Finding Green Time

The Barren Grounds – by David A. Robertson, Tundra Books, 2020

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Readers and critics will see in The Barren Grounds, David A. Robertson’s first book in the projected Misewa Saga, a connection to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels.  Robertson himself alludes to the influence, in which his teenaged protagonists cross through a portal to an alternative universe, one resonant with spiritual messages.  Yet The Barren Grounds is hardly a mere homage to Lewis, or even a response to the classic Narnia series framed around Indigenous culture.  Robertson’s vision is his own and his protagonists, both human and mythic, chart their own course through an emotional, environmental, and cultural journey.  The novel’s quest plot, as the characters seek to return a devastated community to the “Green Time” of ecological balance, is exciting, but the complexity of his protagonists’ inner journey is what truly sets the book apart.

Morgan and Eli are two Indigenous children placed with the same foster parents, the well-meaning couple, Katie and James.  No, the young professionals are not grossly insensitive do-gooders, although their kindness and good intentions are inadequate faced with the depth of Morgan and Eli’s losses, and the almost insurmountable history of injustice which will not be resolved by a combination of warmth and acknowledgement of the children’s background.  Eli has more accessible memories of his past, and of the Cree language. He is also a gifted artist, able to create visible images of his experiences.  Morgan struggles with anger and grief, having lived with several families who were completely insensitive to her pain. She is also unable to reconcile anger against the mother whom she believes abandoned her with the vacuum of actual knowledge of her mother’s life.

When the children enter the world of Misewa, they encounter environmental catastrophe due to exploitation of the land and its resources.  Their guides, Ochek the Fisher and Arik, a Squirrel skilled in both survival and wry humor, become fully developed characters, not mere symbols of a superior but embattled way of life.  At each point where the author could have resolved the tensions between the children’s two worlds, he chooses instead to explore the messy inconsistencies of their mission.  Morgan is an unforgettable character, fiercely independent and unwilling to be defined by adults, but also acutely vulnerable and introspective.  She is a stark contrast to the female characters in the Narnia books, who in many ways embody Lewis’s discomfort with female agency.  At every step of the way Morgan resists the temptation towards simplistic nobility, as when she asks with exasperation, “how can I help a village full of walking, talking, animals stuck in some never-ending winter,” or when she responds to Ochek’s encouraging reminder, “You’ve got great strength in you!” with the sardonic, “This is a really bad time to talk like a fantasy character!”

Robertson has created a world of compelling fantasy, personal anguish, and unanswerable questions about how to right past wrongs.  Young readers and adults alike who cross the portal with anticipation will be rewarded with a sense of possibility, both individual and global.

Witches and Kids

Bedknob and Broomstick (combined edition of The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks) – by Mary Norton, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957 (original editions, 1945 and 1947)

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Many readers familiar with Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and its sequels may only know her earlier fantasy novels from the Disney movie which adapted them. The books might gain future readers if the planned stage production ever takes place. No, these enchanting and enchanted novels are not of the literary caliber of The Borrowers. The characters are far less developed and the magic is a bit creaky.  Still, they are worthwhile examples of the genre about children who have incredible adventures with the help of sympathetic adults, all the while circumventing the authority of ordinary adults who are boring authority figures.

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The first novel tells the story of three children farmed out to live with an irritating old aunt in Bedfordshire while their parents remain in London. It seems that their mother has a job which requires her to send them off for part of each year. (It would have interesting to learn more about that job.).  Charles and Carey are the older, quasi-parental, children. Little Paul is still too young to have bought into society’s rules. Naturally, that means that he is the favorite of a secret witch, Miss Price, a spinster neighbor of their cranky aunt. When the children rescue this odd woman from a supposed bicycle accident which really involved her broomstick, she becomes their friend and involves them, somewhat reluctantly, in her witchcraft continuing education.  When they learn that a knob removed from Paul’s bed will allow them to travel across time and place, they first wind up in London, Paul’s choice to see their mother, and then in a South Seas island populated by hideously racist caricatures of “cannibals.”  The second volume is much better.  The London story involves parking the bed on the street, missing their mother, who is about as attentive a parent as the mother in Mary Poppins prior to the arrival of Super Nanny. As for the cannibals, the explanations required for children reading the book today make it hardly worth the effort.

Even in the deeply flawed first book, Miss Price is not without appeal.  She is an imperfect guardian, caring deeply for the children, but lacking patience and common sense.  In the second book, she is a reformed witch, having sworn to give up the spells and live by the normal rules of domestic life. Like many people with bad habits, she just can’t stick to her resolve, and soon she and the kids are off to the seventeenth-century, where they meet Emelius, a failed necromancer who can’t even believe that the profession for which he has trained is worthless.  The scene where he is almost burned at the stake will also require historical explanations for children.  There is even a romance, proving that bright and non-conforming women can also find love, even if they have to time travel to accommodate it.

Erik Blegvad’s line drawings are detailed, expressive, and elegant heirs to the best of the European tradition of children’s illustration. (Forget the cannibals.) These witty scenes perfectly mesh reality and fantasy and help to create a memorable impression of Norton’s quirky characters.  Mary Norton was fortunate in her collaboration with many distinguished illustrators, including Diana L. Stanley, the famous and controversial artist Waldo Peirce, who illustrated the original edition of The Magic Bed-Knob, and the incomparable Beth and Joe Krush. A voyage with Bedknob and Broomstick only requires a small and well-rewarded suspension of disbelief.

VE Day

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans – Munro Leaf, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1942

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Today is the 75th anniversary of VE, Victory in Europe Day, marking the surrender of the Axis Powers and the end of World War II in Europe.  There are many serious works of children’s literature, both fiction and non-fiction, about the War and about its impact on young people.  You may not know that Munro Leaf, author of The Story of Ferdinand, also wrote a popular series of cartoon-illustrated guides to the joys of learning.  Some of the better known were Arithmetic Can Be Fun, History Can Be Fun, and Grammar Can Be Fun (that last one a bit of a harder sell).  A few have even gone back into print.

During the War, Leaf worked for the U.S. Army, and also created a memorable work of home front propaganda for kids, A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans. In th tradition of patriotism & American children’s literature, he tackles the question:  What could American boys and girls do to help the war effort while their fathers and brothers were fighting and their mothers and sisters were holding down the fort at home? His answer:  plenty.

First, you have to put the strict gender roles of this book into historical perspective. Yes, Leaf does suggest that everyone has a job to do, and that asking Dad to mend socks makes as much sense as demanding that a baby take care of the furnace. In fact, Leaf seems unaware of Rosie the Riveter and her tremendous contribution to the war effort. The general message of the book, however, is powerful:

There are some of us who seem to think that we are the only kind of Americans
who really are Americans and people who are a little bit different from us aren’t  Americans at all.

What has made this country so wonderful and strong is that we have come here from  all over the world bringing with us so many great and different ideas, talents and skills.

(Leaf does acknowledge that Native Americans, whom he appallingly calls “red Indians,” were here before anyone else.)

Children know how terrifying bullies become when their power is unopposed: Leaf uses this fact to teach a lesson about bullying on a societal scale:

They are the Faking Bullies who make others unhappy by being mean to them and telling lies about them. These Fakers pretend that they are being patriotic when they do this, but they are really doing their country a lot of harm.

Leaf empowers kids by telling them that it’s time to get busy and he is quite specific in his recommendations.  It’s time to hold family meetings, do housework, repair and recycle, learn first aid, and plant a Victory Garden.  One of his special attributes as an author and illustrator is specificity; along with the simplicity of his cartoon books, this makes his inimitable style easily recognized and tremendously appealing.  What might kids repair and re-use? “Toys, Pans, Clothes, Toasters, Radios, Carpet Sweepers, Bicycles, Vacuum Cleaners, Skates, Lamps, Automobiles, Tires, Furniture, Almost everything you can think of.” This list is presented in artfully spaced double columns, accompanies by small sketches of some of the items.

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There is a gallery of portraits showing adults helping our country, including “Soldiers, nurses, sailors, motor corps drivers, air defense spotters, canteen workers,” and more.  (Several are women, including the air defense spotter and motor corps driver.)

The tremendous obligations placed on both children and adults may make everyone cranky. Leaf admits this, validating children’s feelings:

If we just plain hate to work, sometimes it’s our own fault, but just as often it’s because other people have made us feel that way about it. The trouble is that they don’t give us regular jobs and then depend on us to do those jobs.

Time to fix that problem by making it clear what is expected of each person; we’re all in this together. The book even includes blank space for creating a map of your community with the location of essential locations: “You can never tell when knowing these things may be very important.”

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Some of the suggestions in the book are no longer applicable, including the exhortation to buy War Bonds.  But a great deal of Leaf’s kind and purposeful address to children still is, including an emphasis on self-care. Kids need to eat healthy foods, keep clean, and get enough sleep.  Admonitions to stay cheerful, and to avoid becoming that spoiled “BRAT” (all capitals) might now be viewed as psychologically less-sound, but, remember, there’s a War on.

 

This is a day to remember, and to remind children that they were part of it.

Speaking of Oceans…

Ocean Speaks: Marie Tharp and the Map That Moved the Earth – by Jess Keating, illustrated by Katie Hickey, Tundra books, 2020

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Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman author who lacked money and a dedicated space would likely be denied that opportunity to write.  In Jess Keating and Katie Hickey’s new picture book, cartographer and geologist Marie Tharp (1920-2006) struggled against the men dominating her profession, who refused her access to the ocean floor.  Yet even their obtuse prejudice could not ultimately prevent this brilliant woman from mapping the ocean floor and visualizing continental drift for a skeptical world.  Young readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept that, in Tharp’s time, “…girls were not supposed to dream of becoming scientists or explorers,” but Keating’s text’s dramatic examples and Hickey’s stunning artwork together construct a vivid illustration of this frustrating, but not defining, truth.

The book explains Tharp’s devotion to pursuing her career as a combination of her fascination with the physical environment from a young age, and a sharp intellect.  Even as a little girl, Marie was drawn to “The ocean, stretched out before her, like a big mystery.”  Barefoot in the sand, wearing oversized glasses, she looks towards the water with mystic intensity. The image also emphasizes how small she is in relation to the universe; this ratio does not discourage her.

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Soon she and her equally nerdy dad, a fortunate appearance in some young women’s lives, are looking at specimens in his lab, a place so stuffed with treasures that it seems like a dream come true.  The random assortment of plants, maps, petri dishes and bell jars, pops out in Hickey’s signature combination of earth and jewel tones.  Father and daughter both use magnifying glasses in addition to their huge eyeglasses, a comic and touching sign of their mutual devotion to knowledge.

Ocean Stern teacher

School is not so good for Marie.  She manages to turn art class into her opportunity to experiment with sketches, but the mockery of some undoubtedly jealous boys in her classroom as she constructs her own engineering model would deter a less determined young scientist.  A woman teacher who has obviously internalized male prejudice stares down sternly at Marie; although a girl in the next seat looks as if she is confused about who is right, Marie or her tormentors.

 

Ocean chalkboard

When World War II forces some flexibility about gender roles as men go off to fight, Marie finds an opportunity to focus on scientific pursuits.  Hickey’s two-page spread of Tharp drawing equations on a huge blackboard is pure poetry, of an accessible kind.  Children reading the book see the young woman poised on a stepstool on one foot, the other lifted to the side like that of a ballet dancer. The breadth of her approach allows her to make breakthroughs: “She discovered geodes and geometry, equations and elements, atoms and antimatter.”  At bottom left and right of the scene are stacks of books indicating Tharp’s true love of the mind; there are volumes of Darwin, Einstein, and Aristotle, as well as William James and Upton Sinclair. (If your child or student is not familiar with these names, here is a terrific chance to introduce them!). One pile of book is topped by a globe, the other by a coffee pot and cup.  Science doesn’t happen outside of the real world.

Ocean dreams

Tharp’s room of her own is a job in a laboratory. Having been denied the opportunity, as a woman, to participate in an exploration of the ocean, she uses the space of her “tiny, cramped office” to study, calculate, and hypothesize. Keating and Hickey take a risk, combining Tharp’s actual work with her dreams.  Their imagery is totally effective, combining the scientific process and pure imagination in pictures of Tharp swimming through ink and dreaming of numbers.

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She succeeds in mapping the ocean’s floor, and her reward is the hostility of a mansplaining colleague who ridicules her work. Eventually she is vindicated; a detailed “Author’s Note” explains how Tharp’s pioneering work was eventually acknowledged and led to the discovery of tectonic plates.  This section also includes “Questions and Answers,” including one about why women were excluded from scientific professions, and a list of further resources.  Ocean Speaks speaks to readers about many subjects: science, persistence, prejudice, love of learning.  The exceptional beauty of its images transmits those ideas in a way which children will understand.

Curating for Kids

Hannah’s Collections – Marthe Jocelyn, Dutton Children’s Books, 2000

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While absorption in collecting some particular item may not be universal in childhood, it is certainly well known.  Coins, rocks, trading cards, buttons, or cast-off pieces of almost anything granted new meaning in a collection are a hobby, even an obsession, of many kids. In Hannah’s Collections, author and illustrator Marthe Jocelyn (author of Aggie Morton Mystery Queen) creates one girl and her eclectic groups of found objects, using a simple narrative and pictures composed of collaged elements.  The book is a celebration of the impulse to amass special stuff, and a beautiful representation of that impulse in carefully curated pictures, plus a little math thrown in.

When Hannah’s teacher asks her class to choose one collection and bring it to school, Hannah is genuinely confused, even worried. How can she restrict her exhibit to one collectible, when she has accumulated several: seashells, hair barrettes, stamps, Popsicle sticks, “little creatures,” and more. The two-page spread of Hannah’s bedroom is so vivid, almost three dimensional, that it captures children’s attempts to create their own small-scale universe.  From the tray of artfully arranged buttons to the small figures lined up on top of the bookcase, the room is like a small museum.  There is appropriate space between objects, emphasizing that Hannah does not only acquire things; she allocates to each item its own particular environment. She also enumerates the parts of her collections, and thinks about different numerical ways to sort and divide them.

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This book is twenty years old.  It is now noticeable when Hannah, in order to make a seemingly impossible decision, “…pressed her fists against her eyes until she saw fireworks,” inducing a kind of psychedelic experience instead of just intuition. You might want to caution young children against doing this.  But even without optical damage, a creative child might arrive at Hannah’s conclusion: assemble her choices as a sculpture, with glue, tacks, string, tape, and rubber bands (the list of adhesives is a collection in itself). Hannah declares her sculpture to be not just a bunch of highlights from her collections, but the beginning of “my new sculpture collection.”

Even if your child’s, or your own, collecting ambitions, are more limited and less transformative, you will identify with Hannah’s ability to find beauty in the ordinary components of everyday life.

Small is Grand

When Emily Was Small – by Lauren Soloy, Tundra Books, 2020

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Picture book biographies for children that examine the childhood of a famous person are not a new phenomenon. There are several series dedicated to the assumption that kids will enjoy reading about accomplished grownups when they were just kids.  When Emily Was Small is a different kind of book, using the young life of renowned Canadian painter Emily Carr as a lens focusing on her almost mystical connection with nature. Rather than depicting her early experiences with art, it suggests to children that the roots of her future creativity were apparent in her encounters with the natural world when she was small.

Lauren Soloy makes her purpose clear from the beginning, telling readers that “Once there was a girl who would grow up to be the artist Emily Carr.  But this is a story about when she was small.”  Those two brief evocative sentences let children know that their own perceptions matter.  In an afterword, she gives biographical information about Carr, and explains that she drew on the artist’s autobiographical The Book of Small. The young Emily of the book interacts with many elements of nature, greeting beans, leaves, and currant bushes with a personal “hello,” and receiving in return the different sense impressions each one could offer:

Hello, wild place, Emily said.
It answered her with a sweet
pink smell that called to bees
and butterflies and other
trembly things.

That verbal image of “trembly things,” like so much in the book, captures the intuitive poetry of childhood.

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Her companion in the book is a kind of Sendakian personification of the wild, named Wild.  When she first meets him, he is baring his teeth, but so is she. They soon become friends, holding hands and even flying together through “restless seas and towering trees, and observing joyfully together all the wonders of nature.  Wild’s remark that “…the color you think of as green is really a thousand shades and hues” is also a description of Soloy’s gorgeous color palette, along with other pastel hues, and Small’s striking black hair and white dress.

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The opposite of Wild is Emily’s mother, shown only from the back or as a faceless body. Sadly, she is unable to empathize with her daughter’s special visions, which, in one picture, Soloy represents as a cascade of objects emerging from the girl’s meditation, where they are endowed with new life. Instead, she admonishes Emily for dirtying her dress. When she brushes off the dress, “Emily felt herself shrink back down to become something small once more.”  What child has not, at some time, felt herself diminished by the insensitivity of an adult authority figure, even a parent?  Yet readers learn in the afterword that Emily was not defined by these limits, growing up to be a woman dedicated to beauty, “…who strove her whole life to experience the bigness of things.”  A portrait of Carr, confident in her visions, looks out, assuring children that being small is only the beginning.

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Tomie dePaola, 1934-2020

Bonjour, Mr. Satie – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991

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Tomie dePaola, one of the most artistically gifted and humane authors and illustrators for children, died last month.  Of course, as a children’s literature blogger, I have written about his work before (see here and here and here and here and here and here).  Instead of attempting to sum up his incredible legacy, I would like to bring attention to just one of his beautiful books.  Think of Bonjour, Mr. Satie, as an homage to modernism, a Midnight in Paris for kids, a chance meeting Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and a handsomely dressed cat and mouse.

When Rosalie and Conrad receive an elegantly reproduced postcard from their uncle, Mr. Satie, they are thrilled, but perhaps not fully prepared for what he will bring them.  A recipe from Alice and Gertrude, and an many fascinating anecdotes about his friends in the artistic vanguard of Paris and the world.  Each picture features these provocative but affectionate friends. Never one to patronize children, Tomie includes a key to the cast on the flyleaf, although it is limited to first name and initial; in addition to Gertrude, Alice, and Pablo, readers will meet Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Isadora Duncan.  There is a spirited argument about the relative value of Picasso’s work and the paintings of Henri Matisse.  Fortunately, Mr. Satie and his mouse friend, Ffortusque Ffollet agree to judge the contest.

While this particular dePaola gem may be more geared towards adults than some of his other books, it presents a wonderful opportunity to introduce works of art to young readers. They can judge the magnificent paintings hanging on the wall, or they can just enjoy them, with some helpful context provided by adults reading the book to or with their kids.  The signature artistic style of Tomie’s characters, with faces drawn from medieval art, comic books, and Tomie’s inimitable image of humanity, is easily recognizable.  Equally familiar is his moral, in the words of Mr. Satie:

I have concluded that to compare Henri’s paintings of Nice with Pablo’s paintings  of newspapers, guitars, and faces from all different sides would be to compare     apples with oranges.  Both are delicious but taste totally different.

The book ends with a return to Rosalie and Conrad’s home, less sophisticated than Paris, but warm and inviting.  Their uncle has brought them a gift of paint sets, and the greater gift of an intergenerational bond, as they uncle, niece, and nephew create their own visions.  Au revoir, Tomie.

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Before She Was Agatha Christie…

Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano – by Marthe Jocelyn, with illustrations by Isabelle Follath, Tundra Books, 2020

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Right now obviously seems like a good time to curl up with an engaging mystery, and why should middle grade and young adult readers be deprived of that experience?  Marthe Jocelyn’s new series, based on an imagined childhood for author Agatha Christie, has debuted with The Body Under the Piano, an edge-of-the-chair whodunit built around charming humor and inventive characterizations, as well as suspense.  The book’s clever conceit might be enough to interest readers, but it turns out to be far more satisfying than just an invitation to die-hard Christie fans to speculate about her probably quirky early life. Aggie Morton stands on her own as a new heroine for those who like mysteries, as well as those who just appreciate a well-crafted story about engaging people in difficult situations.

 

Aggie Morton knitting

As Jocelyn explains in her perceptive “Author’s Note,” the book is not a biography, but an affectionate answer to her own questions about Christie, the writer who had given her so many hours of enjoyment.  Aggie Morton is a spirited girl full of curiosity and determination; her Belgian friend, Hector Perot, is Jocelyn’s homage to Christie’s famed detective, Hercule Poirot, in the form of youthful backstory.  “As a writer,” Jocelyn modestly explains, “I know that ideas sit for a longtime in the cobwebbed corners of the brain.” There are no cobwebs in this book, but there are a lot of interwoven events and peculiar personalities, as Aggie tries to determine who murdered a rather difficult woman right on the premises of the heroine’s dance school, casting her beloved teacher in a suspicious light.

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Aggie does not set out to solve the mystery, but her refusal to accept illogical or incomplete answers leads her down a sometimes-dangerous path.  Death holds a bit of fascination for her, especially as it allows her to reflect on the recent loss of her father:

I considered the idea that memories and ghosts are knitted together as closely as stitches of yarn on a needle, part of the same warming shawl that each of us wears.  Occasionally my mind strayed to consider what my father might look like now, not his ghost, but inside his coffin.  Or, what if he hadn’t been buried, but picked clean by helpful carrion, leaving him a skeleton, shining white and elegant?

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Here is Jocelyn’s signature style: identifiable emotional responses paired with weirder associations, all leavened with some lugubrious humor.  She isn’t afraid to give her heroine some off-putting thoughts, but she always stops short of caricature.

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Isabelle Follath‘s sketches for chapter headings (some examples are shown above), and for the cast of characters that precedes the novel, lend Victorian authenticity and artful personal details to the story; the drawings are really essential to the book’s overall effect.  I have been careful to omit any plot spoilers, although the novel is more than the sum of its parts and eventual resolution.  Instead, I will let Agatha have the next-to-last word: “I do not choose my thoughts…They seem to choose me, like the lines in a poem.” Her understanding that one thought, one intuition, one clue, does not inevitably lead to the next expected one, is part of this new mystery heroine’s considerable appeal to readers.

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Cleary Yesterday and Today

Beezus and Ramona – Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Louis Darling, William Morrow and Company, 1955

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Today Beverly Cleary turns 104 years old.  It is impossible to overstate her contribution to children’s literature, particularly to middle-grade fiction.  Cleary’s characters and stories are timeless because they are based on respect for children, humor, and honesty, as well as an incredible gift for crafting language in a believable way.  The permeable line between a sometimes frustrating reality and a child’s imagination is often at the center of her novels. (as can be seen in my previous blogs on her, here and here and here). Her most famous heroine, Ramona, first appears, along with her older sister, in Beezus and Ramona, a sensitive tribute to the fraught relations between siblings.

Ramona is impulsive and stubborn, qualities which often bring her into conflict with adult authority. Yet these same parents, teachers, and other child socializers are drawn to her overflowing imagination.  The paradox is difficult for her older sister to reconcile:

At the radio-and-phonograph store, Ramona insisted on petting His Master’s Voice, the black-and-white plaster dog, bigger than Ramona, that always sat with one ear cocked in front of the door. Beezus thought admiringly about the amount of imagination it took to pretend that a scarred and chipped plaster dog was real. If only she had an imagination like Ramona’s, maybe Miss Robbins would say her paintings were free and imaginative and would tack them on the middle of the wall.

Ramona’s imagination often takes the form of explosive actions. She is uncompromising and intolerant of restrictions on her creative powers.  The Friday afternoon art class at the recreation center that the girls both attend becomes a free-for-all when Ramona gets into an altercation with a boy who claims that she had stolen his lollipop. Paint flies in the air and lands on children’s clothing.  Ramona will not give up and Beezus defends her. Even the beatnik-influenced Miss Robbins, a woman whose earrings “…came almost to her shoulders and were made of silver wire bent into interesting shapes…,” has to seize control.  At the same time, Beezus has decided to let go a little, painting a dragon which defies all the rules of realism.  When Miss Robbins finally notices this creature who breathes pink candy instead of fire, she is appropriately impressed.  It’s not the monster’s pop-art elements, but the fact that sensible Beezus has taken a page from her sister’s book, allowing herself some freedom.

“Here’s a girl with real imagination,” Miss Robbins had said.

A girl with real imagination, a girl with real imagination, Beezus thought as she left the building and ran across the park to the sand pile. “Come on Ramona, it’s time to go home,” she called to her little sister, who was happily sprinkling sand on a sleeping dog.” That would be a real dog, not a plaster one.  Sometimes sisters exchange qualities, and sometimes they remain loving opponents.  When Beverly Cleary recreates any aspect of childhood, you can bet it will ring true.

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Growing into Her Name

Ways to Make Sunshine – Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

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There is an ever-growing list of chapter book series about grade school-aged girls with determined and lively personalities.  Some of these are formulaic and predictable; Renée Watson’s Ways to Make Sunshine is not.  The first release about fourth-grader Ryan Hart, from the author of Some Places More Than Other,  introduces a bright and introspective character, part of a loving but decidedly not perfect African-American family in Portland, Oregon.  Early in the novel, Ryan’s father reminds her that her name is derived from the word for “king,” and that she will grow into the strengths and traditions of her people and her own best qualities.  The encouragement and solidarity of her close-knit family are sources of support for Ryan; even her older brother Ray’s teasing is less important than his protectiveness. Yet it isn’t always easy to live up expectations.

Ryan’s family has moved into a smaller home after her father was forced by circumstances to take a lower-paying job.  Economic hardship has an impact on everyone.  Ryan’s social circle has been disrupted, and the physical space of the new house seems restricting.  Watson realistically describes the emotional impact on Ryan’s mother; adult’s stress filters down to children in ways which are difficult for them to understand.  Her mom is patient, yet not infinitely so.  Ryan’s grandmother shows her unconditional love by skillfully straightening Ryan’s hair with the skills of the professional beautician she had been before retiring.  When Ryan’s needs diverge from her mother’s and grandmother’s in this episode, every child who has argued with parents about her appearance or dress will relate to the difficulty of weighing parents’ best intentions against a young person’s need for independence.

Friendship is never easy for kids Ryan’s age, and Watson manages to portray both the joys and frustrations of competition among kids, especially when it verges on cruelty.  Her optimism, the way in which she finds “ways to make sunshine,” does not prevent her from experiencing anger, sadness, or even, with her brother, the desire for revenge.  Watson assures young readers that their feelings are valid, that even the most resilient young person has moments when the injustice of events or of adult’s seeming obtuseness are hard to take.  One of the book’s most skillful and touching subplots involves Ryan’s speculation about a tin of objects left in the house by a former resident, perhaps long ago.  Watson resolves it in an unexpected way, respecting the importance which children may assign to incidents which adults see as trivial.

Nina Mata’s pictures of Ryan, and her friends and family, capture their spirited individuality.  Ryan’s grandmother lovingly tending to her granddaughter’s hair, Ryan terrified as she tries to deliver an address in her church, and Ryan’s parents dancing together in their kitchen, all reflect Watson’s warm and engaging text.  Ryan Hart seems ready to grow into her name.