Upstairs Boy, Downstairs Mouse

Matzah Belowstairs – Susan Lynn Meyer and Mette Engell, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2019

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There is an undeniable appeal to the suggestion that mice, adorable anthropomorphic ones, live parallel lives hidden in our own homes. Beatrix Potter’s lifelike creatures lived among other animals but also interacted with humans.  In Beverly Donofrio and Barbara McClintock’s modern classics, Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, and Where’s Mommy? (Mary and the Mouse), a girl and a mouse develop a friendship based on the parallel parts of their respective lives.

In the world of Jewish children’s books, Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing gives us a similar glimpse into the mouse world, as the author and illustrator relate the story of a traditional folksong. Florence Zeldin’s A Mouse in Our Jewish House introduces Jewish holidays through cut out paper pictures of an enthusiastic participant, who happens to be a mouse. The story that Susan Lynn Meyer tells in  Matzah Belowstairs follows this tradition, although Engel’s illustration style is more in tune with modern animation than with the nostalgic images of other mouse stories.

It’s Passover, and the Winkler family in apartment 4B is getting ready to celebrate with the ritual Seder and meal.  Belowstairs, things are much more hectic, because Miriam Mouse and her family cannot find a single piece of matzah: “There won’t be anything to remind us of the time our mouse ancestors left Egypt in too big a hurry for the bread to rise!”

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Their cozy apartment looks busy, nonetheless, with Miriam and her parents reading the book of Exodus on their couch, while the grandparents chop vegetable in anticipation of the holiday’s beginning. They reassure Miriam that it is not her fault that the matzah is missing, blaming the Winkler’s acquisition of a new tin box, so securely closed that no mouse-size pieces have fallen out and landed below the floorboards. Eli Winkler’s dad hides the afikomen, a piece of matzah that Eli will need to find and return to the family, in order to conclude the festive meal and begin the last part of the Seder.  In searching for this valuable piece of unleavened bread, Eli runs into an anxious Miriam.  Who will get the piece of matzah which both families are seeking?

Mette Engel’s pictures are sure to please young readers.  The characters’ facial expressions clearly signal their moods, whether a bereft Miriam left in tears at the thought of an incomplete Seder, or a surprised Eli meeting Miriam on a bookshelf as they both do their jobs.  There are images which give the perspective of small people and smaller mice, as one where young Eli stands amidst a group of adult guests shown only from their feet to their waists, while, belowstairs, the mouse family is busily engaged in holiday preparations.  I particularly like the mouse grandparents: Grandpa with his matching, slightly dorky, zigzag print sweater and yarmulke, and Grandma, wearing pearls and delicate half-glasses.

Matzah Belowstairs is a playful and clever addition to Passover books for kids, as well as to the age-old genre of mice and their secret lives.

Haiku for Everyone

H is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z – Sydell Rosenberg and Sawsan Chalabi, Penny Candy Books, 2019

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Haiku is a poetic form that seems to demand less, but really demands more.  In only three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, the artist asks for our attention to the essential, and revealing, parts of life.  As author Sydell Rosenberg’s daughter writes in the introduction to this collection of her late mother’s work, “What’s most important about writing haiku is to focus on those many small moments we may overlook and make them special.” If you thought that writing haiku meant that you had to address nature, or conform to other requirements of the traditional Japanese form, then focus intently on this quirky collection before you grab your pen, or sit down at your computer. Rosenberg wrote about children, umbrellas, monsters, beauty parlors, and trash cans, all related to one another with delicate humor and verbal assurance.  The pictures that accompany the poems are bright and expressive, equally accessible to children and adults.

H is for Haiku is not the first collection to expand the form beyond its origins.  There are other lovely examples, such as Celeste Mannis and Susan Kathleen Hartung’s One Leaf Rides the Wind, Betsy E. Snyder’s sweet I Haiku You, and the detailed guidelines of Patricia Donegan’s Write Your Own Haiku for Kids. Rosenberg’s collection is a bit more irreverent and dream-like.

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Sawsan Chalabi’s picture of a woman hanging out wash on a line captures the arresting lines, “Vacation cottage/long Johns on a mountain top/swaying in the sun.” (In the book, the words are all capitalized, with letters alternating color and angle to one another.) The woman’s skirt is the house itself, with windows and chimney facing the reader as she concentrates on her task.  There is an authentic slice of New York City life, as workers suffering from the summer heat indulge in a refreshing moment: “Queuing for ice cream/sweat-sprinkled office workers/on Queens Boulevard.” That “sweat-sprinkled” is just right, as the patient line of people, of different ethnicities, enjoy a moment of respite as brief as the poem itself.

The book concludes with brief profiles of author and illustrator. Ms. Rosenberg was a public school teacher for many years, as well as a charter member of the Haiku Society of America.  Ms. Chalabi is a versatile illustrator and designer. As a short introduction to the form by Rosenberg aptly declares, “Haiku can’t be gimmicked; it can’t be shammed.” H is for Haiku illuminates how and why this form of poetry is unique, in all its non-gimmicky, sham-denying beauty.

In Memory of Paul B. Janeczko

How to Write Poetry: Scholastic Guides – Paul B. Janeczko, Scholastic, 1999

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I was saddened to hear of the death of poet and author Paul Janeczko, one of the most thoughtful and innovative practitioners of the art of poetry and of teaching poetry writing to children.  Both his own poems and his anthologies, some illustrated by Chris Raschka and Melissa Sweet, among others, are joyful and serious introductions to verse, for example A Poke in the I, Dirty Laundry Pile, and The Death of the Hat.  Reading these beautifully organized and presented collections is a lesson in itself; they convince children and teens, as well as adults, of the excitement and the relevance of the genre.

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One modest book which stands out when I think of Janeczko’s work is the practical guide published by Scholastic, How to Write Poetry. While there are other books which give aspiring poets formulas and tips, this one stands out for its unassuming but assuring format.  Each chapter approaches a different task essential to writing, exploring different types of poems, and analyzing how each one responds to that task.  The book is physical simple, but appealing, with text boxes of grey or green embedded to highlight “poetcraft” and “writing tips.” “Try this” sections are accompanied by a small icon of a book and pen.

Rather than structuring the book around rules and recipes for specific verse forms, Janeczko develops each chapter as a work-in-progress, a map of the poet’s work.  For example, the chapter on “Writing Free Verse Poems” includes list poems and poems of address, quotes from poets, advice on word choice and figurative language, and even checklists for the writing process.  The tone is focused, respectful of the difficulties as well as the rewards of writing poetry.

Recently, there have many children’s and young adult authors who have had success with verse novels or memoirs in poetic form: Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Debbie Levy, Karen Hesse, Sharon Creech, Marilyn Nelson, and others.  Paul Janeczko’s guide offers a complement to reading those authors, an inside look at the nuts and bolts which poets use to build their inimitable structures and to suggest that kids can learn how to write poetry, too.  Janeczko will we remembered for his unique contribution and his inspiring vision.

Peanut and Moe are Back!

Now? Not Yet! – Gina Perry,  Tundra Books, 2019 (June 4)

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This story, about two friends with somewhat dissimilar personality traits, will delight young children. We first met Peanut and Moe in Gina Perry’s Too Much! Not Enough!, and they are back, this time ready to meet the challenges of a camping trip: tents, s’mores, and all the rest.

While Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie are clearly an elephant and a pig, Moe and Peanut are not so easily identified by species.  Peanut looks a little like a peanut with bunny ears, while Moe’s bigger and bluer frame and long pink nose make him more like the creature of a child’s imagination.  Their sometimes frustrating but ultimately resolved differences are funny and comforting at the same time.

Moe and Peanut are both looking forward to an action-packed day outdoors, but their priorities are not always in sync.  Peanut wants to swim; Moe wants to hike.  Then Moe needs a snack, gets them lost, and insists on putting up their tent. It’s not even a disagreement, just a seemingly unending series of interruptions, which is the way young kids often see the obstacles placed in the way of doing what they want.  Eventually, the swimming happens!

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Then Perry reveals that Moe isn’t just a killjoy, but is actually a wise and almost adult figure, who knows that fun has to happen in its own time, and that after the fun, there is more stuff to do.  Children reading or listening to the book will understand this subtle message, as they experience the sequence of events: delaying the fun, having fun, and meeting unanticipated joys afterwards: “Now we are dry…Now we are cozy…Now we are warm…Now we are happy…”

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Gina Perry’s pictures are as accessible as her text. The colors are bright, but not flashy. Green and brown plants and earth meet Peanut’s bright pink toy bunny and candy-striped floaty. Some of the characters’ outbursts erupt in oversized and neon letters.

 

 

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There is a lot of activity on each page, but it isn’t frenetic.  On the title page, we see Moe carefully putting the ingredients for a snack in a small plastic bag, while Peanut hangs upside down from the top of his bunk bed.  The excursion is full of little surprises and distractions. A tiny worm crawls on Peanut’s ear, and both friends deal with burrs and pinecones sticking to their fur.

While adults might view those as incidental, from a kid’s perspective they are inextricable parts of the event itself.  Now? Not Yet is a happy combination of child empathizing and adult perspective, where a camping trip becomes a colorful metaphor for the way that, sometimes, things just work out.

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Girls, Horses, and Power

The Queen’s Secret (A Rose Legacy Novel) – Jessica Day George, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019

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Sometimes older genres are rejuvenated by rethinking conventions; this is certainly true in series fiction primarily marketed to girls.  In The Queen’s Secret, the second book in Jessica Day George’s fantasy series about girls set in a fictional kingdom torn by conflict, Anthea Cross-Thornley is brave and assertive, and also possesses the Way, a kind of superpower that allows her to communicate with horses.  Her relationship with her mother is conflicted, and she does not hesitate to question authority. There is quite a lot in the book to intrigue and entertain middle grade readers, and also encourage them to think.

 

The book is set in a far-off, but not so far-off, land, both in time and in space.  The characters’ names clearly invite associations with Britain, and the locations also have a European flavor.  While at first the reader may assume she is in the distant past, references to motor cars and cameras quickly correct that impression.  The author succeeds in balancing the fantastic and realistic elements in the narrative by alternating them smoothly and believably.  Anthea’s uncanny ability to speak to horses is woven into the other strands of the story: political intrigue, historical allusions, and feminism.

The most interesting part of the novel to me was its theme of mass hysteria and the need to use science to correct misplaced fears of progress. Because a deadly disease with nineteenth-century overtones is attacking people indiscriminately, they seek easy answers and cling to the falsehood that it is transmitted by horses.  Here is where readers attracted to the book by the promise of a good story about girls and horses will not be disappointed.  Chapters narrated by the horses themselves are interspersed throughout the book, complementing Anthea’s perspective and strengthening the idea of her commitment to save these noble animals from prejudice and hatred.

The solution to the mass terror is the rational solution of inoculating people against the dreaded illness; the discovery that those who are immune to the relatively innocuous “ring pox” are immune to “the Dag” is an obvious historical allusion to physician Edward Jenner’s similar route to protecting patients from smallpox.  Jessica Day George has subtly introduced some medical history into her story.  Less subtle, but just as welcome, is the prominent role played by women in resolving the book’s central dilemma: “All the scientists were indeed women,” begins one chapter. These women, like the others in the book, are not two-dimensional heroines, but flawed and complex human beings.

The Queen’s Secret should have broad appeal to an audience of middle grade readers. While it may have been envisioned as a book for girls, it should not be a secret that boys can enjoy it, too.

 

 

 

Not a Secret: A Brilliant Book

The Secret Project – Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter, Beach Lane Books, 2017

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In a recent forum in the New York Times, author Jonah Winter finally had the opportunity to express his frustration at the swerve in responses to his book The Secret Project. Initially praised enthusiastically by The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and other publications, the book became the focus of attacks by some readers who condemned inaccuracies in its presentation of the Native Americans who lived and worked in the region of the Project.  I am not writing to defend the book, because it doesn’t need my defense.  I would like to post an appreciation of its immense value as an informational book which also has a mythic dimension, and as a beautifully realized artistic production.

The idea of writing a picture book about the Manhattan Project for young readers is fraught with risk.  How can one present the history of a mission designed to save lives through massive destruction without merely terrifying? Author Jonah Winter and his mother, distinguished illustrator Jeanette Winter, bring readers to the New Mexico desert, a land of beauty and rich traditions, including of the native peoples who had lived there for generations.  The artist Georgia O’Keeffe also makes a cameo appearance, although she is named only as “an artist,” as if to emphasize the collective nature of the description.  Then come the scientists.  A school has been closed to make way for them, and local workers come to the new site without any knowledge of what is taking place there. Winter and Winter depict their dedication with text and images that match one another in mystery.  “What they are working on is so secret, they cannot even call it by its real name,” one line intones beneath a dark building with windows and door peopled by silhouettes.  Other pictures show visions of splitting atoms above a scientist’s head, and a group of “shadowy figures,” gesturing to one another in profile below a complex set of equations in a cloud.

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Readers learn a minimal number of facts; more information appears in a detailed “Author’s Note,” which is stunningly placed as black font against a grey background, and a black border of mourning. There is also a list of further resources.  The notes and resources complement the text itself; this is an informational book, but one which resembles a work of theater or a film, as it creates an atmosphere where “Crouching down in their bunker, the scientists prepare themselves for something…so earth-shattering…it is hardly even imaginable.”  The final pages of the book visualize the tension and the unprecedented destruction of the mushroom cloud, followed by blackness.

Informational books are not the last word on a subject, but, especially for children, often the first.  There are many resources available for opening the discussion of science, technology and society, the morality of war, and the role of civilians during military conflicts. If you expect The Secret Project to be a comprehensive history of the Manhattan Project, or a sociological study of the different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes impacted by its presence in their community, you may be disappointed. Anyone who recognizes integrity and artistic brilliance in books for children will not be.

Jews and Trees

Pavel and the Tree Army – Heidi Smith Hyde and Elisa Vavouri,
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2019

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Before there was a Green New Deal, there was a New Deal that was green.  President Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors established the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program through which American men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-eight could earn a living during the Great Depression and contribute to a far-sighted commitment to conserve natural resources at the same time. Participants engaged in a variety of tasks, including flood control, fire prevention, and the prevention of soil erosion. Heidi Smith Hyde and Elisa Vavouri have given young readers, as well as caregivers and educators, a fictionalized glimpse at a lesser-known fact about this program: a number of the participants were Jewish, and some were new Americans.

My first thought on opening this book was that its very existence is a wonderful idea. There are many excellent children’s books about Jews in the American military, Jews as crusaders for civil rights, Jews in the arts.  Here is a focused look at one specific New Deal program, with a legacy of overwhelming importance today.  Hyde and Vavouri tell the story of Pavel and Anatoly, two Jewish immigrants from Russia whose rabbi has told them about the outstanding opportunity awaiting men willing to work hard and earn a living, at the same time helping the country to which they felt gratitude and loyalty.  Even imperfect English skills would not discourage their enrollment in the corps.  In one two page spread, we see a line of “hungry people, hoping for a scrap of bread or a bowl of warm soup,” blending into an image of Pavel’s rabbi on Shabbat, informing him hopefully about the scope of the program. Soon the familiar urban scene changes to a much lonelier one, where Pavel and Anatoly contemplate “a dry, dusty land dotted with wheat fields and farmhouses.”  The exciting idea has become a much more difficult reality, as some of their fellow workers deride their foreign accents and question their ability to be productive members of a team.

The book achieves a good balance between confronting reality and offering hope.  Pavel, Anatoly, and the other immigrants feel the sting of intense prejudice against Jews, Italians, or anyone who did not conform to their narrow view of America held by some of the men: “You don’t belong in the Civilian Conservation Corps.  You’re not real Americans. I bet you don’t even know America’s national anthem.” Suffice it to say, in addition to digging trenches and cutting timber, Pavel and his friends pursue a new goal with nothing less than total attention: learning to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” correctly, and with all the fervor of someone born under a dictatorship who could now enjoy the promise of democracy.

Hyde and Vavouri’s presentation of Jewish religious practices in the American military is quite realistic. The men do what they can to retain some observance, such as resting and singing on Shabbat while others go to the movies. At the same time, they are clearly shown eating chicken, mashed potatoes, and apple pie with the other corps members.  Today, when divisions between American Jews based on affiliation and level of practice have become so rigid, it is refreshing to see a book for children that describes a time when things were different.  The books reinforces Jewish teachings about ecology in an unobtrusive way, as when the kind sergeant points out to an insecure Pavel that, just as the saplings need time to take root, he and the other immigrants will also become rooted in the land. It is, unfortunately, not a coincidence that none of the book’s characters are African-American.  The CCC, like other New Deal programs, offered limited positions for people of color, and was segregated by race. This fact offers an opportunity for discussion when reading the book.

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Vavouri’s color palette reflects both nature and the Corps, with the green of the land matching the workers’ uniforms, along with a blue lake and a roaring orange campfire.  Then there is the flag: red, white, and blue.  Pavel and the Tree Army offers children a vital lesson in American democracy for today.

It’s Not Like There Are Any Buildings…

The Not-So Great Outdoors – Madeline Kloepper, Tundra Books, 2019

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“I have no idea why we have to ‘venture into the great outdoors’” this summer.”  So begins the skeptical young narrator in Madeline Kloepper’s story of a city kid forced to vacation in the forest of the Pacific Northwest. When I opened the book, I shared her crankiness.

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Why would anyone want to leave the inviting city scene from which her parents are about to exile her? Kloepper, a poet who sings the praises of the outdoors, takes care to depict the urban scene as attractively as she does the verdant world that comes next in the book.  Local artisans sells their wares on the street, residents sit at lovely cafés, and a bearded guitarist passes the hat.  I didn’t want to leave.

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The book has a clever and convincing structure. On each page, the narrator expresses her frustration at the desolate environment of the not-so-great outdoors.  The picture accompanying her complaints highlights the depth and beauty of the environment.  So, “It’s not like there are any buildings’ is set against a majestic scene of towering trees. The girl’s father looks upwards, aiming his camera at a woodpecker, while she lugs her backpack on the trail and scowls at the ground. Her irritated realization that “There’s no electricity” shows her moping on a log while her parents and little brother enjoy a campfire and singalong. Then, midway through the book, the girl has a breakthrough, realizing that the dreaded outdoors has it amenities: “songbirds instead of street performers,” food cooked outdoors which tastes better than the fare in a downtown restaurant.  The transition between the two mindsets happens in a subtle way, but seems to be transformative, as she and her family lie under the stars, pointing up at the night sky: “I don’t even mind that I’m missing my favorite show.”

Kloepper’s color palette is gorgeous and deep, with different shades of green and brown, marine blue, and a cranberry red for standout items such as the brother’s sweater or the family car.  People have expressive faces and animals such as huge bears or smaller beavers become the equivalent of her city neighbors.  The detail in small items—cooking utensils, flowers, blankets—adds realism to the story, although the humorous touch of a Sasquatch running in the woods implies that this is also a fable.  Keep an open mind and you may discover new things!

It doesn’t take an open mind to wait for more works from this gifted artist, or to return to her earlier books. You can enjoy reading The Not-So- Great Outdoors in a sleeping bag, or sitting at a sidewalk café.

 

 

 

One Shoe, Two Shoes, Grey Mouse, Blue Shoes

One Shoe Two Shoes – Caryl Hart and Edward Underwood, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019

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One Shoe Two Shoes draws on a long tradition of children’s rhyme and illustration to create a memorable and appealing world where they will want to return again and again. Using bright colors and familiar words to make the simplest elements funny and exciting, Caryl Hart and Edward Underwood invite comparisons to some of the most inventive authors and artists for children.  Their mice racing in roller skates and hiding in wooden clogs recall Leo Lionni’s paper collage creatures and P. D. Eastman’s dogs, as well as some of the classic mid-century Golden Book artists.  At the same time, characterizing the book’s style as “retro” does not quite do justice to its particular attractions.

There are several characters in One Shoe Two Shoes: a hapless dog, mice, people, and the shoes themselves.  The dog, who will both fetch and stretch when commanded by an owner portrayed, like all the people in the book, only from the torso down.  Children listening to the story will share the dog’s perspective.  He is constantly shoeplaidsurprised by a playful and clever set of mice.  Sometimes they nest quietly in the footwear, but in other scenes they pop out of boxes or raucously ride skates.  While the dog seems taken aback by the mice’s stratagems, he is not upset and continues to eat, run, and sleep, even if it is with one eye open. Children will appreciate his flexibility.

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The faceless people also seem friendly, a varied cast of characters with different shoes to fill. There is the dog’s owner, wearing striped socks and brown oxfords. There is another person, maybe his twin, in jeans and a fisherman’s sweater.  A woman in a black floral dress and red high tops totes a bag of croissants, French bread, and a scone.

Then there is the schoolgirl who could be an older Madeline, wearing white socks and Mary Janes and carrying a stylish red book bag.  Underwood has invited into the book representatives of the human world to anchor the animal’s adventures; they provide an element of realism within the fantasy of mice acting out on purpose and eluding everyone’s control.

Then there are the mice, and the shoes.  The mice are spry and adorable. They might just want to rest in a bedroom slipper, but they definitely enjoy creating an amusement park ride out of a shoebox, taking turns sliding down the cover while their friends wait patiently in line.

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Underwood’s shoes themselves move through the book in a fantastic parade. Note that no comma in the title slows them down.  They move in singles and in pairs; classic cowboy books, whimsical flip-flops, but also “artsy shoes” splattered with Jackson Pollock-like splashes of color and shoes with laces so long that they are connected to one another in a delicately whirling tangle.

Hart’s text keeps the book moving as quickly as the mice.  Simple rhymes, counting, and brief descriptions of action and shoes (“Green pumps/with yellow spots,” “Pitter Patter/Sniff/Lick/SCATTER”) are all integrated together.  The book is artfully designed by Goldy Broad, with letters alternating in size and level on the page, emphasizing the quick movements and pace of the all involved, from shoes to people.  One Shoe Two Shoes is a perfect fit for young readers.

Not the Little Mermaid

Mermaid Dreams – Kate Pugsley, Tundra Books, 2019

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Who doesn’t love a mermaid? With a fin in both worlds, this fantastic creature seems to appeal to the human desire to be more than one thing at once.  In Mermaid Dreams, author and illustrator Kate Pugsley adds a new resident to the undersea world when Maya, a bored and lonely little girl, finds herself transformed into an agile and beautiful being.  With bold colors and simple shapes reminiscent of both Maira Kalman and Leo Lionni. Pugsley places childhood wishes in a believable setting, which will draw young readers into Maya’s world of nature and dreams.

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The book’s endpapers are a parade of coral, jellyfish, sea anemones, starfish, and more, against a white background.  They are not in the sea; these visual elements of the story have an independent life as part of Maya’s imagination.  We first meet her on a beach scene that looks promising: “The air smells fresh and salty.  The sand feels warm and soft between her toes.” Yet Maya is disappointed when she realizes that a day off for Mom and Dad may not meet her own expectations. Her request that her parents play with her is met with the thoughtless rejection of kind, but tired, adults: “Maybe later. We want to relax now.”  Maya sits sadly on her turtle floaty, then lies back, closes her eyes, and loses herself in thoughts of wonderful escape.

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Suddenly, she awakens, riding a real turtle and discovering her new powers to move “just like the other ocean dwellers.  She’s a mermaid with a beautiful blue tail!” Who needs parents and beach umbrellas when you have seahorses, coral reefs, and an octopus?

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The problem with that octopus is that “It has eight wonderful legs, but it can’t hold a conversation.”  Maya’s need for adventure meets her longing for companionship when she “sees an unusual shape in the distance,” which turns out to be Pearl, another child/mermaid. Neither Maya nor Pearl conform to the slinky Ariel image of their species. They are rounded, solid, little girls with lots of energy and no search for a prince.

The girls play together in the multicolored ocean, and their friendship survives on land as well.  Maya and Pearl walk into the sunset, Pearl holding on to a giant pink jellyfish kite floating in the air. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Mermaid Dreams invites children to test the waters of independence from parents, and reassures them that they are not alone in this quest.  Using the language of a child’s dream world and the shapes and colors of their own crayon box perspective, Kate Pugsley adds a new vibrancy to the enduring mermaid myth.  And Tundra books has done it again with ocean-based picture books.