The Wall is For All of Us

The Wall – by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Clarion Books, 1990


It’s inherently difficult to choose picture books explaining Memorial Day. While Veterans Day honors all the men and women who have served in the United States military, Memorial Day is dedicated to those who gave their lives.  Then there is the issue of conflicts, such as the Civil War and World War II, for which it is relatively easy to explain to children, in the words of movie director Frank Capra, Why We Fight.

Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler’s The Wall is a sad but hopeful story about the eloquent Vietnam Veterans Memorial, enshrined in American memory as “The Wall.”  It does not explore the reasons why the United States became embroiled in this divisive conflict.  It is about a boy and his father visiting the Memorial, looking for the name of the boy’s grandfather, a casualty of the Vietnam War.  (If you don’t have the book and would like to share it today, there are several readings of it available on YouTube, for example here.)

There is nothing in the book about the war, nor about the specific circumstances of the grandfather’s death. There is no description of heroism, although heroism is implicit in the monument.  Looking for the grandfather’s name among so many requires the boy and his father to “walk slowly, searching,” which is both literally true and a metaphor for processing the history behind the Wall. Similarly, the boy’s observation that “The wall is “black and shiny as a mirror,” points to their need to see themselves in this tribute to their grandfather’s life. (Caregivers reading this with children will choose how to explain that one veteran visiting the wall is a double amputee in a wheelchair.) The tributes which visitors have left, from teddy bears to a wilted rose with “a droopy head.” Other visitors are crying.

When the boy’s father finds his own father’s name, George Munoz, he makes a rubbing of it, capturing parts of other names as well.  When the boy points this out, his father responds, “Your grandpa won’t mind.” Each name is an individual, but their loss was collective as well. When a group of uniformed schoolgirls tours with their teacher, they are interested, but not personally involved. Their teacher correctly imparts the message to them that “The names are the names of the dead, but the wall is for all of us.” Yet their experience of the Wall is unlike that of the boy and his father. There is no moment of epiphany which compensates for this family’s loss. Yes, the Wall is a “a place of honor,” as his father tells him, trying to put his sadness in context, but the boy realizes that he would rather have his grandfather there with him.

There is no overt anger in this book. It is not the resource for explaining facts about why so many American soldiers lost their lives in Southeast Asia in a proxy conflict during the Cold War. Although the grandfather’s name is Hispanic, it does not introduce the fact that servicemen of color were disproportionate among the casualties, largely due to socioeconomic inequality, including access to student deferments from the draft.  The Wall is a book to honor those who served and to validate children’s feelings of loss, or less directly, to encourage empathy for those who suffered most directly.  Memorial Day is about never forgetting.


If You Believe in Fairies

The Fairy Bell Sisters #1: Sylva and the Fairy Ball – by Margaret McNamara, illustrations by Julia Denos, Balzer + Bray, 2013


Fairies go in and out of style…mostly in, these days. When my daughter was a little girl, however, it was not so easy to find contemporary books about fairies, let alone the extensive number of fairy toys and craft kits that are now so heavily marketed.  Not all fairy books, or all fairy book series, are modern classics.  Some have thin plots, and others undistinguished artwork.  There are some outstanding explorations of these fantastic creatures, including Claire Keane’s workMargaret McNamara and Julia Denos’ series, about Tinker Bell’s younger sisters and their lives on Sheepskerry Island, is kind of enchanting.  These younger siblings of the famed star of book, stage, and screen have many of the same problems as other children.  They have other problems, as well, including using crabs as shoe buckles and fighting evil trolls.  They also have a special language and a schedule of birthdays which does not correspond to our own.

When Sylva has to watch her sisters’ overwhelming excitement about attending the Fairy Ball, even meeting Queen Mab herself, she is extremely frustrated. It turns out that she will not turn eight, the minimum age for attendance, until the day after the event. If you’re thinking of Cinderella, her sisters are not wicked, and handsome princes are not part of the picture in this female-centered world.  But Sylva does suffer from the fairy tale trauma of being a notch below on the social scale. Fortunately, the plot gives her an opportunity to save the day, and it even involves a narwhal tusk.

Beginning chapter books should be appealing and engrossing to young readers.  At best, they may also include discussion of family, school, and social issues.  Sylva is a little fairy/girl to whom readers will relate. Her intentions are good, just as her resentment is real, and her relationship with her sisters is tense, but loving.  Adult role models with wings step in to help. The language has touches of poetry, such as this fairy menu: “lingonberry jam and wheat-berry toast; pomegranate juice poured over fresh-cut peaches; sweet oatmeal with sultanas and apples…,” or this example of a fairy’s wardrobe: “They collected heaps of sea glass, some of it the rarest shade of deep blue. And the mermaids, usually so greedy, took pity on the two little fairies and gave them a bucket filled with ropes of tiny seed pearls.” McNamara even includes recipes, and a glossary of fairy baby words.

fairy hug

Then there are Julia Denos’s pictures.  Denos is not exclusively a portraitist of fairies. Her other works, include illustrations for biographies of both Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, as well as other non-famous fictional people. However, she is certainly a perfect artist to bring the world of fairies to life.  Her detailed map of Fairy Village on Sheepskerry Island gives them a home. The faces of Sylva and her sisters are expressive examples drawn from human childhood, while their outfits are mixtures of unearthly accessories, such as wings, and everyday Mary Jane shoes, cropped pants, and fuzzy slippers. Sometimes these items, such as crown worn at the Fairy Ball or at a child’s birthday party, bridge two worlds.  The group scenes in which characters interact with one another prove that Denos is not only a producer of fairy greeting card covers; her supernatural girls are living beings in social settings.  Animals, plants, and other elements of nature also play a role in fairy’s lives and in this book.

Interpreters of fairy worlds might easily fall into cliché. McNamara and Denos have avoided that trap; if you want to share literary works about fairies with a chapter book reader, their books are a wonderful place to begin.

Pastry Wars

It Happened on Sweet Street – by Caroline Adderson, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch, Tundra Books, 2020


Here is a sweet new children’s picture book about ruthless competition and the way to resolve it so that everyone can have her cake and eat it, too. Caroline Adderson’s text alternates between straightforward narration and rhythmic phrases, and Stéphane Jorisch’s (whose work I have reviewed before here and here) fantastic images of humans and animals vying to win customers for their popular concoctions.  Children will find the story colorful, while both young and older readers will enjoy the exciting and allusive artwork.  Are delicious cookies and cakes really worth all the conflict?  A trip to Sweet Street sets culinary opinions against the harmony of the neighborhood.  Who and what will win?


At first, Sweet Street has only one shop which lives up to its name; the other establishments sell shoes and “bric-a-brac.”  Monsieur Oliphant, a bipedal creature whose short trunk makes him a cross between an elephant and some other species, reigns supreme as “Oliphant, Exclusive Creator of Cakes.”  People line up like workers on an assembly line to enter his shop, and they exit the proud owners of his delicious creations.

shoemaker leaves

Then the old shoemaker retires and his store is repurposed by one Mademoiselle Fée as a cookie bakery.   The new owner is ingenious and energetic, about to give Monsieur Oliphant a run for his money.  Every one of her cookies is unique: “She tooled them and jeweled them…/and dusted them with sugar.”

gingerbread animals

You won’t mistake Stéphane Jorisch’s pictures for the work of any other illustrator.  They call to mind, sticking with the baking metaphor, many ingredients, including Picasso, Chagall, and Mordicai Gerstein.  However, like Mademoiselle Fée’s cookies, they are unique.  A happy little girl with red hair and a yellow hat looks something like a Cubist version of Bemelmans’s Madeline, while the baker’s giant gingerbread people have a futurist look. Kids will find them funny.

Adults will, too, but will also find the surrealist associations to have much more than meets the eye.  When yet another baker joins the Sweet Street establishments, her pies make the crazy cookies look like supermarket brands.  Eventually, the cookie wars heat up, making the special location into a gooey chaos: “a massacre of cream,/a catastrophe of meringue,/a devastation of crumbs.”  Between Adderson’s poetic words and Jorisch’s dream-like images, the tension builds.  Someone will have to compromise or find an innovative way to acknowledge each artist and each customer’s favorite indulgence.  After all, people willing to wait patiently for pastries should be able to understand that Sweet Street is “also a street of peace.”  But don’t be too sure.

Cookie pile

Feminist Middle-Grade Novel with pictures by Beth and Joe Krush

Stand Up, Lucy – by Elizabeth Hall, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971

Lucy cover


May 18 is the birthday of the beloved American illustrator, Joe Krush, who was born in 1918.  Readers of my blog (see here and here and here and here and here), and of The Horn Book, and the Jewish Book Council Paper Brigade Daily, know that I am a tremendous admirer of the unique contributions to children’s books, of Joe and his late wife, Beth (1918-2009).  They worked with a distinguished cast of authors, including Beverly Cleary and Virginia Sorensen, and their pictures always form an inseparable part of a story’s impact and beauty.  They illustrated teen novels, classics, dictionaries, and poetry collections.


In 1971, their distinctive black and white line drawings help tell the story of a young teenaged girl in 1904 who committed to the cause of woman suffrage.  When Lucy Snow (the same name as the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette; this connection is a story in itself), runs for class secretary, she encounters both sexism and socioeconomic prejudice. At the same time, her Aunt Letitia, an ardent supporter of women’s rights, comes to visit their family. Lucy learns that it isn’t easy to be a feminist, and that local male neighbors may throw rotten eggs at you if you persist.

Each chapter begins with a Krush illustration, in which characters’ personalities and dilemmas take indelible form in their delicately precise black lines against white backgrounds.  In one image, Lucy’s Aunt Letitia is busy knitting while her brother Will, Lucy’s father, angrily glances towards her as he reads The New York Times. His scowl is as emphatic a sign of male privilege as is his prominent handlebar mustache.  We know it is The Times because the author, Elizabeth Hall, refers to his attachment to that paper. In the picture, we see columns of closely spaced horizontal lines, and comical sketches of presumably important people.  Aunt Letitia is ignoring her insecure brother. She bends carefully over the knitting-needles, which Hall describes as clicking “like a train making up time.”  Her upswept hair, with tendrils at the back, is a mixture of black and white. Her wire-framed glasses imply intellect, and lack of concern with conventional beauty. Everywhere, the Krushes intricate pictures are shorthand for the novel’s world.

Then there is the scene juxtaposing Lucy with her opponent in the school election.  Mabel Smith is the daughter of the bank president, while Lucy is not.  Each girl stands to one side of the school’s door, which includes the inside staircase in vanishing point perspective. Mabel is the image of class superiority.  An oversized hair bow tops her elaborate curls, and her dress is a dizzying array of ribbons and puffed sleeves.  She is actually buying votes with pennies taped to little cards, which she has collected in a wicker basket which looks like the one in which Dorothy carried Toto. Meanwhile, Lucy is wearing a modest middy blouse, a tam o’ shanter, and easy to maintain braids.  Her taffy samples sit in a cigar box.  Lucy looks over at her rival in something like disbelief. How far will Mabel’s wealth and arrogance work in stealing votes?

The Krushes are terrific at drawing objects with a life of their own. After the elections, Lucy’s mother serves the family celebratory goblets of sparkling cider, drawn with tonal crosshatching in a carefully placed order against a tray decorated with swirls.  Father’s newspaper sits at the side because he really has to stay in the picture.  The election is over, but Lucy is just about to confront a nasty machine politician visiting the town to campaign for Theodore Roosevelt and condemn the movement for women’s equality as the product of “unnatural women,” who will “lead to a degenerate society.”  Lucy lets him have it and winds up in the local police precinct, and worse, ultimately in front of her outraged father.  The Krushes capture her humiliation as she sits with hands folded and face downcast, facing the reader, while we see her father’s back and her mother in half-profile, holding her husband’s arm as if to restrain him from doing something which he might, or might not, regret.  Mother is a picture of feminine self-control. She has a tiny waist and carefully combed hair. Throughout the book, she manages her husband through passive resistance and quiet obstruction of his will.

It is impossible to imagine the rousing message of this book, or its careful character development, without the Krush’s nuanced drawings.  If you have not read the books which they illustrated, or if you remember them only dimly, now is a good time to return to their irreplaceable legacy of art which furthers narrative. Happy birthday, Joe Krush!


Looking Back and Forward

Never Look Back – by Lilliam Rivera, Bloomsbury YA, 2020


When Lilliam Rivera conceived the idea of re-imagining the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a modern setting, she took an artistic risk.  Setting this timeless story in a Bronx community where residents have been tested by poverty, racism, and the family fractures which are universal, could have resulted in a novel overwhelmed by obvious literary allusions. Instead, Rivera has created a powerful and compelling story of unique individuals, using the mythological background as a point of departure, not a pre-made script. Readers expecting a modern myth will find instead a nuanced work based on unforgettable characters, rich with elements of mythology, social and political protest, and implicit statements about the power of art.

Pheus and Eury are both in the Bronx for the summer. Both are children of divorce; he is staying with his father while Eury, who lives in Tampa, is visiting with her cousin’s family. Before her move to Tampa, Eury had lived in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane María had economically devastated the island and brought back emotional trauma which had never left her.  Pheus has a complicated relationship with his Pops, a man who has failed in some ways to live up to his family’s expectations but has also given his son profound emotional support.  Families in this novel are neither idealized nor failures. Rivera avoids both simplistic praise and easy condemnation at every juncture of the narrative.

Pheus is a gifted interpreter of Dominican bachata music as well as of other genres.  When he meets Eury, the power of song becomes part of their relationship, a lens through which to he communicates the depth of his feelings about her as well as his confusion about the future. Eury is vulnerable and finds it difficult to trust the ability of anyone to believe in her experiences.  The novel’s supporting characters are more than a chorus behind the couple; Rivera has crafted each person in their orbit as believably flawed but redemptive in their love.  Eury’s devoted cousin Penelope is unsure how to help her, while Pheus’s friend Jaysen, focused on jumpstarting the young artist’s musical career, also alternates between misunderstanding and empathy.  Everywhere in the novel the ambiguity of real life is present.

Then there is evil.  Readers are asked to consider, from the novel’s beginning to its conclusion, how cruelty and exploitation manifest themselves in our lives.  The subtlety with which the author balances the different explanations for Eury’s suffering is one of the most gripping aspects of the work.  Instead of either/or answers there is deep involvement in human nature, and in the political and social inequalities which wreak havoc on people’s lives.  Rivera has constructed a complete novelistic universe out of this dramatic tension, one which calls upon myth but is not limited by it.

Finding Green Time

The Barren Grounds – by David A. Robertson, Tundra Books, 2020


Readers and critics will see in The Barren Grounds, David A. Robertson’s first book in the projected Misewa Saga, a connection to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels.  Robertson himself alludes to the influence, in which his teenaged protagonists cross through a portal to an alternative universe, one resonant with spiritual messages.  Yet The Barren Grounds is hardly a mere homage to Lewis, or even a response to the classic Narnia series framed around Indigenous culture.  Robertson’s vision is his own and his protagonists, both human and mythic, chart their own course through an emotional, environmental, and cultural journey.  The novel’s quest plot, as the characters seek to return a devastated community to the “Green Time” of ecological balance, is exciting, but the complexity of his protagonists’ inner journey is what truly sets the book apart.

Morgan and Eli are two Indigenous children placed with the same foster parents, the well-meaning couple, Katie and James.  No, the young professionals are not grossly insensitive do-gooders, although their kindness and good intentions are inadequate faced with the depth of Morgan and Eli’s losses, and the almost insurmountable history of injustice which will not be resolved by a combination of warmth and acknowledgement of the children’s background.  Eli has more accessible memories of his past, and of the Cree language. He is also a gifted artist, able to create visible images of his experiences.  Morgan struggles with anger and grief, having lived with several families who were completely insensitive to her pain. She is also unable to reconcile anger against the mother whom she believes abandoned her with the vacuum of actual knowledge of her mother’s life.

When the children enter the world of Misewa, they encounter environmental catastrophe due to exploitation of the land and its resources.  Their guides, Ochek the Fisher and Arik, a Squirrel skilled in both survival and wry humor, become fully developed characters, not mere symbols of a superior but embattled way of life.  At each point where the author could have resolved the tensions between the children’s two worlds, he chooses instead to explore the messy inconsistencies of their mission.  Morgan is an unforgettable character, fiercely independent and unwilling to be defined by adults, but also acutely vulnerable and introspective.  She is a stark contrast to the female characters in the Narnia books, who in many ways embody Lewis’s discomfort with female agency.  At every step of the way Morgan resists the temptation towards simplistic nobility, as when she asks with exasperation, “how can I help a village full of walking, talking, animals stuck in some never-ending winter,” or when she responds to Ochek’s encouraging reminder, “You’ve got great strength in you!” with the sardonic, “This is a really bad time to talk like a fantasy character!”

Robertson has created a world of compelling fantasy, personal anguish, and unanswerable questions about how to right past wrongs.  Young readers and adults alike who cross the portal with anticipation will be rewarded with a sense of possibility, both individual and global.

Witches and Kids

Bedknob and Broomstick (combined edition of The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks) – by Mary Norton, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957 (original editions, 1945 and 1947)



Many readers familiar with Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and its sequels may only know her earlier fantasy novels from the Disney movie which adapted them. The books might gain future readers if the planned stage production ever takes place. No, these enchanting and enchanted novels are not of the literary caliber of The Borrowers. The characters are far less developed and the magic is a bit creaky.  Still, they are worthwhile examples of the genre about children who have incredible adventures with the help of sympathetic adults, all the while circumventing the authority of ordinary adults who are boring authority figures.

double page

The first novel tells the story of three children farmed out to live with an irritating old aunt in Bedfordshire while their parents remain in London. It seems that their mother has a job which requires her to send them off for part of each year. (It would have interesting to learn more about that job.).  Charles and Carey are the older, quasi-parental, children. Little Paul is still too young to have bought into society’s rules. Naturally, that means that he is the favorite of a secret witch, Miss Price, a spinster neighbor of their cranky aunt. When the children rescue this odd woman from a supposed bicycle accident which really involved her broomstick, she becomes their friend and involves them, somewhat reluctantly, in her witchcraft continuing education.  When they learn that a knob removed from Paul’s bed will allow them to travel across time and place, they first wind up in London, Paul’s choice to see their mother, and then in a South Seas island populated by hideously racist caricatures of “cannibals.”  The second volume is much better.  The London story involves parking the bed on the street, missing their mother, who is about as attentive a parent as the mother in Mary Poppins prior to the arrival of Super Nanny. As for the cannibals, the explanations required for children reading the book today make it hardly worth the effort.

Even in the deeply flawed first book, Miss Price is not without appeal.  She is an imperfect guardian, caring deeply for the children, but lacking patience and common sense.  In the second book, she is a reformed witch, having sworn to give up the spells and live by the normal rules of domestic life. Like many people with bad habits, she just can’t stick to her resolve, and soon she and the kids are off to the seventeenth-century, where they meet Emelius, a failed necromancer who can’t even believe that the profession for which he has trained is worthless.  The scene where he is almost burned at the stake will also require historical explanations for children.  There is even a romance, proving that bright and non-conforming women can also find love, even if they have to time travel to accommodate it.

Erik Blegvad’s line drawings are detailed, expressive, and elegant heirs to the best of the European tradition of children’s illustration. (Forget the cannibals.) These witty scenes perfectly mesh reality and fantasy and help to create a memorable impression of Norton’s quirky characters.  Mary Norton was fortunate in her collaboration with many distinguished illustrators, including Diana L. Stanley, the famous and controversial artist Waldo Peirce, who illustrated the original edition of The Magic Bed-Knob, and the incomparable Beth and Joe Krush. A voyage with Bedknob and Broomstick only requires a small and well-rewarded suspension of disbelief.

VE Day

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans – Munro Leaf, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1942


Today is the 75th anniversary of VE, Victory in Europe Day, marking the surrender of the Axis Powers and the end of World War II in Europe.  There are many serious works of children’s literature, both fiction and non-fiction, about the War and about its impact on young people.  You may not know that Munro Leaf, author of The Story of Ferdinand, also wrote a popular series of cartoon-illustrated guides to the joys of learning.  Some of the better known were Arithmetic Can Be Fun, History Can Be Fun, and Grammar Can Be Fun (that last one a bit of a harder sell).  A few have even gone back into print.

During the War, Leaf worked for the U.S. Army, and also created a memorable work of home front propaganda for kids, A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans. In th tradition of patriotism & American children’s literature, he tackles the question:  What could American boys and girls do to help the war effort while their fathers and brothers were fighting and their mothers and sisters were holding down the fort at home? His answer:  plenty.

First, you have to put the strict gender roles of this book into historical perspective. Yes, Leaf does suggest that everyone has a job to do, and that asking Dad to mend socks makes as much sense as demanding that a baby take care of the furnace. In fact, Leaf seems unaware of Rosie the Riveter and her tremendous contribution to the war effort. The general message of the book, however, is powerful:

There are some of us who seem to think that we are the only kind of Americans
who really are Americans and people who are a little bit different from us aren’t  Americans at all.

What has made this country so wonderful and strong is that we have come here from  all over the world bringing with us so many great and different ideas, talents and skills.

(Leaf does acknowledge that Native Americans, whom he appallingly calls “red Indians,” were here before anyone else.)

Children know how terrifying bullies become when their power is unopposed: Leaf uses this fact to teach a lesson about bullying on a societal scale:

They are the Faking Bullies who make others unhappy by being mean to them and telling lies about them. These Fakers pretend that they are being patriotic when they do this, but they are really doing their country a lot of harm.

Leaf empowers kids by telling them that it’s time to get busy and he is quite specific in his recommendations.  It’s time to hold family meetings, do housework, repair and recycle, learn first aid, and plant a Victory Garden.  One of his special attributes as an author and illustrator is specificity; along with the simplicity of his cartoon books, this makes his inimitable style easily recognized and tremendously appealing.  What might kids repair and re-use? “Toys, Pans, Clothes, Toasters, Radios, Carpet Sweepers, Bicycles, Vacuum Cleaners, Skates, Lamps, Automobiles, Tires, Furniture, Almost everything you can think of.” This list is presented in artfully spaced double columns, accompanies by small sketches of some of the items.

collage 1

There is a gallery of portraits showing adults helping our country, including “Soldiers, nurses, sailors, motor corps drivers, air defense spotters, canteen workers,” and more.  (Several are women, including the air defense spotter and motor corps driver.)

The tremendous obligations placed on both children and adults may make everyone cranky. Leaf admits this, validating children’s feelings:

If we just plain hate to work, sometimes it’s our own fault, but just as often it’s because other people have made us feel that way about it. The trouble is that they don’t give us regular jobs and then depend on us to do those jobs.

Time to fix that problem by making it clear what is expected of each person; we’re all in this together. The book even includes blank space for creating a map of your community with the location of essential locations: “You can never tell when knowing these things may be very important.”


Some of the suggestions in the book are no longer applicable, including the exhortation to buy War Bonds.  But a great deal of Leaf’s kind and purposeful address to children still is, including an emphasis on self-care. Kids need to eat healthy foods, keep clean, and get enough sleep.  Admonitions to stay cheerful, and to avoid becoming that spoiled “BRAT” (all capitals) might now be viewed as psychologically less-sound, but, remember, there’s a War on.


This is a day to remember, and to remind children that they were part of it.

Speaking of Oceans…

Ocean Speaks: Marie Tharp and the Map That Moved the Earth – by Jess Keating, illustrated by Katie Hickey, Tundra books, 2020

ocean cover

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman author who lacked money and a dedicated space would likely be denied that opportunity to write.  In Jess Keating and Katie Hickey’s new picture book, cartographer and geologist Marie Tharp (1920-2006) struggled against the men dominating her profession, who refused her access to the ocean floor.  Yet even their obtuse prejudice could not ultimately prevent this brilliant woman from mapping the ocean floor and visualizing continental drift for a skeptical world.  Young readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept that, in Tharp’s time, “…girls were not supposed to dream of becoming scientists or explorers,” but Keating’s text’s dramatic examples and Hickey’s stunning artwork together construct a vivid illustration of this frustrating, but not defining, truth.

The book explains Tharp’s devotion to pursuing her career as a combination of her fascination with the physical environment from a young age, and a sharp intellect.  Even as a little girl, Marie was drawn to “The ocean, stretched out before her, like a big mystery.”  Barefoot in the sand, wearing oversized glasses, she looks towards the water with mystic intensity. The image also emphasizes how small she is in relation to the universe; this ratio does not discourage her.

Ocean little girl

Ocean dads lab

Soon she and her equally nerdy dad, a fortunate appearance in some young women’s lives, are looking at specimens in his lab, a place so stuffed with treasures that it seems like a dream come true.  The random assortment of plants, maps, petri dishes and bell jars, pops out in Hickey’s signature combination of earth and jewel tones.  Father and daughter both use magnifying glasses in addition to their huge eyeglasses, a comic and touching sign of their mutual devotion to knowledge.

Ocean Stern teacher

School is not so good for Marie.  She manages to turn art class into her opportunity to experiment with sketches, but the mockery of some undoubtedly jealous boys in her classroom as she constructs her own engineering model would deter a less determined young scientist.  A woman teacher who has obviously internalized male prejudice stares down sternly at Marie; although a girl in the next seat looks as if she is confused about who is right, Marie or her tormentors.


Ocean chalkboard

When World War II forces some flexibility about gender roles as men go off to fight, Marie finds an opportunity to focus on scientific pursuits.  Hickey’s two-page spread of Tharp drawing equations on a huge blackboard is pure poetry, of an accessible kind.  Children reading the book see the young woman poised on a stepstool on one foot, the other lifted to the side like that of a ballet dancer. The breadth of her approach allows her to make breakthroughs: “She discovered geodes and geometry, equations and elements, atoms and antimatter.”  At bottom left and right of the scene are stacks of books indicating Tharp’s true love of the mind; there are volumes of Darwin, Einstein, and Aristotle, as well as William James and Upton Sinclair. (If your child or student is not familiar with these names, here is a terrific chance to introduce them!). One pile of book is topped by a globe, the other by a coffee pot and cup.  Science doesn’t happen outside of the real world.

Ocean dreams

Tharp’s room of her own is a job in a laboratory. Having been denied the opportunity, as a woman, to participate in an exploration of the ocean, she uses the space of her “tiny, cramped office” to study, calculate, and hypothesize. Keating and Hickey take a risk, combining Tharp’s actual work with her dreams.  Their imagery is totally effective, combining the scientific process and pure imagination in pictures of Tharp swimming through ink and dreaming of numbers.

Ocean mansplain

She succeeds in mapping the ocean’s floor, and her reward is the hostility of a mansplaining colleague who ridicules her work. Eventually she is vindicated; a detailed “Author’s Note” explains how Tharp’s pioneering work was eventually acknowledged and led to the discovery of tectonic plates.  This section also includes “Questions and Answers,” including one about why women were excluded from scientific professions, and a list of further resources.  Ocean Speaks speaks to readers about many subjects: science, persistence, prejudice, love of learning.  The exceptional beauty of its images transmits those ideas in a way which children will understand.

Curating for Kids

Hannah’s Collections – Marthe Jocelyn, Dutton Children’s Books, 2000

hannah cover

While absorption in collecting some particular item may not be universal in childhood, it is certainly well known.  Coins, rocks, trading cards, buttons, or cast-off pieces of almost anything granted new meaning in a collection are a hobby, even an obsession, of many kids. In Hannah’s Collections, author and illustrator Marthe Jocelyn (author of Aggie Morton Mystery Queen) creates one girl and her eclectic groups of found objects, using a simple narrative and pictures composed of collaged elements.  The book is a celebration of the impulse to amass special stuff, and a beautiful representation of that impulse in carefully curated pictures, plus a little math thrown in.

When Hannah’s teacher asks her class to choose one collection and bring it to school, Hannah is genuinely confused, even worried. How can she restrict her exhibit to one collectible, when she has accumulated several: seashells, hair barrettes, stamps, Popsicle sticks, “little creatures,” and more. The two-page spread of Hannah’s bedroom is so vivid, almost three dimensional, that it captures children’s attempts to create their own small-scale universe.  From the tray of artfully arranged buttons to the small figures lined up on top of the bookcase, the room is like a small museum.  There is appropriate space between objects, emphasizing that Hannah does not only acquire things; she allocates to each item its own particular environment. She also enumerates the parts of her collections, and thinks about different numerical ways to sort and divide them.


This book is twenty years old.  It is now noticeable when Hannah, in order to make a seemingly impossible decision, “…pressed her fists against her eyes until she saw fireworks,” inducing a kind of psychedelic experience instead of just intuition. You might want to caution young children against doing this.  But even without optical damage, a creative child might arrive at Hannah’s conclusion: assemble her choices as a sculpture, with glue, tacks, string, tape, and rubber bands (the list of adhesives is a collection in itself). Hannah declares her sculpture to be not just a bunch of highlights from her collections, but the beginning of “my new sculpture collection.”

Even if your child’s, or your own, collecting ambitions, are more limited and less transformative, you will identify with Hannah’s ability to find beauty in the ordinary components of everyday life.