“There Is No Frigate Like a Book”:
Emily Dickinson for Kids

Books Cited:
Emily– Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney, Doubleday, 1992 (available in a paperback edition from Dragonfly Books, 2007)
Emily Dickinson’s Letters to the World
– Jeanette Winter, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002
The Mouse of Amherst
– Elizabeth Spires and Claire A. Nivola, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999

How old does a child have to be for you to tell her about Emily Dickinson?  There is a kind of fairy-tale element, unfortunately, of presenting her unusual and somewhat solitary life, but that is not the essence of what you want her to know.

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Three very different books each include the poet’s insistence on independence and nonconformity, but they all succeed in conveying the phenomenal power of her creativity, which is the main part of Dickinson’s life of interest to us all.

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Good Night Toy Animals Everywhere

Book Reviewed:  Thank You and Good Night – Patrick McDonnell, Little Brown and Company, 2015

Thank You and Good Night is one of those children’s books that has something for adults hidden in the story, kind of like the parodies on Sesame Street. However, instead of funny allusions to pop culture which kids will miss while still enjoying Elmo and Big Bird, Patrick McDonnell has built something more poignant and substantial into this sweet story for young kids.

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The characters are Maggie, a little girl, and three toy animals having a sleepover at her house. They are Clement the bunny, Jean the elephant, and Alan Alexander the bear. As you are reading, it will begin to dawn on you that Maggie is a child version of an iconic author, and her three friends are three other creators of children’s classics transformed into the animals who star in their books. Or maybe the animals are just named for their creators in a kind of homage.  Your child might miss why a Muppet on Sesame Street is satirizing a 1960s t.v. show or rock band, but you might get more recognition from her when you point out that Clement is dressed in blue striped pajamas, just like the bunny in Good Night Moon, who was drawn by a man named Clement Hurd.

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Thank You for Not Smoking

Books referenced:
The Complete Adventures of Curious George – Margret and H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 (75th anniversary edition; reprint of 1941, 1947, 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, and 1966 editions)
Good Night, Little Bear – Richard Scarry, Golden Books of Random House Children’s Books, 2014, Big Golden Book reprint of 1961 edition)

I am philosophically, as well as practically, against bowdlerizing children’s books to conform to modern values.  In case you have forgotten, the process of “updating” literary works for this purpose is name for Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who famously expurgated Shakespeare’s plays to avoid damaging the delicate sensibilities of women and children.  While recently reading Curious George to my three-year old grandson, I was forced to think a bit about my opposition to this process. I’m still convinced that sanitizing problematic parts of children’s books is a terrible idea for many reasons, one of which is the “slippery slope” argument, of how far we can go once we decide to make an exception for particularly objectionable material.  I would just like to raise the issue here so that caregivers can think about the implications of smoking in children’s picture books.

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The man with the yellow hat smokes a pipe, and why wouldn’t he? Smoking, whether cigarettes, pipes, or cigars, was both popular and accepted, at least among men, when the book was first published in 1941.  In fact, looking through several children’s illustrated books from the post-World War II era, it strikes me how relatively few characters smoke, considering the habit’s prevalence in the general population.  (Cigarettes seem to be less common than pipes, although a quantitative study would be necessary to confirm that impression.) Curious George’s guardian has a rather paternal air as he sits on the boat from Africa with the little monkey, explaining that he is going to take George to live in a big-city zoo, and cautioning him with raised finger not to get into trouble.  The man is smoking a pipe during this talk. My grandson asked me what it was; at first I hesitated…

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Not Redemption, But Consolation

Book Reviewed:  Elisabeth – Claire A. Nivola, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997

I am writing today about one of my favorite books.  By saying that, I am giving it an award in a category too broad to exist.  It is at the top of my list in several categories: children’s books, illustrated books, Jewish children’s books, doll books, books with girls and women as central characters. It is based on a true story, adding a category of historically themed illustrated books.  Both the text and pictures are by acclaimed artist and writer Claire A. Nivola, author and illustrator of Orani: My Father’s Village, and illustrator of Emma’s Poem and the soon to be published The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art.

elisabeth cover

Elisabeth is the story of a Jewish child, based on the author’s mother Ruth, growing up in Germany as the country succumbs to the murderous rule of the Nazis.  Elisabeth is the name of her doll, portrayed as incredibly life-like—almost uncannily so.  They share everything together in a comfortable home full of the details of their particular life: Persian carpets, a giant turtle brought from Africa, a carved wooden chair on which they sit together as the book opens.  The inner life of her childhood is radically disrupted as the Nazis, along with the German people, distort who she is: “Then everything changed.  In school, the teacher no longer saw my hand when I raised it in class. ‘Jew,’ I was called.”

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Grandpa Explains the City of Light

Book reviewed:  A Walk in Paris – Salvatore Rubbino, Candlewick Press, 2014

Author and illustrator Salvatore Rubbino has been introducing great cities of the world to your children since A Walk in New York, 2009.   Two years later, he went to a pre-Brexit Britain in A Walk in London. (Look for future posts on both books.)  His most recent, but I hope not his last, is A Walk in Paris. In each of his previous tours, a parent accompanied a child. Here it is a grandfather who enlightens a young girl about the history, architecture, and je ne sais quois of France’s capital city.

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The cover of the book promises that you will find an “Unfolding Eiffel Tower Inside!” so you know that Rubbino’s  audience includes the kind of parent or caregiver excited by teaching children about  world cultures.  An obvious inspiration for this type of picture book is Miroslav Sasek’s This Is series portraying different countries and cities and the people who live there.  Originally published between 1959 and 1974, many of these have been recently reissued, including This is Paris, This is London, and This is Israel.

 

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A Crush on Beth and Joe Krush
Starting Out Small: Arietty’s Bedroom

Book Reviewed:  The Borrowers – Mary Norton and Beth and Joe Krush, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 (reprint edition of complete series, 1953, 1955, 1959, 1982)

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Beth and Joe Krush were a frequent presence in American illustration from the 1940s to the 1980s. They were both born in 1918; Beth died in 2009 and, if the most current information is correct, Joe is still living in the Philadelphia suburbs.  There is a moving film about him by director John Thornton, Joe Krush, An Illustrated LifeJoe actually produced courtroom sketches at the Nuremberg Trials. He and his wife Beth are responsible for creating some of the most lasting images in mid-twentieth century children’s literature, for The Borrowers, as well as Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake, Virginia Sorenson’s Newbery winner Miracle on Maple Hill, and many more (be warned that even when classics are re-issued with the original illustrations, publishers tend to commission another artist to do a new cover).  It would be impossible to do justice to the Krushes’ body of work in one post, so I am starting out “small,” with The Borrowers, and really small, with Arietty’s room.

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An Elephant and a Mouse Walk into a Bakery…

Books Reviewed:
Little Elliot Big City – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2014
Little Elliot Big Family – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2015
Little Elliot Big Fun – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2016
Little Elliot Fall Friends – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2017

Mike Curato is a relatively new but rising star author and illustrator and Little Elliot is a sweet and vulnerable elephant of small stature who successfully negotiates many difficulties with the help of his friend, Mouse.  They live in a time and place unnamed in the books, but which is clearly 1940s New York City and environs.  Elliot, white with pastel colored polka dots, is acutely conscious of being different. He also suffers anxiety over a number of problems, such as not being able to reach the counter in his favorite Italian-American Speranza bakery, or confronting the terrors of a big amusement park (Coney Island).  The books are saved from being formulaic or saccharine through Curato’s understated text and his brilliantly executed pictures, which manage to evoke both a specific and nostalgic era and the timeless universe of young children. While Elliot follows in the grand tradition of de Brunhoff’s anthropomorphized Babar, he is a younger and more innocent character in a less complex universe.

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The cover of the first book introduces Elliot standing in front of a row of urban apartment buildings with the Chrysler Building in the background.  The letters “Big City” are the size of tall buildings and they are dotted with windows like the structures behind them.  We enter Elliot’s world to learn how difficult it is for him to huddle on a crowded train track, hail a cab, or reach the ice cream in his freezer. He seems to live a lonely but independent life in his pre-war apartment, until he meets an even smaller but perhaps more resourceful Mouse, who is fishing for half-eaten pizza in a Central Park garbage can.  Elliot helps him; this is the beginning of beautiful friendship.

By the second book, Elliot and Mouse apparently live together, but Mouse needs to visit his extended family and Elliot is temporarily devastated.

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It Takes a Village…and a Woman

Books reviewed:

It Takes a Village – Hillary Rodman Clinton and Marla Frazee, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017

Hillary Rodman Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead – Michelle Markel and LeUyen Pham, Balzer + Bray of HarperCollins, 2016

 

A year ago last November, it appeared that it would take a woman, a brilliant, committed one, to continue to elevate our country, following  President Obama’s progress in eight years in office. Now it seems that way more than ever.  Instead of progress, we now have destructive and reactionary moves backward, towards the worst elements of America’s past. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, contempt for the poor and attacks on labor, science, and education.  On one level, I find it sad even to look at these two wonderful books, but on another, it gives me hope for the future, as they showcase the accomplishments and dreams of four talented women: authors and illustrators, and almost-President Clinton herself.

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It Takes a Village is an expression of Hillary Clinton’s philosophy, based on her previous manifesto of the same name, but distilled for children. The pictures are by Caldecott Honor winner Marla Frazee in her inimitable style, perfect for capturing a multicultural present rooted in the finest values of America’s past.

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What Makes a Family?

Book reviewed:  One Family – George Shannon and Blanca Gómez, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2015

In One Family, George Shannon and Blanca Gómez together answer the question of how to depict a twenty-first century family in a natural and inclusive way.  The success of their book lies in its complete accessibility to children, with both words and pictures constructing a world where members of families and the objects they encounter “match.”  You can count them, and count on them, to be there, in predictable settings.  In the past, the families shown here might have been on the margins, but now they are part of children’s daily world. The author and illustrator accomplish this normalized view of diversity in a completely unobtrusive way by creating people who are both archetypal and real at the same time.

one familycover

The book is structured around family members, at first single and then in groups of up to ten.  There are parents, siblings, grandparents, and pets in indoor and outdoor settings.  Shannon’s text acknowledges the way children notice their environment, beginning with the words “One is one/One lamp.  One clock.  One book to share,” describing a grandmotherly figure sitting in a living room, reading.  She has lovely grey curls, oversized in relation to the rest of her.  Maybe this is the first quality that a child might identify with his or her grandmother.

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“There Were Two Little Bears…”

Book reviewed:  Snow Sisters! – Kerri Kokias and Teagan White, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018

Actually, this is not about two little bears, but two sisters. They don’t actually live in the woods, either, but the theme of the book reminded me of an A.A. Milne poem, “Twice Times,” which makes me think about parenting and siblings:

“There were Two Little Bears who lived in a Wood,
And one of them was Bad and the other was Good.”

The two bears in the poem initially embody opposite qualities, such as the ability to learn multiplication tables vs. the inability to keep one’s clothes and personal articles neat and tidy.  At the end, they switch roles, with the fastidious fan of arithmetic forgetting all the numbers he had learned while his messy brother learns to use a handkerchief.

In Snow Sisters, by Kerri Kokias and Teagan White, the two sisters, unnamed like the bears, have very different attitudes towards winter weather and towards the outdoors in general. Kokias’ brief phrases serve as captions:

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“Coat. Scarf. Hat.
Mittens. Boots.
Cocoa. Blankets. Books.

Throwing. Building.
Baking. Making.”

White’s pictures advance the story, and the words are repeated in a slightly different order, as each sister comes to appropriate the other’s responses.  The images have the look of mid-century children’s illustration and a touch of animation, with a color palette based on reds, purples, and mauve.

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