Uncomfortable Conversations: More about Dr. Seuss

I have been following with great interest and some frustration the controversy regarding the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to end the publication rights to six of the author’s books. I thought that I had possibly exhausted what I had to say about the matter, but then I read an interview with Professor Philip Nel in Esquire. Here is my response to Professor Nel, adding to my previous posts about Dr. Seuss (here and here and in my very first blog post).

First, I agree with Professor Nel that the right-wing ideologues of Fox News and their followers have no moral legitimacy in attacking the so-called process of “cancel culture” because they themselves constantly try to “cancel” opponents of their views.  This seems to me to be beyond dispute. The problem is in using the utter hypocrisy of the right wing as an excuse to not engage in discussion about the serious issues of censorship and intellectual freedom.

Professor Nel dismisses the entire idea of censorship by using the term only in its narrowest sense: an actual government prohibition against publishing or reading certain works.  Obviously, we do not have this type of censorship in our country, or at least not yet. For a while there, we were coming perilously close to it.  There is another widely accepted use of the term, which is making a book inaccessible through putting the pressure of market forces on authors, publishers, and outlets for literary works.  Professor Nel approaches the discrepancy between these two uses of “censorship” by mocking it: “No one’s setting these on fire. No one’s saying you cannot read them. No one’s saying they must be removed from libraries. No one’s saying they must be removed from your home.”

In fact, many people are saying that these, and other books, must be removed from libraries. Historically, most of those people have been on the right. “Banned Book Week” is an awareness campaign promoted by the American Library Association and other groups, urging the public to be aware of the threat of censorship. It is dishonest to claim that censorship and book-banning are not operative terms in the case of Dr. Seuss because Seuss Enterprises made the decision to render the books inaccessible.  It’s also a little ironic to see a progressive scholar like Philip Nel championing the right of free market capitalism to control whether a book should be published. Local libraries or school districts that remove books about progressive social issues, LGBTQ stories, or children’s novels containing “witchcraft” usually claim that they are protecting community standards.  In neither case is actual legal censorship taking place.  It would also be reasonable for Seuss Enterprises to specify the “panel of experts” cited as key to their decision.

Against all the facts as we know them at this moment, Professor Nel also belittles the idea that the six books are now virtually inaccessible. Has he checked the major used book sites lately? Unscrupulous sellers are getting hundreds of dollars for them, and for other Dr. Seuss books, which they anticipate might be next on the chopping block, to use a Dr. Seuss metaphor from The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Perhaps his optimism is justified, and the sellers will not be able to command these high prices. However, right now, for him to refer to “the imagined scarcity of the marketplace” is as fantastic as one of Dr. Seuss’s creatures.  Again, belittling concerns with intellectual freedom by referring to book burning or by denying the reality of outrageous prices for the books is an easy way to dismiss the real questions raised.

I will also credit Professor Nel’s acknowledgement that “the most egregious” racist images are those in If I Ran the Zoo. Some reporting on the subject groups all the books and their pictures together, when, in fact, the pictures and their respective contexts are quite different.  I’m not going to analyze individual ones here. If, as Professor Nel insists, the books are widely available, perhaps readers might look and judge for themselves if the offensive depiction of an Asian man in And To Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street, and some of the other inflammatory images, may all be considered equivalent. As Nel points out, the picture in Mulberry Street has already been altered in later editions of the 1937 book, but his response to the possibility of editing picture books is that bowdlerization is ineffective because “the offensive bits are coded into the narrative of the story.” In the case of some works of literature, that is true. It seems unclear, however, why a book which shows the exercise of a child’s vivid imagination through depicting fantastic creatures would remain ineradicably offensive after removing the one picture in question.

I would also agree with Nel’s conclusion that Dr. Seuss Enterprises may or may not have had purely ethical motives in withdrawing these books: “I don’t know if it’s a brand issue. Maybe they realized racism is bad for the brand, and so to sustain the brand, they need to address it.” My opinion is that Dr. Seuss Enterprises did choose to make this statement in order to protect their brand. These are not books that sell many copies, nor is there currently merchandise based on them.  They could also have simply let the books go out-of-print without fanfare; the prices on the secondary market would then not have climbed outrageously.  I think that they tried to get ahead of the ongoing controversy over Dr. Seuss’s legacy by sacrificing his now obscure early books, hoping to prove their organization’s antiracist credentials. But in doing so, they may have miscalculated, because those committed to the argument that Dr. Seuss’s whole body of work is compromised by racism will likely not be assuaged. 

Nel contributes to that possibility by suggesting flaws in other works by Dr. Seuss, including sexism in The Cat in the Hat.  (He cites the late distinguished critic of children’s literature Alison Lurie in making this case.) Of course, there is a dearth of female characters in Dr. Seuss’s work.  I am a committed feminist and I consider myself to be acutely sensitive to sexism and misogyny in children’s books. I also use historical context when judging works of literature, and I know that there are many,  many books to complement, question, or mitigate the effect of one particular work.  Rejecting any children’s book which does not include an empowering vision of women and girls will automatically exclude hundreds of books with outstanding literary value, as well as many forgettable ones.  Parents and educators need to read critically with children in all cases.  Children also use their imagination in interpreting books.

Since Professor Nel insists that readers must be willing to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about racism, a proposition with which I agree, I would like to suggest that he seems to be incapable of having such a conversation about Dr. Seuss’s legacy as a premature anti-fascist, and specifically as a champion of Europe’s Jews. The cartoonist spoke out loudly and persistently in his work, particularly for the leftist magazine PM,  about the Jewish people who were on the brink of genocide. Although Nel has briefly alluded to these cartoons in his work, he always and deliberately underestimates their value, because it would compromise his view of the author as an unregenerate racist.  In this interview, he again refers to “World War II cartoons that have grotesque caricatures of Japanese Americans and of the Japanese.”  If Nel is referring to Dr. Seuss’s awful defense of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war, that was indefensible.  Support for one beleaguered group of people does not excuse  oppression of another group. However, many Americans are barely aware of Dr. Seuss’s interwar cartoons published in leftist magazines. It is important to be intellectually honest about the author’s contradictions. Nel’s reference to Japanese, as opposed to Japanese Americans, is ambiguous.  The author drew numerous cartoons in leftist publications attacking Tojo, Hitler, and other fascist leaders and their followers.  Those are completely different from his disgraceful attacks on Japanese Americans.  I hope that Nel does not consider caricatures of Tojo to be any more unacceptable than those of Hitler or Mussolini.  Where are his detailed references to the Dr. Seuss cartoons lambasting the America First movement, Lindbergh, Hitler, and other fascists? 

Finally, Professor Nel’s conclusion is that anyone who questions the repercussions of Seuss Enterprises’ decision refuses to engage in discussions of racism. It is difficult to refute this argument because it becomes circular. If someone believes that scholars, educators, and ordinary readers have a legitimate interest in having access to all of Dr. Seuss’s work, that person is merely avoiding discussions of racism. But effectively removing the books only negates any possibility of analysis or discussion. Any library or book collection contains hundreds of books which I personally find offensive, and a subset of books which I would consider appropriate for adults, but not for children.  Here is a link to the Library Bill of Rights.

Nel applauds the decision, whatever Seuss Enterprises’ motives, to issue this “product recall,” of “defective” works. “First, you need books that offer positive examples.” No, that is only one very small part of literature’s role.  You can watch Paw Patrol on t.v. with your children for practical moral lessons. It is an enjoyable show full of nice role models and no pretense to artistic quality.  “You need books that do not caricature people.” In that case, Dr. Seuss is out, since almost his entire body of work employs caricature, both verbally and visually. (I can’t help wondering what Maurice Sendak might have to say about these criteria.) Finally, “You need books to tell the truth.” Some of us are slightly less confident than Professor Nel that we can so easily determine what constitutes truth for each and every reader in every book.

An Unforgettable Woman

Audacity –  by Melanie Crowder
Philomel Books, 2015

This is a novel in verse about the life of pioneering labor activist Clara Lemlich (1886-1982). She may not be a household name, unless you grew up in a household imbued with pride in the leaders, many of them Jewish, of the struggle for workers’ rights in turn-of-the-twentieth century America.  In that case, she was there in the pantheon along with Sydney Hillman, Rose Schneiderman, David Dubinsky, and so many others.  Readers of Audacity will learn about the deplorable working conditions in sweatshops and the indifference of many Americans to the conditions under which their clothing was made. The will also come to understand the seemingly ineradicable sexism which women labor leaders like Lemlich had to confront, not only in the workplace, but in male-dominated unions and even their own families. Each chapter in the book is a monologue in verse chronicling Lemlich’s emotional and political progress from victimhood to fierce determination.  Powerful and poignant metaphors, along with rhythmic language and insightful reflections into her own motivations, bring Clara Lemlich and her cause to life.

Lemlich’s story begins when she is a child living in Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire. (The story was previously told in a picture book.)  She and her family experiences violent antisemitism, and eventually decide to emigrate.  Clara describes the constant anxiety, even hopelessness, of their lives. She also paints a picture of herself as a strong and intellectual girl trapped within a family and culture that denies girls and women the right to study or to pursue careers.  Melanie Crowder does not idealize Eastern European Jewish culture, which shared the patriarchal structure of the other communities.  (She does not, however, imply that the Lemlich family is representative of all Jewish families.) While this part of the book was moving, I found some of the poems to lack strong metaphors or rhythm, reading more like journal entries than fully realized poems. (“How can I ever be more/than just someone’s daughter/wife/mother?”)

When the Lemlichs emigrate, first to England and later to New York City, the poems become more polished and Clara’s conflicts more vivid.  Working in an unregulated garment factory, or “sweatshop,” Clara’s life is a prison: physically, emotionally, and financially.  Desperate young women, mostly Jewish and Italian, produce pieces of garments to make shirtwaists, a women’s blouse popular at the time.  The words of the poems echo Clara’s frustration and anger and capture the sheer repetitive torment of the workers’ daily lives:

Locked inside
a brick box
bile rises
lungs pump

workers shuffle
to their stations.
Stools creak
heads bow

needles stabbing
bobbins banging
thread marching in

straight

steady

seams.

Clara attends night school and struggles between pursuing her dream of a career in medicine and choosing to dedicate herself completely to a struggle to free herself and her fellow women workers from exploitation. The answer becomes clear to her: joining a union and enlisting others to join is the only answer.  The double nature of women’s oppression, by ruthless bosses and also by male union leaders who denigrate their ability and their right to participate, only reinforces her convictions:

From the drapers’ table
I hear a new word
whispered
with a hard edge
furtive eyes
darting to the foreman’s desk

                           union

I think this is a word
I need to understand.

Fortunately, when she meets Joe, a printer and fellow labor activist, she begins to see male role models who, unlike her father, respect women and see them as partners in every sense.  Crowder presents this relationship with subtlety, as an enriching part of Clara’s life, but not the only focus of her existence.

Economic exploitation is the sweatshop’s core model. Rather than merely alluding to suffering, Crowder makes immoral principles central to the book, and the workers’ response to them through collective action the only possible solution.

The links in the chain
that connect

the consumer looking
to purchase a clean white shirtwaist
demanding
a lower price from

the clerk in the storefront looking
to move his family to a better part of town
demanding
a lower price from

the owner of the garment shop looking
to put food on the table
demanding
a lower price from

the cotton farmer.

The chain of words mimics the chain of complicity in creating inhuman working conditions.

Clara Lemlich suffered, struggled, and stood up for her beliefs. She did not work along, and knew that without convincing others that their cause was legitimate and their drive to organize a realistic goal, nothing would have changed. Even repeated acts of violence and time in jail did not dissuade her.  Yet Audacity is not a didactic book, but a compelling novel in verse telling one woman’s life story and the story of her moment in history.  At the end of the novel, the author provides a glossary of terms divided into useful categories. (Many readers surely don’t know the difference between a draper and a presser in the garment industry.) There is also a detailed section of historical background and an interview with members of Clara Lemlich’s family. The author has really done her homework, and her book reflects a commitment to thorough and meticulous research.

Dr. Seuss and the Jews

I wrote this article before the latest controversy about Dr. Seuss, and was wondering where to pitch it.  However, because Dr. Seuss is in the news again, I decided to publish it immediately on my own blog.  No, children should not read books with grotesque racist caricatures.  Here I call attention to specific problems in an article that broadly attacks Dr. Seuss for his racism, and specifically lacks context concerning his antifascism and defense of Europe’s Jews. Most authors find that much of their work quickly goes out of print.  The early works by Dr. Seuss with offensive images might well have taken that route. Instead, by announcing their decision, Dr. Seuss Enterprises was able to prove they had taken a stand against racism.  Now the books are virtually inaccessible to scholars, librarians, or anyone else who would like to study and analyze them, because they cost hundreds of dollars on the secondary market.  Readers might not be aware that, for one example, the original edition of Mary Poppins had a chapter called “Bad Tuesday” full of abhorrent racist terms. It has been removed from later editions of the book, with a note indicating that the book has been edited. This might have been a possibility with early Dr. Seuss books.  Dr. Seuss’s legacy as someone who truly revolutionized teaching reading to children has not changed.  Kids still read The Cat in the Hat, Yertle the Turtle, and the Horton books, while McElligot’s Pool has long faded from view. Nonetheless, it is important to have access to these books in order to assess Dr. Seuss’s full legacy: good, bad, and indifferent.

***********

Historian Deborah Lipstadt has used the term “soft-core Holocaust denial” to describe an insidious trend in modern anti-Semitism. Practitioners of this deception do not outright deny that the Holocaust took place. Rather, they minimize it, trivialize it, and deny it any current relevance.  Most Americans don’t think of Holocaust denial and children’s author Dr. Seuss as intersecting at any point.  Yet the recent outcry against racism in the author’s work, including the decision to distance his brand from the Read Across America events founded to coincide with his birthday, are granted legitimacy partly by denying a central fact about Dr. Seuss: he was a vehemently outspoken critic of xenophobia, isolationism, and anti-Semitism in the interwar era, when Jews in Europe faced imminent annihilation, and American Jews felt powerless to intervene in the impending tragedy. A recent academic paper, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, has become a prooftext in the push to topple Dr. Seuss, like Yertle the Turtle, from his lofty status in children’s literature. Cited widely, from National Public Radio to School Library Journal, and even People Magazine, the paper’s apparent power to convince is largely due to its dramatic distortions of Dr. Seuss’s part in the fight against Nazi race hatred.  As in Lipstadt’s description of thinly concealed Holocaust denial, the paper’s authors exploit a declining base of historical awareness to convince readers that Dr. Seuss’s advocacy for Jews was worthless.

The same ignorance of history, which provides a fertile ground for questioning the truth of the Holocaust, has allowed a segment of critics claiming to promote racial and cultural diversity in children’s books to redefine Seuss’s long career. Without a doubt, that career included repugnant racial caricatures of both African and Asian people in his early cartoons for the puerile Dartmouth College humor magazine.  Some of his early picture books, including If I Ran the Zoo, reveal similar racist tropes, as do several of his advertisements for products from bug spray to beer. We look at these today and recognize them for what they are: offensive, even disgusting.  Yes, this is the same Dr. Seuss who later went on to promote environmentalism in The Lorax and peaceful coexistence in The Sneetches.  Long before those popular books reached young readers, Dr. Seuss drew more than 400 cartoons for the leftist New York publication, P.M. This grandson of German immigrants dedicated  much of his work to warning Americans about the senseless cruelty of denying refuge to immigrants, and of turning our backs on Britain as that country begged for an end to the outdated Neutrality Acts of the 1930s.  In his Fireside Chat of December 17, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt, addressed Americans reluctant to become involved in another European conflict, arguing that their refusal to allow aid to Britain was like denying a neighbor the use of your garden hose because the fire had not yet spread to your own backyard.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Seuss was funnier than F.D.R. In a rich collection of his political cartoons on two University of California at San Diego websites (viewable here and here), readers can find an artist whom some would not recognize as the same figure currently vilified as a primitive hate-monger.  Here are just a few which have earned Dr. Seuss gratitude and respect from Jews:

This cartoon uses a familiar Seuss technique of mixing human and animal qualities, as a sad looking bird with an Uncle Sam hat and beard, sits locked in the stocks associated with punishment in early America.  His crime is declared on a sign hanging from his beak: “I am part Jewish,” and his tormenters are named specifically as C.A. Lindbergh and Gerald P. Nye.  Lindbergh, the target of Seuss’s contempt in several other cartoons, was the revered American aviator, a heroic symbol of rugged individualism.   This same Lindbergh was also the most famous spokesman for the America First Movement, dedicated to promoting isolationism by insisting, as Lindbergh did in his infamous Des Moines speech of Sept. 11, 1941, only eleven days before this cartoon was published, that U.S. involvement in the War was being promoted by Jews.  As he warned this disloyal segment of Americans:

Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it…for they will be among the first to feel its consequences…The greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

In a much more graphic cartoon registering Seuss’s revulsion at Nazi persecution, Jews hang lifeless from trees, their identity prominently pinned to their corpses. Below them, Hitler and French collaborator Pierre Laval, head of the puppet government of Vichy, are singing joyfully about the ‘sport” of killing Jews. In case anyone missed the point, a noose is casually draped over Hitler’s arm.  The dictators are singing a parody of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees,” a sentimental fixture in American culture at the time.  

Pearl Harbor brought the end of American isolationism, but Dr. Seuss had no illusions about the potential for defeatism or for the very racism that Americans were fighting in Europe to damage the war effort:

Here, a racist employer, instead of promoting the full use of the American workforce, defends Jim Crow laws and dangerous prejudices against black and Jewish laborers.

Dr. Seuss also dramatically inverted the age-old stereotype of Jews as disloyal “rootless cosmopolitans,” never committed to any country where they lived:

Here it is “U.S. Nazis,” those Americans still reluctant to view fascism in Europe and Asia as threats to American democracy, who are the real traitors. (See Roger Cohen’s poignant look back at the German American Bund’s anti-Semitic attacks.) One of the tools was American anti-Semitism which, if not as historically violent as its European equivalent, was just one step away from a hooded executioner inflicting the same bloody end on both American Jews and Uncle Sam himself.

Where do these courageous documents fit into “The Cat is Out of the Bag,” and its authors’ firm conviction that Dr. Seuss’s role in American history is one of unmitigated evil? It seems that Ishizuka and Stephens realized the need to at least raise opposing arguments in their paper; they claim to have “analyzed Seuss’s early political cartoons…that scholars assert are examples of his anti-racist work.”  They then mention three anti-racist cartoons in which Dr. Seuss argued for encouraging the full use of both white and black labor during the war.   According to Ishizuka and Stephens, these cartoons, rather than crying out for racial equality, are actually “political propaganda geared toward exploiting Black bodies for the purpose of the war effort.”  To strengthen their argument, they grossly distort the work of other Seuss scholars. Charles Cohen, in his 2004 biography, The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss,” offers many details about Seuss’s advocacy of a racially integrated workforce.  Ishizuka and Stephens cite Cohen’s book as testifying to Seuss’s real motive, “boosting the capacity of the war industry.” If fact, Cohen describes Seuss’s pre-War obsession with convincing Americans to empathize with foreigners, as well as his transition, during the War, to promoting American values of equality along with the practical motive of defeating the Axis.  By summarizing this method as “boosting the…war industry,” they are, ironically, echoing the logic of the Nye Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, the notoriously isolationist Senate group which warned of the role of war profiteers in promoting intervention in Europe’s conflicts.

In addition to omitting any references to Seuss’s many other cartoons promoting the values of democracy, the dangers of defeatism, and the selfishness of indifference to refugees, they deliberately ignore any of Seuss’s advocacy for Jews and his stubborn persistence in equating the American brand of anti-Semitism with Nazi hatred. Yet, earlier in the article, they do mention Jews.  In analyzing material from Seuss’s work for the thoroughly racist Jack-o-Lantern, Dartmouth College’s humor magazine, they describe in detail cartoons with crude anti-Semitic references, such as Jewish football players ransoming a ball for money. Clearly, Seuss’s political beliefs and emotional maturity had both evolved since his college days. Ishizuka and Stephens have consciously chosen to exclusively present evidence of Seuss’s early prejudices, and to omit his much more extensive and influential defense of embattled Jews later. In order to negate any value in Seuss’s life and work, they need to deny the validity of the Holocaust within the history of racial atrocities which form the basis of their argument.

One of the most serious charges against Dr. Seuss was his indefensible support for Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, implementing the notorious policy of imprisoning innocent Japanese Americans because of unsupported allegations of potential espionage.  Although a majority of Americans did not question this policy, the very nature of Seuss’s progressive stands on other issues makes his failure to show empathy and courage in this case even more disappointing.  However, Seuss’s critics, in order to denigrate his full career, have conflated his racist attitudes against Japanese Americans with his tenacious warnings about the Japanese government and military.  After American entry into the War, Seuss continued to draw caustic and bold caricatures of the Axis powers, including the Japanese and the Germans.  Granted that the line between racial and individual caricature can be dangerously blurred, is this March 5, 1942 cartoon, showing Hitler and Tojo as a double menace, racist?

Only by thoroughly distorting history can Ishizuka and Stephens hold Seuss guilty for aiding the U.S. war effort.  Incredibly, they characterize Seuss’s propaganda on behalf of the U.S. and its allies as examples of “white savior” narrative.  Many scholars and readers have interpreted Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who (1954) a fable about the value of even the smallest and most insignificant beings, as an implicit response to the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Ishizuka and Stephens dismiss this approach, complaining that “…Seuss never issued an actual, explicit, or direct apology or recantation of his anti-Japanese propaganda…”  The expectation that Seuss would have “recanted” his support for an Allied victory in World War II is absurd, but it succeeds in building the argument that the War itself was immoral.  Therefore, any motivation for fighting which was rooted in protecting victims of Nazism and Japanese fascism, was worthless. This would include Dr. Seuss’s attempts to warn of the impending genocide against Jews. The article’s authors neatly reduce any reading of Horton Hears a Who as a defense of the vulnerable to the equivalent of contemporary racism, where “people of color are forced to prove their right to life and that their lives ‘matter.’”

Each reader and educator will have to make an individual decision about Dr. Seuss, as well as about any artist whose ideas evolved over time, even as early prejudices left inevitably ugly stains on his work.  How much evidence do we need of compassion and bravery in Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons to ignore the grotesque caricatures of African and Asian people which lurk in some of his picture books and cartoons?  There is no simple answer to that question.  However, Ishizuka’s and Stephens’ recent article, as well as other attempts to banish Dr. Seuss from the American imagination, do not engage with that paradox. Instead, by carefully excluding a major segment of Dr. Seuss’s long career, his dedication to the cause of protecting Europe’s Jews from annihilation, they provide a textbook example of Deborah Lipstadt’s “soft-core Holocaust denial.” A recent piece recommending Ishizuka and Stephens’ viewpoint, at Teaching Tolerance (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center), sternly warns us that “It’s Time to Talk About Dr. Seuss.” Indeed it is.  Jewish readers might well consider the motives for constructing so unbalanced an image of the author and artist. Without turning away from honest discussions of his work, we can continue to call attention to an unforgettable part of his legacy.

A Mountain of Potatoes and a Damsel in Distress

The Eight Knights of Hanukkah – written by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Galia Bernstein
Holiday House, 2020

Yes, I know it’s not Hanukkah anymore, or perhaps it would be better to think of the timeline as not Hanukkah yet.  Purim has just ended and Pesach (Passover) is around the corner.  But it’s a good time to think about inviting the Eight Knights of Hanukkah to your home.  Their names are a mix of Anglo and Jewish tradition: Sir Alex, Sir Gabriel, Sir Margaret, Sir Julian, Sir Lily, Sir Henry, Sir Isabella, Sir Rugelach, and their memorable mother, Lady Sadie. Leslie Kimmelman’s humor is welcome, and so is her clear statement that gender roles restricting knighthood and heroism to males are just ridiculous. Galia Bernstein’s inventive illustrations bring medieval manuscripts up to date and make them ready to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

Like so many literary classics for children, the book opens with a map, introducing the village where our story takes place.  This not a metropolis; the landmarks listed include little more than a vegetable patch, a bakery, and some lettering indicating that “Here Be Dragon,” and “Hot Soup.” When Lady Sadie sends her eight adult children on a quest to save the last night of Hanukkah from “a dastardly dragon named Dreadful,” they are ready to succeed. Said Dragon has wrought havoc, everything from damaging a child’s dreidel to leaving a woman alone with a huge pile of potatoes ready to be peeled for latkes (potato pancakes), but no helpers available. Each person’s dilemma requires a solution which fits the category of mitzvah, a commandment, in this case, a good deed.  Some villagers are sick. Naturally, “Sir Julian, the fourth knight, performed the mitzvah of bringing chicken soup to the sick and keeping company with the lonely.” Throughout the book, there is a careful balance between humor and practical lessons about the obligations of the holiday and of Jewish life in general.

The pictures are just perfect for this story of a group of loyal Jewish knights and a dragon who turns out to be somewhat less terrifying that they would have predicted. Each knight is an individual, with carefully delineated features. Bernstein’s palette recalls a box of recently sharpened color pencils.  Piles of sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are the same light brown as Sir Lily’s hair, while their red filling matches the roses climbing the trellis to Lady Sadie’s window in the castle. Each illuminated initial beginning a page contains an intricately drawn object: a rolling pin, a cat and dog, and, finally, a beautiful chanukiya (Hanukkah menorah). The book’s culminating feast, where the knights “exchanged tales of spectacular deeds and derring-do” is a truly communal event; multigenerational, multicultural, juggling and dreidel-spinning fun. There is even a young dragon trying out his skills.  A note at the end about “The Traditions of Hanukkah” points out that fulfilling mitzvot is a year-round process, so you can definitely start reading and sharing The Eight Knights of Hanukkah now.

Best Things in Life are Free

The Smile Shop – written and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura
Peachtree Publishing, 2020

A young boy in a bustling city is excited, because he has saved enough money to buy himself “something for the very first time.” The reason for his happiness may be the desired purchase, or perhaps the experience of independence itself, but he is going to savor his trip through the street market before deciding how to spend his money.  Satoshi Kitamura evokes the sense of a child’s new freedom, his disappointment when an accident occurs, and the realization that, sometimes, the best things in life are not an expensive toy boat. The Smile Shop gives the sense of both a classic fable and a modern tale of endless choices in urban life.  At the end, readers understand that, while the boy’s wish for something new was not trivial, his ability to adjust to circumstances was more meaningful and fulfilling. 

There’s a timeless quality to the book. The multicultural city residents wear contemporary clothes. As the boy walks among them, his dark blue sweater and matching boots, and his bright red scarf, cause him to stand out from their gray, brown, and pastel forms.  He might be a boy in a fairy tale, or Harold among the creations of his purple crayons. Kitamura’s unmistakable choices for the market’s wonders are not disposable. Instead, the boy is attracted to such serious items as a wonderful-smelling soup , an analog clock, and a finely crafted musical instrument.  Young readers may recognize that there are no video games or even sports equipment among his possible choices.

Once his money falls down a street grating, we are in the territory of easily identified disappointment. How did that happen? Was he distracted by too many possibilities?  The book then slips from reality to possible fantasy, as the boy enters a shop labeled “Smile.”  There are portraits of smiling people on the wall, but the owner at first appears quite serious.  In fact, the element of caricature in Satoshi’s drawings, as well as his three-piece suit and bowtie,  gives him an intimidating demeanor. After the non-monetary exchange takes place, the boy has been enlightened. Even the economy of the street is transformed, as the search for ordinary goods and services becomes a celebration, with music, dance, and conversation.  There is no heavy-handed moralizing about materialism or greed, just an appealing and subtle illustration of ideas.  Disappointment is part of life, distraction can lead to mistakes, and people need more than a fancy toy boat or a gourmet meal to be happy.

Little Women Fan Fiction

Little Women Next Door – by Sheila Solomon Klass
Holiday House, 2000

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-69) has influenced authors, readers, and bookish girls for more than one hundred and-fifty years. The original novel has been reimagined and recreated in film, opera, and theater, and has also inspired numerous works of literature, from biography to graphic novel.  I would like to begin looking at some of the novels which respond to the original classic; some of these have become relatively well-known, while others remain obscure. In the latter category is an unusual middle-grade novel by Sheila Solomon Klass, the author of several works focused on female characters. Sadly, there is not even a Wikipedia entry dedicated to her. (Klass is the mother of pediatrician, author, and New York Times health columnist Perri Klass. Dr. Klass is a founder of the children’s literacy charitable program, Reach Out and Read.).  Little Women Next Door is based on an unusual premise. Set in the Massachusetts community where Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, along with other “consociates,” attempted an experiment in communal living at Fruitlands, it is told through the perspective of a next-door neighbor, Susan, who befriends Louisa and the odd assortment of Fruitlands residents.  The narrative makes clear that Transcendentalist philosophy was more of a burden than a liberating experience for women and children.

Susan lives on the adjacent farm with her stern, traditionally Christian father, and her empathetic Aunt Nell. Her mother has died, and Susan is acutely aware of the loss. Her father’s standards are exacting and she has few opportunities to socialize outside of her family.  When the non-conformist newcomers show up next door, the first key to their unusual way of life is a man with a long beard.  Klass is adept at presenting the perspective of an intelligent child who questions adult behavior while still lacking the confidence to fully trust her own judgments.  Soon Louisa becomes her friend and confidante, and her father, who turns out to be more flexible than he had first seemed, actually allows Susan to become a student in their unorthodox school, where experiential learning is the norm.  Susan also has a stutter; rendering her speech in the text seems awkward, yet probably as close to accurate as possible.  As she gains confidence studying with Louisa’s father and her friends, her speech improves. Klass shows this as an incremental process, not a miracle.

One of the strongest and most compelling characters is Louisa’s mother, Abigail.  Her patience with the philosophy of Fruitlands’ male founders is not infinite.  Not only is veganism enforced, but other less palatable prohibitions also make everyone’s life difficult, even dangerous.  Without a lamp using whale oil, Mrs. Alcott can barely see well enough to read, nor, for that matter, to perform the countless domestic tasks which the supposedly radical men cannot envision as anything but women’s work. 

The villain of the story is based, as are most of the characters apart from Susan and her family, on an actual person.  Charles Lane was a British philosopher whose rigid adherence to abstract ideals, as well as his overall incompetence, reduced life at Fruitlands to a daily struggle for survival. Yes, they are abolitionists and committed to progressive education and other causes, but Lane’s insensitivity borders on cruelty. When he attempts to force the Alcott’s to join him, and his motherless son, at a Shaker community, Abigail refuses.  Enforced celibacy and its destruction of her family relationships are beyond her ability to compromise. 

Susan sees adults and their shortcomings clearly.  Klass’s creation of this fictional character exposes their hypocrisy and Bronson’s weaknesses, but also his tenderness and Abigail’s strength.  Most importantly, it brings out Louisa’s wild imagination as she invents the stories that will become the beginning of her career, eventually chronicling the lives of girls and women.  Sheila Solomon Klass has offered a different angle on Little Women’s creator, elaborating on her challenging childhood and her fierce support for the people around her. 

Sleeping in Space

Goodnight, Astronaut – written by Scott Kelly, illustrated by Izzy Burton
Tundra Books, 2021

Everything is different in space, even sleeping.  Children often resist going to sleep, finding the daily routine of bedtime to be mundane, even frustrating, compared to the fun of being awake.  In Goodnight Astronaut, Scott Kelly and Izzy Burton make a convincing case of getting a good night’s rest, especially for aspiring space travelers, or anyone who needs energy for a day of adventure.  How could argue with Kelly’s premise, especially as he is an actual member of this select profession? “Luckily, sleep can be exciting if you’re drifting off in the right place.”

Burton’s pictures are infused with nostalgia, a comforting sense that childhood can be a good start for nurturing dreams.  Readers meet Kelly not as an accomplished veteran astronaut, but as a child reluctantly saying goodnight to his mother as he and his twin brother “fight sleep like an enemy.” When the Kelly twins are a bit older, they share time on the family boat, where the sensation of sleep returns as the rocking of waves, and foreshadows the future astronaut’s true vocation, where water mimics the weightlessness of zero gravity.  Kelly imaginatively describes each stage of his life as a step towards space. 

Time on a submarine as a young man is more nuanced than the simple comfort of a family boat trip. The underwater environment is also soothing, even womb-like, with the crew encased in bubbles, but there is pressure and stress.  “We’re secret sentries guarding against danger,” Kelly writes, and sleep is no longer an annoyance to be avoided. Instead, it is a desired part of the day which is rationed, because “there are more people than beds.”

Kelly’s story alternates between earth, sea, and air.  Flying in a military jet, sleep is an essential tool, a defensive weapon against exhaustion that allows the pilot to fly “whenever and wherever I’m needed.”  In every environment, sleep is a component of preparedness, a natural process, and a reward.  Unlike in books for younger children where the end of the day punctuates a routine with consistency and reassurance, here it is exciting, as well.  Kelly’s words and Burton’s pictures accomplish a true balance between the different qualities of rest. They even reinterpret the cliché of life in a fishbowl, where people feel themselves to be scrutinized and judged. Here, an explosion of colorful sea-life, in Kelly’s speculation, are the ones who feel themselves being monitored by the aquanaut’s respectful observation.

The relationship between the twins returns when Scott Kelly travels on the shuttle, Discovery, while his brother, Mark, also an astronaut. remains committed to his family, and to progress on planet Earth.  (The book omits the tragic, but ultimately inspiring, parallel story of Mark Kelly’s dedication to caring for his wife, then Representative Gabrielle Giffords, after she was shot.  Mark Kelly is now a United States senator.)  By the end of this book, children will have learned that family, dedication to a goal, and a good night’s sleep, are all essential to success.  Goodnight Moon, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Goodnight, Astronaut, are all a beautiful sequence for sharing.

Why We Fight

War Stories – by Gordon Korman, Scholastic Press, 2020

Trevor Firestone is a typical twelve-year-old, who loves video games and argues constantly with his father. Actually, he is not that typical.  His parents having divorced, he lives most of the time with his mother, stepfather and two half-sisters, but when he stays with his Dad, the other member of the family is his paternal great-grandfather.  Jacob Firestone, or G.G., as he calls him, is a World War II veteran, a crusty ex-infantryman with no patience for euphemisms when describing his wartime experiences: “He didn’t pass anything; he died. Why do we have to soft-pedal it?…First you’re alive and then you’re not.”  He also lacks patience with modern technology, although his great-grandson’s fascination with simulating World War II through that medium is a central part of Trevor’s life. Trevor’s father, Daniel, has actually been raised by Jacob, his grandfather.  This relatively unusual family constellation allows the author to center on a direct relationship between a member of the “greatest generation” and a preteen.

The novel reveals a compelling mystery. Traveling to Europe so that Jacob can receive a long overdue medal from the French town which he helped to liberate during the war, Jacob and Daniel learn that some young residents of the town are attacking him as a traitor, posting messages on the internet about his alleged complicity in having contributed to the deaths of those whose lives he was charged with saving.  Underlying this plot is the essential conflict between Daniel, who is disturbed by what he sees as his grandfather’s glorification of war, and Trevor, who believes that his father fails to understand the magnificent sacrifice of soldiers who fought the Nazis.

While Daniel’s concern about his son’s constant immersion in a virtual world of war seems justified, after a point I became impatient with his apparent lack of appreciation for the historical context of one particular war, World War II. (Daniel is a history teacher by profession.)  His philosophical pronouncements about war as a terrible way to resolve conflict are certainly true in a general sense, but they came to seem as naïve as Trevor’s excitement about everything connected to his grandfather’s service.  (The title of this post comes from director Frank Capra’s series of documentaries produced by the United States Department of War as effective propaganda; while these films clearly simplify the truth, they make it clear that the result of the war would have existential consequences.) Chapters in the present alternate with scenes from Jacob’s participation in basic training and the subsequent battles for which no soldier could have been emotionally prepared.  A colorful cast of characters, reminiscent of classic movies about the era, advance the story in a moving and believable way.  Yet the reality of Nazi aggression and grotesque crimes against humanity is almost completely absent. 

The most difficult part of the author’s approach for me, was one odd and glaring omission.  Jacob Firestone, by his name, is clearly Jewish.  The author dedicates the novel to the memory of his own grandfather, Sergeant George Silverman.  Aside from one brief mention of a cemetery with “endless rows of immaculate white crosses and the occasional Star of David,” and one comic reference to a soldier named Ben Schwartz whose mother sent him a salami from Brooklyn, the Jewish identity of the main characters never enters the story. Gordon Korman has no obligation as an author to approach the story from this specific angle, but it is wholly improbable that Jacob Firestone would have been unaware of the dangers he faced as a Jewish American G.I. were he to be captured; some Jewish soldiers even elected to omit the “H” for Hebrew from their dog tags, for this reason. In addition, although Daniel, unlike his son, is totally aware of “why we fight,” in the general sense, Jews in America, by 1944, knew of Nazi genocide against their brethren in Europe, even if the horrific magnitude of their atrocities did not come to light until after the war.  Towards the end of the book, Jacob Firestone meets a German soldier whose life he had spared in a moment of humanity, causing the American to feel “reborn” by his own act of mercy.  During the commemorative ceremonies, the German shows Jacob photographs of his family. As if in vindication of his grandson, Daniel’s, ideas, Trevor expresses joy that, due to his great-grandfather’s decision, “all those lives suddenly became possible.”  Given that two out of three European Jews were killed, never to have descendants, I personally found this facile conclusion to be grossly insensitive. Although War Stories raises interesting points about generational differences, I would recommend that the author do more research before approaching this topic again in his work.

Putting Out Fires

Send a Girl!: The True Story of How Women Joined the FDNY – written by Jessica M. Rinker, illustrated by Meg Hunt
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

There are still many gaps in books for children about lesser-known heroes of the fight for women’s equality.  Send a Girl! tells the true story of Brenda Berkman, the first woman to break the seemingly indestructible barrier against allowing women to join New York City’s Fire Department.  The book evokes powerful emotions: frustration, anger, pride, and gratitude.  It is also a cautionary tale; there is still a great deal more to be accomplished.  Children reading the straightforward and yet dramatic text, and looking at the powerful pictures, will definitely be drawn to Berkman’s struggle, and will also have productive questions for parents and educators.

The front and back endpapers of the book are a wonderful preview and summary of its themes.  Red drawings against a light-yellow background simulate fire. Icons of the story include flames, city buildings, fire-fighting tools, and a photograph of young Brenda adjacent to a firefighter’s helmet.  The moving dedication page includes a scene, later repeated in the text, of Brenda studying for her firefighter’s exam. She is the totally authentic person we will meet in the book itself. A pencil behind her ear recalling pre-technology days, she points to the lines in a book while making notes with her other hand.  A cup of coffee and a bunch of bananas indicate that Brenda is dedicating her personal time to the pursuit of a goal.

The book narrates Berkman’s life in flashback. At the beginning, she is a busy professional. “She hauled hoses! She climbed ladders! She even broke through walls!” Yet readers soon learn that the achievement of her life’s dream was almost blocked by man-made and malicious obstacles.  First, during her nineteen-fifties childhood, Brenda was discouraged from participating in sports. Later, she attends law school, but just entering any male-dominated profession is not enough. She knows that she wants to be a firefighter, and she is ready to confront the prejudices that deem her incapable of doing so.

Jessica Rinker and Meg Hunt’s depiction of Berkman’s ordeal does not soften the hard facts.  Angry and threatened men bully their colleague. Even tough New Yorkers, portrayed reading The Daily News on the subway, are full of snide skepticism at the possibility that women could be first responders to the city’s needs. Although Berkman passes the competitive exam and is welcomed to the ranks of the FDNY, her triumph is marred by the entrenched hatred of her colleagues and even of the people she is committed to serving.  One two-page spread is truly heartbreaking, reporting that “Some of the other firefighters were cruel. They pulled a lot of pranks. But these pranks were not funny tricks. They were mean and dangerous and sometimes threatened the women’s lives.” There is a lot left unsaid; adults reading with children can fill in the gaps, and also address exactly why so many people opposed the inclusion of women in a department dedicated to public service.

Hunt’s illustrations are unusual. They have a cartoon-like quality, in the sense that they convey action as well as emotion.  Brenda Berkman becomes both a distinct individual and a symbol of women’s bravery.  Her compact frame is physically strong. Her face registers a range of feelings. Watching a group of her colleagues enjoying a spaghetti dinner in the firehouse, she sits on a bench, seeming on the verge of tears. The joviality of the men highlights the grotesque hypocrisy of their actions.  But addressing a group of the United Women Firefighters, she exudes both compassion and confidence.  Suited in her protective gear and wielding a mallet, Brenda Berkman has greater superpowers than any comic book hero.  Send a Girl!, which includes “A Note from the Author,” further background information, and list of sources, is an essential book to share and an inspiration to both children and adults.

Versatile Fun with Narwhal and Jelly

Blankie (A Narwhal and Jelly Board Book) – written and illustrated by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021

Bubbles (A Narwhal and Jelly Board Book) – written and illustrated by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021

Not all board books are created equal.  Different young children prefer different ones, but Ben Clanton‘s newest incarnation of his Narwhal and Jelly series in this format has promising features. They are square and medium sizes, not for babies but for kids old enough to listen to the story. Their characters, a narwhal and his jellyfish best friend, follow a logic familiar to toddlers and young kids.  The pictures are bright and simple, almost as if children could create them themselves, although, of course, the concept of the books is from the mind of a talented author and artist who relates to their perspective.  They are about two subjects close to children’s hearts: the simplicity of a beloved blanket, and the almost supernatural fun of bubbles.

The plot of Blankie starts with an obvious but key observation: blankets are not merely meant for the limited uses of adults. Narwhal and Jelly seem to float against a white background, and they take off on a fight of make believe.  A blanket might have a mundane use, yucky to adults but not to kids, as an improvised way to blow your nose.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is a hat, a flag, or a picnic blanket.The picnic scene includes another popular verbal entertainment: puns. “I like this idea a waffle lot!” proclaims Narwhal. Parents and teachers know that, even when kids don’t initially get the humor behind a particular phrase like this, once you explain to them they find it hilarious. 

Of course, draping a blanket around your shoulders instantly converts you into a superhero. The best part of Narwhal and Jelly’s friendship is that each one has total support and admiration from the other.  Jelly’s sincere compliment, “That cape is super great!” is the equivalent of a starred review.  Naturally, a book about blankets would not be complete without their most reassuring use, for restful companionship. Under the blanket together, the two friends each grasp the top of it, narwhal with his flippers and Jelly with his tentacles, drawn as Clanton’s signature single black line.  Their normally wide-open eyes are black ovals; asleep, their eyes are an inverted letter “U”s. Clanton knows how children perceive the world.

Another popular source of fascination for kids are rainbows.  They make an appearance In Bubbles, where the friends have fun with objects that are a bit more ephemeral than a sturdy blanket. In fact, the disappearance of a bubble sometimes causes some anxiety, as in the phrase, “You burst my bubble,” which Jelly utters in one moment of frustration. But the rest of the book involves just relaxing and joyous exploration. A bubble which refracts light becomes, in Narwhal’s imagination, a rainbow, and Jelly agrees.

Even the word itself is composed of multicolored letters, joining text and picture in a way which kids understand is the whole point of picture books.  Even a simple blue bubble attains the status of “the most bubbliest bubble I’ve ever seen,” because redundant language doesn’t strike kids the way it does adults.  Superlative, redundant, or simply “unbelieva-bubble” all delight children.

In the Middle Ages, the narwhal’s tusk was sometimes thought to be the elusive unicorn’s horn.  Ben Clanton has captured that sense of magic, along with zany humor and verbal play, in his Narwhal and Jelly books for older children. Now little kids can enter this universe, where ordinary objects and their infinite uses form the backdrop to friendship.