborate rules, in which

“We do not enter that aisle
while the white person is contemplating
baked goods.
This is not a bread rule, you understand;
it applies to milk and scouring powder, too.”

The narrator’s voice is seemingly detached, as when she describes the similar process by which African-American women could be permitted to try on hats at a milliner’s without contaminating the goods for white customers.  In other chapters, Allen Boyce expresses confusion, rage, faith, and determination.  Every attack becomes an indelible memory: “But you can’t unhear/what you hear,” when a child in a store calls her a filthy name. There is significant nuance to Allen Boyce’s reactions.  White people may show compassion under limited circumstances, but fail to support integration because of their total investment in an unjust system.  The book is not populated only by heroes and villains, although both play a role, but also by failed human beings who support racial inequality every day when, like President Eisenhower, they only reluctantly admit a need for some change.

The range of poetic forms in the book is breathtaking.  In her notes, Levy describes this choice as a tribute to Allen Boyce’s voice, developed by a mother who insisted on the importance of using English correctly and eloquently.  There is free verse, but also sonnets, ballads, haiku, villanelle, and other forms.  These poems are not meant to amaze the reader with technical virtuosity; each one is adapted to relating a specific part of Allen Boyce’s experience.  There is irony framed in rhyme as she comments on the temporary calm in the town enforced by the presence of soldiers:

“Decency rises
Decency won
Decency spurred
by a soldier, a gun.”

The precision of “Do the Math” uses equations and an acrostic to turn chaos into controlled forms, while the sonnet sequence of “Down the Hill” elevates her father’s choice to move the family to California:

“Abandoning the cause that I embraced,
retreating from a stand I know is right.
The risks I took, the dangers that I faced –
what purpose served if I don’t stay to fight?”

An extended section at the end of the book includes the authors’ explanations of the book’s genesis, historical background, lists of additional sources, photographs, and a timeline, making This Promise of Change an excellent choice for both individual reading and classroom use. Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy have succeeded in combining artistic distinction and historical truth in this outstanding work for young readers, caregivers, and educators.


Jada Jones’s Rocky Friendship

Jada Jones Rock Star – Kelly Starling Lyons and Vanessa Brantley Newton, Penguin Workshop, 2017


In this first volume of three Jada Jones stories, with a fourth to be released in the spring, Kelly Starling Lyons introduced her bright and appealing fourth grade heroine. Jada is as consumed by her interest in rocks as by a deep sense of loss when her best friend Mari moves away.  Even with supportive parents and a younger brother who looks up to her, Jada can’t shake the blues even though her father, a blues musician as well as an engineer, has assured her that the blues “don’t last forever.” Her librarian mom’s empathy and involvement are also imperfect substitutes for her missing companion.  Young readers who have endured the pain of competition for friends will easily relate to Jada’s situation.  For all her fascination with sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks, her sadness feeling like half of a pair seems overwhelming.

Starling Lyon’s text is simple, suitable for early chapter book readers, but she pairs kids’ language with subtle metaphors, adding depth to Jada’s story.  Jada’s forced smile is “All teeth with no joy,” and her persistent feelings about her friend become “my missing-Mari ache was back.” On the more positive side, her joy in geology is totally believable, as she rhapsodizes about the mineral specimens which Mari sends her:  “Light green and sharp like the point of a star. Peach and grainy like glitter mixed with sand.  Blue with stripes like ocean waves.” As Jada begins to hope that her friendship with science project partners Lena and Simone might bring back her sense of belonging, she learns that people have different ways of responding when they feel hurt or threatened.  Starling Lyon has created a young female character who loves science and is also a social being, not a caricature of intellect without feelings.


Another selling point of this engaging book: it’s purple. The illustrations are black and white drawings with purple elements, including a t-shirts, a lunch bag, and even her classmate’s beautiful black curls.  Jada writes in a lavender science journal, and her friend Mari’s letters appear in blocks of purple font.   Brantley Newton’s cast of characters are examples of her inimitable joyous style (I reviewed another of her beautiful books here).  Even anger and sadness are part of a range of emotions to be embraced and celebrated.  Jada and her possible nemesis Simone face one another, Simone’s arms crossed defensively and Jada clutching her purple backpack in anger.

Later, all three girls jump rope together, having resolved their differences, Jada having learned an important truth: “Each time I sailed over the rope, I felt a thrill kind of like finding a stone. I never thought of jumping and rock hunting as having something in common.”

Jada Jones Rock Star acknowledges the difficulties and the joys of childhood for early chapter book readers. Caregivers and educators will recognize Jada’s dilemma and remember the tough spots when kids learn about empathy. The book concludes with a purple list of “Jada’s Rules for Being a Rock Star,” perfect for sharing and discussion.


One Child, One Cat, One Bath

How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps – Nicola Winstanley and John Martz, Tundra Books, 2019

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Very young children like routines, as long as they can control them. However, it something upsets a familiar process, such as a cat who refuses to take a bath, the results may be frustrating.  Yet they also adapt, as Nicola Winstanley and John Martz chronicle in their sweetly empathic collaboration, How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps. A persistent little girl is determined to bathe her cat, appropriately named Mr. Flea. She has it all planned out.  When her five easy steps don’t produce the desired result, she needs to reevaluate without giving up on her goal.  Children reading this book will probably laugh both at her and with her, because kids can do that. Adults will enjoy the poetry of the simple language and the visual rendering of child-produced chaos.

how to give your cat a bath 1

No one has any reason to suspect potential problems on the first page: “STEP ONE: Fill the bathtub with warm water.” A little girl with a round brown face and equally round red pigtails peers over the edge of the tub while turning the faucet.  Her cat, whose red ball of a nose matches the girl’s hair, looks down from a shelf with no sign of anxiety.  By the second page, things start to go awry.  The tub overflows and the girl starts over, this time with “a little warm water.” Winstanley’s words reflect a child’s mindset, as the girl adjust her expectations in a way that adults would not. Maybe the water should reach the cat’s knees. Maybe the problem is lack of energy, requiring cookies and milk.

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In each of Martz’s pictures, the girl changes expression, from confidence to concern, and finally to anger, as she is forced to admit that cats have a different idea of a bath from humans.  The small objects on each page help to tell the story and even to build a backstory.  When she starts over after two failed steps, the girl stands on a stool to reach into the refrigerator. A broken egg and open jar of pickles litter the kitchen floor.  The cat, perched atop the refrigerator, looks down at the process.  Meanwhile, the refrigerator door is decorated with twin images of cat and girl, emphasizing their friendship, and even their equality.  They are each invested in their own ideas about taking a bath.  Step Ten is an image of defeat, the girl flat on her back, and the mop and pail in the background useless in cleaning up from her struggle with the cat.

how to give your cat a bath 3

The final two-page spread shows that the girl’s enterprise of bathing her cat was doomed from the start, as she has learned reluctantly to “Sit quietly while your cat licks himself clean.”  If fact, the most interesting part of this story is the lack of a tidy resolution. There is no embrace of cat and girl, and her plucky persistence just doesn’t work.  Toilet paper, an apple core, banana peel, and fish skeleton, as well as the more elevated accessories of books, a newspaper, and a cute stuffed koala, attest to the truth that, sometimes, you just have to admit your mistake.  Children know this, and will find the book both funny and comforting. Adults certainly know that multi-step attempts to accomplish a goal often end up with the equivalent of banana peels on the floor.  Everyone will appreciate this delightful book.

The Good Life, with Cats

Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess – Janet Hill, Tundra Books, 2019

missmink cover

Already experienced at enlisting pets to guide readers towards a better life, Janet Hill, author and illustrator of Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess, is back, this time with felines. In a series of twenty terse lessons, Miss Mink, a successful entrepreneur with her own cruise company, found that she needed the example of her own cats to step back and enjoy life.  Whether brushing her hair in front of an elaborate vanity, exercising in a flapper dress, or sipping tea while listening to an art deco radio, Miss Mink offers advice to young and old readers on complementary levels.  Adults who need a reminder of what matters and kids who see the appeal of cats dressed in human clothes can enjoy Miss Mink together.

Hill’s jazz age settings and gauzy colors are the setting for her brief and clear messages.  “Show kindness, even to your enemies,” features Miss Mink seated at a sidewalk café, where a large white poodle on its hind legs eats from her table without disturbing the cats sipping milk through a straw or eating pastries from her delicate hand.

miss mink lion desk

Another lesson encourages readers to nap, and what better way to be assured of a good rest than by wearing an eye mask, even if you are a lion?  Large cats and small are shown deep in slumber in Miss Mink’s office, while she puts her feet up on her stately desk and shuts out the world.

Her ship itself, christened “The Cat’s Meow,” highlights her cat friends on deck watching a giant octopus, along with the message to “Let your curiosity lead you to exciting new places,” an idea which Miss Mink endorses with her parasol in one hand and her spyglass in the other.

miss mink octopus

So what makes this a book for children?  Admittedly, the clever references to nineteen twenties style seem more aimed at adults. Miss Mink visits the Mona Lisa to understand a sense of mystery, and poses on a steamer trunk in front of a closet full of shoes as an example of “daily exercise.”   Yet in each picture, the cats are doing something antic and silly, whether hiding in a cookie jar, swinging from a chandelier, or dancing to Miss Mink’s accompaniment on the accordion. The final two-page spread of Miss Mink and her cats waving “Bon Voyage” from their ship is followed by a complete cast of characters, including Butterscotch Ripple, Mean Marcia, Sargent Smooshface, and Snowshoe.  Don’t underestimate your child’s sense of humor, or her interest in pictures that place the familiar figures of cats in unfamiliar settings. And who doesn’t need a lovely reminder to “Express yourself in creative ways, or to “Chase your dreams,” even with a cat on your shoulder?

Jasmine Toguchi: “What Was A Talent Anyway?”

Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018


If you have read the other books in the Jasmine Toguchi series (which I have reviewed here and here and here), then you know that Jasmine is a generally confident and capable third grader. She has supportive parents, an affectionate, if controlling, older sister, and Mrs. Reese, a lovely older neighbor who provides her with space to unwind and contemplate the problems that inevitably arise in even so anchored a young life. When her teacher, Ms. Sánchez, announces a school-wide talent show, Jasmine is forced to confront some big questions.  Most of her talents, including making collages and climbing trees, don’t lend themselves to performance.  Even worse, a new classmate, Maggie Milsap, is so supremely convinced of skills as a violinist, and of her general superiority to everyone around her, that Jasmine Toguchi briefly confronts despair.  But that is not the Jasmine we know.  After admitting that she is at a loss, Jasmine is ready to move forward: “I needed to figure it out, and fast!”

Jasmine’s mother is not perfect, but she is wonderful.  Not only is she a great role model as a successful editor, but she listens to her children and empathizes with their dilemmas with impressive consistency, considering that she is constantly multitasking in a way which young readers may not appreciate but parents enjoying the books with them certainly will.  She is able to elicit her daughter’s real feelings about the talent show, and also comes up with a brilliant and yet totally feasible plan, involving getting her college friend Kat to teach her to play the traditional Japanese taiko drums.  In fact, Kat doesn’t only teach her friend’s daughter some routinized movements so that she can parrot them in front of her friends and their parents, but, acting as a kind of surrogate mother, she imbues in Jasmine both respect for tradition and an overwhelming feeling of physical confidence and joy.  And she does this without minimizing the hard part: there are rules.

There are many small details, which set Jasmine Toguchi apart from some of her counterparts in series fiction chapter books.  Two funny and touching allusions to other works of literature pop up in Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl, one intentional, and one, maybe not. Jasmine’s favorite book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. She compares her friendship with Linnie Green to the bond between Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig, an indirect analogy since Charlotte is dedicated to saving the life of an animal meant to be turned into food from the day of his birth.  Linnie, on the other hand, is loyal and compassionate. Through her consistent sensitivity and support, she will save her friend from self-doubt and anxiety about the talent show.  Children don’t necessarily read books or relate to characters exactly the same way that adults do; Jasmine’s association of her favorite book and her beloved friend make that point.


Of course, the range of readers’ responses is not limited to the spectrum of age.  When I read the scene where Jasmine and her classmates lunch together in the school cafeteria, I immediately thought of another children’s book where differences in lunch box contents reflect the characters’ unique qualities.  Jasmine opens her unicorn lunchbox and enumerates its contents, and also relates the exchange of items with her friends: “She handed me her yogurt and I gave her my banana.”  To me, this scene echoed Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances. (If you have forgotten about the strong-willed little female badger, go back to that wonderful series of picture books and easy readers.) Caught in a picky eating cycle that seems it will never end, Frances reluctantly admires her friend Albert’s elegantly simply fare:

“I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread…And a pickle to go with it…And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos  bottle of milk. And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine.  And a cup custard and spoon to eat it with.”

Jasmine is not a picky eater and Michiko Florence is not imitating Hoban’s work.  But the significance of what children eat, centered on both their own choices and those of their parents, turns up with a new twist. Jasmine is Japanese-American and her stories all integrate the intertwining richness of her family heritage and her American life:

“I used to bring sandwiches every day, but when my grandma visited from Japan, she made omusubi.  I loved eating the rice balls wrapped in nori, or seaweed….Sometimes Mom puts a treat in the middle of my rice ball, like pickled radish or a piece of roast chicken.”

Jasmine’s friends’ lunches are also individualized.  Tommy has his turkey sandwich and chips, while Daisy, whose mother is a baker, brings “star-shaped cookies dusted with powdered sugar.” Jasmine’s world is full of the unprejudiced diversity of childhood.

As always, Elizabet Vuković’s black, white, and shaded drawings capture perfectly the ups and downs of Jasmine’s daily life.  We see Jasmine practicing her drumming on a gomi-kan, or trashcan, her parents and sister cheering her on. Her father, eyes closed in complete immersion in the performances, raises, his arms over his head, making them the highest point of the picture. His support is as crucial as Jasmine’s mom’s understanding.  On the other end of the parenting scale, we see a deflated Maggie Milsap holding her violin case while her father clutches a brief case and checks his cell phone.  Vuković’s drawings are as natural and understated as Michiko Florence’s language.

Now I have to wait for Debbi Michiko Florence to add more books to Jasmine’s saga.  I hope that will happen soon.