A Tiny Spark and the Poet Who Made It Immortal

Like a Diamond in the Sky: Jane Taylor’s Beloved Poem of Wonder and the Stars – written by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

How much do you really know about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?” How much do the children in your life know about it? A new picture book biography of British poet Jane Taylor (1783-1824) will answer questions which had never occurred to you.  Is this childhood poem a piece of folk art or the work of an individual?  Is it based in astronomy or fantasy? What social and political issues, including feminism, form part of its background?  The amount of information in the book is considerable, but what makes it amazing is the way in which Elizabeth Brown and Becca Stadtlander have integrated each component together in a beautifully woven web.  Like a Diamond in the Sky is a distinguished work of picture book art, and one which intuits how children learn.

Jane Taylor grew up in a creative and inquisitive family. The opening page establishes both the resources and the obstacles which defined her life:

          In the days when girls were taught to spin wool into yarn, set the table for tea,

          and smile and curtsy at the right times, Jane Taylor lived a different kind of

          childhood, schooled by nature and the stars.

In this short, poetic, introduction, Brown invite children to understand how and why her subject came to write “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She and her sister, Ann, explored nature, created their own books and sewed them together, and loved intellectual pursuits. Sound familiar? There are numerous echoes of the Brontë sisters here; adults will recognize them, and they may wish to explain to younger readers how familiar, in some ways, Taylor’s circumstances were.  Brown even points out that Jane and Ann sent out their work under pen names, because of common prejudice against female authors.  These allusions are part of the richness of Taylor’s story. She was both representative and exceptional, as is the beloved poem which most children will bring to the reading of this book.

Brown and Stadtlander depict the ordinary aspects of Taylor’s life: doing chores, singing, sharing meals with her family. But she also views the constellations in the night sky with her father, and recites literature at the table. She learned to love words by using them:

          the flow of the words as she ate breakfast,

          the art of the verses at midday lunch, and

          the beauty of language during dinner.

If Jane was a “bluestocking,” a woman suspected of inappropriately intellectual leanings, she was also sensitive to beauty, everywhere visible in her world. Her life is a lesson in dedication not just to observation of nature, but also to the power of language.  Brown emphasizes connections between these parts of Taylor’s character, negating any preconceptions about STEM vs. the arts.  Every page of the book reinforces the intersections in Taylor’s life: earning a living in the family business, studying science, writing books and printing them.  When she becomes discouraged, she persists. 

Stadtlander’s Victorian image of the young poet, in a long white gown, sitting by the window and gazing at the stars, signals frustration and longing. Taylor knows that women are capable of accomplishment in every field. She is ambitious, determined to convince publishers “that her words could shine as brightly on the page as any male poets’ could.” 

Finally, the reader is prepared to learn about how that famous star came to be.  In a lyrical, but also accessible, passage, Taylor meditates on what she hopes to achieve. Her poem will have a musical rhythm, it will be based on her family’s immersion in nature, and it will unite scientific observation and literature.  Completing the picture of a creative and learned woman, author and artist end with a scene of Taylor in old age, still observing, and still writing. The book’s backmatter is thorough and user-friendly, including further biographical information, quotes and sources used in the book, a timeline, and an extensive bibliography. Of course, there is also the score for the poem’s musical setting, and the complete text of “The Star,” by Jane Taylor.  Travelers  in the dark about the poet’s life can now find their way.

Toy Stories

Four Dolls: Impunity Jane, The Fairy Doll, The Story of Holly and Ivy, Candy Floss – written by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Pauline Baynes
Greenwillow Books, 1983

Rumer Godden, an author of books for both children and adults, has had a resounding influence on all modern doll fiction, from Ann M. Martin’s The Doll People, to Rebecca Caudill’s The Best-Loved Doll to Sara O’Leary’s Gemma and the Giant Girl. In 1983, four of her best-known short novels were collected in one volume; the original books were published between 1955-1960.  Each story reenacts the central dramas of all her doll works.  Dolls cannot truly come to life unless a child understands and communicates with them.  Dolls have positive magical effects on children’s inner lives, but toys can also be malicious and destructive.  Girls are often the principal actors in dolls’ lives. However, sometimes boys can participate, too.

Impunity Jane is a dollhouse-sized doll who has earned her name by virtue of her sturdiness. She can apparently be dropped anywhere and still not break. (It’s unlikely that a doll would be given a name, derived from a noun which would be unknown to almost all readers, anything like this today!). The book spans the years from the turn of the twentieth century to the earlier decades of television, although Pauline Baynes’s drawings of children in flared pants seem to bring the stories into the nineteen-seventies or eighties. Several artists have illustrated the original editions of these books; I find these to be somewhat dissonant, a little bit modern, for the tone of the stories, but this is subjective. 

Generations of girls, all with names beginning with “E,” have owned Jane and her dollhouse, but when Ellen inherits Jane, things don’t seem to go well. Ellen clearly lacks the gift of doll-person communication: “Dolls, or course, cannot talk.  They can only make wishes that some people can fee.”  Ellen is not one of those people. Godden isn’t particularly judgmental about this fact.  But when Ellen’s male cousin, Gideon, arrives, it becomes clear that playing with dolls is not exclusively a feminine domain. 

Sadly, and perhaps unbelievable from the perspective of some child readers today, Gideon is terrified that if a tough gang of boys find out that he carries a doll in his pocket, they will label him a “sissy.”  Gideon has stolen the doll from his cousin, and his conscience plagues him.  Ironically, there is nothing stereotypically “feminine” about Gideon’s pursuits. The contents of his pocket, a slimy snail, some string, a cork, pencil, and sweets, are assuredly boys’ playthings of his era.  (The cork would be really puzzling today.). Eventually, Gideon’s moral panic is resolved when Ellen decides to deaccession her toys before going off to boarding school. I felt a little sad, and wondered if she would regret her decision, but her possible loss is Gideon’s game.  Meanwhile, he has convinced the insecure male crew that Jane is not a doll, but a “model,” to be used in trains and boats.  Godden was ahead of her time, even if not all of her characters could be.

In The Fairy Doll, Elizabeth is the youngest of four children, and she is treated by her siblings, and even her teacher, in a way which now be considered verbally abusive. Elizabeth is small for her age, and has difficulty learning and with developmental tasks, such as riding a bicycle. Yet she does have the gift of doll communication, a fact which is recognized by her great-grandmother. (It’s interesting that Godden chose this relationship, rather than the more common one with a grandmother.)  The Fairy Doll which sits atop her family’s Christmas tree eventually helps Elizabeth to develop self-confidence. Much like Dorothy’s friends in The Wizard of Oz, just the recognition of her frailty and her good qualities is enough to resolve the problem.  One object in the story is a cedar chest, which doubles as storage for Christmas items and the location for behavioral time-outs, leading to some interesting twists. This book also includes the dramatic “toy-which-goes-missing-but is eventually-found” subplot.  It’s wonderful to experience Elizabeth’s triumph, after she has been called “a perfect duffer,” by her brother, a “careless little idiot,” by a sister, and “a stupid child” by her teacher. Thank goodness for her great-grandmother.

The Story of Holly and Ivy has been enshrined as Christmas classic. It is also an orphan story, featuring a little girl wandering astray during the holiday break from orphanage. (The orphanage administration, although somewhat insensitive, is not nearly so nasty as Elizabeth’s own family in The Fairy Doll.)  Ivy, the orphan, eventually finds Holly, the orphan doll, and even a human family to care for her.  The villain in the story is Abracadabra, a dreadful toy owl, who taunts the unadopted toys in Mr. Blossom’s toy shop, eventually landing where he belongs, in the trash.  The owl is something like Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear in the Toy Story movies, although he does little to conceal his malicious personality.  He has shiny eyes which, reflecting the light from a car outside the window, cause the shop attendant to fall off a ladder. Even with all its clichés, the story is beautiful. (The edition from 2006 has wonderfully matched illustrations by Barbara Cooney.) Godden’s style is so unaffected and in tune with children’s hopes and fears, that the book is unforgettable.

Candy Floss returns to Godden’s view of gender. The owner of a coconut shed at a traveling fair, Jack, is also a person who empathizes with dolls and toys.  He is a lot tougher than Gideon, making it less probable that he would care at all about not conforming to oppressive gender norms. Yet he does, insisting that the doll, Candy Floss, along with a toy horse and his real dog, Cocoa, are “partners” in his enterprise. Candy Floss brings irreplaceable good luck. When Clementina Davenport, the perfectly named poor-little-rich girl, decides that she wants the one thing which she cannot have, she steals, and damages, Jack’s doll.  Not only is Candy Floss eventually returned and repaired, but Clementina learns her lesson, even in class-bound British society of the day.  As with Holly and Ivy, Godden makes this all believable, if Jack as a character is somewhat less compelling than Ivy, Holly, or the kindly police officer and his wife who adopt both girl and doll.  It’s not that these books haven’t aged, but rather that they still continue to cast a spell on readers. Not the terrible spell of Abracadabra’s glittery eyes, but the one about lonely children , even young adults, and the solace of toys.

Babar, Je t’aime

Babar and the Professor – written and illustrated by Laurent de Brunhoff
Random House, 1957 (translated from the French edition of 1956)

Babar and Father Christmas – written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff
Random House, 1940

While there are stylistic differences between the original Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff (1899-1937) and his son, Laurent, (b. 1925), I love the works by both père et fils. Some are long out-of-print, and are not necessarily in tune with the presumed attention span of today’s readers.  Most of them are of irreplaceable beauty, and still lots of fun.  In Babar and the Professor, the elephant king’s mentor and mother figure, the old lady, pays a visit with her brother, Professor Grifaton, a kindly and distinguished academic who seems to specialize in butterflies.  The pictures are splendid scenes of Babar’s fantasy world, where animals play human roles in a society where everyone has a specific niche and is well-respected for fulfilling it.  (My edition has the text in script, the original format of the series.)

The plot involves several mishaps and near-disasters, with a reward at the end. The considerate old lady arrives with presents for Babar’s children, Pom, Flora, and Alexander. But the professor also has children, Nadine and Colin, and the combined families create some imaginative if risky events.  There is a tea party with eclairs in a cave, and a medieval fair with costumes, but Alexander also falls into a tunnel. Fortunately, the well-trained adult elephants take control of the situation and turn it into a productive day: “…and you, my dear Professor, should consult with my friend Podular, the sculptor. Exploring caves is his hobby.” The expedition also includes Dr. Capoulosse and Olur, the mechanic.  There is an incredible two-page spread of elephants, outfitted with illuminated helmets, rowing through the cave on inflatable rafts.

For children who are mechanically minded, there is a diagram of an excursion steamer, its cutaway interior carefully labeled. From the captain’s cabin to the ballroom and kitchen, it is well-appointed. The book concludes with a scene of transitions.  Babar and Celeste award Professor Grifaton a medal as Benefactor of Celesteville. Meanwhile, “The children, in their pajamas, watch the proceedings over television.”

Babar and Father Christmas was published after Jean’s untimely death.  According to the introductory section by Maurice Sendak (!) of the collection Babar’s Anniversary Album, Laurent colored some of the original unfinished black-and-white pictures.  Babar’s children, along with their cousin, Arthur, and their monkey friend Zéphir, eagerly compose a list of toys they would like for Christmas.  When they don’t receive a reply to their carefully written letter, Babar wonders why Father Christmas doesn’t visit his country, so he sets off for Europe in order to meet the benevolent figure directly. There have been many critiques of the Babar books as colonialist texts in which Babar and Celesteville need to be civilized through contact with European culture.  I guess this book won’t persuade people otherwise. 

Babar locates a charming hotel, using it as a base for his search.  Everyone is helpful, from some resident mice, to an artist’s model named Lazzaro Caompeotti, to a professor who tries to decode Gothic script.   Babar, attired for the cold of winter, rides in a sled and travels by skis in locations that recall the Alps. The title page of the book pictures their encounter.  Babar is wearing an elegant blue and white robe; Father Christmas is dressed in red. Both are smoking pipes. A small table seems to hold both tea and, perhaps, a bottle of sherry.

Similar to the ship diagram in Babar and the Professor, there is a detailed floor plan, this time of Father Christmas’s home and workspace. Instead of labels, there is a caption in small font explaining the building, which includes rooms for toys, dolls, tin soldiers, toy guns (!), and the “dwarfs’ dormitories.”  By the story’s end, Babar has ensured a happy future for the children of Celesteville.  The incomparable Babar books are timeless.

Bears in the City

When You Meet a Bear on Broadway – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Elivia Savadier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

Sometimes one book, or one work of art from other media, reminds you of another. A while back, I compared the lovely picture book Snow Sisters, by Kerri Kokias and Teagan White, to the A.A. Milne poem, “Twice Times,” about two dissimilar bears who appear to switch roles. I still sometimes notice visitors to my blog who found the post through an A.A. Milne search.  Today I am writing about one of my favorite authors in the world, Amy Hest, whose charming story with an urban setting also sends me back to Winnie the Pooh’s creator.

In A.A. Milne’s “Lines and Squares,” the city is London, and the narrator is a little boy who casually explains the careful system for avoiding the predators lurking on the streets of his home.  Obviously, taking care not to avoid both lines and squares is the best way to avoid the fate of those oblivious children who are unaware of the dangers lurking: “And the little bears growl to each other, ‘He’s mine,/As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.’”  In Amy Hest (I’ve reviewed her here and here and here and here, and interviewed her here) and Elivia Savadier’s (my first review of her work, and I hope not the last) When You Meet a Bear on Broadway, the city on New York, and the narrator’s goal is not avoiding danger, but rather locating a young bear’s missing mother.  In addition to the most direct link of city plus bears, there is the matter-of-fact instructional tone.  From a child’s perspective, the way in which she sees the world makes perfect sense, even if adults seem to miss that fact. 

The girl is confident and direct, with a little bit of the knowingness of Kay Thompson’s Eloise, without her obnoxious personality. She first appears in a bright blue coat, striped tights and a jaunty beret, holding out her hand to make sure that she is in control of the situation: “’Stop there, Little Bear.’/And he will. Stop. Immediately.  (To your great relief.)”. We soon learn that the girl is quite maternal, and truly concerned about her lost animal friend. 

The walk through the city, uptown and downtown, past doormen at luxury apartment buildings, pizza and bookstores, and the banks of the Hudson or possibly the East River.  Children, who otherwise often feel small and vulnerable, may feel proudly grownup when they help someone even smaller. As she always does, Hest shows her deep ability to empathize with children and to capture their thoughts and speech.  Once the bear has been safely reunited with her elusive mother, the little girl needs to run home to her own: “Now run! RUN! RUN!/On the wings of the wind. All the way home.” 

Each clause is equally important and builds to the crucial conclusion, which is to narrate the day’s events, “To tell your mama everything/that happened on this crispy-cold day.”  You can be sure that her mother will believe everything.  I’m not as sure about the young Londoner whose mother we never meet. He seems satisfied to call out, “Bears,/Just watch me walking in all the squares!”  Hest’s New York City girl needs to share her story. That’s the point.

And you should share it, too.

George and Godbout: More from a Perfect Team

Merry Christmas, Anne – written by Kallie George, illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
Tundra Books, 2021

When it comes to children’s books, there’s the concept and the execution.  Illustrated, edited, or adapted versions of classics may be a controversial proposition, but Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout’s reimagined Anne of Green Gables would win over any skeptics.  (The same applies to the illustrated chapter books by Kallie George and Abigail Halpin, also from Tundra Books.) Whether or not young readers eventually find L.M. Montgomery’s books, and it would be a terrible shame if they didn’t, these parallel stories stand on their own as beautiful, engaging, and sensitive homages to the originals. 

George’s text is both playful and poetic, showing deep respect for children’s ability to understand metaphor: “I’m so thankful for many things,/feathery frosts and silvery seas/and wreaths as round as the moon.” Anne and her bosom friend, Diana, are both Avonlea residents eagerly awaiting the Christmas holiday, and also the incarnation of Anne’s admiration of fairies. 

After all, this is the best season for a leap between the real world and the fairy realm: “Oh, Winter, you make the world dream/as much as I do.” If anyone doubts that she meets the requirement to transform herself into a fairy, Anne will not be dissuaded. She gazes into the mirror with a wreath crowning her red hair, as wild as the roses decorating this ornament.  Readers face the mirror, and see Diana in the background, sharing their perspective on Anne’s theatrical nature.

Godbout’s delicate pastel and colored pencil images are perfect for the incredible picture of a fairy feast.  As in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, a diminutive Anne and Diana appear on the table, surrounded by a gravy boat, centerpiece, and roasted goose for the Christmas meal.  Anne looks the more ethereal of the two, seated next to a sprig of holly, while the more practical Diana seems to be serving a small item of food.  It’s a bold choice to combine anecdotes from the novel with elaborations of new possibilities, like Anne and Diana’s fairy transformation.  We are still grounded in the world of L.M. Montgomery, as Anne and her friends perform in a grand theatrical success.

When Anne, Matthew, and Marilla return to Green Gables in a horse-drawn sleigh, the nighttime image of silhouettes against the snow evokes comfort without sentimentality. A dark night sky, white snow, and the dominant tone of blue-black capture Anne’s world perfectly.  An imaginative and independent girl who defies convention and yet longs for stable attachments to friends and family, Anne embraces Christmas with the same intensity as her other experiences, both real and imagined.  The deceptive simplicity of George and Godbout’s vision is actually a loving rendition of childhood, in all its contradictions. 

A New Spin on the Dreidel Song

I Have a Little Dreidel – written by Maxie Baum, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Scholastic, 2006

The book is not new, but the interpretation of the beloved, if repetitive, Chanukah song is.  If you thought it was a folk song, it is not. Even though the song is relatively recent, dating from the 20th century, its ubiquitous presence makes it seem ancient.  In I Have a Little Dreidel, gorgeous folk art-inspired pictures by Julie Paschkis, which accompany the original lyrics, and additional words by Maxie Baum, make this one of the most distinctive Chanukah children’s books I have seen. 

Yes, I know that some parents might find the song irritating, especially when repeated by children, either spontaneously or in an official school production, but there is a reason these lyrics are so popular!  They celebrate an entertaining tradition whose roots have been debated, but which has evolved into a symbol of joy and purpose-free play.  Baum makes the song into one about family, retaining the same lilting rhyme scheme. Some of her choices break the rhythm slightly: “We’re going to make some latkes/Because it’s so much fun,” or “Because we celebrate/the victory of the Maccabees.” Since children naturally do that when repeating nursery rhymes or songs, it works in this child-centered book.

The real innovation here is the artwork.  Paschkis is inspired by folk art and fabric design.  A blue and white background frames the lyrics, with motifs, such as the hamsa hand, the chanukiya (Chanukah menorah), and elements from nature. These images also recall traditional Jewish paper cutting.  Pictures of family members are both realistic and stylized: Mom with her dark curly hair, aged grandparents, children dancing and spinning the dreidel.  The composition of the pictures draws the reader’s eye to multiple activities without being visually overwhelming.  In the same scene, some people are presented in profile, others facing the reader, and still others only partially visible (the grandparents’ feet in their cozy slippers).  In the center of the book, a two-page spread reveals a glorious gold chanukiya, as one white-sleeved hand lights the eighth candle.

If you’ve forgotten how to make potato latkes, or the rules for playing dreidel, both are included at the end of the book.  Latkes, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), are a nice accompaniment but are not necessary for enjoyment of this artistically sophisticated love poem to the holiday of Chanukah. 

Time for Julie Morstad

Time is a Flower – written and illustrated by Julie Morstad
Tundra Books, 2021

Readers of my blog know that Julie Morstad is one of my favorite illustrators. Whether she collaborates with an author or, as in Time Is a Flower, accompanies her own text, her work has a distinctive vision.  The dream-like contemplation of time’s passage in her latest book may be linked to other Morstad explorations of childhood, but here she draws a bigger picture of individual children thinking about the cosmos.

The book is full of unaffected poetry. What is time? A ticking cuckoo clock, a seed sleeping in the darkness, a beautiful flower losing its petals.  Children visualize time in different images.  Scale is important, too, and Morstad’s comparison of a growing child to a growing tree takes the long view.

There are pages of spare words against an empty white background, and Morstad shows respect for children’s intelligence in offering these images.  The earth’s rotation, creating day and night, means that a child in one location is exchanging perspectives with his counterpart somewhere else.

Many of Morstad’s books reflect the continuity between children and the adults they will become, and also show a breadth of cultures. One two-page spread of drawings rendered as photographs illustrates how “Time is a memory/captured long ago/in a tiny part of a second.” The pictures take this philosophical statement and make it concrete, depicting a Japanese mother and children, a couple in a photo booth, a girl at the foot of a mountain, and a woman braiding a child’s hair.  Everyone is different and we’re all the same, the sum “of all the seconds that ever happened.”  There are scenes in black and white, pink interiors, yellow sun, a white moon. One scene at the seashore typifies Morstad’s subtle and inventive use of color. We may be accustomed to blue water, yellow sand, and, perhaps, pink clouds, but her pictures’ composition always make us see these choices from a new perspective.  Nothing is extraneous in any scene.

Family relationships also have a special imprint in Morstad’s work.  A father reading to his children highlights his focus on the book as well as the way everyone is embracing a moment of quiet comfort.  The brightest colors in the scene are the invented books, just like in a story by Jorge Luis Borges: The Lonely Ant by Mahalia Mae Stanley, and a small volume about a dog named Minty. Is this a joke or lovely tribute to the potential world of children’s books? I think it’s the latter.  Time Is a Flower is another elegant production from Julie Morstad’s endless imagination.

Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021)

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation – written by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books, 2019

Many critics, artists, authors, and readers have written and spoken about the genius and humanity of Jerry Pinkney.  It would take an extended essay to even touch upon his gifts to the world of literature for children. Instead of attempting that today, I would like to just offer a few thoughts about only one recent, outstanding example of his work, A Place to Land. What is singular about this book, only one of many written for young readers about Martin Luther King Jr

Barry Wittenstein’s text shows great respect for young readers, offering specific information, not only platitudes. He places King at the center of other activists, within a detailed historical context.  Pinkney’s pictures create a dynamic portrait of King, quite different from the kind of flat hagiography sometimes used to depict heroes to young readers.  We see King surrounded by his civil rights associates, from Andrew Young to Bayard Rustin and others, at “a meeting of the minds” in the capital’s Willard Motel.  Each man’s name accompanies his figure, some circling their heads like a halo, others close to their gesturing hands.  There are no static images in Pinkney’s interpretation of King’s life and the life of the movement in which he played an outsized role.

In some pictures, King appears tired. In others, meditative, and, when working on his speech for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, somewhat frustrated. The speech is a triumph, but the struggle King articulated is clearly shown as unfinished and ongoing.  Pinkney’s concluding picture has King completing his speech, while, on the other half of the page, images of Shirley Chisolm, John Lewis, and Barack Obama represent continuity and progress.  As in all Pinkney’s work, color is a key element. The bright blue and white stars of the American flag contrast with a pastel background.  King himself is defined in clearly delineated, while those who will move forward in the future are sketched in lighter hues.  There are also pieces of collage which add journalistic realism to the impressionistic scenes: a fragment of the Declaration of Independence, a map of D.C., a shiny black rotary telephone.

Pinkney expresses in images how both individuals and masses of people bring about change.  The Lincoln Memorial, including a discernible, if small, Lincoln statue, is an image of monumental permanence. Facing the building, the pale blue light of the reflecting pool is surrounded by throngs and marchers and their signs, each too small to differentiate from one another. This stunningly beautiful scene of collective action, embodied within American history, is part of Pinkney’s legacy. His vision of the past and the future, his dedication to telling the stories of African-Americans, children, working people, and others, and his indelibly expressive interpretations of character, will never be forgotten.

Anne Frank: the Difficulty of Presentation

Anne Frank – written by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Malcah Zeldis
Henry Holt and Company, 1997

The novelist Dara Horn has a new collection of essays called People Love Dead Jews: Report from a Haunted Present (and she wrote these even before an educator in Texas said that if teachers had a book in the classroom that condemned the Holocaust, they needed to add a book showing the opposing view). Among other examples of her provocative, and valid, argument, is the exploitation of Anne Frank as a universal example of optimistic humanism. Horn asserts that the quote from the diary about the young Anne believing that people are “truly good at heart” was obviously written before she learned the bitter truth that they sometimes are not.  (Another resource, for adults, is Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, the Afterlife.). I decided to revisit the picture book collaboration between daughter and mother, Yona Zeldis McDonough (author of The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Woodcarver’s Daughter) and Malcah Zeldis, a thoughtful and artistically unusual approach to Frank’s tragically short life.

Malcah Zeldis’s pictures draw on folk art traditions; these images of a terrible period in history are not meant to be literally accurate renditions of a time and place. Instead, they evoke a child’s experiences: first of a warm and loving home, and later, of terror. We see Edith and Otto Frank seated on a couch with their two daughters looking almost like dolls, and also recalling Renaissance paintings of religious figures.  Later, Anne sits in her bedroom in hiding, surrounded by pictures of movies stars, while she writes in her diary. This image presents the normality that Anne tried to create under conditions of unbearable pressure. So far, these depictions of Anne may be familiar to young readers who know anything about her. However, towards the end of the book, Zeldis portrays Anne, her mother, and sister, trapped behind barbed wire, their heads shaved and wearing concentration camp uniforms.  It is crucially important that this image is included in the book. Otherwise, readers cannot imagine what happened after the brave attempted rescuers of the Frank family were unable to save them from an informer and arrest by the Nazis.

Each page of text has a great deal of information, phrased appropriately for older picture book readers.  Anne receives her diary as a gift, she and her family go into hiding.  As the Nazi regime closes in on Jews of the Netherlands, tensions and fear threaten her emotional well-being.  Anne envisions her future, and, as she and her family try to maintain optimism that the war will soon end with victory by the Allies, she writes her famous phrase about human goodness.  McDonough does not negate the statement, but it is followed by the arrest of the Secret Annex residents and their imprisonment in the notorious system of death camps. 

An “Author’s Note” tries to strike a balance between universalism and the specific fate of Jews.  McDonough reports that the total number of Jews killed was approximately six million, but she adds that many other groups were targeted for persecution. While this is true, the Nazis did not succeed in committing genocide against them.  Fully two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were killed; in some countries as many as ninety percent.  It is important and appropriate for the author to put Anne Frank’s life, and death, in a worldwide perspective, but the particularity of her murder should also be clear.  There is one error: McDonough suggests that Anne and Margot Frank were sent from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they died, because they were judged to be “young and strong enough to continue working.” The truth is that, by the time they were sent to Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis realized they were losing the war and were beginning to close Auschwitz, trying to destroy the evidence of the mass murder committed there.  These points do not lessen the value of this brave book, for older picture book readers.  Anne Frank leaves a strong impression of a gifted young woman, her destruction by murderous antisemitism, and her legacy to all of humanity.

A Not-So-Little Life

Gemma and the Giant Girl – words by Sara O’Leary, pictures by Marie Lafrance
Tundra Books, 2021

Even though the narrator begins Gemma’s story by stating that she “lived in a very nice little house and had a very nice little life,” only the first part of that sentence is strictly true. Yes, her house is little compared to the wide world to which the “giant” will soon introduce her, but her truly nice life is not little, from her perspective.  As any child, or adult, fascinated by dollhouse fiction knows, imagining the life inside these miniaturized worlds is endlessly intriguing.  Children, and dolls representing them, are small and vulnerable, lacking some control over daily events, big and small. Looking inside a dollhouse, and into the possible lives of those who live there, is a thrilling experience.  The empathic text by Sara O’Leary’s (author of This is Ruby and This is Sadie), and Marie Lafrance’s imaginative pictures, transport young readers to Gemma’s world from outside in and inside out. The book is a gentle exploration of childhood.

Who is Gemma, and how “little” is her home? When she asks her parents, “Will I grow up one day?” their answer is reassuring, but also literally true, because she lives in a dollhouse. Children are ambivalent about growing up and losing their parents’ protection, and this won’t happen to Gemma. 

But one a giant and all-seeing eye appears in her window, (link to image), everything is thrown into literal and figurative disarray.  A well-intentioned “giant” has entered the lives of Gemma and her family.  Yet Gemma realizes that this intruder is “somebody’s little girl,” and Lafrance depicts her bending to doll eye level and peering with wonder into the house. The beautiful house is suddenly a mess, with furniture overturned but Gemma and her parents standing bravely together.  There is an echo of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, where the small people need to determine if larger ones mean them harm. 

As in The Borrowers, the giant starts to bring the dollhouse family lots of stuff.  While this all-powerful new benefactor certainly means well, Gemma realizes that “Some of the new things were nice.  Some were less nice.”  Children perceive that not all adult interventions are to their liking, and Gemma feels the same way about the giant girl.  Scale is one of the most intriguing parts of dollhouse live and fiction; when the girl brings the family a book, this enormous item becomes a kind of theater scenery, worth the effort it requires to turn the pages. 

When the giant picks up Gemma and suspends her over the house, readers may wonder if this move isn’t a bit insensitive. Suddenly, Gemma is forced to look down at her home and at her parents, who are “frozen with fear.”  It seems time for the giant to leave well enough alone!  There is a dizzying sense for children that the world may not be exactly as they thought, as Gemma is forced to understand how small her life seems in relation to the giant’s.  All’s well that ends well, as Gemma is gently returned to her “little life,” the one which she loves.  O’Leary and Lafrance have captured the paradox of childhood, of wanting to remain small but eager to find out about the bigger world that awaits.  Their book is a beautiful and subtly poignant expression of this truth.