Peter Rabbit: Not the Movie

Book discussed:  The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter, Warne, 2002 (reprint of 1902 edition), Beatrix – Jeanette Winter, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003

I have not seen the new computer-generated animation movie version of Peter Rabbit, and it isn’t high on my list of things to do. If you are following the controversy, you know that parents have complained about the inclusion of a scene in which Tom McGregor, allergic to blueberries, is deliberately shot in the mouth with the dangerous food and experiences anaphylaxis.

Aside from empathizing with the distress of those families affected by this apparent insensitivity, I prefer to focus on the review of the movie in the New York Times by Glenn Kenny, who seems, despite the title of the review, oddly unaware of the nature of the original story by Beatrix Potter.

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Mr. Kenny writes: “Yes, right away the movie dispenses with the sweetness and light and lyricism of the books by Beatrix Potter.” Lyricism, definitely. Sweetness and light? This seemed like a good time to revisit the understated tale of childhood fears and disobedience by the brilliant writer, artist, and naturalist (on whom I have also blogged here).

In case you have forgotten, the mother of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter, feels the need to remind them that they should avoid Mr. McGregor’s garden at all cost, since their own father “…had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

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Remembering Michael Bond

Books referenced:
A Bear Called Paddington – Michael Bond and Peggy Fortnum, HarperCollins, 2014 (reprint of 1958 edition)
Paddington’s Finest Hour – Michael Bond and R.W. Alley, HarperCollins, 2017

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Today, February 13, is the birthday of Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear and author of his adventures, spanning the years 1958-2017.  Bond died this past June at the age of 91, having experienced the relative privilege of long and consistent acclaim throughout his life.  He first worked with illustrator Peggy Fortnum (1919-2016) and later with other artists, most recently R.W. Alley.  The most obvious part of Paddington’s appeal is as a toy animal who embodies the most endearing, and occasionally frustrating, traits of a child. Previously a resident of Peru, before his guardian, Aunt Lucy had to move to the Home for Retired Bears, Paddington braved a dangerous journey to London as a stowaway. He is fortunately adopted by the compassionate Brown family, who succeed in acculturating him to life in Britain, but never quite completely enough to remove the element of surprise and a little embarrassment from their daily lives.

Three years ago, I read a moving piece by author Pico Iyer in The New York Times Book Review, in which he reminisced about being himself a young Indian immigrant to London, and how he identified with Paddington’s confusion.  He even wrote Bond a fan latter, and received a kind response.  Over the years, Paddington, like Iyer, became more acclimated to his surroundings, but there were always the moments when his naïve enthusiasm made him stand out. Paddington’s combination of insecurity, and yet conviction that the way he saw things was correct, makes his character accessible to children.

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RBG for Kids

Books Reviewed:
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark – Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality – Jonah Winter and Stacy Innerst, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017

First, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark appeared in 2016, winning a well deserved Sydney Taylor and National Jewish Book Award, among other honors. Then, only one year later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality followed. It was cited as a Sydney Taylor Notable Book, and also as a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book As far as I am concerned, there can’t be too many children’s books about this powerful and courageous female opponent of injustice.  An article in the New York Times by legal reporter Adam Liptak refers to her as a “rock star” and describes the grueling schedule she maintains, one that would challenge someone twenty years younger. Each book is a thrilling in its overt feminism, its frank acknowledgement of antisemitism, and its beautiful art.  Winter and Innerst’s work has a somewhat more detailed text with more complex explanations, but the differences are minor; both works would be suitable for readers in elementary school and their awed caregivers.

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I Dissent opens with carnival-style lettering making the point that dissent has been the essence of Ginsburg’s life and career. We see young Ruth and the older Ruth in her justice’s robes, each proclaiming her profound objection to injustice and inequality.  Yet this does not, author Debbie Levy reminds us, make her “disagreeable.”  Girls and women who speak out are heroines, not annoying pests or witches.  We learn that Ruth grew up in an immigrant neighborhood and was entranced by books from a young age. One of Elizabeth Baddeley’s pictures shows Ruth seated in front of a shelf in the public library, reading about heroines real and imaginary, whose images form constellations in her mind.  There is no pulling any punches about prejudice, as a boldly lettered sign, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed,” keeps the Bader family from a hotel on their vacation. The facing page depicts other signs shamelessly excluding black and Hispanic people. Ruth is taking it all in. She is angry, but her anger is always focused, whether in her protests against teachers who force her, a lefty, to write with her right hand, or the obligatory cooking and sewing classes to which she is subjected.

When Ruth goes to college, she meets her ideal mate, Martin Ginsburg, as committed to women’s equality as Ruth is.  One beautiful picture shows nighttime in the Bader Ginsburg home through a blue background of semi-darkness. Martin is cradling their infant daughter while Ruth sits, law book and pen in hand, studying. Both parents are quietly smiling.   The book portrays Ginsburg consistently, mounting a strong argument that is not patronizing or simplified. Prejudice is wrong. Strength should be expected from both men and women. Both men and women are entitled to fulfilling professional lives and warm family lives.  All oppressed people deserve advocates.  The facial features and physiques of the characters are not idealized, so they further affirm for children how ordinary heroism can seem from the outside.

Jonah Winter and Stacy Innerst’s approach is similar to Levy and Baddeley’s: acquaint young readers with Ginsburg’s compassionate activism and defiance in the face of outmoded conventions.  Winter uses the premise of framing a legal argument, with such phrases as

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“We now offer into evidence: Anti-Semitism experienced firsthand by Ruth – a sign outside a resort in Pennsylvania, seen from her parents’ car.  It said: NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED.  This happened right here in America.”

This book also documents the young Ruth’s passion for books, her success as a student, and her grief at her mother’s early death.  Martin Ginsburg is also her staunch defender and soulmate, “…different from any boy she’d ever met – he liked that she had a brain.”

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Emerald, Vociferous, Infinitesimal: Collect Them All!

Book reviewedThe Word Collector – Peter H. Reynolds, Orchard Books, imprint of Scholastic, 2018

The first thought I had upon hearing about this book was that it cannot be a new idea. It is not.  The premise of the story is that a young boy, Jerome, decides to collect something quite different from the ordinary choices: stamps, coins, comic books. He loves words and he seeks them out, categorizes them, and used them to communicate with the people in his life. There are actually several picture books with a similar theme, among them Kate Banks’s and Boris Kulikov’s Max’s Words and The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter and Giselle Potter.  Both those words and in some ways more sophisticated, with more involved text and pictures which are more fantastic and perhaps less accessible than The Word Collector. This is not a criticism of Peter H. Reynolds’ story, which fills a different niche.  The simple narrative and cartoon-like illustrations offer a beginning lesson in the love of language that even early readers, or listeners, can understand.

collector cover

In fact, the structure of the book is deceptively simple.  While Jerome, a bright and happy child armed with a pencil and the word “wonder,” is seen at first diligently copying words from posters, books, and personal conversations.  Later, he begins to amass words that are much more difficult, and to become effectively obsessed with carting them around and pasting them carefully into scrapbooks.  I wondered if it was not a contradiction of the book’s purpose, but then I realized that each of these words could be “translated” into a more familiar one.

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Betsy, Tacy, and Tib Protect Syrian Immigrants

Book Referenced:  The Betsy-Tacy Treasury – Maud Hart Lovelace and Lois Lenksi, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2011 (reprint of first four books in the series, 1940-1943)

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What is the source of the devotion that followers of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, three girls growing up in a small town in Minnesota at the turn of the twentieth century, maintain into adulthood?  The series of ten novels, which take Betsy and her close friends from the age of five to young adulthood, seems to fill a nostalgic need to re-imagine childhood as a wonderful era almost free of conflict or suffering.  The friendship of the three girls, along with their family relationships, does suffer some minor detours on the road to near perfection, but that reassuring illusion alone does not characterize the series.

First, the very fact that these three girls constantly love and support one another, in spite of the fact that when they first all become friends, skeptics claim that three girls cannot be fair to one another without turning against one another. But the three girls will not be a part of that destructive view of female friendship: “But although so many people expected it, no trouble began with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. The three of them didn’t quarrel, any more than the two of them had.”

Perhaps the sensitivity and flexible attitudes of their parents, the positive and accepting values of their homes, make these three girls defy stereotypical ideas about girls and women.  Betsy, the character modeled on Lovelace herself, longs to be a writer. Both her parents encourage her, expressing pride in her stories and poems. When they cannot afford a desk for her, her mother constructs one out of an old theatrical trunk.  But within the idyllic community of Deep Valley, not everyone is so enlightened. One part of their small town, Little Syria, is populated by immigrants in homes built by a disappointed eastern developer who discovered that this was the only market for his buildings.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib meet a little girl named Naifi.  Although her clothing is different, they find this admirable, and they are equally fascinated that she writes “backwards” in “Syrian.”

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The More Things Change, the More They Have Not Remained the Same

Book reviewed:  The Silent Witness: A True Story of the Civil War – Robin Friedman and Claire A. Nivola, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005

Many of us can remember a time when people of color were rarely portrayed in children’s books, and even more rarely portrayed sensitively or accurately.  Awareness of the need to faithfully reflect the world’s diversity in books for children has dramatically increased. Of course, people of color were always aware of that need. Historical accuracy, particularly when interpreting the experiences of marginalized groups, is one important part of that new commitment.  In 2015, Emily Jenkins’ and Sophie Blackall’s depiction of an enslaved mother and child in their picture book, A Fine Dessert generated enormous controversy, even anger. Even more contentious was the reception of the ill-fated A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ranim Ganeshram and Vanessa –Brantley Newman, which Scholastic actually withdrew from production. This book was based on the improbable premise that Washington’s slave was happy with his status.

I myself wrote an article for Jewcy in 2016 about A Year of Borrowed Men, a picture book that I believe grossly distorts the role of slave labor in Germany during World War II.  I was surprised that the book had received favorable reviews, and commendations specifically for promoting values of tolerance of peace, which it did only by erasing the historically irrefutable suffering of the victims of Nazism.

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The Silent Witness is a picture book by Robin Friedman and Claire A. Nivola that specifically claims to tell a “true” story about the American Civil War through the perspective of one southern family, their little girl, and her doll.  It received favorable reviews, earning praise for its insight into how the lives of ordinary people, including children, were impacted by the Civil War.  In 2005, only thirteen years in the past, these responses were the norm and most readers might have found nothing to criticize about the book’s presentation of the War, which is unabashedly pro-Confederate.  Lula McLean and her family live an idyllic existence on their family’s Virginia plantation, “in a peaceful countryside dotted with cedars and pines.” Their lives are fruitful and productive, until the Civil War, which the narrative accurately reports began after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter.

There the accuracy ends.  Friedman’s explanation of the reason for this horrific conflict is one that has been completely discredited by legitimate historians:

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Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes

Today is the beginning of Black History Month.  It is also the birthday of one of our greatest modern American poets, Langston Hughes.  Here is a link to a moving opinion piece in today’s New York Times, in which author and activist Renée Watson recalls the profound effect that reading Hughes’s poetry had on her as a child and young adult.  Watson is the author of several critically acclaimed works for young people about the African-American experience.

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Hughes himself was the author of works for children, including poetry, history, and the wonderful novel coauthored with Arna Bontemps, Popo and Fifina (unfortunately out of print). Hughes has also been the subject of numerous biographies, including picture books, for children, as well as  collections of his poetry illustrated by Daniel Miyares, Benny Andrews, Charles R. Smith, Jr., and Bryan Collier, among others.

 

I will write about some of these inspiring works in the month ahead, but I don’t want to let the birthday of this legendary artist go by without bringing some of them to my readers’ attention.

La Vie en Rose

Book Reviewed:  The Pink Umbrella – Amélie Callot and Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2018, translated from the French, Rose à petits pois, by Lara Hinchberger, Edited by Tara Walker and Jessica Burgess, Les Éditions de la Pastèque, 2016)

Adele is the proprietor of a neighborhood café in a French village.  Not only does she serve delicious food and make sure that her tables are decorated with exquisite flowers, but her establishment is a home away from home for everyone who needs a place to talk, celebrate, fall in love.  Lucas is a grocer, but think of him as a combination of Jean Gabin, Charlie Chaplin in City Lights, and Chef Linguini from Pixar’s Ratatouille“Lucas is very reliable, and he always takes off his cap when he comes into the café.

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Adele is kind, beautiful, and fortunate enough to have a rewarding career. Her only problem seems to be that she succumbs to depression when it rains. On those days, as fewer customers venture out to her establishment, “…she shuts down the café, rolls up in her quilt and waits for the sun to take the place of the clouds. Then one day, a beautiful pair of pink rubber boots appear, followed by a series of other prêt à porter items suitable for bad weather.  By the end of the book, the mystery is solved.

Am I watching a French movie? No, I’m reading, and viewing, an adorable children’s book that is not afraid to remind you of a series of animation stills.

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East, West, and Change

Books reviewed:
Suki’s Kimono – Chieri Uegaki and Stéphane Jorisch, Kids Can Press, 2003
Yoko’s Paper Cranes – Rosemary Wells, Hyperion Books for Children, 2001

There is a fairly long tradition of children’s books about Japan for western readers.  Taro Yashima’s Crow Boy (1956; available in a paperback edition from 1976) addressed the problem of fitting in to a hostile society. Yoshiko Uchida’s works explored both Japanese traditions and recent history in numerous works, including New Friends for Susan (1951), the story of a Japanese American child living in California.  There are new works released for readers in English every year as Americans and Canadians continue to be fascinated by Japan.

suki coveryoko cover

Suki’s Kimono is less an introduction to Japanese culture than the story of a child caught between affection for her grandmother and the demands of conforming to the norms of her friends in school. Thanks to the support of a kind teacher as well as her own innate self-confidence, Suki is able to appreciate her grandmother’s gifts of a beautiful blue kimono and red geta (clogs).  The author and illustrator express the sense of integration and happiness experienced by Suki as she sticks to her unarticulated conviction that her grandmother’s way of life holds wonder and meaning.

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Girls Just Want to Learn

Book reviewed:  Raisel’s Riddle – Erica Silverman and Susan Gaber, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999

Raisel’s Riddle is often described as a “Jewish Cinderella” tale, and it is, in that the heroine is a poor and oppressed girl who becomes the unlikely choice of wife for a man of much more elevated status. In this case he is not a prince, but a rabbi’s son, and Raisel attracts his attention not through physical beauty or charm, but intelligence.

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The story also takes place around the Jewish holiday of Purim, coming up this year on March 1, and the 14th of the Jewish month of Adar.  Erica Silverman is a prolific author of picture books, several with Jewish themes, and also of the successful beginning reader series’, Cowgirl Kate and Lana’s WorldRaisel’s Riddle is out-of-print, which seems inexplicable considering its incredibly timely message of female empowerment.

 

Raisel grows up in a village in Poland, or shtetl; Susan Gaber’s pictures are dream-like and reminiscent of folklore, but the characters’ clothing place the story in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.  She observes her grandfather devoting his days to religious study, and one day she declares to him, “Zaydeh…I want to study, too.” After his death, she is forced to seek work as a maid, and enters the household of a distinguished rabbi. Unfortunately, the household cook becomes the proverbial wicked stepmother, forcing Raisel to spend the hours that she had previously devoted to learning sacred texts on exhausting chores. When Raisel catches the sympathetic eye of the rabbi’s son, the cook reprimands her harshly.

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