Fierce Love

I Will Be Fierce! – Bea Birdsong and Nidhi Chanani, Roaring Book Press, 2019


I Will Be Fierce is a delightful story of intergenerational feminism and nurturing power.  The young heroine wakes up in her dino pajamas and looks out her apartment window, determined to ensure that her world is safe.  Her metaphor-laden mind creates magic, from colorful clothing which is “armor” to a backpack “treasure chest” and a menacing “many-headed serpent” which is really a big yellow school bus.  No obstacle is too tough for her sense of self-esteem, and her secret weapon, a loving grandmother. The author’s simple statements and the illustrator’s bold colors and convincing expressions make for a believable journey into the perils of childhood, with a happy ending.


Before beginning her quest, the girl faces her grandmother, a picture of warmth with her grey hair, glasses, and star-covered sweater.  Like a real fairy godmother, she delicately touches the girl’s chin, a gesture which empowers her the rest of the day.  Some of the girl’s potential adversaries are a bit physically scary, like the five dogs straining on their leash while their dogwalker seems barely able to restrain them.


No problem; even though the girl looks frightened, her resolve will not fail her: “I will take on the monsters that stand in my way.” Other children, some taller than she, are “giants,” but their appearance at the bus stop seems minimally difficult.  When she arrives at school, the giants have multiplied, requiring a more affirmative and broader approach: “I will chart my own course.”

From here on, every challenge becomes the basis for a new narrative.  The kindly librarian is the “Guardian of Wisdom.” It doesn’t seem likely that she would refuse the girl access to her “Mountain of Knowledge,” but the sign does say that borrowers are limited to five books.  Five will not be enough for the girl to decipher the secrets of the universe, something which she definitely needs to do.  In art class, her chosen subject is less typical than those of the other girls, but, more importantly, her face glows with self-assurance as she stands back from her portrait of a young girl on a turtle: “I will break away from the ordinary.”

Lunchroom is where the going gets tough. For the first time in the book, the girl’s individuality is not just a question of taste or imagination.  She notices one girl, visibly sad, sitting by herself, while a crowded table of other students looks on. Some look surprised that the fierce girl is about to instigate change. Two children look nasty, one averts her eyes, and a boy with glasses seems to disbelieve the scene.  “I will stand up for my beliefs” is the core of the book, as the girl and her friend approach their lonely classmate.  After this everything seems easy whether dancing in the rain speaking in front of the class, or heading home on the bus with a new friend.


Being a hero is tiring.  A nap on her grandmother’s lap is a return to the source of energy that enabled her quest, one which will begin again the next day.  The bookended images of grandmother and granddaughter ground the story in reality.  Children need support in order to stand up and not just stand by.  Bea Birdsong and Nidhi Chanani have created a realistic role model, with her flowing black hair and rainbow colored jumper, whose moral compass and rich imagination are up to the task, with a calm and constant older female to set her on her course.

Ray: A Bright Idea

Ray – Marianna Coppo, Tundra Books, 2020

Ray cover

Inanimate objects with a life of their own are always fascinating to children.  From The Brave Little Toaster to Toy Story, electrical and mechanical things with human qualities have a story to tell. Marianna Coppo, the creator a lifelike rock in Petra, has now created Ray, a lightbulb and a bit of loner, until he gets pulled out of his dark closet and taken on an unexpected camping trip.

Children can be resistant to change, and adults can, too, so we may all relate to Ray’s unexpected odyssey: “Then, one day, Ray feels his head spin.  He feels upside down.  And then strangely light.”  His adventure begins with uncertainty and ends with a reassuring sense of permanence.

Ray closet

Ray’s closet may be simple, but it’s home.  (image). Furnished with spider webs, old Christmas trees, and castoff clothes, it’s pretty cozy, if small.  “Once he counted as many as 41 things,” Coppo remarks, a number which turns out to be the maximum number he can imagine.  This is a book with a minimalist tone but a maximalist message about the limits of flexibility.

Ray dark dream

Ray is round, his other objects are angular, and people are something new.  When Ray sleeps, he doesn’t dream. So when his familiar dwelling is suddenly replaced by the great outdoors, children will wonder if Ray will even survive.  He lacks the mental vocabulary to even understand where he is; Coppo’s playful irony about language will amuse both adults and children.

Ray on the road

How can he acclimate himself when he equates evergreens with Christmas trees in storage, and a winding stream with “a very long scarf?”  Nighttime at the campsite is particularly disorienting, since every other object and person is asleep, and Ray is a nocturnal.

Ray has an almost spiritual moment of recognition when he comes to appreciate that the natural and human-made worlds are related. All of a sudden, camping is fun, people are nice, and stars are for wishing. Just when you may assume that Ray is ready to abandon his closet forever, Coppo reminds you that lightbulbs, and people, still need anchors, and that we can change and still remain the same. A fable, a cartoon, a hymn to nature and to all the stuff we have accumulated indoors; Ray is an unforgettable and stellar addition to Coppo’s quirky universe.

Ray shooting star

Goodnight Bears, and Foxes, and Rabbits

Goodnight, Sleepyville – Blake Liliane Hellman and Steven Henry, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020


Helping children to comfortably go to bed and fall asleep has always been connected to reading.  Before the lights dim and they drift off, that transitional reassuring story is essential.  Blake Liliane Hellman and Steven Henry’s new accompaniment to a peaceful bedtime is stocked with beautiful pictures, calming words, and allusions to a child’s daily routine.  If your kids, and you, are fans of that great green room with the red balloon, Goodnight, Sleepyville has some new rooms with new residents to start off dreamland.


Readers will meet animal characters with of different species living harmoniously in Sleepyville, some reading newspapers, others toting loaves of bread for dinner. There are libraries, opticians, and multi-residence complexes in trees. The recognizably human aspects of the town allow children to situate themselves in the story. There is a great deal of family activity, not frenetic, but lively.


Two fox siblings tussle over a book, and an assembly line of parent and kids wash and dry dishes together. Dinnertime includes reading and distracting conversation as well as attention to food. Henry includes many images of parental protectiveness, each one specific to its kind of animal.

Sleepyville_candy dream

A pelican drifts through the water with babies in her oversized beak, and a mole curls around his young in an underground burrow.  Children will not be surprised to learn that fox cubs dream of candy.  Hellman’s text is not an imitation of classic bedtime stories, but rather an homage to that genre.  Rhyme alternates with rhythmic prose: “Breathing is fun./Now you’re almost done!/Let’s snuggle, wiggle, cuddle,” accompanies pictures of animals outdoors and in, sleeping under leaves or seated in front of the family’s fireplace.


Nighttime in Sleepyville highlights continuity; “…down goes the sun, and up comes the moon,” over a quiet island wrapped in darkness, with bright yellow windows matching the crescent moon.  The reward for washing your paws and choosing the pattern on your favorite pajamas is a soothing night’s rest.

The book’s impact is a combination of features that set it apart.  Henry’s pencil, watercolor, and gouache drawings are almost tactile.  Children will encounter the characters and their home as characters in motion, almost animated in their lifelike world.  The many details of their clothing and homes brings to mind such classics as the works of Beatrix Potter and Arnold Lobel, but the final impression of the book is quite up-to-date, a contemporary tale of children mildly reluctant to give up the day and enter the night.  There is a fine literary line between repetition and boredom.  Children will want to hear, and see, this book again and again, finding new elements in the pictures and hearing the musical words which bring on sleep.  Caregivers and teachers will want to make room on their shelves for this beautifully painted poem to a universal experience of childhood.

Susan Jeffers’ Gift

Cinderella – Charles Perrault, retold by Amy Ehrlich, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, Dutton Children’s Books, 2004, (originally published by Dial Books for Young Readers, 1985)


Artist and author Susan Jeffers died on January 22 of this year.  Her graceful and sophisticated illustrations accompanied both her own written works and books by other authors, including Rosemary Wells, Margaret Wise Brown, Robert Frost, and Chief Seattle.  Her pen and ink dye drawings for a version of Perrault’s Cinderella, retold by Amy Ehrlich, are evidence of both her immersion in classical illustration style and her own unique sensibility.  This love letter to fairy tales presents a young heroine whose beauty and goodness are manifest in every detail and stroke of color.

The cover of Cinderella shows a serious girl with a bird on her shoulder. Her features are elegant and natural, and her expression implies that adversity will not keep her down for long.  Jeffers’ scenes of Cinderella as an exploited drudge, surrounded by nasty stepsisters and mother, keep their facial expressions to a minimum.  Cinderella frowns as, barefoot, she sweeps the stairs, while one lavishly dressed stepsister climbs them, turning her head towards Cinderella with disdain.  In a kitchen full of shining copper pots, Cinderella sits at the hearth, her hands folded as in a classic portrait.  Understatement is Jeffers’ style here.  When the fairy godmother shows up to rescue her, Jeffers uses black and white lines and cross- hatching to draw the lively animals whose metamorphosis enables the girl to attend the grand ball.


The fairy godmother’s dress and wings are a sky blue, and the pumpkin-turned-coach is a deep and royal maroon. On every page, children recognize the familiar elements of the story, yet each character in the cast brings something new.  The prince and Cinderella dance at the ball, he in his gold crown, and she with a dress decorated with live white birds, who also sit atop her hair.  If the prince’s crown is precious metal, hers is a gift of nature.  In the background, guests whisper to one another in astonishment, a thoroughly believable response to Cinderella’s otherworldly glamour.


When Cinderella races down the palace steps and loses her slipper, she looks aghast, and when the king’s courtiers begin a community try-on to find the shoe’s owner, all the wealthy young women look faintly ridiculous in their voluminous and brightly colored gowns.  No matter what, that slipper will not fit. When the courtiers ride up to Cinderella’s house on black horses, only one animal has red ribbons tied in its mane.  The fairy godmother reappears to supervise the trying of the shoe on the improbable Cinderella, now once more a serving girl.  Jeffers’ subtle transformations of color end the book with Cinderella in wedding white among a procession of noblemen in red and gold.  Her fairy godmother hovers in the back, and the other women of the court are faint outlines of watching the ending which no one could have predicted.  Jeffers’ Cinderella embodies the traditional story of elevation over unfair circumstance and cruelty, visually narrated through her radiant art.


If You Go Out in the Woods Today, Don’t Forget Your Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear of the Year – Vikki VanSickle and Sydney Hanson, Tundra Books, 2020


If you have children, or if you are still connected to your own childhood, you probably have a recollection of the 1932 classic children’s song with lyrics about the fantastic Teddy Bear’s picnic, an event where stuffed animals take over their lives, free of human control.  There have been several recorded versions, as well as picture books, based on this event, including one by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry García (illustrated by Bruce Whatley


Vikki VanSickle and Sydney Hanson’s new interpretation of the premise is warmhearted, unpretentious, and up-to-date. A modern little girl, Amena, and her loyal stuffed bear, Ollie, are inseparable, in the way which children inevitably find reassuring.  Amena is cute, affectionate, and competent.  Even when she has a bad day falling off her bicycle, (wearing a helmet), she picks herself up and carries on.


Yet her friendship with Ollie is as important as Christopher Robin’s with Winnie the Pooh. We know that Amena is social and happy; when we meet her at her afternoon tea party with Ollie, she has arrived home from school.  Ollie’s job, “the best job in the world,” starts at 3:00 p.m., although he shifts to full-time in the summer. One night, Amena and Ollie’s peaceful sleep is interrupted when a ship, right out of Neverland, arrives at their window. A more senior bear invites Ollie to the Teddy Bears’ picnic for some continuing professional education, specifically in the “ABCs” of “Always Be Cuddling.” While it seems improbable that Ollie needs this reminder, the night voyage becomes a pretext for some great networking.  My favorite picture in the book is actually the ship’s approach to the picnic, held, as always, “deep in the woods.”  The bears have their back to the reader, looking out towards the white moon and the distant event, so far that the picnic’s guests look like the circle of Stonehenge.  A deep green and sparkling lights suffuse the step into fantasy.

walk of life

The picnic has gathered bears from every walk of life. There is plaid bear, a lavender bear on horseback, and a pirate complete with eyepatch and hook. (Imagine the story there!) Adults, and maybe some kids, will recognize a special guest checking out the food at one end of the table.  VanSickle and Hanson have filled their book with allusions to the past, a touch of humor, and the recognition that children are intrigued at the secret life of their stuffed animals.  Here they have a pretty complete picture of what goes on, under the leadership of bears with titles: “Scottie from the Department of Bedtime Planning…Jessica, Regional Stuffing Manager and Stitchery Inspector.”

goodbye ship

After an unforgettable experience, which turns out to be an annual event, Ollie returns to Amena. For children who have questions about their teddy bears’ activities while they themselves are sleeping, this book offers some comforting and entertaining answers.  Adults will enjoy the excursion, as well. “Flying sailboats, honey tarts, and a picnic in the woods,” make for a nice dreamlike trip into childhood.


Well, If I Don’t, Then My Children Will

A Basket Full of Figs-Retold by Ori Elon, illustrated by Menahem Halberstadt, translated from the Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, Green Bean Books, 2020


Everyone knows that we don’t always act strictly according to our own personal interests, right? As many of our political leaders are now adrift in a sea of their own narrowly defined needs, Green Bean Books’ new take on an ancient source of wisdom is definitely welcome. In an often-told Jewish folktale, eventually recorded in the Talmud, a very old man plants a fig tree, only to be taunted by a mighty Roman emperor for the pointlessness of his efforts.  The great leader is too egocentric to understand the motivation for the old man’s selfless act, but the tree planter patiently explains it to him.  Even though he is too old to see the results of his efforts, his descendants will enjoy the fruits of his labor: “Well, if I don’t, then my children will.”  In Ori Elon’s poetic and accessible version of this story for children, with beautifully appealing pictures by Menahem Halberstadt, the tale’s lesson takes on a new and vivid form.


The book opens with an image of the emperor as overweening power, sitting on his horse with huge limbs and outsized chest puffed up with pride.  To emphasize the disproportionate nature of his authority, he is riding through a poor village, where a goat tethered to a rooftop is munching a plant right below the emperor on tour.  Throughout the book, the disparity in stature between the old man and the emperor seems almost comic; by the story’s end, children will understand who is the greater man.  When his tree does produce a huge basket of figs, the man and his basket fill most of a page, defying the emperor’s belittling presence.


Elon’s carefully chosen words convey the message as persuasively as the Halberstadt’s pictures.  The old man plants his fig tree “gently,” while the emperor’s response is as overwhelming as his body. He is “astonished,” because “the tree is so small.” He rides into town “astride his great horse,” and he addresses the old man with utter insensitivity: “Surely you won’t live long enough to eat its fruit!” The old man, in contrast, is attuned to the world’s beauty in all its many forms.  He remembers clearly that the world of his birth had been full of trees: “There were fig, pomegranate, mulberry and date trees, all offering cool shade and delicious fruit.”  His ode to the natural world appears on a two-page spread featuring children, themselves as different in appearance as the trees he remembers, perching on the different trees and enjoying their fruit just as the old man remembers and hopes for the future.

The delicate lines and subtle earth tones of Halberstadt’s pictures invite caregivers and children to read this book together.  When Elon summarizes the enduring strength of the old man’s philosophy, we can only hope it is still true today:

The emperor rides on.
And the old. man, who was once a small boy
resting in this very spot,
lies in the shade of the fig tree.
He looks at the trees all around him and
sees so many gifts, one after another, after another.




Art Starts Here

Studio: A Place for Art to Start – Emily Arrow and the Little Friends of Printmaking (JW and Melissa Buchanan), Tundra Books, 2020

studio cover

Children’s books about art often focus on one or two media. One of the many welcome qualities of Studio: a Place for Art to Start, is its simple and patient explanation of creativity itself.  What is a studio, who works there, and what exactly do they do?  With boldly outlined and brightly colored animals as a guide, and plenty of objects connected with designing, making, and performing, this is a perfect introduction to how artists work, as they follow a path from idea to realization.

Combining general ideas, “A place to be creative, wherever that might be,” with specific examples, “A habitat for makers/with string and sculpting clay,” Emily Arrow’s words and the Little Friends’ pictures teach by example.  Making art is a joyous project where individuals dream and groups collaborate.

studio 1st page

The story begins as one grownup and one child rabbit enthusiastically approach a building bustling with activity.  The authors sets the broad parameters: “A place to build and dream and move,/A place for art to start.”  Silhouettes in the windows portray animals engaged in music, painting, and sewing.  Art is definitely not just one thing, and artists don’t only use paint!  In another engaging image, an airy skylight and tall shelves stacked with tools and paint impress the reader with the scale of some artists’ work.

studio 2nd page

The tallest character in the room, a painter bear, seems small by comparison with his own canvas, and the smallest character, the child rabbit, even seems intimidated.  Don’t worry. From towering attic to “tiny nook,” there is an appropriate setting for everyone’s creative impulses.

studio clay

By the time the young rabbit arrives at the sculptor’s studio, she seems entirely comfortable. While her parent learns about how to use a potter’s wheel from a duck, she is happily seated at a table experimenting with the clay and kaolin stacked beneath.  The stuffed rabbit which she has been carrying for security is now sitting by itself, while a goose in a tutu can be seen dancing next door.  Different types of creations, visual and performative, can take place at the same time.  While that may seem obvious to adults, children will find it encouraging that not everyone’s needs for self-expression are the same.  Arrow helpfully reminds them also that sometimes artists need a break, as they “simply stop to play.”

Caregivers may feel saturated with books about STEM; welcome to Studio, where scientists don’t have a monopoly on group-centered innovation.  The mice in their printmaking workshop are generating ideas, some of which are clearly represented on a small whiteboard, and using trial and error to dream up, produce, and improve their projects.  The small details in each picture who the illustrators’ attentiveness to a child’s point of view.  Ink puddles on the floor, a mouse hauling jars on a shelf, and another mouse storing their work on a specially designed tray, are as significant as the big picture of creating beauty.

studio music

The universal language of music, performed by animals in wild costumes, has the young rabbit dancing. Meanwhile, a sewing machine, tailor’s shears, and other tools provide a visual explanation of how the arts are interrelated.  Every image in the book reflects both the individuality of art and the distinctive personality of its practitioners. The tailor cat quietly smiles as he watches the band perform.

Art is about freedom, and the author and illustrators know how important this idea is to children. Some of their education must be geared towards productivity and success, while Studio emphasizes exploration.  Each artist learns that her environment is unique: “Make it your own, an artists’ home,” where splashes of paint can tell her story, and the audience is unlimited.  This unusual book for children generates excitement and affirms the importance of art, tracing the different routes imagination takes for each of us.

studio last page

Gloria’s Dreams

Gloria’s Voice: The Story of Gloria Steinem – Feminist, Activist, Leader – Aura Lewis, Sterling Children’s Books, 2018


Gloria Steinem’s name evokes the movement to liberate women from all the restrictions historically placed on us. Introducing to young readers her work on behalf of economic justice, reproductive rights, political participation, and empowering consciousness-raising, is a challenging task.  In Gloria’s Voice, author and illustrator Aura Lewis has chosen to embed Gloria’s message of liberation in simple language and colorful pictures with subdued symbolism, reserving many details for notes at the end of the book.  The result is a kind of two-books-in-one, which allows optimism to dominate, while providing additional information to supplement information in the text.  Some adult readers may find that this mechanism compromises the truths of Steinem’s complex life and career, but children will definitely come away with a message of female strength,

At first glance, Lewis’s pictures are full of pastel colors and cheerful colors, even when characters confront difficult realities.  Gloria first appears dancing across the keys of a typewriter. On the next pages, she is absorbed in reading about female heroines under a background of oversized flowers.  Yet within some of the illustrations there are more provocative images open to different interpretations.  Facing in the opposite direction from the girl propped on her elbows, reading, are a tiny-scale elephant followed by its child, a likely reference to Gloria’s painful challenge of caring for a mentally ill mother.


A scene of mother and child against the background of New York City, where Gloria’s mother had hoped to pursue dreams of journalism, shows Gloria holding hands with Steinem; both are serenely smiling.  Only in the “Page-by-Page Notes” do readers learn that Ruth’s illness was psychiatric. The story itself refers only to the fact that she “falls ill,” and the one-page biographical summary states that “Gloria lived with her ailing mother.” This choice may serve to stigmatize mental illness, or simply to relegate some painful aspects of Steinem’s life to the book’s backmatter, where interested readers may access them.  There is undoubtedly some dissonance in the book’s structure.


Then again, maybe the pictures themselves reveal some of the young Steinem’s suffering. One two-page spread shows an uncharacteristically sad Gloria playing with a large dollhouse. Inside, the figure of her mother has been reduced to an exhausted figure covered by a blanket, a book open in her lap, and the slippers at her side pointing to her immobility.  “Sometimes, it’s as if Gloria is the grown-up and her mama is the child,” the text reads. Even the use of the word “mama” here intensifies the inappropriate nature of the role reversal. Gloria is a child herself, forced to care for an incompetent parent.  Some readers may understand this situation to be frightening, while others, if they have not experienced the situation themselves, may read the text literally as one small disappointment, especially as it is followed by Gloria’s many achievements.


That typewriter keeps showing up, with Gloria typing articles about the silly features reserved for women journalists, and, finally, as she strides the keyboard in her 1970s bellbottoms, envisioning the “big idea” of Ms. magazine.  The “Page-by-Page Notes” are keyed not by page number but by image.  They are inconsistent. Readers do not learn which “friend’ sent her to cover a meeting of the women’s liberation movement, while the notes do add more complete information about “Dorothy,” as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the African-American activist with whom Steinem founded Ms.  Some of Aura’s decisions about whether or not to include information in the text may seem random.  There is a key to the picture of people, some ordinary and some famous, lining up to buy a copy of the magazine.  Bella Abzug is wearing a signature hat, but otherwise looks uncharacteristically demure.

Gloria’s Voice does allow children, to hear that voice, offering a moving account of Steinem’s progress from sad childhood to remarkable life of advocacy on behalf of women and men.  Its inconsistencies are real, but they do not ultimately take away from the experience of readers aged seven and older, as they are immersed in Steinem’s life of commitment to change.

Pushing the Right Buttons

The Button Book – Sally Nicholls and Bethan Woollvin, Tundra, 2020


As soon as you open The Button Book to read with a young child, you will probably be reminded of Hervé Tullet’s innovative Press Here.


Certainly, Sally Nicholls and Bethan Woollvin have created an homage to that modern classic, but their new book stands on its own. The Button Book is an invitation to participate in a funny and tactile experience where words and images allow kids to create meaning.  While the book shares a basic premise with Tullet’s, its crazy and colorful sequences of instructions and results is also quite independent, a kind of Rube Goldberg mechanism of momentum ending in a soothing wind-down of sleep.

clap button

all button dancepng

The premise of the book is the unpredictability of what will happen when you “press” a particular button.  For example, what will be the result of pushing a blue pentagon? You probably won’t be asked to clap, because that action has already been connected with a triangle of a different color.  Will children figure out that each button has its own consequence, and, if so, how long will it take for that reasoning to kick in?  One thing you will predict is the entertainment value, especially as the whole journey takes place among an endearing group of animals drawn in simple shapes and heavy black outlines, each with its own distinctive splash of color.


They are all curious; just look at that fox, an animal known for craftiness. He seems rather tentative poking that red button.  Children will identify with the sense of mild insecurity, and then relief and laughter.  The purple-induced tickle attack involves turning a turtle upside down, but everyone seems to be having a great time. Adults may find themselves becoming as drawn into this world of cause and effect as much as the kids.  What might pushing a green button produce? The answer might surprise you about this soothing color!

tickle button

The Button Book is not a mere novelty. Parents and other caregivers will share with their children a sense of reassurance that one button calls for hugs. (image) The very human interactions among the book’s animal friends lends it a different dimension from Tullet’s inspired visual game.  The book is about actions and their results, but also about the social meanings of play.  Even children realize that games have to end; they, along with their parents, find this fact reassuring.  The Button Book includes this happy transition  in a picture where white has become the calm darkness of bedtime, but the animals’ pink feathers and red fur remind readers that the cycle of activity will begin again.  The Button Book will bear reading again and again.


A Never-ending Story

Story Boat – Kyo Maclear and Rashin Kheiriyeh, Tundra, 2020

Maclear cover

The story of refugees, of their vulnerability and courage, of the injustice of often-chaotic journey from peril to freedom, is an endless one.  While young picture book readers cannot assimilate the particulars of each group’s experience in its search for a stable home, they can understand the fears of being uprooted and the joy and finding safety.  In Story Boat, author Kyo Maclear and illustrator Rashin Kheiriyeh do not reduce the lives of immigrants to an easy object lesson in tolerance. Instead, they create together an incredible poetic and visual metaphor of strong and determined people, without losing sight of their individuality or the immediacy of their need for freedom.  Children will identify with the book’s resilient characters on their journey towards a haven through space and time. (For more on the brilliant work of Kyo Maclear, who often teams with Julie Morstad, see here and here and here and here.)

maclear here we are

The book opens with a line of pilgrims against a background of bare trees and flying birds.  They are old and young, dressed for a harsh winter, but their origin could be a number of different locations in a globe full of the dispossessed.  Maclear’s poem begins, “Here we are./ What’s that?/Well, here is…/Here is just here.”


maclear cup

To children, these words are not a surrealist evocation of life’s impermanence; they are just the way their world is.  They have no control of their destination, and the adults with them have little more. But they do have tangible objects and sturdy dreams.  An oversized teacup becomes a central image of the book. It is a homely domestic object which the children use to keep warm, “Every morning,/As things keep changing,/We sit wherever we are/And sip, sip, sip.” But an enormous version of the humble cup becomes a paradox, both a home and a vehicle, a magic carpet that alludes to both Middle Eastern and universal traditions of the fairy tale.

maclear cup is home

maclear tents

The children’s lives alternate between the need for some continuity and their longing for a place of safety and welcome.  Both the pictures and the text reinforce this delicate tension.  Their blanket is the familiar “color of apricots,” although the people surrounding them are “weary/From hoping and hurrying.” Somehow, the steady gaze of their mother feeding an infant, and the permanence of important objects, need to be enough to sustain them.  Some of those objects are pencils and notebooks, implements which help them to dream and to tell a story. Dreaming is important, but so is recording their upheaval and turning it into a tale which makes sense.  The transience of their tent city is transformed into meaning in a sentence, “Sometimes it’s here/just for a moment,” and the image of a community interacting as if their setting were normal.  Then, just as their cup was elevated to a magic carpet, a lamp becomes a lighthouse leading them through rough seas. Fantasy and beauty take the form of flowers as ladders, allowing the children to literally rise above the chaos which surrounds them.

maclear lighthousemaclear flowers

By the time the refugees reach a village where they are helped across a dock by caring hands, readers know that both the kindness of strangers and the children’s own determination have played a role in their lives.  Helpless to change the facts of their existence, they have nonetheless learned how to respond with their own narrative:

Every week,
We dream and draw,
Make and play,
Search for treasure,
Find our way
And grow,
And wait
And wait
And wait
Adding words to this story.

In Story Boat, finding refugee is not easy and life is governed by the kind of contingencies that are incomprehensible to children.  Words can’t save their lives, but they do allow their authors to impose a kind of structure on their experience.  Dreaming, drawing, searching, and waiting, are central to children’s lives, whether they are forced to leave their homes and hope for freedom, or whether they are young readers learning empathy.  The unforgettable beauty and strength of Story Boat’s story make it a journey for everyone.

maclear end