Uplifting for Kids

Lift – by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat, Disney Hyperion, 2020

If you live in an apartment building with your family, imagine your frustration if your child deliberately pushed all the buttons in the elevator. Would you feel more understanding towards her if you knew that she had been driven to this annoying act of protest by sibling rivalry? This situation is the premise of Minh Lê’s and Dan Santat’s fantastic picture book, Lift.

Both meticulously realistic in its portrayal of ordinary childhood resentments, and gloriously imaginative as an ode to worlds of imaginary escape, Lift features a rebellious but kind kid with loving parents who somehow seem unfair.  Children will identify with Iris, the girl who just can’t let her brother take over that important job of elevator transportation.

Comic book format allows the plot to unfold with a minimum of exposition.  Characters’ faces have minimal details but expressive power, as in the scene showing the aftermath of Iris’s button pulling stunt, after her toddler brother is allowed to fulfill his dream of pushing the button in the elevator.  Her mother is furious, an adult woman with her hand splayed over her own face in frustration. Iris’s father looks almost resigned, as he holds his son, along with the toy tiger that never seems to leave the little boy’s arms. Iris’s face is a terrifying scowl; her pigtails stick out from her head like horns. There is no dialogue on this page, only the “tap” of buttons and the “ding” of the elevator’s bell.

One feature of the book with appeal for both young children and their adult readers is the use of repeated motifs and images.  When Iris learns that a discarded elevator button panel opens the door to a universe of natural wonders, that stuffed tiger shows up as a real beast, and the friendly babysitter’s outer space board game becomes a real planetary voyage.  Nighttime scenes are bathed in blue and black, while everyday activities have a soft, limited color palette, stressing the contrast between the two worlds.  When Iris discovers empathy, not through her parents’ anger but by recognizing her little brother’s vulnerability, readers feel relief, but Iris has not been socialized into accepting the boring requirements of adult expectations.  As she stands with the back to the reader, holding her brother’s hand, both children face the door to open-ended adventure.  The book evokes every disjuncture between reality and possibility in children’s literature: Narnia, Wonderland, Oz, a magical tollbooth, Clara’s kingdom of sweets.  In Lê and Santat’s version of imaginary powers, childhood is safe, parents are protective, and younger brothers don’t destroy beloved toys.  Still, children need to step outside once in a while.

Laboring for Change

Thanks to Frances Perkins: Fighter for Workers’ Rights – by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing, 2020

If you ask many Americans who was the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet, many may not know.  Deborah Hopkinson and Kristy Caldwell new picture book biography introduces Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, to young readers and also to older ones. Even adults who vaguely remember that Perkins served in FDR’s cabinet will gain a new vision of her passionate and persistent advocacy for change, and her deep commitment to a dignified life for American workers.  The “thanks” of the title are indeed in order, today more than ever.

Hopkinson (I’ve reviewed two other books by her about courageous people on this blog and for Jewish Book Council, and she herself blogged about it recently for School Library Journal) invites readers into the story of Perkins’ life by posing “two math questions,” neither one obviously relevant to the uninitiated reader.  This introduction, and the rest of the text, highlight the author’s deep understanding of how to interest children in an unfamiliar topic, emphasizing its relevance to their own lives.  Perhaps they assumed that when people grown older and retire from gainful employment, they simply continue to live their lives unchanged.  Hopkinson explains that this is not so, and that a real person, a pioneering woman, was behind the progress than led to Social Security. Caldwell’s delicately drawn but vibrant pictures portray each person in the book, Perkins herself as well as unknown workers, as distinct individuals. Her story is a compelling combination of American, labor, and women’s history, unfolding against the background of one woman determined to help effect change.

A scene of busy urban life pairs with simple explanations of Perkins’ crusade.  The author defines the term “sweatshop,” and asserts with careful understatement that “Workers had few rights or benefits.”

Men, women, and children in the background are busily engaged in their daily activities, calling to mind classic Japanese painting filled with detailed images of court life.  Through a window, we see women factory workers at their tasks.  The pictures are a quiet and unobtrusive record of what workers endured. Hopkinson records how Perkins’ consciousness was raised by the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and by labor activist Rose Schneiderman’s stirring calls for action. By the time Perkins meets with New York legislator Alfred E. Smith, she has focused on a plan; Hopkinson’s judicious use of direct quotes helps to make Perkins’ ideas accessible.  As Smith and Perkins observe first-hand the trauma of child labor, her conviction seems even more real.  Again, Caldwell’s drawing of young children lugging boxes and operating machinery is almost minimalist.  She does not depict the worse abuses, but rather a barefoot boy slipping in a puddle of water and the crude patch on a girl’s torn blouse.

There is nothing super-human about Perkins.  She keeps track of ideas by scribbling them on small pieces of paper and rejects various other names before deciding on the best one for her visionary Social Security program.  Children follow the process by which change takes place, through both incremental steps and great bravery, “little by little, step by step, using her heart and her mind.” 

The image of weary activists staying awake all night to complete a goal reiterates how difficult and plodding revolutionary work can be, while the tender picture of Perkins bending down to be at eye level with a young child affirms that she is motivated by compassion. The culminating scene offers a cameo appearance by FDR himself, signing the Social Security Act with his signature flourish. In a room full of men in grey and tan suits, Perkins stands modestly in her sharp navy suit and pearls. Sometimes it takes a woman to get the job done!  Hopkinson also includes a useful “Author’s Note” with photos, list of additional sources, and the answer to her original math questions.  Thanks to Frances Perkins is a perfect vehicle for discussing women’s roles in change we can believe in.

Alone or Lonely? The Bear & Madame Odette

The Invisible Bear – written and illustrated by Cécile Metzger, Tundra Books, 2020

The Invisible Bear is a picture book full of beautiful ambiguity.  Since many young children accept the premise that an imaginary friend or a toy can be as real as a member of their own family.  They also understand loneliness, and they often feel a connection to old people.  Cécile Metzger alludes to all of these childhood truths in both the text and the ink and watercolor illustrations of her new book.  Readers enter the quiet and monochrome world of a possibly invisible bear, but later discover Madame Odette’s complementary world of bright flowers and cozy domesticity.  These two worlds each have their own dreamlike reality.

There is a difference between lonely and alone; Metzger’s bear, a large white creature pictured against a sepia background, seems a little sad: “No one ever came to see him,/and he lived all alone in his colorless world.” His day is characterized by a busy routine: waking to an alarm clock, cooking, drinking tea, while rain mysteriously falls on him from a small cloud suspended over his head. 

His life is radically altered when a grandmotherly woman, Madame Odette, comes to live next door. All of a sudden, pink green, and red take over the pages, as Madame Odette is the loving caretaker of flowers, dragonflies, and potted plants.  If the bear is solitary, Madame Odette is the opposite; “She lived in a/cheerful world of color and sound.”  

Yet Madame Odette’s world is as empty of companionship as the bear’s.  There are no other humans, only a cat.  The difference is that she seems perfectly content, chopping vegetables, talking on an old-fashioned dial phone, and lounging in an antique bathtub with feet. She has a radio out of the nineteen-forties, cheerfully emitting pink musical notes.  Her world and the bears are not opposites, but parallel to one another.

Neither has friends, but Madame Odette seems to be happy as long as she is nurturing plants and creating beauty with them. Her rustic house features plants in every window and a wooden weather vane. A few items of clothing hanging on the wash line are the main evidence of human habitation.   One day, Madame confronts an emergency.  A lack of water threatens her plants, and the bear decides to intervene, bringing friendship along with water.

The book’s ending is enigmatic. The bear’s life has changed; “And his gray world would never be the same again.” There are many questions to discuss with children about Madame Odette’s lasting impact, the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the ways in which people (and bears) do and do not change.  Some of us carry a portable rain cloud, and others can seemingly provide beauty and comfort to the rest.  The bear may be invisible, but the book’s message just requires some patient contemplation.

“Yes, we are small. But there are a lot of us.”

The Little Guys – written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol, Roaring Book Press, 2019

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This isn’t actually a book about resistance or about strength in numbers. Then again, maybe it is.  Part of the appeal of Vera Brosgol’s The Little Guys is the ambiguity of its message, or at least, the way the author and artist surprises readers expecting a more confident assertion of strength in numbers.  Once you have read it, it’s hard to get its refrain out of your mind, or to look at other small and comic species in other children’s books without seeing these acorn-capped creatures, at first so sure of themselves, and then, transformed by at least a little bit of self-knowledge. It isn’t easy to describe the impact of this funny, weird, and rhythmic story.

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Brosgol is an author and illustrator of both picture books and graphic novels.  The text of The Little Guys is brief.  An army of small beings go about their daily business, having introduced themselves as “the strongest guys in the whole forest.”  Readers are ready to welcome them and to endorse their communal philosophy: “Yes, we are small.  But there are a lot of us./Together we are strong, and we can get all we need.”  But if you think you are going to enjoy a paean to solidarity, somewhat like Leo Lionni’s Swimmy, you are instead going to learn that these Little Guys might have an inflated sense of their own worth and, worse, will not hesitate to push others around.

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The pictures are whimsical and also full of allusions to fairy tales and film.  The long line of Little Guys holding hands in the “big, dark forest” recall the dancing mushrooms of Disney’s Fantasia. The forest animals, from little birds to a frightened owl to a parent and child bear duo about to enjoy a nice meal of fish, could populate the sweetest children’s film or story book or the darkest folk tale.  In either case, they are no match for the Little Guys. The font gets bigger as they become increasingly more threatening, chanting their now menacing slogans: “None for you! All for us! Hand it over to the Little Guys!”

Eventually, the book switches into reverse.  Maybe even a large number of Little Guys with overblown expectations are still little.  Maybe recognizing that they need to share is a better bet than assaulting bears. The relief that readers will feel at the end is tempered by the knowledge of how far the Little Guys got in their previous incarnation as an out-of-control army.  Is this a cautionary tale about fascism?  If so, Brosgol emphasizes how fragile the continuum is of finding all you need for yourself, denying it to others, and finally accepting the need to share.  We are small. And yes, there are a lot of us.

A Bewitching Tale with Pictures

Lucy Crisp and the Vanishing House – written, and with illustrations by, Janet Hill, Tundra Books, 2020

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Lucy Crisp is just a sharp and creative young woman with a few loose ends to tie together. She is living in New York City with her restaurant critic father and doing temp work at a florist shop, but her future is unsure.  When her employer suggests she look into a floristry program at the intriguingly named upstate educational institution, Ladywyck Lodge, it seems like a good solution to her aimless second gap year. As it turns out, the town of Esther Wren, where Ladywyck Lodge is located, is a cauldron of supernatural activity.  Lucy moves into her new house and soon is confronted with some unsettling and unexplained phenomena. The book is a mystery, an exploration of character, a bit philosophical, and frequently funny.  Paired with Janet Hill’s inimitable illustrations, readers are immersed in a world where the difference between an enchantment and a haunting becomes quite significant.

Janet Hill’s literary and artistic styles (reviewed previously here and here) are a striking combination of ingredients: Oscar Wilde meets Agatha Christie plus the Pre-Raphaelites and Maira Kalman.  The novel is not a parody and its careful resolution is not the mere solution of a puzzle.  Lucy is a believable person with whom readers will identify.  Who hasn’t overlooked obvious pitfalls in pursuit of a goal?  Her intensely visual imagination finds its counterpart in Hill’s lovely prose: “Putting her wretched brownies on display would not only be an embarrassment to her but would also be an insult to all the other desserts on the table, including the really old date cake.”  Some of her phrases are elegant shorthand for the universe, such as one character’s disquisition on the differences between coffee and tea: “Scarlett explained that most Goodies disliked coffee, but the Baddies appreciated it – so much so that some believed it actually enhanced their abilities.” That makes sense, doesn’t it?

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Lucy’s quest for independence from her father is also present throughout the book.  He is always there to bail her out, with his practical skepticism and his calming explanations, but Lucy needs to work things out for herself.  She also needs to negotiate relationships with her peers, with other adult authority figures, and with the inevitable crush who may not actually be what he seems.  Lucy is persistent in her path towards both discovering the source of her house’s strange events, and in discovering what it is she actually wants to do with her life.

 

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It is not easy to construct a novel with illustrations.  It not a picture book, yet the pictures must still advance the story and not serve just as decorations.  Lucy’s quirky fashion sense, her house’s inner and outer instability and the mysterious teenagers, who hover on the lawn exuding a feeling of potential evil, all give the reader an evocative picture of this mysterious world.  Lucy seated at her desk, her back to the reader, is a serious and dedicated working girl, any young professional intent upon her career, while her white dressed neighbors are a vision of adolescence gone awry.

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Lucy’s brave ascent towards the Victorian house, which will be the site of so much mayhem, could be a brave heroine in a nineteenth century novel,while the armchair covered in a bunny pattern is one piece of evidence that something strange is happening.  The nostalgia-laden snow globe scene is Hill at her best, alluding to tradition but personalizing it, as the tiny sunglasses of the station wagon’s passenger look towards the reader, not knowing what to expect.  Hill has translated that visual sense of the uncanny into Lucy Crisp’s adventure.

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The Wall is For All of Us

The Wall – by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Clarion Books, 1990

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It’s inherently difficult to choose picture books explaining Memorial Day. While Veterans Day honors all the men and women who have served in the United States military, Memorial Day is dedicated to those who gave their lives.  Then there is the issue of conflicts, such as the Civil War and World War II, for which it is relatively easy to explain to children, in the words of movie director Frank Capra, Why We Fight.

Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler’s The Wall is a sad but hopeful story about the eloquent Vietnam Veterans Memorial, enshrined in American memory as “The Wall.”  It does not explore the reasons why the United States became embroiled in this divisive conflict.  It is about a boy and his father visiting the Memorial, looking for the name of the boy’s grandfather, a casualty of the Vietnam War.  (If you don’t have the book and would like to share it today, there are several readings of it available on YouTube, for example here.)

There is nothing in the book about the war, nor about the specific circumstances of the grandfather’s death. There is no description of heroism, although heroism is implicit in the monument.  Looking for the grandfather’s name among so many requires the boy and his father to “walk slowly, searching,” which is both literally true and a metaphor for processing the history behind the Wall. Similarly, the boy’s observation that “The wall is “black and shiny as a mirror,” points to their need to see themselves in this tribute to their grandfather’s life. (Caregivers reading this with children will choose how to explain that one veteran visiting the wall is a double amputee in a wheelchair.) The tributes which visitors have left, from teddy bears to a wilted rose with “a droopy head.” Other visitors are crying.

When the boy’s father finds his own father’s name, George Munoz, he makes a rubbing of it, capturing parts of other names as well.  When the boy points this out, his father responds, “Your grandpa won’t mind.” Each name is an individual, but their loss was collective as well. When a group of uniformed schoolgirls tours with their teacher, they are interested, but not personally involved. Their teacher correctly imparts the message to them that “The names are the names of the dead, but the wall is for all of us.” Yet their experience of the Wall is unlike that of the boy and his father. There is no moment of epiphany which compensates for this family’s loss. Yes, the Wall is a “a place of honor,” as his father tells him, trying to put his sadness in context, but the boy realizes that he would rather have his grandfather there with him.

There is no overt anger in this book. It is not the resource for explaining facts about why so many American soldiers lost their lives in Southeast Asia in a proxy conflict during the Cold War. Although the grandfather’s name is Hispanic, it does not introduce the fact that servicemen of color were disproportionate among the casualties, largely due to socioeconomic inequality, including access to student deferments from the draft.  The Wall is a book to honor those who served and to validate children’s feelings of loss, or less directly, to encourage empathy for those who suffered most directly.  Memorial Day is about never forgetting.

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If You Believe in Fairies

The Fairy Bell Sisters #1: Sylva and the Fairy Ball – by Margaret McNamara, illustrations by Julia Denos, Balzer + Bray, 2013

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Fairies go in and out of style…mostly in, these days. When my daughter was a little girl, however, it was not so easy to find contemporary books about fairies, let alone the extensive number of fairy toys and craft kits that are now so heavily marketed.  Not all fairy books, or all fairy book series, are modern classics.  Some have thin plots, and others undistinguished artwork.  There are some outstanding explorations of these fantastic creatures, including Claire Keane’s workMargaret McNamara and Julia Denos’ series, about Tinker Bell’s younger sisters and their lives on Sheepskerry Island, is kind of enchanting.  These younger siblings of the famed star of book, stage, and screen have many of the same problems as other children.  They have other problems, as well, including using crabs as shoe buckles and fighting evil trolls.  They also have a special language and a schedule of birthdays which does not correspond to our own.

When Sylva has to watch her sisters’ overwhelming excitement about attending the Fairy Ball, even meeting Queen Mab herself, she is extremely frustrated. It turns out that she will not turn eight, the minimum age for attendance, until the day after the event. If you’re thinking of Cinderella, her sisters are not wicked, and handsome princes are not part of the picture in this female-centered world.  But Sylva does suffer from the fairy tale trauma of being a notch below on the social scale. Fortunately, the plot gives her an opportunity to save the day, and it even involves a narwhal tusk.

Beginning chapter books should be appealing and engrossing to young readers.  At best, they may also include discussion of family, school, and social issues.  Sylva is a little fairy/girl to whom readers will relate. Her intentions are good, just as her resentment is real, and her relationship with her sisters is tense, but loving.  Adult role models with wings step in to help. The language has touches of poetry, such as this fairy menu: “lingonberry jam and wheat-berry toast; pomegranate juice poured over fresh-cut peaches; sweet oatmeal with sultanas and apples…,” or this example of a fairy’s wardrobe: “They collected heaps of sea glass, some of it the rarest shade of deep blue. And the mermaids, usually so greedy, took pity on the two little fairies and gave them a bucket filled with ropes of tiny seed pearls.” McNamara even includes recipes, and a glossary of fairy baby words.

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Then there are Julia Denos’s pictures.  Denos is not exclusively a portraitist of fairies. Her other works, include illustrations for biographies of both Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, as well as other non-famous fictional people. However, she is certainly a perfect artist to bring the world of fairies to life.  Her detailed map of Fairy Village on Sheepskerry Island gives them a home. The faces of Sylva and her sisters are expressive examples drawn from human childhood, while their outfits are mixtures of unearthly accessories, such as wings, and everyday Mary Jane shoes, cropped pants, and fuzzy slippers. Sometimes these items, such as crown worn at the Fairy Ball or at a child’s birthday party, bridge two worlds.  The group scenes in which characters interact with one another prove that Denos is not only a producer of fairy greeting card covers; her supernatural girls are living beings in social settings.  Animals, plants, and other elements of nature also play a role in fairy’s lives and in this book.

Interpreters of fairy worlds might easily fall into cliché. McNamara and Denos have avoided that trap; if you want to share literary works about fairies with a chapter book reader, their books are a wonderful place to begin.

Pastry Wars

It Happened on Sweet Street – by Caroline Adderson, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch, Tundra Books, 2020

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Here is a sweet new children’s picture book about ruthless competition and the way to resolve it so that everyone can have her cake and eat it, too. Caroline Adderson’s text alternates between straightforward narration and rhythmic phrases, and Stéphane Jorisch’s (whose work I have reviewed before here and here) fantastic images of humans and animals vying to win customers for their popular concoctions.  Children will find the story colorful, while both young and older readers will enjoy the exciting and allusive artwork.  Are delicious cookies and cakes really worth all the conflict?  A trip to Sweet Street sets culinary opinions against the harmony of the neighborhood.  Who and what will win?

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At first, Sweet Street has only one shop which lives up to its name; the other establishments sell shoes and “bric-a-brac.”  Monsieur Oliphant, a bipedal creature whose short trunk makes him a cross between an elephant and some other species, reigns supreme as “Oliphant, Exclusive Creator of Cakes.”  People line up like workers on an assembly line to enter his shop, and they exit the proud owners of his delicious creations.

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Then the old shoemaker retires and his store is repurposed by one Mademoiselle Fée as a cookie bakery.   The new owner is ingenious and energetic, about to give Monsieur Oliphant a run for his money.  Every one of her cookies is unique: “She tooled them and jeweled them…/and dusted them with sugar.”

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You won’t mistake Stéphane Jorisch’s pictures for the work of any other illustrator.  They call to mind, sticking with the baking metaphor, many ingredients, including Picasso, Chagall, and Mordicai Gerstein.  However, like Mademoiselle Fée’s cookies, they are unique.  A happy little girl with red hair and a yellow hat looks something like a Cubist version of Bemelmans’s Madeline, while the baker’s giant gingerbread people have a futurist look. Kids will find them funny.

Adults will, too, but will also find the surrealist associations to have much more than meets the eye.  When yet another baker joins the Sweet Street establishments, her pies make the crazy cookies look like supermarket brands.  Eventually, the cookie wars heat up, making the special location into a gooey chaos: “a massacre of cream,/a catastrophe of meringue,/a devastation of crumbs.”  Between Adderson’s poetic words and Jorisch’s dream-like images, the tension builds.  Someone will have to compromise or find an innovative way to acknowledge each artist and each customer’s favorite indulgence.  After all, people willing to wait patiently for pastries should be able to understand that Sweet Street is “also a street of peace.”  But don’t be too sure.

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Feminist Middle-Grade Novel with pictures by Beth and Joe Krush

Stand Up, Lucy – by Elizabeth Hall, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971

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May 18 is the birthday of the beloved American illustrator, Joe Krush, who was born in 1918.  Readers of my blog (see here and here and here and here and here), and of The Horn Book, and the Jewish Book Council Paper Brigade Daily, know that I am a tremendous admirer of the unique contributions to children’s books, of Joe and his late wife, Beth (1918-2009).  They worked with a distinguished cast of authors, including Beverly Cleary and Virginia Sorensen, and their pictures always form an inseparable part of a story’s impact and beauty.  They illustrated teen novels, classics, dictionaries, and poetry collections.

 

In 1971, their distinctive black and white line drawings help tell the story of a young teenaged girl in 1904 who committed to the cause of woman suffrage.  When Lucy Snow (the same name as the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette; this connection is a story in itself), runs for class secretary, she encounters both sexism and socioeconomic prejudice. At the same time, her Aunt Letitia, an ardent supporter of women’s rights, comes to visit their family. Lucy learns that it isn’t easy to be a feminist, and that local male neighbors may throw rotten eggs at you if you persist.

Each chapter begins with a Krush illustration, in which characters’ personalities and dilemmas take indelible form in their delicately precise black lines against white backgrounds.  In one image, Lucy’s Aunt Letitia is busy knitting while her brother Will, Lucy’s father, angrily glances towards her as he reads The New York Times. His scowl is as emphatic a sign of male privilege as is his prominent handlebar mustache.  We know it is The Times because the author, Elizabeth Hall, refers to his attachment to that paper. In the picture, we see columns of closely spaced horizontal lines, and comical sketches of presumably important people.  Aunt Letitia is ignoring her insecure brother. She bends carefully over the knitting-needles, which Hall describes as clicking “like a train making up time.”  Her upswept hair, with tendrils at the back, is a mixture of black and white. Her wire-framed glasses imply intellect, and lack of concern with conventional beauty. Everywhere, the Krushes intricate pictures are shorthand for the novel’s world.

Then there is the scene juxtaposing Lucy with her opponent in the school election.  Mabel Smith is the daughter of the bank president, while Lucy is not.  Each girl stands to one side of the school’s door, which includes the inside staircase in vanishing point perspective. Mabel is the image of class superiority.  An oversized hair bow tops her elaborate curls, and her dress is a dizzying array of ribbons and puffed sleeves.  She is actually buying votes with pennies taped to little cards, which she has collected in a wicker basket which looks like the one in which Dorothy carried Toto. Meanwhile, Lucy is wearing a modest middy blouse, a tam o’ shanter, and easy to maintain braids.  Her taffy samples sit in a cigar box.  Lucy looks over at her rival in something like disbelief. How far will Mabel’s wealth and arrogance work in stealing votes?

The Krushes are terrific at drawing objects with a life of their own. After the elections, Lucy’s mother serves the family celebratory goblets of sparkling cider, drawn with tonal crosshatching in a carefully placed order against a tray decorated with swirls.  Father’s newspaper sits at the side because he really has to stay in the picture.  The election is over, but Lucy is just about to confront a nasty machine politician visiting the town to campaign for Theodore Roosevelt and condemn the movement for women’s equality as the product of “unnatural women,” who will “lead to a degenerate society.”  Lucy lets him have it and winds up in the local police precinct, and worse, ultimately in front of her outraged father.  The Krushes capture her humiliation as she sits with hands folded and face downcast, facing the reader, while we see her father’s back and her mother in half-profile, holding her husband’s arm as if to restrain him from doing something which he might, or might not, regret.  Mother is a picture of feminine self-control. She has a tiny waist and carefully combed hair. Throughout the book, she manages her husband through passive resistance and quiet obstruction of his will.

It is impossible to imagine the rousing message of this book, or its careful character development, without the Krush’s nuanced drawings.  If you have not read the books which they illustrated, or if you remember them only dimly, now is a good time to return to their irreplaceable legacy of art which furthers narrative. Happy birthday, Joe Krush!

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Looking Back and Forward

Never Look Back – by Lilliam Rivera, Bloomsbury YA, 2020

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When Lilliam Rivera conceived the idea of re-imagining the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a modern setting, she took an artistic risk.  Setting this timeless story in a Bronx community where residents have been tested by poverty, racism, and the family fractures which are universal, could have resulted in a novel overwhelmed by obvious literary allusions. Instead, Rivera has created a powerful and compelling story of unique individuals, using the mythological background as a point of departure, not a pre-made script. Readers expecting a modern myth will find instead a nuanced work based on unforgettable characters, rich with elements of mythology, social and political protest, and implicit statements about the power of art.

Pheus and Eury are both in the Bronx for the summer. Both are children of divorce; he is staying with his father while Eury, who lives in Tampa, is visiting with her cousin’s family. Before her move to Tampa, Eury had lived in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane María had economically devastated the island and brought back emotional trauma which had never left her.  Pheus has a complicated relationship with his Pops, a man who has failed in some ways to live up to his family’s expectations but has also given his son profound emotional support.  Families in this novel are neither idealized nor failures. Rivera avoids both simplistic praise and easy condemnation at every juncture of the narrative.

Pheus is a gifted interpreter of Dominican bachata music as well as of other genres.  When he meets Eury, the power of song becomes part of their relationship, a lens through which to he communicates the depth of his feelings about her as well as his confusion about the future. Eury is vulnerable and finds it difficult to trust the ability of anyone to believe in her experiences.  The novel’s supporting characters are more than a chorus behind the couple; Rivera has crafted each person in their orbit as believably flawed but redemptive in their love.  Eury’s devoted cousin Penelope is unsure how to help her, while Pheus’s friend Jaysen, focused on jumpstarting the young artist’s musical career, also alternates between misunderstanding and empathy.  Everywhere in the novel the ambiguity of real life is present.

Then there is evil.  Readers are asked to consider, from the novel’s beginning to its conclusion, how cruelty and exploitation manifest themselves in our lives.  The subtlety with which the author balances the different explanations for Eury’s suffering is one of the most gripping aspects of the work.  Instead of either/or answers there is deep involvement in human nature, and in the political and social inequalities which wreak havoc on people’s lives.  Rivera has constructed a complete novelistic universe out of this dramatic tension, one which calls upon myth but is not limited by it.