Don’t Hide Those Tines!

Spork – Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault, Kids Can Press, 2010

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Have you ever felt that you just don’t fit in?  Perhaps each of your parents are different and you live in a society where “Mixing was uncommon.”  Although you know some proud individuals who defy convention, you are unable to comfortably negotiate your own unique identity. The little utensil of Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault’s affecting and unpretentious tale learns a lesson that may apply to you, even if you are not the resident of a flatware drawer.

We meet Spork and learn about his parentage on the opening pages. He has a wide and innocent round face like a spoon, but his fork ancestry shows as three short tines extending from his forehead. His mother, dressed, or rather engraved, somewhat like a 1920s flapper, adores him, as does his dapper tie-wearing fork father.  But other members of the kitchen look down on him.  Spork looks sadly on his odd reflection on the side of a toaster and resolves to be what he is not: one thing only.  Wearing a natty bowler hat to conceal his fork features doesn’t work, and nor does a pointy paper crown cover up his spoon DNA.  Arsenault’s pictures feature juicers, corkscrews, and egg timers with comic features, looking a bit like Miró’s biomorphic figures floating in space. Spork’s quirky face manages to evoke a range of emotions, from desolation to joy.

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Then a bright splotch of action painting arrives to save Spork’s grey and white world.  This “messy thing” is too young and unprejudiced to care about fine distinctions when it just needs a way to feed itself.  A giant infant with a big smile and a jar of baby food finds Spork the greatest thing since sliced bread.  All of a sudden, someone appreciates the very qualities that had isolated him from his peers:

“Something that could do all sorts of things at once./Something flexible and easy to hold.” Children listening to or reading the book will be relieved, although older or more inquisitive ones, as well as adults, may wish for a sequel to this charming book.  Have all Spork’s problems really been resolved? What happens when the baby grows older and is pressured to choose correctly at the table? Maybe, as in Thomas Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster, Maclear and Arsenault could collaborate on a continuation where the utensils interact and their prejudices clash, but ultimately resolve. In the meantime, Spork is a sweet and simple story of for children about acceptance from an unexpected friend.


Nutcracker History

The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition, Chris Barton and Cathy Gendron, Millbrook Press, 2015

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The Nutcracker Comes to America isn’t principally about fairies and the land of sweets, or a brother who deliberately breaks his sister’s beloved doll.  It’s a picture book history with engaging and detailed text about three brothers from Utah who staged the first full-length Nutcracker ballet in the U.S. You won’t read about Clara (or Marie in some versions) bravely defeating the Mouse King by hitting him with her slipper.  You will reverse some preconceptions about this ballet, which was not always popular or guaranteed to bring in audiences every December.  Chris Barton is the author of many picture books, including one of my favorite informational books for young readers, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors. Having brought the invention of fluorescent paint to life, he has no trouble creating, along with artist Cathy Gendron, a compelling story out of the birth of Tchaikovsky’s classic.

Readers may not be aware that the original performance of the Russian composer’s work in 1892 was far from a hit, or that American audiences did not always throng to theaters every holiday season to see a production of the work based on stories by German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffman.  Barton grounds the book in the American melting pot success story of William, Harold, and Lew Christensen, three grandsons of a Danish immigrant to Utah. Their family had a dancing school and two of the brothers joined the vaudeville circuit, which Barton explains as a world where the “competed for applause with jugglers, clowns, magicians, and dancing elephants.”  Through a series of acquaintances and opportunities, William choreographed some dances to Tchaikovsky’s score for a ballet company in Portland, Oregon.  Later, after World War II during which Lew served in the military, the brothers consulted with Russian dancers and concocted an early version of the marvel that would take root in American culture in many different forms.


Gendron’s pictures accompany Barton’s words on their journey, from the Christensens’ love of show business to their commitment to collaborate in producing a professionally excellent ballet in San Francisco.  She shows us the excitement of preparation “on as small a budget as possible, because small was all they had.”  A ballerina places the hem of the tutu she is wearing under a sewing machine operated by an intent designer.  Another artist carefully applies makeup to a cast member’s cheeks, while painters on ladders finish the backdrop.  The last two-page spread shows programs for the successors to the brothers’ dream, from the Pacific Northwest Ballet Nutcracker, (that one has sets designed by Maurice Sendak) to “American Ballet Theater’s with Baryshnikov as star, to Harlem Nutcracker arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (also the subject of a children’s book).

If you don’t need a break from The Nutcracker and Nutcracker kid lit, but would like a complementary history of its origins, The Nutcracker Comes to America will not disappoint you!




Jasmine Toguchi, Girl Detective

Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017


In this installment of Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine Toguchi series (previously entries reviewed here and here), Jasmine struggles with the friendship issues that can decimate the lives of middle grade readers. She learns about empathy, and renews her joy in celebrating Hina Matsuri, the annual Japanese doll festival, with her loving mother and her reluctant older sister. All the Jasmine Toguchi books are really about empathy.  Jasmine’s family relationships, her lovely affection for neighbor Mrs. Reese, and her ongoing understanding of how Japanese traditions fit into her life, are hallmarks of this warmly appealing and realistic saga. So what’s new for Jasmine here?

Jasmine is looking forward to March 3, when every year Japanese people celebrate girlhood, as well as the imperial family, by assembling an elaborate and hierarchical display of dolls. These are not play dolls, but fragile pieces which embody tradition and attention to aesthetic values.  Display dolls or not, Jasmine’s older sister Sophie isn’t having any of it.  One of the most subtle touches in the story is the moment when Jasmine relates to her mother’s sadness at the thought that her older daughter is growing up and struggling to break away:

“’You know it’s not only about dolls, Sophie,’ Mom said. ‘It’s about celebrating girls. I love celebrating with my daughters.’
Sophie shook her head. ‘I really don’t want to, Mom.
Mom’s eyes looked sad, but Sophie didn’t seem to notice. I felt sad, too.”

Jasmine is an artist, always busy making collages.  Her imaginative nature extends to the way she views the world. Exploring her neighbor Mrs. Reese’s garage, Jasmine notes that the carefully arranged plastic storage boxes resemble “trees in a forest,” while a big dresser “sat like a castle.” There to play dress –up with her best friend Linnie Green, Jasmine becomes determined to find out the meaning of the mysterious objects they find there, including piles of old flyers with the puzzling titles Annie Get Your Gun and Fiddler on the Roof.  Jasmine is creative, but she also proud when her teacher or other adults praise her rational approach to problem solving.

Jasmine’s friendship with the shy and less fearless Linnie, her friend who celebrates Hanukkah and not Christmas, (thanks, Debbi!), teaches her that friends need not be people with whom you share every personality trait or interest.  Unlike Sophie, Linnie is thrilled to be invited to participate in Girl’s Day with the Toguchi family, but first she and Jasmine needs to take responsibility for their own actions and to relate to each other’sfeelings.


As always, Elizabeth Vuković’s black and white drawings capture Jasmine’s emotions. When she opens a letter from her formerly best friend, Jasmine is wide-eyed with remorse at Linnie’s kindness. The numbered images of Jasmine and Linnie dressing in their kimonos according to the proper, complex order, portrays their excitement through outstretched arms and happy faces.  One of my favorite images shows kimono-clad Linnie, her back to the reader, observing the doll display, as a somewhat self-important Sophie points out the identities of each doll.  The doll display is a shadowy grey, while the girls are drawn in darker lines, making their interaction the center of the picture.

Debbi Michiko Florence includes an “Author’s Note,” providing brief and pertinent information about Japanese customs.  She chooses to explain exactly those aspects of Hina Matsuri that would be most intriguing to young readers, including the structure of the doll display and the details of traditional dress.  There are also instructions for making an origami doll.  Each book in the Jasmine Toguchi series sparks conversation and encourages readers to learn more.


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

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

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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.

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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

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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.”