Two stories today awash in good luck!
Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine, words by Gloria Whelan, pictures by Nancy Carpenter
published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
The dog days of summer! You know, when the sweat trickles down your back, and the kids’ bangs are plastered to their flushed foreheads; the dog sprawls on the tile floor and the jungle hum of cicadas wierdly pierces the air.
Well! Try coping with layers of itchy petticoats and a breath-defying corset to boot! And forget about air conditioning or that tall glass of iced tea.
That’s what poor Victoria faces as she looks longingly towards the sea and dreams of a nice, cool, swim.
The problem is, it’s beyond scandalous to even think of exposing so much as a dimpled knee to the populace. What to do?
Leave it to her doting and inventive husband, Prince Albert, to construct the bathing machine — a discreet little cabin on wheels. Roll it down to the water’s edge. Enter properly dressed. Exit into the waves, quite out of sight of all commoners. Voila! Or at least, that’s the theory.
This delightful little slice of history is brought to life with Gloria Whelan’s lively, humorous, rhyming text, and Nancy Carpenter’s fetching, lighthearted illustrations. A short Author’s Note fills in some historical detail and there’s a color photo of the real bathing machine plus suggestions for further reading about dear Victoria.
A perfect dip for a summer’s day, for ages 4 and up.
Pom and Pim, written by Lena Landström, illustrated by Olof Landström
translated from the Swedish by Julia Marshall
American edition published in 2014 by Gecko Press
The cute little bean-o in the razzleberry knit zootsuit is Pom. Pim is the oddsy stuffed companion.
Lucky for them, it’s a sunny day, and they are headed out for some fun, when…blam! Pom trips on a rock and does a faceplant onto the ground. Bad luck!
Good luck soon rebounds, however, with a trip to the ice cream store. But the follow-up tummy ache? Bad luck, indeed.
Follow Pom and Pim through a dayful of ups and downs, with a charming, happy ending. The Landströms’ collaboration skims along with few words, generous white space, and Scandinavian-style, minimalist compositions. The story is utterly engaging with its caprice, rapport, surprises galore, and ultimate satisfaction.
A superb new offering coming to us from Sweden for the itty-bitty set, ages 18 months and up.
Posted in fiction, picture books | Tagged book reviews, books for toddlers, children's literature, queen victoria, swedish children's books | Leave a Comment »
When I was a child, my next-door-neighbor had a little book that I was gaga over. It was about an exceedingly lazy boy named Tommy Pumpkinhead.
Tommy is terribly flumpy about getting up in the morning. Lucky for him, a gaggle of crazy contraptions handle all his getting-up chores. Robotic hair-brushers and toothpaste-squeezers and toast-butterers and shower-sprayers shuttle him through the entire morning routine. Until, one day…the machines get a little mixed up!! What a catastrophe!
Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead was written and illustrated by William Pène du Bois, a Newbery-medal-winning author and acclaimed illustrator who gave us a slew of quirky, highly-original tales mainly in the 1940s through 1960s. I’ve reviewed The Twenty-One Balloons, which won the Newbery, here and I’d call it one of children’s literature’s essential reads.
The Alligator Case, which he wrote and illustrated in 1965, is what’s on tap here today. I’m hoping it peaks your interest enough that you search for it or other Pène du Bois hidden gems in your libraries, used books stores, and rummage sales.
It’s the story of a young, clever detective on his very first case.
Leeds’ Leading Circus is coming to town and they’re bringing a stupendous new act: ASTROGATOR! Ladies and Gentlemen — this fierce alligator with grim, toothy grin, ace flying goggles, and skull-and-crossbones crash helmet is to be “fired from a cannon into a tiny water tank.” What a sight!
Our hero is more wary than excited, though, and builds a cunning trap just in case ASTROGATOR escapes. Little does he know the trap will come in handy for Other Important Purposes!
Three unusual strangers named Bromwell, Journey and Fish also arrive in town. Before you can say “pork chops with green peas,” a suspicious metal box and an empty cash register also turn up. Add a host of dancing alligators who may be harboring a criminal in disguise and you’ve got quite the mishmash to sort out! Thankfully, this detective is up to the challenge.
Longer than a picture book, but not quite a chapter book, The Alligator Case is a tantalizing adventure for children ages 6 and up. It’s not really scary, but still, there’s a nice dash of thrill and intrigue. Copious sneaking. A rash of fainting. Even a snitch of blood. I adore William Pène du Bois’ boisterous colors and eccentric personalities, paired with his graceful, fine lines.
I also am tickled by the voice of the young detective who narrates the tale — so Earnest and Reliable as he reels off his sleuthing observations. A bit like Nate the Great.
I hope you can locate this book, or another of the brief, whimsical stories given us by this talented, original man.
Posted in fiction, Newbery Books | Tagged book reviews, children's literature, detective stories, mysteries, vintage children's books, William Pene du Bois | Leave a Comment »
Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse, written and illustrated by Torben Kuhlmann
first published in the U.S. in 2014 by NorthSouth Books
You may have heard of Charles Lindbergh. You know, the lanky boy from Minnesota who flew solo across the Atlantic in his light-and-lean Spirit of St. Louis back in ’27.
Psh. You want to meet the true hero of flight?
He’s a fellow with a mad hankering for mechanical contraptions who puzzled together the first plane; a small character with a courageous heart, desperate to escape mortal danger by immigrating to America.
His name is Lindbergh. And he’s a mouse.
Haunted by the rapid disappearance of his kind after the dreadful invention of the mechanical mousetrap, Lindbergh seeks transport across the ocean to freedom in the Land of Liberty. Inspired by his relatives the bats, Lindbergh sketches and experiments, gathers gears and gizmos, builds, tests, crashes, and finally soars into the clouds in his minute craft — just in the nick of time!
What deadly enemy is pursuing him? What models of flying machines does he test before his final success? How is this bright-eyed fellow the inspiration for another Lindbergh who flew to acclaim years later? You’ll have to read it for yourself.
Torben Kuhlmann is a recent university grad from Hamburg, Germany, and this magnificently illustrated story is his debut book. The story is a slim treat for kids ages 6 and up, especially for adventure-lovers, tinkerers, and those in love with flight.
But the illustrations are the stunners here. Oh my goodness! The gleam of burnished brass in a spillage of toothy gears, the tawny feathers and well-groomed fur, atmospheric fog and moonlight, nostalgic shipyards and flight-goggles and newsboys, engulf us in Lindbergh’s world from the viewpoint of a mouse. Full, two-page, wordless spreads of wonder, mix with vintage scrapbook pages of sepia photos, all fleshing out the setting and motion of the story. Kuhlmann’s work reminds me of Bagram Ibatoulline’s Matchbox Diary in his supreme attention to detail, gorgeous atmosphere, striking use of light, and use of sepia.
It’s a nice, hefty book, sparse in story, saturated in illustration, with a delightful foreword from the curator of the real Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian, and a teeny history of flight to conclude.
Posted in fiction, picture books | Tagged adventure stories, book reviews, charles lindbergh, children's literature, clever mice, fantasy, flight, spirit of st. louis | 5 Comments »
The 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.
“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.”
More 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 transformations 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 story 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!
Posted in fiction | Tagged book reviews, children's literature, classic children's literature, gardening, nature, outdoor play, Yorkshire | 7 Comments »
Two books sweet as lemon pudding, celebrating the rich connections between mothers and daughters. Both for ages 3 and up.
This 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 brothers 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, 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 paper 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, as 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!
Posted in fiction, picture books | Tagged book reviews, children's literature, family, home, mothers and daughters, paper dolls | Leave a Comment »
Homer 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-small-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 discovery 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 prosperity.” 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.
Posted in fiction | Tagged book reviews, children's literature, classic children's literature, homer price, read-alouds, robert mccloskey | 4 Comments »
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, 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 hatching 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?
Lauren 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, 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!
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 account 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.
Posted in fiction, non-fiction, picture books | Tagged book reviews, children's literature, elephant seals, new zealand, sneaky raccoons | Leave a Comment »