All You Need Is…

All We Need – written by Kathy Wolff, illustrated by Margaux Meganck
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

Children have basic needs, and they need adults to fulfill them.  If they are fortunate enough to enjoy all the material and emotional comforts, they should also learn to share.  This basic message takes shape in Kathy Wolff and Margaux Meganck’s new picture book, which validates what children already know about their lives.  With a rhyming text and lovely watercolor, gouache and pencil illustrations, author and illustrator build a series of scenarios about kindness and generosity.

Children generally love rhyming books. As you read them this one, they will begin to anticipate what comes next.  Each two-page spread depicts something in the environment which enables life and happiness.  On the following pages the anticipated conclusion appears.  The rhythm is not monotonous; Wolff often uses slant rhyme: “hotter/water,” “return/learn.” The book begins with the most fundamental needs, such as air and water, and progresses to concepts, making even abstractions like “sharing” as concrete as can be. 

The people bringing the concepts to life are multicultural and multigenerational, and they make use of life’s essentials in specific contexts.  Water is not only “what falls from above,” but the excitement of a sprinkler in the neighborhood park. .  Two dads prepare a meal with their children’s participation , opening to a beautiful still life of different dishes, carefully arranged with enough blank space in the center to appreciate each one’s unique qualities. .  There is a sliced-open avocado complete with pit, but pots of soup and stew only partially revealed.  The book’s design all reflects this same quiet appreciation, inviting the reader to spend a few minutes on each page. Food is, most fundamentally, “a belly that’s filled,” but it’s also the sustenance that allows creativity, “the strength to grow and rebuild.”

There is no explicit reminder that some people, tragically, are denied the right to food, water, or shelter. This is a book for young children. Instead, All We Need emphasizes that anyone lucky enough to feel secure will naturally both need and want to share with others.  No one here seems to have excessive material goods, but everyone realizes that “when we’re well and at ease,” they are even more privileged to be part of a community where everyone both gives and takes.  The communal feast at the end of the book is deliberately open to interpretation. It might be a local gathering, a meal for people in need, a fundraising event, or a holiday celebration.  All we need to know about the meal is that it offers nourishment and comfort.

Culinary Kids

Alice Fleck’s Recipes for Disaster – by Rachelle Delaney
Puffin Canada, 2021

Alice and her father, James, a culinary historian, share a close bond, although lately it has been altered a bit by his new relationship with Hana, a Victorian scholar. The cooking connection is so much a part of Alice and her father’s life together that he affectionately calls her his “sous-chef.”  Alice’s mother is not in the picture. She is alive, they are not divorced, but she appears in the novel’s backstory. Right away, this single-parent household is somewhat different than the ones which figure in many middle-grade novels.  The further you read, the more distinctive the cast of characters becomes.

James is a lovely, kind man. He is proud of his daughter, and also of the independence which the two of them have achieved together.  When he meets Hana Holmes, Alice becomes afraid that too many cooks will spoil the proverbial broth, the broth being their family.  Readers empathize with Alice, although the author tests our tolerance when the young cook’s aggression boils over.  Fortunately, Alice has the support of some truly loyal friends, Octavia Sapphire and Henry Oh. (Yes, characters’ names are key ingredients in this contemporary story with some Victorian flavor.)

Alice and James are set to participate in a cooking contest for their favorite obscure reality TV show, Culinary Chronicles, which unfortunately is transformed into Culinary Combat. There’s lots of humor about ratings-driven programming sinking to the lowest common denominator.  When events take a suspicious turn, the book becomes a mystery in which each contestant and staff member may become a prime suspect.  These kids are sharp, persistent, and full of a thirst for justice.  Rachelle Delaney does a notable job of propelling the mystery forward while also allowing the changing events of Alice’s family life to develop. They aren’t just a side dish, but part of the main course.

Since the show is filmed at a restored manor’s Victorian festival, there are some truly imaginative dishes to prepare, some of which fall outside the historical parameters of the era. I’ll just mention the challenge of baking peacock pie. Don’t worry; the author is not advocating for eating this beautiful bird. Like many other historically accurate details, it is a plot point stirred into the brew.  There are references to other elements of Victorian history, enlivening the novel even for readers who are not food obsessed.  Hana is a thoroughly believable academic, somewhat obsessed with her specialty, but also aware of her need to meet the real world on her terms. I really liked her! So is James, even if he does wear a good-luck scarf.  By the end of the book, everything falls together, much like the carefully constructed ladyfingers of a perfect charlotte russe.

Starring a Cockeyed Optimist

Mazie – by Melanie Crowder
Philomel Books (Penguin), 2021

Mazie Butterfield, the heroine of this young adult novel by Melanie Crowder is not Ensign Nellie Forbush, the cockeyed optimist of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song in South Pacific (originally in James Michener’s stories), but she certainly embodies her spirit.  A Nebraska farm girl with an uncompromising vision of success as a Broadway actress, Mazie has moments of self-doubt, but they are fleeting, compared to her sense of conviction in this unlikely dream. Even though leaving home will mean leaving her devoted boyfriend, Jesse, as well as her family, Mazie knows that staying behind will be a betrayal of who she is. Readers should begin the begin without preconceptions, go back to America in 1959, and prepare to enjoy an amazingly independent work of fiction.

Mazie is a mélange of elements.  There is the mid-century teen romance, sometimes referred to as “malt shop.” In fact, at the beginning of the book, Mazie even works as a carhop at a local diner. The inspiring narrative of a young adult reaching for the stars against improbable odds is also at the book’s core. Any reader would identify with Mazie’s touching honesty about her aspirations: “I think I’m good enough for Broadway, but I won’t know for sure until I get there.”  But Crowder carefully throws more modern perspectives into the mix.  Arriving in New York, Mazie first meets people of color, and forms friendships with gay people. (Eventually she learns that LGBTQ people live everywhere, including in her own backyard.). She also possesses a feminist consciousness, insisting that her professional goals are so important, that even true love cannot replace them. She fends off powerful sexual predators, and exhibits a strong sense of body positivity in the midst of cruelly unrealistic beauty standards for women.  Her boyfriend has his own struggles against limiting expectations, and he respects Mazie’s determination.  Perhaps that acceptance is a bit idealized in the context of the era, but once you buy into the book’s premise, things fall into place.

At times I wondered if the author was having a bit of fun with her readers.  Clichés pop up, followed by challenging insights.  You may be thinking of Hallmark movies and memorable heroines of literature at the same time, all the while rooting for Mazie’s romance and encouraging her to “break a leg.” Because of the novel’s realistic details and heartfelt monologues, you may be inclined to overlook, or even to question, less than likely occurrences.  The owner of the New York boardinghouse where Mazie finds a home away from home is Mrs. Cooper, a retired African-American actress.  None of the girls treats her with anything but respect.  Mazie is free from prejudice.  But she’s Mazie!  Her own Nana was a free spirit and her farmer boyfriend wants to be a physicist.  Crowder also gives Mrs. Cooper a backstory: she was a talented performer who was forced to end of her career because of racism in casting.  In case this accurate information seems an incomplete part of her new role as housemother, Mazie’s fellow boarder points out that “I guess she figured there was money to be made off all us starry-eyed girls from the sticks trying to make it in the big city.” 

A lot of changes ensue in the course of the book; I’m not going to give any spoilers.  But don’t give up on Mazie. As she puts it, “Everybody’s always talking about hope like it’s so lightweight, the thing with feathers or whatever.” Mazie isn’t Nellie, but she is “stuck like a dope” on that thing with feathers.

Preschool Is Fun, But…

What Does Little Crocodile Say – written and illustrated by Eva Montanari
Tundra Books, 2021

This is a book for very young children, but not only for them.  Eva Montanari paints, or rather draws, a picture of the nearly universal moment when a toddler has to say goodbye to her parent at the preschool door.  With a few carefully chosen words which reflect children’s language, and brightly colored pencil and chalk pictures, Montanari brings to children and parents the direct emotional experience of separation, sweetened by beautiful art.  Little Crocodile is every child processing a new event in her life.

When children learn to speak, their new ability to embed feelings in language is exciting.  In hand lettered text, Montanari documents Little Crocodile’s day from waking in her crib (image) to getting dressed (“THE ZIPPER GOES ZZZT) to embracing a returning parent. Sometimes, English is insufficient to convey the child’s joy, requiring a hybrid of baby talk and real words: “MUAH, MUAH, MUAH, MUAH…”, or “THE NAP GOES ZZZ ZZZ ZZZ ZZZ.” The book’s title reflects the book’s theme: that Little Crocodile’s use of words to make sense of her new routine is part of growing up.

The pictures are delightful, partly because they are so obviously rendered in pencil and pastels, just like the art projects which children undertake in school.  The crocodile is just the right shade of green. Her red overalls look real enough to touch, as do the pieces of pasta in sauce on the children’s plates at lunchtime.  There’s a fine line between drawing like a child and drawing in a way which children will identify as familiar. Montanari’s balance between the two is perfect.  So is the preschool.  There are lots of different species representing childhood, and the teacher is a kind-looking elephant wearing glasses.  When Little Crocodile arrives, clinging to her parent, the teacher allows her to observe the other kids at play and allows her to cry when her parent, who also sheds a tear, has to leave.

Still crying, Little Crocodile gets to sit on the teacher’s lap during story time.  The naptime scene is viewed from above, with each exhausted child asleep in a different position. Little Crocodile’s long tail extends into the space of the adjacent frog, and the teacher’s reassuring trunk appears in the corner. The book has lots of allusions to classic picture books about the same subject, while Montanari’s deliberately naïve artistic style adds a different dimension.

Children like symmetry in stories and pictures; the framing of the story is a consistent path, really a cycle. Waking, preparing, setting forth (image), returning, and repeating the now familiar routine the next day.  Words plus pictures, when they are this authentic to children’s feelings,  make starting school less wrenching and more rewarding. 

Time with Nana

The Friday Nights of Nana – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
Candlewick Press, 2001

There are many books about Jewish families observing the Sabbath, and many about children from all backgrounds enjoying a special bond with grandparents.  The Friday Nights of Nana is exceptionally poetic and beautiful.  The young girl in the story, Jennie, describes the reassuring routine of preparing for Friday night dinner with her Nana, relating each detail of the weekly event and, by implication, how these become stored in her memory. Towards the end of the book, she welcomes other family members, but the unique love between granddaughter and grandmother has set the stage for family togetherness. (link to other blog posts, Amy Hest interview and review on JBC.)

Amy Hest’s (a prolific author of, among other books, The Purple Coat, Love You, Soldier, and, most recently, The Summer We Found the Baby) tone is quiet, gentle, and affirmative.  Jennie lists exactly what is important to her about the ritual of Fridays.  “Nana sips tea and the tea is too hot and she blows in the old china cup, making ripples.”  The precision of her observations is perfectly matched by Claire Nivola’s pictures, delicately drawn and brightly colored renditions of the day’s events.  The book opens with the girl and her grandmother facing one another at the breakfast table. Other scenes depict both of them in motion: making the bed, polishing candlesticks, taking a break for lunch in the park.  Nana’s task’s and Jennie’s are complementary, divided by generation, with the older woman ironing and the young girl folding cloth napkins.  They both wear blue shoes, but only Nana carefully applies lipstick in the mirror.

There is a sense of both diversity and Jewish unity in the pictures. An Orthodox family walks down the street, wearing the type of traditional clothing that could suggest different time periods for the story. The mother is pregnant and the father is warmly holding his daughter’s hand, holding a shopping bag full of food in the other. They are presumably also preparing for the Sabbath.  On the next page, Jennie, wearing pants, buys flowers from a market with Nana. when Jennie and Nana’s extended family arrive on Friday evening, the two-page spread of pictures shows everyone together, but also divided into small groups: Nana hugs a grandson, two older women embrace as a small child holds on to one of them, a mother takes off a baby’s sweater.

There is great deal left unsaid; readers infer the depth of the relationship through understatement, one of Amy Hest’s many strengths as an author.  As Nana prepares to light the Sabbath candles, a weekly ritual that never loses its depth, Jennie asks her, “Is it time?”  Nana responds that it is, and Jennie notes that “…our dresses are touching, and she is whispering Sabbath prayers and no one makes a peep.”  Earlier, while Nana tests to see if the chicken was cooked, Jennie looks out the window and learns that one special external event will enhance their indoor activities: “Look, Nana, snow!” Hest doesn’t need to add any further words about Jennie’s excitement, which will be easily understood by young readers.  The book concludes with the family dinner seen outside, each windowpane dividing the close-knit group into visual segments.  At the head of the table, Nana occupies two spaces, with Jennie sharing one of them. “It’s time for pie and we’re all here together on the Friday nights of Nana,” but Nana and Jennie inhabit a special space together.

For the Dog Days of Summer

Dozens of Dachshunds: A Counting, Woofing, Waggling Book – written by Stephanie Calmenson, illustrated by Zoe Persico
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

Within the category of children’s books about dogs there is a much smaller, more select, group of dachshund books. It’s no wonder, because the comical nature of these pets, including the fact that illustrators can transform them into virtually any object, makes them a tempting subject.  Now, along with Margret and H.A. Rey’s Pretzel, Munro Leaf’s Noodle, by Munro Leaf and Ludwig Bemelmans, and Paolo, Emperor of Rome, by Mac Barnett and Claire Keane, there is a new addition, more geared to younger readers.  Dozens of Dachshunds is focused less on narrative and more on a rhyming text and colorful pictures, although it does chronicle a parade on Dachshund Day.

Before the story begins, a dog with a word bubble pronounces the name of his breed correctly: it is “Dox-hund.” If you haven’t been saying it that way, it’s a tough habit to break.  The point of the information is to frame the book about dogs dressed in flamboyant outfits as a factual introduction to the breed.  While the expressions on the dogs’ faces makes them almost human, the humans in the book are quite real.  There is a multicultural cast and a girl using a wheelchair. She enjoys an ice cream cone while happily observing some dachshunds dressed as the same treat.  A notable quality of the book is the connection between dogs dressed in fantastic costumes and humans having a good time just as themselves, sometimes with one accessory the matches the dog’s. Children will have fun identifying the crown, jaunty hat, or food item shared by canine participants and human observers.

Ice cream is only one choice for the dog parade.  The costumes are a bit of personality test for the reader.  No doubt, ice cream is popular. Dogs dressed as superheroes, athletes, or mythological creatures with wings, supply plenty of opportunities for conversation. My personal favorite are the dachshunds wearing reading matter, “perfectly dressed/for sharing the books they each like the best.”

Humans are involved in the festivities. They encourage the dogs, film them, sing to them, and eventually return them to their homes, because this exciting event has to end.  I like the little girl with the hippie-style headband and sandals, who, while others are standing, sits at the dogs’ level.  There’s a lot of variety, enthusiasm, and humor. Just when you were about to head home, the book concludes with two pages of dachshund definitions, based on coats, sizes, colors, and patterns.  I had no idea that there were longhaired dachshunds, let alone sable, blue and cream, or chocolate and cream. Stephanie Calmenson and Zoe Persico’s dogs maybe more down-to-earth than Noodle and less prone to adventure than Paolo, but they are highly entertaining, just the same.

Dear Author

Dear Mr. Henshaw – written by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
HarperCollins, 1983

Mallory Pike, Number One Fan (Baby-Sitters Club #80) – written by Ann. M. Martin
Apple, 1994

While the late Beverly Cleary (1916-2021) is probably best known for her Ramona series, and for several early classics, she won the Newbery for a later work, Dear Mr. Henshaw. If you have never read it, or read it so long ago that it is a distant memory, you should return to this truthful exploration of children’s resilience, responding to adult incompetence when they have no oter choice.  The novel chronicles the painful experiences of a boy named Leigh Botts, whose estranged father is a long-distance truck driver and whose mother is struggling to support him by helping a friend in her catering business.  It is full of lyrical language and painful insights, as Leigh unwillingly corresponds with a well-known author as part of a compulsory school project.  Soon, the Mr. Henshaw of the title becomes a mentor to Leigh.  We only meet him through Leigh’s end of the letters, including subtly humorous references to the author’s novels (Ways to Amuse a Dog, Moose on Toast) which must reflect Cleary’s opinion of children’s publishing. 

Leigh’s father is a tragic example of parental selfishness. He has the best of intentions, but he continually disappoints his son.  He had inflicted the same repeated pattern on his ex-wife, but she eventually learned her lesson and, throughout the book, she is a source of strength to Leigh, although she suffers from loneliness and regrets. She is honest with Leigh, but, unlike his father, she understands the limits of what a child is capable of emotionally accepting.  Friendless, except for his author correspondent and a kind custodian at this new school, Leigh is depressed.  Eventually, his narrative in letters turns into an example of his literary gift.  Leigh’s talent at expressing his thoughts and feelings is not only a form of therapy, but evidence that he is perhaps as gifted as his role model, Mr. Henshaw.  By the time Leigh earns only an “honorable mention” in a school writing contest, he has developed the confidence to admit that “I have heard that real authors sometimes have their books turned down. I figure you win some, you lose some.”  When he does earn the opportunity, due to the plagiarism of another student, to have lunch with a “real author,” what reader doesn’t respond to her sincere and honest praise his moving “A Day on Dad’s Rig,” obviously a more authentic piece than those of the contest’s major winners. (a future Newbery Honor, or perhaps Newbery overlooked author?)

Ann M. Martin is a fine writer, even though Mallory Pike, Number One Fan is not as sophisticated as Cleary’s novel.  Still, there are obvious similarities.  Mallory’s family is intact; her problems are those of a child in a large family caught between her personal needs and seemingly unreasonable demands to help out at home.  She wants to be a writer, and, somewhat improbably, her favorite author turns out to live right in her own town.  Henrietta Hayes is the author of the Alice Anderson series, starring a plucky girl whose incredible adventures are only helped, never hindered, by the wonderful supporting cast in her life.  When Mallory learns that Ms. Hayes’s novels do not reflect her personal experience, which has actually been characterized by tragedy, she feels betrayed.  How could this be? Authors are supposed to draw on what they know, right? (A subplot involves the anger Mallory provokes from her own family, when she writes and produces a play for elementary school students, portraying her mother and siblings as irrational nuisances. Apparently, they are not aware of the late Nora Ephron’s adage, “everything is copy.”)

Like Leigh Botts, Mallory learns a lesson about writing.  Literal facts compose only a small segment of a novel, play, or poem.  The grief-stricken Henrietta Hayes patiently explains to Mallory that her cheerful novels do tell the truth, just not with a direct correlation to everything the author has experienced, including the death of her only daughter. There are clear parallels between the two books, so much so that I half expected Ann M. Martin to have acknowledged them in her short afterword.  Martin’s novel seems to be, on some level, an homage to Cleary’s. Both children contact their favorite authors through a school project.  Both aspire to be writers, and both benefit from the generosity of a “real author” who clarifies the difference between factual and imaginative truths.  Both form a bond with adults outside their own families, filling in the inevitable gap between parents and children.  Still, to quote Leigh Botts, reading these books, especially Dear Mr. Henshaw, “I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time.”

Friends and Change

Keep It Together, Keiko Carter: A Wish Novel – Debbi Michiko Florence
Scholastic, 2021

Writing intelligent books with compelling characters for middle grade readers that transcend the most commonly successful formula is not easy.  Nor is writing chapter books for younger children. Debbi Michiko Florence accomplished the latter with her Jasmine Toguchi books. (I would hope to see more of those!) Now, with Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, the first in a series about older girls, she has created a new heroine: bright, introspective, sometimes confused, and often hopeful.   Like Jasmine, Keiko lives in California.  She has a younger sister, and two decidedly imperfect parents who are trying to do their best, even though her mother’s new and demanding job takes her away from the family more frequently than everyone would like.  Keiko has two best friends, Audrey Lassiter and Jenna Sakai.  I know what you’re thinking. That will never work out.  While it is true that some of the girls’ conflicts are partly determined by jealousy, and suspicion that each one may not enjoy the deepest loyalty from the others, this is not a patronizing picture of female relationships. No one in this novel is doomed, through some type of intrinsic gender quality, to turn against a friend. 

Jenna is slowly recovering from the trauma of her parents’ divorce. Audrey is the victim of an apparently dreadful older brother, Connor, who, along with his friends, devises ways to torment the three girls.  Since one friend decides to taunt them with the nickname “the Great Wall of China,” since two of the three are Asian-American, you get the idea of eighth-grade idiocy at its most grotesque.  But many characters in this complex novel are not what they seem.  People change, although not outside of the boundaries of what is possible. Just when you give up hope on one character, the author delivers a surprise. On the other hand, she refuses to deliver the most optimistic resolution in other cases.  Sometimes people are shallow or selfish, even manipulative and cruel.  Keiko is aware of this uncomfortable fact about life, but it doesn’t make her happy.  “I wasn’t afraid of change,” she tells herself honestly, “Just as long as everything else stayed the same.”

Keiko’s mother is of Japanese ancestry, while her father’s background is European-American.  The fact that Jenna’s family is also Japanese-American does give Keiko and Jenna a certain bond, but it does not ultimately determine the way the three girls care about one another or fail to do so.  There are many cultural references which feel authentic, including discussions of movies which the friends watch together.  All three girls are Miyazaki fans, but also enjoy films by John Hughes.  Connor is a fan of classic Hollywood and that turns out to be a good sign. When he and Keiko, along with Audrey, watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Keiko objects to the ugly stereotype of a Japanese man played by Mickey Rooney, Connor empathizes. That’s a good sign.  Audrey accuses Keiko of being overly sensitive.  That’s not a good sign.  Each incident is one small part of a whole, with some moments only fleeting or even misleading, while others turn out to be unexpectedly revealing.

Keiko loves chocolate, even falling for Gregor Whitman, the boy with the same name as a brand of her favorite sweet.  No spoilers here, but think of Shakespeare…As I was reading Keiko’s thoughts about the incredible variety of this food, “Some people think that all chocolate is the same, but they’re wrong,” I couldn’t help remembering The Baby-Sitters Club. While the later books in the series were churned out at record speed to take advantage of their unexpected success, the original ones were wonderful; many children’s authors have paid homage to their influence (for example here and here). Kristy, Stacey, Claudia, and Mary Anne were each individuals with distinct, believable, personalities, and wildly different approaches to conflict.  At their meetings, Claudia Kishi would bring out the chocolate and candy hidden in her room, along with the Nancy Drew novels that her parents found disappointingly non-academic.  Is this inclusion in Keiko Carter an allusion to that earlier group of girls also trying to “keep it together?” Maybe not. Maybe Debbi Michiko Florence isn’t a fan of The Baby-Sitters Club, but if readers are, they might think back to that girl’s bedroom in fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

Why is Keiko Carter, like David Copperfield, the hero of her own life and not just an ingredient in a formula?  She’s vulnerable, self-doubting, loyal, angry, loving, and conscious of her own weaknesses. It may take time for her to reach that last quality, but the process through which she does is unforgettable. 

Like Father Like Daughter

Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem – written and illustrated by Lauren Soloy
Tundra Books, 2021

If your father is “one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the World,” but you want to believe in fairies, do you have a problem? If so, how do you resolve it? In Lauren Soloy’s Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem, father and daughter share a dialogue about belief and knowledge.  The book takes on this weighty philosophical problem in a weightless way, as light and unassuming as a fairy itself.  Soloy compares the gravity of the way adults explain the world to the very different perceptions of a child.  The bond between a caring and empathetic father and an imaginative little girl is at the center of this deeply reassuring story.

You won’t mistake Soloy’s highly individual artistic style for that of any other illustrator, Of course, she has many influences, including folk art, Asian art, cartoons, and several other elements.  The resulting images are uniquely hers: people with broad faces and minimally delineated features that express the words of her text. 

Here those words and pictures tell the story of Charles Darwin and his daughter, Etty, as they take a leisurely walk through the natural world that Darwin dedicated his professional life to explaining. There’s no conflict, just a deep conversation about reality. When Etty asks her father if he believes in fairies, he answers obliquely: “Well, I’ve never seen any proof that fairies are real.” That’s red flag to a curious child who is wedded to the idea that these lovely creatures have at least the possibility of existing. After all, who wouldn’t believe in the deep and light green fairy in flight against a dark green background, right in front of Etty’s eyes?

Etty is not exclusively interested in fairies. She asks her father about butterflies, an obviously related but thoroughly real species. Her father provides maps with lines detailing the butterflies’ routes, while Etty considers other hypotheses about things with wings, and things that resemble magical beings but are real. Darwin suggests that “living things,” such as the oxalis flowers known as “fairy bells,” are ones which “leave evidence, if you know what to look for.”  Yet Etty is not convinced.  Reasoning that people might not be looking for evidence in the most productive way, she still hopes for proof that will confirm her emotions.

Etty’s father realizes that.  This is not a book equating science with magic, or suggesting that provable theories are the same as fantasies.  It’s the story of a parent who respects his child’s experiences and validates them.  Having asked Etty rather pointedly why she wants to believe in fairies, he proves his own probable hypothesis.  Etty identifies with the elusive winged characters “I want to BE a fairy.” With her arms held up triumphantly, her hands holding a leaf and a feather, Etty appears to be conjuring the red fox moving behind her.  She has been liberated from the bounds of reason.

Does Etty actually believe that her father has admitted the existence of fairies?  You might have that conversation with a child sharing the book with you. Etty states that she feels better after the walk that she and her father shared.  She feels better because he tried to answer her questions and came up with some new ones.  The beauty of nature had given her “thoughts space to fly.”  No doubt, she processed her father’s information about living things and the evidence of their existence, while she could also imagine the perfect habitat for an unproven fairy. Darwin walks calmly, one hand in his coat pocket and the other holding a cane. Etty is the picture of determination, her arms denoting energetic movement.  The world surrounding them is lush and vivid, mysterious and subject to scientific investigation at the same time. 

Like Father Like Daughter

She Persisted

Dangerous Jane: The Life and Times of Jane Addams, Crusader for Peace – written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Alice Ratterree
Peachtree Publishing, 2017

“Women cooked, cleaned, and cared for children. What could women say to presidents and prime ministers?” They could say plenty, as this picture book biography of pioneering activist and social worker Jane Addams (1860-1935) proved in her persistent and productive life. The subtitle of this engaging book present its challenge; writing a “life and times” for children is not easy. Most young readers will come to the book with little background knowledge of such issues as pacifism, immigration, or the settlement house movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They might well be aware that women were assumed to play a different and lesser role, if any, in public life.  Suzanne Slade and Alice Ratterree frame Addams’s life as a response both to her own personal obstacles and to the injustice she saw surrounding her.

It’s often popular in children’s books to present the hero as struggling against some adversity.  Jane is born in a middle-American town; although the text does not specify that her family was affluent, the pictures imply a level of financial comfort.  Jane’s vulnerability, a condition which made her “back crooked, her toes point in,” was debilitating, and Slade evokes the reader’s sympathy by extending its reality into a fairy tale metaphor.  Ratterree depicts a sad girl sitting in a window seat quietly reading a book.  Jane “felt like the ugly duckling in her storybook: different, unwanted, hopeless.” Even more devastating was the loss of her mother, leaving her with “deep sadness and pain.” The Dickensian description of anguish on this page sets the stage for Addams’s eventual transformation, like the ugly duckling, into an assertive woman who threatened those in power with her advocacy for the vulnerable.

The book consistently shows Addams’s developing consciousness of inequality by alternating scenes of her comfortable circumstances and her observation of inequality.  She travels the world, visiting theaters and monumental works of art and architecture, but is inevitably dissatisfied.  Observing Toynbee Hall in London, a pioneering settlement house dedicated to empowering the poor through education and job training, Addams determines to bring the concept to her own country.  The full history of the settlement house movement includes criticisms of the patronizing attitude which professional social workers sometimes imposed on immigrants, as well as the underlying assumption that acculturation into specific American values was always positive. This is a children’s book; of necessity, it emphasizes the progressive goals behind Addams’s crusade.  The author is careful to describe her work as bringing “dignity and hope” to those who needed her help.

The lovely illustrations are both dramatic and subtle. Sepia and pastel colors dominate with selected brighter tones.  Facial expressions convey a range of emotions.  Chicago’s famous Hull House is a center of progress, emphasized through a scene of motion and activity.  Working people enter the house and embrace change, some literally ascending the staircase, and all engaged in meaningful pursuits or receiving crucial services.  Slade alludes to possible conflicts, since many different ethnic groups and political persuasions are represented, but Addams “asked them to listen carefully…and peacefully settle their differences.” This type of supervision implies that Addams is still in a position of control and influence over the lives of her clients, yet it reflects the reality of the Progressive era.  Change is sometimes gradual and imperfect and the settlement house movement was an important beginning.

Addams was also a peace activist who helped to organize the Women’s Peace Party in response to the terrible carnage of World War I.  The text is balanced, pointing out both the origin of the war in fights over “land, money, and power,” and the need of countries to defend their citizens.  Parents and educators can use this part of the book to engage children in discussions of war, conflict resolution, and the potential of activism to sometimes effect change. By the time of Addams’s death in 1935, fascist world powers were leading the world towards war again, but this time as a response to genocide and the worst crimes against humanity the modern world had ever seen.  But that’s another children’s book. This one is an accessible and engaging way to introduce children to a powerful woman who used her commitment and influence to move the world forward, towards social justice and away from war.