a list of…five snapshots of friendship at its finest

The Friend, by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small

Annabelle Bernadette Clementine Dodd  is a diminutive girl with an extravagant name and a mansion to call home.  But, she rarely sees her glamorous parents.  They’re much too busy.   Neglected by them, Belle has grown quite independent, quite old for her age.

Belle does have one friend, a very dear friend, named Beatrice Smith, who happens to be the black maid in Belle’s home.  Bea’s kindness and companionship are the warm, golden colors in an otherwise bleak life.  Together, Bea and Belle hang out the washing in the sunshine, iron trousers and hankies, dust and sweep rooms full of gaudy gewgaws, tend the vegetable garden, bake fabulous cookies, and walk to the white clapboard church for Sunday services.  Each afternoon, when the day’s proper chores are done, they make the short hike down to the seashore for some pleasant swimming, beach combing, or what-have-you.

Bea is the best friend Belle could wish for, and one day, when Belle’s independence chases her to places she ought never go alone, Bea becomes much more; she becomes her savior.

This story, with its beautiful strength, tenderness, and drama — is based on a relationship between Stewart and a caretaker named Ola Beatrice Smith, to whom she dedicates the book.  Those of you who have read The Help (Kathryn Stockett) will recognize a similar portrait of the love between black housemaids and their puny white charges.  Stewart has written in rhymed text, packed with the tangy life Belle experiences  as she shares in gloriously ordinary tasks with Bea.

David Small, Stewart’s über-talented illustrator-husband, gives us sweeping watercolor settings of vast ocean vistas and an empty, oversized villa, then enlivens them with the activities of scrawny Belle and strong, solid, comfy Bea.  The emotion and character he packs into Bea is incredibly rich.

I’ve seen a number of reviewers suggest this book is best left to adults.  Certainly the full emotion, the full grasp of what Belle owes Bea, is of such large proportion, it might seem out of reach for children.  Yet there are many children who will resonate with the beauty of Bea’s friendship for a forlorn child,  the mighty gift Bea gives Belle, and the lasting gratitude Belle feels.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Amos McGee is a spry, skinny guy who loves to pop out of bed early, keep to his fixed routine (one spoonful of sugar on the morning oatmeal, two in his teacup), and punctually report to work.  He’s a zookeeper.  And such a sweet zookeeper!  He knows just what each of his zoo-friends needs — a hanky for the rhino with a runny nose, bedtime stories for the owl who’s scared of the dark — and gently provides for each one.

So, when Amos McGee lands flat on his back with a dreadful cold and can’t go to work,  all of his beloved animal friends are deeply concerned.  Where could Amos be?   Off they troop, to find their dear friend in his green striped pajamas.  Quietly, they set to work cheering him, comforting him, offering him the sweet companionship he has ever offered them.  It’s no wonder that Amos is feeling much better by day’s end.

This is simply a sweet story.  It is quiet and tender, a bit reminiscent of Sam Who Never Forgets (Eve Rice) in its portrayal of faithful friendship.  The artwork, which won the Caldecott Medal in 2011, is subtle, whisper-soft, friendly.  Erin Stead uses woodblock prints with pencil detailing, and tints her pictures in lovely pinky-browns, soft pine greens, dusky charcoal blue.  One look at Amos and you will understand why the animals love him so!

Lucky Pennies and Hot Chocolate, by Carol Diggory Shields, illustrated by Hiroe Nakata

As this story opens, one lucky guy is anticipating a visit from his favorite person in the world!  Directly, in a joyful, leaping embrace, we see Grampa sweeping a pleased-as-punch grandson into a bulky, orange-sweater hug!  Happiness spreads widely across both faces.

With each turn of the page, we follow these two loving pals through the jolly visit.  Knock-knock jokes, a trip to the construction site to watch earth-moving machines, story times, model train repair work, and delicious mugs of hot chocolate with as many marshmallows as they want, are just part of the fun.  Warm companionship glows in even the most ordinary activity when it is done together.  This sweet story carries us along happily, and then zings us with a clever surprise on the last page!

Hiroe Nakata’s bright, loose watercolors sing with joy and laughter and comfort.  Grampa is dear; grandson is enthusiastic.  Their enjoyment of one another comes through clearly in their postures, and in the wide smiles that constantly adorn their faces.  This is a feel-good book, perfect for sharing with a pre-schooler.

My Friend Rabbit, written and illustrated by Eric Rohmann

Wanting to help out, but instead causing trouble, is an experience many children, and grown-ups, can relate to.  Thank goodness for folks with grace for us, who see our hearts, rather than our results.

This nearly-wordless book features a well-meaning friend named Rabbit who enthusiastically races to aid his pal Mouse, causing collisions and all-around mayhem in the process.  And, it quietly stars the grace-filled Mouse, who never sways from his affection and appreciation for dear Rabbit.

The story revolves around a spiffy red-and-yellow airplane, sized just right for Mouse.  In Rabbit’s hands, this airplane immediately lands in distress.  Not to worry.  Rabbit is bursting with rescue ideas and the energy to carry them out.  It’s just that, nothing Rabbit plans ever goes quite according to plan.

Rohmann won the Caldecott Medal for this book in 2003.  His striking prints feature bold, black outlines of  Rabbit,  Mouse, and some gloriously enormous assistants, filled with muted color.  The layout of the pages is genius:   hefty, muscular creatures crammed into indignant heaps, expressive faces communicating disgruntled feelings toward Rabbit.  Despite all the disaster and cranky animals, this is a cheerful book, great for a laugh with a young child.

Tiny & Hercules, written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz

Meet two great friends, ironically named.  Tiny is a hefty elephant, and Hercules is a perky mouse.  The two of them enjoy many lovely activities together, yet somehow, each activity veers toward trouble.  Good thing they have one another.  One of them always manages to come up with a fine solution.

This colorful picture book contains five tiny chapters.  Read about an ice skating adventure, a stupendous art class, a lemonade stand enterprise, a birthday party for ancient Uncle Roy, and an attempt at knitting.  In each brief story, Tiny and Hercules think up a jolly idea, hit a snag, and find a clever solution, which comes to us in a wordless, full-page illustration — a sort of “Ta da!” moment.

Amy Schwartz is a brilliant author/illustrator with many terrific books to her credit.  Her bright, childlike illustrations for this story feature comfy elephant fashions in lime green and tangerine, an adorable congregation of mice surrounding a colossal pink birthday cake,  and plenty of charming polka dots and pompoms.    This is a sweet story of friendship, spiced with plenty of  energy and  giggles  to entertain kids from kindergarten and up.

Here are the Amazon link for these friendly titles:

The Friend

A Sick Day for Amos McGee

Lucky Pennies and Hot Chocolate (Picture Puffin Books)

My Friend Rabbit

Tiny and Hercules