Mice Menorah

The Hanukkah Mice – written by Steven Kroll, illustrated by Michelle Shapiro
Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008 (Two Lions, Amazon Publishing)

There are too many children’s books featuring mice to mention in one post.  Within that category are quite a few in which mice inhabit their own parallel universe adjacent to a human one. Eventually, the two species interact. Some of these books feature dollhouses, perhaps most famously in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. This week Hanukkah begins, so it’s a good time to revisit one example of this popular theme, Hanukkah Mice, by the late Steven Kroll, illustrated by Michelle Shapiro. I like the playful pictures, the understated tone, (“I wonder where that tablecloth came from,” said Mama.”), and the nostalgic sense of a mid-twentieth century American Jewish celebration of the Festival of Lights.

The human family in this book is named Silman, a choice that definitely evokes a kind of identifiable Ashkenazic (Jews originally from Central and Eastern Europe) world.  If you analyze the name, maybe it could be a combination of “still” and “sill”. They certainly are quiet and calm, but removing the letter “t” in the more common last name suggests the part of a window that will feature in the story.  Their daughter, Rachel, receives a beautiful doll house on the first night of Hanukkah, represented by a chanukiya (Hanukkah menorah) with one candle and the shammes (helper candle) lit. The house is beautiful, but simple, not of the extremely expensive and elaborate variety.  Rachel is both excited and grateful to receive it.

At the same time, a mouse family living in their typical home of a mousehole aspire for more. They see the house and they are really delighted.  There is no suggestion here of arrogance or pride going before a fall; they just would like to live in this attractive new setting, and who could blame them? We see Rachel sleeping in her bed, the dollhouse on the floor close by, and the mouse family quietly approaching their new potential home.  The scale of the objects in the room captures the story in one image: a human child in her bed, a small nightstand, a dollhouse bigger than the nightstand but smaller than the bed, and a diminutive mouse family.

As the eight-day holiday progresses, Rachel receives an article of furniture each night for her new dollhouse.  Her parents’ choice to give her one “big” gift and then modest additions for it is nice in itself; today one might see it as a refreshing choice to avoid materialist excess, especially since gift-giving is not in itself the core of Hanukkah celebrations.  There is a lovely wing chair with footrest, a comfy couch where Mindy Mouse bounces, but not enough to get hurt, and, the best part, small plates with miniature latkes (potato pancakes).  Rachel observes the family setting up their new furniture, a proportionally huge face peering through the window of their house. On the eight night, Rachel receives a miniature dollhouse menorah; this is as good as it gets for the mouse family! In a cutaway scene of the dollhouse, each room appears still and quiet, with only a few pieces of unoccupied furniture, while the mouse family celebrates the holiday with a feast on their new dining set. 

Papa Mouse recites the Hanukkah candle blessing, (not printed here), on their small electric menorah.  This small detail raises both a minor an and a bigger issue.  Electric menorahs are a modern convenience, not meant to replace one using candles or oil.  One of the mitzvot (commandments) of Hanukkah is to publicize observance of the festival by placing the chanukiya/menorah in a place which is visible to all.  While many families do place their chanukiya in the window, the obvious issue of safety has made the electric lamp, used as a symbol only, a substitute.  One would not recite blessings over the electric bulbs. If this error bothers you, you might just explain the discrepancy when reading to children.  Or, you could assume that the characters are mice, so there is not an expectation of the same realism as humans would evoke.  It also reminds me that, if this choice is indeed a mistake based on lack of knowledge, any author or illustrator might be vulnerable to making one. None of us is perfectly informed about our own heritage, any more than an “outsider” writing about a different group.  I prefer to think of the electric menorah blessing in The Hanukkah Mice as a charming quirk of apparently Jewish mice joyfully celebrating the holiday in their new home.  Chag Chanukah Sameach/Happy Hanukkah.

A Girl in Her World

Little Big Girl – written and illustrated by Claire Keane
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016

There are many books about a family welcoming a new baby and the effect of this wonderful event on an older sibling. Some of these books are bland and didactic, although even those serve a purpose. Claire Keane’s Little Big Girl is not in this category.  It is a witty and realistic description of the transition in one little girl’s life from small to big, as she gradually exchanges one role for another.  Keane’s inimitable style of portraying people, captures the perspective of a child on how own size and importance relative to both the contained world of her own family and of the outside urban environment.  Keane convinces young readers that becoming an older sister may seem to happen overnight, but that the arrival of a new baby is the beginning of a longer, and delightful, process.

When we meet Matisse, she is “a little girl in a big world,” lying peacefully on an almost empty vast beach.  The outdoor terrain emphasizes how small she is, while her busy apartment and her family car are much more easily controlled. Yet she still perceives herself as small in both environments. Keane depicts Matisse as secure in her self-image, whether putting on “little shoes,” or brushing her “little teeth,” or traveling through a southern California city beneath tall buildings and palm trees. 

A two-page spread shows her shopping for baby stuff with her pregnant mother, who has filled her cart with a double stroller, implying that Matisse is still a baby, but soon not to be the only one in her family. The story’s overwhelming display of baby essentials foreshadows the challenging nature of parenthood. Right before the new baby’s arrival, a sleepy Matisse rests on her bed, an image of the changes to come. She wears a toy stethoscope and holds a magic wand, as if both practical skills and fantasy will be part of her new status.  Opened next to her is a useful copy of a “Big Sister Book,” but it is likely that this volume doesn’t yet hold much meaning.

The book skips the almost inevitable sibling rivalry that even an enthusiastic older sibling experiences. Little Big Girl is as sunny as its location, focused on the incredible excitement of becoming someone new, an older sister.  Everything about her adorable new brother thrills her. When she leans over his cradle to kiss him while he sleeps, a ray of white light shines into the blue pastel background of the nursery like a Renaissance painting.  There is nothing cloying about this scene, because Keane’s approach is to deliberately present the positive aspect of change.  Matisse grows older in a parallel way with her brother, each of them making progress. 

Matisse’s “big job” entails reading to her brother from an extensive library, helping her tired and informally dressed father to change the baby while she herself is in the process of getting dressed, accompanying him to the same beach which had appeared in the beginning of the book. Now she views everyday activities, as well as the unlimited world of clouds and sand, with a completely different perspective. As in all her books, Keane’s characters express the velocity of childhood, their faces reflecting changes and their bodies moving gracefully from one moment to the next.  The bond between an older and younger sibling in the early years of life has probably never been painted with such elegance and affection as in Little Big Girl.

A Child on the Home Front

Love You, Soldier – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Sonja Lamut
Candlewick Press, 2000, reprint of original 1991 edition

Amy Hest has contributed so many meaningful children’s books to the modern canon, including her most recent, The Summer We Found the Baby, in which Hest returns to the World War II home front setting of this earlier classic.  Not only the setting, but the central device of seeing the war through the eyes of a child, unite these books, which encourage young readers to understand both a specific historical era and the personal tribulations of one girl as inextricably tied together.  Hest is an expert at using simple and authentic language without ever patronizing children.  Love You, Soldier is a work of artful innocence. There are no extraneous elements, no anachronistic attempts to the characters more like contemporary individuals, no grand statements about the meaning of love and loss.  This is a wonderful and poignant story about a girl and her mother living in New York City during the war, waiting for a father who will never return.

Seven-year-old Katie Roberts lives in a New York City apartment building with her mother.  The building is a hive of activity, where neighbors share one another’s lives.  A widow named Mrs. Leitstein is a surrogate grandmother to Katie, the kind of older person who intuitively empathizes with her young friends.  Then Katie’s life abruptly changes: The war came and my father left in a uniform. It was olive green.”  Katie mentally arranges each physical item associated with her father: his notebook, his socks, his fountain pen. She draws a picture for him; “he wrapped that picture like he was wrapping diamonds. He slipped it in his duffel and zipped the fat brown zipper.” Each detail of object and emotion which Katie records becomes a tangible way for her to keep her father alive and with her.

The book is full of New York references, presented in the matter-of-fact way that only a child who had always lived there would use.  In the taxi to Pennsylvania Station, her parents hold hands “all the way from 109th Street to 33rd.” The menu at the Automat, where diners put coins in a slot and retrieve their food from a glass door, includes “egg salad on rye. A glass of milk. And, of course, lemon meringue pie.” Katie’s mother and her friend, Louise, reminisce about the time when they skipped school, sneaking off to a concert at Radio City Music Hall, where they watched a performance by “a singer with blue eyes.”  Readers familiar with New York may or may not remember some of these settings and recognize the allusions, but even if they don’t, they will recognize the sense of attachment of a child to her home.

 When Louise, pregnant with her first child, needs support while her own husband is in the service, she comes to stay with Katie and her mother, forming the kind of supportive ad-hoc family which war sometimes imposes.  The Jewish holiday of Passover is different this year. Instead of mother, father, and daughter, Katie celebrates with her mother, Louise, Louise’s brother Sam Gold, who is a solider on leave, and Mrs. Leitstein.   This new formation doesn’t negate old traditions, the “silver candlesticks…last minute trips to the butcher…small glasses with wine for the grownups and grape juice for me.”  The appearance of Sam subtly foreshadows the way in which temporary arrangements may become lasting when distant events dictate the structures of personal lives.

The novel has new life as well as loss. When Louise goes into labor during a massive blizzard, it is Katie who takes on the adult role of getting her to the hospital. With no taxis available, Katie is surprised and confused to find her own sense of resolve giving her the strength to take charge: “’We will walk.’ I said it in a strange, strong voice.’” When Louise is reluctant, Katie reasons with her, “You cannot have the baby out here in a blizzard, Louise.” There’s no arguing with that logic, even though it would be expected from an adult, not a little girl.  Katie, like the rest of the country, has to adapt.  But when a telegram arrives with “a stranger in a uniform and black leggings,” Katie and her mother know that life has they had known it is over.

Grief has different contexts.  So many families lost fathers, sons, and brothers during the war that the aura of collective dignity might seem to mitigate some of their pain. Of course, it didn’t. Katie is heartbroken, and resentful when, after the war, Sam Gold persistently writes to Katie’s mother, renewing their friendship and hoping for a lasting relationship.  When Katie confesses to Mrs. Leitstein that “I have a problem,” the older woman advice about coping with loss and giving the future a chance is far from a panacea.  Still, she gently articulates her philosophy to Katie, that “Love is risky…but you know something…It’s worth it,” as the unobtrusive core of Love You, Soldier.

(Hest continued Katie’s story in two sequels, The Private Notebook of Katie Roberts, Age 11, and The Great Green Notebook of Katie Roberts, Who Just Turned 12 on Monday, which I will cover in a future post.)

Portrait of Audrey as a Young Girl

Little Audrey’s Daydream: The Life of Audrey Hepburn – written by Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Karin Hepburn Ferrer, illustrated by Dominique Corbasson and François Avril.
Princeton Architectural Press, 2020.

Kirkus Reviews deemed this lovely picture book bio of actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) as appropriate for “Audrey Hepburn completists.” Since I am one of those readers, I can only welcome this book (see my reviews here and here).

Written by Hepburn’s son and daughter-in-law, and illustrated by two wonderful French artists, Little Audrey’s Daydream is as unusual as the all-black outfit and white socks worn by Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s movie, Funny Face. The central premise of the book is that the young Audrey as narrator is looking forward into the future, dreaming of a life based on her love of performance, her yearning to have a family, and her desire to help humanity.  Dominique Corbasson (who passed away shortly after completing the pictures) and her husband, François Avril, have not attempted to duplicate in color pastels childhood photos of the real Audrey, but rather to create wholly original visions of a young girl’s visions.  Of course, these visions turn out to correspond to the accomplished and compassionate life of the adult Hepburn.

When I started to read this book, I was reminded of David Copperfield’s famous opening lines: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.”  In Audrey’s case, she remembers her mother saving her life during a bout with whooping cough. From there, there are both joys and obstacles in her journey.  Her idyllic childhood in Holland, captured in a picture of her ice skating past a Don Quixote-like windmill. Then an odious dictator, identified in the language of a child as “a horrible little man with a tiny mustache who screamed all the time,” invaded, and everything changed. To convey the scenes of occupation, Corbasson and Avril punctuate black and grey images of goose-stepping soldiers with the bright red of Audrey’s coat and hat, but also the threatening red of bombs exploding over her city.

Audrey’s home is a refuge, where she dreams of returning to her former life and of becoming a ballerina. Then her dreams become quite specific, each one predicting one of her performing triumphs. Instead of naming the as-yet unreal productions in which she will star, Audrey imagines interpreting “a princess who escapes from her castle, a poor flower girl who becomes a lady…a fashion model, and a regular country girl who moves to a big city and becomes quite a stylish dresser.” (That last reference is the most imaginative description of Holly Golightly which I have ever read!)

Corbasson and Avril’s drawings are so vibrant that you can image them selecting the color pastels from a box as they deliver Audrey as Eliza Doolittle, Audrey as the bookish bookstore clerk in Funny Face, and Audrey as Holly Golightly accompanying herself on the guitar as she sings “Moon River” on a New York City fire escape.  But there are many other fulfilling aspects of Hepburn’s life. The young Audrey imagines motherhood as “taking my boys to school and shopping for books and socks,” as she pushes a baby carriage, followed by a whimsical line of her dolls and stuffed animals come-to-life.”  Yet she never erases the memory of war, and promises herself that she will bring consolation and aid to children unfortunate enough to experience the same cruel reality, because “I know what it’s like to be hungry.”

Little Audrey’s Daydream uses a different approach to presenting an icon to young readers.  Just like them, she was once a child enclosed in a harsh reality. In her case, the dreams of escape and achievement became a reality.

An Immigrant Thanksgiving

Molly’s Pilgrim – written by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy
Scholastic, 1998 (Revised edition); Original edition by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Michael J. Deraney, HarperCollins, 1983

Molly is a Jewish immigrant girl living in a community where she stands out in a painful way. In this classic Thanksgiving story, Molly, called Malka by her Yiddish speaking mother, has left New York City’s Lower East Side to move to a small town where her father is better able to support their family.  She is lonely and alienated by the unfriendly atmosphere, and especially by the typical, but not less cruel, bullying of her classmates. Like some analogous books I have reviewed here and here, Molly’s Pilgrim is not only a story for Jewish children; it captures the difficult experience of immigrants regardless of their background, but also offers an optimistic picture of inclusion when a compassionate adult intervenes with an unforgettable lesson in both American civics and humanity. (This edition is marked as “revised.” I have ordered the original edition; when it arrives, I will post about whatever changes, perhaps in response to historical inaccuracies, have been made.)

The book, by the great writer Barbara Cohen, begins in Winter Hill, whose name evokes an idealized image of small-town life in early twentieth-century America. Elizabeth, Fay, and Emma, girls whose names probably do not represent English translations of the names used in their own homes, taunt Molly mercilessly. They are likely unaware that their nasty song evokes the antisemitic stereotypes associated with the violence in Eastern Europe which caused Molly’s parents to flee: “Jolly Molly/your eyes are awf’ly small/Jolly Molly/your nose is awf’ly tall.” Molly’s teacher, Miss Stickley, is not exactly a model for assertive protectiveness of her students; her intervention is limited to staring at the girls, temporarily causing them to stop their harassment.

When Molly reports to her mother the torment she is undergoing at school, the response is swift and unambiguous: “I’ll go to your school. I’ll talk to the teacher. She’ll make those paskudynaks stop teasing you.” (The author’s choice to leave this Yiddish term untranslated gives the conversation more authenticity. It means, in this context, a troublemaker.)

Molly is horrified. As almost any child who has been bullied knows, bringing the behavior to the attention of authorities may only make it worse.  But worse is, unfortunately, on the way. The class is learning about Thanksgiving, and Molly’s lack of familiarity with this holiday gives the mean girl a further pretext to punish her. (I do have one question here. If Molly had, like most Jewish immigrant children, attended public school in New York City, she would probably have learned about Thanksgiving.  Perhaps she was too young at the time.)

Evidently, Miss Stickley has a background in progressive education and projects-based learning, because she informs the class that, instead of just reading about Thanksgiving, they will construct a Pilgrim village. Her meticulous, not to say rigid, approach calls for the children to be assigned items to construct based on their seating arrangement: “If you sit in row one, two, or three, make a woman. If you sit in row four, five, or six, make a man.” 

Molly returns home, asking her mother for help in creating a Pilgrim woman out of a wooden clothespin.  Cohen captures the generational difference between the almost-acculturated Molly and her European mother.  At first, her mother is uncomprehending: “A clothespin? What kind of homework is a clothespin?” She has not attended school, but she knows that free public school in America is an incredible gift. (“In Goraduk, Jewish girls don’t go to school at all…They have to grow up ignorant, like donkeys.”). When Molly’s mother goes to great effort to support her daughter’s work, she creates a beautiful and intricate clothespin figure, modeled after her own experience:

She had dressed the doll in a long full red skirt, tiny black felt boots, and a bright yellow high-necked blouse. She had covered the yarn hair with a yellow kerchief. Embroidered with red flowers. But the doll isn’t a pilgrim.  In fact, it resembles the photograph of Molly’s mother as a child. When Molly explains to her mother who the historical Pilgrims had been, her mother accurately responds: “What’s a Pilgrim, shaynkeit? …A Pilgrim is someone who came here from the other side to find freedom. That’s me, Molly. I’m a Pilgrim!”

When Molly returns to school, the girls are more than ready to retaliate at her presumption. No doubt, they even recognize, at some level, the artistic superiority of Molly’s Pilgrim figure.  Not only does Elizabeth point out its inadequacy, she tries to terrorize her by claiming that Miss Stickley will be angry at Molly’s failure to follow the rules.  Finally, the teacher has been pushed too far.  Realizing that her passive approach has failed, she calls Elizabeth to account for her actions, and praises Molly’s Pilgrim to the whole class. Not only that, she validates Molly’s immigrant background, pointing out the connection between the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot and the Pilgrim’s celebration of abundance in their new home.

The teacher places Molly’s doll on her desk, the center of her lesson, a tangible reminder to xenophobes that immigrants are welcome in her classroom, and by implication, in our country. Miss Stickley pointedly includes both children and older immigrants, whose roots in their own culture will remain stronger throughout their lives as new Americans:

“ I’m going to put this beautiful doll on my desk….where everyone can see it all the time. It will remind us all that Pilgrims are still coming to America.   I’d like to meet your Mama, Molly. Please ask her to come to see me one day after school”

We never learn exactly what that visit will entail, but it represents a strong statement about immigration and assimilation. Many immigrant parents live in fear of their children making mistakes or failing to conform in their new environment.  Molly’s mother, instead, is a figure of dignity, whose contribution is acknowledged by her daughter’s teacher. This is a book for young readers  that could not be more relevant today.

A Bear in Love

Bear Meets Bear – written and illustrated by Jacob Grant
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

Bear Meets Bear is a picture book that successfully appeals to both children and adults, without patronizing the kids or relying on double entendres for the grownups.  The central premise of this appealing rom-com about a brown bear and a panda is that people, or in this case animals, may choose awkward ways to connect with one another.  The language is simple, the pictures bright and bold with familiar settings and retro accents.  The plot point involves Bear ordering a redundant number of teapots just to have the joy of seeing the Panda deliver them to his home. If young readers do not bring the same knowledge of human nature to the story as their adult caregivers, as they read, or listen to, the book, it all begins to make sense. 

If you are familiar with Jacob Grant’s two earlier books about Bear, then you know that he has a loyal best friend and roommate, Spider, who helps him to navigate difficult emotions.  (In Mike Curato’s wonderful Elliot books, a smaller animal, Mouse, also helps his large but vulnerable friend.) Bear’s eagerly awaited delivery of a new teapot turns into something more when he finds himself mysteriously attached to Panda, the delivery person who shows up with the item. Love-at-first-sight leaves Bear dumbfounded, “He stood there, nearly the dropping the teapot,” but his savvier friend seems to understand what has happened, “Spider found it all rather funny.”

If Spider’s attitude seems insensitive towards his smitten friend, readers will learn that, by allowing Bear to deal with the problem through trial and error, the nimble arachnid is actually helping.  We see him suspended from his web reading books, playing the banjo, and patiently watching as Bear’s dilemma unfolds.  Children will appreciate Bear’s logic: “One teapot is nice…But wouldn’t two teapots be nicer?” Who could argue with that? 

One of the keys to this child-friendly plot is that Spider both empathizes with Bear and occasionally loses patience.  When he first observes that his friend is “speechless” as Panda arrives with another teapot, he feels sorry for Bear. But when Bear persists in repeating the same ploy of ordering teapots without speaking to his soulmate, Spider “felt less sorry.” Waiting for his friend to change is not going to bear fruit. So, Spider intervenes with some practical advice and encouragement. The picture of a tiny spider gesturing with some of eight limbs while standing on top of carton, as Bear listens timidly, is a reminder to children that being bigger does not guarantee superior wisdom or confidence.

There is a brief glitch when a grumpy raccoon shows up on Panda’s day off, but eventually, with Spider’s intrepid search for answers, everything is resolved happily. The long-sought meeting between Bear and Panda shows them communicating as if they have known each other forever. When their conversation reveals that even couples don’t share all the same tastes, a community yard sale solves the problem. The book’s bit players show up, from the grumpy raccoon to other assorted animals, read to take the teapots off Bear’s paws.  Each customer is an individual, eyeing the teapots carefully, absorbed in their task, while Bear and Panda are a picture of contentment. Spider, sitting on Bear’s shoulder like a cartoon conscience, reminds readers of both the joys and limits of friendship. Ultimately, Bear had to make an effort, too.

Lucky Daughter

Ten Little Dumplings – written by Larissa Fan, illustrated by Cindy Wume
Tundra Books, 2021

There are a seemingly unending number of books teaching children the lesson that girls matter, that their ability to achieve is unlimited, and that gender is no obstacle to fulfilling any dream. This is a good trend!  In many of these books, there is a spunky and inspiring heroine who learns the hard way that compromise is not the road to freedom. If she wants to be a scientist, athlete, or political leader, a talented girl will have to fight.  Larissa Fan and Cindy Wume’s Ten Little Dumplings is different. Inspired by a Chinese folktale and the background of her own family in Taiwan, Fan has created a heroine who is quiet and observant, seemingly willing to conform, but all the time building up her own strength and conviction.  Wume’s brightly colored and subtly expressive drawings in ink, gouache, and colored pencil, picture a world which blends the particular and the universal.  The little girl in this book may begin as the unobtrusive only sister of ten little dumplings, brothers who are the pride of their doting family, but by the end of the book she is an unforgettable woman whose patience and focus have brought her happiness.

The dumplings live in a specific village, Fengfu, yet Wume’s image suggest different backgrounds for the villagers. Some have straight dark hair, others have light brown curls.  Although there is no question about the book’s setting, Wume’s choice lends an air of universality to the story.  The era of the book is also ambiguous. A mouse listens to music on an old-fashioned gramophone at the beginning of book, but by the end the girl, grown to adulthood, seems to live in a contemporary city.  The dumpling-boys themselves are a classic image of confidence, and why should they not be? Their family is celebrated for having produced ten sons. 

Whether eating rice or riding their bicycles in a busy business district, “the boys seemed to take luck with them,” even inspiring a song. They are experts at calligraphy, and gifted athletes. Given the role of expectations in later achievement, it is not surprise that they grow up to be “ten fine men.”

We don’t even meet their sister until halfway into the book.  She has been there all along, an obtrusive presence. But her silence has signaled persistence, not surrender.  Sitting quietly under a tripod as adults ignore her and pass by, she happily draws.  “You may not have seen me,” she tactfully points out, “But I was there, too. You just need to look more closely.”

The advice to look closely may also refer to Wume’s marvelous art, each picture containing many allusive details about both the traditions which form the background of the story, and the girl’s acute sensitivity as she watches, absorbs the world around her, and turns her experiences into art.  When her brothers have fun in a museum by dividing their attention among several objects, and also socializing, the girl and her mother carefully view portraits of women. When she and her brothers listen to a book at night read by their father, she looks over his shoulder at the pictures.

The girl grows up to create both works of art and a joyfully complete life for herself. “And so I made my way in the world,” she remarks, as if she were a modernized version of a classic fairy tale. Sitting comfortably in front of her easel, she proudly displays a woman’s picture with echoes of Matisse, and a bright red rose that can only be an emblem of pride.  She shares parenting of a wonderful daughter, the little girl riding on her father’s shoulders, her outfit’s red circles matching the street’s red lanterns signaling success and happiness. No young reader will fail to understand the grownup girl’s expression of gratitude, “How lucky I am!”  Do not miss this book! If you have never met this girl or anyone like her, then you need to listen once more to her advice: “You just need to look more closely.”

Medals, Spam, and Kale: World War II through a Child’s Eyes

Don’t You Know There’s a War On? – written and illustrated by James Stevenson
Greenwillow Books, 1992

Today is Veterans Day.  In the United States, many children have parents serving in the military, under very different circumstances than in the past.  The nature of war itself has changed, and it has been a long time since Americans had confidence that the sacrifices of those serving, and of their families, had a clear and valuable goal.  The wonderful illustrator, author, and cartoonist James Stevenson (1929-2017) produced a beautiful reflection on the experience of an American child growing up during World War II, struggling to make sense of the constant adult rejoinder to so many legitimate questions posed by kids: Don’t you know there’s a war on? (For my reviews of other books about children on the home front, see here and here.)

Stevenson’s pictures are in delicate pastels; his people have almost featureless faces, emphasizing the universality of their situation.  The book is not uncritically nostalgic about a time when Americans were fighting to destroy fascism.  It begins with a plane hovering overhead and a brown cloud of smoke emerging from a city: “In 1942 there was a war.” We then learn about the details of the war’s impact on the young narrator. Facts are presented in a regular font, while conversations are slanted in the style of cartoon captions.  There is no ambiguity about the detail that “My brother went into the navy.  I stayed home with my father and mother.” These sentences are accompanied by a figure of a sailor, facing straight towards the reader, an almost undefined blue swatch of color as the duffel bag by his side. The young boy is also a simple, lone figure, his red shorts and socks a contrast to the soldiers white and blue uniform. 

Then the confusion begins.  The boy’s requests for a ride to the movies, a Baby Ruth candy bar, and something for dinner besides Spam (inedible meant, not unwanted messages) are all met with the same confusing phrase, which adults have now seemingly adopted to avoid difficult explanations. In these scenes, people’s faces are in profile, hidden behind the side of an armchair or facing away from the child. Then, the child gradually becomes involved in the daily routine of defeating the enemy by participating in communal activities.  There are small, childlike drawings of war stamps and tin cans to be collected.  The child and his mother plant a victory garden, although “Nobody liked kale. It tasted awful.” Stevenson conveys the child’s confused acceptance of the way things are, whether the mysterious system of gas rationing or the fear that their neighbor with the German American name of Schmidt might be a spy.  The narrator is even free to express a normal childhood hope that his elementary school might be the target of feared attacks by the enemy.

There are maps and medals, references to mysterious places like Guadalcanal, and discussions among boys about whether they aspired to pilot a flying fortress. plane or a PT boat. The tone changes when the boy’s father reveals that he is joining the army.  Suddenly, even as he begins to cry, the boy is instructed that his adulthood has begun: “I want you to take care of your mother.” His father pulls away on a train and his home is transformed into a series of absences, every object a painful reminder.  For the first time, he articulates a terrible threatening thought: “If I wished hard enough, he wouldn’t get killed.”

Every image in the book is carefully selected and placed on the page, each one proving how words and pictures used together can express the inexpressible, whether fear, ambivalence, or grief.  There is even the paradoxical acknowledgement that sometimes, even if briefly, words cannot suffice, as when the children’s neighborhood newspaper goes on hiatus: “We stopped putting out The Blackout when Sally Ann Curtis’s brother got killed in Germany. We didn’t know what to say.”

The war ends in victory and the words change. Trains arrive, this bringing back the men who had lived an entirely different reality overseas. This one does not recede into the distance but rushes to meet the family members, their arms raised in greeting towards the returning soldier mirroring their gesture.  The conclusion of the book is definitely reassuring, but readers have learned that war, and service, are not the sum of supportive gestures or minor inconveniences.  Don’t You Know There’s a War On? is a subtle, empathetic, and accessible exploration of a child’s response to war on a distant home front, and its message is still unmistakably relevant today.

This Land is Still Ours

This Land is Your Land – Words and Music by Woody Guthrie, Paintings by Kathy Jakobsen, with a Tribute by Pete Seeger
Little, Brown and Company, 1998, reissued with new design and material, 2020

Kathy Jakobsen is an artist who has captured the beauty of both rural and urban America in several beautiful picture books. Like Walt Whitman, she hears America singing and she captures both the sights and sounds of our country in visual images drawn from both the folk art tradition and her own imagination. In This Land is Your Land she brings to life our unofficial national anthem. As I walked around my neighborhood in New York City yesterday, listening to shouts of joy and banging pots and pans, I thought of her, and Woody Guthrie’s, interpretation of who we are as a people.

There is no wasted space in her pictures. Some two-page spreads use all of their space to showcase images of both suffering and resilience, such as Woody’s “By the relief office I seen my people,” and “Nobody living can ever make me turn back;/This land was made for you and me.” The pictures include specific details which form a kind of conversation with the song lyrics.  A community’s church reaches out with signs about drug rehabilitation programs, life skills classes, and a job center. 

A couple sits on the step of their brick building, doing nothing but watching and resting, while others engage in busy activity, from changing a car’s tire to loading trash into a sanitation truck. Carefully placed signs or words make the scene both unique and generic: Open 24 hours on the church, Baby Bag on a woman’s satchel, as multicultural mix of different religious symbols on the church. 

Other pictures are like annotated manuscripts, a group of central images surrounded by information and additional quotes from Guthrie, and other visual vignettes. (I’m not sure if Jakobsen would today include the Confederate monument on Stone Mountain, Georgia.)  Marjorie Guthrie’s dance class is framed by a performance of the Boston Pops, Pete Seeger singing at the Clearwater Festival, and small adjacent rectangles with the Watts Tower in Los Angeles and an Alaskan totem pole. A three-page foldout of the United States as a richly green map surrounded by blue waters offers a unifying dream.  America is a land of ceaseless human activity, populated by laborers, artists, children, the elderly, black, white, and brown.  The tribute by Woody Guthrie’s colleague and musical heir, the late Pete Seeger (in the 1998 edition), is a moving companion to the text; additional background information and the song’s lyrics, fill in the history behind Guthrie’s unforgettable poem to the American people.  Even if Guthrie’s, and Jakobsen’s, faith in America as a place where we all share a distinctively democratic purpose may seem more aspirational than real, This Land is Your Land is a reminder of its validity.

White House Surprise

Madeline at the White House, by John Bemelmans Marciano
Viking, 2011

Towards the end of his life, Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962), corresponded with his friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, about an addition to his series of books about the little girl who lived in the old house in Paris. This time, she would visit another girl, one living in the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Bemelmans’ grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, fulfilled the idea with his own text and illustrations, giving readers another chance to spend time with one of the most beloved and distinctive girls in children’s literature.  The White House which Madeline visits to spend time with Miss Penelope Randall, aka Candle, is not surrounded by walls which cannot be scaled by protestors or enveloped in an aura of paranoid power.  Instead, it is a child forced to put up with all kinds of restrictions has the opportunity to enjoy herself almost to the point of excess and delirious joy: “Had two girls ever flown so high/Up into the starry sky?”

Candle is lonely; her father is not Theodore Roosevelt or John Kennedy, allowing pony rides or watching his children crawl under his desk.  Instead, she is virtually imprisoned, and has not a single classmate in her home school. (She does, however, have the opportunity to learn about such feminist heroines as Sojourner Truth and Amelia Earhart, another contrast to today’s White House.) When her absent mother sends a postcard promising her a visit from a Parisian friend, things begin to turn around.  Soon Candle is welcoming not one, but twelve, little girls to her home, and enjoying the protective warmth of surrogate mother, Miss Clavel.  

Some of the pictures are full of bright colors, while others repeat the yellow, black, and white of Bemelmans’ original series.  Wearing a red dress, Candle stands happily surrounded by her friends dressed in leaf green. They draw, play with dolls, roller skate, and otherwise expose her to the kind of freedom which she has never experienced.

One of the spectators at the Easter Egg Roll looks to me like Fiorello LaGuardia, but I can’t be sure. No one gets appendicitis, but they girls, and even Miss Clavel, overindulge to the point of illness.  They recover, to dress a rabbit in human clothes and dance to the accompaniment of an old-fashioned record player, which will be a wonderful conversation starter with children unfamiliar with pre-digital music. The visit culminates with some magical realism, as Candle, Madeline, and the rabbit fly over the reflecting pool and the Capitol.

The book and the visit have to end: “To say goodbye is always sad,/But coming home is never bad.” There is a list of the Washington sights included in the story, and the endpapers, rather poignantly, feature the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. As Bemelmans Marciano points out in his background note, his grandfather, a proud veteran of the United States Army, is buried there.  No, he wasn’t a sucker or a loser, but rather a grateful immigrant to America who accepted the idea of service to a larger cause.  Coming home to a White House embodying this idea should not require a magic carpet or even an airplane.