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the secret garden cover imageThe Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Tasha Tudor
first published in 1911; illustrations copyright 1962

Mary [stood] waiting, a plain little thing, twisting her thin hands together. She could see that the man in the chair was not so much a hunchback as a man with high, rather crooked shoulders, and he had black hair streaked with white. He turned his head over his high shoulders and spoke to her..

“Don’t look so frightened,” he exclaimed.”I am your guardian, though I am a poor one for any child. I cannot give you time or attention. I am too ill, and wretched and distracted; but I wish you to be happy and comfortable. I sent for you today because Mrs. Sowerby said I ought to see you. She thought you needed fresh air and freedom and running about.”
“She knows all about children,” Mary said.the secret garden illustration3 tasha tudor
“She ought to,” said Mr. Craven. “I thought her rather bold to stop me on the moor, but…now I have seen you I think she said sensible things. Play out of doors as much as you like. It’s a big place and you my go where you like and amuse yourself as you like. Is there anything you want?” as if a sudden thought had struck him. “Do you want toys, books, dolls?”
“Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth? To plant seeds in — to make things grow — to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.
“A bit of earth,” he said to himself, and Mary thought that somehow she must have reminded him of something. When he stopped and spoke to her his dark eyes looked almost soft and kind.
“You can have as much earth as you want,” he said. “You remind me of some one else who loved the earth and things that grow. When you see a bit of earth you want,” with something like a smile, “take it, child, and make it come alive.”

the secret garden illustration tasha tudorMore than a century old, The Secret Garden is another classic piece of children’s literature that I want to highlight this summer in the hopes that some of you will pick up an old book and find a new favorite.

It’s a story about growth, above all else, and the ingredients that make living things — from rose bushes to children — flourish.

Mary Lennox is a sour, spoiled, unremarkable child whose life as a British expat in India has been cushioned with luxuries and replete with servants but severely lacking in affection or proper training. She is selfish, rude, and imperious. So, when she is orphaned and sent to Yorkshire to live at the estate of an elderly uncle, she is in for quite a wake up call.

The staff at Misselthwaite, while kind, don’t believe in pandering to a little girl. Mary is left on her own to explore the vast gardens on the edge of the moor. As she wanders about in the bracing air, a number of the secret garden illustration2 tasha tudortransformations take place:

She becomes healthier by far.
She gains perspective from conversations with folks who won’t kowtow to her.
She meets Dickon, a young boy with an extraordinary knack with plants and wildlife.
And she discovers a hidden garden, seemingly barren of flowers but flush with secrets.

Mary makes another discovery amidst the one hundred rooms of the gloomy mansion — her frail cousin, Colin, as petulant and self-absorbed as she is, languishing in the dark with a troubling secret of his own.

When two children, both quite used to having their own way and saying their say, clash — what happens?
When two children, puny, soft and aimless, seize upon an idea with vigor — what happens?

Watch gardens come alive and children bloom with the help of Nature, courage, honesty, and nurture in this a secret garden illustration4 tasha tudorstory full of magic and hope. Meet a crusty old Yorkshire gardener with a heart of gold, and a wise mother of ten who knows all about the proper nurture of living things. Uncover the mystery of a garden, and a child, both locked away, and feel the strengthening freshness of open doors and outdoor play.

It’s a great read-aloud, and though the title has a feminine ring, the story suits both boys and girls, ages 8 and up. Independent readers need to be stout enough to manage the broad Yorkshire dialect used in much of the dialogue. No movie version I’ve seen does this book justice. Read it for yourself!

Two books sweet as lemon pudding, celebrating the rich connections between mothers and daughters. Both for ages 3 and up.

this is our house cover imageThis is Our House, written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum
published in 2013 by Frances Foster Books

The house where this little girl lives, with its warm red bricks, polka dotted curtains, graceful trees, and busy front stoop, is the same house where her grandparents arrived long ago, new immigrants, a young couple, suitcases in hand.

Between then and now, her mother was born amid the pink blossoms of springtime and grew up in a hubbub of this is our house illustration hyewon yumbrothers and cats. She played on these very same front steps. She ate hot soup in this very same kitchen. Mother and daughter learned to walk and pedal a bicycle on the exact same street. Imagine!

The spare text of this lovely book speaks with simplicity and pleasure through the voice of this happy girl. Free of excess words, sentimentality, and adult thoughts, it effortlessly walks us through generations of time, while smiling at the beauty of familiarity, continuity, home and family. 

Hyewon Yum’s charming watercolors include full-page views of rosy-cheeked kids amid changing seasons and decades, and smaller illustrations framed to look like photographs which increase the nostalgic quality of the book. A delicious pairing of word and picture to share between the generations.

the paper dolls cover imageThe Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
published in 2012 by Macmillan Children’s Books

I found this irresistable book at a shop in Edinburgh this spring and snapped it up. 

It’s the story of a little girl “who had tiger slippers and a ceiling with stars on it and a butterfly hairslide which she kept losing…”

She also has a “nice mother” who loves to help her make the paper dolls illustration2 rebecca cobbpaper dolls — hand-in-hand chains of brightly-crayoned dollies with green stripey socks and purplish-red curls and names like Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie.

These beloved paper dolls meet with many wild adventures, surviving them all until…well, I won’t give it away. It is quite a startling moment in the story! 

Suffice it to say that even if treasured paper dolls seem to be ruined, they live on in a girl’s memory, and one day, when she has a little girl of her own, they just might make a reappearance.

When my daughters were young, they would work for hours with a friend making legions of paper dolls, and like the ones in this story, many of them have names and backstories which live on. Perhaps that’s what makes this story so genuine and appealing. It rings true, the paper dolls illustration rebecca cobbas well as rejoicing in the power of imagination and memory and the bonds between mothers and daughters that span generations just like those chains of paper dolls.

Rebecca Cobb’s bright, cheery, naive illustrations rocket the childlike quality of this story to the stars, and don’t I just love the cherry reds she splashes into every scene! Sadly, it’s not been brought over to the U.S. generally, but maybe your independent bookseller will import some if you ask nice. Tell her they’ll all sell in a flash!

 

homer price cover imageHomer Price, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey
first published in 1943 by The Viking Press

About two miles outside of Centerburg where route 56 meets route 56A there lives a boy named Homer. Homer’s father owns a tourist camp. Homer’s mother cooks fried chicken and hamburgers in the lunch room and takes care of the tourist cabins while his father takes care of the filling station. Homer does odd jobs about the place. Sometimes he washes windshields of cars to help his father, and sometimes he sweeps out cabins or takes care of the lunch room to help his mother.

Homer Price is the quintessential, dungaree-clad, Midwestern-homer price illustration2 mccloskeysmall-town boy created by Robert McCloskey back in 1943.  This book, and its sequel, Centerburg Tales, are the only novels McCloskey wrote, and like his prized picture books, they bottle up for us this era and place, masterfully.

The six stories in this book are humorous, affectionate glimpses of life in a podunk Ohio town in the late 1930s. It’s a moseying, quiet locale where the menfolk hang around the barber shop playing checkers on Saturday nights, and young boys gather around the radio to listen to the college football game. Think Mayberry, from the old Andy Griffith show, and you’ve got it just about right.

Even so, exciting, surprising, convoluted events regularly crop up in Centerburg, and Homer is always in the thick of them. Read about Homer outwitting a gang of robbers with the help of a stinky friend; his homer price illustration mccloskeydiscovery of an unheroic superhero; the world famous doughnut machine fiasco; a prize-winning ball of yarn; Michael Murphy’s musical mousetrap; and Centerburg’s town pageant celebrating their 150-year anniversary.

Homer is a swell boy, and McCloskey’s warm, homespun story has aged very nicely. Besides, McCloskey has illustrated it with his brilliant lithographs that pack in nostalgia and folksy charm with every perfect mark.  It makes a great read-aloud for a wide age-span, or a comfy independent read for 3rd or 4th graders and up .

That said, the final story in the book, which tells of the Centerburg historical pageant, contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping that’s fairly common in this era of literature. Homer and his buddies play the part of Indians in the pageant, meaning they are “striped with mercurochrome and draped with towels around their middles.” It’s a performance which, among other things, includes a “scalping scene,” the Indians’ growing addiction to a home brew invented by the town’s founding father, and an Indian uprising which, once quelled, results in “peace and homer price illustration3 mccloskeyprosperity.” In addition, the Black members of town are essentially reduced to being background singers in the African Baptist Choir. To me, it’s an uncomfortable chapter.

There are many treasured books from the past which are long on merits, yet have subtle or glaring streaks of racism, sexism, or ethnocentrism. Do we abandon these books? I understand it may seem naive for me, a non-minority, to give an opinion. Yet for gems such as Homer Price, I do still recommend them. Then, we talk together about the hurtful attitudes and speech they contain, acknowledge the problems, rather than pretend they don’t exist, and recognize how much offense we can give, even without being aware of it. Conversations like this might also lead us to search for another book that gives a voice to lesser-heard people.

Homer Price is a delightful, memorable, slice-of-Americana story, and a great choice for young boys. If you like it, you’re sure to like the  Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary as well, or for slightly older readers, the Henry Reed books by Keith Robertson, more classic characters too often neglected by today’s readers. 

 

 

 

Two new-in-2014 picture books by two of my dream illustrators — Lauren Castillo and Brian Floca. Just check out everything they do — that’s my motto. Hasn’t failed me yet.

the troublemaker cover imageThe Troublemaker, written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo
published in 2014 by Clarion Books

There are two troublemakers in this mischievous, surprising story.

The first is a little boy whose boredom propels him into hatchingthe troublemaker illustration2 lauren castillo a sneaky plan. The plan involves his sister (uh-oh) her favorite stuffed bunny, piracy, and tears. 

About the time this first troublemaker reforms, a second, even sneakier one appears on the scene. He wears a mask. His yellow eyes glow in the night. And he nabs all kinds of goods from the boy and the sister. Who can this troublemaker be? How can he be stopped?

the troublemaker illustration lauren castilloLauren Castillo’s artwork exudes friendliness. You open her books, and it’s like someone just wrapped you in a soft, hand-stitched quilt. Her shaggy, smudgy outlining;  comfy, solid,  figures; rich, warm colors of lipstick red and shoe polish black and moss green, all gently scuffed up a bit; even the tender, old-school font, work together to deliver a story full of summer haze and simplicity and family, with a zing of humor and surprise.

Share this charmer with children ages 2 and up.

elizabeth queen of the seas cover imageElizabeth, Queen of the Seas, by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Brian Floca
published in 2014 by schwartz & wade books

This book is also full of surprises, but in this case, the story is true.

Elizabeth is an elephant seal. Usually that would mean a life in the ocean, hunting for tasty squid, basking on rocky coastlines.

But Elizabeth prefers urban life. She’s found her way to Christchurch, New Zealand, where she happily swims in the river, lolls in a grassy park, and sprawls out smack in the middle of a sunny street!

elizabeth queen of the seas illustration brian floca from blaine.org

Although it’s quite exhilerating to have a resident elephant seal, the folk of Christchurch believe Elizabeth would be safer off the road and in the ocean, so they lovingly move her. But Elizabeth moves back. They try again. But Elizabeth is not easily dissuaded.

Read for yourselves this happy, surprising, true story of  a 1,200 pound beauty with a mind of her own. Lynne Cox is a long-distance, open-water swimmer who stumbled on this elizabeth queen of the seas illustration2 brian flocaaccount while visiting New Zealand.

Brian Floca is a Caldecott-winning illustrator whose watercolor work is marvelously saturated with light and gorgeous color. As usual, his illustrations here sparkle with personality, life, and beauty, magically transporting us to this place and time. The images of the rotund, well-pleased Elizabeth are especially winning. What a  roly-poly one she is! And all the water! Lovely.

An afterword tells us an interesting bit more about elephant seals. It’s a warm, engaging story for ages 4 and up.

 

 

three bears in a boat cover imageThree Bears in a Boat, written and illustrated by David Soman
published in 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers

Dash, Charlie and Theo are three busy little bears whose appetite for honey gets them into a peck of trouble at the outset of this delicious tale of adventure.

Climbing up to where they don’t belong in search of a smackerel, they break a precious, sapphire-blue shell of their mother’s and, not wanting to vex Mama Bear, set off  to sea hoping to fix three bears in a boat illustration3 david somanmatters themselves.

Things do not, of course, go exactly as planned. Many leagues of sailing, searching, and stormy weather later, three sorry little bears return home to face the music. And just what tune will Mama sing? 

David Soman’s story is full of classic adventure ingredients  — salty characters, danger, a quest, and a satisfying ending both sweet and Beatrix Potter-esque in its no-nonsense consequences. This feels like a story to read again and again, exciting and comforting and just a titch sobering for ages 4 and older. 

three bears in a boat illustration david soman

It’s a beautiful book as well, with spectacular spreads of sparkling ocean vistas and ginormous blue whales, as well as three chubby, spirited bears and their gracious, wise, loving mama. Check this one out — I think your kids will love it.

esphyr slobodkinaI’ve wanted occasionally to present some authors and illustrators who have left us a particularly valuable storehouse of children’s literature, and I am finally ready with my first survey. I don’t pretend to be a children’s literature historian, but there is a lot of information here and there on the Web which has helped me piece together this thin sketch of Esphyr Slobodkina.

Esphyr Slobodkina was born in Siberia in 1908 but moved with her family to China as a young girl. There she studied art and architecture before immigrating to the United States as a young woman.

From the beginning, she was a groundbreaking abstract artist. She painted and made collage sculptures from all sorts of unusual and everyday objects.

Mural Sketch No. 1 by Esphyr Slobodkina

Mural Sketch No. 1 by Esphyr Slobodkina

Cornelia Street Bedroom by Esphyr Slobodkina

Cornelia Street Bedroom by Esphyr Slobodkina

In 1937, she met Margaret Wise Brown, who was just beginning to write for children. These two talented women, both in their twenties, collaborated on what was Slobodkina’s first children’s book, The Little Fireman.

the little fireman cover imageAccording to the National Endowment for the Humanities, it was “the first American picture book done in cut-paper collage.” Esphyr’s modern sense of shape and color and design are as appealing now as they were revolutionary in the 30s.the little fireman margaret wise brown and esphyr slobodkina 001

Margaret Wise Brown’s ability to reach into a small child’s world and affirm his big dreams runs through this story of a little fireman with his little Dalmatian who saves “fifteen little fat ladies” and enjoys “a very little dish of pink ice cream.” Now that’s a good day!

Slobodkina’s brilliant colors and simplified, geometric shapes and patterns are bold as brass. Exactly right for such a brave, exciting tale.

sleepy abc cover imageBrown and Slobodkina created many books together, including Sleepy ABC, a wonderful, poetic alphabet book full of drowsy sheep, rabbits and children. Slobodkina’s collage work here, with a bit more pattern to it, is clearly a forerunner to Ezra Jack Keats.

Sleepy ABC by Esphyr Slobodkina

Sleepy ABC by Esphyr Slobodkina

Peter's Chair by Ezra Jack Keats

Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats

caps for sale cover imageEsphyr wrote many books of her own, as well. By far her best-known, best-loved work is Caps for Sale. Millions of copies of this book have sold in at least a dozen languages. Such a classic book. In 2010, when I started this blog, I put Caps for Sale in my very first post. It’s simply one of the first titles that pops into my head when I think “classic picture books.”

There are a couple of sequels to this story, which are far less familiar.

In Circus Caps for Sale our trusty peddler, Pezzo, happens upon a circus caps for sale cover imagecounty fair. This seems like a marvelous place to sell those 50-cent caps. Pezzo watches a circus parade pass by, with booming drums and fierce lions and dancing dogs, and one mischievous elephant who likes to play tricks on the crowd. Tricks such as snatching hats from men’s heads! Oh dear! How will Pezzo ever recover them this time!

It’s a delightful sequel to the original.

pezzo the peddler and the thirteen silly thieves cover image 001Pezzo the Peddler and the Thirteen Silly Thieves features the same, beloved stack of caps and the same, familiar call of “50 cents a cap!” As the peddler walks past the local jail, however, a band of thieves stations themselves by the windows, and each of them steals a cap from our peddler’s head. Very upsetting! Just as he had to outsmart those monkeys, Pezzo must figure out a clever way to get his caps back from all those jailbirds.

Both of these sequels are worth searching out, for those who love the original Caps for Sale.

In all, Esphyr wrote a couple dozen books. My library, even with its extensive stacks of out-of-print material, has only seven of them.

One, The Little Dinghy was new to me, and I very much enjoyed it with its coastal Maine setting.

the little dinghy cover image 001Way up North where the green pines grow tall, and where the chilly morning fogs roll in heavily from the open sea, is the land of boats and fishermen.” Captain Praffett is one of those boatmen. He uses Big Prue to carry messages and supplies and summer visitors from mainland to the picturesque islands. One day his spiffy dinghy, Little Prue, breaks loose in a storm and washes up on the pebbly beach where a little boy named Paul is vacationing – just the thing he had wished for!

Slobodkina’s collages are much more complex at this point, yet it’s easy to see some of the same, satisfying human shapes in these illustrations as she first used in The Little Fireman. I see these same shapes in the current work of French illustrator Blexbolex. Don’t you agree?

The Little Dinghy by Esphyr Slobodkina

The Little Dinghy by Esphyr Slobodkina

from People by Blexbolex

from People by Blexbolex

esphyr slobodkina from slobodkinafoundation dot orgEsphyr Slobodkina died at age 93. She has left us many wonderful stories that have stood the test of time, and introduced forms which paved the way for future outstanding illustrators. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning along with me, just a little more about her.

Today’s titles are perfect for the youngest, most inquisitive minds:

Water Can Be cover imageWater Can Be…by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrations by Violete Dabija
published in 2014 by Millbrook Press

How appropriate that Laura Purdie Salas, hailing from The Land of 10,000 Lakes (that’s Minnesota, if you didn’t know!) water can be by salas and dabijahas written a book about water.

Water plays many roles. Some are easier to think of — “thirst quencher” and “kid drencher” for example. But how is water a “home maker?” Have you ever seen it as a “ship breaker?” How can water be both a cooler and a warmer? 

Sparkling, rhyming couplets make up the whole text which is full of  food for thought as we explore four seasons with water.  Illustrator Violete Dabija comes from Moldova.  Her cheerful, colorful, kid-friendly illustrations are saturated with a variety of watery blues.

water can be by laura purdie salas, illustration by violeta dabija

Ages 2 and up will love this.  A couple of additional pages awash with more watery info are also nicely suited to preschoolers. A refreshing read for a hot summer day!

gravity cover image jason chinGravity, written and illustrated by Jason Chin
published in 2014 by Roaring Brook Press

Gravity in the simplest terms. Concise. Clear.  “Gravity makes objects fall to earth. Without gravity, everything would float away.” What an amazing notion to ponder.

Just a few sentences make up the entire text of this cool book. These are vividly illustrated and playfully paced to capture the curiosity and attention of very young children.gravity illustration by jason chin

The genius of this book is not only the way Chin has pared down such a massive and abstract concept, delivering to us just these few, intriguing ideas, but in his imaginative illustrations which combine the mysterious, black, expanses of outer space with an Orange Crush, prime-time, toy astronaut and kickin’ red rocket.

gravity illustration2 by jason chin from blaine.orgBrilliant. Surprising. Friendly. Not words you would naturally associate with a book about gravity, but Jason Chin has done it. Preschoolers will get sucked in like a vortex, and elementary-age siblings will easily absorb the added factoids in the final pages. 

 

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