Odd Couple Makes Friends

Wolfie & Fly – written by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Zoe Si
Tundra Books, 2017

If you’re looking for something different in a chapter book or middle-grade novel, Wolfie & Fly is it.  Written by versatile author Cary Fagan, with wonderful drawings by Zoe Si, it tells the story of two oddball kids, Renata Wolfman and Livingston Flott.  (I have also reviewed Fagan’s work here and here and here and here.) Given the sometimes cruel humor of children, Renata has become known among her classmates as Wolfie, because her introverted personality makes her seem a “lone wolf.”  Livingston’s nickname is “Fly,” because, as he readily admits, “I buzz around and annoy people.”  They’re not exactly Frog and Toad, but, by the end of the book, this unlikely duo has formed a friendship.  Every child who feels that she is too introverted, too extroverted, or too anything else, will identify with their bond.

Renata is uninterested in shopping for clothes except for overalls and white T-shirts. She prefers to curl up with a book, and disdains her parents’ suggestion that everyone needs friends.  Then, one day, Livingston stops by her house, just as she was about to convert a cardboard refrigerator carton into one of her creative construction projects.  A submarine seems like a great idea!  Fagan details Renata’s amazing collection of seemingly useless items, which she uses to engineer everything from a model of the Golden Gate Bridge to a peanut-tossing catapult. She reluctantly agrees to allow Livingston to help her.

Livingston plays the guitar and improvises song lyrics, narrating his life like a modern troubadour.  (“You opened the door and you/let me run in./’Cause I was being chased by one of/my kin.”). Soon the carton is a submarine complete with control panel and the two not-yet friends are navigating the deep sea.  Is their trip imaginary or real?  They pass everything along the way, from sharks and jellyfish to “an old DVD player, a sofa and even a toilet.”  Soon Wolfie and Fly are discussing environmental pollution, confronting pirates, and admiring the beauty of the ocean.  As in Dr. Seuss’s the Cat in the Hat, parents have to eventually return. Reality and fantasy sort themselves out.  Wolfie and Fly have come to like and respect one another.  Their adventure has all of the internal logic of childhood, full of contradictions and excitement.  This ode to unlikely friendships and unlimited imagination is a wonder.

She’s the Captain of Her Ship

Out Into the Big Wide Lake – written by Paul Harbridge, illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
Tundra Books, 2021

Out Into the Big Wide Lake is a wonderful picture book about a young girl learning to challenge herself. It’s also about a child with a disability who has a wonderful family to support her.  The book’s most salient qualities, evident in both its words and pictures, is its honest and unaffected tone, and the way in which it works on different levels simultaneously.  To say it is “just” a book about disability would be untrue, and yet that is not to diminish the subtlety with which Paul Harbridge and Josée Bisaillon take on that issue in their story.  A child who does not live with a disability will also relate to the ordinary courage of the young heroine, Kate, as she navigates a new environment and gains confidence.  The book is extraordinarily sensitive and beautiful, and Kate is an unforgettable character.

In a brief introduction accompanied by a photo, Harbridge explains that he based the story on his younger sister, an accomplished and brave young woman who has Down Syndrome.  The book itself never specifies that Kate lives with this challenge. Instead, the author allows her to describe, in thoroughly convincing words, her feelings, her daily routine, and her ambitions.  Bisaillon’s lovely and expressive pictures of Kate do imply that she has Down’s syndrome, yet she also is depicted with a clear family resemblance to her mother and, especially, her grandmother.  She is different from them, and yet linked to them as well, as we all are to our own relatives. 

When we first meet Kate, she is seated at her desk with colored pencils, but she is not drawing. (image) Rather, she is practicing writing her name by associating each letter with a different object: “A stick with an arm and a leg. That was a ‘K.’ ‘A’ was a tent…’T’ was a telephone pole and ‘E’ was a little comb.”  There is no need to explain her learning method, and her creativity is also evident.  When Kate’s grandmother suggests to her mother that Kate spend the summer at her grandparents’ lakeside home, Kate’s mother hesitates. She doesn’t need to articulate her fears, only to suggest them. Any parent might experience this same ambivalence, but, in Kate’s case, her concerns are a bit different.  But when Kate’s grandmother responds, “Give her a chance,” it is clear that everyone is on the same page.

Kate’s grandparents own a store, and they deliver groceries by boat to the neighbors in their small community.  Kate takes an active role, happily helping her grandfather to load the boat with cartons. Her grandmother is loving and accepting of Kate, but she also knows exactly how to push her to succeed.  Again, in addition to the theme of normalizing life for a child with a disability, there is also the parallel ideal of caregivers, often grandparents, who dedicate themselves to helping children realize their own goals, rather than those imposed on them.  Bisaillon captures the excitement of learning to steer the boat from a bird’s eye view, while a crane circles overhead, as if admiring the scene.

One day, circumstances leave Kate alone in the boat. She thinks carefully, and decides to take on the role which her grandparents’ support has made possible.  Empathy plays a part in her choice, as she thinks of one particular customer, “…the old man sitting there, waiting and waiting.” Kate is not absorbed in her own experience; she can reach out to others. The old man also becomes part of an interesting subplot about family tensions, ensuring that the relationships in the book are not overly idealized. 

When Kate’s mother arrives and embraces her, her simple statement about Kate’s summer experience, “Just like when I was a girl,” is full of implicit meaning.  Kate confronts some obstacles which her mother did not, but the two share a deep, common bond.  The final image sums up that connection.  Mother and daughter look out the window towards the world, and also appreciate Kate’s unique identity, in the form of a wooden miniature boat and girl framed in the center of their view.  Out Into the Big Wide Lake is a summer outing, or one for every season, to share with our children.

Snow Day

My Winter City – written by James Gladstone, illustrated by Gary Clement
Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2019

It’s July, which seems like a good time to enthuse about My Winter City, a beautiful tribute to a snowy day in a busy urban center.  This past winter in New York we had significant snow for the first time in several years which, for some young children, was the first time ever. I believe the book is set in Toronto (where author James Gladstone lives); one picture seems to be the Allan Gardens Conservatory. But the book is also a reflection on the way in which snowfall, an unpredictable gift, transforms even a place so otherwise full of action and possibility.

Gladstone’s text is poetic, full of images, rhythm, and metaphor. Whether Toronto, New York, or any metropolis, “My winter city is a soup of salty slushes, full of sliding buses…” where a boy dreams of all he shares in common with other residents. Footprints make him wonder “Who walked here before,” and “rows of locked bicycles, buried and waiting,” remind him of winter’s power, changing the normal speed of the city to “the sluggish speed of snow.”  While it may seem obvious, at least to adults, that natural events can produce inconvenience, or worse, to a child the sudden change of environment is a joy. 

While many books about snow put young children at the center, this one focuses on a school-age child, as well as a father with the patience to enjoy the change along with him.  The child is old enough to articulate his feelings, and to understand that the bond between him and his father is an essential part of the wonder.  At the beginning of the day, the two prepare to go out together. At nighttime, his father carries him to bed, although the boy seems old enough that this ritual may no longer be a daily one.  Walking through the city, the boy’s visible breath in the cold is the counterpart to ice crystals in his father’s beard.

Snow in the city sometimes begins inside, when you first see it outside the window.  Illustrator Gary Clements (also a Toronto resident) balances all the perspectives from which snow appears. The beginning scene of father putting on coats and boots shows no snow at all, just the white door to their home ready to open.  We see snow from the eye level of the boy and his dog, with adult feet walking in boots, and snow viewed from the window of a bus, although some of the passengers are absorbed in their phones. 

There is snow while sledding down a hill in the park, and snow landing on a variety of storefronts.  There is an incredible bird’s eye view, or skyscraper window view, of cars moving through the storm, caught in slow motion.  Finally, there is a sleeping child under a blanket, dreaming of the blanket of snow which had enveloped his day.

My Winter City is a truly original take on the timeless, if transient, promise of snow.

Anne, Auburn, and Carrots

Anne’s School Days – Adapted by Kallie George, Pictures by Abigail Halpin
Tundra Books, 2021

What reader of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables doesn’t remember the empowering moment when Anne smashes her school slate down on Gilbert Blythe’s head?  No, physical force should not be the response to teasing; we all want to be clear about that with our children and students.  But no harm comes to him, and generations of girls reading the book understood that mocking someone’s appearance, or anything else about her, merits an unmistakable response.  Once again, Kallie George and Abigail Halpin, in their illustrated chapter book series adapted from Anne’s original story (see earlier volumes here and here), have captured the impact of the classic without imitating it. (I’ve written about some of Halpin’s non-Anne work elsewhere.)

The book opens with Anne and her “bosom friend,” Diana Barry, off to school. It’s significant that George chooses when to preserve the antique language of the original, as in this phrase to define the intimate friendship between girls (also known as “kindred spirits.”).  The balance between writing in homage to L.M. Montgomery, and using language more suited to contemporary younger readers, is subtle.  Less subtle is Gilbert Blythe himself.  He has an advantage in Anne’s eyes. He’s good-looking, but “Anne didn’t care that he was handsome. But she was glad that he was smart.”  Anne is obviously discerning and confident.  But, cultural norms being what they were at the time, “Anne was very sensitive about her looks (especially her red hair).”

When Gilbert publicly humiliates Anne by yanking on her gorgeous red braid and whispering “Carrots,” she needs to defend herself. Halpin’s picture shows the perspective from the back of the classroom. Anne is facing the blackboard, seated next to Diana.  Gilbert’s obnoxious gesture reduces her to a visual joke, spoiling the symmetry of her appearance.  Yes, we all know that he will ultimately turn out to be the love of her life, but at this moment, he needs to learn a lesson, possibly a more valuable one than the rest of the curriculum in Mr. Phillips’s schoolroom.  Now the reader is at the front of the classroom, watching as an infuriated Anne stands up for herself, and for every girl who’s ever been the target of a socially inept boy.

But don’t think that Anne’s days are consumed by anger. She has loving foster parents, Matthew and Marilla, even if Matthew is a bit more of the child empathizer than his sister.  Her friendship with Diana is also at the center of her life, and her unbridled imagination enriches everything. Halpin’s pictures are both realistic and stylized, offering, like the text, a distinct version of Anne and those around her. The red and gold foliage of Prince Edward Island becomes a theatrical setting for a poetry-reciting Anne, who becomes a self-created woodland creature with literary dreams. 

The contrasting personalities of Marilla and Matthew are another theme of Halpin’s images. Marilla needs to be involved in the productive of baking, while Matthew enjoys his tea, avoiding her direct gaze while they discuss Anne.  The pieces of Anne’s broken slate, evidence of her misdeed, sit on the table in front of them.

One of the features of Anne’s life is her orphanhood, which gradually ceases to define her in the original novel. In Anne’s School Days it is just as clear that Anne enjoys the closeness of a wonderful, if untraditional, family. Seated with her “parents,” and her beloved Diana, in a scene of domestic harmony, young readers will understand the meaning of what Anne has found.  Her hair may be red or auburn, but that’s not really important: “Maybe Anne had changed, just a little. But she’d always be Anne, with an e.”

Not Such a Sentimental Journey

War and Millie McGonigle – by Karen Cushman
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021

Millie McGonigle is a twelve-year-old girl living in San Diego, California in 1941.  She is dealing with many issues, including her family’s financial distress due to the Great Depression, her mother’s apparent favoritism for a younger sister, and the death of her beloved grandmother.  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, an onslaught of changes challenges her further.  This novel is not particularly nostalgic about an era when unity against an external enemy gave many Americans a sense of purpose; Millie’s psychological state is dominated by grief and anger.  She carries a notebook with her everywhere, making notes and drawings in this “Book of Dead Things.”  Karen Cushman has created a character who is not initially easy to love: morbid, bitter, and self-centered, even for a pre-teen.  Because she is a wonderful writer, she allows readers to have a range of responses to her character, following Millie on her incomplete and not so sentimental journey towards change.

The McGonigle family is far from perfect.  Her father’s good-natured jokes sometimes veer into insensitivity.  Her mom, a frustrated poet submitting verse jingles to advertisers, seems momentarily jealous when Millie actually wins five dollars in a contest.  A middle-aged cousin, Edna, has come to live with them. She seems to have a mild psychiatric or neurological disability, but her insistence on using German phrases for no apparent reason as the war approaches was worse than irritating.  Millie describes Edna’s physical appearance, and particularly odors, in repulsive detail.  The sibling relationships in the novel are the most troubling.  While Millie is loving and tolerant towards her six-year-old brother, Pete, the middle child, Lily, is a source of outrage to her older sister. Lily suffers from an unspecific respiratory condition, making her vulnerable to frequent illnesses.  Cushman doesn’t merely imply that the attention this earns Lily makes Millie feel ambivalent towards her younger sister. Millie’s feelings are actively hostile.  (She is also a bookish child, and compares Lily to Colin in The Secret Garden: “Colin was a drip like Lily until he got healthy and nice.”

Cushman’s descriptions of the natural environment are beautiful and seamlessly related to Millie’s feelings about the world. Her seaside community is full of sailors about to be deployed, and expanding aircraft and shipping industries bring the impact of the war home.  Millie is introspective, and she also turns to different people in her life, from close to more superficial acquaintances. Eventually she finds some answers from their advice, and from observing how they cope with fear, disappointment, even grief.  War and Millie McGonigle is an unusual novel for middle-grade readers, with a main character who is aware of her sense of difference from those around her.  Cushman presents her with all her flaws, as well as her deep sensitivity as she finds a way to keep afloat for the duration.

Patricia Reilly Giff, 1935-2021

Lily’s Crossing – Patricia Reilly Giff
Delacorte Press, 1997

Patricia Reilly Giff, who died in June, left an unforgettable body of work for young readers.  Her funny and engaging series about the Polk Street School kids, her historical novels, many about Irish and Irish-American children, and a broad range of other works, are her legacy.  One of my favorite books by her, and, in fact, by any author of middle-grade fiction, remains Lily’s Crossing. This story of a motherless girl, Lily Mollahan, who befriends a Hungarian refugee boy, Albert Orban, takes place in Far Rockaway, New York, in 1944.  Lily, her father, and her grandmother live in St. Albans, Queens, but spend the summers in a seaside community where both year-round and summer residents make their homes.  Her best friend has moved to Detroit, and her father, an engineer, leaves to serve in the military.  Lily is devastated.  This beautiful, elegiac, look back at a specific time and place in American history is also a sensitive picture of childhood, relevant to anyone who has ever struggled with loss.

Life is hard during wartime.  Mrs. Sherman’s bakery has been affected by rationing, now selling mainly cookies which “would be hard by now, the juice drained out overnight.”  The local letter carrier is kept busy, but still has time to let Lily know when he has a letter from her father overseas.  Lily’s days are filled with swimming and rowing, practicing the piano, attending church, and feeling sad.  Giff captures both the nostalgia for an era when Americans were largely united in a feeling of sacrifice, but also lived with the daily anguish and anxiety of absent fathers, brothers, and husbands.  Many Americans, like Lily’s neighbors, the Orbans, had relatives in Europe whose fate was uncertain, or worse.  When Lily meets Albert, at first she projects her anger at him, finding his serious, almost adult, demeanor, to be irritating.  But gradually the two children form a bond based on their grief, as well as their need to be normal, rule-testing, kids.

Lily feels guilty because she sometimes tells lies. Imaginary accomplishments or famous distant relatives make her feel important, and creative untruths can sometimes keep her out of trouble. When she suggests an unrealistic plan to reunite with her father, Albert desperately tries to follow her lead.  Both Lily and Albert figure out that motives matter when people make mistakes, even nearly disastrous ones. They also learn that telling the truth is hard, but that they have built up a level of trust with one another where it is much better than the alternative.

Lily has a collection of paper stars which remind her of her mother. Each summer, she brings up with her from St. Albans to Far Rockaway. When she explains the practice to Albert, he understands:

“I bring one with me to Rockaway every year,” she said. “I counted. There are dozens of them left on my ceiling. I’ll be thirty or forty before they’re all used up,”…

She took a breath. It was nice to tell someone about the stars. It was so nice to talk about her mother as if she, Lily, were like everyone else, like everyone who had a mother…

Lily squinted a little, looking out at a curl of smoke from a freighter far away.”

Patricia Reilly Giff has so many books to share with children, but you might want to begin with this one. It will be so nice to tell someone about the stars.

All You Need Is…

All We Need – written by Kathy Wolff, illustrated by Margaux Meganck
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

Children have basic needs, and they need adults to fulfill them.  If they are fortunate enough to enjoy all the material and emotional comforts, they should also learn to share.  This basic message takes shape in Kathy Wolff and Margaux Meganck’s new picture book, which validates what children already know about their lives.  With a rhyming text and lovely watercolor, gouache and pencil illustrations, author and illustrator build a series of scenarios about kindness and generosity.

Children generally love rhyming books. As you read them this one, they will begin to anticipate what comes next.  Each two-page spread depicts something in the environment which enables life and happiness.  On the following pages the anticipated conclusion appears.  The rhythm is not monotonous; Wolff often uses slant rhyme: “hotter/water,” “return/learn.” The book begins with the most fundamental needs, such as air and water, and progresses to concepts, making even abstractions like “sharing” as concrete as can be. 

The people bringing the concepts to life are multicultural and multigenerational, and they make use of life’s essentials in specific contexts.  Water is not only “what falls from above,” but the excitement of a sprinkler in the neighborhood park. .  Two dads prepare a meal with their children’s participation , opening to a beautiful still life of different dishes, carefully arranged with enough blank space in the center to appreciate each one’s unique qualities. .  There is a sliced-open avocado complete with pit, but pots of soup and stew only partially revealed.  The book’s design all reflects this same quiet appreciation, inviting the reader to spend a few minutes on each page. Food is, most fundamentally, “a belly that’s filled,” but it’s also the sustenance that allows creativity, “the strength to grow and rebuild.”

There is no explicit reminder that some people, tragically, are denied the right to food, water, or shelter. This is a book for young children. Instead, All We Need emphasizes that anyone lucky enough to feel secure will naturally both need and want to share with others.  No one here seems to have excessive material goods, but everyone realizes that “when we’re well and at ease,” they are even more privileged to be part of a community where everyone both gives and takes.  The communal feast at the end of the book is deliberately open to interpretation. It might be a local gathering, a meal for people in need, a fundraising event, or a holiday celebration.  All we need to know about the meal is that it offers nourishment and comfort.

Culinary Kids

Alice Fleck’s Recipes for Disaster – by Rachelle Delaney
Puffin Canada, 2021

Alice and her father, James, a culinary historian, share a close bond, although lately it has been altered a bit by his new relationship with Hana, a Victorian scholar. The cooking connection is so much a part of Alice and her father’s life together that he affectionately calls her his “sous-chef.”  Alice’s mother is not in the picture. She is alive, they are not divorced, but she appears in the novel’s backstory. Right away, this single-parent household is somewhat different than the ones which figure in many middle-grade novels.  The further you read, the more distinctive the cast of characters becomes.

James is a lovely, kind man. He is proud of his daughter, and also of the independence which the two of them have achieved together.  When he meets Hana Holmes, Alice becomes afraid that too many cooks will spoil the proverbial broth, the broth being their family.  Readers empathize with Alice, although the author tests our tolerance when the young cook’s aggression boils over.  Fortunately, Alice has the support of some truly loyal friends, Octavia Sapphire and Henry Oh. (Yes, characters’ names are key ingredients in this contemporary story with some Victorian flavor.)

Alice and James are set to participate in a cooking contest for their favorite obscure reality TV show, Culinary Chronicles, which unfortunately is transformed into Culinary Combat. There’s lots of humor about ratings-driven programming sinking to the lowest common denominator.  When events take a suspicious turn, the book becomes a mystery in which each contestant and staff member may become a prime suspect.  These kids are sharp, persistent, and full of a thirst for justice.  Rachelle Delaney does a notable job of propelling the mystery forward while also allowing the changing events of Alice’s family life to develop. They aren’t just a side dish, but part of the main course.

Since the show is filmed at a restored manor’s Victorian festival, there are some truly imaginative dishes to prepare, some of which fall outside the historical parameters of the era. I’ll just mention the challenge of baking peacock pie. Don’t worry; the author is not advocating for eating this beautiful bird. Like many other historically accurate details, it is a plot point stirred into the brew.  There are references to other elements of Victorian history, enlivening the novel even for readers who are not food obsessed.  Hana is a thoroughly believable academic, somewhat obsessed with her specialty, but also aware of her need to meet the real world on her terms. I really liked her! So is James, even if he does wear a good-luck scarf.  By the end of the book, everything falls together, much like the carefully constructed ladyfingers of a perfect charlotte russe.

Starring a Cockeyed Optimist

Mazie – by Melanie Crowder
Philomel Books (Penguin), 2021

Mazie Butterfield, the heroine of this young adult novel by Melanie Crowder is not Ensign Nellie Forbush, the cockeyed optimist of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song in South Pacific (originally in James Michener’s stories), but she certainly embodies her spirit.  A Nebraska farm girl with an uncompromising vision of success as a Broadway actress, Mazie has moments of self-doubt, but they are fleeting, compared to her sense of conviction in this unlikely dream. Even though leaving home will mean leaving her devoted boyfriend, Jesse, as well as her family, Mazie knows that staying behind will be a betrayal of who she is. Readers should begin the begin without preconceptions, go back to America in 1959, and prepare to enjoy an amazingly independent work of fiction.

Mazie is a mélange of elements.  There is the mid-century teen romance, sometimes referred to as “malt shop.” In fact, at the beginning of the book, Mazie even works as a carhop at a local diner. The inspiring narrative of a young adult reaching for the stars against improbable odds is also at the book’s core. Any reader would identify with Mazie’s touching honesty about her aspirations: “I think I’m good enough for Broadway, but I won’t know for sure until I get there.”  But Crowder carefully throws more modern perspectives into the mix.  Arriving in New York, Mazie first meets people of color, and forms friendships with gay people. (Eventually she learns that LGBTQ people live everywhere, including in her own backyard.). She also possesses a feminist consciousness, insisting that her professional goals are so important, that even true love cannot replace them. She fends off powerful sexual predators, and exhibits a strong sense of body positivity in the midst of cruelly unrealistic beauty standards for women.  Her boyfriend has his own struggles against limiting expectations, and he respects Mazie’s determination.  Perhaps that acceptance is a bit idealized in the context of the era, but once you buy into the book’s premise, things fall into place.

At times I wondered if the author was having a bit of fun with her readers.  Clichés pop up, followed by challenging insights.  You may be thinking of Hallmark movies and memorable heroines of literature at the same time, all the while rooting for Mazie’s romance and encouraging her to “break a leg.” Because of the novel’s realistic details and heartfelt monologues, you may be inclined to overlook, or even to question, less than likely occurrences.  The owner of the New York boardinghouse where Mazie finds a home away from home is Mrs. Cooper, a retired African-American actress.  None of the girls treats her with anything but respect.  Mazie is free from prejudice.  But she’s Mazie!  Her own Nana was a free spirit and her farmer boyfriend wants to be a physicist.  Crowder also gives Mrs. Cooper a backstory: she was a talented performer who was forced to end of her career because of racism in casting.  In case this accurate information seems an incomplete part of her new role as housemother, Mazie’s fellow boarder points out that “I guess she figured there was money to be made off all us starry-eyed girls from the sticks trying to make it in the big city.” 

A lot of changes ensue in the course of the book; I’m not going to give any spoilers.  But don’t give up on Mazie. As she puts it, “Everybody’s always talking about hope like it’s so lightweight, the thing with feathers or whatever.” Mazie isn’t Nellie, but she is “stuck like a dope” on that thing with feathers.

Preschool Is Fun, But…

What Does Little Crocodile Say – written and illustrated by Eva Montanari
Tundra Books, 2021

This is a book for very young children, but not only for them.  Eva Montanari paints, or rather draws, a picture of the nearly universal moment when a toddler has to say goodbye to her parent at the preschool door.  With a few carefully chosen words which reflect children’s language, and brightly colored pencil and chalk pictures, Montanari brings to children and parents the direct emotional experience of separation, sweetened by beautiful art.  Little Crocodile is every child processing a new event in her life.

When children learn to speak, their new ability to embed feelings in language is exciting.  In hand lettered text, Montanari documents Little Crocodile’s day from waking in her crib (image) to getting dressed (“THE ZIPPER GOES ZZZT) to embracing a returning parent. Sometimes, English is insufficient to convey the child’s joy, requiring a hybrid of baby talk and real words: “MUAH, MUAH, MUAH, MUAH…”, or “THE NAP GOES ZZZ ZZZ ZZZ ZZZ.” The book’s title reflects the book’s theme: that Little Crocodile’s use of words to make sense of her new routine is part of growing up.

The pictures are delightful, partly because they are so obviously rendered in pencil and pastels, just like the art projects which children undertake in school.  The crocodile is just the right shade of green. Her red overalls look real enough to touch, as do the pieces of pasta in sauce on the children’s plates at lunchtime.  There’s a fine line between drawing like a child and drawing in a way which children will identify as familiar. Montanari’s balance between the two is perfect.  So is the preschool.  There are lots of different species representing childhood, and the teacher is a kind-looking elephant wearing glasses.  When Little Crocodile arrives, clinging to her parent, the teacher allows her to observe the other kids at play and allows her to cry when her parent, who also sheds a tear, has to leave.

Still crying, Little Crocodile gets to sit on the teacher’s lap during story time.  The naptime scene is viewed from above, with each exhausted child asleep in a different position. Little Crocodile’s long tail extends into the space of the adjacent frog, and the teacher’s reassuring trunk appears in the corner. The book has lots of allusions to classic picture books about the same subject, while Montanari’s deliberately naïve artistic style adds a different dimension.

Children like symmetry in stories and pictures; the framing of the story is a consistent path, really a cycle. Waking, preparing, setting forth (image), returning, and repeating the now familiar routine the next day.  Words plus pictures, when they are this authentic to children’s feelings,  make starting school less wrenching and more rewarding.