Travelling Girl

Lately Lily: The Adventures of a Travelling Girl – Micah Player, Chronicle Books, 2014

lily cover

 

Books about geography, broadly speaking, for kids, are a lot of fun. They may include maps, and specific information about places in the wide world with which young readers are unfamiliar. They may inculcate both enthusiasm for and knowledge about different cultures and languages.  Often, they rely on colorful pictures to make the different manageable and appealing.

Micah Player’s lately lily (the title on the cover has lower case, script letters), mainly presents the idea of venturing out as intrinsically fun.  The endpapers feature luggage in several shapes and colors, including a pet carrier. On one valise, Lily’s stylish monogram introduces her. By the end of the book, preschoolers will not have learned much about the different countries which Lily has visited, which are not always named in the text. Instead, they will have met a cute little girl open to new experiences, but also happy to return home.

So who is Lily? She has the exaggerated big eyes so popular in commercial illustrations and toys, the spunk of Eloise without the malice, and the familiarity of a figure from Disney’s It’s a Small World ride.  For children too young to focus on specifics about the countries Lily visits, her jaunt around the world is undeniably appealing.  Player’s pictures have bright colors, geometric shapes, and lots of other children.  The adults are generic; even Lily’s parents, who she informs us “travel all over the world for work” in a moment of rare insight into her life, are depicted from the neck down only.

lily inside

Lily smiles in every picture, and she totes along her “best friend,” a stuffed animal (donkey?) named Zeborah.  This transitional object no doubt helps her to feel secure as she boards canoes, hot air balloons, trains, and bumper cars.

lily bus

When Lily visits London, we infer where she is by the double-decker bus and other landmarks.  Paris and Mexico are similarly cinematic, and if the costumes of some of the locals tend towards the stereotypical, Lilly herself is a broadly drawn caricature of a cosmopolitan, urban child.  One lovely scene in the metro has Lily holding on to the pole, earbuds and Mp3 player at hand, while her friend, Zeborah, is seated, reading an ad for pizza.  The other passengers are casually multicultural; Player emphasizes diversity in a natural and unaffected way throughout the book.

If you’re a purist, you might object to the fact that the Mona Lisa has Lily’ face, although the same page shows Lily as a chef and a mountain climber. She is just trying on possibilities, from playing guitar to ice fishing, to brushing a llama’s fur.  One intriguing picture has her writing a letter to “Dearest Audrey.” Is this an allusion to the beautiful world citizen Audrey Hepburn, and if, to which movie? Either Roman Holiday or Sabrina would fit the theme of trying on new identities in the most glamorous locales.

Children will also enjoy the book’s comforting end because, after all, there’s no place like home.  Lily and Zeborah take a well-deserved nap, having arranged the tchotchkes from her trip on a shelf.  The book’s title pops up from a retro typewriter, promising that Lily won’t forget to write up an account of her trip.  You are your children will enjoy reading it, if it is this innocent and playful invitation to look explore and return.

Learning to Hop

What’s Up, Maloo? – Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2020

maloo cover

Geneviève Godbout’s new picture book, her first as both author and illustrator, is about a problem both typical and rare. Maloo is a joey who can’t seem to master the art of hopping, not a problem encountered every day in the natural world.  With few words and many pictures in her inimitable cinematic style, the author and artist also tells another and more common story, about young members of any species struggling to achieve an elusive goal.  With the encouragement of friends, Maloo joyously succeeds in learning what every young kangaroo must.

 

maloo hop

When we first meet Maloo, he is able to hop with impressive ease, rising above a field of pink flowers as if in flight. Suddenly, something goes wrong, his disorientation expressed in one word, “Hop?”  His friends’ untiring support reassures him that they will try everything to help him become himself again.

 

maloo wombat

Maloo water polo

When Maloo visits his wombat friend in the fellow-marsupial’s cozy burrow, the joey looks bereft but the wombat is full of empathy, as he puts aside domestic tasks to help Maloo. Along with a koala and a versatile crocodile, the wombat seeks unfamiliar environments and activities to promote hopping: playing ball in the water, and even blowing air in his face with an outdated electric fan.  Nothing works.

Maloo big tree

After a low point, when the four friends appear as sad silhouettes dwarfed by a giant tree, the turning point arrives. The reward for his friends’ perseverance is the opportunity to briefly feel like a kangaroo.

Maloo pogo

katy np

Looking at Maloo in his bright yellow overalls, I was reminded of another children’s classic about a kangaroo with a frustrating limitation.  In Emmy Payne and H.A. Rey’s Katy No Pocket, the issue isn’t jumping, but rather the lack of a pouch without which a kangaroo is unable to carry her young.  In Katy’s case, the kindness of a human friend, who equips her with a giant apron, allows her to transport not only her own joey, but every baby animal in need of a ride.  While I don’t know if the homage to Payne and Rey is deliberate,  Geneviève Godbout’s work reflects a tradition of illustration in which the common experiences of childhood become visual (see my reviews of her other illustrations here and here). The energetic appeal of Maloo’s story will be welcomed by every child who has tried, faltered, and tried again.

Glam-Ma Knows Best

I Love My Glam-Ma – Samantha Berger and Sujean Rim, Orchard Books, 2019

gm cover

This is a bright and fashionable ode to grandmas, but it is also tender and reassuring.  The grandmas lovingly described and jauntily portrayed by Samantha Berger and Sujean Rim are one hundred percent supportive of the grandchildren who love them.  Whether pulling the children in wagons, or rolling along with them in a wheelchair, these women are in charge where it counts: making blankets into reading forts, cooking without a recipe, emptying an enormous purse full of treasures.  I have added it to my list of favorite picture books about grandparents, along with Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Grandma’s Purse, and Drawn Together, by Minh Lê and Dan Santat.

gm - entrance

Maybe you are worried, if you are a grandma, or perhaps go by one of the other titles listed in a two-page spread of portraits: Yaya, Abuela, Mom-Mom, Oma, or Bubbe (me). Maybe you would prefer to be more understated, less flashy, not the glam-ma who chooses not to just arrive, but to “make a grand entrance.” Maybe you don’t wear a lot of makeup or perfume. Don’t worry. Those are only the external attributes of grandmotherhood extolled in this book.

gm coconut

The more important qualities are making your grandchildren feel like unique individuals worthy of every moment of your time. Some of that time might involve activities like sipping juice from a coconut while wearing a flower in your hair and a lei, but others are as simple as letting your granddaughter apply lipstick to your lips and the general area of your face. (Both the grandma and the granddaughter wear glasses, and the grandma has stylish gray hair.) My favorite image is the serenely quiet one of a child asleep on her grandmother’s lap in a rocking chair.  It doesn’t get better than that.

The text is simple, repeating to children on each page how they are the “guest of honor” in their grandmothers’ life. The pictures are colorful and bright, alluding to older images of femininity but updating them with a broad range of roles, and multicultural characters.  Whether or not the grandmothers you know build sandcastles at the beach, or keep a bottle of classic scent with them at all times (GM No. 75), they, and the grandchildren who are at the center of their lives, might recognize themselves in the pages of this lovely book.

It Began With an Homage by Maclear and Morstad

It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way – Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, Harper, 2019

itbegan-cover

Just like the beautiful and energetic children in her books, Gyo Fujikawa became absorbed in her tasks before she was even conscious of doing so.  In Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad’s homage to an artistic and literary pathfinder, Fujikawa begins with a page, seated at a table with her poet mother.  (Maclear and Morstad are each brilliant in their own right with many great books to their names; for reviews of their other work together, see here and here.) The following two pages show the preternaturally gifted Gyo doing ordinary kid stuff: eating noodles, playing with a younger sibling, getting dressed.  With the elegant humor typical of this author and illustrator, we also see her reading Goethe’s Theory of Colour, a volume nearly as big as she is. This is the Gyo Fujikawa whom readers come to know in the book, an exceptional figure dedicated to depicting the ordinary with subtlety and compassion.

it-Began-moms

Women were important influences in Fujikawa’s development as an artist.  Seated under a table, she looks up at her mother discussing with other Japanese-American women why their rights should not be curtailed.  It is impossible to separate the impact of the book’s illustrations and design from its text: “Mama’s friends had come and they were full of talk.”  The “talk” is given form in larger font, like chalk letters teaching a lesson: “We sailed to America with our best kimono to see what we could be…such disappointment…we need the vote.  We need rights.”  Their boldly demanding tone contrasts with their elegant long skirts and pointed-toe boots, as they turn to one another around a table decorated with flowers and painted china.  Gyo is learning, to listen, absorb, and draw what she sees around her.

It-Began-artlesson

As a student, Fujikawa is ignored by her haughty white schoolmates, and in her college art classes, male students ignore her.  Still, her female teachers had recognized her as “this girl whose eyes missed nothing.”

It-Began-japan-4

She travels to Japan, immersing herself in the work of traditional masters.  A successful beginning working for Disney is interrupted by the trauma of her family’s internment, along with thousands of other citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.  She is grief-stricken, but “When the world felt gray, color lifted her.”  Throughout the book, Morstad alternates black, white, and gray with full-color images, linking Fujikawa’s heightened perception of color to her insistence on portraying children of every color in her books.  Resistance from publishers who remind her that this could not happen in America of the 1960s, “a country with laws that separated people by skin color,” Fujikawa refuses to take no for an answer.

In Morstad’s idiosyncratic art, delicate beauty pairs with powerful drama.  There are black and white drawings of families forced to leave their homes for prison camps, as well as watercolor and pencil drawings of Fujikawa leading a parade of her own creations, multiracial children enjoying life.  The accuracy of her images balances their interiority, as people’s feelings become as real and accessible as the details of their clothing.  The book consistently resists any artificial separation of medium or message.  There is a sense of triumph in Fujikawa’s success in spite of initial setbacks, but a detailed timeline with photos, as well as an author and illustrator’s note and list of sources, provide further information about Fujikawa’s life and career.

 

 

Fox and Raccoon: A Crafty Friendship

Fox and Raccoon – Lesley-Anne Green, Tundra Books, 2018

felt cover

Fox and Raccoon live in the beautifully created world of Juniper Hollow, a fictional village where animals delicately crafted out of felt, balsa wood, and fabric support one another through friendship based on empathy.  Raccoon is perhaps a little over-zealous, so eager to help his friend that he almost undermines the surprise she has planned.  It’s difficult to overemphasize the appeal of this book.

fox and raccoon crafts

For one thing, to quote the narrator about Raccoon, “Crafting is one of his specialties, and he was happy to help!”  Green’s meticulous approach to physically building her models matches her text based on verbal detail supporting the book’s theme. “That’s how things are in Juniper Hollow —friends like to help friends out” states the story’s purpose, which is made tangible by observations such as “Raccoon chose a beautiful green yarn because that’s Fox’s favorite color.”

fox and raccoon  kitchen.png

Reading the book is like entering a dollhouse, where each room or outside environment is primed for imaginative play.  In her kitchen, Fox wears a neat white apron, napkins are carefully folded, and the food cannisters are in pastel colors or polka dots.  The post office is logically staffed by an efficient beaver, in charge of compartments filled with letters. The scenes are anything but artificial, and each warm encounter between Raccoon and other members of his community reinforces the patience and commitment which they feel towards one another.

fox and raccoon garden.png

The two-page spread of Raccoon looking for juniper berries reminds you of your favorite community-supported agriculture co-op, where you sometimes collect unusual produce and then need to think of something to prepare with it: “We’ve got blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, huckleberries –”  Raccoon doesn’t have that problem. He knows he needs juniper berries for Fox’s recipe and he is determined to find them.

Adults will marvel at the process of illustrating a picture book with these original figures, the products of both imagination and incredible skill.  For children, the pictures are simply as real as the toys they play with and project into pretend scenarios.  The story line is not preachy.  Raccoon is motivated by love for his friend, Fox, and Beaver, Hedgehog, Badger, and Cat all share this quality with him.  The book enters the canon of animal coexistence in such classics as Winne the Pooh, Rabbit Hill and Elephant and Piggie.  (Fans of felting will also like Tundra’s Great Job, Mom and Great Job, Dad by Holman Wang.) Further visits to Juniper Hollow by Lesley-Anne Green would be welcome.

 

 

 

 

Mordicai Gerstein, 1935-2019

Sholom’s Treasure – Erica Silverman and Mordicai Gerstein,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

sholomcover

The Sholom of Sholom’s Treasure is the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), best known in the English-speaking world as the author of stories about Tevye the Dairyman that would become the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. Gerstein both wrote and illustrated many books, on both Jewish and non-Jewish themes, including his Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. In celebrating his life and career, I would like to focus on his biography of Sholom Aleichem as a young boy who used his fertile imagination to interpret the world, much as Gerstein would grow up to do.

Erica Silverman describes the adversities of Sholom Rabinovitch‘s (Sholom Aleichem) childhood in a poor Jewish community in Ukraine.  He reveres his father, and recognizes how reading, singing, and religious observance elevate him over the cares of his difficult life: “And when Father was happy, Sholom was happy.”  Gerstein portrays the boy holding on to the balustrade of a staircase, looking down at his father, full of hope.  When he begins kheyder, school, his idealism crashes into reality, in a typical experience for a sensitive and creative child. We see him looking into the door of the schoolroom and observing the chaos within, as a frowning teacher twists one boy’s ear, while other students mock one another and cause as much disruption as possible within the severe confines of their “learning” environment. Gerstein’s image of Jewish life in late nineteenth century Europe is not romanticized.

Sholom adapts; what choice does he have?  He and a friend hear about a secret treasure allegedly buried in their village. Sholom is convinced he can end his family’s poverty and anguish, but the treasure never materializes and the family moves to another town.

sholomfaces

Gerstein’s rendition of their trip in a horse-pulled wagon, in shades of grey and black, captures the bleakness of their existence, but his pictures soon return to the antic humor, tinged with desperation, as Sholom tries to survive a new class in a new but equally dismal school. A series of pictures show his facial expressions as he entertains the class, with the darkness of Goya or Hogarth. The beautiful full-page picture of Sholom’s bar mitzva adds deep red to the earth colors; it is a moment of pride and accomplishment for him, although his grandmother has warned him that he is now a man and “it was time to stop his clowning.”

sholom writing

Like Sholom Aleichem himself, that moment never came for Gerstein.  The young author learns over time that his intelligence, wit, and literary talent will become the treasure which he never found hidden under the hills.  Gerstein’s pictures in Sholom’s Treasure show people who are kind, determined, demonic, and cruel. All of his books confront the full complexities of the world in a way which is accessible to both young readers and adults.  Silverman’s “Author’s Note” characterizes the Yiddish author as “a cultural hero.”  Mordicai Gerstein will certainly be remembered the same way.

gerstein

 

Are You My Mother, and Father?

Where’s Baby? – Anne Hunter, Tundra Books, 2020

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Toddlers love books about babies, whom they recognize from their own not-so-distant past.  Anne Hunter’s Where’s Baby? recognizes this fact, as well as the its corollary, that animal babies can also represent little humans.  In a warm and witty homage to such children’s book classics as P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, Hunter reverses the story of an anxious child seeking its mother, to one of a worried parent looking for a playful baby who seems to know that she is driving him crazy!

Wheresbaby

In the tradition of picture book excellence for this age group, a predictable outcome is questioned on every page, as young readers watch the baby fox elude his determined father.

 

mouse

The quest to find a “missing” baby unfolds in simple text and soft pictures where black, white, and grey depict an unthreatening natural world, where no animals reacts with anything worse than annoyance or mild fear.

 

forest

The baby herself stands out in every picture as she hides in plain sight, her light red fur not bright enough to be obtrusive, but different enough to allow for easy identification.  The father looks everywhere, following a toddler’s logic of possible places: inside other animals’ homes.

inside

While up in a tree or underwater might not seem likely locations for a missing fox, the father never gives up, nor does he succumb to panic.  There are plenty of visual and verbal reminders about the persistence of parental love in the words bubbles and pictures. Caregivers reading with children will enjoy the inside of the family’s cave, leftovers from lunch on the floor, and a framed family portrait on the wall.

owl

An homage is not an imitation, and Hunter alludes to P.D. Eastman’s classic in a clever and original way.  In one two-page spread, the fox parent calls hopefully, “Ba-by! Are you up in the tree?” only to receive the clear response from an owl, “I am up in the tree, but I am not your baby.”

 

cow

Contrast this to Are You My Mother, where the baby bird encounters a baffled kitten who says nothing, a sadly baffled dog, and a cow who challenges his very intelligence with the question, “How could I be your mother?…I am a cow.” And don’t forget the terrifying snort! Even though he turns out to be the hero of the story, he terrifies the motherless bird by picking him up with his fire-breathing power.

When parent and child are reunited, as in Are You My Mother? the child has the last word. Both books feature a warm embrace and reassurance of parental love, but the fox in Hunter’s new classic seems joyfully emboldened to continue testing boundaries.  Read the books together or separately, but don’t miss this new interpretation of the resilient bond between loving parents and their persistent children.

hug

 

 

How the Other Half Lives

When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer (Dear America series) – Beth Seidel Levine, Scholastic, 2002

simone spencer cover

The Dear America series from Scholastic is a constant source of both repetition and surprises. (see my earlier articles here and here) Each fictional diary records the thoughts and experiences of a girl living through a critical time in American history.  The literary quality varies, and so does the level of sensitivity to such inescapable realities as class, race, and religion.  The heroines may not all be feminist by modern standards, but they consistently admire qualities in girls and women which were not necessarily prized at the times in which the novels take place: independence, physical and emotional strength, questioning of authority. The heroine of when Christmas Comes Again, by Beth Seidel Levinelearns to appreciate the fact that her life has been governed by what today would be termed privilege.  Yet the historical background of the story, and the appealing lack of self-consciousness which characterizes Simone’s diary, elevate the novel above the predictable formula of personal growth.

Simone is a society girl in love with New York City, at least the New York City that she knows.  Living in a mansion where the cook is her “friend,” strolling through Central Park, attending an elite girl’s school, she can barely imagine a different life, although the reality of American involvement in Europe’s World War begins to affect her plans.  Simone also has a role model for difference within her own family.  Her affluent American father had met her working-class French mother in the bakery which Simone’s maman’s family then owned in Paris. While Simone’s mother eagerly embraced her married life among the New York elite, she insisted upon owning her own millinery shop to avoid boredom and dependence.  (This particular detail of the story strikes me as less than realistic.). Simone’s parents are far more supportive than those of her peers in understanding that she needs to find her own path.

When nursing and volunteer work fail to fulfill Simone’s need to combine service with adventure, she uses her fluency in French to join the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps as a telephone operator near the front lines in France.  (At least, she believes that she has joined the army.  The book’s historical afterward points out that the women who enlisted in this selective program were actually not considered to be veterans entitled to honors or pensions after the War.). Her brother, Will, is also a soldier, and Simone ships out ready for the experience and new identity she is seeking.  A warm friendship with a working-class girl from Boston begins to open her eyes to inequality, while falling in love with Sam Cates from New York City’s impoverished Lower East Side fully transforms her self-satisfied beliefs into empathy:

Do you know what kind of conditions other people live in, Simone? Do you know       what it’s like to work in a factory twelve hours a day and then come home to a one-room apartment that you share with five or six other people? And I think you must honestly believe that you are adored by ‘the help,’ when they laugh at you the moment you leave the room.

Obviously, Simone’s answer to every one of Sam’s rhetorical questions would have to be “no.” Yet the reader also understands her frustration at his moral self-righteousness, and her eloquent self-defense.  The meeting between Simone and Sam may be more fraught than the fairy tale encounter between her own parents, but everyone in the novel survives wounds, physical and emotional, to move forward after the War.

Simone Spencer and Sam Cates: who would have thought it possible? Dear America offers series historical fiction that sometimes transcends the ordinary.

 

“She Is Who She Is”

Ho’onani: Hula Warrior – Heather Gale and Mika Song, Tundra Books, 2019

Hula cover

The tough and endearing hero of this unusual picture book is a gender nonconforming young person who wants nothing more than to be a strong individual within traditional Hawaiian culture.  Ho’onani Kamai’s story is based on the same one explored in the documentary film, A Place in the Middle, but here it comes to life in a different genre.  Children, and adults reading with them, will learn about Ho’onani’s commitment to the ideal of becoming a māhū, a person embodying qualities usually thought of as being either male or female. Heather Gale’s emphatic words express Ho’onani’s strengths in the face of opposition, and Mika Song’s eloquent pictures show the same message in a concrete way.  This is a book about an important social issue, but it is not only about that issue.  The story is also about personal conviction, and the need for support from everyone in the community.

The first fact readers learn about Ho’onani is that she refuses to conform to a single gender identity.  The second is that her parents are proud of her, stating quite naturally that “She is who she is!” and “She does what she wants.”  Ho’onani is excited about the teacher’s announcement that male students, “kānē,” will audition for a performance of traditional hula chants. Although Ho’onani is considered a “wahine,” female, this will not be an obstacle to participation.  Ho’onani’s family is divided about her insistence on trying out, with an embarrassed sister, Kana, trying to undermine the bravery necessary to be different: “Kana rolled her eyes. ‘Really?’” is enough to introduce doubt to the scene.

Hula family dinner

Ho’onani’s most important role model is the teacher Kumu Hina, based on an actual Hawaiian transgender activist.  Ho’onani stands quietly in the doorway, watching as the teacher evaluates the posture and the “warrior strength” of the young performers, who appear as a group to be somewhat less convincing than the “wahine” challenging their control.

Hulka arm test

One boy is slimmer and smaller, and another looks tentatively towards his teacher, anxiously waiting for his turn.  They are not villains, just insecure kids afraid of losing their place in the gender hierarchy. Returning home, Ho’onani tests her own physical and spiritual abilities; author and illustrator capture this process in a remarkable picture and words.

Hula volcano

Ho’onani understands on a very deep level that her performance will require “patience and practice.”  The inside of her house becomes part of Hawaii’s magnificent natural setting, with a volcano erupting in the background as Ho’onani becomes part of the scene, “Hands dragging across her face, arms reaching for the sky.”  Her ukulele lays quietly on the couch, and the family pictures on an end table remind readers how both nature and culture are part of Ho’onani’s identity.

Hula teacher

Every child needs that moment of affirmation when her resolve might weaken.  Kumu Hina is the realistic yet comforting adult who reminds Ho’onani that not everyone shares her humanistic ideal, and that less enlightened adults may respond with fear: “She said that some might not appreciate a wahine leading their sons up on stage.”  Kumu Hina’s honesty is enough to help Ho’onani clarify her own beliefs and call upon her courage.  Readers will thrill to the simplicity of Ho’onani’s credo: “’If someone wants to leave,’ she said, ‘that is their problem.’” The boys filing past in the background, and the empty pair of flip-flops left in the hallway, are pale and weak in comparison to Ho’onani’s profound sense of self as a hula warrior.

hula end

In Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, Ho’onani is not surrounded by bullies, nor even by terrified bystanders. Instead, the hero of the story is a young person who becomes immovable in her recognition that the world has a place for her and that she will take it, helped by those who share her faith in herself.  The beautiful particularities of its Hawaiian setting are unique, but the message of being a warrior for acceptance and inclusion will resonate with everyone.

 

Confederate Diary Tells All

When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Gordonsville, Virginia, 1864 (Dear America Series) – Barry Denenberg, Scholastic, 1996

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No, it doesn’t actually tell all. It can’t, because, like the other books in the uneven but valuable Dear America series (I recently wrote about another by the same author), the story is told from the perspective of a girl keeping a diary.  She is the daughter of a Confederate officer and his wife, living on a spacious plantation served by enslaved people, to whom she refers throughout the book as either “servants” or “negroes.” It is doubtful that such a fictional account would be published by Scholastic today, which led me to think about the differences between a character’s perspective and an author’s, and how this book insidiously blurs the space between the two, although I am certain it was not the author’s intention to do so.

Reading primary sources is a key part of studying history.  In learning about the institution of slavery, the Civil War, and the horrible consequences of Reconstruction’s collapse, letters and diaries by those who supported an economy based on human chattel are crucial.  One example of a real woman’s diary is that of Mary Boykin Chestnut, (1823-1886), who chronicled life on a real plantation through her role as wife, slave owner, and author.  Censoring her work would by refusing to include it in school curricula would be a missed opportunity to understand the complexities of American history.  Yet When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is not a historical document, but a novel for middle grade and young adult readers.  The author’s choices are deliberate, presumably governed by literary standards, but also by the purpose of the series, which is to illuminate history in an engaging way.

Emma believes that she and her family, as well as their whole way of life, have been unjustly and cruelly wrecked by rampaging Yankees, who seek only to destroy their property and liberate their slaves.  Emma is thankful that at least some of her “servants” are unswervingly loyal, and would no sooner think of abandoning their beloved masters than she or parents who think of disciplining them harshly.  Emma’s father, she writes, has always believed that physically harming slaves is not immoral, but an error of management techniques—except in the few circumstances where there is no other choice.  There are numerous references in the diary to other enslaved people living on the land of less unenlightened planters, who stubbornly refuse to recognize that their servitude is for their own good.

What would I expect of a book that is based on the perspective of a young woman born into a society based on a racial hierarchy in which enslaved people have to rights and no humanity? Would it be more truthful to artificially insert phrases which imply that such a character would empathize with her “servants,” and come to realize that her entire life is predicate on depriving others of their most basic human rights?  That, in a sense, would be more misleading to young readers than this book.  Would it be possible, then, to offer hints in the narrative that not everyone accepts her belief, that the phrase “When will this cruel war be over” is hideously ironic?  Possibly.  The author implicitly acknowledges this possibility by having some characters, less empathic than Emma’s parents, state that even bad abolitionists believe that black people are inherently inferior.  Emma expresses some skepticism about this assertion.  Her own mother runs a “school” for enslaved children on their plantation; Emma never seems to question what the purpose of their education is in a world of endless, inherited, status as human property.  Most troubling is the fact that the “Historical Note” at the end of the book does nothing to correct the impression that Emma’s beliefs, although virtually inescapable for someone of her social and economic class, are contradicted by history.  “The North and the South were two very different regions,” and “Abolitionists, an extreme but vocal minority in the North, wanted to abolish slavery wherever it existed,” are completely misleading and inadequate at contextualizing Emma’s record.

This book could be usefully compared to actual historical sources, in order to generate a discussion about the racial and class fault lines in our history.  Censorship is not the answer. Emma is not an adult.  She did not create the economy which enabled her family’s wealth and privilege. Her self-pitying and heartfelt fictional diary is rooted in historical realities over which she initially had no control. However, reading When Will This Cruel War Be Over?  today without attention to the true nature of those realities and the real nature of its cruelty should be unthinkable.