Happy Birthday, Alice B. Toklas, A Little Early…

Happy Birthday, Alice Babette – Monica Kulling and Qin Leng, Groundwood Books, 2016

alice cover

It’s actually a little early to be wishing Gertrude Stein’s companion a happy birthday; she was born on April 20, 1877.  Gertrude, however, was born on February 3, 1874, so the day to celebrate the actual author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Stein herself) is coming up soon. It’s neither too early nor too late to celebrate a children’s picture book about the warm and caring relationship between these two independent women who enjoyed, in the words of a famous book about the era, “being geniuses together.”

Young readers who are unfamiliar with Stein’s inimitable cubist-inspired poems, or her mentoring friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso, will learn about Stein and Toklas’s devotion to one another, including Stein’s successful creation of a poem, and failed attempt at pineapple upside-down cake.

alice interior

Monica Kulling (I’ve written about other books by her here and here and here) describes the traditional elements of Stein and Toklas’s partnership: “Alice was the one who cooked and cleaned and typed and shopped.” Qin Leng’s image of Gertrude hunched over her work at a cluttered table, Alice placing one encouraging hand on the poet’s back while holding a cup of tea in the other, reinforces their division of labor. “Gertrude was a writer. She wrote mostly at night. During the day, she talked about writing or sat around thinking about it.”  Kulling has managed to allude to Stein’s writing style in her own words, without simply imitating it.  Yet Alice is not a downtrodden housewife.  She leaves Gertrude to celebrate her birthday by riding a carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens, enjoying a children’s puppet show, and having the chutzpah to apprehend a jewel thief by hitting him with her pocketbook.  When she returns home to find the wreckage of Gertrude’s cooking disaster, she is unperturbed, confident that everything her companion does will become Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Alice B. Toklas, A Little Early…”

Cowboy Boots, Aliens, and Juggling Pickles: All in Eight Nights

It’s a Miracle! A Hanukkah Storybook – Stephanie Spinner and Jill McElmurry, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003


When I began my blog, one year ago just this past Thanksgiving, I wrote about Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller, with pictures by Jill McElmurry. At the time, I learned that McElmurry, perhaps best known as the illustrator of Alice Schertle’s highly popular Little Blue Truck series, had recently died.  I went back to two of McElmurry’s earlier books, Mad About Plaid and It’s a Miracle! Both feature her signature use of caricature and humor, along with a joyous enthusiasm perfect for capturing the Festival of Lights.  This is a Hanukkah story with a grandma wearing cowboy boots, a dentist with a parrot named Dreidel who distracts fearful patients with his constant talking, and Owen Block, a little boy who is thrilled to earn the title of O.C.L. (Official Candle Lighter). Grandma’s stories of the past alternate with Owen’s celebration of the eight nights of Hanukkah in the present.

The book, written by Stephanie Spinner, has a significant amount of text for a read-aloud picture book, but it also could serve as an entertaining story for elementary school age readers.  Just like Owen, they will wait with excitement for each one of Grandma’s improbable tales. A World War II era account of Uncle Ralph’s miraculous project to save his wife’s life involves a search through the phone book: “…whenever he saw a Jewish name, he called the number. He told each person about his wife and asked them to pray for her…The very next day she started to get better.” We see a young soldier in uniform holding the hand of his post-partum wife as a twisted telephone wire links together portraits of the sympathetic Jews across two pages.  Then there were the aliens who come to earth and see menorahs in the windows. One alien is disoriented, but the holiday lights of the town restore his memory and lead him home. “’Did you make that story up,’ asked Owen.  ‘Maybe I did,’ said Grandma Karen. ‘And maybe I didn’t.’”  A child with gloomy parents is admonished by his teacher not to be the class clown. So he restricts his outlandish behavior to home, entertaining Mom and Dad by juggling “a sour tomato, three pickles, and a knish.”

Where’s the Hanukkah? Owen and his cousin Molly spin dreidels. Owen’s mother’s latkes, which usually “tasted like fried cardboard,” turn out delicious. Owen’s friend Buster, who is African American, visits him for Hanukkah and stands on a tall pile of books to reach the menorah, which Owen is lighting all by himself (looks dangerous!). Every zany tall tale, as well as the warmth and comfort of Owen’s home, are all “miracles.” An afterword explains the history of Hanukkah, and there is also a page of Hanukkah blessings in both Hebrew and English, as well as a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words.  I was touched by Jill McElmurry’s explanation on the inside back flap of the jacket:

“I’m not Jewish and I grew up in a nonreligious family, but as a child I remember being attracted to religious ritual and ceremony. Working on It’s a Miracle! gave me the chance to step for the moment into the warm light of Hanukkah in a fun way.”

Reading this quirky take on the fun of Hanukkah and the nature of miracles is a way to appreciate both Stephanie Spinner’s weaving of tales, and the lovely legacy of McElmurry’s work.


Otterly Inventive and Fun

Narwhal’s Otter Friend – Ben Clanton, Tundra Books, 2019

narwhal cover

If you are a narwhal, you’re lucky enough to have the evolutionary fluke of a single tusk, making you look like an aquatic unicorn, maybe friends with a mermaid or a dragon.  In fact, your best friend is sensitive jellyfish, who, in this latest Narwhal adventure from Ben Clanton, is friended by a clever little otter.  Maybe the otter is sincere in his excitement about meeting a narwhal: “Wowee Wow! I’ve always wanted to meet a Narwhal!” but Jelly is skeptical.  He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Seriously?”  Readers learn, along with Narwhal, Otter, and Jelly, that they can share friendship and have a “funtastic time,” even surfing down a rainbow. They also learn factual information about otters, and take a wild detour to meet the superheroes Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick. Ben Clanton has both written and illustrated this inventive and zany trip through the sea, and has produced an entertaining tale that manages to replicate the way young children associate events and feelings.

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Clanton’s characters are simple and childlike with antic expressions. He uses black, white, gray, and blue. Comic strip formats alternates with full-page pictures and two-page spreads. Then, when you least expect it, an informational section of “Otterly Aww-some Facts” appears. Kid may be surprised and pleased to learn that otters “trap bubbles in their fur creating a ‘blanket’ of air,” and that jellyfish actually glow in the dark.

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Later, as when Dorothy leaves Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, there is a segment about the superhero foods in bright colors, combining photographs with the colored pencil, watercolor, and ink of the other images.  For all its seeming digressions, Narwhal’s Otter Friend relates a consistent story about Jelly’s distress and being displaced by Otter. At one point, Jelly determines that he will approach other friends to make up for his threatened loss. A turtle, shark, even a rock, seem like alternatives to being cast aside in favor of the adventurous and manic Otter.  Children will relate to Jelly’s frustration, and we feel reassured along with him when Narwhal tells Jelly that no adventure is complete without their friendship.

The most unusual aspect of Narwhal is the way that Clanton crams so many different elements into the book while maintaining a clear and consistent story line, suffused with high energy and wild imagination.  Children and adult readers will agree with Jelly that it “does sound like an amazing adventure.” And it is.


Old, But Good, Hanukkah Beginning Reader

Hanukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights – Leslie Kimmelman and John Himmelman, HarperCollins, 1992


It’s not that old, not as old as All-of-a-Kind Family and its sequels, What the Moon Brought, or K’ton Ton, but pre-PJ LibraryLeslie Kimmelman has gone on to write many more wonderful books, on both Jewish and non-Jewish themes (link to her website), and John Himmelman has both written and illustrated others, but I am still fond of this one. The recommended ages listed on the dust jacket are three to five, but when I recently found it on my bookshelf I noted that my daughter’s name was written on the inside cover, meaning she had taken it to school, probably for independent reading in first grade.


The text is simple. Each page has two lines in large bold print. It doesn’t rhyme, (although the author’s and illustrator’s names do!), but the second line is repeated throughout the book, with only the number of the Hanukkah night changing. So although it is a perfect picture book to read to a young child, it is also great for beginning readers who are ready to be challenged with words like “blessings,” “brightly,” and “Maccabees.”


An extended family is celebrating Hanukkah in a warm and lovely home. Relatives arrive “from far and wide.” Unrestrained fun ensues, with kids spinning dreidels on the kitchen floor, and others acting out the Maccabees’ rebellion in the yard with colanders and saucepans as helmets. There are kittens everywhere. Guys cook, wearing aprons and flipping latkes with skill.  One two-page spread shows two grandmothers, one cooking soup and tasting it, the other seated at the table and sipping it out of a bowl. (Some grandmothers tell you not to do that.) In the bottom-right of every other page is a small brass menorah with an increasing number of pastel candles, which readers can count as they go along. Clothing styles are attractively eclectic. A little girl in a pink dress with a big pink bow tied in the back, sort of like Clara in The Nutcracker. Some of the dads wear white shirts, others striped, and one portly member of the latke squad sports a brightly flowered shirt, red polka dot tie, and frilled apron. Something for everybody.

The book concludes with an informational section, “Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights.” It provides a brief summary of the holiday’s roots and significance, the background for all the eating and revelry. You really cannot go wrong with this joyfully sincere celebration of the Festival of Lights, readily available from secondary sellers through Amazon and other sources.



Older Brother to Younger: Leave Me Alone!

What Are You Doing, Benny? – Cary Fagan and Kady Macdonald Denton, Tundra Books, 2019


Here is a book (due out in April 2019) about the paradox of being a younger sibling.  You worship the older brother or sister, regardless of the disdain with which he or she treats you.  You struggle to gain his respect and attention. You feel you can never live up to his peerless standard. Yet, usually, you learn that the person you adore also adores you…kind of.  Cary Fagan and Kady Macdonald Denton have created an utterly believable and warmly understated version of this story in What Are You Doing, Benny? Young readers and formerly young caregivers will relate to this lovely story about temporarily unrequited sibling love.

Benny the fox and his little brother inhabit a typical childhood world of bicycles, puppet theaters, and paper airplanes. The narrator, beginning on the page one and with dogged (foxy?) persistence throughout the book, addresses his older brother hopefully: “Benny?” He want to know what Benny is doing, offering his help and asking to be included. But no matter how talented the younger fox claims to be at building forts or making potions, Benny rejects his offers, without even an explanation, as if the worthlessness of his little brother’s attempts to join him were so obvious they need not be addressed.

Finally, Benny’s little brother wises up, and produces his own puppet show, with the crocodile and frog hand puppets enacting the sibling drama. Before you know it, Benny discovers that collaboration is better than power and control.

Fagan uses few words to convey the little brother’s eagerness and his resourceful approach.  “I like the way you use mustard and sliced chicken and mayonnaise and pickles…I’m hungry, too. So can I have a sandwich, Benny?” He never gives up; eventually his relentless cheerfulness, and Benny’s boredom, work: “So you do want to put on a puppet show with me, Benny?” he asks in disbelief.  Denton’s pictures are funny and poignant at the same time. She captures the human child inside the foxes’ characters. The cover shows the little brother pulling himself up on Benny’s reclining figure, and trying to make eye contact as Benny snidely looks aside.  Their fox den is full of the clutter of human childhood, but framed by the cloudy pastel of the outer world.  My favorite picture is a view of the interior of their home, which includes a drum set and bicycles, but also a fully supplied artist’s desk, with colored bottles, lamps, and a wastebasket overflowing with rejected drafts.  It’s not so much connected to the narrative, but seems to be a representation of the illustrator’s artistic process.

Any child with siblings, or any adult reader who was a sibling, will recognize herself in this book.  What Are You Doing, Benny? explains to kids how, at least sometimes, painful rejection can end in a great puppet show and a sibling who respects you.  Look for it as soon as it becomes available.




Flying Over the Truth: a Sadly Misleading story of World War II

Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story – Marc Tyler Nobleman and Melissa Iwai, Clarion Books, 2018

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People seem drawn to children’s books about reconciliation. After all, even adults feel comforted by the idea, however illusory, that every terrible event has a valuable lesson or conclusion.  When reading with children, we want to be even more careful to emphasize redeeming moments within even the worst events whenever it is possible to do so.  However, this inclination shouldn’t lead to disrespect for the truth. Marc Tyler Nobleman and Melissa Iwai’s Thirty Minutes Over Oregon is a profoundly disturbing, if compellingly narrated and gorgeously illustrated, story.  Nobleman purports to tell the story of a sensitive and contrite Japanese bomber pilot and the Americans who forgive him for his unsuccessful attempt to destroy a community in Oregon in 1942.  The book completely whitewashes the context of this terrible event; it is more the story of an American author wanting to find the good in an overwhelmingly dark period of history than it is the story of a failed Japanese bomber.

Japanese aggression in the cause of consolidating economic and political hegemony in Asia led to their alliance with Nazi Germany and their attack on Pearl Harbor.  In China, Korea, and other parts of Asia, millions of people suffered and died because of Japanese fascism and militarism. Allied soldiers died in the Pacific Theater of War, and many more returned with life-long injuries, both physical and psychological.  Of course, the Japanese people themselves suffered tremendous losses, culminating in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in order to end the War. While Nobleman chooses to focus his story on the personal experience of pilot Nobuo Fujita, he fails to provide the context of this man’s personal near-tragedy and search for forgiveness.  In a book for elementary school-aged readers, this omission is serious, as is Nobleman’s rather manipulative choices in describing historical events.

First, the design and the illustrations of the book are outstanding.  Melissa Iwai is a gifted artist whose pictures capture both the human actors and the epic proportions of the story, including the first two- page spread where Fujita approaches the submarine that will transport him to his mission.  He appears quite small in relation to his airplane and even smaller in comparison to the massive sub.  Nobleman presents Fujita, not as the loyal servant of a dictatorial regime, but as a somewhat positive example of Japanese culture, as he “strode across the slippery deck,” and “gripped the 400-year-old samurai sword that had been in his family for generations.” While family symbols and deeply rooted customs may be either good or bad, there is nothing here to indicate any problem with Fujita’s modern application of an ancient code of war (for a counterpoint, see here).

Nobleman does describe Fujita’s mission as one of destruction, as his bombs will aim to ignite and destroy Oregon communities.  Yet the picture of him in his bombing gear looks heroic, and we learn that he left  his wife “strands of hair and fingernail clippings” to be buried if he did not return.  Everything about his failed mission is described from the pilot’s point of view, with little commentary. After both his first and second attempts fail, Fujita vows to die “with honor” by deliberately crashing his plane.  Only confusion about the actual failure of his mission allows him to avoid suicide. He returns home; as his ship lands, Fujita “gazed through binoculars to mask his tears.”  No child reading or listening to this story will feel anything but empathy for the pilot, who was only one of many who served a tyrannical regime, whether willingly or reluctantly.

Fast forward to 1962, when the residents of Brookings, Oregon, or at least some of them, decide to invite Fujita to a Memorial Day celebration.  Nobleman and Iwai depict those residents opposing this choice as hard-hearted fanatics. We see a frowning picketer bearing a sign that says “NO to Nobuo Fujita.” This is only seventeen years after the end of a war that cost millions of lives.  “Despite the pressure to cancel the visit,” the town would host Fujita, as a “symbol of reconciliation not just between individuals but between nations.”  Residents of the town he nearly destroyed joke with their former enemy that he is “one of the worst fire-setters in the world.” Again, it seems doubtful that children will understand enough about the Cold War and the eagerness to avoid Soviet influence that contributed to encouragement of reconciliation with former Axis powers. Support for Fujita’s visit appears completely as a spontaneous outpouring of forgiveness. In a telling indication that Fujita’s remorse is tinged with the very obedience to authority that he upheld during the War, he brings his samurai sword to Oregon because, if his apology is not accepted, “he would use the sword to commit seppuku, traditional Japanese suicide by a person overcome with shame.” This book has received positive reviews. Am I the only reader to find it strange and alarming that a book for young children uncritically describes suicide as a response to shame? Is Nobleman blinded by the fact that seppuku is part of a foreign culture, and therefore somehow not subject to moral judgement?

When Nobuo Fujita again returns to Oregon in 1990, by which time World War II is a distant memory, he is greeted at another celebration, where he is served “a large submarine sandwich topped with a plane made of sliced pickles and a half-olive helmet.” It’s difficult to comment on this stunningly inappropriate joke, except to point out, again, that children reading this book will not see it as evidence of historical ignorance or insensitivity.

Nobleman’s “Author’s Note,” which might have provided some clarification, is disappointing.  He refers in it to the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. This unforgiveable and unconstitutional infringement on the civil rights of loyal Americans should never be forgotten, but Nobleman fails to include other relevant facts about the War and Fujita’s mission.  He briefly mentions one episode that really transforms the presentation of Fujita’s story from a pathetic failure to an ominous precursor. In 1945, a Japanese balloon bomb did explode, again, in Oregon, this time killing six people. Nobleman fails to mention that they were members of a Sunday school class on an outing; the dead included both students and the minister’s pregnant wife. Finally, Nobleman refers to Fujita as a “noble figure.” No, he was not. He was, like many soldiers in wartime, a cog in a machine. He may indeed have felt sincere remorse and suffered emotionally for his deeds, but I don’t believe that we should present his life to children as an example of nobility. Were Nazi soldiers noble? Were Southerners who died fighting for the Confederacy?  Even when people have limited choices and we feel reluctant to judge, glorifying their deeds to children is a terrible idea. If you would like to read a true example of noble behavior by a Japanese dissident, I recommend Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story, by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee.



Swimmy: We’re All in This Together

Swimmy – Leo Lionni, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1963


When a tiny black fish realizes that he can swim faster than the rest of his school, he needs to get serious about solidarity and self-preservation. All the other fish are red, and the lack Swimmy’s sharp eye and sense of purpose. Although Swimmy was “…scared, lonely, and very sad,” he learns that panic in the face of existential terror just won’t work. He loves his home, the sea, which is full of wonderful and strange creatures. There is a lobster “who walked about like a water-moving machine,’ and some bigger fish moving together, as if “pulled by invisible thread.” When his fellow little fish warn him that, if he tries to enjoy his life, a bigger fish will eat them all, Swimmy concludes, “We must THINK of something.”

Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Leo Lionni’s death.  He had a well-established career as a graphic designer before beginning his life as a children’s book author and illustrator.  Lionni was from the Netherlands. His father was Jewish, and his family fled the Nazis, settling in the United States.  If you want to learn more about the circumstances and gifts that led him to create Little Green and Little Yellow, Frederick, Fish is Fish, and many other beautiful and contemplative works for children, read his autobiography for grown-ups, Between Worlds (Knopf, 1997). Swimmy is a fable set in the water and in the consciousness of a child.  The little black fish is pragmatic and visually defined; his surrounding red friends are mere outlines moving aimlessly among the soft grey water and plants, about to be menaced by a huge predator.


These fish need to work together, and they also need a strong but unassuming leader.  Lionni ingeniously transforms the small fish into one big one, in a formation designed to deceive the big fish who threatens them.  Once they understand the need to band together, Swimmy assures them that he will do his job: “…and when they had learned to swim like one giant fish, he said, ‘I’ll be the eye.’” Some of the characters in Lionni’s stories are dreamers, like Frederick the poet mouse, or the minnow of Fish is Fish, who needs to learn his place in the world.  Swimmy is more of a community organizer, an optimist but also a realist, who learns that his fear is rather useless in confronting a big, scary, bully.  He restores harmony to the sea, as the lacy outline of little red fish against blue watercolor waves moves steadily onwards, “and chased the big fish away.”

Snow, Not Sugar

Waiting for Snow – Marsha Diane Arnold and Renata Liwska, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

snow cover

Many of us have begun waiting for snow, at least in some parts of the world. Of course, the nuisance of driving and cleaning up is meaningless to children, and also, as it turns out, to badgers, rabbits, and voles. Marsha Diane Arnold’s text and Renata Liwska’s pictures capture the ways in which impatience leads us to make improbable gestures, like throwing pebbles at clouds or shaking sugar from a roof.  Fortunately, these uninhibited and anxious friends have a hedgehog to assure them that “It will snow in snow’s time…All we have to do is wait.”  He doesn’t condescend to his friends or lecture them about magical thinking.  Hedgehog is full of wisdom and empathy, and children will learn from this book that silliness, even if it doesn’t make anything important happen, is its own reward.

The repetition of Hedgehog’s reassuring refrain, with slight variations, is accompanied by delicate and fanciful creatures engaged in everyday activities.  In one two-page spread, Hedgehog is teaching a class (Math? Botany? Philosophy?). He draws plants and the sun on an old-fashioned blackboard, while his students watch with varying degrees of interest. Vole has fallen asleep, while Bear attempts to add some numbers on a small slate.  Rabbit is the eager front row kid with his hand raised, while Badger turns in his chair and grips a pencil, although he has no writing surface.  Discussing the predictability of natural events such as sunrise and the blooming of crocuses, Hedgehog intones, “Sometimes they come late and sometimes early, but they always come in their time.”


Badger figures out that he just has to wait, but the fact that this is true doesn’t reduce his frustration. He sits with his legs pulled up and his face burrowed in his arms, as all his friends register concern. Possum reaches gentle to touch Badger with his fingertips, and Hedgehog, as practical as he is knowledgeable, offers Badger a sandwich, which he stubbornly refuses.  The next two pages show many ways to pass the time, and even Badger joins in, playing with tangled yo-yos, and even peeling potatoes. The other animals read, play dominos, skip rope, and sleep.  Even Hedgehog, who knows how everything will turn out, knits a cap, conveniently storing the pastel colored balls of yarn on his prickles.  Children don’t always need explanations as much as distractions; Arnold and Liwska let readers know that sometimes anticipation leads to…snow.  The steady and measured pace of the story and the resonant images of childhood give this book tremendous appeal.

Apparently, putting on one’s pajamas backwards is a sure way to invite snow.  I’m not sure what the source of this detail was for the author and illustrator, but I was told by my grandmother that putting on an article of clothing backwards or inside out, if you did it inadvertently, brought good luck.  Kids may want to try this out.

Being Jewish: A to Z

My First Jewish Baby Book: Almost everything you need to know about being Jewish – Julie Merberg and Beck Feiner, Downtown Bookworks, 2018

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“Welcome to the tribe,” the back of this charming board book announces.  My First Jewish Baby Book promises to introduce new Jewish little ones to holidays, rituals, and the “expressive language of their people.” To quote Tevye, “Sounds crazy, no?” Julie Merberg and Beck Feiner have actually created a funny and eclectic summary of Jewish life that is not only, or even mainly, for babies.  Brightly colored pictures and playful text rapidly associate different holidays and customs for the sake of rhyme. The result is a quirky and humorous ride through the Jewish life cycle, along with a warm and sincere salute to the Jewish values that a new baby will come to know, from his bris to her first Purim party, and beyond.

If you are look for an introduction to the alef-bet (Jewish alphabet), this is not it.  The book is in English, beginning with the afikomen (matzo) hidden by parents and found by kids at the Passover seder, and ends with zayde, Yiddish for grandfather.  Some of the choices seem the result of free association, such as the combination of two different holidays, Hanukkah and Purim, for “G” and “H,” in order to include gelt (chocolate coins) and hamantaschen (pastries shaped like a three-cornered hat to commemorate Queen Esther’s heroic victory over the wicked villain of the Purim story.) This method may make less sense as a teaching tool, but quite a bit of sense in reflecting the way kids think about the world, in this, case, through the connection between different but delicious foods.

Speaking of food, my second-favorite two pages in the book are “K is for Kosher,” where the author enthuses about kugel, knishes, and kasha, (potato or noodle pudding; pastries with meat, potato, or other fillings; and buckwheat often served with egg bow pasta). The grown-up in the room, shown from only her mouth down to emphasize the importance of eating, is wearing a lobster bib with the treif (non-kosher) seafood marked off-limits with the circle/backslash symbol.  A little boy stands in front of the table, but his mouth doesn’t reach the surface. Hopefully, he reaches his hand towards the kugel…

Continue reading “Being Jewish: A to Z”

Dr. Jo: Information and Inspiration

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America’s Children – Monica Kulling and Julianna Swaney, Tundra Books, 2018


We are fortunate to live at a time when children’s books about women who serve as role models for girls are appearing every day. Monica Kulling, the author of several outstanding informational books for children (see my previous posts here and here), and Julianna Swaney, a gifted and versatile artist and illustrator, have given us a new biography of pioneering woman physician and social activist Sara Josephine Baker.  While there have been many books about Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first woman doctor, Jane Addams, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and the courageous and persistent African-American women mathematicians at NASA, the subject of Dr. Jo is less well known.  Sara Josephine Baker was a doctor who, at the turn of the twentieth century, made the commitment to dedicate her life to improving the desperately poor and underserved residents of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.  Central to her crusade was faith in the ability of women, doctors, midwives, mothers, to improve lives.

This book is an incredible achievement.  The text is rich in information, carefully selected and presented to elementary and middle grade readers.  Children with little background information will learn that “Diseases such as smallpox and typhoid fever spread like wildfire, especially among the young…Dr. Jo was saddened to think of the many children who died there every week. She was determined to help.”  Both the facts causing the tragedy, and Dr. Jo’s motivation, are clear.  Kulling explains the difficulties of immigrant life in this diverse community, and the realities of home births attended by untrained midwives, women whose important role Dr. Jo does not dismiss; she plans to license them.  Kulling describes other specific health challenges: poor swaddling methods, dirty eye drop containers, and simple hunger.


One of the most memorable features Dr. Jo is its perfect match between words and pictures.  Swaney’s people have simple but expressive faces, round with dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. Subtle differences in these features convey actions and feelings.  In one picture, Dr. Jo looks into a microscope. Her intense focus shows in her one closed eye and one hand delicately moving the slide.  Her desk is covered with carefully placed significant objects, each one meaningful to the story: her eyeglasses, a fountain pen, a Bunsen burner.  She has determined the solution to the problem of contaminated bottles: “The midwife could be confident that the drops were clean and perfectly measured.”  Each word and each element in the picture reflect one another. On the facing page, Dr. Jo is sitting on a bench in Manhattan’s Bowling Green Park, making careful notes in a small book.  Kulling tells us that Dr. Jo “put her mind to the problem of the flawed eye-drop containers…while sitting in Bowling Green Park, she watched bees at work…” Children playing in the background and the bright pink of a circular flower bed emphasize how the doctor is working in the real world, but not distracted when she needs to focus.

Dr. Jo is a book to read and reread with children, and still relevant today.   It will immerse them in a time and place where the immigrant poor were ignored and disadvantaged and where a stubborn, intelligent, and improbably successful women refused to accept the circumstances of their, and her, lives.