Curating for Kids

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

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

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

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

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

Small is Grand

When Emily Was Small – by Lauren Soloy, Tundra Books, 2020

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Picture book biographies for children that examine the childhood of a famous person are not a new phenomenon. There are several series dedicated to the assumption that kids will enjoy reading about accomplished grownups when they were just kids.  When Emily Was Small is a different kind of book, using the young life of renowned Canadian painter Emily Carr as a lens focusing on her almost mystical connection with nature. Rather than depicting her early experiences with art, it suggests to children that the roots of her future creativity were apparent in her encounters with the natural world when she was small.

Lauren Soloy makes her purpose clear from the beginning, telling readers that “Once there was a girl who would grow up to be the artist Emily Carr.  But this is a story about when she was small.”  Those two brief evocative sentences let children know that their own perceptions matter.  In an afterword, she gives biographical information about Carr, and explains that she drew on the artist’s autobiographical The Book of Small. The young Emily of the book interacts with many elements of nature, greeting beans, leaves, and currant bushes with a personal “hello,” and receiving in return the different sense impressions each one could offer:

Hello, wild place, Emily said.
It answered her with a sweet
pink smell that called to bees
and butterflies and other
trembly things.

That verbal image of “trembly things,” like so much in the book, captures the intuitive poetry of childhood.

holding hands

Her companion in the book is a kind of Sendakian personification of the wild, named Wild.  When she first meets him, he is baring his teeth, but so is she. They soon become friends, holding hands and even flying together through “restless seas and towering trees, and observing joyfully together all the wonders of nature.  Wild’s remark that “…the color you think of as green is really a thousand shades and hues” is also a description of Soloy’s gorgeous color palette, along with other pastel hues, and Small’s striking black hair and white dress.

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The opposite of Wild is Emily’s mother, shown only from the back or as a faceless body. Sadly, she is unable to empathize with her daughter’s special visions, which, in one picture, Soloy represents as a cascade of objects emerging from the girl’s meditation, where they are endowed with new life. Instead, she admonishes Emily for dirtying her dress. When she brushes off the dress, “Emily felt herself shrink back down to become something small once more.”  What child has not, at some time, felt herself diminished by the insensitivity of an adult authority figure, even a parent?  Yet readers learn in the afterword that Emily was not defined by these limits, growing up to be a woman dedicated to beauty, “…who strove her whole life to experience the bigness of things.”  A portrait of Carr, confident in her visions, looks out, assuring children that being small is only the beginning.

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Tomie dePaola, 1934-2020

Bonjour, Mr. Satie – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991

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Tomie dePaola, one of the most artistically gifted and humane authors and illustrators for children, died last month.  Of course, as a children’s literature blogger, I have written about his work before (see here and here and here and here and here and here).  Instead of attempting to sum up his incredible legacy, I would like to bring attention to just one of his beautiful books.  Think of Bonjour, Mr. Satie, as an homage to modernism, a Midnight in Paris for kids, a chance meeting Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and a handsomely dressed cat and mouse.

When Rosalie and Conrad receive an elegantly reproduced postcard from their uncle, Mr. Satie, they are thrilled, but perhaps not fully prepared for what he will bring them.  A recipe from Alice and Gertrude, and an many fascinating anecdotes about his friends in the artistic vanguard of Paris and the world.  Each picture features these provocative but affectionate friends. Never one to patronize children, Tomie includes a key to the cast on the flyleaf, although it is limited to first name and initial; in addition to Gertrude, Alice, and Pablo, readers will meet Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Isadora Duncan.  There is a spirited argument about the relative value of Picasso’s work and the paintings of Henri Matisse.  Fortunately, Mr. Satie and his mouse friend, Ffortusque Ffollet agree to judge the contest.

While this particular dePaola gem may be more geared towards adults than some of his other books, it presents a wonderful opportunity to introduce works of art to young readers. They can judge the magnificent paintings hanging on the wall, or they can just enjoy them, with some helpful context provided by adults reading the book to or with their kids.  The signature artistic style of Tomie’s characters, with faces drawn from medieval art, comic books, and Tomie’s inimitable image of humanity, is easily recognizable.  Equally familiar is his moral, in the words of Mr. Satie:

I have concluded that to compare Henri’s paintings of Nice with Pablo’s paintings  of newspapers, guitars, and faces from all different sides would be to compare     apples with oranges.  Both are delicious but taste totally different.

The book ends with a return to Rosalie and Conrad’s home, less sophisticated than Paris, but warm and inviting.  Their uncle has brought them a gift of paint sets, and the greater gift of an intergenerational bond, as they uncle, niece, and nephew create their own visions.  Au revoir, Tomie.

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Before She Was Agatha Christie…

Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano – by Marthe Jocelyn, with illustrations by Isabelle Follath, Tundra Books, 2020

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Right now obviously seems like a good time to curl up with an engaging mystery, and why should middle grade and young adult readers be deprived of that experience?  Marthe Jocelyn’s new series, based on an imagined childhood for author Agatha Christie, has debuted with The Body Under the Piano, an edge-of-the-chair whodunit built around charming humor and inventive characterizations, as well as suspense.  The book’s clever conceit might be enough to interest readers, but it turns out to be far more satisfying than just an invitation to die-hard Christie fans to speculate about her probably quirky early life. Aggie Morton stands on her own as a new heroine for those who like mysteries, as well as those who just appreciate a well-crafted story about engaging people in difficult situations.

 

Aggie Morton knitting

As Jocelyn explains in her perceptive “Author’s Note,” the book is not a biography, but an affectionate answer to her own questions about Christie, the writer who had given her so many hours of enjoyment.  Aggie Morton is a spirited girl full of curiosity and determination; her Belgian friend, Hector Perot, is Jocelyn’s homage to Christie’s famed detective, Hercule Poirot, in the form of youthful backstory.  “As a writer,” Jocelyn modestly explains, “I know that ideas sit for a longtime in the cobwebbed corners of the brain.” There are no cobwebs in this book, but there are a lot of interwoven events and peculiar personalities, as Aggie tries to determine who murdered a rather difficult woman right on the premises of the heroine’s dance school, casting her beloved teacher in a suspicious light.

Aggie Morton hat

Aggie does not set out to solve the mystery, but her refusal to accept illogical or incomplete answers leads her down a sometimes-dangerous path.  Death holds a bit of fascination for her, especially as it allows her to reflect on the recent loss of her father:

I considered the idea that memories and ghosts are knitted together as closely as stitches of yarn on a needle, part of the same warming shawl that each of us wears.  Occasionally my mind strayed to consider what my father might look like now, not his ghost, but inside his coffin.  Or, what if he hadn’t been buried, but picked clean by helpful carrion, leaving him a skeleton, shining white and elegant?

Aggie Morton teaset

Here is Jocelyn’s signature style: identifiable emotional responses paired with weirder associations, all leavened with some lugubrious humor.  She isn’t afraid to give her heroine some off-putting thoughts, but she always stops short of caricature.

Aggie Morton portrait

Isabelle Follath‘s sketches for chapter headings (some examples are shown above), and for the cast of characters that precedes the novel, lend Victorian authenticity and artful personal details to the story; the drawings are really essential to the book’s overall effect.  I have been careful to omit any plot spoilers, although the novel is more than the sum of its parts and eventual resolution.  Instead, I will let Agatha have the next-to-last word: “I do not choose my thoughts…They seem to choose me, like the lines in a poem.” Her understanding that one thought, one intuition, one clue, does not inevitably lead to the next expected one, is part of this new mystery heroine’s considerable appeal to readers.

Aggie Morton housse

 

 

Cleary Yesterday and Today

Beezus and Ramona – Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Louis Darling, William Morrow and Company, 1955

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Today Beverly Cleary turns 104 years old.  It is impossible to overstate her contribution to children’s literature, particularly to middle-grade fiction.  Cleary’s characters and stories are timeless because they are based on respect for children, humor, and honesty, as well as an incredible gift for crafting language in a believable way.  The permeable line between a sometimes frustrating reality and a child’s imagination is often at the center of her novels. (as can be seen in my previous blogs on her, here and here and here). Her most famous heroine, Ramona, first appears, along with her older sister, in Beezus and Ramona, a sensitive tribute to the fraught relations between siblings.

Ramona is impulsive and stubborn, qualities which often bring her into conflict with adult authority. Yet these same parents, teachers, and other child socializers are drawn to her overflowing imagination.  The paradox is difficult for her older sister to reconcile:

At the radio-and-phonograph store, Ramona insisted on petting His Master’s Voice, the black-and-white plaster dog, bigger than Ramona, that always sat with one ear cocked in front of the door. Beezus thought admiringly about the amount of imagination it took to pretend that a scarred and chipped plaster dog was real. If only she had an imagination like Ramona’s, maybe Miss Robbins would say her paintings were free and imaginative and would tack them on the middle of the wall.

Ramona’s imagination often takes the form of explosive actions. She is uncompromising and intolerant of restrictions on her creative powers.  The Friday afternoon art class at the recreation center that the girls both attend becomes a free-for-all when Ramona gets into an altercation with a boy who claims that she had stolen his lollipop. Paint flies in the air and lands on children’s clothing.  Ramona will not give up and Beezus defends her. Even the beatnik-influenced Miss Robbins, a woman whose earrings “…came almost to her shoulders and were made of silver wire bent into interesting shapes…,” has to seize control.  At the same time, Beezus has decided to let go a little, painting a dragon which defies all the rules of realism.  When Miss Robbins finally notices this creature who breathes pink candy instead of fire, she is appropriately impressed.  It’s not the monster’s pop-art elements, but the fact that sensible Beezus has taken a page from her sister’s book, allowing herself some freedom.

“Here’s a girl with real imagination,” Miss Robbins had said.

A girl with real imagination, a girl with real imagination, Beezus thought as she left the building and ran across the park to the sand pile. “Come on Ramona, it’s time to go home,” she called to her little sister, who was happily sprinkling sand on a sleeping dog.” That would be a real dog, not a plaster one.  Sometimes sisters exchange qualities, and sometimes they remain loving opponents.  When Beverly Cleary recreates any aspect of childhood, you can bet it will ring true.

ramona birthday

Growing into Her Name

Ways to Make Sunshine – Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

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There is an ever-growing list of chapter book series about grade school-aged girls with determined and lively personalities.  Some of these are formulaic and predictable; Renée Watson’s Ways to Make Sunshine is not.  The first release about fourth-grader Ryan Hart, from the author of Some Places More Than Other,  introduces a bright and introspective character, part of a loving but decidedly not perfect African-American family in Portland, Oregon.  Early in the novel, Ryan’s father reminds her that her name is derived from the word for “king,” and that she will grow into the strengths and traditions of her people and her own best qualities.  The encouragement and solidarity of her close-knit family are sources of support for Ryan; even her older brother Ray’s teasing is less important than his protectiveness. Yet it isn’t always easy to live up expectations.

Ryan’s family has moved into a smaller home after her father was forced by circumstances to take a lower-paying job.  Economic hardship has an impact on everyone.  Ryan’s social circle has been disrupted, and the physical space of the new house seems restricting.  Watson realistically describes the emotional impact on Ryan’s mother; adult’s stress filters down to children in ways which are difficult for them to understand.  Her mom is patient, yet not infinitely so.  Ryan’s grandmother shows her unconditional love by skillfully straightening Ryan’s hair with the skills of the professional beautician she had been before retiring.  When Ryan’s needs diverge from her mother’s and grandmother’s in this episode, every child who has argued with parents about her appearance or dress will relate to the difficulty of weighing parents’ best intentions against a young person’s need for independence.

Friendship is never easy for kids Ryan’s age, and Watson manages to portray both the joys and frustrations of competition among kids, especially when it verges on cruelty.  Her optimism, the way in which she finds “ways to make sunshine,” does not prevent her from experiencing anger, sadness, or even, with her brother, the desire for revenge.  Watson assures young readers that their feelings are valid, that even the most resilient young person has moments when the injustice of events or of adult’s seeming obtuseness are hard to take.  One of the book’s most skillful and touching subplots involves Ryan’s speculation about a tin of objects left in the house by a former resident, perhaps long ago.  Watson resolves it in an unexpected way, respecting the importance which children may assign to incidents which adults see as trivial.

Nina Mata’s pictures of Ryan, and her friends and family, capture their spirited individuality.  Ryan’s grandmother lovingly tending to her granddaughter’s hair, Ryan terrified as she tries to deliver an address in her church, and Ryan’s parents dancing together in their kitchen, all reflect Watson’s warm and engaging text.  Ryan Hart seems ready to grow into her name.

 

 

Moons, Full and Otherwise

The Sages of Chelm and the Moon – Shlomo Abas and Omer Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, Green Bean Books, 2019

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Who would not want to carry home a beautiful full moon, safely secured in a barrel, perfect for nights when the moon is only a crescent or barely visible at all? The Sages of Chelm and the Moon, by Shlomo Abas, with pictures by Omer Hoffmann, retells one of the stories about residents of the legendary town of Jewish folklore, who are not constrained by reality.  In a lucid translation by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, children read expectantly about people who believe they can carry reflected light home with them, wondering if they will be bitterly disappointed when they learn they have been tricked by a venal innkeeper.  They need not worry; the sages of the title are protected by an innocence which makes them vulnerable to deception, but equally prone to seeing the light in a dark situation.

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Omar Hoffmann has created a fully realized town of Chelm, furnished with rustic buildings, small detailed housewares and tools, and smiling residents socializing with one another. From elderly bearded men to young children, each person has a role to play and the tools required to play it. One two-page spread introduces the class of characters: a baker holding a pan with a bird perched atop a loaf of bread, a man with a basket of eggs, a woman brandishing a rake with a puzzled looking mouse looking on.  The author explains that these townspeople are “sages” because “they were supposedly very wise and intelligent.”  Adults catch the irony, but children are ready to see Chelm’s wisdom in action.

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As the story unfolds, young readers may begin to suspect that the sages of Chelm are neither knowledgeable nor, perhaps, even intelligent.  Confused by the darkness of moonless nights, they determine to find a solution. After careful consultation, they decide to buy a moon. The picture of their conference is a vision of every ineptly conducted meeting ever attended.  One man speaks dramatically, and probably interminably.  Others try to get a word in, schmooze with one another, or just look confused.  Off to the side, someone tries to catch a chicken about to interrupt the proceedings.  They set out at night against a dark blue background, arriving at the finally at the daylight of a town whose innkeeper has the solution to their problem.

When the innkeeper generously accepts the money contributed by the people of Chelm, and packages the moon’s reflection in a barrel of water, children reading the story might experience some sadness, even fear.  They can certainly relate to the idea of those with greater knowledge or experience have power over the less informed.  When the moon purchasers prepare to unveil their incredible surprise to the rest of the town, a blue sea of lightly sketched figures looks towards a white circle where the exciting surprise will be revealed.  Disappointment, anger, and then calm acceptance.  Chelm is not a town of embittered victims, or even one of stoic resolve.  Instead, they accept life and adapt with joy in “radiant nights when the moon is in sight,” and, when it’s not, they “fumble around in the darkness.”  Enjoy reading this book with a child, and talking with her about the traps set by the world and the fleeting nature of light.

Divinely Beautiful Kindred Spirit: Anne of Green Gables for Young Readers

If I Couldn’t Be Anne – Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2020

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The key to readers’ fascination with L.M. Montgomery is their belief in kindred spirits, people or books, which validate their inner lives.  For the second time, Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout have created an intensely beautiful picture book for young children, older readers, or adults who have retained lifelong associations with the original novels.  (George has also written two chapter books based on Anne, reviewed here and here.)  If I Couldn’t Be Anne explores the rich inner life of the beloved heroine, who can’t be constrained by the ostensible limits of the real world.  Anne can imagine that she is anyone, and so will children reading this artistically distinguished appreciation of open-ended possibilities.

if i couldn't be anne boat

Each picture and accompanying text offers a different persona for Anne, a girl whose visions are too grand to be confined in one approach to her life.  We meet Anne floating peacefully in a boat. Readers of the novel may remember that she and her bosom friend, Diana, attempted to impersonate Elaine, the Arthurian heroine of Tennyson’s poem, by floating down the river in a small vessel.  Familiarity with the original books is not necessary for young readers to enjoy this work. In fact, the picture books function independently and prime children to meet Anne later in Montgomery’s work.  Here she is a picture of serene dreaming, her eyes closed and her famous red braids lying outside the white blanket covered with lilies.

if i couldn't be anne tea

But Anne can be part of the real world, too, elevating it to the realm of imagined roles when she sees herself as a great lady serving tea. The rose blossoms on her dress match the tea set and pastries, in Godbout’s ode to an idealized domestic world.

 

if i couldn't be anne -soup

Not all of Anne’s dreams flourish without problems.  Children will appreciate that cooks who are “forced to follow a recipe” may wind up with awful results That’s what happens when reality places unreasonable demands.  Anne’s red hair, which she eventually appreciates as an intrinsic part of her special beauty, is at first a source of distress.

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She philosophically reasons that red is “divinely beautiful when compared to ghastly green,” the color which results in the novel from an experiment with cheap hair dye.  Anne’s sad face reflected in the mirror signifies every child’s disappointment in an unlucky attempt at change.

if i couldn't be anne stars

Sometimes Anne soars to her aspired heights, following a bird with her free spirit, pictured by Godbout as a disembodied silhouette leaving Anne’s body. Anne, sitting on a star, watches a shooting star mimic her own flights of fancy with a smile of appreciation.

Perhaps the most ingenious picture in the book is a summary and a metaphor of what reading means to all of us.  Anne is “an invisible friend who lives in a book, a kindred spirit to anyone in need.”  Godbout’s two-page spread features a book open to a small violet shadow, Anne on the page.  A pair of steel-rimmed eyeglasses on a table points to the accessibility of imagination and literary friendship.  George and Godbout have effected this kind of magic in their creation of a new Anne, clearly related to her original, but also standing on her own two feet.

if i couldn't be anne glasses

Tell Me About Pirates, Grandpa

How to Be a PirateIsaac Fitzgerald and Brigette Barrager, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020

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A little girl wants to be a pirate, but she is initially discouraged by the sadly familiar sexism of her male peers.  Fortunately, CeCe (her very name suggests a kind of compact adventurism) has a grandfather who has firsthand knowledge of the high seas.  We don’t actually meet these annoying boys at the beginning; Cece first appears en route to her grandfather’s house, determined to get accurate information about pirates and why anyone would suggest that she cannot be one.  Full of wry humor and illustrations evocative of mid-century children’s classics, How to Be a Pirate celebrates both feminist values and the grandparents whose support and love enable children to succeed.

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When Cece enters her grandfather’s ramshackle house, the articles in his living room point to comforting authority: a ship in a bottle, a large fish and a sword mounted above the fireplace, a print newspaper next to a mug with and spoon.  (A later picture shows him to be a tea, not coffee, drinker.) His voice in a speech bubble comes from behind a beaded curtain, “In here, CeCe!”  This is clearly a place where CeCe is always welcome. Grandpa is seated in the kitchen; the minute we see him, we know the denigrating comments of those boys will evaporate.  He is appropriately brawny for a pirate, and even wears a striped French sailor’s shirt, but he also has wire-rimmed reading glasses balanced on his nose as he reads the paper.  An angry and frustrated CeCe asks, “What’s it like to be pirate?” and his lesson begins.

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When CeCe explains that the boys had told her that piracy was off-limits to her gender, Grandpa, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a ship tattoo, affirms that pirates need to be brave, an adjective unfurled in large font across his ship’s sail.  Violet and green fish jumping through the swirling water bring to mind the palette of Alice and Martin Provensen.

CeCe’s grandfather helpfully points out that pirates need other less obvious qualities, such as the desire to have fun, here depicted as his tattoo of a flamenco dancer comes to life. (Grandpa must have an interesting story behind this one!)  Most of all, a pirate requires independence, the ability to “face problems on her own.”  Grandfather and granddaughter each ride on the backs of American bald eagles, a nostalgic allusion to patriotism at its best, when it embodies positive qualities.

Just to finish off the absurdity of the boys’ argument, Grandpa asserts that the most important component of being a pirate has nothing to do with weapons. In fact, love is at the core of this profession in its fantasy form.  A lovely picture of CeCe on her grandfather’s lap subverts the gender stereotype to which the nasty boys subscribed.  Grandpa’s tattoo of CeCe’s name, his warm and cozy kitchen featuring delicately painted canisters, a dishcloth with pom poms, and a casserole on the stove top all give CeCe the strength to assert herself, “her feet swift and her heart strong.” How to Be a Pirate is a wonderful vehicle for sharing with children, telling them they can enjoy the unlimited fun of imaginary worlds free of annoying and small-minded restrictions.  Even those boys in their treehouse with skull-and-bone flags will change their tune.

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Seasons of Friendship

Natsumi’s Song of Summer – Robert Paul Weston and Misa Saburi, Tundra Books, 2020

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There are many different ways for books to explore the meeting between two children from different cultures, of illuminating the ways in which they are both similar and different. I’m not aware of any others, aside from Natsumi’s Song of Summer, which focus on a specific insect which is familiar to one child but strange to the other.  This is the second venture by this author and illustrator featuring a text entirely in the traditional Japanese poetic form of tanka, an entirely successful experiment in unobtrusively introducing young readers to a classic type of literary expression. Words by Robert Paul Weston and pictures by Misa Saburi are perfectly matched in their delicate beauty and sensitivity to the fears and pleasures of childhood.

Natsumi lily pads

Natsumi was born during the Japanese summer, when the lovely and richly symbolic lotus flower is in bloom. Saburi’s vision of her sitting on the plant’s petals, suspended in a pond full of carp, captures the mix of realism and dreams which drive the narrative. The unique plant and insect life of her environment are an inseparable part of Natsumi’s life:

There were butterflies
with their striped and spotted wings,
and the sudden sparks

of fireflies, and honeybees
fizzing flower to flower.

The flexibility of the tanka form allows the authors to use the framework of the natural world and the simplicity of a child’s perceptions to create a believable story.  Lines composed with a syllable count of five-seven-five-seven-seven (haiku uses three lines of five-seven-five) can convey ideas of great sophistication, or ordinary observations, often both.

Natsumi garden

When Natsumi learns that her cousin, Jill, will be coming to visit, she is pleased but anxious.  Her dream of Jill shows a stranger with her back to Natsumi, who wonders if she and Jill will be to divided by their differences to become close.  The image of Jill is placed behind flower-filled lanterns with wind chimes swaying gently around her.  Natsumi is worried that her cousin will remain a stranger, facing away from the cherished parts of her own world.

Natsumi cicada tree

The young Japanese girl has been surrounded by the security of her family, sharing a definition of beauty with them which she is justified in believing may be foreign to her cousin.  She particularly questions whether the seasonal arrival of cicadas, which bring the summer with their song, will mean anything to Jill. After all, “Insects frightened some people./What is Jill was frightened, too?”

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After Jill arrives, things do change, and they also remain the same.  Natsumi explains to her cousin how cicadas “wait in darkness,” until they are old enough to emerge, when “they climb out to meet their friends.” The girls’ summer together is joyous and fun.  Ordinary activities, drawing, enjoying ice cream, playing outdoors, are enhanced by the realization that they are learning from one another.

Natsumi drawing

Outdoor scenes are marked by light, while the girls sketch indoors in semi-darkness and the artificial cool air of an electric fan. While Natsumi draws cicadas, Jill produces an image of a Luna moth, as exotic to Natsumi as its Japanese counterpart is to her American cousin: “Elegant green wings/with two black-and-yellow spots/like half-winking eyes.”

At the Obon festival, the girls share the festivities surrounding the rituals marking connections to one’s ancestors. Both girls are dressed in kimonos, with Jill naturally integrated into the exciting occasion. In a line of women, Natsumi turns around to face her cousin, her face half in light and half in darkness.  She seems to be reassuring herself that Jill is sharing in her delight.

Natsumi festival

Natsumi’s Song of Summer needs to be experienced in its totality in order to fully appreciate the accomplishment of this author and illustrator team.  Like the unity of tanka itself, each page each picture and line of text, is an unforgettable poem celebrating the value of the transient and seasonal, along with the deep and permanent mark these moments and relationships bring.