Grief and Anger After Pittsburgh

 

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I am writing today, in the aftermath of the slaughter in Pittsburgh, to recommend a few articles..with a focus on children’s literature…about the terrifying rise of anti-Semitism in our country and the world, and also about the need to remain unified in the face of overwhelming threats to human life and to freedom.

1) HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, teaches children about refugees.

2) There have been several good articles about HIAS and its role in the lives of Jewish, and other, immigrants.

3) The New York Times is running a series of obituaries of previously overlooked women.  Rose Zar, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2001, co-authored a memoir for adults and young adults with well-known children’s author Eric Kimmel.

4) The Atlantic Monthly has a thoughtful and courageous piece about how and why a reassuring statement by the late Mr. Rogers..a genius in communicating with children… has been misapplied to the adult world.

5) The Forward has several short profiles of those killed in the synagogue, commemorating their lives and ensuring that they are not remembered only as statistics.

 

 

Corduroy is Back!

Corduroy Takes a Bow – Viola Davis and Jody Wheeler, based on characters created by Don Freeman,      Viking, Penguin Random House, 2018

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In his fifty years, Corduroy the Bear has had a couple of close calls. Nearly ignored in a toy store, left behind in a laundromat, he has always been reunited with his friend, Lisa, reassuring children that people will look out for them and reward them with the affection they need and deserve.  In actress and author Viola Davis’ new book, Corduroy goes to the theater, where he is accidentally transformed from a spectator to an actor. He is acclaimed in his new, if brief, career, but is happiest returning home to Lisa’s apartment and her homemade doll stage, where two carefully aimed flashlights illuminate her original play.

Don Freeman, the original creator of Corduroy, will be the subject of an upcoming show at the Museum of the City of New York, (link below). Viewers will be fascinated to learn about the multifaceted artist’s work, including his brilliant depictions of the New York City theater and jazz worlds, as well as everyday street scenes of the adopted home.  Freeman was immersed not only in the world of teddy bears, but of guys and dolls as well…. Continue reading “Corduroy is Back!”

A Long and Winding Road

The Ghost Road – Charis Cotter, Tundra Books, 2018

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What is a curse?  Who is your real family?  Does the place you were born determine who you are? These are some of the questions brought to light in Charis Cotter’s The Ghost Road, a young adult novel for readers who don’t necessarily like ghost stories. Set in the Newfoundland of the 1970s, and rich with the particulars of that place, The Ghost Road follows the long and winding journey of cousins Ruth and Ruby as they try to unravel the real nature of the “curse” which plagues their family and their community.  There are sets of twins with Shakespearean qualities, and historical elements which ground this tale and make it sophisticated and engaging on different levels.  There are also two young girls who are mixed-up about who are the most important and trustworthy people in their lives.  So whether you are just looking for a chilling tale of adventure or more interested in identifying with appealing and serious characters, The Ghost Road will not disappoint.

The novel impressively combines dramatic tension with philosophical exploration.  Ruth and Ruby are intelligent and literate. They are aware of history, both of their own families and of Newfoundland, but they are motivated to learn more and to ultimately discover if the curse on their clans is a figment of everyone’s imagination and a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I found myself anxious about the outcome of their quest, as if could somehow influence its conclusion.  The author meets the challenge she has set herself in weaving this unusual story, which, without revealing any spoilers, doesn’t end as a shout-out to fans of the paranormal.  Instead, young adult, and older adult, readers will find much common ground and room for empathy as Ruth and Ruby seek to stop history and turn it around going forward.

The book is beautifully designed, with a spectral figure on the cover, and white lettering against the background of Newfoundland foliage.  There is a family tree, as well as ongoing attempts by the main characters to, literally, sketch their own as they attack the mystery in real time.  Chapter titles are short and enigmatic: “The Shipwreck,” “The Candle,” The Root Cellar,” and the author doesn’t waste words or leave loose ends as her characters painstakingly untangle their personal mystery. Just when it seems that a character is predictably two-dimensional, more a symbol than a person, changes happen and surprises ensue.

“My heart nearly stopped…So maybe this is it, I thought.  This is how the curse ends.” Not only is it unclear initially how the curse will end, but Charis leaves the reader with unanswered questions about what will come next for Ruth and Ruby.  The Ghost Road is a human story where people live in both the present and the past, trying to change their future.

 

When You Wish Upon a Daruma Doll

Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo KeeperDebbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

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In the most recent release in the Jasmine Toguchi saga, Jasmine’s dilemma involves wanting a pet, which is typical. The pet is a flamingo, which is not typical.  One of the most attractive qualities of the series and its heroine are the familiarity of the little girl’s challenges and the distinctly individual feeling of her responses to them. Along the way towards understanding herself and her family, Jasmine introduces Japanese customs to young readers in a natural and delightful way.  In Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen we rooted for Jasmine’s persistence in assuming a new role for girls within the Japanese New Year’s custom of preparing special rice treats. In Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper, Florence embeds the traditional practice of using daruma dolls to make and fulfill wishes within the recognizable story of a child who longs for an unrealistic outcome. (The book includes instructions for a daruma doll craft project.)  I really didn’t know how this one would turn out! A flamingo seemed an unlikely pet, but then again, so did the idea of a tough little girl pounding rice into mochi flour in defiance of male authority.

Jasmine’s beloved Obaachan (grandmother) sends both Jasmine and her older sister, Sophie, paper daruma dolls. Their parents explain that they will need to fill in one eye on the traditional doll as they make a wish, and wait to complete the other eye until the wish is fulfilled.  No problem! Now Jasmine will get the pet flamingo she has always wanted.  (Jasmine’s mom, an editor, tells her that she had used the doll to wish for a dictionary when she was a child. I love her!) Later, in a video chat, Obaachan explains to the girls that they will need to make their wishes come true: “Nothing come free. You work hard. You make goal.” Well, that’s a little deflating, but Jasmine learns a powerful lesson, with the help of her parents, and even her sometimes mean but often loving older sister.

Vuković’s pictures are expressive and kid-friendly portraits of situations and emotions, but also draw on traditional Asian brushstrokes.  The book is beautifully designed, with Jasmine on the cover, arms crossed in triumph, with her fantasy-flamingo, complete with collar and leash.  The picture of the video chat with their grandmother centers on the older woman’s kindly face on their computer, and the back of Sophie and Jasmine’s heads, as we imagine the skeptical but respectful expressions as they listen to Obaachan’s instructions.

There are many middle grade novels, fortunately, about strong little girls making their mark in the world; it isn’t easy to create a heroine who stands out for her fortitude and imagination, as well as her ability to navigate two cultures.  Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković have succeeded. I look forward to more of Jasmine’s realistic conflicts and touchingly imperfect resolutions.

 

Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air, Goodnight Anne Readers, Everywhere

Goodnight, Anne – Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2018

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The cover of Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout’s new introduction to Anne of Green Gables for the youngest readers seems a beautiful and lulling invitation to sleep. If you are too young to have even heard of Anne Shirley, the little girl asleep on a tree limb, wrapped in a floral fringed blanket, is calm and soothing. Her red braids are as still as the rest of her. Her eyes are closed and smile is evidence of a lovely dream.  Actually, children are about to meet Anne Shirley, the irrepressible heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.  When awake, she is a dynamic and exciting dreamer, even in her waking dreams.  Young readers could not have a better introduction to Anne.

 Goodnight, Anne is appealing to adults, as well, but is not the kind of almost-parody of, for example, the BabyLit series, whose charming pictures are appealing to toddlers while reminding grown-ups of books which they may not have read in a while. George and Godbout have created an absolutely sincere and unaffected homage to Anne, with simple text that suggest the spirit of the original without attempting to summarize.  In fact, the book begins with a short conversation between Anne and her guardian, Marilla, without any explanation of who these characters are.

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On the following two pages, we meet Marilla’s kind and generous brother, Matthew: “Goodnight, Matthew, shy and sweet./Thank you so much for the dress/with real puffed sleeves.” This immersion in Anne’s life without formal introductions is an unusual approach to reframing a classic. It works. A child enjoying the book with an adult can ask questions; they usually do! However, since Godbout’s pictures eloquently express the love and care of the adults in Anne’s life, children may simply understand without words the role that these people play.

Goodnight, Anne is the second book by Kallie George to extend L.M. Montgomery’s audience.  Anne Arrives, reached middle grade readers.  George shows the same fidelity to the spirit of the original Anne series in this picture book, an even more challenging task.  Readers of Anne of Green Gables know that Marilla, although ultimately revealed to be a deeply caring maternal figure, is initially strict, even harsh. Here is George’s brief and poetic admission of this fact:

“Yes, Marilla, sensible and strict.
Sometimes, oh, how much you miss!
But goodnight, Marilla.
I love you so.” Continue reading “Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air, Goodnight Anne Readers, Everywhere”

Anne of Green Gables: The Backstory

Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery – Melanie J. Fishbane, Penguin Random House, 2017

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Readers of Anne of Green Gables may know that some of events in the novel and its sequels are rooted in the life of author L.M. Montgomery, although the story of Prince Edward Island orphan Anne Shirley is far from a literal recounting of her author’s experiences.  Melanie Fishbane’s young adult novel about Montgomery’s life carefully recounts with quiet drama the struggles and ambitions of a young woman going against the grain of her provincial community in the late nineteenth century, when religious and social standards could easily have silenced her voice.  Will her story resonate with readers today, as it requires understanding of an era when the role of women was so radically restricted? Because of the patient and detailed account of Montgomery’s life that Fishbane offers, the novel becomes more and more gripping as it progresses, allowing readers to identify with Maud’s painful setbacks, and hoping her persistence will be rewarded.

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I’ll begin with the end of the book, an unusually thoughtful afterward explaining how and why Fishbane wrote Maud as a work of historical fiction.  I don’t take for granted that young adult readers, or older adult readers, necessarily understand the differences between a biography and a well-documented novel based on a person’s life.  Fishbane discusses her research, as well as some of her artistic choices, which involved altering or elaborating upon facts.  (These include the passages and characters drawn from the cultures of native peoples in Canadian history.) In “What Happened to Maud’s Friends,” she both satisfies the reader’s curiosity about people in the book, while making clear that some characters were composites of different people.  There is also a list of resources for learning more about Montgomery’s life and work.

Please share this book with the young adults whom you know.  Even if they are more accustomed to reading about the conflicts and traumas of teenagers today, or enjoy dystopian fantasy novels, they will also become invested in Maud’s life.  Here is a world where Baptists and Presbyterians cannot marry one another, and where girls who are suspected of holding a boy’s hand or writing him letters may be subjected to cruelty and emotional abuse.  It’s a also a world where talented and imaginative young women found the occasional mentor, where reading could liberate oppressed teens, at least to some degree, and where friendship between girls could form the basis of a secure emotional life in a chaotic universe.  This is a book for any Anne reader, or for any reader who has yet to meet this young feminist heroine who learns to stand up for herself.  Readers of Anne of Green Gables may remember the scene when Anne has to cope with a broken ankle, as well as with the rather harsh reminder from her guardian Marilla that the injury was “her own fault.”  “Isn’t it fortunate I’ve got such an imagination,” Anne reasons, “What do people who haven’t any imagination do when they break their bones…?” Fishbane’s Maud engages readers in the backstory to that question.

    

Beth and Joe Krush Build a Sukkah

All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown – Sydney Taylor and Beth and Joe Krush, Follett, 1972

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To appropriate Tolstoy’s famous quote, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” each book in the All-of-a-Kind Family series, featuring a happy family, is illustrated in its own way, because each has its own illustrator. (Well, not quite. Mary Stevens illustrated both More All-of-a-Kind Family and All-of-Kind Family Uptown.) The five Jewish sisters and their little brother of All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown have the good fortune to be brought to life by the Krushes.  This is a family of full-scale humans, not the miniature universe of The Borrowers, (regular readers of this blog know that I often blog about the Krushes, as here and here and here; I have also written about them for The Horn Book) , but they do for a short time live in a miniature house, the temporary dwelling built for the Jewish festival of Sukkot (Sukkos in older Eastern European pronunciation).

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The sukkah built by the Krushes is partially covered by greens so the sky is visible. It has three freestanding wooden sides, but is built against the brick wall of a building so that one wall is solid. The residents of this little house, meant to represent the fragility of Jewish life, vary in size, from the bigger than a Borrower, but still quite small Gertie, the youngest sister, to Guido, a non-Jewish friend from the Settlement House, a community center for improving immigrant life.  The Krushes’ drawings are black and white; Guido’s dark and tightly curled hair contrasts with the girls’ waves and braids. Shaded areas and repeated lines add detail without color: the creases in the children’s coats, the fringes on a scarf. The scalloped leather on high-button boots. The tallest person in the picture is not inside the sukkah, but looking in tentatively. Miss Carey, the social worker, is amazed at this oddly playful Jewish custom:  “‘It’s a child’s perfect little dream house!’ she exclaimed.”

The chapter then goes on to describe the family’s celebration of Simchas Torah (Joy in the Torah), the festival which comes at the end of Sukkot and marks both the end and a new beginning of the yearly cycle of readings from the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  Synagogue services culminate in worshippers parading through the aisles and the neighboring streets with the Torah scrolls.  The Krushes depict a scene quite typical of early twentieth century Jewish immigrants, when it was accepted that women, although not permitted to carry the Torah, were allowed to touch and kiss it with reverence.  (Increasing restrictions on gender roles in a more stratified world of traditional Judaism has made this less common today.) Taylor, herself religiously and politically progressive, specifies that “The curtain separating men and women was thrust aside, and so contagious was the revelry, many of the younger women joined the dancers.” So here we have the non-Jewish Krushes’ ecstatic portrait of Jewish love for the book which gives structure their lives.  Bearded men in black coats and hats embrace one another and the sacred scroll. So do young women, and Father is dancing with one daughter on his back, another grabbing the edge of his coat. The Krushes have always been wonderful portrayers of old age; we see the lined faces of older women as they clap along with gnarled hands.

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Another note about gender roles.  Today’s sukkah sometimes has elaborate store-bought decorations, in addition to the traditional fruits and vegetables and pictures hung on the walls. Children still make paper chains.  Guido is annoyed at being asked to participate in this activity, claiming that is “silly,” and “for sissies!” Yet the Krushes’ picture of him shows him smiling broadly and looking comfortable at being the only male in the room, enjoying himself with his affectionate and kind female friends.  If only he had also attended the Simchas Torah service with them, the one where “Papa cried gaily. ‘It’s God’s party and everyone is invited.’”

When Anne Arrives, Make Sure You’re There

Anne Arrives (Inspired by Anne of Green Gables) – Kallie George and Abigail Halpin, Tundra Books, 2018

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How old must a child be to meet Anne of Green Gables?  This is the Year at Anne at Canada’s Tundra Books, but they have been introducing Anne for a long time.  In 2014 there were beautiful hardcover editions of L.M. Montgomery’s books with elegant lettering, floral endpapers, and ribbon markers.  That same year Tundra released a paperback edition with original cover art by Elly MacKay, the author and illustrator of many acclaimed picture books. Earlier this year, Tundra gave us Kelly Hill’s board books with illustrations created in fabric and embroidery. Next week I will write about the new picture book Goodnight, Anne, also by Kallie George, and illustrator Geneviève Godbout.

Now we have the first volume of Anne’s saga for middle grade readers old enough to follow the plot and develop an enduring attachment to Montgomery’s characters.  Anne Arrives begins with the red-haired orphan’s surprising appearance at siblings Matthew and Marilla’s farm, and concludes as she resolves her conflict with intrusive neighbor Rachel Lynde, a woman who had mocked Anne’s appearance, and well-deserved our heroine’s  courageous expression of anger: “How dare you. You are a rude, unfeeling woman!” No wonder we love her.

Kallie George and Abigail Halpin’s new book is a distinguished collaboration, where words and pictures, as well as careful design by Jennifer Griffiths, work together to draw readers into Anne’s world.  The text is limited in length, but George’s language is relatively sophisticated. She accomplishes the difficult task of capturing Montgomery’s literary style by interweaving selections from the original novel into clear and accessible sentences.  Here is George’s version of Anne’s sincere if dramatic apology to Rachel Lynde:

“When they arrived, Anne threw herself down on her knees.  ‘Oh, dear Mrs. Lynde, I could never express how sorry I am. Not even if I used a whole dictionary.  Mrs. Lynde, please, please, please, forgive me.  If you refuse, it will be another one of my lifelong sorrows.”

Here is L.M. Montgomery’s abridged recital of Anne’s remorse:

“’Oh, Mrs. Lynde, I am so extremely sorry,…I could never express all my sorrow, not if I used up a whole dictionary…I’m a dreadfully wicked and ungrateful girl, and I deserve to be punished and cast out by respectable people forever…If you refuse it will be a lifelong sorrow to me.  You wouldn’t like to inflict a lifelong sorrow on a poor little orphan girl, even if she had a dreadful temper?”

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Halpin’s pictures in colored pencil and watercolor are completely new interpretations of Anne’s world. Each one stands alone as a dramatic moment in Anne’s story, while in sequence they build together, along with the text, to ensure the reader’s involvement. Some pictures accompany a facing page of text; others are two-page spreads.  Some are partial portraits placed against a white background, while others the pages with color.  Earth and jewel tones predominate, with dark green fields, deep-red roses, and an occasional white dress or apron. Young readers may not stop to think about their immersion in this gorgeous palette, but adults will.  Facial features have a deceptive simplicity, but their broad smiles or despairing frowns will help kids to empathize with Anne and the other characters.  In one two page spread, an angry Anne has been sent to her room. She sits propped against pillows, on a bed so high that she might be an unlucky princess in a fairy-tale. Each surrounding object is as solitary as she is at this moment: a pair of boots on the floor, a single chair in the corner, her hat stuck on a bed post. How many ways can you illustrate loneliness?

Anne Arrives is an outstanding addition to Anne of Green Gables literature, for anyone old enough to turn pages. Make sure to be there when Anne arrives.

 

 

 

Grandpa Knows Best

The Magician’s Secret – Zachary Hyman and Joe Bluhm, Tundra Books, 2018

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Who is going to teach you about the value of imagination if not your grandparents? Then again, who is going to obsessively protect your physical and emotional well-being? The same people!  The grandfather in Zachary Hyman and Joe Bluhm’s The Magician’s Secret shares a secret world with his grandson, Charlie, one where an hourglass is filled with sand from King Tut’s tomb and an old scarf flew around the neck of the Red Baron. Charlie’s father dismisses Grandpa’s thrilling accounts as “just tall tales…He just imagines all those things.” Whom should Charlie believe?

Hyman is best known as a star player for the Toronto Maples Leafs, but he has also authored several children’s books that emphasize the role of parents and grandparents in encouraging kids to have dreams.  Illustrator Joe Bluhm, co-illustrator with William Joyce of the acclaimed The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, again brings his animation-influenced style to the essential role of imagination in enriching children’s lives.  The distinctive edge to The Magician’s Secret is its admission that fantasy and lies are related and that children, and adults, may struggle with the tension between simply telling the truth and embroidering it with unbelievable but hopeful details.

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On the book’s opening page Charlie’s mother and father cheerfully say goodbye as they go out for the evening, no doubt for some mundane event such as dinner in a restaurant.  Charlie is staying with Grandpa, requiring the mother’s request in a resigned tone, “Dad, please make sure he get to bed early this time…No more hocus-pocus!” The action ensures in sepia-toned pictures and darker brown backgrounds, punctuated by occasional bright colors, emphasizing the exciting and old-fashioned nature of Grandpa’s improbable escapades.  Depending on the age of the reader, as well as her predisposition towards fantasy or plan facts, she may follow along with tomb raiders, flying aces, and marauding dinosaurs, or stop to ask herself if this as not too good to be true. Charlie wants to believe; the sadness provoked by his own doubts is made clear in text and pictures.  Continue reading “Grandpa Knows Best”

Girl Makes Monster

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein – Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà, Tundra Books, 2018

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It was a dark and stormy night when eighteen- year old Mary Shelley conceived the idea for a ghost story about a tragic being, assembled from body parts.  Dr. Frankenstein’s monster became a literary sensation, and a still relevant commentary on what can happen when technology outpaces morality. In this bicentennial year of her novel’s publication, Tundra books has released Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà’s engaging and accessible picture book introduction to Shelley’s genius. Bailey’s text manages to place Shelley in the context of her own time, as well as of feminist empowerment of girls who go against the grain.  Sardà’s rich and mysterious pictures are the perfect vehicle for drawing young readers into Shelley’s world.

Bailey’s tone is conversational, as if she were sitting down with a child and explaining to her how tough it was to be Mary Shelley, and how the author inherited a bold skepticism from both her parents. Unfortunately, her mother, the pioneering advocate for women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after Mary was born.  Her father, radical philosopher William Godwin, was less than enlightened when it came to supporting his daughter’s independence.  Bailey builds her narrative about the importance of freedom for women without moralizing.  “By the time she’s fourteen, she has become a Big Problem.” What independent girl can’t relate to that, even if she didn’t grow up, as Mary did, listening to Coleridge recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in her living room?

Mary Shelley’s participation in a ghost story writing competition with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, is the stuff of legend.  Bailey turns it into one about female persistence. As Shelley and Byron nag her to reveal her idea, they lose interest: “Shelley and Byron get bored. They stop writing stories. They start to plan a sailing tour around the lake instead.” Mary, on the other hand, has been listening more than talking. She decides to incorporate what she has heard about new scientific discoveries to integrate the experiments of the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani into her terrifying tale.  An excellent “Author’s Note” provides more information about the background and genesis of Shelley’s novel.

Julia Sardà’s illustrations are as lugubrious as Frankenstein itself, but also witty and allusive.  The major characters first appear, labelled, on a two-page spread.

Continue reading “Girl Makes Monster”