Tortellini Tango, Dumpling Dance

Frankie’s Favorite Food – Kelsey Garrity-Riley, Tundra Books, 2019

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It’s hard to see how kids could not like a book about dressing up as their favorite food.  It’s easy to see how adults might view such a project as pandering to children’s love of doughnuts and popcorn.  But wait, Frankie, the hero of this inventive tale, also loves sushi, falafel, and sardines, as least as characters in his school’s play. Not only that, but he dreams of orchestrating a production starring such imaginative combinations as “nachos with spring rolls and marzipan on top. In this inventive story by author and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley, a child whose refusal to pick favorites results in an extravagant theatrical tribute to the joys of both food and musical theater, as well as of being a generalist.

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Frankie is the kid who doesn’t want to be part of the melting pot, or mixed salad, or whatever culinary metaphor for individuality within diversity you choose.  His teacher, Ms. Mellon, whose grey dress, grey hair, but bright red glasses signal that she is a little predictable but open to change, proposes a school play in which each student dresses as her favorite food.  While everyone else is dressing as pretzels or trying on pineapple hats, Frankie stands alone to the side.  He isn’t a rebel, but he just won’t be forced into choosing between chowder and guacamole.  He sends a validating message to any child who has been told that loyalty to just one snack, or activity, or future career, is essential to success.  Ms. Mellon finds the perfect solution, allowing everyone to stick to his conviction that either avocados or cupcakes are the best, while putting Frankie in charge of the “Foodstravaganza” as costume manager.

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As you might expect, a spectacle this demanding has some dicey spots, from a burrito boy rolling off the stage to some awkward moments with preschoolers playing rice and beans, but Frankie’s enthusiasm and brilliant multitasking make everything go smoothly.  There are plenty of food puns for adults, including “GOUDA job, guys,” and “it’s a PITA that song wasn’t longer.” My experience is that kids are often interested in simple explanations of why their parents are laughing at, for example, a reference to “the FALAFEL of the Opera.” Even if they don’t yet share our enthusiasm, they may be intrigued at what grownups find funny.  Don’t underestimate them, or just enjoy the motto of the French Revolution applied to a chorus of fruits.

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Frankie’s Favorite Food is unpretentious fun from curtain raiser to curtain call.  This is true whether you would choose to wear a jar of pesto or sing in the Snack Pack trio.  Maybe you don’t even need to decide.

 

Keep Relatively Calm, and Carry On

Whistling in the Dark – Shirley Hughes, Candlewick Press, 2017

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There are some English language authors better known on one side of the pond than the other.  One of these is Shirley Hughes, born in North West England in 1927.  The author of more than fifty books, Hughes is best known for stories for young readers, which she both writes and illustrates.  Her culturally and generationally diverse world of mums and dads caring for young children is appealing and realistic, even comforting.  Hughes’s series about the siblings Alfie and Annie Rose , and her enchanting rhymes and pictures of everyday life in other books for the youngest readers, have won her many awards in her native Great Britain.  Only two years ago, this talented octogenarian decided to try something new, and wrote two middle grade novels set during World War II.

Whistling in the Dark describes the challenges facing Joan, a fourteen -year-old girl growing up, as Hughes herself did, near Liverpool during the years when German bombers threatened the lives and security of her community, as well as that of all the Allied nations.  The value of this compelling story is immeasurable, both for its historical setting and for its examination of an adolescent’s resilience under intense pressures.  The book is dedicated to “those brave men who served in the British Merchant Navy during the Second World War,” a large number of whom lost their lives when the Germans sunk ships that were bringing crucial supplies of food, armaments, and other necessities to their country.

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In the novel, Joan’s father had been killed before the War, when the ship on which he served caught fire.  Joan’s loss, therefore, is a sort of warning of the catastrophic losses which would affect many more families in the coming months and years.  After his death, Joan’s mum had temporarily become “too ill with sadness to manage,” while Joan herself gradually began to remember her father as a distant image, one which she compares to the British painter J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of a burning ship.

I found it dissonant to read Joan’s admission that “If she was being really honest, she didn’t miss Dad so much now,” not because I found the idea to be implausible, but because the rest of the book does not support her claim.  Continue reading “Keep Relatively Calm, and Carry On”

Family Is Everywhere

Some Places More Than Others – Renée Watson, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019

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Amara Baker is an African-American middle school student growing up in Beaverton, Oregon, in a community unlike the one her father, Charles, knew at her age, when he lived in Harlem, New York City.  Amara’s parents are expecting a long-wanted second child, leading Amara to question if and how her role in the family will change.  But overall, her life is good. Her parents are protective and loving, even if her mother, a designer, seems disappointed sometimes that Amara feels more uncomfortable in her fashionable dresses than in her sneaker collection from Nike, where her father is an executive.

There is no crisis looming in her life, until her teacher, Mr. Rosen, assigns the Suitcase Project.  Asked to interview family members and to determine which special objects and experiences she will choose to represent in her suitcase, Amara needs to confront her father’s estrangement from his own father, Amara’s only living grandparent.  A trip to Harlem to spend time with him and with her extended family becomes an unanticipated opportunity to learn about her own past, as well as the past of her people.

Renée Watson’s narrative skills are expert and subtle.  Amara’s story could easily have become one of dramatic clashes between angry relatives, or singular moments of realization that African-American history is full of previously unknown riches.  Instead, the Harlem trip is full of illuminating moments, when Amara takes in the cultural landmarks which she has missed in Oregon, but which were always a part of her through her parents’ strength and pride.  Whether embarrassing her cousins by taking photos of the Apollo Theater or touring the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with her enthusiastic Grandpa Earl, Amara is thoughtfully filling her mind and her heart, as well as her suitcase, with inspiration from the past.  Standing on the famed mosaic tribute to poet Langston Hughes, Amara notes that “I don’t take my phone out to capture this.  I just want to stand here, just want to be.”

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Not everything in the past is an unambiguous source of pride.  There is the bitterness and anger between Amara’s father and grandfather, and the tensions with her cousins, whose own father is absent but who share a deep bond with the grandfather which had been unavailable to Amara. During the trip, Amara tests some limits of independence, and her father reflects on his own authority as a parent.  In one scene at his mother’s grave, Amara’s father recites an original poem which is Watson’s implicit dialogue with Hughes’s “Mother to Son.”  In a book filled with profoundly moving moments of recognition about the ties between parents and children, this one stood out for its emotional impact.

Some Places More Than Others is an unusual chronicle of a child’s journey towards understanding of her family and her own place within it. Some books do this more than others; this is one you will want to put in your suitcase.

“I would like to be a bird looking down/ then everything would be so clear

The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster – Cary Fagan, Tundra Books, 2019

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Art and poetry are potentially a lifeline to everyone, and certainly for an introspective and confused kid whose family is shaken by the worst kind of tragedy that could befall them.  In The Collected Works Gretchen Oyster, that kid is middle-school student Hartley Staples, and the tragedy is that his older brother Jackson has left home and may never return.  The lifeline which falls at his feet is a series of mysterious postcards, miniature works of art and poetry left around his small town by an unknown creator.

Award-winning author Cary Fagan (author of the picture book, What Are You Doing, Benny) has dropped his novel, like the powerful visual statements which Hartley finds, right into our paths, and his new book (due out September 17, 2019) demands the same kind of attention and offers the same rewards.

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Hartley is sad and sardonic, full of careful observations on life in his small town, where the tiny library is so inadequate that he terms it “The Place Where Books Go to Die.”  It is outside of this budget-less institution in a repurposed mobile home that Hartley finds the first in a series of small poetry and image collages which turn out to be a kind of message in a bottle from someone as committed to making sense of a senseless universe as is Hartley himself.  From that moment on, Hartley begins to carefully assemble a collection of these idiosyncratic cards.  Collecting them becomes both a purposeful mission and a distraction from the rest of his life, especially from a home where his loving parents are desperately trying to maintain their own sanity, and to offer Hartley and his younger brother some of the stability that has obviously disappeared from their lives.

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What is outstanding about this middle-grade novel, which will certainly be meaningful to teen readers and adults as well?  For one thing, Fagan completely avoids the kind of exaggerated misery which is central to so many books for and about teens.  Hartley himself alludes to these, as he searches in the library for “something that wasn’t about a kid whose mother was dying or father was dying or girlfriend was dying or whose mother, father, or girlfriend hadn’t been turned into a zombie” Yet the irony beyond Hartley’s dismissal of this genre is that his own parents have experienced a possible death and that they go about their ostensibly normal daily lives in a kind of zombie existence of barely suppressed grief. It’s not that kids’ lives can’t be terrible, Fagan is telling us, it’s the way that they translate that terror into meaning that matters, and which readers will recognize in his story.

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The artist who signs her work “G.O.” is also struggling with family issues, with bullying, and, like Hartley, with constructing her own narrative to make sense of her life.  Her work is not random; she explains her process in a way which is evidence of the refreshing way in which Fagan respects his readers’ intellectual curiosity.  Her work is “kind of like what the Dada artists did back in Europe after World War I…But she wasn’t trying to imitate the Dada artists or anyone else. She wanted to find her own way.”

Having read The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster, I can only compare the connection which I experienced, and which I would have also experienced as a young person, with the one I feel reading the best classic novels for children or adults.  One need not have shared Hartley’s specific anxieties or Gretchen’s poetic vision in order to share their need to impose structure on an unsteady universe.  Everything will not be so clear, even for a bird looking down, but at least there will be a picture to construct and, at best, to share.

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A Family is Not DNA

Love, Penelope – Joanne Rocklin and Lucy Knisley, Amulet Books, 2018

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Exploring one’s heritage has become something of a national pastime, simplified by the intriguing and expensive project of ordering DNA results from companies that promise to fill in the blanks about anyone’s hereditary background.  In Love, Penelope, Joanne Rocklin offers a much more nuanced and sensitive view of what constitutes family lineage through the moving and funny story of Penelope Bach, a ten-year-old girl in Oakland, California, struggling with the challenges of a school project. Asked by her teacher to research her family history, Penelope learns a great deal about her biological mom, Becky, and her mom’s domestic partner, Sammy, a woman who is as caring and strong a parent as Penelope’s original mother. Even more importantly, she learns lessons about honesty, commitment to family, and negotiating the hazards of friendship.

There are many qualities to love about this novel.  It is convincing.  Nobody is perfect.  Parents make mistakes.  Close friendships have painful moments.  Penelope is optimistic, but also introspective.  Since her deceased father was an orphan, she has no information about his family, and her knowledge of her mother’s family also turns out to be incomplete. However, she is extremely close to her adoptive mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Through them, she feels deeply connected to Sammy’s Ohlone Indian heritage. Is she lying to her teacher, Mr. Chen, as she plans to present the results of her in-depth research about the family ties which are not biological, but emotional ones?

 Love, Penelope is ambitious, as Rocklin expertly integrates several other threads into her narrative.  There is Penelope’s obsession with her favorite basketball team, the Golden State Warriors. There is her growing awareness of racism, and her strong conviction in marriage equality, which she hopes will become a reality for the wonderful parents currently joined in a “marriage of the heart.” Then there is the new baby which her family is expecting; throughout the book, Penelope addresses him/her as “You” in a series of journal entries.

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Lucy Knisley’s black and white drawings of this growing but still unknown being support the text, as do her sketches of other elements of the story, from Mr. Chen’s funny ties, to a ham bouncing like a basketball, to the Penelope’s image of herself as a spider, spinning a web of lies.  The book’s backmatter includes detailed lists of resources about Native American history, same-sex parenting, and, of course, basketball.

In writing this book, Rocklin was not dissuaded by suggestions that authors should choose only subjects that literally align with their own identities. Penelope and her family are complex human beings facing challenges and finding their own strengths.  Her story is a story for all of us.

Family, Art, and Chocolate

Grandpa Cacao – Elizabeth Zunon, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019

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The chocolate metaphor richness of Grandpa Cacao is so striking that it would be difficult to avoid in any description of Elizabeth Zunon’s new book.  The richness refers to the content and themes: family, heritage, culinary traditions, agriculture.  The artistic complexity of the book is also gorgeously rich.

In a detailed “Author’s Note,” Zunon explains how she has chosen to use oil paint, watercolor paper, and collage to create the main narrative background, combining these media with pale silk screen outlines in the images of her grandfather at work on his African farm.  The sophistication of this multidimensional technique is, again, extremely rich.  Grandpa Cacao is also an informational book about the cacao cultivation, and the book’s backmatter gives further information about the history, technology, and ethical issues of chocolate production, along with a recipe for Chocolate Celebration Cake.  There is so much here to capture young readers’ attention that the book will surely inspire many conversations each of its ingredients.

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The core of the story is a conversation between a girl and her father about the grandfather she has never known.  Her father’s narration of his own father’s life as a cacao farmer is both dramatic and matter-of-fact, as he explains to this daughter the difficulties of planting and harvesting a successful crop.  He emphasizes the communal cooperation necessary to the process, and ties its outcome to crucial economic gains: “We used our money to buy food, school supplies, uniforms, books, and fabric to have our special occasion clothes made.”  As the girl listens, she draws parallels to her own life and feels connected to her grandfather, as she and her father carefully bake a chocolate cake together.  The silk-screen images of life in Africa form a visual sequence of her father’s story and her own involvement in listening to it.

The ending of the book has a mythic element of reunion. Readers who have grandparents from other parts of the world, whether or not they have never seen them or benefit by a close relationship, will empathize with the family strength of Zunon’s story.  Whether or not you love chocolate, Grandpa Cacao is a recipe for learning and empathy.

Juggling Demands on Your First Day of School

Your First Day of Circus School Tara Lazar and Melissa Crowton, Tundra Books, 2019

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Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages! Step right up to Your First Day of Circus School. This madcap map of a first day at school will reassure an apprehensive child, not through patient explanations that school will be great, but by offering an inventive metaphor for just how great it will be. In fact, it will be the greatest show on earth. Don’t worry; no animals were harmed in the making of this book!

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The little boy in the story is awoken by his older brother blaring into a megaphone, and he is propelled out of bed with a look of terror on his face. Why should he want to leave his room, an inviting setting for imaginative play, as proven by all the fun toys and scattered items surrounding him?  A circus playset in the lower right corner leads to the next page, where he begins to warm to the idea of school, even if he is still a bit confused about what it will entail.  That’s what controlling big brothers are for; his shows him that “you’ll/find your way/around,” and gives him practical advice: “Don’t let the kids in the/ HIGHER GRADES /run you over.” Many of the lines are combined with visual puns; the kids in the higher grades are elevated on stilts, and “The cafeteria/can be a real ZOO” is accompanied by an assortment of animals and children eating, socializing, and performing daredevil feats in the lunchroom.

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Some of the puns, as well as the clichés and aphorisms updated with visual interpretations, may be unfamiliar to kids.  Like many of the best children’s books, this one operates on more than one level.  Adults know that their kids will have “a lot to/JUGGLE/on your first day,” while young readers will instantly acquire that expression by seeing an image of their peers happily juggling small objects.  “HIGH EXPECTATIONS” can be attained by climbing a ladder.  Instead of a mundane school bus, the time worn joke about the endless number of clowns fitted into a tiny car, becomes a cheerful allusion to a community of excited kids ready for school.

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Does the book raise expectations that will be contradicted by real school, where you can’t actually sit backwards on your desk while wearing a cape, and where the tall kid in front of you isn’t an elephant? Only the most literal-minded child, or caregiver, will fail to recognize that imagination and reality can coexist in young minds, especially when thinking about and working through new situations.  Your teacher, even if she is not named “Miss Stupendous,” does want you to enjoy learning.  Your fellow students are also hesitant on the first day.  Your first day of school should indeed by “awesome,” even without the cannon blast conclusion pictured here.

Kids will love this book. Parents, look for the picture of the poodle writing on a typewriter.

 

Joe Krush is Extraordinary

Emily’s Runaway Imagination – Beverly Cleary and
Beth and Joe Krush, William Morrow and Company, 1961

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On Saturday, May 18, the inimitable children’s book illustrator, Joe Krush, will turn one-hundred-and-one-years-old. I have tried my best before in this blog (here and here and here and here), and on The Horn Book, to write the kinds of tributes to him that convey, at least a bit, the glorious detail and expressive beauty of his line drawings.  Since Beverly Cleary, with whom Mr. Krush collaborated on three teen novels, has just celebrated her one hundred and third birthday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to draw attention to a Cleary book for middle grade graders for which Joe and his wife Beth also drew wonderful pictures.  Emily’s Runaway Imagination is an unusual Cleary work, partly based on her own life growing up in the nineteen twenties in rural Oregon.  Not surprisingly, the Emily of the novel loves books, and the plot partly involves the efforts of her small town to establish its own library.

As always when the Krushes are part of a literary team, the illustrations are inseparable from the story; my childhood memories of first reading this book are illuminated, if that is an appropriate term for black and white images, by the scenes of Emily moving through her adventures and misadventures with cinematic swiftness.  There is Emily opening the door of her family’s wood burning stove, her hand raised in dismay to her face. What happened to the flaky pie crust she had hoped to create?  Her mother, in an elegant, if simple, shirtwaist dress and black t-strap pumps, the perfect attire for baking, looks on with patience and empathy.  From the coffee grinder sitting on top of the stove, to the curly arabesques decorating the hood, every touch of the drawings immerses the reader in the story with unpretentious, invisible, skill.

A kind Chinese immigrant, Mr. Quock, is clearly isolated, but Emily becomes his friend, not before Emily learns to discard some foolish prejudices of her own.  The picture of Emily leaving his house, presented as a smaller oval inset at the bottom of the page, shows the old man waving at Emily as she walks past his house, He is in the foreground, and a small Emily to the right of the picture raises a mittened hand, fully colored in black. In the background, a Victorian gingerbread-style house is filled with closely placed lines, with black areas within the windows matching Emily’s mittens and shoes.  Mr. Quock, a figure drawn mainly in white, aside from a few lines on his cardigan’s cuffs, looks quiet and vulnerable. When a scene calls for action, the Krushes are equally ready, as when Emily and her cousin June are terrified by a thunderstorm and the expectation of seeing a ghost.  Emily opens the door with determination and confronts the darkness with a flashlight, while June, her face turned towards us, looks completely disoriented as she clings to Emily’s nightgown.  The Krushes have shown us who is the brave one here. Even the dog is cowering under the table.

Joe Krush’s contribution to children’s book illustration is difficult to describe but impossible to miss.  I hope I have conveyed, on his birthday, some of the joy which his art has brought to readers.

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Nobody’s Perfect

Past Perfect Life – Elizabeth Eulberg, Bloomsbury, 2019

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Anyone following the news over the last several weeks has been observing the outcome of the college admissions scandal.  What price will wealthy and well-connected parents pay for having tried, often successfully, to buy their children places in universities, often by creating false identities for them—as high academic achievers or champions in sports in which they had never even participated?

 

The teens in Elizabeth Eulberg’s new novel, Past Perfect Life, are the children of hardworking parents, and the beneficiaries of a solid support system of their peers.  Allison Smith lives with her widowed father in a small Wisconsin town.  Her goal is to be accepted into the state university system, and she is actively engaged in trying to earn a scholarship based on academic merit.  The novel offers welcome insights into the lives of ordinary kids leading ordinary lives, although the pressures of senior year in high school seem extraordinary at the time.

Then a series of events change Allison’s life, forcing her to confront a new identity and to look at her past through a new lens, one that presents a dizzying and chaotic view of the present and future as well.  Elizabeth Eulberg’s narrative skills are apparent on every page, as she asks the reader to consider, reconsider, and consider again the relationships and dilemmas surrounding her characters.  The affection and sincerity of almost all of Allison’s friends and community members tests the skepticism of readers accustomed to dystopian visions of cruelty and division in young adult books.  Yet the picture which Eulberg paints is convincing, not merely an exercise in nostalgia for an idealized time and place where movie night with a parent or a first date with a boy are meaningful events. The boy is both physically attractive to Allison, and a compassionate listener throughout her ordeals. Really! Even the enthusiasm for football and for Wisconsin cuisine held my attention; I have to admit that this was a high bar for me, and Eulberg reached it successfully.

Without giving away any of the suspenseful plot, Allison learns to integrate her past and her present, and to balance flexibility towards change and faithfulness to her unchanging self.  There are no easy lessons or facile resolutions. Relationships of parents and children are always difficult to negotiate. At the same time that changes in Allison’s life convert everyday problems into shocking and painful ones, readers will still identify with the core experiences of young adulthood which she meets without flinching.  “Describe a significant event in your life and how it has influenced you,” Allison reads on a scholarship application.  By the end of Past Perfect Life, readers will appreciate the irony of that simple request, and the meaning of significant to Allison and to themselves.

Soaring with Alis

Alis the Aviator: an ABC Aviation Adventure – Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail and Kalpna Patel, Tundra Books, 2019

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Alis the Aviator creates poetry out of flight.  Danielle Metcalf-Chenail, writing about the first Indigenous commercial pilot in Canada, is able to make words soar.  Along with Kalpna Patel’s bright paper cutouts of planes and people, including a young aviation-obsessed girl, this unusual book teaches, inspires, and entertains.  The ABCs of aviation, from Arrow to Zeppelins, take flight in this beautiful book.

 

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Alis is ambitious and modest at the same time.  The assemblage of colored paper into meticulously detailed aircraft and scenes of joyous human creativity demands the reader’s attention.  Alis herself begins by constructing paper airplanes; what could be simpler?  Her dog is asleep on a fringed rug at her feet, not even awakened by curlicues of paper from her project drifting onto his head.

 

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Soon, however, Alis moves beyond her initial experiments, and takes us on a tour of the real thing. Seated in a small RCAF Chipmunk or gazing up in wonder from a hiker’s trail at Norseman and Otter planes, Alis is aviation personified. Each image and each line of text is different; the reader lifts off at “A” and continues on through a wild and bumpy flight. Another incredible two page spread takes the reader back in time to World War II, with VICTORY spelled out, if not yet assured, and Rosie the Riveter smiling in the lower corner.  Workers on the Lancaster and Mosquito bombers are depicted as smaller and less defined, with tapering cones for bodies and small found faces without features, reminiscent of Japanese kokeshi dolls. The people in the scene subordinate themselves to the task.

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In an entirely different scene, Patel juxtaposes old sepia-colored newspapers with dramatic headlines about feats from the past: “P is for parachute, a jump like no other./Q is for Queen, which crashed into the loam,” contrasting on the next page with “R is for Renegade/…a plane you build at home.” (image).  From wild adventure to the security of model building, Alis is enthusiastic about it all.

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The text is accessible, but also sophisticated and full of fun imagery and inventive rhymes: “D is for Dakota a northern weather vane/E is for Electra, a shiny metal steed./F is for Fairey Swordfish, not known for its speed.”  It’s easy to string to together related items beginning with each of twenty-six letters, and many alphabet books do just that.  In Alis the Aviator, the letters are a pretext for a journey through the imagination of a plane enthusiast.  The book includes a biography with photos of the real Dr. Alis Kennedy, and an illustrated glossary rich with information and miniature images of all the planes in the book.  If a child is already in love with the world of flight, she will be thrilled with this book. If she is not, the fantastic artwork and compelling poetry will encourage her to board the flight.