Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021)

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation – written by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books, 2019

Many critics, artists, authors, and readers have written and spoken about the genius and humanity of Jerry Pinkney.  It would take an extended essay to even touch upon his gifts to the world of literature for children. Instead of attempting that today, I would like to just offer a few thoughts about only one recent, outstanding example of his work, A Place to Land. What is singular about this book, only one of many written for young readers about Martin Luther King Jr

Barry Wittenstein’s text shows great respect for young readers, offering specific information, not only platitudes. He places King at the center of other activists, within a detailed historical context.  Pinkney’s pictures create a dynamic portrait of King, quite different from the kind of flat hagiography sometimes used to depict heroes to young readers.  We see King surrounded by his civil rights associates, from Andrew Young to Bayard Rustin and others, at “a meeting of the minds” in the capital’s Willard Motel.  Each man’s name accompanies his figure, some circling their heads like a halo, others close to their gesturing hands.  There are no static images in Pinkney’s interpretation of King’s life and the life of the movement in which he played an outsized role.

In some pictures, King appears tired. In others, meditative, and, when working on his speech for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, somewhat frustrated. The speech is a triumph, but the struggle King articulated is clearly shown as unfinished and ongoing.  Pinkney’s concluding picture has King completing his speech, while, on the other half of the page, images of Shirley Chisolm, John Lewis, and Barack Obama represent continuity and progress.  As in all Pinkney’s work, color is a key element. The bright blue and white stars of the American flag contrast with a pastel background.  King himself is defined in clearly delineated, while those who will move forward in the future are sketched in lighter hues.  There are also pieces of collage which add journalistic realism to the impressionistic scenes: a fragment of the Declaration of Independence, a map of D.C., a shiny black rotary telephone.

Pinkney expresses in images how both individuals and masses of people bring about change.  The Lincoln Memorial, including a discernible, if small, Lincoln statue, is an image of monumental permanence. Facing the building, the pale blue light of the reflecting pool is surrounded by throngs and marchers and their signs, each too small to differentiate from one another. This stunningly beautiful scene of collective action, embodied within American history, is part of Pinkney’s legacy. His vision of the past and the future, his dedication to telling the stories of African-Americans, children, working people, and others, and his indelibly expressive interpretations of character, will never be forgotten.

Anne Frank: the Difficulty of Presentation

Anne Frank – written by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Malcah Zeldis
Henry Holt and Company, 1997

The novelist Dara Horn has a new collection of essays called People Love Dead Jews: Report from a Haunted Present (and she wrote these even before an educator in Texas said that if teachers had a book in the classroom that condemned the Holocaust, they needed to add a book showing the opposing view). Among other examples of her provocative, and valid, argument, is the exploitation of Anne Frank as a universal example of optimistic humanism. Horn asserts that the quote from the diary about the young Anne believing that people are “truly good at heart” was obviously written before she learned the bitter truth that they sometimes are not.  (Another resource, for adults, is Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, the Afterlife.). I decided to revisit the picture book collaboration between daughter and mother, Yona Zeldis McDonough (author of The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Woodcarver’s Daughter) and Malcah Zeldis, a thoughtful and artistically unusual approach to Frank’s tragically short life.

Malcah Zeldis’s pictures draw on folk art traditions; these images of a terrible period in history are not meant to be literally accurate renditions of a time and place. Instead, they evoke a child’s experiences: first of a warm and loving home, and later, of terror. We see Edith and Otto Frank seated on a couch with their two daughters looking almost like dolls, and also recalling Renaissance paintings of religious figures.  Later, Anne sits in her bedroom in hiding, surrounded by pictures of movies stars, while she writes in her diary. This image presents the normality that Anne tried to create under conditions of unbearable pressure. So far, these depictions of Anne may be familiar to young readers who know anything about her. However, towards the end of the book, Zeldis portrays Anne, her mother, and sister, trapped behind barbed wire, their heads shaved and wearing concentration camp uniforms.  It is crucially important that this image is included in the book. Otherwise, readers cannot imagine what happened after the brave attempted rescuers of the Frank family were unable to save them from an informer and arrest by the Nazis.

Each page of text has a great deal of information, phrased appropriately for older picture book readers.  Anne receives her diary as a gift, she and her family go into hiding.  As the Nazi regime closes in on Jews of the Netherlands, tensions and fear threaten her emotional well-being.  Anne envisions her future, and, as she and her family try to maintain optimism that the war will soon end with victory by the Allies, she writes her famous phrase about human goodness.  McDonough does not negate the statement, but it is followed by the arrest of the Secret Annex residents and their imprisonment in the notorious system of death camps. 

An “Author’s Note” tries to strike a balance between universalism and the specific fate of Jews.  McDonough reports that the total number of Jews killed was approximately six million, but she adds that many other groups were targeted for persecution. While this is true, the Nazis did not succeed in committing genocide against them.  Fully two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were killed; in some countries as many as ninety percent.  It is important and appropriate for the author to put Anne Frank’s life, and death, in a worldwide perspective, but the particularity of her murder should also be clear.  There is one error: McDonough suggests that Anne and Margot Frank were sent from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they died, because they were judged to be “young and strong enough to continue working.” The truth is that, by the time they were sent to Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis realized they were losing the war and were beginning to close Auschwitz, trying to destroy the evidence of the mass murder committed there.  These points do not lessen the value of this brave book, for older picture book readers.  Anne Frank leaves a strong impression of a gifted young woman, her destruction by murderous antisemitism, and her legacy to all of humanity.

A Not-So-Little Life

Gemma and the Giant Girl – words by Sara O’Leary, pictures by Marie Lafrance
Tundra Books, 2021

Even though the narrator begins Gemma’s story by stating that she “lived in a very nice little house and had a very nice little life,” only the first part of that sentence is strictly true. Yes, her house is little compared to the wide world to which the “giant” will soon introduce her, but her truly nice life is not little, from her perspective.  As any child, or adult, fascinated by dollhouse fiction knows, imagining the life inside these miniaturized worlds is endlessly intriguing.  Children, and dolls representing them, are small and vulnerable, lacking some control over daily events, big and small. Looking inside a dollhouse, and into the possible lives of those who live there, is a thrilling experience.  The empathic text by Sara O’Leary’s (author of This is Ruby and This is Sadie), and Marie Lafrance’s imaginative pictures, transport young readers to Gemma’s world from outside in and inside out. The book is a gentle exploration of childhood.

Who is Gemma, and how “little” is her home? When she asks her parents, “Will I grow up one day?” their answer is reassuring, but also literally true, because she lives in a dollhouse. Children are ambivalent about growing up and losing their parents’ protection, and this won’t happen to Gemma. 

But one a giant and all-seeing eye appears in her window, (link to image), everything is thrown into literal and figurative disarray.  A well-intentioned “giant” has entered the lives of Gemma and her family.  Yet Gemma realizes that this intruder is “somebody’s little girl,” and Lafrance depicts her bending to doll eye level and peering with wonder into the house. The beautiful house is suddenly a mess, with furniture overturned but Gemma and her parents standing bravely together.  There is an echo of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, where the small people need to determine if larger ones mean them harm. 

As in The Borrowers, the giant starts to bring the dollhouse family lots of stuff.  While this all-powerful new benefactor certainly means well, Gemma realizes that “Some of the new things were nice.  Some were less nice.”  Children perceive that not all adult interventions are to their liking, and Gemma feels the same way about the giant girl.  Scale is one of the most intriguing parts of dollhouse live and fiction; when the girl brings the family a book, this enormous item becomes a kind of theater scenery, worth the effort it requires to turn the pages. 

When the giant picks up Gemma and suspends her over the house, readers may wonder if this move isn’t a bit insensitive. Suddenly, Gemma is forced to look down at her home and at her parents, who are “frozen with fear.”  It seems time for the giant to leave well enough alone!  There is a dizzying sense for children that the world may not be exactly as they thought, as Gemma is forced to understand how small her life seems in relation to the giant’s.  All’s well that ends well, as Gemma is gently returned to her “little life,” the one which she loves.  O’Leary and Lafrance have captured the paradox of childhood, of wanting to remain small but eager to find out about the bigger world that awaits.  Their book is a beautiful and subtly poignant expression of this truth.

Four Missing Jobs

Daddies – written by Janet Frank, illustrated by Tibor Gergely
Simon & Schuster, 1953

Bedtime Stories: The Little Golden Book Library
Golden Press, 1969

In reading one of my favorite books to my grandchildren, illustrated by one of my favorite Golden Book artists, Tibor Gergely, I noticed the revealing disclaimer in the 2011 reprint: “Originally published in slightly different form…”. That slight difference is a euphemism for abridgement.  One of the best qualities of this small but perfect work, both stunningly beautiful and emotionally reassuring, is the range of jobs that daddies perform. Not only are they doctors, airline pilots, and policemen, but they are also opera singers, artists, and, of course, children’s book creators.  (Sometimes they smoke a pipe.)

I had a vague memory of perhaps owning another copy of this book, and I found it, in a Golden Book anthology of Bedtime Stories. In fact, the title is an excuse for collecting a terrific assortment of books, not all of which one would necessarily association for bedtime reading.  This edition of Daddies still includes the above-mentioned jobs, as well as construction workers, bakers, and daddies who build planes. (That’s two different airplane-related careers in the book.) But it also includes four pages deleted from the later edition.

It doesn’t appear that censorship or irrelevance were reasons for omitting them.  If that were the case, daddies who make clocks might have been the first to go.  Thank goodness that we will have, in 2011, that incredible self-portrait of Gergely at a manual typewriter, surrounded by crumpled pages of rejected manuscripts.  I would guess that space was an issue, and an editor made the decision which daddies would have to go somewhat capriciously.  The unexpurgated Daddies portrays tailors, measuring a little girl for a dress while her younger brother waits his turn. Their mother is wearing a fur coat and gloves.  This picture is followed by “Barber Daddies cut our hair.” Both of these jobs are still one hundred percent relevant. 

On the more antique side is a daddy who fixes broken toys. He is attentively hunched over his workbench, wearing a green eyeshade.  Although some of these toys might be recycled today, there are still professionals who run “doll hospitals” and would be glad to repair some of the sadly fragmented toys in the picture.

Plenty of daddies are teachers, so it is awfully disappointed that this profoundly important job has disappeared from the reprint.  True, the teacher here is writing on a chalkboard and there are inkwells on the students’ desks, but that seems immaterial.  The fact is, daddies “teach little girls and boys,” and this one looks very happy to be performing this task.  No, Frank and Gergely could not possibly include every child’s father in their book.  If you are disappointed that there are no postal workers, Gergely has an entire book on this subject, as well as many other classics which include a variety of professions.  Of course, it would take decades before Golden Books routinely published books about mommies and their range of jobs; the classic Golden Books are almost all centered on mommies fulfilling the one role which their title indicates.  Those books are wonderful, even if they do imply that mothers routinely wore high heels and pearls when caring for infants.  More on them later, and on Golden Books’ updated approach to the subject of parenting.  Meanwhile, Leonard Marcus’s classic Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books is the definitive illustrated history of these treasures. 

Dolls, Ghosts, and Families

The Dollhouse: A Ghost Story – by Charis Cotter

Tundra Books, 2021

Reading Charis Cotter’s new novel for middle-grade readers and older, I considered and reconsidered the genre of the “ghost story.” Those thoughts are a testament to the book’s quality; it bridges the categories of mystery, tales of the supernatural, and even horror, but also belongs to the coming-of-age novel.  Alice Greene is a hyper-imaginative twelve-year-old whose family life is falling apart.  Her father, a successful architect, is somewhat less successful as a spouse and a parent, always raising expectations that he cannot meet. Her mother is a hardworking nurse who seems grounded and determined to care for her daughter. When the novel begins, everyone is on edge, and the reader is unsure of what to expect. 

The dollhouse of the title is an exceptionally sophisticated piece of architecture more than a toy. In fact, its inspiration was the renowned Queen Mary’s dolls’ house in England. The scale itself of this building discourages the idea of a cozy miniature world, although the fantasy of dolls who come to life in their own parallel universe is inherent in the novel.  However, there is a twist; the inhabitants of this doll house are eerie counterparts to the real world. The connection is subtle and full of dramatic tension, as questions surface about exactly how the two worlds are related. 

Compelling characters are at the center of the story.  Alice Greene, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, confronts irrational people and confusing events that seem to govern her life. The elderly Mrs. Bishop who employs Alice’s mother is difficult to decipher. Is she a crusty old woman hiding a kind heart beneath her tough exterior, or just a selfish and nasty person not granted wisdom in old age?  Lily, the daughter of Mrs. Bishop’s housekeeper, is a young woman with a developmental disability.  It is relatively uncommon for someone like Lily to appear as a secondary character in a children’s or young adult novel.  Her disability is not the central theme of the story, but a natural part of her character that influences the sequence of events and her friend, Alice’s, response to them.  (In a thoughtful afterword, Cotter explains the genesis of the story and the real-life model for Lily.).

For Jane Austen fans, or future Jane Austen fans, Cotter offers one partial explanation for Alice’s difficulties. She describes the heroine of Austen’s satire of Gothic literature, Northanger Abbey, with the disdain she seems to think that Alice deserves for being unfamiliar with this classic:

“She has read too many ridiculous novels about men who keep wives locked up in secret rooms, and…she creates an entire fiction about the man of the house, imagining that he was cruel to his wife and may even have caused her death. Total nonsense.  She’s the kind of girl who spends too much time in her imagination and finally couldn’t tell what was real and what was not.”

Does Alice spend too much time in an imagined world? Perhaps.  Is her anguish premised on “total nonsense?”  No. The space between those two possibilities is the core of this intriguing book.

A Bear’s Creator

More Than Marmalade: Michael Bond and the Story of Paddington Bear – by Rosanne Tolin
Chicago Review Press, 2020

Biographies of our favorite authors can be a source of fascination for loyal adult readers, but children should also have the opportunity to learn about how the characters they love came to appear on the page.  More Than Marmalade is not a picture book, but a middle-grade biography about how Michael Bond, after years as a struggling would-be author, finally found success with his small immigrant bear from “darkest Peru.”  Rosanne Tolin presents a consistent narrative in which two qualities of Michael Bond are of principal importance: his compassion and his persistence.  The beloved children’s author is definitely idealized, but the portrait does give children a sense of how life experiences, talent, and luck, often play a part in literature.

Bond, who died about four years ago, grew up in a warm and supportive working -class family in Reading, forty miles from London. His parents are so wonderful that they seem like the most benevolent characters in a Dickens novel, whose role is to contrast with the many less-than-wonderful other people in the world.  Michael’s father, a postal worker, never lacks time to play with or read to him, and his mother also inculcates in her son a love of books. Their only mistake is to send Michael to boarding school, which the future author, not of an academic bent, detests.  Otherwise, even the frightening years of World War II show his parents sheltering refugees and protecting their family.

One of the surprises of this biography is Tolin’s repeated assertion that Bond’s exposure to Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler was one of the most formative experiences of his life, and that Paddington Bear is virtually a stand-in for the young and desperate Kindertransport (written about directly in children’s literature here and here, for example) beneficiaries who arrived in Britain.  Certainly, Bond has written and spoken about this link. Tolin includes specific information about the antisemitic persecution which necessitated sending a small number of fortunate children to safety, even mentioning right-wing fear of Communism as a factor in the rise of fascism.  It is unlikely that middle-grade readers will understand this connection without further information.  Yet, overall, the book is accessible, tracing how contact with the most vulnerable in his country led to a lifelong commitment to social justice.

Bond worked in journalism and media, but published stories only sporadically.  He purchased a stuffed bear for his wife (number one; they later divorced), and eventually developed a backstory for the toy that virtually became a part of his family.  Adults might find the fact that Bond and his wife, Brenda, took the bear along with them to restaurants and other outings a bit odd, but children probably will not. Then again, Tolin signs her prefatory “Author’s Note,” “Bear-y Truly Yours,” so if you find that cloying, you should have known what to expect. The book manages to pack in a lot of information about Bond’s career, as well as the war years, London, and the merchandising of Paddington.

The tone of the book is a somewhat child-like and innocent: “Every night his father’s voice relaxed him. His home was safe and calm. The smell of his mother’s lavender bath salts drifted down the hall into his bedroom.”  Later, when readers learn that his marriage has collapsed and that the author sometimes suffered from depression, the narrative continues in the same affirmative way, emphasizing Bond’s satisfaction and humility at the great accomplishments he has achieved.  So please continue to look after, and read about, this bear, now with more context about the fortunate circumstances which brought him to life.

Parents, Children, Work, and Income Insecurity

Birdie’s Billions – written by Edith Cohn
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

It’s Labor Day. Being a hardworking single parent is not easy, a fact of which Birdie Loggerman is well aware. Her father is in prison. Her mother works for a cleaning service, and Birdie often accompanies her on the job. When an ill-positioned skateboard knocks over a pricey glass figurine, Birdie’s carelessness costs her family their only source of income.  One of the best features of Edith Cohn’s upcoming middle-grade novel is honesty about the pressures children confront when they feel responsible for adult problems.  At the same time, Birdie’s life is not one of relentless deprivation. Her mother loves her. In spite of being unemployed, she remains optimistic and maintains a sense of stability, if somewhat precarious, in her daughter’s life.  Then Birdie finds some money in a wall.

The Loggermans have recently moved from a working-class neighborhood to toney Valley Lake, where Ms. Loggerman hopes to provide a better school and overall environment for her daughter.  But Birdie stands out in this community, where most parents seem to have an unending supply of money, giving their children all the advantages which the Loggermans will never know.  Of course, these hovering parents also specialize in handing out useless material clutter, and in devising lavish and pointless experiences for their fortunate kids.  Cohn is skilled at portraying these rich people not as complete villains, but they are pretty bad at offering the unconditional love which Ms. Loggerman intuitively understands.  Still, even the most supportive parent, when she can’t pay the rent, cannot prevent her child from wondering, “Why did some people have so much and some people so little?”

The novel’s plot twists are intricate.  There are many secondary characters, from their neighbor, Jesse, a security guard, to Hailey, Birdie’s on-and-off best friend.  Hailey’s mother is deeply suspicious of her daughter’s friendship with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  While Hailey’s home, from Birdie’s perspective, is just short of Downtown Abbey in luxury, the apartment complex from which the Loggermans face possible eviction is depressing:

Woodcroft had colorful chip bags…tumbling across the parking lot like confetti, the         occasional rolling soda can and wind-whipped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups wrappers. Nicer apartment complexes came with playgrounds or pools, but at Woodcroft kids played basketball in the parking lot using a trash can as a goal and dodging cars backing out as they ran.

Birdie’s elaborate plan to save her family from poverty seems as if it might work, from a child’s point of view. There is significant dramatic tension; Birdie hates the prejudiced view of herself and her family held by Hailey’s mom, but also acknowledges that some of her choices look dishonest, even criminal.  Is she doomed to become like her father, or can she resolve the painful conflicts that seem too much for a girl her age to handle?  While some events seem convenient for concluding the story in a satisfying way, they are all plausible.  Young readers will definitely identify with Birdie’s dilemma, and adults can appreciate Ms. Loggerman’s triumph.  It’s truly a relief to know that she is going to give the heartless Clean as a Whistle cleaning service a run for their money.

Class Is Not Canceled Under the Sea

Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness – by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021

Narwhal and Jelly are back again, just in time to substitute teach for a school of fish with a teacher who is under the weather.  As always, Ben Clanton’s combination of one creature of almost mythic stature (narwhal), with another sometimes thought of as something of a pest (jellyfish), contradict most of their stereotypes.  Narwhal is bold and funny, Jelly a modest sidekick who plays along. They work together, using a high-energy and multidisciplinary approach, from math to recess.

While the plot is more or less linear, there are so many ingredients that the passage of time is not the main point. These include jokes, puns, alliteration, “Fun Facts,” “Science Squad,” ambitious vocabulary (“delectable, palatable, toothsome”), and more.  By the end of the book, (“fin, concluded, a wrap, fini), readers will have learned about seahorses, how to divide a waffle, and how to say goodbye to an irreplaceable substitute teacher in several languages.

Narwhal and Jelly’s students are all good-natured; there is no taunting of the dreaded substitute teachers.  Narwhal admits his complete lack of experience in the classroom to Jelly, but that doesn’t present much of an obstacle.  The fish students learn about science, math, comic book art, as well as the ethics of sending their sick teacher a warm and appreciative note. Finally, they have to regretfully tell Narwhal that the school day has ended.

The note to Mr. Blowfish, out with a bad cold, includes a copy of their full-color adventure, “Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick.” Readers familiar with earlier Narwhal and Jelly books will remember that these sequences appear in the middle of the story, with a brighter color palette from the “real world” of the main characters.  Adults will enjoy the wry comment on creating fiction; Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick on no more improbably than a narwhal novice teacher.  For kids, it’s just delightful to turn the page and find a waffle wearing a bright red superhero mask.

Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness has the right combination of frenetic pace and reassuring characters.  Narwhal and Jelly are kind and supportive to one another. When Narwhal gently taps Jelly for one more game of tag, we know that no one will get hurt, and everyone will learn something.  The wingspan of an albatross is useful information, and so is how to express gratitude to your teacher in four different languages.

American Girl Stands Up for Labor Rights

Samantha Helps a Friend (American Girl: Step Into Reading) – written by Rebecca Mallary, illustrated by Emma Gillette
Random House Children’s Books, 2021

I haven’t given up on the American Girl books or dolls, in spite of Mattel’s relentless race to the bottom as they continue to downgrade the historical aspect of the project. As part of the company’s somewhat hypocritical celebration of their product’s thirty-fifth anniversary, they have reissued some of the original dolls and released some new books. The latter category includes beginning readers in the trademarked “Step into Reading” series.  For those of you who don’t remember every character and plot point, Samantha Parkington is a wealthy orphan who, in 1904, is living with her generous grandmother in New York State.  In spite of her incredible privilege, she befriends a poor Irish American girl, Nellie O’Malley, and winds up learning a thing or two about how the other half lives.  Samantha Helps a Friend, in addition to being a gateway book to the American Girl phenomenon, teaches young readers about standing up for the rights of working people.

Rebecca Mallary’s text is relatively simple, labeled “Level 3” in the series.  “Samantha always tells the truth, and she will do anything to help a friend,” is a typical sentence. Children will easily follow the plot and understand clearly who the good and bad guys are, although the worst bad guys are students who tease Nellie. Presumably, the factory owners who force children like Nellie to do adult work under dangerous conditions are much worse, but we don’t actually meet them in the book.  However, a picture of Nellie and a young boy laboring at heavy machinery is quite affecting and gets the point across about the injustices of the Gilded Age. 

The central message of the book, which is actually somewhat sophisticated, is that the definition of “progress” depends upon whom you ask.  When Samantha’s fancy private school decides to participate in a speech competition, on the subject of “progress in America,” she canvasses the adults in her life to learn their opinions. Telephones, automobiles, and factories are all suggestions, but Samantha is bright enough to think about the implications of who is manufacturing all these marvels.  In her bold address, she speaks truth to power. Since the book is part of the American Girl series, some people are shocked, but others are impressed.  There are many opportunities to talk to children about workers’ rights and other issues when you share this book with them.

Emma Gillette’s pictures are definitely kid-friendly; colorful and expressive, they help to fill out the story’s meaning, as beginning readers’ illustrations should.  (The original American Girl novels had beautiful pictures, but now these have been removed. This change was probably due to an ill-conceived theory about marketing the books to readers “too old” for illustrations.)

If you are incontrovertibly opposed to the alleged commercialism of American Girl, then you might not want to give a child Samantha Helps a Friend. That would be unfortunate, because this simple and appealing story delivers a strong message in a pleasant (no pun intended about Pleasant Company, the original home of American Girl) package.

Lunch with Nonna

Eat, Leo! Eat! – written by Caroline Adderson, Illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
Kids Can Press, 2015

Here is a lovely and inventive picture book about grandmothers, stories, food, and the specific appeal of pasta.  Just like the staple of Italian cuisine, which comes in many different shapes, Nonna’s stories for her grandson, Leo, are varied and delightful.  Believe it or not, Leo isn’t such an eager customer. Sometimes he’s just not hungry.  But his grandmother, Nonna, turns every type of pasta, from star-shaped stelline to the menacingly named occhi di lupo (wolf eyes), into a pretext for exciting narration.  Although the pretense of the book may seem elaborate, Caroline Adderson’s conversation tone and Josée Bisaillon’s friendly pictures (link to other blog post), make this family story as inviting as a bowl of zuppa.

The book opens with a child’s eye view from the kitchen floor, as adult feet stand in place to socialize or walk swiftly to get the gathering started.  Nonna would like Leo to eat, but she isn’t pushy.  Her gray hair and big glasses and her resemblance to Leo’s mother make her seem comforting. She’s also smart and imaginative, ready to entice Leo with the first of a series of tales. Each week a young boy undertakes an adventure, its outcome unsure enough to be a bit scary.  Once he uses spaghetti to tie up a wolf, another time a thousand colorful farfalle, butterflies, appear in the sky.  Leo’s extended family, both children and adults, are equally absorbed in Nonna’s magic.

Bisaillon’s pictures are her inimitable blend of realism and exaggeration.  Bodies and faces are slightly stylized. Some scenes are viewed at an angle or from above.  Nonna’s kitchen is full of detail, from multicolored stacked bowls to dishtowels hanging from the oven’s handle.  Jewel tones and pastel colors alternate, as do dark and light scenes.  The tone is casual, preempting any sentimentality that might be expected in a story about an ethnic matriarch and her clan.  There’s even an afterword, “A bit about pasta,” explaining the amazing range of shapes available for this food, and a glossary of Italian words appropriately placed at the beginning of the book.  Eat, Leo! Eat! is a feast of words and pictures.