Road Map to Maybe

The Map from Here to There Emery Lord, Bloomsbury YA, 2020

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The Map from Here to There is a quiet, reflective novel about a teenager’s road from somewhere, a family and friends with whom she is imperfectly happy, to somewhere else, the unknown endpoint of life after high school.  It is full of all the indecision and insecurity of life itself, and specifically of the tensions in a romance which may be only one moment of many as the protagonist, seventeen-year- old Paige Hancock, tries to figure out her future.  Young adult readers will see themselves in a cast of characters undergoing ordinary dilemmas, which seem extraordinary to them at the time.

 

There are many qualities to like about this book.  The narrative builds slowly, accurately mirroring the way in which Paige experiences the day-to-day consistent realities and the gradually accruing changes which make the last year of high school unsettling.  Her parents are separated, but approaching a reconciliation, and she has a more unusual emotional wound as well, having lost her first boyfriend in a tragic accident.  Paige is fragile, but also determined, after a summer program at NYU, to pursue a career in screenwriting.  Determination, however, is relative, as she is becoming more ambivalently attached to Max, finding herself in a relationship which is rewarding and compromising at the same time, since it the potential to derail her commitment to choosing the best college program for her ambitious plans.

Unlike the case in some popular YA novels, Paige’s life is not one of unremitting tragedy, although it has tragedy within it.  Her friends are supportive, if sometimes as inclined as Paige to allow insecurity and disappointment to overtake them.  Her parents are subject to financial as well as psychological limitations, but they love her, and she can rely on that anchor even when life seems overwhelming.  College admissions is part of the difficult equation, one in which distant adults are determined to throw a wrench into kids’ lives.  Paige summarizes that part of adolescence in one acerbic and funny pair of sentences: “When people called it ‘the sting of rejection,’ they weren’t kidding.  It actually stung, like a slapped sunburn.’” If the reader occasionally expects a simple resolution to Paige’s confusion and potential heartbreak, the author refuses to offer one.  Instead, there are many maybes, as Paige thinks about her own responsibility to cope with difficulty, when to rely on her instincts, and when to ask for help. As she relates life to her summer improv class, she summarizes that “I’d learned to say yes, and.

Paige is never at a loss for a good metaphor. Watching a performance at the local theater where she has worked as an intern, she sums up her recognition that there is no definite conclusion to her journey:

During the Sunday matinee…I watched with a calm deep in my bones.  It was the feeling of a plane’s descent, of the steering wheel nudged toward the last highway exit. The distinct feeling of being almost there.

The Map from Here to There assumes that young adults are intelligent and ambivalent, eager to map out a life but hesitant to finalize plans, and receptive to reading about someone who has been there and survived.

 

 

Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

King Mouse – Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling, Tundra Books, 2019

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A hungry mouse searches in the grass and spies something shiny.  “It was a tiny crown…It was a perfect fit.” Or was it?  Cary Fagan’s witty and sweet fable, with delicate graphite and digitally colored images by Dena Seiferling, answers that question. Young readers will exult with the improbably small monarch; even a huge bear bows down to him.

 

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Later, they will share the bear’s sadness at being left out of the picture.  Finally, they will come to appreciate Henry IV’s frustrated realization that being king has marked disadvantages. Fagan deftly avoids moralizing; he suggests, in simple language which young children will understand, that privilege has its pitfalls and friends don’t care about hierarchies.

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The first lesson the mouse learns is about the inauthenticity of animals who are drawn to his crown, not to him. They’re sycophants, the type anyone who has seen people fawning over young royals in British tabloids.  “’A king at last!’, said the tortoise.”  Apparently, he has spent his life waiting for an opportunity to gather seeds for someone wearing a crown.  A fox gets the brilliant idea that monarchs don’t live by seeds alone, and decides that they must amuse the king by putting on a play.  Seiferling’s picture of the mouse seated on a turtle watching the exaggerated drama conveys his loneliness. Even with his back to the reader, we know that this is not his idea of a good time. (image)

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Then everyone starts finding crowns in the grass, and, before you know it, everyone is a king or queen.  “’Long live me,’ sang the fox,” in a sharp statement of recognition about what happens when people with no motive but selfish gain get power.  Adults will smile in recognition of this fact, but the book builds tension for children, who learn along with its characters why shiny headgear means nothing.  When the mouse offers his friend the bear a wreath of dandelions, the logic of Fagan’s story becomes complete.

From beginning to end, he has contrasted the misleading appeal of the crowns to the natural beauty of flowers, a sunset, and a friend who likes you for who you are.  The fact that the bear had reluctantly participated in the other animals’ toadying behavior just makes his final moment of self-awareness that much more meaningful.  Children who have sometimes followed the leader will find validation of the wish to break away and be themselves.  The quiet, almost Zen, subtlety of the book’s words and images helps children to understand the value of independence. Grown-ups, too.

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Bad Dreams

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, A Young Adult Adaptation – Sam Quinones, Bloomsbury, 2019

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In his 2016 book, Dreamland, journalist Sam Quinones investigated the many causes, as well as the many bad actors and countless tragic victims, of the opiate epidemic that has since become the subject of even more damning revelations.  Now, Bloomsbury has issued Quinones’s adaptation for young adults, and it fills the need for carefully presented and analyzed information about this national disaster, one which often engulfs teens.  It is gripping and horrifying, without glamorizing addiction, striking a difficult balance between engaging and warning young adults.

Quinones’s chronicle involves “daily exposure to the worst of human nature,” and he carefully builds his story to specify how, when, and why this fact sadly manifests itself in the addiction crisis.  Brief historical background material explains the origins of heroin in nineteenth-century German laboratories, and then relates the changing medical applications of opiates, some based on misinformation, but, later, on the deliberate manipulation and lies of pharmaceutical companies, specifically Purdue Pharma.  Quinones crucially breaks down each link in the chain of manufacturing, promoting, and delivering deadly drugs to customers desperate to find them.  He compares the supply and demand chain to a corporate power structure where each aspect; manufacturing, marketing, advertising, delivery; are coordinated to produce maximum efficiency and profits.

Quinones does not offer easy excuses. His condemnation of drug companies’ moral detachment in the pursuit of money is understated and matter-of-fact in tone.  Readers learn, for example, how the results of a 1980 study implying that opiates were safe in a hospital setting were deliberately falsified by Purdue Pharma to assuage doctors who were initially skeptical about the safety of opiate painkillers. However, some of those doctors themselves were reluctant to believe the accumulating evidence that the medicines which they were broadly prescribing were leading to a public health nightmare.  Several steps beyond that in the chain of responsibility were the health care providers who knowingly participated in addicting their patients in order to easily make huge sums of money, which the honest practice of medicine would never have allowed them to do. Adults reading this type of material may be disillusioned; teens may be devastated.  Quinones provides a “Discussion Guide,” and “Resources” related to the issue.

Quinones presents a bleak picture of the impoverished Mexican communities where some of the drug dealers become involved in their trade.  He does not patronize them by simply ascribing their choices to lack of economic opportunity, although that lack is brutally obvious in his story.  Like everyone else in the book, they are responsible, although the calculated objectives of pharmaceutical executives who are easily able to pay millions of dollars in fines and avoid prison time is clearly the focus on the author’s contempt.  As one bereaved mother accuses them, “You are…nothing more than a large corporate drug cartel.”

The young adult adaptation of Dreamland is a book that parents should read along with their teens. It is also well-suited to high school social studies course reading and discussion.

Hospital Checklist: Mouse, Giraffe, Moose

You’re in Good Paws – Maureen Fergus and Kathryn Durst, Tundra Books, 2019

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There is a genre of children’s books dedicated to preparing kids for a trip to the hospital, a frightening prospect however you look at it.  Curious George checked in twice, once after his antics led to a broken bone in Curious George Takes a Job, and once when he mistook a puzzle piece for a possibly delicious candy.  Maureen Fergus and Kathryn Durst’s You’re in Good Paws comforts children with a humorous premise: the patient, Leo, is a boy, while all the hospital staff, as well as his fellow patients, are animals.  At the same time that Leo’s experience is a cartoon fantasy of suspended disbelief, the basic information provided is totally sound. The hospital is a place where dedicated and kind professionals are there to help you get better.

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The surgery waiting room has all the familiar elements: books, crayons, the ubiquitous busy bead maze for toddlers, and puzzles (please don’t even think about ingesting the pieces).  However, instead of anxious children and parents, we see a porcupine or hedgehog reading Quill and Quire magazine, a sight-impaired bat, and a bird who seems to have gotten his head stuck in a jar of peanut butter.

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If you have ever had doubts about the skills of a doctor, you will empathize with Leo when he meets Dr. Stan, a mouse: “At first, Leo was worried about Dr. Stan’s tiny size and lack of opposable thumbs.”  Who could blame him? Soon, Dr. Stan’s friendliness and obvious knowledge puts Leo at ease, even though, as in an Alice in Wonderland reversal of dimensions, the doctor needs to stand on a table to look Leo over. (image)

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Given that no child could approach having his tonsils out with anything but fear, the silliness of the book might seem slightly irreverent, but the book emphasizes a sense of order and predictability from beginning to end.  Leo is helped into a hospital gown by his parents, whose utterly calm and sensible demeanor is the key to Leo’s cooperation.  Nurse Lorraine, a cow who is both competent and maternal. wheels him into the operating room on a stretcher; he is holding a teddy bear, and a picture on the hallway wall shows a dachshund so long he needs to separate frames.

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Without belittling a child’s anxiety, the story suggests that stress might respond to unexpected sources of help, such as a friendly hippo in the recovery room whose skateboard had spun out of control. Of course, Leo’s hospitalization is due to a normal childhood health issue that is easily reversed; the book does not pretend to cover very possible reason for visiting a hospital.  The sense of normality and routine, and of everyday life going on in spite of Leo’s surgery, could still be applied in other situations requiring a trip to the hospital.  As Leo recovers, he visits other rooms, including a cafeteria and the maternity ward. Durst’s signature exaggeration of faces and expressions allows all of her species to register human emotions.  A stork delivers a puppy to proud parents, three ducklings follow their parent, perhaps to visit a new sibling, and two large white bears beam with joy at their cub in an incubator.

Humans and animals overlap again, as the book concludes on the first day of school for both. Even after a trip to the hospital and a full recovery, life continues to present kids with challenges and new reasons to be afraid. A good book, which respects their feelings and offers both helpful facts and colorful distractions can convince kids that You’re in Good Paws.

hospital tour

Pretzel, The Graphic Novel

Pretzel – Margret Rey and H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (reprint of 1944 edition)
Pretzel and the Puppies – Margret and H.A. Rey, Harper and Brothers, 1946

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Margret and H.A. Rey wrote and illustrated several books about animals with human qualities, in addition to their classic monkey-as-toddler, Curious George (my most recent Curious George blog also links to several older blogs on the subject).

Pretzel the dachshund first appears as one of five siblings, all with names beginning with the same letter, always a funny premise to children. Yet, in spite of that same first initial, Pretzel grows up to be different. His special dachshund quality grows strangely awry; soon he is longer than any other member of his breed.  Since this is a children’s book by the Reys, you know that his weird idiosyncrasy is going to turn out to be a big plus.

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H.A. Rey provides clear points of comparison for Pretzel’s odd dimensions.  He sticks out of sibling lineup, and needs an extra-long display cubby when he wins a Blue Ribbon as “best looking dog of all,” obviously awarded by a discerning and compassionate group of judges.  Then he meets Greta, a girl dachshund of normal proportions and soon “Pretzel was in love with her and wanted to marry her.”  He is completely defenseless and naïve, meeting Greta’s snide refusals with a heartbreaking “Please marry me…and I will do anything for you.”  Children may be wondering at this point what he sees in his prejudiced love object, who doesn’t even bother to conceal that she is put off by his looks.  He offers her a beautiful green ball and even twists himself into the snack for which he is named. At least that gymnastic feat ears him a grudging compliment: “Not bad…your name certainly fits you,” from Greta.  (This may seem like a small point; how did Pretzel’s invisible owners know his future length when then named him?)

Only when Greta’s life is endangered and Pretzel has the size, and the courage, to rescue her, does she relent.  This is not the end of their saga.  Children will be gratified to see, on the last page, that Greta becomes the proud mother, judging by the expression on her face, of five puppies.  Everything has been resolved, and a satisfying sense of life’s permanence concludes the book. The Reys, however, still had more to say about this odd couple and their progeny.  They decided to do so a little different, in comic book/graphic novel form.  Pretzel and the Puppies explores what happens when a conventional mother and a well-intentioned but still naïve father, produce a family.

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Perhaps the popularity of comics during the 1940s influenced their choice. The story opens with pictures of Pretzel and Greta, along with their five children: Polly, Penny, Pat, Pete, and Puck. (Is Puck the unconventional one?). The last caption reads, “And if you want to know more about Pretzel – -,” continuing “—just turn the page!” after the reader does so.  Even better, there is one small image in the center of that next page, of four puppies surrounding a book while one puppy actually turns the page. A series of chapters, in the form of individual vignettes, continues the story.  In each one, Pretzel is the impulsive, fun dad, entertaining his children by climbing trees after squirrels, buying them balloons, and taking them for a walk in an unforeseen thunderstorm.

At the conclusion of each episode, Pretzel suffers some negative result, sometimes even an injury which looks awfully frightening, such as his long body covered by abrasions which the puppies bandage, or, getting covered with soot as he falls down the chimney to recover their football. That last one doesn’t seem to faze him, as he has the same broad smile on his face that accompanies most of his activities in the book.  The important part is that his children remain unscathed through every harsh episode.

As for Greta, she remains the responsible parent, keeping the home fires burning while Pretzel has fun.  She finds the children’s missing toy inside a fish while she is preparing supper, and brings enough hot water bottles to cover her husband’s long body when he has a cold. She can’t resist expressing annoyance when Pretzel splashes water all over her newly-waxed floor.  They are complementary parents, Pretzel and Greta, and the unconnected format of the comic strips allows the Reys to avoid any real conclusions about how well this works.  Polly, Penny, Pat, Pete, and Puck seem happy on the last page, as they follow their father on another adventure with mixed results.  When they get older, who knows?

A Life of Service

Sergeant Billy: The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War – Mireille Messier and Kass Reich, Tundra Books, 2019

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In 2016, Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, written by Lindsay Mattick and Illustrated by Sophie Blackall, won the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award for its beautiful and evocative pictures.  Now, Tundra Books is about to release another historical picture book with an animal theme, also beginning and ending in Canada. Mireille Messier and Kass Reich’s Sergeant Billy: the True Story of the Goat Who Went to War takes on the difficult task of presenting war to young readers without romanticizing its terrible reality.  The appeal of the book lies in its hero, a goat named Billy who actually became the mascot of the Canadian Fifth Battalion serving in Europe during World War I. The warmth and adventure of this true account, in which one unwitting animal provides support to a group of soldiers far from home, offers an entertaining and age appropriate history lesson to children.

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While children will be drawn to the story by the improbable nature of Billy’s wartime heroics, adults may notice subtle allusions to the soldiers’ feelings of loss, and need for a mascot who roots their service in country and family.  They acquire the goat, Billy, “in a small prairie town,” where they ask a little girl named Daisy if they may “borrow” her goat.  She looks understandably sad in the picture, but she agrees.  Readers may also feel sad; here is the first, gentle, suggestion that war is harsh and people need to make sacrifices.  A. picture shows the young soldiers clowning around with Billy on the train taking them to deploy; one soldier pushes Billy away in annoyance.

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As they board ship, the men show some mild subversion of authority when they sneak their mascot up the ramp: “The colonel ordered Billy to stay.  But the soldiers of the Fighting Fifth had grown so attached to their goat that they didn’t want to leave him behind.  So they snuck him on board.”  Both picture and text communicate the message.  One soldier raises his arms in an expression of emotion, while his skeptical officer crosses his own arms in front of his chest. Even the juxtaposition of the Battalion’s name, “Fighting Fifth,” with the admission that they had “grown so attached,” poignantly lets the reader know who is fighting this war.

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There is no explicit mention of casualties. In fact, the book offers an invitation to caregivers and teachers, who may need to answer questions and elaborate. Private Billy, as the goat is now known, comforts grieving men, “those who missed their fallen friends.” The poetic phrase referring to those killed in action is both suitable for children, and reminiscent of some of the great poets of the War. an image of a letter and a soldier’s hand composing it is headed “July 11, 1915, somewhere in France.” The date is specific, but the location is one more place in a grueling list of battles.

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Children will feel reassured by the letter’s funny anecdote about their mascot, while adults will recognize the fear behind the phrase “to keep up our morale.” The greatest risk that author and artist take is in a scene of trench warfare, where Sergeant Billy pushes soldiers away from exploding shells.(image). (On the previous page, Billy himself has been described as “shell-shocked.”)

Billy is rewarded for his patriotism with a distinguished medal, but this is not a book which glorifies war.  Rather, it introduces an important subject, the Great War, by including many references to the vulnerable humanity of soldiers who are comforted by the presence of a farm animal from their country’s prairies.  The resolution is happy, but the book also encourages opportunities to discuss the tragedy of war on a level which children can understand. Messier and Reich deserve a medal for their ambitious work.

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Wishing Things Could Stay the Same

Love Is – Diane Adams and Claire Keane, Chronicle Books, 2017
Love Is a Special Way of Feeling – Joan Walsh Anglund, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960

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I recently wrote about Sue Fliess and Claire Keane’s A Fairy Friend, in which a fairy-loving little girl needs to learn that even fairies with the most wonderful and custom-designed habitats need to fly away and move on. In Love Is, written by Diane Adams and illustrated by Keane, it is not fairies, but an urban-dwelling duck, who teach this valuable if painful lesson, again, with a comforting ending.  An adorable city child acquires a duckling, which exits the open gates of a park, along with a butterfly, which I think symbolizes freedom.  The girl puts down her jump rope, backpack, and lunchbox, and picks up the duck, and she is in love.  The text rhymes, characters’ faces are expressive and exaggerated, and the domestic and outdoor scenes are full of unforgettable details and bright highlighted with bright colors.

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The girl is utterly loyal and caring towards her new friend.  She shares sunflower seeds while watching t.v., and trains the duck’s little muscles by allowing it to climb the stairs in what may be a rather grand townhouse.  When the duck flies out of the bathtub, the girl learns that it is “ready for a bigger pond.” The season turns to winter, and girl and duck gaze out the window at a flock of birds flying over a bridge.  Eventually, the duck paddles off with members of its own species and the girl is bereft. We see her grieving over a solitary snack of sunflowers, “reminiscing” by drawing the duck, and “wishing things could stay the same,” as she eats breakfast alone and realizes that things are never going to be the same again.

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Remember the fairies who returned, as a reward for allowing them to fly away?  The little girl has recovered from her deep depression and is seated on her beautiful tree-lined street, that same butterfly poised on her finger.  Now that she has reached a level of acceptance and understanding, the duck returns. It still loves the little girl, and how has a bunch of babies.  Everyone is happy.  Like the fairies, the duck has returned only because the girl was ready to move on.

 

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If you remember the classic mid-century books by Joan Walsh Anglund, you may see something of an homage here to Love Is a Special Way of Feeling.  That book’s examples were not limited to ducks, or even animals.  A mom in a Victorian nightgown represented unconditional love, as did a boy feeding a lost cat, a girl on a school playground noticing one forlorn kid sitting on a log by himself, or another girl studying a flower no one else had seen.

In a typical Anglund book, the only features on people’s faces are eyes, always two small black dots, so she had to convey a lot with other elements in the picture. The girl in Love Is has huge eyes, but also a nose and mouth, and a much more fluent range of gestures. Anglund’s characters are quiet, but social.  Love Is a Special Way of Feeling maybe acutely sentimental, but there are lots of people interacting with one another.  Love Is seems more like a parable; there is no one but the girl and her duck, and that single butterfly.  The urban setting is more contemporary than the pine trees and fireplaces of Anglund’s book.  Still, both books aim for timelessness and they are unapologetic in that design.  You might like to read them together.

“But How Do You Braid Your Trees?”

Alma and the Beast – Esmé Shapiro, Tundra Books, 2019

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Esmé Shapiro, illustrator of Kyo Maclear’s Yak and Dove,  is back with another story of improbable friendship, this one steeped in fairytales and fantastic images from a child’s dream world.  How can the comforts of your own home seem strange and puzzling to others? What kind of creature has a “plumpooshkie” for a pet?

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How do you braid your trees?  Alma’s world of mysterious houses and crazy foliage offers an inviting setting where Shapiro plays with reader’s expectations, turning them into something new. Be ready to pay attention. As any child knows, “…beasts do not always go away when you close your eyes.”

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Beauty and the Beast, in all its different incarnations, hovers over this book. If you expect a rough and hair covered almost human to imprison a beautiful girl, you will find that different rules apply here.  Alma, in spite of her beautiful and soulful name, is a short monster whose long noodle-like locks and big expressive eyes bring to mind Charles Adams’ inventions as well as Jim Henson’s, but also the beings who populate children’s dreams and fears.  Don’t worry; she is entirely friendly and strangely familiar, waking up in a bedroom with walls covered in kids’ art, brushing her teeth, and feeding “butter breakfast tulips” to the pet with the Russian-sounding name. Then, a strange and relatively bald person shows up, hiding behind a fountain of flowing hair.

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As you remember, in many of the versions, from eighteenth-century France to Disney, Belle is held hostage by an aggressively male Beast who prevents her from returning home. Here the “beast” is a sad little girl who has lost her way in the woods. Alma empathizes with her completely, asking herself “Where would I be without my home?”  Alma patiently leads her new companion back to her origins, heroically guiding her.

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Shapiro has written and drawn a setting like no another, one defined by either the abundance or lack of hair.  Woods, cliffs, and glens, beards, mustaches, and a willow weeping long, brown tresses form the stark contrast to the Beast’s home.  After Alma gets over her shock at “bald” houses and trees that cannot be braided, she adjusts to a new routine. She even learns that the Beast has a name, one oddly similar to her own.

Shapiro’s choice of hair as the center of her tale will not seem especially strange to children.  Monsters are covered with it, even nice ones.  Alma’s perception of her friend as hairless will be a little less familiar to them, but understandable from Alma’s point of view.   Mainly, the wild and lush setting of hair as plants and plants as hair sets the book apart from other retellings of Beauty and the Beast.  Alma and the Beast’s two bedrooms bookend the story, with Alma waking and the Beast welcoming sleep. Children want both consistency and adventure, and they will find it in this imaginative celebration of difference.

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Friends Who Fly

A Fairy Friend – Sue Fliess and Claire Keane, Henry Holt and Company, 2016

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If you love someone a lot, you have to let her leave. If that someone is a fairy, you have a little bit more flexibility, because she may fly back to you. This sweet and fanciful book explains how the process of giving fairies their freedom works.

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Author Sue Fliess and Illustrator Claire Keane have created perfectly matched text and pictures in this description of a girl’s fascination with fairies and their miniature world.  They may be related to Tinkerbell, but somewhat distantly. There is even a bit of the commercial White Rock Girl, but modestly dressed.  They are active and energetic, as is the little girl who loves them.  She begins her fairy-finding excursion pairing a wispy dress with hiking boots and a backpack; these are the type of inventive and funny details that set Keane’s fairies apart from the typical little winged creatures.  In Fliess’ rhymes, they are always on the move, as they “Skip through flowers,/Zip through trees,/Hum and buzz among the bees.”  Quoting individual lines does not do the text justice because, cumulatively, they add up to convincing picture of a mutually positive friendship.  The girl builds them houses of twigs and flowers, cooks flower-petal stew, and even flies with them over a dizzying image of houses lit up at night.

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If you are not yourself fairy-obsessed, or if you do not know any children who are, this book might give you a glimpse into an unknown world. If you have children who like to construct fairy homes complete with furniture, Keane’s two page spread of a particularly appealing one will fill you with recognition. “Mossy rooftop, pebble path,/Mushroom cap to take her bath,” are only some of the features of this ideal dwelling. One fairy bounces off a thistle bed while another slides down an English cottage roof.  The most interesting aspect of this scene is the large and heavy hammer lying next to the structure, and the little girl in the background hanging nutshell swings to a tree.  It’s clear that fairy houses don’t build themselves.  They are the result of dedication and skill.

Finally, readers have to learn that fairies are meant to be free and that trapping them in habitats, no matter how comfortable, will not work.  They fly away, each carrying a small suitcase.  Finally, however, if you are “thoughtful, kind, and true,” you may expect your fairy to return.  I know what you are thinking; if only life were like that!  In defense of realism in books about fairies, as if that were necessary, it is not clear if they are back for good, or if they will come and go like unanticipated gifts. A Fairy Friend beautifully validates this hope for children who are fans of fairies, as well as for adults attached to impermanent things.

 

I Love You in the Morning, and in the Afternoon

Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Skinnamarink – Sharon Hampson, Lois Lillienstein and Bram Morrison, with Randi Hampson and Qin Leng, Tundra Books, 2019

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Children’s illustrated books that interpret well-known songs are generally assured of an audience.  It may be the parents who are eager to share with their children the rousing lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land  or Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. It may be a classic lullaby, such as Marla Frazee’s faithful but funny version of Hush, Little Baby. There is the underrated Sesame Street Golden Book of The Monster’s on the Bus, for both kids and parents who have exhausted the possibilities of the original song.

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Now there is a wonderful addition to this genre, an absolutely lovely and enactment in antic pictures by Qin Leng of Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s most popular song. If you have never had the joyful experience of watching or listening to this Canadian trio of kid folk performers, this book is a good place to start.  If you are already a fan, this unselfconsciously antic exploration of a song about unconditional love will not disappoint.

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As Sharon and Bram, (Lois passed away in 2015), characterize their years of experience performing and listening, this is a song to be sung “loudly and proudly,” and, one might add for this book, naturally and constantly.  Leng’s pictures are delicately colored and fluid scenes. Lines from the song accompany each image, encouraging readers to narrate the book by singing.

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Her scenes are also messy, in the very best sense of the word. There are a smiling mom and dad working as a team to bathe two lively kids.  One child is in the tub gesturing the song; the other is drying off with her mother while the father rushes through the door with some nicely folded pajamas.  Overturned bottles, puddles of water, and even a mouse doing a high dive from a shelf illustrate the sort of everyday activities that indicate love in the understated style of both the song’s lyrics and Leng’s art.

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Of course, grumpy children deserve love, too. A compassionate dad brings a tray of milk and cookies to an angry little boy fuming in a supply closet. (insert image) A huge bear, small duck, and smaller fox, who peacefully coexist in the universe of this book, lean over the stairs watching expectantly, read for the family hug to remedy matters.

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Every picture unobtrusively celebrates diversity, with people of different races, ages, and abilities, living and learning together. One image makes this more explicit, as a teacher, looking as enthusiastic as her students, gathers them around a huge globe.  Its size makes it more of a symbol than an actual teaching tool; one of the most engaging aspects of Leng’s illustrations is this melding of reality and fantasy.  Animals wear clothes and mice plant flags. Some kids reach out to touch their homelands, while others remain seated, behind desks or on top of them. (One bookish child with oversized glasses remains fixated on a large book rather than sharing everyone else’s fascination with the globe.)

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A city street captioned, “Be sure to sing this love song with everyone around,” gives Leng the opportunity to create an entire miniaturized environment. Readers can peek in windows to see animals and humans enjoying snacks in a restaurant and watch musicians perform, while, outside, a hedgehog steadies his bicycle for a ride. Children typically love to find these small details.  They will also appreciate the humor of a duck crossing guard helping a mom with her ducklings. Parents may see an affectionate homage to Robert McCloskey’s picture book classic, Make Way for Ducklings.

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It’s hard to see how anyone could fail to appreciate this dynamic reimagining of Skinnamarink. Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s long career, dedicated to bringing music into the lives of families, has found the perfect book to express love and gratitude for their work.