Cast Away on the Letter A: A Philemon Adventure by Fred
first published in France in 1972; published in 2014 by Toon Graphics
Frédéric Othon Aristidès, known as Fred, has been, for decades, one of the most beloved and
influential French cartoonists. His series of sixteen stories starring Philémon were published beginning in the early 70’s and have been gobbled up by millions of French children.
The original story, Philémon et le naufragé du A, has been translated into English by Richard Kutner, so now we anglophones can join the party! Huzzah!
Briefly, it’s about a lanky lad named Philemon from rural France who has a peculiar encounter with a message in a bottle, takes a tumble down a well, and lands in a fantastical world in the Atlantic Ocean. There he meets exploding clocks, an ancient well-digger, splendiferous palaces and shipwrecked sailors — all while he earnestly seeks a way back home.
Fred grew up reading the likes of Dickens and Poe and many elements of his story allude to classic literature and art. The Raft of the Medusa pops up in here, as well as centaurs, unicorns, and Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday. This edition includes several pages that highlight these elements and explain where they originated.
For the most part, it’s a rip-roaring adventure in an Alice-in-Wonderland, undersea world, and it’s great fun!
The story is about 40 pages long and will appeal to ages 6 and up. Independent readers will need to be about age 9 to interpret both the visual and written story, I’d say. Sophisticated cartoons like this are enjoyable for most of us, but are especially tasty bait for reluctant readers.
Toon is putting out more volumes of Philemon’s adventures. The next one is scheduled to release in May of this year.
The Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
published in 2014 by Little, Brown and Company
In her small Sudanese village, Amira has grown up simply and happily.
Her parents love her. The wheat on their farm grows tall and golden. Her best friend Halima is a stone’s throw away, ready to play silly games with her, like “dizzy donkey.”
Today, Amira is celebrating her 12th birthday. She’s finally old enough to wear the long, flowing toob — a garment reserved for mature women. Life seems to be opening up for her, like a desert flower in the rain.
I wish this could be a sweet story about Amira and how she grows and steps into her adult world at peace and with joy. But this story is based on what’s really been happening in Darfur, and it’s not pretty.
The first hardship comes when Halima moves with her family to the city of Nyala in order to enroll in the best school available. Loneliness and envy gnaw at Alima’s heart.
This pales in comparison to the sudden brutality unleashed on the village when the militant Janjaweed attack, slaughtering and burning, leaving behind death, ashes, and a few traumatized survivors.
Among them are Amira, her mother, and her little sister. Also a kind man named Old Anwar. Together, they set out on foot on a desperate journey to a refugee camp.
There, we discover that trauma has stolen Amira’s speech. It’s through the unexpected magic of a red pencil and a sheet of yellow paper that she is able to find her voice, to unstopper the pain, and begin to dream of new possibilities.
This novel in verse, written by award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney, brings to our attention the extreme situation faced by so many children and families in Darfur.
There are brutal moments to be sure, though the vast majority of the novel, narrated by Amira, is of her thoughts and experiences. She processes loss, but she also extensively processes the closed doors she sees around her as a young Sudanese woman and her longing for education.
Shane Evans created this epic cover art — so arresting! — and illustrated the book with somewhat primitive images such as Amira might have drawn in a journal.
It’s a tough subject, treated with care and thoughtfulness, which seems best suited to girls ages 11 and up. I’ve previously reviewed two other excellent stories featuring Sudanese refugees: Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, reviewed here, and Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, reviewed here. Both are less traumatic than this story, so for sensitive readers, you might try one of those instead.
Why not pack your bags and travel to Paris in Springtime? Sit in a sidewalk café; listen to accordion music; order a pastry and coffee. Soak up la belle vie.
Or just get a baguette, stir up some hot chocolate, and visit France with your kids via these stories!
Anatole, the cleverest mouse in all France, has been a hero for over 50 years now. There are several stories about him, but this is the original.
When the honorable Anatole discovers that the humans of Paris consider his kind a terrible nuisance, he sets out to redeem his reputation.
His secret weapon: A typewriter and a keen set of taste buds
His mission: Teach Monsieur Duval how indispensable is one Anatole of France!
You will thoroughly enjoy the cheesy success of Anatole, “a mouse magnifique!” in this classic storybook.
Paul Galdone’s charming mice in their smocks and berets, and quaint Parisian environs won a Caldecott Honor in 1957.
If you’ve missed this old favorite — and I’m afraid many of you have– be sure to introduce yourself and your kids ages 4 and up.
The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey, by Sophie Strady, illustrated by Jean-François Martin
published in France by hélium in 2012; first published in the U.S. in 2014 by Chronicle Books
This is the first of three French imports in today’s list, each of which is strikingly unusual.
The first exciting thing about this book is its size. There’s something about pulling an 11×14 book off the shelf that makes your eyebrows rise! Curiosity tingles! What have we here?!
Open it up, and you begin an unconventional tour of both Elephant-ness and the eclectic memories of Marcel — a very old elephant — gathered through the course of his long life.
The ribbon of storyline trailing through the book tells about Marcel’s day — eating massive amounts of comestibles, dressing in natty outfits, working on his exhaustive encyclopedia, and discovering a mountain of exciting packages addressed to him! What could they be?!
Along the way, patches of elephant trivia are pasted and sandwiched in. While Marcel is showering, for example, we learn lots about his enormous body — his trunk alone weighs 290 pounds!
Then, there’s the surprising extras in this text. Like a swirl of chocolate wrapped in those buttery folds of croissant!
Marcel has picked up an astonishing amount of knowledge in his lifetime — all sorts of bits such as kinds of hats, the architecture of skyscrapers, musical instruments from around the world, famous ships, and so much more! He’s compiling this into an encyclopedia, and some of his fascinating pages are included for us to enjoy. They are outlandishly fun to read!
Et voilà! There is even a recipe for “La Crêpe Marcelette”.
That’s a happy and utterly unique combination of ingredients in one picture book!
The gorgeous illustration work by Martin will intrigue young readers as well as adults. In fact, if you love design, you’ll love this book on the design merits alone. There’s a lot packed in here.
It’s a delicious, quirky offering for ages 7-ish through adult.
Zeraffa Giraffa, by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray
published in 2014 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
True Story: Back in the 1820s, Muhammad Ali, a powerful ruler in Egypt, sent gifts to the King of France, among which was an extremely unusual animal:
Long, gangly legs.
Brown, splotchy body.
Sleek, tall neck that telescoped its head to tree-level!
It was…a giraffe. The first giraffe ever seen in France.
Diane Hofmeyr traces the journey of that giraffe, named Zeraffa, from its babyhood on the hot plains of Africa, through episodes of sailing the Nile, crossing the Mediterranean, and walking 550 miles past throngs of gawkers, until she arrives to tumultuous acclaim in Paris.
Jane Ray’s jewel-like illustrations are always tingly with sumptuous color, fairy-tale delicacy, and graceful line. Every page is a feast for the eyes.
Enjoy this with kids ages 4 and up, and while you’re at it — you might need to bake some giraffe cookies!
Hello, Mr. Hulot, a (nearly) wordless book by David Merveille according to Jacques Tati
published in France in 2010 by Rouergue; first published in the U.S. in 2013 by NorthSouth Books
Jacques Tati (1907-1982) was a French actor and filmmaker, whose comic character, Mr. Hulot, is apparently his most famous.
Mr. Hulot is a “blundering” fellow in a “wrinkled coat…short trousers…striped socks with straps…hat, pipe, and umbrella.” He naively wanders into trouble and mayhem and the most unexpected, surprising situations.
Graphic artist David Merveille has taken Tati’s film sequences and turned them into picture books like this one, in which wordless panels act as a sort of silent film adventure for us.
There are 22 comic strips, as it were, each of which is two pages long, printed front to back on a page. They are wordless — we have to figure out the unfolding action ourselves. The genius here is that when we turn the page to find the ending — it’s always a zing! An ingenuous, surprising twist!
These storylines are great fun, and observing the details is, too. Marveille’s clean, clear style is reminiscent of Tintin, to my eye.
Watch a clip of the film Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot here on Youtube, and you can see for yourself Tati’s breezy comic style, and understand what a feat it is for Marveille to transpose that into the picture book format.
Ages 5 to adult.
When Chickens Grow Teeth: A Story from the French of Guy de Maupassant, retold and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
published in 1996 by Orchard Books
“In a small French village as old as stones, there lives a large, laughing man named Antoine.“
Antoine is a bit like Rip Van Winkle. He loves life. Loves to take it easy and indulge in cream puffs, bocci ball, and leisurely conversation. This makes him the friend of all…except…his wife.
Madame Colette is a hot-tempered, snappish, old thing. She’s skinny and peckish, forever raising her vexed tongue at the oafishness of her husband and anyone else who happens to be in the way.
One day, Antoine takes a bad tumble and now, more than ever, he cannot budge from bed. His many friends take pity on him, dote on him, gather round to keep him company, all of which makes Madame Colette seethe in fury about “the big buttered bun” she has to take care of!
That’s until one fellow hatches an idea! A plum plan for Antoine to be useful while he lounges in that warm bed. Antoine blusters a bit about it, but in the end, there’s nothing for him but to agree.
What is this crazy plan? And how does it end up making both Antoine and his feisty Colette, happy?
This is a retelling of a tale by the famous French writer, Guy de Maupassant, whose mustachioed face appears in Wendy Halperin Anderson’s typically fetching illustrations. Soft, detailed watercolor-and-pencil scenes of portly Antoine, scrawny Colette, and a fine flock of feathered hens communicate great personality and atmosphere.
A spicy, clever, rollicking story for ages 5 and up.
A Lion in Paris, written and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna
published in France in 2006 by Autrement; first published in English in 2014 by Tate Publishing, London
Here’s another oversized French import whose exceptional illustrations won a Bologna Ragazzi award in 2007, perhaps the most prestigious, international children’s book award offered.
It’s a bit of a quiet, quirky story about a “young, curious, and lonely lion” who heads to Paris on a search for new meaning and joy in life.
As he roams about, from the Gare de Lyon, to Centre Pompidou, the Louvre, Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower…we get a gentle tour of Paris. In the end, he finds just the spot to be thoroughly happy — at the center of everyone’s attention, just as a lion should be. You’ll have to read to find out where that is.
Alemagna has pieced together stunning mixed media collages full of free-spirited detail and urban, Parisian grace. Against backgrounds often tinted in grayish blues, the warm golden Lion grabs our focus on each page. I especially love him, windblown and wee, atop the Eiffel Tower! These illustrations are not childish in the least, and again, if you are a design person, you will eat them up.
For those who know Paris, the book is probably more enjoyable as places are not identified other than the lion’s final destination. Perhaps, though, it will whet your appetite for a jaunt to stroll the Champs-Élysées yourself! Ages 3 and up.
Bon appetit! Please note that two book covers shown today are the French versions. They are both available in English under the titles I’ve listed.
Posted in Caldecott Books, fiction, non-fiction, picture books, wordless books | Tagged book reviews, cheese, children's literature, design, elephants, film, France, giraffes, guy de maupassant, Jacques Tati, mice, mr. hulot, paris | 2 Comments »
That’s the story of The Trumpeter of Krakow in a nutshell.
Eric Kelly won the Newbery Medal for it in 1929 and my kids rate it high on the list of books they loved at around age 12.
Joseph Charnetski, 15 years old, has fled with his family to Krakow, Poland, after Tatars attacked and pillaged their Ukrainian home. The year is 1461. Joseph is not aware that hidden in the family’s luggage is the Great Tarnov Crystal, a stone which the Charnetski family has sworn to protect with their lives. So far, they’ve guarded it for 200 years.
When they arrive in Krakow, the Charnetskis find shelter in the home of an alchemist. They change their name and take every precaution from being discovered. It’s clear that dangerous men are pursuing the stone, and are willing to risk anything to get it.
A key plot element is the legend of the trumpeter of Krakow which stems from events in the 1200s. At that time, in a tower in one of Krakow’s churches, a watchman was always posted, ready to alert the people of invaders by blowing his trumpet. One night he began to sound the alarm. Enemy archers shot at him, but he continued playing until his throat was pierced. At that, his note was abruptly silenced, but the alarm had been enough. Krakow was saved. The city still honors his memory by trumpeting a hymn called The Hejnal from the tower every hour, ending the tune suddenly on a high note. You’ll have to read the book to see how this tradition impacts young Joseph as the Charnetskis strive to protect their treasure.
Because this book was written in the 20’s, the language is more formal, and Eric Kelly uses a stiff vocabulary. His descriptions of medieval Poland are rich, but his characters, especially the female characters, are a little dated. Nevertheless, it’s an exciting adventure story, and a lot of Dark Arts, creepy guys, and shady alchemy make it quite suspenseful.
My own kids listened to this on CD, and I think it would make a better read-aloud for many as the reading level is difficult for the age group who will enjoy it. That’s about ages 10-15 I’d guess. Give it a whirl with stout readers or good listeners.
Before After, by Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Arégui
published in France, 2013
first US edition 2014 by Candlewick Press
I’ll just start right off and say: I am utterly smitten with this book! (I may have even hugged it.)
I am highly recommending you check it out.
Look at that gorgeous cover. Even the front and back covers hold before-and-afters.
Inside are 176 pages of swoon-worthy design flowing across creamy pages. It’s art that children and adults will equally admire.
There are no words. Just pairs of images to make you think: What is the connection between these? How does this, follow this? Must it always follow?
Some are easy-pie ones like a towering, delectable cake on the left, and then on the right, a cake plate with just one scrumptious slice left. Plus crumbs. Hmm! What happened here?!
Some are trickier. Like this:
Some are double pages or sequences of pages or have an intriguing connection point to the next set.
You could snuggle up and chat with your preschool child about these pages for hours. Or your kids can look and re-look at this book on their own and find all kinds of interesting connections.
As a bonus — you can finally find out which came first: the chicken or the egg!
This is brilliant stuff. Don’t miss it.
In honor of that cherry-tree-chopper, George, here are a couple lighthearted books about him, plus a vintage beauty about Abe Lincoln that’s been reissued.
George Washington’s Mother, by Jean Fritz, illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo
published in 1992 by Grosset & Dunlop
First up is an easy chapter book that my kids and I enjoyed many years ago.
Since it’s written by Jean Fritz, you know right off the bat that it will be a bit sassy and humorous, with that marvelous conversational tone that draws us in like a summer breeze.
Sure enough, what we discover about Mary Washington — George’s mom — is that she was a titch grumpy. A bit peevish. And a lot bossy when it came to George — even when he was off being a general!
However, she apparently made a mean pan of gingerbread, so there’s that.
You get to see George from a different vantage point as you read about his ticklish relationship with his strong-minded mum. The book is 48 pages, with nice big type and plentiful friendly watercolor illustrations. Probably about a second-grade level.
Dear Mr. Washington, by Lynn Cullen, illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
published in 2015 by Dial Books for Young Readers
Gilbert Stuart painted our most famous portrait of George Washington in 1796. Washington went to the Stuart residence to pose for it.
Apparently, George was Not Fond At All of having his picture painted. (Wouldn’t he hate to be president today?!?) And Stuart was flummoxed as to how to portray him when his expression was so grim!
This amusing story is a fictional account of George’s days posing for Gilbert, as told by one of the Stuart children, Charlotte. The household of children is a mad nest of mayhem even though Charlotte earnestly tries to learn and follow Washington’s Rules for Deportment.
Finally, a breakthrough comes — they happen upon a subject dear to George’s heart that makes his face ease into the slightest of smiles!
It’s a rambunctious tale, full of good humor, that slips a bit of history past you without you even knowing it.
Nancy Carpenter’s lighthearted illustrations add greatly to the warmth and chaos, as well as planting us in the 18th century. An Author’s Note tells more about the iconic painting, which you can see in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Great read for ages 4 or 5 and up.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with designs by James Daugherty
published in 1947; updated edition with an afterword by Gabor Boritt published in 2013 by Albert Whitman & Co.
In 1947, America had just come through the Second World War. A mood of relief, gratitude, and patriotism filled our 48 states as well as a swelling hope that freedom, democracy and peace would remain with us and spread to others.
That’s the year James Daugherty created these tableaux illustrating Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. To Daugherty, the ideas Lincoln proclaimed in his short speech, and the ideals of post-war America, merged seamlessly.
For each phrase of the speech, Daugherty painted a robust, colorful, historic
scene which, taken together, march us through American history beginning with the arrival of the Pilgrims.
Now, he completely left out the First Americans, a glaring problem with this book. That dismays me, but let’s point that out to our children and then enjoy what’s here.
There are Puritans and Founding Fathers, slaves, pioneers, abolitionists and confederates, minutemen and World War II soldiers, Winston Churchill and FDR, scientists and architects…all painted in a muscular, idealized, WPA style.
Tossing seas, powerful eagles, purple mountains majesty, covered wagons, the torch of liberty, the scales of justice — many symbols crowd these murals as well.
It’s gorgeous work, surging with drama and emotion.
Additionally, this book contains Daugherty’s original Foreword and his commentary on each painting detailing the elements and personalities he included — extremely helpful! There is a lengthy Afterword providing historical background to the events at Gettysburg in 1863 and delving just a bit into Daugherty’s artwork. And there is what looks to me like a facsimile of the handwritten Gettysburg Address.
It’s an unusual, beautiful, and thought-provoking book to browse through for young and old.
Many more presidential biographies are in the Marmalade archives. Find them by searching the Subject Index under Holidays — President’s Day.
Posted in early readers, fiction, non-fiction, picture books | Tagged abraham lincoln, book reviews, children's literature, george washington, gettysburg address, Gilbert Stuart, presidents' day, U.S. history | 1 Comment »