Mister Orange, by Truus Matti, art by Jenni Desmond, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson published in the U.S. in 2012 by Enchanted Lion Books
Linus hurried along the sidewalk, pulling the cart behind him…It was eight minutes past four when he reached Castelli’s. A man in a white apron stood waiting for him on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. There were big red stains over his belly.
“You’re late. I’ve been standing here for ages.” The man leaned over the cart. In all the hurry, some lemons had bounced out of the box on top. Linus felt himself blushing as he picked up the escaped lemons and put them back. The man lifted the bag of onions and the boxes of leeks and lemons off the cart and balanced everything on one arm.
“What about the plum tomatoes?” he said. Linus bent down to pick up the last box on the cart. “No, no.” The man held up his free hand to stop Linus. “Not soup tomatoes. Plum tomatoes.” Linus felt his face becoming even hotter. “I think I must have gotten them mixed up with O’Reilly’s tomatoes,” he mumbled. “O’Reilly? O’Reilly has my pomodori?” The man’s dark eyes bored into Linus’s. Lifting up the box of soup tomatoes in one hand, he thrust it into Linus’s arms. Then he loaded the other things back onto the cart and stood in front of it, his fists on his hips. “Well? What are you still doing here? Go get them! Run!”
It’s 1943. Linus Muller’s big brother, Albie, has just joined the army. That shifts the job of delivery boy for the family’s New York City grocery onto Linus’ shoulders.
Other changes also newly weigh on Linus — the ever-present danger to his brother, the choices of his best friend which alienate Linus, the questions that plague him about hope and imagination — two powerful parts of himself that somehow don’t seem real or important anymore.
Linus meets quite an unusual customer on his delivery route, a man he calls Mister Orange, who ends up helping Linus through these confusing times. He’s a painter, a slightly-eccentric, warm-hearted man whose apartment is unlike anything Linus has experienced, whose listening ear and uncanny questions and kindness towards Linus open his eyes to new ways of seeing and allow him to accept the power of imagination again.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which won a prestigious Dutch award as well as our 2014 Batchelder Award for most outstanding children’s book originally published in another language and country. Linus is an immensely likeable boy, and his story is funny and bittersweet, deep and lighthearted, moving and warm. The World War II homefront setting is less common, and the introduction of Mister Orange (the painter Piet Mondrian) enriches the plot wonderfully.
Several pages of additional notes on Mondrian are included, as he remains known to us only through Linus’s eyes in the story.