By the Shores of Silver Lake – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (first published 1939)
In the fifth volume of the Little House series, Laura learns more about the potential dangers lurking as she and her family continue their frequent moves in search of a home (see earlier essays here and here and here and here). They have left the relative calm of Plum Creek, moving to the Dakotas. Mary has become blind as a result of scarlet fever. There is a new baby, Grace. Both Mary’s disability and the appearance of a new child are described only in retrospect. The book ends with a murder, forcing the family to hastily leave their temporary home in town and set up house in a small shanty on the homestead that Pa has only recently claimed. Little Grace runs off, causing panic in the family, until Laura finds her in a buffalo wallow, or, as Laura prefers to think of it, a fairy ring. Pa explains to her that the buffalo used to “paw up the ground and wallow in the dust,” before they were exploited to the point of extinction. In fact, earlier in the book, the desolation of the land is compared to the loss of these animals, long an essential part of the Native American economy and culture: “Only a little while before the vast herds of thousands of buffaloes had grazed over this country. They had been the Indians’ cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all.”
Pa isn’t working the land anymore. Instead, he has temporarily taken a clerical job on the expanding western railroad. His duties include keeping records and paying the workers their due. Disputes over pay were common, as the men could hardly afford any delays in their compensation. “As Pa went back to the store, Laura saw the handle of his revolver showing from his hip pocket.” One night, the men pound on the door and threaten Pa, who models self-control and calculation to a terrified Laura, listening from inside. She is desperate to help her father, but her mother forbids her. Ingalls Wilder describes Laura’s anger with a paradoxical phrase: “’Let me go, they’ll hurt Pa!’ Laura screamed in a whisper.”
My Mom is a Foreigner, But Not to Me – Julianne Moore and Meilo So, Chronicle Books, 2013
The title of this book is a little matter-of-fact, a little defiant. Actress Julianne Moore, author of the popular Freckleface Strawberry series, and prolific illustrator Meilo So, have collaborated on an homage to motherhood in all its diversity and all its sameness. The underlying political message of embracing immigrants is implicit; it never interferes with the child’s ambivalent perspective. Her mom can seem “weird,” “not cool,” “crazy,” but Moore and Meilo makes it clear that it is really those who are suspicious of mom’s special attributes who are strange and obtuse. However much an immigrant mother may need help with acculturation, she is an expert at what matters:
“There are SOME things I don’t tell her,
Because she already knows,
Like how she should take care of me,
From my head down to my toes.”
So why even remark on her mother’s difference? In unobtrusive and natural rhymes, and celebratory images, Moore and Lo express empathy for kids whose moms are weird. The food they force on their reluctant offspring can seem “gross,” the endearing nicknames in different languages are unintelligible, and the special festive clothing she treasures is “weird.” None of these observations are disrespectful or cruel. Any frustration children feel is offset by attachment to the wonderful, strong, figures in this book. “She teaches me to read/She sings when I am sad/She listens to my stories/And hugs me when I’m mad.” Each one of those essential jobs are printed in different font, accompanied by moms of different races and ethnicities, some different from their own children.
The pictures are absolutely wonderful. They use bright colors, and combine intricate detail with broad strokes and sometimes exaggerated expressions. They are realistic and, at the same time, idealized portrayals of a mother’s love. One two-page spread shows an elderly grandmother hunched over a cutting board in the kitchen, while a mom in colorful dress and jewelry raises her hands in what might be song. A swirl of green ribbon extruded from a pasta maker extends to float over the mother’s head. Meanwhile, a little girl holds her nose, presumably at the array of cheese in front of her. A beautifully carved cabinet holds candlesticks and a simple bowl of three symmetrically placed pears, and the window overlooks a busy street scene. There is so much going on in each picture, because mothers are incessantly busy performing the world’s most important job.
I was surprised to read a negative evaluation on Kirkus Reviews. I am as skeptical of celebrity-authored children’s books as the next reviewer, maybe more so, but I found their problems with this one to be puzzling. The reviewer calls the text’s rhyme “amateurish,” and complains of the changing typefaces and images of mothers from many different parts of the world in quick succession. That is the point of the book. Publishers Weeklymakes a similar complaint about the book’s poetry, noting that “the meter is inconsistent and many rhymes are slant.” Are we only to allow end rhymes and quatrains, or poems that resemble nursery rhymes, in books for children? I thought the rhymes, the changing font, and, most of all, the beautiful range of mothers, some of whom elude conservative standards of beauty. My Mom is a Foreigner is for every child, since every mom is sometimes “weird, crazy, not cool.” Children and parents will both recognize themselves in this lovely book.
Tilly and Tank reminds me of Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s Ferdinand. The gentle bull who has no interest in fighting, but only wants to sit in a field of flowers, seems to have been a bit of an inspiration to author and illustrator Jay Fleck. Tilly is an innocent elephant who, seeing Tank, believes him to be a fellow member of his own species. After all, “It had a trunk and a tail, just like she did.” Then again, this creature is green, not a typical shade for elephants. The defensive tank is ready to respond to an attack as he pictures Tilly in the crosshairs. Given the soft colors and simple text, you just know this story isn’t going to end in a dreadful battle. Both characters realize their respective mistakes, kind of, and they make friends.
Fleck’s delicate and comforting story manages to avoid overt moralizing about how people can avoid conflict and embrace their common humanity. Instead, Tilly gradually recognizes, although she never articulates her realization, that Tank may not be a member of her tribe, but still be nice. She is bright blue and has feminine eyelashes. We first see her strolling through the forest with two brightly colored birds perched on her back. This is a fable; the setting doesn’t much resemble the habitat of either an elephant or a tank. Fleck’s picture of Tilly and Tank’s first encounter is an ingenious arrangement of four different poses. Tilly examines the vehicle’s weapon and the birds follow her path. On the next page, her tentative greeting of “Hello” is tall font is returned with an act of aggression, a two page explosive “BOOM” on a flaming red background. Even young children listening to the book will wonder if this failure to communicate might be fatal.
While Ferdinand, as you recall, is passive, withdrawing to “sit under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly,” Tilly takes action, taking the risk of bringing flowers to Tank. Tank regrets his error and returns a beautiful bouquet sprouting from him gun, a kind of 1960s poster image of resistance to senseless violence. The “happy sound” emanating from the hearts of both Tilly and Tank is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The last image we seem of them is from the back, Tilly leaning against a former weapon of war as they gaze into the sunset. Where have all the flowers gone? They’re right here, in this lovely book about avoiding dangerous misconceptions and being open to friendship. Tilly and Tank is well worth sharing with young readers.
Perlov died in 2016, although her passing attracted little notice in the press. As the afterward to Rifka Takes a Bow explains, Betty grew up a child of the famed Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, where her parents worked. In this once-thriving world, Jewish immigrants and their children produced and attended every type of play, from comedy to melodrama to Shakespearean tragedies, in their own language. Perlov’s book, with suitably dramatic illustrations by Cosei Kawa, draws young readers back into that world, one which historian and journalist Stefan Kanfer has called Stardust Lost.
I came across a review of Rifka Takes a Bow at Publishers Weekly, which, although largely positive, mentions that the book gives little information about Yiddish theater, focusing instead on the excitement and glamour of theater in general. That may be a fair criticism if the book’s purpose were principally to teach kids about a specific part of Jewish history, which is relegated to a brief afterword. In Perlov’s defense, the book is a warm, dream-like vision of the past, in which Perlov remembers her loving and supportive parents and her brief debut on the stage where they lived out their professional lives. From Rifka’s perspective, Yiddish theater is theater; it would be artificial and misleading for her to step out of the text and describe the background of this normal cultural experience.
Rifka’s childhood is filled with artifice. Her parents are not who she thinks they are, if only temporarily:
“Papa pastes on a brown, curly mustache and picks up a cane.
Mama puts on a white wig. She bends over when she walks.
Suddenly they are an old man and an old lady. I can
hardly recognize them.”
This situation is hardly frightening, or even confusing. Rifka’s parents’ shifting identities are no more nor less magical than her lunch at the Automat, where “There are little boxes in the walls with glass windows that let you see the food.” Eating there is as intriguing as her the actress’ dressing room, full of lights and make-up, even rabbits’ feet to use as powder puffs. When her father takes her on a tour of the prop room under the stage, he becomes a guide to an underworld, dark and a little off-putting. But he reassures her: “I’ll protect you. Come, Rifkeleh. Just look at those treasures.” One is a birthday cake, which seems so real that Papa has to warn her not to eat it, since it is only plaster.
Cosei Kawa’s pictures are fantastic images of a remembered world. There is an obvious allusion to Chagall’s flying people and angled buildings, and maybe Modigliani if his long, thin faces were stretched into expressive ovals. Rifka’s mother and her colleagues show a touch of Arthur Rackham’s Cinderella. Kawa’s pictures affirm that this is a work of fiction, or fictionalized memoir, not an overview of Yiddish Theater. When a bored Rifka stumbles onto the stage during a performance, she seems to be a character in a fairy tale, whose performance is meant as a lesson: “Not to worry. I am going to act on the stage when I grow up.” Perlov actually grew up to be a speech pathologist, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. But all the world’s a stage, Second Avenue or elsewhere.
To the Rescue! Garrett Morgan Underground – Monica Kulling and David Parkins, Tundra Books, 2016
To the Rescue! Is another in the Great Ideas series from Tundra books, in which Monica Kulling and several outstanding illustrators present the life story of someone dedicated to improving the world through the development of new technologies. The series is characterized by the different approaches that Kulling adapts to different subjects; this is not a typical set of interchangeable volumes in which young readers get the mistaken impression that greatness follows a formula. In this life of the gifted and tenacious black inventor Garrett Morgan, Kulling’s challenge is to compress in a picture book for elementary and middle grade readers the sequence of innovations that Garrett produced, along with the historical background that made his success improbable.
Kulling begins, as she does throughout the series, with a poem, three quatrains that set the tone for the story about finding light in oppressive darkness: “Think of the men/lowered on ropes/to underground tunnels/where disaster can strike.” Readers should now be motivated to learn about Morgan’s life-saving inventions. The book begins by establishing that Morgan’s parents had been enslaved, and that “the family still worked the field as hard as ever.” David Parkins’ picture of Morgan and his family hoeing fields has a touch of cinematic melodrama, as Morgan alone is not working the land, but looking into the distance: “One day, Garrett stopped hoeing to stretch. I want more than this, he thought, gazing at the worn-out farm he’d lived on all his life.” This is a picture book, with neither the purpose nor the space to record the long history of slavery in the United States. Instead, readers assimilate key details through the simple text and lush pictures.
Working in a factory in Cleveland, Ohio, Morgan has an inventor’s inspiring moment…
On the Banks of Plum Creek – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1937 edition)
There is an awful lot of controversy and poetry in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (see my previous writing on Wilder here and here and here). There is Manifest Destiny, hateful as well as romanticized views of Native Americans, and historical detail about the life of nineteenth century pioneers in the western United States. There are conflicting views of the appropriate roles and character traits for girls and women. There are alternating views of child rearing. There is incomparable poetic language. On the Banks of Plum Creek features a great deal of hardship, but also a relatively idyllic part of Laura’s childhood, as she is briefly able to attend both school and church and to live in a Minnesota home with relatively comfortable features. By the next book in the series, tragedy has stricken her family, and Pa has, once again, uprooted the family, a decision met by his wife’s unwavering acceptance.
Laura and her older sister Mary walk to school, where they experience both acceptance and derision. Boys call them “snipes,” because they had long outgrown their dresses, making their exposed legs look long and thin, like wading birds’. Many of the girls are kind and friendly, while Nellie Oleson, the daughter of a prosperous shopkeeper, dismisses the Ingalls sisters as “country girls.” Laura’s reaction to Nellie’s appearance can be summarized in one phrase: “…she wore shoes.”
The self-centered Nellie holds a party at her home, one that is filled with what Laura calls “boughten” objects. Laura may as well be entering a foreign country:
“The whole floor was covered with some kind of heavy cloth that felt rough under Laura’s bare feet. It was brown and green, with red and yellow scrolls all over it…The table and chairs were of a yellow wood that shone like glass, and their legs were perfectly round. There were colored pictures on the walls.”
Everything in the Oleson home is oddly contradictory. Brown and green are earth colors, but the floor covering is artificial. The dining set is of wood, but wood so smooth that it seems to be another substance entirely, glass. The human interaction at the party is also compromised, since Nellie has no interest in sharing her toys; she rather wants to exhibit them. When her mother serves cake, Nellie shouts, “I got the biggest piece.”
Laura and the other girls are intrigued by a beautiful Noah’s Ark set, which belongs to Nellie’s brother. It was “…the most wonderful thing that Laura had ever seen.” The girls “…knelt down and squealed and laughed over it. There were zebras and elephants and tigers and horses; all kinds of animals, just as if the picture had come out of the paper- covered Bible at home.” Again, the fact that something man-made could so convincingly bring both nature and the Bible to life is overwhelming to Laura.
Then Laura’s mother decides that the Ingalls family must reciprocate the Oleson’s hospitality, rather than just leaving well enough alone! So, the chapter “Town Party” is followed by “Country Party,” in which nature itself takes its revenge on Nellie, with only a little prompting from Laura. Nellie is disgusted by everything in the Ingalls home: the fried flour “vanity cakes,” the gravel path to the ford where the girls go to play, and Jack, the family dog. Laura slyly leads Nellie towards the old crab who lives in the water, and then warns Nellie to run away from it, straight into the muddy creek filled with “bloodsuckers,” leeches that attach themselves to her skin. Laura herself had accidentally fallen victim to them, but her father had matter-of-factly responded, “Then stay out of the water…If you don’t want trouble, don’t go looking for it.” Nellie has no ability to cope with one small example of the threatening natural environment that has challenged Laura and her family everywhere they lived. Nellie’s “dance,” as “she stood kicking as hard as she could, first one foot and then the other, screaming all the time,” is a source of satisfaction to Laura. She is kinder and more competent than Nellie, who, for all her “boughten” things and indulgent parents, is helpless. That’s what happens to mean girls on the prairie.
Hello Lighthouse – Sophie Blackall, Little, Brown and Company, 2018
I wasn’t sure what I could add to the praise for this outstanding book. Recently, The New York Times ran an article about the retirement of a lighthouse keeper on Long Island. Although the subject of that story never lived in the Montauk Lighthouse with a family, and Sophie Blackall’s fictional lighthouse is home to parents and a child, both the book and the article described a kind of modest conviction about their special homes. Blackall’s book, of course, is different from the article, in that it is crowded with visual beauty, from the beginning endpapers reproducing a journal, to the back ones full of background information and mussel shells on a hook!
The book is engrossing and stunning. Blackall is both author and illustrator. She also credits editor Susan Rich, designers David Caplan and Nicole Brown, production supervisor Erika Schwartz, and production editor Jen Graham. I want to mention them here, since the experience of reading the book owes so much to the orchestration of different talents. Here are just a few of the highlights of the experience that they have created. The lighthouse itself is sometimes engulfed in fog, a pale figure against a light grey background. In other pictures, Blackall pays homage to Japanese artists of the ukiyo-e genre, with massive waves approaching the building.
The cross section of the interior, viewed from outside, reduces the lighthouse to the scale of a dollhouse; the room on each floor becomes narrower, leading to the light at the top. In fact, the scale of the lighthouse constantly alternates from relatively large to miniature. We watch the lighthouse keeper not only controlling the lamp, but writing in his logbook, and even sewing:
“Throughout the night, he winds the clockwork
that keeps the lamp in motion.
During the day, he gives the round rooms a fresh
coat of sea-green paint.
He writes in the logbook and threads his needle
and listens to the gathering wind.”
The poetry of the text is as evocative as the pictures.
This lighthouse is inhabited by people, and they are as important as the geography and technology of the story. When the lighthouse keeper becomes ill, we see his wife care for him by his bedside, and watch her descending the very long spiral staircase to bring him whatever he needs. When she gives birth, her husband supports her through labor, which seeming like it will never end, is illustrated in a circle. She walks in slightly different positions, he boils water on the stove, he holds her to offer comfort. On the next two pages we see her, exhausted and smiling under a colorful quilt. The lighthouse keeper holds the baby on his lap while recording the event in his logbook.
Spic-And-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen – Monica Kulling and David Parkins, Tundra Books, 2014
The Great Ideas series from Tundra Books presents the lives of inventors, some overlooked, and asks readers to think about their persistence, courage, and creativity. Written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by several different gifted artists, they are also notable for their colorful and exciting approach to technology in the eras before STEM was a buzzword. In Spic-And-Spam! Kulling and illustrator David Parkins approach the life of efficiency manager and homemaker Lillian Gilbreth, best known as the heroine of Cheaper by the Dozen. Kulling and Parkins take her aside from the shadow of her husband and chronicle the life she sought and achieved, one “of adventure and challenge.”
Lillian Moller Gilbreth gradually came to defy convention as the circumstances of her life changed. She married Frank Gilbreth in 1904, and they eventually had twelve children. She earned a doctorate in applied psychology, and was a pioneer in the field of industrial engineering, a field that was just emerging at the time. Early on, Lillian and Frank had used principals of time management (learned from Frederick Winslow Taylor, although he is not mentioned in this book) to ensure structure and efficiency in their home. After Frank died in 1924, Lillian actively sought professional opportunities to support her family.
She was employed by Macy’s department store, where she redesigned their cash management system. She worked for the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, and used information from interviews with thousands of women to radically redesign the kitchens where women spent so much of their time. Given that this is a children’s book, some consequences of the Gilbreth’s time management systems are simplified. While Kulling emphasizes the concerns that they had for workers’ safety and comfort, many industrial laborers felts oppressed by what they experienced as a harsh and impersonal approach to production:
“The Gilbreths used a new invention – the motion picture camera – to film a worker on the job. Then they studied the film to see if the worker was making unnecessary movements. They discovered that cutting out wasteful actions was the way to get more done and be less tired.”
This passage omits the perspective of the worker, perhaps reduced from an autonomous human being to a cog in a machine, as Charlie Chaplin famously portrayed him in the movie, Modern Times.
Books discussed: I’m Still Scared – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006 For the Duration – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009
Each volume in Tomie dePaola’s series has a moving dedication to family members, friends, and other significant people in the author’s life. The dedication to I’m Still Scared reads: “For all those who also remember/the terrifying weeks right after, December 7, 1941.” The author emphasizes the gravity of the events he describes by appending President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” speech of December 8, 1941, as well as “A Note from the Author” explaining the intensity of his memories, and noting their relevance to the current state of the world. Tomie is scared by air raid drills, by his uncle’s enlistment in the army, and by the suspicions that some Americans have of those of Italian descent. But he also reassured by parents, grandparents, and other compassionate adults, who try their best to explain the changes in the context of their normal, daily lives: “See, all I have to do is ask my dad or mom or Tom (his grandfather). They always tell me the whole truth! Still, Tomie is “still scared.”
Miss Leah’s dancing school remains a joyful haven for Tomie, and family Christmas celebrations still allow him to pick out presents for everyone. This time he chooses stockings, rather than the traditional Tweed perfume for his mother, since his father points out that nylon will be restricted as it was used to manufacture parachutes. Every historical detail is refracted through the lens of childhood: “Well, even though we were at war, Christmas was great. We had a beautiful tree.” But Tomie is sensitive and aware. When he watches a newsreel of the London blitz for a few minutes, before his mother takes him out to the theater lobby, he understands that this is real, that he had actually seen “…WAR, even though it was only in the movies.”
In For the Duration, Tomie is surprised by the way in which grief can gain control at unexpected moments. He is excited to participate in his school’s Memorial Day assembly, which this year includes a medley of armed services songs. By the time the children begin to rehearse the Army Air Corps’ “Off we go into the wild blue yonder,” Tomie becomes overwhelmed by its association with his beloved cousin Blackie’s death. Tomie’s teachers and the school nurse allow him to talk about his feelings and to leave school early. He is escorted home by his brother Buddy, who has been one of the few unsympathetic characters in the series. He taunts Tomie for crying. Their mother’s attempt to instill empathy in Buddy by reminding him of how much Tomie had loved their cousin only provokes more selfishness: “He always does stuff so everyone pays attention to him…It embarrasses me! He’s a big sissy. Everyone thinks so.”
Tomie’s differences from some of the other boys are noted throughout the series, but almost always in a positive way. He is musically talented, intelligent, artistic, and literate. The character of Buddy is a reminder that childhood has not always been easy for children who do not conform to gender stereotypes. In one of the most painful episodes from all the books, a group of boys harasses and bullies Tomie for carrying his tap shoes to school. When he begs his older brother for help, “Buddy turned his back as if nothing was going on.” He also steals and defaces Tomie’s diary, the emblem of his future authorhood, and threatens to hurt him if he reveals the truth to their parents. This was one point in the series when I felt that Tomie’s parents revealed some weakness. How could his mother, who knew how concerned Tomie was about the missing diary, not have suspected that her older son had taken it? There are no recriminations. But Tomie’s rationalization has a tinge of bitterness: “Why is my brother so mean? I wondered. I guess it’s just like a war. I guess I’ll have to put up with him for the duration.”
These eight books are all we have so far in this odyssey of Tomie dePaola’s young life. We know that he grew up to be a brilliant artist and author. We know that he had some adversity but lots of support. We want to know more!
Books discussed: Things Will Never Be the Same – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2003 Why? – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2007
The cover to each of these volumes in Tomie dePaola’s autobiographical series (see here and here) features a picture of young Tomie looking out a window. For Things Will Never Be the Same, he leans on the windowsill with his hands on his cheeks. On the cover of Why? Tomie rests on his crossed arms in the same window, but a picture of his cousin Blackie in uniform, the frame covered with a red, white, and blue ribbon, looks out from the background. Blackie is smiling, but it is clear from the both the title and the previous book that Tomie is frustrated and uncomprehending. Why do bad things happen? The author doesn’t attempt to offer children any definitive answers, only to share his own experiences and to reassure them that feeling anger and grief are a part of children’s lives.
The year 1941 starts out for Tomie on a promising note. The new sled he got for Christmas prompts his mother to tell some stories about her own childhood, and Tomie is always an avid listener and imaginative participant in tales of the past, whether true or fictional. He becomes involved in collecting money for the March of Dimes, the personal cause of his revered president, Franklin Roosevelt. Tomie understands that FDR has personally confronted polio, the dreaded disease which parents and children feared. Readers will learn that, in this era, it was considered appropriate and even compassionate to Tomie’s favorite radio program to broadcast “The Little Lame Prince in honor of the president’s birthday.” As always, the historical details in the series are presented from the perspective of the time; they offer a great opportunity for discussion with kids.
Several of the episodes in this series are ones which dePaola also covers in picture books, including The Art Lesson, where Tomie famously benefits by compromise when the art teacher is more flexible than Tomie’s classroom teacher, allowing him to use his box of sixty-four Crayola crayons and to draw an additional picture after completing the rote assignment. So we get to meet the understanding Mrs. Bowers, with her funky jewelry and exotic combs. Tomie narrates significant events in his special diary, the one with the lock and key. But by the end of the year and the end of the book, things will never be the same. When the adults hear the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor over the radio, Tomie and his friends are confused and panicked. How did this event insert itself into their lives, right in the middle of reading the funnies and listening to the “Horn & Hardardt (sic) Children’s Hour?” Tomie takes time out to explain to readers that “Horn & Hardardt’s was a chain of restaurants called AUTOMATS…You put a dime in a slot and the little glass door opened. You took out whatever food you had picked. It sounded neat.” To children, this detail is essential to the chain of events.