Do NOT Invite This “Yankee” to Your Seder

The Yankee at the Seder – Elka Weber and Adam Gustavson, Tricycle Press, 2009

Don’t invite this “Yankee” to your Seder if, like me, you are celebrating Passover this year. If you do, you should be prepared for a serious discussion about race, history, and freedom. Maybe that is not a bad thing, but this book really strains the implications of a “teachable moment.”

yankee

If you’re not sure what Passover (Pesach) is, it is the Jewish holiday commemorating and reenacting the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.  If you are not sure what the American Civil War was, it was a bloody conflict in which more than 600,000 soldiers lost to lives, in addition to the many who were handicapped, traumatized, and sickened.  The War was fought because a group of southern states seceded from the Union in order to preserve their “right” to own slaves, as well as the possibility of expanding slavery throughout the United States.  After Reconstruction ended, a long and successful movement developed to systematically deprive liberated black people of their rights by “rebranding” the Civil War as “The War Between the States,” in which two societies with equally legitimate cultures and economic systems fought for their freedom. Slavery was essentially removed from the equation.  The Yankee at the Seder is part of this corruption of history, even if, as is likely, the author did not view her picture book in this light.

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Book Nooks, Non-Digital Version

Books referenced:
Bunny’s Book Club – Annie Silvestro and Tatjana Mai-Wyss, Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2017
Red Knit Cap Girl and the Reading Tree – Naoko Stoop, Little, Brown and Company, 2014

It is a well-known fact that animals love to read, especially eager and bookish animals who befriend both people and fellow nerds of their own species. The obvious appeal to children of recognizing fellow book lovers who happen to have four legs is inventively exploited in two stories about the need to read.

bunny cover

In Bunny’s Book Club, a persistent young rabbit who knew of his affinity for books “….ever since he first heard the lady with the red glasses reading aloud outside the library.”  Being on the outskirts and looking in are not enough for Bunny, who devises a plan to “break in” to his favorite place, using a flashlight and a convenient book drop.  Soon his friends, including a porcupine, a mole, and bear, want in on the action, and they eventually spend hours enjoying their illegally borrowed books both in the library and in Bunny’s cozy home.  The fun ends, almost, when they are caught by an understanding librarian, possibly one of the most appealing created in children’s literature. She issues them cards, and the fun never stops.

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Adieu, Audrey

Just Being Audrey – Margaret Cardillo and Julia Denos, Balzer + Bray, 2011

Last week, the great French designer Hubert de Givenchy died at the age of 91.  Although his long career included a series of great accomplishments and innovations, he will always be remembered to many as the man who dressed Audrey Hepburn.  Obituaries recalled his own anecdote of preparing to meet an actress named “Hepburn” in his fashion house, and being initially disappointed when a slender young woman dressed in “ballerina flats and a straw gondolier’s hat” showed up instead.  From then on, she became both a professional inspiration to him and a lifelong friend.

audreycover

Sadly, Hepburn herself did not enjoy the long life of her companion; she died in 1993 at the age of sixty-three.  Margaret Cardillo and Julia DenosJust Being Audrey gently avoids discussing her death, but their thoughtfully researched and beautifully designed love poem to the iconic actress and humanitarian is anything but patronizing to young readers.  Picture book biographies based on the childhoods of famous figures are not new. It is an obviously appealing idea to present to children what great people were like when they were just kids. While some of these books rise to the task of connecting childhood creativity and persistence to later success, others follow a hollow and misleading formula. Einstein as “bad at math.” You are bad at math….

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More Rabble Rousing and More Remembering:

Great Women in American History

Book referenced:  Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women – Cheryl Harness, HarperCollins, 2001

ladiesHere are some challenges to male authority to share with our children.   The women included are all profiled in Cheryl Harness’ illustrated encomium to brave women (not her only effort in this area). The book is dense with information and expressive sketches of our foremothers. It is a great source of inspiration and an invitation to learn more.

Anne Dudley Bradstreet: “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits.”  Obnoxious, indeed. Women write poetry, and are often the best interpreters of our own experiences.

Pocahontas/Matoaka: I’m not a Disney heroine….

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Women Raising Hell

Book referenced:  Rabble Rousers: 20 Women Who Made a Difference – Cheryl Harness, Dutton Children’s Books, 2003

rousers

March is women’s history month. I could write about books that introduce children and young adults to the compelling life stories and outstanding contributions of women all year.  Recent collective biographies for young feminists include Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted (which I reviewed for Tablet Magazine) and She Persisted Around the World, as well as Susan Hood’s Shaking Things Up (which I reviewed on The Horn Book “Family reading Blog”).  Earlier examples of this genre are still relevant and I have found several in my collection.  Cheryl Harness both wrote and illustrated Rabble Rousers fifteen years ago.  The books emphasis on activist crusaders for change, and its inclusion of a diverse range of women, makes it worthwhile to read today.

Of the twenty women included in this inspiring look at non-compliant women, four are black, one is Hispanic, and one is Jewish. None is Asian or Native American. However, there are other kinds of diversity to consider in honoring women’s accomplishments.

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Think Pink

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli – Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, Harper Collins, 2018 (Canadian edition from Tundra Books)

bloomcover

It’s difficult to do justice to this book, or even to vividly describe it, in a brief blog entry.  Kyo Maclear has worked with a number of illustrators. This is her second collaboration with Julie Morstad. Their first was the phenomenally inventive Julia, Child, on which I blogged before On one level, it is a picture book biography of Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, (1890-1973), best known for her creation of a unique shocking pink color, and for the outrageous lobster dress she designed with Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí.

Actually, her contribution to women’s fashion, expressed in the motto cited in the author and illustrator’s note at the end of the book, was difference. Bloom is the story, as well as the re-creation, of this joyous difference and unbridled creativity.

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Mad about Plaid…

….and Houndstooth and Ikat and Argyle

A Pattern for Pepper – Julie Kraulis,      Tundra Books, 2017

plaid

The title of this blog entry is an homage to the late Jill McElmurry, illustrator of many wonderful children’s books, including Alice Schertle’s Little Blue Truck series.  Her first picture book, Mad About Plaid, is a funny fantasy about a girl who is initially thrilled by a certain fabric pattern, only to be overwhelmed when it takes over her world.

pepper

When I first found A Pattern for Pepper on the website of Canada’s Tundra Books, I could not help but remember McElmurry, although Julie Kraulis’ heroine Pepper has a much more intentional experience in this story. She wants to learn about different fabric patterns and, if you read the book, you will, too.

The boldness of the book’s project really impressed me. After all, it would not seem like the most likely candidate for a children’s illustrated work of fiction.

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Women Take to Flight

Book discussed:  Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride – Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick, Scholastic Press, 1999

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Imagine two of the most powerful and committed women in the world taking a short plane flight together, and then returning to talk and enjoy a dessert they both love.  Imagine that one is a spokeswoman for human rights around the world, and the other a pioneer in a field thought by many to require traits that women supposedly lack: courage, physical endurance, and quantitative skills.  Imagine their story brought to life for both children and adults through the narrative and artistic ingenuity of Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick.  Then open Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride to experience a flight back into the past with headline grabbing text and cinematic images.  “How amusing it is to see a girl in a white evening dress and high-heeled shoes flying in a plane!” The “girl” is Eleanor Roosevelt. “There’s no describing it…You just have to experience it on a clear night when you can see forever.” The one with the vision to see forever is…

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A Language for Angels and People

Book reviewed:  The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew – Richard Michelson and Karla Gudeon, Charlesbridge, 2017

angels

This year, the Sydney Taylor Book Award for excellence in Jewish children’s literature and the National Jewish Book Award in Children’s Literature went to the same book.  The Language of Angels tells the story of the reinvention of Hebrew as a modern language, told from the perspective of a young boy, Ben-Zion, in late nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Ben-Zion is the son of Eliezer Ben –Yehuda, the quixotic pioneer who stubbornly insisted that the ancient language could be revived and used every day by Jews in communicating with one another, no matter where they were from. The elder Ben-Yehuda, in order to accomplish his goal, involved his family in a unique experiment; they would speak to one another only in this developing tongue.

Was this linguistic experiment also a difficult psychological one for the linguist’s son? You can be sure it was, and the book describes his initial loneliness and frustration.  Since Richard Michelson and Karla Gudeon’s purpose, however, is to educate and inspire, the book emphasizes the positive and exciting aspect of inventing new words for ice cream and bicycle, until eventually other children join in the “new adventure.”

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The Knight of the Not Always Woeful Countenance

Book Reviewed:  Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote – Margarita Engle and Raúl Colón, Peachtree Publishers, 2017

Miguel’s Brave Knight is a picture book about the young Miguel de Cervantes and his formation as an artist.  It is written in verse by Margarita Engle, continuing a welcome trend of children’s books delivered in the least commercial literary form.  It is promising how many excellent examples of narrative poems that publishers are producing for children:  Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down, Debbie Levy’s The Year of Goodbyes and Engle’s own Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, to name only a few.  Perhaps poetry, sometimes the most challenging genre to read and interpret, actually has an advantage in the free verse form favored by children’s authors. Each segment or chapter is self-contained and brief, and relies partly on the rhythms of speech.

miguel cover

When I read Miguel’s Brave Knight, as well as some of the other works listed, I asked myself at times if the story could not, in fact, have been told in prose, simply by reassigning line breaks and creating sentences. In some cases, where imagery and metaphor are not features of the language, it could.  But I believe there is a value even in using the medium of poetry to tell stories because it “normalizes” this limitless form.

The young Cervantes doesn’t have an easy life. His father is depicted as an irresponsible gambler who spends time in prison.  Miguel’s education is erratic and he lacks the stability that children crave.

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