Back to the Portal

The Great Bear – by David A. Robertson
Tundra Books, 2021

In The Barren Grounds, the first volume of David Robertson’s middle-grade novel trilogy, The Misewa Saga, readers met foster siblings Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children living apart from their community. In the Great Bear, they both continue to struggle with issues of cultural and personal autonomy, and return to Misewa through the secret portal, activated through posting the drawings that are a product of Eli’s artistic gifts.  Again, Robertson’s accomplishment in the book is difficult to describe.  Blending fantasy with realism, psychological acuity, social commentary, and cultural traditions, he has created a riveting story that is more than the sum of its parts. (His nonfantasy work is also impressive.)

Everything is subtle in Robertson’s narrative world.  Eli and Morgan’s relationship with their foster parents is sensitively portrayed; they are good people who try their hardest to understand children whose experiences have been radically different than their own.  It would be easy to portray them as well-intentioned do-gooders who fail at every turn. Instead, their essential humanity and their limited ability to understand Morgan and Eli coexist.  When Eli’s identity makes him the object of cruelty at school, both his background and his individual personality combine to threaten the racist students, and both parts of him eventually become tools for his resistance.  Morgan deeply empathizes with him, but at the same time she feels overwhelmed by the absence of her mother, who is only a faint memory. She needs to reconcile the essential split between her life in the present and her lost Indigenous past. That process, by definition, will be difficult and incomplete, but she needs to undertake it.  

Memory is the key word in the novel, both on the personal level and that of collective experience. As Mihko, the anthropomorphic fisher, explains to the children: “When you know a place in this way, when you know it before you’ve seen it, it’s called blood memory.” Eli and Morgan’s journey to this place becomes even more complex than in the first novel, involving time travel and confronting how the choices they make may potentially affect the past.  Robertson expects that his readers will engage with difficult questions, and he offers them the motivation which this type of reading requires.  There are references to popular culture, but also allusions to literary classics.  Characters evolve, circumstances change, and a certain instability is always part of the picture. But so is strength. Morgan and Eli gradually come to understand that “What was to happen had to happen.” The Great Bear is not a prescription for resolving this paradox, but an exciting story of two brave young people using the wisdom of their community to emotionally survive.

Joe Krush: Classic American Illustrator (1918-2022)

The Fish from Japan -written by Elizabeth K. Cooper, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969

Joe Krush was born on May 18, 1918.  I just learned that he died a few weeks ago on March 8th, just shy of his 104th birthday. Along with his wife, Beth (who died in 2009), he illustrated many wonderful books, picture books and illustrated novels, poetry, and a dictionary. Their deeply informed knowledge and practice, as well as their humanity and humor, will remain with you, as it now has for generations of readers. Beth and Joe Jrush worked with many authors, including Beverly Cleary, who passed away herself last year at just shy of 105 herself. I have written about Joe Krush for The Horn Book and several times on this blog

Joe Krush almost always drew incredibly detailed black-and-white images, which are now part of his incredible legacy. But one book, The Fish from Japan is in color.  It may be one of his and Beth’s least-known works, which is all the more reason to draw attention to it on the birthday of this inimitable artist.  If you are not familiar with Beth and Joe’s work, please find some of their books. Their deeply informed artistic traditions, as well as humanity and humor, will strike you, as it now has for generations of readers.

Cleverly created by prolific mid-century children’s author Elizabeth Cooper, Harvey is a little boy who wants a pet. Where have we heard, or read, this story before? He can’t have one. His mom, a cheery mid-century housewife enlivened and individualized the way the Krushes always managed to do in their drawings, thinks that a letter from his uncle will cheer him up. Mom is wearing an apron over her shirtdress, cozy slippers, and a bandanna on her head as she vacuums their house.  The letter looks promising, as it carries six foreign stamps.  Harvey is thrilled to learn that he can expect a fish from Japan!

The fish turns out to be a beautiful Japanese kite, probably much more distinctive than the turtles in Harvey’s classroom. It’s also really big, as we notice in a full-color illustration of Harvey holding it up with a look of disappointment and confusion on his face. Other pictures are rendered in yellow and black, including the one where Harvey raises expectations by addressing his class, promising to bring in the fish when it arrives. The class includes both Black and Asian children. Their teacher wears glasses, and seems as kind as Beverly Cleary herself

Part of the plot involves Harvey’s imaginary compensation for his embarrassing inability to produce a fish. He brings in a completely “transparent,” i.e. unreal, fish, and manages to convince his classmates that it is in a little box, and is quite rare.  The teacher is so adept at child psychology that she goes along with this well-intentioned fraud. In one picture two boys, one Black and one white, get so caught up in the excitement that they imitate the “fish’s” barely perceptible motions.  Both boys are wearing ties, and one has glasses and plaid pants.  We are transported to the past with these pictures, but also remain in the Krushes’ world of universal childhood.

I purchased this book used; it is obviously out-of-print. Someone had inscribed at the bottom of the title page, “Beth and Joe Krush drew the pictures in this book. Good Reading!” I can’t really add to that. Goodbye, Joe.

National Council of Teachers of English to Gatsby: “Move Over!”

This is not a book review, but rather my response to a recent piece on School Library Journal, a follow-on to an earlier, longer piece about the results of a survey. In collaboration with the National Council of Teachers of English, the editors of that publication pursued a project called “Refreshing the Canon.” In case you did not know the meaning of that term, they helpfully provide one: “books considered classics by U.S. educators.” Reading this news filled me with dismay, but not surprise.  Both SLJ and the NCTE have long expressed concern about representation and diversity in literature, a perfectly legitimate subject for discussion in the educational community. They also advocate attracting students to literature by offering them contemporary books which, superficially at least, seem to reflect their own lives.  Reading these recent works is a terrific idea, but, without the tradition behind them, it creates a sadly superficial image of how reading enriches our lives and deepens our understanding of our world

I fully understand that this list does not represent book burning, book banning, or official censorship. It is not the equivalent of Florida’s outrageous attack on LGBTQ students or on math textbooks that dare to mention social inequality or the contributions of Black mathematicians.  However, the National Council of Teachers of English is not, presumably, proceeding from the same motives as the governor of a red state determined to roll back political, economic, and social progress. That organization, along with SLJ, should be committed to protecting and promoting literacy and to encouraging the highest standards for students and other young readers.  The entire tone of “Refreshing the Canon” sends the message that the books on this list are past their shelf life, whether in the library or in a student’s living room.

What is the problem with the books on this list? Some, apparently, fail to meet the criteria of “relevancy of subject and theme, diversity and representation, and the contemporary needs and interests of current students.”  The first failing is obvious in some of the books, and I don’t wish to repeat the arguments about whether or not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be addressed in the context of its era and still considered one of the greatest American works of literature.  I actually believe that the second part of the stated requirements, “relevancy,” may be more insidious.  It’s entirely clear that reading Shakespeare is more challenging than reading contemporary poetry.  Perhaps it is unrealistic for most students to take on his poetry or drama as independent reading, although some would welcome the opportunity to do so.  Other books are the list would seem less obviously “irrelevant.” 

At first glance, the inclusion of Catcher in the Rye might seem puzzling. It’s short, and its central premise is the insensitivity and essential “phoniness” of adults.  But apparently the compassion, empathy and biting humor in its exposure of mid-twentieth century hypocrisy is too difficult to read today.  There are still cultural and political references, as well as language, which are as seemingly distant as the world of Shakespeare. 

Then there is The Great Gatsby. Again, it is not a daunting four hundred plus pages like The Grapes of Wrath. If progressive ideals are part of the equation in choosing books, Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel is a profound questioning of the American dream and, like Steinbeck’s, of capitalism itself.  Yet SLJ confidently proclaims that, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, it can be found “topping the list of titles that should go.” Make no mistake, the argument that this list is only a recommendation is belied by the language used in making its case.

Finally, the graphic presented reveals which books were considered most and least toxic.  Ayn Rand’s Anthem earned fewer objections than Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, or the works of Shakespeare. Rand’s poorly-written endorsement of individualism and capitalism, a book which never even appeared on school reading lists until it began to be heavily promoted by corporate fans of her philosophy. Yet it provoked a milder reaction than some of the literature which is most powerfully critical of American inequality. Did everyone who responded to the SLJ survey read these books?

I hope that readers might be inspired to take a look at these works of literature, which are actually of varying quality, but all about to be tossed into the dustbin of history.  To paraphrase the quote often attributed to Trotsky, you may not be interested in Gatsby, but Gatsby is interested in you.  Pick up his book again and bring it back to your students with renewed excitement.

If You Meet a Fast and Dangerous Animal at a Tea Party

How to High Tea with a Hyena (And Not Get Eaten) – written by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Kathryn Durst
Tundra Books, 2022

If you’ve ever been concerned about social events going wrong, you will probably agree with this statement: “Besides, when planning a party, it’s always important to consider the WORST-CASE SCENARIO.”  However, your worst-case scenario probably didn’t include a powerful, predatory, and omnivorous animal.  If that animal is a hyena, you could be in trouble.  Finally, if you currently know very little about hyenas, you are the perfect audience for How to High Tea with a Hyena. Even if you had never thought that lack of knowledge about hyenas was a particular problem, the sly humor of this madcap informational book might convince you otherwise. Of course, the same holds true for the young readers in your life.

There are many introductions to wildlife for children, but few about hyenas. Of course, this book isn’t exclusively about hyenas, although children will learn an amazing array of facts about them. It’s also a clever approach to the natural world, convincing in its message that your previous assumptions about any topic may not be true, and there is always more to learn.  The narrator is a friendly cockroach sporting glasses and a bow tie, whose qualifications as a survivor over millions of years makes him the perfect guide for skeptics.  When he sets up the tea party scenario, hosted by a little girl named Ruby, readers will be ready for anything.

First, you will have to “Pick Your Hyena.” Rachel Poliquin selects her facts carefully, both informing and entertaining with a combination of accuracy and literary embellishment.  While it is eye-opening to learn about the four types of hyenas, it is a diverting digression to imagine that one of them, the aardwolf, will “…eat cockroaches like popcorn. And popcorn has no place at a tea party.” 

Kathryn Durst’s pictures begin with a basic premise, such as a beautifully arranged tea party whose delicate beauty is destroyed by the hyena in question. (I’ve written before how she’s great with animals.) Appealing sandwiches, pastries, and a polka dotted tea pot are reduced to chaos by the hungry animal. After all, as a subsequent fact-filled page points out, he can consume 30 lbs. of food within 30 minutes.  So no surprise there.

There are actually nine steps to planning party. Step Six instructs you to “Invite Slow Friends.” Hyenas are not only incredibly fast at responding to hunger, they are fast, period.  They are faster than Ruby, riding a bike in the naïve expectation that she can outrun her hyena guest.  If you’re wondering how being slow will protect you from a fast-running predator, the author offers many detours in her logical tour of the facts.  Following the twists and turns in the narrative eventually adds up to, as in the determining the pros and cons of specific menu items:; “Slimy, smelly, chewy, it’s all delicious to a hyena.”

By the time the crowd of hungry hyenas has finished with their prey, the unusual hybrid character of Poliquin and Durst’s collaboration is apparent.  The animals could be boorish humans, leaving leftovers on the floor, trying on Victorian hats, even loading a model train set with uneaten food. Probably the only reason any of the items are left is because they stuffed themselves to exhaustion, falling asleep on the tracks.  At the same time, the child and adult who shared How to High Tea with a Hyena will put down the book knowing that hyena clans may have one hundred members, that they have bone-crunching teeth, and that their stomach acid can neutralize almost any toxin.  You probably didn’t know that, but now you do!

The Past is Not Gone

Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived World War II – written and illustrated by Marisabina Russo
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005

In this fictionalized picture book memoir, a young Jewish girl, Rachel, talks with her grandmother about a past which the older woman had always considered too painful to disclose.  Finally Oma decides that she must tell her granddaughter the truth, even if her account carefully avoids, or generously emphasizes, different parts of her life: “ ‘I think you are old enough to hear the rest of the story now,’ she says, and pulls me closer.” As Yom HaShoah approaches this week, this book reminded me of the ongoing skepticism about the need to still write and publish children’s books about the Holocaust. We can question when, how, and through which media it is most productive and sensitive to take on the task, but the idea that learning about the Holocaust is simply too traumatic, or no longer necessary, is wrong.

Marisabina Russo has recently published an incredible graphic memoir, Why Is Everybody Yelling: Growing Up in My Immigrant Family, which covers some of the same material as this book, although in much greater depth and for an older audience.  She also has written another picture book, I Will Come Back for You, reflecting again on her experience as a child and grandchild of survivors.  Each one of her works stands on its own merits, but if you have not read Why Is Everybody Yelling, I urge you to do so!  (If you think you have read enough graphic memoirs, think again, because this book is outstanding.) Reading these three books together emphasizes the difficulties inherent in revealing truths about ones family, but also about how to narrate events of inconceivable horror.

Always Remember Me begins with the warmth of a family gathering, but then leads to a journey into the past. Oma’s story begins as an ordinary memory, evoked through the kind of selective details which characterize the process of remembrance.  Sabina was Rachel’s mother; her trips to the zoo in Germany bring back the fact that sea lions were her favorite animal there. When she was old enough to begin school, she carried the traditional Zuckertüte, a cone filled with treats, marking her first day there.  Everything seemed normal but, for Jews in Europe by the 1930s, nothing would ever be normal again. The allusions to German culture carry a subtext of irony.  Oma and her family had emigrated there from Poland, hoping to avoid the sometimes violent antisemitism of Eastern Europe.  But their love for their adopted homeland was rejected with grotesque cruelty.

Russo’s text and pictures are inseparable.  An element of documentary realism, foreshadowing her later graphic memoir, is interwoven with impressionistic portraits.  One page features nine small pictures of different Jews, all of whom would be forced to bear on their identity cards “a giant red J as if we were criminals who couldn’t be trusted.” The Jews depicted range from an older man with a beard and yarmulke to others with the fully assimilated tie and pocket handkerchief of any middle-class German. Their personhood, as well as their lives, would be totally erased. 

Family pictures that accompany Oma’s story chronicle the bonds that kept everyone together, shortly before they would be torn apart.  Other primary sources, such as letters, currency, and passports, are transformed by Russo into artifacts of a vanished past. Oma was interned in Auschwitz; images from that time are rendered in gray and white, and convey grief and terror. Appropriately for a children’s picture book, they do not show the machinery of genocide, but they open a door to discussion of what actually happened there and in other concentration camps.

One of the most moving, and artistically distinctive, pictures in the book is a scene of matriarchs and the young Rachel.  The little girl sits on the floor in a dainty white dress with red trim. The leather bag over her shoulder is an almost odd contrast to her mid-century child’s outfit.  Behind her sit Oma, Sabina, and Aunts Emmi and Anni, looking down with love and pride at the child who represents the future of their family. She is privileged to have never known, and be unlikely to undergo, the terrible traumas of their own lives.  Marisabina Russo has undertaken a difficult task, as author, artist, and daughter, in her unforgettable books.

The Two of Us

My Best Friend – written and illustrated by Miguel Tanco
Tundra Books, 2022

The narrator of this book is anyone who has ever appreciated the special companionship of someone who understands her.  Whether sharing a mutual dislike for taking a bath, or a shared affinity for ice cream, she knows that togetherness if part of those experiences. Friendship includes differences as well as similarities; one friend might walk on two legs and the other on four.  As always, Miguel Tanco’s inimitable gifts bring these examples to life with sweetness and humor, embedded in the traditions of classic children’s book illustration.

When you open a Miguel Tanco book, you enter a world of childhood that is gentle, but not completely idealized.  The children in this book, like their animal companions, are individuals. They grab snacks from the cookie jar, maybe without permission. They sit in the doctor’s waiting room nursing injuries, and they look forward to tasting a parent’s delicious cooking. (Some activities are species specific.  Only the children play with Legos.) The characters have wild hair, playful smiles, wear glasses, and use wheelchairs.  Their unaffected good nature could place them in the mid twentieth century, although the diversity of their backgrounds locates them in the present. 

Each sentence of the text is simple and straightforward, defining friendship as children experience it: “We never feel lonely when we are together,” “We give each enough strength.” Sometimes there is a simile: “My best friend is soft, warm and comfy as a ball of cotton.” The book’s theme calls for some irony, of the softest kind, such as remarking on a friend’s “powerful sense of smell,” or “great conversations.” Tanco is able to accomplish in few words what other authors might elaborate with examples.  He is always in conversation with children, exactly at their own level.  My Best Friend celebrates the joys of childhood; even unpleasant demands on merely bumps on the road. That bath which a child or dog hopes to avoid appears pretty inviting in an inflatable pool, supervised by a kind adult determined to make it fun. 

A walk in the pouring rain is delightful, set against the cobblestone streets and elegant buildings of a city that might be European, but not necessarily so.  Anyone who is acquainted with Tanco’s distinguished body of work can see the homage to Ludwig Bemelmans’s old house in Paris in this picture. While there are no straight lines of twelve little girls, the one girl in her bright yellow rain slicker, accompanied by a canine friend, might be Madeline’s modern-day descendant. 

There are many books for children about friendship, and some of them even welcome pets into the circle.  In My Best Friend, Miguel Tanco once again writes and draws for children, about children, and from deep in his own memories of what it was like to be a child.

How We Got Here

What the Dinosaurs Saw: Life on Earth Before Humans – written and illustrated by Fatti Burke
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

The great children’s author and illustrator, Virginia Lee Burton, wrote a range of books besides Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shove. One, originally published in 1962, is Life Story, an account of the universe’s origins.  Fatti Burke’s What the Dinosaurs Saw is not indebted artistically to Burton’s book, but it reminds me of it in the best possible way.  This new account of evolution is incredibly comprehensive, clearly written, and artistically distinguished. Since we now read daily about school censorship battles which echo the Scopes Trial, it is more relevant than ever. 

Beginning with the Big Bang and tracing the earliest life forms, dinosaurs, mammals, continental drift, and human evolution, the book presents a clear vision of how each young reader came to inherit her life on earth.

One of the most impressive aspects of this guide is how the author and illustrator presents and develops an overarching and consistent theme, without either intimidating or patronizing children. Beginning with a brief introduction and a friendly invitation to learn more, she starts with empty space and then depicts the Big Bang as a colorful exploding ball. The bottom of every page provides a continual timeline, automatically placing each stage and episode in context.  There is plenty of attention given to everyone’s favorite dinosaurs, with detailed descriptions of each age and species, but also a family tree carefully linking each species, genus, and clade (a species plus its descendants).  You may have read other dinosaur books with your children and students, but this one fills in many gaps. 

But Burke does not skip from the Big Bang to Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Where would dinosaurs be without electrons, neutrons, and protons, or the varied invertebrates of the Cambrian Explosion?  Continuity and change are not abstract concepts in Burke’s tour through birds and mammals Different earth tones form the background of each page, and a limited color palette with selected use of contrast evokes traditional museum exhibits. At the same time, simple bold lines and highlighted details combine to make every component of the story memorable.  There is humor, and even a touch of anthropomorphism, without compromising scientific integrity. When the crocodile proclaims, “I’m a survivor,” he is just corroborating the lesson that, while many species suffered extinction, some adapted and survived.

Children may have a sketchy notion of why so many species disappeared, perhaps due to climate change or an asteroid hitting the earth.  Burke begins with that minimal knowledge as a starting point but, as she does throughout the book, offers more facts and metaphors to make it concrete.  An asteroid that is “bigger than 100 football fields” is easy to visualize, and complements the straightforward statement of consequences to life on earth: “When the vegetation perished, herbivores starved to death, and this meant that carnivores had nothing to eat, either, just like what happened in the Great Dying, 186 million years before.”  Because she understands the way children conceptualize information, Burke is able to accompany them through every step of their journey.

Virginia Lee Burton’s Life Story uses the framework of a theatrical production with several acts to tell earth’s story.  What the Dinosaurs Saw is as sophisticated artistically in following evolution, combining scientific accuracy with abundant imagination. After all, those two approaches are necessary for children, and adults, seeking to grasp the incredible story of how the universe as we know it came to be.  The Scopes Trial took place in 1925, but it still requires knowledge, empathy, and also courage, to inform readers about the world.

Listening, Hearing, Speaking

Midnight & Moon – written by Kelly Cooper, illustrated by Daniel Miyares
Tundra Books, 2022

Hearing is not the same as listening, and vocal language is not the only way of speaking.  In Midnight & Moon, a girl who cannot communicate in the same way as those around her is very much able to understand others and, at least sometimes, to make her thoughts known. This sensitive picture book is not only an exploration of disability, nor only an expression of respect for animals, although it includes those themes. Instead, it imagines the links among people and between humans and animals as a continuum of words, sounds, gestures, and intuition about one another.

Clara is unable to speak, although the exact nature of her disability is not specified. This choice makes her character more universal, less likely to be interpreted primarily as advocacy for a particular challenge.  Both the text and the pictures are realistic, but also laden with symbolism.  There is no contradiction in seeing Clara as a real child, but also an example of the strengths which difference may confer.  Clara “hears sounds that other children ignore,” so her intense attentiveness makes it no surprise that she emphasizes with Moon, the blind foal raised, along with other horses, on her farm.

The bond between Clara and her mother is distilled in one concise picture, where her mother asks her to name the new foals. . Clara looks up at her mother, whose face is full of love as she allows her daughter to choose words.  Clara “moves her pencil up and down and all around.” For someone confronting difficulty with language, each word is freighted with tremendous significance. Midnight is Moon’s sighted companion, helping to guide him when the other horses fail to understand his puzzling movements. 

Similarly, Jack is a child at Clara’s school who relates to her without condescension.  Kelly Cooper is not equating animals with humans by noting that both species include individuals who are able to transcend norms. The ironies of “show and tell” in Clara’s school carry the same message. Other students wave their hands in excitement to volunteer. The assortment of objects that have meaning to them are shown in a circle; it will be easy for everyone but Clara to talk about their kazoos, coins, jacks and stuffed animals.  Clara silence is a marked contrast.

Daniel Miyares’ images sometimes evoke classical children’s books; the scene where Clara reaches up to feed Moon echoes Hans Christian Andersen and Frances Hodgson Burnett in its romantic view of childhood. At the same time, the pathos of those authors is replaced by admiration for Clara’s strength and her mother’s compassion. 

The visual poetry of white, gray, and black horses caught in a snowstorm is stunning. The ensuing pages trace how chaos resolves in calm through an almost mystical process which Cooper leaves somewhat ambiguous.  Midnight and Moon depicts a truth which children know, that friendship cannot always be reduced to words.

After the War

Ruby in the Ruins -written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Candlewick Press, 2018

Shirley Hughes (1927-2022), was one of the greatest British children’s book authors and illustrators, although, sadly, her work is much less familiar to American readers.  Hughes wrote illustrated picture books with simply rhyming text, family stories about Alfie and Annie Rose, novels for middle-grade readers, and even a version of Cinderella set in the 1920s.  Today I would like to commemorate her incredible career with a focus on one book about a girl who, having survived the Blitz in London, must cope with recovering the family life she had missed while her father served in the military. It is sadly relevant today, but is also a universal portrait, through the quiet portrayal of one individual, of childhood resilience.

Hughes’s pictures of people are unmistakable. Using gouache and watercolor, they are full of motion, shading, and light.  Mothers and fathers are short, tall, heavyset, thin, but never idealized.  Children observe the world of grownups, but also inhabit their own sphere.  Opening the book, readers find the endpapers printed with signs from the World War II era, reminding citizens to save food and fuel, follow air raid instructions, and “Make Last Year’s Clothes Last Years.”  This is Ruby’s world, the postwar city of London trying to rebuild.  Like many children, she had been sent away to a safer environment, but homesickness drove her back to wait out the war with her mother.  Hughes captures both the terror of the bombing and the close bond between parent and child. 

Then, in 1945, the men come home.  There is no narrative voice explaining the contradiction between joy and disruption, as husbands and fathers are expected to integrate themselves into a changed world. Instead, we have a child’s perspective. Ruby’s father is a stranger. She has to leave her mother’s bed and move into an attic bedroom with fallen plaster and mice. Her father’s large, masculine, figure now seems out of proportion to his former home: “Ruby had forgotten how very big he was and what a lot of space he took up, sitting in their little kitchen.” There is a consistent Hughes tone throughout most of her work: understated, honest, empathetic, with minimal drama.

When Ruby joins the neighborhood boys in exploring the city’s bomb sites, Hughes conveys how children processed the vast devastation by creating an adventure: “These forbidden places were full of rubble and fallen beams and flights of stairs leading to nowhere.”  When she takes risks and gets hurt, the boys go for help and her father arrives.  The analogy to a soldier’s wounds is only implicit. Ruby’s bloodied knee is hardly the equivalent of the horrors which her father had witnessed.  Still, the reality of war is in the background.  Her father knows exactly how to regain his role as someone who supported and protected the family. Of course, he had done that all through the war, but Ruby needs evidence that he will also do it at home.  Instead of anger, he expresses pride, while still providing the rules she needs: “You’re an adventurous one…But I should give those bomb sites a miss and play in the park from now on if I were you!”  Too young to understand why children should ever have to play in bomb sites, Ruby at least has a father who loves her and can heal part of her fractured past.

Saving the World

Your Planet Needs You! A Kids’ Guide to Reducing Waste and Recycling – written and illustrated by Philip Bunting
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

There are a few requirements for a good children’s informational book; Your Planet Needs You! exceeds them.  Books intended as an introduction to a topic should be accessible and appealing, without sacrificing artistic quality or pandering to the lowest common denominator.  (Humor is great, but deliberating aiming for the crudest and silliest level, while basically harmless, can actually undermine the book’s message.) At best, the book should be memorable, setting it apart from numerous other books on the same topic.  Philip Bunting has found the right tone, the right amount of carefully selected information, and a clear overall message for readers.

Bunting explains that “The more stuff we make, the more waste we produce…As a result, we’re making heaps more garbage than ever before (in every sense).”  That’s the big picture, but he also offers artful comparisons to make it concrete: “Every year, each of us creates more than a ton of waste. That’s about the weight of an adolescent hippo!”  You will probably never forget that image of all the accumulated leftovers in your life equaling a hippo on the verge of adulthood. Young readers will also enjoy the thought, as well as the accompanying picture of a girl standing in front of the large animal and defending it from possible misunderstanding: “Hey, leave the hippos out of this.” Bunting respects the reader’s intelligence.

One particularly appropriate example of how an object might or might not end up in a landfill uses the lifespan of a sketchbook. A young artist receives it as a gift, probably without thinking about the oil used as fuel to ship thousands of other sketchbooks to consumers.  He produces a drawing of a dinosaur that doesn’t meet his standards and rips it out of the book.  The graphics show the different potential fates of this piece of paper, as well as its original source in a tree.  The drawings are simple and accurate, but the tree is personified with eyes. 

Another two-page spread focuses on waste at home, from all the “edible stuff” enjoyed in the developed world to the deluge of plastic packaging tossed out every day. Then there are all the items that simply wear out, including not only batteries, but the more poetic examples of a guitar and toy robot. The range of examples holds the reader’s attention.  Plastic milk bottles are part of the problem, but so is that toy he once craved but now ignores.

Bunting turns the ubiquitous warnings about landfill into another clear visual image of choices and possibilities. But a key component of Your Planet Needs You takes a further step, encouraging kids to take other steps beyond recycling paper and plastic.  Purchasing better quality articles (how sturdy was that toy robot to begin with?), thinking carefully before buying or using resources, even playing outdoors, reading books, telling jokes, are all practical and empowering. The frustrated artist who quickly tossed his imperfect picture might also listen to the author’s advice about repairing broken things: “Often something that has been repaired will be more special to you – the repair will become a part of its story.” That insight summarizes the intelligence and patience behind this book, whose bright images and unpretentious text will convince kids that they can make a difference.