Seven Little Postmen – by Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, Random House Golden Book, 1952, (reprinted 1980)
Golden Books are always relevant and so is the United States Postal Service, pioneered by Benjamin Franklin and later established in our beloved and embattled Constitution. One of the loveliest children’s books about this deeply democratic American institution is a poetic story authored by children’s literature icons Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd, with pictures by Golden Book great Tibor Gergely. The technology of mail delivery depicted in the book may be strictly mid-twentieth century, but the image of the postal system as a reliable link among Americans, staffed by dedicated workers, is more important than ever.
The simple, partly rhyming, text tells the story of a little boy mailing a letter to his grandmother. He lives in a city, but she lives in the type of rural area for which the postal service was a crucial lifeline, using Rural Free Delivery to bring residents many daily needs. The boy wears shorts and knee socks so his attire, along with the wonderfully retro vehicles in the pictures, might require some explanation for children today. In the first picture he is carefully composing his letter, surrounded by kittens who will be key plot point in the book. The words are musical, terse, and sometimes humorous: “The first little postman/Took it from his box,/Put it in his bag,/And walked seventeen blocks/To a big Post Office/All built of rocks.”
Then the fun begins, as we watch the letter work its way through sorting machines (remember those?), hand sorting, and trips on prop planes and coal-spewing trains. One magnificent two-page spread shows a train at night, one half holding sleeping passengers, the other half a busy hive of postal activity: “The train carries the letter/Through gloom of night/In a mail car filled with electric light.” Then we are out in the country where a post office might be size of a New York City apartment closet and where a jalopy rolls along delivering not only chickens, but other less obvious items, including “a wig for an actor.” (Small town theater; great!)
Grandma is an adorable old lady with white hair in a bun and glasses, seated in a wicker chair while knitting. She may not be instantly recognizable to young readers as a typical grandmother today, but they won’t miss the idea of her excitement at receiving a letter from a grandson, with the promise of his imminent visit and a gift to stave off loneliness. A condensed version of the story in the form of a poem appears at the end of the book. Today, many of the postal workers would be women and people of color. Lots of them would be veterans, but we can imagine that, in 1952, some of them were. America still depends on our postal service, and immigrant Tibor Gergely’s classic illustrations are a glorious blend of European traditions of drawing and affection for his adopted country. If you don’t own this Golden Book, now might be a good time to send for it and share it with a child.
You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! – by Shana Corey, illustrated by Chesley McLaren, Scholastic Press, 2000
The right to dress as we choose may seem to pale in comparison to exercising the right to vote, but I wanted to write a short post about a bold pioneer, Amelia Bloomer. While her super-wide leg garment seems almost comical today, she fought for the vote, but also for women to have clothing that allowed for comfort and freedom and movement. She risked ridicule and stood up to bullies who wanted to continue the confinement of women in ridiculous and painfully restrictive clothing. Shana Corey’s melodic text and Chesley McLaren’s gorgeously colored pictures bring Amelia to Bloomer into the world of young readers, or to anyone who loves a beautiful picture book with a powerful message: “Amelia Bloomer was NOT a proper lady,” and you don’t need to be one, either.
Amelia Bloomer was a suffragist. She was an activist, shown in her bright blue dress and she demonstrated for long-denied suffrage. A two-page spread with pictures that convey her graceful and purposive movement shows Bloomer starting her own newspaper, hiring women, and focusing on their stories. McLaren holds up to amused readers the ludicrous dresses which women were forced to wear, at least women whose social class spared them from grueling, unsafe, or tedious labor. Some of their skirts were literal cages, others so tight they were suffocating. The book’s design combines expressive script with curving letters and lively scenes of determined women. When Amelia invents the prototype for women’s trousers, she pronounces her own work “Brilliant!”
Some of her fellow citizens “were aghast,” and one little boy, maybe just a surprised kid but possible a future mansplainer, cleverly calls out “You forgot your skirt, Amelia Bloomer!” But when women see how Bloomer is now free to run, jump, and generally control her own body, many are thrilled. One lovely picture shows Bloomer covered with fan mail, wanting information about how to design or where to buy the new women’s wear. A bunch of men used colorful phrases like “Balderdash” to diminish Bloomer’s genius, while one particularly prescient one figures out the truth: “This can only lead to more rights for women.”
The book ends with scenes of both men and women wearing fun and flexible clothing: French sailor tops, flared pants, red ballet flats. An informative “Author’s Note” explains how Bloomer became an activist, why practical clothing for women was an important part of the movement for women’s rights, and why courage and persistence are so important in achieving a goal. We may have bigger struggles ahead of us today, including protecting the right to vote for everyone, but Bloomer’s creativity, strength, and defiance are a story which girls, and boys, need today.
The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh – by Candace Fleming, Schwartz & Wade, 2020
The purpose of this post is to raise some questions about the legacy of historical figures. When I first heard about Candace Fleming’s young adult biography of aviator and Nazi enthusiast Charles Lindbergh, I was struck by the high degree of gentleness and ambiguity in which her subject was framed in publicity about the book. Now that I have read the biography, I can recommend it as a very good corrective to the mythologies surrounding a man still considered a hero by many Americans. Still, I remain confused and troubled by the marketing of this book as the biography of an ambiguous figure, one with a mixed legacy to history. Fleming has referred to Lindbergh as a “controversial figure.” Why is Lindbergh granted this special status even as Americans are actively involved, and rightly so, in questioning our country’s previous adulation of racists, misogynists, and xenophobes? Why is Lindbergh granted this special status even as Americans are actively involved, and rightly so, in questioning our country’s previous adulation of racists, misogynists, and xenophobes?
In an interview on Publishers Weekly, Fleming confesses that she “couldn’t quite get a handle on” Lindbergh, the American most associated with America First, the isolationist movement which advocated against aiding the British in their fight against Hitler. Evaluating the life of the man who accepted a medal from Goering, who planned to move with his family to Nazi Germany before events made that impossible, and who threatened America’s Jews with dangerous consequences if they persisted in advocating for a war against Hitler, she allowed herself to ask “if he was even a hero at all.” She compares him to Benjamin Franklin, apparently because early in Franklin’s career he did own two enslaved people, whom he later emancipated, eventually condemning slavery and founding one of the earliest abolition societies in the colonies. (Elsewhere she has also compared Lindbergh to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dr. Seuss.) I asked myself: imagine a biography of Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest asking readers to weigh their heroic reputations against the evil which they perpetrated, wondering if they were heroes, and speaking about their words, as Fleming does about those of Lindbergh and his wife “in all their beauty…and their occasional ugliness.”
Fleming’s book confirms that Lindbergh’s words, and his life, were not simply tainted by “occasional ugliness.” They are defined by ugliness. The paradox of Fleming’s response to her subject is that her book is full of reliable historical information, dramatically presented. There are a few errors: The Immigration Act of 1924 did not directly exclude Jews; its radical reduction of immigration from Eastern Europe effectively excluded them almost completely. In spite of some minor issues, Fleming confronts directly the undeniable facts about Lindbergh. He hated Jews. He was a white supremacist. His actions were repeatedly cruel to everyone from family members to the most vulnerable populations in America and throughout the world. He was obsessed with his own alleged genetic superiority, a deluded belief which perhaps contributed to the three secret families he produced in addition to the one with his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It’s all there in Fleming’s book, educating readers who may have accepted the long- refuted notion that “Lucky Lindy” was a fearless aviator whose personality captured the best of the American spirit.
Someone had to be married to this abusive man, and that person was wealthy socialite Anne Morrow. She has always benefited from the idea, perhaps because she was herself the author of several acclaimed books, that her association with her husband was governed by the oppressive sexist norm requiring women to support their husbands’ beliefs and actions. In fact, Fleming completely buys into this notion, stating in the interview that Morrow Lindbergh is “…extraordinary and…shows real capacity for change…I like her, can you tell?” Actually, I don’t like her. I don’t like the fact that she saw her husband as a victim of what today might be called “fake news,” (“He is a ‘Nazi.’…He will be punished…I feel angry and bitter…Charles is criminally misunderstood…”). I don’t like that she wrote a book in which she called Hitler “a very great man…an inspired …leader…not greedy for power.” I don’t like that fact that when she and her husband visited Germany after the passage of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, she remarked that “the shops are luxurious,” and that the numerous homes available for sale would be wonderful places to raise her family. Only when their Nazi hosts made particularly execrable comments about Jews did Anne become uncomfortable and “depressed,” as these compromised her strategy of avoidance.
When evidence of the Holocaust finally became impossible for even Charles Lindbergh to avoid, he suggested that the Nazis’ treatment of Jews had been somehow excessive, in failing to balance “science” with morality; he never questioned the basic validity of eugenics. Anne, on the other hand, expressed some degree of remorse for her pro-Nazi book, yet she continued to fully support her husband throughout the remainder of his life and career. The concluding chapters, chronicling Anne’s caring for Charles Lindbergh during his final illness and death, are rather manipulative. Fleming had thoroughly described Lindbergh’s crackpot obsession with immortality as part of his odious worldview; at the end of his life, she makes it seem almost sympathetic.
An author is not responsible for the reviews of her book. I am bringing attention to them because they form a consistent pattern. Kirkus Reviews read Lindbergh’s life this way: “The man who emerges is hateable, pitiable, and admirable all at the same time.” A review on Publishers Weekly’s calls Lindbergh “a “flawed, larger-than-life man.” Did these reviewers read the same book as I did? I will close with one less than “admirable” quote, one of many included in Fleming’s carefully researched book, from this unrepentant fascist: “Our civilization depends on a united strength…on a Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back…the infiltration of inferior blood…standing together as guardians of our common heritage.”
Every Friday – by Dan Yaccarino, Henry Holt and Company, 2007
You will never mistake Dan Yaccarino’s illustrations for the work of another artist. Even though many other children’s books allude to classic picture book art, Yaccarino’s does so with affection, and a judicious dose of nostalgia. His characters live in the present but also in the most durable parts of the past, including warm family relationships, children’s need for routine and security, and the flights of imagination enjoyed by children in any era. Sometimes his book illustrations are homages to city life (for example, Paul DuBois Jacobs’ and Jennifer Swender’s Count on the Subway), but their themes or settings are transferable to any place where kids live. In Every Friday, a young boy and his father share a close and reassuring Friday morning walk through the city, culminating in a weekly breakfast in a neighborhood diner. Yaccarino explains in his “Author’s Note,” placed before the story starts and under an inviting image of a steaming coffee pot, that the story is based on his own experience with his son.
The first scene might take place anywhere. A mom feeds a baby in a high chair while kissing her husband goodbye. She is wearing a nineteen-fifties era shirt-dress, and he is pulling a suit jacket over a white shirt and brown tie. There is a chiming clock on the wall that looks as if it might come from the Black Forest, and the open door shows milk bottles next to the newspaper. So far, the book might take place in the pre-Feminine Mystique suburbs. Then father and son leave their apartment building, tipping their hats to the doorman and a friendly street sweeper. Friendly is the key word here. The book is not a reactionary tribute to an era when women’s place was in the home, but rather a celebration of community and the joys of continuity in a child’s life.
Father and son take the same walk throughout the four seasons, changing their clothing to suit the weather. Neighbors emerge from buildings resembling brightly colored blocks. Some are fully depicted figures, while others are silhouettes behind doors or viewed through windows. We are in the city, but also in a world where children easily identify who and what is important to them. “Everyone is rushing, but we’re taking our time,” the author states, as father and son watch busy people heading to work. They reciprocate waves from everyone: a newsstand owner, and a woman on a park bench feeding birds, workers unloading a truck. There is no social hierarchy; even dogs merit attention, whether they are being walked on leashes or sitting like humans in a car. There is a beatnik in sandals.
When they reach their destination, the waitress, Rosa, is so important that she is given a name. The center of the breakfast experience is conversation: “While we eat, Dad and I talk about all sorts of things.” The author doesn’t need to specify what those are. When it’s time to go, the boy is already anticipating next week’s version of the same day.
Clearly, the retro elements in the pictures appeal to adults sharing the book with children. But it seems clear that children also intuit what is lasting about these images. Their simplicity, their humorous mixture of specific detail and recognizable ideal, make the book truly durable. When the father lifts his small son off the ground so that he can reach a mailbox and deposit a letter, nostalgia meets the perennial aspects of parenthood. A parent helping a child to reach the right level to accomplish a small task sums up this beautiful book.
The Peddler and the Baker – by Yael Molchadsky, illustrated by Liora Grossman, Green Bean Books, 2020
When you open the cover of The Peddler and the Baker, you will find there, and on the next two pages, softly colored two-tone images of baking utensils. This lovely picture book is not actually about baking, but the carefully placed cutting boards, sieves, measuring spoons and rolling pins whet your appetite for the story. (The back matter does include a wonderful recipe for challah.)
Children enter a timeless walled city in the Middle East where camels and wagons serve as transportation and familiar Jewish character types ply their trades: peddler, baker, rabbi. Yael Molchadsky‘s convincing and accessible text, along with Liora Grossman’s evocative pictures, set the book apart as an appealing new version for young readers of a core lesson from Pirke Avot/Ethics of the Fathers: the rich person is one who is contented with what he has.
Everyone, including children, knows how good baked goods smell, so readers will instantly identify with the humble peddler who is thrilled upon waking just to catch the scents from the nearby bakery. While they might be more confused as to why a man who is so poor that he can barely support himself, Molchadsky’s words are compelling: “Hurray for a new day and for the delicious smell that floats my way.” If the peddler is a man so enchanted by the ability to find happiness through the use of his senses, his neighbor the baker is the opposite. Obsessed with material gain and certain that his labor entitles him to charge a fee for the very air the peddler breathes, kids will recognize him for what he is: a selfish bully. The false dichotomy which he constructs will be familiar to any child who has ever been on the wrong end of such a person’s power: “Get your nose away from that window! I work hard to knead the dough…You just stand there and enjoy my work for free!”
Then there’s the rabbi. At first, when he sentences the poor peddler to work extra hard in order to resolve the issue with the baker, readers may wonder about this man’s qualifications as clergy. Looking around his office, there are some good signs. His shelves are almost collapsing with books, and he requires a cane in order to walk. Two small children lean from a staircase to listen to the rabbi’s plan; although the rabbi might not notice them, his benign expression implies tolerance of the vulnerable. Grossman’s depiction of the baker and peddler deferring to the rabbi’s authority is a study in contrast and kids will not miss her point. While the baker is a large man, the peddler is thin and delicate. The baker wears a scowl on his face and his hands are place on his hips is anger. The peddler bends his head in humility and clasps his hands together behind his back. Justice will clearly prevail and, when it does, readers will feel relief and assurance that the world works as it should.
To depict the wonders of Shabbat, Grossman switches to a color palette of violet, blue and pink, a world of unlimited happiness and social justice, affirmed in the rabbi’s words: “Many wonderful things are given in this world for free…Soon it will be Shabbat – a day of rest. This special day was also given to us…young and old, rich and poor, man and animal alike.” That should be enough to put the baker in his place, and the dénouement, showing a peaceful city bathed in the light of Shabbat candles, is a vision of social equality for readers young and old.
The Barnabus Project – by the Fan Brothers with Devin Fan (Terry, Eric, and Devin Fan), Tundra Books, 2020
Imagine a small mutant animal, imprisoned in an underground lab which is the only home he has ever known. Life is not bad; his bell jar is easy to maintain and he receives regular meals of cheese and peanuts delivered by the Green Rubber Suits. His friends are all similarly trapped and equally provided with the necessities of life.
One day Barnabus, half mouse and half elephant, starts to think. Once creatures recognize that they are not free, there is no turning back. Encouraged by stories from Pip the cockroach about the world above the lab, Barnabus decides to liberate himself and his friends. Part adventure, part parable, and totally evocative work of art, the Fan Brothers’ new book is unforgettable in its originality.
Children are sensitive to the idea of imperfection. Maybe a toy is broken, but still beloved. Maybe they don’t always seen to fit in themselves; like Barnabus, they might enjoy security by long for freedom. Part of the appeal of this book is that Barnabus and his equally quirky companions are vulnerable, but not pathetic. The illustrations evoke dreams, both good and bad, fantastic fiction and classic works of children’s literature.
There is a sense of balance as carefully planned and achieved as the animals’ escape from their controlled environment and exodus to a world of freedom. A nighttime city skyline in dark blue and gray or backlit with sun in the daytime alternate with images of the creatures themselves, encased in glass on shelves or emerging from broken glass and experimenting with freedom.
Who are these strange beings? They are “Failed Projects,” a collection of factory seconds doomed to the life of lab rats as the Green Rubber Suits use them to come up with something better, something lucrative, the Perfect Pets sold to lucky kids in toy stores. Since children know that they might initially prefer these heavily promoted items, with “fur like cotton candy” and vacant eyes, they will relate to the idea that the Failed Projects face a dismal future. But in the end, defective or oddball toys might be the ones that stick around: Mushroom Sloth, Pinto, Spike, the Bottle Mogs, Stick One and Stick Two all have names right out of child’s imagination. But first, they have to prove themselves in a courageous fight against the forces of evil, before they find a haven in “a place that might be home.” It’s not just a story; it’s a project. The Barnabus Project asks kids to participate in knocking off chains and celebrating what it means to be different, wanted, and free.
The City Girls – by Aki (Delphine Mach), Henry Holt and Company, 2020
No, they are not Madeline and her companions. There is no Miss Clavel and they don’t always walk in two straight lines en route to their destinations. They are Laura, Miffy, Annie, Rebecca, Jane, Vanessa, June, Melanie, Sarah, Cathleen, Lucy, Zoe, Kirsten, Tilly, Joy, and Emily. This is their third appearance, having enjoyed very different environments in both The Weather Girls and The Nature Girls. While Aki’s books about them are certainly an homage of sorts to Ludwig Bemelmans, they are very much their own independent characters, joyfully exploring the world.
The city of the book’s title might be Paris, New York, London, or any number of other metropolises worldwide. The point is, it’s a city, full of the wonders or urban life seen through the eyes of children who are anything but jaded. Even watching the sunrise from the roof of their apartment building, or having a sleepover on that roof at nighttime, are exciting adventures.
The girls are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some wear glasses. They all wear yellow raincoats in most of the book, a definite nod to Bemelmans, but they wear blue pants and t-shirts of varying designs when they visit the park and a colorful array of pajamas for their slumber party. The text is composed of simple rhyme, with color and font style changed for variety and sometimes to reflect what they are doing at a particular time. (Crossing a bridge in the park, the line “The sun is setting” features letters arching like a bridge.)
Unlike the many picture books that offer tours of the world’s great cities, the City Girls inhabit a deliberately generic location. Generic does not connote blandness, however. Their oversized tour bus races through a downtown where “Dance,” “Fun,” and “Karaoke” signs invite visitors, along with a giant fish and a smiling bowl with pasta and flowers emerging from its top.
The girls’ trip to an art museum has them watching with rapt attention as docents explain pictures that are not exactly Mondrian or Miró, but rather works inspired by them. I also love the elegant older woman docent, with grey hair, pearls, and a bright red cardigan, and her younger male counterpart with a scruffy beard. Some of the little girls (Zoe, Sarah, and Cathleen,) turn away from the presentation to wave greetings at a different group of students wearing green tops and blue pants. Color is a key part of life for the City Girls.
There are many other moments where the City Girls are both part of a group and individuals. Boarding the clean and orderly subway (not New York?), Tilly looks aside to watch a mouse eating a slice of pizza. At the Eggsquisite café, serving just one delicious food, Melanie waves to a customer enjoying his coffee at a table while his dog eats at ground level. Young readers will see themselves reflected in these little girls, for whom each part of the day is a new opportunity to both learn and have fun. The “More to Explore” section at the end of the book includes further information about the different resources of city life. Caregivers reading with children may also use the book as an introduction to the unique attractions of their own cities and towns, or to ones in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, Lucy, Sarah, Rebecca, and friends are off to another day.
No Vacancy – by Tziporah Cohen, Groundwood Books, 2020
Miriam Brockman is an eleven-year-old New Yorker who has just been exiled to upstate New York. Out of a job, her father has purchased the run-down Jewel Motor Inn in the town of Greenvale, population 514, intending to build up a viable source of income for their family. Not exactly a dream come true for Miriam, the situation seems somewhat more hopeful when she quickly makes friends with Kate, whose grandparents run the diner next door to the Brockman’s new home and workplace. Miriam is Jewish, Kate is Catholic, and together they devise a scheme to save the motel. Readers might be surprised to learn that this plot involves a vision of the Virgin Mary, but less surprised that questions of ethnic and religious identity, as well as family conflicts, emerge in this engaging story.
One of the most interesting aspects of the books is the care with which the author characterizes the particular religious culture of each family. Miriam’s family observes Shabbat with a special dinner but little ritual. When they attend synagogue, they drive there, and, although they refrain from eating certain foods which are not kosher, they happily eat in non-kosher restaurants. When Miriam’s Uncle Mordy arrives, his level of observance is much more traditional, quite different from his extended family’s. Kate and her family attend church weekly, but apparently Kate only confesses to a priest at Easter time. In other words, there are contradictions in both families. Where some readers might see inconsistencies, to me they seemed internally consistent with the characters’ lives. When the Virgin Mary project develops, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but within a narrative where Miriam is constantly questioning what it means to be Jewish and how secure she feels in publicizing her identity.
A sub-plot involves Miriam’s friendship with María, a young Mexican-American woman who both teaches Miriam Spanish and offers her the emotional support of an older sister. (I was also impressed that the author was careful to check the Spanish for accuracy.) Cohen takes care to provide perspective about each individual’s personal struggles. While Miriam relates to a visitor to the motel who has a disability partly because of a phobia which makes her own life difficult, the two challenges are presented as parallel, but not equivalent. All the characters’ vulnerabilities interact in the narrative: psychological, physical, financial, religious. Throughout the book, the author’s respect for young readers is apparent, as she encourages them to think about difficult and painful parts of growing up.
The book’s resolution does not seem inevitable. In fact, different readers may find it more or less plausible, given the environment where this Lourdes in the New York Finger Lakes takes place. The community seems close and accepting, but apparently not immune to the ugly specter of hatred. In the end, some readers may feel that the consequences of actions, ranging from destructive to unthinking, might have been more fully explored. But the novel’s ambiguities are evidence of the author’s serious attempt to raise difficult questions. A visit to the Jewel Motor Inn is definitely worth the trip.
Your House, My House – by Marianne Dubuc, Kids Can Press, 2020
Marianne Dubuc is a Canadian author and illustrator whose books have been published in both French and English. Her books feature detailed and fanciful depictions of the both the natural world and busy communities populated by anthropomorphic animals. Her latest book, Your House, My House, invites young readers into a gracious multifamily structure, 3 Maple Street, where Little Rabbit is about to celebrate his birthday. Like a dollhouse, the building is visible as a cutaway section, with lots going on simultaneously from kitchen to attic. Readers can pay attention to one room at a time or choose to take in the whole bustling hive of different but also related families.
One moment of action includes a cat unloading packages from a truck at one entrance to the house, while a fox sweeps his way over to the descending spiral staircase at the other. No wonder he is cleaning; the mother fox is pregnant, standing beside a crib with mobile while her first child clings to her. Next door, a bear in polka dot pajamas talks on a phone, anachronistically tethered to a curled wire. On the first floor, a young hedgehog draws pictures on the floor while a parent waters plants; the mouse family two stories up is less tidy, with lots of clutter next to the triple bunk beds for their larger family. Turning the pages, we gradually learn more about these and other connected characters. A doctor-dog pays a house call to the bear in pajamas, and the little fox needs to go stay with the rabbit family temporarily. Children will delight in following the simple plot lines, all the while waiting to see how the birthday party turns out. There are also witty cameo appearances by beloved folk tale characters.
Adult readers may immediately call to mind the work of Richard Scarry, as well as to contemporary artist like Britta Teckentrup and Rotraut Susanne Berner. Each illustrator in this genre is different; Dubuc’s books combine a clear narrative unfolding in one location, surprising readers with links among different residents of the house, as well as alluding to the literary legacy of folklore (such as Little red Riding Hood, below). The figures are and their surroundings are delicate and gentle. Everyone is friendly and the support of family and neighbors is presented as a normal part of life in their community. A cycling turtle keeps safe with his helmet and Little Rabbit remembers to bring a piece of cake to the recovering bear. Dubuc’s tone of comfort and security, along with her brightly colored scenes of everyday life punctuated with a little excitement, make Your House, My House, a place where children will feel at home.
Lift – by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat, Disney Hyperion, 2020
If you live in an apartment building with your family, imagine your frustration if your child deliberately pushed all the buttons in the elevator. Would you feel more understanding towards her if you knew that she had been driven to this annoying act of protest by sibling rivalry? This situation is the premise of Minh Lê’s and Dan Santat’s fantastic picture book, Lift.
Both meticulously realistic in its portrayal of ordinary childhood resentments, and gloriously imaginative as an ode to worlds of imaginary escape, Lift features a rebellious but kind kid with loving parents who somehow seem unfair. Children will identify with Iris, the girl who just can’t let her brother take over that important job of elevator transportation.
Comic book format allows the plot to unfold with a minimum of exposition. Characters’ faces have minimal details but expressive power, as in the scene showing the aftermath of Iris’s button pulling stunt, after her toddler brother is allowed to fulfill his dream of pushing the button in the elevator. Her mother is furious, an adult woman with her hand splayed over her own face in frustration. Iris’s father looks almost resigned, as he holds his son, along with the toy tiger that never seems to leave the little boy’s arms. Iris’s face is a terrifying scowl; her pigtails stick out from her head like horns. There is no dialogue on this page, only the “tap” of buttons and the “ding” of the elevator’s bell.
One feature of the book with appeal for both young children and their adult readers is the use of repeated motifs and images. When Iris learns that a discarded elevator button panel opens the door to a universe of natural wonders, that stuffed tiger shows up as a real beast, and the friendly babysitter’s outer space board game becomes a real planetary voyage. Nighttime scenes are bathed in blue and black, while everyday activities have a soft, limited color palette, stressing the contrast between the two worlds. When Iris discovers empathy, not through her parents’ anger but by recognizing her little brother’s vulnerability, readers feel relief, but Iris has not been socialized into accepting the boring requirements of adult expectations. As she stands with the back to the reader, holding her brother’s hand, both children face the door to open-ended adventure. The book evokes every disjuncture between reality and possibility in children’s literature: Narnia, Wonderland, Oz, a magical tollbooth, Clara’s kingdom of sweets. In Lê and Santat’s version of imaginary powers, childhood is safe, parents are protective, and younger brothers don’t destroy beloved toys. Still, children need to step outside once in a while.